Five years ago this week, the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. This set in train the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The world barely avoided a second depression. Now, the United States is technically in a recovery. It doesn't feel that way to most people. Unemployment, at 7.3 percent, is at a level that would have been considered a crisis in the post-World War II era. Now it's the new normal. The one-tenth of a percentage point drop in August came for the wrong reason, 312,000 people dropping out of the labor force — and these are not mostly baby boomers headed for secure retirement. Most of the jobs being created are in low-wage industries and many are part-time. Even if we continued to see 169,000 jobs per month added — unlikely — it would take until mid-2023 before we regained the employment level of 2008. A recession comes along about every seven years, so even that horrid timeline is unrealistic.
Something has gone drastically wrong in America. We no longer have a manned space flight program, even as China prepares a moonshot. We're not reaching for the stars, literally or metaphorically. The sequester ensures research funding is being slashed. The Large Hadron Collider, the greatest triumph of modern physics, is in Europe, not America. A "Manhattan Project" for renewable energy? Building high-speed rail and other advanced job-creating, productivity enhancing projects? Such all-American efforts are beyond today's America. Our infrastructure is in deadly bad shape. But we're incapable of doing more than patching a road-heavy transportation system — and we have too many roads already — geared to a much less populous nation with 1960s gasoline prices. A real college education is now the province of the well-off. So are good jobs. The ladders up that were so abundant here are mostly gone. No wonder about one third of the people stuck in minimum-wage jobs are age 40 or above. Adjusted for inflation, 40 percent of American workers earn less than the minimum wage in 1968. The shift of national income from labor to capital is startling, with the result being historic and rising inequality.
This state of the nation is inextricably tied to the situation in Washington, D.C. It is typically described as "gridlock" and the media are at pains to find the "extremes" of both parties holding up intelligent responses to our cascading troubles. This is not true.