Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A future that is better than today

I recently spent a few days in Washington, D.C., for the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting. It just so happened that one morning there, as I was eating a hotel breakfast, Tommy Lee Jones appeared on TV in a commercial for Ameriprise Financial and began speaking with this pronouncement: "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today."

This got me to thinking. Well, to be honest, it's something I've been thinking about for a while, but this commercial provided a perfect impetus for further, more focused reflection. "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." Sure, it's a nice slogan for a commercial, but is it true?

I remember that when I was a child, the future seemed full of promise and potential. Looking back over the course of human history (in what's clear to me now was a very over-simplified way), it seemed like progress was something that happened naturally. Sure, there were still all sorts of problems for humanity to address, but as civilization advanced, as science and technology advanced, things would continue to get better. Why wouldn't they? In this country, my parents' generation grew up with a considerably higher standard of living than my grandparents' generation. And my generation grew up with a considerably higher standard of living than my parents' generation. As a child, I saw no reason to doubt that this trend would continue.

How things have changed. In the last three decades (over the course of my lifetime, roughly speaking), productivity in the U.S. has continued to rise, but median incomes have stagnated, as the gains have gone almost exclusively to the top. Take into account exploding health care costs (and a myriad of other factors, but that one right there is a killer), and the typical family now is worse off than the typical family in the '80s. To put it bluntly, my children's generation will almost undoubtedly grow up with a worse standard of living than my generation. It's kind of staggering to think about, and to contrast with my grade school self's view of the future.

"In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." After finishing my breakfast that day, I decided to forgo the conference events for the next couple hours and take a stroll through Washington. As I walked, a Washington Post headline caught my eye. But not the headline of that day's newspaper - rather, a headline on an image that appeared on the side of the paper dispenser. It was a rather interesting choice by whoever designed the dispenser's layout.

The sudden promise of huge surpluses for as far as the eye can see is radically altering the way some politicians and economists think about spending money and has raised expectations of bolder government programs in years to come. "We are on the edge, if we will have discipline, of a generation of surpluses beyond reckoning" said Newt Gingrich.

So goes the article, and it's a stark reminder of how, even at the turn of the century, the future seemed so different from today. Government . . . surpluses? The idea seems almost incomprehensible. Now we wake up to depressing headlines about debt panels and supercommittees debating how to cut retirees' benefits and social programs to stave off trillion dollar deficits.

Where did things go wrong?

Well, when it comes to the current deficit issues, at least, the answer is pretty simple. It also has nothing to do with the entitlement programs that are potentially on the chopping block. I don't want to get too analysis-heavy with this post, but this chart is useful.

Let's remind ourselves again that, when President Clinton exited office, we were projected to have surpluses for years to come. Then a few things happened. President Bush slashed tax rates with the benefits going almost entirely to the wealthy. (This was supposed to create jobs. It didn't.) President Bush launched two unfunded wars. And then the economy cratered, which both necessitated increased spending and caused decreased tax revenue. And the economic crisis can largely be linked to financial deregulation, going back to the '80s and '90s.

So, tax cuts, unfunded wars, and financial deregulation. Three actions taken by the government that led directly to the current deficit. If none of these three things had happened, the deficit would basically not exist! What do all three have in common? They benefited a very wealthy few, and did more or less nothing to "promote the general welfare" of this country. Interesting. Why would a government of elected representatives do all these things that oppose the interests of those they represent?

(If you guessed "because money has completely corrupted our political system," a winner is you!)

Returning to the narrative of my day in Washington, I walked a few more blocks down K Street until I came to the intersection with 15th Street. There, in McPherson Square, I came across a sight that would have looked utterly bizarre in the midst of an American metropolis just a few months ago.

As I'm sure you realize, this is the Occupy DC encampment. It was a striking thing to witness in person. I've seen it asked what the purpose of camping out in the streets to protest is. I think it sends a pretty powerful message, personally, of how committed these people are to the cause. I remember, before the first protests started, reading on the Internet that some people were planning to "Occupy Wall Street" on September 17. Neat idea, probably won't amount to a whole lot, were basically my thoughts at the time. A few days in, the movement seemed to be dwindling. I remember that many Internet liberals had a belittling attitude toward the Occupiers in those early days. Well, at least they're trying to do something, I thought. I had to at least give them credit for the effort.

Then something changed. The movement took off. Occupations popped up all over the country, and all over the world. It's really quite inspiring to see a true grassroots movement grow from such small seeds. I mean, everyone knows the system is screwed up. People were desperate for change, which is why Obama won such a sweeping victory in '08. I was a gung ho Obama supporter. I had been pretty despondent about the state of the country, and the Obama campaign provided hope. Lots of people thought he could bring real change to Washington. And in retrospect, it was naive to think that our current system would allow a president who was really going to change things in the ways that are needed, or that one person would be capable of bringing that change even if he intended to. So people are still desperate for change. And a few people realized that the old methods are no longer working. Voting alone (not to say that people shouldn't vote) isn't going to save us when the best you can do is the lesser of two evils. Holding big, one-day protests doesn't do much when everyone just goes home and back to their lives afterwards. So let's do something different, they thought. Let's do something that can't be ignored.

So a few people got together with an idea. And from those humble beginnings, many thousands upon thousands of people have latched onto that idea, and have stood up and said the way this country is being run, it's not working. We need real change. We need a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Ordinary Americans have woken up to the fact that (contrary to my naive childhood views) progress isn't something that happens naturally, it only happens when we fight for it. The whole thing really is inspirational. I haven't been so proud of my fellow country people in a long time.

There wasn't a whole lot going on at the Occupy DC camp while I was there, but I got a general sense of how things were run, and came away impressed. There's a medical tent, a food tent, a library tent - it was all pretty well organized. And there was a lot of exchanging of ideas. I think one thing I'd take away from the visit is this - people do better when they work together, when they care for each other, when they take an interest in each others' well-beings.

As a society, that's something we've moved away from, and nowhere is this more evident than at the very top, where the elites have become so insulated that it doesn't matter to them whether society as a whole is functioning properly. If the children of the rich and of the poor went to the same schools, for example, then the rich would want to make sure the schools were good. If politicians had to use the same health care plans as everyone else, then politicians would want to make sure we had a decent health care system.

The Occupy movement has faced a lot of criticism, even demonization, in the corporate media. They don't have any clear message! is one common complaint. I think you'd have to be intentionally blind to say that. There are a lot of intersecting issues at play here, but at a very basic level, the message that the government is owned by financial elites and thus does not represent the interests of the people comes across loud and clear. And I think that's a message that a sizable majority of Americans would agree with. What are they hoping to accomplish? There's a long road ahead; these problems are very hard to solve, the obstacles are enormous, and real change won't come easily. But they've already accomplished something - changing the national discourse - and that itself is commendable. Why don't those dirty hippies just get a job? Well, this common criticism is really quite remarkable. Besides the fact that most of the protesters do have jobs . . . with a historic unemployment crisis, you're telling people who are protesting (among many other things) the lack of decent jobs to just get a job? I mean, that's pretty laughable, isn't it?

Again, I go back to the idea, "In America, we believe in a future that is better than today." I suspect that the percentage of people who would honestly agree with that sentiment has taken a precipitous decline in the past few years. Everyone knows things are broken in this country. Most everyone knows the government doesn't really represent the people. More and more people are waking up to the fact that we need a real, fundamental change in our political and economic system, or things are, inevitably, just going to keep getting worse.

There's a feedback loop in action. When money has undue influence on government, then the rich will influence government to enact policies that benefit the rich. Thus, the rich will get richer. Thus, the rich will have more money to influence the government. And so on. Furthermore, even in the absence of government intervention, money and power have a tendency to accumulate in the hands of a few. It's essentially a natural law, and it's why progressive taxation is necessary for a functional society. The best way to become richer is to already be rich. (I defy anyone to argue with this.) And excessive economic inequality leads to a host of societal ills, as well as a less robust economy. The middle and lower classes, quite obviously, spend a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy, so what happens if too much wealth accumulates at the top? Less money flowing in the economy. Less demand. Less jobs.

The ultra-rich continue to get richer, and everyone else suffers.

That's the course we're on. Unless we reverse rising inequality and get corporate money out of politics, we're going to continue on that course. A lot of people have recognized this. The Occupiers have decided they're going to do something about it. Unless you like the status quo of politicians that don't care about your interests if you can't fund their campaigns, you should support this movement. Is it a perfect movement? Nothing's perfect, but I reiterate: without fundamental change in the system, things will get worse.

In this era of crisis, I'm not sure it's logical to believe in a future that is better than today. I do know, however, that a lot of the people I saw in that camp believe in that better future. People everywhere are standing up and fighting for that better future, and that's admirable.

There are a lot of people out there who think this movement isn't about them. They have fairly comfortable lives; they have their HDTVs and iPads and whatnot. Why are these protestors complaining? they might think. And then one day, years from now, they'll wake up and realize that, even after a lifetime of hard work, they won't be able to afford a comfortable retirement. Or they can't pay their medical bills. And even then, they might not realize that things didn't have to be that way, if only our government hadn't decided that preserving tax breaks for multimillionaires was more important than preserving the foundation of our society.

Or maybe things will turn out differently, because a bunch of people got together and decided things had to change and they were going to keep making their voices heard until things did change.

So that's the story of my morning in D.C. As scientists, I think most of us who were at the conference have a hope that our work will, in some way, help make the world a better place. The people I saw at the Occupy camp are also working to make the world a better place.

We're all in this together, and if we remember that, maybe there is hope for a future that is better than today.

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