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Our Miserable 21st Century

On the morning of November 9, 2016, America’s elite—its talking and deciding classes—woke up to a country they did not know. To most privileged and well-educated Americans, especially those living in its bicoastal bastions, the election of Donald Trump had been a thing almost impossible even to imagine. What sort of country would go and elect someone like Trump as president? Certainly not one they were familiar with, or understood anything about.
Whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, the 2016 election was a sort of shock therapy for Americans living within what Charles Murray famously termed “the bubble” (the protective barrier of prosperity and self-selected associations that increasingly shield our best and brightest from contact with the rest of their society). The very fact of Trump’s election served as a truth broadcast about a reality that could no longer be denied: Things out there in America are a whole lot different from what you thought.

Yes, things are very different indeed these days in the “real America” outside the bubble. In fact, things have been going badly wrong in America since the beginning of the 21st century.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly.

The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it. (So much for the vaunted “information era” and “big-data revolution.”) Now that those signals are no longer possible to ignore, it is high time for experts and intellectuals to reacquaint themselves with the country in which they live and to begin the task of describing what has befallen the country in which we have lived since the dawn of the new century.

II

Consider the condition of the American economy. In some circles people still widely believe, as one recent New York Times business-section article cluelessly insisted before the inauguration, that “Mr. Trump will inherit an economy that is fundamentally solid.” But this is patent nonsense. By now it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. And in retrospect, it should also be apparent that America’s strange new economic maladies were almost perfectly designed to set the stage for a populist storm.

Ever since 2000, basic indicators have offered oddly inconsistent readings on America’s economic performance and prospects. It is curious and highly uncharacteristic to find such measures so very far out of alignment with one another. We are witnessing an ominous and growing divergence between three trends that should ordinarily move in tandem: wealth, output, and employment. Depending upon which of these three indicators you choose, America looks to be heading up, down, or more or less nowhere.

From the standpoint of wealth creation, the 21st century is off to a roaring start. By this yardstick, it looks as if Americans have never had it so good and as if the future is full of promise. Between early 2000 and late 2016, the estimated net worth of American households and nonprofit institutions more than doubled, from $44 trillion to $90 trillion. (SEE FIGURE 1.)

Although that wealth is not evenly distributed, it is still a fantastic sum of money—an average of over a million dollars for every notional family of four. This upsurge of wealth took place despite the crash of 2008—indeed, private wealth holdings are over $20 trillion higher now than they were at their pre-crash apogee. The value of American real-estate assets is near or at all-time highs, and America’s businesses appear to be thriving. Even before the “Trump rally” of late 2016 and early 2017, U.S. equities markets were hitting new highs—and since stock prices are strongly shaped by expectations of future profits, investors evidently are counting on the continuation of the current happy days for U.S. asset holders for some time to come.

A rather less cheering picture, though, emerges if we look instead at real trends for the macro-economy. Here, performance since the start of the century might charitably be described as mediocre, and prospects today are no better than guarded.

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Our Miserable 21st Century