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A Tale of Two Americas

Irwin M. Stelzer

It is the worst of times, it is the best of times. The worst of times if you follow American politics. All is turmoil.

The Democrats are threatening to defund and shut down the government unless the president adopts their modest proposals: provide some illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship rather than a path back to Mexico, and bow out of further participation in the negotiations to determine how the government he was elected to lead shall be financed.

The president, no stranger he to the concept of sexual harassment, wants Republicans to back a Senate candidate accused of multiple dalliances, some with young girls, while first daughter Ivanka says “There is a special place in hell for people who prey on children . . . I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”

Supporters of the president see a dangerous bureaucracy—“a deep state”—determined to undercut the Trump anti-elitist agenda. His opponents see a vulgar, narcissistic, fantasist with a finger on the nuclear button who, with the aid of Vladimir Putin and some archaic rules set by our Founding Fathers, stole the election from Hillary Clinton. Some are calling for Trump’s impeachment.

The president is backing a tax plan that he says will enable him to rev up growth and allow him to play Santa if Congress gets the bill on his desk by Christmas; Democrats say large corporations and the “rich” will be the primary beneficiaries and the predictions that accelerated growth will pay for the cuts and a $4,000 increase in the wages of the average family represent what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “imperviousness to experience.”

This unseemly battle has done neither party to it any good. Trump’s approval rating has dropped to about 38 percent. He is reduced to reliance on his hard core; it sees the war of the branches as their champion’s assault on elites that have ignored the effect on their lives of free trade, forced diversity, immigration, and attacks on religious freedom. Congress is even less popular; its approval rating stands at 17 percent, less than half of the president’s.

And yet, and yet. Pollsters at Pew and Gallup find that around 80 percent of Americans are satisfied with their lives, and believe they have achieved, or will achieve, the American Dream. That is true for Republicans, Democrats, blacks and whites. Only 17 percent of all Americans say the American Dream is out of reach for their families. Respondents to these polls generally believe that the American dream includes “freedom of choice in how to live,” a good family life, and retiring comfortably. Surely these samples capture the views of more than the 15 million U.S.-based millionaires (who, by the by, make up almost half the world’s total).

There are two reasons for the difference between Americans’ views of the nation’s politics, and their feelings about their own well-being. The first is that in what sophisticates on both of our coasts call fly-over country, there is more to life than politics. A vulgar tweet from Trump, a display of economy with the truth by a cabinet officer, a rant about oppression of the poor from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, some incoherent babble from Nancy Pelosi are by now routine annoyances. A delay getting the kids to soccer practice, that’s a real problem. Or incompetent teachers protected by their unions, that’s a real problem. Or a winning record by a local college football coach that is not as winning as it should be, that’s a real problem. As for Trump and the Congress, leave them to heaven. Or until the 2018 and 2020 elections.

The more easily understood reason for Americans’ satisfaction with their lives is the state of the economy, which has been growing in recent quarters at better than a 3 percent annual rate—full-out by government estimates. With the economy at or close to full employment—the unemployment rate is 4.1 percent—consumer confidence is high enough to drive demand for entry-level houses up by 35 percent over last year. Skilled labor is in such short supply that the number of new homes sold, but not yet under construction, jumped 30 percent in October compared with last year. Some denizens of their parents’ basements will have to wait a bit longer to get their foot on the property ladder, to borrow an expression from our British friends.

The down-trodden manufacturing sector is on the mend, as a result of which blue-collar wage growth is running at an annual rate in excess of 4 percent, and median household incomes rose by 5.2 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively, in the past two years.

Corporate profits in the past quarter were 10 percent higher than a year earlier, and share prices continue to move from one record high to the next. Corporate executives, seeing a tax cut in their near-term future, along with further rollbacks in the regulatory state, are cheerier than they have been in a long while. In the financial sector, CEOs no longer wake up every morning wondering what Obama will do to them; they now rise and shine wondering what Trump will do for them. Which might be a bit less than they had been hoping for. Jay Powell, due to replace Janet Yellen on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank, says he plans only to make minor changes in the post-financial crisis regulatory regime.

This is not, of course, the best of all possible worlds. Undereducated and unskilled workers continue to struggle to find a place in the globalized world. No solution has been found for the opioid crisis. Inequality resulting from a rigged tax system is about to be made worse by Republicans under pressure to do anything to prove they can do something. And there is the nuke-rattling North Korean regime, which could trigger one of those events, dear boy, that Harold Macmillan so feared.

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