Press Talk: Any real answers to our economy?

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor

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Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian's editor emeritus. His column of personal opinion appears the first Saturday of every month. Reach him at lounews1@gmail.com.

What a challenge.

No, not the aftermath of the boisterous blizzard of ’17 (although we all have our work cut out for us to avoid those potholes), but rather the economy.

You remember, right? It’s the economy, stupid. Always has been, always will be. Sure, we’re better off than we were back in the Great Recession a few years ago. But is it just me, or does it feel like we’ve been on a slow, somewhat painful decline for decades now?

Just Thursday, I attended The Columbian’s Economic Forecast Breakfast. I love this event. And the experts there agreed: Education, training, infrastructure and quality of life will get us to the promised land. But that storyline was true last year and the year before and the year before that. And the results have not been successful enough for enough of us.

The economic theory

So can we get there, or is there some inevitable realization that we are on a very difficult economic road? Before I voice a view on that, let me throw out a theory:

Fifty or 60 years ago, we had it all. We invented everything, we manufactured everything, we distributed everything.

That made us kings of the world. From top to bottom, our American society was living the good life.

Then we became victims of our own success. As worldwide transportation and distribution improved, other countries figured out they could manufacture and distribute stuff, too. And they could do it at a fraction of our cost.

Why? Because in the good old days, we commanded the price of our products. And that gave all American workers a good life.

Today, the new reality tells us world competition will either lower our pay for our jobs — and our lifestyle — or we lose those jobs to other countries. That has resulted in our quality of life going down and the world’s quality of life going up.

The Cuomo solution

So why don’t you hear many economists or politicians talk about this? One reason could be that I’m just flat-out wrong. But another possible reason is that it sounds too defeatist. Politicians get elected because they say they can solve these problems. I haven’t seen a campaign slogan yet that said, “Issues? Get used to it.”

I remember back in the 1990s laying out this scenario to then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo at an editorial board meeting in upstate New York. He refused to buy into my premise that world competition will hurt our quality of life.

His solution was to innovate our way out of any possible mess. Panelists at our economic forecast breakfast Thursday said essentially the same thing.

Fair enough.

Yes, innovation creates new kinds of jobs, but to the average resident out there, it feels like for every high-tech job created, we lose 10 others.

A supportive tidbit

Economic guru John Mitchell — the keynote speaker at the economic breakfast — briefly noted a statistic that supported evidence of the fading American dream: In 1940, almost all kids — when they reached 30 — were earning more than their parents. Today, barely half of 30-year-olds will achieve that goal.

Let that sink in.

And although I heard no statistics for developing countries, I’d bet the exact opposite is true.

Again, I would argue that is largely because of the competitive world we now live in.

World help helps us

I don’t feel President Donald Trump will make a significant difference in that fading American dream statistic. His Friday inauguration speech, essentially preaching isolationism, will not work. It’s simply too late for that.

The hope, as I see it, is to embrace quality of life worldwide. When that is achieved, we’ll all be better off.