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Not Something to Boast About

During the recent State of the Union address and the Republican party retreat, the current president and his allies lauded the strength of the American economy—record high stock market, more jobs, record Black and Hispanic employment, etc., etc.

We can certainly argue about the details. The past week has seen a stock market decline, though that may just be the market working well in a corrective mode. More seriously, the gains are highly concentrated toward those at the top, and the way the Republican tax bill was written, middle-class tax advantages will be disappearing in a few years.

Still, when an economy is strong, that tends to favor the party in power (“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Ronald Reagan famously said). Given this reality, Democrats running in 2018 and 2020 will likely face some serious economic headwinds, despite the current president’s general unpopularity.

Democrats can try and begrudge the Republicans their economic success, but I believe this will not resonate with a large number of voters, who feel that they are indeed doing better economically. Moreover, many of us are indeed benefiting, through gains in our retirement accounts and other investments. In sum, I believe the politics of resentment and denial is a fool’s game for Democrats. So how do we deal with a growing economy under an administration and Congress whom we oppose?

As several commentators have noted, a strong economy is not enough. A bubbling stock market may be something for the president and business to boast about, but it doesn’t make up for people still being left behind. It doesn’t address the problems facing those who don’t have the means to participate in the market—families in poverty, in inner cities and rural areas.

A strong economy alone cannot make up for the many ways that the president and congressional Republicans are causing our democracy to regress in so many areas--the lying, the scapegoating, and the obstruction of justice. Add on the ethical violations, acceptance of racism, attacks on reputable news sources, tension in the Middle East, no exit strategy in Afghanistan, serious regression in protecting the environment, and appointment of extremist and often unqualified jurists.

The current president’s supporters will say that this is what makes the current president refreshing—his disregard for existing norms and his tendency to poke fingers in the eyes of the elite. Appealing to such voters may be futile, but I’m going to try anyway. My counterargument to the Republican economic narrative runs directly through “red” states and counties, and it goes like this:

Ask yourself if you are indeed better off as a whole. I stress that folks in middle America should look closely at two policy areas: the opioid crisis and our national infrastructure. Opioid addiction is having a devastating effect across broad swaths of the country, with victims in rural and urban areas alike. Race is no barrier to this epidemic, and it has been an overwhelming drain—economically and socially--on places from West Virginia to the South Bronx.

Infrastructure development is a necessity at multiple levels. We need to fix what is breaking before it is too late, and also to create new structural foundations for the rest of this century. This work involves projects such as enhancing broadband and the internet, creating wireless networks, and building new airports, as well as maintaining and rebuilding subways, sewer systems, electrical grids, and dams.

Our current president campaigned on both of these issues. Both have the potential to improve the lives of people regardless of whether they live in a “red” or “blue” area. Both can not only address the immediate needs at hand but can bring more jobs and economic development.

So why aren’t they happening?

Governing isn’t easy, but it has been done successfully in the past, and there are templates on strategy to follow. Draft bills that seek to address the issue. Craft a budget with funding to support the work. Appoint effective leaders and manage to spearhead the initiative. Rally legislators and citizens around these priorities. Use the media to promote and explain the policy.

Unfortunately, our current president has made no funding available to fight the national opioid crisis, and has not appointed a drug czar to take charge of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The only person he did name was a 24-year-old former campaign worker, with no previous experience in the field, as the office's Deputy Chief of Staff. Moreover, Republicans have worked to erode the Affordable Health Care Act, which will make it even more difficult for people to get help treating their addiction. And the current Attorney General has stiffened federal sentencing guidelines, making it more likely that addicts will be punished rather than treated.

Our current governing party has similarly squandered an opportunity to invest in the nation’s infrastructure. The president has not provided a plan, and in fact the recent tax bill will actually decrease investment. The recent tax plan will put more financial pressure on state and local governments, who will find it more expensive to finance infrastructure development. Whatever minimal strategy exists, it appears to be based on a small amount of federal funding combined with the hope of having private companies fund the rest; they will do so only if promised a guaranteed rate of return, thus privatizing much of our public infrastructure. Some trick.

Politicians on the right will continue to crow about the economy. But I don’t know if our country can take much more of an administration that is both willfully and unintentionally incompetent. I hope enough voters can keep these failures in mind when going to the polls in November.

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