Students on spring break are sprawled out across the Mall, fleeing nervous chaperones and feeling their tired textbooks come alive.
And thanks to Friday’s melodramatic budget compromise, the parade went on. Giant flower petal floats and local marching bands cascaded down Constitution Avenue yesterday under the seasoned direction of Grand Marshall Atticus Shaffer, age 12.
The 3,000 cherry trees we celebrate this week were a gift from Japan in 1912; next year they turn 100. I wonder what these trees would say on their centennial birthday, if they could. First they might thank God they weren’t part of the initial batch of seedlings sent from Japan in 1910 which arrived diseased and quickly died off. They might also reflect on the stages in the relationship they symbolize – those warring young adult years, the internment in middle age, and the earth shattering tidal waves of recent weeks. Relationships between nations – like those between people – have their ups and downs…their hours of greed and their hours of need.
So too with political parties, it seems. For a fleeting moment this week the waters calmed and the liberals and the conservatives jumped in the boat at the same time. Ironically, the conditions for compromise were improved by the fact that more folks acted like themselves. The liberals aren’t busy triangulating and the conservatives aren’t going on about how compassionate they are. Instead, both sides seem content to mix a little pragmatism with the purity they openly profess.
Like the cherry blossoms, however, the sentiment will quickly fade. On Monday we will turn our sights to new fights…the debt ceiling, entitlements, education policy, Afghanistan troop levels, what comes next in Libya…all in the context of a budding presidential campaign. Say hello to the next two years.
Cynicism ought not overwhelm us, however. After all, it is spring – the season of creative construction, of new life and possibility.
And boy, could we use it. This recession, which has left 8.6% of our fellow citizens looking for work, came on the back of a generation defined by the phenomenon economists call ‘creative destruction’, which in real life means the decline of the middle class. While capital flees to cheaper and more efficient pastures in this age of globalization, further enriching those at the top and giving rise to an emerging global middle class, the American dream dries out like a raisin in the sun.
Consider some of these fun facts:
- The richest 1% of Americans now control 24% of the nation’s wealth. In 1915, at the height of the Guilded Age before the income tax existed, that figure was 18%.
- From 1980 to 2005 80% of the total increase in wealth went to the richest 1% while wage growth for low and middle earners actually declined. Check out this graph from the U.S. census bureau on income inequality trends from 1948 to 2000:
- Warren Buffet, the world’s 3rd richest person figured in 2007 that he paid about 17.7% of his income in taxes, while his receptionist paid about 30%.
- And General Electric managed to pay no taxes on the $5.1 billion it made in the United States in 2010. In fact, GE claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion last year.
- By the way, in 1965 CEOs made about 24 times more than the average worker. In 2005 it was 262 times more.
- Contrary to our beliefs about ourselves, Americans have a lower chance of moving out of their parents income bracket that do people in Denmark, Sweden, Germany or Canada. The worry that the United States is becoming more like Europe seems valid…not the Europe of today, however, but old Europe…that land of landed aristocracy that our ancestors crossed an ocean to flee.
And the spring looks increasing more like fall for our nation’s children:
- American children are twice as likely to live in poverty than adults. So much for that ‘unfettered start and fair chance’ that Honest Able called for.
- American students rank 17th in the word in science achievement and 25th in math.
- But, at least our pets are living well. 1/2 of our dogs and cats are now overweight or obese, and spending on pets has risen at a rate of 6% during the recession. Just don’t tell that to the 1.5 million homeless kids living in America. Sometimes I do tremble for my country when I recall that God is just.
The political question of the age will be how we respond to this generational decline by promoting the general welfare, as our Constitution demands, in ways that are affordable, sustainable, and responsive to the competitive global economy that we created. After the Great Depression, new institutions were erected to do this job for an industrial economy. But those wineskins are aged and bloated and need to be updated before the only option left is to simply stop pouring wine.
The debate on the issue will be led by Midwesterners – Barack Obama of Illinois on the left and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on the right, perhaps with an assist from Mitch Daniels of Indiana who I predict will win the Republican nomination if he chooses to run.
Fortunately, Midwesterners know how to lead the country through the critical issues of the time. During their legendary Senate and Presidential debates, Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas of Illinois facilitated the national discussion on slavery. Admittedly, these debates eventually gave way to the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this month. Here’s hoping its not déjà vu all over again.
And so, we celebrate the arrival of spring – that season of possibility and creative construction, when both plants and people start to stand upright in the sunlight after huddling through the long, cold, lonely winter.
Its about time. It seems like years since it’s been here.