It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
We live in a dichotomous world. It is a place of contrast and contradiction, one in which the trends and direction forward are not clear. Yet, we must act. Our lives continue regardless of our inability to divine the future
On the one hand things seem great. The stock market continues to climb to dizzying heights, repeatedly breaking new highs along the way. The economy is steaming forward at a respectable clip. The current dollar GDP increased by 7.8% in the third quarter of 2021 and by over 13% in the second quarter. Employment figures are positive. The Federal government has infused billions of dollars into the economy to support businesses and individuals. We are on the verge of implementing the largest infrastructure improvement plan in decades. The world does seem to have a “rosy glow.”
Yet, at the same time we see warning signs that the party may not sustain itself. Covid remains a significant drag, both perceptually and in fact. Supply chain problems persist, threatening economic growth. Significant numbers have left (or been released from) their jobs and the labor participation rate has fallen to below 62%, well off the pre-Pandemic figures. Inflation is on the rise and is significantly above the target rate. Interest rates remain low primarily due to intervention of the Federal Reserve rather than private sector economic activity. The political system is in a shambles and the government has lost credibility amongst the parochial political vitriol.
So, which is it? Continued prosperity or doubtful prospects?
It is easy to believe we are headed into uncharted waters, to see the exceptional nature of today’s world. Is that true? Or is it that our perspective is too narrow? Perhaps the past offers some insight.
There have been numerous “best of times.” We have seen exuberance and ethereal expectations before. The stock market increased at an average rate of over 20% prior to the Crash of 1929. The current market increase for the past five years has been over 15% annually. During the “Dot-com Bubble” of the late 1990s we saw exponential increases in tech shares, not dissimilar to that which we see in Tesla and Apple stocks today.
New home construction is fueled by demographic changes and low interest rates. This is nothing new. The cycle started with the immediate post-World War II boom (the suburban sprawl of Levittown in New York is exemplary). We saw how sub-prime mortgages fueled the housing bubble in the mid-2000s.
The business cycle of growth and retrenchment has been perpetual, if skewed in recent years by massive government bailouts whenever the economy turns sour. The positive times are inevitably followed by periods of contraction. At some point the music will stop and not everyone will find a chair.
Political animosity is nothing new and one might argue that the current situation is more the norm than the exception. During the 1828 election, a pro-Adams paper claimed, “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute.” During the Republican convention in 1912, Roosevelt and Taft supporters brawled on the floor, literally throwing punches and epithets at each other. Roosevelt called the sitting president a “fathead” and Taft shot back that Roosevelt was an “egoist.” In 2016, Trump called Hillary Clinton a “dirty, rotten liar.” Not much has changed.
We look at the racial tensions and social unrest (like the “Occupy” movements and ANTIFA) as cataclysmic. Confrontations today, while disturbing and often criminal, almost pale in comparison to the racial conflicts (lynchings and riots) of the 1960s. The rioting at the 1968 Democratic Convention resulted in 11 deaths, 48 wounded by police gunfire, 90 police injured, and 2,150 arrests. That same year, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. We are nowhere near that level of chaos.
The storming of the Capital after the 2020 election while deeply disturbing, is likewise not unprecedented. There was an attack by four members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist party in 1954. They opened fire from the gallery and wounded five members of Congress. In 1998, an armed assailant stormed past a Capitol security checkpoint and killed one Capitol police officer. The difference is in the magnitude of the attack and the apparent motivation to stop the certification of an election, both of which are cause for apprehension.
Our society is full of contradictions. There have always been those who benefit (inordinately) from the system and those oppressed by it. The old axiom, “Where you stand depends on where you sit” is relevant. Yet the extremes of wealth and power are no greater today than they were in the times of the “Robber Barons” like Rockefeller and JP Morgan. Today’s injustices are real, and we should strive to make our society more equitable, but they are not exceptional.
Are we more divisive and confrontational than at other times in our history? Or is it that we are simply more aware today? The extremes of current events are jammed down our throats on a non-stop basis by a media determined to fill the airwaves (and bandwidth) with “news,” both real and fake. By contrast, most of our time is spent with the mundane (both pleasant and irritating) but that is not “newsworthy” and rarely incites our passions.
We live in neither the “best” nor the “worst” of times. We live in “interesting times,” but such has always been the case. We have significant challenges. Yet, despite our beliefs, life is neither unambiguously catastrophic nor copacetic.
As always, the resolution of “our” problems is in our hands. We should neither exaggerate nor downplay the circumstances. FDR’s famous comment seems applicable today, “…the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.” Or perhaps, “We have nothing to fear but ourselves.”