Is it time for a New New Deal?
Americans are prosperous, but worried - about jobs, health care, retirement. Now some in Washington are asking if life really needs to be this risky.
(Money Magazine) -- So how are you doing? Money-wise, that is.
One way to answer this is to take a look around your house. There's a flat-panel TV in the family room, an MP3 player docked to your computer and a tangled mess of cell-phone chargers over by the kitchen counter.
You have more clothes in your closets than you can wear. (Crazy how cheap a T-shirt is these days, isn't it?)
Those closets, by the way, are surrounded by a house that's bigger than the one you grew up in and is worth maybe twice what you paid for it.
Out in the driveway on the car you bought with 6 percent financing, perhaps there's a window sticker bearing the name of your kid's university.
Life looks abundant.
Then again, maybe you answer by opening up that desk drawer in your bedroom. The one with all the bills and paperwork you slog through the first Sunday of the month. Six years after the market crash, your 401(k) statement says you've gotten back to even and then some, but you wonder how you'll have enough to retire without a pension like your dad's.
There are a few credit-card bills too, and you won't pay all of them in full. If you do have a kid in college, tuition is up $1,200 or so this year. Then there are bills for treatments your health insurance doesn't fully cover; at these prices, you wonder how you'd manage if you got laid off and had to buy your own coverage.
Or perhaps you have a cushion: Your spouse also has a job with insurance. But somehow having two incomes doesn't put your mind at ease. Now your family has twice as many jobs to lose, and you suspect that you'd be able to maintain your standard of living for, oh, 20 minutes if one of you got fired. Like that nice, competent guy who used to sit down the hall from you just did.
The high-tech, free-trading, wildly productive New Economy is showing its other face. Call it the Anxiety Economy. By most of the obvious measures - GDP growth, unemployment, inflation - things are good. But wages have been growing very slowly of late, and middle-class and even upper-middle-class Americans are reminded every day that their families are just a bad break or two away from a financial crisis.
More people are getting angry: The November elections heralded the arrival of a new voter bloc, the "Lou Dobbs Democrats," who blame cheap foreign labor and immigration for anxiety about our jobs.
According to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, anxiety abides, even if you don't feel personally threatened. "People think they are doing okay," says Luntz, "but that everyone else is badly off."
As the new Congress takes over, for the first time in 12 years Democratic legislators have a chance to set the agenda, and the Anxiety Economy is going to be near the top.
George W. Bush's entrepreneurial, it's-your-money Ownership Society is out. What's in: addressing risk.
Some Democrats, like Senators Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, focus on the risk that your job will be shipped overseas. Others are searching for a new New Deal between business and the rest of us, keeping foreign trade flowing (with some caveats on labor and environmental standards) in exchange for new public policies that address increasingly risky propositions, from financing retirement to paying for college to the Big Kahuna: health insurance.
There are plenty of ideas for fixes - though some are directly opposed to one another and many will cost you as a taxpayer.
First, let's look at just why it is that we're all so nervous. Many conservatives question, with some justice, whether the economy is really as harsh on ordinary Americans as the Democrats say.
What neither side disputes, however, is this: The rules of middle-class life are changing.