America the Not-So-Beautiful

Ship aground? Graffiti on a boat at an abandoned manufacturing plant in Detroit. Source: Reuters
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    America’s existential crisis has its deepest roots in falling productivity. With less to go round, the country is mired in growing conflicts over wealth distribution.

  • Facts


    • In the decades after the Second World War, American productivity grew at 2 percent annually. Since 2004, it has grown by only 1 percent per year.
    • In 1973, the CEO of a listed company earned 20 times the average worker’s salary. Today, they make 257 times more.
    • Of poor black American children, only 3 in 100 will ever escape poverty.
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The 2016 presidential election – between two of the most unloved candidates of all time – has intensified America’s divisions, already terrifyingly deep.

Will we ultimately see a “rabble-rouser” move into the White House, a man who enrages every Hillary Clinton supporter as he lurches from one scandal to the next? Or will it be the notorious “liar” who Trump’s campaign keeps on trying to warn voters about?

After Mr. Obama’s eight years of modest optimism, the whole country is drifting into a mentality of aggression and mistrust. Pure negativity. Which bad candidate is worse than the other? Who must I absolutely stop from becoming president? These are the questions most Americans will pose when they go to cast their votes. Democracy has rarely seemed more depressing.

So what will happen to the United States after Wednesday? One thing is clear: whoever is elected will have to fill in the trenches dug, reconcile the opposing sides – and open up new economic horizons. Because it is already obvious: America’s prosperity is built on sand. The credit boom of recent years has created a vast debt mountain, crushing the country’s economic dynamism. The money glut has intensified income and wealth inequality, threatening to tear social cohesion wide open.

Just a few decades ago the education system was the guarantee enabling people to climb the social ladder. But for younger Americans, education above all now means the certainty of huge student loans. In short, “for the first time in American history, children are not growing up certain of being better educated, healthier, and richer than their parents,” as lawyers June Carbone and Naomi Cahn put it in their new book on in equality and family structure.

Perhaps most shockingly of all, it is not just the market economy that is starting to look dysfunctional. Democracy itself isn’t looking too hot. Hillary Clinton – a member of a political clan like the Bushes, and the Kennedys. Donald Trump – a billionaire real estate tycoon who presents himself as an outsider, a plain-speaking man of the people. Both come with a strong whiff of plutocracy, finding expression in vastly inflated campaign costs – around €3 billion, or $3.34 billion ­– as well as in the growing absence of any sense of boundaries or decency. Representative democracy, says Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institute, a renowned think tank, has “ended up on the defensive.”

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