Because I don’t in any way wish to give the impression that I’m celebrating the pain that the current recession is bringing to individuals, organizations, and entire communities in the United States and around the world, maybe the title for this post should instead be, “Things I’m Really Glad We’re Not Talking So Much About Anymore.”
But I really do believe that there may be some long-term good, in terms of the shifting of policy priorities in the country, to come from this widespread, deeply-felt, and sustained period of economic downturn. That’s one of the lessons that we should take from the social reforms achieved in the last, still worst, economic depression this country has seen.
The whole “personal responsibility crusade”, while certainly a seed of inspiration for the Tea Party folks and some other anti-Obama campaigners, has fallen quite dramatically from favor. We don’t have to read one news story after another about various proposals for Social Security privatization. No one’s credibly talking about replacing Medicare with health savings accounts. Being unemployed is no longer assumed to be code for being uneducated, unmotivated, or criminal.
There is an understanding, not insignificantly, that bad economic things happen to really “good people”, and, even more importantly, that government should play a role in cushioning the blow when people fall victim to these economic forces and, even, (!) seek to prevent some of the falls in the first place.
So, in addition to health care reform that addresses many (but not all) of the concerns Hacker outlines in the chapter on “Risky Health Care”, we have student loan reform that makes college more affordable (and loan repayment more feasible), and a push for financial reforms that would curb some of the banking practices that heightened the risks Americans face.
Those are obviously big things, and we can and must work very hard over the next few years to achieve more legislated “bricks” in a secure economic foundation.
But I’m perhaps even more hopeful about some of the changes in attitudes about the appropriate relationship between a government and its people–more questions asked about how 401(k)s are supposed to provide retirement security when so many have lost so much in their accounts, more student protests against tuition increases in higher education, more recognition that health care should be a basic right rather than a chance happening.
And, while I certainly wish that we could undo the economic damage we’ve sustained in these past 3 years, I celebrate the beginning of the reversal in the inward-looking, self-blaming, isolating exaltation of personal responsibility, and believe that this is our best chance in quite awhile to dispel the idea that we deserve to shoulder all of the risks and yet receive few of the spoils associated with economic life in 21st century America.
But those clouds are lifting, so we must find ways to harness this shared sense of vague insecurity and turn it into a strong movement for social change, if we are to weave a safety net that will actually catch us the next time we fall. Because this surely won’t be the last recession, but it can be the last one that Americans have to weather alone.