A new year brings inevitable reflections about past and future, about 2018 and 2019. Pundits’ predictions about 2019 abound, few of which are worth repeating. I’m an historian anyway, less interested in guessing about what might happen than trying to understand what already happened.
I won’t say anything about popular culture, because I don’t know enough about its current version to distinguish Britney Spears from Miley Cyrus or to care about either. The last time I was familiar with pop culture, doo-wop was playing on my transistor radio. As you already know, political economy is what I care about.
2018 was a bad year for investors. The Dow Jones index bounced around during the year, peaking over 26,000 in January, reaching an even higher record 26,800 in October, then plummeting to 23,000 now. No other kinds of investments made money in 2018, either, including the faddish Bitcoin, which lost 80% of its value. But 2018 was merely a minor dip after years of incredible steady growth: the Dow had more than tripled since 2009, the longest uninterrupted bull market in history.
The stock market only gives a partial reflection of the economy. Only about half of Americans have any stake in the good or bad news about stocks. Nearly all rich Americans are invested in stocks, but few poor Americans. That inequality extends throughout the economy. The profits from stocks and from the wider economic growth since 2009, and in fact over the past 50 years, have overwhelmingly gone to the wealthiest Americans. Since 1970, the share of the nation’s income earned by the poorer half of the American population has fallen by nearly half, while the share for the top 1% has nearly doubled. The “middle class”, rhetorically beloved by politicians of both parties, has also lost ground. The long economic growth in the last half century and the recent boom since 2009 have fattened the wallets of the top 10%. The very, very rich may have suffered slightly in 2018, but no crocodile tears for them: their after-tax income has multiplied by 6 times in 50 years. That was before the massive Republican tax cut enacted this year, which further benefitted mainly the wealthy and big corporations.
2018 was a pretty good year for normal working Americans, because the economic number that matters most, the minimum wage, is heading upwards.
But 2018 was a pretty good year for normal working Americans, because the economic number that matters most, the minimum wage, is heading upwards. Legislatures in 6 states raised the minimum wage and voters approved wage hikes in 6 other states. Millions of workers will get pay raises in 2019.
2018 was a bad year for Donald Trump. His personal lawyer, his first National Security advisor and his campaign manager, along with many other figures near to him, were convicted of crimes, Cabinet secretaries had to resign for unethical behavior, his Defense Secretary and several other close advisors resigned because they could not accept Trump’s erratic behavior. His legislative accomplishments with a Republican Congress were nil, until the bipartisan criminal justice reform just enacted, which was mainly a Democratic initiative. His public approval rating remained underwater, since nearly as many people strongly disapprove of his presidential performance as approve. His family foundation was revealed as merely a family bank account. In November, voters decisively rejected him, when Democrats won 7 million more votes than Republicans and decisively took over the House. At least a dozen scandals surround Trump, and 17 separate investigations, including those by Mueller, menace his future. And the prospect of Democratic House investigations of everything Trump loom ahead.
We might believe that a bad year for Trump is a good year for America, but that’s too simple. Our beautiful land will be poisoned, our air dirtier, and our water less drinkable due to the dismantling of the environmental regulations by those Cabinet secretaries who turned out to be too corrupt even for Trump. 2018 was a bad year for the Earth.
2018 was a bad year for men who abuse women in corporate offices, on movie sets, and in doctors’ examining rooms. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times wrote about the “torrent of truth-telling” by brave women who have had enough. On that issue, it wasn’t yet a good year for women, which will happen when there is less need for truth-telling because there is less abuse. But it was a good year for women in politics, and for other minorities, who made terrific gains with voters in November.
2018 was a good year for me. Two grandchildren turned one year old and are surely the cutest babies ever. My pensions, both public and private, support our freedom in retirement to do what we want. We don’t want the expensive, thoughtless, wasteful and exhibitionist lifestyle that characterizes most of those people whose faces appear in our media. We can afford what we do want: a comfortable home, good health care, two 13-year old vehicles, the ability to visit our children and vacation with them, good meals out and good meals at home. And the belief that we can keep on going this way as long as our health holds out. We’ll have good years ahead.
2018 was not so good for some those I am close with. We all know people who are happy just to stay alive or to recover from some difficult health problem. Nobody I am close to got arrested or physically attacked, a result of good luck and of my social class and the relative safety of our small-town life.
But 2018 was tough for half of Americans. Departing leader of the HousePaul Ryan said a year ago that half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Then he shepherded through Congress the tax cut he’s been pushing for years, which benefits the other half. Any bad luck could have made 2018 a bad year for someone in the paycheck half.
Making political decisions based only on what benefits me is why Trump is such a dangerous political leader. It’s not enough to just think about what was good for one’s small social and familial circle. We have to consider our whole diverse population.
Individually we can’t make good things happen for large numbers of people, but we can be part of collective movements that are outward-looking, compassionate, generous and humane. We can focus part of our energies and good fortune on doing for others what we do for our families: use our best selves to create bright futures.
So here we are, looking forward to 2019 with the tendency toward optimism that might be one of humanity’s most endearing traits. We can hope for an American politics that addresses our worst social problems rather than our exacerbating our greatest cultural divides. We can hope that the environmental leadership of European nations can show the way toward healing our damaged planet. We can hope that #MeToo and justice reform and more renewable energy and voter registration drives and broader health insurance will make our country a better home for all of us.
2019 won’t transform the world or our lives. But it can be a good year, if we make it so.
Happy New Year!
Taking Back Our Lives