Counting Crows

Amidst all the squabbling about numbers, are we missing what’s really going on in our country?

The idyllic 90’s alt rock-band, “Counting Crows” is best known for its catchy hit “Mr Jones.” You know the one? “Sha, la, la, la, la, la, la”? The Crows took flight in an era of ironically worn lumberjack shirts and work boots set against a soundtrack of “Nirvana” and a backdrop of the Gulf War and AIDS. The band took its name from an old English nursery rhyme which dates back to the early 1800’s about predicting the future by counting the number of magpies, or crows, which crossed your path.

“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a time of joyous bliss,” the rhyme goes. Of course, there’s no actual basis for this type of prophecy, but in an unsure time, when science and logic weren’t plentiful, counting crows was a good a method, as any, of predicting the future.

As the 45th president of the United States was being sworn in on Friday, we were all aflutter over a different count. This time we were counting attendance as if it foretold a President’s success. How many people showed up? Counting crowds, not crows, is the fashion of the day.

One concludes that democracy is alive and well in the Republic, but all is not well. Crows are symbolic harbingers of change in many of the world’s mythologies, and it struck me, amid all the squabbling over numbers, we may be missing ours. So just for a minute, let’s put aside the partisan squabbling, and look at what President Trump is doing that many would agree on –  even Bernie Sanders.

To be sure, Trump’s inauguration address, was dark. After 8 years of remarkable hope and progress under President Barack Obama, the idea of America as a dystopian wasteland littered with empty “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” is hard to fathom, but it’s as true as the remarkable legacy of the outgoing president.

While America has prospered and our standard of living has improved, free trade has filled our homes and stores with cheap Chinese goods but it has also come at a cost – ripping out our nation’s heart. It has robbed us of a vibrant industrial sector, left hundreds of thousands in poverty and created an epidemic killing Americans at an alarming rate. Mostly in states in the middle of the country. States Trump won. States you need to win to be president.

How did we get here?  Ask any two economists whether global trade costs US jobs, and you’re likely to get an argument. Economists, like crows, are not always accurate foretellers of things to come.

The US runs large trade deficits with almost every one of our trading partners – 90%, to be sure. The largest deficits are with China, Mexico, Japan and Germany.  The U.S.-Mexico trade balance, for example,  swung from a $1.7 billion U.S. surplus in 1993 to a $54 billion deficit by 2014. Economists will argue endlessly about the cause and effect of NAFTA, but while modernization has made up for some of those lost jobs, the economy in parts of the country have been obliterated.

Mexico’s deficit pales in comparison to China’s $318 billion, “The deficit is five times bigger, says Wharton’s Mauro Guillen. For every job we have lost in the U.S. to Mexico, five [jobs] were lost to China.”

Respected economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson published a study last year called “The China Shock” analyzing the cost to Americans of China’s trade explosion.  They found, “wages and labor-force participation rates remaining depressed and unemployment rates remaining elevated” a decade after China’s global trade boom.

You’re not at fault for not knowing this. No-one reports it. It’s easier to count crowds than actually travel to Idaho to show a rusted factory. Anyone who has worked in a network newsroom, as I have, will tell you if it can’t be reported in the Tri-State region, it rarely gets coverage. Consequently, the networks have missed what’s been going on in the rust belt. The people who elected President Trump are not all racists, misogynist or narrow-minded people the media would like you to think.  They are our fellow Americans crying out for work.

Yes, the unemployment rate is at an all time low but it doesn’t tell the whole story Basically, if you’re not getting unemployment help, you don’t get counted. In most cases, government insurance lasts 26 weeks. If you’ve run out of insurance, you’re considered out of the labor force. Consequently, almost a quarter of 25-54 year olds (the prime working years) are not working and the labor participation rate is down 4%, from 66% in 2006 to 62% now.

Along with this jobs flight, a despondent and disheartened population has turned to drugs. The Opioid crisis in the heartland is out of control. 55,403 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, more than guns or car crashes. The second biggest killer, suicides, are also up. (For white men aged 35-64 suicides are up 40% between 1999-2010.) Families have been broken apart, children left homeless, dreams shattered.

When President Donald J. Trump talks of “neighborhoods blighted by crime, drugs and gangs,” he is not wrong.  Whether it’s drugs, suicides or malaise, America’s white uneducated men are dying at increasing rate. Since 1999, the number of deaths of middle-aged, uneducated white American men has increased 22%, while dropping for other demographics.

This is not a moral issue, it’s economics. Restarting a pointless war on drugs with draconian measures and incarceration will reinforce a cycle of suffering. If President Trump brings purpose and jobs back to the heartland, he’ll stem the crisis, as Portugal did when it decriminalized drugs and invested in jobs (The number of overdose deaths plummeted to among the lowest in the EU).

We are witnessing the rise of the Precariat, as British economist Guy Standing calls it. “A multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them.”

This week, President Trump will meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May.  She leads a country which, like ours, is moving away from large economic unions. Brexit is Trump for the same reasons. A disconnect between the elite and the middle class in the middle of the country. Trump and May will likely forge a new type of economic union which encourages what she describes as an “active industrial strategy” or bringing manufacturing back home.

Yesterday, Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership and is promising to renegotiate NAFTA. He’s threatening to increased tariffs, reduce corporate taxation and slash regulation (worryingly at the EPA if it hurts the environment). It may not work, but it’s the best plan America’s heartland has heard for a long time.

The Counting Crows imagine a better world in “Mr. Jones” as they sing about a different time with equally despairing prospects.

“Believe in me because I don’t believe in anything
and I want to be someone to believe.”

Trump is not perfect, and untested in public life, but he has responded to a yearning cry from our fellow Americans who are suffering. If this was happening in other parts of the world, our compassion would stir us to action. Yes, we have to be watchful of allowing the new administration to roll back rights, enter thoughtless wars for enrichment or cozy up to corrupt dictators but we’d be hurting our brothers and sisters if we didn’t seek to help them now as they try to bring their lives back. What could be more American than that?

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