In his new book, "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence," NEWSWEEK columnist Robert J. Samuelson makes a compelling case that the current crisis is only one of a series of complicated issues that could slow American economic growth in a deep and fundamental way. "America's next president," Samuelson writes, "takes office facing the most daunting economic conditions in decades: certainly since Ronald Reagan and double-digit inflation, and perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt and 25 percent unemployment."
That much, at least, most of us know. What makes Samuelson's cover adaptation of his book all the more unsettling is his call for us to look beyond the current recession into a future that threatens to make this difficult autumn a prelude to ongoing economic disappointments and strains.
That is a sobering thought as we elect the 44th president of the United States this week. But we are unquestionably a country in a very bad humor about things. Nine out of 10 believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and the incumbent president's approval ratings rival those of the then unpopular Harry Truman and of Richard Nixon. The mood of the country is serious; many are scared.
Samuelson does offer an optimistic historical perspective, arguing that "even if the present slump deepens … the odds are that it won't approach the Great Depression in severity or suffering." But then—you guessed it—there is the bad news: "The recovery, though boosting employment, may prove unsatisfying. Our new economic era may lapse into a state of 'affluent deprivation.' That's an unfamiliar term. It doesn't mean poverty. The United States will remain a wealthy society. Rather, 'affluent deprivation' signifies a state of mind. People feel poorer, because their sluggish income gains get siphoned off into higher taxes, energy costs and health spending." Samuelson's piece may not exactly put a spring in your step as you go to the polls, but pretending the problems do not exist is hardly the wisest course. In another sensible corrective to the conventional wisdom, Jacob Weisberg discusses the real history of socialism and taxation—a history that is, as you might expect, more complicated than the campaign back-and-forth suggests.
A final word. When Andrew Jackson died in 1845, George Bancroft, the historian-statesman, gave a eulogy that included a shrewd and reassuring observation about the nature of the country. Alluding to a crisis with South Carolina radicals in 1832–33 that might have led to secession, Bancroft said: "The moral of the great events of those days is this: that the people can discern right, and will make their way to a knowledge of right; that the whole human mind, and therefore with it the mind of the nation, has a continuous, ever improving existence; that the appeal from the unjust legislation of today must be made quietly, earnestly, perseveringly, to the more enlightened collective reason of tomorrow; that submission is due to the popular will, in the confidence that the people, when in error, will amend their doings; that in a popular government, injustice is neither to be established by force, nor to be resisted by force; in a word, that the Union, which is constituted by consent, must be preserved by love." Not a bad sentiment to consider as an epic election comes to an end and a new era—with its perennial challenges and its particular problems—is set to begin.