Aiming higher

From the President’s State of the Union speech:

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

“If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction — and home for dinner every night.

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

This touching story of survival in the face of economic adversity was probably the single dominant thread in the President’s speech. The President referred to the Erler’s as a narrative device multiple times in the speech, complete with numerous shots of Rebekah in the audience. It truly is an impressive, though presumably common, story of how Americans worked their way through the economic collapse of 2008, the collapse of housing bubble, and the rise of debt and joblessness that accompanied it all.

Of course, you can also look at this story and see a depiction of how the American government utterly failed this family.

They were the victim of the bets of Wall Street banks, given license to gamble by bipartisan deregulation. Houses were overvalued, loans were inflated beyond what borrowers could pay, and when no one was buying houses, no one was building them. Wall Street banks were let off the hook – allowed to continue to exist despite being insolvent, while insolvent homeowners were told to quietly surrender their homes to these very same bankers. When stimulus spending was passed, it was small and limited, lest the deficit scolds be given optical license to scold the President and his new majorities in Congress.

There was no way for this family to get higher education without debt, so debt they took on. The risk seems to be paying off and the economy is rebounding. Things seem bright for the Erlers and that’s to be celebrated.

But how would the last six plus years of their lives looked differently if the government had actually sought to help people impacted by the economic crisis, instead of waiting for them to gamely dig themselves out of trouble? What if there had been stimulus spending to keep construction jobs from contracting? What if there were free community college (as the President has now proposed to the Republican controlled Congress)? What if there was a minimum wage that was a living wage? Surely all of this would have helped this family, kept them afloat and maybe brought them what they themselves earned painstakingly a bit faster and with a bit less pain.

There are many ways in which government is not like a family. Just as a government doesn’t have to balance the checkbook the way a family does, the characteristics of grit through austerity do not hold from the family to the government. Maybe this family got through it all, but I think we must aim higher than that. Maybe our country is getting through it all – though this is a highly contentious claim in my view – but again, we must aim higher.

In fairness, the President did call for Congress to aim higher, though more in the spirit of cooperation and civic duty than in pursuit of any particular set of outcomes.

I’m left with a description of a family’s trials that, while admirable, is not one that I would hold up as anything other than an example of the ways in which the Democratic and Republican parties have failed poor, working and middle class Americans.

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