Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Year-end Musings...

As we begin the final month of another year it begs a reflective mood on where we've been as a nation, where we are now and where we hope to be in 2010. On the economic front, we have seen the very worse of the Great Recession that officially began in December 2007, twenty-two consecutive months of job losses, unemployment reaching a 26-year double-digit high of 10.2 per cent, the bankruptcies of the once mighty General Motors as well as Chrysler, not to mention perhaps thousands of smaller businesses, a collapse of the credit markets, bailed out banks tightening credit standards including reducing credit lines and jacking up credit card interest rates even for their very best customers, rising personal bankruptcies, record foreclosures, 124 bank failures to date and record budget deficits. Optimists would balance all of this with the rise in the stock market, once again surpassing the 10,000 barrier, some positive GDP numbers (albeit inflated by substantial government assistance), an uptick in housing sales and some leveling off in values, low inflation and near zero Fed discount rates, the price of gold at over $1200 an ounce and an increase in the overall consumer savings rate. Politically, we inaugurated the nation's first African-American president under an aura of hope and change for the better along with an ambitious legislative agenda for a new, Democratically-controlled Congress, a $787 billion economic stimulus package for which the jury is still out, long-needed health care reform on the precipice, and, tonight, the announcement by President Obama of an escalation of 30,000 more troops committed to Afghanistan (at an additional cost per soldier of one million dollars each per year).

These are just some of the highlights ( or "lowlights" depending on your perspective) of the past year up to the present. Granted even weighing in what good we can with the bad there are enormous challenges before us so what can we hope for in 2010? First and foremost in my mind, there needs to be a serious and determined refocus by government at all levels on the unemployment crisis in this country. The upcoming Obama "jobs summit" would appear to signal a recognition of the magnitude of the problem but we need a major creation of real job opportunities through a concerted partnership of government and private business to put a meaningful dent in the crisis that exists. Waiting (and hoping) for the trickle down of the Obama stimulus package with its flawed counting of "saved" and new jobs is not the answer and what accumulated successes could ultimately result are taking too long. Whether it's tax credits for new job creation, shaming businesses who are taking entire operations abroad for cheaper labor or creating some sort of Office of National Employment to create new public service jobs along the lines of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, something major needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly. The struggles of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers in this country is a national disgrace, not to mention the economic cost of lost tax revenues, the cross-industry domino effects caused by the absence of consumer spending and the resulting draconian cuts in much needed social services by governments like senior citizen, mental health, rehabilitation, extreme poverty and law enforcement/fire protection safety nets. Not only would such ramped up job creation efforts immediately improve the well being of millions of citizens but isn't it the morally responsible thing to do, especially at this "giving" time of year?

And speaking of the morally responsible thing to do, my second most desired wish for 2010 would be for the Congress to finally end the gridlock, bickering and political theatrics and finally pass some sort of health reform legislation early in the year. I don't think there is any argument whether one is Democrat or Republican that reform is badly needed. There are probably thousands, perhaps millions of documented stories of excessive hardships and even tragedies from the current system--treatment denied because of cost or pre-existing conditions, insurance company snafus, on and on--practices and consequences that continue while the debate needlessly drags on. Yes, there is a cost and I feel compromise is possible on the lightning rod issues of payment for abortions, immigrant coverage and some sort of limited public plan. But isn't the cost for doing nothing measured monetarily and in public pain and suffering potentially so much greater? Please, Congress, let's pass a meaningful health care reform package soon.

My comprehensive wish list for 2010 includes other items--financial institution regulatory reform allowing us to avoid a repeat of the late 2008 meltdown stands out as my number three--but if we could only get the leadership, compassion and understanding to come forth on the issues of the unemployment crisis and health care reform, the quality of the lives of so many Americans as well as the overall psyche of the country could be improved immeasurably now and well into the future.