Why Isn’t Strengthening the Economy a Real Campaign Issue?

The headlines about the economy in the US are terribly worrisome.


Labor productivity growth has declined steadily from the early 2000s to a recent figure of 0.5%, which is close to a 40-year bottom.


The economy has been growing at an anemic rate of just barely over 1% in the past 12 months. The recoveryin the economy since the last recession is by far the weakest since World War II.


Business investment in recent quarters has actually turned negative. Its down 2.2% in the second quarter, which was also the fifth straight quarter in which businesses drew down inventories. Indeed business investment has been so weak in recent years it now subtracts from GDP growth.


As important as economic growth is and as potent as it typically is in presidential campaigns, the question arises: why have the two main candidates shown such meager leadership in presenting compelling plans to strengthen Americas economy?


The candidates and their supporters have made a big deal of how awful their opponent is, but theyve been unusually short on what they would actually do to transform and strengthen the economy


The campaigns say they have plans, and they do. Heres a short description and comparison of their positions: Comparing economic agendas Hillary Clinton & Donald Trump


But, at a time when we need a vision to move us forward fundamentally, its hard to see how these ideas will do much more than, at best, affect the economy at the margin. And, given the deep partisan differences that exist, its also hard to see, whichever of these candidates wins, any of these ideas coming to bear or having a real impact.


Further, given our huge and growing debt, one wonders where the funds will come from, for example, to inject significant and telling increases in infrastructure spending and, indeed, whether any feasible increase would much boost the economy. On the other side, we have proposals to threaten trade barriers to make trade fairer. More trade through fairer trade is certainly a worthy goal, but limiting free trade is not an effective growth strategy. So, even if one of these candidates could get his or her way, its not clear at all it would help much.


Could a president lead us culturally or socially to be more productive as a people? Are there other ideas, such as those of the House leadership, that would lead to greater growth and wages? Thats possible, but its certainly not convincing to voters generally that these candidates would be effective at much beyond announcing their paper plans.


The one thing I know a lot about from decades of research and experience is this: significantly improved education proficiency and workforce development could dramatically improve our economy and its prospects for our people.


The better paying jobs increasingly involve knowledge and skills many in the workforce do not have. A dwindling percentage of adults are working or looking for work. The workforce is less efficient. And, as mentioned above, our productivity and business investment seem to be dwindling.


I see nothing but rhetoric and/or throwing spending without accountability at the problems of our underprepared workforce. There are no serious proposals to get better results out of our education system. Rick Hanushek and others have shown that modest, steady increases in education proficiency could have dramatic effects in improving our GDP


Happily, also, we have jobs, and we could have more, if we applied more effective policies and strategies to create them. But, as to jobs that are currently available, many of our graduates and workers are frequently unprepared to take them on. Smarter coordination between business and higher education could turn the tide. Some companies, mostly in technology, are already experimenting with stackable certificates and other approaches. A president could turn these successes into a major, broader, and effective strategy, much of which could be pushed with little or no new federal spending.


But, instead, we mainly get huge doses of nastiness from each side about the opposition. We get old and stale policy plans. Yet, we get little in the way of doable, promising strategies and truly strong personal leadership that could both draw popular support and make a real difference in improving the economy and how it works for our people.


Demand more, friends. The nation deserves more.

Cultural Decline in the Public Square

I recently had the pleasure of reading A Sense of the Future, a collection of essays on science, by the late Jacob Bronowski.  While diving into this fine book, I recalled with equal pleasure the experience of watching the remarkable documentary, The Ascent of Man, which he created for television in the 1970s. One thing led to another in my mind, and before long, I was reminiscing about the incredible array of intellectually and culturally rich programming on television from roughly the mid-50s to about 1980. And – spoiler alert – after I describe it a bit, I’m here to tell you I’m damned worried we’ve lost it, and the loss is no good.


Who can forget Kenneth Clark’s jewel, Civilisation, which covered art and cultural history in a fashion similar to Bronowski’s treatment of the history of science?


In music, Leonard Bernstein made fifty-three episodes of Young People’s Concerts for CBS. I remember watching these programs as a young person trying to understand what this music was about and whether and why I might like it. Without doubt, it enriched my life culturally, as it did the lives of so many other young and not-so-young people.


Though I have only a vague recollection of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, I absolutely marvel in retrospect at its productions. Debuts of new operas by significant composers, exciting productions of Shakespeare’s plays featuring the best actors of the day, and important new plays – all were produced on a major network for the general public to watch, learn, and enjoy.


Now, before I provoke you with my main hypothesis and questions, let me lay out some caveats. First, I realize that most of what was put on TV in the early days was mediocre, just as it is today.




Second, I know that fine programming has continued to be produced in the decades that followed 1980. Further, it is true that there has been a proliferation of venues all across the country where art and culture can be and are experienced. This is not insignificant, though one wonders whether the best of it is quite expensive and principally accessible mostly to elites.


Third, there are new forms of art, such as high quality television series, that have in some ways replaced fine film, etc. I do a little binge watching myself and won’t argue with the fact that we have genres of expression today that are well made and fit the times.


But, notwithstanding these caveats, I do want to present a hypothesis that alarms me and challenge you to test it out, and, if it bears truth, begin to think out possible explanations and perhaps solutions.


Here’s the hypothesis: though the types and numbers of media generally and publicly available have multiplied many times over, the aesthetic and cultural quality of all their offerings, as a whole, has diminished. In fact, for the most part, they have made us coarser and less attuned to the best ideas and values we’ve inherited from the past.


Make no mistake: I’m quite well aware, as a consumer, of the BBC and PBS. But, notwithstanding their occasional good offerings, I would say two things: 1) the times we see giants of thought and performance are fewer and less sustained, and 2) the overall quality of the programming has particularly and noticeably declined in the last 5-10 years.


Why has this happened?


First, money was important to early era TV producers, but nowhere near as important as it is today. I suspect there was a sense in those days that high culture was good for people and that it ought to be provided, however much profit it produced. I doubt that such an ethic is generally operational today.


Second, the public today generally values classic thought, art, and performance less than it did just decades ago. By the way, when I say “classic,” I mean both old and new. It could be Shakespeare, or it could be August Wilson. It could be Beethoven, or it could be Coltrane. It could be Turner, or it could be O’Keefe.


Third, the net effect has been that public intellectuals and the great artists are no longer drawn out into the public square as they once were. And in their place, mostly, we get underwhelming pundits and “journalists” and merely popular entertainers.


Call me effete, hopelessly out of date, or what you will. But I’ll die standing by the view that it would be good for all citizens to read and understand what Jacob Bronowski wrote in A Sense of the Future. Those producers who cared enough about promoting these and other best values of our culture made a huge difference in the life of this kid growing up on Meadow Lake Avenue in Dallas, Texas. Shouldn’t we expect the same for my kids and yours?

The Price We Pay For Jazz’s Decline

In the space of this short blog, I want to make a few points. One, I love jazz. Two, I worry a lot that jazz has declined. Three, I think it’s no good at all for our culture that jazz has declined so precipitously. And, finally, I think jazz’s decline has had, for reasons I will describe, worrisome racial consequences for both whites and blacks.


I won’t go much into the decline itself. The data seem clear.  Jazz the least popular music genre [The Jazzline] and The Decline of Jazz [The Crimson]


Nor will I spend much time speculating on the reasons for the decline. There are many theories.  What killed Jazz [Jazzwax.com] and Why isn’t Jazz More Popular. [ Slate: Music]


But I do want to look at some points made in this last blog because they express the basis for both my love of jazz and my alarm at its decline.


Jazz is distinctly an American music genre, though its deeper roots go back further and elsewhere. While it evolved principally in African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it shares key elements with European and other American music and performance traditions. This is due to its remarkable blend of improvisation, syncopation, and swing with harmony, pop, and the brass band tradition.


As the Slate blog notes, jazz became notable for its virtually unique combination of creative expression, formal innovation, complex musical structure, and improvisational heroics.


Its spread largely from New Orleans to the nation was explosive in the early part of the 20th century. We were in the Jazz Age by the 20s and 30s. Remarkable musicians emerged, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton. Fine white musicians, such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, joined the scene as jazz entered the swing era in the 30s. However it happened precisely, there is no doubt in my mind that this mixing of black and white musicians as well as the popularity of the music across racial lines contributed to the relaxation of the social barriers that contributed to segregation and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.


Jazz’s popularity remained strong in the 40s and 50s, though the shift from danceable music to bebop was both exciting and perhaps threatening to its broad-based popularity. For me, it was remarkable. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others came on the scene, lifting jazz to the highest peaks among all the music genres throughout history.


It was inevitable that jazz would move to a freer form in the late 50s and 60s. This is the period when I became attuned and excited. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and others became musical heroes to me.


According to most historians, it was during the 60s and 70s that the decline accelerated. And, while I won’t explore the causes in detail, I do want to share a common hypothesis, and it’s this: the high art of jazz couldn’t compete among the masses with its much easier competitors: the ever-flexible world of pop, rock, hip hop merging with pop, and all of their descendants in subsequent decades.


I am not saying that people shouldn’t respond to music in ways that touch them. Further, I’m a realist who understands that times change, as do styles and fads. Surely, Terry Teachout is right: jazz musicians will need to try to find a way to re-build an audience, if jazz has any hope of reviving.


Yet, the social critic in me still must raise my voice in protest. I know this may sound effete, snobbish, and wrong to some, but my fundamental question is this: what does it say about a culture that prefers cheap pop, rap, and degraded rock to high jazz? Not much good, in my opinion, for reasons that are clear in my earlier discussion of the power and value of jazz.


Here’s another crucial point that I think Wynton Marsalis keeps trying to make. It is both amazing and historic that in the great flowering of jazz it was the black experience that emerged as the one that was truly on a par with the very best of traditions in all of music history.


That we no longer can look to the likes of John Coltrane for the intellectual, spiritual, and deep emotional power of their musical experience is a horrible loss in ways that are impossible fully to calculate. And it should not go without mention that these great artists whom we no longer have as sources of such inspiration were almost all African American.