The depressing thing about the days between Christmas and New Years are all those end of the preceding year’s lists. And the pontifications about what the next year’s biggest themes are going to be. Here’s my $0.02:
The biggest stories of 2017 are found in things nobody’s tracking right now
2001 was like that. Those of sufficient vintage will remember when George W Bush took office the media went wall to wall with coverage of the stem cell debate. That was viewed as THE single-most important issue of the day. The Hainan Island Incident in April of that year (in which a Chinese fighter aircraft downed a US Navy reconnaissance plane) barely budged stem cells from the headlines. Attention spans only shifted after 9/11 happened.
No, I’m not predicting another 9/11. A sad fact of life in the western world today is that 9/11’s in miniature happen frequently and the response from Berlin to San Bernardino is to blame it all away on lone wolves and ignorance.
When a terrorist attack occurs, the separation of Church and State crowd never does anything less than a full sprint towards TV cameras so they can explain it away as something that doesn’t “represent Islam”. Who knew they were all closet theologians? As addicted as these people are to science one would think they’d use math, add up all those “lone wolves”, and then conclude that in biological terms if it’s not a pack we’re looking at then certainly it’s an Islamic hive’s stinger we’re suffering with increasing frequency.
Reluctantly I have to say that we – and by “we” I mean western culture collectively – have come to accept a certain amount of terrorism as an acceptable norm. Didn’t the media instruct us during this decade and the one preceding that terror might be “the new norm”?
Aside from a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction, or one conducted on the scale of 9/11, terror won’t be 2017’s biggest story.
As Screwed Up as The Rest of the World Is
Confession time. In the early 1990s, back when Bill Clinton was a new President, I was a deep blue Bill supporter. So much so that I read his Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s Work of Nations and accepted the notion that somehow, some way, we’d transition towards a “service-sector based economy” that would sustain middle-class lifestyles. It sounded great. Back then, I was working as a dishwasher and janitor. The idea of doing that kind of work, and living a middle-class way of life on my own, sounded spectacular.
Now, for some background, I was born in the early 1970s. One of the first songs I remember hearing played on the radio while my dad washed our white Ford sedan back then is Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” which topped the charts in 1974, if that clues you in to my age.
My mom and dad came up poor. In the years before I was born they literally subsisted some years on mayonnaise sandwiches. My dad dug ditches and swimming pools by hand until he could find better work. By the time I came around he had a steady full-time job and things were a little better. Towards the late 1970s times turned hard, because of the economy and because dad’s union went on strike – so often they seemed to strike right around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Then Reagan became President and the economy took off.
That old white Ford sedan with brown interior my dad had dutifully washed every weekend changed first to a silver Monte Carlo and then later a four door Cadillac, a Ford truck, and a 1973 Ford Mustang all in the driveway at the same time. We moved into a house my parents purchased right after it was built. My dad moved from hourly employment to a managerial position in a name-brand company you’ve probably done business with today.
Step forward into the 1990s and, I don’t know maybe we were all drinking the Bill Clinton Kool-Aid, but the idea that we could all have service-sector jobs and still move out from under mom and dad’s roof and into brand new homes with three cars in the driveway seemed reasonable. Of course, it wasn’t and it isn’t.
You have to go back to 1941 to find a higher percentage of adults aged 30 and under that still live with their parents than the number that do today. People are entering the economy with the expectation that they can work as a barista, drive Uber on the side, and pull a hustle here and there, and somehow end up living the way the middle-class is portrayed in sitcoms and movies. The media’s been in on it over the past eight years. They’ve regularly run stories about how the “new economy” isn’t one of full-time work but one of “pick and choose part-time work”.
In communities where high-paying industrial work used to be readily available, Washington DC either regulated those jobs away or negotiated them out of existence via trade arrangement such as NAFTA. Take for instance the town my mom currently lives in.
In 1991, there was a major tobacco products manufacturer within ten miles of her house. In 1991 dollars, they paid $15 an hour – that’s $26.52 in today’s money – as their entry level wage. That factory – and all the job training programs they sponsored, the incomes, and benefits that went with it – has been shuttered for years. Supposedly a company that makes after-market batteries for electric and hybrid cars is going to take it over but to date hasn’t. Similarly, ten miles in the other direction textile mills were demolished in the 2000s so that “bio-tech” could take its place. There were supposed to be tens of thousands of shovel ready bio-tech jobs where Americans had once made bed sheets and t-shirts. Barely a few jobs ever materialized and few are forecast in the future.
More importantly, when I go back to the town my mom lives in, I take note of where the twenty-somethings are. These are the young men and women that aren’t on a university campus learning about safe zones, triggers, and microaggressions. They are trying to find their way in life on service-sector economy incomes. They wash cars and change oil. They show up at three in the morning to buff the floors in the mall. They turn down work because coming and going from the job itself will cost them more than the hourly wage will pay them and not because they are on sabbaticals to find themselves or raise their children holistically. The jobs they apply for don’t ask for resumes but that doesn’t mean they are stupid or dumb or incapable. The work they are looking for no longer exists thanks to the “service-sector economy” Bill Clinton ushered in a quarter of a century ago.
We’re screwed up as a country for continuing to believe that we can employee Americans as oil changers, baristas, and would-you-like-fries-with-that specialists, and expect the contemporary economy to echo that of the 1980s, 1970s, or previous decades. You can’t enjoy a truly prosperous economy if people aren’t making stuff anymore. Period.
It’s The Economy
The biggest story of 2017 will be the economy. Donald Trump’s hands are going to be full:
– His promise to spend nearly $1 trillion on infrastructure may come back to haunt him.
– Technological advances are outpacing our ability to react to them.
Every time I hear a fellow Conservative praise Trump’s plan to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, I feel betrayed. Wasn’t it just eight years ago Barack Obama suckered us all on his $767-billion-dollar stimulus program? Back then I predicted Obama’s plan would be a farce. We simply aren’t postured to embark upon massive civil engineering projects the way we were 70 or 80 years ago. Today, it can take a decade to move a project from the environmental assessment phase to the planning phase. Moreover, when I travel (and I do often) it seems like the same infrastructure projects that were going on 20 years ago are still going on today. (For example, I-85 between Raleigh, NC and Richmond, VA has been continuously under construction since at least 1993). I hate to say it, but Trump’s FDR-revisited approach won’t be effective in the long term. How can it be?
When Barack Obama cited ATM machines as the reason bank tellers lost their jobs, it was right to cite his ignorance. ATM machines didn’t completely eliminate the need for tellers. And the ATM machine was something the economy adapted to. The advent of ATMs of course happened decades ago. The pace of technology today is fierce and its reach is invasive.
In 2017 we’re entering a world in which self-driving vehicles are a reality. There may no longer be a need for a human being to back a tractor trailer full of stuff into the loading dock of the store you buy it from. Oops. Did I say store? We’re also entering an era in which your refrigerator can inventory its contents and fill deficiencies on its own. Same goes for your washer and dryer. Maybe your shower, too. Really, stores might as well go the way of record stores. Have you seen one of those lately? If so, that record store wasn’t the same kind of record store you’d have seen a decade or more ago. It is entirely possible you’ll only walk into a brick and mortar store to buy highly specific items in the near future.
Donald Trump, The Challenge Is Yours
2017 will be defined by Trump’s ability to reconcile economic changes versus technological advancements. Trump’s got his schtick down pretty well. He can already point to the Carrier deal as an example of success. Is it a success though? As technology defines economic change, will it be enough to threaten a higher tax rate based on a business owner’s choices?
We’re transitioning from whatever’s next after the Information Age…that’s 2017’s biggest story.