The View from My Bubble



It has long occurred to me that we all live in our own little bubbles. My bubble contains friends who generally look like me, think like me, live the same sort of life and, sadly, often act like me. We don’t necessarily agree on everything but generally we experience life in the same way from the same perspective so in our bubble our understanding of “normal” is the same. I suspect most of us are like that. Clearly, however, everyone’s bubble is not the same and the truth of that has recently been brought home to me in a pretty drastic manner.

These are extraordinary times. Because of that, I think everyone knows that our lives are going to change. Still, many of us seem to hope that we all go back to our old ways of life, back to our own “normal” bubbles. I’m here to suggest that is the LAST thing we should do.

There is much to like in the “old normal” – but more so for some than others. Put another way, a growing percentage of our neighbors are not experiencing as much to like in their bubble as I do in mine. Racism, low paying jobs, poor housing, these are just some of the things about the old normal that people are not in a hurry to go back to.

A simple thing like healthcare for example. Most other advanced countries have figured this out but in the US if you need it but don’t have a full-time job with health benefits or one of the federal programs you are out of luck. There’s a reason that 60% of all bankruptcies in US are because of healthcare bills.

Or education. Everyone is encouraged to get some kind of training or college education but the cost is so overwhelming that one must either take out loans that will last decades or simply forgo it. (And don’t think about bankruptcy, thanks to Congress they are non-dischargeable through bankruptcy.)

And affordable housing? Forget it. Median priced home in Twin Cities is about $300,000 so essentially it doesn’t exist for at least 50% of the population and probably much more. Same with renting - average 1BR apartment is about $1500/mo. Affordable? Not for a lot of people. Why? Not enough income.

50% of households in America make $65,000/yr or less. (About $70k in Minnesota - yippee.) The next 25% make $120,000 or less.   If you make 240k or more, congrats, you are in the top 10% of income in the country! (How much to the top 1%? Don’t ask.)

So what happened? The average person has been screwed as money moved from working people to the investor class. In the last ten years - and actually long before that –. 75% of all new jobs pay $50,000/yr or less. Over 40% of all US workers make LESS than $15/hr. You know, like the cashiers and gig workers with no benefits that kept delivering your food?  (Maybe they should go to college, right? See above.) The result is that the top 1% of Americans earn about 20% of ALL income in the US while the ENTIRE bottom 50% get 13 percent. That’ll teach them for not being successful!

Speaking of the stock market, the market (Dow) has rallied back almost to where it was since it bottomed in March which is great, right? Never mind the fact that about 40 million workers have been laid off which is unheard of since the Great Depression and millions of businesses have been crushed. It has been good for the 20% of the population (hint: it ain’t the bottom 20%) that own 80% of all shares. Okay, disclaimer: I own mutual funds so I guess we’re in that lucky 20%.

Fun Fact: Here is a uniquely normal American business reality. About 16% of ALL US businesses are considered “zombie companies.” These are businesses that are so indebted, so poorly run or just plain dumb that they can only stay in business by using continuous, low interest debt (handed out like candy – or drugs – by our peerless leaders and the Federal Reserve.) Many will almost certainly soon be gone taking with them millions more jobs.

A final thought on the old normal in the economy. The pandemic has been terrible for everyone but that doesn’t mean the pain has been spread evenly. Who do you think makes up practically ALL of those laid off? If you said those in the lowest 50% of income you would be correct. Bonus question: which workers were able to work from home and continued to get paid? Yes, mostly the top 25% of income workers.

So maybe you can see why a lot of folks may not want to be back in their old normal bubble.


Minneapolis at Night from My Bubble 

There’s much more of the old normal that we do not want to go back to and this was brought home by the events of recent days related to the death of yet another black man at the hands of the police. The huge issue of underlying racism in America just keeps rearing its ugly head year after year. These things happen, many outcries and then . . . nothing changes.

The same with gun violence. Every year hundreds of people are gunned down in America in mass shootings and we always get “thoughts and prayers” from our leaders. And again, sound of crickets chirping.  
  
Why? Because there are big obstacles to real change. It’s impossible to discuss our old normal without pointing out our sad state of affairs politically. For example, in 2016 we had two candidates for president with the lowest approval ratings EVER - pick your poison and boy, did we ever! In 2020 the two main political parties seem to be doubling down. This time they are providing us with two wholly unsatisfactory, septuagenarian candidates. One is being kept from a retirement he so desperately needs while the other has exhibited so many signs of incompetence and psychological disorders that he should have been removed from office long ago. Neither of these people would even be considered as candidates for dog catcher in any other western democracy yet this is the best that America’s political parties can offer us. This sort of dysfunction exists up and down all the levels of government. The old normal looks pretty sad.

Current Normal US Government

Most of the issues we confront are not flukes or accidental outcomes, they were the intended results of policies that our “leaders” undertook. The government, at all levels and including presidents and Congress of both parties, have been complicit (read: in cahoots) for at least the last 40 years. They created policies encouraging the government to be taken over by big banks, big corporations, big tech, big unions, big healthcare, big education, big political parties, big military - or just big money. You name it and they had a hand in creating policies intended to drive high profits and low taxes for the wealthiest of us while resulting in millions of low paying service jobs and a gutted middle class. (We did get low, low prices at Walmart so there is that.) Besides horrific income inequality these polices also caused the explosion in health care, education and housing costs. In many ways, we’re not much better than a cold Guatemala (I’ve been there and this may be an insult to Guatemala.)

And don't expect any help from America's massive media empire, they too are complicit. They all appear to have decided that facts and truth are directly related to political affiliation and exist to promote ideology instead of seeking truth. Apparently there really are "alternative facts." 

So, our “normal” is a country where 50% (and probably more than that) of the people struggle to save for a vacation let alone deciding between a decent retirement or their kid’s education. Meanwhile, the wonderful story of "upward mobility" in America has been changed from a great book to a short brochure handed out mostly to the top 10% - today how high you start is, sadly for most, an excellent predictor of where you're going. Or not going. Perhaps that's why most of us try to live a life that used to be known as middle class, just hoping like hell we don’t move down the food chain. My life is positively idyllic in comparison but even I can see why some may not want to go back to the old normal.


Minneapolis from Another Bubble

Is there any wonder that there is a powerful sense of anger and frustration among so many of our fellow Americans? Our social issues combined with the sense that our entire economic system is rigged against the average person creates a tragic and powerful coda to our need for change. 

My generation and I have been perhaps the luckiest people in the history of the world. Yet seemingly we have spent the last few decades helping to pull up the ladder behind us creating the old normal. Maybe we didn’t do it intentionally but like the politicians we are complicit. We live in our nice bubble but as with certain politicians and other "special people," sometimes I think that we babyboomers were all born on third base and thought we hit a triple. It's time for us to try to give our children and grandchildren the same shot at the golden ring as we had. The famous saying, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste" comes to mind. We must take advantage of the changes these terrible events are forcing on us - difficult changes, painful changes but necessary changes. 

Start by paying attention to the lives of those outside our own little bubbles. Then, don’t just sit there, do something - and for God's sake vote!

*One of the groups I volunteer with has a great saying about getting involved: "It’s never convenient." 

Ain’t it the truth.

*Hat tip to the Bird Dogs!

       The Author

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