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If This is the Best Liberalism Can Do, It’s Not Good Enough, Plus, “The Economy,” An Age of Chaos, and How Paradigms Fail

If This is the Best Liberalism Can Do, It’s Not Good Enough, Plus, “The Economy,” An Age of Chaos, and How Paradigms Fail

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Good morning, good evening, good afternoon. How’s everyone? Wherever in the world you are, I hope you’re doing ridiculously well. Welcome new readers, thanks old friends, and thanks again to all who’ve joined so far. Today we’re going to discuss…


There’s this sort of interminable, exasperating, not-quite debate. And today we’re going to resolve it. Or attempt to. On one side, liberals, who go on endlessly, infinitely boasting how great the economy is, over and over again. On the other side, everyone else, sort of crying out, things are rough out there, and they kind of suck.

Now, before we resolve it, a little bit of meat to those bones.

"If the United States’ economy were an athlete, right now it would be peak LeBron James. If it were a pop star, it would be peak Taylor Swift. Four years ago, the pandemic temporarily brought much of the world economy to a halt. Since then, America’s economic performance has left other countries in the dust and even broken some of its own records. The growth rate is high, the unemployment rate is at historic lows, household wealth is surging, and wages are rising faster than costs, especially for the working class. There are many ways to define a good economy. America is in tremendous shape according to just about any of them.

The American public doesn’t feel that way—a dynamic that many people, including me, have recently tried to explain. But if, instead of asking how people feel about the economy, we ask how it’s objectively performing, we get a very different answer."

That’s from the Atlantic. And from the Washington Post to the New York Times and way beyond, this sort of thing’s now become a trope or form or Genre Unto Itself: the economy’s booming, things are great, why don’t people, those fools, get it already?! In other words, the liberal establishment won’t give an inch, and just sort of keeps bellowing this line, as if saying it enough times will make people believe it.

But they don’t. When we ask people, their views on “the economy,” and I’ll come to why I put that in quotes shortly, are uniformly. Negative. Really negative. Just maybe 20% of people think it’s doing well, the vast majority are pessimistic, and that’s buoyed by all sorts of alarming stats about how people are actually living at the moment, like 70% of people feel financially traumatized, or are struggling to pay the bills, and so forth.

And so if you venture onto this thing called “the internet,” from Reddit to LinkedIn to TikTok, stories abound, and go viral every day, of just how painful times are. The latest is a TikTok trend gone mega-viral to the point of earning rejoinders from CEOs…about people…not getting large enough portions of fast food…and filming it all…for heaven’s sake…which is hardly a sign that things are any kind of wonderful out there.

So…what’s going on here? What we shouldn’t do is keep on playing out this debate, over and over again. Rather, we should try to resolve it. Here’s how I think I’d do so. It’s pretty simple, and it goes like this. Making sense of this mess? Let’s just take it face value. If we do that, we immediately sort of see something a little startling, which is…

To Liberals, This is The Best an Economy Can Be

Let’s just take them at their word. To liberals—and at the end, I’m going to remind you that I’m a liberal too—this is…what a good…great…economy is. The sort of overdone hype, to the point of Taylor Swift metaphors…it says that to liberals…this is maybe even the best an economy can be.

Just hold that thought in your mind for a second without disputing it, because we’re trying to think clearly. This is going to sort of maybe come off as a jeremiad, but I don’t mean it that way. I just want us to…think…clearly…about this mess.

So let’s summarize.

  • To liberals, this is a good, wonderful, awesome economy.
  • To liberals, this is all a good economy needs to be.
  • To liberals, this is the best kind of economy.

Each of those points matters. Why do liberals think this? Because they look at two indicators, more or less, and conclude that…if those are “right,” then “the economy is great.” If growth is positive, economy good. If unemployment low, economy good.

Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this is altogether too..simplistic. But never mind that. We’re not debating, we’re resolving. So let’s keep going.

What don’t liberals seem to care much about?

  • That real incomes are lower now than before the pandemic
  • That if real incomes are lower now, the economy’s not “growing” for the average person at all, but shrinking
  • And therefore, that said “growth” is phantom growth, where the top is getting wealthier by siphoning off the wealth of the middle and lower classes and social groups
  • That inflation’s at the heart of this fall in living standards
  • That most of the jobs being created aren’t ameliorating any of the above
  • And that all that has pretty catastrophic effects on well-being

Those effects, which we’ve gone into in plenty of other essays, range from the breakdown of social ties, to the rise of pessimism, anxiety, despair, to the loss of trust in institutions, and so on and so on—well known by now.

So. The point I want to make, first of all, is simple: to liberals, this is what a good economy is. In effect, liberalism’s saying: "this is as good as it gets, folks.”

But is that good enough?

If This is The Best Economy Liberalism Can Offer, Then It’s Not Good Enough

I don’t mean to be dramatic. I know it sounds that way, but again, 80% of people don’t think this is a “good economy.” They don’t think that because they’re struggling in many ways just to live sort of normal lives. And what all that says is something pretty simple:

If this is the best liberalism can do in terms of the economy, it’s not good enough.

And I think that’s both accurate and fair.

Because an economy isn’t just “growth” and “unemployment.” 

Our notion of an economy must be deeper than that, if our politics are to resonate and count and matter to people. If all we’re looking at is aggregate statistics, and not even bothering to not just to disaggregate them, but to reality check them…all we’re doing is sort of distorting what the portrait of people’s lives is.

Think about the story of “growth” with me, which I tried to tell in those bullet points above. Liberals say, in this sort of now weirdly childish way, over and over again, growth means economy great!! But it’s not that simple, as I tried to explain. Average incomes lower than before the pandemic mean the average household hasn’t seen any of that growth. They’re poorer, and they feel that way, and so in that far more real sense, “growth” is a statistical illusion. 

If we can’t even look that deeply into “an economy,” who’s going to care what we have to say about it? Aren’t we going to be wrong? And won’t people sort of reject and scorn us for preaching absurdities to them? If the average person’s income is lower now than it was just a few years ago, and that’s after decades of stagnation…I mean, come on now. If that’s “good,” then…what’s bad?

Let’s even imagine that 15-20% of “the economy’s bad” stuff is driven purely by politics, and that number of people are sort of just politically motivated to say it. Sure. But 80%? When the number’s that high, then there must be—must be—a very real problem before us. Either that, or something’s in the water supply. 

So not being brave or wise enough to look beyond the surface leaves us in a kind of bind. We’re unable to come to positions that seem credible to people, which is where liberals are now. Sure, the 20% of people who are sort of wealthy and privileged and lucky enough to live lives of stability and comfort even in these troubled times might still believe things are great. But they’re not going to turn the tide for liberalism, are they? And make no mistake, that tide needs turning, because liberalism is currently dying a sort of swift and terrible death.

Does Liberalism Have a Future?

I said earlier that, hold on, I’m a liberal too. And I am. Maybe not in the narrow ideological-poltiical-party sense, but certainly in the philosophical one. I believe in…liberation. We’ve discussed all that before. 

The problem for liberalism now is…well, there are many problems…but the big one is…what’s the point of it?

You see, if it’s devolved to an ideology that’s willing to tell people that up is down, then it’s reached the point of dysfunction that many ideologies before it have. This is a sort of Soviet place to be—everything’s wonderful, comrade, just ignore the breadlines. I exaggerate to make a point. It might not be that bad, but the nub of the issue’s much the same: here’s a paradigm that’s grown divorced from everyday reality, and yet inured to being able to understand why.

Lets go back to what liberalism cares about for just a moment. 

In that story of “to liberalism, this is all a good economy is,” a certain set of disturbing truths is revealed. Liberalism doesn’t seem to care about…much. Not people’s living standards. Not whether or not equitable distributions of wealth or opportunity happen across society. Not about upward mobility. Not about life and happiness and well-being. Not the consequent destabilizations of politics that occur as rage and despair shake societies riven by stagnation and decline.

All of those are things that people must sort out for themselves.

Liberalism’s only concerns appear to be what they…are…right now. Is it growing? Is unemployment low? Never mind if it mostly only benefits the already super rich. Never mind if there’s no path to a thing formerly known as the middle class anymore—not our problem. Never mind if generation after generation’s growing more and more insecure and desperate—not our problem. Never mind if the bottom’s fallen out of career after career and industry after industry. Or if life’s become a sort of bitter, brutal struggle, of ubermensch over undermensch. Not our problem.

So then whose problem is all that? That’s your problem. The individual’s. As long as liberalism provides these two goods of “growth” and “employment,” never mind how illusory or narrow or phantom-like they are, never mind if it’s quantity over quality, which declines past negative year after year—its job is done.

Everything else falls on the individual’s shoulders. From stability to security to liberty to finances to mobility and on and on. But is that really…not just fair…but doable? Are anyone’s shoulders strong enough to provide all those goods? That’s not a rhetorical question, but one with an answer: clearly not, because these goods are all in profoundly short supply now, and so, nobody is that strong, or fortunate, or lucky, at a social scale, anyways, and so…

The paradigm doesn’t work.

And that brings me back to my central question. 

What is liberalism offering people anymore?

That’s not a rhetorical question, either. It has an answer, and the answer is, like I said, to take it at face value. It offers people…the idea…that this is all a good economy is. Needs to be. Can be.

The rest is up to them, and if they’re not part of this “good economy,” then why, the fault must be theirs, in some way, through some moral defect, or lack of will, or flaw of virtue and industry.

And when people hear all that, what they really take in is this. Liberalism’s offering me even more. Instability. Insecurity. Downward mobility. Pain, anxiety, despair, loneliness. Blame, shame. It sees me as the problem, the weakling, the liability. 

You might not see it that way, if you’re fortunate, but make no mistake, masses around the world do, because of course, liberalism’s fighting for its life, and losing badly.

What is liberalism offering people anymore? If this—all this—is really good, great, wonderful, in the eyes of liberalism, from the stagnation to the inflation to the falling living standards to the downward mobility and decline, to sort of ignoring all that’s link to rising demagoguery and emergent fascism, then something’s gone seriously wrong with liberalism at a paradigmatic level. Nobody sane would think that’s remotely good enough, whether the criterion is winning votes, garnering credibility, or fixing our growing set of problems.

That’s why people are turning to the hard right for answers. Because liberalism won’t even acknowledge their problems. We are going to have to begin there, as liberals, if we want to reinvent this mess, and make no mistake, we are in a mess when Europe drifts hard right, and Trump’s on course to win the Presidency after a coup attempt and all the rest of it.

I doubt the establishment will hear my words. Over the years, they’ve learned, conveniently, to tune them out, cheering themselves on, applauding themselves for a job well done. But is that better than the bitter alternative, which you can see, now, so clearly? Hey—I guess…I tried.

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