Solving the Decade of Our Discontent

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By Roger Armbrust
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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On Feb. 24, in a New York Times op-ed, a powerful Saudi prince took a hard look at the current Middle East turmoil and possible reform solutions. One can’t help but compare his list of specific problems to those in the U.S., which can only lead to concerns about what American turmoil might lay ahead over the next decade. And that includes for artists.

The op-ed author isn’t just any Saudi prince. The Times identified Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud as “a grandson of the founding king of modern Saudi Arabia,” and also “the chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company and the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundations.” Having built a fortune, he’s considered a financial rather than a political power in the Saud family.

The prince reviewed what analysts see as the major reasons for the revolution spreading across the Middle East, dividing them into two main categories: (1) “policies of autocratic regimes that had become oblivious to the need for fundamental political reform,” and (2) “dire economic and social problems that for decades have been afflicting much of the Arab world, most particularly its young.”

America’s population of 308.7 million is suffering as a result of these two categories combined. Americans have expressed deep concern both in polls and at the polls, giving their previous and present presidents and Congress low ratings, and voting to change the majority in the U.S. House and close the majority gap in the Senate. The growing number of independent voters, and the sweeping in of a number of Tea Party candidates to the House, are signs of voter discontent with the federal government — its destroying the nation’s economy by exploding the national debt; its lack of monitoring financial institutions and Wall Street; and its devaluing the dollar, leading to losses of jobs and homes.

Our economic malaise doesn’t appear ready to end any time soon. Doug Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, predicted this last week in looking at fiscal years from 2011 to 2021:

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Unfortunately, it is likely that a return to normal economic conditions will take years, and even after the economy has fully recovered, a return to sustainable budget conditions will require significant changes in tax and spending policies.

For a fast-food nation like America, craving comfort quickly, it’s highly doubtful a slow march will do. It’s highly likely the American revolt will grow.

Look at this paragraph from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s op-ed and compare these Middle East issues to those in the U.S.:

The majority of the Arab population is under 25, and the unemployment rate for young adults is in most countries 20 percent or more. Unemployment is even higher among women, who are economically and socially marginalized. The middle classes are being pushed down by inflation, which makes a stable standard of living seem an unattainable hope. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. The basic needs for housing, health care and education are not being met for millions.

The U.S. population numbers may be different, and the unemployment rate among America’s young may not be as high. But people under 20 years of age make up 27.3 percent of our nation’s population, a population that more than tripled in the 20th century, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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As for the more than 14 million unemployed Americans, by mid-2010 some 31 percent of them had been without work for a year or more. If “normal economic conditions” won’t return for years, as the CBO director predicts, it’s tough to see employment opportunities improving significantly.

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That’s particularly true for full-time jobs which include health and retirement benefits. Even when economic conditions seemed to be good previous to the 2007-08 fiscal meltdown, corporations had for years downsized full-time workers in favor of part-timers — sometimes even the same employees — so they wouldn’t have to pay for benefits.

Nor does America’s enduring unemployment problem chiefly affect the young. It’s hammering the family’s primary breadwinner, too. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its October 2010 report, showed workers 25 to 54 years old made up 58 percent of the unemployed. That group may not have the energy and high ideals of the young, but when adults can’t support their families, they can not only become enraged, but they will tend to become organized, either nonviolently or violently.

The Tea Party is one immediate example of that. Republicans have been in the news recently with efforts to bust unions, and one can bet that unions won’t take it lying down. They may even find ways to seek coalitions with the angry unemployed who aren’t union members.

This anger with the federal government is also a primary cause for an increase in American “hate groups.” As CNN reported on Feb. 23, “The number of radical right groups in America — including hate groups, ‘Patriot’ groups and nativist groups — increased in 2010 for the second year in a row, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” The report documented 1,002 hate groups operating in the U.S.

The Law Center cited the following reasons for the rise:

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resentment over the changing racial demographics of the country, frustration over the government’s handling of the economy, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and other demonizing propaganda aimed at various minorities.

Could the predicted years of sick economy lead to a decade of American discontent that may boil over into actual revolution as is occurring in the Middle East? If those countries used the Internet to stir up and organize revolt, then could that happen in this country where over 77 percent of the population has Internet access?

You may note that some Middle East governments cut off Internet access in an effort to quell revolutionary activity. You may also note that Congressional legislation appears from time to time, and has recently, to authorize a similar, stateside cut-off under certain conditions. Last summer, Sen. Joe Lieberman sponsored just such a bill, basically giving the president power to “kill” Internet access in an emergency.

So, prepare yourself for what points to a coming decade of our discontent. Artists have already seen efforts to stop public funding on the federal and state levels for arts groups and projects. Now seems just the right time to get organized, get educated and get active.

The prince, in his Times op-ed, suggests there’s still time to cure the Mideast maladies:

…we can succeed only if we open our systems to greater political participation, accountability, increased transparency and the empowerment of women as well as youth.

That also goes for all artists, from painters to poets to playwrights to filmmakers and beyond.

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Roger Armbrust is editor-in-chief of Parkhurst Brothers, Inc., Publishers, and its Our National Conversation book series. Armbrust’s views do not necessarily represent those of The Clyde Fitch Report.