Are We Better Off? You Betcha!

Pundits have begun asking Democrats how they will answer the Gipper question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

Dean Baker’s response is perfect: Suppose your house is on fire and the firefighters race to the scene. They set up their hoses and start spraying water on the blaze as quickly as possible. After the fire is put out, the news reporter on the scene asks the chief firefighter, “is the house in better shape than when you got here?”

A serious reporter, Baker notes, would ask the fire chief if he had brought a large enough crew, if they had enough hoses, if the water pressure was sufficient. The analogy is obvious: serious reporters would ask whether the stimulus was large enough, whether it was properly designed and implemented, and whether  other measures might have been taken that weren’t.

Baker’s analogy is on point. But even if we persist in asking the question, I think the only honest answer is yes. We are better off–although we certainly aren’t well off. As a Facebook friend noted the other day, you are definitely better-off if you live in Kokomo, or in any other city  where the local economy depends on the continued vitality of the auto industry.

People are also better off if they have retirement accounts;  recent financial reports confirm that these accounts have more than recovered from the huge hit they took in 2008–they’ve not only made up the lost ground, but surpassed previous levels. Job creation has been agonizingly slow, but slow beats hell out of the month-after-month huge losses that characterized 2008. We still have young men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, but far fewer than were there fighting ill-conceived wars when Obama took office–and those who are still there are coming home.

As Joe Biden likes to say, Osama bin Ladin is dead and the American automobile industry isn’t.

So let’s be honest. We are all better off, in a multitude of ways, now that the administration has stopped the hemorrhaging and begun the slow process of recovery.

But if we are being honest, we also have to admit that better isn’t good. Unemployment remains unacceptably high; the economy is not only growing too slowly, globalization means that it is vulnerable as never before to missteps in Europe and elsewhere. There are thorny questions about what to do about Iran and Syria. The planet is heating more quickly than even the most pessimistic science had projected. And Washington seems incapable of engaging in a rational discussion of these and other pressing national issues.

The pundits ought to be asking both candidates and their campaigns for the specifics. (In the case of the Romney campaign, especially, those specifics have been all but invisible.)

What, exactly, do you propose to do about [fill in the blank]? Don’t give us gauzy, dismissive promises (“I’ll create 12 million jobs; I’ll repeal ‘Obamacare'” “I’ll save Medicare”). Tell us precisely how you propose to get from where we are–which is demonstrably better than where we were, but still not good–to where we need to be. If you are promising to defund Planned Parenthood, tell us where the low-income women who depend upon it for breast screenings will be able to get those services. If you are promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, tell us which of its provisions, if any, you will spare–and how, in its absence, you will slow the growth in medical costs that have been strangling our economy. If you are promising to protect Israel from Iran, tell us how many young men and women you are willing to put at risk to do that, and why you prefer a military incursion to diplomatic efforts. If you propose to balance the budget by closing loopholes, tell us precisely which “loopholes” you are targeting.

Most important of all, do tell us how your proposals are any different from the decisions that set the house on fire in the first place.


  1. The President inherited a levithan of untenable entitlement and military commitments, then proceeded to make it worse with staffing and policy prioritization even more deluded than his predecessor.

    For me, it’s just a greater madness to believe America is to be corrected with division more profound than anything since the Civil War. Our President misspent all the cumulative gravitas he had at hand on an anti-affluence fixation, while what the entirety of our demographics desperately need is leadership in an anti-irresponsibility fixation.

  2. Better surely isn’t good; however, it took 8 miserable years to get in the shape we’re in. Setting up walls against everything the President tried was not the answer. Division isn’t the half of it!

    The red-faced (or is that just a deep tan from his lavish lifestyle?) Boehner, with veins bulging on his forehead, decided ‘way ahead of victory night that the r’s would throw boulders in the pathway toward correcting at least some of the problems from those dreadful years. Be they ‘levithan’ or ‘leviathan,’ the problems are huge but not insurmountable. Amy Grant sings, “It takes a little time, sometimes, to get your feet back on the ground.”

    I’m stickin’ with the union…and with President Obama!

  3. Gotcha, Dave! English teachers, even retired ones, just can’t help themselves sometimes!

  4. I got a sneaking suspicion we’re talking about a different “union”. But- that’s ok.

    Different convention, same story: Once again I tune-in for coverage of our process that formalizes party choice for President. Once again, PBS is the only network providing live convention coverage at this hour. Kudos to PBS for coverage of the Democratic convention: The civic lesson continues…..

  5. An interesting question; To which I believe both D’s & R’s submitted different answers. R’s No and D’s Yes.
    The D’s answered from the point of view of the Nation being better off (which is true). 4 years after 2008 the nation is recovering quite well.
    The R’s answered from the point of view of an individual family (which is also true) Most individual family finances have not recovered at the same rate as the nation. Loss of equity in mortgages, loss of funds in 401K etc.

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