Monday, October 06, 2008

Sea Change

The ocean looks different now. The sun is lower, so that its light bounces off the water and right into your eyes as you walk along the beach, as I just did. I walked a couple of miles on the hard sand (the tide was low), sharing the morning with only a few seagulls. There was hardly a cloud to be seen, the blue sky and the bluer water creating a dazzling seascape.

The scene makes it easy to forget the turbulence that besets the country these days. The economy has begun to weather its own sea change, the most pronounced since World War 2. The ship of state was foundering in 1968, but it was nothing like this. If you are as old as I am, you may remember 1968 as the year of assassinations and Kent State and the Democratic convention in Chicago. It was a rough time, but with one crucial difference: The economy was in good shape in 1968. I know because in that year I walked away from a good job with an established company to join a small start-up. I wouldn’t be so brave in today’s economy. Viet Nam was an unpopular war, as Iraq is today, but the moral angst of voters was not matched by economic angst, and Hubert Humphrey was not willing to break sharply with his President on the War, so Nixon won.

Today, people are fed up with the mid-East war and they are also losing their jobs and their homes and their retirement nest-eggs. That’s a poisonous combination for the incumbent party, and Senator McCain has abandoned all pretense of promoting his own programs or philosophy and is directing his entire advertising budget to a single theme: his opponent is not to be trusted.

It’s a doubtful theme, but what else does he have? Like Hubert Humphrey, he cannot declare the war a bad idea from the get-go. He can no longer insist that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, because events have given free-market capitalism a bad name.

Obama is clearly ahead in the polls (if one can trust them), and experts, including some Republicans, are starting to speculate on an Obama landslide. The McCain partisans hope for a close victory; no one is predicting a McCain runaway. Indeed, some Republicans see a silver lining here: Things are so bad that the winner is doomed to failure, setting the stage for a Republican comeback in 2012. You take your solace where you find it.

Whoever wins will have to deal with an economic sea change sweeping over the nation. Times will be tough, much tougher than either candidate dares describe. We have been living beyond our means for years, and learning to live within our means will force a painful readjustment. The credit cards will have to be cut up and thrown in the garbage.