Summer of Discontent

by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

By almost any measure, Americans are in a monumental funk. And they have good reason to be. They’ve seen their incomes sink, their jobs vaporize and their homes go “underwater.” Here are some of the stunning figures.

A few weeks ago the Census Bureau reported that in 2010, 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty–the highest count in 52 years of reporting. The poverty rate, now at 15.1 percent, rose faster during the last three years than in any other three-year period since the early 1980s. And between 2009 and 2010, median income fell 2.3 percent.

Bad enough? Here’s more: joblessness remains stuck at 9.1 percent with another 7 percent of workers either underemployed or filling part-time positions, and nearly a quarter of all homes are worth less than their mortgages.

So when Congress took five weeks off starting in early August, and the president took his family and golf clubs to Martha’s Vineyard to escape the sultry capital, Americans were left steaming. In the first eight months of the 112th Congress, about all official Washington had done was engage in brinksmanship. At least, that’s how the public saw it then, and it continues to do so today.

True, House Republicans had cleaned up the Democrat’s budgetary mess left over from the 111th Congress, but only after they had made it clear they were willing to shut down the government if they didn’t get their way. A few months later, in a fight over raising the debt limit, the Tea Party, using a grit and grind tag-team strategy, nearly forced the nation to miss payments on its loans and budget obligations, in the process, virtually tying the hands of House Speaker John Boehner, who until then had basked in his reputation as the quintessential deal maker.

Throughout the partisan bickering, all the president offered up was a plea that members of Congress begin acting like grownups and a complaint that he had been left at the altar when Mr. Boehner had refused to return his phone calls. His public posture led Hill Democrats and Republicans, alike, to chastise him for lack of leadership and voters to spank him with a job approval rating of 39 percent in the latest Gallup survey of 1500 adults.

Still, if polls are any indicator of relative discontent, the White House fares a lot better than Congress. Barack Obama’s approval rating may be in the toilet, but congressional approval is in the sewer. It now stands at 15 percent, according to Gallup, with only 1 in 12 voters saying legislators deserve to be reelected.

Simply put, the average American is struggling to survive, fearful of the future and exasperated with elected officials–80 percent give thumbs down in answer to the question, “Is the country headed in the right direction?” They have lost faith in the institutions of government and the people who are charged with running them. Even though voters desperately want the President and Congress to work together to turn the economy around, they have little confidence in Washington’s ability to do so. And it’s their lack of trust in government that leads many of them to support the proposition that too much federal money is wasted on frivolous activities–scientific research prime among them, according to recent polling data.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” and challenged Americans to build a “Great Society.” Today, 47 years later, bureaucratic inefficiency, partisan gridlock and a corollary loss of public faith in government are quickly chipping away at Johnson’s dream. And as the poverty rolls grow, I think back to a television show of the late 1950s and early 60s, hosted by Jack Bailey–a show, incidentally, media historians consider the precursor of today’s reality TV.

With the help of an applause meter, the show’s studio audience selected the winning contestant based on how pathetic it judged her life. And as the music of Pomp and Circumstance filled the sound stage, the victor, wearing a jeweled crown and a sable-trimmed robe, would assume her place on an ornate throne and sob uncontrollably as she listened to the list of prizes she was about to receive.

It was a mixture of schmaltz and pathos, but all America loved it, and the line Bailey used to open each show became a TV classic: “Would you like to be queen for a day?”

Bailey never had difficulty finding volunteers whose lives had unraveled and whose families were destitute. Today, once again, he would be flooded with takers.

Science isn’t the panacea for the short-term misery, but it is the key driver of long-term economic growth and job creation. Getting that message across to the public won’t be easy, but we must spend some of our time and energy trying.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos

October 2011 (Volume 20, Number 9)

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Articles in this Issue
Physics Programs Face the Axe at Seven Texas Universities
Apps to Enhance Program Access at Three APS Fall Meetings
Ohio High School Hosts APS Artwork
Imprisoned APS Member Faces Harsh Treatment and Charges in Iran
Posting Meeting Slides Online Gains Strong Acceptance
Physics Enrollments Set Records
Science Journalist Shares Her Love of Physics
Concerted Effort Underway to Save Webb Telescope
APS Announces New Minority Scholarship Recipients
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Inside the Beltway
Profiles in Versatility
The Education Corner
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science