BETTER, BUT NEVER GOOD

You know how I love metaphors.

From the mid-1990s until the beginning of the recession in 2008 the academic job market was great. I can't speak for every field, but in mine a Ph.D. holder from a reasonably good institution would, if applying broadly, get a tenure-track academic job in a year or two of trying. This is not to say everyone got a great job, but as long as one was not terribly picky it appeared that a job could be found with time and effort.

Then state budgets collapsed and there was a severe retraction. The market went from Great to barely extant for the last few years of the previous decade. We're talking a dozen jobs for hundreds of job searchers. That kind of Bad. Everyone urged calm and predicted that it would recover. "Calm" is a hard thing to come by when you're unemployed. But I landed a temporary job, as some of you may recall, and then after four full years of applying for everything I got a tenure-track job.

The job market has of course gotten better. But here's the thing – it's still bad. It is dawning on people in this profession that the job market may never be Good again. It can only be considered good in comparison to the year(s) in which it was at rock bottom. By the standard of the years in which it was actually good, it remains solidly crap.

That same sinking feeling is creeping into the way I feel about the state of American politics at present. There's little doubt that this is the nadir; it can't get much worse without the system collapsing and being replaced with an entirely new framework. And someday Trump will be gone and things will be Better. Literally anyone, even the other GOP candidates from 2016, would be an improvement over this guy because at the very least they might manage not to get us all killed with their damn Twitter account.

But there's a distinct possibility that this, like the current job market across professions, is just a new normal. We've re-set the bar at an abysmally low level and we can expect politics to be Less Bad in the future, but it is time to face the fact that it will never be Good again. We've normalized some very abnormal things recently and even without Donald Trump there will be a Trumpist candidate in every election for the foreseeable future because nothing successful will avoid endless imitation. He won the nomination and the election, so why wouldn't someone try the same playbook?

Power will continue to flip back and forth between the parties, and if Democrats control some part of Congress in the future that will make things Less Bad. But all of the forces that made Trump possible, especially in the media and in the way Americans self-select twisted versions of reality to suit their own biases, will continue to exist. They'll continue to make following politics unpleasant and continue to keep dumb, spiteful candidates alive and active.

Liberals talk about the New Deal era a lot, almost as much as old white conservatives talk about the "good old days" of the 1950s. We don't even need to look that far in the past to find an era in which some consensus politics could be achieved (Nixon, for instance). As sad as it is, it might be time to face the reality that those days are gone for good, and any future politics can improve marginally upon what we have today without ever getting us close to Good again. Malaise is what a population feels when it sinks in that Better is still pretty bad – and the best they're likely to get.

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42 Responses to “BETTER, BUT NEVER GOOD”

  1. FDChief Says:

    One thing I think that we tend to overlook is how overwhelming recent events play in our memory.

    For a hell of a lot of U.S. history politics was a contact sport. Looking at the arc of U.S. politics between the rise of the parties and today the period between 1945 and 1975 is more the exception than the rule. Since then the parties have become much more "pure"; the Right has left the Democrats, the Left the GOP. And – sorry, Republicans – your party has decided to go Full Gilded Age. We're not talking about tweaking the New Deal baseline that gave us the middle class America and the long social peace. We're talking taking the U.S. economically, socially, and politically back to the openly corrupt oligarchy of 1890.

    So is it any surprise that our politics have become truly nasty again?

  2. Matt Jarvis Says:

    One hopes that the market might improve by restricting the supply of workers.

    I know I always advise students to pick a much more rewarding career.

  3. X-RWU Says:

    Hi again, sorry I've been gone for so long…

    You raise a very crucial point which I've been dwelling on for years now: What if the economy NEVER improves?

    Also, good for you for being able to go on vacation; I could have really used one in the part decade (I graduated in 2009, just as everything was falling apart).

  4. joel hanes Says:

    Trump will resign in disgrace before the end of his term. National Rs are already starting to distance themselves from him, but it'll only partially work: they enabled him, they endorsed him, and they supported him publicly through some truly stupid escapades. They've seriously damaged the R brand in ways that will become apparent over time.

    The Dems are fired up as I have not seen them in decades, especially at the grassroots, and there's a generation change about to happen in the Dem leadership.

    I'm as sick of our current rock bottom situation as Ed, but I think that it will actually motivate the adults in the nation to take back control of the government from the thumb-suckers.

  5. mike shupp Says:

    Maybe you're missing a point …. I gather from conservative comments at non-political websites, not that the caliber of US politics and the quality of its government has fallen this past year, but that the fall into ruin and depravity began in 2009 when Barak Obama was inaugurated. Thanks to the Kenyan Socialist and his corrupt Democratic Congress the country has been saddled with trillions of dollars of unpaid debts, bold American soldiers have been betrayed on countless battlefields in the middle east, the American healthcare system — universally recognized as the finest in the world — has been obliterated, causing the financial ruination of countless Americans, the public schools have been hammered by Justic Dept lawsuits to give up on educating our youth and concentrate on indoctrinating them in Social Justice Warfare, millions of hard working Americans have been forced from their manufacturing and mining jobs simply to please foreign bankers ….

    Etc etc etc. Half the country, in other words, thinks the dire prospects you and I and most liberals see ahead if Trump prevails already prevail. The politicians they elect have told them so. Their favorite country western singers and race car drivers have said so. Fox News has told them so. Their friends on Facebook and a dozen conservative websites have told them so. Their ministers tell them so in sermons.

    And I don't know what to suggest to counter this. Maybe Democrats will win the elections in 2020 and give the country 8 years of good government. Maybe not. Will enough people notice that it matters?

  6. joel hanes Says:

    mike :

    the scary low-info MAGA fools among us will turn out to be at most 27% of the populace.
    The rest of us outnumber them, and mostly always have — and have the advantage of competence on our side.
    Things have been worse before.

  7. Steve Holt! Says:

    So the 3rd party voters all got what they wanted! Hooray?

  8. other bill Says:

    Imagine how it feels if you've already been thinking this since W.

  9. Melanie Says:

    The local loons on my county council are mega MAGA Trumpets. They think all that is necessary to be successful is to be a flagrant asshole. They were always his type, but they've stepped up the petulant nonsense. The thing is, no one admires this when you were always a hillbilly redneck. It's not the je ne sais quoi sauce that it amounts to when doused on a pretend billionaire. Fair or not (and with their track record, it's fair), it's expected.

  10. Tweber Says:

    Dark, man. I feel you, though. Let's hope for, and vote for, better.

  11. Linda Z Says:

    Beware shifting baseline syndrome and values ratchet?

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/10/labour-britain-selfishness-market-inequality

  12. DrThunderbutt Says:

    Mike Shupp put his finger right exactly on the problem. Popular culture is working in concert with ideologues to pervade their message, and this message greatly outlasts political cycles. Even if we get a decent Democrat and get some decent governance for a spell, there is a tsunami of cultural propaganda soaking through every aspect of our society, ready to reframe every accomplishment as big government excess. The American public, being the spoiled, vacuous, sensation-seeking creatures they are, will embrace these false criticisms with glee. That next Dem could literally help create the cure for cancer but would nonetheless be routed during the next election due to the constant cultural pressure from the right.

    We will never have sensible government if we can't eliminate their pervasive cultural messaging. The churches that preach politics need to be smashed. The left and right of dial right-wing religious and political talk radio must be shut down. A renewed, vigorous Fairness Doctrine must be enacted and (har, har) religiously enforced. A truth-in-news law, like what they have in Canada, must be enacted and strictly enforced. Taxpayer-funded displays of martial strength and pageantry coupled alongside patriotic and sporting events must be prohibited. None of the current state of our culture is normal. We are the, forgive the tired metaphor, frog that has reached the point where these things are cumulatively boiling us alive, and we barely even realize how hot it's gotten around here.

    And don't even get me started on all the gerrymandering.

    It is incumbent upon any newly elected Democratic government to make its top legislative and executive priority the complete dismantling of all the above mechanisms. Just do it. Fuck the optics. If the GOP has taught us anything it is that Americans have the short-term memory of a toddler. Just enact the "unpopular" policy, then raise the Terror Alert level to chartreuse citing "confidential sources", send the tough-on-terror pundit proxies out onto cable news to distract everybody, wait a few weeks, rinse, repeat. Hit them so often and so brazenly they'll get fatigued by their collective outrage. They won't know what to be mad about anymore.

    The right's power isn't legislative or executive, it is their narrative. Circumvent their mode of it's delivery. Make it difficult to disseminate it again.

    If the Democrats aren't willing to attack – no holds barred – the right's *real* power of narrative, the most they can hope for is to win a skirmish here and there, but their victories will be fewer and more insignificant each year until they become utterly irrelevant.

  13. mago Says:

    The Droste effect.

  14. geoff Says:

    As Strong Bad teaches us, "It's over!" Or closer to home, y'know, "everything is terrible all the time." Jesus, Ed, I thought you were supposed to be on vacation.

    @Dr.T, the Dems are irrelevant NOW, and they don't seem to be doing anything to change that.

  15. Safety Man! Says:

    Ed, if this is your vacation post, you're fun-ing wrong.

  16. Jestbill Says:

    Fix this one thing and it all gets better: budget propaganda.

    As long as a politician can say with a straight face, that the national budget is just like your kitchen table budget, we are doomed.
    The corollary that we need a businessman to run things just buries the knife deeper.

    Nuthin' to it once you remove that nonsense.

  17. Harvey Jerkwater Says:

    "From the mid-1990s until the beginning of the recession in 2008 the academic job market was great."

    HA HA HA HA ha haha haaaaaa…oh my lord no. No, it was not. It was a nightmarish hellscape. It may have gotten worse since then, but my sweet baby jesus it was not great. It hasn't been great since the end of the hiring boom of the 1970s.

  18. GunstarGreen Says:

    @joel hanes, RE: "I think that it will actually motivate the adults in the nation to take back control of the government from the thumb-suckers."

    This, this thinking right here? This is why we are in the situation we are in.

    For as long as the American Left insists on this childish belief that "the enemy" (which is in itself a wrong-headed way of thinking) are somehow not also adults with generally-functioning brains, things will continue as they have.

    You dismiss them as people that are not worth your time, as less-than-humans that aren't capable of making their own decisions about things. You have to recognize that decisions you don't agree with are still decisions, arrived at by some process of logic — even if it's faulty logic, even if it can only be reached by a less-than-intelligent brain.

    It is not enough to simply point at the other side and say "They are literally Hitler, vote for us unless you're a Nazi". You turn off rational people that way. If you're going to get down in the mud and fight with the same tribalistic tactics, you'd better not be surprised when the side that's been knee-deep in tribalism for much longer than yours wins that race.

    Hillary lost the electoral college but won the popular vote. So you hate the electoral college? Guess what, it's been in place since the very beginning, so that's not why she lost. So you hate Gerrymandering? That's been a thing since the 1800s, that's not why she lost. Democrats have won many, many elections prior to this most recent one even with these obstacles in place.

    Which brings me to Steve Holt, "So the 3rd party voters all got what they wanted! Hooray?"

    This right here. "If you're not for us, you're against us", the literal Bush-ian logic that people had a problem with when the words came out of his mouth. You're not going to win elections by yelling at people about how terrible they are for not being electoral mercenaries. The belief that you can or even SHOULD do such a thing is a large contributor to the current situation.

    When you treat your politics as "Us vs. The Enemy" instead of "All of us working together to come to some sort of compromise so that we can all move forward", you get exactly what you deserve: fractured tribal scuffles where the loudest tribe of the moment wins.

    Make your choice wisely as to whether you want to proceed down the path of tribalism, or find a different route.

  19. Tim H. Says:

    Campaign finance reform could help a lot, that money has always had strings attached, and that was something the GOP could hang around Hillary's neck, and blunted her defense. As long as professional politicians must see their campaign donors as their most important constituency, the nation will be optimized for the .001% until it breaks.

  20. mothra Says:

    I want to believe joel hane, I really do. However, I think Dr. Thunderbutt spells it out fairly well. However, there are some wild cards out there that will have an effect on our politics in the future: wars, terrorist attacks and climate change. What kind of effect remains to be seen. I am honestly afraid. I just don't see any of our current "leaders" being up to the task of handling any of those crises well.

  21. Katydid Says:

    @mago; the Droste effect? You mean that delicious Belgian chocolate? The dropjes?

  22. jcastarz Says:

    A recent GOP survey mailer in my area had just three questions in it, and one of them read something like: "do you think the Democrats should stop being obstructionists in Congress?" This… from the party that perfected obstructionism… from the party who is currently in charge, and can't formulate a single policy the majority can support. But nonetheless, the Repubs put this message out, giving the impression the Dems were somehow responsible for the current mess in Congress. Typical.

    The Democrats need to study the GOP technique, and do a better job in their own communications. They need to start channeling the country's media to tell their own story – to ensure the GOP can't stick its screw-ups on them, to ensure the Democrats' version of how "such-n-such" happened gets told to contradict the other side's view. Eventually, more people are going to realize that the new "better" is hardly "good" at all – as Ed has put it, and the Dems have got to be ready to step in at that time with a better vision for those who are seeking it.

    GunstarGreen has an important point: the Dems must reach out to the other side (as well as back down to the working class they've sort of forgotten). It's harder to win new voters or win back old ones if you've set up class barriers to their joining your team.

  23. anotherbozo Says:

    As chance would have it I just came from listening to Chomsky's "Corporate Attack on Education" (in which he referenced an interesting-sounding book called "The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University," echoing a theme voiced here before). Listening to Noam Chomsky is like listening to dripping water, except that it's really acid and his facts will keep you awake as he describes a world ever darker, ever further from that rare bubble in which I existed for most of my pre-Boomer lifespan. So free college at U.C. Berkeley in the 60s, a Sputnik-inspired loan for grad school, a college teaching career via a short subway ride in midtown Manhattan, a college that hadn't yet exploited cheap graduate-level labor and allowed me to do pretty much what I thought best. Now I have begun to realize I was far from the best qualified teacher by any measure—with luck comparable to mine Ed would be full professor at Harvard now—but there was still room for some "fat" in the system, a lack of pressure for numbers, a little residual idealism. Education could focus on intellectual discovery per se, turning on the lights for their own sake. I'd starve in today's academe. But hear Chomsky: nothing like a 360-degree understanding of the current dystopia, and you get a modified euphoria realizing how total and complete is the ensnaring corporate net:

  24. Jestbill Says:

    "realizing how total and complete is the ensnaring corporate net:"

    But it all depends on the idea that government must not spend any money or collect any taxes!!!

    Beat that and the whole monstrosity collapses.

  25. Anonymous Prof Says:

    It's a funny thing- when I explain to My Racist Dean that my students can't function at a college level, he keeps telling me "you have to understand, a lot of kids are going to college now, who wouldn't have gone to college before." Well, if that's the case, then why is the job market for professors so bad? You would think an enlarged customer base, when the federal government is willing to throw away so much student loan money, would mean a boom in hiring professors.

    The fact is that college serves no purpose anymore. _Academically Adrift_ showed that college students learn nothing in college- and they concluded that this wasn't a crisis, because nobody wants kids to learn in college anyway.

    The Dept. of Ed. has begun asking what is happening to all the student loan money they lend out. They found that 40% of recent college graduates are functionally illiterate. Well, no shit- just look at college textbooks these days. The textbook for my class begins with a section that quite literally explains to students how to use a highlighter to underline in the book.

    Plenty of college students are taking remedial math courses that have exercises like "write the number 'five million, three hundred and two thousand, one hundred and eighteen' as numerals." There's also a section that teaches the multiplication tables. That's the kind of work we do these days: teaching elementary school skills to kids old enough to vote. For my science classes, I raided old elementary school textbooks in order to find laboratory exercises my students could handle.

    Of course the academic job market is going to collapse, because for the most part academia serves no actual purpose, except as a kind of Ponzi scheme. I predict that in 5-10 years the Dept. of Ed. will insist on some kind of real standards, and then boom, plenty of accredited schools will go out of business because it will no longer be possible to sell college diplomas to students who couldn't even handle third grade.

  26. joel hanes Says:

    GG :
    Thanks for your feedback. I'm sure it's well-meant.

    This is a liberal blog, with a very liberal commentariat.
    I don't come here to convince Republicans of anything, or to talk to Republicans — other venues are better-suited to those purposes. I would never call Tea Party activists and Trump supporters "thumbsuckers" in a letter to the editor, or when talking to actual Republicans (something I do frequently, because I'm from Iowa and go back there a lot).

    That said, I think that the word is not inaccurate when applied to Louie Gohmert, or Virginia Foxx, or Marsha Blackburn, or Brent Farenthold, or Dan Patrick their ilk.

    Everything else in your rant seems to me to be you putting words in my mouth, and setting up strawmen labeled "Joel" so that you can knock them down.

    Bless your heart.

  27. Katydid Says:

    Hmm. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this topic. Anecdote; the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I went with some friends to Big State University and sat down with an advisor to see if I could get early admission. My grades were good, but not stellar, and my SAT scores were okay. The advisor's only question was whether I was a resident of the state. When I said I was, she said, "You're in."

    Both my kids went to the same state U, only for them it was ever-so-much harder to get in because the requirements were so much higher *for the academic students*. For the "student"-athletes, nothing more seems to be asked of them than they perform on the field.

  28. Craig Says:

    "Power will continue to flip back and forth between the parties"

    Overoptimistic to an extreme degree.

    Even prior to the rise of Trump, the degree of systemic bias, disenfranchisement and general ratfuckery in US elections was extreme. The GOP have clearly flagged their intention to ramp that up as far as is required to maintain power. By the time the midterms roll around, the GOP-controlled states are going to be no more democratic than Putin's Russia.

    The TrumpGOP are not going away unless Americans are willing to take to the streets and make them. Short-term street theatre won't cut it; what's required is closer to a general strike. In the streets, block traffic, make noise, refuse police demands to disperse, and stay there for as long as it takes. If it doesn't cause massive disruption, it isn't doing the job.

    The courts are not going to step in and magically make everything better. Neither will the Congress, neither will the midterms.

    Institutions will not save you. Only you have that power.

  29. Tim H. Says:

    Saw something amusing:
    obamathird.com
    I know it's not legally possible, but imagine"Candygram for Mr. Trump!".

  30. Isaac Says:

    Over and over I read the assumption that the hundred+ million eligible voters who stayed home in November are on "our" side or can be convinced, or other bits of calculus in which somehow the Democrats finally prevail and things get better. I remain skeptical.

  31. Dave Bearse Says:

    another bozo, your effort pin lacing the Chomsky video here resulted in at least one person watching it in its entirety.

  32. blahedo Says:

    I am both uncertain the Dems will be able to retrieve power in the near future and uncertain that they'll do anything useful with it if they do, given that their response to last year's disaster appears to be, "Hillary might have looked a shade too progressive there, let's ditch any mention of social justice or any actual leftist policy and tell the left to fuck off because who else are they going to vote for?, just like we've done for the last 25 years." Yeah, great job guys, that's going to bring the disaffected out to the polls in *droves*.

  33. democommie Says:

    @ Isaac & Blahedo:

    Who are your candidates going into the 2018 mid-terms?

    Dems suck but unless you vote for a democrat you are almost certainly helping the GOP–that's just the math.

    The 40% of the electorate that stayed home are probably people who were mad about Hilz dissing Bernin or lazy, unconcerned people. They are almost certainly not Trumpliguturds, they turned out most if not all of them for the election last November.

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  38. democommie Says:

    Bots, I hatez fucking botz!

  39. geoff Says:

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    More seriously, my US Rep. is Steve Cohen, one of the most progressive members of Congress. I am pretty fed up with the Dems, but will likely continue voting for him as long as he keeps running.

  40. democommie Says:

    Yeah, I know what you mean.

    I say, "idiots shouldn't have gunz!"–people hear, "I hate gunz!".

    I say, "If you want a 3rd party you need to START it at the grassroots level"–people hear, "I hate Progressivism!".

    I say "I hate botz!" and people hear, "I hate botz"–okay, they're right on that one! {;.)

  41. Ormond Otvos Says:

    I can't wait until botz get into the voting machinz.

  42. democommie Says:

    @ Ormond Otvos:

    They're already there, I'm pretty sure. Diebold is to the voting machine industry what the Kochsuckerbros are to the energy bid'neth.