The definition of dilemma, literally “two propositions,” takes its negative meaning from the fact that both propositions (or situations) must be unfavorable to deserve the name dilemma—yet we must choose one. Fine. But my use of the word is a little different here. Of the two propositions I have in mind, I view the first rather with approval; not the second; yet the second is the cause of the first.
The first is that since the end of the Great Recession (let’s assume that it lasted for two years, all of 2008 and 2009) has had a dreary aftermath that, so far, has lasted nearly six years. By dreary I mean that the economy, while it has grown, has grown from 2010 to 2015 at an annual rate of 1.4 percent whereas it grew from 2002 to 2007 at a rate of 2.9 percent. The measured item here is Gross Domestic Product expressed in constant dollars. The low GDP growth rate since the recession actually pleases me: 1.4 percent is much closer to the population growth rate, which is under 1 percent annually—yet it is higher than the population growth rate; we are growing, a little, but are avoiding what Alan Greenspan once labeled “irrational exuberance.”
The second proposition is that the reason for our supposedly sluggish growth is not only domestic but also international conflict. Conflict has caused the erosion of public confidence and manifests in countless ways—and this despite low gasoline prices and gradually increasing employment—if only in the lower-paid segments of the economy. The adaptive growth pattern is pleasing; its cause, vast demoralization, is not. Therefore the dilemma.
In a way this situation illustrates the nature of real change—which is almost never by design but always by default. Just as drought produces those ugly cracks in dried out ground so social conflict produces adaptive attempts to form new, smaller, and more viable social entities. Unfortunately, to make the smaller, one has to tear the greater apart. Hence we have these nearly annual cliff hangers about public debt and government closings, cracks within and between parties, insane shootings at public events that are beginning to be almost casual—and, to be sure, hesitance by people to spend money on anything but the necessary stuff. Meanwhile, looking beyond our borders, much, much the same everywhere. If this goes on, yet more changes will appear in society. Some of them I will actually appreciate and value (as I do low-growth-GDP), even if their causes are rather sordid.