In the United States in the years after the Great Recession, pessimists had a lot of material to work with. Economic doomsayers looked at the stubbornly elevated unemployment rate and discerned a depressing new normal, in which technological and social change had rendered many Americans simply unemployable, and stagnation and sclerosis loomed ahead. Social pessimists looked at the disarray in working-class culture, the retreat from marriage and child rearing and civic and religious life, the spread of loneliness and depression and addiction, and saw a society where ordinary forms of flourishing were slipping out of reach.
Five years ago, it was easy to tell a story where those two problems were straightforwardly conjoined, with economic disappointment driving social dysfunction and vice versa.
More recently, though, the problems have partially decoupled. The deepest economic pessimists have turned out to be wrong, for now at least, about how fast the 21st-century U.S. economy can grow and how many jobs it can create. But as the economic picture has improved, the social picture hasn't. The birthrate keeps declining, the opioid epidemic is dragging down American life expectancy, young people's mental health seems to be worsening, and new data showing a rising suicide rate offered a grim accompaniment last week to the tragedies of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
Since this column sometimes inclines to grim readings of our situation, it's important to stress how genuinely good recent economic trends have been. Yes, structural problems are still present — wage growth should be faster, workforce participation should be higher. But a lot of commentary circa 2012 seemed to assume that unemployment might never get down below 4 percent, either because Obamacare was killing jobs and a debt crisis was looming, or because Republican obstruction was sabotaging the economy, or because technological change was automating too many jobs and dooming the less-skilled to the dole.
Most of this looks wrong now. Deficits haven't crushed growth and Obamacare hasn't kept people from going back to work. Economic inequality isn't throttling the economy; indeed, as Michael Strain pointed out for Bloomberg News last week, inequality has stopped rising over the last decade or so, and if you include government transfers, it's going down. The robots may take all our jobs eventually, but not just yet. The idea that only some truly radical move — a federal job guarantee, some sort of libertarian shock therapy — could deliver us back to full employment looks less persuasive than it did five years ago.
And yet: The hope that material growth would heal our social problems hasn't been vindicated so far. And as long as that's the case, the improved economy shouldn't be treated just as an end unto itself, but as an opportunity to look for social cures as well.
For policymakers, that quest for healing starts with not doing any harm. If the economy is really cooking for the first time in almost 20 years, well, then let it cook. Don't freak out about deficits in the absence of inflation; don't draw up plans to nationalize the labor force; don't start an ill-conceived trade war; don't revive centrist dreams about cutting Social Security or suddenly increasing low-wage immigration.
Instead, see how far this expansion can go and how high it can lift people before making any sweeping, ideologically driven moves. And to the extent that you do make moves, design them for the social crisis — whether that means wage subsidies or a larger child tax credit or opioid-related interventions or something else that might shore up Middle America's crumbling foundations.
Then, beyond the realm of legislation, there are various ways our civic institutions can take the grimmer social trends more seriously. For instance, instead of just letting themselves be carried along by information-age propaganda, our schools and colleges should look harder at the ways in which the smartphone era might be making social life worse among the young — increasing isolation, worsening depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation, bringing up a generation that's well-behaved in certain ways but strangely ill-equipped to befriend and mate and marry.
Likewise America's churches, whose weakening is part of the story of growing anomie, should recognize the new mission fields that social disintegration has created here at home — in once-pious working-class neighborhoods, or among the lonely late-middle aged and isolated elderly. (Pursuing those new missions would also be easier if liberals could recognize that their post-Obergefell culture war against conservative religious institutions does its own kind of damage to the social fabric.)
Of course, the wall-to-wall frenzy of the Trump era, in which everyone is constantly being asked to take sides in a battle to the death, makes those kinds of cultural efforts harder to formulate and pursue. But they're what our moment, with its partially regained prosperity and ongoing cultural crisis, may be asking of us — because this welcome growth won't last forever, and social problems unsolved now will be that much worse when it is gone.