woody zimmermann 120Professional problem-solvers – to whose fellowship I still belong, even in retirement – like to remind each other that “every complex question has an answer that is simple, elegant, and completely wrong…” This old saw – consisting of perhaps 25% wit and 75% insightful truth – certainly comes to mind during the current run-up to the 2016 presidential race. Everything seems topsy-turvy, pundits are mystified, and ordinary people are wondering what in the world is going on.

Candidates of both major political parties are engaged in wild, bare-knuckle fights for their parties’ nominations – of a ferocity not seen since at least the days of Wendell Willkie. No chairs have been thrown (yet), but the GOP has fielded no fewer than seventeen candidates for our top office. Their views span the political spectrum – from moderate-leaning-liberal to Tea Party conservative, and every variant in between.

Billionaire businessman Donald Trump leads the Republican field with somewhere between 20% and 30% support, according to current polls. His closest rival draws no more than half of that amount, while most other contenders score down in the single digits. With so many candidates vying for media exposure, the average expected support for each would be around 6%. So it is quite remarkable for any candidate to draw much more – especially an outsider like Mr. Trump.

This zillionaire mogul, who entertains TV audiences by firing people on camera, continues to astound and dismay his political critics, who still regard him as a show-biz buffoon with big hair, a big ego, and an even bigger mouth. Reporters love him because he generates such good copy. And pundits on both political sides brush him off as an unserious candidate. The very nickname they have laid on him (“The Donald”) shows that they don’t take him seriously. (Imagine any network reporter calling Mrs. Clinton “The Hillster.” He’d be back selling shoes in ten minutes.) Every cub on the political news beat dreams of being the one who grabs the sound-bite that finally crashes this political upstart’s high-flying campaign.

But this “upstart buffoon” has single-handedly turned the GOP primary race completely on its ear with his brash, outspoken style and his fearless attacks on Democrat and Republican practitioners of Politics As Usual. His crowds have been impressive. It’s a long, long way until November 2016, but it doesn’t look like he is going away – certainly not quietly.

The Democrat field is less populated, with just four candidates drawing varying degrees of support, and at least one undeclared candidate waiting in the wings. Hillary Rodham Clinton – wife of President Bill Clinton, former Senator, and recent Secretary of State – was once considered “inevitable” for the Democrat nomination. (This reprises her 2008 run, when she was also the inevitable nominee.) After her high-profile stint as Secretary of State, she seemed to be cruising serenely toward her party’s nomination and an almost certain coronation as our first female president. Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and former senator and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb round out the current Democrat field, with mostly low levels of support. Recently, though, Senator Sanders has drawn large crowds and higher levels of support in Iowa and on his New Hampshire home turf.

Vice President Joe Biden – still not officially declared – is waiting to see if he can attract sufficient support – i.e., “money” – plus President Obama’s endorsement, before he jumps into the deep end. Ahead of any official announcement, Mr. Biden’s poll numbers are rising steadily – as Mrs. Clinton’s sink – following lavish praise for his valuable service from Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The Great Mentioner now suggests that Mr. Biden could be the “un-Hillary” who delivers Democrats from the flawed monster they, themselves, have created. Democrats’ worst nightmare, of course, is that the burgeoning scandals of their “inevitable” women’s champion will so damage her trustworthiness and credibility that she will lose the general election to any reasonable GOP candidate. The Biden-solution reveals a party desperately grasping at straws and praying – if they actually do that – for a miracle.

The above briefly explains why the primary contests in both parties are so combative. But like the blind men trying to describe an elephant – a beast they had never actually seen – simply describing the campaigns as a horserace or a heavyweight boxing match is bound to be wrong, or at least incomplete. This is neither a sporting event nor a Saturday Night Live skit – as reporters seem to think. Much more is at work here. These are very deep political waters, but relatively few candidates seem to know it. A current of dissatisfaction is flowing strongly through the country. A business-as-usual approach won’t impress voters. The candidate who can credibly identify problems and furnish plausible answers will win the prize fourteen months from now.

I see four main areas of electoral dissatisfaction:

  • The Economy: employment opportunities, health care, college costs, etc.
  • Culture: immigration, race, societal disintegration, political attacks on faith, loss of respect for human life, trashing of the Judeo-Christian ethic, official disdain for the “normal culture,” etc.
  • National security: the Islamic terrorist threat, the Iran nuke deal, Russian aggression.
  • Politics: Congressional powerlessness, immobility, and indifference; members’ amnesia about why they were elected; pusillanimous leadership.

Entire books are probably being written on each of these, but space-limitations will cause our analysis to be brief. I’ll try to hit the high spots in each area. In this article we’ll look at the economy. Subsequent articles will examine culture, national security and politics.

The Economy has been on life-support for Mr. Obama’s entire term. Economists say we’ve had the weakest recovery from a recession since the Great Depression. Government issues jerry-rigged statistics that paint a rosy picture of nearly “full” employment. But the man (or woman) on the street knows better. Some 93 million American adults are not working. The percentage of persons employed (63%) is at the lowest level since the Carter administration. Most non-workers are not counted as “unemployed” because they have stopped looking for work. They are simply subtracted from the potential American workforce, making the unemployment rate look better than it is. Our workforce today consists of 1.9 million fewer people than when President Obama took office. A record number of Americans – over 50 million – now receive food stamps. This is probably not the “change” voters thought they were getting when they elected their dazzling young messiah.

Barack Obama took office during a financial crisis caused by collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Under political pressure, banks had lent mortgages to millions of people who were poor credit risks. Many defaulted when they lost jobs or saw their property values dip below what they owed. Mr. Obama convinced voters that our true problem was capitalism. He called it “legalized greed,” and he promised a “transformation” by making government a “partner” of business. He also demanded gigantic “stimulus” expenditures to finance “shovel-ready” jobs. Much of that money actually went to prop up overspent state and local governments which had been riotously mismanaged by liberal Democrats.

Unfortunately, our dynamic new president’s solutions were throwbacks to failed programs from a 1930s playbook. Economists now mostly agree that FDR’s tax-and-spend programs actually prolonged the recession that was triggered initially by the 1929 stock market crash. They turned just another economic dip into the Great Depression that lasted until 1940. America had pulled out of past recessions – including a very deep one in 1920 – in the natural course of business, but the ‘30s recession hung on and on, causing 25% of all U. S. banks to fail and producing a worldwide depression that put the Nazis and militaristic Japanese leaders in power, and ultimately resulted in the cataclysm of World War II.

As the close of Mr. Obama’s second term approaches, Americans are desperately concerned over not only stagnant wages and a poor job-market, but also increasing health-care costs. Many have seen their health insurance costs go through the roof because of Democrats’ “landmark,” disastrously implemented, and ironically named Affordable Health Care Act. Mr. Obama had promised that most people would see their insurance costs decline by $2500 a year. He said we would be able to keep our current policies and doctors. Instead, Obamacare sent premiums and deductibles soaring – ostensibly to furnish coverage for millions of previously uninsured people. All those glowing promises about keeping our policies and our favorite doctors, and saving thousands a year, have been revealed as lies – as “damned lies,” many would say. Big Media no longer report public dissatisfaction with the ACHA as news, but people remain sullen and resentful. Polls consistently show a 55%+ disapproval rate for Obamacare – a level that stubbornly persists despite all the media happy-talk about how well the law is working and how the public has “embraced” it.

Ordinary families are also extremely concerned about college education-costs. (This does not include the rich, who can always pay the freight, and the very poor, whose bill will be covered by others.) Even families with annual incomes of $80,000 to $100,000 can find it difficult to cover college bills that are now bumping against $40,000 or even $50,000 a year at private schools. This includes venerable faith-based colleges that once offered high-quality education at affordable prices. A year at the private college I attended cost $1300 when I matriculated in 1960. Today its “sticker price” is $38,000 a year. Many of these colleges have blithely continued to raise their prices, year after year, right through the recession/stagnation period of recent years. Warnings from education-watchdogs and trustees about degraded future enrollments, due to high prices, have been largely ignored. Those chickens are finally coming home to roost.

For many years, college administrators shielded students and parents from sticker-shock by steering them toward student loans. This looks like free money to the student, but after graduation – if that actually happens – the bill comes due. Starting one’s professional life (should one be fortunate enough to find a job) with a debt of $25,000, or even $50,000, is no laughing matter. Many graduates – caught in the sluggish Obama Economy of few jobs and low wages – simply default on their student loans. Student debt now totals some $1.2 trillion. This is becoming its own financial bubble.

The prospect of accruing so much debt is now putting a standard, on-campus college education out of reach for increasing numbers of students. As critics of free-spending colleges had predicted, this pricing crisis has severely impacted private colleges which lack the endowment resources to fund their budgets despite diminished enrollments. Unable to recover from the crisis, some schools have simply gone bankrupt. Others are watching helplessly while a sea of red ink rises around them.

The entire college-cost and student-debt issue has become so significant that some presidential candidates – particularly on liberal side – are beginning to include “solutions” of the problem as planks in their political-platforms. Hillary Clinton is one of these. She has proposed a $350 billion plan to provide “free” college educations for students of limited means. She also wants to help heavily indebted students to pay off their loans.

Naturally, this sounds good to people facing the prospect of years of loan-repayment, but the devil (as always) is in the details. Where is the money for all this coming from? (From Hillary’s “stash” perhaps?) Unlike Mrs. Clinton, our country really is “flat broke.” We’re $19 trillion (that’s $19,000,000,000,000) in debt, with $62,000,000 being added to that each hour. Who can even comprehend such sums? And how responsible is the politician who actually proposes adding new obligations? Not even Democrats are taking Mrs. Clinton’s “education solution” seriously.

This blizzard of incomprehensible numbers makes the eyes of most voters glaze over. It’s entirely understandable. I can manipulate these figures, but I can’t grasp their scale any better than most people. What does even a billion dollars looks like? It would be 10 million $100 bills. That’s 100,000 packs of notes, with a hundred bills per pack – a fairly standard packaging of $10,000 per pack. It would take you a solid week just to count the packs (not the individual bills), if you spent 12 hours a day counting 20 packs a minute without a break. And that’s just $1 billion. For $1 trillion, you would spend 20 years counting the packs of notes. (Of course, you’d be taken away in a straight-jacket long before you finished. No human person can do it.) Banks have machines to count large amounts of currency, but $1 trillion would wear out many of them in the year needed to count it.

I digress on this point to show that the very incomprehensibility of these amounts is what enables politicians to continue spending like this. Many of them can’t grasp these numbers any better than we can. And some have even joked about the Chinese financing of our spending binge. If they don’t keep lending us more, they say, we’ll crash and then they’ll never be repaid. (Har har har! That’s rich.) Is this the level we want to stoop to? I’m ashamed of us when I hear such comments from a public “servant.”

The numbers are beyond the grasp of any of us. Some – of the grasshopper disposition –just want to keep on fiddling and dancing. They don’t care about the debt, as long as that good ole’ government gravy train keeps on rolling. But increasing numbers of citizens are finally waking up to the fact that we simply can’t go on like this. The spending-orgy must stop. Many don’t know a million from a billion or a trillion. But they are vaguely beginning to see that a subtle, horrible crime is being committed against them and the country by the very people they have trusted to keep the ship of state on course and in good repair. Millions of Americans are mad as hell about this. They’re seeking someone who at least recognizes the problem and looks like he might be inclined (and able) to do something about it.