I write these columns each Tuesday. Tonight, President Obama delivered his State of the Union. The 84 percent are grateful that we are hanging on, and the 16 percent who are unemployed and underemployed are feeling worse as all their resources are exhausted.
This is what happens when unemployment stays high for so long. In fact, there have been only a couple of years since early in the 1990s that unemployment and underemployment have remained above 10 percent. The level of underemployment has not averaged below 16 percent for three years now.
Meanwhile, governments have been unable to weather a recession and have exhausted their resources as so many of those who pay taxes are unemployed or earning less.
I was at a Target store in Seattle the other day and witnessed a sign of our times. A well groomed, obviously highly educated, energetic middle-aged man was my cashier. He could have been an executive, or a software engineer, or a doctor or lawyer.
That day, he was one of the underemployed, perhaps wondering how he can support his daughter's wish to go to college when his salary has been cut in half, and then half again.
These are stories of a nation that has lost its appetite to invest in itself.
We know what it means for companies to invest in new plants and equipment, new products and processes, new research and development. This private infrastructure is what yields for companies like Apple and Alcoa the profits and dividends for a market ready to buy their products.
We see that companies will not invest in even their private infrastructure right now, for the same reason that you don't want to buy a house. You know prices are low, but why buy if you think prices might go lower. Instead, you want to time the bottom.
Companies are doing the same calculations and are financing private infrastructure at a historically low rate. Real private gross investment has held at around 10 percent of our gross domestic product since the Great Recession began, down by almost 50 percent.
As the private sector tightens its belt and as prolonged underemployment has forced federal, state and local governments to tighten their belts, public investment, too, has gone by the wayside.
In this case, though, it is not a timing issue. Government does not wait to invest in roads and bridges, electric grids and energy self-sufficiency only in good times. In fact, President Obama called for renewed spending in these areas now, when we really need jobs.
Notice the subtle distinction, though. Now is the time for investments that will pay dividends later.
We can build a natural-gas network in the Northeast and save imports of tens of millions of barrels of oil a month and billions of dollars.
We can put our students first and give them skills they need in a time of extreme global competitiveness. And we can understand the difference between a handout and a help-up.
These are the items of social capital and civic infrastructure. This is the moment we must ask what we can do for our country and what our country can do for our children. This is the time we really must put on our thinking caps, discard our old positions and work toward a vision.
Unfortunately, we are tired and demoralized. Perhaps we are so sick of our inability to meet our shared challenge that we, as a nation, have given up.
Earlier today, President John Jablonski of Clinton Community College convened a meeting of those willing to pull our community up by its bootstraps. Someone remarked that "when the going gets tough, the tough raise expectations."
This ability to rise above it all and use adversity as an opportunity to make for a better, more efficient and more sustainable world is precisely what the resilient do. Beyond the great vision from people right in our own county, there has been scant talk of a hopeful future.
Does anyone know where the love for country goes when a recession takes away the determination of a nation?
Tonight, President Obama said it right. We need to return to a country where all our people have a fair shot and pay a fair share. Then, with a dollop of vision, we can retool our economy built to last. If we build that Great Economy, the Great Society will come. But, without a great economy, well, we know what that gets us.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His seventh book, Great Minds in Finance — the Portfolio Theorists, has just been published. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.