Seven Signs of Our Times Online

This isn't your usual August. With enough political issues smoldering to fill a decade of American history, the vacation month has turned into a morass of issues that boggles the mind. Here are seven articles that went viral this week, attempting to answer one simple question: What the hell is going on in America?

No Good Options

"The dollar's destiny lies with Congress," ends a New York Times op-ed by Warren Buffett. He describes the staggering debt that the United States will need to monitor like a cancer, and the handful of unappealing solutions: an unlikely increase in Treasuries investment, inflation, or more borrowing from China. That way, he says, we can use government debt to leverage our way out of immediate doom. But as Rolfe Winkler parries at Reuters, the kind of recovery Buffet is envisioning can only happen in a "goldilocks economy" that defies the true "accounting impossibility." If there's anything instructive about these kinds of op-ed volleys, it's that after almost a year of economic crisis, there are still starkly different ideas about how much debt the U.S. can sustain without its currency suffering discredit around the world.

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American Bootstrapping

If we think we're going to work our way out of a global economic crisis, reports BusinessWeek, we're wrong. According to report by consulting firm Mercer, workers in the EU have an average of 10 more vacation days than workers in the US--but some of those nations, like Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, are actually more productive, according to the ratio of GDP to hours worked. Even the French, who take off almost twice as many days annually as Americans, are a mere 2% less productive for it. (Below, a beach in southern France.)

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AT&TOut with the Old

Of course, you can only consider vacation time if you actually have a job--something that's apparently a struggle at AT&T if you're over 40. The telecom giant has been slapped with a lawsuit by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for age-biased hiring practices. The suit alleges that AT&T isn't giving its retirees a chance to be rehired--an opportunity they're promised for six months after retirement by the company's rules.

The Hapless Partners

Then again, the retired may not have much choice but to return to work. According to Bloomberg, American pensions contributed much of the capital used by private equity funds over the last 10 years--money that was quickly obliterated over the last nine months. Several state pensions are amongst the worst-hit: California, Oregon and Washington are out 59% of their investments. This detailed article explains how massive institutions with billions to invest were lured into deals that left them powerless to preserve their sums. (Below, the California capitol building in Sacramento.)

California Capital Building

Well, There's Always the Burger

More Americans feel the sting of penury every day, but according to one graph researched by the Economist, our dollars still go farther by at least one metric: the Big Mac. Entitled "Working time needed to buy a Big Mac," the graph shows that Chicago and New York are among the top five cities for work-to-Mac ratio, thanks to our relatively strong currency. Tokyo, Toronto and London round out the list, while residents of Nairobi, Kenya ranked last: they reportedly need to work 160 minutes to buy the burger.

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heroinOr... Heroin

The New England Journal of medicine reports that a Canadian study of heroin addicts has come to an interesting conclusion: keeping heroin addicts on heroin is the best way to keep them alive and healthy. Administered low doses under controlled supervision, the report finds, heroin addicts can manage their addiction. But when they attempt methadone therapy, they're much more likely to fail at treatment and get back on drugs, which puts them at increased risk for overdose. Who knows whether Mexican officials read this study before deciding to decriminalize small amounts of narcotics this week.

But Not Robbery

Drugs not your crutch? Don't try robbery--or at least, don't brag about the act after it's done. The social news sites are passing around this Craigslist link, in which an anonymous miscreant brags about a robbery he committed near his home and posts a picture of the spoils. Another user, perhaps associated with hacker-syndicate Anonymous, took the liberty of scanning the picture file for exif metadata and releasing the geolocation of the robbery for all to see. Our bailouts may lack oversight and our insurance system may be exploitative, Internet justice lives on.

craigslist

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2 Comments

  • Paul Fountaine

    So many difficulties and no clear path.

    I wonder what would happen if the US federal government gave the taxpayers a 6-month holiday. They could cap it at $300K or so, to save the government from completely going belly up.

    But just imagine the financial turnaround that this kind of capital would provide to the economy, especially when you factor in the multiplier at this magnitude.

    It would probably cost about 1/2 what the "stimulus" is going to cost, and it would put the taxpayer back in the drivers seat, rather than favoring one industry (Cash for Clunkers) or group.

    I mean it's not like they couldn't raise taxes later and get it all back if it was a bomb. I think that they won't do it though, as it would make all of us too aware of just how much we really contribute with such mixed results.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Thanks for a fine and necessary article. One struggles to make sense of it all. I wonder, too, whether any other period in American history -- perhaps with the exception of the Civil War -- was ever so challenging, complex, and dismaying. Our great shared lie, never expressed, missing from all media coverage and every private conversation, is that the American system is no longer working and the American Dream is becoming a nightmare. At least you sketched the outlines of the problem with these great articles that begin to fill it in. There's still more to be done. But is there time before...?