Jane Ahlin column: Something keeps us in denial

Earlier this month, highly regarded Washington Post columnist David Broder cited the following economic data: - Two million jobs lost in the private sector since George W.

Earlier this month, highly regarded Washington Post columnist David Broder cited the following economic data:

- Two million jobs lost in the private sector since George W. Bush became president.

- Some 1.3 million more Americans below the poverty line.

- An additional 1.4 million people without health insurance.

- Unemployment up two percent and long-term unemployment almost doubled.


- Overall economic growth at one percent, the lowest for any administration in 50 years.

- The value of Americans' stock holdings down $4.5 trillion and a 30 percent drop in the value of IRAs and

401 (k) plans.

- A projected budget surplus of $5.6 trillion converted into a deficit of $400 billion.

- Some $2 trillion transferred from Social Security taxes to the non-Social Security budget.

- And 45 of the 50 states struggling with budget problems that are forcing program cuts or higher taxes.

In the column titled, "If the Economy Mattered," Broder discussed the data in terms of the election (Democratic rhetoric in citing the data and Republican rhetoric in responding to it) coming to the conclusion that the economy might not matter much in the election. Public interest seemed limited to terrorism, Iraq and the snipers.

His political take on the data was interesting, but it did not explain society's sluggish response to a bad economy. Granted, the scenario of economic woes is wide-ranging and overwhelming. The human inclination not to do anything -- because we don't know where to start -- figures into our numbness. Then, too, the free fall of the economy was breathtaking in both the scope and the speed with which it happened. (How can anybody comprehend the change from a surplus of $5.6 trillion to a deficit of $400 billion in less than two years?) We also must come to grips with the new sense of vulnerability we feel because of 9/11 and the ongoing threats those events portend.


And yet, there is something else going on, something that keeps us in denial even as reality nags at us; something that keeps us enthralled with the media and its "24/7" sniper story rather than thinking about friends out of work, relatives without health insurance, or the condition of our own 401(k).

Three questions come to mind:

- Did the booming '90s give Americans a new sense of entitlement?

- Have we stopped thinking that America could have hard times for a significant period of years ever again?

- Has America become so mired in the language of "doublespeak" that we cannot discern between reality and distorted reality?

The booming '90s made stockholders out of an unprecedented number of Americans with no downside. Now that there is a bear market, we're willing to blame the corporate crooks or the terrorists, but we aren't willing to own up to the personal risk inherent in investing. It's our money when we gain, but somebody owes us when we lose. Likewise, we don't see our role in avoiding hard times.

And we must keep the misuse of language from corrupting our thinking and understanding. When public relations people or government spokespersons use doublespeak to keep their real purposes hidden, we should ridicule and scorn them. (Fraud is fraud; it is not "inappropriate corporate activity." Killing innocent people in war is not "collateral damage," nor is starting war a "preemptive, defensive strategy." And someone who dies in surgery is not a "negative patient outcome.")

Staying informed and engaged isn't always pleasant, but it is part of being a good citizen. Indeed, a responsible citizenry is the soul of democracy.


Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages.

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