President Obama, who said he wanted to bring Americans together, is blamed by both sides for failing to end the long slump and get more Americans working.
Two roads. How did we get here? How do we get out?
Win and lose
The United States won World War II. Everybody else's factories got bombed, leaving us to sell and finance cars, planes, power plants, and movies for all nations. U.S. workers demanded higher wages and spread the wealth, buying homes, cars, and college degrees, and fast food and cable TV. Government retirement and medical programs made it less ugly to be old or poor.
Then rising costs drove investors abroad. In the sluggish '70s, President Jimmy Carter warned Americans that the party was over. Time to live within our means. Work more, vacation less. Study engineering.
Heck with that, we said, and elected Ronald Reagan, a man who wasn't afraid to borrow piles of money to stimulate growth.
For the next generation, under both parties, U.S. policy let nasty factory jobs move to Mexico and China, while expanding our role as the world's financier.
Beyond the investment pros and financial engineers and CEOs hugely compensated by other CEOs sitting on their boards, the people who made the most from the debt explosion, Americans whose parents built Chevys and bent steel became stockbrokers, real estate salespeople, and suburban builders, and rode the boom.
But in 2008, we ran out of borrowers. The government had to rescue the banks. The economy stalled. Construction, bank, and real estate jobs dried up. People looked to Washington and asked, "What next?"
Left and right
Economists like Nobel Prize winner Dale T. Mortensen, who spoke last week at Villanova University, say that private- sector demand is likely to stay weak and that greater government spending is the only thing likely to get the economy growing and bosses hiring anytime soon.
Would-be Obama replacements like Texas Gov. Rick Perry say government needs to step out
of the way, cutting not just the Environmental Protection Agency, but also Medicare and Social Security and extended unemployment benefits. That way, natural market forces can reassert themselves, and businesspeople can grow us out of this mess.
That's roughly happening in Perry's state - where increased oil and gas exploration and cheap immigrant labor continue to feed a growing economy - and in Gov. Corbett's Pennsylvania, where Amazon.com is quietly hiring thousands of temporary workers at the low-wage warehouses that are replacing retail stores. At the same time, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell sink concrete drilling pads in upstate farms and forests, delivering cheap fuel, though not yet the hoped-for industrial renaissance.
But even in Perry's Texas and Corbett's Pennsylvania, a lot of Americans aren't ready to do many of the unpleasant jobs a government-free labor market would force on them.
In petitions filed this fall with federal courts and the Labor Department, landscapers, farmers, lumbermen, and food processors complain that they can't get reliable U.S. workers, even with 9 percent unemployment, even at above-minimum wages. They are still bringing in foreign workers under government special visas, for jobs Americans won't take.
Will we go left or right? In 2012, we'll likely elect either Obama, who has been unable or unwilling to win support for a spend-more recovery, or Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, whose record as Massachusetts governor doesn't make him look like the man who would cut Social Security to promote a balanced budget and freer labor markets. (Though military cuts will likely continue, under a rare bipartisan consensus.)
The likely result: more of the Washington threats and paralysis that businesspeople say discourages investment. Big companies can adjust to high or low tax rates, but they hate not knowing when the rules will change again, wrecking plans and projects.
More muddle won't calm the tea party and libertarian activists who started mobilizing on Independence Mall and other public assembly sites in 2008, or the Occupiers now hanging out at Wall Street and Philadelphia City Hall.
They'll be with us - they will grow - until business, or government, starts spending and hiring for real.
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or JoeD@phillynews.com. Follow
him @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.