Plato asked us to imagine a group of people chained to a wall in a cave in such a way that they could not see what was going on around them, only reflections cast on the cave wall opposite them by firelight. He invited us to consider how skewed the prisoners’ understanding of the world would become over time, and to value the contributions of philosophers who go out into the sunlight and see things as they really are. It’s easy for us Americans of 2015 to grasp the first part of his allegory, because it’s a perfect description of us watching TV (remarkable that he nailed that prediction 2,000 years ago, don’t you think?). It’s the second part that mystifies: what would a philosopher, stumbling out of the cave of shadows on the wall, make of our realities?
The shadows on the cave wall are dancing in eternal, unrelieved, twitching ecstasy: gas prices are down, the government-calculated unemployment rate is down, job creation is up, the stock market is setting altitude records, and because of the happiness of the shadows on the wall, the prisoners chained to the wall are feeling better about their futures than ever.
So, prisoners. What’s really out there? The philosopher has returned from a brief sojourn, wherein he found that the American Dream has become a nightmare.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics — the agency responsible for the “good news” that America has created 605,000 low-paying jobs in the last two months, reported at the same time that the total number of American employed was in December only 182,000 more than the October total. So where are the other 423,000 jobs that were “created?” Shadows on the wall.
- Also note that in December alone, 451,000 people left the labor market — they joined the 93 million adult Americans who have given up and stopped looking for work (and thus are not counted when the “unemployment rate” is calculated). Quick, another chorus of “Happy Days are Here Again.”
- Since the last time America was doing okay, 2007, we have added 16 million people to our adult population, and we have subtracted 2 million full-time jobs. Thus we have a situation that (to hear the shadows on the wall tell it) has improved every year for seven years but is now worse than it was seven years ago.
- Two recent surveys have found that well over half of adult Americans have no savings — none — and do not have enough cash in their possession to cover a sudden expense ($400 in one survey, $1,000 in the other).
- In contrast to the shadow land where there is no inflation , the philosopher finds that real Americans are struggling with an inflation rate for food of more that 20%. Ground beef has just hit a national average price of $3.88 per pound, an all-time record high. But food prices are not included in the government’s calculation of the rate of inflation. More than 50 million American households — not people, households full of people — last year experienced what is politely referred to as “food insecurity”. That’s the term the shadows use, out in the sunlight we call it “hunger.”
- 46 million Americans are on food stamps, 20 million more than were enrolled in 2007, before the Great Recession started. And in nearly three-quarters of large American cities, requests for emergency food aid were up sharply in 2014 and are expected to skyrocket in 2015.
So out here in the sunlight, we see rising hunger, poverty, unemployment, sea levels, desertification and collapsing energy and stock markets. Who can blame us for preferring the cave, where at least somebody sees to it that the fire is kept burning?