Google's database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008 provides some interesting clues about usage - and perhaps about attitudes. Citing a study, NYT columnist David Brooks writes that "personalized," "self," "standout," and "unique" were used more often between 1960 and 2008, while "share," "community," "collective," "and "common good" were used less frequently. Another study found that "virtue," "decency" and "conscience" were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. From Brooks:
Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently. This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left.
Several out-of-town budinskis have called the campaign an embarrassment for L.A., which was certainly not the case (Washington is where you'll find the real embarrassments). Let's just say that the race, like so many others these days, was a missed opportunity - drowned out by posturing and positioning by the city's interest groups, eclipsed by the intractable problems that no mayor is remotely capable of mending. It's been easy to beat up on both candidates (I've certainly done my share), but let's be clear that Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti are bright, well-meaning people who have devoted most of their working lives to public service and are passionate in their belief that L.A. can be a better place. So why was it so flat, so off-key?
--Waaaaay too long: This has been a two-person contest going back to the first part of the year, well before the initial election, and since then the race has been mostly about killing time with lots of over-spending and over-endorsing. Having the runoff drag out for three months is lunacy (one month between elections makes a lot more sense). Future candidates should also consider cutting back on the number of debates - the stultifying sessions between Greuel and Garcetti might have actually lowered interest in the race.
--Little substance: Much of the campaign had a "first do no harm" quality. This was especially true of Greuel - did anyone else want to scream each time she suggested that the city's money troubles could be corrected by stamping out waste, fraud and abuse (not remotely true) or that helping operate her family's small business provided some sort of managerial gravitas to run the nation's second-biggest city? Garcetti was disingenuous himself by claiming too much credit for reducing (but hardly solving) the city's structural deficit - and offering little indication of what he plans to do once the city begins contract talks with public unions.
--Crisscrossed interests: How on earth was Greuel supposed to lay out a coherent policy message when she had endorsements from both former mayor Richard Riordan, who has blamed the city unions for L.A.'s budget troubles, and the city unions? She couldn't even take a position on something as straightforward as moving one of the LAX runways for fear of pissing off somebody (either nearby homeowners who vote in droves or L.A.'s business establishment). But that's the nature of the job. If she can't handle that, how will she deal with the pension problem?
--Chronic voter ignorance: Most Angelenos haven't a clue about what the mayor does - or more important, what he/she does not do. Both candidates, for example, spent much of the campaign laying out their views on education when in fact the mayor has no control over the L.A. school system. An entire debate was devoted to education issues! Where a mayor can exert influence is on planning policy, which received next to no coverage. And what about dealing with the City Council? Some might argue that the elected official with the most power these days is Council President Herb Wesson, and yet we have no idea how the new mayor is likely to work with him or the full council.
--Chronic voter apathy: As the LAT reported last week, low turnouts go well beyond the current election (though having two unexceptional personalities with much the same politics doesn't help). What's unfortunate this time around is that the city's innards are falling apart. Mayor Villaraigosa and the Council have applied enough duct tape to make it seem as if things aren't all that bad because no elected official wants to face the truth on his or her watch. What the city should offer its citizenry, in good times and bad, is the real issue behind this year's race, but if no one is willing to fess up - candidates as well as voters - how on earth can we expect any change?
Here's another explanation for the improving fiscal outlook: Property is gaining in value. L.A. County is expected to see a 4.23 percent increase in revenue-producing valuation, to $1.125 trillion, according to the assessor's office. Changes in ownership, which include the sale of homes, is expected to increase by $18.5 billion. This, of course, is good news for local governments, which will be taking in more in tax revenues - thus easing their budget problems - and it's also good for homeowners who have seen the value of their properties creep back up after several down years. Property tax revenue for the city of L.A. is already coming in above budget projections for 2012-2013, although budget officials have been somewhat concerned about the durability of the recovery. By way of perspective, county valuation totaled $1.07 trillion in 2012, $823.7 billion in 2005, $569.6 billion in 2000, and $412.8 billion in 1990. From the forecast:
The previous decline in the real estate market resulted in decreasing assessment rolls from 2007 through 2010. The 2011 and 2012 assessment rolls reflected modest increases of 1.49 percent and 2.24 percent, respectively. Based on a variety of indicators, the Office of the Assessor estimates that the 2013 Assessment Roll will increase by approximately 4.23 percent. The estimate is based on the best information available at this time; however, there are several areas that are subject to change as new trends emerge.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office says that Gov. Brown's projections were too pessimistic and that California should expect $2.8 billion more in tax revenue than what the administration was estimating. Meanwhile, the federal budget deficit, which topped out at $1.4 trillion in 2009, is expected to drop this year to $642 billion, or just 4 percent of GDP (well within safe limits). Long-term spending is still a problem, especially when it comes to entitlements, but it's not a short-term crisis. So what cleared the clouds? From Time magazine's Christopher Matthews:
Basically, the change can be explained by a combination of a recovering housing market -- which has improved the finances of government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- combined with a better-than-expected economy overall, which is boosting corporate and personal income tax revenues. This economic improvement is happening despite higher taxes and budget cuts enacted as part of the fiscal cliff deal reached in December, and the sequestration-related budget cuts that went into effect recently. This change is yet another vindication of economists and commentators who argued that large budget deficits are the natural outgrowth of effective economic policy in the wake of a severe recession. Economic recession reduces employment and corporate profits, lowering tax revenues. At the same time, safety net programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps must spend more to accommodate the larger number of people who need them.
This is stuff you learn in an introductory economics class - government is needed a lot more in bad times than in good times. With the economy getting better, albeit slowly, that reliance not only is starting to recede, but it's being replaced by more money coming in. Good news, but not all that surprising news. And yet, for five or so years, really going back to the financial crisis, debate out of Washington has focused on those dastardly deficit numbers and how they would destroy the country. Bloomberg's Josh Barro nails it:
[House Speaker] John Boehner doesn't really care about the public debt, as he made clear when he repeatedly supported debt-expanding measures under a Republican president. What Boehner and House Republicans really want are excuses to cut federal spending, particularly on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps that support low-income Americans. But those cuts are unpopular, so Republicans frame fiscal debate to make such cuts appear necessary to avoid disaster. If you can't borrow or tax more, and can't cut old-age entitlements or the military, which command the majority of federal spending, you're not left with many options but to soak the poor.
So where has the media been during this week's stunning recalculations? Well, mostly covering the Washington pseudo-scandals (this week's Congressional hearings have been farcical). Check out the amount of time that CBS, ABC, and NBC have spent on the revised deficit projections: A grand total of 0.00 minutes. Fiscal matters make for boring television unless somebody - usually a Republican - yells "crisis."
Yeah, I was surprised it was that low - but that's still up from 1991 when the average retirement age was just 57, according to a Gallup survey. Much of the increase has come since the recession (those still in the workforce expect to retire well past 61). By the way, the biggest concern among non-retirees is having enough money to live on. Matter of fact, there's so much fear about running out of savings that one study recently said that many Americans in their 70s and 80s tend to under-spend. From press release:
Currently, 37% of nonretired Americans say they expect to retire after age 65, 26% at age 65, and 26% before age 65. The most notable change over time is the increase in those expecting to work past age 65 -- the 37% this year is up from 22% a decade ago and 14% in 1995. Meanwhile, the percentage of nonretirees who say they expect to retire before age 65 has declined to 26% from 49% in 1995.The percentage who say they will retire at exactly 65 has held fairly constant over the decades.
April's unemployment rate was 9 percent, down from 9.4 percent the previous month. While that's still the fourth-highest in the nation, behind Nevada, Illinois and Mississippi, the jobless rate hasn't been this low since late 2008 (that tells you how far California had had to climb back from the recession). Over the past year, the decline has been 1.7 percent. One likely reason for the big drop for April is not such good news: That more Californians stopped looking for work. A separate payroll report showed a paltry gain of 10,300 jobs, though the year-over-year increase was 273,100, second only to Texas, and these numbers tend to be revised quite substantially. Here's the BLS release.
*L.A. County saw a significant drop in April, but its jobless rate remains stubbornly high at 9.9. percent. That's down from 10.2 percent in March. The payroll survey showed a gain of only 200 jobs, with leisure and hospitality among the industries with bigger gains and government and entertainment among those with large losses.
One of the sillier practices in journalism is taking three somewhat similar events and making them the basis of what we used to call a trend story. For whatever reason three was always the magic number (editors like heft - maybe it's just their CYA reflex). Anyway, the three-pack principle has been used this week to develop a case that the Obama administration is awash in scandal - that the president is either a conniving, corrupt worm or inept beyond comprehension (there's usually no middle ground). The problem is that adding two and two gives you four, not 18, as the attack dogs in Congress and the media would want you to believe. Thankfully, these stories are not all that compelling (boring is the less charitable word), and the Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes that, barring new revelations in the IRS, Benghazi, and AP cases, the scandal angle is starting to fall apart.
The crucial ingredient for a scandal is the prospect of high-level White House involvement and wide political repercussions. Government wrongdoing is boring. Scandals can bring down presidents, decide elections and revive down-and-out political parties. Scandals can dominate American politics for months at a time. On Tuesday, it looked like we had three possible political scandals brewing. Two days later, with much more evidence available, it doesn't look like any of them will pan out. There'll be more hearings, and more bad press for the Obama administration, and more demands for documents. But -- and this is a key qualification -- absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don't seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don't reach high enough.
The scandal metanarrative itself is also changing. Because there was no actual evidence of presidential involvement in these events, the line for much of this week was that the president was not involved enough in their aftermath. He was "passive." He seemed to be a "bystander." His was being controlled by events, rather than controlling them himself. That perception, too, seems to be changing. Mike Allen's Playbook, which is ground zero for scandal CW, led Thursday with a squib that says "the West Wing got its mojo back" and is "BACK ON OFFENSE." Yes, the caps are in the original. The smarter voices on the right are also beginning to counsel caution. "While there's still more information to be gathered and more investigations to be done, all indications are that these decisions - on the AP, on the IRS, on Benghazi - don't proceed from [Obama]," wrote Ben Domenech in The Transom, his influential conservative morning newsletter. "The talk of impeachment is absurd. The queries of 'what did the president know and when did he know it' will probably end up finding out "'just about nothing, and right around the time everyone else found out.'"
Perhaps because the flying experience, while not always wonderful, is a bit more tolerable these days, thanks to greater efficiency and reliability. Industry-wide, satisfaction reached 695 on a 1,000-point scale, according to JD Power, a 14-point increase from 2012 (though only a 3-point rise from 2006). The survey includes satisfaction on fares, fees, in-flight services, and boarding, deplaning and baggage. The low-cost airlines do better than the traditional carriers, with JetBlue routinely receiving the highest numbers of any airline (Alaska is tops in the traditional network category). It's easy to ding airlines for packing planes and charging for basics, but tighter-run operations (technology has made a huge difference) have resulted in relatively inexpensive fares on many routes and less frequent delays. Travelers are even grousing less about the baggage fees. Certainly, there will be complaints - flying millions of people to all corners of the world is a very complicated, often messy business and lots of stuff will go wrong on a daily basis. Still, the industry seems more adept at anticipating trouble, and then dealing with it. From JD Power release:
Despite the fact that passengers are using self-service options in increasing numbers, airline staff continues to impact passenger satisfaction. The industry is improving the customer experience, with both carrier segments achieving an eight-year high for passenger satisfaction with flight crews in 2013. Among passengers who are greeted with a smile by airline staff, even if only some of the time, satisfaction scores are 105 points higher than among those who never receive a smile. The gap doubles to 211 points higher among passengers who are greeted with a smile consistently, compared with those who do not receive a smile at all. "Treating passengers as valued customers and guests--welcoming them with a genuine warm smile--is an important opportunity for airlines to achieve considerably higher levels of satisfaction," said Faza. "With the increasing use of technology reducing some personal interactions in the reservations and check-in processes, making the most of the rest of the passenger interaction with airline staff is imperative."JD Power America Airline Satisfaction Study (on a 1,000-point scale)