NEW YORK — Sitting in a Starbucks in Harlem at the corner of Lenox and 125th Street, Wi-Fi'd up. Twenty-five years ago this month I left this city for London. Twenty-five years ago this month I would not have been sitting in any coffee shop at the crossroads of Black America.
A quarter of a century is a long time, things should change and it's nice to see that up here in Harlem things have changed more or less for the better. For me, years as a foreign correspondent have made America a foreign country to me. This morning after election day it is probably foreign to a lot of others in the United States and around the world.
In Britain, even the conservative press has found the Tea Party and Republican Party difficult to understand. They happily bash President Barack Obama on their opinion pages while trying to understand how the political discourse in this time of crisis could be so puerile. The days when British conservatives and American conservatives walked the same walk and talked the same talk are long gone.
Today's Conservative Party-led coalition government in the United Kingdom would not waste a moment campaigning against the idea of man-made climate change — indeed it campaigned last spring on how to grow the economy by funding solutions to the problem.
Gay lifestyles? That's a non-issue, there are a number of out gay men in the British cabinet.
Science using stem cells and human fetuses? Prime Minister David Cameron's son suffered horribly in his brief life from a variety of nervous system disorders. Cameron would not stand in the way of any research that might help future sufferers of Ivan's myriad problems.
The Conservatives would not try to repeal the National Health Service. They campaigned on a promise to save it from budget cuts.
These are settled issues in British society. Conservatives now would not echo Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher that government is the problem not the solution.
The foreignness of America to me is that in a time of genuine economic crisis the issues were not discussed with any seriousness at all — most especially not in the $2 billion worth of advertising that flashed across the nation's television screens (watch for a small uptick in GDP because of the spending).
I was in the Bay Area last week to give some lectures and while riding the bus from Sunnyvale back to Palo Alto I picked up an abandoned copy of the local paper. An item caught my eye. I had just come from lunch at Google HQ and assumed I was in the heart of America's economic engine. The article told a different story. A survey had just been published on unemployment in Silicon Valley. Since the recession began three years ago, 40 percent of households had experienced a job loss — 54 percent of those who lost jobs were still unemployed.
At a party in Richmond, Va. last weekend the story among the upper-middle class folk attending was of children who have masters degrees from good universities squirreled away in low-level government jobs, far removed from their initial career plans, and of people in their 50s who are having to start over again after their 20-year careers in banking or real estate were blown away by the crash in property values.
Property and new technology have been the twin engines of American growth in the last two decades. They are finished for the foreseeable future. People will buy houses again and there will be growth in Silicon Valley again, but never at the bubble pace. Nor will there ever be the hiring binge in both industries that existed from the mid-90s through the mid-oughts.
How can a serious country hold an election for its legislature and not discuss in detail where jobs will come from? Somewhere even as we speak someone is doing a statistical reduction on which political stories dominated the news cycle in these last months. Trust me, Christine O'Donnell will be close to the top; two out of five workers in Silicon Valley losing their jobs and what that means for the larger economy will not.
Search "blame" or "anger" along with "election" and you will get a million pages with faux sociology. You will not get much about the true crisis of the moment: the inability of even a growing economy to create jobs.
Rolling government back is not going to do it, as David Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition will find out. The notoriously left-wing PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that Cameron's austerity plans will cost a million jobs across the British economy over the next four years in the public and private sector. Until America's politicians and the media outlets that disseminate their message remind people that without government spending there will be no job growth, the crisis won't go away.
Until the American electorate grows up and acts like the mature society it used to be — accepting that governing happens in real time and no one can undo the current mess in a year or two — this will be a foreign country to those of us who have lived away a long time. More dangerously, it will be foreign in the sense of unknown to the rest of the planet who watch the United States aghast at how the leader of the world has been transformed into a squabbling, dissension wracked polity, unconfident and fearful and unable to find its way out of the dark.