WASHINGTON -- Every week, sometimes every day, new polls or data or articles come out that one may dare think are devised to make us feel worse about ourselves.
This week's depressing figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau, which duly reports that 49.1 million Americans are living in poverty, an exorbitant number. (In Chicago alone, 85 percent of the children in public schools now live below the poverty level.)
Also this week the Congressional Budget Office reported that income gains made during times of economic growth were heavily concentrated in the top 1 percent of the distribution scale. And those rich are exactly the people who, far from investing in new businesses and in "jobs, jobs, jobs," really spend their filthy lucre on boats, summer homes and dirty diamonds from Central Africa.
No wonder, then, that the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that "the electorate is convinced that the country's economic structures favor an already affluent elite and is still deeply torn as to whether President Barack Obama or any of his leading Republican rivals can pull the nation out of decline." The electorate is "angry and disaffected." (Something we journalists could have told them without any poll at all.)
Late last month, with the presidential election just over a year away, the New York Times/CBS News poll showed that Americans' distrust of government is at its highest level ever.
Two-thirds of the public said that wealth should be distributed more evenly in the country; and almost half of the public thinks the sentiment at the root of the Occupy Wall Street movement generally reflects the views of most Americans.
But I would bet that, if the questioners went further with their prying, they would find that the majority of Americans are confused about what has led to this. It seems that when we try to isolate the elements that make us so edgy and unhappy today, there is no one thing that explains everything. So, let us take a closer look.
Whenever you read about Wall Street and its crimes and misdemeanors during the last decade and a half, the writers will at some point mention credit default swaps, something that, I am convinced, only a tiny group somewhere in a secret office can understand.
Then they write about how the financial crisis started with pushing mortgages onto people who could not afford them, then dicing them up (the mortgages, not the people) and selling them to investors spread far and wide, so that the original buyer's interest lost relevance.
I'm sure this is true, if you happen to live in that arcane world of "Upper Wall Street" thinking, but in fact, it doesn't explain much for those of us who think simply and straight.
And so it occurs to me that credit default swaps are not what we are really dealing with at all. Instead, we are dealing with rank dishonesty.
This became particularly clear to me with the recent investigation of Jon S. Corzine, the head of MF Global Holdings, now in bankruptcy. In words that should go down in history, Corzine said, after his company was being investigated, that he had "misplaced" $630,000 of his clients' money.
I might misplace my lunch money or the cash for the taxi. He misplaces more than a half-million dollars. And Corzine is a former U.S. senator and a former governor of New Jersey. So let's not think of these men as wild gamblers; they are criminals, pure and simple.
Looking at the mess from another angle, whenever I see some reference to the Bush family or Kennebunkport and Houston (and of Midland, Texas, and the White House), I think of the lineal descendants of the family.
George H.W. Bush, now in his 80s, was the last president from the Eastern Establishment, that group of the original families of America, mostly British and Dutch. Those men and women ran the New York banks and investment houses, ran Washington politics, and tended to act upon the same internal demands. They had: (1) similar family traditions of what was right, and (2) they supported one another in ambitions and intentions. Thus, unity!
But in the 1940s and '50s, after the world wars, young people from the lower levels of American society gained the education and confidence to challenge the Establishment, taking over Congress, Wall Street and our great universities. They were smart -- we had become, after all, a meritocracy -- but there were no longer ethical traditions they all had in common.
By the time George W. Bush came to the presidency, he, who had been raised not in the East but in Midland, Texas, was the very example of the new chaotic and individualistic egalitarianism.
Now we face the challenge of reinstating old values with the new realities of our diverse and fractious country, so that we regain our confidence and optimism for the future.