Shopping for food the other day, I did a double take by the egg racks. Some were priced as high as $8.49 a dozen, making me reconsider the idea of raising chickens. Later, searching for fuel, the cheapest I found was just under $6.50 a gallon, a bargain compared with a fortnight before. Luckily I’m not looking to rent an apartment: a one-bedroom in a safe neighbourhood goes for nearly $3,000 a month.

Maybe these figures wouldn’t shock across the Atlantic, since our 9.1 per cent inflation rate of mid-July, the highest in 40 years, was still below the double-digit rates in Europe. But here in America, we’re unaccustomed to such lofty prices. Before the war in Ukraine, the supply-chain disruptions and the global pandemic, our economy was stable, the envy of the world. Now, rising inflation has become the leading political issue of the day and could well affect elections in November.

Some commentators are raising the idea of a centrist third party to weaken the grip of the hard right and hard left in a quest for compromise

The Federal Reserve, whose job is to keep inflation in check, is fighting back with a series of interest rate increases to ease demand and lower prices. So far, so bad. Consumer costs remain stubbornly high, and rising interest rates could hasten a recession. Foreclosure rates across the country have almost doubled in a year, now that government assistance programmes have expired.

Yet corporate profits have barely suffered. Some politicians are floating the idea – yet again – to raise taxes on big companies and the highest income earners. But tax increases are unpopular and hard to implement, even on companies that pay zero, like FedEx, Nike and lots of utility, gas and electric companies.

Here’s the latest wrinkle. Hot real-estate markets are cooling because home mortgage rates are inching up, now approaching 6 per cent for a 30-year fixed rate, nearly double that of a few years ago. Buyers scraping together money for a down payment face the sobering reality that borrowing is far more expensive than they anticipated. So they either pay more or stick where they are. If that’s an apartment, they’ll be doubly stuck, because landlords have raised rents by as much as 14 per cent so far this year, profiting from the lack of new construction to match soaring demand. A low unemployment rate, 3.6 percent through June, should be the one positive note in the economy, but inflation has kneecapped income, reducing buying power.

The trickle-down effect has been especially hard on low-income families, with most metrics moving in the wrong direction. Families are paying more than 50 per cent of their income on rent. With the lapse of state and federal rental assistance offered during the pandemic, eviction rates have skyrocketed – by 200 per cent in some regions, surpassing pre-pandemic levels. The homeless population is rising and cities are straining their budgets for temporary and permanent housing options. More people than ever are relying on food banks, but inflation has reduced supplies and narrowed options.

Altogether, it’s just another brick in the gloomy wall encircling America, alongside the usual bickering over abortion, guns, climate policy, the quality of President Joe Biden’s leadership and whether Donald Trump will be prosecuted. We’re in a muddle, which has forced us to search farther and wider for the silver linings that help us maintain equilibrium.
Curious about what they might be, I asked friends on social media how they’re coping and what keeps them stable these days. What struck me in their responses was the simple pleasures we often take for granted. One friend I’ve known since we grew up on the same block decades ago, said it was his dogs, a six-year old Yorkshire terrier and a fourteen-month-old golden retriever. “I waited until I retired to get the golden,” he told me. “She puts a big smile on our faces all day long.”

Another said he finds solace in the beauty of fine art, music, film and literature. Several cited opera, yoga, roller-skating, reading, cycling, gardening, pickleball, live music and reconnecting with distant family. One of my oldest friends, a wise woman who ran a major network newscast before retiring, told me: “What I think about is how fortunate I am that my grandparents had the wherewithal to flee from pogroms and the Holocaust so that one day their grandchildren would have the luxury of complaining about the gloomy times we are living through.” Hard to argue with that.

I do think the dazzling first photos from deep space by the James Webb Telescope came at the right time. More than a few friends have used one for their social media profile picture. They remind us that America is still a leader in technological innovation and other scientific pursuits.

But the big question is, are any of these diversions sustainable for these troubling times. In some ways they have to be, given the alternative of zombie-like walks through the valley of despair.

As a political junkie, I see one silver lining, however improbable. Some commentators are raising the idea of a centrist third party to weaken the grip of the hard right and hard left in a quest for compromise. It has been tried before, lots of times, with no real success. But we’ve not experienced this degree of paralysis for many decades, and members of both parties now see the potential for moderate elements from each side joining forces to break the gridlock.

Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who is seeking a third term in the House of Representatives, has proposed the creation of a Moderate Party in New Jersey; its candidates would run as Republican or Democrat to give voters the option of someone who more closely reflects mainstream public opinion. For example, polls show that most Americans favour a more humane abortion policy, which sets limits but allows for exceptions in the case of rape, incest or danger to the mother. Yet many Republican states want an absolute ban on abortion, and some Democrat states propose no restrictions at all. A middle-ground candidate would mirror the majority of voters.

One obstacle to overcome in New Jersey is a 1921 state law that bans the concept of a fusion option under pressure from the two major parties. That ban is now being challenged in court; if they succeed in overturning it, advocates hope other states will follow.

“Our political system today rewards and encourages divisiveness that has already led to violence and could tear our country apart,” Malinowski wrote in an essay in The New York Times. “We need new rules that promote responsible leadership and cooperation.”

So there’s that.

Still, I’m not holding out much hope for art, roller-skating or distant cousins to turn on a faucet of happiness and optimism. The country needs something bigger, like more compassion, less animosity and fewer guns.
At least I have one thing going for me. I never cared much for eggs.

Sinking stars of the ‘70s
For many months now, the expectation for the 2024 presidential campaign has been a rerun of 2020: Joe Biden vs Donald Trump. That may no longer be the case.

The earth has shifted beneath them both, eroding their American Idol status within their respective parties. For a variety of reasons, each is facing dissatisfaction and doubts, fuelling speculation that the primaries of 2024 might produce two different candidates.

For both Biden and Trump, the cautionary messages came to light through a recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, with this as the big takeaway: neither is as popular as he was, with a surprising number of their own voters saying they’d prefer a younger candidate. At 79, Biden is the oldest-ever elected US president. Trump is 76.

Age aside, the reasons for Biden’s dwindling support are his ineffectiveness in the face of opposition and his impossible-to-keep promise to unite the country. But the visible tics of old age don’t help. After overcoming a stutter as a child, this affliction still emerges in speeches and impromptu exchanges with supporters. He often misuses words and misstates one person or country for another. That he self-corrects doesn’t polish the image of executive command nor erase the impression he’s losing mental acuity. Aviator-style sunglasses to make him look younger only make him look like an old man wearing aviator-style sunglasses.

In a more practical sense, voters are holding him responsible for conditions well beyond his control, like global inflation and high fuel costs. He’s failed to deflect persistent opposition from a member of his own party, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has torpedoed his most aggressive domestic policy initiatives, including efforts to confront climate change. Biden has also been caught up in the realpolitik of the day, seeking more oil production from the Middle East to lower gas prices as he pushes for a transition to clean energy.

Overall, the poll found that only 33 per cent of respondents gave the president a favourable job approval rating and just 13 per cent agreed that the country was on “the right track”. More than three quarters said the country was moving in the wrong direction.

And it wasn’t just Republican voters aiming darts at Biden. While his approval rating among Democrats was moderate at 70 percent, only a quarter of them said he should be nominated for a second term. Nearly two thirds said they wanted a different Democrat candidate in 2024, including 94 per cent of those under 30, for whom his age was a major source of discontent.

Biden insists he’s running again, but if he were to stand down, there’s no shortage of younger candidates. There’s also Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, darling of the progressive left. But he’s 80.

Age is possibly the least of Trump’s problems. He’s the focus of multiple investigations, including the Congressional commission looking into his involvement in the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol, the New York Attorney General pouring over his pre-presidency business dealings and a grand jury in Georgia seeking evidence he interfered with the 2020 election in that state. The US Justice Department is also trying to determine whether his involvement in the Capitol assault violated Federal laws.

Unsurprisingly, the poll found his followers drifting away. Nearly half of Republican primary voters said they would prefer a different candidate for 2024, and nearly two thirds said they would vote against Trump in a primary. Sixteen percent of Republican voters said that in a Trump vs Biden rerun they would vote for Biden.

But statistics change all the time, and any outside event could alter these results before campaigning begins in earnest in just under two years’ time.

Trump says he has made his decision and will announce whether he’s running by September, when some of the legal investigations affecting him might have been clarified. But there is no constitutional prohibition against someone running for president while facing criminal charges. Nor when serving prison time.

Yep, here in America, the land of possibilities, that’s one of them.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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