Everyone in the states nowadays is talking about “the new normal,” which ironically doesn’t sound very American. It’s not like a-mazing! Or OMG! And it has nothing to do with a new music scene or breakfast product from KFC.
It’s a term coined by an economist actually, Mohammed El‐Erian of PIMCO (a global investment management company) when he used it to describe what could possibly be the short term/long term future of the American economy, should things stay the same as they are. Meaning unemployment remaining at 10%, the stock market gaining only as much as a savings account, a continuingly weak dollar, production continuing to stall, gas remaining expensive, and the country still at war ‐ basically America in the 1970’s or Japan in the 90’s. And just the same way Alan Greenspan once coined the term “irrational exuberance” when he referred to the American economy during the dot‐com bubble years, El‐Erian has put into words what many are fearing could be the truth. That everything could remain the way it is today, normally shitty.
The New Normal has gained so much momentum and has become such a part of today’s lexicon that Barack Obama recently used it in an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. “What’s a danger is that we stay stuck in a new normal where unemployment rates stay high, people who have jobs see their incomes go up, businesses make big profits, but they’ve learned to do more with less, and so they don’t hire.”
The notion of a “new normal” has obviously hit a nerve in the US and has created a cultural divide between those who think we’ve seen the worst of the global recession/credit crisis and those who think we’re in a shape‐shifting moment, that the times we once knew are gone forever replaced by something new, something bad, which we’ll eventually consider normal.
Political critics on the right have attacked Obama’s mentioning of the New Normal as a way to justify his failures as President, while others, like the business magazine Bloomberg Businessweek, have used the term as a way to put the past year in perspective, describing all things new we now consider normal: streaming, free shipping, transparency (WikiLeaks) public sharing of our personal selves (facebook), hot summers, living with your parents at 30, and living in debt when you’re old.
Deep down I think the American fear of a new normal comes from a pessimism grounded in economic reality sure, but also from a genuine opposition to the word. Somewhere along the line, “normal” got replaced by “exceptional,” and the American dream morphed from being one of meeting basic necessities of comfort, education, gainful employment, and eventual ownership into one of mansion living, two 4×4 owning, private school needing, dog psychiatrist having necessity ‐ fueled mostly of course by overextended work and credit. And when that’s normal, a new normal can be terrifying for some, especially the dog who may have to cut back on therapy.
In fact, one could say Americans are terrified simply of becoming European, whose standards ironically resemble much of what the new normal describes. Expensive gas, high unemployment, minimal growth are nothing new to French, but to an America raised on IPO’s and Gossip Girl, it could seem like a decade‐long series of Claude Chabrol films.
And what about France anyway? Is it also in for a new normal? And if so, what will that new normal look like?
Ironically American I’m betting; meaning shopping on Sundays, less public services (meaning late trains, crowded subways, expensive schooling, and long waits at the hospital), one‐term presidents, and of course obesity. For some French this may seem like an eventuality, a step needed to remain competitive, but for others, the idea that it’s normal to work until 75 or normal to have private health insurance could really suck. And for people like me, it’s a total nightmare.
Because the goal of every American expat I’ve always thought is to live a normally modest European life, which we secretly know (but don’t tell anyone) is a rich American life. You don’t need to run a hedge fund to vacation in Provence, only a salaried job. But then I ask myself if I can shop with credit cards on Sundays and get fat here, why bother putting up with all the other French crap? I can get that in America.
What I can’t find in America though is the way the French use the expression “c’est normal,” how it comes over as soothing and reassuring not foreboding or righteous. For a long time I thought it was a pessimistic or defeatist way of looking at things (“it doesn’t work, mais c’est normal”) but now I realize it’s based more on experience and patience. It’s a way of assuming the normal, although not exceptional, isn’t as awful as we make it.
Once upon a time, when America’s normal was way worse, one with much higher unemployment, higher taxes, and world war, FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Perhaps in retrospect, the only thing that makes the old normal different from today’s new normal is fear as well.
Analyzing your present in the context of the past and positing whether it’ll hold for the near future is fine, but wondering whether we’re in a new normal or not, wondering whether it’s here for a long time or not, shouldn’t make one panic.
As the dog psychiatrist will tell his patient each week……c’est normal.