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Works and Days

An Anatomy of European Nonsense

August 7th, 2011 - 9:32 pm

Economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, has written that America’s path is leading it down the road to “banana-republic status.” The social cynicism and societal indifference once associated primarily with the Third World has [sic] now become an American hallmark. This accelerates social decay because the greater the disparity grows, the less likely the rich will be willing to contribute to the common good. When a company like Apple, which with €76 billion in the bank has greater reserves at its disposal than the government in Washington, a European can only shake his head over the Republican resistance to tax increases. We see it as self-destructive.

[Paul Krugman also deplored the nearly $5 trillion in recent borrowing by the Obama administration that led to a $16 trillion new debt ceiling and downgrade by the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s — but on the grounds that such indebtedness was too little and the reckless recent borrowing was too timid! Mr. Augstein has a habit of referencing authority in terms of Nobel Prize awards. I have great respect for the European awarding of medals in the hard sciences and mathematics, but recent Nobel awards in literature, economics, and peace are sadly tainted by overt politics rather than a record of sustained achievement — as evidenced by recent awards to a Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama, or Paul Krugman. (In the case of Mr. Carter, a Nobel Laureate judge openly asserted the selection was predicated on the ex president’s then criticism of the Iraq War.) As for the purported social cynicism and indifference, no other country in the world has a better record of private philanthropy. Private giving, as measured as a percentage of overall GDP, is highest in the United States — over three times greater than found in Germany. Quite simply there are no private universities, institutions, or foundations in Europe anywhere comparable to a Ford, Gates, or Rockefeller Foundation, a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford University, or a Brookings, Heritage, or Hoover Institution. Apple, Inc. — known for its philanthropy, liberal leanings, and ability to bring sophisticated technology into the hands of the poor at affordable prices — is hoarding its cash in fear of uncontrollable federal borrowing, and yet another new tax threat, entitlement obligation, and presidential lecture about inordinate financial success. Its stash of $76 billion in profits is a fraction of the annual U.S. $3.6 trillion budget — and results from the unprecedented and unforeseen worldwide success of its iPhone, iPod, and iPad. Washington takes in far more in a month than Apple — which was nearly insolvent in the 1990s — has hoarded in its heretofore existence. And if one were to calculate the tax burden on many Americans in so-called blue states (federal income taxes, state and local income taxes, payroll taxes, property and sales taxes), they can easily pay between 50% and 60% of their gross incomes to government. Note that the most flagrant example of corporate income-tax evasion on mega-profits is found with GE that paid no income taxes at all on its 2010 multi-billion-dollar profits — run by the Obama administration’s in-house CEO, crony-capitalist Jeffrey Immelt.

The aside, “We see it as self-destructive,” seems odd editorializing from a European who is witnessing the implosion of an entire continent, brought about by massive redistributive policies of high taxation and higher entitlement expenditures. When we witness the latest Greek riot, or the latest machinations by elite German, French, and EU officials to craft yet another bailout that will not be presented to the European public for debate, much less ratification, we Americans see all this as “self destructive” — and assume the European Union will implode well before the United States. In this regard the violent record of the prior European twentieth century is instructive and germane.]

The same applies to America’s broken political culture. The name “United States” seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and ’70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country’s highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country’s first African-American president may have played a role there, too.

[With all due respect, I think it is quite unfortunate and unwise to invoke German history and culture as a warning about supposed American “hate,” especially as it pertains to political culture. Too many Americans still have too many family memories about the wages of German hatred, venom, racism, and anti-Americanism. Respect for the highest office in America was indeed questioned between 2001 and 2009, but did Mr. Augstein at that time voice worry that the venom had endangered the sanctity of the presidency?

After all, Alfred A. Knopf published a novel imagining the assassination of President Bush. In Canada, an award-winning film offered a docudramatic version of killing Mr. Bush. In the UK, the Guardian published an op-ed openly expressing a desire for the timely return of another presidential assassin like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald. The slur of Nazi, brownshirt, and fascist, aimed at the president, easily came off the lips of a wide variety of celebrities and public figures, from an Al Gore and Garrison Keillor to George Soros and former Senator John Glenn. I was waiting for the proverbial race card, and of course it arrived from Mr. Augstein. To the degree race plays a role in animosity toward the president, I can express relief that no major U.S. publisher would ever publish anything so inflammatory as Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint redirected at President Obama. Nor would major figures openly write or imagine his demise as was true of George Bush’s critics. Again, Mr. Augstein has the unfortunate habit of raising embarrassing issues: the Western problem is not that an America might harbor racial resentment of its African-American president (it does not), but that it is simply impossible to imagine a comparable black prime minister, president, or chancellor in a contemporary France, Germany, Greece, or Italy. Finally, we would call “delusions” Germany’s assumption that Greece is ever going to pay it back.]

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