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Works and Days

Pause and Take a Deep Breath

February 15th, 2009 - 12:09 am

Five Easy Pieces

I. “Bush did it!”

Sec. Clinton went abroad this week and immediately, and yes, gratuitously, blamed Bush. On her initial tour abroad, Sec. Clinton announced that she would follow an approach that “values what others have to say”: “Too often in the recent past, our government has acted reflexively before considering available facts and evidence or hearing the perspectives of others.” And then she promised a policy “neither impulsive nor ideological.”

Yet can’t Team Obama get a life? We are now into month two; and will it always be “Bush did it?” (I don’t recall Bush circa 2001 in a constant anti-Clinton mode); (1) Does Sec. Clinton realize she is sending a subtle message to our friends and enemies, “All our fault—not yours” . Germany won’t really participate fully in the martial sense in the NATO effort in Afghanistan due to George Bush? Iran spread terror due to Bush’s twang? (Do other foreign leaders do such things?); (2) Does she realize that soon, like her boss and his flips on FISA, the Patriotic Act, and rendition, she too will discover few good choices with Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, and then often will follow Bush’s centrist policies—suffering the additional wage of hypocrisy, given the above rhetoric? (3) Cannot Hillary simply show us her own diplomatic brilliance rather than trashing by implication Condoleezza Rice’s performance? Far better to embarrass Bush by showing brilliant diplomacy and creating anew a safer world, not by trashing the past governance of your own country. We are back to the Obama al-Arabiya interview all over again. These thoughts are the legacies of the 1960s that reveal uncertainty about the US and the puerile campus notion that there is always “they” , the “man”, the “establishment,” the “government” that can assume responsibility for our perceptions of imperfections and unhappiness.

II. Better to owe than to save. I think we are seeing the most marked redistribution of wealth in our recent history. The erosion of home equity and, especially, the 20-30% decline in 401(k)s— followed by nearly $1 trillion in additional entitlement spending (“stimulus”)— mean essentially that much of the capital in the hands of those who owned property and had stocks and mutual funds was destroyed and will be recreated by transferring monies to others. How odd that the printing of billions of new paper dollars to spread he wealth is offset by the virtual destruction of billions of old paper dollars in savings and home equity. Maybe that will slow inflation (e.g., some of us figuratively had money burned up at about the same amount that more was printed afresh). In any case, we live in the age of the debtor—low interest, soon to be high inflation, all sorts of plans to alleviate debt, and government transfers favoring those who owe rather than those who saved.

III. To be or not to be. Obama’s problem is simple. At Columbia, Harvard Law, while Chicago organizing, amid the pews of Trinity Church, and the Democratic Senate caucus, and in the campaign mode, Obama embraced the adversarial mentality of us versus them. The country was illiberal and those in power culpable for various sins, past and present, as one would expect of Michelle’s reference to a “mean” country. But suddenly as President Obama, now he must do what? He owns the governance of the United States that suddenly must either morph under his leadership into something quite good or be defended as it is. Note the unease. So “they” “Bush” etc. are still evoked who did the damage to America here and abroad, as our own leaders triangulate with our enemies and allies against other past administrations. (NB: I have no idea whether Obama will confound and confuse our enemies or simply unduly enrage them by sending mixed signals—if he should prove tough with the Russians on missile defense or Iran or terrorism.)

IV. The Passing of an Age

Apart from the crisis of World War II, we are seeing an historical rise in the size and importance of government—the result not just of a reaction against Wall Street greed, incompetence, and irresponsibility, but also of the growth in a decades-long ideology that insisted that the self was not responsible for his predicament, but that government could step in and right the wrongs done by others.

No health care? It is never because some of us chose to buy a cell phone or a plasma television rather than spend $250 a month for catastrophic private health plans.

College? All of us are owed free tuition, or at least state-subsidized loans. None of us is at fault for not saving for college. Much less are there those among us who do not belong in college (as a professor emeritus of some 21 years at a public university, a key problem, it seemed to me, were thousands of listless students, living at home, subsidized by state and federal loans and stipends, prolonging a four-year protocol into five, six, and, yes, ten years of off and on study, as they sorta, kinda attended class—as if life begins at 28 rather than 21.)

Mortgages? Seven to eight percent of us defaulted. Here are the rules of discourse: no one bought far more house than they needed or could afford. Few forgot to factor in taxes, maintenance, power bills, or insurance as costs additional to the mortgage payment. Almost none, of course, ever took a second or third mortgage to energize credit card purchases. None of us are by nature renters, and simply not up to the burdens of home maintenance, of prompt payment of fees and mortgages, and the other responsibilities of ownership that are different from those of the renter.

But I think these are merely symptoms of a far more worrisome pathology— the eclipse of the tragic view itself. Like it or not, the bedrock of the American experience has always been the self-employed truck driver, the farmer, the small-businessman, the jack-of-trades entrepreneur. That is not to say that the public employee is not noble and all that, only that the American character renown for blunt speech, decisive action, free-thinking, and resolute action, even for eccentricity and stubborness was better nurtured by some professions and less by others. But bury him under high taxes, regulations, politically-correct statutes, litigiousness, intrusive government, and confusing postmodern culture, and we begin to see that profile eroding. Helping friends and hurting enemies is now slandered as Manichean. Assuming that most places abroad in South America, Africa, and Asia are illiberal and worse is ethnocentric, chauvinist, parochial.

I think we are seeing a rising tide of an antithetical profile that says. I work for government and expect protection from government, whose mission to ensure an equality of result that takes no consideration of ignorance, criminal behavior, bad personal decisions, fate, bad luck, sloth, poor health, or intrinsic unfairness, but instead by intellect, capital, and good intentions promises, if given enough power, to overcome all such factors and in infinite wisdom not mererly to level the playing field, but to ensure there are no winners, or losers, just equal particpants who start and end the same.

I deserve, I am owed, I must receive is our mantra. We must become more like the world, rather they like us. War is caused by miscommunications rather than intrinsic evil that is difficult to negotiate away. America is simply one of many nations, exceptional only to the degree that we suffer from unusual race, class, and gender transgressions. The founders and their epigones were mostly preeminent as racist and elites, not geniuses who knew far more than 99% of us today. I think all that more or less sums up the lesson from today schools and colleges, and explains why today the average American when abroad rarely defends his country from the caricatures and attacks of foreigners, or why we read daily of the errant policeman, not of the thousands of deadly miscreants he is asked to monitor, why were are told ad nauseam that health care is broken, ruined, never that hourly millions of dollars are given in emergency room care to those here illegally, or who arrive suffering from gang trauma, or those who chose not to purchase health insurance—and who were given topflight care which earns no thanks when good but often a law suit when not perfect.

V. Do no harm.

There was at least a good chance that the current recession—so far less unemployment and loss of GDP than during the late Carter and early Reagan years—would have, as past recessions, ended in 24 months or so, with moderate expansionary policy by the government and the fed, and without a permanent radical growth in government. As we see from the unexpected stability of the dollar, other economies are far more shaken by the downturn, and were even more reckless in their lending, or dependant solely on oil or reliant only on exporting. Abroad, the losses to Hamas have strengthened the US hand in the Middle East. During the last administration, favorable governments came to power in Italy, Germany, and France. India is close to the United States. China is, well, China. Iraq is quiet.

In short, America does not have to be reinvented here or abroad.

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