Belmont Club

The Care of Time

Michael Barone writes that the bloom is off the rose. Based on the bellweather of his experience at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he notes “that enthusiasm for Barack Obama and his administration seems to be conspicuously missing.”  Here are some particulars:

I attended a session last night on foreign policy where almost all of the panelists painted a gloomy picture of the state of world affairs (James Fallows was a little upbeat about China’s apparent concessions on Iran sanctions and its own currency) and had little good to say about Obama administration policy. There were even occasional notes of nostalgia for George W. Bush: Charlayne Hunter-Gault noted that Africans appreciated his anti-AIDS program and Elisabeth Bumiller said that her editors at The New York Times could not believe that people in India were big Bush fans. The most stinging attacks came from Mort Zuckerman, who said the Obama policies were dangerously weak, and Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, hardly an Obama basher in the past.

Does this mean that liberals are rethinking their core ideas or are they looking for another wagon on which to hitch their star? Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast says that James Brolin and Barbara Streisand actually applauded a Niall Ferguson peroration praising the budgetary reforms of Paul Ryan. That’s not completely surprising: no one is immune from fear once they’ve been shown the danger. The administration’s problem is that it is palpably failing and unless the trends reverse themselves sooner or later a majority will catch on.

The interesting question is what happens if enough people lose faith in the administration and find that even after they’ve affixed the blame the downward momentum still continues. Will the country have a ‘Thresher moment’ and lack the time and energy to set things right? In 1963 the USS Thresher which was the newest, fastest SSN in the US Navy was on a test dive off Cape Cod. It probably sprang a leak at test depth. There at the edge of its envelope, the leak triggered the worst possible response: an automatic reactor shutdown. Without the power to drive itself to the surface the Thresher continued to sink. They blew ballast. But something unexpected happened: in those conditions the high pressure air cooled and froze the pipes. She had plugged herself and sank ever deeper until the depths claimed her.

That terrible loss of reserve energy just when the system needed it most is the biggest threat that the Obama bleed-off of resources poses. The presumption is that once enough political erosion has occurred then someone will blow the ballast and the sub will surface. What must be factored in is time. Nations don’t turn on a dime. The gigantic programs initiated by the administration will bear a momentum not easily reversed. Europe, well on its way to crush depth, is finding that lightening ship isn’t so easy. Too many people, too many systems were predicated on a future that just won’t be there. Nowhere is that more evident than in pensions. A BBC report suggests that the “elite” finally realize that the cradle-to-grave system can only be sustained on the basis of work-till-you-drop.

Europe’s low birth rates and ageing population make it imperative for EU member states to overhaul their pension systems, the European Commission says. … France, Greece, Spain and the UK have plans to raise the retirement age. But the changes, brought in as governments seek to slash chronic budget deficits, have angered many workers. Thousands have protested in the streets.

One can understand the disappointment.  The welfare state is beginning to look like one giant bait-and-switch. The refusal to accept  they’ve been had — hence the street mobs and general strikes — are a dying system’s equivalent of compressed air freezing the pipes. They only guarantee the ship sinks faster. And there is the question of whether raising the retirement age will improve things at all. The demographic engine of Europe was shut down a long time ago and now the props won’t force her to the surface. Firms forced to hang on to septuagenarians doddering to the office will have less room for younger workers.  Maybe they’ll just have to squeeze into the last watertight compartment as they hear the crumbling bulkheads come closer and closer. And when the retirees finally stagger home from their last working day the pension they receive will be nothing like they were promised. The Daily Mail describes how members of some pensions funds are now finding their guaranteed pensions aren’t guaranteed at all. Those who got early payouts did well. Those who have yet to receive their payouts will be glad to get whatever they can.

Anyone who thinks that bad habits will end overnight should look at Illinois. The Chicago Tribune notes that the state is bankrupt. But you wouldn’t know to look at it. The giant spending machine continues to churn long after financial death, like some fiscal zombie stalking the earth.

“Illinois stops paying its bills, but can’t stop digging hole.” … Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes says the state owes billions to schools, rehabilitation centers, child care, state universities and he told The New York Times, “it’s getting worse every single day.” He calls the state’s inability to pay for essential services “obscene.” The real obscenity — in Illinois, California, New York and especially Washington, D.C. — is an inability to live within the means taxpayers provide. Despite record high taxes in these states and more coming at the federal level, government never has enough of our money. But it isn’t all government’s fault. Too many Americans have come to rely on government to take care of them, and government has passed the point where it can do so any longer.

The real problem is that individuals may soon have no choice but to rely on government to take care of them. Wayne Allyn Root argued that President Obama was “The Great Jobs Killer” a conclusion which the speakers at Aspen — with more finesse — more or less agreed.

“The real problem we have,” Mort Zuckerman said, “are some of the worst economic policies in place today that, in my judgment, go directly against the long-term interests of this country.” …

Zuckerman added that he detects in the Obama White House “hostility to the very kinds of [business] culture that have made this the great country that it is and was. I think we have to find some way of dealing with that or else we will do great damage to this country with a public policy that could ruin everything.”

Ferguson added: “The critical point is if your policy says you’re going run a trillion-dollar deficit for the rest of time, you’re riding for a fall…Then it really is goodbye.” A dashing Brit, Ferguson added: “Can I say that, having grown up in a declining empire, I do not recommend it. It’s just not a lot of fun actually—decline.”

The destruction of private enterprise and its substitution by government spending creates the danger that too many people will find there’s nothing left but to stay on the needle. Only when it the needle absolutely positively bone dry; bent, corroded and blood encrusted will the alternative be considered. In the meantime there is the terrible momentum of promises, the fatal attraction of hope and change. Will there be enough reserve buoyancy to surface? Or will the Ship of State, like some gigantic version of Illinois, keep racing for the depths?

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