Work and Days

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—Part One

 

In the spirit of optimism, let’s review some good, some bad, and some downright ugly things about this present age. I’ll give three examples of each. For today, here’s the “bad.” Later this week, I’ll post the “ugly,” and then on the weekend the “good.”

First, THE BAD (remember picking three examples is by needs arbitrary).

1) The end of fiscal sobriety. One of the strangest developments has been the embrace, reluctant or not, by conservatives of large government and deficits. Anytime we hear a conservative or a Republican talk of the deficit in terms of percentages of GDP rather than x-amount of real dollars in red ink, we infer that he has no plans to balance the budget. But do we appreciate the psychological, ethical implication of a voter waking up each morning, satisfied that his government is running a surplus? Even with good incomes and some cash in the bank, do we feel better that we have $5,000 on our Visa cards or $O?

For all the talk of smaller government, it grew enormously during the Bush administration, and, to a lesser extent, during both the Reagan and Bush I terms. The problem with growing government to fund idealistic programs like No Child Left Behind or Prescription Drug augments to Medicare is not just the unfunded cost, not just the misguided trust in yet more government bureaucracies that spawn ever larger constituencies of dependants, but the discrediting of the conservative critique of an ongoing DMV-ing of America. Who will now police the fiscal police?

Despite his stalwart efforts to keep us safe for seven years after 9/11 (and we will in time come to appreciate the magnitude of his Trumanesque achievement), had Bush left something akin to a balanced budget, it would have been far easier now to have convinced the public of the pernicious legacies of the far larger Obama deficits (remember the new Orwellian subtext, “We must borrow and spend in order to save and cut”). What are conservatives to say of Obama’s $1.7 trillion annual deficit? “My God in Heaven, that rascal trumped our $500 billion shortfall three-times over!”

The odd thing is that despite 9/11, Katrina, Iraq, and the tax cuts, had Bush just kept discretionary domestic spending at the rate of inflation, we would have  been near budget surpluses by 2005. By January 2007 when Bush had lost the Congress and wished to repent and reform, the game was lost and there was no chance of financial sobriety. Now, our best and brightest suggest that taxing and spending, and printing and borrowing money will lead to financial stability, as if it has in the past in prewar Germany, present -day Zimbabwe or 20th-century Argentina—or 1979 America.

2) Wall Street and the Democrats. By all accounts, liberals and Democrats receive far more Wall Street money than do conservatives—and it has left us baffled about the old role of big money and big government. So here we are: liberals are favoring crony capitalism—crony capitalism is favoring liberals advocating equality of result.

We are reduced to a Chris Dodd on the barricades railing against financial greed, or populist Charles Rangel limoing over to AIG to jawbone funding for his “Rangel Center,” or Bill Gates figuring once more how to connive a Microsoft monopoly, in order to, Carneige-like, fund his noble causes, or George Soros, in between trying to wreck the Bank of England, funneling his hard-won cash to liberal attack-dog centers.

For all the leftwing Gordon Gecko talk of big greed, the liberal Soros, Buffet, Turner, Gates, etc. are all Democratic boosters, and Barack Obama—cf. the trough at AIG, Fannie, Citicorp—was more adept at garnering Wall Street money than was a John McCain, hence perhaps the former’s decision to be the first presidential candidate in the general election to renounce public campaign financing (not all the money raised was from the wee people, but often bundled from the wealthy). Imagine a little honesty in January 2008: “I, Barack Obama, swear my allegiance to the free market before Wall Street, that I will be the first candidate in history to decline that awful bureaucratic public campaign financing, and instead pledge my fealty to you, masters of the universe, to help me raise enough cash in order to help the little people.”

How surreal that liberals continue to rail about capitalist grasping, when a Robert Rubin and his associates were past masters of Wall Street buccaneering. So questions arise: why did the masters of the universe, in their strong preferences for Obama, grow to favor quasi-socialism? (The range of answers runs from they had enough capital accumulated that they could pay psychological penance by electing someone who would make them feel good, but whose redistributive plans would hurt the hardware store owner more than themselves—to the idea that getting government involved as guarantors of your risk/my profit was, well, far safer than being a capitalist leopard proud of his risk-taking spots.)

Bottom line: Once liberal egalitarians got into the mess of big money, they lost any credibility about championing the old blue-collar ethos; once Wall Street ceased being capitalist, we began to lose capitalism.

3) The Therapeutic impulse or “Don’t fault but empathize.” We now contextualize, situationalize, explain away almost every possible human pathology. Take the worst: The Oakland police murder was scarcely reported out here before we heard that the miscreant murderer “was looking for a job”, “was wary about returning to prison” and “was not a monster”, as the carnage was a “tragedy” for all involved. (I confess I like the more honest 1930s headline that would have said, “Deadbeat thug conned his way out of the joint and killed good cops.”)

So the tragic voice screams back, “No, he was evil, an enemy of civilization, and, yes, surely monstrous in all that he did and the creed that he embraced.” By global standards of poverty and deprivation (think the slums of Nigeria or Mumbai, or rural Peru or Bolivia), the killer was hardly impoverished, but perhaps cognizant that in present-day society, incarceration often means parole even for violent offences, and that recriminations about the absence of prison (fill in the blanks: health care, job training, counseling.) win victim status. 

Somewhere in the Berkeley hills reside the retired grandees who thought up all this utopian mindset, while below in the Oakland flatlands the cops died who had to suffer its consequences.

Lost in the therapeutic view is any notion that we should never lower standards, or disguise reality with euphemism, but rather insist and get involved in preparing the traditionally unprepared for the rather high standards of society. Instead, in matters of education, the law, and public discourse, we too often immediately issue race/class/gender inspired qualifiers when rules, norms, protocols prove too difficult for the non-traditional.

A liberal professor seems to prefer to get on his soapbox about diversity at the faculty senate before driving his Camry back home to the tree-lined faculty ghetto, than drive downtown to tutor the ghetto youngster in Latin to ensure he has the tools to succeed in the university. And he gets to justify not spending that difficult hour with the cheap qualifier,  “I would not dare try to impose my cultural norms onto the ‘other.’”

Somewhere some lazy selfish academic dreamed up multiculturalism and is still smiling, “Now I can do whatever I want—drop the hurt in giving F’s, skip out on tutoring the rather difficult to tutor, stop insisting on acrimonious standards at tenure hearings—as long as I mouth these platitudes.” The faculty has become bloated Soviet-era apparatchiks on the May-Day grandstands, saluting the passing missiles, mouthing “comrade” and the “revolution” before lumbering off to the dachas on the Black Sea. Trace the evolution of our therapeutic notions of criminology, of government, of child-raising even, and it inevitably leads you back to the university.

The result in the modern Western world is  the end of the old standards: no one any longer thinks that admission to the Ivy League or Stanford is based entirely on merit, or, its corollary, that completion of a blue-chip degree means that the recipient is really educated. I don’t necessarily associate excellence in ethics with a Nobel Peace Prize, journalistic excellence with a Pulitzer Prize, or academic excellence with an endowed professorship at Princeton.

How odd that the World Series or the Super bowl is a far more honest arbiter of excellence than the current academic and intellectual industries.

When the NBA begins to demand diversity—one Asian center per team, 30% so-called “white” guys on the team, 20% Latino coaches—or the Tour de France demands 10% African-American participation—shudder (or is all that already happening?). Why then do pure merit-based considerations seem to count in things like (the more trivial) sports or (vital) brain surgery and aircraft piloting, but not in the manner in which we train our youth, write our news, or conduct our intellectual life?

We could be even more reductionist about the therapeutic mind—and think that our penal system would improve should we build prisons next to universities (easier for professors to rehabilitate prisoners, better to have an informed nearby community to nurture parolees.) Think of the possibilities of matching word with deed: the Obamas’ children go to the DC public schools; the Harvard humanities Dean is put in charge of hiring for all the nuclear power plants of New England; Chris Dodd and Barney Frank submit their expense budgets instantly to thumbs up/down, on-line public approval; Nancy Pelosi flies commercial…