Some Very Bad American Habits
The wealthier and more leisured American society has become, the more it has developed some terrible habits that will have to end if we are going to return to fiscal sobriety and a unified culture. I am pessimistic on that count, but here are a few examples:
1) The Administrative Fig Leaf of Cosmic Justice
I was always curious when teaching in the California State University system why self-important administrators sent us weekly memos about their diversity goals and accomplishments, but were silent that under their watches the number of students in the freshman class who needed remedial courses hit 50% — or why, after even six years, less than half those students who entered CSU graduated. Have you experienced this phenomenon, a sort of politically correct Neroian fiddling amid burning Rome?
NASA head Charles Bolden not long ago announced that his agency’s chief mission was Muslim outreach. I wish instead that his chief worry was getting rockets into space, since last week yet another one, under NASA auspices, failed to send a satellite into orbit, a mere $424 million mistake. Perhaps with his newfound contacts, Gen. Bolden could enlist some of the brilliant scientists from the Middle East who have tapped into the Islamic scientific tradition as outlined in the president’s Cairo speech.
Why did Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik lecture the country about the social-political-economic-cultural -- and cosmic -- implications of the unhinged Tucson killer, Jared Loughner? Might not the sheriff have worried less about a supposed conservative “climate of violence,” and more that he did not have any of his 500 sheriffs at Rep. Giffords’ rally, or that his department was well aware of Loughner’s prior serial run-ins with law enforcement? Did Rush Limbaugh prohibit him from putting Loughner under surveillance or patrolling the perimeter of the congresswoman’s event?
Mayor Bloomberg by now can offer a polished lecture on dietary fat, second-hand smoke, and the status of Islam in the United States, but not guarantee his own streets will be passable after a storm. Were his municipal workers too fat, out of breath, or Islamophobic to remove snow?
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pontificated about green energy for years and other cosmic crises, but he left the state with a $25 billion shortfall and upped our long-term debt obligations by tens of billions of dollars. Was the idea that the income from the leasing of land for solar panels and wind machines would pay down the debt?
In short, we live in a medieval age of politically correct penance — as the brilliant Al Gore grasped when he made millions hawking carbon footprint offsets — in which loud abstractions can mask concrete incompetence. I suppose when my plumber starts lecturing me about the secular nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, I should assume he did not find the leak under the house.
2) The Angst of the Liberal Mind
I was politely pointing out to an acquaintance not long ago that many of California’s problems — soaring Medicare and Medicaid costs, near-bottom in national school rankings, flight of the affluent out of state, soaring prison populations, hyper-expensive law enforcement costs, high taxes, and swamped public bureaucracies — had at least something to do with the fact California has more illegal aliens than any other state, meaning that social services spike, tax revenue per capita plummets, and billions of dollars leave the state to Mexico in remittances. I did not locate the assessment in an ethnic context, but simply pointed out that it is hard (and costly for others) for millions en masse to integrate into a sophisticated society without legality (when the first thing that an arriving immigrant does is to break the law of his host, then the violation of subsequent laws is logical rather than aberrant), English, or a high school diploma, and that such disadvantages both ripple into a second generation and require a humane society to make enormous investments to ensure parities — or else.
I added to statistical evidence a few anecdotes from what I saw cycling in rural central California — especially my most recent (and probably last) bicycle ride 10 days ago. A huge concrete irrigation standpipe was knocked off its base by a hit-and-run driver. Two men were tossing out from a pick-up a built-in dishwasher onto the side of the road. A no-dumping sign at a rural pond had three fresh garbage bags at its base. And, oh yes, there was my own modest first-hand bit of research. I rode by a small house, or should say “houses,” since it seemed about 30 people lived in various garages, sheds, and Winnebagos at a single address. Eight unleashed, unfenced Chihuahuas and Pekingese dogs ran out (Don’t laugh, I concede at the outset that they were not pit bulls). All chased me (riders can attest that the tiny dog under the wheel is as dangerous as the bigger dog by the pedal.) Note I don't wear bike "garb," but old sweat pants, flannel shirt, and work gloves.
One rushed into my front wheel — flipping me over the handle bars at 18 mph. I dislocated a finger, wrenched my knee, and tore the skin off my arm, knee, and elbow. I staggered to the door to complain to the owners that their pack of dogs should at least not be allowed to run into the middle of the street, and asked if any had rabies shots (one nipped at my leg). Four adults — 11 AM on a weekday — said they did not speak English and sort of went into a blind, deaf, and dumb mode, as I tried my pidgin Spanish.
OK, I understood that it was my fault for riding a bicycle along the driver's right-hand side of a rather lonely public road (most out here for some reason ride on the left side against traffic and often right into your face if you are not careful). So I walked my half-ruined bike home (over one hour) but did gather than the injured Chihuahua was called “Snookie.” All the above can become expensive to the state when a large segment of the population simply is not playing by the rules, either by volition or tragic circumstance.
My liberal friend, however, bristled at this “scapegoating” of illegal immigrants. And he suggested that illegal immigration was “no different from the Irish in 1850” or the “Poles in 1920.” Yet, it is most surely different, given the question of legality, the melting pot in lieu of the salad bowl, and the distance from Europe in comparison to the proximity of Mexico.
But I noticed one other thing: he chose to move far away from all of the above into a neighborhood that is ethnically monolithic (white), elite, and as far as possible from where he grew up. This too is an American trait — one professes global concern as a sort of psychological penance for one’s own worry that he wants nothing to do with politically incorrect problems. I might go so far as to suggest that the more one is animated that illegal immigration is not a problem, the more likely one is to be insulated from it. (Note the constant sermonizing from the Hollywood elite from the beaches of Malibu.)
3) Some Day over the Rainbow
I came of adult age amid the pre-SUV period of promised “energy independence” by 1980. More recently we heard that sometime in the 21st century debt will only be a particularly small percentage of GDP. In other words, Americans have developed a notion that if we promise to end something someday, we can enjoy it all the more right now. In our own lives, we know the syndrome: after this last credit-card purchase, I will pay the entire amount off; after this last bit of See’s candy I will lose 100 pounds; after this last eight hours on the sofa I will run a marathon.
So some magical day in the future we might have a balanced budget. That means that right now we can exceed last year’s $1.3 trillion shortfall and trump it with $1.6 trillion in new federal borrowing (You see, President Obama was perfectly clear, and made no mistake about, that we will balance the budget some day soon).
We talk of a bankrupt Social Security system, lament the fate our children who will pay more for us and get less for themselves, and then announce that some younger cohort will some day receive less of the borrowed money — as in “of course, we will honor our contracts to those over 55" (or is it 50, or is it 45 or just “nearing retirement age”?).
I’m sorry, we are all broke. And I don’t see why my generation (I’m 57) should not work a bit longer and get a bit less Social Security, given that the sacrifice is going to be much harder on our children. (I assume many baby boomers have learned that they are helping their children way into the latter's late twenties, and assume they will monthly recirculate their Social Security income to their children anyway.)
If we want to fix the system, we should start right now on Social Security and Medicare. Most of the late baby-boomer generation cannot accept that the debt commission, which called for some tough medicine, nevertheless did not envision a balanced budget for several years, much less elimination of U.S. debt in our lifetimes, much less Social Security solvency for nearly three more decades. I'm not relieved that at 83 we at last might eliminate accumulated Social Security debt.
A Modest Proposal
Let us ask our administrators to administrate first and philosophize second, and let us fire those who cannot agree with that sequence. Let us not sermonize on human misery from a distance (e.g., a "downright mean country" is not compatible with Costa del Sol). And let us act now, rather than dream of acting later — or simply be quiet.
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