The Inexplicables

There are a number of things I don’t fathom about contemporary American popular culture and politics. Here is a small sample.

1) Is there a theoretical limit to our national borrowing?

The so-called tough debt ceiling deal still ups the borrowing to $16 trillion, or over 100% of annual GDP. So why are we rejoicing about curbing, rather than stopping, the borrowing? We are not discussing paying back the massive sums that we owe. And we talk not of cutting the baseline expenditures, but only about the rate of increase in entitlements -- reminding us that revolutions start not with the impoverished, but with threatened cuts of subsidies to the middle class. Its appetites increase faster than the state can satisfy them, as most judge their well-being not in having at last more than the poor but in always having less than the affluent.

Our staggering debt also raises an existential question -- at what point would Obama stop borrowing on his own? Should aggregate local, state, income, and payroll taxes climb from 50-55% on one’s income to 60%, 70% or perhaps 80%? Should the top 5% pay not 60% of aggregate income taxes, but, say, 70% or even 80%? Should the 50% who pay no income taxes be expanded to 60% or 70% of the electorate? Should food stamp usage climb from one-sixth of the population (e.g., 50 million) to a third or about 100 million? At what point would the advocates of borrowing be content?

Would the Obamites lead us to borrow and spend until we hit a Greek-like implosion, until the laws of physics stopped them? And then what? Given that government is presently so large, the debt so staggering, combined taxes so great, it is difficult to envision how one could expand on all that. How does one pay back $16 trillion -- the Roman way of coating silver coins with bronze veneers, the Confederate way of printing paper money, the Castroite way of simply confiscating private property? The stimulus model during World War II is evoked, but neither the home front frugality of the war nor the aftermath of 1945 is cited -- when America provided the goods, capital, and services to rebuild an industrial world in shambles and pay down its debt, given the destruction of Germany, Japan, Russia, and much of Western Europe, the premodern status of India and China, and the self-destructive path to socialism in Great Britain. I don’t see such a scenario of recovery this time around. The current borrowing bingers have no conception of ever paying back the debt (Bush surely offered little plan of payback, and Obama none).

The nation is similar to those with four or five maxed out credit cards, and no net worth, who plan on dying and leaving their debt to the banks and less than nothing to their children.

2) What are we to make of the self-referential wealthy who demand higher taxes?

About every month or so either a politician -- a Barack Obama or John Kerry -- or a billionaire -- a Bill Gates Jr. & Sr. or Warren Buffett -- or a celebrity -- a Matt Damon -- pontificates about the need for some sort of higher taxes, as if we are supposed to be in awe over such professed magnanimity. Usually the narrative goes one of two ways: "I wouldn’t mind paying more taxes" or "My secretary pays more taxes than do I.”

These apologies insult our intelligence, since the boaster either makes so much money that he would not notice whether he paid 35% or 39% on his income; or he is in government where the state picks up much of the tab for his health care and transportation, and subsidizes his housing and meals. The subtext is Gore-like aristocratic disdain, as in “Why don’t those accountants and dentists pass on their jet skis and Yukons and fork over more to the more noble needy?”

Of course, the very wealthy who rant about higher taxes simply could pay higher taxes. Such an iconic gesture would do far more than a YouTube rant: the media would love Matt Damon if he were paying 70% in taxes on his income. Indeed, he could start a movement to shame other Hollywood celebrities, who then could shame CEOs, who then in turn could shame the rich in general. Or alternatively, the very wealthy who feel under-taxed simply could donate directly to their own favorite government program -- a Head Start, solar power subsidy, or food stamp program. Or, again, a Matt Damon could limit his take per picture to $1 million (e.g., curbing those millions he “didn’t need”), and start yet another campaign in Hollywood to reduce movie and DVD prices for the needy.

3) Is contemporary American aristocracy compatible with, antithetical to, or the logical complement to modern liberalism?

So another mystery is the leftism of those who live in a world of hierarchical privilege. If we examine the elite media (the MSNBC or New York Times megaphones), or Hollywood  (the lifestyle of a Sean Penn), or leftist politicians (a Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, or Al Gore), there is almost no tangible difference in the way they live their lives from those of the corporate or private sector elite they deprecate. Ensuring that a child goes to a segregated elite prep school, making a well-placed call to an elite university admission officer, guaranteeing a prestigious internship for a daughter, marrying another anchor person or DC insider politician, living in the right zip code, vacationing in Tuscany -- all that is privilege to the core, and in theory at odds with radical egalitarianism.

That begs the question -- is the elite left’s infatuation with the good life not so much a paradox, not a hypocrisy at all, but rather a sort of medieval exemption, or perhaps penance? The price for living well is to advocate government subsidies for the less well off that are rarely seen, and disdain for those who grub for money and as tea partiers lack the refinement that is the dividend of the very rich or the so well connected. Does buying a $40,000 ticket to the president’s 50th birthday party mean that one is exempt from the presidential invective against “millionaires and billionaires” and “corporate jet owners"? As a general rule, the more I hear of such carping, the more I assume the whiner covets what he so childishly is obsessed with ending.

4) Fairly or not, the entire illegal immigration debate is couched in terms of anger at the U.S.

That makes no sense. The recent Rose Bowl crowd’s booing at the U.S. soccer team, the ubiquitous Mexican flags at immigration rallies, the Aztlan-La Raza anguish, the massive May 5th parades, the romantic refashioning of Mexico, the stern lectures from Mexican consuls and government officials -- all this emotion is misdirected: millions have left their mother country, convinced its government has mismanaged the economy and impoverished them, while life in the north offers an opportunity of a good life not found in Mexico. Would not then the illegal immigration movement be located in hyper-pro-Americanism?

I can understand the frustration of being an alien in an alien land, of the poverty and challenge that confronts one without English, legality, and a high school diploma, of the indifference often shown the other who, in a great part, does manual labor that heretofore American youth pass on. (Picking peaches or driving a tractor for 10-hour days has a sobering effect). But that said, if life were still felt to be preferable to what is found in Mexico, then would not the entire immigration movement be awash in pro-American chauvinism, of affection for the antithesis of a Mexico that drove them out: American flags waving at parades, a grass-roots movement to speak and master English, something like the National Council of Mexican-Americans rather than La Raza?

Such public affection for a host, rather than serial critiques and invective, would not just seem more logical, but more politically savvy still. Most illegal aliens desire the U.S. as proven by their presence and reluctance to leave; they need to replace the anger at being told to follow the law, with a sort of thanks for the country that took them in, coupled with a request of how to help out their adopted nation by following the law and applying for legal residency and/or citizenship -- with the assumption that they too would be angry should 11 million Chinese or Nigerians or Germans simply have arrived in the U.S. without legality.

5) I can never quite understand the writ against our ancestors.

I came into this world in 1953 replete with electricity, and modern medicine at the dawn of the age of antibiotics and polio vaccines, and relative peace -- no Japanese imperialism, or German Nazism, no death from tetanus. Who gave us all that and at what price? California had then a wonderful university system, impressive freeways, a lean and hard working public sector, and vibrant industry. We were given so much and yet appreciate so little of that inheritance, citing the sins of past generations, less commonly the gifts they bestowed. I said “gifts” because if they were not benefactions, we would have blown up Hetch-Hetchy dam, turned off the juice from the Morro Bay or Moss Landing power plants, or passed on driving on the 99. Has our generation improved test scores, or created safer streets? Is air travel so much better than forty years ago? When one walks into the DMV, or the county assessor’s office, are the employees so much more polite and competent than in the past?

So I am baffled by the paradox that our present generation is the most critical in our history of its predecessors, and yet in so many areas so clearly wanting. When I meet a contractor, go to a car dealer’s shop, or scan a government bureau, I instinctively look for the “old person,” that is, some man or woman over 60 (and preferably over 70) of any race or class or gender, whose quite different assumptions about life might permeate the work force, or whose greater expertise might rub off on others. When he is absent, chaos seems to reign. The tragedy of the entire university, postmodern race/class/gender writ against past Americans is the fact that our generation has little to show for its moral posturing. When Obama lists our sins from Hiroshima to supposed genocide, I wonder how he would have managed a wagon train, or what he would have done when facing the horrific choices of either sending the napalm-carrying B-29s over Japan or invading the island to trump an Okinawa ten times over. Would he have voted present?

Hike update:

Our annual hike will begin this Saturday at 7AM at the Badger Flat Camp Campground, on the right side of the road, 4.6 miles on Kaiser Pass Road after turning right off 168 at the entrance to Huntington Lake. We will hike about 2 hours to Twin Lakes, rest, and then two hours back — much less strenuous than last year’s Kaiser Peak (10,300 ft.) climb.

Trip:

Next year’s river cruise from Basel to Amsterdam, followed by a fast train to London, is filling fast. We will offer 9 formal lectures from Bruce Thornton, Ken Jowett, and myself, as well as a 10th in London to be announced -- covering topics as diverse as the Rhine in Roman history, the Alsace-Lorraine in World War I and II, the 8th Air Force bombing of Germany, the battles at the Remagen bridge, and the Arnheim campaign, and larger political and strategic topics such as the allure of appeasement and the traditions of European statism, as well as local lectures on Rhineland castles, cathedrals, and museums. We will go back to past practice of disseminating columns to be published by the speakers, at morning breakfasts, where in the past we have had robust arguments about them. Information on the trip can be found at Works and Days.

Riposte.

I don’t know much about James Wolcott, have never mentioned him in print, and don’t know anything he has written -- a book, column, essay -- except from time to time readers send me a post in Vanity Fair in which he attacks me for some such reason. Usually his postings are crass, poorly written, and unimaginative, and they seem to have little value other than offering revelations of the psychodramas and angsts of a small insular class of admittedly irrelevant and talentless New York insiders.

This week he posted:

Meanwhile, also over at the Corner, Victor Davis Hanson--let me begin by saying that I haven't read the Roman orator in awhile and if his writing gets any gassier, he'll be able to blow Jonah's farts for him, and you can quote me on that.

He then ignores that Corner post — that Obama’s regulations, talk of redistributive taxes, efforts to stymie Boeing or the Chrysler creditors, invectives against “millionaires and billionaires,” crony capitalism and preferences for some over others, etc. — had all combined to create a psychological climate that had scared or angered businesses into inaction that otherwise had the stored capital to start hiring again. Again, Wolcott ignored that argument and instead had this infantile observation (his quotes are in italics and mine are in bold that he reproduces):

Anyway, in a little primer called "How to Turn a Recovery into Another Recession," one of the items is,

Be selective in targeting capitalist enemies of the people. The conservative Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch are grasping and greedy; the speculators George Soros and Warren Buffett or the very richest Americans like Bill Gates, or non-income-tax paying companies like GE are public-minded and humane.

I don't know about "humane," but I don't believe that Soros and company ever hacked the phone of an abducted teenager who was later discovered murdered or foisted rabid conspiracy nutters like Glenn Beck and Pamela Geller on the public airwaves, so perhaps there's a case for select targeting and drawing distinctions.

I have no idea what Wolcott is trying to convey other than he seems ignorant of the fact that George Soros is a currency speculator who made over a billion by nearly ruining the Bank of England and its depositors -- a tact he used even more lucratively elsewhere as well. He was convicted of felonious insider trading in France, and that conviction was upheld by an appellate court -- and such hyper-capitalist speculation oddly goes almost unmentioned by the progressive community that is so quick to cite currency manipulation and speculation. The point was clearly one of consistency and hypocrisy -- that had Soros been politically akin to the Kochs or Murdoch then he would now be facing the same level of furor. Nothing need be added to the conduct of Media Matters and Soros's other efforts.