Archive for August 7th, 2008

What, me worry?

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe notes something I agree with completely:

“ALFRED E. Neuman isn’t running for president this year, but he might as well be. The United States is speeding toward a fiscal cataclysm, and the leading presidential candidates treat the subject with a nonchalance worthy of Mad Magazine: What, me worry?”

Jacoby notes that the debt is nearing $10 trillion, we’re expected have record deficits this year and next, approaching $500 billion. Taken alongside the housing crisis, the credit collapse, and the dollar’s continuing weakness, this points to an economic cataclysm that could make the next decade extremely difficult. Jacoby also notes (as I have as well) that the baby boomers are about to retire, and this means not only a massive strain on social security, but instead of paying into 401 K plans, they will be withdrawing from them. The impact on the stock market could be very negative. In fact, this could lead to a major collapse in America’s position in the world, something I’ve discussed before.

You’d think this would be a central theme in the campaign, that people would be focused on figuring out how to deal with these structural problems that threaten our very way of life. Instead, the candidates are oblivious, hence Jacoby’s comparison to Alfred E. Neuman. To listen to Obama and McCain speak, you’d think that our problems are simply the result of some bad policies that need changing. They show no sign that they understand the immense challenges facing us in coming years.

They can’t. For McCain, a recognition of the reality of the situation would mean either embracing the possibility of tax increases (anathema to a Republican) or real, intense cuts in government spending. While in the abstract Republicans rail against government programs, when it comes to specifics they are hesitant to recommend real cuts. They know that the public likes broad attacks on government excess, but becomes fickle when their favorite programs or issues are threatened. But to keep it vague, he can’t give numbers or really address the scope of the issue. It’s all marketing, not real political debate. Moreover, it’s almost certain that the cuts will come from military expenditures as well as domestic programs — the public will demand it. But a Republican like McCain can’t even suggest that.

For Obama, recognition of the realities of our fiscal situation would mean curtailing the promises of new government action to solve problems, fight poverty and provide health care. The money won’t be there for new government programs, so he’d have to say that we’ll either have to raise taxes or make cuts as well. But for a Democrat, it’s important that he seem to promise a more active government, otherwise he’d lose the base of his party, something needed in November. Moreover, ever since Walter Mondale miscalculated that being honest about tax increases would be welcomed by an educated voting public, Democrats shy away from clear talk about taxes. Instead a vague promise of “cuts for the middle class” and increases “on the most wealthy” dominate the discussion. That won’t be enough to deal with the problems on the horizon.

So here we stand, before perhaps the biggest economic and political crisis of our country in the last 140 years, and our political leaders, spending billions to try to gain the office of the Presidency, refuse to even acknowledge the problem. Instead, it’s played politically, with both sides blaming the other and claiming they have the solution. It’s enough to make me want to support Paris Hilton, who at least seems to have a sensible energy policy!

Why is it that our leaders refuse to confront difficult problems. They all want to make it seem easy. But, just as the politicians like to blame others for our problems (blame OPEC, big oil, big government, the Democrats, the Republicans, etc.), it’s easy for us to simply blame the politicians. They aren’t leveling with us, they aren’t confronting the deep problems facing our country, they are fiddling as Rome burns! The blame, though, lies with us, the American people.

We’ve become fat, lazy, uneducated, and blind to the complexities of the world around us. We focus more on our entertainment and toys than on the world and its problems. In politics we get more incensed about emotional issues — abortion, flag desecration, etc. — then the complexities of world affairs and the problems facing our economy and the environment. We want a candidate with a slogan that allows us to just ignore the problems — don’t worry, be happy. And, wanting to be elected, the politicians give us what we want. They certainly know the problems are far more intense, they aren’t oblivious to the reality they refuse to acknowledge. But they also know that we don’t want to hear about it, and we’ll certainly withhold our votes if they tell us things that make us uncomfortable.

Oh, but for a candidate who would say: “Fellow Americans, I’d like to stand here and tell you that if you vote for me and my party, we have the policies to solve our problems and secure a prosperous and peaceful future. However, we face problems that defy any easy solution, and require Americans of all political stripes to work together and think creatively. These problems — oil dependency, massive government deficits, a huge trade deficit, the de-industrialization of our country, environmental problems, and a risk of fiscal and economic collapse — are the result of policies embraced by both parties. No one can simply blame the other side. Moreover, we’ve gotten so comfortable with partisan bashing – blaming the ‘evil Democrats’ or the ‘greedy Republicans,’ — that we’ve lost sight of the fact the world is too complex for simple ‘this way or that way’ solution. So I can’t promise new programs to solve our problems. I can’t promise ‘no new taxes.’ We have to keep all options on the table as we deal with this impending crisis. I can only promise to speak openly about these problems, and listen to the various options and possibilities, building compromises that allow Americans to work together to weather this storm, and set the foundation for long term peace and prosperity.”

There’s a good chance our lives will change dramatically in coming years, as economic reality forces us to cut back on all aspects of government, from social programs to military spending. It will bring about an upheaval in our political system. Perhaps, as I noted in “America and the Troglodytes,” this is rooted in a fundamental weakness in modern democracy. Americans will be shocked and angry that this was allowed to happen, and the door will be open for populists, political opportunists, and Bonapartism. It could well be that the 2008 election will be remembered for it’s surreality, candidates talking about empty issues while the country is on a collision course with disaster. We’ll blame the politicians, but they’re just giving us what we want.