Posted by: cousindampier | 4 August 2011

A Series of Thoughts on America

The NFL and NBA lockouts are often described as “millionaires fighting with billionaires.” This is an apt description, and it is always declared with some form of the following precursor: “the [common working man/middle class] is sick of seeing millionaires fighting with billionaires.”

Except that is the beauty of the labor disagreements: they essentially do not matter. If the NFL is gone for a year (or, for me, if the NBA is closed for a year), then life is a little less fun, but I am essentially unharmed by it.

Congress is a whole different beast. It almost seems like the same millionaires and billionaires fight, except worse because everything depends on the respective sanity of our Representatives and Senators. This is a dubious proposition, given that ideology has risen above office in recent years. This go-round is especially disturbing in that ideology rose above country as well. Both the Democrats and Republicans act like the outcome of this is meaningless – ‘so what if we don’t pass a debt increase! We’re the United States! They can’t hurt us.’

Instead of the historical standard of ‘country, office, party’, the new standard may well be ‘ideology, country, office.’ Perhaps not more than forty years ago, branch of Congress mattered more than party. To a Representative, the opposing side in the House was the opposition, while the Senate was the enemy, and the White House was a branch of government to be equaled.  Now, the ideology is so much more important.

I re-read Tom Clancy’s political thriller The Bear and the Dragon two weeks ago. Clancy writes about a Chinese attack on Russian Siberia, and how America enters on the Russian side, smashing China (this is all circa-early 2000’s). In the course of these actions, the Chinese leadership is ineptly out-of-touch with reality. Destroyed bridges will be fixed instantly. America will never enter, because America needs Chinese goods. Western companies will never change their suppliers to other nations, because China is China and bad things do not happen. China will succeed because there is simply no other outcome to the men of the central committee.

I thought of this often as the debt talks continued, mostly in regards to the Republican Party, because it occurred to me that this same sort of close-mindedness, of this is our destiny and it will not change because we are right! mentality was streaming from the conservative segment of the party in regards to the possibility of default.

All in all, I figure the deal is okay – mostly because everyone seems to hate it on both sides. And if that is the case, then it may be an actual semi-compromise. Only semi, because the Tea Party played the role of hostage taker, and the Democrats more or less gave in to their demands because the Democrats and the more center-Republicans were aware that the perfect credit rating the USA enjoys is golden. That perfect credit rating allows America to borrow money at cheaper interest levels than if America was downgraded

Throwing that into the tank is nuts. Why even threaten it? Was anybody aware how much more difficult balancing the budget and erasing the debt was going to be if that rating was downgraded? If the rating ever does get downgraded, America will still be about the safest place to invest. America could likely print her way out of the crisis (if Congress allows it, which I’m sure it would if the economy became poor enough. But only then). But the larger question remains: why put at serious risk the perfect credit rating, and force the contemplation of default by the American government?

Short-term default does not solve the long-term problem of how to pay off what America owes, and what America should spend her money on.

The truth about the federal debt is that there has always been one. For one year, in the Andrew Jackson administration, the debt was essentially paid off. For one year!

And in some ways, the debt itself is not the issue. The end is being confused with the means: why the debt exists, and what America needs to borrow money for are the important issues. These issues are rarely addressed because of the seeming total lack of accountability anybody in power wants to have. In fact, it reflects over a large segment of society at large.

I agree with Andrew Exum exactly when he says:

As a younger voter, I continue to be alternately depressed and angered by the selfishness of the generation older than me. Just a few decades ago, the United States was the largest creditor nation. We are now the world’s largest debtor nation. The older generation continues to draw more from entitlement programs than they ever contributed and also refuses to raise taxes, meaning the burden for both perpetually doing more with less and paying for entitlement programs we ourselves will never enjoy falls to my generation and the one below me. It’s just incredibly frustrating. But hey, it’s a democracy, and if that older generation of voters wants a United States that is less ambitious but fatter and happier, okay.

To harp on: the blunt refusal of the older generations to confront anything is outstandingly selfish. The generation in charge now is not the Depression-WWII generation; it is the boomer generation, to whom much was given and (apparently) nothing is even allowed to be asked.

Like a virus, that level of selfishness spreads. The refrain has moved beyond simply, “don’t cut my entitlements!” Now, the entire concept of taxation is called into question. People claim their tax dollars do not bring them any return, as if they are the center of the whole universe. As if the government has not provided some benefit or structural stability which they used to succeed and make money.

Beyond that cry of ‘mine’, the notion that ‘America must be as great as she was before’ also prevails. So the selfish pulling of entitlements and refusal to pay for them is coupled with the idea that America cannot sacrifice an inch, anywhere. Yet somehow, magically, all this will be paid for and done right.

By no means is this a defense of large government. Parts of the government have grown large and bloated, though while I reject most arguments declaring it disrupts capitalism. A larger government has been the answer at some points in American history, and a smaller government at other points. There is not one, strict answer declaring that one is more correct. Moreover, the problem with the size of the American government stems less from its size than its inertia: what, exactly, is the purpose of our government? What is the overall grand strategy of the United States? I don’t quite see it.

The Tea Party is nothing more than the new populism (interestingly, the Democratic Party was the source of the last virulent strain of populism, in the early 20th Century). But in some ways, it is one of the best things to happen to American politics in years. By no means do I think it is a safe or a sane change. Eric Cantor was one of my least-favourite Congressmen not more than a year ago. I hated his smugness, how he always glossed the issues and harped that Obama was a socialist. Yet last week, I found myself rooting for him to succeed and hoping his sanity would win the day.

Because he was fighting the Tea Party, I rooted for him. This is, maybe, why the Tea Party is good. They’ve brought about a substantial change in the equilibrium of politics. The Democrats do not have that progressive symmetry, which is desperately needed to balance things out. Obama is not a movement, as much as he was labelled as such (and used to campaign). He’s been pretty conservative and tried to stick to the middle of the road, and outside of Bernie Sanders and his magnificent filibuster on the Senate floor, the amazing part of this is there has been no equal reaction from the progressive left. No fury at levels obtained by the basis of the Tea Party.

Of the many lessons the argument over the debt crisis revealed, one of the more interesting was the undressing of the Democratic Party. It has long been the party of the progressives, and will be for the future, but it becomes more and more difficult to argue the Democratic Party is progressive. The party more seems to be a middle-class party. It has the left covered because there is no other party for the left, but it plays to the progressive left little. It reaches more to the unions and the middle class.

What the Tea Party may be doing to the Republican Party is shifting it more right. This leaves, possibly, more middle-class for the Democrats to shift right and claim as a base. The schism in the GOP, between Boehner and Cantor (who, incredibly, now represent the sane, centrist wing of the Republican Party) and the Tea Party is fascinating. Will it be bridged? Will one segment win out? Or will the Tea Party stick to its ideology and break away, running its own candidates?

Is this the rise of the most legitimate third party since the 1968 election (and maybe since Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressives, depending on how one rates their third parties)?

I disagree with pretty much every policy advocated by the Tea Party – which I hate, because it poisons me towards the Republican Party in general, which is a damned shame, because it is the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt (and even Coolidge, though I suspect the Tea Party is rightly proud of him. Never the mind that Lincoln and Roosevelt, and probably Coolidge, wouldn’t be members of the Tea Party). But at least the Tea Party wants specific results. And at least, due to their push, there will be some, instead of more can-kicking. If they turn out to be sane is a whole different matter, and I can only hope they are. Perhaps because of the youth of some of the candidates in the Party this has come true – perhaps the Tea Party can emerge as the first post-Boomer party, forcing some responsibility onto elected officials (and force a reaction from the left). Or, more likely, the Tea Party is the Party of the Boomer generation.

It is as if the left, and the Democrats, were so thrilled just to finally win, nobody wanted to do anything to upset that nice, victorious balance.

I think America is at its best when it is at its most international. In some ways, I think ‘what is good for the world is good for America,’ because the substantial changes occurring in the world revolve around freedoms of choice, openness between people, and the elimination of poverty. America will face some short-term issues which will run against her interests, but in the long-term, the change in the world will fit with her ideals. America should promote this. I disagree with the Tea Party substantially in that regard, I feel, because the nature of this notion advocates for a larger government than the Tea Party seems to want.

I want America to remain a vibrant and strong nation, one which leads throughout the world in any capacity. Figure out how to shrink the (hopefully famous) gap. Figure out how to continue to help lift people from poverty (even if the answer is to do nothing and let the economy roll). Figure out how to stop genocide and let other peoples experience that same freedom of choice.

But instead I’m stuck watching the madness of an America where a group of people can hold the country hostage because of a larger ideology, and to whom the mere mention of raising taxes might as well be a discussion about bringing Stalin back from the dead. And where the problems of an NBA lockout seem minute and incidental compared to the problems between the parties we choose to elect.

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