Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Political Mess

I have not written a “political” essay in many months. To begin with, it seems to me that there are already far too many political blogs, and that their ratio of good sense to verbal volume is unpromising. I myself have neither academic expertise in political science nor practical experience in politics. Such developed political ideas as I do have are frequently offensive to my peers. Under these circumstances it seems to me best to honor the classical adage: Cobbler—stick to thy last!

The current mess in Washington is so appalling, however, as to suggest that leaving politics to the politicians is a mere acquiescence in disaster. Do not go gentle into that good night. It is hard to know where to begin. We face some very serious problems, many of them related to a world economy so complex that only fools pretend to understand it entirely. We depend for their solution upon the actions of largely incompetent and partially corrupted legislators, chosen by a largely ignorant electorate who share with them a spiritual attention deficit disorder.

One of our major political parties has spent half a century creating a vast base of dependency which it now proclaims it a sacred duty to protect. The other has managed to reduce the noble concept of Burkean conservatism to a superstitious mantra concerning tax policy, while actually pushing the country into a staggeringly expensive war in Iraq and a huge and wholly unfunded increment to Medicare. But according to the partisan political blogs the one is staunchly “defending ordinary Americans and working families” and the other bravely opposing “job-killing taxes on the wealth creators”. Both are claiming to focus like laser beams on “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” Is it any surprise that this Congress enjoys job-approval ratings of seventeen percent?

It may not actually be possible to get out of this mess, finally. Nations, no less than their individual citizens, can be subject to powers largely beyond their control, the influences of which they can but exacerbate or attenuate. Certainly we are not going to get out of it swiftly enough to meet the national code of instant gratification. But we are unlikely to get anywhere at all without combining serious reductions in government expenditures with substantial increments in tax revenues. For identifying this “mother of all no-brainers,” David Brooks has been clubbed with the Club for Growth.

Longevity often has the curious side effect of insulating the long-livers from the full intensity of current realities. We have prior spiritual commitments, so to speak. I hope you can believe, however, that there are quite a few folks who know a lot despite the fact that they aren’t even on Face Book. They may know, for instance, that the idea that the New Deal “brought us out” of the Great Depression is pretty hokey. That is an idea I have encountered repeatedly in the web essays of various youthful pundits, who seem to regard the New Deal as a benign model for governmental “stimulus,” such as that in the “Cash for Clunkers” program. I even have a relevant personal anecdote. For a while in 1937 or 1938 my Dad worked for the WPA putting in some railway trestles on the north fork of the White River in Arkansas. His later description of the experience was this: “We pretended to work, and they pretended to pay us.” Many years later I heard the same “joke” quoted as an anti-Soviet witticism emanating from the eastern bloc.

Insofar as some dramatic intervention “brought us out” of the Depression, that intervention was the international disaster called the Second World War. That did indeed rev up the American economy, at the expense of millions of lives lost or blighted, and left us for a time fortuitously unchallenged by the economies of our natural industrial competitors, which were either flattened by our bombs or simply exhausted by a supreme effort. But it also invited the slowly maturing national self indulgence that over six decades has brought us to our present pretty pass.

Are any of my readers old enough to remember the old American work ethic? There is indeed a national “job crisis”. One part of it is this: many of the limited number of jobs that are available, though socially necessary, are ones that “nobody” wants to do. Hence the invasion of the Latino army, concerning which our national hypocrisy daily reaches new heights. If you are a suburban New Jersey householder, you will be predictably faced on a regular basis with the need to remove snow from your sidewalks and driveways, to cut your grass and tidy your gardens, and to engage in various other seasonal chores needed to maintain and preserve your property. If you are an aging householder, or a preoccupied one, chances are that you would be happy on occasion to hire someone to help you with such chores. There was a time in living memory when wholesome looking teen-aged males, often the offspring of friends or neighbors, would appear on one’s doorstep soliciting such work. They were “saving for college,” or trying to get the money together to buy a jalopy, or to rebuild one they already had. I have had no such visitation by a native speaker of the English language in the decades I’ve been living in our current house. I’m not even sure I’ve had a magazine subscription scammer.