Friday, March 20, 2009

Rebuilding America

A debate worth reading carefully over how to assess blame for the recession (Wall Street or Washington, as if one could tell them apart, given the revolving door) has just been held by the Rosenkranz Foundation.

The more fundamental point, in my opinion, is that the implicit message of the last decade has been that anything goes: the elite were excused in advance from taking responsibility for their behavior. Morality and responsibility start at the top. When foreign policy is based on lies and the blatant search for personal profit, the message (piracy is in) flows through society.

  • The parallel between the $72 million compensation given to Lehman Brothers chief Richard Fuld (see Ferguson's remarks in the debate) and the $15 million sole source contract given to Cheney's company Halliburton for supporting the occupation of Iraq is exact.
  • The parallel with the White House assertion of the various claimed extra-constitutional rights of the Imperial Presidency is also exact: the medium of exchange for Wall Street corruption is money; the medium of exchange for Washington corruption is power. If the coin of the realm (money or power) is used illictly for private gain, it is corruption.
  • The parallel with Bush's encouragement to Americans to continue life as normal during the invasion and occupation of Iraq is also exact. This was nothing more than a bribe: Washington will give you, the American people, cheap oil in return for you looking the other way as we, the elite, run foreign policy any way it pleases us. Washington's encouragement to everyone to buy a house, regardless of what the person could afford, and promotion of the bubble were just more of the same.
Thus, while I absolutely applaud the holding of this debate as a brilliant way to inform people about the causes of our current difficulties, I must say that it somewhat misses the point by asking the wrong question: Wall Street and Washington are not clearly distinguishable. The foxes guard the chicken coop. Financial and foreign policy cannot be separated either. America is generally governed by a shockingly coherent elite, whose members spend their years in power passing back and forth through a revolving door. This elite has done both good things and bad things, selfish things and patriotic/moral things. Its mood changes. Individuals sometimes matter; conditions sometimes send a message that breaks through the barriers of hubris and downright stupidity.

Bottom line: the problems we face today--whether the threat of terrorism, the financial crisis, or global warming--were caused by the immaturity, greed, and irresponsibility of this elite. Worrying about which part of the elite was most guilty may be useful as a guide to repairing the damage, and here the debate offers real value: the buck stops in the White House. It is the White House that sets the moral tone for the whole nation. That is most unfortunate since Americans insist on electing second-rate people as leaders: visionaries, philosophers, those who challenge us to achieve our best in moral terms, even open-minded reformers stand virtually no chance of winning the presidency. Since Americans choose not to elect outstanding individuals, they should not treat them like heroes, but they do, so the moral tone set by the White House is copied nationwide.

The point of reviewing the sordid history of the recession is not primarily to punish the guilty (though that should be done) but to shine light on the way forward: if immorality, profligacy, irresponsibility, exploitation of power for personal gain generated the thoughtless excesses that exhausted America's national wealth (be it America's good name, its economy, its military power), then it seems logical that the way to move forward is to turn toward the opposite, namely morality, moderation, responsibility, and the use of power for the construction of a sustainable style of living.

The U.S. needs a national debate over exactly what this means. Since the Democrats shied away from addressing this clearly in the election, the corruption of the past has yet to be rejected, and the country remains mired in moral confusion. The recession, embarrassingly, seems to be awakening American society more effectively than all the post-9/11 wars. That a (so far) modest decline in earning power would sensitize American society to the moral dilemmas it faces more effectively than the slaughter of tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Somalis, and Lebanese in itself says something quite fundamental about the state of American moral consciousness. Perhaps it is in fact the ironic combination of bloody foreign policy aggressiveness immediately leading to economic disaster that is finally beginning to get the message through to the so very self-satisfied and complaisant American society. Be that as it may, a few suggestions follow, in hopes that they may help to focus such a national debate.

Style of Living Alternatives

  1. Using the so-called "defense" budget rather than at-the-pump prices to pay for imported oil.
  2. Hiring mercenaries rather than U.S. soldiers to fight American wars.
  3. Encouraging Americans to ignore U.S. wars rather than asking Americans to sacrifice in wartime.
  4. Encouraging Americans to spend the country out of recession rather than combining belt-tightening with income redistribution.
  5. Democratic politicians blaming Wall Street rather than apologizing for their own guilt in creating the mood of irresponsibility that caused the recession.
  6. Borrowing and printing money to recover rather than strengthening fundamentals.
  7. Resisting Muslim protests with force rather than addressing Muslim grievances.
  8. Proliferating to Washington's allies rather than working toward a denuclearized world.
  9. Tinkering with Afghan, Israeli, Iraqi, Iranian policy rather than denouncing the neo-con preference for the use of force and obsession with "preventive" war.

This list could of course be much longer. The point is that the red alternatives together form one style of living--the style that has brought us both military defeat and recession because this style of living is not sustainable; the green alternatives form another style of living, one that sets long-term life-style sustainability rather than short-term personal profit as the goal.

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