Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Welcome to Reality

After the November 4th election, I was filled with hope for the future of our country. I recognized the challenges we faced cleaning up after eight years of "winner takes all" politics and a no-accountability executive branch. However, the overwhelming message of the electorate, and the promise of an ethical, articulate president, made me believe that our country could return to a culture of greatness, self-respect and problem solving.

Today, the Dow Jones dropped 382 points and the few remaining Republicans in Congress seem determined to maintain legislative gridlock. What happened?

Nothing, yet.

One of the problems with living in an "instant gratification" society is that we expect all conflicts to be resolved in short order and grow impatient when our expectations are not met. As a nation, we are paying the consequences for bad behavior and when President Obama tells us that there will be no quick fix, he isn't kidding.

As a nation, we spent well beyond our means during the past eight years, wiping out the significant surplus that the Clinton Administration accumulated and betting our financial future on the ongoing cooperation of our Chinese and Arabian lenders. We embarked on a military campaign in Iraq with complete disregard for the concept of patience and caution and meaningful coalitions willing to share the cost. Rather, we chose to nearly bankrupt our military capabilities. In 2004, when we had a chance to change direction, we did not. We allowed President Bush's supporters to swift boat his Democratic opponent and, like lemmings, followed the president to the edge of a cliff marking the outer limits of national pride and international support.

At the bottom of the cliff lie the remnants of former great empires: Visigoth, Persian, Roman, Viking, Mongol, Spanish, Ottoman, Japanese, German, Soviet and British. We're still on the edge but, in November, we decided as a nation to change course. We directed President Obama to back us away from the edge of the abyss and return us to the values that made us a "super power" in the first place.

Like it or not, we are not in the middle of a Hollywood script in which redemption is readily available at the end of a 90 minute screenplay. We were warned by many as we blindly mortgaged our future. Recall Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's December 5, 1996 caution about "irrational exuberance" inflating stock prices. Rather than accept the sobering assessment and modifying our collective behavior, we chastised the messenger for throwing a damper on the party and returned to our irrationally exuberant ways.

We spent a collective fortune we did not have, justifying our rejection of time worn concepts like living within our means, by relying on the paper wealth accumulated through the artificial inflation of real estate values. When the dominoes started to fall with no real substance in millions of individual economies to keep them propped up, the devastation presented the new administration in Washington with a cleanup job of unprecedented proportions. I have not bothered to research the adult population of the United States in 1931. However, I am willing to bet that our current 8% unemployment rate today approaches or exceeds the double digit unemployment rate during the Great Depression in terms of raw numbers of individuals.

Now what?

According to some, we are unable to move forward because we elected a new president who needs on the job training. Nonsense. That is nothing more than partisan sniping for partisan gain. Under the circumstances, it borders on treason.

According to some, Republicans are not being given enough say in how to fashion a massive government response to the current crises. Perhaps. But they have been given, in the first three weeks of the Obama Administration, more input and sincere consideration of their competing views with respect to the stimulus package than the Bush Administration considered from Democrats in its entire eight years in office. President Obama's reminder that he won the election is not mere boastful rhetoric. It is a reminder to those formerly in control of the government that the electorate, ultimately responsible for guiding the direction of its public servants, demanded a new direction in Congress.

According to some, we are damning our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to indentured servitude, committing their tax dollars generations in advance to pay off the obligations we are about to incur as we attempt to right the listing economy. Again, perhaps. However, we had already mortgaged their future with our reckless buildup of the national debt under President Bush. Now that he is no longer in office, we are free to admit that the cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, carried off the books in W's administration, must also be factored into the economic challenges we face.

The only hope we, our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have for the future, with, frighteningly, no assurance of success, is that the massive investment in jobs, schools, infrastructure, and 21st century energy projects will be enough to rejuvenate our stalled economy on all levels and provide opportunities for Americans with the will to return to work and start anew a cycle of responsible spending.

When President Eisenhower had the United States embark on the Interstate Freeway program of the 1950's, he did not merely shorten the time it took to drive from Minneapolis to Chicago. He put an infrastructure in place that encouraged shipping and interstate commerce, broadened markets, created jobs, encouraged development of businesses all along the modern arteries crisscrossing the United States and instilled a sense of accomplishment that Americans inhaled into the collective psyche, setting the tone for achieving grander goals in space in the decade after President Eisenhower.

We have that kind of opportunity before us again. We really do not have much of a choice. The empires at the bottom of the cliff await us. We need to put our faith in leaders who have the courage to be honest with us about the harshness of the road ahead and unite behind them, as we did in November. This allows them to expend their energy on solving our problems rather than on playing defense to the political hacks who have the audacity to hope for our collective failure.

As citizens, we must show some modicum of patience as alternatives are explored and solutions tried. No one has all the answers to our problems. Some have none of the answers to our problems. We should speak out against those who would surrender in despair to the perceived hopelessness of the situation or, worse, insist on returning us to policies that brought about our economic decline in the first place. We need to avoid being side tracked by sensationalists who make mountains out of cabinet nominees' tax problem molehills. We need to work hard and do our best to perform whatever tasks are expected of us in return for increasingly rare paychecks.

Finally, we need to admit that there are consequences to supporting government spending while opposing taxation and engaging in personal spending without the safety net of a realistic means of satisfying debts. Our new president is struggling to develop programs to address these consequences. Let's show some respect for the effort and, for once, not demand instant, false solutions for long term, real problems. Most importantly, let us not yearn for meaningless rhetoric designed to calm our fears or tolerate rhetoric designed to raise our fears. We tried that for eight years. It doesn't work.

1 comment:

Peggy W said...

Right on, Sam. I'm forwarding a link to Bob. I, too, am thrilled each time I hear a well-formed thought uttered in a serious, straight forward way. What a relief! Look what this energetic, informed, honest, and visionary leader has wrought in just 22 days. Hard work's ahead but that too reminds us of the American way of yore.