We as Americans need to ask ourselves some very simple questions that have very complex answers. Unfortunately, with our modern media-stunted attention spans squirm painfully when asked questions that do not have straighforward answers like "yes" and "no" or "Let's get 'em".
What is the role of government?
What oversight should the government have on businesses and individuals?
What responsibility should the government have towards businesses and individuals?
Are we prepared to accept short and medium-term sacrifice for long-term success?
The last question is critically important. This is gut check time for us. The United States has enjoyed a special place in the world for a long time. Whether or not we're aware of it, we have been slowly relinquishing our hold on that special-ness for many years. Our financial security is increasingly tenuous with many good and unasked questions about the long-term financing of the nation that need to be addressed. Our physical security is also in doubt given many policy decisions that have been made over the years that have come to do long-term damage to our standing. In both ways, we have gone for the short-term fix at a price that has ultimately been very expensive in the long-term.
What are we doing right now on the foreign policy front? We're fighting a war (or two depending on how you look at it) that is unwinnable by its very definition. It doesn't really make sense to wage war on a tactic but by golly, we sure are trying. (Well, except for that sideshow in Iraq, we sure are trying. Wait, we pulled troops from the first theater before securing it and now have to send more back in to re-secure the area? Damn our short attention spans.) To truly win this 'war on terror' it would come at the price of freedom as we know it. I would argue we also never won the war on drugs for the same reason. Either way, the best we can really do is hope for a stalemate and to avoid losing which might be loosely defined as a significant attack on American soil.
Now that I live and work in Europe, I have met many Europeans. (Shocking, I know.) And many of them hold a very low opinion of the United States, generally the government of the U.S. and more specifically the last administration. Most of them believe that the war in Iraq is about oil, and more than I would have expected believe that 9/11 was either staged or allowed to happen despite the ability to stop it. Admittedly, one of them also thinks that we faked the moon landing so maybe Europe is in worse shape than America. Either way, we squandered our 9/11 goodwill by losing focus six years ago when the message changed from fighting Al-Qaeda to looking for WMDs in Iraq.
What are we doing on the home front? Our economy did essentially nothing in the last six years. No jobs, no infrastructure, no substance. Businesses need to understand what they are doing. Banks need to be banks. Insurance companies need to be insurance companies. These are old, conservatively run enterprises. They are not places for exotic financial instruments. Exotic financial services belong elsewhere, for people who are smart, know what they are doing, are not recklessly leveraged, and are willing to accept total losses and not expect a bailout. Hey, I'll take jsut the last two points and might even settle for just the final point. Let's be very clear about something. Financial companies do not create anything. They can improve processes and efficiency, but they extract gains from the inefficency of others. They don't actually make anything of substance.
Beware the economy that runs increasingly on services, not on manufacturing. Beware the incentives laid out to those in power that reward short-term gain instead of long-term solvency. Is the problem that we have reach an economy of scale that is now big enough for the monied to thoroughly insulate themselves from reality? Or are they able to cash out quick and leave in their wake a trail of bad decisions? It doesn't really matter since they were allowed to make poor decisions with little to no consequence in the first place.
We got soft. We lack the political/economic/social will to say hard, horrible things to people, including ourselves. The truths we need to face must hurt, otherwise we will not change. But we need to make sure they really hurt because we have become numb to any sort of shock with our constant need for iPhone-fueled 24/7 diversions and entertainment. This decline can be stopped, but it will take time and we cannot wait until it is too late. We need to restore in ourselves the understanding that actions have consequences, that the long-term is the only term we can care about, and that we choose our destiny.
This is gut-check time in America.