Sunday, May 10, 2009

america's place

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.


buickguy said...

Well said, including your conclusion. In your next few blogs -- with timeouts for lighter faire -- please share some stories and examples of what we Americans must do.

Anonymous said...

Charlie Rose 30 minutes long, but very interesting interview with William Greider and Naomi Klien.

Bill Moyers on William GreiderYou may want to read Greider's book if you have a chance.

My take on bailouts:

The bailouts = privatize profits and democratize debts.

Scott said...
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Scott said...
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Scott said...

You're starting to sound dangerously like a revolutionary.

I like it.

Too bad the majority of americans are politically apathetic when it comes to things that really matter. "Wait, what's that? Your high school senior can't read or do simple math, and lacks the ability to think critically, but that's ok because we're out gettin those damn sand n@#$%@s and there's no more gay on your TV?"


One of the biggest problems I see is that americans have stopped caring about things that are truly important- things that are generally non-partisan and for which solutions would be easy (ok not "easy" but you get the idea) if everyone pulled their heads out of their asses long enough to look for them. And why? Because at some point in the past, politicians figured out that the best way to get elected is to keep americans from using their brains at whatever costs. Drive them apart with "morality"-based wedge issues so they start making knee-jerk decisions based on (carefully calculated) emotional reactions.

And because politicians have stopped caring about public service and started caring more about job preservation, they too have been ignoring important things in favor of making sure their constituency votes for them a second time around (and third, and fourth, etc). Hence the "short term solutions at the neglect of long-term costs" thing.

As for the economics of gut-check america, it's blatantly obvious that americans are nowhere NEAR able to sacrifice what they must to collectively pull themselves out of this hole. Why? Because the social pull for status is so strong, it has brainwashed people into thinking they need every latest gadget and status symbol the market can come up with. Every time Apple comes out with a new iPhone, EVERYONE has to get it. Bigger TVs? Check. Newer cars? Check. Even people who are dirt poor need these status symbols. I still shake my head when I think of driving on MLK through Oakland and seeing brand new Mercedes with 22" rims parked outside run-down shacks with no power or running water. The point is, that culture of consumerist status driven by planned obsolescence is so highly ingrained into people that even if the rest of the world told us collectively to our faces that we have a problem, total intervention style, we'd stare at them blankly and then go out and buy something else we can't afford.

Scott said...

Which loosely brings me to my next point- efficiency. We have a problem with spending money we don't have on things we don't need. And not just the citizens, but the government as well. We do it because marketing companies tell us we should, credit companies tell us we can, and we're not smart enough to know we shouldn't and can't (because we were too busy caring about terrorists, celebrities, the latest faux-pandemic, and whether or not two dudes can marry each other to notice that our high schools have been spitting out years' worth of kids who can't think). The government does it because inefficiency inherently creates more government jobs (why have one person do the work of one person when you can have two people do it and just charge the taxpayers more, or borrow more money from another country who hates us?), and it justifies the budgets of various government installments ("why did you buy personalized pencil holders for a thousand employees?" "Because if I didn't use up all the money they gave us to use, they wouldn't give us as much next year")...

So now we have a culture and economy that's built on, and at this point likely dependent on gross mismanagement of finances. Tell people to stop buying stuff they can't afford, and our economy shrinks even more. Tell the government to start spending more efficiently and you've lost I don't know HOW many government jobs.

And the worst part is, it would take a giant collective recognition of this problem, and the accompanying collective willingness to do what has to be done about it. Unfortunately, if you remember the rabbit vs. the stag example from Stewpac's class, that isn't gonna happen. Everyone is going to do what is right by themselves, instead of what is right by humanity, because they aren't going to trust anyone else to do what is right by humanity.

Which reminds me- "what is the role of the government?"

The government is there to provide essential public services, to maintain our cities, to maintain our military and to make sure we are protected from those who would be taken advantage of the people who don't quite understand the balance between doing what is right by them and doing what is right by humanity. This paragraph is really a separate essay all in itself, but you get the idea. Less is more. The government should be like God in that Futurama episode "Godfellas". "If you do everything right, nobody will be certain you've done anything at all." Sort of. It's complicated.


Brian said...

Scott - It's funny you mention buying the iPhone because in an early draft, I had a line that said "Fuck the iPhone."