So, um, prolly you’ve heard by now that we’re having this little problem with the economy, eh?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, it’s starting to look like more than just a little problem. It’s starting to look like 1932 again. And, who knows beyond that? What is there to say that 1932 is the baseline? Just because the Great Depression is the worst scenario we’ve yet to experience, that sure doesn’t mean that it is the worst we could experience. With astonishing amounts of governmental and personal debt sloshing around the world in a hugely globalized economy, who’s to say that we aren’t now headed for the Even Greater Depression?
Oh, and, let’s also not forget that even that isn’t necessarily the end of it. Last time the global economy imploded this bad, it got one helluva lot worse before it got better. The only thing that could ever have made the 1930s look good was the 1940s. There’s no reason to necessarily believe that that part can’t happen again as well. If we’re stupid enough to repeat the mistakes of the Gilded Age, surely belligerent, nationalist, chauvinist Americans (and Chinese, and Frenchmen, and Russians) are also stupid enough to launch another world war or two in order to chase down scarce resources like oil or gold. Or food. Or water.
Leaving aside for the moment any threats of world war, the only good news I see in our current economic crisis s that at least we’re eighty years down the road from when Franklin Roosevelt broke the psychological barrier previously preventing brainwashed Americans from owning a government that actually helped them, as opposed to allowing themselves to be owned by a government of oligarchs who were helping themselves. This time, if people are hungry because there’s no money, and cold because heating oil costs so much, and weathered because they’ve been tossed out of their homes, and frightened because they’ve got no job and no healthcare coverage – if we arrive at that state, watch what’s left of the psychological barriers crumble like George Bush’s job approval ratings or John McCain’s lofty principles about running a high-minded campaign. Watch desperate Americans embrace socialism as if they were the lost children of Chairman Mao waking up from a long nightmare of capitalist errancy.
What we’re witnessing now is the complete and utter repudiation of Reaganism-Bushism, of course, but it runs even deeper than that. Not just the hyper-kleptocratic version of the American economic system is being left in shreds, but even its more moderate baseline version – the Eisenhower model of nice, gray-suited capitalism – is now also on the chopping block. Even that form of capitalism – quaintly tame by today’s standards of astonishing rapaciousness – was never sustainable, and part of what we’ve been seeing this last decade is all the ruses by which we had greedily squeezed out more than our fair share of the pie now angrily biting back. The wars, the environmental rape, the exploitation of nice little brown people all around the world (and, after all, isn’t that why Jesus made them?), the borrowing against our children’s future, the tax avoidance free-riding, the credit card economy, the exporting of jobs to explode profits, the gluttony of 300 pound Americans and their SUVs and the giant screens on which they watch ‘reality TV’ (a nice euphemism for humiliating degradation) – these are all screaming out to us simultaneously today, in an excruciating cacophonous harmony from Hell, that THIS MUST END NOW.
And, boy, did we ever have it coming. I just want to go on record and say to any historians from the 26th century who might be reading this: “Yes, it does say ‘American’ on my birth certificate, but I want you to know I wasn’t part of this! I did my best and kept shouting out about our national stupidities. And I always voted for the Green Party!”
Yeah, it’s true, I’m afraid. We’re going down in history as the stupidist and the shortest-lived of empires (even the Belgians did better than this, plus, they make great beer). And well we should be so considered, too. Do they have Darwin Awards for countries, like they do for individuals, who find uniquely imbecilic (though highly entertaining) ways to remove their DNA from the collective gene pool (you know, like getting really stoned and then playing your electric guitar in the swimming pool)? They should! And who could possibly trump America, we who gluttonously slurp up oil in order to live like global pigs, sending the proceeds to fund terrorists with ideologies from the 13th century and weapons from the 21st to attack us? We who chant “Drill, baby, drill!” when the giant planet-wrecking asteroid of global warming is headed right for us. (Even the real dinosaurs come off looking better than our human imitations of them, since they at least had the excuse of actually having pea-sized brains to explain why they behaved as though they had pea-sized brains.) We whose government’s insatiable spending sprees on high priority items, like wars that diminish our national security and corporate welfare for oil companies or giant agri-corporations, we fund by allowing China, our rising rival for global power, to own our debt, and therefore to own us.
And what’s that old line about the first time being tragedy and the second folly? The most astonishing thing about the economic nightmare we’re now entering is how little we learned from having already gone through this before. We’re not even talking about ancient or foreign history here, people. You don’t have to force Americans to go watch some History Channel documentary on Charlemagne to figure this one out. It wasn’t that long ago that we went through exactly the same process, ourselves, right here in gool ol’ ‘Muricah. Christ, there are people still alive today who experienced it first hand. You’d think, having found out in the 1930s precisely what happens when you let monstrously greedy people who have their hands on the levers of the global economy go on unregulated bacchanals of decadent self-aggrandizement, that we’d want to avoid that sort of thing in the future, eh? Perhaps we’d even vow “Never again”, just like we did after the Holocaust. (But then, given the mass murderous Soviet and Chinese purges which came after Auschwitz and Treblinka, along with the genocides of Cambodia, Rwanda and now Darfur (not to mention Vietnam or Iraq), maybe that wouldn’t be such a great promise to make…)
And even if the American people couldn’t make the connection between present circumstances and past analogues, am I the only knucklehead who finds the whole deregulation mania something of an odd idea just at a conceptual level? How is it that the same people who always jump up and down in passionate support of tough crime laws, loads of jails and busy state killing machines, don’t seem to apply the same logic to nice, white-collar crimes? I mean, if you need a law to deter people from committing murder, why don’t you need regulations to prevent them from committing greed? And, wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to have these laws, especially in places where the capacity exists for such tremendous harm to be done? A murder takes a life and wrecks a couple of families. That’s horrible, and should be prevented wherever possible, and punished where not. But would it be too much to ask that we also have laws and punishments and regulations to help prevent white-collar crimes that can wreck an entire global economic system, bringing wholesale grief to hundreds of millions of people, and no doubt producing boatloads of deaths in their wake, all in the name of satiating the greed of already fantastically wealthy people? Indeed, we have the first of these victims on the scoreboard already. This week a Los Angeles man who lost all his money in the stock market shot his wife, three sons and his mother-in-law before then killing himself. Get ready for more of the same, and most of them won’t be suicides, I can tell you. They’ll be homicides. Murder by greed.
And even if America’s so-called justice system can’t bring itself to punish Wall Street thieves for serial homicide in this case, would it be too much to ask for a little government regulation to prevent a handful of kleptocrats from crashing an entire global economic order and spreading death, destruction and misery across the planet, just so that they could milk the last remaining pennies from the golden goose, its bloodied carcass lying twisted and prostrate across the trading room floor, nothing but lead spilling out of its slashed belly? Ah, but that would not be capitalism, eh, Mr. Graham? That would be fettering innovation, right, Mr. Greenspan? That would limit Holy Growth, no, Mr. McCain? And we can’t have that.
I don’t really understand the perverse psychology of people like these Wall Street masters of the universe, whose desire for additional wealth seems incapable of being satiated. Personally, I don’t think I’d know what to do even with the mere pittance of a million bucks, so it’s really hard for me to figure it out when I see them feeling so hyper-compelled in pursuit of throwing tens of millions more on top of their existing piles of hundreds of millions. I mean, you can only sail on one yacht at a time, right? You can only live in one mansion at a time, right? You can only sleep with one gorgeous call girl at a time, right? Oh, um, okay – well, never mind that last part. But you catch my drift here, no?
In truth, when I look around this fine country that calls itself my home, I have to conclude that it’s actually me who is the anomaly. I’m not sure what genetic quirk or what massive failure of the educational machine produced a freak like me, but – apart from not wanting to go into debt, and from owning a handful of very modest toys like a computer or guitar – I really don’t give a shit about money. Go figure, eh? You know, my car, bought used, is ten years old. I think. I don’t really remember for sure what model year it is, though I’m pretty sure I could tell you how many cylinders it has if I stopped to ponder the question long enough. This strange absence of an unending greed for Money! and Things! seems to leave me way out in the bizarro fringe outcast category within what passes for a culture for those 300 million inhabitants in the middle of the North American continent. Just ‘cause I don’t constantly seek cash, or measure myself by the size of my wallet, I’m like six standard deviations from the norm in the disaster affectionately known as America.
And just how disastrous is our national disaster? Leave it to Sarah “The Embarrassment” Palin to answer best. She illustrated the other night in her ‘debate’ with Joe Biden how deep the country has sunk these last decades into the miasma of a culture of petty selfishness, and an ethos of pathetic greed. She reminded us that in Middle America, where she and “Todd” (hey, you scary monster, I am not on a first-name basis with your First Dude husband, and I don’t ever want to be) purport to live, paying taxes is not patriotic. Biden’s response should have been to ask whether all the Americans who’ve paid all the billions in tax increases in every war America has ever fought prior to this one were unpatriotic, or just suckers. He should have asked who she expected would pay for the body armor to protect her son in Iraq (as if they’re gonna let that kid anywhere near any real danger), for our roads, our schools, our post offices, our Army and Navy, our Social Security benefits or our police officers. For that matter, he might also have asked who would pay for Air Force One, who would pay for the tens of millions of public campaign funds now being spent by the McCain-Palin campaign, or who would pay for the army of bank regulators we’ll need to clean up the economic mess her ideological soul-mates have left us.
Still, I can’t help thinking that millions of Americans sat at home watching this, enthusiastically nodding their head in support of her lunacy. Let’s face it, after a generation or two of Reaganism-Bushism permeating the culture, no politician can even talk about raising taxes in America anymore without risking career suicide. It has become the new third rail of American politics. And that says so much about us. Because, not only do we want all the benefits of government, but polling data clearly shows that we actually even want the government to do a lot more than it is already doing. And yet, at the same time, selfish, narcissistic Americans have been well trained now by pandering right-wing politicians to expect it all for free. Cutting taxes without simultaneously cutting expenditures (let alone while massively increasing expenditures) is one of the single most recklessly irresponsible acts a government can undertake. Since the only solution to the deficits that must ensue from this simple math is to borrow the difference, the polity in question is simply taking its desire to live large and handing it off in the form of a problem for someone else to deal with, on top of their own problems. Plus interest on the loans, of course. And who is that someone? Faraway foreigners? Some despised underclass? The millions we’ve incarcerated as criminals, perhaps? Not at all. The crime runs even deeper than that. It’s our own children who are getting the bill.
Which is precisely what we’ve been doing. I saw Californian voters, when I lived there, launch the modern taxpayer revolt movement by passing the infamous Proposition 13, which took a meat-cleaver to property taxes in the state. Never mind that the effect would be the same on California’s schools, which are largely funded by property taxes. They went from being the best in the country to nowadays hanging around with Mississippi, down at the bottom of the list. But who fucking cares, anyhow? People got their bloody tax cuts, and they got to buy that nice, shiny new car they wanted with the money. So what about the kids?
And so it has gone these last decades, tax cut after tax cut in America, which really means tax transfer after tax transfer. And now we have a ten trillion dollar debt we are passing along. So that means that the next generation will have to pay enough in taxes to run the government then, plus the share that the current generation didn’t really feel like paying to run the government today, plus interest on that borrowed amount. What does that mean, up close and personal? If, right this very moment, we somehow stopped adding to that pile more debt and more interest every day, and just handed out the bill for what is currently owed, it would average out to $67,000 for each and every taxpayer.
I know what you’re thinking. That sucks, eh? Well, at least the good news is what you got for it. For instance, a really expensive war in Iraq that diminished American national security. And the chance for really, really rich people to become really, really, really rich people through humongous tax breaks. How about a GOP pork-barrel spending spree – including the Bridge to Nowhere – of unprecedented size in American history? Huge oil and agricultural company subsidies? A giant prescription drug bill which provided corporate socialism for drug and insurance companies? A chance for George W. Bush to frolic in the White House for eight years? I’m sure every American, working some job they’re not particularly fond of, won’t really mind the extra hours they have to work to pay for all this. Especially since, if you make, say, 15 bucks per hour, that would only translate to 4,467 hours you’d be working to finance your share of this past years’ pig-out. Based on a forty-hour work week, that’s roughly two-and-a-quarter years worth of your life. When you look at it that way, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? And, again, that’s just if we stop deficit spending now, and stop accruing interest now. In fact, we’re actually deficit spending about another $400 billion per year, every year, which just gets added to the pile (and lots more, as well, if John McCain is able to slash taxes on the wealthy even further). Moreover – maybe it’s just my pessimism kicking in here, but – I don’t think the Chinese or our other creditors are going to be much inclined to waive the interest accruals due to them for financing our decadent little party. So, in fact, the above accounting of our national and personal liabilities are actually rather, ahem, conservative. In every way imaginable.
But, of course, America’s problem is way deeper than one kleptocratic president or even a generational binge coupled with a three decade long vacation from responsibility, not to mention rationality. We have established a pervasive culture of greed, and that’s one angry chicken that has now come home to roost. What’s worse, we’ve lost the capacity as a society to even imagine an alternative ethos to guide us, though the looming economic tsunami may be just the thing – and likely the only thing – big enough to get us thinking once again.
This massive poverty of imagination is what is killing us now, undermining us at the most fundamental levels of societal identity. To grasp the magnitude of our problem, consider how we socialize our citizens and how our culture sets the priority structure of their values and aspirations. Sure, some Americans think it is noble and wonderful to pursue careers which serve the public interest, but most are taught, and simply accept, that one should aspire to making boatloads of money, and that the measure of one’s achievement is the size of their bank account and the number of toys parked in the driveways of their McMansions. I am constantly astonished by the quantity of Americans whose expressed goal in life is simply to make lots of money, which I find especially bizarre since they don’t seem to have any particular use in mind for all this cash. What this phenomenon has long suggested to me is a country full of sheep so unoriginal in their thinking that they can’t even figure out what to aspire to on their own, and a society so bankrupt in its morality that it feeds them the goal of wanton greed to fill that yawning void.
All that’s bad enough, but, besides the current economic meltdown and a society populated by moral midgets, there are also other repercussions to this ethical failure and this poverty of imagination. Chief among these is the false choice we are always presented between governance in the public interest, on the one hand, and prosperity, on the other. This bogus diversionary tactic forms the central argument of the economic predators who’ve been bleeding the country of its wealth (and, in fact, prosperity), as to why we can’t have regulation. You know, all that Washington red tape (you can’t profit off of pollution, you can’t exploit children as factory workers, you have to pay a minimum wage – horrible restrictions like that) will keep innovators from innovating and entrepreneurs from, uh, entrepreneuriating.
And, you know what? They’re actually more or less right. They’re right if, that is, you accept as a predicate would-be innovators and would-be entrepreneurs who are only motivated by an ethos of personal greed, which has been duly pounded into them through the socialization processes of a society that lost its mind and its moral bearing decades ago. Sure, okay. Under those conditions it’s probably true that most people will only work for themselves, and will only be motivated by self-interest. But what if we taught these people something different, right from the get-go when they were toddlers, and reinforced those different values throughout their adult lives? What if we taught the members of this society to value the community’s welfare as much as their own? What if we taught them that massive personal wealth was not only not the highest achievement to aspire to, but actually a sort of crass and tacky goal, only to be found amongst the most juvenile and selfish in the society? What if we strongly imprinted the idea among our people that improving the welfare of the country (or, gulp, the world) is an important life aspiration, and that those who do so are considered among our most admired countrymen, rather than those who have acquired the money to purchase bitchin’ toys and trophy wives? Is it not possible that our citizens would innovate, and that they would be every bit as motivated as they are today by greed? Maybe even more so?
And, therefore, could we not transcend this false choice of good governance versus prosperity? (Not to mention the fact that whatever prosperity we’ve experienced of late is not going to the society, anyhow. In the last three decades, while GDP has grown at a handsome clip, the middle class – and, of course, we’ve long ago now abandoned even talking about those below middle class status, let alone fighting a war on poverty – has not even stood its ground, but rather has actually lost overall purchasing power. That, of course, leaves only one mathematical explanation for what has happened. You guessed it. All that growth in national wealth has gone to the already richest Americans.)
You know, I’m not a subscriber to the prescriptions of communism for constructing the best system of political economy, much as that might come as a shock to any conservative reader of this piece. And I think it’s fair to say that the world’s experiments in communism to date – to the extent they weren’t actually just experiments in totalitarian brownshirtism – failed in large part because they possessed just the opposite flaw as that described above. They attempted to build economic systems on the equally false notion that selfishness can be completely erased from human psychology as a motivating force. It can’t. And any system dependant on that proposition for its success will have none. But, by the same token, a system that is built on the premise that people are only motivated by selfish greed, and therefore can only produce prosperity by letting every actor pursue their own self-interest, unfettered by any societal concerns, is an equally disastrous notion.
And such a society is equally bound for the ash heap of history, just as was the Soviet Union or Maoist China.
In fact, I ‘m pretty sure that’s just exactly what the cosmos is screaming in our ears, at about 150 decibels worth of volume, right at the moment. The only question is whether we are so deaf we can no longer hear the warning call, even when it’s broadcast over a galactic PA system.
But just in case, here it is. Newsflash for America! This just in! Sorry to burst your little bubble, people, but it turns out, after all, that…
Greed is not good.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.