Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:
California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.
Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:
We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.
California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:
- a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
- the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)
This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.
This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.
Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.
The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.
After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.
The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.
Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.
[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]
- This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. [↩]