Sunday, February 14, 2010

We Are Lost

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see.

We are lost as a nation, and whether or not we are found is decidedly up in the air. There's something dreadfully wrong taking place, and most of us feel it from time to time, burning inside us like a low grade fever. It's a nagging thought that won't go away, a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach. It's fear, and I have every reason to believe we should be afraid.

Walter Russell Mead believes the Blue Beast is to blame, and I think he's largely right when he says:

Blue institutions aren’t productive enough and efficient enough to provide the services we need. There’s a hard and bitter truth here: workers in these sectors are going to have to accept lower wages and less security going forward — and they will have to produce more than they do now. Much more. This sounds draconian and harsh, but with a relative handful of exceptions everybody else in the United States has been facing this reality for the last generation.

But asking others to sacrifice wages and security for the benefit of others doesn't strike me as all that easy, and the fact that the government is adding workers left and right doesn't make it any easier. I'm just not sure it's a realistic solution.

On the other hand, John Ellis believes that a possible merger with Canada, acquire land in Africa or Siberia, or even sell off territory should be considered as possible solutions to our debt. According to Ellis:

These are the big issues of US restructuring. And they are all on the table.

Except they are not. The Obama Administration keeps talking at us like its 1998 and we can have a "green" jobs program and national health insurance and "cap and trade" legislation and $250 million criminal proceedings for homicidal Islamic psychopaths in downtown Manhattan. We don't have $250 million for the KSM trial in Manhattan. Everybody knows that except, apparently, the Obama Administration.

Until President Obama engages the Grand Narrative of our time, and makes it his own, he will remain disconnected from the broad national interest ("interest" in the sense of what people are interested in and "interest" in the sense of what is best for the country). This is not just another recession. This is not just a fraying at the ends. This is a crisis of high throw weight and terrifying potential consequences. It's important that we muddle through. It matters. The President needs to start the restructuring by talking openly and honestly about what it might entail.

You know, I read that and can't help but think "Oh good God, it's not that bad!"

The problem is that tomorrow, I'll get that sinking feeling in my stomach when I read the paper. I'll get that low grade fever and think, "We've really gotta do something soon." And it's getting harder and harder to push those thoughts away these days. As crazy as it sounds, I think John Ellis may be right, at least about the size of the problems we face, if not the specific solutions he suggested.

I am, however, at least willing to offer my own pie in the sky ideas up to scrutiny. Before I do though, I need to make a brief point about something. The best thing that could happen would be for our politicians to start offering big ideas. Ellis goes after President Obama for not thinking big, but I feel the need to point out that it's not like elected Republicans are out there offering up their own audacious proposals.

As for my own off-the-wall suggestions, I'll give you two. These are rather esoteric, and like both Mead and Ellis, are far easier to write about than actually implement. I don't believe that either of these proposals would magically right the ship of state, either. The problems we face are just too complex for simple solutions. With that caveat, here we go.

The first thing we have to do is recognize that no matter how much we may despise other ideologies or political philosophies, we are in essence married to our political opponents. Unless we want to seriously consider divorce, we'd better find a way to stick together and make our marriage work. If nothing else, let's stay together for the sake of the kids. After all, this country was created as a contract between the dead, the living, and the unborn generations yet to come. We've been through a lot in this country's history, including a war to preserve the Union that cost more than 500,000 American lives. Do we really want to be the generation that screwed it up to the point of separation?

This isn't a call for bi-partisanship. This is simply a call to stop viewing our political opponents as our biggest enemies. I assure you, as much as conservatives may hate Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, and as much as our liberal friends may despise Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, these are not our biggest threats. China, a nuclear Iran, and non-state actors pose much bigger threats to our collective way of life than our political opponents. The people who are trying to destroy this country and our way of life won't be on the ballot this November, no matter what the pundit class says to the contrary.

If we recognize this, then perhaps we can start to deal with the domestic problems that confront us. But as long as it's easier and more politically expedient to place blame on the other side than it is to try and address the crisis that we face, we will do what is easy and fruitless.

Secondly, we need to decide on the scope of the problem. If, as John Ellis and Walter Russell Mead believe, this is a crisis of nation-shattering proportions, then our potential responses should reflect that. You don't take on an inferno with a squirt gun, after all. Mead says it's time to reform government with a crowbar instead of a scalpel. If that's the case, then why not go whole hog and call for a new Constitutional Convention? I know the can of worms that suggestion opens up, but I'd like to see such a convention focus on one thing in particular: updating our Constitution to allow for a greater consent of the governed. Is there a way that the People, either through the amendment process or via a national referendum, could overturn judicial decisions, veto legislation, or even enact legislation in certain circumstances? Obviously the bar would have to be high, but when vast swaths of the American people no longer have faith in their elected leaders, giving more power to the people seems like a much better alternative than just giving up and splitting apart.

I began this piece by quoting my favorite hymn, and for a reason. I'm not a very religious person, but I've been praying a lot lately, and I've been asking God to shed his grace on us. Throughout our nation's history, I believe you can find the hand of Providence guiding us through great moments of peril. If this is indeed one of those moments, or if we are hurtling towards one of those moments, I pray that we as a nation are still deserving and worthy of that amazing grace.


  1. ‘My dear Colonel Dick:
    I have long determined to make public the origin of the greenback and tell the world that it was Dick Taylor’s creation. You had always been friendly to me, and when troublous times fell on us, and my shoulders, though broad and willing, were weak, and myself surrounded by such circumstances and such people that I knew not whom to trust, then I said in my extremity, ‘I will send for Colonel Taylor — he will know what to do.' I think it was in January 1862, on or about the 16th, that I did so. Said you: ‘Why, issue treasury notes bearing no interest, printed on the best banking paper. Issue enough to pay off the army expenses and declare it legal tender.' Chase thought it a hazardous thing, but we finally accomplished it, and gave the people of this Republic the greatest blessing they ever had — their own paper to pay their debts. It is due to you, the father of the present greenback, that the people should know it and I take great pleasure in making it known. How many times have I laughed at you telling me, plainly, that I was too lazy to be anything but a lawyer.

    Yours Truly.

    A. Lincoln

  2. Some interesting Lincoln quotes

    Lincoln often spoke of the moral rightness of both Capital and Labor ("Workingmen"). Like Thomas Jefferson before him, he clearly saw the threat of capital empowered, working in conjunction with the "money power" against the general interests of the people.

    "These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people, and now that they have got into a quarrel with themselves, we are called upon to appropriate the people's money to settle the quarrel."

    (speech to Illinois legislature, Jan. 1837.
    See Vol. 1, p. 24 of Lincoln's Complete Works,
    ed. by Nicolay and Hay, 1905)
    "We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . . It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless." (letter from Lincoln to Col. Wm. F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864. Essentially)

    Ref: The Lincoln Encyclopedia, by Archer H. Shaw (Macmillan, 1950, NY). That traces the quote's lineage to p. 954 of Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, (Vol. 2) by Emanuel Hertz (Horace Liveright Inc, 1931, NY).

    The Lincoln taught us in school, of course, has been extensively sanitized for public consumption. The Hidden Lincoln; from the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, by Emanuel Hertz (Viking Press, 1938, NY), details how Herndon (Lincoln's lifelong law partner) collected an extensive oral history and aggregated much of Lincoln's writings into a collection that served as the basis for many "authoritative" books on Lincoln. Also, for further insight into Lincoln's character, see Lincoln, The Man, by Edgar Lee Masters (Originally published 1931, and reprinted 1997 by The Foundation for American Education).