Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Can Our Government Shine?

The weather has gone abominable in the Pacific Northwest, and, since people are staying home in droves—which means they are not darkening the doors of the cafĂ©—I have found myself with considerable amounts of time on my hands. My first instinct is to wring those very hands in worry and frustration with the evil-looking numbers we are putting up for this week (and probably for the rest of the month, considering that the weather is not slated to improve much between now and New Years'…) Instead, I've decided to pick up the book I've been trying to read for the last month, and see if I can't get through to the end. Yes…I'm still reading Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

When I first cracked open the book several weeks ago, I found myself often reading through tears. I was still in the "relief bordering on disbelief" stage of post-election euphoria. I could hardly read a well-formed, comprehensible sentence crafted by the man slated to become our next president without experiencing an almost overwhelming feeling of awe, gratitude and victory. It felt for all the world like a religious conversion experience. (And I know from where I speak on such things, believe me…)

As time has passed, the euphoria has given way to practicality. I'm starting to wonder how many wheels our broken economy has to lose, as one seems to go spinning off into the gutter every few hours. If the wails of woe issuing from the Senate, the auto industry, the energy and oil industries, China, real estate and construction concerns, and just about every other contributor to our nation's financial stability don't snap one's attention back to dire reality, nothing will. So I have continued my reading in a more subdued state of mind.

And, here's the thing. It's not that Mr. Obama isn't intelligent, well-read, even-tempered and introspective…all traits that will indeed be pleasant to attribute to an American president. It's just that he is very much a regular guy. The things he writes are refreshing and reasonable, but they are not revolutionary. What makes him look like the second coming is the backdrop of the last eight miserable years of intellectual and moral retreat through which this nation has suffered under the Bush Administration. It would be hard for anyone not to look like a knight in shining armor coming out of that cistern of muck. What I fear now is that the media, the government, and the American people are going to expect way more from Barack Obama than any human being could possibly deliver. And then turn on him like a pack of wolves…

The nation is watching closely as Mr. Obama selects his cabinet and top advisors. Everyone is still gun-shy of the cronyism that was the hallmark of Bush Administration appointments. We ooh and aaah over Obama's thoughtful selection process as he calls upon experts and scholars, people who might actually have credentials, some of the best credentials, in fact, to fill key roles in his government. Once again, why do we find this so fascinating? Isn't this how the process should look?

Yes, there will be quite a contrast between the government assembled by a privileged, ne'er-do-well scion of a Texas oil baron-turned-politician, and the one brought together by a middle-class Constitutional scholar who came to politics via the route of public service. Bush's philosophy of government is that it act only in ways that will enhance the power of the powerful…thereby keeping our nation strong and, through trickle-down, improving the lives of those without power. And all that power must intersect in the person of one central figure: the President. The guy who at least appears to hold all the cards and make all the rules.

Mr. Obama's philosophy is that government is a coalition of the best minds and practitioners, even those with opposing viewpoints, working together for the greater good of society. The president is the guy whose responsibility it is to call all these various factions together and facilitate their cooperation. I think we can expect Mr. Obama's to be a government of conviction rather than agenda. It is one thing to have solid beliefs and to live by them; it is quite another to have an agenda to force everyone else in the country to live according to your convictions. In Mr. Obama's mind, the way to govern—indeed, the very foundation of our government—is to bring the best, most capable minds together and allow them to have at it. Here are his words on the subject:

"Whether we are for or against affirmative action, for or against prayer in schools, we must test out our ideals, vision, and values against the realities of a common life, so that over time they may be refined, discarded, or replaced by new ideals, sharper visions, deeper values. Indeed, it is that process, according to Madison, that brought about the Constitution itself, through a convention in which 'no man felt himself obliged to retain his opinions any longer than he was satisfied of their propriety and truth, and was open to the force of argument.'"

Imagine that. A government that would be all about encouraging people to open their minds, or even change their minds; as opposed to a goose-stepping regime that adheres to a strict list of written-in-stone commandments, crying "flip-flop!" at the slightest prospect of an enlightened recalculation.

I don't know about you, but I personally am very eager to see Mr. Obama's—and the Founders'—theories of government get a chance to shine. No matter what happens, we will no doubt be living in a very different country than we have been of late. And it is SO about time!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Presidential Reality

I didn't actually hear the entire speech. In fact, I didn't even know Mr. Bush had spoken at a commencement on Friday (or that there was a self-respecting school on the planet that would want him) until I found this little quote on a friend's blog.

And I immediately thought, "This explains a lot." And it is more than a little disturbing, coming out of the mouth of the man who has been the Leader of the Free World for the past eight years:

"Remember that popularity is as fleeting as the Texas wind. Character and conscience are as sturdy as the oaks on this campus. If you go home at night, look in the mirror and be satisfied that you have done what is right, you will pass the only test that matters."
-- President George W. Bush, from his commencement address Friday at Texas A&M

Isn't this just a fancy and inspiring way of saying, "Choose your own reality?" To hell with truth, justice, and everyone else in the world. As long as YOU can live with what you've done, that's all that matters.

Evidently, Mr. Bush wants everyone to rest assured that he will be able to sleep like a baby every night in his approaching retirement. I'm SO reassured…aren't you?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bursting The Handbag Bubble

As is typical of the season, I receive about ninety-five ads, catalogs and solicitations in the mail every day. My kitchen counters are awash in shiny, full color spreads from Home Decorators', Walmart, Kohl's, Touch of Class, Fred Meyer. All clamoring for their share of the general population's fast-disappearing discretionary dollar. Some retailers are even trying to adopt the, "Our loss is your gain" tactic. Kind of like, "We're sinking fast but you can get some real good deals before we go under…"

And then…and then, there's Nordstrom. Steadfast in its appeal to the "Haves." As opposed to the "Have Nots." Or the "Did Have but Won't For Longs."

Nordstrom with its hand-picked selection of $250 costume jewelry watches, with which one can adorn one's wrist while toting a $600 designer handbag. Nordstrom…in all its unerring allegiance to pricey, unnecessary affectation.

Nordstrom stands alone here in the Pacific Northwest as a testament to the excesses endemic to the lifestyle of riding the economic bubble. That bubble which burst…sometime in the relatively recent past. (The Bush Administration is allowing now that it actually burst sometime last December…?)

But burst it has; causing those of us who might once have foolishly considered the purchase of a $600 purse to pull the strings on our shabby little $25 tote bag as tight as we can, the better to hold in the funds we need to merely survive.

Not that I ever entertained the notion of owning a multi-hundred dollar handbag. But it makes you wonder…who would? What in god's name would make a stupid purse worth what many people pay in monthly rent?

What were we thinking?

Makes one realize that this country was badly in need of an…economic correction, doesn't it?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Our Black Magic Economy

Here is the opening paragraph in Wikipedia's entry under "Economics:"

"Current economic models developed out of the broader field of political economy in the late 19th century, owing to a desire to use an empirical approach more akin to the physical sciences.[2] A definition that captures much of modern economics is that of Lionel Robbins in a 1932 essay: "the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."[3] Scarcity means that available resources are insufficient to satisfy all wants and needs. Absent scarcity and alternative uses of available resources, there is no economic problem. The subject thus defined involves the study of choices as they are affected by incentives and resources."

Okay…I am not a stupid woman. Perhaps I'm less educated than I would like to be, but I think my intelligence level is right up there. And I have no idea what any of that means. A couple of weeks ago, my landlord rather sheepishly confessed that he has a degree in Economics. "Geez, Brian," I groaned, "That's like having a degree in witchcraft."

From all that I can gather, I've come to the conclusion that economics is an infuriating concept which no one really understands, and upon which no two people seem to agree, yet it governs the relative ease or challenge of my daily existence. It can dictate whether I have a roof over my head, food to eat, and decent medical care when I need it, yet it is so ethereal that I have as much personal control over it as I do over spirits on The Other Side. There are words, like incantations, that only a privileged few are allowed to speak, and even those chosen few are loathe to utter them. Words like "recession," "slow-down," "correction," and the most powerful of all—the "Beetlejuice" of the economic lexicon—"depression."

Somewhere along the line, the decision was made that the best way to rebuild the economy after the September 11th terrorist attacks was to hand the whole smoking mess to the richest of the rich, promise a stream of unlimited profits pouring into their treasure chests, turn the other way and let them have at it. It was so vital that the United States be able to stand up, dust itself off and say to the world, "Ha-ha, didn't hurt!" that we sold our souls to the devil. And the economic witch doctors to whom we turned have conjured and chanted and eye-of-newt-ed us to the top-heavy, over-inflated monster that is even now falling down around our heads.

"Black Friday" is the aptly named holiday upon which we celebrate the apex of our greed-based economy. The traditional game of this holiday involves retailers dangling irresistibly priced carrots in front of frenzied customers, who must then jump through demoralizing hoops—like lining up in the middle of the night in the rain outside the local Wal-Mart. This is the reward we get for carrying the nation's economy on our backs, year-round, by dutifully streaming to the stores and trading a hefty portion of our income for the latest technology, newest toy, or flashiest bling. What is wrong with this picture?

In the past weeks, the demise of our black magic economic model has been the star of the global stage. The entire world has watched as our booming gaseous blimp of an economy has lumbered toward the same end as the Hindenberg. And it is to be hoped that any country in its right mind, rather than queuing up behind us to subscribe to the same system (and help bail our burning butts out of our flaming ship), will run screaming in the opposite direction. I have no idea what healthy national economies are supposed be based upon. But it's pretty obvious, for a whole host of reasons, that rampant consumerism isn't it. For the past seven years, we've built an economy based largely on lending large amounts of money that did not really exist to people and entities that were not likely to be able to pay it back. How can that not fail, in the end?

It seems to me that a healthy economy must first and foremost be a moral economy. There needs to be equal opportunity for all members of society regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, religion; fair wages for fair labor; an equal chance for any business—large or small—to succeed. There needs to be access to superior education, and the best health care must be considered an inalienable right. There needs to be a sense that enough is enough, and too much is never a good thing. There needs to be a sense of stewardship, of protection of the earth and its resources. There needs to be a spirit of service, of the necessity of doing things that help other people, and not just looking out for number one. In short, there needs to be a means to responsible sustainable growth, rather than rampant irresponsible expansion.

Change is always difficult. It is too easy to get into the middle of something that you come to realize is wrong, but you don't know how to get yourself out of it. Perhaps the Universe is doing us a favor with this economic crisis. It is giving us the opportunity to start over. Let us hope it isn't too late. Let us hope that the people taking over the reins now will be bright enough and far-sighted enough to build something meaningful and substantial that will carry us well into this century, and beyond.

Cross-posted at Women On...