By Benjamin Cole
America faced an unprecedented challenge requiring military intervention halfway around the globe. Russia was recalcitrant in the face of international diplomatic pressure, and rogue South American dictators scoffed at democratic reforms. Africa suffered the stresses of modernization. The Middle East was unstable; Israel dealt with anti-Jewish regimes; and America faced a series of unanticipated economic challenges.
Sound familiar? Not only does it describe the current year, but one more than 40 years ago. It was 1962, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president. He listed the world’s woes in a speech during spring commencement at Yale University.
In that speech, Kennedy summoned every ounce of his soaring rhetorical skill to address challenges to the American economy — wasteful spending, budget deficits and national debt, the falling value of the American dollar and rising anxieties about international confidence in the American markets.
Flash forward 46 years. Today, the American economy is tottering. Republicans know it. Democrats know it. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department know it. And most certainly, the American people know it. At the moment, however, it seems that nobody is to blame — not the government that turned a blind eye to predatory lending; not usurers who eschewed every vestige of moral responsibility; not the covetous, debt-laden suburbanites who had to keep up with the Joneses down the street.
Out on the presidential stump, Barack Obama and John McCain point fingers in every direction. If it’s not legislators who have failed to provide congressional oversight, then it’s an administration that has failed to manage the economy. Everywhere you look, the current economic crisis is a reason to reject the other guy and empower whoever has the microphone for the moment.
I spent the greater part of last weekend trying to digest Obama and McCain’s economic proposals. Both candidates want to fix the mortgage meltdown by helping sub-prime borrowers keep homes they couldn’t afford in the first place. Both have endless acronyms — the HOME plan for McCain, and the HOME score for Obama, to name two — that offer grand and hopeful ideas without much in the way of nuts-and-bolts proposals.
As I sorted through the presidential rivals’ economic plans, it seemed to me that the problems America faces are much more substantive and subtle than a few unrestrained executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The wrong questions are being asked; therefore, the wrong solutions are being offered.
Why must lowering taxes always be a plank in a winning political platform, for instance? Since the Great Depression, Americans have steadily increased the expectations they have from the federal government. Since the 1980s, however, Americans have grown accustomed to shouldering less and less of the burden to pay for the government programs they demand.
Take the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example. Both McCain and Obama have called for more regulations and stricter governmental oversight. Missing from their solutions is the fine print. More regulations mean more regulators. More regulators mean more federal jobs. More federal jobs mean a larger federal budget. A larger federal budget means a need for more tax revenue.
Which leads me to the real reason I’ve been thinking about the moral and political foundation of the economic questions that America now faces.
In his 2005 “Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics,” Harvard professor Michael Sandel explores the digression of American political concern from the noble pursuit of an economy of citizenship — where the goal of democracy was the formation of self-governing citizens — to the lesser end of economic growth at any cost. Rather than making citizens who are capable of working diligently and providing generously for the common good, America became a nation of nursing babes unable to wean themselves from Uncle Sam’s bosom.
Americans, according to Sandel, are less able to govern themselves than they were a century ago. And a people incapable of self-government should be careful about blaming the federal government for failing to balance its own budget or audit its own expenditures. When “we the people” have gotten ourselves into an economic freefall, “we the people” should bear the burden of getting us out.
Sandel’s book directed me to Kennedy’s 1962 commencement address. Quite profoundly, he spoke to the very problems that Americans now face: an expanding federal government, a deepening federal debt and a growing federal deficit. Those economic dilemmas and the economic stresses they created were — for Kennedy — too important to be reduced to campaign slogans or political clichés. They demanded discipline, nuance and complex thinking.
They required moral reasoning — the kind that preachers and philosophers and politicians had undertaken at the nation’s founding. Looking across the Pacific to escalating military conflict in Indochina, looking at stresses of outdated domestic policies and looking at the Yale Class of 1962, Kennedy called the next generation of America’s leaders to a higher level of political discourse. He urged them to face the challenges with courage and calm.
“You are part of the world and you must participate in these days of our years in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgment; and as we work in consonance to meet the authentic problems of our times, we will generate a vision and an energy which will demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and strength of the free society,” Kennedy told them.
Forty-six years later, it remains to be seen if Americans will find the solutions to our problems through the diligent work of moral and political reflection, or if we will simply watch the dog-and-pony show of presidential campaigns without demanding something more realistic than panacean economic proposals or partisan blame-shifting for today’s fiscal ills.
The economic crisis is not a new problem. It’s not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. It’s not a rich problem or a poor problem. The distractions and divisions that threaten the nation’s resolve to tighten our own economic belts, to roll up our own economic sleeves and to do the tough work of seeing our country through another dark season of fiscal strain must be rejected. The partisan potshots that discourage collaborative solutions must cease.
Whether or not a leader will arise to summon the resolve of a nation to do something other than provide knee-jerk reactions to problems on Wall Street and Capitol Hill remains to be seen. For now, we watch as the rains of economic woe fall upon the just and the unjust.