Friday, August 5, 2011

800 Words: The Weekend America was Young - Interlude 1

Jacopo: So I’m going to ask the question now that everybody always asks - was there any way America‘s fall could have been avoided?

Esteban: The older I get and the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to think it was inevitable. By the end of the Bush era, America’s deficit spending was such that there was simply no way to evade a great reckoning. Even if the debt ceiling raise had not been filibustered, the bill that came through the Senate was so unsatisfactory, such a hollow shell of what was necessary to fix America‘s problems, that there was simply no way for it to inspire anything but terror in the markets.

Jacopo: At the time, a lot of liberals howled about how spineless Obama was that he’d capitulate on so many social programs.

Esteban: What in god’s name was he supposed to do? Even after having made enormous concessions on every single aspect of the bill, it still arrived in congress with less than 48 hours to spare, and it was still not enough for the Tea Party.

Jacopo: What was your feeling about Obama in those years?

Esteban: Always improving. I was about the only person who was not at all impressed with Obama during his primary campaign. I voted for him, but I feared the movement of change at his back. Fortunately, these were all the same people who shouted bloody murder when Obama seemed to be up to the practical compromises which every great leader must make to govern. Obama showed no remorse about leaving the progressive left at the altar. Whatever it took to win, Obama showed the stomach to follow through .The battles he did not win could not have been won by anyone else. As his presdiency became more bedraggled, the enormity of opposition to him became ever more clear. I couldn’t help but admire him more and more.

Jacopo: Do you think Obama was not a man of the left in those years?

Esteban: Oh I very much think he was. But he was not a man of the pseudo-left. It’s one of the great ironies of American History that Franklin Roosevelt’s name would be invoked so often as a stick to beat Obama. Seventy years before all this, the hard-line social progressives would batter Franklin Roosevelt with Abraham Lincoln’s name in precisely the same way. And seventy years before Roosevelt, abolitionists would batter Lincoln’s name with…I have no idea who. But unlike Jimmy Carter, both Roosevelt and Obama were far more interested in the realities of what government requires than in losing battles to demonstrate a show of principle.

Jacopo: Was there any way he could have prevented the slow-motion economic collapse that followed?

Esteban: I never saw the way. You cannot move the world out of an economic depression without trillions of dollars of deficit spending. You cannot pay off trillions of dollars in debt without incurring an economic depression, let alone tens of trillions. After two-and-a-half years in which Obama opted for saving the economy over paying the debt, our country was teetering on the edge of the exact same depression. He had to try the other option.

Jacopo: How did our family do in those years.

Esteban: I was, as always, the Cassandra of the familly- warning them that America was on the verge of something very grave. But I remember the exact moment when they came over to my point of view. Immediately upon returning from Rhode Island, we went on a Real Estate trip to Florida, It was in the airport that we found out about Rand Paul’s filibuster. Still, we hoped, there was a chance that Paul might relent if offered a better deal. Obama probably offered him one. But he was not interested in fixing the problem. On August 4th, the day after America lost its credit rating, we heard over the car radio that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had sunk 20% in two days in addition to the 11% in the eight days before. This meant that the market had already fallen 31% in ten days. All four of us immediately realized the consequences. America had a choice that could only have happened in a world that takes pleasure in dancing on a volcano: Either America pays off the debt, or spend all the money from the raised debt ceiling at once. The former would certainly ruin the world economy. The latter might also ruin the world economy, and it would also put America another 2 trillion dollars in debt.

Jacopo: Was this choice the Paul family’s goal?

Esteban: Absolutely. For Sodom to burn. And to replace it with a purer state.

Jacopo: Did the Paul family have any larger goals than the destruction of the financial markets?

Esteban: Of course they had goals. But their goals were impossible. The Paul family was as devoutly religious a family as American politics had ever produced. But rather than Christ they worshipped the free market. They believed that Gold was the only durable asset, and that the worth of all paper money would eventually collapse to nothing. They believed that lower taxes would cause larger revenues from the government because people would have more incentive to work harder. They believed that once America was forced to deal immediately with its debt, the world would learn to live within its means and economic recessions would be a thing of the past. They believed that once government would stop trying to regulate industry, businesses would police themselves far more effectively from excess. Because if they didn’t, the free market would simply provide a new company which kept its worst excesses in check.

Jacopo: It’s difficult to believe that these beliefs were widespread just 60 years ago.

Esteban: I wish I could say that people have evolved past the libertarian sensibility. But human nature never changes. If a person wants to be stupid, he will find a way. There are beliefs today that are easily as dumb and dangerous as the Libertarian mindset. And before the rise of the Tea Party, Libertarianism had a certain cache. There was even a movement that emerged in the late Bush years to merge liberalism and libertarianism.

Jacopo: One would think they’d be mutually exclusive.

Esteban: Over the years, a lot of dumb movements have allied themselves with liberalism. But every one of them has fizzled out. The meaning of liberalism itself has mutated all throughout its history, because it absorbs the best lessons from more rigid ideologies as it goes. The reason it’s so mutable is because it doesn’t believe much of anything. It’s only belief is ‘whatever works.’ Any true liberal has only one belief when it comes to politics: the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number of people. So far, most of the evidence points to political freedom, programs for social welfare, regulated capitalism, democratic governance and sound functions of government. But if truly compelling evidence demonstrated that a corrupt authoritarian system provided the greatest possible happiness, we’d probably support that too.

Jacopo: Well, from the way you describe it, you’d think that all the same things could be said of conservatism.

Esteban: How do you mean?

Jacopo: Hasn’t conservatism gone through hundreds of years, maybe thousands, of even faster mutations? Conservatism never means the same thing from decade to decade, yet from year to year it always stays a consistent force.

Esteban: Well, yes that’s absolutely true. But conservatism isn’t concerned with practical applications of solutions. It is concerned with preserving solutions that already worked. If ‘Whatever Works’ is the motto of liberalism, ‘Whatever Worked’ is conservatism’s equivalent motto. This makes conservatism a far easier ideology, because it never has to concern itself with new solutions that might work better. But a great society still has a place for principled conservatism.

Jacopo: You almost sound like you approve of them.

Esteban: I’ve always respected a certain kind of conservative. There should always be respect the preservation of tradition, the reverence of responsibility and the obligation they feel to serve their great institutions. That’s the conservatism of Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Adenauer, Lech Walesa, and John McCain. For my own taste, they are the ideal opposition voice in a great society.

Jacopo: It’s amazing to me that in his 80’s, John McCain became Obama’s most effective advocate.

Esteban: History out-ironizes every hipster.

Jacopo: What’s a hipster?

Esteban: Never mind.

Jacopo: So.... in your view there are two conservative strains?

Esteban: Well, if you’re going to divide conservatism, then there are at least two. But if you would bifurcate conservatism, then you would have to do the same with liberalism. There’s the liberalism strain which is concerned solely with the practical solutions of government. I’ll use some strictly twentieth century examples to illustrate this. You’d find leaders like Roosevelt, Truman, Clinton, Blair, Lloyd George, Mandela, Ben-Gurion, Atlee, Nehru, Rabin, and Rathenau. These are leaders who would try anything at all to get the best possible solution. Then there’s the progressive strain, which is more concerned with adhering to moral absolutes than the practical compromises you have to make while governing. In this camp you’d find leaders like Gandhi, Jimmy Carter, Allende, Ehud Barak, Willy Brandt, Harold Wilson, and in their own weird ways, Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson. And in the same way that liberalism can curdle into progressivism, conservatism can curdle into a kind of religion.

Jacopo: What kind of religion?

Esteban: Any kind of religion to which they can latch on: the religion of the free market, the religion of monarchy, the religion of family values, the religion of pre-emptive war. In this way, Libertarians, monarchists, Christianists and neo-conservatives were all various types of the same kind of conservative. Whereas progressives view institutions as something that should be blown up, religious conservatives view their institutions as something that should control all of our lives and that must always be defended from being moved an inch.

Jacopo: Does this make conservatism more predisposed towards authoritarianism than liberalism?

Esteban: Maybe a little bit, but only a little. And if ideology makes conservatives more predisposed to authoritarianism, then it also makes liberals more predisposed to terrorism. One of the ironies of American history is that in spite of so many people identifying themselves as progressive, an American progressive movement never got off the ground for more than a few years at a time. Whereas no matter how many times religious conservativism is discredited, the cohesion of their movements never seems to go away. After the McCarthy hearings, it was rightly thought that hard-right conservativism was finished for good. But two years later, William F. Buckley founded a hard-right-wing magazine called The National Review, and it became easily the most influential political journal of the twentieth century. Y’know...we’ve gotten very far off-topic.

Jacopo: I know. Would you like a late lunch?

Esteban: I’d be delighted.

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