A week or two ago, I posted some questions about America. One about our patriotic vision, another about what an ideal America would look like, and for the control freaks among us, one about what you would personally do if you were given the reigns with the authority to make it stick. The ideas behind the questions have been swirling rapidly around in my cranium, and that leads me to offer fair warning that this may be another rambling post.
It occurs to me that we are in a strangely guilty and apologetic time in our social history. The purpose of my question about the patriotic image of our nation was intended to dig into the thinking behind our hesitant march into the future. It almost seems, at times, that we are a nation divided between those people who think that we are not good enough, and those that do. This is a completely arbitrary split, only good for the purposes of this discussion. I didn’t read it from a poll, although if such a poll exists, I’m sure that would be interesting.
We are conditioned for two things. One is to feel inadequate as individuals, probably so we will feel compelled to buy things that will make us live up to the cultural standard. Then, completely illogically, we are being taught that someone else exists to provide the means for us to make up the shortfall in our lives. You can’t put those two ideas together and make it last. From the perspective of those who stand to gain from our “don’t be a loser, buy a bigger TV” mentality, it makes no sense that we would develop into a nation of people looking to retire on the proceeds of a lawsuit or a government program.
I’m not pointing fingers. I suspect than anyone who has found their way to my humble blog has already rejected this nonsense. I’m talking about the cultural game that creates mass response, either systematically or as a completely unintended consequence. Whether it is deliberately imposed on us or purely the outcome of simpler responses, the effect is not an explicit thing. It’s a subtext. I first heard it on the ABC Evening News in the mid-90’s. Peter Jennings was reporting several stories in rapid succession, and in each story, it was there. “The government will handle it.”
Yes, there are plenty of things that the government absolutely should handle, but if we want to live in a free country, that list should be far shorter than it is. The recent regional news stories in the wake of our ice storm carried the tradition right along. Each report was bundled up with a list of things we shouldn’t do. For every item on the list, we were told to call 911, the power company, or to hire a tree service. God help anyone who might consider cutting their own damaged trees. Of this lengthy list, the only part that made sense to me was a reminder that live wires are indeed highly dangerous and beyond the skill of any common homeowner. Everything else should fall in the realm of common sense. If am dumb enough, for example, to wheel a charcoal grill into my house and then light it up, I’m not really sure that public resources should be wasted on saving me from carbon monoxide death.
The point, and the large logical leap, is that we did not become the greatest nation on earth by following the principle that someone else will fix it, particularly the government. Now for the intuitive leap. What does our shared, collective image of America have to say about personal liberty, independence, self sufficiency, and the culture that is grown from those basic notions? I understand that most of you are operating on some level of independent thought. What is your perception of those people you know who base every decision on the blind faith that everything that exists will never change, those whose lives will fall apart if bread stops appearing on store shelves for three days? Do we have any obligation to tell these people that things could change, that the government they trust (more or less) is already way over its head, that relatively small disturbances can create economic chaos? If we call ourselves a culture worth preserving, surely there is some level of obligation.
And if we are a culture worthy of the name, what does it look like? Where did it arise? Which parts should stay and which parts should go? That’s the basis of my inquiry into your patriotic images.
For the second question, I would say this:
Let’s start with integrity. It’s the toughest part. Who here believes that our leaders and their moneyed pals are being honest with us? Who thinks that there’s a good chance that almost everything we know about what’s happening is serving a purpose that has nothing to do with the quality of our lives and liberty? While we’re at it, who thinks that the nations themselves deal honestly with each other?
If you believe those things, then I’m happy for you. Your life is automatically less stressful than mine. Don’t worry, I’m not about to deny human nature, which guarantees that for every opportunity to abuse a system, there will be people more than happy to abuse it. In the larger scheme, honesty is hard. Integrity is hard. All that means is that as long as we have a say in this grand experiment of democracy, we should fight to deny the natural human tendency to hide in the corners, to take advantage of others.
How? Simple. Let’s simplify. Let’s strive for elegance in the way our world operates. Since our political leaders have given us more than enough proof of their willingness to leap down the rabbit hole of greed, we should simplify the system. Term limits, campaign finance reform, insist that they play by the same rules as everyone else.
If we are on the teetering edge of economic meltdown through insanely complex financial instruments and staggering national debt, we should insist on simplicity. I know this is a can-of-worms topic. I can save the details for another time, but does anyone really think it’s okay that our banking system can cut your mortgage into eight zillion pieces and let it be traded like any other computational financial instrument? What’s wrong with a balanced budget amendment, other than the fact that it takes power out of the hands of people who are using the sheer complexity of the system in their own best interests? In the cause of simplicity, I’d say that our leaders can’t handle our money without some controls, and the concept of living within our budgetary means is a very simple concept indeed.
Raise your hand if you personally know the US tax code… Anyone? Don’t feel bad. You’d have a much easier time memorizing the Bible – verbatim. Come on, government! There are only two reasons to justify the overwhelming complexity of our tax code. One, create plenty of advantages for those with the means to use them. Fairness be damned! Two, the tax code provides a surprising degree of control over our behavior. So, other than the assault on integrity that our tax nightmare represents, I say it’s also a heavy and unnecessary burden on every one of us. It cost billions of dollars to prepare tax returns every year, it cost billions to enforce, and it has an even more insidious effect. The fact that you and I can’t do a bit of math on a napkin and constantly know what we owe in taxes means that there’s a psychological burden as well. Until we actually do the tax return dance each year, there’s a mysterious, stressful burden hanging over each and every American. Simplify.
Litigation… No. We all know why this is out of control.
While I fully recognize that the Constitution could not possibly anticipate every condition, I do believe that it does a magnificent job of establishing a framework, an acid test for everything we do. Plus it has the benefit of being a relatively simple document that covers an incredibly broad range of potential threats to our liberty. It’s being trampled hard these days, while it should be the final arbiter of the laws we pass.
As a high school football player, I was strong. Progress in my strength training was important to me. I was fortunate enough to attend Vanderbilt University’s summer football camp when I was 17, and I got to meet Doc Kries, who was legendary in the field of strength training. I asked him what to do when I hit a plateau, that point when I wasn’t gaining any strength from my workouts. He said something that stuck with me. He said, “If you hit a plateau, back up 50 pounds and work your way back up.” I did as he suggested, and cruised right past my former limits.
I think we should, as a nation, back up closer to simplicity, elegance, and constitutionality, and try again.
Another piece of the integrity puzzle is being honest with ourselves about who we are. Are we the police for the world? Why? Does a large chunk of the world’s population resent us for it? Are we actually an imperialist power pretending that our only goal is to spread the love of democracy throughout the world? Are we comfortable with the warm and fuzzy future of the global economy when we are literally allowing the global village to kick dust on us as they race past? Did we of European ancestry steal this nation from the native Americans? Yeah. Is it any different from every other establishment of a nation in the history of the world? Nope. Did we keep slaves? Did we force the descendants of those slaves to fight tooth and nail for equality? Yep. Have we learned our lesson yet? More or less – maybe. Do we seem to generate a ridiculous number of aberrant criminals? Yep. Do we waste tons of resources jailing people who probably would never do any real harm? In fact, do we treat our criminals excessively well, while we tend to demonize victims? Do we subvert due process in the rights of criminals on the basis of executive orders, which are probably unconstitutional in the first place? Yes, we do.
My point is that, like any alcoholic, we are a nation that needs to admit our problems before we can start to heal. Alcoholics tend to clean up only after they destroy their own lives and hit bottom, with no place to go but up. Maybe if we can be honest with each other before we hit bottom, we can avoid an unknowable level of pain and suffering.
Ok… Integrity, check.
My other definition for a great America is completeness. In the span of my life, we have given up far too much of our foundational greatness. Where once we held the lead in research, manufacturing, energy, education, innovation, and so much more, I’ve spent my adult life watching us literally giving those advantages way. Even twenty years ago, I could jokingly argue that the only thing we still led was the entertainment industry. Anyone who has paid attention knows exactly where it all went, and why. To vastly oversimplify, the advantages of the powerful took precedence over the health of our nation, which means that there are far too many people in control who are able to look at all of us normal American citizens as nothing more than replaceable money batteries. The interesting part for me is that they found the replaceable batteries superior to rechargeable ones. If you look at the whole picture, there are apparently plenty of heavy hitters who are more willing to run us dry than to build a system which keeps us ever ready (pun intended) to keep paying the bills. Who do they, the mysterious they, intend to deplete next? Either it’s better to draw a sustainable level from us indefinitely, or it’s better to suck us dry as quickly as possible and move on. Who here likes to be referred to as consumers?
We once made our wealth from making things. Great things, better things than anyone else. Now, it seems as if the key to wealth in America is to find a way to sit on a stream of revenue and parasitically suck from the stream as it flows by. The better you suck, the more successful you become. We do far too much sucking. I would never deny the right of a venture capitalist to build and destroy as he sees fit just for the pleasure a tasty slurp of green, but the balance is way off. If people read the simplicity argument and scream loudly because their lifeblood is flowing through the vessels of hyper-complexity, I would say, shut up and create something of value instead. It was good enough for your grandparents. It’s good enough for you.
To me, the key to the future is to make America complete. Anything we need comes from here. More than we need gets traded globally on reasonable terms. Then, instead of ramming our priorities down the throats of other countries at the cost of lives and trillions of dollars, we simply show them how it should be done and let the example of America do the job. Meanwhile, back at home we can revel in the prosperity of being independent and productive under the safety of our non-overextended military. As a bonus, I suspect being the best feels pretty darn good.
So, the final question. I’ve already answered what I would do with my brief burst of total authority, but to sum up… Taxes simplified to the extreme. Terms limits in place. Special perks and rules for congress revoked. Campaign finance reduced to individual donations put into a public, traceable fund, and each electable office has a set piece of that fund. If nine people run for that office the funds are split nine ways, so the parties better get their candidates sorted before the race. No laws may be passed with more than one unified purpose. Hidden provisions that have nothing to do with the face of the law must go. I don’t care if our representatives spend their terms duct taped to the vote buttons. If they want to pass laws for a million things, they should get ready to vote a million times. While I’m at it, Congress members are require to vote unless they have a note from the surgeon general. Lobbyists, if they remain, must fully disclose all revenues and publicly state their purpose. The last 40 years of banking and monetary policy would probably get axed. Every law would get vetted for constitutionality and thrown out if there’s even a question of its basis. A large portion of executive authority would be abolished. Every president since the Great Depression has abused executive orders. American corporations would lose every advantage to foreign dealings beyond the customer relationship with foreign buyers. After they make their sacrifice to bring jobs back to America, only then would I look at creating specific benefits for doing the right thing. I’m sure I could come up with more, once I get my hands on the secret playbook.
In general, I believe there is a price to be paid for what we have been doing as a nation. It doesn’t take a great deal of study to discover that, historically, it’s absurd to expect that we can keep what we’ve got without paying for it. I’d rather pay it now, while it’s still (barely) possible than to have our descendants paying forever. In short, let’s clean up this mess if we want our American house to stand.