Monday, January 28, 2008

The Grown Up Wing

John Edwards has been touting himself as the sole representative of "the Grown Up Wing of the Democratic Party." This from the man who has taken every opportunity to lambaste "the Corporations" as the evildoers of our age, and assumes that we, the "consumers," have had nothing whatsoever to do with their growing profits. As long as we continue to demand "everyday low prices" instead of seeing other things of value that go beyond the cheapest produced goods - such as local ownership, healthy commercial and residential downtowns, and profits that are reinvested in the communities where they are earned - we have little right to blame it all on the corporations. Edwards is among the worst at indulging our adolescent belief in our utter blamelessness.

Huckabee, once again, is proving himself to be the most grown-up (if still deeply flawed) among the current crop of candidates. While far from perfect - his Confederate flag comments were a pathetic effort to court the Secessionist vote - at least when it comes to some of the more real and pressing issues facing our nation, he's the only candidate who is willing to chasten our childishness. Particularly worthy of praise is an exchange summarized here (you can search the Bloomberg site for a video of the entire interview - unfortunately I'm not able to get the link to work) in which Huckabee disagrees with the near-unanimous orthodoxy that the nation should print checks for every working American in order to "stimulate" the economy. Huckabee notes that we will be borrowing this $150 billion from the Chinese in order to buy imported plastic goods made by the Chinese. He explicitly questions whose economy we're supposed to be helping, and it's a valid question in an age when our own economy rests on our ability to continue to borrow money from the Chinese so that we can afford to buy plastic imports from Chinese factories and oil from Saudi tyrants. We will pay any price, bear any burden, to continue our profligacy and burden our children with the debt we accumulate today.

Still, anyone who runs for President and seeks to gain votes from a pampered public can't afford to tell the whole truth. And Huckabee - while admirably questioning the current stimulus package - in turn fumbles when he proposes that the this $150 billion (which we will still be borrowing from the Chinese - a fact he somehow neglects to revisit) should instead be invested in improving American "infrastructure." This is a fine idea - particularly the stress upon creating American jobs and improving our own industries - except the only infrastructure he mentions is the building of new roads. He therefore proposes to continue the Great American Build-out which has led to our current housing and financial crisis. Our effort to continually increase American home-ownership with a background assumption that housing will substitute for savings, our cheap money policy that has supported that aim, and the build-out of the American suburbs ever farther away from places of work, commerce and worship has led us to a point at which our banks will make any loan to sell more houses, our housebuilders will pave over any farmland regardless of the fecundity of its topsoil, and our commuters will drive any distance and pay any price for petroleum purchased from autocratic regimes. So, the proposal is to borrow more money to finance an unsustainable future. No matter how you package it, we're stuck with the fact we're breathing the last oil fumes of a Ponzi scheme.

My own modest proposal suggests why I won't be moving into the White House anytime soon. I propose that we tighten our belts quite a bit - that we impose on ourselves a hefty gas tax and stop driving so much and overheating and overcooling our huge houses. We might use this revenue to afford tax breaks for energy efficient heating, appliances, and automobiles. Further, we take some of these funds and indeed invest in our infrastructure - particularly light rail, public transportation and "in-fill" construction in our current suburban and commercial areas. This will require changes in our zoning laws to allow mixed-use neighborhoods, combining residential, commercial, civic and religious buildings. Such an investment will have enormous pay-offs in job creation (in keeping with Governor Huckabee's proposal) and the long-term decline of energy consumption. It will also foster neighborhoods with increased interactions beyond "reality TV" that might increase the possibility that more people will be encouraged to grow up and stop living the illusion that their decisions have no effects beyond how much money they spend for goods. This would be the best investment for the future of our nation, for our children and the prospects for constitutional democracy.

Our current course continues to be to put off until tomorrow what would be less costly - but, admittedly, quite dear - today. Among our economists, one of the very few who recognizes the contemporary pathology of growth at any price is James Grant, whose writing I've commended before, and who this weekend authored a smart op-ed in the New York Times about the Fed's current inflationary policies. Grant notes that our current obsession with undergirding various bubbles has the effect of inflating the next bubble, and in particular dissuades "investors" from avoiding otherwise unconscionable levels of risk. I am reminded of a conversation that I had this summer with a smart 20 year old from an honors program at another school who lectured me that we've gotten so smart that we've eliminated economic downturns. He also regaled me with a loving description of his stock portfolio, one that might not be the source of such braggadocio in recent weeks.

If we do not grow up - and quickly - we are likely to know the definitive result of Benjamin Franklin's response to a question that was posed to him at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention - "What form of government have you created, Sir?"

"A Republic, if you can keep it," was his answer. To this day, the verdict is still out.


Anonymous said...

You're right about this view essentially disqualifying you from the presidential race! Even the most heterodox of candidates (say Kucinich) would never adopt such a program. But the day may be coming when events force such a policy. Who knows?

brierrabbit said...

I have never understood how we got to an economy, that runs on mostly housebuilding. Are we to sprawl our economy all across the country? When we run out of land, will they continue by building houseboats? We used to make things. Houses used to be homes, not "investments". Your right about not being president. Our country is so set on selfishness, and consumption, you'd never get elected. You'd be more unpopular than president Bush is.

Anonymous said...

You'd have my vote. Do you live in Jim Moran's district? I've been looking for a write-in vote for congress.