Monday, March 09, 2009

America, where art thou?

The greatest problem with Obama may be that he is more interested in a certain image of himself and of his politics than with many aspects of human reality out there in America and the world that he little knows yet hopes to move with endless campaign speeches. In the weeks he has been in office, wealth built up over generations of hard work is being destroyed with frightening speed, and Obama seems disconnected, not talking about how he is going to help instill confidence to help stem the flow in the markets but rather about how he is going to spend money the nation doesn't yet have to save the nation. And yet he shows little interest in insuring his "stimulus" or bailout spending will actually create economically productive industries that can continue in future without constant inflows of government debt-financed money. John Hawkins at Pajamas Media » Overcoming the Recession: An Interview with Thomas Sowell asks economist Sowell
JH: Now, we’ve heard people say that this is a uniquely bad economic situation — that it could be as bad as the Depression, etc. However, looking at GDP and job loss numbers, it doesn’t look as bad as, say, the recession in the early 80s. So how bad is this really and if you were advising the president, what would you tell him to do?

Thomas Sowell: Resign.

because he is determined to interfere in the market. How did we get out of the recession in the early 80s? Reagan did nothing. The economy adjusted and we’ve had 20 years of growth, low inflation, and low unemployment.
JH: Now, I’d like you to elaborate on something you wrote in National Review back in 2007:
When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.
Thomas Sowell: That’s true, unfortunately. I just noticed this morning that … I am getting more and more emails from people who are simply despairing. They are saying that we may have reached the point of no return. We have had dumbed down education for enough generations that people don’t even realize that it’s dumbed down education. We have propaganda against all the institutions of this society, literally from the elementary school to the universities. You can’t raise a whole generation of people who don’t know how to think but are taught to resent anything that they don’t understand, and expect that you are going to survive in the long run.
I though this was a good way of putting our real problem, the ethical problem that is, ultimately, the real driver of history including its economic phenomena. Americans and Canadians today are often taught to resent, and not to understand the economic or political systems of which they are part so that they might freely and humbly make a realistic contribution to renewing these systems. Survival demands not only personal self-understanding, but knowledge that personal self-understanding is empty if it is not distilled from a greater human self-understanding. If you don't know how human ethical systems are generated in history, you can't know much about anything, including yourself. And who today is educated to have a good grasp of history, perhaps the most difficult of intellectual disciplines?

This leads to my second observation on today's posts at Pajamas Media. In one - Pajamas Media » Could Americans’ Discontent Turn Violent? - there are over a 100 comments from people who seem to think violent civil unrest is quite likely in America in the near future. One commenter, MikeD offers some observations on the thread, including these:
7. This comment thread would never have happened at any other time during the last 100 years–whether there was an internet or not. That indicates a revolutionary change in thinking, if nothing else.

8. America and Americans today are very different than other peoples in other places in other times. Historical parallels from our own past, Europe or any other culture/time do not apply.
Now I think that's an interesting question for further discussion: is he really right that the current unrest is of a scope and scale that no real parallel can be found in the last 100 years of conservative anger at the rise of "progressive" government in America? As for his second point, that historical parallels do not apply, I think this may only be correct if the question is will, how or when will the present system fall apart. By the nature of history, that sort of question is indeed unpredictable and ultimately not worth investing a lot of time and energy in worrying about. If there is something that you can save, find a way to save it, but it can only really be saved over time if you have some way to reinvest it. Where historical parallels do apply is when you start investing time and energy in asking how the system can be renewed. People not educated in history and some kind of anthropological/religious/ethical self-understanding of how we humans make history, will have a very hard time finding the courage or knowledge for how to work themselves out of a mess.

Thomas Sowell has two quick answers for how to move forward, but these are questions on which we need all to do a lot more talking: in economics, let disrupted markets find their bottom without a constant government intervention that makes business and individual investment decisions about the real value of present assets and future economic prospects into a crap shoot dependent on knowing which way the political winds will be blowing through Obama's ears, the day after tomorrow, or maybe the day after that. But having the patience and wisdom to let millions of people collectively make decisions through market interactions, instead of letting the wise man in Washington lead us, can only happen when and if there is a respect for individual and business freedom within the political sphere. While there is a lot of interaction back and forth between politics and economics, the bottom line, which becomes visible in crises like the present, is that ultimately the economic market is limited or framed by the political market, and not vice versa as dogmatic Marxists like to argue in giving an implicit license to politicians like Obama to take revenge on what they see as the usually ascendant economic forces, in the name of the people. But Obama is no David vs. Goliath. The people, or in other words, politics, with the violent potential to keep any market open or closed, are/is always ultimately sovereign as they always have been, at least in a latent or implicit state; pointing out the supremacy of politics over economics is only the starting point for hoping we can do something creative with a little self-knowledge about how the freest societies have been built up in the past and can hope to renew themselves and grow in future.

Such an observation should not be a license for political hubris at the top but a recognition that it is only the political and economic interactions and conversations of people far away from the centres of media attention that can ultimately determine whether a nation and economy gets up off its feet and finds it worthwhile working through massive problems again, or whether stagnation will grip the land and bring trouble into the streets. If Obama is only talking to those who resent the American system, he can really achieve nothing. Vague promises of change tied to interventionist policies premised on some reworking of the New Deal might get people collecting government pay cheques, until the ability of government to borrow or tax slowly diminishes those cheques (as the value of the government buck diminishes through inflation) but it cannot really get them working again in building what only free people learning from their own mistakes in pursuit of their own dreams and realities can do. Don't try to save the people from their mistakes. Don't let them starve or freeze, but make sure you leave room for the personal salvation that can only come, not from Daddy Obama promising to buy you a new tv or status symbol, but from actually learning what it means to belong to human history and the freedom that is implicit in the sharing of language, and hence politics. A president who talks but doesn't listen denies that freedom and denies reality in favor of some fantasy vision of a Gnostic leader, with special insight, redeeming a fallen world.

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