Friday, November 9, 2012

My American Dream

I have found myself participating in several political conversations recently.  What follows is a summary of my rumination on those conversations.

Neither political party has effectively addressed the reality that America must collectively and individually accept responsibility for national insolvency: it is not the other guy's fault; it is your fault, and mine--ours. And the solution requires that all of us tighten our belts (including politicians: it may be peanuts when measured against the $16 trillion we are in the hole, but why do former Presidents make ~$240,000 per annum guaranteed and adjusted for inflation as long as they live? where is the panache in pretending that all problems are somebody else's fault and then stuffing your face on the public dime, using funds that don't exist?).

We are all going to lose jobs and/or make a lot less. We can come down gradually, trying to put some real faith back into our monetary system (which is currently jacked beyond easy repair)--or we can wait for another Black Tuesday to take us down for the Great Depression 2.0 (which is still coming regardless of who won the recent elections: Republicans and Democrats both did this to us, and they did it because we asked them to; they listened to the public and did their best to give it what it wanted).

The biggest problem I have with all this is the inability politicians on both sides seem to have when it comes to admitting their own mistakes. Instead of owning those mistakes, they pass the buck to their opponents and come up with empty plans that all boil down to more of the same: "We'll simply do what we've always done, but I will be in charge, so it will work!" As if unserviceable debt were somehow OK under a Republican (like W) but not under a Democrat (Barack)--or vice versa. Are we trying to get back to the Reagan years or the Clinton years? In either event, we are chasing a chimera, and the sooner we recognize this and snap out of it, the easier our return to the current reality will be. Clinton and Reagan aren't coming back. They weren't gods. They made some very human mistakes. Their policies do not promise the utopia that partisans imagine--no matter how many doors you knock on, how much "spirit" or "hope" you have, etc. Chasing their shadow is a distraction from our real problem, which is that as a nation we are currently living in a fantasy world where we can all have our cake and eat it, too.

Wall Street is not too big to fail. It never was, and it never will be. America is not too big to fail: we've proven it before (when we did fail and had to work hard to recover), and we are in the process of proving it again. I wish politicians and the people they represent would man up and take some freaking responsibility. Maybe I am not personally wholly responsible for all the crap going on right now, but I am at least partially to blame. I support (with patronage) businesses and companies whose practices are unsustainable. I am part of the fragility inherent in a large global society--the fragility that means that I could be out of a job tomorrow (at least I am not living in a nation where that means sudden death, in the literal sense: here I have a chance to recover, a chance that I should take sooner rather than later if I want the transition to be smooth). Every day, we all make bets with the universe. And we all lose sometimes. The key is not to bet more than you are willing (and able) to lose. You have to take responsibility for yourself, rather than looking for somebody else (e.g. Satan, the other political party, "illegal" immigrants, gay people, rednecks, religious nutjobs, racists, etc.). We are all just human beings, dumb human beings who make mistakes (no matter who is leading us: our leaders are human, too).

If the American dream is about other people making you happy, then it is an impossible fantasy (no matter who you are, how you vote, or who wins any election). If you want your dreams to be real, then you have to dream something that might be real (as the really good dreamers in our history have consistently done: where are they now? why do they never get elected to public office? maybe because we don't appreciate them until after they are dead?). Maybe we need somebody to tell us honestly what we really look like, as a people. Maybe we don't look much like the kind of heroes we seem to expect our politicians to be. Maybe we shouldn't expect more of them than we do of ourselves. Maybe we should set our personal standards a bit higher. Change and hope don't come from other people. The way is not in heaven, not through election, not in the system outside you: the way is in the depths of your heart, yours and mine. We need to go there and face what we see (the way some of us already do, some of us who are not winning or losing elections, some of us who are too busy suffering to care about finding somebody else to blame).

In offering these reflections, I am not putting myself forward as the ideal American. I personally at this time see myself as more part of the problem than the solution. I am not in a position to save myself and my family. I have not put myself in that position. I have kept my head down and done what I was told, and I rely on other people a lot, probably too much. Mitt Romney was right to call me parasite, I guess I am saying; where he is wrong is in supposing that he escapes the same blame. He is playing the game he was born into, just like I am, and (as far as I can tell) losing it the same way (even though he was born with a better hand). We are all in this together, and we all (or most of us, anyway) suck (at least some of the time). We need to accept this, I think, and recognize that our suckiness has and will have consequences that will make our lives and our children's lives different than they would have been otherwise. 

I will not tell my kids that their lives will be better than mine. I don't believe that. I think it is wrong to set people up with false expectations, to tell them that someone else will look out for them always, that there exists a path to meaningful happiness that is not paved with their own blood, sweat, and tears--blood, sweat, and tears that might ultimately yield nothing (or at least, nothing like what they expect when they set foot on the path). There are no guarantees. There is no sure hope. I wish politicians would just say that (tell us the truth), and then do their best to let us see how they are making bets with our best interests--bets that might fail, bets against which we personally need to take out insurance, on our own: no program can take all the risk and make it disappear, no matter who runs it.  God himself could not redeem this people, or if he could, then he almost certainly will not, if history is any indicator: he will sit back and let things be however they turn out.