Thursday, December 1, 2011

Waiting for the Children of the Cold War to Die

Did your parents explain the complex political forces involved in the first Gulf War while it was happening? Did they talk about how Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with weapons we had given him? As an 8 or 9 year old, did you see the now infamous picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Hussein's hand? What did they teach you about taxes? How about the Junk Bonds scandal, or the Savings and Loan scandal? Even as teenagers, what did you learn about the stock market from the dot com bubble?

Of course, none of that came up. We were kids and our parents were busy. We grew up with a simplified version of the events and many of our core beliefs were developed based on whatever simplifications we received. I bring this up, because I'm trying to understand one of the most baffling phenomenon of today's politics.

We already know how to fix our economic problems. We got out of a Depression once before and it wasn't through tax breaks for the wealthy and government deregulation. To summarize: government funded infrastructure projects kept society from falling apart whilst (and at the same time) developing resources for future economic growth (like the electrification of rural America) until WWII provided the motivation for an even greater federal spending spree that finally jump-started the economy and lead, with the aid of several farseeing plans (like the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan), to the most prosperous three decades any nation has ever seen. We can do that again. We know how.

Furthermore, pretty much all of the forty or so countries that outrank us in just about every quality of life standard, use the same strategy. To summarize: the national government administers those aspects of society which private markets have proven unable to effectively manage, like health care, education, and a material safety net, paid for by a tax structure that recognizes the reality of modern wealth, while regulating destructive behaviors that would not be automatically corrected by the market, like food safety and environmental concerns, and leaving everything else (which is still quite a lot) to the private markets until they prove themselves unable to handle some specific responsibility.

There. Done. Problems solved. Furthermore, given the vast monetary and material wealth of the United States, there is every reason to assume that if these solutions were implemented, we'd get another one of those big stretches of national prosperity and return to that whole being number one thing so many people spend a lot of time shouting about.

But nobody is doing these things. Even a whisper of a fragrance of a hint of the possibility that maybe we should think about perhaps having a federally administered non-profit health insurance option was a non-starter. So why, if these strategies worked to get us out of the Great Depression, and all these other nations are doing better than us in a lot of meaningful ways, can't we do this stuff?

Dan Bern has a song called Children of the Cold War. In it the speaker asks Moses why the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. Here is Moses' response: "We waited that the ones who knew firsthand of slavery could die out,/ Be left behind, buried in the ground./ So that no one but the innocent could reach the Promised Land./ We waited for the children of slavery to die." Essentially, those who grew up in slavery had their core beliefs shaped by that experience and nothing was going to undo that shaping, and so, in order to build a society free of slavery, they had to wait for those who grew up with slavery to die.

In the same way that people in my generation were developing our worldviews in the context of a simplified understanding of, well, everything, including the Gulf War, et al, our parents generation developed their worldview in the context of a simplified understanding of everything including the Cold War. In the simplified Cold War, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the enemy of the United States of America, and everything about them is evil. They called themselves “socialist,” and so anything “socialist” is therefor evil. In the same way that we didn't learn all the intricacies of the first Gulf War, like for example, how the US installed government in Iran completely altered the political landscape of the Middle East, our parents' generation didn't learn about the difference between socialism and communism and the particularly brutal brand of fascism practiced by Stalin and his descendents.

Throw in a school of economic thought, a few selfish bastards leveraging a set of ideas for their own personal profit, and an information and education system not too good at complexity and nuance, and you have a political situation in which one entire political party works tirelessly to cut taxes for the wealthy and deregulate the economy regardless of all the historical evidence their policies are absolutely destructive, while outright rejecting any policy that leverages the government spending and regulating power to benefit society.

Dan Bern's point in the song is the same as Moses'; in order for society to progress those whose core beliefs were developed during the Cold War need to, well, step aside. Death might be a bit much, but the problems of the 21st century are not going to solved by a mid-20th century mindset.

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