Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fiddling Whilst America Burns

It is totally natural that, as countries/people get more affluent and comfortable, they prefer stability. This is learned behavior now deeply imprinted in our genome.

They become change-resistant. In the political world, this means they develop a low-grade affinity for centrism ... on those rare occasions when they bother to think of politics at all. This is most mature in western Europe where 2 in 3 Frenchmen exercised their constitutional right not to bother to vote in the national elections between 1990 and 2005. The system of coalition governments give the fringe nuts a platform, but no power and at the end of the day, the (non)voting public is convinced no matter who's in office, nothing will change. It's like some form of modern portfolio theory applied to democracy. "Hmm ... I'll take ..." (or should I say Je choisis and Ich wähle) ".. 40% center-left ... 45% center-right ... and 5% crazy nationalist as a kicker" just like people throw a few thou of their 401k into emerging market equities.

The pattern is clearest where it is still young - countries where the citizens can still remember a time when life was not so good. It's been amazing to watch how quickly eastern Europe and southeast Asia have gone from having no voice to wanting none (via a brief adolescent, energetic period of political engagement). Apparently, once people feel their lillypad is stable, they want the feet off the pedals so the country can coast and drift nowhere fast.

The same pattern is maturing quickly here in the "50/50 nation" where we had a Democrat cut taxes, sign trade agreements, and reform welfare ... followed by a Republican who rarely missed an opportunity to expand the reach and cost of government.

Is this, perhaps, why we all allow the mainstream US political parties to concentrate all their time and energy obsessing over trifles? Is this a gentleman's agreement between voters and politicians that we will not muck in their affairs as long as they can look busy while not impacting our daily consumerist ways?

I'm all for government non-intervention, free markets, wealth-creation (as readers may have noticed) but I'm NOT for inaction, especially when there's a big downside risk. I'm disgusted that the scant few hours Congress actually spends legislating are blown on divisive fringe issues. It is unconscionable to waste even a moment on something like prayer in school when we're racking up an additional $1.5 billion in national debt per day. Instead of taking on the hard problems of balancing the Federal budget, the boys on the hill scramble for a spot on CNN so they can advocate mass retail therapy as a distraction from a real economic issue.

The same pattern exists in other critical spheres. The true issues with healthcare get papered over with fringe issues such as the morality of stem cells and the merits of throwing people in jail for not having insurance.

Likewise with foreign policy. Whether or not some Israeli farmer has to move from one wind-swept scrap of desert in Golan to another in Hebron is childsplay compared with the concern that we're not doing enough to protect the world's nuclear arsenal. As a result, some nut drives out of Pakistan with a nuke in his trunk, headed for Bombay. Newsmen politicians and diplomats alike waste bandwidth debating whether the Japanese PM has should or should not have lain a wreath on some grave somewhere, but they do nothing to dislodge truly evil military dictators. As a result, 150,000 people die unnecessarily in the aftermath of a hurricane.

Our current obsession with the variously-named credit/mortgage/debt/housing crisis has evolved into more of the same. The people in charge of the country (government and otherwise) are all hedonistic flower children of the Sixties. No talking head dares take a fatherly tone with them about living beyond their means vs. saving for a rainy day. Instead, politicians enable the national dysfunction by launching lawsuits against lenders. Over a hundred cities, counties, and states are suing banks on the behalf of their irresponsible citizens at the expense of the responsible ones. After all, I, with my capital gains, property, and income taxes, am paying for those damn lawyers, but I have a snowball's chance in hell of seeing any benefit from the circus.

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