Daniel L. Feldman

Can Americans Handle the Truth?

In National Politics, Policy on August 16, 2010 at 10:41 pm

In our previous discussion, we recommended support for candidates who support at least some form of government intervention to counteract the effect of the narrow-minded tendencies of many companies to hoard cash instead of hiring.

In a way, that is the easy, obvious stuff. Andrew Bacevich, in his 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, points us to the harder issues. Those of us who grew up in the period between 1950 and 1965 usually take that period as the norm, when the United States gobbled up some enormous percentage of the world’s wealth. We continue to assume that we should have a very high standard of living and also have our nation serve as the world’s moral police, by which I mean, for example, that if the Taliban does terrible things, we should stop them. (Whether we are truly motivated by morality or by perceived national interest, while an important question, is really a different question, in that if the latter, the perception is mistaken: the costs will outweigh the benefits.)

In fact, the 1950 to 1965 period was aberrational. We now have very serious competition for the world’s goods and services. In 2000, we were responsible for about 31 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, in 2006, about 27 percent. In the earlier period, we peaked at about 37 percent, by a somewhat different measure that has us at about 22 percent now. 

Bacevich, a conservative military historian, find ample precedent for once-great powers that overextended themselves. The United States simply cannot afford to spend money on wars of choice, as opposed to wars of necessity. Our leadership always presents each war as a war of necessity, but we know better.

Still tougher is the issue of living standards. American voters want lower taxes, but also generous Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security benefits, enriched and affordable education for their children, safe streets, and so forth. Part of the problem with our elected representatives is that they do in fact reflect the desires of the voters – and those desires are for the impossible.

Bacevich argues that ever since the complete political failure of Jimmy Carter’s call for an end to American self-indulgence, no successful candidate for the presidency has dared to tell the public the truth. Instead, each new administration, Republican or Democratic, has borrowed against the future to sustain the unsustainable.

If we have any sense of social responsibility left, we might start to reward politicians who tell us painful truths, and who don’t promise what can only happen if we keep weakening our country.

Bacevich might accuse me of inconsistency: did I not, in my previous posting, call for more government intervention to increase employment? But taxing some of that hoard of corporate cash that management refuses to spend on hiring would strengthen the United States, not weaken it. What weakens us is thinking we can have it all: a swaggering military presence around the world, low taxes, untrammeled profits for CEOs, and a strong economy.

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  1. […] Can Americans Handle the Truth? (via Tales from the Sausage Factory) Posted on August 16, 2010 by wilderside In our previous discussion, we recommended support for candidates who support at least some form of government intervention to counteract the effect of the narrow-minded tendencies of many companies to hoard cash instead of hiring. In a way, that is the easy, obvious stuff. Andrew Bacevich, in his 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, points us to the harder issues. Those of us who grew up in the period between 1950 a … Read More […]

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