Been Down So Long….

“I’ve been down so long
Being down don’t bother me.
I’m gonna take all my troubles
Drown ’em in the deep blue sea.”
—from the album L.A. Woman by The Doors

A recent Gallup Poll found that a mere 38% of Americans believe that our nation is moving in the right direction—which is sad.  However, this represents a 12 year high for this number—which is astonishing.  Rarely have Americans been so discontented for so long.

A 12 year trip back in time brings us to the halcyon days of 2006.  George W. Bush was finishing his second term as President, and the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama was still two years in the future.  The failure of a comprehensive immigration reform bill led to massive protests, a deranged man killed 5 girls at an Amish schoolhouse, Iran and America were locked in a standoff regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea was developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Israel and Hezbollah were shooting at one another, and terrorist plots were launched and foiled.  Seems familiar, doesn’t it?

The Democrats won big in the midterm elections that year.  In 2006 voters were punishing President Bush over the bloody war in Iraq.  This year Democrats hope President Trump’s views on immigration, world trade, and polite conversation will lead to a repeat of their success at the ballot box.These past twelve years have featured the global economic meltdown of the Great Recession, two Presidential terms for Barack Obama, the rise of identity politics and Social Justice Warriors, the growth of a pervasive surveillance state, stark income inequality, gay marriage, a broad decline in civility coupled with an increase in rage, skyrocketing costs for life’s essentials, a growing political divide that has turned into a chasm, the failure of the inevitable and unstoppable Clinton campaign in 2016, a surprising summit with North Korea, endless investigations, escalating national debt, a slow motion national pension crisis, and the mutating growth of a form of entertainment known as the Kardashians.

If you ask ten different people, you will probably hear ten different explanations for the level of angst and anger that seems to now be the background music of American life.  Perhaps the only comfort we can take is that unhappiness seems to have become a global phenomenon.  People in many other nations seem frustrated for a wide variety of reasons—only some of which connect with our own concerns in America.

One could write a book—or many books—detailing the possible reasons for what ails the United States and its people at the present time, but I do have a theory that I believe provides a framework that explains a great deal: Many people now feel that their lives are beyond their own control, and this loss of control stems from two main sources: money and government.

First of all, despite living in the wealthiest nation in the world, we are more and more becoming debt slaves in order to finance the escalating costs of housing, education, and medical care.  Our financial futures can now be destroyed by a balloon payment on a mortgage, a student loan, or an illness—and the damage this causes today can stalk us throughout our lives in the form of ruined credit, aggressive debt collectors, and seized tax refunds.  In perhaps the most perverse twist of all, many Americans now end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines, which basically means many Americans are being incarcerated for the singular crime of being too poor to live.  Except for the elite and connected few, we have truly lost control of our economic destinies as debt has washed over us—on both a personal and national level.

Moreover, multinational corporations now devastate the economies of entire communities by deciding to uproot a factory or office because they believe larger profits can be found with cheap labor overseas.  For those companies that continue to try to thrive in the U.S., wolves in hedge fund manager’s clothing often devour their thriving businesses and spit the bare bones into bankruptcy court when they are done.  The average worker is always the one who takes it on the chin; the top executives and hedge fund honchos take their bonuses and buyouts and hit the beach while those left behind form a line at the local food pantry.

In addition, government continues to circumscribe—many might say strangle—our lives.  More and more laws, rules, and regulations are enforced to shut down dissent and empower officials who want to dictate where we can live, what we can say, how we can raise our children, how our faith can be expressed, what we can buy, what ideas and information we can share, what natural resources we can consume, what we can eat, what we can drink, what we can smoke, what we can drive, what schools our children can attend, what we can throw in the trash—and even whether we can burn our own leaves in the fall.

Of course, not a single government mandate is actually intended to make us miserable; they are, after all, promulgated to promote the “greater good”.  However, their cumulative weight and intrusiveness—combined with government officials and experts who sometimes seem utterly oblivious to the needs and wants of the average person—is at turns annoying and maddening.

Given the many traumas we are repeatedly told the presidency of Donald Trump is inflicting on our nation, it seems odd that we have now hit a 12 year high—albeit a low one—regarding our attitudes toward the direction of our country.  I do not believe this is because Mr. Trump’s policies are universally popular—they most decidedly are not.  However, it seems to me that the pollsters and pundits are still failing to understand the populist fervor he has engendered among those who want—more than anything—to feel they can live their lives as they choose.

More than a bit of this voter enchantment with President Trump is, quite frankly, completely illogical.  A billionaire populist is an obvious contradiction, and some of his avowed policies may, in fact, end up harming those who are is his most fervent supporters.  However, he is perceived to be a man who fights back against the lousy and corrupt status quo, and this is a welcome relief for Americans who believe they have been kicked around for far too long. Despite the disdain of the media and entertainment elite toward Mr. Trump, voters are still standing in line for twelve hours for the chance to hear him speak, and they cheer him with the lusty enthusiasm of people whose faith has yet to be blunted by a sneering editorial in The Washington Post.

The perception of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters is that he is swinging hard—and landing body blows—against those who have long presumed to control their lives.  Every obscene or snotty celebrity or news media rant only strengthens their belief that he is their champion, and every pugnacious tweet he sends our berating his opponents thrills their downtrodden souls.  Those who cluck at his language and demeanor fail to understand that he is daily reinforcing the hardcore allegiance of those who neither drive a Prius nor ever plan to attend a performance of Hamilton on Broadway.

President Trump will never win over the most rarefied strata of our society, but his words and actions are giving hope to those who have long felt that control of their lives has been stolen from them by unknown and uncaring forces—and no one with a lick of good sense should ever dismiss the power and persistence of those who feel their hope finally has been restored.

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The Cost Of Compassion

A few weeks ago Ruth Marcus caused quite a stir with a commentary in The Washington Post entitled “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.” Her viewpoint was offered as a counterpoint to the actions of state legislatures in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana, which have passed legislation that prohibits abortion if the sole reason for terminating the pregnancy is a pre-natal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, a genetic problem that results in impaired cognitive functioning and health problems associated with a shortened lifespan. Ms. Marcus framed this controversy as an attack on the reproductive rights of women, and data she quoted seemed to demonstrate that the majority of women would not choose to bring a child with Down Syndrome into the world because of the long-term financial costs involved—as well as the emotional toll on the parents and family.

However, I wonder whether this horrid discussion actually touches on much broader issues that increasingly vex our nation and seem more and more at the core of many controversies: Are there reasonable financial limits to our compassion, and how should these limitations translate into issues of law and public policy?

Americans are often adverse to the notion of limitations, which is reflected in our continued political inability to live within our means. Our breathtaking levels of federal debt, which has more than doubled in just the past ten years to $21 trillion, and willingness to both impose all sorts of unfunded mandates and pass legislation that robs the future to pay for the present is symptomatic of our societal refusal to grapple with economic reality. Ms. Marcus’ decision-making might seem cold-hearted and inhumane to some, but she is at least honest about the financial limitations of her personal compassion for others.

Public policy and spending are likewise increasingly embroiled in questions regarding the boundary between compassion and foolishness. Whether we are discussing healthcare, housing, education, immigration, or a host of other concerns, the shape of the dialogue does not vary. On the one side we have those who are arguing for limitations based on fiscal reality—they are the “heartless” ones. On the other side, we have those who demand expansion or protection of government programs and services—they are the “compassionate” ones. The dynamic plays out over and over, much like that endless loop of Muzak in the dentist’s office while your teeth are being drilled, and each side shakes their heads at the other while the borrowing and spending continues unabated. Our recent omnibus federal spending bill, which will tack another several hundred billion dollars of debt onto Americans by the end of only this fiscal year, is simply another in a long line of bipartisan failures to somehow balance compassion and the “heartless” arithmetic of fiscal reality.

Those of us who live in Illinois should have a front row seat for the collision of the rhetoric of our “heartless” Governor, Bruce Rauner, and his “compassionate” Democratic challenger, J.B. Pritzker, during the upcoming gubernatorial election. Governor Rauner will, probably to no avail, argue for more fiscal restraint because Illinois is crushed by debt. During just the past year—despite an increase in the state income tax and a strong national economy—the financial health of our state government has continued to deteriorate with astonishing speed. Illinois is now so far underwater that simply rising to the surface to gasp for air is now beyond all imagining.

The functional bankruptcy of our great state will, however, mean little to all those “compassionate” souls who will harken to Mr. Pritzker’s calls for increased spending on education, healthcare, senior care, and social programs. It is, after all, the belief of many that government exists to distribute benefits to the multitudes, which will somehow be financed by higher taxes on Illinois’ rapidly shrinking pool of “wealthy” taxpayers—many of whom are joining the general exodus of residents from Illinois as we sail blithely downwards toward insolvency.

It has been interesting to read the comments regarding Ms. Marcus’ ideas concerning the connection abortion rights and Down Syndrome. Many who agreed with her privileged her right to control her own future by refusing to accept responsibility for a child that would likely impose extra financial burdens on her life and that of her family. Her compassion in this situation is circumscribed by a dollar sign, which seems perfectly appropriate to those who worry about their life choices being limited by government.

Oddly enough, what many compassionate souls fail to recognize is that their demands for more—and more expensive—government programs and benefits are corroding our individual rights because it is binding our futures to unsustainable debt that will limit the choices available to us all. Politicians often try to mitigate the shock of out-of-control spending by framing pure pork as “investments”, but more commonly any effort to rein in spending is positioned as a test of our “compassion”, which puts those who want to spend away our collective futures in the morally enviable positions of being the nice people fighting against those nasty folks who aren’t nearly as good-hearted and generous. We don’t wear signs around our necks detailing the amounts of debt our federal, state, and local governments have saddled us with paying, but anyone who is, for example, struggling with the monthly costs of student loan payments has a clear understanding of how yesterday’s debt tends to constrict the choices available today.

Setting aside the question of the obvious immorality inherent in ending the life of a child for reasons that, high-flown rhetoric aside, pretty much boil down to personal convenience, Ms. Marcus is at least astute enough to recognize that her compassion has a price tag attached—and she can easily recognize this because the costs will not be spread out among our nation’s beleaguered taxpayers. The next time she publicly advocates for more borrowing and spending due to her finely tuned sense of concern for others, perhaps she should remember how the money borrowed today to help demonstrate how much more wonderful she is (unlike those meanies who understand arithmetic) simply burdens generations of Americans to come with the bill for her marvelous “compassion”.

If anyone can effectively explain why bankrupting our nation and its citizens with government spending is compassionate, there is a future in politics—or perhaps an editorship at The Washington Post—waiting for you.

Waiting For The Wonderful Future That Never Arrives

I recently read that the CEO of Uber is confident that we will have flying cars within the next 10 years. As predictions about the future go, this one is likely no more daffy than so many other previous guesses about future technologies that never actually came to fruition. However, it points to themes common to so many of these wild prognostications: an overconfidence in both technology and our ability to control it to our advantage—combined with a belief that new inventions will inevitably usher in a brighter and happier future

When it comes to technological advancements, the law of unintended consequences is typically in full force. Small changes often have surprisingly large effects, and groundbreaking innovations—brilliantly yet myopically devised—create turmoil that alters the very fabric of our lives for both good and ill.

In our lifetimes, the most obvious disruptor has been inexpensive, pervasive, powerful, and convenient computerization. Now our personal and professional lives are both enhanced and circumscribed by omnipresent technology that simultaneously puts the world at our fingertips, destroys semi-skilled employment opportunities, improves our daily productivity, erases boundaries between our work and personal lives, provides opportunities for innovation that were previously impossible, and spies on every aspect of our existences—a decidedly mixed bag of blessings and curses.

The specific impacts upon a variety of economic sectors has likewise been profoundly confounding. To look at but a single example, the advent of technologically-driven medical practice has completely changed both our expectations and our outcomes regarding our healthcare.

Illnesses and diseases that were once invariably fatal are now manageable chronic conditions— or in some instances a total cure can be attained. Joint and organ replacements are now routine surgeries, and even the worst injuries can now many times be treated with some degree of success. Computer modeling now allows drug therapies to be developed with lightning speed, and non-invasive imaging technology allows doctors to see problems that once would have required risky exploratory surgeries or blind guesswork to treat. However, we have also learned that miracles can be incredibly—if not prohibitively—expensive, advances in treatment can cause a cascade of other medical problems to occur, and endlessly extending the human lifespan may, in fact, be somewhat inhumane in actual practice.

Looking at a hypothetical situation that mirrors the reality for many today, we are now compelled to ask whether it is better to allow a patient to die simply and comfortably at the age of 89 or use powerful drugs and multiple difficult surgeries to extend that person’s lifespan to a painful and disoriented 90 years that is characterized by depression, dysfunction, and disillusionment. Looking just a bit further down the road, rapid improvements in gene therapy—soon to result in the actual modification of our genetic material—is going to open many doors through which we are not even vaguely prepared to walk, and the many moral and ethical questions that lie ahead are likely going to challenge our very notions of what it means to be human.

Taking everything into consideration, is it unreasonable to worry about these flying cars? Setting aside the obvious possibility that the necessary technology will simply never materialize (I still remember my 7th grade Science teacher cheerfully explaining that my generation would be spending our golden years playing shuffleboard on a moon base), one has to wonder whether unleashing these airborne vehicles upon our world would be nothing but an invitation to crash into trees and power lines, land abruptly right on top of homes and pedestrians, and discover new and terrifying consequences of operator or mechanical failure.

I am by no means a Luddite, but an airborne pizza delivery fills me with dread more than wonderment. Presuming that our well-documented inability to use technology wisely and well will remain constant, I can easily imagine a time when we will begin ask whether our energies should be expended elsewhere. Repairing our roads might be more helpful than scheming to fly right over them, and I would rather that poorly managed states and cities—desperate to attract investment and jobs—not be suckered into handing out massive tax breaks and incentives for the honor of creating a future few will want. The “next big thing” might, in fact, be something as quotidian as learning your neighbors’ names, reading a good book, planting a garden, riding a bicycle, or filling the spiritual void so many feel today. I strongly suspect that the awe long inspired by sheer gadgetry has just about run its course in our modern world, so we will increasingly focus on the less technological—yet highly significant joys—that give form and meaning to life. Spending time with a loved one is, for example, far more interesting and meaningful than endlessly updating a Facebook page.

Whatever our collective technological future may be, what is wrought or fabricated will be either a tool or a toy—nothing more and nothing less. Our ability to fly will always be limited by the law of gravity, so we must eventually make our peace with the time we spend walking upon the earth. The eternal promise of a wonderful, shiny future always will land somewhere short of utopia because it overlooks the basic fact that the daily duties we owe to ourselves and others will always occupy the vast majority of our time and energy—which is just as it should be.

Silicon chips can help to manufacture many clever and helpful products, but it is the quality of the time we spend among our fellow carbon-based life forms that provides the purpose and pleasure in all of our lives. This will never, ever change.

Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.

The Tax Cut Gamble

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Republican-led Congress will pass a significant tax cut. This prospect is—depending on your tax bracket, political ideology, and the state where you reside—a cause for either rejoicing or anger. Expert predictions about the effects of this tax cut bill, which will certainly reduce overall federal government revenues, should not be trusted. The long-term outcome will be determined by the unknowable responses of legislators and individuals to both its specific provisions and broad intent—which is to push broad reductions in the size and scope of government by cutting off access to funding.

Those who predict that this bill will increase the deficit and drive yet more federal debt have ample cause for concern. Previous cuts to federal taxes during the Reagan and Bush administrations produced exactly this outcome because there was no political will in Congress to reduce outlays to match available revenue. Washington simply borrowed to make up the difference, which has ballooned federal debt from roughly $1 trillion at the start of the Reagan administration to over $20 trillion today. If voters keep electing members of Congress who promise more despite less money in the coffers, the net result of this tax cut will be no reforms and continuing fiscal catastrophe at the federal level.

Any drop in federal revenues also impacts the states. Washington’s largesse is particularly important to local economies built around schools and healthcare (“Eds and Meds”), which are dependent on a variety of federal cash sources and could suffer if the D.C. money stops flowing. Moreover, given the many mechanisms that shift federal dollars into state economies—which run the gamut from research grants to highway construction money to public safety funding—the possibility that the spigot might be tightened is sending shivers down many a spine.

If states decide the easiest path forward is to raise state taxes in order to avoid making difficult fiscal choices, the effect of any federal tax relief will be lessened. A lack of political will to cut spending to match available revenue—this time on the state level—will diminish or eliminate any positive effect of the federal tax cut for many citizens.

This tax cut legislation is a significant risk for Republicans in Congress because—whether due to sheer economic ignorance or partisan political posturing—many opponents are describing this bill as a “tax cut for the wealthy”. They are absolutely correct that the wealthiest will enjoy most of the gains, but this is simply because the rich pay most of the federal taxes—about 45% of Americans, in fact, pay no net federal income taxes at all. It’s not a conspiracy against the poor, but it plays well with audiences who perhaps slept through ECON 101 in college, and you can be certain that those in government and elsewhere who are worried that shrinking tax revenues might reduce their influence and power will repeat this half-truth—loudly and endlessly.

This does not, however, mean that the Federal tax code is either sound or fair. There are far too many opportunities for imaginative accountants to find perfectly legal deductions and loopholes for wealthy individuals and corporations that enable them to avoid paying their fair share—and this needs to be remedied. These additional revenues can help to correct fiscal imbalances in critical federal safety net programs such as Social Security, which is in dire financial condition due to the flood of baby boomers rapidly bankrupting the system.

One flash point for many voters is the status of the deduction for SALT (State And Local Taxes) now enshrined in the federal tax code, which works out to be an indirect subsidy paid by everyone to those who live in high tax states such as New York and California. As financially painful as the loss or reduction of this deduction might be for some, it works out to be an immense windfall for the wealthiest, an egregiously disparate benefit offered to those who earn the most. In order to cushion the effect, changes could be phased in over a two year period, but this is a reform that must be made out of a sense of fairness for all. Sometimes “me-me-me” must be set aside for a greater societal good, and this might also force wasteful state and local governments to reconsider their excessively expensive policies and practices.

This tax reform is a gamble, but to continue as we are is a disastrous “sure thing”—more wasted tax dollars and more crushing government debt.