11 October 2008

We're All Socialists Now, Comrade

Given that he's writing for the Telegraph, it's not likely that Simon Heffer will see the above sentiment as a salubrious development. But like it or loathe it, it recognizes an ineluctable fact: the radical, ideologically driven devotion to the principles of "free" markets and enterprise that has reigned triumphant since the days of Ronald Reagan is now dead as the Wall Street cat that hasn't managed so much as a desultory bounce during these past ten days of Black October.

It's a bit edifying to see the Masters of the Universe scramble like so many squealing mice for their bailout of government cheese, in much the same that the class bully goes bawling to his parents the minute some upstart has the temerity to bloody his nose, but given that we're the ones expected to pay for this disaster - not to mention suffer its consequences - it's scant consolation.

Like many people of my generation, I grew up steeped in parental tales of the Great Depression, riddled with a gnawing guilt about wasting money or failing to either use or save every scrap of anything that might ever come in handy, and deeply suspicious of any person, corporation or institution that seemed to exhibit a cavalier or proprietary attitude toward the nation's wealth. My father did most of the griping - a clear case of horses for courses, as I'm sure you'd agree if you'd ever met the man - but as it turns out, most of his anti-capitalist bias, including his 1936 vote for Norman Thomas, was motivated by his loss of $300 in a 1932 bank failure. Apart from that, he had a relatively cushy Depression, even going off to study at art school for a couple years in the mid-30s.

My mother, on the other hand, was made homeless when her parents' house was repossessed, leaving her family to shelter in the unheated attic of acquaintances from church, something I never knew until more than 70 years later, when she almost tearfully described the shame she had felt over something she, as a bewildered and frightened 12 year old, had had absolutely no control over.

All the worst tales of the Depression seemed to revolve around the early 1930s, even though some of the most dire economic conditions were yet to come later in the decade. But it seemed as though once the do-nothing (or, perhaps more accurately, the do-all-the-wrong-things) Hoover administration had been turned out of office and replaced by Roosevelt and his New Deal, the spirits, if not the bank balances, of the people never sunk quite so low again.

So in at least one sense we're very fortunate that the Crash of '08 has come at a time when we're only three months rather than three years from an election that could and almost certainly will alter our future as dramatically as any in memory. Note that I didn't necessarily say whether this alteration will be for the better or worse: while I grow more convinced by the day that the election of John McCain - and his eventual replacement by a President Palin that would ensue with the grim certainty of a Greek tragedy - would be a disaster of greater than Hooverian proportions. I know I'm not alone in feeling that McCain has managed to squander the fundamental respect that he enjoyed from most Americans, even dyed-in-the-wool Democrats - by resorting to a mean-spirited McCarthyism and ill-considered opportunism that - I never thought I'd see the day - actually makes the present occupant of the White House look good - well, not so bad, anyway - by comparison.

I don't say this lightly; it was less than six months ago that I could have imagined myself possibly voting for McCain. Back then I thought Barack Obama, despite his rhetorical gifts and statesmanlike demeanor, was simply too far to the left on too many issues. Although he's managed to allay my suspicions in some areas, I still fear he might turn out to be more of a Carter than the Roosevelt (either one will do, but preferably FDR) we clearly need.

And yet, just as we were told - whether correctly or not - about the bank/Wall Street bailout, we don't have a lot of options in the matter. A McCain-Palin presidency would likely usher in a depression on a scale that even veterans of the 1930s might be unable to imagine. At the beginning of that depression, Americans were without virtually all the government assurances and insurances that we've come to take for granted in the intervening 70 years. The government was able to introduce ideas like Social Security, bank deposit insurance, stock and banking regulation, job and infrastructure programs, none of which brought immediate relief, but all of which began the absolutely necessary process of restoring people's hope and confidence that things were ultimately going to turn around.

Today we have all those programs and more, to the point where one of the only tools left to the government is to flood the market with newly minted - and thus increasingly less valuable - dollars, to the point where there exists a very real possibility of the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world doing an Iceland, i.e., collapsing into national bankruptcy. When that happened to New York City in the 1970s, the rest of the country could barely suppress its snickers and Schadenfreude over how the mighty had been brought low: can we expect any different from an international community that feels - rightly or wrongly - that it has been unjustly condemned to live in America's shadow during this past half century?

Right now it looks as though Obama, despite the contemptible depths to which McCain has shown himself willing to stoop, is likely to sweep into office in a landslide, much as FDR did in 1932. Will he be up to the task of uniting and inspiring a nation on the scale necessary, not to mention bringing in the sort of brain trust that will be needed to extricate ourselves from the calamity that unregulated and unconstrained avarice has brought us to? We can only hope, comrade, we can only hope. At this point we don't have a whole lot of other options.


Andy Krunt said...

Yeah for socialism. Now we just need a more responsible government. Ditto on "and his eventual replacement by a President Palin that would ensue with the grim certainty of a Greek tragedy" as I fear that she could send us back into the stoneage. Plus, I don't think I can listen to her talk for four years as the last eight of Bush was enough.

Andrew said...

I was thinking Obama was going to sweep the election, until I heard about the bradley effect. Now I'm not so sure.