For the last few years at least, former Reagan era speechwriter and current WSJ op-ed writer Peggy Noonan has been a bit of a Debbie Downer. She has surveyed the wrecked landscape of the Gipper’s vision, endured the oily creepiness of the Clinton era, and mostly succeeded in holding her nose through the budget busting “compassionate conservatism” of George W.
Towards the end there, you could see her starting to lose her faith, the notion that we would somehow always muddle through. Today’s editorial is a kind of coda to her dirge of national decline:
The new economic statistics put growth at a healthy 3.5% for the third quarter. We should be dancing in the streets. No one is, because no one has any faith in these numbers. Waves of money are sloshing through the system, creating a false rising tide that lifts all boats for the moment. The tide will recede. The boats aren’t rising, they’re bobbing, and will settle. No one believes the bad time is over. No one thinks we’re entering a new age of abundance. No one thinks it will ever be the same as before 2008. Economists, statisticians, forecasters and market specialists will argue about what the new numbers mean, but no one believes them, either…
The most sophisticated Americans, experienced in how the country works on the ground, can’t figure a way out. Have you heard, “If only we follow Obama and the Democrats, it will all get better”? Or, “If only we follow the Republicans, they’ll make it all work again”? I bet you haven’t, or not much.
This is historic. This is something new in modern political history, and I’m not sure we’re fully noticing it. Americans are starting to think the problems we are facing cannot be solved.
Part of the reason is that the problems—debt, spending, war—seem too big. But a larger part is that our federal government, from the White House through Congress, and so many state and local governments, seems to be demonstrating every day that they cannot make things better. They are not offering a new path, they are only offering old paths—spend more, regulate more, tax more in an attempt to make us more healthy locally and nationally. And in the long term everyone—well, not those in government, but most everyone else—seems to know that won’t work. It’s not a way out. It’s not a path through.
I tend to be an optimist, but I think it’s at least possible that Ms. Noonan may have hit upon something, even though it’s remarkable – and revealing – to see a conservative like Ms. Noonan look to government for solutions.
Across the seas from our island, we have an enduring, albeit low level internecine conflict in Iraq, one whose outcomes we are no longer capable nor really desirous of influencing. For better or worse we have done what we have done. Afghanistan, no matter what the president decides or the military can effect, will remain a festering sore for decades at least, if not longer, and we only quibble over how and at what cost to shape the least bad outcome. NATO, the throbbing heart of the Atlantic Alliance for over half a century has proven itself a grudging and largely ineffective partner. Needing mass infusions of imported labor to keep the machinery of the modern welfare state creaking, member state elites seem more fascinated with cushioning the blow of cultural obliteration than defending Western political thought, not linking the struggle abroad with that at home.
The Russian bear, if not quite resurgent has reasserted itself on the international stage and done so – quite rationally – purely on the basis of national self-interest. Where those interests roughly align with ours (Central Asian terrorism) we may find partners, where they do not (energy, Eastern Europe, Iran) we will find obstructionists, if not outright adversaries. The Chinese armament continues even as we disarm, with no plausible purpose but an inevitable future clash over diminishing natural resources. Nuclear-armed Pakistan writhes in an existential struggle with 7th century barbarians already within the gates. In Natanz the centrifuges continue to spin, while in Tel Aviv a barricaded populace once again facing the prospect of mass extinction ponders how many more years they can carve out in the face of inveterate malice, and who they can take down with them should the time come – there will be no more Masadas.
At home, political progressivism has the run of the national field. The culture war is largely lost to social conservatives, with the only question remaining being whether there is to be a triumphal march through the capital with the bitter clingers dragged behind the victors’ chariots in chains, or whether they will be eased down gently, taxed until bled white and then fed an anesthetizing pablum of government entitlements, fearing only the midnight knock on the door by ATF.
Little by little we will see – as Barney Frank recently revealed – the further extension of the smothering hand of government regulation into every sector. The public option will in time become the public plan, which will in turn become single-payer health care, fundamentally altering the relationship between government and the governed, just as its framers intended all along. We will expand Medicare to those at 150% of the poverty level while cutting Medicare costs by $400 billion, which will be a neat trick. At the cost of some $900 billion over ten years, an additional 13% of the uninsured will receive public coverage. Some form of Cappin’ Trade will eventually pass, creating enormous, market distorting wealth transfers both within our borders and beyond in support of a dubious theory, and to no good purpose so long as China and India remain upon their current trajectories, as they have every stated intention of doing.
Well enough, as far as it goes, but the necessary thing to understand is this: Progressivism is less a theory of government than it is a movement, and movements are defined by, well: Motion. There will always be inequalities, always self-identified classes of aggrieved victims, always those who dare to express incorrect or inconvenient thoughts. There will always be new dragons to slay.
When we have finally shifted that 15% of the GDP currently representing the private health care market into the hands of the bureaucrats, when the several states lose control of their contract laws and gays are everywhere free to marry, move and demand the public services intended for those who will beget the next nation, when abortions must be provided even in Catholic hospitals lest they be shuttered – or shutter themselves – when our carbon-fired economy is returned to nearly pre-industrial levels, when we have abandoned the outer battlefields to man the barricades at home, the need for “progress” will continue. Indeed, the Great Leveling has already begun, and it will not stop.
That, at least, would be the ultimate realization of Ms. Noonan’s grim essay. Change indeed.
Not everyone agrees with her of course. Steve M. at “No More Mr. Nice Blog thinks it’s all stuff and nonsense, this fear that the productive class might rather “go Galt” than break their backs laboring for the benefit of others:
I’ll say it again: This can’t happen. If there’s opportunity in an economy and some idiots walk away from it in a fit of pique over, God forbid, being taxed, or regulated, no biggie — someone else will seize the opportunities. That’s the way capitalism works — money-making opportunities simply don’t go unseized. The bizarre thing is that Ayn Rand, the alleged High Priestess of Capitalism, didn’t understand that. She was just so jealous of communists and socialists and union workers who seemed able to organize collectively. But they were doing it to empower themselves. Collective action to disempower yourselves — if it could ever happen — would never leave the power you abandoned just lying around. Someone would take it.
Well, perhaps. But this sort of thinking implies that there’s some sort of waiting list in effect to engage in the creative destruction that powers a market economy. That if only the chairman of GM stepped aside – wait, perhaps that’s a bad example – some collective force would come in behind him and take the “power” that money-making capital engenders. That all the rising class is looking for is an open seat at the table.
But entrepreneurs, the kind of people who create the vast majority of new jobs in our economy, don’t merely wait for opportunities to become available, they make markets where none existed before or take markets from those who have become too ponderous to move with them. They do not stand in line, but claw their way to the top. They take on enormous personal risk in doing so, laying it all on the line, even mortgaging their homes in the hope of a reward commensurate with the risks they are taking. Most of them, frankly, fail but the ones who do succeed are the ones that create real value and competitive advantage in our globally integrated economy. Which government turns around and taxes.
I would very much like to be an entrepreneur, I’d like to make something of my own, create value, engage in the tussle of the marketplace, leave something behind. Like the vast majority of us however, I simply don’t have the stomach for the risks involved. I’ve got a mortgage to pay, not to mention the college tuition. There are tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people just like me, standing on the sidelines and casting admiring glances at those who have the courage and grit to get it done. There are hundreds of thousands more jumping in the pool, creating (taxable) jobs and enduring value.
Market-driven entrepreneurial risks will always endure, but the problem is that as government imposed taxation and regulation vectors come to dominate the reward calculation, more and more of us will choose to sit on the sidelines, go for that safe government job, hope that there’s someone left to tax. Hope that government, as it shunts the market aside to choose its winners and losers, chooses us. Hope that this time, uniquely, government bureaucrats who’ve never run a business will get it right.
Or else we can, like Peggy Noonan seems to have done, take the counsel of our despair.
You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could do for themselves.