Friday, May 09, 2008

Time for a dose of rigorous honesty...

For years, I have felt increasingly out of touch with American culture, even as I have felt guilty about being infected by it, to some degree. It started with the wrench in values that said that you weren't having fun going to the prom unless you arrived in a $160-an-hour limousine. It spread to the concept that killing a human being in high-school to steal their Starter jacket or designer sneakers somehow became acceptable. (We won't even talk about the acceptability of $175 tennis shoes...)

It accelerated when we bought the lie that "we are what we drive" - so it made perfect sense for a four-foot-ten woman who weighed 96 pounds to be driving a Chevy Suburban to work - alone - "because it makes me feel safe." Or that somehow Hummers and Expeditions and Land Rovers (not to mention Ram or F150 pickups with enough horsepower to pull a hundred-year-old tree-stump out of the ground) were suddenly de rigueur for the commute through the wilderness of our downtown parking garages...

And suddenly you couldn't be caught dead buying a house without a Corian kitchen countertop. And then, in no time at all, anyone who "settled" for Corian instead of marble or granite may just as well have stuck down self-adhesive carpet tiles in the foyer, too. The idea of a $50,000 SUV parked in front of a $400,000 house with a $60,000 kitchen seemed, well, completely acceptable to some folks...

But I was absolutely astonished - hell, beyond astonished - to hear the May 6th announcement that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were providing special mortgage availability for what they called "jumbo mortgages ... for people who wanted to obtain mortgages up to $729,000!!

When the hell did it become necessary to ensure that people could get government help to buy a three-quarter-million dollar house??

I realize that I and my family, however, are also part of the problem. I myself labor under the weight of stupid, stupid consumer debt. My sister and brother-in-law were sold a mortgage they could just barely support, long-term. They were encouraged to take an adjustable-rate mortgage, even though the initial payment was at the absolute outside edge of what they could afford - let alone any rate adjustment in 2-1/2 years. Common sense would have said they couldn't do it - but everyone else was, and "it'll all work out..."

Then my sister got injured, and her cost-conscious employer ushered her out de' do' - saying goodbye to 18 years of service and the income they desperately needed to stay afloat, not to mention her very affordable health-care benefits. Now their monthly drug co-pays are just as much as their car payment - if not more - and my sister's replacement job only pays 2/3 what her old job did. Gas has gone up 50% in two years... and people are wondering why we in middle America are in trouble?

I'm tired of a war that should never have started, taking lives and draining resources from a country that so desperately needs to be building infrastructure of our own, not blowing up others'. I'm sick to death of the daily butcher's bill; of personal liberties and rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights being trampled in the name of "national security." Such a damn waste...

I'm tired of the majority of Republicans chanting about the "defense of marriage" against those scheming homosexuals and their "agenda" - when the people who are helping to destroy marriage are the straight white Christians who can't stay married, not the gays who would choose to be married if they could. And I'm even more tired of everyone pointing at that one issue as the primary reason for the "downfall of America" - when in fact the fault is laying at the feet of almost every single person who is pointing the finger...

One person, I think, is closer to the truth than others.

Thomas Friedman's editorial in the online New York Times on May 4th addresses an awful lot of the hows, and whys, of our current political and economic mess. He captures much of what I've been feeling for years - and just so the NYT doesn't archive this piece of wisdom, I include the text of it here, with all due credit to Friedman and the Times.

Who Will Tell the People?
By Thomas L. Friedman
published May 4th in the online New York Times

Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

They are not only tired of nation-building in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with so little to show for it. They sense something deeper — that we’re just not that strong anymore. We’re borrowing money to shore up our banks from city-states called Dubai and Singapore. Our generals regularly tell us that Iran is subverting our efforts in Iraq, but they do nothing about it because we have no leverage — as long as our forces are pinned down in Baghdad and our economy is pinned to Middle East oil.

Our president’s latest energy initiative was to go to Saudi Arabia and beg King Abdullah to give us a little relief on gasoline prices. I guess there was some justice in that. When you, the president, after 9/11, tell the country to go shopping instead of buckling down to break our addiction to oil, it ends with you, the president, shopping the world for discount gasoline.

We are not as powerful as we used to be because over the past three decades, the Asian values of our parents’ generation — work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means — have given way to sub-prime values: "You can have the American dream — a house — with no money down and no payments for two years."

That’s why Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous defense of why he did not originally send more troops to Iraq is the mantra of our times: "You go to war with the army you have." Hey, you march into the future with the country you have — not the one that you need, not the one you want, not the best you could have.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post-docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore ... have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.”

Much nonsense has been written about how Hillary Clinton is “toughening up” Barack Obama so he’ll be tough enough to withstand Republican attacks. Sorry, we don’t need a president who is tough enough to withstand the lies of his opponents. We need a president who is tough enough to tell the truth to the American people. Any one of the candidates can answer the Red Phone at 3 a.m. in the White House bedroom. I’m voting for the one who can talk straight to the American people on national TV — at 8 p.m. — from the White House East Room.

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”


Heidi Renee said...

Amazing post Steve! Thanks for the head's up on the NYT article too - we shoveled our way out of debt a few years ago and have been living a very simple, one income life since.

We rent, drive a 21 year old volvo and walk nearly everywhere we can now. And we truly have a more abundant life than we ever had trying to keep up with the Joneses.

I think this is gonna bite us big and hard and have to admit that while I love my country I am kind of glad we have the option of living in Canada. We are 3 blocks from the US border, so we can enjoy the best of "both worlds" (well, it is Maine, so the best is beauty, not necessarily the best America has to offer as in the big, golden, ticket) :)

Black Pete said...

It's not a paradise here in Canada any more, HR: we've been drifting to the right for a couple of decades, now, and have a government that seems hell bent on tearing a leaf from George W.'s book.

Michael said...

A mutual friend of ours visited this past week, Steve, and brought with him a copy of the Hyde Park Herald with an article about a new development plan for the old St. Stephens Church. It is to be turned into "12 homes with the kind of luxury amenities not uncommmon in downtown highrises. Each unit will have its own private elevator entrance, and the parking level will include an indoor car was for residents, for example... Prices start [START!] at $1.7 million... 'That's what the market demands,' [the developer] said, adding that high-end homes are the safest bet for developers in the midst of a housing slump. 'The people that buy these units don't have the financial restrictions others do.'"

See, you just have financial restrictions. And you know as well as I do how badly Hyde Park -- with its heavy student population -- desperately needs more multimillion dollar homes.

A letter to the editor in the same paper notes that many University of Chicago employees cannot even afford to park in university parking lots. Clearly they just need to buy one of these new "units" and then they can walk to work.

I used to take pride in my sense of hope; now I feel like I am treading water to avoid slipping under the slough of despond.