That “Can’t Do” Spirit of America

In a New York Times column today (July 19th) Bob Herbert asks the very important question, “When did the United Stated become a Can’t Do nation?”

Here’s the whole editorial if you’re interested. You should be.

I immediately had an answer for Mr. Herbert (and I emailed it to him; we’ll see if I’m lucky enough to get a response; if I do, I’ll post it). I too have been wondering when this great change in national attitude came about, marveling at the difference between this flea-bitten, undernourished and bony version of America in contrast to the strong, proud country that existed less than two generations ago. When the mighty fall, they fall fast and hard.

I believe the change started, though we didn’t realize it at the time, when Ronald Reagan, having newly won the presidency, uttered the immortal words, “It’s time to get government off the people’s backs.” He then went on to paint the federal government as a bloated, helpless, inefficient and impotent nuisance, completely overlooking many of the great accomplishments of the past, such as the Manhattan Project and the moon landing.

Instead we were told that private corporations, driven to efficiency and perfection by the profit motive, were the answer. They would reign flawlessly, because they had The Free Market [bow head reverently here] to keep them honest. The gov’ment, meanwhile, was peopled by coffee-break taking, resource-wasting, overpaid and lazy workers who no longer had any incentive to strive for The American Dream.

Thus began a nearly three-decade love affair with chasing profits and markets at the expense of everything else, and deploring government intervention in anything–or at least anything civil. You’ll notice the government is still perfectly fine and not wasteful (or at least not alarmingly such) when it comes to waging war, aka foreign policy, imposing the American way of life on other countries (and if you reject it you suddenly are some sort of rogue state with shadily-define weapons and you must be taken out), or propping up what Eisenhower–a military veteran and a Republican no less–so accurately called The Military Industrial Complex.

Need I also point out how well we’ve done letting the private sector reign almost entirely unregulated? From Enron to big oil to the S&L crisis to the banking and mortgage collapse, we’ve seen what a great policeman the so-called “free markets” really are. When will it be time to get the private institutions, in the form of public bailouts, off the people’s backs?

With Reagan’s philosophy and outlook, we’d never have gone to the moon, undertaken the Manhattan Project or completed many other tremendous and ambitious efforts over the last century. Yet he is held up as some sort of great visionary and leader, when he is, no matter how you slice it, the true genesis of our current rot, our current slouching towards mediocrity and defeatism in the face of every challenge. As Europe makes real advances in the fields of alternate energy, conservation, technology and higher standards of living, we keep wringing our hands and pointing fingers at each other as to why we can’t agree on even the simplest things anymore. “Government isn’t the answer, taxes aren’t the answer,” Reagan and his followers have been telling us for three decades. Funny, though, it’s working elsewhere. Maybe it depends on the quality of your government officials and not the very fact of government itself. What do you say to that, Mr. Reagan, you fucking hypocrite who got rich off of governance, first in Hollywood, where you were never more than a B-actor but very successful Screen Actor’s Guild president (governance) and then governor of California and of course, president of the U.S. Funny that a man who thinks so little of government spent nearly his entire life and amassed all his riches in the very field. (By the way, he was also the conservative values president who was divorced as well as estranged from his own kids.) And yet people believed the words that came out of this asshole’s mouth.

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