Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Crisis Averted? Hardly...

Been reading a lot recently on the "What Would Jesus Do?" string, primarily aimed at how the budget crisis in Washington (and yeah, it's still a crisis when you spend $1.40 for every dollar taken in) impact those who need the help the most.

It's a very legitimate question, with two driving forces:
  • Unless you want to wind up like Czar Nicholas II of Imperial Russia or King Louis XVI of France, it's helpful to make sure most people have the basics;
  • It's also the right thing to do. The measure of a society isn't always found in the grand monuments it builds. The true, enduring legacy is how it treats those in the underclass, and their ability to find opportunity to improve their lot in life.
It's the latter point most use to describe America; this idea that regardless of political, social or economic station anyone, from any family, can lift themselves to achieve greatness. This romantic version of the individual winning through hard work and dedication is a beacon that still attracts millions from around the world who seek a better life.

King Louis XVI oversaw the demise of the bloated French aristocracy because the government spent like there was no tomorrow -- and the payday for the upper class was not pretty, thanks to Monsieur Guillotine. Nicholas II and his family didn't realize their royalty also made them responsible for the peasant class, when when there was no bread left the fires of October 1917 consumed them to the point where they were wiped off the face of the earth.

On a recent trip to New York, I had a great conversation with a cab driver. Not a surprise -- New York cabbies say the most interesting things -- but this talk came with a man from Liberia who fled that nation's civil war, landed in Dallas, won a green card, moved to New York and drove it's streets to make ends meet. Why, he wondered, did he have this opportunity as a mere immigrant and why weren't ordinary Americans taking advantage of this opportunity to earn for their families? He says it's why so many taxi drivers, hotel maids, construction workers and service employees experience the American dream thanks to a green card. Here, he can work. And save. And raise a family without worrying about his children pressed into an army at gunpoint to kill their cousins.

In all the talk the past weeks, we've missed the point this is still a great country, with a great message. We've let what passes for leadership in America portray the 2011 version of the dream. We've become paralyzed by the divisive politics the power-brokers and their consultants practice on a daily basis on talk radio, talk television, and op/ed pieces. We seem more interested in what divides because, like reality shows so cheap to produce, it's the most efficient way to draw ratings.

America's public leadership is turning into "The Amazing Race" only with our money and our futures tied into the outcome.

The numbers are so daunting; the public journalism site ProPublica recently posted a by the numbers piece titled Our Sputtering Economy and it isn't pretty:
To break this all down to simple math you use everyday when running your own house, here's the state of the United States on a balance sheet the bank would ask for:
  • Annual spending (est.) for 2011 $3,800,000,000.00
  • Annual revenues (est.) for 2011 2,173,700,000.00
  • Total: -1,626,300,000.00
Let's add in the estimated federal debt: $15,476,000,000.00

Making it easier to relate to, drop all those zeros and imagine it's the kind of money you make. Your annual salary is $21,737 a year. That might be what you would make in your first job, fresh out of high school. But you are spending $38,000 a year. You're already $16,263 in the hole.

But wait, there's more.

In addition to already being in the hole, you are already in debt and owe lenders $154,760.

How much of that salary do you think will go to paying the debt more than seven times what you make each year? During the height of the easy housing money craze, banks were lending money to folks who no way, no how could make those kind of payments back. They didn't care. In the short-term, it looked like there was a lot of business in moving houses. Lots of bonuses, too. And the housing bubble burst and left millions in foreclosure, or in homes they can't afford, and the rest bailing out the ones who lent the money or created the government programs to begin with.

When President Obama talks about balance, he's absolutely right: we all know, deep down, that a system bailing out managers so ready to take risks with other people's money is crazy. Too big to fail, however, changed the equation on private businesses paying for their own mistakes. But the answer is not in the type of class warfare that paints the rich as ripe for the taking. That's the type of thinking that left blood on the streets of Paris and Moscow, those grand revolutions.

I'd prefer the revolution of an America where the tired and huddled masses came to build a new future.

The question shouldn't be how to fix this budget mess as cold accountants would suggest, because those decisions have no heart and have no justice. The bottom line doesn't care who it hurts, only that the bottom line finishes in the black rather than red. Conversely, truly helping build an opportunity society that can lift people out of poverty without bankrupting those making the social investment also means respecting those paying the bills. And at this rate, Washington has demonstrated it has little respect for those it expects to pay for it's mistakes.

Recent studies have noted poverty rates haven't budged much since the Great Society's War on Poverty started in the 1960s. It enables a society to expect someone to provide the fish dinner rather than encourage, in the biblical, to teach one how to fish. Our leadership talks innovation, but in the long run they are as dependent on the vicious infighting over pennies when arguing over tax policy than the dollars found in encouraging growth.

Our leaders need to stop thinking small. They need to show the testicular fortitude to think big and risk going home when we voters, consumed by self-interest, punish them for seeing a larger picture. This is only going to get worse as the swell of the Me Generation baby boomers hit Social Security and Medicaid age, and if politicians thought the AARP lobby was powerful now wait until they get a load of the constituency expecting their payday the next 15 years.

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