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It's Time to Go Back to Find Our Future (Joe Rothstein's Commentary)

April 13, 2010

By Joe Rothstein
Editor, EINNEWS.Com

Last week, as I sat through hearings of a commission empowered by Congress to decipher why the world economy collapsed, it occurred to me that answers weren't in that hearing room. Alan Greenspan didn't think so either. In his testimony he tried to trace the source to the fall of communism and the forces unleashed by the end of the Cold War.

In fact, I think the source goes back to an even earlier time, a time when U.S. politics shifted from "we," as in "we the people" to just plain "me." And if you accept that view, the recent fight over health reform, and the upcoming fights over financial regulation, tax policy, immigration and energy can be seen not as single issues but rather as all part of the same condition---one where the whole of society has shrunk to less than the sum of its parts.

To go back further down memory lane than where Greenspan would have us look, consider the last great collapse of capitalism, the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Depression brought misery to much of the U.S. population, but that misery sealed a popular cohesion that partners in tragedy share----a deeper sense of community, a stark reminder that while we may all be different under the skin and of the skin itself, we need one another to prosper and to remain secure.

World War II, through shared sacrifice and mission, reinforced that cohesion. In 30 or so years beyond the post-war period Presidents and Congresses came and went, some Democratic, some Republican, but the dominant political ethic was one of positive communal energy. Out of it came programs that let tens of millions of veterans go to school and buy homes, the end of government-sanctioned racial and gender discrimination, a rational way to care for the elderly through Medicare, auto and consumer safety regulations, cleaner air and cleaner water.

Rather than bankrupting the country, all of this unleashed the greatest era of universal prosperity in the nation's history and it lasted pretty much up to the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s when skyrocketing oil prices triggered hyper-inflation. Despite all of the social costs and benefits of the post-war era, when Jimmy Carter's White House gave way to Ronald Reagan's the national debt was less than $1 billion.

Plenty of people got rich during that era. Innovation launched the computer revolution and took us to the moon. And it was done while the income gap between the very richest and very poorest of Americans narrowed, the middle class grew stronger than ever and few doubted that their kids would be better off yet.

The time since has been one long unraveling of many of the programs and regulatory safeguards that evolved during the nation's period of peak prosperity. Reagan gave voice and momentum to it ("Government isn't the answer to our problems, Government is the problem"), but the movement had begun much earlier than Reagan and has endured well beyond him. To this very day the Republican mantra is that the road to growth lies through tax cuts and less regulation.

After 30 or more years of following that tax cut-deregulation road we have an economy where the members of the WalMart family collectively have as much reported wealth ($90 billion) as the bottom 40% of the U.S. population---120 million people.

Before the economy tanked wealth poured into the financial industry like coins from a broken slot machine. A few became staggeringly rich while the incomes for the vast majority of Americans stagnated. Descent into historic levels of personal debt masked the disparity and kept the economy afloat.

British historian Tony Judt points out in a new article (April 29 edition of the New York Review of Books) that pursuit of such a policy has had harsh consequences. An excerpt:

"The symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These conditions are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it."

Referring to the recent health care debate in the U.S. Judt is in awe of why there was such a battle to change a health system "where life expectancy remains below Bosnia and just above Albania," despite the vast sums spent on it.

Judt charts indices that show the wider the spread became between the wealthy few and the rest the worse the social problems: infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, personal indebtedness and economic insecurity. The U.S. doesn't hold up well on any of these charts compared with other developed nations.

It was impossible to sit through last week's hearings of the Financial Crisis Commission and not be struck by the sense of entitlement displayed by those who had made fortunes from the recent boom years. One example: A former Citi executive mentioned something about people who had "walked away from their houses." Commission Chairman Phil Angelides corrected him. "They didn't walk away from their houses," said Angelides, "they were dragged from their homes."

The exchange was representative of the disconnect, and goes to Judt's point. Growing disparity in wealth driven by decades of promoting "me" over "we" has left most of us, and the nation, poorer. In the unity of the prior three decades there was great strength, great accomplishment, and great sense of purpose. Today we are angrier at one another and less sure of our way and our future.

The U.S. needs a Great Rebuilding, a renewed sense of both common purpose and basic fairness. We did it before, and not that long ago. The tax code was fairer. Government served as an honest broker to keep capitalism competitive and the powerless from being exploited by the powerful.

It may be expecting too much to think we can go back to the future. But why not? It light of everything that's happened lately, it seems like the conservative thing to do.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.