Are We Better Off: In Search of Common Ground

After all the post-9/11 talk about Americans pulling together, why does it feel as though we're moving farther apart?

Photo Icon: Holly Lindem

There are always problems. A budget shortfall is a problem, air pollution is a problem, Johnny-can’t-read is a problem, crime in the streets is a problem. But they can be managed. You trim spending a little, you stick a filter on the tailpipe, you start testing everyone, you hire more cops. Some of the management will work well, and some will work sort of, and some — testing kids every 20 minutes — may not work at all. Even in the best cases the trouble rarely disappears altogether, but the world goes on apace. That’s what management means, and it’s the story of our national life in the years since the Depression. Politics becomes mainly about choosing managers, selecting strategies.

But problems aren’t the only thing we have. On much rarer occasions we have situations. These defy easy management because events are nearing a point of no return. “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it,” said Lincoln of the Civil War in his second inaugural. And yet, of course, war came. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said FDR in the depths of the Depression, accurately describing the panic that descends when politics stops managing problems and starts looking on in paralyzed horror.

Right now, by most measures, our national mood is jittery. Pick your metric: “consumer confidence,” gold prices, Paxil scrips. Perhaps it’s solely the residue of 9/11, but more, I think, it’s because we’ve begun to sense that our problems might be about to convert from the first (conventional, manageable) type to the second (chaotic, unpredictable) type. Clearly we’re not in the rapids yet — we still have options left. But the roar of the waterfall around the bend grows louder. For instance, “I don’t have a job” is a problem, and unemployment is a problem, and they both can be managed: You learn a new skill, the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates to spur the economy. But millions of skilled, well-paying jobs disappearing to Bangalore is a situation; it’s not clear what if anything the system can do to turn it around. A few months ago, American granite producers said they were losing jobs to China, where tombstones could be produced for a third the price even once you figured in the cost of shipping chunks of rock halfway around the world. That’s a tad unsettling. Jobs have been created in every single presidential term since Herbert Hoover, until this one. Which might mean that George W. Bush is uniquely bad at his job. Or it might mean that trends much deeper within our economy, globalization especially, have now gathered such enormous force that the race to the bottom has gained spectacular momentum.

Most likely it means both, because so far Bush’s responses to this and other situations have not been even remotely rational; instead, they’ve been unrelentingly ideological. All questions — especially “Where’s the jobs?” — have the same answer: Cut taxes on the rich. And so we’ve cut taxes on the rich with a vengeance, even though no economist has come forward to defend that as sound strategy either for boosting short-term demand or for paying for investments in things like education that might let us stay abreast of the world. Instead, it’s led directly to the next potentially unmanageable situation — the almost inconceivable budget deficit, half a trillion dollars a year, stretching deep off into the distance. A budget deficit so deep that no one thinks it can be reined in, and that some people — the economist and all-too-prescient columnist Paul Krugman, for instance — have begun to suggest might lead to an assault on our national finances not unlike, say, the one that hammered Argentina in 2002 and devalued the peso by 70 percent.

And looming over it all, perhaps more unmanageable than anything else, environmental deterioration seems to be accelerating. It’s true that the Bush administration has committed a thousand acts of petty vandalism against our air, our water, our forests, our deserts; but when we change managers, some of that damage should abate. What won’t go away are the perils with huge momentum. Scientists have been warning about the greenhouse effect, for instance, since the 1980s. But now the weather is growing warmer annually, and the melt of the Arctic seems to be releasing so much freshwater into the North Atlantic that even the Pentagon is worrying that a weakening Gulf Stream could yield abrupt — and overwhelming — changes in climate. The kind of changes that threaten civilizations.

Aside from the budget deficits, these aren’t trends that George Bush created, though in every case he’s managed to make them much worse. Some of them we’ve been watching with a kind of half-attention for decades: How are we going to deal with the boomers’ retirement, or with the endless growth in medical spending? Our leaders passed on answering, because the answers seemed too hard. But now these slowly growing gaps in our landscape threaten to turn into chasms, and the new question is whether we have time, or the will, to bridge them.

A couple of years ago, a corporate potentate named Dennis Kozlowski decided to throw a birthday party for his wife. Using money from his conglomerate, Tyco, he flew hundreds of guests to the Mediterranean, hired Jimmy Buffett to sing “Brown Eyed Girl,” and erected an ice replica of Michelangelo’s David that peed vodka through its frozen member. The image of one of Western culture’s great monuments urinating spirits to slake the thirst of witless wealth perhaps is all the epitaph our age needs — we could easily be transfixed by the utter decadence of our favored classes.

And we’d be correct to be transfixed. Because in a world where the wealthiest 500 people control more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, that literally incomprehensible gulf lies at the heart of so many other problems. Not enough money to educate our children/provide health insurance/fight AIDS/develop renewable energy? Gee, how could that be? And money, of course, buys its own security: Owning congressmen, not to mention presidents, is the cheapest and smartest insurance policy imaginable. Owning TV networks is a good idea too, since it keeps troubling questions unasked.

But if the gross power of wealth is all we focus on, we may miss the chance for making real change. Because the greatest power of elites has been their ability to make us think like them. Our habits of mind imitate too many of theirs, and it hobbles us — how else to explain our willingness, in democracies, to let such bizarre inequality persist and grow? I mean, why did we let them cut taxes on the rich?

The answer, at least in part, is that we’ve abandoned a sense of common purpose for a pervasive hyperindividualism. Each of the crises listed above stems in some way from that willingness to think of our own particular interest as somehow divorced from that of everyone around us. At least since Reagan, we’ve come as a society to think of private as good and public as tawdry, and so it’s no surprise that we’re now outsourcing every government function short of pulling the trigger in battle, or that we watch with remarkable calm the steady erosion of our educational system.

Take climate change as an example. We’ve known about the threat it posed for 15 years, and for at least a decade the science has been solid enough to base policy on — indeed, throughout Europe and Asia, nations have done exactly that, setting targets for conversion to renewable fuels, taxing carbon to accelerate that conversion. But in this country, no one of any power has dared to suggest that we might change our lives in even the smallest way. The Clinton-Gore administration did not lift a finger to stop the spread of SUVs, partly because of General Motors and partly because of the United Auto Workers and mostly because, goddamnit, we wanted them. They were cool. So many cup holders. And so, in the course of Clinton’s two terms, Americans increased the amount of carbon we poured into the atmosphere by 14 percent. The Bush White House, of course, refuses even to pay lip service to global warming, proffering instead an energy policy that foresees an endless future of drilling, refining, and burning, as if the laws of chemistry and physics were somehow optional. Because they know that we really only complain about energy when the price goes up.

You can go through the same analysis with health care. How could we save enough money to afford national health insurance for everyone? By deciding that we wouldn’t offer every high-tech treatment and every new drug, that we’d take our resources and concentrate them on preventing disease. That’s what the rest of the developed world does: They work out the responsible limits of a health care system. It’s never easy — it’s always a problem. But to us, left and right, the only possible answer has become “more.” Do you want to be the president accused of “rationing” health care? Early in the primary campaign, Howard Dean was accused of perfidy simply because he might once have favored slowing the rate of growth in Medicare spending.

When problems begin to turn into situations — when they start to become unmanageable — people start proposing magical solutions. No one wants to deal with the obvious truth, which is that we’re overspending our means, both economically and ecologically. And so we let our leaders tell us a series of fairy tales with happy endings. A hydrogen car is a magical solution because it’s 30 years away and no one knows quite if or how it’s going to work. Privatizing Social Security is a magical solution because it does nothing about the existing burden and because it assumes the stock market is an endless fountain of cash. Our most beloved hocus-pocus of all is the idea that economic growth will rescue us from all our troubles — but last fall the economy grew 8 percent without creating any new jobs to speak of. In our time, the main effect of more growth seems to be to enrich the Kozlowskis of the planet — outsource enough jobs and he’ll be able to buy the Venus de Milo and make champagne spray from her nipples.

Worse, potentially unmanageable situations tend to spiral. In the course of the Bush years, the average job lost paid $17 an hour, and the average newly created job paid $14.70 an hour. When you’re pinched like that, you head for Wal-Mart. Where your shopping dollar helps bring the prevailing retail wage in your town down to Wal-Mart level. Not only that, but it helps to ensure that the lowest-paid Chinese laborer becomes the reference point for pricing global manufacturing. Which in turn — well, you get the idea.

The opposite of hyperindividualism is solidarity. Solidarity — which was the pre-eminent progressive idea before “liberation” — means identifying with something larger than yourself. Under its influence we vote for fair and broad-based taxes, pay more for products made by our neighbors, care about schools even if we have no kids. It is, most notoriously, the emotion of wartime. And that may be the oddest thing of all about the Bush years. We are clearly at war — someone attacked us, and we attacked someone back (though it’s probably not the same someone). Soldiers are dying, civilians are dying, defense budgets are through the roof. And yet do we feel anything more than rhetorical solidarity? Did President Bush say to himself, “Wartime is perhaps not the moment to reward campaign contributors with enormous tax cuts”? Did rich America say, “Hey, there are other uses for that money”?

What would have happened if the president, on September 20, 2001, or so, had said, “Job No. 1 is tracking down Osama bin Laden and putting him in a box. But job No. 2 is making sure we’re not in this situation again. Beginning tomorrow, there’s an extra 50 cents a gallon tax on gas, to pay for the war and to reduce oil consumption. Not only that, but I want you to turn out the lights when you leave the room. If our fathers and mothers were able to black out America in World War II to prevent enemy bombing, we should be able to do it to reduce our vulnerability to the impossible politics of the Middle East.” Perhaps people would have rebelled at the proposals; maybe our resentment of government has gotten that deep. Yet more likely, I think, in our genuine grief and fear and anger, we would have rallied behind them — just as, with the right prodding, we could still rally behind schools and pensions and blue-collar jobs. Even if it meant sacrificing.

But of course the president said nothing of the kind. Here’s what he said instead: “Americans are asking, ‘What is expected of us?’ I ask you to live your lives, and hug your children. I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.” That is, I ask you to behave as individuals — most of all as consumers. That is your pre-eminent role in our national life. Think Churchill in 1940 (“nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat, tears”), and then think polar opposite.

But don’t think it’s just George Bush. It was Bill Clinton, after all, who coined the eternal slogan for the era of hyperindividualism: “It’s the economy, stupid.” One was a pretty good manager, and the other is a corrupt ideologue, but it’s not as if either wanted to take on our situations. This hyperindividualism has become a cultural norm so strong, no politician wants to defy it. I mean, our highest-rated TV shows involve people scheming to see who will be the last one left alone on an island with a million bucks.

Still, there are occasional signs that our jitters, our fears, and our suppressed anger could grow into something like a political force. The most compelling stories of the last two presidential elections have been the rise of politicians from a radical middle — John McCain and Howard Dean — who struck a nerve by insisting that we have to ask deeper questions than we’ve been asking. They made a lot of people hopeful with their courage, but they also made a lot of people — sometimes the same people — nervous. They wanted to direct our attention to some of these situations. John McCain, for instance, last year managed to get the first Senate vote on any plan of any kind to do anything at all about global warming. He failed, but he promised to be back.

Problem-solving politics is business as usual. But business as usual is the enemy when problems turn into situations. (Especially business as usual.) History suggests that crises need to come to a head before we start to make hard changes — try to imagine passing the New Deal in 1928. So maybe we await currency devaluation, awesome hurricanes, or jobs riots before we can build the necessary solidarity to start dealing with these situations as best we still can. And even if solidarity comes, unless we’re very careful there’s no guarantee it won’t turn into chauvinism and nationalism in a trice, which would only make most of our problems worse.

In the meantime, we wait, and uneasily. Is there anyone who feels confident about our future? Perhaps George W. Bush himself — which may be the most unsettling thought of all.

  • Bill McKibben, a contributing writer to Mother Jones and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the co-founder of His newest book is called Eaarth: Making a Life in a Tough New World. For more of his stories, click here. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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