Diary

Sorry, America, But Your Projects Are On Hold

If 80% of the people think their country is on the wrong track, then what do you do? Well sure: you propose a totally different track for them to follow. Adulation, and hopefully power, ensue.

Last night, from Barack Obama, we got a double-espresso shot of national vision. The comparison with the FDR and JFK moments in history was not only intentional. It was also broadly resonant.

John Kennedy sought the Presidency at a moment when our nation was susceptible to being told that America needed to be a more glamorous place. Beyond a commitment to technocratic management of the economy, better hair and more attractive women, what did this actually mean in substantive terms? Well, there was the pledge to reach the moon within ten years. Thus Obama’s pledge to “free us from Middle-east oil” in a like period of time.

What does it specifically mean to be free from Middle-east oil? Mr. Obama doesn’t actually say. You’ll have to wait ten years to find out.

The example of Franklin Roosevelt is far more interesting and instructive.

Roosevelt was elected in 1932. He was astute enough to recognize the essential fact of his time, which was this: at that moment, Americans were sick and tired of managing their affairs by themselves.

The trough of the Great Depression (measured by economic output) occurred in March 1933, the month that Roosevelt moved into the White House. With a nearly 50% reduction in output and a 25% unemployment rate (our unemployment rate hovers around 5% and we’ve had no aggregate reduction in output at all), it’s easy to imagine that 80% of the people felt the country was on the wrong track in 1932. (It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling any other way, in fact.)

We had come out of a post-war period of economic euphoria (the Twenties) which was characterized by poorly-chosen investments and asset bubbles, and ended badly. Today, we’ve come out of the irrationally exuberant, post-Cold War Nineties, which ended badly, and economically we stand at a place which parallels (but comes nowhere near to matching) the mood of 1932.

And lacking a grand sense of national purpose, we’re susceptible to messianic claims that not only do we need to go in a different direction, but indeed that there is a better way to get there.

Obama has laid out a grandiloquent dream for a return to national greatness *(“Yesssswecaaaaaaan!”), through the enactment of a thoroughgoing progressive agenda.

He in fact is the realization of what Democratic strategists have been saying for quite a few years now: that Americans will only accept the bitter medicine of progressivism if it’s presented by a genial, glamorous and attractive figure, rather than by dour standard-bearers like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

To use the buzzword of the 2006 election, with Obama the Democrats have finally gotten the “framing” right.

Why is the medicine of progressivism bitter? Because it involves the sacrifice of our own freedoms and our own initiatives in service of what is being presented to us as a greater, higher good.

America, your projects are on hold now. My projects are now your priority.

Just as in 1932, this message is resonant with people who have lost faith in their own initiatives and their own projects, in their own dreams for self-realization, for a better life, for a sense that what they do has meaning beyond themselves, for a purpose.

That’s the framing of this moment in history that Senator Obama has astutely perceived and seized.

But in his vision, your projects will become America’s projects.

Just like the FDR and the Kennedy visions before it, the Obama vision starts with a deep, technocratic faith that if only we put the smartest and best people in charge of everything, we will succeed.

The progressive vision has no use for private enterprise, except as the generator of the wealth and prosperity that are needed to realize its grand purposes. (This reminds me of the view of human life presented in the movie The Matrix, where human energy is used to power someone else’s objectives.)

Barack Obama wants to make our national government stronger, more powerful and more amplified in purpose than at any peacetime moment since the New Deal. To be sure, he’s careful to specify that government actors should not actually do the work, but that in “public-private partnerships,” we the people should do the work as government directs.

He wants government to find a solution to the problem of energy independence. He wants a solution to the problem of providing affordable healthcare for all. He wants to isolate our economy behind protectionist barriers so we will be cut off from global pressure to reduce labor costs and make work more efficient.

And in an unmistakable example of China envy, he wants to direct a grand program of rebuilding infrastructure so that all America might look like the stretch of land between Beijing’s airport and its downtown.

People often mistakenly think that the means to all of these grand ends is money, but this is very far from true. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt himself took care of this problem.

Roosevelt understood from Day One that if We the People have our own money, we ultimately have power over own affairs and cannot be effectively controlled. That’s why one of the very first things he did was to set in motion the illegalization of private money that became law early in 1934.

Today, the US government controls the value of the money that you and I use for all of our transactions. While there is much to recommend this system (and I’m not arguing against it), it does mean that the source of the power that Obama seeks is elsewhere.

Through a combination of tax changes and deficit spending, Obama intends to get the means for his grand vision by increasing the share of our national productivity that is controlled and directed by the government.

The degree to which our national production of goods and services is disposed by government is (imperfectly) captured in the ratio of Federal spending to GDP, which in peacetime has ranged as high as 21% and now stands below 19%. This is the ratio by which you may measure the success of Obama’s program.

There is, however, a critical sense in which the Senator from Illinois may be misreading the political moment.

In 1932, Americans were acutely experiencing the distress that comes from not having enough to eat, from being cold in the winter, and from fear of a bitter and miserable old age. For a great many reasons, that isn’t where America is today.

America today is heart-sick, not pocket-sick. Our advanced culture has eroded the moral confidence that comes from religion, and from recognizing that there is a right and wrong, and there is no way to unscramble that egg. In a very odd way, we’re acting like children who long for permissive parents to set limits on their behavior.

FDR promised a chicken in every pot. JFK promised to take us to the moon. Obama is promising that he’ll make us love ourselves more.

Are you willing to give up your projects and go to work on Obama’s projects as a way of loving yourself more?

-Francis Cianfrocca