Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reducing Your Nation's Carbon Footprint Is Not A Matter of Buying Everyone Smaller Shoes

A treatise, upon which the author shockingly agrees with David Brooks (mostly) and uses Homestar Runner as inspiration for his title.

Brooks begins his argument in terms that an Enlightenment era thinker along the lines of Edward Gibbon would be pleased. This short essay, which could be entitled The Decline and Fall of the American Empire points out the complicity among all Americans in building a decadent society.

Centuries ago, historians came up with a classic theory to explain the rise and decline of nations. The theory was that great nations start out tough-minded and energetic. Toughness and energy lead to wealth and power. Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.

Once upon a time, this country prided itself on its flinty, self-sufficient character but decades of mass consumerism and mass communication have made us highly dependent both financially and emotionally on the constant acquisition of things. I also agree with Brooks that we've gotten caught up in a counter-productive pitched battle over morality that gets us nowhere, while we, regardless of allegiance end up sinking farther and farther into debt. I even agree that some degree of widespread irresponsibility and wholesale complicity had a large part in building this less-than-perfect beast, but I do strongly disagree with several of the conclusions he draws. He grasps the facts and the motives well, but his bias gets in the way, as well as his desire to fit profundity into simplistic talking points. Facts are stubborn things, and they are too ironic to ever easily fit inside any one particular ideological persuasion. Resolute, one-sentence conclusions and deductions do not do justice to the complexities of an already complex matter. If Brooks didn't have much of value to report, then I wouldn't bother to respond to it in some details.

Here, a few examples. Brooks can't help but get in at least one dig at the detrimental effects of big government.

Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.

Government in another age might have been smaller, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it worked more efficiently. In the past, people were clannish and more insular, particularly immigrant groups, which is much unlike the more multicultural, plurality society in which we live now. The citizen's role in government reflected this fact. Provincialism dominated before but now national politics and national decisions have a much broader scope, span, and influence. But those who believe that that the rich, well-connected, and powerful didn't frequently escape the consequences of their actions then, as now, are obviously smoking something and inhaling. It is a well-worn-out conservative talking point that the size of government is what makes it easy to bring down the financial sector and cause massive mayhem, but in this instance as in all others, wealth and power trump everything. Unless we can regulate that ancient problem, then it doesn't matter how big or how small or how anything government will be. So long as profit is in question and of paramount importance, money will make friends with anything. For the record, government has ALWAYS protected some people from the consequences of their actions.

Brooks is also not above name-checking Boomer Parenting Guilt™.

Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed.

As the child of baby boomer parents, periodically I am exposed to a familiar, guilt-laden, deadly serious discussion comprised of panicked faces and nervous body language. In this sober chat, which meets every six months or so, my parents ask me if I was given too much, pampered too much, or corrupted beyond all hope of ever being corrected as a direct result of some failed parenting strategy on their part. While I appreciate the concern and the sentiment, my response is inevitably the same: "You both did a good job. Don't worry about it." Bad parents and bad parenting will always exist and it has been my experience that the ones who hardly feel any compulsion to give themselves ulcers second-guessing themselves are the ones who have every right to worry. I myself have sounded the alarm that a kind of socially acceptable narcissism might be a result of cultural slovenliness but like all character flaws, the distribution is unevenly delegated and what is true for one is not true for everyone.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

This, however, is sound advice. Yet, to accomplish it, we will have to find a way to block out the constant crush of advertising, marketing, and commodifying that forms an insidious, barely conscious part of our national conscience. We have been told for years that we are what we buy and that every solution to every problem we might run across can be easily rectified by purchasing a consumer good. Resolving to block out the morass of ad content that bombards us every conceivable instant is a good start, but part of the matter now is that our entire economy is driven by the very same major problems that created this recession. Consumer spending is the engine that drives the machine and when Americans began cutting back, the recession deepened precipitously. If we thought accomplishing significant change with health care was a major issue, imagine what it will be like to revamp our entire underlying economic theory. When so much of our self-esteem as people is wrapped up in our possessions and in idle expenditure, it should come as no surprise to any of us that we feel so out of it, collectively. Women are expected to drown their sorrows in retail therapy, but men find themselves trolling electronic stores and hardware stores to achieve the same effect. Without the degree of disposable income we've been accustomed to, we feel lost when we can't assuage our anxieties in the time-honored way.

Brooks concludes,

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossible. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

Our own conditioned selfishness is what needs to change first. If, what the historians predicted 400 years ago was true, then it is inevitable that we've gotten to this ruinous epoch. Smaller government might be an option if we were truly intent on making it smaller across the board. Liberals want government to be big in the ways they want it and conservatives, the primary hypocrites in this matter, want government to big in the ways they want it. As this country grows in population and in complexity, government will have no choice but to adapt, though we will continually bicker about what its adaptive response should be. Peoples' occupations, portfolios, and savings have been built around the current model. What we must avoid at all cost is a self-centered mentality whereby we believe that even our very ideas and potential solutions are ours alone, and moreover, ought to be treated as though we have exclusive copyright and distribution privileges over them. Imagine if the Holy Teachers of any faith closely guarded their messages and words of wisdom to those who paid a monthly fee, or worse yet, sold them off to the highest bidder. I have always been a huge proponent of the internet because, even though there is a tremendous amount of superfluous noise to sort through, there is also the capacity to find inspiration and impetus for reform. This is why I blog and why I enjoy reading the substantive contributions so many are making. I really believe that it will take a collective effort to lay the groundwork for the change we need and I know I can't do it alone. Indeed, I think the fact that we believed we could do it alone is what got us into this mess.


Mauigirl said...

Great post, Kevin. This is not an easy problem - and it took us a long time to get into it and it is hard to see how we get out. But we do need to get out or we are indeed in the declining years of our empire.

Mark Perloe, M.D. said...

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About Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
We are a dynamic and diverse religious community. We encourage, support, and inspire each other to live as compassionate spiritual and ethical people. We affirm, promote, celebrate, and live our shared Unitarian Universalist principles through worship, religious education, social action, and an open exchange of ideas.

Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
1025 Mt. Vernon Highway, N.W., Sandy Springs, GA 30327
Phone: 770-955-1408
E-mail: Office@NWUUC.org On the Web: www.NWUUC.org