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Published on: June 10, 2011
When Government Jumps the Shark

In my last post, I wrote about “Fanniegate“, the scandalous goings on by well connected Democrats that trashed the nation’s financial system.  It was not that Republicans didn’t join the fun or that Republican malefactors of great wealth weren’t abusing the public trust in other ways.  The moral and intellectual meltdown of the American elite […]

In my last post, I wrote about “Fanniegate“, the scandalous goings on by well connected Democrats that trashed the nation’s financial system.  It was not that Republicans didn’t join the fun or that Republican malefactors of great wealth weren’t abusing the public trust in other ways.  The moral and intellectual meltdown of the American elite is a robustly bipartisan affair and there is plenty of mud to throw at all sides.

But Fannie Mae represents a special problem for the Democratic Party and Democratic ideas.  It is not just a vitally important institution led by prominent Democratic figures and part of a broader Democratic patronage network; Fannie Mae is one of the original New Deal institutions and the vision it was intended to serve stands at the heart of the concerns of the Democratic Party of the 20th century.

The fall of Fannie Mae is bigger than just another politicos run wild scandal.  It stands as one of several signs that our current way of life is reaching its limits and that big changes are on the horizon.  The Fanniegate debacle tells us that the progressive ideal is in the process of jumping the shark.

Jumping the shark, as many readers know, is an expression from the wonderful world of TV.  When the original premise of a show has gone stale, producers try to recapture audience interest by putting familiar characters in outlandish settings where strange things happen to them — notoriously, when Fonzie literally jumped over a shark as Happy Days moved into its sunset years.  When something jumps the shark, the death spiral has become irretrievable; the show has nowhere to go but down.

The progressive ideal of the last 100 years is reaching that point.  In its day the progressive ideal was a revolutionary and even a noble one.  A bureaucratic and professional elite would mediate social conflict between rich and poor, improving the lives of the poor while engineering the best possible administrative solutions to pressing social problems.  Keynesian macroeconomic management would ensure lasting prosperity; progressive taxation would spread the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible.  Levels of education would rise as more and more Americans spent more and more years in school.

Progressivism held out the hope that capitalism, democracy and history itself could all be tamed by competent professional management.  Victorian capitalism had been brutal, disruptive, competitive.  Society became more unequal even as living standards gradually rose.  Democracy was irresistible, but the masses were uneducated.  The modern progressive era was born at times of great violence and upheaval.  World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, the invention of nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War: it was against this background that progressives sought to turn modern life into something safe and tame.

I cannot blame four generations of progressive intellectuals for trying to make life a little less brutal and unpredictable, nor should we overlook the successes they had.  Nevertheless, the Fonz has left the building; the progressive paradigm today can no longer serve as the basis for sound national policy.

The life cycle of a governing political paradigm is different from the cycle of a TV sitcom.  It takes more to sink a way of life than to sink a sitcom, and the aftermath is much messier.  But to grasp what it means to say that progressivism is jumping the shark, let us look at the stages of life in a progressive government program.

In the first stage of a government program, there’s a terrible social problem that has people wringing their hands.  Not enough kids are going to college.  Middle class families can’t get home mortgages.  The river keeps flooding the town.  Sick old people who have worked all their lives are eating cat food in the hobo jungle.

The government offers a solution that will fix the problem at a relatively modest cost.  It is the hero cutting the heroine loose from the railroad tracks as the train approaches.  It is the Lone Ranger riding into town to fix the bad guys.  The government program in this early stage is the Great White Hope: once we get it up and running, people believe, life is going to get better.

The Great White Hope (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Often it does, and a well established and functioning government program makes itself very popular in the next phase.  Retirees are cashing Social Security checks, and the cost to those still working is very low.  More creditworthy families are building homes because federal market makers are enabling banks to lend more; more homes make for more construction jobs.  Life is getting better — and as most people count them the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.  In this second stage of life, the Great White Hope becomes the Great White Father in Washington, benignly scattering benefits among an adoring population.

The Great White Father (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The government program addresses the need it was intended to fill, and the citizens look to their representatives with gratitude and affection.  Farmers pocket their subsidy checks, poor parents use their food stamps to feed the kids, first time homeowners get low rate mortgages for pennies down, and old people bask in the glow of Medicare.  All is well.

Unfortunately the cycle continues.

In the third stage, the law of diminishing returns sets in.  The Army Corps of Engineers has built all the really useful flood control dams, but there is a large bureaucracy committed to building more — and there is a large private sector lobby of dam construction firms that want new business.  Perversely, as the value of new projects diminishes, the political forces pushing new projects grow stronger.  Bureaucrats rewrite the guidelines, cost-benefit analysts start fudging the numbers to make bad projects look good, and the dam lobby pressures Congress to keep that money flowing regardless of those whiners and complainers mewling about environmental problems and other drawbacks.

At this point the program enters the third stage of life: it is now a Great White Elephant.  It is a large and expensive program that does less and less good at a higher and higher cost.  Fannie Mae stops helping creditworthy borrowers get affordable mortgages through simple and straightforward processes.  Federal housing policy becomes increasingly complex as new layers and levels of subsidy and promotion are tacked on.  As the incentives become increasingly misaligned, the country begins to over invest in housing; consumers start buying more house than they need  because government support makes housing an attractive investment.

The Great White Elephant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Elephant process takes place in many ways.  Health care programs become inflated with bells and whistles; programs originally intended to provide basic medical care gradually swell into huge and expensive monstrosities.  Shouldn’t chiropractic care be covered?  Psychiatric care?  Acupuncture?  And since government is paying for the care shouldn’t it regulate who provides the care through licensing procedures?  Costs go up, procedures become more complex; efforts to control costs lead to more red tape.

As life expectancy exploded in the last sixty years, Social Security has morphed from a modest little program aimed at helping people get through the last few years of life with a little bit of dignity into the idea that twenty years of healthy ease should be a social entitlement.  Medicare covers more and more treatments for more and more people over longer and longer stretches of time.

Little by little, mission creep sets in.  A powerful cluster of interests organizes around the government program.  The real estate lobby looks for ways to extend Fannie Mae’s guarantees to more people.  Programs and subsidies become steadily more complex, less comprehensible.  Successive waves of ‘reform’ generally make things worse as the special interests focus with increasing power and skill on warping the programs to meet their needs and goals.

The fourth stage of life comes when the Great White Elephant morphs into a Great White Shark: a man-eating terror of the deep that ruthlessly attacks anyone who gets in its way.  At this stage the government program has moved beyond being wasteful and has become unsustainable.  Fannie Mae goes from providing mortgages to creditworthy households to providing vast numbers of mortgages to uncreditworthy households, poisoning the financial system with bad loans.  Medicare is unsustainable in the medium term and hugely expensive day to day — even as the procedures and regulations of Medicare warp investment decisions across the entire health care system.

The Great White Shark (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But even as these programs become unsustainable, they have become so powerful — there are so many interests and industries that grow rich on these programs, and so many families for whom these programs have become the cornerstone of what little financial security they have — that they cannot be touched.  One way to tell when an elephant has morphed into a shark: when pundits and politicians start describing a government program as a ‘third rail': you touch it, you die.

The Great White Shark is a menace that cannot be controlled.  The program has gone rogue: the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t just building pointless dams.  It is building bad dams.  The agricultural subsidies aren’t just encouraging farmers to plant wasteful crops; by subsidizing corn ethanol they are contributing to food price inflation that threatens political stability in countries like Egypt.  But just as the programs are most in need of reform, reform becomes impossible.  If you try to stop Fannie Mae from tempting poor urbanites into ruinous mortgages that will leave them worse off than before while bringing the global economy to the edge of ruin, the race lobby (aided and abetted by the real estate lobby) will attack you as a racist and an enemy of the American Dream.

The problem today is that we are looking not just at one or two government programs that have succumbed to elephantiasis or turned into sharks; the progressive complex of social and economic policy as a whole has reached this point.  Today many of our New Deal and Great Society programs are either elephants or sharks.  They either lead us to misallocate scarce resources in ineffective ways or they threaten us with ruin by becoming politically untouchable budget busters.

Progressivism itself, and not simply the individual government programs it spawns, is moving through the same cycle of life.  The most urgent social problems that progressivism set out to solve have been dealt with.  Child labor and lynch mobs are no longer common in the United States.  The greatest natural and scenic treasures of the country are protected by the National Park system.  Food is much less dangerous, buildings are better built, cars are safer, the air and water is in better shape and the charismatic megafauna (big interesting animals) have been saved from extinction.  Many more people have much more access to education today than was true 100 years ago; ditto for lifesaving medical treatment.

The progressive vision morphed from Great White Hope and Great White Father into Great White Elephant over the years.  Early progressives picked the low-hanging fruit; they addressed the most important problems that were most susceptible to progressive interventions.  Increasingly they are left with more expensive, less effective approaches to big problems (like Obamacare) or the agenda moves from issues of great moral and political significance like equal rights for African-Americans to less consequential issues like wider social acceptance of the transgendered.  To raise the percentage of young Americans attending college from 2 percent to 20 percent is a significant achievement; to extend it from 40 percent to 60 percent will likely cost much more and accomplish much less in terms of raising social productivity.

We now see the progressive agenda dealing with issues like high speed rail, where the gains are so small and the rationale are so weak from the beginning that the program is a white elephant before it is fully set up.

The fierce commitment of progressive lobbies today to dysfunctional institutions and programs has brought matters to a crisis stage; the progressive legacy is morphing from white elephant to shark.  Fierce attacks on anyone seeking to reform dysfunctional institutions combine with unreasoning devotion to unsustainable entitlements.  “Progressives” today are too often grimly determined to achieve two incompatible ends: an indefinite expansion of entitlements and benefits on the one hand — and the preservation and even the extension of inefficient organizations and methods on the other.   Everyone must have a college education, but the archaic and inefficient organization of universities cannot be touched.  Public services must be vastly expanded, but every effort to rein in pensions and benefits for government employees, or to trim the size of the public labor force through greater efficiency, must be fought to the bitter end.

Unfortunately, the process doesn’t stop here.  When enough progressive programs have become both unsustainable and untouchable, we move to the final stage.  It is bad enough when a government program becomes a shark; it is much, much worse when a social paradigm as a whole jumps past the shark stage.  A cluster of unsustainable but untouchable policies and institutions sooner or later reaches the point when it no longer threatens the country with ruin at some indefinite point in the future: imminent ruin stares us direct in the face.

That is part of what happened in Ireland, Greece and Portugal, and what may yet happen in Italy and Spain.  Disastrous government policies became more politically entrenched even as they became more unsustainable until quite suddenly, they could not be sustained and the whole system came crashing down.

When that happens, what crashes is not just one program.  A whole system, a whole social contract falls apart. And if the crashes in these peripheral European economies shook the EU and the world economy, a full scale meltdown in the United States would likely be a shock as profound as the 1929 meltdown.  It wouldn’t just be an economic disaster for the United States; it would likely be a historical disaster leading to crisis, upheaval and war around the world.

That fifth and final stage — which one hopes we will never see — takes the transformation one fateful step farther.  No longer just a great white shark, the progressive ideal would become a great destroyer, a mythical figure like the Great White Whale in Moby Dick.  To pursue the whale is madness; Captain Ahab, despite warnings and omens, persists on his insane pursuit of the uncatchable ideal, the untameable beast.  Disaster and bankruptcy loom on every side; still the captain continues inexorably on his course.  In the end, when something cannot go on for ever, it comes to a stop.  The whale turns on the ship and smashes it to pieces in the sea.

The Great White Whale (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Fonz could jump the shark and Happy Days would die a slow death as the air gradually leaked out of the show.  Much more dramatic things happen when a social paradigm jumps the shark.  We got a glimpse of what that looks like during the financial meltdown; we have seen other ships staved in by great whales around the world.

This must not happen in the United States.  We cannot throw away the hopes with which we have been entrusted in a futile effort to sustain insupportable programs under the shadow of bankruptcy and collapse.

We are approaching the time when the false promises can no longer be sustained.  There is a little time left.  We have not, I think, quite jumped the shark yet.  Reform is still possible, though the great white sharks thrashing around our boat are formidable — and hungry.

We can still act to conserve the essential accomplishments of the progressive era while preparing to move beyond it.  But only aggressive and accelerating reform can make that happen.  It needs to begin soon.  The money is running out.

The political battles to change course and to tame or kill the sharks gone rogue will be tough, but winning that battle is much better than losing it — or out of cowardice failing to fight it.  Jaws was a scary movie, but it had a much happier ending than Moby Dick.

The United States must tame and reform the programs and ideas gone rogue that hammer at the sides of our boat.  We must impose our will on the fiscal chaos before the chaos works its will upon us.

The American government must not jump the shark.

show comments
  • WigWag

    With all due respect, what Professor Mead offers up in this post is little more than gobbledygook masquerading as thoughtful analysis. What Mead doesn’t tell you is that a substantial portion of the federal deficit can be accounted for by the Bush tax cuts. Simply allowing them to expire completely, so that marginal rates return to the levels that they were at under Bill Clinton, would eliminate a very substantial portion of the structural deficit.

    While health care inflation represents a serious and growing problem, the structural deficit we are now facing has been substantially aggravated by the Medicare Prescription Plan enacted under President Bush. It proved unaffordable at the same time that defense spending escalated dramatically to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Virtually all of the rest of the federal deficit can be accounted for by the cyclical downturn that was probably unavoidable (the United States had gone far longer than it had ever gone before in terms of avoiding recession).

    Does Professor Mead really expect his reference to Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain to pass the laugh test? Has he compared the percentage of government spending in those nations as a share of GDP as opposed to the percentage in the United States? The United States has one of the smallest, if not the smallest government in the world compared to other wealthy nations. If Germany can afford a welfare state that costs far more than ours, the United States can afford the meager social spending that we currently have.

    Mead offers a solution to a problem that does not exist anywhere but in his imagination. Return to the levels of taxation in the Clinton years; make definitive, but minor (in the scheme of things) changes to the health care system, stop subsidizing defense spending for our freeloading “allies” and engage in countercyclical stimulus and the federal government’s fiscal problems become entirely manageable.

    Paul Krugman is right; this debate is not about restoring fiscal sanity; if it were, Professor Mead would be pining for a return to the economic policies of Bill Clinton. What it’s really about is a group of people who were never reconciled to the New Deal for ideological reasons hoping to restore things to the way they were during the days of the Robber Barons.

    Face it, Professor, there is no brilliant new system waiting to be created by the Anglo Saxon ingenuity that you extol in “God and Gold.” Nor is Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” metaphor relevant; it refers to new technologies empowering entrepreneurial innovators to destroy the saliency of older, less adept firms. It has little or nothing to do with the creation of some new form of capitalism emerging from the ashes of the old.

    There are exactly two choices-the post New Deal economy or the pre-New Deal economy. The Post New Deal economy enabled the United States to become the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Why anyone would want to trade that for an economy where a few men were enormously wealthy while most Americans were little better than serfs is truly a mystery.

  • http://americandigest.org Vanderleun

    Not to draw undue attention away from this excellent series of essays, but it struck me personally when you moved onto citing Moby Dick. Not two days ago I was also writing in the same vein in a much less learned bit of prose: The Ship of State —

    “The thing is under the boat. The crew suspects as much but can’t know for sure exactly where it is. They won’t know where Leviathan is until it rises, inevitable and unstoppable, from the deep directly beneath them.

    Can you feel it lurking just under the surface? I can and I think you can as well. The Greeks knew it as “Nemesis.” Melville’s Ahab knew it as “thou damned whale” and he struck at it from Hell’s heart. Unperturbed it gathered him up and took him down. Then it took the boat and after that the ship. All save one followed. The whale beneath the surface of America’s life is still there and all signs point to its breaching soon. Exactly where and exactly how are still unknown, but soon.

    I feel the thing beneath the boat and I think others of my fellow citizens in ever growing millions feel it as well. We do not feel good about it and what it augers for the near and far future.”

    http://americandigest.org/mt-archives/american_studies/the_ship_of_state.php

    Odd and telling that the same frame of reference appears in such a narrow way within 48 hours. I take it as an omen and not a good one. The thing is under the boat.

  • Luke Lea

    And let us not forget that other great white shark, the military industrial complex.

  • Toni in Texas

    The blue social model was made possible by Europe’s two World Wars, removing the latter
    from economic competition for decades. It also took shape before Asia began making products Americans wanted at low prices Americans liked paying. For a short period, American manufacturers dominated the world and so could offer lifetime employment and a comfortable retirement.

    At the height of this prosperity, the 1950s and 1960s, women and people of color were wrongfully barred from much of the workplace, especially from high-paying careers.

    Progressives built expensive social programs and regulatory regimes on the notion that this prosperity would last forever. They assumed they could admit women and minorities to the workplace — could greatly increase the size of the workforce — with no effect on individual incomes. They were wrong on both counts.

    Americans collaborated in weakening their finances by persuading themselves that they deserved the good life now, not later, on borrowed money. I think they’ve been disabused of this fantasy. They’ve been paying down debt at rates startling to economists.

    They’re also in a mood to crack down on free-spending politicians. Whether their mood will change when offered a restructured federal budget and its consequences — e.g., overhauling Medicare — remains to be seen. Will they think grandma’s being tossed off a cliff, or will they accept changes needed to starve the Great White Whale?

  • Rob De Witt

    My goodness, what an elegant (and elegantly nested) metaphor.

    This is truly the finest exposition of the insanity inherent in late-stage progressivism I’ve ever encountered.

    Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.

  • Mogden

    It’s too late. More than half of the citizenry believes the government is a unicorn that farts out free money and skittles.

  • Farmer

    WigWag you head is in so deep you are getting batty from the fumes,

    Mogdens statement applies

    It’s too late. More than half of the citizenry believes the government is a unicorn that farts out free money and skittles

    Oh how frighteningly true, “I want my Obama bucks”.

  • theBuckWheat

    George Washington was right. The State is only force, a wonderful slave but a fearful master. The average citizen loves the State when it showers benefits on him, but hates the State when it is his turn to pay.

    Washington supported a State with very restricted and enumerated powers. We have allowed the State to become Leviathan, a beast that seems to have its own appetite for our money. In fact, it is now close to exhausting the amount of money it can borrow in our name. In the process, we have allowed Leviathan to place us in debt servitude to foreign governments.

    We must put Leviathan back in its cage of enumerated powers before it can secure its place as our master. We are almost out of time.

  • Jay

    WigWag said “a substantial portion of the federal deficit can be accounted for by the Bush tax cuts.’

    uhh no, even the worst case cost analysis is only in the $150-200 billion per year range.
    With deficits running $1.5 trillion a year you’ll have to look elsewhere for a scapegoat rather than the Bush/Obama tax cuts.

    Obama’s 2% FICA cut probably costs more ($120 B) than the Income tax cuts.

  • AK

    WigWag, if your theory would work, how do you explain that all EU countries with almost criminally high taxes are bankrupt?

    Germany, with the high taxes there, has finally crossd the 2 trillion Euro national debt. And the rest of the high tax countries, are all like that.

    Do you know why that is? Because in the past 40 years the German governments have been spending like there’s no tomorrow. Germany had an even budget (expenses = tax income) only once, the other 39 years were full of excessive spending. The German welfare state now eats up almost 50% of the annual budget, and there’s no end in sight (the costs for it were roughly 30% in 2001.)

    The problem aren’t tax cuts. The problem is irresponsible politicians who don’t care about money.

  • galt’s gulch

    Wig Wag – What a tired and unfortunately predictable non-response….[unsubstantiated character disparagement deleted –ed]

  • Kevin

    This argument misses the point entirely.

    “In its day the progressive ideal was a revolutionary and even a noble one.”

    The ideal was never noble and hardly revolutionary. We will never make any headway towards true entitlement reform while we continue to deny the immorality of institutionalized wealth redistribution.

    “In the first stage of a government program, there’s a terrible social problem that has people wringing their hands.”

    To slightly paraphrase the great Walter Williams, these problems are not problems for a free society … they are problems for socialism. That is genius and represents the best rebuttal to any “government-run” social program proposed or existing in what we believe to be and hopefully still desire to be a free society.

  • teapartydoc

    Lactantius (On the Deaths of the Persecutors) describes the Roman Empire in decline, in particular, the rule of Diocletian, who reorganized (think reinventing government) the empire. The number of offices and rulers was increased, and these competed with each other for larger armies (here one cannot confine the use of the word ‘army’ to imply purely military usage, these helped with day-to-day administration and were police and bureaucratic adjuncts), “The number of those receiving [pay from the state] was so much larger than the number of those paying [taxes] that, because of the enormous size of the assessments, the resources of the tenant farmers (think entrepenuers–these folks RENTED the land they worked for PROFIT) were exhausted, fields were abandoned (think John Galt), and cultivated areas (think of anywhere commerce takes place) were transformed into wilderness…many governors and more minor offices lay like incubi over each region and almost on every municipality (procurators of revenues, administrators, deputy prefects).” He goes on to describe governmental confiscations of property after requisite condemnation (think drug war, but what will the next pretext be?)”…by various iniquities he brought about very high prices, he attempted to legislate the prices of commodities. Then much blood was spilled…nothing appeared on the market because of fear (sound familiar?), and prices soared much higher…many perished on account of their possessions or wealth…people grew accustomed to these evils…”. To rob De Witt: There’s nothing new under the Sun.

  • three chord sloth

    Bravo! This is your best column yet.

    My favorite part is comment number one. I like how it perfectly illustrates the toxic mix of ideology, self-delusion, and undeserved authority so prevalent amongst our so-called educated “elites”. A brilliant example of living in the past… a mournful yet bristling screed, full of wishful thinking and magical “if onlys”, demonstrating the folly of longing for a return to a temporary-by-definition transitory stage in the lifecycle of any large institution. (See Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy for further insight.)

    Tell me… are you WigWag, Mr. Mead? If not, then how did you get WigWag to throw him/herself on his/her sword like that? Truly epic.

  • Thomas

    So is it time for Ron Paul? He seems to be the only one who saw the coming collapse of the housing market (in 2003), opposed military adventurism from the beginning, and is in favor of either repealing most of the gargantuan Federal government. I keep wondering if this time a libertarian has a shot.

  • Mike Giles

    Couple of points here. No, it wasn’t the Bush Tax Cuts. The idea that you never have to put a brake on spending because you can always tax more, borders on insanity. It’s been shown over and over again, that you could confiscate ALL – I say again ALL – the wealth of EVERYONE making more than $250,000 dollars a year – and it wouldn’t run the US for a year. And then where would you be – the Golden Goose would be DEAD. Where did we get the idea that people will work hard, save for the future, innovate, when it’s all going to be taken away? Oh right – from useless, parasitical academics; who have as little idea of how the world actually works a five year old. Gee, didn’t Obama appoint a bunch of academics as economic advisers? And – as the rest of us sink into a DEPRESSION – aren’t they scurrying back to the safer precincts of academia. As for the Military-Industrial Complex, last I checked the military is one of the things the government is SUPPOSED to be doing. And Defense isn’t eating up the country, try things like entitlements and debt service. The comments simply reinforce the authors point – not a few, are at the “White Whale” point – desperate attempting to defend the indefensible. The progressive dream, out weighs reality itself.

    BTW this statement”
    “Society became more unequal even as living standards gradually rose”; says volumes about the basis of the problem. Why the expectation that society would – or could – be made “more” equal. That speaks more to envy than it does to actual state of mankind

  • section9

    Leave it to Wig Wag to give us a window into the Progressive Mind as he scurrys around the deck of the Titanic feverishly rearranging deck chairs.

  • william ruffian

    Wig Wag is in desperate need of a calculator and a basic math textbook.Someone please help him before [he makes another mistake — ed].

  • Phil B

    WigWag is right – there’s nothing to see here, move along. All is well.

  • gerry

    wigwag is right on as an example of the Great White thrashing.

    Oh, well. We had a good run.

  • punditius

    Hey, Wig Wag – I don’t know what you do for a living, but I’m a government tax professional. I’ve observed, over the past 4 decades, that within certain parameters, when we raise marginal tax rates, we decrease actual tax revenue. Since revenues went up after the Bush tax cuts, I would expect them to go down if we have an Obama tax increase.

    The economy is not a machine that government can fine tune. It is an ecology that responds to government action in sometimes unpredictable ways.

    It seems fairly obvious that one of our problems right now is that the private sector is not investing money which would create jobs. There are lots of reasons for this, but let’s not add another one by making it more profitable for corporations to avoid taxes than to make money.

  • http://www.washingtonreb.com Walking Horse

    A tour de force, professor Mead!

    WigWag – run the numbers. The Bush Tax cuts are MINISCULE in comparison to the deficits. If one confiscates the total assets of the evil rich the proceeds would run the federal government for less than a year. You and your kind must come to grips with the fact that eating the rich is a one-time event. Just what do you propose to do for an encore?

    The exponential growth in debt is now impossible for rational people to ignore. We have passed the knee of the curve and the doubling time is approximately ten years.

    [See http://www.zerohedge.com/article/guest-post-death-debt ]

    We are replaying the Weimar scenario and we will get similarly disastrous results.

    Simple truths cannot be obviated with political rhetoric. Perpetually consuming more than one produces leads to impoverishment. When governments do it, it leads to dystopia and poverty. There is no entity on the face of the earth that can offer a bailout option for the USA — the impact with ground truth will be extremely painful.

  • punditius

    Hey Toni in Texas – I’ve thought for years that one economic impact of women’s lib was to drive wages down to the point where it now takes two incomes to do what one used to do. As long as the economy was growing – and to some extent more women in the workforce might have contributed to that – the effect was not dramatic. But in this Great Mancession, it’s easier to see.

    I hadn’t thought of the similar effect of the civil rights movement. Good point – and just one in a post that is crammed full of good points.

    It’s not the Republicans who are throwing granny off the cliff – its the fools who refuse to admit that she’s hurtling toward it already, and aren’t interested in doing anything to stop it.

  • Anthony

    “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” WRM uses an apt metaphor (Moby Dick) while inferring that something is wrong with the way we live today. Perhaps we have entered an age of insecurity….Fear also comes – fear of change, fear of decline, fear of unfamiliar world, etc. – and corrodes civil agreements. When government jumps the shark in America the economic system as principally owned utilizes the central government to undergird its varied propertied interests. Consequently, the pattern of things and events will have a definite politico-economic cast reflecting policies maintaining who gets what, when, where, how, and why; this despite ideas of progressivism, modernism, structuralism, conservatism, etc.

  • Bohemond

    Wigwag: “What Mead doesn’t tell you is that a substantial portion of the federal deficit can be accounted for by the Bush tax cuts”

    Rot. Another counterfactual “fact” courtesy of the lefty Talking Points generator.

    Fact: the FY 2007 Federal deficit, Bush tax cuts, wars and all, was $217 billion. What has changed since then above all is the Pelosi Congress and the Obama administration increasing Federal spending by a staggering 40%, $1.1 trillion, creating our present hyperdeficits in excess of $1,600 billion.

  • Bruce

    To Wigwag: Sorry, but even Obama and the Democratic Congress and Senate wouldn’t let the Bush, now the Obama, tax cuts expire AFTER the midterm elections. If the party of high taxes won’t raise taxes, its not going to happen.

  • Bohemond

    “an economy where a few men were enormously wealthy while most Americans were little better than serfs”

    More astonishing piffle.

  • Steve W from Ford

    It is indeed illuminating that the first comment made by WigWag is from a gentleman who goes to some length to justify the very programs that are bankrupting the US and to blame any problems on previous Republican administrations. The idea that we can “solve” our deep structural problems by some minor tweaking of the tax code that raises taxes for an already overburdened middle class as well as cutting some “excess” defense spending is too ludicrous to address and has been amply debunked elsewhere.
    The interesting and distressing aspect of such a position is the, no doubt,intense ideological blinders one must willingly don in order to maintain such a fiction as WigWag demonstrates in his own mind. It is exactly this sort of blind partisan purity that has recently led many on the left to defend the indefensible Anthony Wiener when the obvious logical response would be for the left to quickly excise the malignancy that is Wiener as quickly as possible rather than to defend such egregiously stupid and depraved behavior solely because “he is one of ours”. One could, I guess, hope for better from partisans on both sides but perhaps it was ever thus. The real task is for those who have eyes that actually see to debunk and marginalize the WigWags of the world before they blithely drive us all off the cliff in order to maintain some foolish and benighted ideological purity.

  • mike in nc

    Lovely article, too bad it is already too late. The next election is going to be about which party presides over America’s funeral.
    That’s assuming we can afford a funeral, so I guess that makes me an optimist.

  • bk

    Wig wag’s adventure into comparative argument is humorous. “if germany can afford it , we can”. Get a grip. Relativism is shorthand for lack of analysis.

  • John Minehan

    http://209.98.77.34/albanyproject/showDiary.do?diaryId=9472

    As to comment No 1, the Bush Tax cuts brought in vastly increased revenue: the issue is spending.

  • Gloria

    This is the best analysis of the “untouchable” programs I have ever read. The four stages concept explains why even those people who want to change social security and medicare have such ambiguous feelings about the programs. We simultaneously see a “white elephant” and a “great white father” in each program and are torn between the two views of the program. As legislators oscillate between gratefulness (great white father view) and fear (costly white elephant), they end up doing nothing.

  • jon
  • BobD

    According to the CBO, if we raised tax rates on the “rich” ($250,000+) to what it was before the Bush tax cut, it would generate $80 billion. That won’t exactly square the budget. Rescinding the Bush tax cuts for the rest of taxpayers would generate an additional $220 billion. That still wouldn’t square the budget. On the other hand, feeral government spending for much of our modern history was 19% of GDP. Now it is 25% of GDP. The president’s budget assumes this is the “new normal” — hence, more budget deficits until we collapse under unpayable debt.

  • Kevin

    Great article! What I don’t see is any example of where a “shark” has been successfully – what? – caged/terminated/???

  • CatoRenasci

    This is a remarkable essay on more than one level. It’s certainly a “true as far as it goes” description of how the welfare state evolved over the past century or so, and recognizes – unusually for a liberal like Mead – that well-intended policies often have disastrous consequences.

    However, the most remarkable aspect of the essay is the emphasis on liberals’ good intentions and how Topsy just sort of grew; a rose-colored affirmation of just how good liberals were and are, even if things came a cropper.

    What this entirely ignores is the fact that the American progressives weren’t all naive well-meaning reformers who just wanted to ameliorate some bad conditions. Many of them were Marxists, or socialists, or technocratic progressives who clearly intended to see society not merely reformed, but completely transformed along whichever ideological line was then in fashion. Many of these were public intellectuals who oscillated between the left of liberalism and actual socialist and Marxist circles, and who hoped for the collapse of the existing system rather than its rejuvenation. The Gramascian long march through the institutions is but one example.

    The untold story in Mead’s saga, is also in part the gullibility and naivete of the liberals in allowing themselves to be pushed to the left by the left, and their “pas d’enemie a gauche” attitude which has consistently led many of the leading lights of liberalism to be dupes of and stooges for the Soviet Union.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/lukelea2/thesoftpath Luke Lea

    Well said, Wig Wag. You put the case more succinctly than most of the pros. With real per capita GDP now nearly double what it was back in the 1950’s — despite the growth in the ratio of retirees to workers — it’s hard to make the case that we can’t afford a basic welfare state for the next generation.

    On the other hand there is I admit one thing we don’t know how to do: tax the 10,000 wealthiest families in America — no, make that the 100,000 wealthiest families (the top tenth of the top one percent) — in order to restore the distribution of income that existed in America in the 1950’s. The great American economist Irving Fisher once showed how it could be done, both fairly and efficiently, back in the darkest days of WWII. Look it up.

    I wonder how much resistance to the idea of income redistribution has to do with the fact that so many of the likely future recipients would be brown-skin people from south of the border? Never mind that letting so many in (30-to-40 million) was a big part of what changed the distribution of income in the first place.

    It is important to remember that this happened as the result of an elite public policy taken by and for elites and in opposition to the interests and expressed desires of American working families.

    It was an act of class war if you want to get right down to it. And now it has morphed into a choice of military empire over the ideals of a middle-class democracy; of maximizing GDP instead of maximizing the general welfare because, in the final analysis, it is the size of the GDP and not the level of the general welfare that determines military might.

    (Incidentally there’s another White Shark Mead overlooked in addition to the military-industrial complex I mentioned above. That would be the medical-industrial complex, which works in much the same way and is characterized by similar amounts of waste, fraud, and corruption as the one Eisenhower warned us about.)

    I agree with Mead that there is no going back to the middle-class dream of a house in the suburbs and a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids. Modern home appliances by themselves rendered that dream out of date. But that is no reason the American people should be made to serve the American economy instead of the other way around.

    If we worked with our allies we could use our collective economic might (trade restrictions and access to the international financial system) to establish norms of international behavior much more effectively and efficiently than with military force.

    I appreciate Mead’s effort to rethink the blue social model and I always enjoy reading his prose. He is one of the most articulate, fluent writers going. It’s just that I think he needs to re-examine some of his assumptions.

  • Anthony

    As I understand the exposition, WRM is not talking about specific industrial/financial/military arrangements nor comparative “real per capital” GDP; neither is he talking about brown skin/black skin/white(pink)skin people but Americans and systemic conditions. Americans who, via representative government, must reconsider old shibboleths and expect more from PUBPOLS as the national situation deteriorates. To that extent, the old keynesian consensus as well as the University of Chicago school of free-market economics must be guided by the logic of the present situation as it confronts us; and we must expect forthright analysis of both by our elected/appointed leadership within the values of our culture in order to contain the threatening allegorical white shark.

  • juandos

    What Mead doesn’t tell you is that a substantial portion of the federal deficit can be accounted for by the Bush tax cuts. Simply allowing them to expire completely, so that marginal rates return to the levels that they were at under Bill Clinton, would eliminate a very substantial portion of the structural deficit“…

    Well wig-wag what YOUR’E NOT telling people in your comment is that in excess of 60% of every federal budget is extorted tax dollars being used by politicos to pander to the parasites…

    I dare you to find anything in the Constitution that mandates federal interference in education, retirement, medicine and medical care, housing, energy, environment and the list is just endless

  • Simple in Kansas

    Thank you Professor Mead. I find your insights remarkably enlightening.

  • Kohl Haas

    The key statement on the decline of our country

    ” The moral and intellectual meltdown of the American elite is a robustly bipartisan affair and there is plenty of mud to throw at all sides.”

    for some reason elicits no comment; yet is is true and widely recognized.

    I attended an investment conference a few months ago at which various companies engaged in heavy industry were reviewing their activities. At a dinner that evening, I was seated at a table with nine others. I knew none of them beforehand but conversation revealed one CEO of a large construction company, a fund manager or two, a banker or two, and two or three company executives. At a lull in the conversation someone posed the question: “Would you hire an Ivy Leaguer?” The answers were immediate, emphatic, and unanimous: “No!” (Including me). Reason, also unanimous and emphatic: “Lack of Integrity”

    With a government obviously overloaded with Ivy Leaguers, particularly lawyers, is it any wonder we have the government and the results we have.

    Another point about early Progressivism that receives no comment and no analysis as to how Progressivism had led us to where we are: One of its founding principles was eugenics.

  • peter38a

    Tax increases as the solver of economic problems? Well Wig Wag why not take your argument to its logical conclusion? Impose a 100% tax on everyone and then some bureaucrats, of a type more highly evolved than the rest of us who still have to wash our hands before dinner, can distribute these funds “fairly.” Of course everyone would continue to work to the best of their ability and would delighted to see said funds distributed to the those who need them accordingly. And if you don’t believe in this paradigm, why we’ll just liquidate you.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    I think your characterization of the problem and its etiology is correct. The crisis has been slow in the making but it’s not like it development has been unnoticed. Many have remarked that the fundamental problem is simply that the constituency for any given spending is small but concentrated and determined while the constituency for reducing and/or slowing spending is broad, weak and nonchalant. For example, those on the receiving end of the fictitious snake-oil subsisdy may number only in the hundreds but are all focused on that subsidy continuing, making it the sole focus of their lobbying efforts. In contrast, to those who wish to rein in spending, it doesn’t matter if the snake-oil subsidy is cut or not as long as the difference is made up somewhere else. The snake-oil lobbyists are effective in persuading legislators there are less dangerous targets. Unfortunately, EVERY program now has a lobby which is EQUALLY effective in convincing legislators there are less dangerous targets. The end result is not much of anything gets reined in. And here we are, at the precipice….

  • Kohl Haas

    “If we worked with our allies we could use our collective economic might (trade restrictions and access to the international financial system) to establish norms of international behavior much more effectively and efficiently than with military force.”

    This has to win the prize for naivete. Such beliefs have led to many wars and slavery. Such methods work only with those who care about such things; they never work with the rogue thug leading a gang. Obama thought he could reason and use such methods with Ahmadenijad. Mahmoud took off his underwear without undoing his belt and Barack never even knew it.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Professor Mead takes an entire essay, albeit a well-written one, to encapsulate the message within a prescient quote made many years ago by Eric Hoffer, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
    The progressive movement is now in stage three, that of being or becoming a racket.

  • Stu in SDGO

    All the cockamamie theories pushed by the left over the centuries run contrary to human nature. Their basic presumption is that there are “good men” who are more enlightened than the rest of us, and who know more and should be empowered to do more in order to create some idealized form of “Utopia-on-Earth.” Bunk. Man is a fallen creature from the get-go, including those who consider themselves our betters. All are motivated by selfishness, greed, and baser instincts, and those traits are amplified by governments when leftist ideologies are in play (socialism, Marxism, Communism, soft communism, progressive-ism, fascism, Obamanism, etc., etc.). Capitalism works because it is the system that most closely mirrors human nature. All other systems are perversions in the name of evil ideologies and perceived desirable results (social justice, income “redistribution,” equality of outcome, etc.). Sorry, you get what you earn and pay for (or steal, as the progressives and their allies have been doing for a century); and the ongoing theft dressed up as “fairness” by the likes of wigwag and Luke Lea will be the death of us all unless stopped.

  • http://www.weaponsman.com Kevin R.C. O’Brien

    It is quite innumerate to think that our fiscal problems are the fault of Bush’s tax cuts. (His Medicare prescription benefit and the Lake Wobegon-inspired No Child Left Behind bill were each far more costly). This is not to say that Bush was a good steward of the public fisc; he was a disaster, to be sure, but he was a brush fire and Obama is Vesuvius as spendthrifts go.

    Bush of course was ably assisted in his squandering of borrowed money by the Democratic majorities post-2006. But Republicans bear their share of the blame.

    The whale is so large now that there may indeed be no stopping it. So many bubbles arrive at their denouement at once: real estate, federal borrowing, higher education. Pop, pop, but there is no fizz, fizz to be had.

    Do the Bush cuts have to go? Absent a more complete overhaul of taxation, yes, we can’t afford them. Does defense have to be cut? Absolutely: at the current level, we can’t afford it. Are government jobs on the line? If the appointed executive bloat isn’t, you may rest assured that the elected persons are. Must even entitlements feel the cuts? Yes, unless we want a hard default (a la Greece or Portugal), or, more likely, a blind attempt to inflate the problem away (Germany 1923 or Zimbabwe).

    Personally, looking across our political class, our President, our fool of a VP, 545 crooks in Congress who look only to their own profit and comfort and can’t even show as much restraint as to spare us from the images of their private parts, I think that default through inflation, is inevitable. Anything else would require moral courage, a character trait not available in the political class nor the ivy league schools that produce it.

  • O’Garthe

    Great blog post … I believe the 2010 election results, historic in their scope and depth, were the response to spotting a growing whale-shaped shadow darkening the sky above the American economic ship. If you look up again, it is no longer just a shadow, except to those wearing dark progressive-tinted glasses. Pat Buchanan was right about the grassroots movement on government with pitchforks, he was just off by decade and a half … 2012? Yikes!

  • http://www.Facebook.com/Nicole.Tedesco Nicole Tedesco

    Most awesome article! Thanks!

    Progressivism was, in some respects, the pinnacle of a nation-state philosophy which has dominated this country since Hamilton. Yes, Hamilton. This country changed course in a major way since the time of Shay’s Rebellion when all of the founders realized, as Washington said, there was “no money” to support the society it seemed everyone actually wanted. (There was also no money to pay the Revolutionary soldiers their due.) Hamiltonism did work–it created a system in which merchantilism and industrialism were allowed to flourish. That was nice, but both mercantilism and industrialism have run their course. It’s not just Progressivism which has jumped the shark, but industrialism and by extension nation-state structures which have been designed to support the industrial society.

    Big changes have been happening and we are left with our pants down. Please stop blaming each other, both Liberals and Conservatives. The Hamiltonian legal structures we have come to rely on have outgrown their use. Please look at the bigger picture. I believe it is useful to start thinking out of the box and ask, “What next?”

    China is currently enjoying the arbitrage of being the largest of the low-cost providers of industrial services. Even her days are numbered.

    What are you going to do when the cost of manufacturing almost anything, anything at all, is insignificantly cheap? What good is the economic structure of the United States then? It’s monetary system? The laws which support it? What good is China, that country of industrialism gone wild like any other communist (or fascist) country that has come before it?

    What are you going to do next?

  • nadine

    Wig-wag, most of your arguments were more plausible 10 years ago, but the uncontrolled spending under Bush and completely insane spending under Pelosi/Obama has blown them all out of the water. You have to stop doing static tax analysis, which is always wrong, take history into consideration (the Bush tax cuts raised Federal tax revenue 40%) and take a cold, hard, sober look at the CURRENT figures for government revenue and spending.

  • newscaper

    Regarding two great trendy progressive memes:

    How is that ‘sustainability’ never applies to fiscal policy?

    Or that the ‘precautionary principle’ never applies to *social* engineering?

  • Tom

    Here is something future historians will see as obvious, even though people today dare not say it :

    Women having the right to vote just does not work. Period.

    Expecting women to support small government is like expecting government employees to support small government.

    Most women have just one goal – to transfer money from men to themselves. Politicians win elections by getting the female vote via such bribes.

    Women having the right to vote = the Moby Dick end described in the article.

  • Tom

    The fools who want to return to Clinton era tax levels somehow don’t want to correspondingly return to Clinton-era spending levels.

    I am perfectly fine with the tax rates of the late 90s if we cut spending to the level of the late 90s (about a 50% cut from where we are today).

    Any takers?

    Leftists are too cowardly to be honest.

  • phil g

    WigWag is the perfect example of exactly the mindset that Professor Mead is describing; it is almost parody.

  • Randy

    This ain’t the half of it. The cronies at the head of the blue social model are also giving us high gasoline prices and eventually a spike in electrical utility bills (see AEP’s recent announcement to close five power plants cuz of EPA regulations). Hope and change, baby!

  • Luke Lea

    @kevin above: “We will never make any headway towards true entitlement reform while we continue to deny the immorality of institutionalized wealth redistribution.”

    That is the issue: whether the natural distribution of income in a market economy is necessarily the best, most efficient, or the most just distribution. I’d like to hear you make the case. Good luck.

  • Bruce B

    CatoRenasci has it right. Bestowing good intentions on these programs is being charitable to the left. The programs were established with vote buying in mind, not compassion. We’ve known for a long time where we were headed. Can you really make the case that these are unintended consequences?

    Mead’s previous essay on Fannie seems to imply that the populace understands Fannie/Freddie and the way they were used to reward the faithful Dems (Raines, Gorelick, Emanuel). That is probably an incorrect assumption. 10% of the people probably understand it and of that 10%, 30% are partisan hack Dems who think it is fine.

    We have to look deeper in to the souls of those who have an obsession with power. Compassion for the masses is usually not high on their priority list, although they are good at convincing people that it is.

  • John Burke

    Great column. It should be noted that something of the same progression happens with everything government does. Once a firehouse has been built on X spot, it cannot be shut, moved or trimmed down. Forty years ago, a few big cities developed SWAT teams to cope with unusual threats. Now every modest-sized town, at great added expense, has such a team which adds little safety and arguably reduces it. “Ordinary” police officers now arrive at crimes in progress and cordon off a perimeter while waiting for SWAT even as people die. Meanwhile, in a small NC town where a single deputy was the only peace officer, the deputy charged into a going-postal situation, shot the gunman dead and saved countless lives. Yet, try to eliminate a SWAT operation and you will be crucified.

    Or how about this example from my town. Years ago, the town had twice weekly garbage pickups. Then, a once a week recycling pickup was added. Recycling was mandatory and it became an offense to mix recyclable items with trash. As a result of removing nearly all plastics, glass, newsprint and other paper and cardboard from the trash stream, there is far less garbage — not enough for the average household to fill a 30 gallon trash can once a week. Yet, twice weekly garbage pickups are sacrosanct, even though reducing trucks and well-paid sanitation workers with their contract pensions would save the town a huge sum.

    Look around at every level of government and you will see the same sort of thing.

  • ptsargent

    Corporations are ruthlessly efficient, cost conscious, profit generating entities. Government entities are wasteful, voracious, undisciplined over spending entities. To curb and cure government excesses apply corporate disciplines of ruthless cost cutting utilizing management tools of streamlining workflow and work processes. With this approach the size of government could easily be cut in half and savings applied to eliminating debt. If government worker unions object, delist the unions.

  • Anthony

    “A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and an angel in every whirlwind-that was the Fordist ambition. Fordist society would be prosperous, stable, safe, and well guided by administrators and engineers trained to make objective and rational decisions in the common good. Instead of a class striggle between workers and capitalists, it would be base on a compromise.” Is Fordist system root of Blue Model or are both interchangeable/fungible?

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Some of you folks leave me speechless, and mouth agape. At the very least I envy your prescience. Most of you, of course, can see not only the present inside out, and backwards and forwards, and from top to bottom, but well into the future. And so I can only imagine the mountain of invective about to descend on my head when I suggest the following. But really, wouldn’t it be just AWFUL if, some thirty years hence, WigWag proved to be more or less – well, um, on target? (Go ahead, give me your worst epithets, your shrillest ridicule, your bitterest outrage. It makes you all sound so fervently American . . . and so heartwarmingly Christian . . . )

    Above all, keep repeating to yourself how utterly stupid, and pathetic, and misguided, and monstrously evil EVERYTHING about the American Twentieth Century was. How it made every wrong turn at every conceivable juncture (with the golden exceptions of Harding and Coolidge). How even in the ‘30s, FDR’s bitterest opponents were also the wisest, fiercest, most farsighted haters of Hitler (ever hear of Hamilton Fish? Or Irenee du Pont? Or John Foster Dulles? – Oh, that’s right, I’m sure Glenn Beck has told you all about them). And remind yourselves how, BY COMPARSION, the American Nineteenth Century was a veritable paradise in most every respect – and particularly in the years 1865 to 1890 (surely SOME of you out there are old enough to remember them?). And then let’s see what kind of 21st century paradise we succeed in creating. It’s already gotten itself off to a most rousing start . . .

    Oh, but I keep forgetting, the 21st century hasn’t properly begun yet. Everything right up till now has proceeded in the straightest, most unbroken continuity and momentum since 1930. All one single, unreversed, unchecked, continuous pulse – with no counterpulse whatsoever, no cultural cross-currents to deflect it, or even to change the pattern and pace and content of the flow. No stream separate from our apparent mainstream (since, when was it – 1930?) of frenzied home-buying, credit-bubbling socialism. (Funny, I don’t remember socialist Canada ever getting fully on board that particular bandwagon. Or ubersozialist Germany. Or maybe one or two other non-Greeces and non-Irelands, here and there, whose stories we have yet to hear. Then again who needs economic HISTORY anyhow? It’s all about First Principles, and unerring mathematical formulae. Who needs to know the real stories of how Taiwan and South Korea became industrialized? While as for those human gods, the mainland Chinese – well, now that’s an altogether DIFFERENT story. And you know, really, whether you’re talking Maoist or mercantile capitalist – on-target phrase, Prof Mead – you’ve got to hand it to those clever Chinese. Rather a lot like us Americans actually. Kickass, hell-for-leather, and let it all hang out. And no matter what the [human] cost, never do anything by halves.)

    Yessir, no other stream at all in this God-forsaken 20th century – and beyond. No other stream but socialist rack and ruin right on up through Ronald, Bill and both Georges. Until now, of course. Thank God for tea parties. And to think here I was, about to suggest we may see more clearly – over the next few decades – the part that new (post-1980) CROSS-currents, as well as old (post-1930) currents, played in creating the orgy of credit- and speculation-fueled optimism of the past 15 or so years. But as I keep forgetting, most of you can see into the next half-century almost as clearly as if it were yesterday. You’re way ahead of me. Besides, what good is CULTURAL history either? Everyone knows that culture has no significant effect in shaping markets, or the ways human beings behave inside them.

    And yet, somehow, I can’t resist asking myself: Even given the most valiant efforts of the wisest and most righteous among you, will the New World EVER be staunchly and remorselessly free-market ENOUGH, without you finding a way to blame everything that goes wrong in it on residual, as-yet-unextirpated pockets of socialism? Perhaps even – who knows? – on those “pockets” that have yet to eradicated from our human nature itself?

  • David W. Nicholas

    When I was a boy, a friend of mine told me of an ancient philosopher. This man propounded the idea that no one could ever actually go anywhere, because to do so, they’d first have to travel halfway to where they were going. Before travelling halfway, they’d have to go halfway to *that* destination, and so forth. Supposedly, the Romans became disgusted with the guy, and put him in an arena with a lion, thinking he could explain how the maneater could never reach him because it first had to go halfway…etc. The story ended with the guy getting eaten.

    Same thing is true with modern Democrats. Most will get mortally offended if you call them Socialists, because they sincerely believe they aren’t. Though they believe in the “free” market, in reality there’s an endless supply of crises and shortcomings that government needs to address, as far as they’re concerned. None of them ever believes that the public can be overtaxed, just as that imaginary (or maybe not) philospher never believed the lion could get to him. Taxes can be raised on the “rich” and on corporations, repeatedly, without this having any affect on people’s or corporate behavior. When the next crisis occurs, just raise taxes on someone, and use the money to repair the problem (or more likely spread it around among your constituents, and pass the debt for the crisis along to the next generation). When the economic situation gets grim, blame the Republicans and those corporations.

    What no one on the left ever says is that taxing the rich isn’t cost-effective, and virtually never works. Rich people, because they’re rich, have multiple ways of avoiding taxes they don’t like. U-2 (the rock group) famously has set up their headquarters in Holland to avoid Ireland’s confiscatory tax system. Various corporations are regularly reported to pay no taxes at all, and famously Ross Perot didn’t pay much either, back when he ran for President. How can this be? Because the tax code is complex, and there are loopholes, and if you have that sort of money, you can hire a phalanx of lawyers and accountants to make sure you pay as little taxes as possible, and most everyone who *is* rich does this, regardless of their political stance. When a person has this sort of representation, getting more tax revenue out of them is very difficult. Pass a tax increase, and they simply find another tax shelter, move income out of your jurisdiction, something. You don’t get any more money.

    But no one wants to hear this. Everyone thinks rich people are stupid, because that’s what we see in the news. So raise taxes on foolish rich people (except they tend to hire those tax lawyers and accountants too, and those people aren’t dumb, whether their employers are or not) and when it doesn’t work, complain about how it’s the Republican’s fault.

    What no one’s explained to me is how the various public employees expect this to come out. People who are in their mid-40s retiring and collecting six-digit pensions, while the private sector is seeing retirement ages *increase* from 67. There was a report I read the other day on the web from a private non-profit that studied pension benefits. Their estimate is that the poorest laborers will have to work til they’re *84* in order to assure themselves a decent retirement. Mid-level workers like myself (when I had a job) will work into their mid-70s. Meanwhile, government guys will be retiring at 50, with a pension bigger than my paycheck’s ever been? And my taxes have to support them? Does anyone see anything wrong with this? Apparently not…

  • Capitalist

    That’s a long winded way to say “you can’t get something for nothing”. Reality always gets back at those who try. Eventually. And with a vengeance.

  • Kain Anderson

    Wig-wag is a perfect example of what is wrong with the typical Democrat voter today (and some Republicans). Did Bush add a mass to the debt with his tax cut, 2 wars, and Part D.? Yes. But only if you ignore the rest of the entire budget.

    Hey Wig-wag. How about going back to say 1970 and chart the PERCENTAGE of ALL federal spending that the big entitlements (Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, General Wellfare) + Defense consumes. Then chart a trend line. It becomes glaringly obvious that all the other things we bicker about (1-2% tax cuts, millions wasted on some stupid study somewhere, etc.) is absolutely meaningless because the entitlements are growing way too fast. Every president who has faced a budget shortfall in the last 30 years did so because entitlements consumed too much of the federal budget. The few “surplus” years we had were only such because of a rare aligning of slowed spending (Gingrich congress plus pragmatic Clinton) and a booming economy (dot.com bubble). Even if we raise taxes, it only buys us a few more years (assuming the tax raise doesn’t crash the economy). The growth of the Progressive sharks are still going to engulf the entire budget and bring all the other programs down with it (or leave some politician with the untenable choice of letting old/poor people die from slashed M&M or starve from slashed SS).

    Our survival depends on gracefully backing out as many of these progressive monsters as possible and never letting the elephants and sharks happen again.

  • M. Rad.

    I usually describe this progression as the erosion of social capital. When government programs are new, they emulate the form of efficient private-sector organizations, because that is what everyone knows and no one imagines any other way. That unthinking habit of doing things is social capital, a legacy handed to us from our hard-working ancestors. With the passing of years, rent-seeking (and with the moral hazard of gov’t bailouts, actuarially unsound accounting) creeps in and then everyone wonders how things got so wasteful and unsustainable.

    The series of “Great Whites” is a pithy metaphor, though.

  • Peter M. Todebush

    The equal distribution of the productive wealth of a nation by some just means. The tug of war between the ‘creation’ of wealth and the ‘distribution’ of wealth and its impact on economic growth. Without private sector growth, everything fails.

  • Jeff C

    Bravo sir, bravo! One of the best articles I have read all year.

  • Ryan

    Again Walter is spot on…Washington is corrupt (its legalized) and destroying America…

  • Sabastian

    Comparing Fannie Mae to a great white shark is very disrespectful to the shark. Sharks harm only a few dozen people each year – pigs are more dangerous. Fannie and Freddie have harmed millions.

  • Uncle Tom

    “The problem with socialism is you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

    Progressive ideal, my [fannie mae]. It was always a ponzi scheme designed to re-elect politicians, but cleverly wrapped with a moralistic cloak. “Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect” says it all. Well, Harry, nice job. Your great Democratic election machine lasted 80+ years. Unfortunately, it bankrupted the country. Not that that would have mattered to you.

  • Jerome Barry

    The Credit Default Swaps on debt of the various fragile European debtor countries are largely owned by American too-big-to-fail banks.

    Consequently, it is to the benefit of European governments and bankers that European debtor nations continue to grow debt until some European factor, be it electorates, governments, or bankers, refuse to accept further indebtedness. This will trigger a wave of European government and bank defaults. The risk of these defaults is up to 95% owned by American too-big-fail banks. Consequently, the last shred of faith and credit of the United States will be used to backstop the debts of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy.

    Can you see this leading to a substantial changing of borders and flags in Europe? I can.

  • joe lori

    A wise statesman (stateswoman, actually) once observed that socialism inevitably fails because they eventually run out of other people’s money to spend. It has been a short and disastrous dance with socialism in the US and we will pay for it as long as the democrats/obama’s socialist ways prevail. All those folks who voted for obama dreamed that the government would give them everything they wanted. What they did not understand was that that same government would take everything (of value) that they had: their freedom, their self-respect, their dignity and now their hope. Obama has spent his life hating American (the rev Wright) and his fellow socialists wanted nothing more than to “bring us down”. Well, he has succeeded. I hope all of the morons that voted for him are satisfied. We are now winning the race to the bottom.

  • Henry Miller

    When you attempt the impossible, the disastrous possible is what will happen instead.

    And no, there’s no saving American society. To do so would require statesmen, not politicians, and there are no more statesmen.

  • Bryan

    I have been involved in government and politics for nearly 30 years, on the campaign side, strategy side, and governing side. I have not seen the overall problem explained quite so well in a very long time. My only question is will our leaders, on both sides of the isle, buckle down and adopt a plan, stick to it, and present a solution to the train reck we all see is going to happen – its just a matter of when – before it is too late. Unfortunately, I don’t know if they will or not, I can only hope……..

  • http://www.michaelpeery.com Mike Peery

    The best article I have read in 10 years.
    Thanks.

  • JT

    To wigwag: blaming Bush for every problem we face is ridiculous. Which politician wants to let the Bush tax cuts expire? Not one, even the hero Obama. Not Reid or Pelosi or even Weiner. They only want to let the rates on the so-called “rich” revert back to where they were under Clinton … to 39 from 35.

    If only all our fiscal problems were so cheaply and easily solved no sane person would not sign up for it. Being in that income category, I would gladly pay the few percent more if it would work but it won’t. Our political class is addicted to spending my money. The more they have the more they spend. They will not keep spending the same and increase revenue. They have NEVER done that before and they will not do it now. I tried to help a heroin addict once and he almost overdosed on the food money I gave him. That’s our government. The government you love so much that you want to entrust it with your very well-being.

    And another thing … those wars you whine about were approved by Congress and the UN. Part D was objected to by Democrats because they thought it too small, not because it cost too much. And it cost less than estimated.

  • JohnLeeHooker

    there are only two ways out of this problem: politicians or voters. Geeze, that right there is the problem.

  • mmercier

    Good article.

    Stalin would have hung the writer by his toes for a day or so.

    Then personally shot him.

  • Herb

    Most government programs do not need to be reformed. They need to be ended. The government has no business being involved in all the daily affairs of its citizens. Its business is to create and enforce the law equally and to defend us from enemies. Even road building should go private. Anyone can easily see through simple observation that these government workers work as hard as they can to work as little as possible, so a quarter mile of road will take ten times as long as it should to build or resurface. This is what happens with nearly everything the government touches. To repeat: Its rightful place is in law, foreign policy, and defense. Not education. Not business. Not selling mortgages. Not building. Not parenting. Not social work. Not supporting the arts. Not telling us what to think. Not running health care. Not building cars. Not subsidizing favored groups. Not sacrificing our freedom on the altar of an abstract equality. Leave us alone to work and create, to form communities naturally and organically. Yes, it will mean that the world won’t be a perfect and sterile left wing utopia.

  • Janet Nichols

    Excellent article although I have a huge problem calling instigators, promulgators and beneficiaries of these Great White Sharks “Progressives”. The term, liberal or socialist, suffices. I also agree that none, not one, program was introduced out of compassion as much as it was created out of a desire for a vote. Whatever happened to the notion of self-reliance, independence and responsibility that was employed by the citizens for 200 years to create this country? I’ll tell you what. Big government. It is the enemy and it is destroying the fiber of this country faster than anything. Today it and the ruling elite are our masters and we are the serfs. Hard to believe the struggle the Western world went through to abolish serfdom over the centuries. Yet today many willingly assume that yoke from their government. Whether you are ruled by a lord or a bureaucrat, you nevertheless are out of control of your life. Serfs in the middle ages really had no choice, modern men do.

  • GerryG

    A good example of the progressivism is embodied in California. The economy is dying, people are leaving, businesses are leaving and the progressives find ever more useless things to regulate and spend on. Tax, tax is the only answer and all considered with no evaluation of the impact such as people leaving and hiding income. The progressives never see a downside to their actions, just benefits.
    Everything is framed to prey on people’s emotions such as “this is for the schools”. But in reality it is for the union or the politician, not the people. Special interests reign supreme.
    2012 should be an interesting year!

  • http://www.daylightresearch.com Steve

    This is the most lucid article on the subject I have read to date.

    But I have to say that a failure would probably eclipse the Great Depression in severity. Back then the social structure of the country and the financial condition of the govt were both strong. Such is not the case today. And I add: we will probably not avoid this calamity. The advance of civilization is a trial and error process. And we have erred grieviously.

    Finally, I have to agree with Tom that historians will look back on all of this and say that it was a mistake to give women the right to vote. It took time but that move destroyed the insitution of the family and led to the abortion holocaust. It could have been predicted but not prevented. Men (and women) seek out mischief and self-destruction. It’s simply in our nature.

  • EscapeFromCalifornia

    Great piece. Very insightful.

    If I may be so bold as to put it more briefly, we must break the promises we made to ourselves to save our country.

    The expanding progressive promises personal security and comfort were really just clever ways to spend our children’s lives, money and energies. It was naughty but not much when it started, and now it’s deeply immoral.

    Time to get back to work, and stop taking.

  • Bud Belz

    Great, great article. I teach a business course at a community college. I am going to provide your article for all my sudents.

    Bud Belz

  • JDLee+

    JR Yankovic,

    You should consider taking a carving knife to that flabby, bloated prose of yours.

    Secondly, Prof. Mead’s article has nothing to do with religion and morality, and everything to do with governance. Judging by your blog, and your sarcastic Christian comment, I think you might consider showing a bit of humility in the eyes of your God and your fellow believers.

    Regards,

    JDL

  • Tony Clarke

    all the spending for progressivism came from two things early last century: income tax and the fed. without those items, we wouldn’t be in the hole we’re in now. sure, things may not be as glamorous, but we’d have no bubbles.

    bottom line: people use to not migrate here for handouts…now they do. that’s a huge fault of progressives and “reform” won’t help. the progressive idea is over. credit card limits maxed. time for everyone to be more conservative and toughen up…that is the only reform needed.

    and get rid of the fed and income tax. everyone should pay and our money should be based on something other that the government’s guarantee.

  • B. Samuel Davis

    There is a place in America – two places actually, where the progressive ideal has reached the end of the line. Both are cities – Camden, and Detroit. Both were destroyed by Democrat progressive, sorry liberal policies. California, New York and New Jersey, Massachusetts, et als are headed in the same direction – businesses i.e. Republicans being forced out, replaced to some extent by immigrants, mostly from the third world, who also vote Democrat – and in these states the path is straight toward the Detroit model.

  • Jester

    @Tom: I can only hope you are kidding. Otherwise, I can only imagine that you are a man with a sad, sorry history with women. To suggest that giving the women the vote was erroneous is simply mind boggling.Women should rise up and push the men out of politics. Then budgets would be balanced and we wouldn’t have to waste our time on mentally feeble politicians like Weiner distracting the nation from more important matters.

  • http://striderweb.com/ Stephen R

    @J R Yankovich: Your entire argument is one gigantic strawman. The article does not argue that the 19th century wasn’t hard. It doesn’t argue that none of the progressive ideas were useful. What it says is that they are **no longer** viable.

    From the article: “I cannot blame four generations of progressive intellectuals for trying to make life a little less brutal and unpredictable, nor should we overlook the successes they had. Nevertheless… the progressive paradigm today can no longer serve as the basis for sound national policy.”

    Beyond that, your tirade protests arguments that nobody is making — you try to muddy the waters with talk of variations within (your opponents’ supposed claims of) the “straightest, most unbroken continuity and momentum” — holding the other side to impossibly high standards that of course your side never has to meet.

    I would also suggest that there *is* such a thing as an unsound principle. There are some ideas that simply don’t work in the long run, no matter how you try to dress them up.

  • Timbo

    Excellent article although the comments seem to almost rejoice in the obvious truth as this applies to “government” as if it were the only source of institutional inertia. The truth is that the inertia Prof. Meade describes applies to ALL institutions: businesses, churches, non-profits, as well as governments. In fact, as Prof. Meade points out, business ends up being complicit in this inertia as it comes to depend upon handout’s and preferences it has won through favorable legislation and regulation. Rather than an indictment of a specifically “progressive” paradigm, this insightful essay is really an indictment of stagnant thinking by all political persuasions. For my part, as a long-time conservative, I believe that my party (the GOP) is far more captured by outdated thinking, discredited theories and ideological inertia than the current crop of “progressives” seem to actually be. Say what you want, I hear and see actual intellectual curiosity and openess to new ideas on the Left; I see precious little of that coming from the Right these days. Roles are reversed from when I was excited by the intellectual daring of the Right in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

  • michael k power

    hello american,
    Early in the nineteenth century the industrial revolution necessitated the hiring of literally armies of men to work in the ‘dark satanic mills’ in England. Of course slavery was a threat to the entire process; after all, slaves worked for free. England had no slaves but others did. America with industrial knowledge and free labor would have been a massive threat to the economy in England. After the Civil War, progressives claimed that the war of secession, was all about freeing the slaves rather than about states rights to secede. Nevertheless, the might of the industrialized North carried the day against the agrarian slave state South. How odd that the next target for progressives — who after all would have been out of work if they hadn’t found another cause to champion — chose to attack the industrialists whose companies output had just put paid to slavery. Slavery would have dissappeared within a decade or so after the Civil War regardless of the conflict anyway. Consider: Had there been no civil war there would not have been the proliferation of guns that there was after Appomattox; a problem progressives decry today. Had there been no war the slave system would have gradually collapsed, perhaps without the awful legacy of dislocated former slaves, left destitute. The deaths of thousands and thousands of a couple of generations of men would have been avoided. Had progressives left well enough alone industrialists like the Rockefellers perhaps would have confined oil exploration to the Americas instead of moving their capital to the Middle East. The spread of knowledge and capital was assured. Why force it offshore? Certainly there were disjunctions. As we can clearly see change takes generations. The cost is time.
    Progressives are in fact reactionary. They made change the instrument of government rather than the open market. The distortion created by progressive government meddling has trancended normal small scale but effective adjustment to industrial or technological change and in effect magnified the very problems they set out to rectify.
    Consider public sector entitlement: Western countries cost structure is so bloated the governments are devaluing like mad men…everyone, including public sector workers, is watching as the wealth they thought they had dissappears into an unimaginably deep debt sink hole. How can a public transit bus or train operator in a Western World country earn the same purchasing power as his counterpart in Mumbai? Keynes theories never considered the distortion the ratio of human quantity in one country to another would cause in the post industrial world of the west where most readers of this blog reside.

  • Stu in SDGO

    Luke Lea: “That is the issue: whether the natural distribution of income in a market economy is necessarily the best, most efficient, or the most just distribution.”

    More nonsense. The premise is wrong, i.e., the concept of “just distribution” of wealth (I believe you mean, not income, which gives the game away as the social justice lefty that you obviously are). Who are you to decide what is fair and just? And that’s exactly what Mead is arguing against – the professional meritocracy who “knows better” than the rest of us – as you imply you do. I’ll take the unfettered marketplace any day; I don’t have to buy anything I don’t wish to. And don’t give me that claptrap about Big Oil breaking the little guy. Take away the drilling restrictions and other EPA/environmentalist nonsense and watch the price of gas plummet. Heaven save us from bureaucrats and politicians who think like you!

  • WigWag

    Several months ago, Professor Mead promised his loyal readers that he would write a post about opera; it’s a pledge he has yet to redeem, perhaps because he is so busy.

    Reading this post by the Professor actually reminded me of an opera; Gianni Schicchii by Puccini. To be more specific, it reminded me of one of the most beautiful and frequently performed arias in this opera; “O Mio Babbino Caro.”

    Anyone who would like to see a lovely rendition of the aria should follow this link,

    Like, the libretto for “O Mio Babbino Caro,” Professor Mead’s rhetoric in this post soars. The aria is sure to stir the passion of anyone devoted to music just as Mead’s words are sure to stir the passion of those ideologically committed to “small” government. Who could fail to feel ennobled after listening to a talented soprano perform this majestic piece of music? Who could fail to feel ennobled after reading Professor Mead’s magnificently sculpted argument?

    But there’s something else Mead’s post has in common with “O Mio Babbino Caro,” upon closer inspection, it’s little more than fluff. There’s no there, there. What at first seems high-minded turns out to be trivial. What at first blush appears to be classic Bel Canto opera turns out to be little more than “Can Belto” opera.

    What is the soprano singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” actually crooning about? Well it turns out that she’s begging her father to allow her to marry her obnoxious little boy friend before she explodes from adolescent sexual desire. This majestic piece of music turns out to be about nothing more than an expression of a Florentine teenager’s threat to drown herself in the Arno if she doesn’t get her way.

    Professor Mead’s post is equally trivial; it’s virtually devoid of facts. The alarming, almost unprecedented problems it posits are presented without any evidence at all to suggest that they are real. Mead’s post is opera buffa at its best.

    I admire Professor Mead but he treats his readers like Rubes when he says,

    “That is part of what happened in Ireland, Greece and Portugal, and what may yet happen in Italy and Spain. Disastrous government policies became more politically entrenched even as they became more unsustainable until quite suddenly, they could not be sustained and the whole system came crashing down.”

    Mead knows or should know that as a percentage of GDP, government spending is dramatically higher (two to three times higher) in these destitute European nations as it is in the United States.

    To make matters worse, he cites only the examples he thinks prove his point. Government spending as a percentage of GDP is also enormously higher in Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany than it is in the United States yet none of these nations face insolvency. Mead doesn’t tell us why he thinks the United States is more like Greece than it is like Canada or Germany. The reason he doesn’t tell us is simple; the facts make a mockery of his argument.

    Like Virgil leading Dante on his tour of hell, Mead leads us to what he calls the fourth ring of economic depravity; amongst the many sinners we find entombed there are those who would have the government invest in infrastructure improvements like (perish the thought) high speed rail.

    But Mead knows, or should know, that infrastructure investment is a prerequisite for economic vitality not a harbinger of economic decline.

    There is a long and storied history of government support for infrastructure development projects leading to dramatic economic growth. The Erie Canal was funded almost entirely with government funds (primarily from New York State). The planners of the Canal faced precisely the same snarky skepticism that Mead heaps on those who support high speed rail. Opponents of the Canal were just as sure that it was a boondoggle as Mead is convinced high speed rail is a boondoggle. As it turns out, the critics were wrong; the Erie Canal turned out to be the most important economic development project of the 19th century; it literally bound Western States and Eastern States together and helped forge a national identity. This is all described very eloquently in Peter Bernstein’s “Wedding of the Waters.” Mead knows the book, in fact he blurbed it (he called it a “neglected window to the American past.”)

    Skeptics were as critical of Eisenhower’s desire to create an interstate highway system as Mead is of high speed rail.

    When Robert Moses proposed to build bridges, freeways, airports, beaches and parks all over New York, skeptics lamenting aggressive government action could be found who thought the whole thing was a terrible waste of money. They sounded then exactly like Mead sounds now.

    Practically every important transpiration infrastructure project in the United States was planned and paid for by government; Mead’s suggestion that this is a sign of economic stupidity instead of economic foresightfulness is widely off the mark. Supporting infrastructure projects like high speed rail will do far more to insure economic prosperity for the United States than privatizing Medicare or maintaining low marginal tax rates on the wealthy.

    I’ve had the opportunity to read through some of the comments that have appeared on this thread. We have people like AK (#10) who mistakenly say that European nations with “criminally high tax rates” are all broke while in fact, many European nations with high tax rates like the Scandinavian nations and Germany are far from bankrupt. We have Walking Horse (#22) who calls the Bush tax cuts “miniscule.” We have Steve W from Ford (#28) who equates disagreeing with Mead’s analysis with being a fan of Anthony Weiner’s lewd behavior and we have Tom who says “Most women have just one goal – to transfer money from men to themselves. Politicians win elections by getting the female vote via such bribes.”

    Rather than using an opera metaphor to describe the quality of many of the comments on this thread, I think it’s better to refer to musical theater. Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” comes to mind.

    You know the song I mean; it’s called, “Send in the Clowns.”

  • Ilpalazzo

    Someone’s been smoking too much pot. Great White Father? Great White Hope? Great White Shark? What is this [unpleasant substance]? Get something REAL done!

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “J R Yankovic, you should consider taking a carving knife to that flabby, bloated prose of yours”.

    Yes, I have to admit I did get rather carried away. God knows it wouldn’t be the first time. And needless to say I make no claim to be a good writer. Or even a remotely interesting one. Sometimes in my bloated fashion, I use extreme turns of phrase in the hope of provoking the questioning of WHAT SEEM TO ME to be locked-in assumptions. So much the worse for me, obviously, if it doesn’t work. Last of all – and a little late for this now, I suppose – I certainly did not want either Prof Mead or his readers to interpret my remarks as an ad hominem (or any other kind of) attack on HIS argument. If anything I understood myself to be responding to the tone of some of the comments – and particularly those directed at WigWag. But my apologies to both Mr Mead and his readers if they were taken in any other way.

    “Judging by your blog, and your sarcastic Christian comment, I think you might consider showing a bit of humility in the eyes of your God and your fellow believers.”

    Brother Lee, if anything in the tone or content of my blog has offended you, I would be happy to discuss it. Meanwhile, could you please pray for me?

  • hitnrun

    “Everything right up till now has proceeded in the straightest, most unbroken continuity and momentum since 1930.”

    Fiscally? Yes.

    Since FDR, each generation of politicians has bought votes on the credit of the half-generation immediately following it.

    Furthermore, outside of one or two monstrosities (like Bush’s drugs and the Obama stimulus), all their vote-buying programs have begun as acorns, expanding incrementally over years and decades until they blot out the sun. In a way, I feel bad for Obama and this last crop of egghead world-fixing politicians. It’s not their fault they believe their twaddle; the people whose fault it is have built statues of themselves and retired. Their philosophy was always “who cares after I’m dead?” and the voters always said “well, ditto.” Well, now they’re dead.

    That our entitlement regime has expanded all this time before blowing up all of a sudden is not incongruous. America is (was?) a rich country, and that’s how credit works; people are willing to give it to you until they’re not. Maybe it would have staggered on another 5 or 8 years if McCain or Kerry had won their elections. But nobody named Obama or Bush created our problems; they are merely the politicians standing up when the music stops.

    Contra your sarcasm, none of this is a surprise and none of us are “prescient.” There’s been for decades an entire mainstream political movement devoted to observing this looming catastrophe, which is after all a matter of the simplest math. It’s called “conservatism.” I’d ask if you’d heard of it, but judging from your foaming about your [ethnic slur deleted — ed] pet peeves, it’s obvious you haven’t.

  • fred-m

    The shark has already been jumped, it just takes time for the inevitable collapse to work its way down. A debt-fuelled speculative boom can only end that way once it has gone beyond the point that it can be voluntarily ended with bearable pain – and we are past that point.

    We have become an urban nation with large dependent populations that have no economic function, but who must nonetheless be fed, housed, and clothed. The political contest is not about who will prevent the collapse from proceding, but about who will have power when the reality of the necessary pain forces itself into the collective mind.

    Power will go to whoever can force or entice truckloads of goods to flow to the back doors of grocery stores and provide the masses of hungry with some scrip or credit that allows them to go out the front door with food. Since force has never worked well for accomplishing the supplying of goods, a good bet is that some sort of REAL profit incentive will be used for that purpose. As far as the customers go, once people are hungry and defeated enough they will accept whatever lowered lifestyle is sustainable, but not until they are hungry and defeated.

    It’s not going to be pleasant.

  • cc88

    Wig Wag and some of the others obviously subscribe to the theory of American exceptionalism, although this is supposedly the province of the “far right”. America has never been more splendid than when it adopted the New Deal: It follows that life is splendid today because the New Deal is more alive than ever. Then again maybe things are not so good because Canada and other havens of statism are ahead of us in political correctness — [Drat] those Republicans! They are a contagion that Europe rid itself of long ago. O Albion!
    Now which is it, [mocking contraction of contributor’s handle deleted — ed]? Do you want America to be a more enforced and musclebound version of its progressive self, or are you about to admit that you are disgusted with it, and will go to any and every exotic land for an alternative model? Is it America or Europe that is closer to completing the White Shark/Elephant model? Or maybe the only state model for you is an ashram, where the state is only pure, spiritual good, the better to meditate over yogurt?

    The [Wigwags] of the world only convince me that Sakharov, Amalrik, and Miloscz have the best observations we can make of Washington today. Namely, the more the system confronts reform, the more it evades or corrupts reform, fighting back like a wounded animal. And the system has its best defenders among the intelligentsia, because the morality of the state is the readiest way to see merit to their own insignificant lives: a life of control and assumed truths perpetuates its own overblown importance. Hu Xibou agrees. The people are not so much oppressed, as they are willingly treated like children. Since the state reminds everyone that it is responsible for everything, nobody thinks differently.

    Evidently some Americans are no different, Comrade.

  • hiltun

    “But Mead knows, or should know, that infrastructure investment is a prerequisite for economic vitality not a harbinger of economic decline.”

    Even you cannot be that pathetically cynical.

    “Infrastructure investment” is only a prerequisite for economic vitality insofar as the infrastructure is used. We could spend 20 billion connecting the towns of Wyoming but the only economic result would be another 20 billion in debt, even though it would certainly be “infrastructure investment.” We could spend any amount of dollars from $1 to $1T on “infrastructure” and self-evidently precipitate not 1/1000th of the amount in commerce.

    There is a level at which government can usefully contribute to the economy (mostly at the municipal level) with “infrastructure spending.” As liberals like you are fond of pointing out apropos nothing, the Interstate Highway system is pretty useful. As you’re not fond of pointing out, it represents a miniscule percentage of federal spending and is mostly user-funded with gas taxes and tolls.

    Contrast this with railroad track, which is subsidized by taxpayers, not rail users, because there are – statistically speaking – none. The entire point of the $50B-to-start project is literally because you and yours want to be more like Europe in the most superficial way.

  • Mark Woodworth, PhD

    Brilliant article. Well done!

  • Lavaux

    Two more drivers are propelling progressivism to ruin and hopefully extinction: (1) Progressive tribalism; and (2) the progressive justice formula (from each according to his ability, to each according to his need).

    WigWag’s reply, which couples irrelevant observations on opera with sloppy, lazy and deceptive argument, demonstrates progressive tribalism. Progressives identify themselves and their higher schooling to other progressives by, e.g. discussing the high arts. Once one has proved that one belongs to the tribe, one can argue anything, no matter how intellectually or technically flawed, and one will be applauded.

    This progressive ritual enables the tribe to avoid the discomfiting ideas, facts and reason of its enemies and remain victorious in political and academic arenas of combat, at least in its own lore. In reality, though, the progressive tribe is quickly becoming the object of popular ridicule.

    The progressive (Marxist) justice formula provides a universal justification for perpetuating wasteful, inefficient, irrelevant, corrupt, and/or ruinous social programs long after their burdens have crushed their intended beneficiaries. To illustrate progressive argument in action: We’ve got to perpetuate Medicare unreformed because its operation reflects how all of society should operate, i.e. those who need health care should get it payed for by those who have the ability to pay taxes. Period. Never mind that Medicare recipients are far richer than many taxpaying cohorts when one adds assets to the wealth assessment. And never mind that the program’s very design (third party government payer) ensures skyrocketing costs. Nope, we’ve got to do this because this is how justice is done, and therefore all reforms – even those intended to save the program – are unjust.

    I’ve enjoyed watching progressives become objects of popular ridicule, and I’ll enjoy witnessing its demise as a viable alternative to original liberalism even more. If progressive wish to avoid this fate, they’d better pull their heads out and get to work reforming their ideology to suit current conditions and demands. Begin by losing your arrogant elitism and the Marxist justice formula.

  • russ in nc

    I have hope that Texans will secede when The Great White Whale turns on the ship.

  • spoofproof

    Doesn’t it all boil down to BUREAUCRACY: out-of-control, interlocked, unionized bureaucracy? Millions of bureaucrats: once hired, never fired, and their grotesque inefficiency is not ever addressed; only plastered over & compounded. The Bureaucracy (city-county-state-federal) has become our master. You can’t dig a ditch or bake a pie without permits & licenses; and that’s if you want to work. What do the burned out criminal illiterates in Detroit Michigan do when their government financed Social Worker hook-up is no longer available? That’s the BIG question for every big city. What voice in leadership speaks of the hard facts that Bureaucrats have been ignoring since the end of WWII? I appreciate Mr. Mead’s effort here but the cowardly politicians who read his words (with rare exception) will do nothing until that-which-shall-not-be-spoken becomes reality. From 1776 until now, no U.S. citizen could imagine that our nation would ever reach this point. Socialism works ONLY if there is a truly benign despot at the top of the heap. The only person who fills that bill is Jesus of Nazareth a.k.a. The Christ of God. For those inclined toward ultimate things I strongly suggest a reading of Isaiah 9, verses 6 & 7.

  • marcus in mpls

    So how big of a white elephant or shark are the Bush Tax cuts for the wealthy? They have more of an effect on our debt moving forward then many of the programs that you mention in our article, and Republicans do not want to repeal them, how is this any different from the point that you are making?

  • Jim Gerofsky

    Sure, a wide variety of federal agencies and programs have jumped a lot of sharks. A classic example from not so long ago was the complex transportation regulation mechanism (Interstate Commerce Commission, etc.) from the late 1800s, which became relevant by 1950 but clunked along until 1985 or so, causing bankruptcies and creaky, antiquated infrastructure.

    However, most government programs aren’t TV programs that you can just cancel at will. In the 1990s we cancelled a lot of financial regulation programs that had also jumped a lot of sharks. And the financial sharks ran amok. As a result, the economy is still underwater bleeding. Sorry, but the meltdown and crash of 2008 was NOT all Fannie Mae’s fault.

    There is often no longer good reason for a TV show to continue. There is still plenty of reason for government. We definitely need reform, but we DO NOT need wholesale abolition of the many programs that maintain some fairness and keep the middle class and poor from being swallowed whole by the powerful, shark-like interests in our economy. Distribution of income keeps on getting worse, and if we follow what writers like yourself suggest, the US will ultimately return to the middle ages, with a small but fabulously privileged wealthy class and scads of poor people living at subsistence levels, denied access to the health care that allows you to live to 85.

    Well, that surely would return Social Security to it’s original intent, as you suggest; i.e., supporting retirees for 5 years to around age 70, versus 20 years to 85.

    So much of this current anti-government agenda comes down to helping the well-off do even better, while simultaneously shutting down the middle-class. I agree that there are better ways to govern which balance the interests of incentive, entrepreneurship and freedom with social equity and stability objectives. But I’m totally turned off by where the conservatives, neo-conservatives, and Tea Party movements are going today. The rich are obviously tired of paying taxes to help sustain a middle class, obviously they no longer need a laboring class; the economy can be run with machines now. That’s sure what it all looks like to me.

  • Migel de Hastur

    Please see The Iron Law of Bureaucracy by Dr Jerry Pournelle.

    All of this has been predicted before.

  • JanineC

    WigWag, if you understood ANYTHING about economics, you would realize that everything you just said is simply propaganda with NO BASIS in reality. The United States remained the wealthiest nation in the world DESPITE the New Deal. Before FDR put his fingers in the pot, there was a thing called the Roaring 20s…that was a time when the economy and prosperity thrived at unprecedented rates and spread to all (including the poorest of the poor who were better off than many of the so-called middle class of Europe at the time). It was the result of slashing taxes and repealing regulations in response to the crash of 1920, which could have been an even worse depression than that which hit in the 30s, Yes, some instabilities result from a free market place but it always recovers on its own and always comes back to equilibrium. If they had just left everything alone in 1929 after the stock market crashed, there would never have been a Great Depression. It is too bad that nobody studies Economics anymore…these progressives all sound like parrots repeating the same BAD propaganda fed to them by the elite who want to maintain power of the masses. Because that is all it is about for them — control and power.

  • http://hemp.to/ hemp

    Note however that the name Great White Heron has occasionally been used to refer to the Great Egret…… .In flight…The Great Egret is a large bird with all-white that can reach one meter in height weigh up to 950grams 2.1lb and a of 165 to 215 cm 65 to 85 in . In large numbers of Great Egrets were killed around the end of the 19th century so that their plumes could be used to decorate hats.

  • Has socialism worked

    Weird al,
    I did enjoy your post. I found it an interesting read. If you shaved a few pounds of smarmy socialist off it you would a) sound smarter which is obviously important to someone so long winded. (b) be able to make legitimate points for some socialist ideas that probably can coexist within a capitalist system.
    To equate people against your socialist ideas as simpletons is extremist at best. most conservatives could find room for many socialist programs as well as over sight into a capitalist system. Your post strays from the point, and that is your level of socialism is unsustainable. sorry, if you want to try for a less extreme brand of it perhaps that would work comrade.

  • Right point, misguided interpretation

    This article nails one things precisely: When presented with a program, the government will let it bloat into a festering pile of excess and muck over time.

    But blaming this strictly on progressives and Fannie Mae is implicating a small subset of a larger problem; this is nothing more than a fashionably-timed ideological attack that ignores the real problems of political foolishness that occurs at the federal level.

    I could list out how each politician abuses his/her position to ensure reelection to elaborate on this point, but that would lead to a long tirade that most would find boring. Rather than that, I’ll leave you with the more important issue: As long as the public continues to ignore what their representatives are actually doing in their legislative sessions, the public will continue to be manipulated by politicians and whatever stories the media concentrate on any given week (such as meaningless moral wars against picture tweets).

    The federal government needs to put its entire budget on a diet, and the focus doesn’t need to be on individual “progressive” plans but rather on the entire system from the top down. Wasteful spending does not just start from “good intentions” but also from crony connections and vote-buying actions of useful idiot officials.

  • http://viewfromturkeyridge.bogspot.com Michael H. Smith

    Sounds as if Progressives were naive reformers fixing real problems caused by nasty capitalism. In truth, progressives hated capitalism and waged psychological warfare against it, and for government “solutions” from the start, inventing or exaggerating problems, then coming up with solutions that made them worse, or created new ones. Progressivism/Socialism/Liberalism/Fabian Socialism are all poisons, drugs that that always require more and more to keep the “patient” happy until dead!

  • http://eateryblog.wordpress.com honeybee57

    This is the best and clearest discription of what has happened in our world – that I have maybe ever read.

    Thank you, It’s excellent!

  • kirk

    “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

  • W. M. Dix

    In summary you have just demonstrated the processses inherent in Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy which is below:

    “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

  • Tintin

    Wigwag has made some errors of fact, but is largely correct.

    • WRM has a nice theory, but nowhere does he link the theory to fact.

    • If the Corps of Engineers are busy building useless dams–where, btw?–they could profitably attend to N.O.

    • PT Sargent above makes an unintentionally revealing comment about making government work more like the private sector. S/he means turn bureaucrats into ruthless cost cutters. But what actually happens, as we saw with Fannie, is these bureaucrats, when given a free market leash, turn into avaricious profit seekers with shareholders egging them on who care little for the public good.

    • I agree that Bush’s tax cuts–though I disagreed with them–why not use that money to pay down the debt?–didn’t balloon the deficit. The explosion of the debt is really a function of the crash. People out of work or working only part time pay much less in tax. Of course, all of Bush’s unfunded mandates helped. Obama’s stimulus helped, but it was only instituted to correct the economy crash.

    • Bruce Bartlett, Ronald Reagan’s man and there at the revolution, said in no uncertain terms that TAX CUTS DO NOT INCREASE REVENUES. PERIOD. THEY NEVER HAVE; THEY NEVER WILL. In some cases, capital gains, they cause a SLIGHT upward tick, but only because more people take profits when taxes drop. But this doesn’t represent any real increase in economic activity. And except where stock prices are rising very quickly, most of this profit-taking is a one-time boon.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Sorry to have re-stumbled on this discussion very late in the game. I may be completely off-base in my hunch. But I THINK I may have a question for Mr/Ms Has Socialism Worked (#9 above). Am I right in assuming you were addressing me (based on the 2nd half of my moniker)? If not, my sincerest apologies, and please disregard the rest of this.

    Otherwise, I must admit I’ve re-read my original post (#11, pg 2) to the point where even I’m sick of it. And I still can’t summon the ghost of a notion of what you were referring to. Would you please be so kind as to give me some idea of:

    a) What my socialist ideas are;
    b) How I was characterizing those who disagreed with them as simpletons – i.e., unintelligent or thickheaded? (Because, by a strange coincidence, “simpleton” – and worse – is exactly how I felt many commenters were depicting Wigwag and those who agreed with him);
    c) What my “level” of socialism is, and perhaps even some suggestions as to how I can make it more sustainable (you give me the impression of someone who believes he knows my mind better than I do);
    d) Whether you’ve found time to measure or otherwise determine the precise extremeness of my socialism (assuming, again, that I have any worth measuring). I’d love to know the results.

    But as regards the point I THOUGHT I was trying to make:

    There are people in this country, I believe, who regard virtually every major decision made by every 20th-century US administration (with the exceptions of Harding and Coolidge, and perhaps Reagan) as either fundamentally wrong or – however provisionally “necessary” – as moving the country in a seriously wrong direction. I don’t and never have numbered WRM among them. As always he’s welcome to enlighten me. (And many of the former, I’m sure, make exceptions in the case of our entry into World War II on the side of Britain against Hitler. But their apparent belief is that such was the weight of American opinion against Hitler, we’d eventually have entered the European war even without the machinations of Roosevelt. And made a much better job of it too.)

    My point is not that this is an indefensible or even unintelligent view, or that people who hold it are unintelligent. Indeed I’m sure many of them are formidably intelligent – not to mention articulate, influential and persuasive. And not least, I’m sad to say, those among them who believe we were wrong to enter the war on the side of Britain. My point is that the ENTIRE PACKAGE – with or without non-entry into the European war – is an extreme view. And any view, any outlook of sweeping judgment upon an entire era – particularly when that era is recent – is almost sure to have radical implications for the present and the immediate future. It is hard enough, it seems to me, to foresee and manage the social consequences of moderate, cautious, judgment-suspending views of history. How much harder might it be to manage, much less anticipate, the social consequences of a sweeping, radical, denunciatory view of an entire era? It is almost sure to take us deep into many places where we did not expect to be going, and some of which we may become very anxious to leave. Except that they may be places not nearly as easy to exit as to enter. In short, any extreme, revulsionary view of an entire period – esp. one we’re “still in,” and yet whose remote beginnings (c. 1890? 1900? 1910?) are much older than the lifetimes of most of us – is sure to lead us down a path containing many surprises. Not all of them immediate surprises either, and of course not all of them pleasant. It may even lead us into era equally revolting, because its moral tone is every bit as extreme as our original revulsion. It would be sadly ironic if we wound up our American 20th-century legacy by embracing a kind of global-business-driven isolationism – a kind not unlike that which would have left the Nazis and the Japanese in possession of the almost the entire Euro-Asian land-mass. Even as we continued to trade with them besides.

    I’ve described the entire Anti-Twentieth-Century “package” as extreme, precisely because I believe it is NOT a view a majority of Americans share. At least not yet, although some of us may be on the verge of it. And meanwhile we have no lack of advocates and persuaders to that effect. Some of whom, because of their high intelligence, wealth and influence, may be not nearly as vulnerable to the tumult of a wildly swinging pendulum as the rest of us. At the same time we all know persuasive articulate minorities can be. And how quickly political winds can shift. And so my original question remains (however miserably I failed to ask it): In the event of a sudden change in social pressure, are we SURE this “new” revisionist direction will be the one in which we want to go?

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