Let me put forward that I believe Mr. Mead has hit on the intractable nature of the problem with the phrase “we are suffering the consequences of success.”
America has never had trouble bravely facing existential crises, whether the Civil War, or Nazism or Communism. The current difficulty is precisely because our problems are not viewed as existential in nature. Motivation to work and rise to meet our challenges is in short supply, because we are now a generation removed from wondering whether our way of life will continue to exist.
Great empires rarely get conquered from the outside until cultural ennui has made them a shadow of their former selves. When the end comes for us, it will not be with a bang, but a whimper.
All and all, a good posting.
For America to blossom, what needs to happen is to change the pathetic excuses we now have as elites.
I think the American People are going to do what is necessary in November to begin a New American Revolution. The involvement of more and more Americans every day in the Tea Party Movement and individually is being felt.
November 2010 is just the harbinger of things to come and most of it will be a positive return to Constitutional Government. In the future if a politician does not read and understand our Declaration of Independence and Constitution he/she may as well forget reelection.
Ok, what medical field can I get into that does not involve direct contact with other people’s blood, vomit, snot, feces, urine and other leakages?
Wow. All I can say is that I read it, understand it, and am incapable of responding with anything as lucid and promising. Cheers, Walter.
I wonder when punditry will be done by robots?
All of MR. Mead’s observations are valid to point. What scares (depresses?) me is that the quality of leadership – the Great Men – of the past seem to be in such painfully short supply.
Our political leadership, across the spectrum seem to me so small and venal; more local functionaries that have thrust themselves to the big stage, than true statesmen.
While I suspect the Great Men (yes, and women!) will ultimately arise, and often from the unlikeliest of places, I am getting nervous.
It has been said that democracies do not want Great Men. I’m beginning to understand that insight, much to my dismay.
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Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Mead, I’m not feeling a bit bucked up. Perhaps a few letters further up the alphabet…
Very insightful and accurate comment, Dave.
“Luxury..is always fatal except to an industrious people.” – Gibbon, Decline and
Fall (Chap. 42). Our material success has certainly made us increasingly indolent over the past couple of decades. I hope Mr. Meade is correct in his belief that our industrious spirit of old can still be conjured up.
This blog entry is a needed tonic for those of us who focus too narrowly on the substantial challenges before us, ignoring that we, as American citizens, have undergone worse in the past. I just turned 60 and expect to work until 70 or so, but I guess that’s what I get for not taking that civil service job years ago.
Note to Ken – try chiropractics. It pretends to be medicine and you can make a few bucks at it as long as you can pronounce, spell, and believe in “subluxations.” Ophthalmology too is a possibility as long as you can avoid the surgery, but that’s where the big bucks are.
Hey, medicine is not only hard, it’s usually messy. But that’s the deal. Were it easy, it wouldn’t be expensive and the phrase “shade-tree physician” would be ubiquitous.
The truth of America’s problem today is this. We are not caught up in a Malthusian crisis of mass shortage and starvation. We are being crushed under the riches being pumped out by a cornucopia of wealth and abundance.”
Well that, and we’re led by ethically challenged morons who are nonetheless in love with themselves.
Been reading 1 Peter, eh, Walter?
This is possibly the best essay I’ve read this year. Turning our worries and woes on their heads, the path forward looks different. For quite a while I have shared the lament of the earlier commenter that the great men and women seem to have vanished from the scene. But when we turn that, too, on it’s head, we realize that the great men and women are emerging not as singular leaders dispensing knowledge from on high, but as the vast sweep of everyday men and women who almost unconsciously have pushed to the forefront of our politics. The many are becoming one again, and the torch of leadership is being borne forward by many hands and no hands.
This whole world has seemed upside down for many years to me. It would be a fitting demonstration of American genius to adapt its power structures and institutions to this new inverted world.
>the torture and lynching of blacks was commonplace in the early years of this century.<
This century is off to a worse start than we realized. ; ^)
Mead’s right about America’s success and wealth, we have a tremendous material and structural political advantage over most of the world. It alone will slow our decline, even at the rate our current leadership is squandering it.
However, the American culture which Mead hails as the source of our success has been allowed to decay so long that only the elderly remember that it ever existed. Our great institutions of education have not prepared a new generation to lead since the 1960’s and, in fact, have actively sought to undermine classic American values at every level.
The rot is so deep that most adults learned their social values from entertainment media, not their parents, school or church and these people are now parents and grandparents themselves. We passed a cultural tipping point some time ago beyond which there is no going back. Beyond which no more Reagan-like “It’s morning in America” la rentree is possible, because Kennedy and Reagan were talking in a language incomprehensible to today’s culture. The cognitive tools and cultural dialectic to restore former American glory have been liquidated by our so-called intelligentsia.
Just compare the last generation of leaders forged in Korea, WWII and the Great Depression – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, yes, even Carter – to those who came up in the Vietnam era – Kerry, Bush, Gore, Clinton. There is a distinct decline in intellectual quality and moral fiber, regardless of how one views their individual failings and politics. Then you get to the post-Vietnam era leaders and you really have totally muddled post-modern, neo-socialist delusion – Obama, Pelosi, et al – or true anti-intellectualism – Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, et al.
Obama and today’s congress may well be a spent force for the moment, yet the cultural and institutional morbidity that they represent will always be with us like a reoccurring cancer, coming back time and again, one metastasizing 12,000-page bill at a time until nothing is left of that America of old – that saved Europe twice, built Hoover Dam, that put men on the moon, that gave the world the Bill of Rights and extended at long last civil rights to all our citizens, and of late, mustered the innovation to create personal computers and the internet…
The America that Walter Mead bucks for is walking dead. Something utterly new is coming, something an Eisenhower or a Kennedy wouldn’t recognize as America. The nostalgia of the Tea Party may well postpone the end of America by a decade or more, but it can not reverse the phase shift that has already occurred, unless it goes truly revolutionary, purging our universities, our courts, legislatures and re-writing the social contract. Even if such a “cultural revolution” were to occur it wouldn’t be restoration of the vital, exuberant, exceptionalist America of old, but something less free, culturally geriatric even in its shiny newness.
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Clearly one of the best things you’ve written of late. Not that the rest is all that shabby.
All I can say is, stay the hell out of nursing!
Thee cheers for WRM and the USA!
For those considering a jump into the health and medical fields, please be aware that our current system is being systematically destroyed right now. Those of us who accept government contracts; i.e. work with Medicaid/Medicare families, are receiving major cuts in reimbursement which make it impossible to make a living. In my state, which is bankrupt, providers frequently go 8-12 weeks without payment for contracted health services. Enter medical fields with eyes wide open. And take extra good care of your own health, because the medical care and therapies we have now will soon disappear as providers can no longer stay in business.
— speech pathologist working with those with developmental disabilities
I would like to propose Greenspan’s corollary to Marx’s dictum: capitalism collapses not from it inner contradictions, but from irrational exuberance. Unlike Marxism which remains more or less depressed forever, capitalism also rebuilds itself once it has recovered from it manic phase. That work is now before us and WRM is correct – success or failure lies within our grasp.
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Good point, America is breaking trail for the rest of mankind, and its tough out here on the “bleeding edge” of mankind’s advance. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it, and if we want it done right, we Americans should do it.
Mead writes: “It is a great error to think that the collapse of manufacturing employment in the United States is simply the result of low wage competition from abroad. The real issue is technology: technological progress means that human labor can be employed more efficiently and therefore much more sparingly in the manufacturing process.”
True enough. Maybe it is time to reconsider the idea of a shorter standard workweek. For cash strapped families it may sound counter-intuitive, but history shows that reducing the hours of labor is the only way labor can share in the fruits of labor-saving technology.
Besides, a six hour day would be good for families.
This entry is laughable, America is finished. Finished!
I could get into the reasons why, but those who don’t already have their heads in the sand (or in the clouds) know what they are. This nation is in collapse culturally, ethnically, economically, spiritually, and every other way to such an extent that the details are beside the point.
Probably within the next two decades, and certainly within the next three, a devolution of some kind will occur and the United States as we now know it will be no more. It will fracture into pieces and all that will be left for the more nostalgic types, like WRM, will be to mourn the formal passing of a nation that is already dead.
As of the writing of this comment I am 27 and am currently pursuing my third career, as my first choice was outsourced to Asia (either literally or figuratively via immigration) and my second didn’t survive the recent financial crisis. More troubling than any of this was my assessment of just how dysfunctional America’s institutions really are, and not in any kind of momentary way but in a deep structural way. It is now clear to me that whatever career choice I make I will have to labor under the purview of hopelessly dysfunctional institutions that aren’t worth saving, so there is no escape. All that is left is to prepare for the end and the promise of a new post-American beginning.
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At age 48, longterm unemployed, unable to drive due to severe eye floaters, I applied for disability- only to be informed that I don’t qualify because I don’t have enough work credits. My husband and I live on his SSI check (he’ll be 69 soon): I was resigned to living on as a burden to society, until I happened to read Howard Ruff’s books:Thanks to his advice, my husband and I are on the road to financial stability.
Let me see, I spend years working long hours and investing my money growing a small business. My company handles the business management for small doctors officews. With the passage of Obomacare Half of my clients decided to either sell their practice or retire early. Now I struggle to pay my bills and as I lay off what few employees I have, I soon will close my business and lose everything I have invested in time and money. The government is steadily destroying every thing this country used to stand for. Any body who thinks there is a future in working in the health care sector, has no clue what the government is doing to that sector. Apperently this author falls into that category.
America IS finished. It’s finished in the way that the British Empire was finished. The way it was is no longer tenable and a new way must be found. But America is also in an exponentially stronger position than GB was. America is far more powerful in relation to its challengers than GB ever was in whatever area you choose to look. The key to keeping Americas status as a global empire builder (and make no mistake, thats what we are) will be to decide what to defend and what to expand. This means we also have to decide what to abandon. And that is what I take away from this post. America isn’t all of what it was. But it is still some of what it was. If we do a good job of deciding what to hang on to and what to walk away from we win long term. If we do a poor job we’ll be on the scrap heap of history.
Here’s the test of whether America somewhat like we grew up with survives. In 30 years if the US has a couple World Cups under its belt and is a major Futbol power then America as we knew it is gone. If America still largely ignores soccer and goes nuts every September over the return of Football then America is still America.
If and when I ever compose a doctoral thesis its topic will deal with differences between Football and Futbol and why Americas devotion to one and not the other says something about the American mentality.
“Ok, what medical field can I get into that does not involve direct contact with other people’s blood, vomit, snot, feces, urine and other leakages?
Comment by ken – September 7, 2010 @ 6:30 pm”
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we seem to now think that morality has no bearing on the current affairs of America. consider this: British anthropologist J. D. Unwin,whose 1934 book, Sex and Culture, chronicled the historical decline of numerous cultures. Unwin studied 86 different cultures throughout history and discovered a surprising fact: No nation that rejected monogamy in marriage and pre-marital sexual chastity lasted longer than a generation after it embraced sexual hedonism. Unwin stated it this way, “In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on prenuptial and postnuptial continence.” Unwin found that nations that valued traditional marriage and
sexual abstinence were creative and flourished. He described this as “cultural energy” that can only be maintained when sexual activities remain restricted within marriage. Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, in The American Sex Revolution,found essentially the same thing when he examined sexual immorality as it relates to cultural decline. Sorokin noted in the late 60’s that America was committing “voluntary suicide” through unrestrained sexual indulgence. He observed that as individuals began engaging in pre-marital sex unrelated to marriage,
the birth rate would decline and our nation would be slowly depopulated. He predicted an increase in divorce, desertion, and an epidemic of sexual promiscuity resulting in a rise in illegitimate children. His predictions, unfortunately, have come true.
“All that is left is to prepare for the end and the promise of a new post-American beginning.”
Well NW, that is kind of what Walter is saying. The “old America” is definitely finished, but out of destruction comes new creation. It’s the circle of life, didn’t you ever watch The Lion King?
The only thing any of us know for sure about life in the year 2050 is that it won’t resemble the present any more than 2010 resembles 1970. Change is the only constant in life.
The one thing in NW’s post I take offense to is the idea that we are in collapse “ethnically.” Maybe you didn’t mean that in a racist way, but it’s hard to see how else to take it.
Sorry if you feel that way, but I am sure our Native American brothers and sisters have felt this way for about 500 years now. Let a few white people in and there goes the neighborhood….
Almost all of the depressing things going on can be laid squarely at the feet of the American voter. Somewhere along the line we stopped caring about adherence to the Constitution. We put more stock in the school name on a diploma rather than on the accomplishments, character and wisdom of the person. We got soft and wanted to be taken care of instead of learning to rely on ourselves. Critical thinking is replaced by soundbites.
I’ve heard people say our national elections are little better than an American Idol contest. I think that gives short shrift to American Idol. At least on American Idol they have to demonstrate some talent and ability.
The article’s central thesis is strong, but unfortunately undermined by minor, yet distracting, editing.
“the torture and lynching of blacks was commonplace in the early years of this century.” As Rik wryly notes, the author undoubtedly means the 20th Century.
“World War I and the resulting influenza . . .” No, the Spanish Flu Pandemic did not result from WWI, although it did spread its terror as the War was winding down.
“its political system, ts self-understanding. . .” Spell check?
Where is the growth going to come from when investment banks only invest in China and not the US? Also economic growth requires an energy supply. Currently oil production is flat to fading since 2005 according to IEA data. So where is the oil coming from? Heaven. from god. LOL. We are doomed to fail since we overcreated America on a depleting resource.
This may be one of the best articles I’ve read in months. Outstanding perspective.
Leave the PC stuff out next time, Mr. Mead.
“The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 lynchings of Blacks and 1,297 lynchings of whites between 1882 and 1968.”
That’s commonplace, admittedly, but it’s not only a black phenomenon. And unless the whites were hung by unruly mobs of blacks, crime was probably a factor in a lot of these awful events, not just naked racism.
You go try standing in line for social service – only to be denied because you ONCE made to much money! Or try getting insulin for your diabetic child in a health care system that is closing its doors to any but the illegal immigrant or the super-rich. You’re words of encouragement ring pretty hollow in the real world and, frankly, hearing about other having hard times is pretty cold comfort when I can deal with my own. In short – go suck an egg!
We can buck up all we want, but nothing can fix the utter destruction of Obamacare. Just looking at my children and realizing that they will be subject to third world “health care” within the next decade is cause enough for despair.
Yes, let’s get things going again…by firing the Democratic Congress (and then the irresponsible POTUS).
for once, the realists amongst the commenters are far more reassuring than the pep talk from WRM, who has been in his ivory tower far too long.
most reassuring to read wes george – September 7, 2010 @ 11:27 pm on the peril of what we have lost in integrity as a touchstone since the 1960’s, and to read 27-year old NW – September 8, 2010 @ 8:43 pm already aware of the scam-and-spin that defines the business and political arenas since the 1990’s.
De-industrialization of America had very little to do with either wages or technological innovation. Mostly, it was about a paradigm that focuses on quarterly profit growth at the expense of all other stakeholders. Germany has a different model that remains amazingly resilient, with high wages and cutting edge technological innovation.
We do not have to wait for the “Medicare death panels”. The cuts for Medicare imbedded in Obamacare will eliminate all of us, and then the youngsters can doodle with their e-toys and drink whatever is still pathogen-free.
well, on to Churchill. Alternating between Truman and Churchill is the only way to block the present.
Mr. Mead makes excellent points. I think our optimism is a national trait, and accounts for much of our resiliency. That said, there is at least one area where my analysis is slightly different…..I think our current crisis is caused partly by the transition to a new economy, and partially due to overleveraging. Put another way, the long depression of the 1880’s and 90’s was due to the attempt to create the modern industrial economy. It mirrors the present in that way. The Great Depression of the 30’s was due, in no small part, to the fact that our personal debt went from 0- near 100% of GDP within a decade. We finally hit a number near 100% of GDP again in the summer of…..2008.
I think our challenge will be to solve both crises simultaneously. (I also think that the similarities to the 1880’s depression is explaining why Big Government Liberalism is not having much effect in the current crisis. Liberalism is meant to freeze the market to keep it from further deteriorating….until the crisis passes. This is completely useless if entrepeneurship is required to recreate the economy. For that, traditional lassiez faire tends to be more successful.)
How refreshing! The closest thing to Reagan’s optimism in ages. This wonderful experiment given to us by our founders has excelled because of the individual freedoms they guaranteed. That gift has bestowed upon us a great determination that will see us through these diffcult times. God bless America.
Coping with wealth is a problem, and the problem is going to get very much worse.
The cost of energy is the primary, almost the only, determinant of the cost of goods. Take food: it takes energy to build a tractor, to transport the tractor from the manufacturing plant to the farm, to drive the tractor at the farm, to drive irrigation pumps, to haul produce from the farm to the market, etc. Almost any productive endeavor is subject to the same analysis.
The energy equation is going to be solved, at which time abundant energy will be available. The latest candidate for cheap energy is the thorium reactor. Thorium is cheap, abundant, and basically non-poluting.
So, what will the world be like when there is a super-abundance of cheap energy and cheap goods, all produced with relatively little human effort? Brace yourself, you re going to find out.
Mr Mead has written a marvelous and positive article. And if you think about it he is absolutely right. All that we truly lack is decent postive Governance in our nation. We though a young vigorous intelligent Obama was the one, but we were fooled. We ended up with an extreme left wing ideologue stuck in the liberalism of the 60s, and wanting to take the nation backward rather than forward to the challenges of the 21st century. Too arrogant to consider how badly he is failing the nation! However, in Nov we can start to remedy that problem by balancing our Government and start moving forward. Again….a wonderful article by Mr Mead!!!!
I am shocked – shocked! – that Prof. Mead is espousing a Marxist analysis of the Great Recession, asserting that it is a crisis of overproduction.
Of course, it is. And a process of immiserization has taken place, as Reaganomics and Rubinomics busted unions, increased costs of tuition and healthcare, and allowed the wholesale exporting of jobs. It’s all very Marx-y.
Now, no less an august figure than Paul Krugman has argued that the crisis was caused by over-leveraging, not under-earning, but I suspect he merely made this point to distance himself from the obvious Marxist implications of reality: the credit bubble was the means by which immiserization and overproduction were coupled. Over-leveraging is the flip side of under-earning.
So that’s the past, but Professor Mead is concerned with the future.
The irony of the Professor’s post is that he is sounding like the early-20th-century “Goo-Goos” he derides, holding forth that the technological cornucopia may allow the general population to enjoy both material fulfillment and leisure as machines liberate men from the need to work.
As usual, the thorny question of social organization gets in the way. Countless thinkers have, like the Professor, done the post-industrial political economy version of the Southpark Underpants Gnome business plan ( http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/151040 ):
Phase 1: Construct the technological cornucopia
Phase 2: ???
Phase 3: General plenty and leisure
Phase 2 is the problem. It was the problem for the Commies, and it’s still the problem (aside from the nasty environmental issues Mead loves to hate on).
So whereas Mr. Mead offered cheerleading, I’ll offer substantive ideas about the future of the American economy. You’re welcome in advance.
Simply, we’re entering the era of the inflation-adjusted Phillips Curve. The original Phillips Curve described the relationship between employment and inflation: when a lot of people are employed wages go up, sales go up, and prices go up. This makes sense, and for a number of years in the postwar period, the relation was very strongly and clearly observed.
Then in the 70’s this changed. Policymakers tried to manipulate the economy into offering higher employment by allowing higher inflation, but inflation became very high while the economy as a whole stagnated. Stagflation. Of course, oil shocks were partly to blame, but the general economic pain of the period allowed “neoliberal” economics – Reaganomics and Rubinomics – to take over.
The irony was that by adding a single variable to the Phillips Curve equation, it became accurate again. That variable represented people’s expectations of inflation, i.e. the inflation rate in the immediate past. Hence “inflation adjusted Phillips Curve”. The original Phillips Curve was simply made during a period of low inflation, so they missed that extra variable. Take it into account, and we can, with substantial reliability, increase employment and wages while knowing when to “let off the gas.”
So, while the forces of laissez-faire seemed to win the day, a lot of their arguments about our inability to manage the economy were wrong; moreover, their theories about the magic of the marketplace were even more wrong, as we have sadly discovered.
What this means is that we have more ability to intervene in the economy in order to support the middle class than many believe. By “we,” I mean the government. Obviously, people don’t like the sound of that. But it will become increasingly apparent that this is necessary, as the recession drags on.
The free market, left to its own devices, has failed to provide the wages people need to maintain a balanced system. Instead, wealth and power accumulate at the top while the rest do their best to tread water. But these people mostly just save their money. Without a middle class to buy stuff, what’s the point of investing? Are we really going to wait 30 or 40 years for China and India to generate sufficient demand? Will their development even result in a broad middle class, or will they just have a few billionaires and a bunch of burger flippers, like us?
This is why we are going to need to rejuvenate the American middle class. That means intervening in the economy. What those economic interventions look like is a big question, a question for people with more expertise than me. Some argue for more infrastructure spending, others push for greater unionization, while many working people support protectionist policies. I have my own (underdeveloped) opinions and theories, but now is not the time.
The big fact which America is confronting during this political season is that we don’t just have to deleverage financially, we also need to deleverage politically. We are tilting dangerously towards oligarchy, while even “liberal” elites like Barack Obama pay homage to the failed economic policies of Ronald Reagan, and the common people seethe with heads full of misinformation and propaganda from the old paradigm.
So, the future isn’t quite as amazing as Prof. Mead makes it out to be. We have an ugly and uncertain political struggle ahead, which, if it goes well, will probably lead to the sorts of economic policies we had during the postwar boom era, perhaps with a high-tech flavor. Making this happen is a worthwhile struggle, and a great honor to be a part of, but it’s not the grand voyage into the unknown the Professor would like to paint it as.
Whew, long post. And, just in case you didn’t read the whole thing, I am not a Communist, although I knew one in college.
Hrmm.. where in the article does it mention young Americans’ obsessions with their childhood escapism, stunting their growth into adults?
[i]Ethnic minorities (above all African-Americans), women, and lesbians and gays faced cruel and unremitting discrimination; the torture and lynching of blacks was commonplace in the early years of this century.[/i]
See now you had me until you showed your left wing sentiments. African Americans “Above all” are you God that you judge this? What’s with the victimization narrative? Its attitudes like this that fuel the left and put wind in the sails of Black Americans to do nothing and take everything out of “victimhood”.
As long as you people worship the idols at the pig trough of political correctness, like the author, WE WILL CONTINUE TO BURN.
No one is righteous enough to identify good from evil and victim from opressor.
The author may have overshot the mark a bit. While it is true that Americans today have it incredibly easy, it is not entirely true that those who came before us had it hard.
Since the Industrial Revolution, America and its western counterparts have had it obscenely easy! Don’t forget that we aren’t the only people in this world.
Your point is not lost, but my point is that most of us need to be reminded that not only do we have it good compared to our ancestors, but we have it GREAT compared to other countries and their ancestors!
95% of the world’s population lives off of $2 a day. Put that into perspective before we complain too loudly about how long it’s taking for our PDA to connect to the internet or how our designer coffee has sugar in it instead of splenda.
Americans are not suffering from a lack of motivation. They are increasingly suffering from a lack of incentive.
People need to feel like they can get up every day and accomplish all that they are capable of accomplishing without having to apologize for it. (IE: to be all they can be).
Some people really like to work. They also really like to reap the rewards of their work.
That does not make them selfish. That makes them self-reliant.
They also tend to hire lots of people or invest their money so that someone else can hire lost of people, or they give it to private charity.
It’s their money, not society’s, but they usually end up doing something with it that benefits society.
When the Gov’t not only robs (through a progressive tax system) those people of any incentive to produce, but also turns around and vilifies them for producing in the first place (and suffocates them with regulations and frivolous lawsuits), the Gov’t kills the golden goose that made America so great.
To add insult to injury, the Gov’t wastes AT LEAST half of every dollar they take from private produces and distribute to non-producers and favorite special interest groups.
Lack of incentive is a cancer. It is a terminal cancer that kills a country’s ability to survive, much less thrive.
That is what “Crony” Capitalism/Socialism/Communism does to a country… kills the people’s incentive.
Check out Milton Friedman’s “Free To Choose” video series online. We need a big dose of this right now. Freedom.
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Excess of access = decade of recovery
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I can only wish that view of Walter Russell Mead was the reality. This blog written almost a year ago couldn’t foresee how our problems could multiply and escalate. Great writing nevertheless.
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