By Sydney M. Williams
“Death to America!” scream Iranians who have just negotiated an agreement that has won them invaluable concessions from Americans, which includes the releasing of over $100 billion in assets that had been frozen.
That deal assures that in fifteen years or less – a long time for an ADHD country such as ours, but a short time for a patient Islamist – the Mullahs who govern Iran will be able to get the “bomb.” Keep in mind, these are the people who besides wishing us dead have called for the annihilation of Israel.
At home, debt and future entitlements, which have been kicked down the road for decades, are forecast to impoverish future generations. The Democrat front runner warned against the “gig economy” and the “erosion of work-place protections.” Is her interest protecting consumers, or is it cronyism designed to safeguard existing businesses and regulators? We have been warned that man-caused global warming will cause the planet’s destruction…unless we purchase Tesla’s, Prius’ and solar panels, with the support of tax payers – effectively a regressive tax, with the wealthy benefitting at the expense of the middle class. Technology has made life easier, but it has also given government and others the ability to monitor our daily lives. Our politics are characterized by division, polarization and cronyism. Racism and class warfare negate any attempts at community outreach.
The Federal Reserve has kept interest rates at essentially zero for six and a half years. There will be a price to pay for that decision, but no one knows what it will be. As a planet, we face dangerous problems, and I don’t mean climate change attributable to man, but the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. We show concern for gays and transgenders, which is a good, but we ignore failing inner-city schools and the decline of two-parent households in lower-income areas? Wealth and income gaps have widened, ironic victims of redistribution policies. Our economy sputters along on three cylinders? One presidential candidate proposes raising capital gains taxes, despite a lack of sufficient savings on the part of retirees and our underinvestment as a nation. It is an argument not designed to address a problem. It is populist, political-speak meant to show concern about “inequality.” Is an Apocalypse our future?
We do face problems, many of them serious, as people have since the beginning of time. But despite the “tsk-tsking” from scolds like me and others, our nation has faced more perilous times. At no point in our history were we as divided as we were in 1861. Four years later 700,000 Americans were dead, many dying for a cause barely understood – just doing what their superiors ordered them to do. To put those deaths in perspective, the population of the United States was roughly one tenth the size it is today. Can anyone imagine seven million of our youths dying violently over the next four years? The Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash in 1929, saw unemployment rise to 25%. It was the War that ended the hard times, not government relief programs. Germany and Japan, as enemies in common, served to unify our nation, but it also meant that 19 million men and women served in uniform, and 416,000 died.
In the post-War years, another common enemy – Communism (and a welcome relief from a decade and a half of Depression and War) – kept the nation unified in the 1950s. “We need someone to hate,” wrote John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. The Eisenhower years spelled a welcome respite. The ‘60s changed things. Vietnam, Watergate and marches for Civil Rights destroyed any sense of common purpose. Stagflation in the ‘70s added to the despair and the disjointedness that characterized that era.
But we survived those difficult years. Part of the reason was leadership. Great Presidents have an indelible optimism. They use humor and charm. Their confidence is innate and it is catching. It comes from the soul and the heart, not the mind. Only two Presidents in my lifetime have had it – Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. (JFK may have had it, but he died too early.) FDR inherited a Depression begun three years earlier. He kept hope alive and then led the Country to victory in World War II. Reagan followed the dislocations of the 1960s and the economic malaise of the 1970s. He left the Country stronger, spiritually and financially. He restored dignity to the people. No matter how one felt about the politics of either man, no one can deny the positive nature of their character.
The angst of the current period does reflect the existential threats we face. But more importantly, it echoes a consequence of government impinging on people’s ability to succeed and to fail. Regulations are used to advance political agendas. They are no longer predictable or even commonsensical. The paternalistic nature of the Administration can be seen in the “life of Julia” video and the “pajama boy” ad. Such political sensitivities provide comfort to some, but they damage the dignity that comes with work, personal responsibility and accountability. That dread reflects a public school system that is more concerned with adults (union members) than with students. Safety nets are important, but the tendency of bureaucrats, who thrive on expanding government, is to make entitlements ubiquitous. Work, when performed by those who have little or no education, is not given the respect it deserves. As Arthur Brooks wrote in The Conservative Heart: “All honest work is a sanctified pursuit.” What right do elites have to demean the work of those they see as beneath them? Nowhere are the differences between the statists and free marketers so prominent as in the battle in New York over Uber. The De Blasio Administration would manage the number of taxis. Uber would let markets determine both price and availability.
Every era has its challenges. Ours is no different. What bothers me is the lack of concern regarding slipping moral standards. Poverty is accompanied by broken families, yet government dismisses that as a problem. While I am not a regular church-goer, faith deserves more respect than it gets. It helps people. In 2000, Robert Putnam, in a book entitled Bowling Alone, wrote about the “strange disappearance of social capital and civic engagement in America.”
Nevertheless, I suspect we will get through this period. It will take a leader who will speak plainly and honestly about the good this nation has done, without ignoring or white-washing its faults. It will take an optimist who recognizes that government is necessary to secure our safety, adjudicate our laws and build and maintain our infrastructure, but also one that acknowledges the intelligence and inherent wisdom of the people. If such people appear on the scene, any apocalypse can be postponed – perhaps forever.
The Opinions expressed above are mine alone, and do not represent those of the firm Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co., Inc., or of any of its partners or employees.