Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Trust and Hope

by David Ellis

Yesterday on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Peggy Noonan wrote that
Americans no longer have hope, that they no longer think their leaders can solve the problems facing them. She made the point that during the economic troubles of the 70s and early 80s, Americans still had optimism that things would turn around; today, she argued, they do not have such hope.

I suppose the fashionable thing here would be to say that I disagree. But I think she may be right. I look at some of the problems we face and wonder whether the word solution even applies to them.

Will we ever settle the debate about free markets versus governmental regulation? No, because we never have a serious enough discussion about it. Politicians will throw out bromides and the robotic media will lap them up and then talk about the latest sex scandal. We’ll regulate the hell out of business until … well, until it hurts our economy enough that we de-regulate … and then that will work out just fine (see Reagan administration, second term) until the investor class and the Fortune 500 companies have ripped off and hurt people enough that we have no choice but to regulate them again (see Obama). And we will overreact, of course, every single time. We will regulate way too much and then we’ll de-regulate way too much. But will we ever get it right? No, because there is no “right,” and even if there were, who would say so? Politicians? No, they’ll never say, “Y’know, things are just perfect right now, so let that incumbent stay in office.” The media? Please. “Things are working out just fine” is not a headline you see a lot. Doesn’t sell a lot of newspapers, does it?

Terrorism. Do we think our leaders will solve that problem? And first off—what is the problem? How is it defined? I think most Americans define the problem as wanting to feel safe. But what we really mean is we want to feel safe while continuing to have the same liberties and freedom we previously enjoyed. That’s the catch, of course. So we react and overreact. We go too far with a Patriot Act after 9/11 and then, after we’re feeling safer many years later, we overreact the other way and talk about repealing the Act in its entirety and closing Gitmo and holding civilian trials for terrorists. These issues are way too complicated to be settled during campaign season in sound bites, as President Obama is surely discovering. The bigger point is that we’ll never feel entirely safe. What about safer? Well, what does that really mean? Either you’re surprise-attacked or you’re not, and you never know when it’s coming. Safer? I don’t think the concept even makes sense.

Is Peggy Noonan right that we no longer believe our leaders can solve the problems? There is no perfect answer, of course, but I think that, by and large, she is correct. I think people are realizing that many of these problems just don’t get solved. We just see-saw back and forth, too extreme on one side, too extreme on the other, with our leaders whispering sweet nothings, their challengers shouting doom-and-gloom, the media just along for the ride (especially if there’s sex or corruption involved). We have stopped trying to solve anything and moved toward simply trying to mitigate our problems as much as possible, and I’m not sure the public trusts their leaders even to do that much anymore.


Dana King said...

I think she's correct, but several years late. This feeling has been around since Osama bin Laden slipped away at Tora Bora and the war in Iraq went into the crapper. The recent financial meltdown brought it home by showing the government didn't have a good grip on the day-to-day things either.

Kevin Smith said...

I would agree that there is more than a kernel of truth to this, both in Noonen's column and Ellis' post. You can argue that problems are made to be solved and that we as a society should always aspire to make things a little better tomorrow than they were yesterday, but you also have to acknowledge that bad decision-making and good old-fashioned greed are going to be part of society as long as there is a society. I guess the basic conclusion that I can reach is that our open society -- with the combination of imperfect people and flawed mechanisms -- may simply be incapable of functioning at better than, say, 80 percent of its perfect state. We can try, and should try, to do better, but that trying might be futile....and then again, it might be the trying that keeps us from falling to 50 percent of the perfect state.

David Ellis said...

Both of these comments are very well said. I agree and thanks for the input.

Sara Paretsky said...

I agree with Noonan. Most of the young people -- 20's, 30's== that I talk to feel anxiety and helplessness, tied both to the size of the economic problems we face, and the sense of fear that permeates the air (when you fly, you not only take off all your clothes, but airports now add an announcement to be scared of the flu virus.)
I don't think government regulation of the economy is the issue, (although when Reagan deregulated the S & L industry, the kids who ran it promptly treated it like a casino and ended up needing an 800 billion bailout) It's more the sense of fear--we always used to be an optimistic country--it was our hallmark. We need to find our way out of this maze of fear