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Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Deal, New Mentality

New Deal, New Mentality

America needs more than a new New Deal, it needs a major overhaul in our values. A quick reading of today's New York Times tells the tale of what we can only hope is a tectonic shift in the way Americans think about wealth and excess. Unfortunately, it seems that instead of taking Tom Wolfe´s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, as a cautionary tale, for the past 20 years many people used its message of greed and hunger for status as an instruction manual. We have been buried under tales of the lucky few in America who have managed to acquire unbelievable fortunes. We built an entire culture around flaunting this wealth to the middle and lower classes. Instead of being horrified from watching excess heaped upon further excess, the folks in the cheap seats grew to admire these new brain-dead monarchs. Viewers were always led to believe that they, too, could someday expect to live like the protagonists in these vaudeville acts of greed. This life was only a lottery ticket away, and for those too impatient for the winning ticket, they could finance their version of Donald Trump's lifestyle with credit cards with minimum monthly payments at 20% interest (a rate that would make Tony Soprano blush).

What few people seem to understand about the current crisis is that it's not about cyclical economic forces, most of our problems were created by a culture of mindless greed. The folks that seem to know less about what has been driving our economy into a deep crater are the people doing most of the driving. A group of GM executives show up in Washington with their hats in their hands looking for government charity. It didn't even occur to any of these morons that arriving in their private jet was probably not sending the right message. The fact that they are still playing the role of successful capitalists would be humorous if it wasn't bordering on the criminal. Nor did it sound out-of-touch for A.I.G. officials to spend a big chunk of their bailout money on a private spa outing for its bosses. Wall Street banks are still giving out huge bonuses to their employees at the top of the pyramid while laying off thousands of lower echelon workers.

There is some good news. Union membership seems to be on the rise. In an attempt to salvage some of their corporate image many companies are canceling orders for private jets. Citigroup decided that perhaps they could live without a $42 million aircraft. How many coach plane tickets can you buy with $42 million? How could a publicly-traded company possibly make money for its shareholders when the corporate officers are all making tens of millions of dollars annually? There should be a new law that says that CEO salaries must be clearly displayed right next to how much you have to pay for a share of stock. This seems like a more accurate prediction of future performance than short-term share price gains which can be easily manipulated to lure investors. How to steal legally. I mean, this is what they teach people in business schools these days, isn't it? It seems that our best and brightest have focused their energy on creating new profit bubbles, the bursting part to be repaired by lower minds who don't have second home mortgages or yacht payments to worry about. Another NYT article reported on young women's problems with dating Wall Street bankers during the crisis. On a blog these women write, a 24 year old mistress of a banker laments not getting the royal treatment as of late. You know that the economy is bad when even the whores have to do a little belt-tightening. I always thought that industry was recession-proof. My comment on this site stating this was immediately removed. Who ever thought whores were so sensitive?

I can't say that I mind seeing layoffs in the luxury goods market. I don't think that our economy will be too damaged by the loss of a few thousand jobs in the corporate jet industry. I also would applaud layoffs in defense spending, an industry whose end result doesn't even produce true capital goods. Think of all of the tanks America has produced in the past 20 years and then think about what little good they have done our servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fighter jets aren't much of a help in a guerrilla war, ditto that for aircraft carriers, destroyers, nuclear missiles, and submarines—to name just a few bloated items on the defense spending list.

Conservatives have taught their underclass supporters that it's OK to be fabulously wealthy. Ronald Reagan's famous quote the he still believed America was a place where a guy could make a million bucks has been the words behind the fantasy. We are all going to get filthy rich, at least if you believe the folks at National Review or the American Enterprise Institute. The society of ownership was what the former president called it.

We were told for years that socialized medicine was for wimps and communists who couldn't afford to pay for private insurance. Of course we have learned that our system of private insurance providers is leaving a vast percentage of our population without a shred of coverage. And what's going to happen when that bubble bursts? Medical costs have risen so much in recent years that most people couldn't afford to pay for a few stitches out-of-pocket. A lot of what conservatives have been chanting over the past generation has turned out to be even worse than failed policy, it has been slickly-packaged lies. How much longer are they going to deny global warming? How much longer can we survive without publicly-funded mass transportation? And does anyone, anywhere still believe that our economy should be completely free of government regulation?

Just like how it is going to take President Obama a few years to repair the damage left in the wake of the former White House residents, it will take years to reconstruct American values. It's not going to be easy. How do you teach people that it's OK not to be rich?

First we'll need to turn off the relentless onslaught of pro-rich propaganda. I knew something was drastically broken with America when Princess Di died. I was completely flabbergasted by the outpouring of grief that was manifested over a period of weeks. The mere idea of royalty should be totally repugnant to American citizens, or don't they teach the whole “all men are created equal” nonsense in schools any more? This was a princess, someone who is supposed to be different from you and me simply by the accident of her birth. They tried to paint her as some sort of medieval saint because she preformed a few photo opportunities with the disadvantaged. She never actually worked with the poor and even these photo sessions didn't obstruct her lifestyle of endless shopping and vacationing in exotic locales. Next, she died in a car wreck because her driver, her employee was driving at at incredibly unsafe speed down crowded city streets because she didn't want to be photographed? That's when I knew that many of us had crossed over into some sort of parallel fantasy universe of princesses and palaces brought on by a few too many episodes of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and other programs that beat it into people's heads that the super-rich were super people.

Next we need to tell Hollywood ix-nay with the ich-ray as Crusty the Clown would say it in his unaccented pig Latin. Stop making everyone rich in your films and movies, as if wealthy people are the only ones capable of leading interesting lives. Just watch a newer Woodie Allen movie to see just how boring rich people can be. Hollywood, for the most part, is more out-of-touch than any sector of our society. Perhaps the film moguls need to go out in the field and study the average American, Dian Fossey-like. If Hollywood does make a movie about the middle class or lower, it's usually some sort of horrifically violent work that drives home the need to either get rich as quick as you can or stock up on firearms even faster. Have you ever noticed that the job of about half the people in movies is advertising executive—as if this is the only other job besides movie star that Hollywood can imagine.

How about showing people who live in normal houses instead of exposed-brick lofts or idyllic country estates? I have noticed that Spanish movies are more apt to portray middle class people as they truly live in Spain. Perhaps this is because their smaller film budgets require them to film more on location instead of creating a middle class fantasy on a set some where. Hollywood loves to say that they are just creating a fantasy world where viewers can escape for a couple hours, but I see a much more sinister end result from this constant bombardment of how cool it is to be stupid and rich. I don't know if the intention is sinister, or if the producers are just clueless from having lived in lala land for too long. We already have generations of people born into the Hollywood elite and have never even seen any other world. Believe me, this shows in the work they do.

I think we have simply given up on the idea that a person can live with dignity no matter what tax bracket they inhabit.