Friday, June 02, 2006

Those who do not know their history...

The current disaffection of Americans for their collective future has been amply expressed in several polls, but perhaps should not be such a surprise after all. we may have been here before:

If one counts only the size of houses and cars, and the numbers of electronic gadgets stuffed into rec rooms, Americans are probably better off than ever before. But as the 1870's suggest, economic well-being doesn't come just from piling up toys. An economy has psychological or, if you will, spiritual, dimensions. A conviction of fairness, a feeling of not being totally on one's own, a sense of reasonable stability and predictability are all essential components of good economic performance. When they were missing in the 1870's, in the midst of a boom, the populace was brought to the brink of revolt.

[More here]

I have found my own response to current conditions more than a little surprising. We are doing well, albeit due to a subsidy-riddled business environment that dilutes any sense of accomplishment. While I have been dismayed by the war in Iraq, I was not that crazy about it in the first place, but like too many of us, let it slide.

My bad.

But for those of us who remember the Carter "malaise"* there are eerie similarities. Many of us doubt the permanence of our present prosperity. It could be that the extreme disparity of distribution of benefits - regardless of the overall boost to the collective good - makes us unable to enjoy the good times.

Fairness is likely hard-wired into our brains.

But maybe not our leaders'.

*To my surprise, President Carter never used the word "malaise":

On July 15, 1979, Carter gave a nationally-televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a "crisis of confidence" among the American people. This has come to be known as his "malaise" speech, even though he did not use the word "malaise" anywhere in the text:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.... I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. [5]

Carter's speech, written by Chris Matthews, was well-received [6], although some viewed it as too much like a sermon. But the country was in the midst of a weak economy dominated by OPEC-caused double digit inflation, and many citizens were disappointed that it appeared no concrete solutions were being proposed by the President. Two days after the speech, Carter asked for the resignations of all of his Cabinet officers, and ultimately accepted five. Carter later admitted in his memoirs that he should have simply asked only those five members for their resignation. By asking the entire cabinet, it looked as if the White House was falling apart. With no visible efforts towards a way out of the malaise, Carter's poll numbers dropped even further.

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