Sunday, December 05, 2010


Matt Bai writes in today's New York Times that the recommendations of the Simpson/Bowles commission are unlikely to be enacted; the reason he gives for this (which I think is absurd) is that the recommendations make the public feel sad about the country:

Common wisdom here holds that the report issued by the president's fiscal commission last week is probably going nowhere, despite the endorsement of 11 of the 18 commission members. Sure, voters like to complain about the debt, the insiders say, but once you start talking about higher taxes and cuts in benefits, you find that no one wants to be the one to sacrifice.

There may be truth to this premise, but only some. After all, generations of Americans have sacrificed plenty for the nation's cause, and there's no reason to think we've lost the capacity. What makes this case for sacrifice so much harder to embrace, perhaps, is that it goes to our national psyche, threatening our self-image as a land with limitless potential. While past generations have readily sacrificed for national greatness, debt reduction -- at least in the gloomy way its advocates argue for it -- feels like a call to sacrifice in the name of our national decline.

After all, this sense of limitless potential, too, is what we often mean by "American exceptionalism" ...

Look, I don't know if Americans really are capable anymore of voluntary personal sacrifice for the national good -- though if they aren't, a big reason is that they have absorbed the values of political philosopher-kings such as Ronal Reagan and George W. Bush, who told us that capitalism is a moral force given to us directly by the Almighty, a notion most Americans interpreted, not unreasonably, as "Jesus wants me to keep shopping."

But if there's public discontent with the recommendations of the deficit commission, it's not because Americans simply can't sacrifice at all. Americans are sacrificing plenty, involuntarily -- losing jobs, experiencing foreclosures, facing salary givebacks and benefit cuts -- and we know the sacrifice is not being shared. We don't agree on who exactly is still living a soft life -- bankers, the rich in general, maybe (if you believe right-wing talk) public-sector union members or (if you're a Beckbot) some unholy cabal made up of George Soros acolytes and ACORN.

But we all know that some people's oxen haven't been gored yet. We suspect they never will be, while the rest of us will sacrifice more and more. "American exceptionalism"? We're not thinking about that right now. We gotta eat.

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