As the global financial system falls apart around our ears, a few things have stuck out to me in the way that politicians in the US are reacting to the crisis. One has been the incredibly bizarre words coming out of John McCain's mouth in response to this disastrous week. Suddenly he's lambasting a "culture of unrestrained greed" on Wall Street and urging greater oversight. This is from a senator who has been one of the biggest champions of unbridled free-market capitalism throughout his decades in the senate. Has the world gone topsy-turvey? This may be what a paniced American population wants to hear right now, but it is clearly not the way John McCain truly views how the economy should be run.
I mean who would have thought they'd see the day that Hank Paulson, who is as aggressively free market as you can get, would be leading the kind of bailouts we're seeing today. He has to, the government doesn't have a choice in these circumstances. But it's truly bizarre to see John McCain blasting "unrestrained greed" on Wall Street as causing the current crisis when he and his party have led the charge to unrestrain that greed over the past ten years.
Beyond that, I think there is something culturally interesting about the language both candidates are using about the crisis, language which shows that no matter which candidate is elected in November, the US is unlikely to address the fundamental problem it faces any time soon.
Big Bad "Washington"
Both candidates are blaming the crisis on purely conceptual factors like "Wall Street Greed." It is symptomatic of the way the entire campaign has been phrased. The many problems America currently faces are the fault of "Washington," "terrorism," "lobbyists," "oil companies," you name it. In fact if you listen to American politicians, the one group that doesn't share any blame for the country's problems is the American people themselves.
But this argument is not only illogical, it's also unproductive. The dirtiest word during this election campaign has probably been "Washington." This is nothing new. Each election since Nixon has been presented to the American public in this way: Washington is broken and we need an 'outsider' or a 'maverick' to change it. It's how Reagan, Clinton and Bush were all elected. But this year the anti-Washington rhetoric seems to have hit new heights. And yet, what is Washington? Washington is a creation of the people, full of democratically elected politicians who the American public put there. Washington is, therefor, a reflection of the US population. So if there's something wrong with Washington, then there's something wrong with the US public.
The current economic troubles have been presented in the same way, as if it's all conceptual factors that are affecting the blameless American people. Nowhere was this more evident than when John McCain made the bonehead mistake of repeating his "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" line in Florida Monday morning on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Rapidly going into damage control mode, he quickly shifted his wording later in the day to say that the 'fundamentals' he was referring to was the 'hard-working American worker.' Beyond being a laughable backtrack, it reflects the fundamental problem with the way American politicians are dealing with this cris. They're not being straight with the American people, because they won't tell them that it is the people who are to blame.
The American economy has been fundamentally operating on borrowed money for decades now. From the most microeconomic level (Americans now have a negative rate of average savings) to the most macroeconomic (the national debt is at a record high level), America is addicted to spending money it does not have to fund an opulant lifestyle. And it isn't just consumer debt like credit cards that has saddled the American people and the American economy. People took out mortgages that they couldn't possibly pay back, thereby spurring the mortgage crisis. People took out student loans that they knew they wouldn't be able to pay back for 30 years (I'm one of them). A combination of a lack of government oversight and assistance and Americans own culture of greed and vanity has pushed the country into a system where it lives far beyonds it means.
The average family debt in America is around $30,000, and that's not even including mortgages and student debt. The average college graduate from a private university leaves school with $60,000 in debt (Me? I had $120,000 in debt by the time I finished grad school). And how does Americans' -0.2 percent rate of savings compare our rapidly emerging superpower rival? In China, the average savings rate is 20 percent.
Jimmy Carter was the last president to touch this issue with a ten foot pole, in a speech he gave shortly before he lost the election to Ronald Reagan. The speech, widely called the "malaise" speech because it seemed defeatist, is widely credited with losing the reelection for Carter, who was defeated by Ronald Reagan who promised the American people "morning in America" with an endless luxurious lifestyle. Reagan then plunged the nation into an unprecedented level of peacetime national debt.
America has a problem. It is addicted to spending money, and resources, it does not have. The only solution to this problem is for Americans to stop spending what they don't have. But no politician is willing to say that. Instead, everyone in government is blaming the ethereal concepts of "Washington" and "Wall Street." And while much of this crisis can be blamed on the deregulation that a Republican congress has championed over the past 15 years (and that New Democrats rubber-stamped), most of it can be blamed on Americans' spend today, worry about it tomorrow lifestyle. The only real solution, for people, government and business, is to live within our means.
But per usual, when something goes wrong with the United States, it is never the fault of its citizenry. When a hijacking disaster came to its shores, it was blamed on the ethereal concept of "terrorism" rather than American foreign policy or the isolationism of its citizenry. When George W. Bush was elected - twice - it was somehow the fault of some larger "Washington" system rather than the fault of the voters themselves. And now, with the financial crisis, once again we see that Americans are refusing to look in the mirror and take responsibility for their own culture and their own lifestyle.
I can tell you that this contrasts sharply with how Europeans view their own problems. When I speak with Europeans about the problems plaguing Europe, and the inability of the continent to address those problems, they throw their hands up in the air and give a morose explanation about how Europeans have petty rivalries and nationalism that make them unable to cooperate, or how they are are rendered complacent by their generous social welfare systems, or how the people of Europe lack any significant ambition or direction. They don't blame their concepts on etherial concepts, but rather themselves. They could never be as sucesful as America, so many of them say to me, because Europeans don't have the same drive for success.
In the end, I'd say Americans could do with a lot less self confidence and Europeans could do with a lot more. Americans inability to take personal responsibilty and tendency to blame vague concepts for their woes has gotten them into a quagmire in which they are unable to come up with real solutions to their problems. Europeans' lack of self confidence and their acceptance of a storyline that paints them as lazy and complacent makes it difficult to achieve any new success.
Maybe America has some extra swagger it could loan to Europe for awhile.