Saturday, November 20, 2010

Livin' the Dream
If you’re at all attached to the media or popular culture, you can’t really escape the Palins. The half-term former governor, someone I personally regard as nothing more than an aging Mean Girl, a probable sociopath and possible sadist, inspires such ferocious devotion from a chunk of the electorate that she’s a plausible presidential nominee, with an outside shot she actually gets the job. Meanwhile, she has a highly popular “reality” television show and an upcoming book. One daughter evidently is about to win a dancing contest decided by voting that it’s difficult to argue is all that much more farcical than the elections we hold to determine political power. Another is either a hateful bigot, a typically immature teenager, or both. And so on.

I don’t think the ubiquity of the Palins is solely a function of the mother’s charisma or attractiveness (though admittedly she is the first presidential candidate to whom a heterosexual male could masturbate without deep misgivings, which obviously is a part of the story). In a moment when most sober observers note that the American Dream as classically understood seems to be slipping out of reach, the Palins are living the 21st century, bad-joke version of that Dream: they’ve gotten very wealthy and very, very famous despite the absence of any obvious talent or accomplishment.

Under any established or even coherent value system, this isn’t rational, much less admirable. From a narrative standpoint, it’s actually kind of offensive: you need to do something—overcome a challenge, show strength of character or intelligence, best a rival, deliver service, something—to earn the happy ending. Again, though, this seems entirely of a piece with where our politics and culture are going now.

The issue that just boggles my mind is the evident Republican rejection of the “New START” nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia--a decision which worsens that important international relationship, undermines European security and makes it much harder to contain Iran… all because these goals are far secondary to inflicting another political defeat on the president. Not quite as bad, but still pretty awful, is the unyielding rejection on the part of left Democrats, led by the incomparably tone-deaf Nancy Pelosi, of bipartisan deficit reduction plans that include adjustments to or reductions of benefits through social insurance programs.

(I could write a long separate piece about these proposals, to which I’m generally sympathetic on the merits even if I find some of the particulars--like the seemingly arbitrary call of Simpson-Bowles to cap spending and revenues at 21 percent of GDP--a little goofy. More than anything, they kind of make me sad: they represent a bygone conception of politics in which compromise wasn’t just inevitable but admirable, from a time before polarized media made that instinct a political death mark. Paul Ryan’s idealized notion of how to restore long-term fiscal balance is as unrealistic as Paul Krugman’s—but it’s possible both would rather see us default than accept that the other guy might have a point. The larger takeaway is that the policy is actually quite easy—see this New York Times application in which you can make a series of policy choices to close the deficit by 2030; I did it, generating a surplus of several hundred billion dollars, the majority coming from spending cuts rather than revenue gains, without core cuts to entitlements—there was a cap on Medicare increase and some Social Security benefit reduction to higher income seniors—or even going back to Clinton-era tax rates, which themselves were pretty low in historical terms—but the politics is fucking close to impossible.)

Outside of the mainstream, the culture seems more wistful than angry. As I type this, I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “lost” album The Promise, recorded in the years between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, when The Boss was embroiled in fiendishly complex legal troubles and at something of a creative crossroads. The songs are all about disappointment and compromise and yearning, similar to but a bit more gentle than those that wound up on “Darkness”; it feels perfectly of this time, not the mid/late ‘70s. And I’ve just started reading Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a novel released this year set a few decades from now, in which the economic desperation of the Rust Belt seems to have expanded across the U.S. in conjunction with a slow-moving environmental disaster and the sense that our historical moment has passed is pervasive:

We were citizens of a post-industrial economy that no longer produced much. Our rate of emigration exceeded our rate of immigration. Our GDP was contracting for what? The twelfth quarter? Tourism was down. Manufacturing was all but non-existent… This once robust superpower may have been on its last legs, but we still loved it, the way you love a dog in the backyard, whose attempts to close its jaws around your leg are stymied only by the rope tethered to the dead paloverde.

One more dumb war, one default, and I think we're just about there.

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