More national greatness nonsense

We’re in a bit of a lull here at Nobody’s Business — I think all of us are busy with our day jobs at the same time — and I’ve been trying to find ways to fill it. I was planning a multi-part lecture series about free markets, but fortunately for all of you, I stumbled across a maddening post at HuffPo called “We’re Number 34” in which Benjamin Barber complains about how we’re all too selfish to let the government spend our money on Barber’s pet projects.

American exceptionalism glides complacently into the 21st century on a lie and a prayer. The lie comprises all the flag-waving hyperbole, the exceptionalist claim that “We’re Number One,” when as measured by far too many key indicators we are actually closer to being #10 (social mobility) or maybe #34 (infant mortality) or dead last — pun intended — in the percentage of our population we incarcerate.

Barber is of course picking numbers that make his point, but let’s just stop a minute and think about those rankings. First of all, social mobility is kind of a complex topic, and by many measures, the U.S. is not generally the highest in world, but there may be good reasons for that. For example, first-generation immigrants everywhere in the world have have trouble getting ahead, and the U.S. has a continuous influx of them.

The infant mortality rate is better defined, and our rank is more frightening, but comparisons between countries are still controversial due to differences in rates of premature births and differences in how countries report infant death v.s. stillbirth.

As for the incarceration rates…that’s basically correct, but it kind of undermines his point. I’ll get back to that later.

By the way, given that there are something like 195 countries in the world, being number 34 puts us in the top 20%, which isn’t bad. Sure, we could be doing better, but don’t forget that one of the main reasons we’re not number one is that the rest of the world is doing better. They’re catching up to us. And this improvement in the welfare of hundreds of millions is generally a good thing.

The prayer is the exceptionalists’ hope that no one will notice their swaggering hypocrisy as they set about gutting and privatizing all the magnificent programs on which American greatness depends and downplay default on the national debt like a cynical old bankrupt.

What’s funny is that both of the previous quoted sections are from the same paragraph of Barber’s little screed. Basically, he’s saying that the United States sucks, and but that the people who are “gutting and privatizing” the government that got us to the level of suckitude are somehow the bad guys.

Apparently Barber thinks our greatness (such as it is) comes from magnificent government programs. This ignores the other reasons why America is doing so well, such as our liberal democracy, our natural resources, our isolation from European war-mongers by two great oceans, and the fact that the industrial revolution worked very well in this country, largely because of our relatively free markets.

The latest proof of hypocrisy comes from two closely related American flameouts. We just launched the 135th and last manned flight under the Space Shuttle program — having declared we can no longer afford as a nation to explore the universe in person. And we are about to kill the James Webb telescope, the successor to the famous Hubble Space telescope that opened up the universe to our curiosity and scrutiny and helped animate the manned space program. The last frontier is today a bridge too far and America’s journey to space joins the moribund TV series Star Trek. Space exploration is to be privatized, looking out to the edge of the cosmos to be terminated, and if we ever again want to go where no man has gone before, we will have to hitch a ride on Russian or Chinese rockets.

The Space Shuttles were a cool idea, but they should have been replaced by something cheaper a long time ago. And NASA is still training astronauts for the International Space Station, they’ll just be getting there on some other country’s rockets, at least until one of the commercial systems is man-rated. I don’t understand why that’s such a big deal. And why does Barber keep using “privatize” like it’s a dirty word?

(I’m with Barber on the James Webb telescope, though. That’s the sort of big science that has no immediate commercial payoff but is probably still a good idea. If we’re going to have government-funded science, better that than ethanol fuel research.)

So all those fiscal conservatives and Tea Party complainers who deny the public good and insist government is a wastrel need to make up their minds: do they want the United States to be a third class mini-state with a fourth class public sector?

Yes, if the alternative is that the United States turns into an all-consuming super-state that takes all our wealth and tries to control everything we do.

In which case they can go on pretending a great nation’s budget is just like a family budget to be trimmed and balanced, but stop pretending we’re number one and admit we’re actually a drop-out.

I’m okay with that, actually. Whatever it takes to subdue the leviathan and get our government back to a more reasonable size.

Or they can try to give some substance to their boasting and take steps to maintain our global leadership. In which case they need to be revitalizing and growing the public sector they are currently devastating.

What country is he talking about again? The United States has been in an economic slump for three or four years now, and the public sector is only just recently beginning to experience the unemployment that everyone else has been feeling. The area around Washington D.C. has been booming. The public sector grew under President Bush and President Obama has done nothing to shrink it. Nobody is “devastating” the public sector.

For it is the public sector with its “res publica” (public goods) that alone can undertake those great American projects like the national parks (remember that Republican giant Teddy Roosevelt?), space exploration and world-class K-12 education and health care systems — which entails bold leadership and a willingness by Americans to pool some of our resources to make leadership possible (it’s called “taxes”).

This is the national greatness variation of the roads fallacy. NASA and our national park systems have a combined budget of less than $25 billion, so even if we agree that they are both vital programs, how does this justify the rest of the federal government’s $3.7 trillion in expenses last year?

And where are these “world-class” public schools he’s talking about? I can’t believe he’s complaining about being number 10 in social mobility and then holding up our mediocre schools as an example of the greatness we should be striving for.

By the way, remember Barber’s complaint that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world? Who does he think is responsible for that disgrace? The justice system is a government function, and rightly so, but when we give them plenty of government resources, what do they do? They put us in prison. That’s what a robust and thriving public sector has lead to in this country.

(Christ, you want money to pay for NASA and the national parks? Stop the War on Drugs. And online gambling. And prostitution. It will save us a ton of money and increase tax revenues.)

Millions of immigrants don’t leave their home countries to come here because of our space program or national parks or prisons. They come for our economy and our freedoms. That’s why we’re great.

It’s not that we don’t know how to be number one: in military expenditures we outspend the world, budgeting more for hard power than the next two dozen or so nations on earth including China, France, the U.K., Russia, Japan, Germany, Italy, Brazil, South Korea and Canada and another dozen nations put together. If we can do it here, we can do it in health, science, education and social justice.

This is an argument for cutting military expenditures, not raising our other public expenditures to the same high level. But actually, we do spend a lot on health and science — healthcare is the largest sector of our GDP — but much of it is private spending, which apparently doesn’t count in Barber’s world. And our education budget per-pupil is one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t seem to have helped our schools very much.

What we can’t do is have it both ways — talk number one and behave like number 34.

So shut up about being number one! Admit we’ve got problems and do something useful about them!

Proclaim our superiority and privatize or close down every meaningful public program.

There he goes again. Privatizing public programs is not the same as closing them down. It’s like nothing we do counts with this guy unless it’s government funded.

Strut like a wealthy cosmopolitan but tax ourselves like some parochial back-water bankrupt (about to default on our debts!).

Debt is about income and expenses. We wouldn’t be in so much debt if our government hadn’t been spending the people’s money like a bunch of teenagers who’ve stolen dad’s credit card.

Leadership is a competition in big deeds not big talk. Big deeds cost big bucks and demand from a people confidence and a willingness to sacrifice, as well as a firm sense of how the private and the public intersect and reinforce one another.

Fuck your big deeds, Barber! You have dreams of national greatness? Well the rest of us have dreams too. Personally, I dream of a new car, a new laptop computer, a real house instead of a condo. Sure, there’s nothing spectacular about my dreams, but that’s the point: Everyone in this country wants the mundane stuff of ordinary life. We want refrigerators and microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners and televisions, clothes and computers and cell phones for the kids, nicer cars, bigger houses, a trip to the movies this weekend and trip to Disney next summer.

Those aren’t big gleaming dreams of giant government programs, but they’re our dreams, and they’re important too, and I don’t see why we should sacrifice them so a bunch of political hacks can make a name for themselves in pursuit of “greatness.” Especially since they haven’t been doing a very good job of it.

No nation ever maintained a global role by dismantling its government and refusing to pay its bills.

No nation ever maintained a global role by giving its government control over its entire economy either.

We certainly cannot be number one and turn over leadership in physics to Europe (as we did when we dropped out of the super-collider race and punted to CERN in Switzerland), end our manned space program and defund the Webb telescope, and give up on higher education and public health. Launching Predator drones over Pakistan while we stumble into default won’t cut it.

He’s all over the place in that paragraph. High-energy physics does not justify a government take-over of healthcare or higher education.

In short, we can embrace timidity and go on maiming the public sector, destroying democratic governance and stashing our shrinking wealth (unequally divided) under our mattresses.

Just because I don’t want jackasses like Barber to spend my money on their favorite public programs doesn’t mean I want to stash my money under a mattress. I want to spend it on my own plans and dreams. That’s why I go through the trouble to earn it.

Or we can walk the bold talk and share our common-wealth (well named!) and resume a global leadership rooted in vision, dynamism, equal sacrifice and hard work.

God, what an insufferable ass! I make sacrifices and work hard. I have visions. We all do. We just don’t all want what he wants.

But please, all you “exceptionalists,” all you libertarian and Tea-Party and fiscal conservative hypocrites, stop preening to show off your new clothes when you’re dressed in tatters. Stop telling the world how great we are, and yet telling us how impotent we are to pay for, let alone realize, greatness. Stop shouting “WE’RE NUMBER ONE” when it’s because of you we’re heading for number 35.

What’s great about paying for useless and wasteful government programs? What’s great about screwing up the healthcare sector even worse than it is already? What’s great about paying more per student for public education than ever before and still getting the same crappy scores?

Maybe people would be more willing to pay for Barber’s “greatness” if the folks who run our government had any clue how to achieve it.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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  1. Alicia
    Posted July 28, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    I thought conservatives were more the type to thrust our big American greatness in everyone’s faces. I can understand that he feels that Tea Party-driven privatization is driving the country into the ground (I disagree, but this thought is consistent for liberal thinking). However, it’s weird how he’s mad at conservatives that America is losing its ability to force its global role on all the other lowly countries, *WHICH APPARENTLY HE THINKS IS IN GOOD FORM! Maybe he’s a closet conservative.

  2. Posted July 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sure from his remarks about American exceptionalism that Barber doesn’t really believe in the right’s national greatness agenda. He’s just trying to use the right’s desire for greatness to promote his own big-government agenda. I think it’s the Tea Party folks who are blocking the debt ceiling, though, and they won’t be impressed by this argument. Then again, this is pretty much the argument that carried the day under George W. Bush.