Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Jan/130

Can America Be Fixed?

One of our Arendt Center members sent me this latest article from Fareed Zakaria. The numbers can be dizzying, but the basic thesis is one that we at the Arendt Center have been worrying about: Overspending on entitlements and debt are bringing about a situation in which the essential public role of government is being crowded out by its social demands. As Zakaria writes,

The continued growth in entitlements is set to crowd out all other government spending, including on defense and the investments needed to help spur the next wave of economic growth. In 1960, entitlement programs amounted to well under one-third of the federal budget, with all the other functions of government taking up the remaining two-thirds. By 2010, things had flipped, with entitlement programs accounting for two-thirds of the budget and everything else crammed into one-third. On its current path, the U.S. federal government is turning into, in the journalist Ezra Klein's memorable image, an insurance company with an army. And even the army will have to shrink soon.

No doubt government has the role of helping its citizens in need. And our modern entitlement programs are an essential part of a just polity. But we now risk misunderstanding government for insurance. So much so that, according to the a report by Third Way, in 2029 the US will spend as much on social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and debt payments as it takes in from taxes. Everything else we want to spend money on as a country will have to come from either higher taxes or further debt.

The real problem here is not economic so much as political. It is easy to say that the US has always been partisan and that it is very American to disdain government.  Zakaria offers perspective, citing a 1975 report from the Trilateral Commission entitled The Crisis of Democracy, that predicted gloom in the United States and Europe. We should be aware of a human tendency to elevate our present difficulties into tragic flaws. And yet, simply because last time things worked out, we should not assume that they will this time as well.

What is different this time? While the United States remains a vibrant economy, its political system is increasingly broken. It is captured by special interests and addicted to debt. We spend $4 on our elderly population for every $1 we spend on our young. Schools are failing. We are cutting public pensions and obliterating private pensions outright with 401k savings programs that don’t provide people enough money to live on. Bridges are falling. Our roads, railways, and airports are in disrepair. And our political debate is consumed with taxes and spending. I know wise cynics say politics is politics, but the present idiocy does seem different. We should never assume that just because it worked out the last time, it will again. There are moments of new occurrences in politics. And it is possible that our current political crisis really does portend something new.

Image: Matt Collins

At least the public seems to think so:

Anger with politicians and institutions of government is much greater than it was in 1975. According to American National Election Studies polls, in 1964, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time." By the late 1970s, that number had dropped to the high 40s. In 2008, it was 30 percent. In January 2010, it had fallen to 19 percent.

Zakaria offers numbers upon numbers. I am sure some are more right than others. But the overall trend is undeniable. His essay is more than worth a read.

-RB

18Jan/125

What Has Happened to Occupy Wall Street?

A few hundred people gathered at the capitol today as part of Occupy Congress. Why so few?

Last Fall Occupy Wall Street movement sprouted 2,779 chapters around the nation and captured the attention of the 1% as well as much of the 99%. In some ways, the movement has had an impact. A number of young people and even some older people tasted the sweet nectar of political action, and there are individuals and groups still energized to take on the debilitating as well as embarrassing income inequality and political corruption that is endangering our system of government.

These issues are now on the agenda. Just today the New York Times ran a front-page story on Mitt Romney being one of the 1%. Romney, tone-deaf as usual, characterized his $374,327 income from speaking fees as "not very much" money; this was his way of justifying paying only 15% of his income in taxes because his earnings are primarily from investments.

And yet, it is undeniable that the movement has fizzled. One hears almost nothing about Occupy Wall Street these days. A long-planned day of action Occupying Congress drew barely a few hundred souls.

Democratic politicians—not to mention Republicans— around the country are resisting increasing taxes on the highest earners. Accountability on Wall Street and in Washington for the crisis is a fantasy. And serious talk of reforming our campaign finance system is barely audible. What happened? Why did a movement that enraptured the nation just a few months ago fade so quickly? What is the fate of the promise to rejuvenate politics and bring real change?

It cannot simply be the weather (unseasonably warm anyway) that has frustrated the protests. Could it be the glimmer of economic recovery that has changed the focus from protest to profits? Possibly. But still, the alacrity with which the energy and spiritedness of the protests fled from public consciousness is shocking.

I can't but think the real reason for the disappearance is disillusionment and failure. A movement that swept the nation, changed the discourse, and empowered thousands has, in the end, accomplished almost nothing concrete. No laws changed. No new candidates or leaders emerged. And the major issues that galvanized the country—income inequality and political corruption—have seemingly faded from view. With few successes to point to, many of the protesters appear ready to move on. How could this be?

The Occupy Wall Street website still promises, "The Revolution Continues." But the worry about the future is palpable on the forum page titled:

Forum Post: What the fu** has happened to occupy wall st.

There, you can find the following post by Thrasymaque that has generated enormous response.

OWS was based on an idea that was/is needed in many Arab countries: a revolution. Because of this, OWS categorically refused to make demands. They wanted to topple the government, not work with it. Because US doesn't need a revolution and most people don't want one, the energy faded away with the coming of winter. Anarchism and communism have never been very strong in America. Their protest was never expected to last very long. Anarchists always destroy there (sic) own selves.

Thrasymaque gets much of this right. Too many in the movement insisted on rejecting all goals or ends. Some of those had the fantastic goal of overthrowing the government. Others did not know what they wanted. And some really were swept up in the process of trying to figure out what they wanted. There was joy in public action and the thrill of debate and engagement. Much was beautiful and spontaneous. But the fact is that without a concrete goal and without leaders to mold and guide the passions of the people, the movement fizzled.

For those of us who hoped that Occupy Wall Street might rise to the moment and produce a leader or leaders to fill the dangerous vacuum in leadership in this country, the insistence on a leaderless revolution was a huge mistake; so too was the rejection of all issues or goals. The result is that we have seemingly squandered a movement of incredible power and promise.

The real problems we face as a country—the corruption of our political process, the decimation of the middle class, and the malaise of decline—persist. The establishment in Washington and Wall Street breathe a sigh of relief and seem more set in their ways then ever. Congress is paralyzed. Meanwhile, the wheels of finance are turning again. The failure of a popular movement that might have challenged the status quo has left those in power more secure in their privileges. From the winds of change, it seems we have settled into a desert of despair.

In my first post on Occupy Wall Street back on Oct. 5th, I quoted Hannah Arendt's reflection on the Student Protests of the 1960s:

This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: 'the principle of Hope' (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries.

The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.

I asked then: "Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?"

I asked from a position of hope.  I fear that the answer, at least so far must be no. We are closer now to counterrevolution than revolution, but most plainly we face anticlimax. Most palpably, in the year of one of the most consequent elections in our nations history,  we are missing a leader, a voice, that offers a meaningful and powerful agenda for change, let alone a revolution.

We must ask ourselves: Why is it that this crisis, and this movement, failed to produced revolutionaries?

-RB