Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Hath God Wrought? (For publication 10/15/10)

In 1957 a Senate committee named Henry Clay of Kentucky one of the five greatest senators in U. S. history. Abraham Lincoln called Clay “my beau ideal of a great man”. Clay was so well known and highly respected that hundreds of buildings and places, many far beyond his native Kentucky and including Clay County, West Virginia, are named in his honor. And there is not a school child who, if he or she pays attention, does not learn about Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser”.

Whoops! What was that? Compromise? As in sitting down with the enemy . . . er . . . opponents to cut deals? The very phrase, “cut deals”, is slimy. Everyone knows that in a democracy the majority rules! So, how can we have a democracy if politicians are going to compromise? Compromise -- just a fancy name for appeasement and treason!

If a recent poll conducted by Pew Research is accurate, that seems to be the prevailing sentiment among many Americans. When given a choice, 49% of us say we prefer, “political leaders who stick to their positions without compromise” while only 42% prefer political leaders who “make compromises with someone they disagree with”. And among Republicans the percentage preferring politicians who refuse to compromise is 62%.

No wonder today’s most endangered political species isn’t Democrats or even liberals. It’s RINO’s, “Republicans in Name Only”. So, it’s ironic that Henry Clay, The Great Compromiser, was a member of the Whig party, predecessor of today’s Republican Party. If today’s sentiments prevailed in his time, he most certainly would have been branded . . . well, I guess since he was a Whig . . . a WINO.

The problem with this kind of categorical thinking is that it inevitably leads to extreme positions usually based on oversimplified and corrupted interpretations of doctrine and history that are more the product of idolatry than of critical thinking. Our founding fathers, men of often strikingly different and opposing political and religious views, are suddenly transformed into a monolithic vanguard guided by the hand of God. And their handiwork, the Constitution, is seen not as an epitome of successful compromise, which it is, but rather as the word of God only slightly more heavily edited than the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, the free market is seen not as an economic device that societies employ to the degree necessary to achieve prosperity. Instead, the famous “invisible hand” becomes the hand of God making free markets as much an instrument of morality as of economics. And so people rail against the apostasies of TARP and taxes as socialist sins that prevent the market from performing its ordained function of rewarding the virtuous and punishing the evil.

If in the next couple of elections people holding these beliefs carry the day, they and those of us other unfortunates they drag along in their wake may have to deal with the implications and consequences of their fundamentalist dogmas.

Unimpressed by the recent catastrophe into which the financial markets they worship plunged us and forgetting the earlier Great Depression, they will refuse to countenance deficit spending to provide economic stimulus, never mind another TARP. They will do so despite virtually unanimous opinion among economists that it was only through TARP that another Great Depression was avoided. This point was recently demonstrated in an analysis performed by Mark Zandi, former chief economic adviser to John McCain, which showed that, without TARP, unemployment would now be at 15% or more. They will also ignore history, which shows that the only problem with depression-era New Deal programs that were financed with deficit spending was that they didn’t go far enough. It took World War II to get the government to indulge in the kind of deficit spending necessary to lift us from the depression.

Knowing now what we do of the Great Depression it seems incomprehensible that at the time, some people actually believed it was a good thing. The banker, Andrew Mellon, saw the Depression in highly moral terms and encouraged then President Herbert Hoover to let the contagion run its course and by doing so “purge the rottenness out of the system”. But, that kind of self-righteous cant wore thin after a few years with people who had friends and family members or were themselves homeless or out of work and whose only discernible sin was that they had the temerity to be born.

Of all Americans, West Virginians, who have seen entire communities wasted and half of our population migrate to other states, should understand that economic markets have no moral dimension and treat human beings like they do corn or pork bellies -- as one more commodity to be bought and sold or, if they have no use, abandoned. A knowledgeable and honest free marketeer must admit that in a free market world there would be no minimum wage and no barriers to immigration.

The absence of these policies from the platforms on which today’s self-described fans of the free market run would be encouraging if it meant they recognize that markets are amoral agents that are occasionally apt to go haywire and, therefore, need to be regulated. But, the sad truth is that most are probably simply unaware of the contradictions between their philosophies and policies. And those who are aware keep silent as a matter of political expediency.

May God save us from them since it seems increasingly unlikely that we will save ourselves.