Saturday, March 21, 2009

Things aren't so bad
Tom Smith

V. D. Hanson is moaning and gnashing his teeth.  Americans are depressed because things are so bad, and so on, and he is too. Perhaps untrue to type, I want to dissent somewhat from his gloomy view.  I offer no evidence, only impressions and points of view.

The economy -- yes, things look bad now, but I think the worst of the recession will be over in a year or two, and that's not so bad when compared to the Great Depression say.  There is still enormous potential in the American economy, especially in its creative segments and in the willingness to work that Americans have compared to the Europeans, if not the Chinese.  We still have the secret of liberty figured out more than anywhere in the world.  There are people who want to ruin our economy, but it is far from clear they will get to. Resistance is already building rapidly to budget-busting schemes. People are finding their voices.  I'm not sure that this crisis will turn out to be the opportunity that Rahm et al. think it was going to be. This is a testament to our system of government, for all of its weaknesses.  It makes it hard to do the stupidest things quickly, though it makes smart things impossible as well.  So there is room for deep concern, and attention, but despair is not warranted at the moment.

American culture -- yes, our most public culture is cracking up and decaying, but at the same time thousands of flowers, lichen, vines, weeds, you name it are growing up in all the cracks and vacant lots.  I am sure more Americans are reading more good books and writing more good prose than at any time in our history.  Huge amounts of dreck are produced to be sure.  But there has never been a time in our history when more Americans had access to the best that has been written and thought and were taking advantage of it.  There is going to be more and more of this.  In ten years, for a $100 you will be able to carry the equivalent of a university library with you whereever you go.  This is a big deal.  I notice that ordinary people are more informed than at any time in my life.  People forget how much ignorance there was in the 1960s and '70s in a typical American town. This aspect of the world has changed and for the better.  I also don't agree about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and so on.  Sure, they were fine writers.  But I think they were also major beneficiaries of a rich-getting-richer dynamic where they were made part of the canon and promoted to be culture heros.  Now that system is breaking or has already broken up.  American publishing isn't controlled by what I've heard called a cabal of twenty liberal women from Manhattan (sorry, but that's how a famous conservative writer described it in a candid moment).  There's a whole world now of self-publication now on the Web, and that's just beginning.  Most of what's published is bad, but most of anything always is.  I am much more impressed by how many people on their blogs, for example, write well, even really well, and have a lot to say.  There are lots of thoughtful people out there and they can talk and listen to each other as never before.  Old gatekeepers are gone.  This is not going to lead to some sort of nirvana, but it's a powerfully good thing.  It will make it much harder to strip people of their freedom, for one thing.  Sort of the intellectual equivalent of the Second Amendment.

Religion, values and all that -- I don't agree that we are going to hell. I teach youngsters for a living and I am continually impressed by their resolve and courage.  They are plenty smart but one thing I have learned I think is that character you can never have too much of, while intelligence you need enough of but after a certain amount it is almost irrelevant, if you are not an astrophysicist or something.  Kids these days, from what I can see, are strong and brave.  Look at them in Iraq, for heaven's sake.  Compare our military now to the US Army in Vietnam.  There are grave social problems, but I remember the seventies and early eighties.  In many ways, the country's values are much healthier now.

I could be completely wrong, but Obama is beginning to look to me as a kind of Jimmy Carter.  He is either going to change himself, or people are going to cast him aside.  I don't think he has what it takes (knock on wood) to lead us off of cliff.  I don't think enough people will follow him.  In fact, I think a lot of moderates and independents may have learned or be about to learn a lesson.

I'm one of nature's pessimists.  I see the glass as half full, with poisoned water.  Even so, I really think our best days are ahead of us.  The people who would like to stamp out or cabin inside of the state the best things about this country, have come along a few decades too late.  I could be wrong, but I don't think so.

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Tom Smith


I don't think things are as rosy as you believe. It will not be your generation (or mine) that will be weighed down by the staggering debt being laid on the backs of your children and grandchildren. This isn't guesswork, as the demographics and the economic factors are already in place for a lower standard of living. And that doesn't even address the issue of worldwide Jihadists. But at least on that question, I am less certain.

Posted by: josil | Mar 22, 2009 12:50:24 AM

I tellya, Smith, there was warning when I got out of bed and put on my pants backward. Now this wild optimism, and it's too early in the day for me to think.

I do not disagree; we have the tools to fight, the best tools ever provided to free men both to learn and to teach. But one of the ancients told me we are cured of an evil only by suffering it to the fullest. There lies the dilemma.

Our revolutionaries were doing just fine with incrementalism over most of a century. Now they are at risk of blowing it all up, and you are suggesting we pull them back from the brink and to the thousand cuts once again. Inotherwords, you are a timid wimp, like me--let it either blow up or completely shrivel, ah, down the road.

What you observe of young people is true--true of those you are around. Yet the counterforces are tremendous, not in some equal counterforce to what you observe, but in a vast mediocrity, and worse, which is not only encouraged by our masters, but enforced. That is Obama's Kingdom, and Tocqueville's prophecy.

Posted by: james wilson | Mar 22, 2009 9:07:35 AM

This is what bad consists of:

"Of course all the world's sports clubs were mourning their dead through the winter of 1918-19. In British rugby, no black-creped sorrows can have been heavier than those of the ancient and fabled London Scottish club based at Richmond Athletic Ground a mile or so up the road from Twickenham. On 13 April, the last Saturday of the 1913-14 season, London Scottish 1st XV beat Blackheath on a day when the club fielded a further three XVs, a total of 60 players. Of those, 45 died in the war."

Hat tip, Alex Massie at the Spectator blog.

Posted by: dearieme | Mar 22, 2009 11:05:08 AM

Yes, things aren't very bad. What concerns a lot of us is not that things are bad, it's that it is possible that the looters will succeed in turning around some important long-term trends, particularly in productivity growth. We can grow our way out from almost any amount of debt as long as we do what Reagan did: cut tax rates and regulations, to increase the returns to capital, labor and creativity. Obama and the Democratic Congress are trying to do the opposite. We hope that they will not succeed or, better, that they will find it politically expedient to do what Reagan did. My fear is that voters who were foolish enough to elect Obama will now be foolish enough not to reject his statist programs until it is too late to reverse them. Time will tell.

Meanwhile I don't think there's any doubt that our system of primary education, and the parts of our culture most influenced by it, have deteriorated significantly in comparison even to what we had in the '70s. So the other big worry is that Obama and Pelosi will do to our medical system and big chunks of our civil society the same kind of damage as the Left has already done to education.

We still have things good, and I agree that our culture is better in some ways than it used to be, and that some parts of our society are stronger than ever. But those are the hard, accountable parts of our society, and the Left wants to diminish them and to expand the soft, politicized, dysfunctional realm that it dominates.

If we're lucky, we've overdone our pessimism and a bright future lies ahead. People tend to overweight the present when making predictions, so it's quite possible that things will look much better in a year or two.

Posted by: Jonathan | Mar 22, 2009 7:58:32 PM

Isnt tax and spend the only proven way out of a really bad economy. Not just a small recession, but a really bad like a depression. just a thought, i havent thought bout it too much. I mean, everyone seems to agree that WWII is what really ended the depression. But wasnt WWII just a huge tax and spend. They could've just made widgets of any kind or just dumped all those tanks and planes in the ocean and it wouldve had the same effect. People made lots of personal sacrifices and gave up certain amenities during the war to serve the greater good.

Cant we just do the same now but replace the military equipment with something else? Like I said, just a thought.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 23, 2009 12:19:25 AM

Hanson's historical work is impressive. His social commentary is just awful.

The linked piece amounts to a 2-page "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" old man rant: these damn kids today and their awful rap music, terrible movies, and casual clothing are ruining America!

You could easily transplant the same rant into the 1950s: these damn kids today and their awful rock'n'roll music, terrible movies, and casual clothing are ruining America!

Posted by: Angus | Mar 23, 2009 7:54:46 AM

VDH offers concrete, explicit examples to validate his opinions/views.

Your opinions, without any supporting evidence, are not worth much. Kinda worth what I paid for them I guess.

Ron Snyder

Posted by: Ron Snyder | Mar 23, 2009 8:42:14 AM

Come back in a few years (or sooner) and give us another rosy post when interest rates and inflation and unemployment are in double digits and heading higher.

God, I hope business owners have the sense to lay off all their Obama-voting employees first.

What a joke of a blog.

Posted by: Chester White | Mar 23, 2009 10:22:22 AM

O.K., let's see...

We have barbaric hordes out there who want to kill us all, and don't mind dying in the process. The technology of mass destruction is older and easier to attain by the day.

Meanwhile, our government is racking up a $20 trillion dollar debt, and the coming hyper-inflation looms. Even if Obama and the Dems are tossed out of office, that debt will have to be repayed. But only a minority of Republicans have the guts to kill entitlements once they are awarded, so the country will continue selling itself to China, albeit at a slower pace.

And then there is the small matter of the continued destruction of the family unit as the foundation of society. Where the family falls apart, the government steps in to fill the void.

But yeah, other than all of that, things are going great!

Posted by: Ben | Mar 23, 2009 10:24:27 AM

"I'm one of nature's pessimists. I see the glass as half full, with poisoned water"

Okay, I liked that one a lot!

Good article.

Posted by: Chris Muir | Mar 23, 2009 10:24:37 AM

"You could easily transplant the same rant into the 1950s: these damn kids today and their awful rock'n'roll music, terrible movies, and casual clothing are ruining America!"

That's the point. They did. The '60's flower children were the beginning of the end.

Previous generations, to my knowledge, did not feel the need to scold their progeny so, as their progeny respected their elders and never stuck their heads up their asses the way the Boomers did.


Posted by: Qwinn | Mar 23, 2009 10:27:10 AM

Isnt tax and spend the only proven way out of a really bad economy.

Didn't do that in the 80s and worked out a hell of a lot faster than the 30s and 40s. Despite the full employment (employment that could get you killed), WWII was a time of great scarcity. Fuel was rationed as was food, cotton and other essentials of modern life.

Posted by: mishu | Mar 23, 2009 10:29:21 AM

I pretty much agree, Obama will end up being another benign, sorta odd Carter.

I mean Carter printed money 24/7 and backed up by nothing but fancy rhetoric, spent trillions of dollars on liberal interest groups, and decided that releasing terrorists into American civil society was a great idea.

Things will get better because the bar will be so far down that literally anything will be an improvement, so yes, bring on the better. We can meet in the breadline and discuss how great things are.

Posted by: Saint Patton | Mar 23, 2009 10:30:13 AM

benign Carter? Hello Iran (state sponsored terrorism) anyone... Carters actions have arguably led to the deaths of more American civilians than at anytime since the Civil War

Posted by: Cro | Mar 23, 2009 10:39:25 AM

No, Joe, Tax and Spend isn't the 'only proven way out of a really bad economy'. If it was any kind of way to achieve that, then all that government spending undertaken by FDR in the 30's would have made a dent in the depression. The TVA and the NRA (National Recovery Administration) were HUGE public works projects that achieved very little.

Furthermore, what should America build in 2009 that is make-work for the unemployed? Assuming we expend energy and effort on making stuff that we're going to throw away, should we go for high-volume, low tech items like saucepans, or should we go for items with a higher market value, made of more costly materials, that take more energy? The latter would cause commodity prices to soar, which would mean we could pay the people who mine those precious materials more. It'd probably revive the economy that much faster!

The act of producing creates value. A car (even a Chrysler) is worth more than the raw materials it was made of. the act of making it more valuable, however, expends resources, eithe as manpower, energy or those raw materials. Even if you made those items and put the finished good right back in the smelter, what positive action have you achieved? If your idea is to keep people busy, why not just bus them down to the local quarry to break up rocks?

There's was french guy out there in the 1800's called Frederic Bastiat, who exploded such myths quite convincingly with a treatise called "That which is seen, and that which is not seen". It contains a number of thought-provoking take-downs of the idea that breaking shop windows is good for the economy, among others.

Posted by: Ben Williams | Mar 23, 2009 10:41:01 AM

I think Tom Smith is right. I'm not around kids that much. But the ones I do see appear to be more polite than kids were in the 80's (when they were big time smart asses). He is also correct about the military. The military may have its problems today. But the problems today pale in comparison to the problems it had post-Vietnam in the late 70's, when any recreational drug was available on base and when officers visited certain areas of military bases only accompanied by armed escorts.
Crime rates are down significantly from the 70's to early 90's period (although they have ticked up the last 2 years).

He also correctly points out how computers and the internet have destroyed the traditional gate keepers on the dissemination of information. This is very positive and is discussed in detail in Glenn Reynold's "An Army of Davids". A more powerful decentralizing trend will be the emerging "biohacker" DIY biotechnology industry that will be an outgrowth of open-source biology (synthetic biology) and ever cheaper and more powerful biotech instrumentation. I believe this will be medicine from the "mainframe" era into the "PC" era. This, more than anything else, will liberate medicine from the clutches of the socialism and big business.

That our large institutions, both government and private, are evil and corrupt is true. However, this has always been true about large institutions through out all of human history. As long as enough people realize this and work to create their own lives on their own rather than depend on these institutions to make their lives better, there is every reason to expect the future to be bright.

A society composed of decentralized networks of empowered individuals is always superior to one that is under the domination of top-down large scale institutions. It is more dynamic and creative and offers greater freedom. I believe that Tom Smith has the right spirit.

Posted by: kurt9 | Mar 23, 2009 10:54:13 AM

Oh, sorry, and to deal with WWII ending the depression - the benefit was that US industrial plants learned thru' those years how to become VERY efficient and flexible, thereby preparing themselves for a competitive environment once the war was over.

Not that it was very competitive, because if a European industrialist wanted to go back to business making ball bearings after 1945, chances were that he'd have to buy US machinery because the Allies had comprehensively bombed his factory down to rubble.

The Marshall Plan was a mixed blessing for the Europeans. It was an absolute boon to the US.

Posted by: Ben Williams | Mar 23, 2009 10:55:34 AM

"I am sure more Americans are reading more good books and writing more good prose than at any time in our history"

Huh? I wish! I appreciate the optimism but I can't accept it. What is taught in the humanities in our public schools today is disgraceful (America is bad, government is god). And according to Nielsen, 285 million Americans spend an average of 5 hours a day watching TV. Those facts are the only way I can make sense of the state of our current political class. Please, God, send us another Reagan!

Posted by: john | Mar 23, 2009 11:01:28 AM

I'm going to go with your good vibe today and get excited about the possibility of self publishing my book and having it take off like The Shack!!! Thanks for the upbeat article...

Posted by: Jane | Mar 23, 2009 11:09:29 AM

Given the trend is for our elected officials to make things significantly worse with each interference, and anticipating the effects of their stated promises that, er, promise to deepen to the current sicknesses in the economy and of our liberty, there is every reason to believe things will get much worse.

Remove the current administration from the equation and my optimism would leap. I'm hoping for change in 2010.

Until then, would the last optimist turn out the lights.

Posted by: Greg Toombs | Mar 23, 2009 11:21:24 AM

My 19 year old son is in complete rebellion against me, my wife, and our lifestyle. We were boomer kids, whose parents survived the Depression and then WWII (oddly enough, both dads were in the Merchant Marines) and then went on to productive careers as enterpreneurs and corporate salesmen. Of course, my wife and I went to better primary schools and colleges than our parents. We were educated to within an inch of our ability to repay college loans. I became a corporate research scientist, she became a doctor. We worked until our early 40's to pay back our student loans, all while living in a manner beyond that of our parents and also having our kids. We are now ~50, with little savings for retirement (less since 2007!) and kids in college.

So my son is rebelling against our liberal arts/corporate worker educations. He is a cadet at a military college, studying finance and foreign policy (and how to kill the enemy). His attitude is exactly opposite that of my wife and myself at his age. He wants zero debt, because he saw us paying student loans for so many years after college. He wants to be able to earn money without relying on a corporation for a job or an expensive post secondary education as a specialist, so he is studying stock trading and investing at an early age, and avoiding expenses (no car, no girlfriend at college, no expenses other than cost of being a student and a cadet). He is thinking about letting the military pay for his last 3 years as a student at the cost of 4 years service as an officer, but is leaning against that "time debt" despite a strong desire to follow his friends into the military. In other words, at 19 he is acting with a strong awareness of the future consequences of his current actions, which my wife and I were strongly avoiding until we hit 40.

I think there are a lot of kids like him out there, rebelling against their parents in an entirely admirable manner. They will carry the future despite the dead weight of government dependent persons. When the pendulum of public attitude swings their way again, Reagan's reforms might look like a mild correction to Carter in comparison. Ending welfare - why not? Ending entitlements? Why not? Ending high taxation? Why not? Ending the march towards socialism? Oh hell yes!

I wish him the best and think he will succeed.

Posted by: Mikee | Mar 23, 2009 11:36:22 AM

People are better educated and have more access to information than ever. Economic liberty is superior and will prevail in the marketplace of ideas. VDH is succumbing to temporary setbacks.

Posted by: Randy | Mar 23, 2009 11:39:06 AM

Greg wrote: "So my son is rebelling against our liberal arts/corporate worker educations." Best of luck to your son, he sounds like a young man with a good head on his shoulders.

Posted by: Pete | Mar 23, 2009 11:54:11 AM

Happens I disagree, respectfully...

Posted by: richard mcenroe | Mar 23, 2009 11:59:04 AM

Ate my link.

We do a weekly rally in Studio City. The young people up here are NOT filled with resolve and courage. They are filled with an unthinking assumption that mommy and daddy will take care of them and the trust fund will always be there, along with a sullen, incomprehending resentment if you try to explain things differently to them.

Posted by: richard mcenroe | Mar 23, 2009 12:01:45 PM