This time last year, we received our completed tax return from our accountant. We knew that our gross income had risen about 20 percent, but we were shocked to see that it translated into a taxable gross income increase of 60 percent — making for an actual tax increase of 90 percent!
We were already in a lousy taxpaying mood — required to pay for a $3 trillion war, disingenuously funded off-budget; more to bail out greedy investment bankers, some of whom should go to jail.
If we had we been asked to sacrifice at that moment, we’d have thought, “Are you kidding? Start with Wall Street!”
But, argues New York Times columnist David Brooks, sacrifice is needed if the country is to rescue itself from eight years of Bush excesses leading to the worst financial meltdown since 1929. Brooks, though, doubts that the American people, no matter who is president, will ever make the sacrifices necessary to address the serious fiscal problems confronting the Republic.
I suggest it isn’t that middle America won’t “sacrifice” — rather, today middle America feels all alone in the civic lifeboat. And people who feel alone often retrench to what Edward Banfield, in his book The Moral Basis of the Backward Society, termed “amoral familism,” which is defined as trust limited to one’s extended family. Forget a larger purpose or national unity — when society heads backwards, it’s every man for himself.
Of course, amoral familism leads to cynicism, resulting in a diminished civic life, upon which all appeals for sacrifice depend.
During World War II, Americans felt differently. Americans then sacrificed because they believed, at a symbolic level anyway, that all Americans were in the same boat. Even at my young age, I can recall community expressed in the form of involvement and sacrifice — much of it symbolic to be sure. There was the rationing, the paper drives, the blackouts, the antiaircraft drills, the comings and goings of GIs: I have very clear memories of all this.
Sacrifice, which became the civic narrative and remained in play for another 30 years, began to disintegrate during the ’70s — Vietnam, Watergate, civil rights fights and social excesses all contributed to the breakdown. Leaping into this sea of social and political disarray, the Reaganites cheerily rationalized an alternative, idealized narrative — much more like Ayn Rand, and a lot less like Theodore Roosevelt.
The new political class turned Kennedy’s exhortation on its head: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” became “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask only what you don’t want your country to do for you.”
This deconstruction turned out to be a bad idea on two counts: First, it led to unrealistic expectations that inevitably had to be dashed; and second, the cost of maintaining what amounted to an illusion would prove to be very high, as doubling the national debt confirmed. Moreover, Reagonomics never worked as advertised. The rich did get richer, but the middle class continued to lose ground. Even in this century, true believers pointed to the housing boom as evidence that the good times would roll for everyone. But alas, the boom turned out to be a placebo in colorful costume.
In the years since Reagan, the gap between the rich and the rest widened dramatically. In 1982, the ratio between the CEO income and average worker income was 42-to-1. Ten years later, the ratio was 107-to-1. During George W. Bush’s first year in office, the ratio went to an all-time high of 525-to-1. Just the executive perks alone now stand at 10 times the salary of the average worker!
Nor did the new economic royalists even show an appreciation for their lavish lifestyles. No, they viewed their newfound wealth to be a neo-Gilded Age entitlement. (“It’s our due,” said Dick Cheney regarding the 2001 tax cuts, which so benefited the wealthiest Americans.)
Is the story being retold in California all over again? In the realm of neo-Gilded Age social obliviousness, I nominate Carly Fiorina as the poster child. She runs Hewlett-Packard onto the rocks, is fired, but stops on her way out the door just long enough to collect a severance package worth upwards of $40 million — and she is trying to convince California voters that she is a fiscal conservative? I doubt this senate candidate understands how truly absurd a person she really is.
Just try to imagine Fiorina ever asking for sacrifice. Right, you can’t.
Populism, for many, has become the reaction of choice. We recall the famous line shouted by the Howard Beale character in the 1976 film, Network: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!”
The Tea Partiers reflect this mentality. Former Congressman Al Swift once remarked that while Beale’s line makes for good theater, it is terrible for responsible governance. He was right.
This acknowledged, if it is sacrifice that we need, populism isn’t our worst enemy; cynicism is. The cynic attributes bad motives to everyone — to the president, to the government, to the local school board, to the local business owner, even to neighbors. Cynicism is the silent civic killer, the germ that grows into alienation. Cynicism whispers in our ears: “Sacrifice is for suckers!”
If we can’t reduce cynicism by recreating some form of the idealized civic narrative we knew during World War II, we can forget about sacrifice. And if this cynical, distrustful, every-man-for-himself point of view wins, we might want to start reading Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.