Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bread and circuses

I get it. We're all infuriated about the AIG bonuses. Our moral indignation has never been higher. But here's a memo for everyone, progressive, conservative, or biconceptual: you're getting played.

Back in the Roman Empire, the emperors knew that all they really needed to do to keep the people happy - and thus, to keep themselves well supplied with peeled grapes and concubines - was to make sure the people had food and amusement: Bread and circuses. If the people weren't overly hungry, and had something to distract them, the emperors knew they could get away with really anything they wanted for as long as they wanted.

For instance, they could get their veni, vidi, vici on across all the way up to Hadrian's Wall, regardless of whether there was any real need or point to doing so. And if such shenanigans had any unintended consequences, such as overextending Rome's power to the point of bringing down the entire empire, well, the next fellow would have to clean up the mess.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It's every Republican administration since, let's see, at least Nixon.

So this bonus thing, while hugely offensive, is a big distraction. It's a circus. Don't fall for it. Ironically, it's a circus about "bread" in the colloquial sense of the word. It's just the latest. Since January 20th, we've had the whole mess with Rod Blagojevich, Geithner's tax problems, a litany of trumped up Republican ire over this or that trivial aspect of each of Obama's cabinet appointments' pasts. What, I wonder, will be next?

Honestly, who cares? I just can bring myself to give a crap about the AIG bonuses or any of the rest of it. It's all just circuses, circuses, circuses. Not even good ones, at that. There are much more important things to be worried about right now.

Like whether anyone will start lending again soon enough to keep millions of American small businesses from failing. Whether the education system is going to modernize and improve fast enough so that America doesn't fall irrevocably behind fast-rising China and India. Whether we'll actually shift the makeup of America's energy sources away from oil and coal fast enough to keep from killing the planet. Whether we'll get meaningful changes in our tax system in time to stabilize federal budgets and social programs for the next few generations.

If you ask me, those things are all just an eensy bit more important than whether some craven thieves took one last chance to stuff another 165 million dollars into their pockets. Of course they did. Don't pretend you're not surprised, but don't forget it's just a circus.

Don't let it distract you from what's really important.

Thankfully, our president doesn't seem to keep his TV tuned to the Circus News Network 24x7. He seems to have a little bit better focus than the rest of us.

We've had our little history lesson about Rome, and with all the comparisons being made between Obama's first 100 days and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days, another short lesson is in order. After all, the comparisons are hard to avoid: FDR brought us out of a depression, Obama seeks to keep us from falling into one. FDR gave us the New Deal, and Obama is being pushed to give us a "New New Deal."

FDR's first 100 days were characterized by 15 major pieces of "New Deal" legislation. These ranged all over the map, but included banking reforms such as the creation of the FDIC, the existence of which has surely kept people from making panicked runs on the banks these last six months and taking down even more banks. It included several major infrastructure projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which despite the environmental down-side of the many dams that the TVA constructed, did lift residents of the Tennessee Valley region out of third-world living conditions.

FDR's first 100 days also stretched into the production side of the economy, with significant legislation that re-negotiated the relationship between business and labor around the ideas that workers had the right to organize and that wages should increase in step with prices, culminating in passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which kicked off the labor movement and led to the rise of the middle class.

The New Deal was how the Roosevelt administration restructured nearly every aspect of American life to take America back from the greedy bankers and industrial robber barons who were stealing it from the people. Robin Hood must surely have been proud - and no doubt astonished - to see such sweeping populist reshaping of the political landscape happen at the point of a pen, rather than at the point of an arrow.

Ok. Back to the present. People look at FDR's record, compare it to Obama's, and grumble "all Obama has done is pass the stimulus package, which probably isn't enough to save the economy anyway."

They're right, to a point. We'll almost certainly need more stimulus later. But look deeper, into the line items. The stimulus package is also the biggest education bill in U.S. history. It's the biggest energy bill in U.S. history. And - although it would surely make Republicans' heads explode to admit it - it's also the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.

Hm. Education. Energy. Tax reform. Three of those things that are almost axiomatically more important than the AIG bonuses. Certainly, the education, energy, and tax line items in the stimulus package aren't going to be the end of the story on those issues or many, many others. But they're good starts. They're meaningful steps towards a better future.

In fact, if we're comparing against FDR's yardstick of 15, there's so much stuff in the stimulus package that it ought to count for about 5 FDR's pieces of New Deal legislation. And Obama's only a little more than half way through his first 100 days.

It would appear that President Obama can indeed, as he asserted in the campaign, do more than one thing at a time. He does it, in part, by ignoring the circuses.

I suggest we all do the same.


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