Carl Van Doren, an early twentieth century literary critic, said that America rediscovers herself about every 30 years. Grant Wood (the painter of “American Gothic”) believed the Great Depression was one of those periods of rediscovery. The drama of the debt crisis leads me to think we are rediscovering ourselves yet again.
The 2008 banking meltdown was the catalyst for some serious rediscovery work in the American psyche, resulting in profound changes in such long-held beliefs as:
* A home is your best investment and the foundation for your nest egg;
* You deserve a new car every three years or so, and while you’re at it, buy a bigger one;
* The more stuff you own, the happier you will be;
* America’s international obligations are wide and deep; and
* Government workers at all levels deserve good pay, job security and generous benefits.
In short, the financial crisis and the resulting high unemployment has forced Americans to get by with less. And they look around and ask, “If I have to get by with less, why can’t the government?”
This is a major shift from the idea of the government as the solver of every social need and contradicts FDR’s idea that one of the responsibilities of government is to ensure “freedom from want.” But it seems liberals and even some conservatives don’t completely understand this sea change in American thought.
Liberals have talked about “shared sacrifice,” where the sacrifice equals higher taxes but no alteration in D.C.’s spending culture.
Meanwhile certain conservatives are learning that America’s appetite for embarking on decades-long foreign interventions and giving blank checks to the Defense Department has waned.
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey gets it. A key element of his argument to rein in spending has been to show that state workers are privileged compared to their private-sector neighbors. Meanwhile, USA Today ran a story this week on how some of Uncle Sam’s employees are more likely to die than to lose their jobs due to poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — thus teeing up the federal version of Christie’s issue.
I think this sea change in America’s thinking also motivates many of the House Republican freshmen, who view the debt ceiling crisis as an opportunity to finally reach that elusive goal of significantly cutting government spending.
Right now, it seems that any deal to resolve the crisis will involve major spending reductions upfront — not sometime in the future when, invariably, the temptation not to cut will be strong. This is a most welcome shift from the 1980s, when President Reagan got his tax cuts but the promised spending cuts never materialized, mostly because they were too hard to get through Congress.
I realize the current churning over resolving the debt ceiling issue makes many (including me) uneasy. But perhaps we can be encouraged by Grant Wood, who struck a hopeful note amid the Depression in 1935. He wrote that each cycle of American rediscovery, including the one resulting from the Depression, “is always slightly different, always complex in its causes and phenomena; but happily it is always enlightening.”
Today, it’s hard to see happiness in the midst of our current enlightenment, but we should remain confident that America will be stronger for it in the end.
Joanne Butler is a senior economics fellow at the Caesar Rodney Institute of Delaware. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.