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Guest Host Blogger Matthew Sawh: Chattering Class and Campaigns Finally Forced to Meet the Main Street Meltdown?

 Last week's financial fright-fest has forced the punditocracy to realize and to discuss what most Americans have felt for a long time.  Long before these past two weeks, Gallup did a poll about the differing perceptions of the economy sorted by state. Daniel Brook's (highly-recommended) book The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take All America details the coarsening of our culture through economics in painful, frustrating, and furious detail. In particular, a striking quote comes from Margaret Thatcher. She said, 'economics are the method; the object is to change the soul. ‘ Although she meant it very differently, we need to cleanse our souls.  
Many Americans have come to resent the moral poverty borne out of the unbalanced job market. These choices have come out of the vast economic changes of the past generation. Some, like globalization were quite unstoppable. Others like off-shoring for shareholders and refund checks were the crudest examples of our cultural excess. I have no problem with tax cuts, I have a problem with the federal government passing the buck (or six-hundred) to shrug its shoulders and proclaim impotence.   
We have a real public-sector crisis, in so many words (and as Brook demonstrates). Public-sector professional salaries of teachers (for example) have declined relative to those of lawyers and investment bankers (who perform a necessary, important and valuable function).   Obama's discussion of Main Street regarding foreclosures is nice. McCain's comments about Chairman Cox are troubling. But both are missing the real, existential point of this crisis and, the corresponding opportunity to lead.
John Edwards embodies the trouble with leading. First, he was a phony. As a Senator, he opposed nearly everything he later supported as a presidential candidate. This most centrist of the DLC Senate Democrats prioritized  posture over policy.
Yet, some of his hollowness serves as an apt metaphor for the defects of our politics. In order to have the money to have a platform to push for populism, Edwards needed the clout and connections from being a trial lawyer. Once he tried to be a populist, critics pointed to this difference between his rhetoric and his biography. One must do well before doing good these days (a point made by Brook). To his credit, the economic populism debate he invited the elites to join also helped pave the way for GOP populist Mike Huckabee in and beyond Iowa.    

Both candidates of economic populism have failed in this cycle.  What does this mean for Obama and McCain?

There is a real opening for a very important debate about American identity in this economy: What do we as society want to promote?  We may have separation of church and state, but, even now, in this jaundiced and jaded age, politicians are still our high priests.   

We desperately need to talk about American values and,where we are going to invest as a society. 
We need to discuss how people can harness their specialized talents towards a public or non-profit good. We need to discuss how people can better connect their faith to their everyday lives. We need to discuss how folks feel when they have to take jobs they hate or, don't believe in, to get by.
McCain wants to talk about patriotism? Where is the US Public Service Academy? Obama wants to talk about Main Street? Where is his plan for the people who have been gutted by this economy? What about the people who have lost their guaranteed pension plan and, didn't know about 401k plans?
The Mainstream Media is reading the symptoms well, but, they are failing to diagnose the real issue at play: the spiritual crisis which underwrote and underlined the financial crisis.
The Bush Years have been marked by a set of values crises: What does it mean to be an American after 9/11?; what marks a patriot?; what defines 'success,' be it in terms of a career or, in Iraq; How to be a mother and a career woman?  
Many of these questions are not new, but they require new solutions. What brackets these crises together is that at no point in the past seven years did President Bush succeed in narrowing the dividing line between left and right on these issues. That is where all Americans wanted him to most succeed and where he failed most miserably. It is where the next president needs to begin.  
Most important, though, the balance between corporate profits and corporate responsibility is a defining issue --just like the difference in compensation between the public and private sectors.  
We never resolved this after the 2002 Enron debacle. Six years later, Wall Street has been caught again. We need to have a serious conversation including all ideological viewpoints and constituents to try to come to some sort of redefining and restructuring of America's capitalist economy.  Sure, iit will be about how to fit manufacturing sector employees elsewhere, but, it also needs to be about so much more than that.
We need a worker's bill of rights. We need a set of corporate duties and obligations which are not just legal, but, ethically-minded. We need a shift from 'this won't be punished' to, 'this will be positively encouraged.” I applaud the corporate social responsibility leaders on this front.

We need to better value the public sector vis-à-vis the private sector. We need the private sector to better reward ethical and managerial excellence over sheer performance.
The media is busy dramatizing the crisis but n so doing, it misses the crucial point. Our economy is demonstrating (now for white-collar workers) the limits of Reaganomic capitalism. (The drawbacks for blue-collar workers were long since shown.) 
As evidenced by numerous polls, the American people are spiritually and materially frustrated with its rigidity as well.
We need this message to be received by the presidential campaigns. Then, we will see who is listening to us, even if they are not leading us.

  • gordon marshall said:

    This is great, Matthew, shrewd, balanced, and illuminating.

    September 25, 2008 1:43 AM
  • martha moses said:

    I'm in full agreement, although not very hopeful the crisis will mend our character.

    October 4, 2008 4:30 AM
  • Edward Perlmutter said:

    While I find many of the criticisms on the mark and Mathews' suggestions for specific solutions interesting,the truth is that the world will proceed piecemeal as Lenin wrote, one step backwards ,two steps forward....the wretched excess of the Clinton-Bush,2 was enjoyed by vast numbers of Americans despite the usual whining of progressives  regarding alleged income disparity...everyone loves credit and everyone was the excesses of Wall St which produced tax revenues  for the 400,000 students in the NYC school system whose parents  pay no income taxes whatsoever,etc.......if the Democrats win Congress and the White House, they will introduce too much regulation to compensate for admittedly too little....and that will have to be corrected...and it will all continue as a muddle which is usually the case....what will not change is that it is Capitalism  which has delivered a remarkable,previously,undreamed of increase in the standard of living to multi -millions of working people  throughtout the West and Globalization which is slowly spreading these gains thrpough out the world....this is a crisis but there have been many crises for capitalism thru the 19th and 20 Century....the alternative is for the Democrats and their allies to admit that their utopian programs for the economy,business, environment,etc will require a substantial reduction in everyone's  standard of living and go fight the next election on that kind of honesty...and they will be wiped out!

    October 5, 2008 12:01 AM

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