CATHERINE FORD/Guest Columnist
America’s greatest trait turns out to be that country’s greatest threat: the overweening optimism that all things are possible to all people.
Only daydreamers and wishful thinkers believe this. They keep lottery corporations and casinos in business — both examples of a tax on the poor and desperate. They believe in luck and happenstance and chance. Worse, they bet on it with their and others’ futures.
In the face of an almost unimaginable debt load and a more-than-trillion-dollar deficit, coupled with a toxic political environment, the United States has come as close to bankruptcy as the world’s last so-called superpower could without actually having to foreclose on the Capitol. The disappointment in a president whose rhetoric sings but whose actions are close to impotent is palpable. How could such hope for change and for a bright future that was the mantra in the last U.S. presidential election have come to this point?
Those of us who are not American, those of us who willingly or otherwise pay taxes to provide for universal social services, are perplexed, if not stunned, by the seeming intractability of our closest neighbours to choose their own self-interest over wishful pipe dreams.
Attitude as old as U.S. itself
Various commentators call it narcissism or plain childishness. This is nothing new and it didn’t arise with the current debt crisis brought on by the triple whammy of the high cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sub-prime mortgage crises and subsequent recession, and tax cuts for the richest Americans brought in by the previous president, George W. Bush.
Their attitude about government taxes and oversight may very well go back to before the American Revolution, itself sparked by what was seen as unfair taxation. It’s as entrenched as the decision by the Pilgrims to set out from England in 1620 for an unknown land. All they had was their faith in God, their desire to be free to practise their religion, and their ability to work hard. Life had to be better than the persecution they faced in England.
And so the optimism in which today’s U.S. citizens believe was set: Privation, starvation and brutal winters — they inadvertently landed in Massachusetts, rather than the more clement Virginia — did not crush their hopes. Always a better life beckons. Still does.
Equality, in theory
Credit the belief that an egalitarian society actually exists in the United States. Americans do not believe they sit in serried rows, separated by wealth and power, income and investments; they believe they all have the same chance of material success.
That this is ludicrous in the face of the reality of so much unemployment doesn’t seem to matter. They live, they believe, in the “best country in the world,” to quote President Barack Obama. Just keep your eyes on the brass ring, so nobody notices the huge underclass of the underprivileged, homeless, unemployed and desperate millions.
The best explanation for this kind of optimism, in which neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to take a hit and raise taxes to wrest their country away from the precipice, came nearly a decade ago, long before the current wars, recession and fiscal crisis.
Voting for the dream
In 2003, in The New York Times magazine, writer David Brooks put his finger on the reality of American thinking. “People vote their aspirations,” he wrote. “They don’t see society as a conflict zone between the rich and poor.”
What surprises citizens of other countries is the lack of outrage and revolt over what everyone else sees as inequality. But Americans just don’t see it that way. As Brooks puts it: “Income resentment is not a strong emotion in much of America.”
“It’s not hard to see why they think this way. Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that the great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we’re just pre-rich.”
“Many Americans admire the rich,” wrote Brooks. After all, if they believe they are soon to be among the affluent, why would they vote to tax their future more-prosperous selves?
It makes no sense, but there it is.