Rebuttal to Robert Reich's Claim "Americans Have Not Lived Beyond Their Means"
Yesterday, I wrote a lengthy commentary comparing the missteps of a well-known but badly mismanaged company to how our government is being run.
A number of factors ultimately convinced me not to publish the piece in full. But I feel it would be useful to share how it ended.
And please don't ask me who "Company X" is. I'm not going to give any hints.
The Hard Truth
So why am I going on so much about this wayward, struggling company?
Because I read this today from Robert Reich:
Brace yourself. In coming weeks you’ll hear there’s no serious alternative to cutting Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on middle class, and decimating what’s left of the federal government’s discretionary spending on everything from education and job training to highways and basic research.
“We” must make these sacrifices, it will be said, in order to deal with our mushrooming budget deficit and cumulative debt.
But most of the people who are making this argument are very wealthy or are sponsored by the very wealthy: Wall Street moguls like Pete Peterson and his “Fix the Debt” brigade, the Business Roundtable, well-appointed think tanks and policy centers along the Potomac, members of the Simpson-Bowles commission.
These regressive sentiments are packaged in a mythology that Americans have been living beyond our means: We’ve been unwilling to pay for what we want government to do for us, and we are now reaching the day of reckoning.
The truth is most Americans have not been living beyond their means. The problem is their means haven’t been keeping up with the growth of the economy — which is why most of us need better education, infrastructure, and healthcare, and stronger safety nets.
He goes on to make the argument for a wealth tax on the richest Americans to pay for that education, infrastructure, and healthcare.
I'm not going to tackle the wealth tax concept here (though I have strong opinions). But I want to point out that I see the same blindness to reality, the same unrealistic expectations, in Reich's commentary as I do in [Company X].
Reich mentions but then dismisses the only point that matters: America does not have the wealth to meet the entitlements it has promised. Nor can it sustainably meet its operating costs.
Why is that? Because we, as a society, have very much indeed lived beyond our means. By building up such a tremendous amount of debt through our profligacy that a small rise in interest rates would be catastrophic. That our children and children's children will be "paying backwards" for our largess, unless some debt-clearing event transpires (which I think will).
Being unwilling to acknowledge this unpleasant but fundamental truth dooms any attempts to avoid it, via wealth redistribution or any other means. It's the same flavor of willful ignorance that caused [Company X] to convince itself it could claim all mountaintops until it eventually begrudgingly realized it wasn't summitting any.
There were many times at [Company X] where employees would report listening to the "rah rah" all-hands presentations by the executives and walk away disconcerted. Despite the assurances of the great talent within the company and the wonderful ideas currently on the drawing board, it increasingly appeared that they were not admitting the obvious: The strategy was flawed, the company was failing, and radical change was needed if we wanted to succeed again.
That's exactly how I feel when reading Reich's piece. If this is the logic that our country's leaders are using in their decision-making, then Houston, we indeed have a problem. Learning how this movie played out in the smaller [Company X] microcosm, I have no appetite for watching a sequel at the national level. But I fear that's what we're in store for.
I don't know how much influence Reich has these days, as he's not working in the current Administration as he did for three other Presidents (Ford, Carter and Clinton). But from the current fiscal and monetary policy we're pursuing, it sure seems like his mindset is not that far from those currently in DC.
So I find myself reflecting on my own personal story, when I worked for a company that had a misguided strategy I no longer believed in. How I stopped hoping its trajectory would change, and instead, decided I was going to need to change mine.
I invested in self-discovery to identify work that was meaningful for me. Fulfilling work that I'd be happy doing no matter the compensation. I cut the cord, resigning before I knew what I would do next. Staying on would only delay the hard work I'd need to do to create my future. I started developing the skills I'd need for my new chosen profession. And I began to tap the power and goodwill of other people who could help me (and whom, in turn, I could help back).
Seems to me this is good advice for our national predicament.
The ride from here is likely to get bumpy as reality punctures our leaders' unrealistic expectations. But if we, as individuals, invest in living authentically, working hard, and fostering supportive community, we'll enjoy the benefits of a resilient life regardless of what transpires.
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