I received one of those ubiquitous e-mails that delve into the deep questions of life in a droll way. This one was “What do women want?” It was a long, twisted tale about young King Arthur, Lancelot, and an ugly witch who had all the answers but would give them only for a very high price. Women, she said, wanted to control their own lives. The moral of the story was: if you don’t let a woman have her way, things are going to get ugly. (How true, how true.)
That got me to thinking about our own fair land, with respect to the same question – but in a broader sense (no pun intended). What do Americans want? The election season – which now seems to run almost continually – is a time when many of us ponder this deep, almost metaphysical question. Webster defines “metaphysical” as: “… of or relating to the transcendent, or to a reality beyond what is perceptible to the senses.” Seems a perfect description of American electoral attitudes, as I hope to demonstrate below by listing a few salient points.
Americans want peace. Or, at least, they don’t want war. Evidently this is voters’ top concern. Democrats have made hay with it in recent years. To hear Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tell it, Democrats won the Congress in 2006 on a promise to end the Iraq war. If so, they could be in big trouble, as they clearly didn’t make good. But they can blame the war-guy, George W.
Americans don’t like to fight – or so a visiting Martian might conclude from watching the nightly news, listening to Mrs. Pelosi, and reading left-leaning blogs. Yet history shows that Americans will fight. They can be savage warriors if you get them riled. An old veteran of the Pacific islands campaign of World War II said a Japanese prisoner (there weren’t very many) related how their officers had told them the Americans weren’t tough enough to take them. “They found out different,” said the old vet, with a grim look. I saw films in the 1950s of piles of Japanese soldiers’ bodies being bulldozed into common graves. When the Japs wouldn’t quit, we dropped two atomic bombs on them. We can obviously get really tough when we have to be.
But I have talked with enough veterans to be pretty sure that the war-disliking facet of our national character is correct. Not one veteran said he loved the war – or even liked the war – and was sorry when it was over. To a man, they wanted to finish it as fast as possible and go home. This actually clarifies our use of the Bomb.
The Japanese were getting whipped all over the Pacific. They showed no inclination to surrender, banking on their island-defenses to stave off invasion and complete defeat. They were sure we would shrink from that terrible battle. Military experts estimated a cost of millions of lives. Thus, President Truman saw the bomb as a means for saving lives – not just of our soldiers, but of Japanese soldiers and civilians as well. A “humanitarian” use of the Bomb gets the horselaugh now, but that’s how it was seen in 1945.
What about now? Do we want peace? Certainly. Will we accept defeat as the price of peace? Doubtful. We don’t like losing. So where are we on this? We’re where we always are: we want the war to be finished. History shows that about four years is our limit – maybe less than that of really heavy fighting. Vietnam went on far too long. The public lost patience and we accepted a flimsy peace that was sure to be violated as soon as we withdrew.
Anti-American scoffers like to crow that we were “beaten” in Vietnam. It’s not really true, in the sense of being defeated in the field. The North Vietnamese agreed to peace talks because we were destroying them. We were bombing the port of Haiphong into rubble. The enemy believed if they dragged things out long enough, we would get sick of being there and would withdraw. Of course, they were right. When they took Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam in 1975, they defeated only our incompetent ally, South Vietnam. But the taste it left was sour.
This dreary scenario might have replayed in Iraq, had Mr. Bush not hung tough and brought in a general who knew how to finish. Al Qaeda had studied the history of our Vietnam debacle, and they thought they could pull out a win just by outlasting us. But Mr. Bush and General Petraeus crossed them up with the Surge – putting enough troops on the ground to tip the balance. If things continue to go well, the American people might have enough patience to let us stay in and win.
Scoffers say the war can’t be won. While the enemy has sanctuary and his supply line remains intact, that could be true. But as enemy combatants see their comrades killed or captured, and they find it harder to get weapons and supplies, they will lose heart. Few will hold on for decades, like that Japanese solder who was found on Guam in 1972. This war can be won. We must simply deny the enemy safety and supply, as in all wars. Julius Caesar could have told us that.
Americans want prosperity. They want low inflation, lots of good jobs, steadily increasing home values, high pay and low-priced goods. They want their investment portfolios to go up in value. And (as the wicked witch in The Wiz said) they don’t want no more bad news…
The man on the street knows times are bad. He is steamed, and he will almost certainly elect a Democratic president and many more congresspersons of the same political persuasion, come November. This is what we’re being told, repeatedly, by our good friends in the Big Media – the same ones who have been calling this the worst economy since the Great Depression. It’s just a matter of time until we start reading about the starving children again, as we did in 1992. (Not the starving children! No, not that!). Some of us recall that 1992 was Worst Economy Since the Great Depression (I). A Clinton was running then, too. Interesting…
How bad is the economy? Well, it’s not great, but it’s not a depression, either. The green-eyeshade guys say a “recession” is defined by two consecutive quarters of decline in the Gross Domestic Product. So far that hasn’t happened – not even one quarter. Forget the champagne, though, because the first quarter of 2008 showed very tepid growth. A healthy economy grows about 1% a quarter – or about 4% annually. But this first quarter showed growth of only about 0.22%, which works out to an annual growth rate of 0.9%. Unemployment is still only 5%.
Then why do people feel so bad about the economy. Well, how bad do they feel? Polls do show that high numbers of Americans think things are going badly. At the same time, high numbers of Americans also say their own situations are pretty good – might even be improving. Some of these folks who feel both ways must be the same people. This recalls the high numbers of people who tell pollsters that Congress stinks – although their own guy is pretty good. Ditto, those who think the public schools are a mess, while their local school is fine – maybe great.
Poll-takers probably have a name for this. I call it the “local effect”. Respondents are pretty happy with their local situations, while they have a vague impression that things are terrible in the wider world. Our views of the economy reflect the local effect. We think things are bad “out there” because we constantly hear that. Yet most of us know that we’re doing OK – unless we’ve lost a job, had the bank foreclose on our home, or suffered some other financial misfortune.
The fact is, however, that things could be better. The mortgage and housing markets have crashed and homebuilding companies are hanging on by their fingernails. This doesn’t affect me directly, but my son is in this business. Millions of Americans are like me in this respect – they know someone who is affected by a downturn in the housing industry. Realtors have also suffered greatly during the last two years. Of course, some of them were making six figures just by listing houses. They hardly had to do anything to make big bucks during the great boom. But you get used to things, and the adjustment to a bear housing market is difficult.
Many investors are also affected negatively by the housing crash. I’m one of them. The stocks of every business having anything remotely to do with building or real estate have crashed – some to where you can’t give them away. This includes businesses like commercial property management – e.g., shopping malls and medical buildings. There’s no real reason for this. The housing crisis has simply dragged a lot of related business values down with it. If you watch your portfolio value very much (which you shouldn’t do), you can get a little depressed.
The housing crash has sent home values into a nosedive. Some of us in high-priced Northern Virginia are seeing tax bills based on assessments that we know are more than we could get by selling. Certainly, prices had reached absurd levels and had to come down, but it’s not a thing to make you feel good about the economy.
Gasoline is a major commodity to most of us. The price of a gallon of gas has zoomed past $4.00 without a pause in our area. The world oil market is going absolutely crazy, with oil passing $130 a barrel. Ordinary people can see no reason for this, so they suspect dark forces of conspiring to pick their pockets and make “unconscionable” profits. Congress has called oil company CEOs on the carpet to criticize the huge profits and make them explain why gas is so high. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) threatened to “socialize” the oil companies.
The more feisty executives wouldn’t stand still for the grilling – pointing to Congress’s refusal to open ANWR and our offshore continental shelf to drilling as the “cause” of high oil prices. One executive said it was absurd to ask other countries to pump more oil while we don’t pump what we have. (Lots of finger-pointing going on, but not a drop of new oil.)
Recent reports have come out about speculators driving up prices by cornering futures on 850 million barrels of “excess” oil. (World use is about 90 million barrels a day.) When government officials announced plans to investigate, the world price dropped $9 a barrel in a single day. (We might be onto something here.)
The long and short of it is that we have gotten used to good times, and we get impatient when anything interrupts them. Before the Reagan-Bush(I)-Clinton-Bush(II) boom that started in 1981, we tended to have recessions every five years. The Dow Industrial average zoomed from 1000 in 1967 to 800 in 1980. At the end of the Carter administration, inflation was bumping 13% and mortgage rates were 18%. Gas was above $1.00 a gallon – higher than now in inflation-adjusted terms.
Mr. Reagan turned all of that around, and presidents after him have mostly stayed the course and (wisely) continued the boom. We have had it so good, for so long, that most people under age 45 don’t know that it was ever any other way. Yet for the last year, Democratic presidential candidates have trashed an economy that most presidents in our history would have given their first-born to have. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama want to take us back to the New Deal or the Great Society, and millions of ignorant voters think this "change" would be just great. This is how success is punished – a lesson to all of us. If they get want they want, we’ll see how they like it.
In later columns we’ll examine other things Americans seem to want, and we’ll review some of the contradictions inherent in them.