Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Might Have Known

I just got done watching the BBC News on KQED World. Why was I not surprised to see Condoleeza Rice addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, as the opening speaker, no less? Ironically, as I am writing this, I could not find a summary of her remarks on the BBC Web site. However, it is tomorrow morning in Sydney; and The Sydney Morning Herald is there with the Associate Press account. Here is the core of her remarks:

"I know that many are concerned by the recent fluctuations in US financial markets, and by concerns about the US economy," she said. "President Bush has announced an outline of a meaningful fiscal growth package that will boost consumer spending and support business investment this year."

She said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who cancelled his own visit to the World Economic Forum annual meeting at the last minute, was "leading our administration's efforts and working closely with the leaders of both parties in Congress to agree on a stimulus package that is swift, robust, broad-based, and temporary."

She touted the US economy as "resilient, its structure sound, and its long term economic fundamentals are healthy."

Rice also said the US would welcome foreign investment and free trade.

"And our economy will remain a leading engine of global economic growth," she said. "So we should have confidence in the underlying strength of the global economy - and act with confidence on the basis of the principles that lead to success in today's world."

Any sermon based on this text should touch on two key topics: credibility and growth.

Rice's name will never fit into the sort of neat little rhymed couplet that Grover Cleveland made up about James G. Blaine, but the credibility problems she faces are probably more suitable for the blank verse of Christopher Marlowe. (I have to wonder if she took in the performance of Tamburlaine by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington!) Her ideological passions have always enabled her to take even the most far-fetched propositions to come out of the White House and make them sound plausible. Even when hard data points come to light that bring the chickens home to roost, she always seems to find just the right rhetorical constructs (not to mention chutzpah) to spin things in the President's favor. Given her facility in these matters over such issues as the "success" of our military activities in Iraq, just how are we to take her assertions about the state of our economy; and, more importantly, how will representatives of other countries take them when she declares them in a public forum of global experts, many of whom do not seem to have as much trouble talking about recession?

However, rather than labor the point of how credibility can get strained in the face of ideology, I would like to explore a deeper question, which may very well raise some eyebrows: What is so important about growth that it should be the only criteria invoked for assessing economic health? Granted, I have supported Isaiah Berlin's position that the "tragic flaw" of any utopia is that it is fundamentally static; but such a proposition does not logically imply that the only good dynamic system is one that is always growing. The problem is that we try to evaluate the quality of our economy on the basis of a number (such as the Gross Domestic Product); and then we assume that this number is only "good" if it grows at some rate (cooked up by economic theorists) from one year to the next. Does this number say anything about our quality of life? Does it say anything about the literal semantics of "social security," which, put in the bluntest of terms, is the risk that we may face having to go without food, clothing, and/or shelter? You do not have to be an economist to recognize that a Gross Domestic Product number says nothing about an overall quality of life, no more than the level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average does.

At the risk of sounding too didactic, let me propose that we, once again, go back to the text of the Constitution. The last time I did this was in search of the "job description" for the Presidency. This time, however, I would like to turn to the Preamble as a statement of why we need a government in the first place:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What I am really asking is whether or not the growth of the Gross Domestic Product is an effective way to "insure domestic Tranquility" and/or "promote the general Welfare." If you look at the extent to which current White House policies have made our country "a leading engine of global economic growth" and the price those policies have paid in terms of their impact on domestic working conditions and global environmental conditions, then I do not think it is much of a stretch to conclude that those policies have not done squat for either "domestic Tranquility" or "general Welfare."

Now this should not be taken as a call to hurl our wooden shoes into the works of those engines of economic growth. It is only an argument that those engines should not be set up on some pedestal above all other priorities, such as the fact that every American citizen needs quality health care as much as every member of Congress does. Only misers evaluate their well-being in terms of how their economic resources grow. The rest of us think in terms of how those resources may be wisely applied to such things as feeding our families and sending our kids off to college. At least we want to think that way; but, as we saw in The Pursuit of Happyness, it is kind of hard to think that way when your highest priority is to get in line early enough to get a bed for the night at Glide Memorial Church.

Of course when Rice preaches the gospel of economic growth in Davos, she is, as they say, preaching to the choir. The problem is that most of us do not worship in that church. Indeed, most of us are probably not even allowed through the doors of that church, from which we should conclude that we should simply reject that church in favor of another one. We should reject the gospel of economic growth in favor of national goals that are more consistent with the Preamble of our own Constitution. If there are enough of us who do this during the Primaries, we may yet get back to having a President that can not only get us out of the many messes we are now in but also return our eyes to the prize of that government that our Constitution initially envisaged.

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