Monday, May 12, 2014

To hell in a handbasket

I’m pretty much convinced that the country is going to hell in a handbasket. I’m self-aware enough and have enough of a sense of humor to realize this may be a result of getting older. I turned sixty in January and when someone at my birthday party asked me whether being sixty felt different than being fifty-nine, I said yes. I’m now old enough to officially be a curmudgeon; I can talk about young whippersnappers without feeling like I have to do so ironically; and I’m old enough to pine for the good old days when everything was much, much better. But even after taking a mental discount for the nearly universal tendency to look back through rose-colored glasses, I’m still pretty much convinced the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

I’m also self-aware enough and have enough of a sense of humor to realize my conviction may be because the political party I like less is in power in Washington, DC - totally in power in the executive branch, half in power in the legislative branch. Yet throughout the Bush Administration’s tenure, I was pretty much Leftist and, although I was unhappy about some of what President Bush was doing (or what I thought he was doing), I never felt the whole country was going to hell in a handbasket. I always figured it would self-correct. So even if I give some weight to the sour grapes argument, I’m still pretty much convinced the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

Why you ask? Well, many of my blog posts in the category “The Great Divide” are about the reasons behind my conviction but a recent reading brought the issue into sharp focus for me. The piece was by Megan McArdle, entitled “Should We Force People to Save for Retirement?” After running through the practical, economic, and political pros and cons, McArdle writes:

You’ll notice that we haven’t even touched on the morality of the state telling someone how they have to spend this money. I think there are good arguments that this is wrong, and we shouldn’t do it. But those arguments are long and thorny and will never be considered valid by half the population.

And that’s the handbasket in which the country is going to hell.

Once upon a time we all pretty much took care of ourselves with our own money. Then the government began taxing money from all of us to give to all of us (in greater or lesser amounts) in the form of programs that many taxpayers liked but many objected to. We’ve lived with that and, indeed, one can argue that as soon as a government starts collecting taxes to perform any function, some of those taxed will be happy and some unhappy about the uses to which their money is being spent. The fact that more and more money was being spent on more and more programs that more and more taxpayers didn’t like was a simply an escalation of an existing condition and, although there was more and more unhappiness (e.g., the Tea Party), the basic idea of taking money in taxes and spreading it around was built into our reality.

Now, however, we’re not just taking money from people to support programs some of them don’t like; we’re telling people they must spend their own money on certain things - and we’re telling them what those certain things must look like. People must buy health insurance and it must be this kind of health insurance; that’s ObamaCare and it’s a done deal. In the proposal McArdle is writing about we would be telling people that they must save for retirement - and they must save this much and invest it in this way. We’re far beyond taxes and well into “plenary police powers”.

If we look at this in terms of ice cream (it’s summer weather here today): Once upon a time, if you wanted vanilla ice cream and I wanted chocolate ice cream, we would each buy what we wanted with our own money. Then we began to tax ourselves and buy you vanilla ice cream with some of the money and me chocolate ice cream with some of the money. Now, with ObamaCare and similar proposed schemes, all of us have to buy ice cream whether we want ice cream or not - and we all have to buy a double-scoop cone every day and it all has to be vanilla.

And that’s the problem. Not that half the country likes vanilla and half likes chocolate. Not even that the half that likes vanilla wants the other half to buy their vanilla ice cream for them. The problem is that the half that likes vanilla isn’t content with eating vanilla itself, isn’t even content with having the other half buy their vanilla for them. Instead, the half that likes vanilla wants to force everyone to buy and eat vanilla ice cream. The half that likes chocolate was willing to go along with buying vanilla for the first half but they believe that being forced to buy and eat vanilla themselves is wrong in a fundamental way. It is simply unacceptable.

There is no common ground here. One group is insisting everyone must buy what it thinks is best; the other group is insisting that no one has the right to tell them what to buy. So long as the first group just wanted money (taxes) to pay for its preferences, the second group could ante up - they might not like it but, in a way, it was tribute in exchange for being largely left alone. Now, however, the first group doesn’t just want money; it wants obedience. The second group will not obey - and the first group has absolutely no understanding of why that is.

We are at an impasse and the only way out of it that doesn’t involve hell and handbaskets requires that the demands for obedience cease. Unfortunately, I think that scenario doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in, well, you know.


Grim said...

Yeah, it's that snowball scenario where I'm focusing my attention. Can we walk away without killing each other?

Probably not. But it's the last hope. Let's give it a try, preparing for the alternative with a sober heart.

Elise said...

There is another possibility for avoiding violence although it would not avoid the whole going to hell in a handbasket thing and I think it's the most likely scenario: those who refuse to obey continue to do what they're doing now. They obey temporarily while pinning their hopes on the next election. First it was 2010, then 2012, now it's 2014 followed by 2016. And, assuming (as I do) that those elections provide no relief, they realize they have lost and they acquiesce.