Wednesday, January 02, 2013
A journey through America gives hope
Big, empty, rich and unchanged - that's a pretty boring scouting report for the America I "discovered" along the Steinbeck Highway. You can add a bunch of other boring but fitting words - "beautiful," "safe," "friendly," "clean," and "quiet."
Like Steinbeck, I didn't see the Real America or even a representative cross-section of America, neither of which exist anyway. Because I went almost exactly where Steinbeck went and stopped where he stopped, I saw a mostly White Anglo Saxon Protestant Republican America, not a "diverse and politically correct" Obama one. Mostly rural or open country, it included few impoverished or crime-tortured inner cities and no over-developed/underwater suburbs.
America the Beautiful was hurting in the fall of 2010, thanks to the bums and crooks in Washington and on Wall Street who co-produced the Great Recession. It still had the usual ills that make libertarians crazy and may never be cured: too many government wars overseas and at home, too many laws, politicians, cops, lawyers, do-gooders and preachers.
But America was not dead, dying or decaying. There were no signs of becoming a liberal or conservative dystopia. The U.S. of A., as always, was blessed with a diverse population of productive, affluent, generous, decent people and a continent of gorgeous natural resources.
Everyday of my trip I was surrounded by undeniable evidence of America's underlying health and incredible prosperity. Everywhere I went people were living in good homes, driving new cars and monster pickup trucks and playing with powerboats, motorcycles and snowmobiles. Roads and bridges and parks and main streets were well maintained. Litter and trash were scarce. Specific towns and regions were hurting, and too many people were out of work, but it was still the same country I knew.
I didn't seek out poverty or misery or pollution on my journey, and I encountered little of it. The destitute and jobless, not to mention the increasing millions on food stamps, on welfare or buried in debt, were especially hard to spot in a generous country where taking care of the less fortunate is a huge public-private industry - where even the poor have homes, cars, wide-screen TVs and smart phones.
I saw the familiar permanent American socioeconomic eyesores - homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks of downtown San Francisco at noon, the sun-bleached ruins of abandoned gas-stations on Route 66, ratty trailer homes parked in beautiful locations surrounded by decades of family junk. I saw Butte's post-industrial carcass, New Orleans' struggling Upper Ninth Ward and towns that could desperately use a Japanese car plant.
But the country as a whole was not crippled or even limping. In the fall of 2010, nine in 10 Americans who said they wanted jobs still had them. The one in 10 who were jobless had 99 weeks of extended unemployment benefits and more than 90 percent of homeowners were still making their mortgage payments.
Most of the states I shot through - including Maine, northern New Hampshire and Vermont, upstate New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana - had unemployment and foreclosure rates well below the national averages.
I didn't visit the abandoned neighborhoods of poor Detroit. I didn't see battered Las Vegas, where 14.5 percent of the people were unemployed and one in nine houses - five times the national average - had received some kind of default notice in 2010. But I spent almost two weeks in the Great Train Wreck State of California, where jobless and foreclosure rates were higher than the national average and municipal bankruptcies loomed.
America had 140 million more people than it did in 1960, but from coast to coast it was noticeably quiet - as if half the population had disappeared. Despite perfect fall weather, public and private golf courses were deserted. Ball fields were vacant. Parks and highway rest stops and ocean beaches were barely populated. Except for metropolises like Manhattan and San Francisco and jumping college towns like Missoula and Northampton, people in throngs simply did not exist. I went through lots of 30-mph towns that looked like they'd been evacuated a year earlier.
As I drove what's left of the Old Steinbeck Highway - U.S. routes 5, 2, 1, 11, 20, 12, 10, 101 and 66 - it was obvious many important changes had occurred along it since 1960. Industrial Age powerhouses like Rochester, Buffalo and Gary had seen their founding industries and the humans they employed swept away by the destructive winds of technology and global capitalism. Small towns like Calais in northeastern Maine had lost people and jobs, and vice versa.
New Orleans had shrunk by half, and not just because of Katrina. The metro areas of Seattle, San Francisco and Albuquerque had exploded and prospered in the digital age. The populations of the West Coast and the Sunbelt had expanded since 1960. The South had shed its shameful system of apartheid and its overt racism, as well as much of its deep-rooted poverty and ignorance. The Northeast had bled people, manufacturing industries and its once overweening role in determining the nation's political and cultural life.
Change is inevitable, un-stoppable, pervasive. Nevertheless, it was clear that a great deal of what I saw out my car windows had hardly changed at all since Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley raced by.
He saw more farmland and fewer forests than I did, especially in the East. But in many places I passed through almost nothing was newly built. Many farms and crossroads and small towns and churches were frozen in the same place and time they were eons ago, particularly in the East and Midwest.
In Maine the busy fishing village of Stonington was as picturesque as the day Steinbeck left it. He'd recognize the tidy farms of the Corn Belt and the raw beauty of Redwood Country and the buildings if not the people of the Upper Ninth Ward. And at 70 mph whole states - North Dakota and Montana - would look the same to him except for the cell towers and Pilot signs staked out at the interstate exits.
Steinbeck didn't like a lot of things about Eisenhower America - sprawl, pollution, the rings of junked cars and rubbish he saw around cities. And he lamented - not in "Charley" but in letters to pals like Adlai Stevenson - that he thought America was a rotting corpse and its people had become too soft and contented to keep their country great and strong.
But Steinbeck had America's future wrong by 178 degrees. Fifty years later, despite being stuck in an economic ditch, the country was far wealthier, healthier, smarter and more globally powerful and influential than he could have imagined. Its air, water and landscapes were far less polluted. And, most important, despite the exponential growth of the federal government's size and scope and its nanny reach, America in 2010 was also a much freer place for most of its 310 million citizens, especially for women, blacks, Latinos and gays.
You don't have to be a libertarian to know America is not as free as it should be. But there's no denying that today our society is freer and more open than ever to entrepreneurs, new forms of media, alternative lifestyles and ordinary people who want to school their own kids, medicate their own bodies or simply choose Fed Ex instead of the U.S. Post Office.
As for the stereotypical complaints about America being despoiled by overpopulation, overdevelopment and commercial homogenization, forget it. Anyone who drives 50 miles in any direction in an empty state like Maine or North Dakota - or even in north-central Ohio or Upstate New York - can see America's problem is not overpopulation. More often it's under-population. Cities like Butte and Buffalo and Gary have been virtually abandoned. Huge hunks of America on both sides of the Mississippi have never been settled.
From Calais, Me., to Pelahatchie, Miss., I passed down the main streets of comatose small towns whose mayors would have been thrilled to have to deal with the problems of population growth and sprawl. If anyone thinks rural Minnesota, northwestern Montana, the Oregon Coast, the Texas Panhandle or New Orleans's Upper Ninth Ward have been homogenized, taken over by chains or destroyed by too much commercial development, it's because they haven't been there.
The America I traveled was unchained from sea to sea. I had no problem eating breakfast, sleeping or shopping for road snacks at mom & pop establishments in every state. The motels along the Oregon and Maine coasts are virtually all independents that have been there for decades. You can go the length of old Route 66 and never sleep or eat in a chain unless you choose to.
Steinbeck, like many others have since, lamented the loss of regional customs. (I don't think he meant the local "customs" of the Jim Crow South or the marital mores of the Jerry Lee Lewis clan.) I didn't go looking for Native Americans, Amish, Iraqis in Detroit, Peruvians in northern New Jersey or the French-Canadians who have colonized the top edge of Maine. But I had no trouble spotting local flavor in Wisconsin's dairy lands, in fishing towns along Oregon's coast, in the redwood-marijuana belt of Northern California, in San Francisco's Chinatown or the cattle country of Texas.
Not to generalize, but the New York-Hollywood elites believe the average Flyover Person lives in a double-wide or a Plasticville suburb, eats only at McDonald's, votes only Republican, shops only at Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store, hates anyone not whiter than they are, speaks in tongues on Sunday and worships pickup trucks, guns and NASCAR the rest of the week.
Those stereotypes and caricatures are alive and well in Flyover Country. But though I held radical beliefs about government, immigration and drugs that could have gotten me lynched in many places, I never felt I was in a country I didn't like or didn't belong in. Maybe I just didn't go to enough sports bars, churches and political rallies, but for 11,276 miles I always felt at home.
Happy New Year?
The beginning of a new year is often a time to look forward and look back. The way the future looks, I prefer to look back -- and depend on my advanced age to spare me from having to deal with too much of the future.
If there are any awards to be given to anyone for what they did in 2012, one of those rewards should be for prophecy, if only because prophecies that turn out to be right are so rare.
With that in mind, my choice for the prediction of the year award goes to Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal for his column of January 24, 2012 titled: "The GOP Deserves to Lose."
Despite reciting a litany of reasons why President Obama deserved to be booted out of the White House, Stephens said, "Let's just say right now what voters will be saying in November, once Barack Obama has been re-elected: Republicans deserve to lose."
To me, the Republican establishment is the 8th wonder of the world. How they can keep repeating the same mistakes for decades on end is beyond my ability to explain.
Bret Stephens said, back at the beginning of 2012, that Mitt Romney was one of the "hollow men," and that voters "usually prefer the man who stands for something."
Yet this is not just about Mitt Romney. He is only the latest in a long series of presidential candidates backed by a Republican establishment that seems convinced that ad hoc "moderation" is where it's at -- no matter how many of their ad hoc moderates get beaten by even vulnerable, unknown or discredited Democrats.
Back in 1948, when the Democratic Party splintered into three parties, each one with its own competing presidential candidate, Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey was considered a shoo-in.
Best-selling author David Halberstam described what happened: "Dewey's chief campaign tactic was to make no mistakes, to offend no one. His major speeches, wrote the Louisville Courier Journal, could be boiled down 'to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead...'"
Does this sound like a more recent Republican presidential candidate?
Meanwhile, President Harry Truman was on the attack in 1948, with speeches that had many people saying, "Give 'em hell, Harry." He won, even with the Democrats' vote split three ways.
But, to this day, the Republican establishment still goes for pragmatic moderates who feed pablum to the public, instead of treating them like adults.
It is not just Republican presidential candidates who cannot be bothered to articulate a coherent argument, instead of ad hoc talking points. Have you yet heard House Speaker John Boehner take the time to spell out why Barack Obama's argument for taxing "millionaires and billionaires" is wrong?
It is not a complicated argument. Moreover, it is an argument that has been articulated many times in plain English by conservative talk show hosts and by others in print. It has nothing to do with being worried about the fate of millionaires or billionaires, who can undoubtedly take care of themselves.
What we all should be worried about are high tax rates driving American investments overseas, when there are millions of Americans who could use the jobs that those investments would create at home.
Yet Obama has been allowed to get away with the emotional argument that the rich can easily afford to pay more, as if that is the issue. But it will be the issue if no one says otherwise.
One of the recent sad reminders of the Republicans' tendency to leave even lies and smears unanswered was a television replay of an old interview with the late Judge Robert Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was destroyed by character assassination.
Judge Bork said that he was advised not to answer Ted Kennedy's wild accusations because those false accusations would discredit themselves. That supposedly sophisticated advice cost the country one of the great legal minds of our time -- and left us with a wavering Anthony Kennedy in his place on the Supreme Court.
Some people may take solace from the fact that there are some articulate Republicans like Marco Rubio who may come forward in 2016. But with Iran going nuclear and North Korea developing missiles that can hit California, it may be too late by then.
The Government That Ate America
On Monday morning, the talk in Washington, D. C. -- a city named for a president with entirely modest aspirations when it came to power -- revolved around more than late-night negotiations.
Matters such as income levels, "chained CPI," alternative-minimum tax patches and Medicare payments, swam before the eyes of our elected representatives who, understandably, looked goggle-eyed as they rehearsed their arguments or recounted their labors. The New York Times highlighted Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin's account of the proceedings: "It looks awful."
That might be because it is : predictably so. Americans have had a good if unsettling look at the number of patch jobs necessary to make the pistons of modern government move with anything resembling regularity.
The trouble here is obvious. Anyway, it becomes so with a little thought. The bigger the policy questions at stake become, the more numerous the stakeholders become; thus, the dimmer grow the prospects for reconciliation of variant viewpoints. Everybody wants his piece of the action. In a democracy, that means, everybody gets it.
If you've gathered by now this is an anti-big government sermon, you have certainly gathered correctly. Americans perennially bat back and forth the arguments over big government's costs and who ought to pay them. How about introducing into the mix the topic of big government's basic unworkability? Too big to pay for equals too big to work. Can there be any doubt of it?
What's been happening the past decade or so in Washington -- not just since the election -- is the slow-paced screening of a disaster flick, "The Government That Ate America," in which demands that Congress and the president do a bit of everything finally overload the machinery of government. The machinery sputters, fizzles, gasps. Orange and red lights start to flicker. YOU CAN'T HAVE EVERYTHING YOU WANT! is the message the control system flashes.
A national government -- leave aside a multiplicity of state and local governments -- that absorbs a quarter of Gross National Product, as ours does, is the kind of government that ... well, look around Washington today, next week, next month. No short-term deal can get the job done. A government grown too large for its old-fashioned purposes ---"to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" -- can safely be pronounced in drastic need of reform.
Both political parties in some measure escorted us to the "fiscal cliff." The party now in general charge, led by the biggest big-government lover ever to inhabit the White House, bears presently the heavier responsibility. But back to guns. Wait till Joe Biden is done rebalancing the economy. He can go on from there to replacing rifles with clubs, plus anything else he may have in mind. With big government, it seems, there's no rest, no recess.
For more blog postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena . GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a war criminal. Both British and American codebreakers had cracked the Japanese naval code so FDR knew what was coming at Pearl Harbor. But for his own political reasons he warned no-one there. So responsibility for the civilian and military deaths at Pearl Harbor lies with FDR as well as with the Japanese. The huge firepower available at Pearl Harbor, both aboard ship and on land, could have largely neutered the attack. Can you imagine 8 battleships and various lesser craft firing all their AA batteries as the Japanese came in? The Japanese naval airforce would have been annihilated and the war would have been over before it began.
Posted by JR at 1:44 AM