The Deep Cry for Integrity

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

How about we tack a values shift onto the $700 billion economic bailout package the Bush administration is asking for?

Hello, 2008? This is 1929 calling.

What’s still missing in too many venues of official concern is the big, national aha! We can’t solve our problems, as Einstein said, at the level of thinking at which we created them. We certainly can’t solve this one at the level of thought, collusion, cowardice and hubris that brought us, oh, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo, Katrina . . . (what am I leaving out?) . . . domestic spying, collapsing infrastructure, abandoned vets.

Greed and deregulation have sucker-punched the economy more than once (e.g., the savings and loan scandal, the high-tech bubble) since Ronald Reagan undid all but a few shreds of the New Deal two-plus decades ago and set the virulence of privatization into motion, but the current financial implosion really has experts worried. This may be the one that really wrecks things for our children and grandchildren.

It’s an old sin, of course, that is now demanding its wages. The traditional right, slowly waking up to the extent to which it has been betrayed by the Bush administration, is beginning to see it almost as clearly as the progressives.

For instance, Pat Buchanan writes: “What we are witnessing is the collapse of Gordon Gekko (‘Greed Is Good!’) capitalism. . . . What we are witnessing is what happens to a prodigal nation that ignores history, and forgets and abandons the philosophy and principles that made it great. A true conservative cherishes prudence and believes in fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets and a self-reliant republic. . . . We are going to have to learn to live again (within) our means.”

His argument, stripped of the boilerplate nationalism, is simply that we need to live with integrity, both personally and collectively. We need to conduct our business with integrity — that’s the starting place, and we can’t survive without it. And even when a situation begins unraveling, the habit of integrity prevents panic.

What I would argue, beyond this core point, is that we’re all in this together, in ways we have barely begun to explore at the governmental level. So inundated have we been since the Reagan era with I-hate-government and “free market” ideology, we shy away from any discussion of the public good unless it’s linked, usually spuriously, with “national defense.”

But as Naomi Klein wrote recently in the U.K. Guardian, noting that laissez-faire capitalist blather is on hold for the time being “while big government rides to the rescue” yet again: “Now we are suddenly seeing an extremely activist, intensely interventionist government, seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to save investors from themselves. This spectacle necessarily raises the question: If the state can intervene to save corporations that took reckless risks in the housing markets, why can’t it intervene to prevent millions of Americans from imminent foreclosure?”

She proceeds to add other questions that an awakening public sector might begin asking, as it gets the idea that government can respond to crises when it sees fit, ranging from single-payer health care to the transition to green technology.

“But the crisis we are seeing calls for even deeper changes than that,” she goes on. “. . . So long as the junk loans were fueling economic growth, our governments actively supported them. So what is really being called into question by the crisis is the unquestioned commitment to growth at all costs. Where this crisis should lead us is to a radically different way for our societies to measure health and progress.”

The best we can expect from Congress right now, of course, is that it listen to its constituents and refuse to cave in to the notorious Section 8 of the Bush administration’s bailout request: that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s decisions regarding how nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars of taxpayer money is disposed of should be “non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

No blank check! My God, how deeply and thoroughly does the Bush administration have to screw things up before its arrogance is countered in the reality-based community? A skeptical Congress may insist on a few provisions to accompany the bailout, such as: federal authority to help beleaguered homeowners stay in their homes; restrictions on CEO salaries and severance packages in bailed-out companies; and oversight (praise the Lord) of Bush’s Treasury Department.

But the deep cry for economic integrity has yet to be heard. The common good awaits representation.