172. "The Party, Like Reagan's Era, Is Over" The New York Times, (February 16, 1987).
Jimmy Carter, where are you now that we need you? What we need now is a re-rendering of your “malaise” speech. Maybe a whole series of them. We are discovering, on the domestic front, that feeling good is not enough.
Take, for example, the state of the economy: True, the Reagan era (which in effect ended in November of 1986) has achieved low inflation and low interest rates. However, these were attained as a result of an unusual amount of luck (especially the decline of oil prices) and at the cost of tolerating a sluggish economic growth. The six years of feeling good have been paid for by borrowing against our future, drawing down our inheritance and borrowing from the world about all that it will loan.
Moreover, these years of feeling good have concealed the fact that few of the underlying problems have been taken care of: we still vastly underinvest and overconsume; much of the infrastructure has not been renovated or updated; schools are better but not as good as those in other nations; research and development is sluggish and increasingly dedicated to military rather than economic needs; our executives are as myopic as ever. But the piper cannot be delayed much longer.
Economists may argue over the proper way to proceed. But the underlying issue, as Mr. Carter pointed out, is a matter of spirit: what might be called our economic culture. What must be changed is our basic orientation, the way we look at our circumstances - above all, at ourselves.
We have become preoccupied with consumption, and living it up. We idolize conspicuousness, from designer apparel to oversized cars. We need more of Jimmy Carter’s “voluntary simplicity,” symbolized by walking to the White House instead of cruising about in stretch limousines. Our heros should again become those who produce well, work hard, invent new alloys, computers or ways to export - not consumer trivia. And more of our economic talent and resources must be channeled into productive assets, not financial manipulations.
We cannot close down the casino that much of Wall Street has become; but let us, at least, chastise those who make a rich living by selling options and futures and other such hokum. And while some takeovers might be necessary to cleanse the economy of inefficient managers, about the last thing we need is to have our corporate executives preoccupied with corporate raiders and diverting huge resources to protect themselves instead of spending their time competing more successfully abroad.
Youngsters in schools and colleges must be taught that their future, which is interwoven with the well-being of the country’s economy, is best served not by seeking to make as much money as possible as soon as possible but by doing something of lasting value. And they must be again taught the joy of getting there by the use of decent means, without inside trading; bribes and other illicit and illegal means.
As we redo the moral culture of our economy, do not forget Washington. More than controlling the deficit is at issue. Our legislators needed to be reminded by their constituents - you and me -that if they provide a billion dollars to a special interest here and $2 billion there, pretty soon they are wasting the resources that rebuilding America requires. There are sources of specific ideas, from closing obsolete military bases to building fewer pork barrel water projects. What holds up their implementation is not some technical problem or administrative difficulties but the lack of the proper spirt, the commitment to balance the desire to serve narrow constituencies with a concern for the commonwealth.
Policy advisers and Presidential candidates are stocked with specific ideas about what must be done. However, until there is a sea change in our orientation - a recognition that the party must end, that it is time to pull together as a team - until that happens, no quantity of specific ideas will do. What we need most is public leaders who will not lull us with soothing but baseless optimism, but who instead will be capable of seeing the world the way it is so we can learn to cope with it. It may be too early to bring Mr. Carter back, but how about some of his speeches?