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Monday, November 23, 2009

Welcome to Cannibal Nation: Facing Our Crisis of Fairness

This nation is facing a crisis of growing dimensions.  There is a wealth of contradictory economic information out there. Segments of the financial press report that we are "recovering," the major stock market indeces are up more than 55 percent from their March 2009 lows (meaning they are generally down 25 percent from their October 2007 highs and about where they were last fall after the implosion of Lehman Brothers) and we are out of a recession (which technically only means the economy has grown compared to its near-panic/rigor mortis state of one year ago). Yet the avalanche of anecdotal evidence suggests the economy remains in very bad shape. The credit crisis, which began in 2007 and rapidly worsened in 2008, remains and arguably is worse than ever. Arguably.

However, our current crisis is not just economic. It is a crisis of fairness. The very legitimacy of our economic and political systems is being questioned like never before. People have seen the rule changes, the massive government bailouts, the ensuing large banker bonuses and bank profits, and favoritism towards certain industries funded by you and me and our children, and increasingly sense there's a rigged game.
An element of the American dream is the belief that one's efforts play a large role in shaping one's fortunes. Now, many people believe their fate is in the hands of indifferent if not malevolent strangers as if predestined. It should surprise no one than people have stopped much of their discretionary spending and started saving as if to prepare for a nuclear winter of uncertain length.

These changes threaten to undermine the core belief in fairness, and in the government to abide by the principle of equality under the law. But it is not just a loss of faith in the power of the Fourteenth Amendment; it is a loss of faith in the legitimacy of the entire system. There is a gnawing suspicion that the game is played by two teams, but one team gets to set and change the rules and blow the whistle at whim. The result is a growing sense that the rule of law is arbitrary.

The consequences of this trend should alarm us. A decline in the belief in the rule of law will lead to it being increasingly disregarded by those who claim moral indignation at its violation (or their being victimized). If it is not soon halted, we will see a new wave of crime cutting across all sorts of barriers previously thought inviolable.  Certainly, the sense of shame or outrage at people who cross the line has diminished, and the din of conversation suggests an emerging (and dangerous) tolerance of the attitude of "I gotta get mine before it's gone."  This is the type of moral depradation one sees in war zones or places hit by major natural disasters, where survival is at issue.  

The solution: Reaffirm fairness and equal protection under the law at all levels. This means ending the bailouts, whether for the automobile industry, dairy farmers, "too big to fail" banks, certain classes of "underwater" homeowners and the like. Government has rarely been more wrong than to shift the burden for stupid investment losses from the risk-takers to the shareholders, creditors and taxpayers (and our children) like it has done with reckless, depraved abandon in the last 15 months. To the man on the street, he recognizes the simple truth: that Big Daddy Government will not hesitate to hurt him in order to benefit others.  (This is why the older generation sees "Obamacare" as rationing and institutionalized care denial to the sick.   There is a connection.)

The distrust, the distaste for this situation should be easy to see. It is instinctual. There are animals in the wild who throw some of their young'uns out of the nest. Others simply feed on their own young. Biologists have a name for this abhorrent behavior: cannibalism.

As there are more messes out there (commercial real estate, the shadow supply overhang from delinquent residential mortgages, private equity debt and other investment debt), it is crucial our federal government stop the bleeding by pulling in its fangs and refraining from sucking more of the lifeblood from the common men and women of our nation. Reaffirming the moral high ground through fair and equal treatment on the most basic of matters will allow our nation and soceity to regain the moral authority it needs.    It is time for the Vampire States of America to stop practicing cannibalism.

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