Thursday, August 07, 2008
You won't hear me straining to defend Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican whose penchant for grating commentary sunk his 1996 bid for the presidency before the New Hampshire primary. It was really just a matter of time before the former senator, serving as John McCain's economic advisor, put his foot in it: Gramm opined that Americans complaining about the economy were "whiners."
It's not good politics to call any voter a whiner, and Gramm had to leave the campaign. But honesty impels one to grant him this: The point about America being "a nation of whiners" is not without merit.
Yes, losing one's job or home is traumatic, and having both taken away more so. But the average citizens facing $4-a-gallon gas and learning that their hacienda isn't the money factory they thought it was haven't exactly been thrown into the Dust Bowl. Some Europeans pay twice as much for gas and live in half the space, and no one is passing around the hat for them.
I spent last week replaying Ken Burns' searing series on World War II. "The War" follows several American families ranging from working class to upper-middle class. None of them, not even the fancy folks in Mobile, Ala., lived as large as today's typical McMansion family.
These people also had to endure the war's horrific sacrifice, made more unbearable by the youth of the dead. Nearly 7,000 Americans perished on the tiny island of Iwo Jima alone, with several times that number injured, many grievously. It was a hideous battle in a long parade of gruesome campaigns. Over 400,000 Americans died in that war.
One of the documentary's running themes was that of servicemen pining for their loved ones back home. And their homes were modest triple-deckers in Connecticut, farmhouses in Minnesota or bungalows in California.
When the war ended, Americans soon resumed their historic quest for bigger and better. But even then, the returning soldier's idea of palatial living was a 750-square-foot house in Levittown, one-third the average size of a new home in 2006. The accommodations in Americans, by the way, were the envy of ruined Europe.
So the recent economic downturn hasn't made Americans poor by any sane measurement. No one enjoys downward mobility, but let's ask whether telling kids to share a bedroom or downsizing to a sedan represents anything worthy of the word "sacrifice."
Middle-class Americans fell into this predicament because they started acting like people who are richer than they are. They had built extravagant lifestyles with borrowed money. And they ignored the many warnings that the growth of China and India would push energy prices skyward.
Now is a time to recognize reality and adjust to it in an adult fashion. Though I consider myself an environmentalist, I did put off taking certain steps to cut fuel consumption in my house. It took natural gas prices shooting through the roof to move me to replace my leaky old windows. Believe me, paying for new double-panes was low on my Fun List. Did I whine about the cost? More than I care to admit.
But then one reads about the food lines in the Great Depression. You look at the destitute norm in the Third World. And you focus on any war, including Iraq, and try to fathom the tragedy of an 18-year-old dying in a foreign desert.
Sure, we can shake our heads at Phil Gramm's impolitic remark. And we can condemn the role his philosophy of deregulation played in the current housing mess. But, you know, there's something to what the man said.
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