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Tuesday, December 24

When a republic becomes a rule of individual failings

I wrote this essay on February 25, 2013.

A republic -- rule by the people -- is meant to replace the rule of an individual, in particular a king, or the rule of a few. The naysayers among historians warn that a republic inevitably degenerates into tyranny or anarchy, and generally with the first following on the second as surely as night follows day. Neither has happened in the U.S. republic, a point of justified pride amongst Americans. However, something else happened; in a way it's worse than tyranny because its action has been so subtle and incremental that by the time a great many Americans noticed something had gone terribly wrong with their system of government U.S. society was already badly corroded.

What happened is that the way a preponderance of American individuals conducted their personal business came to reflect how the U.S. government conducted its business. And so just around the time the White House realized it could use the U.S. dollar's reserve status with foreign central banks as an endlessly revolving line of credit, the American middle class realized it could live far above its means through the miracle of an endlessly revolving line of credit.

And here we are, decades later, with millions of Americans yelling at their government for its profligate spending and frantically paying down their student loan and credit card debt. Economist Paul Krugman -- a self-termed Keynesian -- is having none of this mea culpa of the masses; he's urging the government to increase its spending as the way to jump-start the moribund American economy. Yet Lord Maynard Keynes did not live to see the day that the masses were strutting around in designer jeans and driving cars that only the rich should be able to afford; if he had, I think he would have told Krugman to put a sock it in it.

The ad agency that created two TV ads for Dodge Acura's third "Season of Reason" campaign showed that it was a better judge of the mood of the body politic than Krugman. The ads, which first aired in November 2012, featured money guru Suze Orman and commonsense psychologist Dr Phil spiriting (in an Acura car) members of the American middle class away from the temptation of overspending on expensive stuff they don't need. When the man in the Dr Phil version of the ad whines that he has his heart set on buying an outlandishly glamorous, gigantic Christmas tree, Phil snarls, "Well tough tinsel" after depositing him at a lot that sells normal-sized and perfectly respectable Christmas trees at a reasonable price.

The ads are also marketing genius because the way Suze and Phil drive the Acuras demonstrates that the car can corner just as well at 60 mph as a Lexus. This demonstration brought forth complaints from some viewers (maybe ones who work for luxury car dealerships?) that the ads promote reckless driving. But everything about the ads projects the message that it's more chic to be smart about money than stupid about it
The message is percolating through American society, although the confused and confusing ads aired during this year's Super Bowl indicate that some major companies have yet to acknowledge the message much less act on it.  And the American body politic is still a few minutes away from acknowledging that in a republic a rule of the people comes to mirror how individuals act. This aspect of republicanism explains why switching political party dominance through the democratic voting process has changed nothing of substance about the way Washington conducts itself.

The Washington Way has gotten more corrupt, incoherent and ineffective with every decade that's passed. Yet this state of affairs has simply mirrored the way that a preponderance of Americans have conducted themselves.

The huge number of confidence games in the USA, which are on view every week on CNBC cable TV's American Greed: Scams, Scoundrels and Suckers is ample evidence that a great many Americans have gotten corrupt in their ways. As the CNBC documentaries illustrate, often participants in the scams victimize each other with no pricking of conscience long before they themselves fall victim to the con. As Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff put it after he was behind bars, "I carried those people for years."

Yes he did carry them -- until the music stopped. And his victims knew, every time they received one of his dividend checks, that there was something wrong with a consistent and extraordinarily high rate of return on an investment year after year.


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