The Shape of Things to Come

Bear with me, in this edition of the Column, I will be tying together a few loose threads that, when linked together, may help to explain our otherwise inexplicable national situation.

Thread 1: Rasmussen Reports does a weekly tracking poll of whether Americans think our country is heading is the right direction or the wrong direction.  Not surprisingly, in this Federal shutdown month of October, the “right direction” numbers have been registering in the teens, while the “wrong” direction crowd has numbered in the 80’s.

What is surprising is that 17 percent of Americans think we are going in the right direction.  I’m surprised the number is that high because, if pressed, I’m not sure that I can describe what direction we’re headed in.  Not that I think there is any consensus among the 80 percent, who feel otherwise, about what direction we should be headed in.

Even more surprising, the “right direction” percentage has been below 50 percent (and falling) since the last election.  One would have thought that the re-election of President Obama would have reassured a majority of Americans of our national direction.

I think that Rasmussen’s poll reflects a feeling that I sense more and more as I interact with different groups in my travels around the state.  It’s a feeling that cuts across party lines, generational divides, and ideological chasms.  The idea is that our national enterprise is in the process of jumping off the rails, that the thread of our national fabric is beginning to unravel.

Again, I don’t perceive there is any consensus on what we should do about this collective angst, just a free-floating fear that the center can no longer hold.

Thread 2: However you feel about the recent shutdown drama—that is was essentially a staged, fake crisis; that it was a colossal blunder; that it was an unnecessary distraction from more important issues; or that it was a valiant, if unsuccessful, stand on principal—its resolution left us with no clear path forward.

Contrarian blogger Mickey Kaus is advising President Obama to try a little Clintonian triangulation.  In making his case, Kaus includes an interesting quote from Bloomberg‘s Clive Crook,

An enraged and unhinged minority of voters apparently wants to see the liberal agenda attacked by any means necessary, even if it means paralyzing the government and wrecking the economy.  But a far wider segment wants to see the progressive program at least questioned and held in check—and who will do that, if not the Republican Party?

Putting aside Crook’s first sentence, I think he is onto something in the second sentence.  Consistent with the 80 percent wrong direction reading that Rasmussen reports, a large segment of society wants to see some pushback against the progressive program.

Crook and Kaus would have the President himself fill that role, as Bill Clinton did in the mid-1990’s.  But, if we have learned anything in the past five years, this President—with his detached cool, and aloof, and vague catch phrases—doesn’t do crises, doesn’t do details, and doesn’t do triangulation.

Thread 3. If we’ve learned anything this October, it’s that those details count.  On Obamacare we’ve learned that the 2,000 pages of legislation, 20,000 pages of regulations, and countless speeches from coast to coast count for nothing.  In the end, the website still has to work, and it has to work now.

The most important news story in October had nothing to do with government shutdown, or debt ceiling or any foreign crisis.  Instead it concerned a mini riot at a Wal-Mart store in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

For three hours, the computers running the Federal Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for a 17-state area failed.  The result was small scale rioting and looting at that Wal-Mart store, among other locations.  For a handful of hours last Saturday, thousands of Americans could not use what we used to call food stamps.  Of course, in our modern age, food stamps no longer come in paper form; they resemble any other type of electronic debit card.

In America, there are now 47 million people on food stamps, which we now call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  Forget for the moment the politics/policy/ideology behind that number.  Consider instead the mathematics/logistics/management challenge behind that number.

Thread 4.  The new, must-learn catch-phrase: single point of error.  In his post on the Wal-Mart fiasco, the Belmont Club’s Richard Fernandez focused on the logistical challenges of big government.  Fernandez writes,

Poor people live from welfare check to welfare check.  The system has to keep on going.  If money runs out then government has to borrow.  Anything is possible except stopping the flow.  Once the trickle halts then there’s literally nothing to eat, not even the possibility of foraging or growing supplementary food, a fallback which was long mankind’s strategy when facing hard times.

He adds,

As one British politician memorably put it our modern civilization was “nine meals from anarchy”, seventy two hours from chaos…Everything—everything— depends on the government pump.  The dependents are never more than 3 days from the edge of the cliff.  The need to reopen the spending valves before the crunch came was in part due to the need to keep that fragile segment from freaking out.  It’s a single point of failure system, and the necessity for keeping the federal government open was predicated precisely that on that very weakness.

Fernandez expands on this idea in describing the recent mass transit strike in the San Francisco Bay area.  With progressive politics pushing the population toward mass transit to relieve “dependence” on the automobile, we are merely creating dependence on transit.  He writes,

Gerald Ford’s observation that any “government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have” has often been used as an argument against tyranny.  What not many realize is that it is also a warning against creating a single point of failure.  If you depend on government for everything then you necessarily depend on government for everything.

The more ‘progressive’ and socially engineered a community becomes, the more herded together previously individualized and disparate systems become.  Once the “inefficient” private alternatives have been eliminated the government-mandated system becomes “essential” since they are the only game left in town.

The “progressive program” is always pushing for bigger, more centralized results.  Whether it takes the form of a glitch here, 5 million lines of missing code there, or a computer server that crashes in the dead of night, the progressive project is leaving society ever more vulnerable to sudden failure and cascading catastrophe.  The EBT card failure lasted three hours.  Imagine the chaos if it lasted for three days.

I cannot be sure if that possibility is the reason four out of five Americans think we are headed in the wrong direction.  I do know that a sizable segment is hoping for someone (the President) or something (the Republican Party) to push back against the progressive program.

At this moment, we need someone to step forward.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Bill Glahn.