Wednesday, January 2, 2013
January 2, 2013: AmericanStudying our Biggest Issues: The Debt
[As this new year gets underway, America and the world are confronted by some pretty huge ongoing issues and crises. One reason I want to be a public AmericanStudies scholar is that I believe AmericanStudying can help us understand and engage with precisely such contemporary questions. So this week, I’ll be highlighting four of the biggest and suggesting a few ways AmericanStudies can help us deal with them. Your thoughts, on these issues and on any others, will be very welcome for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On how AmericanStudying can help us understand the importance of responding to the dominant narratives about our current fiscal bogeyman.
I’m deeply sympathetic to those who argue that the national debt is significantly less of a problem, particularly in a time of economic downturn, than our current narratives indicate. Besides my own perspective, that opinion is shared by multiple voices I trust in our current political and social climate: smart and rational bloggers like Digby and David Atkins; influential and brilliant economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich; and even the American Studies Association, whose 2013 annual conference’s main theme will focus on ways to move “Beyond the Logic of Debt.” Again, I share that perspective in many ways—but as someone with a strong interest in the history of national narratives, I have to admit that I’m pretty uneasy about deploying a narrative that was expressed most succinctly and overtly by none other than Dick Cheney: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”
Moreover, even if I were comfortable sharing the same spectrum—or universe—of thought with Dick, AmericanStudying reminds me of a crucial reason to engage more fully with our collective concerns about the debt: a desire to take care of future generations, to leave them with a world better and stronger than our own. Such a desire is perhaps the most consistent and core element of the American Dream, and illustrates why a tragedy like the Newtown elementary school shooting resonantes with all Americans more deeply than any other parallel such event (horrific as they have always been). Even more signficantly, many of our most inspiring and influential advocates and campaigns for social change and progress have depended precisely on appeal to that shared and collective desire—as exemplified most poignantly by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a better future for his and all American children. To downplay these concerns about the world we leave subsequent generations is thus to deny core aspects of what has both defined America and helped us move toward our ideals.
At the same time, such narratives of debt and the future provide an opportunity to talk about our communal priorities, and on this note too AmericanStudying can provide inspiring examples. Whatever your political position on Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, it’s hard to disagree that they were developed, at a time of economic crisis and fear, in response to precisely such questions of priorities: the programs demonstrate an explicit emphasis on the public arts, on infrastructure and energy, on providing steady and constructive jobs to as many Americans as possible and rebuilding national spaces in the process. On the other hand, we can look to more recent history, and specifically to how the George W. Bush administration entered office with a substantial surplus and quickly spent it all on the largest tax cut in national history, to illustrate the pursuit of a very different set of priorities in response to federal and governmental economic circumstances. Each case, like every other and like our own moment, is specific and demands its own analysis—but what they reveal in sum is the significance of making overt our conversations about our communal priorities, and about how we respond to federal debt and surplus, deficit and boom, through their lens.
Next big issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this issue? Other questions you’d highlight?