I stayed the night last night in an unfamiliar city in southern California, and needed to get some breakfast before embarking on an eight-hour drive home. As I knew nothing about the town, I didn’t know where I could find a good breakfast place, but there was a Denny’s right next to my hotel. It’s not the most spectacular food, but it is predictable and cheap, and when it comes to road food in an unfamiliar location, predictable-and-cheap is often preferable to the alternatives.
As I ordered—a shaved ham-and-egg sandwich with Swiss and American cheeses on sourdough and hashbrowns—the server asked if I’d like anything else, maybe a short stack of pancakes.
For a second, I was sorely tempted, and then it hit me that the question—which could be paraphrased as “Would you like 600 calories’ worth of pancakes, butter and syrup to go with the 1,100 calories of ham, egg, cheese, potatoes, bread and grease?”—was really a metaphor for the last 70 years of American politics: “You don’t have to choose one tasty meal or the other, hungry patron of mediocre breakfast food! You can have both!”
This is the same idea we Americans have been sold from the political menu since the end of World War II, and by and large, we have happily consumed it. “Guns OR butter? Who says you have to choose? You can have guns AND butter—and you can put that butter on that extra side of pancakes!”
In the heady postwar era, it really did seem like we Americans could have all we wanted and never have to concern ourselves with the consequences. While most of Europe and large swathes of Asia and Africa were devastated, America was the only major industrial power that was largely unscathed. America became the material colossus of the world, the leading supplier of goods. Factories worked in three shifts around the clock, and well-paid jobs were there to be had by anybody who grabbed a high school diploma one day and walked into the local factory the next.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and it is easy to look back and realize that it couldn’t last—that sooner or later the rest of the world would rebuild itself and compete with us, and that we would no longer be the only major seller of industrial and consumer goods, with inevitable consequences for the postwar U.S. economic boom. The economic crisis of the 1970s, with skyrocketing inflation and a growing dependence on cheap imports, made it plain to people such as President Jimmy Carter that the nation’s voracious consumerism needed to go on a diet. The late 1970s was an era of downsizing and increased efficiency—smaller, fuel-efficient cars, turning down the thermostat, installing solar panels. The gravy train was also over, certainly, in the political realm; we either had to raise taxes or cut services, or some combination thereof.
However, Ronald Reagan—who ironically rose to political prominence by delivering a speech, on behalf of the doomed 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign, titled “A Time For Choosing”—came along in 1980 and essentially told us all that no, we did not have to make any hard choices. We could continue to have all the essential government services, and we could also institute massive tax cuts (largely benefiting the wealthiest Americans). He gave us a third option by which we could avoid both raising taxes and cutting services, and we eagerly took it: Put it all on the credit card. We’ll pay it off later. Reagan told us we could have both the tasty sandwich-and-hashbrowns meal, AND the pancakes, and we listened because it was what we wanted to hear.
The truth is that we do face hard choices as a society, and the longer we put those choices off, the higher the bill is going to be. In the same way that a person who makes no responsible choices at the table will eventually suffer health consequences, the longer we go on failing to choose as a society, the more it will hurt us in the end.
So our choice is this: do we continue to allow a small number of extremely wealthy people to continue to hoard vast sums of money, more than many of them could spend in dozens of lifetimes, while everybody else lives either in poverty or the realistic possibility of poverty? And let’s be honest, that’s exactly the situation we face. How many Americans today live a life of quiet desperation, knowing that if they lose a job or suffer a major illness, they go from financially comfortable to bankrupt, or even homeless, in a few short steps?
Do we continue to pay our bills as a country on a giant credit card, knowing that at some point, future generations will have to pay the bill? Hell, they’re already paying the bill. As colleges have raised tuition to meet growing costs, students have had to take on massive amounts of debt that were largely unheard of prior to the 1990s. They are then entering a job market in which there are very few jobs for them, in part because older workers, whose ability to draw secure pensions has been severely eroded, lack the financial security to retire. Those same older workers, faced with working into their 70s, are also faced with partially or fully supporting their adult children—as upwards of a third of all Americans between 18 and 31 now live with their parents. And their adult offspring, more and more, are faced with delaying their careers, thereby delaying their ability to save money, pay off their loans, buy homes, have children if they wish, and eventually retire. We are just now starting to see the consequences of our failure to choose.
Sooner or later, we Americans are going to have to understand that we have to choose the sandwich or the pancakes, and maybe eat only half of what we ultimately do choose. We have to unlearn the lie, which we have eagerly accepted, that we can have everything we want and that we never have to choose—that we can continue to spend trillions of dollars on a bloated military budget, and idiotic wars of choice like the war in Iraq, and that we can simultaneously continue to give tax breaks to bloated billionaires and corporations. Meanwhile our cities fill with the homeless and hungry; our bridges and roads crumble; we are losing an entire generation of Americans whose careers and paths to financial security appear hopelessly blocked; and our educational system continues to collapse, in part because of continued political meddling, and in part because teachers are so poorly paid and underappreciated that the most promising college students choose fields such as finance. We need to decide whether it is more important to fund the things that will benefit our society as a whole, or if we are going to continue to buy more of what we don’t need and can’t afford.
Even if you disagree, as I do, with the solutions Reagan advised us to choose in 1964, he was right about one thing: that we do, in fact, face a time of choosing. But he was wrong, when he told us in 1980, that he was just kidding.