Friday, April 11, 2008

My Flight to Milwaukee -- and What it Says About America(n)

I had a lot of time to think on Wednesday as I sat in airports and on three flights in my effort to get from Tucson to Milwaukee. It was supposed to be a lot simpler but since my ticket was on American and since all their planes had suddenly become unsafe to fly, I was shuffled to Frontier and Midwest for a day-long adventure. I guess I was lucky--most American ticket holders were stranded altogether and Frontier went broke this morning just two days later. At least I'm here.

The question I asked myself most often was "how did this happen?" The disintegration of our airlines seems to have a lot in common with the collapse of the dollar and our financial system, the morass in Iraq--pretty much everything having to do with government.

What we have, it seems, is not a failure of government as much as a failure of imagination. No one is coming up with the right answers because no one is asking the right questions.

People on the Right keep saying that taxes and government regulation are bad and that Democrats hate America and don't understand that we are fighting an evil enemy that wants to destroy us. People on the Left keep saying that Bush is an idiot and that Republicans just want to make the rich richer and have no regard for the plight of the common man or woman. It is increasingly a dialogue of the deaf where people on both sides believe they are 100% right and those who disagree with them are 100% wrong.

The problem with demonizing the other is that it relieves people on both sides from feeling any responsibility to create an environment that could lead to a solution. The ensuing paralysis keeps any progress from being made until a true crisis develops and then drastic emergency measures are taken that address the catastrophe but not the underlying problem.

As far as the airline crisis is concerned, lax enforcement of existing safety guidelines led to a situation where maintenance and inspection of planes was either deferred or ignored for a number of years. When this suddenly became apparent then the FAA responded with a widespread sudden crackdown that caused American to ground hundreds of planes overnight and essentially a system failure.

At no time was there ever a conversation about the problem as it emerged and without that conversation there was no chance of heading off the crisis before it couldn't be avoided. Instead we went from a situation where everything seemed to be fine to a full blown emergency.

The same lack of productive conversation guaranteed that nothing would be done about our country's emerging economic problems until they led to the current multiple crises. Until a couple months ago, the position of the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve was that the economy and housing and mortgage industries were going through a normal and healthy correction that was bottoming. These folks felt there was no problem and, therefore, nothing to discuss. Anyone who offered a more dire assessment of the situation was dismissed as naive and politically motivated.

Then, when investment firms started taking mulit-billion dollar writedowns and Bear Stearns was suddenly on the verge of collapse, the Fed shifted into full crisis mode and started throwing billions of dollars at the situation like it was trying to put out an out of control fire. There was no point in the public debate for a rational discussion that might have led to preventative action since there was never an acknowledgement that there was a problem until it was too late. We went from being reassured that there was no problem on a Wednesday (when Bears Steans stock was at $70 a share) to a point 72 hours later when government regulators assured us that all was lost and that the $2 a share being paid for Bear by J.P. Morgan was a fair offer.

So now we're getting an economic stimulus plan that will drive our country deeper into debt and won't stimulate anything because there is no plan. It is simply a cash giveaway that won't repair a single crumbling bridge or road, won't create a single job, and won't address any of the issues that we face. It is the result of an approach that precludes rational dialogue and discussion and only leads to frantic, stop-gap measures taken in times of panic by politicans and regulators.

I have never heard a tax-cut advocate address the issue of how to pay our bills and get out of the immoral and self-destructive death spiral of buying everything we want and making our children and grandchildren pay for it. Don't those who want low taxes have a responsibility to show how we are to pay our bills if Americans are being asked to contribute less while we have to spend more? Don't those who call for more sacrifice and higher taxes have an obligation to look hard at the impact that would have on our struggling economy?

Instead of those important conversations, all the energy is spent demonizing the other and denying or ignoring the challenges created by proposals on either side.

The talk about the war in Iraq has become so partisan and slogan-driven that it is difficult to find any rational discussion anywhere. Those who defend Bush and the war keep talking about "victory" and how those who want us out of Iraq want America to "lose." Meanwhile, John McCain and others have a hard time even identifying our allies and enemies much less what it means to win or lose.

I heard a news report yesterday that an American soldier had been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. It never mentioned who had set the bomb or who was considered responsible. Was it Al-Qaeda? Was it one of the Shi'ite militias were are fighting? Was it one of the Shi'ite militias we are supporting? Was it an Iranian? Was it a Sunni? Does anyone even know--or care?

If we are really at war and our soldiers are dying and we are spending ourselves into national bankruptcy, isn't it important to know who we are fighting and why? Apparently not. What wasn't said in that news report was far more telling than what was said. The focus is all on the meaningless slogans and determining which side one is on--not on what it means.

It is discouraging that our leaders don't seem to have the right answers. But it's far more discouraging that nobody seems to be asking the right questions.

I'm flying back to Tucson on Sunday--or at least that's the plan. Hopefully the planes will be back in the air and I won't have as much time to think about all this stuff.

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