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The Death of American Exceptionalism

Seldom are the choices in life black and white, particularly when it comes to politics. If choices were that simple, it would be easy to accept Barack Obama as good simply because he has a disarming smile and easier to vilify Rush Limbaugh simply because he comes across as rather arrogant and suggests that he wants the charismatic Obama to fail.

When it comes to the political debate since Obama’s election, the mainstream media has sought to make the choice rather clear for the simple-minded American masses by painting Obama in language one might find at the base of the Statue of Liberty were it built today:

“Give me your unemployed, your health insurance-less;
Those seeking protection from villainous corporations;
Those yearning for a world free of cars; longing for perfect air and water;
Send me those who seek freedom from offense and their fair share of what this nation has created.
I lift my pen to give you everything, all of which will be paid for by those evil rich who took your birthright in the first place.”

Not surprisingly, Obama comes across as something of a Robin Hood against Limbaugh’s evil Sheriff of Nottingham who seeks to defend the status quo and use those Tea Party racists to put the common man under the thumb of corporate vultures and rich barons.

As helpful as this might be for a Hollywood movie, it is of no use in the real world, indeed it obscures the true nature of this debate. In reality the players are in opposite corners. It is Limbaugh and the Tea Party protesters who are seeking to free the citizens from the yoke of government tyranny and oppression and it is Obama who seeks to increase the burden around their necks.

What might be surprising to most people who get their news from the New York Times, CNN or the Huffington Post, the conservatives do not seek anarchy. They do not hate government for government’s sake. They do not seek to have no government, they simply seek to have limited government, where the government focuses on those things it can do well – and constitutionally – National defense, foreign affairs, law enforcement, border control and adjudication of conflicts and disputes – and get out of the business of rearranging the deck chairs on the Financial Titanic after they’ve rammed the ship directly into an iceberg. Government intervention in the lives of Americans has been ratcheting up for decades and like a frog in a slowly heated pot Americans sat there as taxes were raised one percent at a time and regulation grew by a few sheets at a time. ObamaCare was the equivalent of pouring in boiling water in the pot, and now the frog – in this case the Tea Partiers – have decided it’s time to jump.

The problem in 2010 is a fairly simple one. There is far too much government intervention in our lives. Not only does that intervention stifle individual liberty, but it’s also setting us up to fail as a nation. A decade ago the Cato Institute came out with a brilliant paper called The Scope of Government and the Wealth of Nations. It documented the inverse relationship between a country’s economic growth and the level of government control over GDP. Not surprisingly, the higher the government control of the economy, the slower the rate of GDP growth. We are more than our economy, but that economic juggernaut has been the fuel that has powered the American experience.

That control is at the core of the debate between the Obama socialists and the Limbaugh / Tea Party conservatives. Just as the left is picking up steam in its efforts to remake America in the mold of a fabled European utopia, we are seeing the original European utopias crumble before our eyes. Greece is coming apart at the seams, requiring billions of dollars of support; Spain has unemployment approaching 20% while Italy and Portugal are economic basket cases who can barely service their debt. Across the continent Europeans regularly pay 50% of their incomes in taxes, an additional 20% of their spending on a VAT, all the while enduring high prices for everything from gasoline to restaurants, double digit unemployment and tiny, cramped living spaces. That is the American future if these red tides (financial & statist) are not turned back.

The United States has been the engine of economic development on the planet for most of the last century, despite the fact that our population represents a mere 5% of the world’s population. To put this in some perspective, in 1960, just a few years after CEO Charles Wilson told a Senate panel “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” the United States generated 47% of world GDP, while the rest of the world’s population, fully 20 times more people, generated only 53%. Today, with General Motors on life support and in the hands of the government, US GDP has fallen closer to 25%. For a century our creativity, innovation and willingness to take chances benefited not only Americans, but people around the world. While our economic tide may not have lifted all boats, over a century it lifted more than any previous tide in human history.

That success (and leadership) is in peril, and the danger comes largely from within. If Barack Obama and the Democrats were really as compassionate as they claim to be they would use their control of the government to rip back the burdens of taxation and regulation that are crippling the our economy and turning the American Exceptionalism that drove domestic prosperity and fueled world development for 100 years into a quaint historical memory. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but I can’t say I’m sanguine about the prospects of that happening…

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