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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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Before we proceed, remember this: those people Tom Brokaw dubbed The Greatest Generation, on the eve of the Great Depression, were drinking moonshine, banging flappers, and sitting on poles. OK.

I'm bored, partisans, you're boring me. Your attempts to blame this current economic crisis — actually, that expression is boring me, too, so I'm going to start calling it The Great Money Kerfuffle — on each other is boring me. It is meaningless to blame The Great Money Kerfuffle on Republicans or Democrats, on conservatives or liberals. A philosophy that sets "a free market" as the standard for proper social policy is the cause, and there can be absolutely no denying this wonderful fact, unless you appeal to some utopian, unfalsifiable argument (like, for example, "The Market wasn't free enough!"). Both sides of the aisle have gleefully held hands and skipped to that tune, and the fact that only one of them actually skipped off the cliff is due to a matter of degrees, not a contrast of philosophies.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not going to participate in the sort of false equivalency that the right thrives on and say that blame can be meted out equally. Insofar as the economic snake-handling represented by decades of radical right-wing economic philosophy is the preferred legerdemain of Republicans, blame can rest more heavily on their shoulders. But we can't just ignore that the repeal of the New Deal era Glass-Steagall Act in the form of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 was passed by a Republican Congress but with overwhelming majorities, and it was signed by President Clinton (there were veto-proof majorities, anyway). So, sorry Democrats! No dice. You don't get to run away from the New Deal for 20 years and then claim its mantle.

For nearly a generation, Democrats have joined in the maniacal and dangerous utopianism pushed into the mainstream by the radical right (via stooges like recently sainted nitwit Ronald Reagan). They have assiduously reinforced the idea that social policies that manage competition are "class warfare" or "anti-jobs" or whatever ridiculous theme. (PS: You're also boring me with your murder of the once-interesting word "meme.") Frank Luntz pretended to focus group the week prior. That collaborationism did not just come about because the country became more "conservative" (true conservatives have really gotten a bad rap by hanging around with these radical right nutjobs), but because a generation of the left turned their back on class issues in the wake of the identity politics of the 1960s. So while true conservatives were being dragooned by a generation of right-wing cults both religious and economic, the leftists were pretending that class no longer existed to appear more "serious," participating in arguably self-defeating identity politics that emphasized transactions over fundamental change. This is a generational, not a partisan, failure. The rancid ideas, moral relativism and weak stomachs of a confused and thoughtless generation got us here.

Now, The Great Money Kerfuffle of 2008 is upon us. With no minorities to blame (although they have tried, by erroneously or disingenuously blaming the housing bubble on government-backed minority lending), the partisans are blaming each other. But neither side is to blame, really. A failed generation of leadership has more to do with it than a single political party or general policy program ("conservative" or "liberal"). We can foresee one thing, though: The Great Money Kerfuffle could be — and should be — to Market Fundamentalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to that other maniacal utopian scheme, Marxism-Leninism. No false equivalency there. Both are philosophies that promise freedom but lead to authoritarianism, that require orthodoxy in the face of material evidence that contradicts it. And both are beloved of semi-intellectuals with cult heroes (Lenin and Marx; Rand and Friedman).

I use the word "kerfuffle" not to trivialize what could end up being an immensely traumatizing economic disaster. For all we know, our generation — those of us born since the late '60s — might end up having to survive a Great Depression of our own — though hopefully not another World War, because they were drafting dudes into their thirties for that war. That is a mildly terrifying thought; I don't want to have to be a Greatest Generation. I mean, all those stories about the perseverance of the human spirit are great, but the process of perseverance is a pretty big drag.

Don't get me wrong — I don't think we're not up to the gig. We're humans; we'll survive however we have to, and more likely than not, we'll cooperate in order to do it. The Greatest Generation weren't born ready to be the Greatest Generation. Like I said at the outset, on the eve of the economic disaster, people our age were daringly bobbing their hair and pretending to understand Gertrude Stein and jazz. If they did it, we can do it too. It will just be really, really, shitty.

I'm also a little worried about the Europeans. When we got knocked down, we came back with Franklin Roosevelt, the Wagner Act and the New Deal. The Europeans came up with Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. Say what you want about Europeans, but their seeming first response to epochal economic trouble may be building camps for their various national scapegoats. Aren't they forcibly fingerprinting Roma in Italy now?

And while we're all busy talking about the Chinese menace, I'd keep an eye on India. The US came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War as the preeminent power on the planet. With a billion people, a growing technology sector, improving infrastructure, and the fact that they are the largest democracy on the planet, I'd say the Indians are punching below their weight class right now. They may just be ready to step their game up, given the right opportunity.

There are plenty of reasons to be very worried about where the economy is headed, and it is important that we understand the causes so that we can properly fix the problem. But it's not the end of the world: just the end of the world as we know it. And frankly, the world as we know it is pretty messed up. There's plenty wrong with it. Maybe this is our opportunity, our generation's opportunity, to remake that world, certainly better than the previous generation remade it.

The world, Thomas Jefferson taught us, belongs to the living.

That's right, I brought Jefferson back into it. Sitting in his drawing room, or parlor, or wherever it was they sat, in 1789 Paris, Jefferson was watching the utter collapse of French society. Not a political reformation, but an economic disaster (much of it brought on by the national debt, natch). The social order seemed to be crumbling — the world as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen knew it was ending. In the midst of this, Jefferson wrote a ponderous letter to his fellow Virginian James Madison, in which he said, "The Earth belongs in usufruct to the living." After forgiving Jefferson for his use of the word "usufruct" (a legal term similar in sense to "easement"), we can thank him for this unbelievably brave and optimistic bit of wordsmithery.

The world is ours to remake however we wish, so long as we do so in, um, "usufruct," which really just means we shouldn't "fruct" it up while we're in charge. We have a model of how not to do that. This Great Kerfuffle, in tandem with the breakdown of the international order and the intractability of our domestic politics, is not merely a final repudiation of Market Fundamentalism, but of the entirety of the political and social leadership of a generation. Given that repudiation, it comes to a new generation to decide how we want our society to look.

I'm going to be fully honest with you. That letter I'm quoting from is a little odd. Jefferson went on to literally press his point, and used some estimations of the average Virginian generation to figure out how often land literally should come to the sovereignty of a new generation, and settled on 19 years as the ideal length of a Constitution. He was also a terrible debtor his whole life, so much of the letter is devoted to decrying the fact that one generation should owe debts incurred by previous generations. But bubbling up amidst the full, somewhat bizarre discussion in the letter is Jefferson's ultimate point — that each successive generation "derive these rights not from their predecessors, but from nature."

We aren't bound by the failures of previous generations, as though their decisions, systems and philosophies are the natural ways of human society. We have a natural right to order things however we see most fit. That's an exciting prospect.

So while we face the prospect of giving up our moonshine and flappers, we can take some comfort in the fact that we don't have to live by the ferkakta decisions of a previous generation; we only have to endure them. And, once endured, to make the world again.

"The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please."

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W / October 15, 2008 9:46 AM

Shouldn't it be, the world belongs to the living, and those who WILL live?

C-Note / October 17, 2008 11:29 AM

W - no, it shouldn't. If the world belongs to the living, the world will also belong to those who WILL live, once they ARE living.

The class of those who WILL live are, as yet, unascertainable, and so the concept is nebulous. That is, if you live your life on a theory of free will, as opposed to predetermination.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't consider the consequences of consuming or otherwise using natural resources that are in limited supply; just that the statement "the world belongs to the living" isn't to be interpreted as "who gives a rat's ass about those who come after us."

Not that I'm interested in Thomas Jefferson's opinion on anything.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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