Conventional wisdom says that Jimmy Carter was a weak president who led the nation into a state of malaise, and then Ronald Reagan came along and made us believe in ourselves again. The conventional wisdom is firmly ensconced. Journalists, politicians, and mainstream historians all spout it. But it’s not the truth.
During the Carter presidency there was a brief moment when the window was open to the possibility of making some much needed change. Vietnam had left the country in bad shape—politically, economically, and psychologically. We were down, but it had nothing to do with Carter. That was already the situation when he came into office. He’s been the only president in my lifetime who said openly that the country ran on some false assumptions. One of the most egregious is the idea that we can constantly raise our standard of living, that there can be endless economic growth. This is an impossibility logically, and he seems to have known it. Carter made some effort to get the country to understand that we were entering an era of limits. He tried to get people to take the energy situation seriously. He was vilified for telling the truth. Reagan came along and undid any progress Carter may have made toward opening up a discussion about reality. One of Reagan’s first acts as president was to take down the solar panels that Carter had had installed on the White House roof—one of the most foolish symbolic moves any American president has ever made. He liked to say that “conservation just means we all freeze in the dark.” It says a great deal about the man. He gave people simple answers and resold the people on the fantasy aspects of the American Dream. The prosperity that followed was all done on credit. As somebody once said, “we borrowed money from the Japanese and threw a party.” There wasn’t any new era of production, and in the end that’s what creates real wealth. We’ve been living in Reagan’s dream world ever since.
It’s very clear to me that we’ve already reached the end of our ability to raise our standard of living. We’re failing economically. We don’t produce anything anymore. We live in a service economy—a dead end—and we’re never going to get that old economy back. (Personally, I’m fine with it. I see immense wealth as a bar to good character.) There’s a lot of stuff coming down the road that the media and the politicians are paying zero attention to— “peak oil,” for one. Most people I talk to have never even heard of it. It’s probably the most important economic/material plane issue of our time. I’ll be writing about it at some point. I’m still learning.
I know I’ve said much of this before, but I’m bringing it up again because of the Tea Party convention in Nashville. I had an exchange with one of them recently, and I realized that they’re not really bad people. But they do live in a delusion—the Reagan fantasy—and they don’t spend much time being thoughtful. This guy had quite a few hatreds, and he was willing to give up most of them when pressed. But he demanded simple answers. The Tea Party wants the old America back, the America of a constantly increasing standard of living. They seem to see money as the only real pleasure in life. They’re going to be getting angrier and angrier as time goes on. Regardless of what happens in the future—which political party is in charge and so on—that dream is over.