Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Age of Anxiety?

Chris Christie's State of the State address last week has been read by some as a draft stump speech for an upcoming presidential campaign. Here is the interesting part:
We are a nation beset by anxiety. And it is understandable. Economic growth is low by post-war recovery standards. America’s leadership in the world is called into question because of a pattern of indecision and inconsistency. During this time of uncertainty it seems our leaders in Washington would rather stoke division for their own political gain. And this culture of divisiveness and distrust has seeped into our communities and into our neighborhoods. And it is bipartisan in its nature. As I traveled the country over the last year - you may have heard about that. Traveled a little bit around the country in the last year. This anxiety was the most palpable emotion that I saw and felt. More than anger, more than fear, anxiety.....We need to address this anxiety head on. We need to renew the spirit and the hopes of our state, our country and our people. A renewal of our commitment to the hard-working families who are the backbone of this state. A renewal of our commitment to the simple belief that our people deserve better than a bloated national government that imposes costs on our states which in turn then suffocate our people. A renewal of our commitment to the ideal -- and the hard work to make this ideal happen -- that New Jersey’s best days do in fact lie ahead of it.
I find this interesting because Christie, I think, hits the nail on the head of our national problems but then demonstrates that agreeing on the problems implies nothing about agreeing on the solutions.

I agree that our biggest national problem is widespread, nagging anxiety: about the future, the economy, terrorism, our neighborhoods, our own prospects. But if you ask me, the obvious root cause of this anxiety is the sense that life is a lottery in which hard work is not guaranteed any significant reward, and prudent people might be plunged into poverty through illness, loss of a job, or something else completely beyond their control. How is less government any solution to this?

Honest libertarians admit that the world they want would be more stressful than our current system, not less. Their ideal is a society in which some people rise high through hard work but the lazy sink low, the threat of poverty serving as a goad to keep people working hard. Whatever the merits of this model, is absolutely does not reduce anxiety. Social democracy -- national health insurance, free college tuition, subsidized housing, and all the other measures of the "welfare state"-- does reduce anxiety by assuring people that no matter what, they will be cared for. The combination of Social Security and Medicare has drastically reduced the anxiety of America's elderly, helping to make it the happiest part of life for many people. Take that away and you add massively to the nation's pool of anxiety.

Republicans have been big promoters of anxiety in other ways, too, for example the whole apparatus of terrorism alerts, threat levels, and heated rhetoric about how al Qaeda poses an "existential threat" to the United States. Republicans have been campaigning for decades on fear of crime, fear of immigrants, fear that urban chaos will invade safe suburbs and towns.

Sure, let's have a campaign focused on reducing the anxiety of Americans. But let's be realistic about what it would really take to make people feel better about our future.

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