Letter from DC: Ascending Honor vs Descending Honor

Washington's political class paralyzed by self-interest and partisanship.

By , Columnist

Even the most generous observer of Washington has to conclude that the nation’s politicians are failing its populace, driven by partisan gamesmanship and isolated by a complete lack of understanding of the mood enveloping not only the U.S., but much of the international community as well.

Americans, Greeks, Italians, Germans, the French, and the British are all losing faith as they contemplate the failure of their financial, political, and cultural institutions. People are taking to the streets around the world not so much with a direct agenda of grievances, but to express their frustration and disappointment in systems that have not met their self-professed expectations.

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One need not look further than last week’s spontaneous gathering in Happy Valley, PA prompted by Joe Paterno’s firing as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the wake of a child molestation scandal to encapsulate the people’s malaise.

“The mood was not so much pro-JoePa or anti-JoePa,” observed a Penn State grad who has packed away his sweatshirt and does not want to be identified because he is exhausted by the scandal. “It was more, if you can’t believe in JoePa, what can you believe in? It just symbolizes to me what is going on in this country. Who can we trust? What can we truly believe in? As Marvin Gay sang, ‘What’s going on?’.”

In Athens, more than 30,000 people demonstrated their mistrust. You see the same in Milan and Palermo in Italy, university students in London protesting a tripling of tuition in the UK, and of course, the escalating confrontation with the Occupy movements in Oakland, New York, and Denver.

What you see is the anger of what they consider a violation of their social contract by their government and their financial institutions.

Simple-minded folks rationalize the protesters as lazy and disgruntled, unwilling to put in the effort and hard work required to succeed in a system that rewards those who take advantage of the opportunities provided. Problem is, those opportunities are declining and the premise of the U.S. as a meritocracy is becoming more and more dubious.

Last month, the Congressional Budget Office confirmed much of the Occupy movement’s primary gripe: income inequality. The non-partisan CBO found that the top 1% of households saw their income grow by 275% between 1979 and 2007. The next 19% saw a 65% increase, a 39% increase for the next 40% and only an 18% increase for the bottom 20%.

Education, supposedly the great equalizer, has become so expensive and debt-intensive, there are very legitimate questions as to whether the investment in a college education is worth the return. Student loan balances now rival mortgages.

Americans now collectively owe more than $600 billion in student loans, while wages for college graduates have actually fallen over the last ten years. The expectation was that a college education would fuel social and economic advancement, not put you in a financial hole to dig out of day one after graduation and then rely on a tilted society to fund your recovery.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik may have put his finger on the fundamental grievance of the Occupy movement: that the nation has transitioned back from the “New World’s ‘ascending honor,’ in which children strive to impress their parents by moving up in society on their own” to the “Old World’s ‘descending honor,’ in which people pass on their goods and status to their children.”

In other words, political and financial elites are perpetuating a caste system that protects and grows their gains within their clique — by intent or not — and restricts entrance into their prosperous world. The national mantra of equal opportunity is under serious review.

Unfortunately, Washington continues to remain completely unaware of this growing sensibility, seeking instead to lay sole responsibility for the current state of affairs on those suffering from them. The so-called “Supercommittee” commissioned by the debt-ceiling extension deal is supposed to have its deficit reduction plan in order just before Thanksgiving.

If unable to reach a deal, poison pills kick in that would demand across the board cuts in military spending and social programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The cuts were supposed to be so devastating to the agendas of both political parties that they would be forced to reach a compromise.

But they gave themselves on out. The cuts do not kick in until after the 2012 elections; then whatever party is in power could repeal the cuts that are an anathema to their core. Thus, you’ve got stalling over “revenue” — or tax increases for the wealthiest. No hurry, we’ll win the election and do what we want.

Rather than explore a far-reaching agreement that restores an “ascending honor” to American society, our national leaders are consumed by election year politics and partisanship gain. And the people see it; why else would Congress’s approval rating be under 20%? (On the other hand, why should Congress worry? They enjoy 85% incumbency rates.)

The coming days will illuminate whether our leaders are thinking macro- or micro-, whether they favor “ascending honor” or “descending honor,” and whether they seek a solution for shared prosperity or to prepare for class warfare.

The "system" is clearly broken. Will it be fixed? Or, at the risk of escalating social unrest, its failings rationalized by those whom receive its primary benefits?

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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