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America's Locust Years

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This past week I was reminded of a Winston Churchill speech where he lamented, "these are the years that the locust hath eaten." Speaking before the House of Commons, Churchill chronicled Hitler's rise to power, Germany's rearmament, and England's failure to respond. He used the locust metaphor to refer to the multiple opportunities England had to prevent war.

I remembered Churchill's words after reading economist Joseph Stiglitz's Freefall and New York TImes columnist Thomas Friedman's newly revised Hot, Flat, and Crowded back to back. Stiglitz analyzes the global economic crisis and skewers the Obama Administration for not doing more to address the root problems. Friedman analyzes the global environmental crisis and castigates Washington for not doing more about it.

The Stiglitz and Friedman books make the same point Churchill did 74 years ago. There were abundant warning signs of an impending crisis, but they were ignored.

Answering the rhetorical question "Can America develop a just economy?" Stiglitz responds, "We have gone far down an alternative path - creating a society in which materialism dominates moral commitment, in which the rapid growth that we have achieved is not sustainable environmentally or socially, in which we do at together as a community to address our common needs..."

Focusing on global climate change, Friedman, the more pessimistic of the two authors, writes, "People don't seem to realize... that it s not like we're on the Titanic and we have to avoid the iceberg. We've already hit the iceberg."

Churchill's speech was given in 1936, three years after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and three years before the invasion of Poland - when England finally woke up and declared war. During this six-year period, despite obvious evidence that Germany was preparing to devour Europe, English leaders pretended that it wasn't happening.

Historians offer two explanations. First, England was coming out of a recession and English political leaders felt their countrymen wouldn't be able to handle preparation for war and economic recovery, shouldn't be asked to sacrifice. Second, they - Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, and Edward Halifax - admired Hitler, felt he was good for Germany, believed him when he said he had no intention of waging war, and regarded National Socialism as preferable to communism. Meanwhile, the locusts chewed away and, as a consequence, England came within a whisker of being devoured by Hitler.

Unfortunately, the locusts are still at work. They moved on to America.

Friedman cites Kurt Andersen who last year described baby boomers as the Grasshopper Generation. Building on Andersen's influential essay, Friedman laments that baby boomers "ate through a staggering amount of our national wealth and our natural world in a very short period of time, leaving the next generation a massive economic and ecological deficit."

Stiglitz and Friedman agree that America's locust years began in 1980 with election of Ronald Reagan. It "ushered in an age in which we told ourselves that we did not have sacrifice anymore for a better way of life." As a consequence, Friedman continues, "We became a subprime nation that thought it could just borrow its way to riches." This party hearty and damn the consequences attitude prevailed for thirty years, notably with George W. Bush, who after 9/11 said the appropriate American response was not collective sacrifice but rather to "go shopping."

While neither Stiglitz nor Friedman feels that the prospects for America are hopeless, both recognize that we have a steep climb out of the hole we're in. Friedman likens our condition to recovering from a serious heart attack.

Confronted with our locusts, Americans have two choices. First, we can ignore how bad things are: pray for the rapture or maintain that it's not as bad as people say, that the "liberal media" had distorted the extent of America's malaise. Those aren't locusts; they're sow bugs. The problem with this approach is that it won't make the locusts go away (anymore than Churchill's inept predecessors protected England by pretending that Hitler wasn't a monster.)

Friedman brilliantly characterizes the current American ethos as IBG/YBG: "Do whatever you like now, because 'I'll be gone' or 'you'll be gone" when the bill comes due." Sadly, since Reagan was elected many Americans have become moral weenies.

The second choice is to speak the truth and fight the locusts.

The American progressive tradition has to been to stand up and fight whenever it appeared that democracy was on the ropes. This is one of those times. America has suffered thirty years "that the locust hath eaten." Time is running out. We may not survive another "heart attack."

There is so much that needs to be done that it is difficult to say where to start. Each of us has to think about the moral commitment we are prepared to make. Here are two modest suggestions: First, speak the truth. Tell everyone you know about the locusts, about the terrible problems that American must face. Second, prepare for sacrifice. Dealing with these problems is going to hurt, but the pain will be bearable if we fact the locusts together.

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