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In Dependence Day 2009

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For the last several years I have spent the Fourth of July here at the Aspen Ideas Festival which has always ushered me into the holiday with a new perspective on democracy and the freedoms that have always been unique to our great country.

Last year, a session on "Patriotism" prompted one of my first posts since it made me realize how George W, Bush's most toxic legacy was the way he completely eliminated the notion of shared sacrifice from that noble concept.

This year, it became increasingly clear that the damage was far more severe. (As an aside, the former president -- who shamelessly announced last year that he hoped to parley his status into "a little coin" from high paying speaking engagements when he left office -- spoke at the newly-renovated Woodward, OK rodeo grounds as part of a Fourth of July celebration featuring Tanya Tucker, Asleep at the Wheel, and Sawyer Brown. Bush was paid for his appearance but I'm sure it wasn't the major coin he had in mind. It was apparently the only offer he got.

This year's Aspen Ideas Festival had no sessions on patriotism. In one way or another, it was mainly about the economy and how in eight short years we went from being the only super power in the world to a bankrupt nation that now is forced to go hopelessly in debt to keep our banks and the world financial system from total collapse.

We have gone from being the most independent country in the world to one that is now largely dependent on foreign lenders and government bailouts and stimulus using trillions of dollars that we don't have.

The irony, of course, is the the Republican Party that controlled everything for six of those years campaigned on its commitment to family values and fiscal responsibility.

We've all seen the true story on the family values part. Enough said there. And we've all seen the true story on the financial responsibility part. Enough said there as well.

The many economists and and financial historians I heard during the last week fell into two camps: Those who believe that we are now forced to take on unconscionable amounts of debt right now to keep the world financial system from collapsing but there are still places to make money in the world -- like China -- and those who agree with the first part and believe that there is no place to hide anywhere.

They all dismissed the notion that President Obama had anything to do with the underlying problem. They disagreed about the wisdom of what Obama is doing to deal with the economic crisis but they all praised him for putting together the best, smartest team we have seen in Washington in quite a while. When confronted with a situation in which there are no good options, it is easy to find fault with whatever course of action is taken. Some choose to be critical and others don't.

But at the end of the day, most experts seemed to agree that any recovery that is on the way will be slow in coming and very shallow. Americans are de-leveraging out of both choice and necessity and that means we will be saving more and spending less. That is a formula for slow growth and a long painful period during which we continue to define what the new normal will look like.

But none of the presenters seemed to address the bigger issue that I wrote about last year -- the terrible toll that the last eight years have taken on our national character. As I said then, under Bush and Cheney we went through the biggest redistribution of wealth in at least a century -- all of it moving from the bottom and middle to to top.

We engaged in a war of choice in which none of us was required (or even encouraged) to fight. Instead our military offered six-figure signing bonuses to new recruits and the promise of fast-track citizenship to others. Just as we are now dependent on foreign lenders to keep us afloat financially we have become overly dependent on poor, rural, foreign-born soldiers who have no other economic prospects for our national defense.

Don't get me wrong. These are brave people and we should all be grateful for their sacrifice. It is a commentary on the rest of us who have been told for eight years that we can be true patriots by simply never questioning the president and putting an "I Support the Troops" decal on our cars. No other sacrifice or payment has been required. Those Americans who have come to believe this can be heard daily on Fox News and Right wing radio -- talking very tough while their kids are sitting safely at home and not paying a penny to the wars they so vocally support.

For years I have been checking the the names and hometowns of those killed in action. They seem to be disproportionately Hispanic and most of them come from cities and towns I have never heard of. Very few are from major metropolitan areas. When was the last time you heard a young man or woman say they had just been accepted to college or had a great job offer but they had decided to first serve their country by enlisting in the military?

While we increasingly complain about the quality of our representatives in Washington, we continue to elect and re-elect people who treat us like children that just can't handle the news that Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don't exist. Tens of millions of Americans have come to feel entitled to and dependent upon an ever-growing list of programs like Social Security and Medicare -- programs we can't afford at today's tax rates and which will become increasingly untenable as more and more of us live longer and longer.

Republicans in and out of Congress have no solutions. All they do is continuously criticize President Obama and say we should lower taxes which would, of course, make the problem ever worse. Democrats have not been much better and lately they have just been so happy to watch the parade of Republican "leaders" who are quitting their jobs or acknowledging sexual indiscretions that they aren't doing much either.

One thing seems certain. Until further notice, the Fourth of July should be renamed "In Dependence Day" because we have never been more reliant on the generosity of others and less able to act like grown-ups and fend for ourselves than any time since the Revolution. It won't be as much fun, but it would be a far more useful reminder of what we need to do going forward.

It's heart warming but a little hollow to celebrate the independence we won from the British more than 225 years ago at a time when we have so abused the responsibilities of democracy that we now face a seemingly endless period of dependence on foreign money and unfunded government programs to sustain us financially and the patriotism and financial desperation of a relative handful of our poorest citizens to protect us.

Maybe it's time for a little less bravado and triumphalism and a little more focus on personal responsibility. Then and only then will we able to truly celebrate Independence Day in a meaningful way again.