America's safety net is fraying, and that's a problem, because it was an invisible net to begin with. The issue of safety nets isolates us in the world. We don't like to think that we are a cruel, careless, or reckless country. Yet consider how others see us. The United States isn't getting any love from Europe right now. Except for England, every country has resisted any move toward massive stimulus. When President Obama pleads for global unity, the typical European response is "You got us into this mess. Why should we follow your lead now?" But something deeper is at work.
Europeans aren't panicking over the meltdown. Why not? Because of a social safety net that has been woven for the past fifty years. The typical citizen of Sweden, France, or Germany can count on free medical care and schooling from kindergarten through college. Unions are strong and unemployment benefits more or less permanent. In the current bust people will suffer, but their lives won't fall off the cliff.
Falling off the cliff is the phrase Warren Buffett used to describe the U.S. economy last week, and unlike Europe, America provides a threadbare safety net. If your job goes away here, so can your health and your child's hopes for college. There is no guaranteed public housing beyond that provided for indigents. The rest of the world thinks we're crazy, but in this country we rely on an invisible safety net. The strands of this net are made of confidence, self-reliance, a strong streak of individuality, and, as always, orneriness. The more of those qualities you possess, the less you need the government to help you in any way -- or so we tell ourselves.
Now the invisible safety net is unraveling.
For decades we were rich enough to believe that anyone could survive by living in the cracks of the sidewalk -- through odds and ends of work, credit cards, loans, and ever-mounting house prices (if you happen to be a home owner). Society is fluid and mobile, allowing someone who can't find work in Michigan to pull up stakes and move. Few young families carry the burden of taking care of parents and grandparents, who in turn don't want to be dependent, either. And despite the crippling cost of health care, when push comes to shove, hospitals do care for everyone, even the poor and needy.
Is that a crazy way to live, as the rest of the world assumes?
It has worked for such a long time that Americans have gone into shock over the past six months. They are faced with a President who says that the future can't be the same as the past. Credit is gone. Mobility has fallen off as every part of the country feels the pinch. Immigrants take millions of low-paying casual jobs. Health care is so expensive that a middle-class family can be wiped out by one serious illness or accident.
We need a visible safety net along the lines that Europe has built. The trick is to retain the best part of our invisible safety net, which is its underlying psychology of self-reliance, confidence, and, yes, orneriness. That thought came to me watching a Sunday news program as one pundit after another pecked away at the Obama rescue plan. You would think that everything the administration is doing is either wrong, too late, or not enough. In fact, nobody knows. But one thing is certain. America without confidence isn't America anymore. Pundits, experts, and even Republicans need to keep that in mind. We had the opposite situation in 2002, when the pundit class formed a unified chorus backing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (with a small clutch of dissenters). American confidence was stretched too far, to the point of arrogance, isolation, and imperious military bullying.
Now the small clutch of dissenters is in power, having discovered that they had truth, history, and ultimately the American public on their side. To see the pundit class turn on them is sickening, because the experts have forgotten how much we owe to Obama simply for sticking it out and swimming against the tide at a time when America needed rescuing from moral contamination. Obama is trying to give us both a real safety net and our old confidence back. Everyone who pays lip service to FDR's greatness while pecking away at the current President should open their eyes. The only safety net we have is each other. The naysayers who blithely tear Obama down today would have torn down FDR, and the results could be just as dire.