Most Americans get their news from TV. And what they see is heartwarming — a picture
of a nation behaving well in a time of crisis. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans
have been both resolute and generous.
But that's not the whole story, and the images TV doesn't show are anything
but heartwarming. A full picture would show politicians and businessmen behaving
badly, with this bad behavior made possible — and made worse — by the fact that
these days selfishness comes tightly wrapped in the flag. If you pay attention
to the whole picture, you start to feel that you are living in a different reality
from the one on TV.
The alternate reality isn't deeply hidden. It's available to anyone with a
modem, and some of it makes it into quality newspapers. Often you can find the
best reporting on what's really going on in the business section, because business
reporters and commentators are not expected to view the world through rose-colored
From an economist's point of view, the most revealing indicator of what's
really happening is the post- Sept. 11 fondness of politicians for "lump-sum transfers."
That's economese for payments that aren't contingent on the recipient's actions,
and which therefore give no incentive for changed behavior. That's good if the
transfer is meant to help someone in need, without reducing his motivation to
work. It's bad if the alleged purpose of the transfer is to get the recipient
to do something useful, like invest or hire more workers.
So it tells you something when Congress votes $15 billion in aid and loan
guarantees for airline companies but not a penny for laid-off airline workers.
It tells you even more when the House passes a "stimulus" bill that contains almost
nothing for the unemployed but includes $25 billion in retroactive corporate tax
cuts — that is, pure lump-sum transfers to corporations, most of them highly profitable.
Most political reporting about the stimulus debate describes it as a conflict
of ideologies. But ideology has nothing to do with it. No economic doctrine I'm
aware of, right or left, says that an $800 million lump-sum transfer to General
Motors will lead to more investment when the company is already sitting on $8
billion in cash.
As Jonathan Chait points out, there used to be some question about the true
motives of people like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. Did they really believe in free
markets, or did they just want to take from the poor and give to the rich? Now
Of course, it's not all about lump- sum transfers. Since Sept. 11 there has
also been a sustained effort, under cover of the national emergency, to open public
lands to oil companies and logging interests. Administration officials claim that
it's all for the sake of national security, but when you discover that they also
intend to reverse rules excluding snowmobiles from Yellowstone, the truth becomes
So what's the real state of the nation? On TV this looks like World War II.
But though our cause is just, for 99.9 percent of Americans this war, waged by
a small cadre of highly trained professionals, is a spectator event. And the home
front looks not like wartime but like a postwar aftermath, in which the normal
instincts of a nation at war — to rally round the flag and place trust in our
leaders — are all too easily exploited.
Indeed, current events bear an almost eerie resemblance to the period just
after World War I. John Ashcroft is re-enacting the Palmer raids, which swept
up thousands of immigrants suspected of radicalism; the vast majority turned out
to be innocent of any wrongdoing, and some turned out to be U.S. citizens. Executives
at Enron seem to have been channeling the spirit of Charles Ponzi. And the push
to open public lands to private exploitation sounds like Teapot Dome, which also
involved oil drilling on public land. Presumably this time there have been no
outright bribes, but the giveaways to corporations are actually much larger.
What this country needs is a return to normalcy. And I don't mean the selective
normalcy the Bush administration wants, in which everyone goes shopping but the
media continue to report only inspiring stories and war news. It's time to give
the American people the whole picture.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company