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下一场文化战争  

2009-12-17 10:39:26|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The Next Culture War

 

 

面对当前经济滞胀,美国开始思考,是不是该启动一场文化战争重树美国清教徒式的勤俭理念了?

几个世纪之前,历史学家发明了一个堪称经典的理论解释大国的兴衰。这个理论称:但凡大国,必兴起于坚强的意志和充沛的能量,这两者将为它带来财富和权力。随之,财富与权力推动繁荣和奢靡,而繁荣与奢靡必将导致颓废、腐败与衰落。

约翰·亚当斯给托马斯·杰斐逊的一封信里,告诫这个国家将面临的腐败,称“不管采取何种形式,人类不能抗拒随繁荣背后的腐败,这是其本性使然”。

不过,虽然有着巨额财富,美国大体上一直独立于这个恶性循环之外。虽然早在1740年,美国人的生活水平就超过了欧洲人。但是,在美国,富裕并没有使它走向放纵与衰落。

这是因为虽然美国有追求物质财富坏名声,但与此并行的是良好的经济价值观。早期的美国移民是卡尔文式禁欲主义的信民。这些开拓者们自发的向西部进军,经历了重重困难。一代又一代的老一辈移民都在努力工作,反省自身,将成功的希望寄托在自己的孩子身上。政府的权力受到限制,不能够为人民提供足够的保护,因此,居民们必须承担自己行为的后果,如此,纪律性和自我克制更加得到推崇。

当经济价值观真的开始堕落的时候,当局总会采取措施恢复原有的平衡。镀金时代之后,西奥多·罗斯福(曾前往西部以磨砺自己温文的气质)就严惩过财政腐败。清教徒们建立的制度有很多问题,但是它本身并不会自甘堕落。原来的西方安格鲁·撒克逊清教徒们以吝啬出名,他们把孩子送到斯巴达的寄宿学校,坚持节俭。

然而,过去的几年,美国的财政观念明显走向了腐败。与此同时,国家的文化监督却在忙于处理其他事情——校园里的祈祷现象、名为“尿基督”的照片以及进化论。他们为性自由抗争,倡导政教分开,却没有注意到眼前的财政观念腐败化。

这种观念的变化反映在各个方面,有些甚至是无害可言,也是微不足道的。全国各个州开始赞助乐透彩票,这种政府支持的赌博从穷人身上榨取了大量金钱。高管人员和对冲基金经理们开始大谈薪酬补贴,几十年前,这种行为被认为是无耻的。连锁餐馆的规模越来越大,提供的分量也更多,上一代人甚至无法接受如此巨大的分量。

另一些变化则表现的比较明显。布林克林研究所的威廉·高尔斯顿发现,在1950到1980的30年间,个人消费一直比较稳定,占国内生产总值的62%。而接下来的30年里,个人消费数量直线上升,到2008年,已经占了国内生产总值的70%。

这期间,债务额也急剧上升。1960年,美国的个人债务额占国内生产总值的55%左右,而2007年,这一数字上升到了133%。

过去的几个月里,债务额有所下降。但这并不是说我们原有的节俭理念重新回归了,而是我们从个人债务转到了国债上。到2019年,联邦政府的债务将占到国内生产总值的83%,这还是在没有包括医保花费和其他杂项支出的情况下。到那一年,单利息就有8030亿美金。

这些干巴巴的数字似乎是那些预算核算的呆子才会关注的。但是这些数字是财政观念变化的外在显示。要纠正这一价值观,必须开展相应的道德和文化运动。

当前,我们的文化政治信条是过时的文化战争的产物,将世俗的自由与宗教的保守分开考虑。但是,经济观的堕落,不管是对民主党还是共和党都是不利的。

要重新回复原来的经济观念,就必须打破现在的分类方法。必须以建立生产主导的经济为目标,而不是当前以消费为主导的经济。这样,我们才能赢得这次行动的胜利,原有的经济节俭观将得以或多或少复苏。

接下来,我要做些所谓的“说客理念”——从美国退休工人协会到农业综合企业,每个人都相信自己的组织应该得到政府资助,不管这个项目需要多少钱。他们必须从低纳税额、高支出转向迎合人们的狂热需求。

发起一场经济节俭运动意味着政府盟友的重新洗牌,也意味着重新启动现在政治上不可能的能源税征收和收支削减。不过,这种道德复兴正是我们这个国家所需要的。

 

Centuries ago, historians came up with a classic theory to explain the rise and decline of nations. The theory was that great nations start out tough-minded and energetic. Toughness and energy lead to wealth and power. Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.

“Human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear prosperity,” John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, warning against the coming corruption of his country.

Yet despite its amazing wealth, the United States has generally remained immune to this cycle. American living standards surpassed European living standards as early as 1740. But in the U.S., affluence did not lead to indulgence and decline.

That’s because despite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed. Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint.

When economic values did erode, the ruling establishment tried to restore balance. After the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt (who ventured west to counteract the softness of his upbringing) led a crackdown on financial self-indulgence. The Protestant establishment had many failings, but it was not decadent. The old WASPs were notoriously cheap, sent their children to Spartan boarding schools, and insisted on financial sobriety.

Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, “Piss Christ” and the theory of evolution. They were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state, oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet.

Evidence of this shift in values is all around. Some of the signs are seemingly innocuous. States around the country began sponsoring lotteries: government-approved gambling that extracts its largest toll from the poor. Executives and hedge fund managers began bragging about compensation packages that would have been considered shameful a few decades before. Chain restaurants went into supersize mode, offering gigantic portions that would have been considered socially unacceptable to an earlier generation.

Other signs are bigger. As William Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, in the three decades between 1950 and 1980, personal consumption was remarkably stable, amounting to about 62 percent of G.D.P. In the next three decades, it shot upward, reaching 70 percent of G.D.P. in 2008.

During this period, debt exploded. In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.

Over the past few months, those debt levels have begun to come down. But that doesn’t mean we’ve re-established standards of personal restraint. We’ve simply shifted from private debt to public debt. By 2019, federal debt will amount to an amazing 83 percent of G.D.P. (before counting the costs of health reform and everything else). By that year, interest payments alone on the federal debt will cost $803 billion.

These may seem like dry numbers, mostly of concern to budget wonks. But these numbers are the outward sign of a values shift. If there is to be a correction, it will require a moral and cultural movement.

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

It will have to take on what you might call the lobbyist ethos — the righteous conviction held by everybody from AARP to the agribusinesses that their groups are entitled to every possible appropriation, regardless of the larger public cost. It will have to take on the self-indulgent popular demand for low taxes and high spending.

A crusade for economic self-restraint would have to rearrange the current alliances and embrace policies like energy taxes and spending cuts that are now deemed politically impossibl e. But this sort of moral revival is what the country actually needs.

 

 

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