If you have any doubts about the political motivation of President Bush's 'bailout' proposal, take a look at what has happened inside the Clinton Global Initiative over the past few days. While John McCain's Republican Party is wasting time with...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 09/27/2008

If you have any doubts about the political motivation of President Bush's 'bailout' proposal, take a look at what has happened inside the Clinton Global Initiative over the past few days.  While John McCain's Republican Party is wasting time with sky-is-falling rhetoric about the free-fall of the 'free' markets, the Clinton foundation is bringing people together to solve real problems--including poverty, public health, energy, food, and water. 

Let me repeat that: 

Billions of dollars has been given away at the Clinton Global Initiative by private business to help the public--and this happened at the exact moment as President Bush is telling us that the U.S. must spend public money to save private industry.

In other words, the crisis we are seeing in terms of the U.S. government wanting to spend public money to salvage the U.S. credit markets has little to do with the amount of wealth in the world or its availability to private industry.  The money is out there.  The issue is not just debt, but how we as a nation talk about and imagine our list of financial priorities.  What are the crises in our world that demand the investment of our wealth and what is the correct--the moral direction for money to flow?  Should we throw $700 billion around to save a private industry or should we craft a much  more thoughtful approach that would use money to advance the public good?

The Clinton Global Initiative showcases the flow of money from private to public hands to solve crises that I would call 'fundamental'--crises having to do with the basic conditions that sustain life.  The Bush administration has showcased the flow of money from public to private hands to solve a crisis that I would call 'capital'--having to do with the ability of capital wealth to thrive. 'Fundamental' vs. 'capital' crises.  Which should be the target of public spending and which should be the source of public spending?

I think most people would agree that a healthy American society should be defined by a flow of private funds to the public sector to solve fundamental crises.  And since we find ourselves at a moment when we are about to reverse that flow at a dramatic scale, then we must also recognize that we are on the cusp of a new era in our country. 

It is worth noting that this new era of public spending to solve capital crises is occurring not at the start of the Bush administration, but at the end of it.  In a different era--80 years ago--a financial crisis of this magnitude elicited from our government a declaration that the time of focusing on the fears of banks was over, and that the time had come to refocus our money and our initiative on creating opportunity for achievement in every American.  That was FDR in his inaugural speech of 1933:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.  So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

And yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried. But their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

FDR looked at the financial crisis and his first thought was:  power to the people!  Bush looks at the current crisis, and his first thought is: power to the companies!

I draw attention to this basic dynamic--this new 'era' emerging in the guise of the bailout--because I do not think this level of change is being discussed in the media at all.  Instead of discussing the morality of reversing the flow of public finds from public to private hands, and from fundamental to capital crisis, we have been forced to discuss the theater of campaigning. 

John McCain's declaration that he was "suspending" his campaign to help resolve the debt market crisis may have actually created a political impasse on the bailout proposal. But it also distracted the country from the vital discussion of whether or not the use of public funds as financial aid for private industry would also serve to undermine the moral foundations of our government.  That debate is happening in side waters of the political debate, and was vigorously promoted by the Obama campaign's insistence on a set of principles that would guarantee the $700 billion would benefit financially stricken members of the public more than capital deprived investment firms. But that discussion was vastly overshadowed by meaningless and selfish discussions about John McCain showing up or not showing up for the first Presidential debate.

This is the question that should have overshadowed every political discussion on every channel this week: 

Should the U.S. become a nation that uses public money to bailout private capital crisis or not?

And we should have had a long attempt to put that question in a context that makes sense to the greatest number of people. 

In essence, that question is the question that defines our age--the answer we choose will define the next era for this nation.

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected President, he recognized that the financial crisis in the markets put the nation on the precipice of a new era.  FDR understood that the choices we made were not just about banks or lending or business, but about how we understand ourselves as a country--about the relationship between government, wealth, and crises. 

We know what happened.  FDR chose to initiate a new era where public funds were used to solve fundamental crises in this country.  The result of that choice was a new era where the fear that paralyzed millions of Americans was eliminated. Where the era before that had been marked by the emergence of massive corporate trusts, the new era was marked by solutions to massive fundamental problems--chief among them, ultimately, the problem of fascism's threat to the world. 

That last vestiges of that era are hidden for the most part, exposed to the light of day only in moments like the Clinton Global Initiative.

We face a choice this week, this election, this moment in history: What kind of era do we want to begin?  That is the choice.  We are not choosing just a bailout proposal, just a presidential candidate or just a political party.  We are choosing a path and a moral foundation for this country.  The last time we chose to push government down the path of solving fundamental problems, this country moved forward with historic strides. 

It is a lesson worth remembering as we head into the first Presidential debate, and as each of us takes stock of where we are in the world, today.

© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2008, Frameshop

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