If I never hear the phrase “live within our means” in the context of the federal budget again, it will be too soon. The great myth that drives both the Village and the media narrative—a myth easy enough to buy into for a bunch of privileged goons who would still have a comfortable retirement to look forward to if Social Security evaporated entirely—is that Americans have been living large, that we’ve come to expect too much from our government.
Come to expect too much? What have we been getting? One of the worst qualities of life in the developed world, gun violence and incarceration rates that even Russia would consider ridiculous, crumbling infrastructure, expensive and inefficient profit-driven healthcare, ballooning costs for increasingly ineffective higher education… if this is living large by modern standards, the people of Northern Europe must be living on the set of Star Trek.
The truth is that America has been living large, but Americans have not, with the obvious few exceptions. We’re an empire with military force projected all over the globe, after all, and empires project their military force to gain tangible material and cultural benefits. Instead of tea and spices, of course, our main import is economic and military acquiescence, which may not sound tangible, but I assure you it has the power to make Dick Cheney rock hard. (We get the tea and spices, too, of course, but that’s a secondary perk at this point.)
Just to fill in the gaps a little, let me remind you that despite conservatives generally being big fans of hard currency, it was Nixon who finally detached the US Dollar from gold, and also add as a hint that one of Saddam Hussein’s last acts as a sovereign leader was to make some offhand comments about maybe starting to sell his oil in euros instead of dollars. America’s great imperial project, one apparently so subtle that modern gold-obsessed libertarians are too dense to notice it, has been to transform the US Dollar into the world economy’s new gold, because as the sovereign issuer of said US Dollar, that gives the US government some enormous advantages.
If these things seem rather high-level, that’s sort of the point: as Americans, we certainly benefit greatly from them—it would be grossly disingenuous to pretend that we do not—but they’re not for us. We might generally prefer the peace of mind of affordable healthcare that doesn’t constantly threaten to bankrupt us, or financial systems that don’t put us at the mercy of Mitt Romney’s colleagues, rather than the more profitable adventures in supplying terrorists and drug runners with guns so that we can later bomb them and any children who happen to be in their vicinity, but nobody cares what we prefer. At any rate, while we’re certainly in the top tier of quality of life in the world, we’re scraping against the very bottom of that tier. We know what a modern industrialized society is capable of providing for its citizens, and we’re not getting it.
So this persistent myth that we’re demanding too much of our government and living large off of it is irritating and infuriating. If the fat trimmed from America’s exorbitant lifestyle must come from our pantry rather than from our imperial playroom, we’re looking at a banana republic quality of life, because there’s not as much buffer between that and where we are now as Obama seems to imagine. My only question is this: why is it becoming conventional wisdom that we don’t have a right to expect anything better?