DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Peterson’s Running on Empty; Frum's Comeback


Author (or Editor): Peter G. Peterson

Title: Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It

Fiction? Anthology?  N

Publisher:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

Date: 2004

ISBN:  0-374-35387-4

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 242 pgs

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL:  “shared sacrifice”


Peter G. Peterson is a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and founding president of the Concord Coalition. He describes himself as a proper Republican. He has made the talk show circuit (including PBS Bill Moyers) suggesting that the winning president should appoint a commission to make a detailed report to the American people “about the future.”  Evermore than just social security, “the future” is a third rail, and no presidential candidate can afford intellectual honesty about it. No president, it seems, dare talk about shared sacrifice, like Ross Perot did in 1992 (and he might have won if he hadn’t turned crybaby!)

It’s not hard to figure out what the disturbing trends are. Since 9/11, the government has been building up huge deficits for the War on Terror and bailouts, while reducing taxes for the rich and pushing burdens on states and localities. Deficits could lead to, essentially, margin calls from foreign investors. That means the collapse of the dollar, huge interest rate spikes, inflation, a bad dream of the 1970s all over. And then there is the whole question of entitlements. Everybody whines about social security and Medicare. The original beneficiaries at the time of FDR didn’t contribute, so in a sense social security has to be a ponzi scheme. It is really wealth redistribution. I’ve always thought that the honest approach was, well, tax if you must, but get individuals and families to save their own futures in non-volatile accounts. More fundamental to the social security problem is falling birthrates, which is an even bigger problem in Europe than here.

Peterson gives a history of how both Democrats (entitlements) and Republicans (supply side) got us into our fiscal mess, and offers a consolation letter to the young generation that will have to be “understanding” as it is burden with paying its ancestors’ bills. “We were misled by politicians.”  Well, that is part of story. Myopia, people focused on their own lives and families and overlooking the bigger picture. There is a rest of the story. Peterson’s suggestions, after all, are still largely fiscal and academic. He wants stricter budgeting, to apply ERISA and Sarbanes-Oxley accounting requirements to the federal budget. He wants federal budgeting taught in high school civics. He thinks social security benefits should be indexed to prices rather than wages.

But any fireside chat from a commission about “the future” would eventually have to get down to, “how does this affect me?”  In plenty of ways.  His Chapter 8, “How America Is Choosing the Wrong Future,” talks about the “Me Decades” that started in the 1960s and the mentality of “short-termitis” (the term reminds me of “senioritis” in high school). Again, most of Peterson’s suggestions are fiscal and political rather than personal. Peterson drops some hints when he analyzes the idea of means testing, and that maybe some more affluent seniors shouldn’t get benefits (or fewer benefits)—but this would punish thriftiness and saving. Okay, you can pander to the left-wing hatred of living off accumulated wealth. But it really gets nastier if you are honest. Maybe seniors who’ve already had it good should step aside and let somebody else have their turn. Maybe seniors shouldn’t get public health care unless family is around to take care of them, or unless they’ve had children to take care of them. No, he doesn’t say this, but any frank discussion of the possibly glum future brings such ideas to mind. Again, the lower birth rate is a sneaky problem.

Peterson could take this further into much more delicate areas. The younger generation has grown up with the idea that everyone can choose his own future if he or she “does the work.”  Self-definition and emotional self-containment (even “fantasy” and “creativity”) before having a “relationship” or children are seen as a good things, even part of teen abstinence (as in a major episode of Brenda Hampton’s “Christian family values” show Seventh Heaven). But there is a side of this that says one cannot remain an Apprentice forever and fight for the self. The rest of the world may not let us. Already, more populous and poorer companies easily take our jobs—even better jobs—and demand more natural resources. Who will make the “sacrifices” when push comes to shove on issues like global warming and eventually oil shortages?  Can we produce our way out of this the next time, building up an infrastructure that maintains our personal mobility without so much dependence on fossil fuels? And we have to understand and face why a large part of the world hates our guts, enough to want to smuggle suitcase nukes in cargos into the country.  It is still an open question whether our financial and political system could remain stable given determined asymmetric WMD attacks. 

So you come to sacrifice, and individuals may have to get used to the idea. We might have to migrate toward a paradigm where every individual owes national service (at least an informal “draft”), intermittent community service, family and filial responsibility, accountability, and openness to authentication. And someone who has had “his chance” and fails to compete may not get another chance; the torch might move on to someone else. For the purposes of a book review, the details of a “tough love” paradigm are simply a matter of imagination. It sounds like a call for more conformist socialization as a counterbalance to unsupervised individualism. A friend of mine in Minnesota calls the process “the Purification.” But a major component has to zero in on eldercare and the way we decide to value human life, because this will require increasing sacrifice from productive adults who supply fewer children to supply the manpower for custodial or personal care. (Peterson offers the statistic that for every elder [“old-old”] in a nursing home today, two received care from their families, and for every elder receiving paid professional home health care, ten receive care from their families—both will go down quickly as birth rates fall.) This has to have an eventual major political and social impact on gays and lesbians, and makes the debate on gay marriage and gay adoption particularly acute, if gays are not to be labeled the “supersized fries” of hard times. Yet Peterson never takes his arguments this far. He should.

David Frum. Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-358-51533-7, 214 pages, hardcover, indexed, 9 Chapters. This rather brief book restates the principles that Frum ("Dead Right"), a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, believes is necessary for America to get recharged again, with free enterprise managed according to the new realities of the 21st Century. He acknowledges that George W. Bush 's lack of attention to detail and some contradictions in his policies (like NCLB) have led to a political climate where Americans may want what the Democrats say they can deliver in 2008. He gives six "goals" as if they fit into a job interview: (1) A better deal for the middle class (2) Keep China Number 2 (3) New Life for Pro-Life (4) Green Conservatism (5) Win the War on Terror (6) Rediscover conservative ideals. He does offer some interesting ideas. He plays with the Bradford tax scheme: a consumption tax (instead of income tax) based on income.  To cope with global competition and immigration issues, he proposes tax policies that would encourage middle class families to have more children (he believes that European policies so tax wage earners to pay for retirees that they have set up a vicious spiral lowering the birth rate too much). He does support a carbon tax that would provide the right market incentives to develop clean energy without government manipulation or planning of energy production itself.  He does talk about the right-to-life movement, the Terri Schiavo case as an endpoint of it, and he provides a lot of discussion of the complicated arguments surrounding the stem cell issue, which has more twists and turns than most people realize.

One rather interesting (and alarming) quote on p. 36 is

"Where you find many different lifestyles and races; where you find singles, immigrants and gays; where you find high-rise buildings, country estates, and really great take-out--there you find inequality. After all, what is inequality but another form of 'diversity'?"   

Yes, that's a paradox, isn't it.

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Philip Longman The Empty Cradle


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