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Which candidate will tell us that the party really is over?

October 03, 2008

The United States' mantle as "the world's last remaining superpower" has not particularly become us. Perhaps the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling foundations of communism allowed us to assume that we had somehow won history's last battle. To the victor goes the spoils, and we promptly engaged in two decades of domestic- and foreign-policy looting.

It was fun while it lasted: Big houses, big SUVs, big stock run-ups, big displays of military technology. In record time, we unlearned the lessons taught to us by two hard centuries of American history. Suddenly, self-sacrifice, restraint and responsibility were for losers, both at the personal and governmental levels. We wanted it all, and we wanted it now. Moreover, we thought it was what we deserved.

This is not to disparage the many Americans who have acted decently and responsibly, but rather to give them a voice - a voice that has been blunted by the enablers in the halls of power who further their careers by cheering on our excesses. This generation's political candidates are famously loathe to tell us that a great nation requires the work of every able citizen and that with a democracy comes responsibility. If we want it, they say, we can have it and never mind about the costs.

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Banks can clear billions in shady profits without worrying about regulation and accountability. Individuals can drive big automobiles without thinking that the depletion of a natural resource increases our dependence on our enemies. We can have the best in health care and education and military without raising the taxes needed to pay for them. The nation can patriotically rah-rah our demolition of some Middle Eastern sandbox without caring what the rest of the world will think.

Our self-centeredness has become the stuff of legend. And no one is better at centering on the self than the candidate who would rather further his own career by telling us what we want to hear than risk it by telling us an unpleasant truth or two.

And the first truth is that our great national balloon payment has come due, and it's going to be up to all of us to help pay it off. This means we will have to sacrifice in other areas of our budget to save up a meaningful down payment for a home. It means understanding that the union days of outsized wages for blue-collar work is over. It means an end to million-dollar white-collar bonuses for manufacturing phony paper profits. It means fewer oil-gulping vacations, fewer trips to the doctor for minor maladies and fewer credit-card purchases for stuff we can't afford. We will hopefully be able to meet our needs, but our wants may have to wait. And we will have to prioritize those wants and understand that some of our wants might never be realized.

Yet which presidential candidate tells us this?

Instead we hear of more grandiose plans and projects that we can't afford and more promises of public assistance for individuals and corporations that for years have acted strictly in their own self-interests.

Which candidate will tell us that quick, feel-good fixes only serve to delay and eventually exacerbate the problem? They would rather hear the rounds of frothy applause from a call to "drill! drill! drill!" than explain the truth: That drilling will provide a millisecond of microscopic relief and only serve to delay and discourage the development of tomorrow's energy solutions.

Which candidate will tell auto companies and their union employees that years of poor design, a deaf ear toward a changing world energy dynamic and fatty, greedy worker contracts have led them to their own demise, and that it's not the taxpayers' responsibility to come to the rescue?

As American citizens, we have already beaten the odds, just by being born in the greatest country on earth. But the luck of being born here does not carry with it the entitlement to expect that all of our material desires should be met - and, if needed, paid for by someone else. If we have overextended, personally or as a society, the debt will have to be repaid.

We long for a candidate who would tell us that it is now time to work off that debt. We must pay for the wars and the bailouts we have purchased. We must work, humbly if need be, to regain the respect we once had earned in the world. We've had our boisterous, swaggering excesses; now we must get back to the building blocks that the world's last remaining superpower was founded upon - that means less irrational exuberance and more rational prudence. It will take time to work off this hangover. But it needs to be done before we can throw ourselves another party.

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