What's in Your Bailout for Me?

This week, the “year after Lehman” week, we've seen a lot of reflection regarding the financial crisis—i.e. should Lehman Brothers have been saved? Has the stimulus worked? Should the government have done more? Or less? Or nothing?

Nobody truly knows the answers to these questions; no parallel universe exists where we live another reality, another outcome. But for most of us, it seems to boil down to this: It depends. Depends on whether you feel you somehow benefited from a government bailout. Or not.

It is—as we’ve come to say—all about me. And the rules do change when it comes to me, don’t they?

When the very purveyors of free-market capitalism—of “business is business” and “dog eat dog” and “greed is good”—looked to the U.S. government for rescue, few missed the hypocrisy. But did it shock us? Probably not, though we like to believe our lack of surprise stemmed from the fact that, well, it was Wall Street, and what do you expect? For those guys, green is green, no matter where it comes from. 

But if we dig a little deeper, I believe we’ll find this tendency to be much more endemic, more cultural than we care to admit. Wall Street bankers are, after all, just a bunch of guys, human beings, who witness day after day how the tune changes when the band plays my song. There may not be an “I” in team, but there is an “I” and a “me” in American.

Case in point: the state of California. Under a system that allows voters to basically decide budget issues, Californians have repeatedly voted “yes” on spending for government programs and “no” on tax increases.

Better schools and shiny new libraries for my children? That certainly benefits me, I vote “yes.” Footing the bill for the schools and libraries, gee, now that doesn’t benefit me so much, I vote “no.”

We the people demand health care reform! Health care for everyone, that sounds like a fine idea. But wait, what’s that you say? I’m already covered? Well then, keep my tax dollars out of it. Well then, never mind.

But let’s look beyond our pocketbooks, because we could almost be forgiven for wanting a freebee here and there; for taking full advantage of the benefits the system has to offer and not enjoying so much the part where we pay for it.

What we surely cannot be forgiven for is when this mentality of me seeps into other areas, our political discourse, for example.

Give me liberty for my religion, but not for your marriage. In fact, if your pursuit of happiness makes me uneasy, then screw your happiness.

Don’t tread on my right to free speech! But, oooh, you better not say that, that might offend someone (me); and the children (my sensibilities) what about them?

Make no law abridging our right to assemble! As long as the demonstrators believe what I believe, otherwise they’re morons, or loons.

Folks, history teaches us to expect two sets of rules (one for me and one for everyone else) when a king makes them, or a dictator. But this is a democracy; there’s no subtext in democracy, there’s no brave new world.

We’re supposed to walk the walk.

Even in the face of our own history, our own flaws. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” said the guy who clearly didn’t mean all men. For his time, he was an innovator, a progressive. And while many of his truths remain self evident, some of what he knew to be right is pretty loathsome by today’s standards.

Chalk one up for evolution. Which in a democracy, I do have the right to believe in. See how that works? Isn’t it great? I have the right to believe we can evolve (even if my cynical side fears we won’t) that we can evolve all the way up to the convictions we say we hold true. In many ways, we already have.

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