The Right Opinion

We're Governed by Callous Children

By Peggy Noonan · Oct. 31, 2009

The new economic statistics put growth at a healthy 3.5% for the third quarter. We should be dancing in the streets. No one is, because no one has any faith in these numbers. Waves of money are sloshing through the system, creating a false rising tide that lifts all boats for the moment. The tide will recede. The boats aren’t rising, they’re bobbing, and will settle. No one believes the bad time is over. No one thinks we’re entering a new age of abundance. No one thinks it will ever be the same as before 2008. Economists, statisticians, forecasters and market specialists will argue about what the new numbers mean, but no one believes them, either. Among the things swept away in 2008 was public confidence in the experts. The experts missed the crash. They’ll miss the meaning of this moment, too.

The biggest threat to America right now is not government spending, huge deficits, foreign ownership of our debt, world terrorism, two wars, potential epidemics or nuts with nukes. The biggest long-term threat is that people are becoming and have become disheartened, that this condition is reaching critical mass, and that it afflicts most broadly and deeply those members of the American leadership class who are not in Washington, most especially those in business.

It is a story in two parts. The first: “They do not think they can make it better.”

I talked this week with a guy from Big Pharma, which we used to call “the drug companies” until we decided that didn’t sound menacing enough. He is middle-aged, works in a significant position, and our conversation turned to the last great recession, in the late mid- to late 1970s and early ‘80s. We talked about how, in terms of numbers, that recession was in some ways worse than the one we’re experiencing now. Interest rates were over 20%, and inflation and unemployment hit double digits. America was in what might be called a functional depression, yet there was still a prevalent feeling of hope. Here’s why. Everyone thought they could figure a way through. We knew we could find a path through the mess. In 1982 there were people saying, “If only we get rid of this guy Reagan, we can make it better!” Others said, “If we follow Reagan, he’ll squeeze out inflation and lower taxes and we’ll be America again, we’ll be acting like Americans again.” Everyone had a path through.

Now they don’t. The most sophisticated Americans, experienced in how the country works on the ground, can’t figure a way out. Have you heard, “If only we follow Obama and the Democrats, it will all get better”? Or, “If only we follow the Republicans, they’ll make it all work again”? I bet you haven’t, or not much.

This is historic. This is something new in modern political history, and I’m not sure we’re fully noticing it. Americans are starting to think the problems we are facing cannot be solved.

Part of the reason is that the problems — debt, spending, war—seem too big. But a larger part is that our federal government, from the White House through Congress, and so many state and local governments, seems to be demonstrating every day that they cannot make things better. They are not offering a new path, they are only offering old paths — spend more, regulate more, tax more in an attempt to make us more healthy locally and nationally. And in the long term everyone — well, not those in government, but most everyone else—seems to know that won’t work. It’s not a way out. It’s not a path through.

And so the disheartenedness of the leadership class, of those in business, of those who have something. This week the New York Post carried a report that 1.5 million people had left high-tax New York state between 2000 and 2008, more than a million of them from even higher-tax New York City. They took their tax dollars with them — in 2006 alone more than $4 billion.

You know what New York, both state and city, will do to make up for the lost money. They’ll raise taxes.

I talked with an executive this week with what we still call “the insurance companies” and will no doubt soon be calling Big Insura. (Take it away, Democratic National Committee.) He was thoughtful, reflective about the big picture. He talked about all the new proposed regulations on the industry. Rep. Barney Frank had just said on some cable show that the Democrats of the White House and Congress “are trying on every front to increase the role of government in the regulatory area.” The executive said of Washington: “They don’t understand that people can just stop, get out. I have friends and colleagues who’ve said to me 'I’m done.’ ” He spoke of his own increasing tax burden and said, “They don’t understand that if they start to tax me so that I’m paying 60%, 55%, I’ll stop.”

He felt government doesn’t understand that business in America is run by people, by human beings. Mr. Frank must believe America is populated by high-achieving robots who will obey whatever command he and his friends issue. But of course they’re human, and they can become disheartened. They can pack it in, go elsewhere, quit what used to be called the rat race and might as well be called that again since the government seems to think they’re all rats. (That would be you, Chamber of Commerce.)


And here is the second part of the story. While Americans feel increasingly disheartened, their leaders evince a mindless … one almost calls it optimism, but it is not that.

It is a curious thing that those who feel most mistily affectionate toward America, and most protective toward it, are the most aware of its vulnerabilities, the most aware that it can be harmed. They don’t see it as all-powerful, impregnable, unharmable. The loving have a sense of its limits.

When I see those in government, both locally and in Washington, spend and tax and come up each day with new ways to spend and tax—health care, cap and trade, etc. — I think: Why aren’t they worried about the impact of what they’re doing? Why do they think America is so strong it can take endless abuse?

I think I know part of the answer. It is that they’ve never seen things go dark. They came of age during the great abundance, circa 1980-2008 (or 1950-2008, take your pick), and they don’t have the habit of worry. They talk about their “concerns” — they’re big on that word. But they’re not really concerned. They think America is the goose that lays the golden egg. Why not? She laid it in their laps. She laid it in grandpa’s lap.

They don’t feel anxious, because they never had anything to be anxious about. They grew up in an America surrounded by phrases — “strongest nation in the world,” “indispensable nation,” “unipolar power,” “highest standard of living” — and are not bright enough, or serious enough, to imagine that they can damage that, hurt it, even fatally.

We are governed at all levels by America’s luckiest children, sons and daughters of the abundance, and they call themselves optimists but they’re not optimists — they’re unimaginative. They don’t have faith, they’ve just never been foreclosed on. They are stupid and they are callous, and they don’t mind it when people become disheartened. They don’t even notice.


View all comments


okbarb said:

Wow - this is dead-on. I knew what I was seeing and feeling but you put the words to the feeling.

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 8:14 AM

Louie said:

You hit the nail squarely on the head

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 11:43 AM

Carol Cates said:

Peggy has never written more eloquently than she has today. "... I think: Why aren't they worried about the impact of what they're doing? Why do they think America is so strong it can take endless abuse?" Those now governing: unimaginative? Not at all, their imaginations are unholy. Stupid? No, crafty while brutish. Callous indeed. I can no longer see anything well-meaning, and that leaves me with "sinister".

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Ileana said:

Nobody believes the "good news" because they are false. The only GDP growth has been in the component of Government Spending - this administration has spent several generations to come into oblivion. Consumption is down in spite of the cash for clunkers programs and other so-called stimuli, Investment is down, and Net Export is a negative number since we import more than we export in spite of the devalued dollar.

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 1:03 PM

David D said:

Peggy Noonan catches the mood of Americans, and she is exactly right; all of them are petulant children, beginning with the biggest child of them all: the occupant of the White House.

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 2:19 PM

Frank E.Waterstraat said:

10/31/09 Miss Peggy Noonan, Bless her heart,Has told the World War 2 survivors why we are,"FOR THE MOST PART"the cause of the predicament our country is in.Think for a moment. Dr.Spock said,don't spank the child.Tell him or her to stand in the corner.Then buy the child a toy.OUR LEADERS"for the most part"were spoiled brats,draft dodgers,no military greedy pigs now

Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 4:48 PM

Jack said:

Absolutely...I am confident in one thing though, that after four years of this, people will be so fed up that Obama and his cronies elsehwehere in govt will be thrown out and this will go down in history worse than the Carter Administration. God forbid, but can you imagine a 9/11 style or bigger attack right now on America? JackCamp EchoDiwyaniyah, Iraq

Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 12:30 AM

MichaelSSEC said:

This is an excellent assessment of the foot-soldier, the rank and file Democrat who voted the current crop of radical Leftists into power. They didn't know what they were supporting. They bit on the promise of a miracle cure for every ill facing America, because as Miss Noonan describes, they are spoiled unchallenged brats dressed as grownups who do not understand the limits of America.That executive who said he could just quit is exactly right. That was the entire thesis of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. We who are the working class can only be oppressed by tyranny as long as we permit it. The oppressors cannot rule, cannot inflict their taxes and regulatory buffoonery, without our consent. Should we withhold that cooperation, the tyranny cannot function. A lot of hardworking Americans are realizing that rather grim fact right now.But Miss Noonan falsely believes these foolish yet well-meaning motives underlie the Democrats' leadership. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These are true Leftists, dyed in the wool Socialists, multiculturalists who view themselves as citizens of the world rather than of America. As world-citizens, they view America as the bad guy, the predator achieving prosperity and success by taking those things away from other countries. The solution to that injustice is to cripple America so that less-successful countries can compete with us "fairly" for the first time.Their goal is simple justice, as far as they're concerned. It's nothing more than fair to weaken America politically, militarily and economically -- to isolate us from our allies while emboldening our enemies. Remember these are the people who said in the days after 9/11 that we deserved to be attacked. Under the assumption that Barack Obama loves America and wants what is best for Americans, none of his policies (domestic or foreign) make even the slightest sense. But once one realizes that President Obama's goal is to dismantle America and cripple the country with Socialist programs designed to weaken the country severely, then all his decisions, policies, programs and actions make perfect sense.President Obama is the President of the World, who sees himself as righter of American wrongs, the man who clips the predator's wings. Prosperity? Not if he has anything to say about it. His goal is the OPPOSITE of prosperity.

Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 4:38 PM

Winston Smith said:

MichaelSSEC's last two paragraphs are spot on. Any intellectually honest person capable of even a modicum of politico-historical analysis can see that Obama, his 47+ Czars and the Democrat-controlled Congress are totalitarians. They are better-dressed Soviet-style revolutionaries who are fatally deconstructing and dismantling America from within. The most astute "Cold Warriors" will remember that the Communists admitted they couldn't conquer America militarily -- they would take us at the ballot box! Voted into power by an infantile and mindless bunch of immoral, delusional and hypocritical imbeciles, the Democrats are proving themselves to be contemptuous of America, her Constitution, her institutions and her people. The ruling class of narcissistic elitist tyrants are totally corrupt pathological liars, self-serving, depraved and drunk on power. Whether some or many of them are voted out in 2010 or 2012, as revolutionaries, they don't care. They are radical ideologues who will permanently alter America and even destroy much of its greatness and strength before they can be voted out. Life as we know it will never be the same. We are only 10 months into this disaster!

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 2:20 AM

Jack H said:

Winston and Micharel have it right. Unfortunately Peggy N still thinks she is in some way a part of the intelligensia. Remember how she fought against Palin and indirectly influence some centrists to vote for the bigg narcissistic O. We are in a time where we Conservatives and second, Republicans need to keep in mind that the current government have only one purpose in mind, one goal. They hate America and want to change its government to a more socialistic form. Destroy most of the values that have made America Great. They are a generation or more that bought into the historical view of Zinn and through all the PC and liberal to communistic theories of governance of their teachers (brain washed) beyound knowing or considering the Conservative values of their forebarers. We are in at a point of "Smash mouth politics". We need to get up and fight, get more radios stations, argue with our condisenting neighbors.

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 11:39 AM

K. O. Johnson said:

Glad to hear you say it: they are stupid. Just last week, I think, you mentioned Obama's brilliance. At that point I almost lost all faith in you; but you've pulled it back this time. We're not just governed by "America's luckiest children". We're governed by America's most coddled: men and women who have never worked a day in their lives, who have had fortunes handed to them for their political activity, and who have no clue as to the real-world impact of their frivolity. And where are the sensible, mature, experienced candidates who can attract the 60 percent of Americans who don't bother to vote? I don't know. Do you?

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 12:52 PM

Will T said:

Peggy is mostly correct. The disillusioning or disheartening of America is historic, but only since the end of the 19th century. Before that, most people knew that government could not solve societal problems, did not expect it to and therefore were not disheartened that it did not do so. The disheartening of people today, seeing the failure of the socialist/progressive experiment, are merely waking up to the reality of the world they live in that their great grandparents knew all along. Sadly, far too many today still believe in government-engineered Utopia.

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 1:14 PM

andy in boston said:

Peggy seems to have gone into voters remorse. Remember all her "Obama is wonderful" columns and her Obama endorsement back when. Apparently she has no principles and just writes what she thinks will sell.

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 4:39 PM

Blair Hinson said:

Yeah, I agree with the previous posters that this situation, this government is far more sinister than Ms. Noonan wants to say. It isn't that the leadership doesn't know what to do. The path to economic recovery was provided by both Democrats (Kennedy) and by Mr. Reagan himself: lower taxes, get government out of the way, and let people hire people, let people invest in people, and let's get America working again. But the left has been working for this outcome for more than seventy years. And they now have it: big government, the "evil" rich (and companies who actually HIRE people) being demonized and attacked, and a vast expansion of the numbers of those who look to government for a solution. This is no accident. The despondency we see on the part of anyone who is politically savvy isn't because we don't think the 'experts" really know what to do. The sad thing is that they do know what works, but they like us this way. I resent that. I resent those who put us in this situation. You listening, "moderates?"

Monday, November 2, 2009 at 11:43 PM

Eddie said:

While this is an excellent essay and accurately points out the state of the country, it is not partisan. While the President and his allies are working their wiles, there is another group of callous children on the other side of the aisle. Please don't misunderstand, what this administration and Congress are doing is very wrong. But this is only much a deeper and wider continuation of where government has been trending for decades.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 7:24 AM