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October 26, 2011

Just Call 9-9-9

It’s no secret that the country is in a foul mood – somewhere between sour and utterly disgusted.

A general feeling of dissatisfaction pervades the national discourse. A dissatisfaction with the president and his administration, certainly, but with his critics in Congress, too. Poll after poll reflects unhappiness with what’s called the direction of the country, though a better term for it might be drift.

It’s no secret that the country is in a foul mood – somewhere between sour and utterly disgusted.

A general feeling of dissatisfaction pervades the national discourse. A dissatisfaction with the president and his administration, certainly, but with his critics in Congress, too. Poll after poll reflects unhappiness with what’s called the direction of the country, though a better term for it might be drift.

No wonder eruptions like Occupy Wall Street and, before it, the Tea Party have become widespread. They may differ in their slogans, gripes and programs or lack of same. But both are efflorescences of the same widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are.

Somewhere in all this dissatisfaction, there may be the germ of a workable idea – a sharp needle in this haystack of complaints, protests and notions-and-nostrums. It’s possible. ‘Tis an ill political will that blows no one any good.

* * *

Back in the depths of the Depression, a failed doctor out in California came up with a surefire way to get Americans back to work and the American economy rolling again: Just give everybody in the country over 60 a pension of, oh, $200 a month – on condition that they spend every penny of it. That’d end the Depression. Or so Francis Townsend, M.D., assured us.

The doctor’s much-derided scheme turned out to be the seed of one of the most efficient, enduring and by now sacrosanct ways to keep our oldest and poorest from spending their last years in misery. Rather than have them rummaging through garbage cans, which is the sight that inspired Dr. Townsend to propose his plan.

By the curious twists and turns of American politics, by 1935 the doc’s idea had evolved into what is now called Social Security – a system that doesn’t help just the old and poor but everybody who pays into it. And lives long enough to collect. Plus a lot of others who have since been incorporated into it, like widows and orphans.

Social Security may be sputtering these days, and it may bear a certain superficial resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. For present benefits are to be paid by future investors. But whatever problems it has can be addressed by an actuarial fix here and there (like raising the retirement age, for example) so long as the American economy – and population – keep growing.

But that kind of calm perspective is rare in a political atmosphere full of unfocused anger and general dissatisfaction. A presidential campaign is a kind of storm before the calm. In its throes, people look for the opposite of what they’ve grown sick of.

And by now Americans have grown sick of plans complicated beyond belief (see obamacare). And happy talk that turns out to be just a cover for corruption, the way all this president’s high-tone bunkum about green jobs turned into the Solyndra scandal. Which may prove only the first of many government-guaranteed abuses committed in the name of saving the environment.

Good ideas turned bad have a way of hanging on. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are still around, distorting the housing market, sponging off the taxpayers, and waiting for their chance to set off still another financial panic. Things are never so bad they can’t get worse.

No wonder the country is dissatisfied. And ready to welcome any economic plan that’s coherent, understandable, and promises to fix everything. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” –H.L. Mencken.

* * *

At the moment the wondrous plan is Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax reform. It would reduce all federal taxes to 9 percent of all income, 9 percent of all corporate profits, and 9 percent of all sales. It just glows with promise – and promises.

It may be simplistic, unrealistic, and not very well thought-out. And always changing to boot. But it’s caught on like wildfire. Much like Dr. Townsend’s magic elixir. And much like the Townsend Plan, its basic approach is sound: Simplify the tax code. Cut its rates and broaden its base. Cut out all the special breaks for special interests. Then have the patience to sit back and watch the economy grow again. What may be needed most is patience – but we want it right now!

The 9-9-9 plan and panacea isn’t easy to assess because nobody, including Mr. Cain, knows how it would work, how much revenue it would raise, and just how it would affect the economy. It’s what artists call a Work in Progress, which is a euphemism for “I have no idea how this is all going to come out in the end.”

The best anybody trying to map out the parameters of Herman Cain’s Formula 9-9-9 at this early point might be able to do is just note, as on medieval maps: Here be dragons. But it’s selling like (theoretical) pancakes. One poll had Mr. Cain leading the Republican pack of presidential candidates, if with only 27 percent of the vote.

Polls at this stage of the game, or maybe any stage, are about as clear as, well, as Mr. Cain’s plan. With its magic numbers (9-9-9), it has the sound of a sure system of winning at roulette, and could prove about as reliable.

* * *

Herman Cain has succeeded in raising a lot of enthusiasm but even more questions about his plan. How, for example, is Social Security going to be financed without the payroll taxes that pay for it? How tax everybody’s income – rich and poor – a uniform 9 percent and keep the American tax structure even remotely progressive? Or isn’t Herman Cain interested in doing that?

The questions mount and will continue to, but the answers – if any – are lost in a mist of maybes, exceptions and general speculation. The mist isn’t likely to part soon.

Something tells me this is going to be a l-o-o-ong campaign, one full of sound and fury signifying nothing so much as a general dissatisfaction. And whoever can ride that wave of dissatisfaction best will win the White House.

The country will win only if all that anger and disillusion is channeled into constructive solutions. For the moment not many are in view. But they seldom are till the razzmatazz of an American presidential campaign is cleared away and, wondrously, the country regains its senses. You can never tell what’ll emerge by then.

For example, some nutty idea out of California, one of the great fonts of nutty ideas in the Western world, could turn out to be Social Security. No wonder they say God looks after fools, drunkards and the United States of America.


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