Evening in America

Grubbing for money might be fine for a modest nation working its way up in the world, but is it worthy of a great nation on a roll? Bill Bonner explores…

It is strange, I mean the way things work out," said a guest at dinner one night. "It seems like a kind of madness wanders around the globe. While, here in Europe, we were trying to batter each others’ brains out you, in America, were smart. You were sitting back and taking orders. Now you’re the ones who have gone mad."

Our guest had described the world of the 19th and 20th centuries – the days when the idea of an American empire was still repugnant and absurd. While wars, revolutions, and pogroms, stormed over Europe – and much of the rest of the world – America kept to itself, reluctant to get involved. Attractive new ideas popped up all over Europe like poisonous mushrooms. But, for the most part, Americans kept their heads.

Most went about their business, seeking happiness in their own private ways – trying to get rich. "The business of America is business," Calvin Coolidge explained. Money isn’t everything, we suddenly recalled. Lusting after wealth is not always becoming, not always rewarding, and rarely flattering or dignified. There is something vulgar about the hustle a real business needs. . . like sweat-stains on a starched shirt or a cold cup of coffee and stubbed out cigarettes. A man who wants to make a real fortune usually has to grub for it; it’s hard to be elegant or refined when you’re scratching for cash or market share.

Traditional Conservatism: The Lust for Money Is Better Than . . .

But grubbing for money is still better than many other things men do. What follows is a reflection on what the lust for money is better than. Grubbing for money might be fine for a modest nation working its way up in the world, but is it worthy of a great nation on a roll?

"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," William F. Buckley said to Corey Robin, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex."

Another old "conservative," Irving Kristol said this to Corey: "What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world, and not having an imperial role?"

"It’s too bad," Kristol lamented about money-grubbing, "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs . . . to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that."

"When I think of all the crazy things that went on here in France during the last century," continued our dinner guest, "Or maybe I should say in Europe. You know, we invented most of the awful ideas back then.

Deconstructionism, Freudianism, Nazism, Conceptualism, Socialism, Syndicalism, Minimalism, Communism, Functionalism . . . come to think of it almost all the worst ideas came from Europe. And even in America, if I’m not mistaken, almost all the new developments in philosophy, art, and architecture came from immigrants…or maybe refugees…from Europe. Just about everything. Of course, most of it was harmless. Funny even . . . like Dadaism. But politics wasn’t so harmless.

But now, the world has turned. Now you do what we did. You come up with the new ideas . . . and you try to force other people to accept them. You have that . . . what do they call it . . . neo-conservatism.

"We sense that we live in a time set apart," said George W. Bush in his State of the Union, 2004, address. What made the time seem so set apart was that the United States had come to resemble a parody of itself; it had come to look like the country leftists had always criticized it for being, but that it had never been: a remarkable combination of self delusion and self-satisfaction headed for self-destruction. The old conservatives, with their knee-jerk affection for limited government, balanced budgets, and fewer regulations – Republican principles from the Eisenhower era – might have saved them, but the old conservatives are gone.

Traditional Conservatism: The Tyranny of the Here and Now

It is a shame about conservatism. Yes, the old sticks-in-the-mud were an impediment to progress. Yes, the old mossbacks were dull and predictable. Yes, their old knees jerked whenever they thought someone might be having fun. Still, we miss those fuddy-duddies. You could count on them to resist the tyranny of the here and now. When something new presented itself, they wouldn’t like it. They would resist it, not from any intellectual point of view, but the way a man resists a new pair of shoes or a dog resists a new collar. The new styles might be more fashionable, but that was reason enough to avoid them.

As a creed, conservatism has lost all its adherents, at least in the United States. As a philosophy, it has practically disappeared. As a political movement, it has dropped dead. Everyone likes new things now.

The essential quality of conservatism is not a specific agenda (neither to lower taxes nor to raise the flag), it is merely a way of looking at things – suspiciously; and of reacting to new proposals – dragging one’s feet. Conservatives fight against new doctrines like they fight against sushi: Not only is it appalling, it looks as though it might be dangerous, too.

But now the geezers have dyed their hair and had their faces lifted. The codgers refinance their houses, pay with credit cards, and vote for whoever promises them the most of someone else’s money. In politics, and in money, the grumps go along with whatever is popular – just like everyone else.

About the only thing you can still count on is vanity – it never seems to go out of style. In the here and now, every generation is the greatest one that ever lived. Every empire is permanent, and everyone who makes trouble for it is an evil subhuman.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, America’s neoconservative heirs to the Wilsons – Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Wilson Reagan – became the earth’s most dynamic and ambitious empire builders.

"These Cold Warriors were mostly liberals of a special, ideologically zealous variety," explained an article in the American Conservative: Many of them had come from the extreme Left. They had opposed communism because they had universalistic objectives of their own and did not want any competition. These proponents of a single model for all societies were able to form an alliance with putative conservatives, who had come to believe during the Cold War that to be conservative was always to be hawkish and assertive in foreign policy. Used to "standing up for America," these nationalistic and saber-rattling conservatives found in the cause of a better world, a new outlet for their desire to exercise American power.

The neocons preached a rousing sermon of "global democratic revolution," to quote George W. Bush. There is nothing conservative about revolution, but who noticed?

According to former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, the leader of the free world had a little trouble following the foreign policy discussions in the White House. But George W. Bush is a shrewd politician who knows a good slogan when someone gives it to him. He saw immediately the advantages of attacking Abyssinia or Mesopotamia – it gave him cover to spend more than any president had ever spent, with hardly a peep of protest.

Traditional conservatives were struck dumb by this hawkish audacity.

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning

December 16, 2005

Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of The Wall Street Journal best seller Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century (John Wiley & Sons).

This issue of The Daily Reckoning will be short and sweet, dear reader.

We’re rushing off to our year-end Agora gathering, and we don’t want to miss Bill’s speech. We promise to fill you in on Monday.

In the meantime, the news, from our team at The Rude Awakening…

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Eric Fry, reporting from Charm City:

"Soybean meal represents reason #1 why Bunge’s fortunes might soon improve. ‘Meal’ prices have jumped 20% over the last few weeks, thereby breaking out of a months-long funk. Although Bunge does not derive much direct benefit from rising soybean and meal prices, rising prices do help animate all of the other activities from which it earns a buck."

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Addison and Kate, reporting from a very quiet office in Baltimore…

*** The Consumer Price Index fell 0.6% from October, the biggest drop since 1949. Many attribute this to a massive drop in energy costs, so this should be great news for consumers…right? Well, our friend at EverBank, Chuck Butler, is singing a different tune:

"Here’s the skinny: yesterday, the government reported that CPI fell -0.60% in November. Now how’s that for a fantasy?" Chuck said.

"Anyway, I’m not going to spend the whole morning ranting over this bogus report, but based on this report, one would think that the Fed is going to pause, right? Well, not so fast! I think foreign investors are the only ones swayed by this report, judging from the Net Foreign Security Purchases (NFSP) data from October. Yes, that report said that NFPS was $106.8 billion in October. So, apparently, they believe there’s no inflation in our economy, for if they did, who would be buying to the tune of $106.8 billion worth of dollar-denominated assets?"

Look for more on this week’s data in Sunday’s Weekend Edition.

*** Just a quick reminder – the Agora Financial Reserve is now open to the public, but only until January 1, 2006. If you are accepted as an Agora Financial Reserve member, you will have access to Agora Financial’s finest analysts, research, books, reports, conferences and 11 trading services and advisories.

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