At the End of the Day

How America lost its appeal, and its sense of community

I’ve been listening online to some Oldie rock n roll stuff from the late 1950s tonight: Eddie Cochrane, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everlys – that sort of thing. I’m finding it difficult to remember why, but it evokes memories of hot summers (I think 1959 was very hot indeed)  and the early stirrings of sexual desire.

Very few Brits are prepared to admit it these days, but everyone where I lived wanted to be American. When my Dad came home one evening in 1960 to show off his new two-tone Zephyr Zodiac with whitewall tyres, I affected an American accent for months afterwards. Mum made me a Davy Crockett hat in 1957, and I doubt if it left my head, come day or night, for even more months. America was it back then: the Yanks had Chevvies and levees and drive-ins and senior proms and they dug things and said stuff like “hit it man!” I had not the remotest idea what any of it meant, but boy was it desirable. When Elvis released I’m All Shook Up, in my head it was a new noun, Amallshokap. These American people had it all, and I was desperate to join in.

These were the heady days before Vietnam and Lee Harvey Oswald ruined it all. Booby Vee sang Run to Him, and although I hated him for stealing my girlfriend Hilary’s heart, I would’ve undergone a larynx transplant for that voice. I heard it again tonight – The night has a thousand eyes –  and it sounded as great as ever. I’m baring my breast here, dear reader: liking the stuff between Elvis and the Beatles is about as unhip as it gets.

Time now to look with more than a little sadness at where we have arrived half a century later. I went to the Reuters website an hour ago, and saw this headline: ‘Exclusive: S&P to deeply cut U.S. ratings if debt payment missed’. OK, there was a split infinitive there wide enough to fill a 60″ HD plasma screen, but that wasn’t the point: the nation that had boldly gone to new worlds was about to be deeply cut. How in hell had this happened?

Standard & Poor’s managing director John Chambers was saying that if U.S. Treasury bills maturing on August 4 weren’t immediately honoured, then the series would be downgraded from Triple A to D.

Once again, we are back in that room with a debt ceiling. No glass ceiling, this: the Republicans would prefer it to be made of concrete, but President Obama has another material in mind. Like rice paper, maybe.

Fears of a technical default have been rising after budget negotiations between Democrats and Republicans fell apart in Washington earlier this week. If agreement isn’t reached, then the US will be unable to pay off $30 billion in maturing short-term debt. Thanks to tactical Congressional wrangling, an amount less than 10% of Greek national debt could render the USA a debt pariah. To be exact, S&P sees a 1 in 3 chance that the States will default during the next three years.

The U.S. Treasury reached the country’s $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, and has been making use of extraordinary measures to keep servicing its debt since then. This can’t continue for long. Of course, the US is sliding into the abyss – but it has far more alternatives than dear old Blighty. What it doesn’t have is a President capable of taking on the Enemy Within.

Ripple dissolve back to my earlier reminiscence. My teenage years were spent watching Eliot Ness sorting out America’s Mafia-fuelled drink problem single-handed through the strangely wooden medium of Robert Stack. Al Capone and Frank Nitti might have made billions in the numbers rackets (whatever they were) but they couldn’t survive once Ness’s unwavering glare had vapourised their evil.

Today, Lloyd Blankfein threatens to starve Obama of re-election funds and lo, in New York, Democrat fund-raising falls by 45%. Ben Bernanke blasts taxpayer billions into a QE programme designed to create credit liquidity, and Wall Street gratefully swaps its toxic rubbish for crisp Dollar bills, which are then used to underwrite megamergers to move yet more American jobs offshore. In 2011, ‘The Feds’ are no longer Eliot’s Untouchables, but rather Geithner’s Unethicals.

The Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Nixon’s bombing runs over Cambodia and Reagan’s trickle-down greed recipe destroyed the American global reputation for promoting good stuff. Ronald Reagan was a well-meaning man who understood the USSR’s inherent weakness better than most, but he was too easily bamboozled by smart-alec economists. Their snake-oil ideas went unchallenged for too long – and when they were at last found out, Dubya the White House pet chimp could only grin and say, “Hey – Wall Street got drunk”.

When I was a kid, it wasn’t just that America had malls, Ed Sullivan, Phil Silvers and Murray the K. It had innovation, it had chutzpah, it had crazy aspirations, and it represented unlimited potential for human betterment. It was going to the Moon, it was going to eclipse every Empire in history, it was going for it. As such, it commanded respect.

In 2011, the best its two Party machines can come up with is Barack Obama and Mitt Romney….and a bunch of self-absorbed idiots playing politics with the nation’s credit rating. America hasn’t been to the Moon for over thirty years. Let me tell you why I think this is.

What happened was that the multinational accountant and the investment banker got the upper hand. They replaced the capitalist risk gene with the ROI for shareholders bollocks. Aspiration was replaced by accumulation. Life balance went the way of the balance sheet. And above all, ambition was replaced by ambivalence.

Accountants and bankers discovered a different New Frontier. It was called South America, Eastern Europe, and then Asia. But so busy were they Doing it for the Shareholders, they ditched American core values in favour of Globalist fervour.

Now eternal growth and globalist mercantilism has been found wanting, the arid imaginations of bankers and bean counters know not what to do. All they can think of is the survival of their corporate entities and bonuses. They would not know which way to hold up one of JFK’s greatest encouragements:

“Think not what your country can do for you. Think instead what you can do for your country”.

Corny? Perhaps. But Kennedy’s challenge was for everyone to contribute communally: it wasn’t brainless jingoism. I’ve wittered on endlessly for years about the need for manageable pack sizes to which our species can relate. As the Greek unrest has shown today, nationality is still the strongest of these. Money isn’t it. Family and Community needs to be a bigger part of it. Globalism sure as hell isn’t it, any more than the EU is. Neither is banking and accountancy.

I’ve no desire to turn the clock back. But even at five to midnight in the dark night of capitalism’s soul, I want to look back to when it was a bright new morning – when business had a master called the greater good. Those who were small or unborn at the time could learn valuable lessons from the naive 1950s. More than anything now, America – and the west as a whole – need to reject the cynicism of bonus pools and the greed of liquidity pools. It is time we got back to pooling resources for the good of the greatest number.