December 30, 2012

Rediscovering a nation for all

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — There is not another word that connotes more meanings than hallelujah. Everyone has a different take on it, and they vary with each change of mood and every sensibility.

As I write this, I don’t know how 2012 will end. It may end better than it started, but probably not. I wish I could say hallelujah, it is over, and we can look forward to a better future, but I am not confident about that either.

In my lifetime, I experienced seven different decades. Just a few years before I was born, the USSR launched Sputnik. Its interminable beep beep beep taunted a nation that reaffirmed it had better days ahead. The United States embarked on an age of hope in the 1960s. Hallelujah, all things were possible, and much was attained.

There were many challenges to overcome in that decade, from the technical to the civil and social. The miracle decade was followed by the 1970s when, hallelujah, we as a nation attained and maintained the apex of our economic empire. Our capacity to build, to spend, to educate and to develop caused the former USSR to crumple under our unrelenting weight. By the 1980s, hallelujah, the Cold War was over, and we expected peace dividends to thrust us even higher.

For an instant, we thought we could end disease, strife and hunger in our nation and beyond. But, by the 1980s and 1990s, a certain cynicism began to take hold. We consolidated our gains not by creating a new, transparent, open and productive society that would be the beacon on the hill. Rather, we realized new heights of greed and division. We each became a member of a special interest, with each interest determined to prevail over all others.

As we saw that affluence and superiority fail to bring out the best in us all, a heightened sense of faith emerged, hallelujah. America seemed to have a spiritual awakening. Yet, rather than unite us, it seemed to divide us further.

We passed through another decade with a new leader just as political, as inspirational and as flawed as John F. Kennedy was in his day. In fact, Bill Clinton’s idol had been JFK. Clinton tried to arouse the spirits of a nation, just as his idol had, but he did so in a very different era. By Clinton’s day in the sun, much of America was affluent, divided, and mistrustful. We were no longer united around a common external enemy, and instead we created enemies from within.

The technological and educational foundations were established, and there were peace dividends to enjoy, which provided our nation with a modicum of affluence, hallelujah. But, our thirst for a better day diminished. Instead, we began to contemplate how to divide up an economic pie rather than seek ways to expand it for us all.

The last two presidencies, through the 2000s and 2010s, have turned out to be most divided.

As we reach the end of 2012, we remain immersed in recession and economic hardship, begun under one presidency and continued in another, that have lasted an almost unprecedented five years.

Hallelujah now takes on a different meaning. It is a sorrowful sound, one not of joy but of capitulation, a begging for divine intervention and a realization that intervention has invariably failed to arrive, even when our nation stands at economic precipices time and time again.

Our hallelujah is a refrain sung in a minor chord, a recognition that all is not possible if we can’t even sit down and agree to avert a fiscal cliff. It is the frustration our children express as the first generation to believe their lives will be worse than their parents’. It is the melancholy when the responsible among us realize we have, for too long, lived beyond our means. And yet, we kick the can farther down the road so that we may preserve our prosperity, even if our children and those yet to be born will have to pick up the tab.

Hallelujah is an admission that only something better than our political system can renew our hope. We want to hold on to the sense of a nation that is bigger than the sum of its parts, but we recognize our future is in the hands of mortally wounded leaders who fail to see the forest for the trees. I hope we rediscover a nation for all, not winner-take-all, hallelujah.

Our challenge is to change our refrain of hallelujahs from notes of capitulation to redemption and then to celebration and triumph.

You may not know if there’s a god above,

Or whether we have done enough,

To renew our faith in America, do ya?

But we all know one thing for sure,

Our nation can attain a greater plateau

Than this cold and heartless hallelujah.

Hallelujah 2012, Hallelujah 2013

Colin Read contributors to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.