Inexhaustible Unlimitedness

I like listening to guest commentators David Brooks (The New York Times) and E. J. Dionne (The Washington Post) on Friday afternoons during their segment on NPR’s All Things Considered. I am usually in the car – the 5:00pm hour is when they grace the airwaves of Austin’s NPR affiliate, KUT – and if Denise (my betrothed) is in the car with me she knows that the seven minutes of exchange between the “conservative” and the “liberal” commands my attention. You can drive astutely while listening to the radio, but not while playing with your phone – an apt example as to the limitedness of our ability to multi-task.

David and E. J. don’t call each other names – it’s NPR, not Fox News – but they had a spirited discussion on the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling (April 2, 2014); the five-to-four decision abolishes the biennial limit of $123,200 that individuals can donate to federal candidates and national political party committees. Even though they disagreed on the ruling, both made valid points as to what it will mean for future elections. Brooks: The current situation is not good with “all the underground money, [and] all the candidates deciding that they have to go directly to the special interests to kiss up to them.” The decision points us in the “right direction.” Dionne: “The number of people who hit that limit that you described, all giving to congressional candidates, was 591. So this court has empowered a very tiny number of Americans to exercise even more power than they already have. It’s a terrible decision.”

While both make legitimate claims, Dionne is right (as he also states in the discussion) that the ruling follows in the path of the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. In today’s America, “free speech” is becoming costlier and costlier. Market values – all things bought and sold – infiltrate an arena (political democracy) that runs the risk of being captive to only the highest bidders.

Both rulings give further assent to the spirit of unlimitedness that has dominated American society since the late 1970s (what I call the short era of excess). The unlimitedness credo was articulated by George Gilder in his 1981 bestseller Wealth and Poverty: “The United States must overcome the materialistic fallacy: the illusion that resources and capital are essentially things, which can run out, rather than products of human will and imagination, which in freedom are inexhaustible.”* Gilder’s sense of stretching the boundaries—for positive gain—is admirable; dreaming, envisioning, and reaching for the stars makes the supposedly impossible attainable. But, not so fast – history is chock full of examples showing that the ignorance or disregard of limitations breeds corruption, social injustice, and economic chaos. Complex derivative securities and credit default swaps helped lead to the economic derailment of 2007-08. Yeeeaaahhh, the formulation and implementation of those financial products was a great and glorious moment for the unlimitedness of human will and imagination.

Because we worship unlimitedness in matters financial and economic, we now somehow think that fewer boundaries in the political realm is the better way forward. Forgive my limited will and imagination, and redundancy: Yeeeaaahhh.

 

* George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the 21st Century, Regnery Publishing (2012), p. 315.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Inexhaustible Unlimitedness

  1. Carl Anderson

    What’s tricky about these decisions is that intelligent well-meaning people can make a good case on either side, and it’s usually the I intended consequences that we only see too late. Somehow we need to get the big money out of politics, but I sure don’t know how.

    • “Unintended consequences” – right.
      As for getting big money out of politics, I think Brooks is right when he says that we’ll never be able to do that. Like with professional athletics and the big rewards (money and prestige) that are part of it – we’ll not rid the professional ranks of cheating (steroids users like Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez) as long as the rewards are so great. We must continue, though, to regulate politics, sports, and other areas of social interaction . . . this McCutcheon decision seems to coincide with so many others of this era: we’ll let market values sort it out.

  2. Norb and Geanie Firnhaber

    Another thoughtful and pertinent piece. Thanks, Tim. Norb

    Date: Mon, 7 Apr 2014 12:14:23 +0000 To: ngfirnhaber@hotmail.com

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