The Problem with Hope
December 30, 2008
"Hope,” wrote Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers/That perches
in the soul,” asking nothing in return for songs of comfort and support
that are "sweetest in the gale.”
Despite its importance, however, hope is not the most important of human
expressions; for hope alone opens neither the gates of Heaven nor doors
That truth explains why Alexander Pope, citing humanity’s "blindness to
the future” and infinitesimal smallness in contrast to God, advised us
to "Hope humbly.”
It also explains why the pragmatic Ben Franklin warned of the danger of
depending only upon "the thing with feathers” in his aphorism, "He that
lives upon hope will die fasting.”
But why these cautionary thoughts about hope today?
First — Because my guard is up on the subject, having been aroused by a
messianic president-elect who is so audaciously enamored of hope that
without a bit of shame, he speaks of leading his flock not simply to
"perfect this nation” but to "change the world.”
Second — Because from Boston to Berkeley, there are far too many
citizens who ought to experience a chill running up their spines in the
face of cheap hope but instead exult in it — as an indescribable thrill
runs not just up their legs but through their entire bodies.
(Those who doubt the consuming, all-encompassing nature of those thrills
haven’t read the Media Research Center’s "Obamagasm Awards” for 2008.)
Finally — Because of the reality that hard times provide snake oil
peddling politicians and their supporters the opportunity of their
dreams for convincing a fearful citizenry to imitate Shakespeare’s
Claudio in believing they "have no other medicine/But only hope.”
Are these fears about the dangerous hucksters of hope warranted?
To answer that question for yourself, simply read the New York Times,
where you will find "wildly spend and madly tax” Paul Krugman trying to
convince the "talk and hope are never cheap” Obama administration to
spend a trillion "stimulus” dollars.
Then, worried that such an orgy of borrowing amid an ocean of other debt
will motivate the public to eschew mere hope for some really serious
thinking, Krugman advises Obama to supervise the spending of his
"recovery” money New Deal style — i.e. with such meticulous care that
not one dollar will be wasted or stolen, thereby denying political
ammunition to the opposition.
Talk about spinning hope out of thin air! But what should we expect from
a Nobel Prize winning economist who preaches the bible of thirties style
"stimulus” even though the New Deal’s actual record is that the nation’s
GDP didn’t return to 1929 levels until the winds of war helped push it
there in 1940.
(No wonder Obama is cautioning that recovery "his way” will take an
indeterminate number of years. But then, it is true that no welfare
state was ever built overnight.)
As for Mr. Krugman’s hope that in today’s federal government, Congress
and the executive can spend trillions without huge waste and fraud,
someone needs to inform the eminent economist that it took $150 billion
of payoff pork for the Democratic House and Senate to pass the $750
billion bailout bill.
That someone might also remind Krugman about the audaciously insulting
pork with which Dems, led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, loaded the
Iraq War funding bill of ’06 and the omnibus spending bill of ’07.
Trouble is, Someone would be wasting his or her time because liberals
are salivating over the best chance they’ve had in forty years to put
the U.S. on the path to becoming Sweden.
In fact, it is precisely the current wonderful opportunity to "perfect
this nation” that explains the hope about avoiding waste and theft,
about avoiding the ravages of inflation, about avoiding the realities
connected with an eventual return to "fiscal responsibility” (because
that euphemism really means tax increases as shockingly enormous as the
spending now being proposed).
Yes, foolish hope is all the rage these days.
Even the usually sensible Tom Friedman got caught up in it when he used
his perch at the NY Times to warble this warning: "But we must make
certain that every bailout dollar, which we’re borrowing from our kids’
future, is spent wisely.”
Clearly, Tom temporarily left this universe for one in which politicians
are decent, eminently principled beings and the citizens who get
"bailout” or "recovery” money are perfectly moral, rational creatures
who never in a trillion years would say, "What the hell; it’s only
government money! They can always print more!”
Fortunately, Friedman quickly returned to the planet in the universe Ben
Franklin called home:
"Generally, I’d like to see fewer government dollars shoveled out and
more creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze
new industries and new markets. If we allow this money to be spent on
pork, it will be the end of us.”
"It will be the end of us.” Is Tom Friedman hoping for disaster for some
crass political purpose?
Of course not. He’s simply employing reason and common sense of the kind
embraced by the American majority, who are main street conservatives
whether Republican, Democrat, or Independent — and who are regularly
scorned, insulted, and stereotyped by big shot, "big idea” liberals and
"conservatives” of politics and the media.
Yes, like ordinary-citizen conservatives across the nation, Friedman
knows all about the problem with hope — though he expressed it more
delicately than Ben did when he counseled, "He that lives upon hope will