A return from the woods, and reflections on a rough week

A return from the woods, and reflections on a rough week

I’ve just returned from a week of fishing at a remote lake in Canada, blissfully disconnected from just about every other concern in life except for what the fish were biting on. (For any fellow anglers among our readers, the answers are: not much action from the elusive muskie, but lots of action on Cisco Kids for northern pike including a 20-pounder I landed, Yamamoto Senko worms did well for smallmouth bass, and the reliable jig and minnow produced a limit every day of walleye). Our meals were the opposite of the Singaporean haute cuisine that Peter Feaver indulged in during his own recent trip, but for my money it’s hard to beat the traditional "shore lunch" we enjoyed of fresh-caught fried walleye, fried potatoes, and fried onions, all cooked over an open fire on a deserted island.

After that northern idyll, my return this week to the United States was jarred by a litany of grim headlines: plummeting stock markets, an unprecedented credit-rating downgrade, yet another round of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe that further imperil the Eurozone, and violent rioting throughout the United Kingdom. Herewith a few thoughts.

The credit rating downgrade puts a painfully vivid exclamation point on my observation a couple of weeks ago about the Obama administration presiding over an America in decline. Like "leading from behind," there’s just no way to put a positive spin on the word "downgrade." Yet the downgrade is but the latest symptom — along with unemployment, growing debt and deficits, and declining markets — of a more fundamental problem: President Obama has consistently failed to articulate a persuasive account of what drives economic growth. Even more than different priorities over issues like tax rates and loopholes, spending cuts, and entitlement reform, this failure is emblematic of the economy’s persistent weakness throughout his presidency. As Jeb Bush and Kevin Warsh lay out in this compelling WSJ op-ed, the Obama administration appears completely devoid of any strategy for economic growth. More pointedly, President Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation for the essential role of business in capital formation and wealth creation. He seems to see the business community as an unfamiliar entity whose primary purpose is to generate revenues for the government, rather than an engine of job creation and improving living standards for American citizens. This is why so many commercial leaders — from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business owners — fundamentally mistrust this administration. After all, why trust a White House that fails to appreciate your indispensable role in economic growth, and repeatedly threatens you with higher taxes and increased regulations?

Yet at least Americans are not violently rioting in the streets and looting small and large businesses alike, which has sadly been the case in the United Kingdom. Back during his campaign, David Cameron often lamented what he described as Britain’s "broken society" of fractured families, endemic welfare dependency, growing violent crime, and a burgeoning cultural coarseness and dissolution of order and moral standards. It was a grim diagnosis that generated agreement among the likes of Daily Mail readers but snide dismissal as Eton moralizing from other quarters. I observed much of this decline firsthand during my recent years of living in London, where traditional British order and decorum persisted in some pockets but was too often eclipsed by endemic social breakdown and national decline. The riots now display this to the world. On one level they are simply opportunistic hooliganism amplified by social media. But on a deeper level they are a toxic display of the nihilism and pathologies of the Broken Society. Scotland Yard, already reeling from its unseemly role in the recent phone-hacking scandal, has performed ambivalently in this much bigger test that cuts to the core of its legitimacy as the protector of order and safety. Meanwhile the Cameron government, which has always been perched awkwardly between its emphasis of a "new brand" of compassionate Toryism and its traditional role as the law and order party, now faces its own crisis of governance and identity. As the perpetually insightful Tim Montgomerie observes, after some shaky first steps the prime minister seems to have reasserted authority yet now faces a series of new battles that will do much to define his premiership.