In 1925, during another era of pronounced income inequality and less than five years before the Great Depression, President Calvin Coolidge addressed this existential question: What is America about?
When taken out of context of its accompanying remarks, the bastardized version of his famous quote—“The business of America is business”— does not do our 30th president, or us, justice.
But it is a question that is worth asking again today as the stock market soars and our democracy stumbles.
What “Silent Cal” actually said to a meeting of the Society of American Newspaper Editors was: “After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” His point was that while getting and spending are important to Americans, commerce is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. His subsequent remarks explained more fully, and quite eloquently, what he was driving at. Stay tuned.
Today, our businessman/president is “Noisy Donald,” who is more businessman than president. He crows like a cock on the roost about “his” economy that has been nine years in the making. After all, taxes are going down (mostly for the rich and likely at the expense of higher deficits), the stock market is booming (although it took a tumble over the last few days), and our 401Ks are flush (if we have one: less than a third of us do).
Today, the business of America does indeed seem to be business. Profits are more important than clean air and water and national monuments. The wealth of Wall Street takes priority over an ailing planet. The cabinet of the man who professes to be the champion of Middle America is engorged with plutocrats and captains of industry, who almost certainly will make out like bandits under the new tax law.
The most recent preview of the challenges that all-business-all- the-time America is bequeathing to future generations — to your grandchildren and mine— were the California wildfires. In addition to killing more than 40 people, they caused $11.8 billion in damages. That figure is more than the combined tally for the 10 next costliest fires in state history. Houston has experienced three “100-year” floods in the past three years. Time sure flies when your planet is warming.
Today, our loud leader is fired up about “beautiful, clean coal” and has proposed slashing the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent. His tariff on imported Chinese solar panels is expected to kill jobs among solar panel installers nationwide (more than twice as many Americans work in solar energy than in coal). In his state of the union address, our 45th president didn’t mention climate change.
In spite of America’s booming economy, we don’t seem to be in the mood to share. The current administration has proposed cutting the State Department budget and foreign aid by nearly a third and is threatening to reduce our annual contribution to the United Nations by hundreds of millions of dollars. Nations who don’t vote as we do at the U.N. are being threatened with the loss of American aid. The American presidency has devolved from a bully pulpit to a plain old bully.
And, of course, this administration is busy trying to expel long time, law-abiding, tax-paying residents —including doctors and nurses, veterans and members of the armed services, business people, and teachers — who are productive American citizens in everything but the official paperwork.
It is hard to imagine a more “me” president for the Me Generation. This administration’s motto should be “I got mine — you’re on your own” or “Make America greedy again.”
Meanwhile, back in 1925, Calvin Coolidge said the following to a gathering of newspaper editors:
“Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well-nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it… But it calls for additional effort to avoid even the appearance of the evil of selfishness. In every worthy profession, of course, there will always be a minority who will appeal to the baser instinct. There always have been, probably always will be, some who will feel that their own temporary interest may be furthered by betraying the interest of others.”
Silent Cal, of course, never met Noisy Donald, but he clearly knew his ilk and would have seen him coming from around the corner.
If pride goes before a fall, then Number 45, who has taken to likening himself to Lincoln and Washington, is shuffling toward the precipice.
David Holahan is a freelance writer who lives in East Haddam.