The movie’s title, Cowboys & Aliens, says it all.  It’s a hardcore western where tough cowboys take on tough aliens.  There’s no compassion, shared values, common ground, or “ET” type emotions.  It’s just a down-and-dirty, winner-take-all fight for the gold between two groups from different worlds who happen to occupy the same space.

As I enjoyed the action and special effects of this entertaining flick, I kept thinking of the following statement that House Speaker John Boehner made in an interview on July 15 regarding the debt ceiling negotiations:

Republicans and Democrats are like two groups of people from two different planets who barely understand the language of the other one.  There are two remarkably different visions for what the appropriate role of the government should be in our society. How our country operates. It’s stark and it would shock most Americans.

Boehner is probably right.  Most Americans may have no real understanding of the massive gap between the competing visions for America.  They regard the incessant bickering and partisan attacks over policy differences as business as usual.  They hold onto a belief (usually undefined) that America’s future and fate are anchored by some supreme, overriding shared value or common ground.

But is there really any basis for such a belief anymore?  Have the extremes of the competing visions, and the related passions, just eclipsed any shared values or common ground?  Are we now just a bunch of competing cowboys and aliens (assign the titles as you wish) who happen to share the same space?

Whenever I start thinking about common ground and shared values, more questions are triggered.  Do we still share a belief in the supreme goal of personal liberty and freedom?  Or how about the divine mission of America? Or how about the concept of inalienable rights? Or how about, in the words of George Washington, the “Invisible Hand” that guides the affairs of free people? Or how about America’s “exceptionalism”?  Or how about the limited powers of the federal government? Or how about the fundamental right of each individual to pursue his or her concept of happiness?  Or how about the importance of individual responsibility and accountability? Or how about the rights reserved to the respective states? The list goes on, and the answers are no longer obvious or easy.

I’ve always assumed that a concern for the future generations of America – our kids and grandkids – would always provide some common ground.  Now even that assumption is questionable. One doesn’t have to share the beliefs of the Tea Party members to recognize and respect an enormous grassroots effort to protect our children and grandchildren from the impacts of unprecedented negative financial trends. But now it’s not only acceptable, it’s downright popular, for the other side to regularly label the group as “extremists,” “extortionists,” “right-wing whackos,” “hostage-takers,” “racists”  and much worse.  Even the Vice President has no problem calling them “terrorists,” a label that he and those around him consider too harsh for real terrorists.  The rhetoric of today suggests no hope for any common ground.

Of course, it’s possible that the remnants of any common ground have just been smothered by the daunting financial mess that’s been created.   My Dad, a street-smart guy who learned life’s lessons the hard way, used to say, “Money isn’t the most important thing until you run out of it. Then it becomes everything.”

Perhaps that’s why George Washington, in his 1796 farewell address, admonished America to “cherish public credit…, to use it as sparingly as possible…, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions, in time of peace, to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

Imagine what George Washington would say about the unthinkable debt that we, for certain, will “ungenerously throw” upon our posterity.  His concept of  “shunning occasions of expense” seems to be completely beyond the capacity or will of most of our leaders.  And, as demonstrated again last week with the debt ceiling ceiling compromise that guarantees an increase of over two trillion in debt to accommodate the next election cycle, the notion of “vigorous assertions” to discharge our insane debt is almost laughable.  What isn’t laughable is that the unthinkable of just a few years ago has now become a reality – the full faith and credit of the United States has been rated by Standard & Poor’s as inferior to that of France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Demark, Sweden, the United Kingdom and a host of other countries.

The optimist in me keeps hoping that someone will identify a bona fide, useful common ground – something that could provide a foundation for a sensible long-term solution that would get us out of the hole that we have dug for ourselves.  But there are times, like now, when the shameful self-serving actions and misleading rhetoric cause me to sort of throw in the towel and just acknowledge that the massive, irreconcilable differences between the visions of our cowboys and aliens preclude the possibility of any understanding that could lead to a sustainable future.  Our dysfunctional leadership was as clear as a bell to S&P. In its statement a few days ago explaining its downgrade decision, S&P observed, “The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.”

Let’s face it, there’s no consensus about really fixing our serious money problems. As always, the driving force of any crisis is just political posturing, with each side hoping that it can entice, scare, and (for some) downright deceive enough Americans into giving it sufficient power to fully implement its vision and, as in the movie, obliterate the vision of the opposition.

August 8, 2011