Sunday, July 20, 2008

Marshall Plan Creep

More and more often, the Marshall Plan is used rhetorically-- by politicians, pundits, and the like-- as a paragon for what this country needs. Just in the past month, the Plan has been used as a model for what we need on foreign aid, Iraq, literacy, Pakistan, economic security, climate change, and Czech missile defense. And that's just the beginning of the list.

I'm as much enamored with the success of the Marshall Plan as anybody else (I even went to a panel discussion of the Plan's legacy at the German Marshall Fund last summer), but let's get serious here. The investment required for the Plan is not the kind of thing we can pop off for every issue that rolls around. What's more, it's not a great analogy for things that don't entail sending piles of money overseas to help rebuild allies. The most apt analogy in that list is foreign aid-- kudos to Barack for that--but I, William Easterly, and other aid skeptics aren't sold on Obama's idea that doubling foreign aid to Africa will solve many problems.

As for the other problems on that list, I might invoke other successes of 20th century American history as more apt analogies for what's needed. Let's not forget the Manhattan Project, the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo program, the GI Bill, and others. I'm a fan of massive, concerted investment by the government-- these are some of the greatest successes of the past 80 years, and they yielded new technology, new infrastructure, and renewed faith in America. Of course it costs, but investment is sacrifice, and our country has gotten too fat and comfortable, too used to getting what we want without giving anything up. Note that the most recent of those successes, the Apollo program, reached fruition nearly forty years ago. So, while I'm cynical about the overuse of the Marshall Plan as a rhetorical device, I'm generally inclined to agree with the sentiment.

And that's what I hope to see from Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in August. I want him to ask me to do something, ask me to make a sacrifice, tell me that even though the economy isn't in great shape, now more than ever we need to come together and put our energy toward solving the daunting challenges we face. In the vein of JFK's "ask what you can do for your country," I want to hear Obama make a call for everyone to make small sacrifices for a larger cause, something bigger than themselves. People want to believe in America, and they need to hear this. My generation, particularly, wants it, and, I think, would respond.

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