Former Sen. Phil Gramm, sometimes referred to as John McCain's economic brain, got in trouble recently for calling America "a nation of whiners."
It wasn't the most artful political statement in the world, but it's pretty accurate.
We were born a nation of whiners when a group of colonists whined about living under King George's rules and threw a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor.
Our Founding Fathers liked whining so much, they enshrined it in the Constitution. Our government is built on whining. Not only does it guarantee your right to whine, but it depends on that whining to function.
If Americans never whined, we'd still be living like it's 1789.
America was founded on the principle that citizens could complain to the government, and that elected officials had to at least pretend to listen and make changes, or be voted out. And despite what George W. Bush has done to the Constitution, it still works that way.
Where Sen. Gramm and others go wrong is in suggesting that we shouldn't whine, that we should just accept the way things are. How un-American. You would have better luck forcing Americans to give up their cars than their whining.
Of course, Sen. Gramm has done his share of whining over the years, too. He complained that the banking industry was beset by too many governmental regulations. So he whined until Congress repealed a bunch of them.
And now that the banking system is a mess, Gramm's not whining, but plenty of other people are.
Back in 1995, Gramm whined about teenage mothers getting welfare payments to make up for their own mistakes. But you don't hear him whining today about the banks asking for government to bail them out of their mistakes. And why would he? He works for the Swiss bank USB, which was a leader in subprime mortgages
Also back in the 1990s, Gramm whined about restrictions on trade, and claimed that the North American Free Trade Agreement would curb illegal immigration. Gramm got his NAFTA, plus a flood of workers coming across the border. But he's not whining.
And Gramm also listened to the whining of others. Enron complained there was too much regulation in the energy market, so Gramm created the Enron loophole, the piece of legislation he pushed through Congress that deregulated energy futures trading. That allowed Enron to fraudulently inflate the electricity prices in California, a situation that led to blackouts across the state.
It's also the same loophole that has led speculators to drive the price of oil to where it is today. Gramm's not whining about that, but millions of Americans who have to pay $4 a gallon for gas are.
Soon after Gramm's "nation of whiners" gaffe, he was forced to resign from the McCain campaign. But what hasn't left is McCain's economic vision that was created by Gramm, where the answer to all America's problems is to keep cutting regulations and taxes.
The Enron implosion, the subprime mortgage mess and runaway oil speculation all have Gramm's fingerprints on them. They are all examples of how Gramm and McCain conveniently overlook the history on why the regulations were created in the first place, in order to collect some short-term gains. Their free-market panacea for everything that ails America had been tried before, prior to the Great Drepression. It was a disaster then, and it's the same now.
The danger with this election is that it threatens to break down into a sharp ideological divide, pitting conservatives like Gramm, who think government is always the problem, against Democrats who think it's always the solution.
Neither side is right. The free enterprise engine is what moves us down the road. Government regulation is what keeps us out of the ditch. Neither one alone can make this country work.
We can always hope that whomever wins will try to take a bipartisan path and see the value of both sides of this economic debate. But as long Gramm's plan is sitting inside John McCain's brain, there will be a lot more whining to come.
- Kirk Caraway writes for Swift Communications, Inc. He can be reached through his blog at http://kirkcaraway.com.