Paul Nevins

Paul Nevins
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
October 29
Paul Nevins is the author of "The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke’s Legacy Is Paralyzing America "(Greenwood /Praeger/ABC-CLIO). The central thesis of this important and unconventional work is that the United States has begun to experience a number of profound, interrelated problems that are caused, both directly and indirectly, by the country's dogmatic and often unconscious adherence, collectively as a political culture and individually as Americans, to the political philosophy of John Locke. That ideology, which is the bedrock upon which the American liberal democracy has been founded, asserts that human beings are by nature solitary, aggrandizing individuals. Hence, preoccupation with the self in all of its manifestations and attributes - as opposed to the whole, the public interest - has become the primary focus by which political, economic and societal decisions are made. Consequently, the preferred form of social and political relationships with others, including the state as the organized expression of political society, is solely contractual and is designed primarily to protect private property in all of its forms. "The Politics of Selfishness" provides compelling historic and contemporary evidence that U.S. institutions, at all levels, are failing because of the country's uncritical embrace of the anti-social individualism which is John Locke’s legacy. Paul Nevins has been a trial attorney in private practice since 1982. He concentrates in public and private sector employment law and litigation, related civil rights and constitutional law claims, and contract claims. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Paul Nevins taught in the Boston Public Schools. While teaching, Mr. Nevins served as a member of the Executive Board of the Boston Teachers Union, Local 66, AFT/AFL-CIO. Paul Nevins served as a conscript in the United States Army from 1968 to 1970. In 1969, he was a founder and the first chairman of GIs for Peace at Fort Bliss, Texas.This was the first organization of active duty soldiers who publicly opposed the Vietnam War. Mr. Nevins received an A.B. Degree from Suffolk University, a Master of Arts Degree from New York University, and a Juris Doctor Degree from Suffolk University Law School. He lives and works in Boston.


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SEPTEMBER 30, 2011 4:04PM

Why Are Americans So Docile?

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   Forbes magazine reported that, as of this month, the four hundred richest Americans enjoyed a combined  worth of $1.53 trillion, which figure had increased from 1.37 trillion over the previous year. Their combined  wealth was thus approximately  equivalent to the GDP of Canada. Almost simultaneously, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the real median household income in  the  United States had declined to $49,995, or 2.3% from 2009 , while the nation's poverty rate had increased to 43.569 million people, or 15.1 of the total population, and the number of people without health care insurance had grown to 49.9 million.

        To add salt to the wound, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that, as of last month, 14.0 million Americans  were unemployed; 8.8 million Americans were characterized as underemployed,  and about 2.6 million persons were described as "marginally attached to the labor force," which figure included 977,000  "discouraged workers." Earlier, in March of this year, the same bureau announced  that, as of that month, there were 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. as opposed 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000.  Thus, no jobs were added to the American economy during the first decade of the twenty-first century despite some 17.2 million Americans who were added to the potential workforce during that same decade.

     These extraordinary statistics have elicited hardly any detectable public reaction. Some economists have piously warned about a possible looming "lost decade," notwithstanding the above data that shows that the first decade of this century has already been lost. GOP candidates, Tea Party supporters and their corporate allies continue to insist that reduced taxes  and severe austerity measures across the board are required, despite th experience of the United Kingdom's austerity program, which has increased unemployment by 85,000 since July of this year.

         To the extent to which the public at large has weighed in on any of this country's economic problems, it did so by collectively punching itself in the face in November of 2010. To punish President Obama and the Democrats for not having magically and immediately resolved the economic malaise caused by the predecessor administration, citizens - to the extent that any even bothered to vote - elected economic troglodytes and australopithecines to the Congress whose economic illiteracy and antipathy to further government fiscal stimulus have exacerbated  the country's economic problems. The few who troubled themselves to vote - and the many who continue to express antagonism toward President Obama - fail to understand that divided government only enhances the role of the wealthy special interests, who already exercise disproportionate influence over the policies of our government, and results in gridlock, paralysis, and a lack of accountability.

         So how does one explain the deafening silence from the legion of unemployed, underemployed and impoverished Americans who, by virtue of their status and their enforced leisure, surely now have the time to take to the streets, to organize politically and to make their  voices heard ?  Why, given the emergence of what former Nixon political strategist  Kevin Phillips has described as the "new indentured servitude," has the growth of plutocracy in been largely met with silence or grudging acquiescence in contemporary American culture?

          The author Jeremy Rifkin described a  Newsweek poll of 750 American adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 1999. Fifty-five percent of all of the respondents under age thirty who were asked whether they believed that they would become rich, answered yes. When asked, as a follow-up question, however, how they would get rich, 71 percent of the same respondents, all of whom were employed, did not believe that there was a chance that they would become rich from their current employment. Seventy-six percent of them believed that Americans today were unwilling to work as hard at their jobs to get ahead as they were in the past. Although they disavowed the fantasies spun by Horatio Alger, Jr., in which the stock boy could become, by dint of hard work, the owner of the company, the respondents  still bought into the myth of the self-made man.   
         Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber have chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption. In the United States, an entire cottage industry of books from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale and his successors have extolled the power of "positive-thinking" as the key to personal advancement and success.

         The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy no longer explains economic reality. Unfettered competition based upon free market decisions in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers no longer creates individual opportunity for most Americans or an abundance of business opportunities. Rather, the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.

         Karl Marx described the phenomenon in which the downtrodden adopt and incorporate the ideas of elite into their own world views as "false consciousness." Thomas Frank, in his insightful book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, chronicles the plight of seemingly sentient adults in his home state who have consistently voted against their own economic and family interests and unwittingly furthered the interests of Wall Street.

          Sadly, this myth of the self-made man - with its  emphasis on the importance of individual action and responsibility - has instilled within the American psyche a sense of social isolation and disconnectedness that makes it virtually impossible for many Americans to comprehend the importance and effectiveness of collective action when needed to pursue common goals. Unlike the French, who in addition to the idea of liberty, have embraced the values of equality and fraternity, the latter two concepts remain utterly alien to this country's political vocabulary.

          The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice." History reminds us that social justice can never be realized so long as citizens acquiesce to the existence of a culture built upon a foundation of indifference and injustice, but history also reveals that, when suffering remains pervasive and unaddressed, over time the bonds of civility begin to unravel, and even the most privileged can no longer find shelter from the resulting chaos.

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justice does not come from above. the grandees can dispense order through law backed with force, but justice requires insight and sympathy.

americans are docile for several reasons: there is no need for political education in a nation where 535 people have almost all the power to direct national affairs. knowing nothing of practical politics, they ascribe god-like power to the people who fight their way into office, and can't imagine resisting them. americans have no experience or training in creating citizen initiative in the federal sphere. so they remain isolated and conscious of their impotence to change things acting alone.

perhaps most important, they grow up in a society that is awash in self-congratulation. schools and media daily inculcate the notion that america is as good as it gets, and any point of apparent inadequacy is the result of personal failure, not social. when all else fails, americans are reminded that life at the top is so good that poverty at the bottom is acceptable, that losers deserve their fate. the american dream remains that of medieval society: to escape the lower class, to join the elite.

so alienation and shame keep them quiet, cowering alone and hoping no one will notice when they have to start dining behind restaurants in the dumptster.
al loopy... you speak of dumpsters as a bad thing.

Isn't that where all of you lefties dump your babies?
First of all, as recent events including the Occupy Wall Street movement indicated, not all Americans are quite so docile. In fact, I suspect that this has been building up for quite some time although the Mass Media refused to report on it perhaps because they may have hoped that it would have gone away and that they would turn out to be docile. I suspect that this may grow and hopefully lead to major changes that are desperately needed.

However that doesn't mean that your post isn't based in fact about a large segment of society. The “What’s the matter with Kansas?” book you pointed out may be indicative of a large portion of this segment. I haven’t been to Kansas or looked into it firsthand so this could be subject to scrutiny; however after hearing about all the violent protest against abortions there as well as many other things and looking into the activities of many religious leaders including James Dobson and researchers that I consider much more rational I suspect that a major part of the problem is the way many of these people are raised. They are often taught to obey from birth in a strict authoritarian manner which intimidates little kids then as adults they learn to follow the leader and respond to emotional appeals instead of learning to think rationally. There is a much larger segment of society that may have gone through a milder form of this upbringing and they respond by remaining on the sidelines. These people aren’t always quite so docile either but when they get riled up it is often because they are led on by a demagogue not because they think things through.
al loopy... you speak of dumpsters as a bad thing.

Isn't that where all of you lefties dump your babies?

Jeez, Steve. After reading that, I'm gonna guess that you will have no trouble with my suggestion that although not all conservatives are racists, white racists are almost exclusively attracted to conservative candidates...and most wouldn't vote for a liberal if their sheets were on fire.

These destructive, self-defeating myths remain very popular, especially in small-town America. Hopefully the occupation of Wall Street will prove to the beginning of a new movement from below. [r].
"History reminds us that social justice can never be realized so long as citizens acquiesce to the existence of a culture built upon a foundation of indifference and injustice, but history also reveals that, when suffering remains pervasive and unaddressed, over time the bonds of civility begin to unravel, and even the most privileged can no longer find shelter from the resulting chaos."

I'm with you on this prediction. There will be riots and they will be at the feet of the rich. Not now, but in like two more years when Repros take over, unfortunately.
I think a major factor responsible for the malaise is the lack of a strong and credible activist on the outside of politics--analogous to Martin Luther king. Obviously Obama--as much as I admire him--cannot do this job.
It's all about calories.

Americans are docile because at the end of the day they still eat well. People will put up with a remarkable amount, so long as they have a reliable source of calories.
There are drugs in the tapwater that are not filtered.
Excellent essay. The answer is simple the Neo-Cons won. Strauss said that there needed to be certain myths that the mass of people believed in and they do. The biggest being the America is the greatest place in the world which of course is false by every measure available. Television is the real opiate of the people as it feeds viewers a continual diet of distractions and distortions. And we haven't seen anything yet. Wait until the Neo-Cons win the Senate, keep the House and perhaps send in some clown as president in 2012. It will be a clean sweep then and then the real shit will start to fly when they start selling off the national forests and national parks where there are billions more to steal.
"Rather, the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages." so many good quotes in this article. Thank you for putting it all in perspective. Fighting corporate wealth is a gigantic task. This polarized world is going to crumble and we will start all over from scratch again. That is the only solution.
At the moment it looks like it's changing...we'll see...
A comparison between the combined net worth of the richest Americans and the GDP of Canada (or any other nation) is meaningless. Net worth is accumulated assets, GDP is the ongoing production of goods and services by the populace. To bring it down to scale, it is like comparing your bank account with your salary. This is an example of how Democratic Party propagandists, disguised as writers, will use any handy device to make their points. The whole piece reeks of Democratic National Committee squawking points. To refute it would require some multiple of the space it occupies. Why not just write "I am a Democrat. Vote for Obama," and have done with it? Hack.
Those net worth stats are pretty startling Paul. If I've done my math right, that's a one year gain of $400 M for each of the 400. But of course raising their tax rates a few points will be the end of capitalism.

Great survey you've done here. I think the reach of the right wing media plays a big role.
the downtrodden masses need to ORGANIZE. divided, disconnected, atomized, they fall. quoting marx is highly relevant, but there is a deeper psychology of the masses. marx imagined that the downtrodden would perceive their own empowerment. that has indeed happened in ages past with unions, but it seems to have melted away, although occupy wall st campain is proving slightly differently. a key part of the problem-- the masses need to stop swallowing the ubiquitous propaganda and develop new media mechanisms.
There's no point in protesting a recession. Shouting down with the stinkin' rich won't do a damned bit of good. Besides, no politician wants an ailing economy. What matters is policies that will effectively fix the problems.

I haven't heard many.
I am so for redistribution of wealth. I accept money orders and Paypal.
I'll be attending Occupy Portland on Tuesday and donating what I can to help. I've also donated to media on the ground in New York. There's something brewing and I think it's good. It's a start. The scary thing is the police violence. Tea Partiers don't get the shit beat out of them in droves. They don't get arrested. Hundreds have been arrested in NYC. The cops have a bad rep in Portland, so there's already tension before we all assemble and march past financial landmarks downtown. I'll be taking video and pics and hopefully post here.

Great piece. Rated.
True hilarity to imply the Dems have talking points- hahahahahahahahahaha! The old Will Rogers quote is timeless, it seems, "I don't belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat!" As usual, Orwell rules the current crop of Right Wingers: whatever they say, look the other way. EVERY single Repub sings Luntzian all day every day for last 11 years, but, the accusation is made across the table, yes, hilarious, and instructive (1+1=3!) and fascinating, as Sen. McQuack likes to say.

Your Calvinist points are on the mark. They didn't like official indulgences much, but loved those cloaked in piety. The Right's policies are, and always have been, firmly about the protection of privilege, with religion being simply one of their arms of control and falsely constructed authority. Our precious pious Pilgrim Puritans, such followers of the Scrolls rolled into one forged and frauded volume, such proud carriers of the Protestant work ethic, which was always used at the time for status, Snow Snooki-type church lady status, that is, actually felt as follows:

in 1645 the Puritans began a second "juste warre" with the Pequots as a false construct to capture enough Native American men, women, and children these "Pure"itans could exchange in Barbados for, as they themselves recorded in their precious, and, still around today for any to see, record books: "a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business."

This is the Conservative "mind" at work, anything to keep power- and especially prone to violence and subjugation, which, frankly, are their calling cards.

Again, HILARIOUS to spout doublespeak in a Salon, as if such bait would be taken- such ignorance- that, dear friend, is what is for, click away, your fellow lemmings await there.

Here, you'll have to answer with facts, lies and the talking points you all parrot like the dittos you are, don't cut it with educated "elitists". Oh, and you hate the Ivy League only because you would be laughed out of even an attempt to apply.

Auwe (Alas)
Although I don't agree wholeheartedly, you make some excellent points. I've had success using the so-called "Law of Attraction," which lies at the heart of people such as Peale, Napoleon Hill, and others who make similar claims. I also believe that history, while not exactly cyclical, offers repetition--the tide brings in periods of prosperity and liberalism, then periods of poverty and conservatism. I see parallels with the days of the "Robber Barons" and the like, and I believe we'll recover from the vagaries of our day's robber barons once folks wake up--which they seem finally to be doing. Long live young activists! (especially since I'm not one any longer :)
Americans are not docile. We have been divided and defeated by a crafty enemy - who learned his lessons from the 60s, Vietnam and Brazil how to reshape the nation into what it is today via Internal State Sponsored Terrorism (I call this post civil-rights era The Great Repression). Can you blame them? The white right had its clock cleaned in Russia before setting up camp in Dallas. We were prepared to do what ever it took to keep the stuff we had stolen from the natives and slaves! Still are! If any one thinks taking it to the streets will better the lot of the masses they are severely mistaken, as Americans - especially those who fail to navigate the systems many pitfalls - are expendable.
There is no doubt in my mind that large peaceful protests can easily become bloody cullings of the misled.
Those that are protesting and writing this kind of material, appear to be only composed of the Liberal elite that are actually, personally doing quite well. There is no evidence that the unemployed and downtrodden themselves have any stomach or the will to march for any similar cause. It is the Frence Revolution in reverse. The proletariate only shouts to give even more advanatage to the aristocracy and to only send more of themselves to the scaffold and perdition. It is remarkable.
Hoy- how is being both unemployed, with no prospects, and indentured by the student loans which are making/made you "elite" in the divided and conquered mind such as your own?

Explanation, please.
>>To refute it would require some multiple of the space it occupies. Why not just write "I am a Democrat. Vote for Obama," and have done with it? Hack.
I am underemployed and impoverished (literally; 'though I work, my job is involuntarily part time and my earnings are below the poverty line). I have never voted Republican and never will, but I have no illusions that the Democrats are anything other than a slightly lesser evil, as far as fairness to the unemployed and underpaid workers is concerned. I don't know what else to do. If there were a real revolution, I'd sign up. But I do have a job (poorly as it pays) and can't risk losing it by taking time off to join the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
Well, things seem to be happening now. The question is whether the tide now flowing will crest high enough to wash away the garbage of several generations, and that's expecting a lot. If it stops short, we'll just see even uglier, more brutish inequality and oppression.
Excellent post. As you know by now, I dealt with this in my post The Cowboy Way -- Unmasking American Myths. I had not heard of the phrase "new indentured servitude", but that's exactly what I was talking about in my latest post Arbeit Macht Frei.

Nothing in the American ethos is so persistent -- and pernicious -- as the myth that anyone can become rich in America simply through hard work. Yes, a relative few hard-working, talented people -- lucky to be in the right place at the right time -- do managed to succeed phenomenally. But those aren't the exceptions that prove the rule; they're the exceptions that disprove the rule.

It is a mathematical absolute that not everyone can be rich or exceptional. Despite that, millions of dull-witted ordinary people continue to believe they are just one stroke of luck, say a lottery ticket, from "making it" in America. God help them -- and god help us, because far too many of those people vote.
Great post. Seems as if the Occupy movement gained some momentum over the weekend. We can hope it will attain critical mass. But unless people get out to vote we will be stuck with same old same old next November.
Well done. I agree that we have become a docile nation, but the Wall Street protesters, most recently joined by some US Marines (yay!) are gaining momentum. Let's hope this ushers in a new era of change for the non-elite, super rich, that is, most of us. Rated.
I moved to the U.S. in 1989, dazzled by the notion of Americans' dedication to freedom of speech and their deep, professed attachment to liberty. Not so much, as it turns out.

While it appears to many as patriotic to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school or start a day with prayer, the message it also sends the smallest children is -- conform or else. Americans seem terrified to speak up or out, to gather publicly and be captured on video or camera showing their real, public, visible concern for the disaster area this economy has become for millions, whether fresh grads drowning in student debt, over-40s or over-50s facing tremendous age discrimination when job-seeking or blue-collar folks whose jobs are now being done overseas for pennies on the dollar.

I doubt many Americans know -- or even care to consider -- that other countries with more regulated economies (like Canada, the U.S.'s largest trading partner) -- have some good ideas worth discussion, even emulation. Nope, America's way is always seen as the best...because....?
What a well written, coherent, and thoughtful analysis. Japan has experienced a couple of lost decades as well because of instituting austerity measures just when they were on the brink of recovery. I hope that Occupy Wall Street shows the stirring of the sleeping tiger.
We have two generations who have been raised on this pap. In spite of facts staring them in the face, they cling to the Horatio Alger myth, equating "free markets" with God and Country. This isn't the first time that wealth has amassed to a few to such a degree that it threatens to undo the economy. In the past, over time, regulations on the market redistributed wealth and dampened booms and busts in the economy.
America is apathetic for several reasons; they can't give up their belief that they can become rich through some miracle, they have no knowledge of history, they don't realize the degree to which their representatives in congress have been bought off, they don't yet understand that nothing will change until their is action outside of usual channels. R
The biggest problem with most politically-active Christians in America isn't their stance on abortion or gay marriage or evolution or really any of the social issues.

It's that for all their Bible-thumping, they conveniently ignore Job and Ecclesiastes.
sometimes when you're in the grips of a "position" we want to support we can miss some of the facts. there is an activist movement now taking place, and over seven hundred arrests in NYC last week. That event happened after the or at the time of your post, but it has been going on for over a month.

revolution exists for a reason, and i think it would be a mistake to assume the US is immune and at the rate of the discrepancy in wealth in this country that more and more displaced American's are going to be attracted to more drastic solutions. You can't fool them all, all the time.
Hasn't history shown that things don't drastically change until the majority hits absolute rock bottom and has no other choice but to fight?
I don't mean walk around shouting in the streets... that's a good start, but no cigar.

The Wall Street protest is great but of course their are 300 million people in America. I'm not sure how many made it to that protest, but I do know with the Mainstream Media not covering it--due to them being controlled by monster corporations, like all forms of news and entertainment are--it's unlikely to reach the mass throng that it would if it got the same coverage the acquitted baby killer in Florida received. Or even the same coverage Sara Palin seeing Alaska from her window received.

The most press on the Wall Street rise up that I saw was when some crazy old cooter doused people with Pepper Spray.

For a grass roots movement to spread across the country it takes a strong leader who is willing to sacrifice their own life for the movement.

Are non military Americans willing to die by choice? No. In America the "specific" gain must be known in advance before risking life. There was a candidate that I would have gone into the danger zone for, but sadly people were too blinded by "faux celebrity" to realize what they voted against. And too shallow to realize what they really voted for. And now? No one wants to ever say "I told you so." I hate that thought creeping into my mind. I hate that America lost in vain, yet again, repeatedly yet again. And those same people who voted recklessly will more than likely stay home next time around. And me? I'm just stuck with the lesser of two empty voids. Told you so.
Some people have touched on this point, but we are potentially beginning to see possibilities beyond the "docile American" narrative. There are structural limitations within the American political system that go beyond people wanting to express their resentment-- in particular, the two-party system forces Americans to either buy into it or reject the country's democratic system completely (or exist beyond it, which means not participating in it).

And I also believe that most attempts to justify Americans' lack of docility by pointing at 1000 people in New York is counter-intuitive, but within the broader spectrum I think we need to begin to also look at how people express their dissatisfaction. Within the Right, it's easier. However, within the Left, there is a space where it could stay as the depoliticized base or where it could grow to become what it was at one point in the twentieth century-- a mobilized political force. I don't buy this idea that Americans have moved to the Right for good- classical liberalism did well in the country before Reagan. The Left just needs to learn how to frame its arguments better, beyond the Blue Dog strategy that quite clearly failed
Great article. You covered all the bases. Having said that, the world is becoming more and more Americanized. Being an European, I can say that we have a better idea about social justice (we don't have the Calvinist work ethic), a better welfare state and we don't delude themselves thinking we are going to become rich.

We know that we are being screwed, we can complain with friends and sometimes in media, but that's pretty all. Nothing happens. The demonstrations against the system gather about one thousand people, like in America. I think there are two causes why our discontentment do not translate into political action:

1) The political parties are co-opted by the elites. Banks finance political campaigns so all parties with chances of achieving government have a similar economic policy. Modern democracy consists of choosing between two different kinds of ice cream: vanilla with a tiny bit of chocolate and vanilla with a tiny bit of strawberry. All other flavors are not on the menu.

2) People have become more individualistic. Every own for each own. I remember that it was not so when I was a child but this has been the effect of decades of individualistic indoctrination in the media.

3) There is no alternative model to capitalism. Yes, we are aware of the flaws of capitalism and we want to change this aspect or that aspect. But, for example, during the 30s, there were two alternative economic models: communism and fascism. Now there is no alternative coherent model and without an alternative model is difficult for people to fight in the same direction. You gather people behind an alternative model but, as I said, we don't have such a model.

So, yes, even when we are Europeans and believe in equality, we are equally screwed.
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
--sinclair louis

"One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas."
--victor hugo

occupy wall street, my speech to the masses
When someone is called a Catholic (or Jewish or Hindu ...) philosopher, what does that mean? Does it mean that his (or her) parents were Catholic? Does it mean he is a practicing Catholic? Does it mean his philosophical views are in conformity with the tenets of the Church? Were his views arrived at in deference to those tenets, or were they reached independently and are only fortuitously in conformity? The description tells me little, but it raises intellectual concerns.
“despite the experience of the United Kingdom's austerity program, which has increased unemployment by 85,000 since July of this year.”
What choice did they have? Continue to spend their way into bankruptcy and end up just like Greece? Assuming the Government is inefficient, corrupt and wasteful, wouldn’t that money be better spent by the private sector anyways?