What a dizzying few weeks this has been.
President Obama and the Democrats have passed a trillion-dollar spending bill (next stop: quadrillion) that contains more political IOUs than stimulus. Obama also wants to seize one-seventh of the U.S. economy with a new Washington-driven national health-care plan.
The Dow has fallen to 1997 levels. A share of General Motors stock now sells for less than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.
But stock in Smith & Wesson is up 56%, reflecting an 80% surge in gun sales. Fear is on the rise.
A survey says 73% of Americans are "scared" or "very scared" about where America is headed. Surely, the "We voted for Obama and all we got was this lousy depression" T-shirts can't be far off.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett predicts the economy will remain in "shambles" at least through 2009 thanks to the "paralyzing fear" brought on by the collapse of the housing, credit and stock markets.
Late last week, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez ordered troops to seize Venezuelan rice-processing businesses for "resisting price regulations" imposed by the government. "The government is here to protect the people, not the rich," Chavez pronounced.
What's most unsettling about Chavez's rhetoric is that similar utterances are coming from Washington these days. For most of our nation's history, a government takeover of, say, the banks would have been unthinkable. It's thinkable now.
Who's to blame for this mess?
Well, evil bankers and greedy corporate execs, of course.
Who's to blame for loosening the lending reins when it came to home mortgage loans?
Politicians, of course.
It was Washington politicians, notably Democrats like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, who pushed Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and banks all across this country to make home loans to people who had previously not qualified, for good reason. We were coaxed off a cliff with dreamy phrases like "extending home ownership" and "making the American Dream available to all."
In 2003, Frank opposed an effort by President Bush to tighten oversight of these giant federal mortgage players, claiming: "The two entities, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are not facing any kind of financial crisis. The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."
Billions of bailout dollars later, we know Frank was wrong.
Prior to aggressive political intervention, banks and other financial institutions were largely run by conservative executives with conservative lending principles. They actually required borrowers to document income, assets and other factors related to their ability to repay.
Now we have the spectacle of Democrats in Congress grilling banking executives with feigned shock over how this could have happened. When do taxpayers get to grill Frank, Dodd and Waters?
No one can defend million-dollar office makeovers or other excesses by corporate banking giants. But Obama could have gotten high marks for candor (and built more national confidence) if he had included this passage in his speech to Congress:
"We also need to face up to the fact that many in this room, Republicans and Democrats, bear considerable responsibility for our nation's economic calamity. With the best of intentions, we pursued policies that distorted the private-sector marketplace and promoted irresponsible lending. Then we resisted calls for tighter regulation.
"And in so doing, we unleashed the deadliest of the deadly sins: greed. As we move forward, we must avoid making this mistake again."
Instead, Obama chose to demonize the private-sector people we need to help pull us out of this mess, spend money we don't have and leave a mountain of debt for the next generation to deal with. Years from now, our children and grandchildren will have two questions: "What were you thinking?" and "Why did you do this to us?"
If Obama's restructuring of America fails, it won't be the words of the 44th U.S. president that most will pay attention to; it will be the words of the 16th.
In his first inaugural address in March 1861, Abraham Lincoln reminded us who really owns this republic and in whose hands power ultimately resides: "This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to overthrow it."
Lincoln's words impart to us a sacred responsibility to make sure that freedom survives - and a warning that government may not always be a friend of liberty.
Rick Berg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Madison-area freelance writer and political commentator.