Sam Uretsky

Superman Meets Keynes

There was a time when Uncle Sam was a superhero. Literally. Comic book heroes were always pro-USA. The grand-daddy of them all, Superman, fought for truth, justice, and the American way—although his status as an illegal space alien might have been a problem. A lot of others were anxious to make their positions clearer. The Shield might not have the perfect name, but his tights, red white and blue, stars and stripes, didn’t leave much room for doubt. This may seem unpatriotic, but Captain Freedom’s costume, also stars and stripes, but with shorts and yellow shoulder pads, may have been the ugliest outfit in the history of comics. Other super-heroes chose names that weren’t open to question: Captain America, Commando Yank, Miss America, Liberty Belle and the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, but the one who was top of the heap was Uncle Sam, who made a flawless transition from the editorial cartoons to the comic pages.

These characters, mostly from the 1940s, represented a form of jingoism, but there was a lot of idealism as well. The United States, even in its relatively short history, has a lot to be remorseful for: slavery, the Trail of Tears, internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even so, what is important about the United States has been less about its history, and more about its aspirations. We haven’t always lived up to our ideals, but we never forgot them either. There was an unwritten code that called for modesty, honesty and fair play. In cowboy movies, the good guys would never shoot an unarmed man and a back shooter was almost as bad as a horse thief. We wanted to live by the code, wanted to be the way Norman Rockwell portrayed us.

These ideals, of what the United States should be, are critical to understanding our history. John F. Kennedy was a great president, not because of what he accomplished during his tragically brief administration, but because of the way he himself inspired us and reminded us that we wanted to be better than we were. In the same way, George W. Bush was the worst of leaders, because he helped us accept our basest instincts. In the thrilling days of yesteryear, the Lone Ranger used silver bullets to show that life is extremely precious and valuable, and, like his silver bullets, not to be wasted or thrown away—and he never shot to kill.

And that should be the basic philosophy behind our federal budget. Everything we need to know we can get from The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, and Action Comics #1. Keynes shows us that the way out of the economic mess is to spend a lot of money, and Superman pretty much tells us where we should spend it.

The economic part is relatively easy to understand, even if a lot of people are having trouble with it. If you have a business that’s not making money, you don’t need a tax cut, you need customers. When the aisles are filled with people buying, you’ll increase production and hire a sales staff and the economy will start up again as more people have the wherewithal to join the ranks of customers.

The only way to increase the number of customers is to increase the number of people with money. This really is a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Those governors who claim to be showing their fiscal responsibility by rejecting stimulus funds either don’t understand how the system works (bad) or don’t care as long as they can grandstand (worse).

But the question of paying back the trillions being spent is legitimate—and Superman had the answer to that one. Every now and then, when Supes needed financing for a good cause, he would find a lump of coal and squeeze it until it became a diamond. The symbolism applies to economic stimuli—put the money into things that will increase their value and in time they’ll pay back the expense, with interest. Money spent on education pays dividends, and so does money invested in basic scientific research and applied research into clean energy. Helping people get back on their feet has a good rate of return.

We spent eight years following Darkseid (first appearance was in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, November 1970—“the dark side of the Force” came seven years later). It’s time to find ourselves again. We’re not hard to find—just look in the back issues of the Saturday Evening Post, the Reader’s Digest, and the comic books.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2009

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