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I’m no sage, but I suspect we’ll hear a version of this refrain over and over again in 2012: People should get more involved!

It’s one of those unquestioned axioms of modern life that people should be involved, that they should be engaged in the world around them. Apathy, we are told, causes problems and allows them to fester. It’s much better to be on the problem-solving side of the street.

But what if the opposite is true? What if people are simply too involved, too engaged? What if that is the real problem? We insert our two cents wherever they’ll fit. If they don’t fit, we’ll make them.

Of course, that’s an easy thing to say from a position of relative material comfort. But think about it for at least a second or two. What if we let things be instead of trying to always make them what we think they should be?

Let it be. It works as a song, but it would be a piss-poor campaign slogan. Or would it? We think of the phrase as implying some kind of hands-off approach: “Oh, just let it  be, will ya?” Economists may be familiar with the French version: “laissez-faire.”

But if you listen to the words (the English ones), they suggest a more active result: Let it BE. In other words, let it be what it is, or what he is or she is or they are. Our temptation is always to meddle, to control, to impose our will, to give our advice.

There’s no good time to stop, to resist the temptation. There’s just the courage to try.

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There’s this notion going around that tough times will reveal the true character of America. It’s a good bit of marketing and satisfies our desire for myth. But it’s baloney.

When you’re backed up against a wall, you learn one thing: people have a keen sense of survival and a knack for self-preservation. It’s those other times that show us what we’re made of, like those times everyone thought they could get rich buying and selling tech stocks  houses  oil futures hope?

I guess Bush will take the blame from a lot of people. But whatever else he did, he didn’t force anyone to take on a mortgage they couldn’t afford.

But didn’t he and his cronies create the climate that made all those criminal excesses possible? I suppose they might bear some responsibility, but people have to take their share of the blame occassionally.

We get the leaders that serve up what we want to believe, and we very badly wanted to believe in everlasting wealth.

It doesn’t mean we still can’t become Treasury Secretary some day, even if it means a come-down in pay.

It continues to intrigue me — the biblical point Obama raised in his inauguration speech on putting away childish things.

He seems to mean things like partisanship and political gamesmanship and their attendant ills, with self-righteousness and ideological rigor mortis being two of the biggest.

But those things are decidedly not childish. They are the sole province of adults (and adolescents, I might add). Name me a child who sticks to a course of action, no matter how foolish, based on some abstract philosophical notion.

Children may fixate on something and carry on like fools, but it’s generally over a concrete object, say a chocolate chip cookie, a Matchbox car or a pair of footie pajamas. I don’t see them crying over failed adherence to free-market principles or skepticism over Keynesian economics.

I guess it sounds clever to compare peculiarly adult blind spots to childish things. But it doesn’t do much to advance our political discourse when we seek to infantilize people based on what they may feel are important principles.

Or when we seek to explain away what is decidedly an adult problem as some sort of childishness that needs to be abandoned. Good luck with that.

In the fast-moving blur that our financial sector has become,  I vaguely recall the argument that taxpayers (or Asian creditors) could someday turn a profit on the “distressed assets” they’ll be purchasing in a few week;

Still, I’m a bit skeptical. I should note that I haven’t heard this claim in the political posturing that has passed for Congressional debate the last few days. (I wonder how many pols are willing to put their principled free-market stands through the risk of a real-world test. Very few, which is why we’re more likely to end up with a package that includes tax rebates for you and me.) But we may hear it again, so it’s worth dissecting, however briefly. If there is a profit to be made from these assets, why don’t the companies keep them or why doesn’t some enterprising private-sector investor snatch them up?

I’ll be waiting for the answer.

We used to have an economy based on making stuff. Now we have an economy based on making bets. Alas, we haven’t figured out what to do when those bets blow up in our faces.

America’s safety net is based on factory employment, not financial speculation. The theory, I suppose, is that people engaged in financial speculation do so with an eyes-wide-open appreciation for the risks. The theory appears to need some revision.

Set your hypocrisy radars on high alert. Just don’t expect anyone to reconcile the AIG bailout with the values of a government supposedly in thrall to the belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter of all that is good and true.

As we’re learning, the market can dish out some ugliness, too. But is it really a new lesson? Not for the workers who used to make Ford minivans. Or the workers that used to make toys, lawn mowers and televisions. Nor is the market’s ability to inflict pain news to anyone who has to fill up a gas tank or pay for their own health insurance.

But in all of those cases, we let the market do its work, or at least profess faith in its ability to do so over the long run – if, for example, we could clear out those silly government bans on offshore drilling. But when you’re an investment bank or an international insurance company, I guess drill, baby,  drill – or retrain, baby, retrain – isn’t the answer. The answer is a multi-billion-dollar loan.

I laughed when morning news anchors on CNN lamented AIG’s interest rate of 11.5%, calling it high and an incentive for the company to look elsewhere. Funny, but I don’t recall any journalists wringing their hands over the rates charged to people with credit cards (20%-plus) or the rates charged to subprime borrowers.

Seems to me, if your business is a credit risk and teetering on the edge of collapse, you should pay higher rates. No lender throws good money after bad at a low rate. Well, not anymore, anyway.

Another ridiculous argument in all this is the claim that the collapse of AIG would lead to higher borrowing costs. Higher costs for whom? Certainly not for people buying cars and houses, the two major purchases for most consumers.

The automakers would go lower than 0% if they could and I don’t see that changing – unless they get a bailout of their own. The same incentives apply to housing. If rates rise, home prices likely will fall, making them more affordable in the long run, not exactly the worst news in the world.

Yes, it sucks if you already have a house and the value falls or simply doesn’t go up year after year. But look on the bright side. You own a house. And now you own an insurance company, or at least a 79.5% stake in one. I can’t wait for my first dividend check.

All this debate about “executive experience” is getting a little stale. Since when did Americans need a president who could order people around? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a president who could empower us to do for ourselves? Isn’t that what democracy and the free market are supposed to be about?

Ideally, yes. Realistically, I guess not. But still. It would float my boat to see a debate about which candidate — McCain, Obama, Palin, or Biden — would be better able to empower us instead of assume power over us.

Drill, baby, drill!

I tend to harp on the perils and pitfalls of free-market medicine. But there’s one area where it seems to work, at least in my own life. So I figured I should give dentistry some due.

Last November, my dentist told me I needed $300 worth of work based, essentially, on readings given by a laser beam that a dental assistant shined through my teeth. This red beam allegedly showed the existence of unseen cavities caused by pinhole cracks. I balked. After all, my teeth felt fine (my gum line is another story). But the dentist insisted on the additional work. I told him I would get a second opinion. He graciously allowed that such a move was “my prerogative.” Thanks.

So this month, I went to a second dentist who doesn’t use the laser-pointer and said my teeth looked fine. He even said he would refrain from drilling unless really necessary. After all, dental procedures don’t always turn out as planned. And he told me what I could do on my own to arrest — and even reverse — any problems that might be stirring behind the enamel. The old dentist did no such thing.

As you can imagine, I now have a new dentist. He costs more per visit, $78 versus $55. But there are several key differences that make the extra cash worthwhile, even if it comes from my own pocket — which it does.

My new dentist does the cleaning himself rather than assigning it to an assistant. Second, he doesn’t push expensive procedures. The old dentist had TVs in the treatment rooms showing crooked and yellowed teeth turning white, shiny and straight, kind of like those ads showing Democratic candidates morphing into Osama bin Laden. I’m willing to pay more if I don’t have to resist that kind of marketing pressure every six months.

Dental care is unique in that regular care is relatively affordable and necessary, at least on a middle-class income. It also feels good to have a nice clean mouth for a day or two. And the more expensive-but-routine procedures are relatively limited. For the most part, it’s easy to compare.

Nonetheless, it was a fairly wrenching decision to change dentists. It wasn’t easy to disagree with a medical professional. They have a certain authority that’s hard to reject. I happen to be stubborn enough and didn’t have a long history with my first dentist. It would be tougher to reject a dentist or doctor I’d been seeing since childhood.

Some dentists certainly push what could be unnecessary care, and that could happen in the wider medical market. Maybe we could learn something from dentists, though. Where the sales tactics are too heavy-handed, it could encourage more people to get second opinions. It’s nice to see that where choice is available and exercised, there’s often a better one.

Give John McCain credit for a healthcare plan that goes beyond the traditional conservative mantra of “tort reform.” It’s actually a decent plan if you agree a free market is a good prescription for our healthcare woes. I for one would love a tax credit for buying my own health insurance, which I have to do because I’m self-employed. Too bad the market fails in reality.

It’s fun to dream of consumer power over healthcare decisions. But it’s ultimately a fantasy. I know this firsthand. My second son — who’s looked perfectly healthy on the outside during his 11 months so far — has a suspicious heartbeat that requires occasional and expensive tests to make sure it’s still not a problem.

We have a health-savings account, so we pay most of this stuff out-of-pocket. We could decide to forgo these tests, considering there appears to be little wrong with our son and he’s otherwise perfectly healthy. But, the doctors tell us there’s an outside chance of something bad cropping up. Do we really have a choice in spending the money? I guess. I do often suspect the doctors are being overly cautious and the tests may not really be necessary.

I could get a second opinion — for another couple hundred dollars. Or I could decide I’d rather spend all the money on iTunes and Amazon. What if I spurned the tests simply because I didn’t have the extra couple hundred dollars to spare? What’s good for the bank account may not always be good for the heart.

I know money should play a role somewhere in the healthcare equation, and something has to happen to rein in spending. But I can’t imagine complicating already-excruciating decisions for parents by forcing them to weigh family finances against a child’s health. Maybe the advocates of free-market healthcare think that’s a good thing, and they may even have a rational argument to support it. But the argument needs to be at or near the center of debate.

That’s the unspoken straight talk about consumer-driven healthcare.

Here they come, DC…Imagine the traffic congestion this truck convoy will cause around Washington, where the roads are normally smooth sailing on a weekday morning…Yup. This should get people’s attention.

If truckers really think government should intervene in this case, why have they fought the government when it tries require cleaner engines, cleaner fuel and cleaner air? Someone, somewhere is benefiting from high diesel prices, and I bet they can afford some pretty sharp lobbyists.

I’m sympathetic to the trucking industry’s fuel-induced pain. But if I had to place a bet, I would put my money on nothing much happening at all. A true, long-term solution is likely to induce further pain, or pain in some other area of the body politic.

The problem is our myopia. The US is used to being — has been for nearly 20 years — the sole superpower and chief consumer of natural resources. The ride’s over, but we are so enamored of our recent size and strength, we fail to see beyond our borders, that other countries are getting bigger, if not yet stronger.

Failing any other solution, we can always fall back on the free market: if something costs more, buy less of it. Oh, but we need trucks to haul things a long distance. Fair enough. Here’s another tip from the free market: if it costs a lot to haul something a long way, make it closer to home.

Maybe truckers undermined by high diesel prices can start growing rice. We may need it.