Paul Greenberg

It's no secret that the country is in a foul mood -- somewhere between sour and utterly disgusted.

A general feeling of dissatisfaction pervades the national discourse. A dissatisfaction with the president and his administration, certainly, but with his critics in Congress, too. Poll after poll reflects unhappiness with what's called the direction of the country, though a better term for it might be drift.

No wonder eruptions like Occupy Wall Street and, before it, the Tea Party have become widespread. They may differ in their slogans, gripes and programs, but both are efflorescences of the same widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are.

Somewhere in all this dissatisfaction, there may be the germ of a workable idea -- a sharp needle in this haystack of complaints, protests and notions-and-nostrums. It's possible. 'Tis an ill political will that blows no one any good.

Back in the depths of the Depression, a failed doctor out in California came up with a surefire way to get Americans back to work and the American economy rolling again: Just give everybody in the country over 60 a pension of, oh, $200 a month -- on condition that they spend every penny of it. That'd end the Depression. Or so Francis Townsend, M.D., assured us.

The doctor's much-derided scheme turned out to be the seed of one of the most efficient, enduring and by now sacrosanct ways to keep our oldest and poorest from spending their last years in misery. Rather than have them rummaging through garbage cans, which is the sight that inspired Dr. Townsend to propose his plan.

By the curious twists and turns of American politics, by 1935 the doc's idea had evolved into what is now called Social Security -- a system that doesn't help just the old and poor but everybody who pays into it. And lives long enough to collect. Plus a lot of others who have since been incorporated into it, like widows and orphans.

Social Security may be sputtering these days, and it may bear a certain superficial resemblance to a ponzi scheme. For present benefits are to be paid by future investors. But whatever problems it has can be addressed by an actuarial fix here and there (like raising the retirement age, for example) so long as the American economy -- and population -- keep growing.

But that kind of calm perspective is rare in a political atmosphere full of unfocused anger and general dissatisfaction. A presidential campaign is a kind of storm before the calm. In its throes, people look for the opposite of what they've grown sick of.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.