A few more posts as I'm sifting through the old
online notebook for a few stray record reviews, and finding a world
that looks and sounds eerily familiar, marked by six years of corrupt
Republican rule (following eight years of corrupt Clinton and twelve
years of even more corrupt Reagan-Bush). This shows that ten years ago
I was starting to doubt that some of the damage could ever be reversed.
Clearly, eight years of Obama has had little effect -- one statistic
is that 97% of the gains of the recovery have been captured by the top
1%, which implies that the overwhelming majority of Americans haven't
seen anything vaguely resembling a recovery, no matter what the stock
markets say -- and now we're poised for another plunge into disaster.
From February 1, 2006, when "the Liar in Chief gave his State of the
Of course, not everything Bush has tried has worked out exactly
according to plan. But it's hard to tell given that the real plans
have always been secret, and that the administration and its pliant,
co-opted media have consistently been able to put their spin over.
Maybe Iraq was intended to be a cakewalk that would deliver us a
steady source of cheap oil, but the worst case scenario -- that
Iraqi oil falls off the market, constricting supplies and driving
prices up -- works just as well for Bush, and better still for
Exxon-Mobil. Maybe John ("no carrot") Bolton's non-proliferation
diplomacy was intended to pacify Kim Jong Il, but a nuclear-armed
North Korea is just the sort of threat that keeps Japan in line
and helps sell anti-missile defense systems. Maybe Bush actually
wanted to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, but the latter's taunts
are always good for a bump in the polls. Win-win scenarios like
those encourage boldness by insulating Bush from the consequences
of screwing up. If Herbert Hoover had been able to spin like Bush,
America wouldn't have had that New Deal for the Republicans to try
The fact is that most Americans are worse off than they were
five years ago. Real wages are down. The real cost of living is
up, with energy and health care, education and housing leading
the way. Fewer people have jobs; those who do work longer hours
for less benefits. Productivity is up, but all of the benefits
have gone to management. More people live in poverty. Fewer have
health insurance, so more skip non-emergency care. Many people
have compensated for their declining incomes by borrowing more,
so savings is down and debt is up. The federal budget has gone
from a surplus to record deficits. Trade deficits have also hit
new record levels. This has been temporarily covered by foreign
funds, which own more and more of America's capital and debt.
The portion of federal spending on such non-productive expenses
as defense, security, and prisons has grown considerably, in
turn starving social services and infrastructure investments.
Where state and local governments have tried to compensate for
loss of federal funds, their tax increases have often swallowed
up the federal cuts. Meanwhile, safety nets have been reduced,
not least under the guise of tort reform and bankruptcy reform.
Environmental protections have been slashed, and the Super Fund
clean-up system is defunct. Much of the federal government has
been turned into a super-police agency, the Dept. of Homeland
Security -- the domestic equivalent of the Dept. of Imperial
Security (formerly the Dept. of Defense). The right to privacy
(i.e., the right to be secure in one's home and person) has
been attacked from every angle: through new laws like the USA
PATRIOT Act, through blatantly extralegal acts like NSA spying,
through Bush's packing of the courts with right-wing extremists.
And on all fronts, whatever competency government once had has
diminished as the civil service system has been turned into a
major new system of political patronage.
The key idea here is not just that the Republicans are crooks
(cf. Jack Abramoff) or scoundrels (cf. Scooter Libby) or both (cf.
Tom DeLay): it's that they're building a political machine to
perpetuate their control, a brutally efficient Tamany Hall that
straddles the entire globe. It's a spectacular vision, but it's
already -- long before such new space weapons as the Rods from
God come on-line -- showing signs of overreach. The Iraq war may
be good for Exxon-Mobil, maybe even for Halliburton, but it's been
rough on the US Army, stretched now to the breaking point. And the
longer a few thousand insurgents in Iraq are able to tie the US
down, the more defiant others become. The Muslim world is still
mostly tied down in crony dictatorships, but when democratization
comes they won't be so easy to push around. For an example of how
this works, cf. Latin America, where anti-US politicos have won
every election recently. Moreover, Bush's domestic programs weaken
the US economy in nearly every way, making any number of economic
disasters possible, on top of the long term rot caused by the
right's political attacks on science and education, the closing
of opportunities, and the increasing tolerance of graft.
That was written a couple years before the predicted economic
disaster got out of hand.
From February 15, 2006, when Dick Cheney went hunting:
The sea change in the media coverage of Dick Cheney's little hunting
accident just proves that what goes around comes around. Cheney was the
guy who insisted on going full bore ahead on the Republicans' agenda
after they squeaked through the tainted 2000 presidential election. His
cynical exploitation of ill-gotten power was unprecedented in its scope
and depravity. (Not only had Bush taken office under a cloud, compare
what he said during the campaign to what they did afterwards to get a
glimpse of how disengenuous they were before power corrupted them
further. And just as secrets and lies got them into office, secrets
and lies followed them everywhere.) Although Cheney hasn't exactly
gotten a free ride for all he's done, he's gotten a lot of slack --
the media's customary deference to the powerful, who are often (and
this is important) the ones who feed them the spin they report as
news. I'm tempted to suggest that the real reason they've turned on
Cheney so hard is that he denied them the scoop, but at least part
of their bite comes from resentment at having been lied to over and
over. The media has a bad case of "kiss up, kick down" (to borrow
a phrase used to describe John Bolton), so now that Cheney has
gotten himself into a pickle, they can finally show their love.
On March 3, 2006, I wrote a comment about a quote from Robert D.
Kaplan, an American journalist who served in the IDF and went on to
be a major neocon cheerleader in books about Afghanistan, the Balkans,
and The Arabists. I read a lot of his work after 9/11, but had
largely given up on him by the time I wrote this:
One thing to remember about Kaplan is that he's consistently argued
that democracy is not a viable goal for US (or any imperial) foreign
policy. His prescription for Iraq was that the US install an
authoritarian regime -- possibly another Baathist, another Saddam but
on a tighter leash. Allawi would have suited Kaplan fine had it
worked, but by the time the US brought Allawi in it was already too
late. The US lost the re-use Saddam's systems of control -- the
"decapitation" option -- when Bremer dissolved the Iraq army, or you
can go further back to the decision to short-staff the invasion
force. This meant that the US depended on the Kurds and Shiites to
stabilize Iraq after the invasion, and the price of their
participation was de-Baathification. Bush also tied his shoelaces
together with his liberation/democracy spiel -- while the US actually
did very little very slowly to promote democracy (the two-thirds rule
is an especially clever poison pill) the idea is still a dangling
sword over the head of the occupation.
Kaplan's books are very readable and quite useful, except when he
starts "thinking". Even then his "pragmatism" is rigorous and
consistent -- to the point that he insists that imperialism needs a
"pagan ethos". His big problem is that his ideals and preferred
practices are rooted in some other century. That strikes me as a fatal
debilitation in a "pragmatist."
On the other hand, recent news does make the rather sobering case
that bad as Saddam was, removing him has led to worse. One thing we
need to give some serious consideration to is how it might be possible
to ameliorate conditions under Saddam-like dictators without plunging
entire countries into the hell of war. As far as I can tell, since
1991 all the US ever did viz. Iraq, and for purely domestic political
reasons of the basest sort, was try to make conditions there
By the way, has anyone noticed that in Saddam's show trial, he's
being charged with ordering fewer executions than Bush signed off on
while governor of Texas?
On May 12, 2006, I wrote a post around quotes about Berlusconi
and Nixon that seemed to fit the election results so well I went
ahead and posted them
On June 22, 2006, I wrote a post called "Clintonistas for
Armageddon" -- it's one of those things you forget about because
it led to nothing, but it was about an op-ed written by two
Clinton war guys, William Perry (Clinton's Secretary of Defense)
and Ashton Carter (a Clinton under-secretary, who later became
Obama's Secretary of Defense). They were upset about North Korea
testing one of its missiles, and urged Bush to pre-emptively fire
cruise missiles at the site. While North Korea's missiles (and
most likely a couple fission bombs) were works-in-progress, this
overlooked that North Korea has thousands of pieces of heavy
artillery capable of raining destruction on Seoul. That's not
a very smart deterrent to test. I spent some time researching
North Korea at that point. Today I'm more struck by the Clinton
connection. I led off the post with this line:
One reason we're always stuck in a hopeless, hapless mess in foreign
policy is that the people the Democrats hire to staff those positions
are for all intents and purposes the same pinheaded warrior wannabes
as the ones the Republicans hire.
On June 23, 2006, I wrote a post based on an Eagle article
reporting that sociologists are finding that Americans have fewer
and fewer close friends (the average dropped from 3 in 1985 to
2). I quoted the piece, then added:
This trend has been going on all my life. It's easy to think back
to the '50s and '60s when people actually worried about this -- you
don't hear much about alienation any more, but it was so much on the
mind that existentialism was invented to salve it. The arch trends
all date back to the '50s: the move to the suburbs, the envelopment
of passive entertainment, the time demands of careerism. More recent
is the notion of Quality Time, another time encroachment that has
come about as parenting has been shaped by the career ethic. Another
factor is fear: the threat of nuclear destruction dates back to the
'50s, but everyday fear of your neighbors has built up slowly over
time. (The current obsession with tracking "sex offenders" is a good
example.) But then fear may also be a consequence of having fewer
friends: as you lose the knack of making friends the rest of the
world becomes unapproachable.
The consequences of this for politics are almost too obvious to
point out. The more isolated and self-contained people's lives are,
the less appreciation people have for others not like them. Passive
intake of news and information leaves you vulnerable to manipulation --
especially the sort of manipulation that's become the stock and trade
of the new right in America. Most of this nonsense would fall apart at
the first dissent, but if you avoid anyone who might think differently,
you can wind up convincing yourself of any fool thing.
July 8 I wrote an untitled
piece, a bit of autobiography trying to explain why I write this shit.
Interesting to read it a decade later, because sometimes I forget.
I've written a lot on Israel ever since 2001 but haven't quoted
much in this series. However, in July 2006 Israel opened a brutal
assault on Lebanon, an event Condoleezza Rice memorably dubbed "the
birthpangs of a new Middle East." On July 25, I wrote:
The irony in all this is that the neocons
got snookered worse than anyone in thinking of Israel as the model the
American military should aspire to. The fact is that Israel hasn't had
anything resembling a clean military victory since 1967. The War of
Attrition with Egypt was exactly that. 1973 was a draw perceived as
a psychological defeat. Lebanon was a bloody, pointless mess from the
very start, dragged out to 18 years only to give Hezbollah training.
The counter-intifadas were like trying to fight roaches by pummelling
them with garbage.
To be fair, America hasn't done any better, unless you're still
excited by Grenada. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was a flat-out loss.
The Cuba invasion never got off the beach. Panama was good for one
kidnapping then a hasty retreat. Kuwait left Iraq as an open sore,
then you know what happened when they opened that one up again.
Afghanistan is a slow burn. The War on Terrorism has left its Most
Wanteds at large. The War on Drugs hasn't made a dent. The War on
Poverty was quietly abandoned, at least until Bush revised the
semantics. The last winner we had was WWII, and that was won by
manufacturing, logistics and engineering -- as Billmon points out,
not by the will to fight, which the Germans and Russians were far
more effective at mustering.
The neocons, both American and Israeli, don't understand a lot
of things, but at the top of their list is that, while we like
everyone else will fight for our homes, we don't really want to
go somewhere else and fight to take or crush someone else's homes,
especially when they're willing to fight back, and we might get
killed or maimed. The only way the US can staff its military is
by promising folks that their tours will be virtually riskless --
which thanks to the neocons is getting tougher and tougher, and it
shows. Israel still has universal military draft -- well, nearly
universal, except for the Arabs they don't trust and the ultra
orthodox who get a pass -- but even they are so used to riskless
conflict that the real thing is shocking. The fact is, very few
people these days want anything to do with war. The destruction
is extraordinary and mutual, the chances of gain are negligible.
Why do these war mongers even exist?
Finally (for now, anyway), on September 13, 2006 -- two years before
"The Great Recession" became official -- I called this post "The Great
Yesterday I mentioned a long list of problems the Bush administration
has at best ignored, more commonly exacerbated, and in some cases flat
out caused. I didn't bother with the tiresome task of enumerating, but
Billmon has come
up with a reasonable summary, occasioned by the 5th anniversary of the
You can learn a lot about a country in five years.
What I've learned (from 9/11, the corporate scandals, the fiasco in
Iraq, Katrina, the Cheney Administration's insane economic and
environmental policies and the relentless dumbing down of the
corporate media -- plus the repeated electoral triumphs of the Rovian
brand of "reality management") is that the United States is moving
down the curve of imperial decay at an amazingly rapid clip. If
anything, the speed of our descent appears to be accelerating.
The physical symptoms -- a lost war, a derelict city, a Potemkin
memorial hastily erected in a vacant lot [the still-empty hole where
the WTC used to be] -- aren't nearly as alarming as the moral and
intellectual paralysis that seems to have taken hold of the
system. The old feedback mechanisms are broken or in deep disrepair,
leaving America with an opposition party that doesn't know how (or
what) to oppose, a military run by uniformed yes men, intelligence
czars who couldn't find their way through a garden gate with a GPS
locator, TV networks that don't even pretend to cover the news unless
there's a missing white woman or a suspected child rapist involved,
and talk radio hosts who think nuking Mecca is the solution to all our
problems in the Middle East. We've got think tanks that can't think,
security agencies that can't secure and accounting firms that can't
count (except when their clients ask them to make 2+2=5). Our churches
are either annexes to shopping malls, halfway homes for pederasts, or
GOP precinct headquarters in disguise. Our economy is based on asset
bubbles, defense contracts and an open-ended line of credit from the
People's Bank of China, and we still can't push the poverty rate down
or the median wage up.
I could happily go on, but I imagine you get my point. It's hard to
think of a major American institution, tradition or cultural value
that has not, at some point over the past five years, been shown to be
a) totally out of touch, b) criminally negligent, c) hopelessly
corrupt, d) insanely hypocritical or e) all of the above.
The next line is: "It's getting hard to see how these trends can
be reversed." Then Billmon starts comparing the US to the Soviet
Union in the '80s. He recommends a book by David Satter: Age of
Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. I have some
other reading planned on the post-fall depression. The thing I find
most interesting about Russia isn't the stupidity of the (especially
late) Communist years -- it's the absolute collapse of living
standards following the fall. We're so used to the idea of progress
that we have trouble seeing decline even when the facts are hard to
read otherwise. This collapse hit Russia so the hard life expectancy
metrics declined. A quarter or more of Russia's GDP vanished. There
are other examples scattered around the world, especially war-induced
losses like in Iraq, and war-inducing ones in parts of Africa.
In some measures living standards in the US have been declining
since roughly 1970. This has been masked by technological progress,
by debt accumulation, by scapegoating, and by political delusion.
Take medicine, for instance: science and technology have advanced,
but insurance and delivery of basic health care has in some cases
actually regressed, such that US life expectancy has finally begun
to decline, especially compared to other wealthy nations. But the
new stuff gets the press and sets the perception. Only when you
need it do you find out you can't get it, or it doesn't really
work, or something else goes wrong.
Immigration is another source of cover-up. Undocumenteds provide
low skill labor that compensates for demotivating our own unskilled
labor. There's a lot of scapegoating over that, but more important
is legal immigration, which is needed to compensate for our failures
to educate and develop knowledge workers -- everyone from school
teachers to computer programmers to doctors. Immigration stimulates
the economy, but it also levels the world. It's not necessarily a
problem per se, but what it covers up is.
Beyond the obvious declines, there's a steady build up of risk
and liability, as well as plain old depreciation. I've been reading
complaints about not putting enough money into infrastructure for
decades now. It's like, if you have a house with termites, it may
look fine for years, especially if you don't look very close. Then
one day a gust of wind, or just gravity, will bring it down. That's
basically what happened to the Alaska pipeline. That's what happened
to the New Orleans levees. Katrina wasn't the big storm everyone had
so feared, but it was big enough anyway, because we didn't realize
how vulnerable we had become.
That sort of rot has been accumulating for a long time -- George
Brockway dated a lot of recent economic problems to the Republicans'
first attempts to dismantle the New Deal when they took over Congress
in the 1946 elections. Laws they passed like Taft-Hartley had little
immediate effect, but over time undermined labor unions and working
wages and the very principle of equal opportunity. Banking laws, as
well as later deregulations, have had similar long-term effects. The
long-term dip in growth rates occurred during the Vietnam War, which
had many other corrosive effects -- especially as the politicos have
dug themselves ever deeper in duplicity and cover-ups.
By now they have to keep denying, they have to keep runing from
the truth. Acknowledgment is failure, and as long as they keep from
failing they can pretend they're succeeding, which is what keeps
the whole scam going. But sometimes failure strikes too suddenly
and/or unshakeably to spin. The last five years have shown us some
examples like that.