Why has politics in America become so trivial, so superficial and lacking in real substance? And why do we persist in such a harmful habit when the world’s problems so desperately require our attention?
Naturally such complex phenomena have multiple causes. Americans have been conditioned by ads and television to have the attention spans and memories of children. Kids are so much easier to sell stuff to than adults, who remember what happened last time they bought something from that corporation. All in all, nobody’s been as heavily propagandized as Americans. As far as I know there isn’t much data about how such propaganda affects society over time; but it’s hard to imagine any positives, while situations where the negative effects are obvious happen all the time.
In this downward spiral of public discussion in the good ole USA, I want to nominate two inter-related items as contributing causes. First there’s the psychologically uncomfortable point that many, perhaps most, of our difficulties are direct results of our own decisions, often made long ago and never questioned, and policies, many followed well past their natural lifespans.
Certainly global warming is a problem that demands immediate focus around the globe. Ideology often being a cover for self-interest, there are some who remain unconvinced; but finding a skeptic with no financial interest in fossil fuels is difficult. Could there be a clearer demonstration of Bertrand Russell’s maxim that our ethic values competition, but our situation requires coöperation?
The war in Iraq is even more obviously of our own creation. In this light, Clinton’s vote for the war was clearly based on politics. But Obama’s careful avoidance of any criticism of the party nominees over the issue, which Bill Clinton seems to be bending a bit, was also political. The way I heard the story, Bob Shrum was telling potential Democratic Presidential candidates at the time of the vote (e.g., Kerry, Edwards, Clinton) that the White House would not be occupied by someone who voted against the war. (Why they listened, given his record in Presidential elections, remains a bit of a mystery.)
If Obama had been in the Senate at the time, he would have received the same advice from Shrum. Like the other Senators, he would have been subjected to a huge and dishonest administration campaign, replete with intelligence-community briefers, announcing a real threat. Many Senators who were skeptical encountered what they considered dispositive evidence. Given Obama’s party loyalty, and his actual voting record in the Senate on matters foreign and domestic, I’m not convinced that with his kindergarten ambition in sight he would have ignored Shrum’s advice. He believes in the system, which is why he doesn’t scare white folks.
My point, though, is not about individual candidates. We get the candidates our system tends to produce. That doesn’t mean we deserve them; it means we haven’t done what’s needed to upgrade our system to one that produces better discussions, candidates, and outcomes. But we find it hard to confront sacred cows, to get past dearly held illusions about the world and our place in it, and thus we’re reluctant to confront the present evidence of past neglect.
One of the problems we Americans try to not to look at is the vast increase in economic inequality. This is not confined to the Bush/Cheney years, of course, but they certainly goosed things along, and the gaps have reached historic proportions. In the past, such conditions have usually been followed by serious economic and political upheaval. What Chomsky called the attempt to roll back the twentieth century is in full swing, with Democrats joining Republicans against the unions, the unemployed, and others who need help and wish they had the old bleeding-heart liberals back.
These days it’s cool to stand up for the civil rights of minorities if the minority individuals in question are Americans who have not yet been accused of any terrorism-related acts, contributions, or secret thoughts. But standing up for social policies that might give them a fair shot in life by providing them with reasonable economic opportunities indicates the onset of the degenerative delusion of class warfare. Nonsense! We’re all in this together, war profiteers, oilmen, drug and insurance execs, reporters, NASCAR dads, and soccer moms. (Won’t somebody please think of the children?)
We’re designing the near future along the lines of our hallowed one-person, one-car tradition, in defiance of the widespread belief that we must act soon on climate change, or prepare to leave the planet. We can’t wean ourselves off the black stuff because the oil companies manipulate us so effectively, raising prices when we’re driving a lot and reducing them just before elections, crying for tax breaks and posting record profits. Private enterprise, the jewel of Western civilization!
We can’t even consider a plan to regain our national edge in technological innovation: collectivism, ugh! We’ve already lost most of our manufacturing base, and are now engaged in an attempt to disprove Paul Kennedy’s thesis (in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers) that military might depends on industrial might. We offer sacrifices to the Gods of the Market, but as yet they’re unappeased.
Such strategies we’ve long expected from the every-rich-man-for-himself Republicans. But time was when Democrats would do more than speechify on the opposite side of the question, they would act to change reality. They would create government programs, many of which would fail utterly, but not all; they would modify existing laws and methods, and at least attempt to address the problems at hand. The resistance Bush found to privatizing Social Security indicates a general realization that some government programs have worked, and belong among the tools we use to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism.
Government, in a nutshell, is certainly not the answer, but it’s not the main problem either. In theory we own it, and could get off our asses and go fix it once this show’s over and we’ve finished our beers.
What we don’t even potentially control has vastly greater implications for each of our lives. Insurance corporations have a death grip on our health-care debate; oil companies drive our foreign policy; the biggest chunk of our economy is based on war; the second biggest is finance, much of it dealing in companies and commodities with no connection to the US other than the money made and spent by the American financiers.
We’re no longer the industrial powerhouse whose entry into the conflict ended the Second World War. And indications are plentiful that our financial house of power is morphing into a house of cards.
Observers of world politics and economics are fascinated with China for good reason. Probably not fortuitously, we’re lucky to have James Fallows blogging in situ, providing us with pictures of the air (and the cats) in Beijing to go with — I don’t say “match” — the official descriptions. (And some nostalgia-inducing small-plane shots as well.)
Fallows is in my top category of writers, because he attacks important, difficult, and complex subjects, explains them clearly, and leaves you with frameworks that help you understand information that arrives later. Even on those occasions when I don’t happen to agree with his stance on an issue, my viewpoint is widened and clarified by what he’s written, and I feel more capable of addressing the issue rationally, and of understanding what I feel about it. He helps me think better.
I particularly recommend his latest article, abnormally available free from The Atlantic, in which his concerns intersect with another of my favorites, William Greider. Those interested in the effects China Rising might be expected to exert, plus any confused xenophobes reading BA who want to know what’s coming in the US economy, might find it enlightening.
Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus — $1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day — that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’ t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends — suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic — will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.
Any economist will say that Americans have been living better than they should — which is by definition the case when a nation’s total consumption is greater than its total production, as America’s now is. Economists will also point out that, despite the glitter of China’s big cities and the rise of its billionaire class, China’s people have been living far worse than they could. That’s what it means when a nation consumes only half of what it produces, as China does.
In six paragraphs he follows your dollar from CVS, where you purchased an Oral-B toothbrush, through the banks and governments of the US and China, and back into the US economy.
This is the bargain China has made — rather, the one its leaders have imposed on its people. They’ll keep creating new factory jobs, and thus reduce China’s own social tensions and create opportunities for its rural poor. The Chinese will live better year by year, though not as well as they could. And they’ll be protected from the risk of potentially catastrophic hyperinflation, which might undo what the nation’s decades of growth have built. In exchange, the government will hold much of the nation’s wealth in paper assets in the United States, thereby preventing a run on the dollar, shoring up relations between China and America, and sluicing enough cash back into Americans’ hands to let the spending go on.