January 13, 2008
Politics, Economics, Society: All Problems Solved!

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.

Whose Bed is This We’re Lying In?

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.

Mortgage Crisis, Sure, But How ’Bout Them Giants?

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.

The Chinese Are Coming, the Chinese Are Coming!

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.
Posted by Chuck Dupree at January 13, 2008 10:28 PM
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I don't know where I'd be right now without cannabis. Cannabis gives a perspective that allows you to rise above the noise and find the signal somehow.

This is much better, I think. I can more easily discern from this perspective what intentions people have; and this is how I blog, I am stoned at all times unless there is some reason I cannot be, because I write better when I understand more.

Of course, for me it is a necessary adaptation. Without cannabis, I do not sleep, I am shortly unable to function well at all, and it is not good. I have a genetic condition and a medical recommendation and it is necessary that I take something to help me live with serious pain.

It is still largely the untouchable issue in public, and candidates are unwilling to go further than to say that medical marijuana should be left to the states, well I understand that running for president means having to appeal to people in parts of the country that don't have the benefit of a strong liberal tradition, unfortunately.

That does not constrain me, as a blogger, from saying this.

Posted by: Michael on January 14, 2008 5:31 AM

Chuck Dupree -
As usual, a thought provoking submission, inc
"Government, in a nutshell, is certainly not the answer, but its not the main problem either. In theory we own it, and could get off our asses and go fix it once this shows over and weve finished our beers."
Someone said, what doesn't kill you defines you.
True for individuals, the snot running down an infants face, and the universe.
Please stay with me on this. Somewhere in Martin Buber's writings appears: Mankind throughout history has tended toward an ideal. It deviates from this course, but for the most part civilization pursues it again and again:
The ideal of goodness obtainable through continence, abstemiousness, and purity.
Without trumpeting key words that offend, the quest before mankind today seems to be to employ advances in communication(the net), giving every-one over the age of 18 an equal voice in the public will.
I donno, the work ahead is of the most serious nature and methinks shouldn't be vacated/left to the agenda's of whimsey and caprice. In my view, that includes religious zealots, greedy capitalists, and war mongers.
I'll dig into the Atlantic artical if you give the Harper's one ago.

Jonathan Schell has a 4k word essay 'The Moral Equivalent of Empire' leading off this month's Harper's NOTEBOOK (sorry no link yet) wherein he characterizes Bush's nuclear policy as a subdepartment of the global war on terror.
..."Bush was proposing the United States as a benign Leviathan."
Of two universalist tradition, one based on consent and law, the other on force- Bush chose force.That un- leashed an ..."escalating cycle of violence..."

Thanks for your efforts at Bad Attitudes.

Posted by: on January 14, 2008 11:02 AM
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