Posts Tagged ‘USA’

Safer, but less secure.

datePosted on 08:04, September 3rd, 2011 by Pablo

I will be traveling to a family reunion in Boston during the September 11 commemorations, so will not be doing much posting during that time. What I will do now is briefly opine on what the US public might reflect upon a decade on after the attacks.

It is clear that, in terms of security against large-scale terrorist attacks, the US is safer. The price for that safety, from the indignities of airport security to the infringements on civil liberties and constitutional rights allowed by the Patriot Act and attendant legislation, is something that Americans take for granted, even if large gaps still remain in the defense against a committed and well-organised attack against mass targets (one need only to see shopping mall security to get an idea of the potential targets such places represent). By and large the US public is resigned to living in an age of fear, and go about their business willfully ignoring the myriad aways in which it is being surveilled, eavesdropped, video monitored and otherwise treated as a nation of suspects. Such, as they say, is the price for freedom.

The US has also become the most fearsome military force on the planet, with a level of combat experience and lethal technologies that exponentially exceeds that of any other country or combination of countries. For all their rise as important powers, when was the last time China, India or Russia were capable of sustaining two prolonged wars of occupation half way across the globe for years on end? What rivals, such as Iran or North Korea, have the ability to bring sustained multi-layered force to the battlefield, and which of these countries has a cadre of combat-hardened 30 year old field commanders and enlisted personnel capable of wreaking organised havoc at a tactical level? The answer is none. The US is a war machine par excellance, and allies and adversaries are well aware of this fact.

But the US has paid a price for its war-mongering. Having engaged in torture and the killing of thousands of innocents in the Muslim world in its pursuit of those responsible for 9/11 (and some who were not, such as Saddam Hussein), the US has lost much diplomatic stature and respect in the international community. It no longer represents the so-called “shining house on the hill” that all people aspire to. It is now just another great power bullying its way, with little to none of the moral authority it used to claim just ten years ago. Nor is it much liked, not only in places that have been traditionally exhibited antipathy to it such as Latin America, but now even amongst the community of liberal democracies that it ostensibly leads. The situation is so dire that even the Russians feel compelled to critique the US on issues of democratic governance and values. That is a sorry state indeed.

The ongoing commitment to unilateral pre-emptive war has exacted a toll on the US economy. More Americans are out of work than anytime since the late 1970 (the overall unemployment rate is over 9 percent and the unemployment for some sub-groups such as young Afro-American men exceeds 16 percent). More Americans are devoid of affordable health care since before World War Two. The dream of secure home ownership, the foundation of the American Dream as much as the quarter acre pavlova paradise is in NZ, is less attainable for the majority than at any time during the last fifty years. Crime rates have crept back up after record lows in the late 1990s. Political, class and ethnic divisions are at their sharpest in a quarter century. Polarisation, not solidarity and communitarianism, are the hallmarks of US society today. There is more to this litany of despair, but the point is that the US may still be proud, but it is bowed. It may be physically safer from foreign attack than ever before, but it is also more insecure than at any time since the war of 1812.

The mood, from what I can gather speaking with friends and family across the country, is sombre. This contrasts sharply with the historical sense of US optimism, if not idealism, that existed prior to 9/11. A friend of mine, a former Pentagon official, drew the analogy this way: the US went on a bender from the mid 1990s until 2008, only pausing in its partying ways during the weeks after 9/11 while the immediate damage was assessed. It now saddled with a massive hangover and the need to sober up by living within its diminished means. Although the Fox News and Tea Party crowd will engage in the usual jingoistic patriotism and shout that “we are still number one” to all and sundry, for the vast majority the anniversary will be ignored, be spent quietly, or be cause to reflect on what once was, and is no more.

Thus, my questions for the day are this. Is the US more or less strong than it was on 9/11/2001? Are its people more or less secure than they were on that terrible day? And if not, why is that, especially since al-Qaeda has been largely routed as a large scale irregular fighting force and Osama bin Laden is dead?

The answer, I reckon, lies within the US itself.

Skirting the storm.

datePosted on 07:47, August 31st, 2011 by Pablo

I arrived in Miami just as Hurricane Irene turned northeast, sparing Florida but pounding the Mid- and North Atlantic seaboard. From what I saw of the outer fringe of the storm when it was a category 3 hurricane–5 meter frothing waves, high gusting winds and torrential (sometimes horizontal) rain, the folk up north were lucky that the storm weakened as it hit colder water and made landfall. Not surprisingly, many complained about the mandatory evacuation measures that were put into place, arguing that it was over-kill given the downgrading of Irene to a category 1 storm, even though the flooding and winds that did reach the major population centers clustered along the East Coast caused more than 30 deaths, major damage to property and infrastructure, and prolonged  power outages that affected over 5 million people. Just like those who flocked to the shoreline to see the big surf, it is as if they simply cannot understand the implications of what was originally headed their way. In many ways, this reflects the general state of US politics at the moment.

The current political climate in the US is dominated by the Republican primary campaign. Truth be told, it has all the aspects of a circus side-show, freaks and all. There is Michele Bachmann, she of the “always on high beam” glazed stare and Cold War apocalyptic views with the closet queen husband who claims that he converts homosexuals to heterosexuality through prayer (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “laying on of hands”). There is Rick Perry, a W. Bush wanna-be Texas governor who does not believe in man-made climate change and endorses creationist interpretations of evolution. There is a black guy with a slave name (Herman Cain) who ran a chain of pizza shops and seems to think this is enough experience to run the country. There is the evergreen Ron Paul, who looks better over time in the measure that his party candidates increasingly evidence pre-reconstruction beliefs. There is Newt Gingrich, serial adulterer and engineer of the last government shutdown, pontificating about a return to “constitutional values” ( he must be thinking about the founding father’s penchant for liasions with female slaves). There is millionaire Mitt Romney, once again attempting to recast himself in a right-wing image, this time as a Tea Party supporter. Romney and another candidate, John Huntsmann, are both Mormon former governors of states that in no way reflect the larger society in which they exist (Massachusetts is an unsually liberal state, while Utah is unusually conservative). Behind this motley suit-clad crew are the ranters and ravers, led by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, who want to bomb Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and any other place the communist-socialist, islamofascist, feminazi, ecoterrorist gay-lesbian secular humanist alliance is taking hold.

The GOP is a party now governed by its rump, in the guise of the Christian fundamentalists and Tea Party anti-government activists (who in spite of their claimed belief in self-reliance are strangely silent on the issue of accepting federal aid to the hurricane disaster zones, perhaps because Bachmann and televangalist Pat Robertson both claimed that the hurricane and the earthquake that preceded it on the East Coast were acts of God designed to warn politicians to be fiscally prudent and morally conservative). It is a party that has congressional leaders that openly gloat that their primary objective is to make the Obama administration fail, even if it takes forcing government agency closures as arguments over budgetary matters continue at an impasse (the agreement on the debt ceiling is only a temporary measure). This includes trying to tie federal disaster relief to budget cuts in other areas. It a party that is openly disloyal and disrespectful of the presidency, and which has open champions on conservative media outlets that are equally disrespectful and delusional in their approach to “correcting” the multiple ailments afflicting the country. These people dream of an Ozzie and Harriet la-la land where Negros, Hispanics, Arabs and other non-whites know their place.

The trouble for this crowd of neo-cons, bible-bashing fundies, xenophobes, racists, isolationists, revanchists and neo-imperialists (and yes, there is a bunch of contradictions layered in there) is that their proposed solutions to the US malaise avoid the major issue and in fact will serve to exacerbate it: growing class differentials, both in income and opportunity. In the US today, the top 400 individual income earners control as much of the national wealth as the bottom 60 percent of the population. This is what I have called in the past the “Brasilianisation” of US society, where income inequalities become monumental, except that now Brazil is thriving and growing its middle class by using the type of state-managed macroeconomic policies so reviled by the American Right, to the point that it beginning to look like what the US once was (no insult to Brazil intended).

Yet the Tea Baggers and GOP want to continue tax breaks for the upper ten percent of the population and corporations (some of whom have paid no net tax in the last five years) while drastically reducing public funding for so-called “entitlements” like universal health care, welfare, education and infrastructure development. The new scapegoats, along with the traditional targets of brown-skinned immigrants, are public sector employees, who now are being targeted for layoffs and redundancies at both the state and federal level. A major target are public school teachers, whose pensions are considered to be a major drain on state coffers (in spite of the fact that these employees paid a significant percentage of their salaries into their pension funds).

Behind all of this is open hatred of unions to the point that some GOP candidates want to eliminate them entirely. Bachmann, for example, wants to disestablish the National Labor Relations Board, a non-partisan oversight body established by FDR as part of the New Deal that encourages the right to collective bargaining and union representation in the workplace (but not closed shops). Anti-union governors have emerged in several states (most notably in Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin) using union-bashing as a populist tool in pursuit of fiscal reform. Given president Obama’s conciliatory and compromising stance vis a vis GOP demands (some have called it a sell-out), cracks in the Democratic support base are starting to show, with the labor movement, Congressional black caucus and Hispanic leaders all denouncing his retreat from the “progressive” (as much as you can be in the US)  policies on which he campaigned. This augers poorly for his re-election chances in 2012, although given the dog-and-pony show that is the GOP candidate list, he remains the default option.

Of course, these same reactionaries want the US to maintain a global military presence (now in more than 80 countries) that can strike at any adversary, real or imagined (recall the invasion of Grenada under a previous Republican president). They fail to understand that keeping a global war machine requires and exceptional level of public funding through taxation, and that the 100+ trillion dollar US public debt is in large measure due to the Bush 43 administration’s deficit-spending pursuit of two wars of occupation (one of necessity, one of choice) that is currently costing 1 million dollars per deployed soldier per day (one only has to think of the logistics lines and cost of equipment to see how these figure tallies up).

Rather than push to withdraw or downscale the US foreign military presence these same folk preach about the need to maintain the US role as global policeman, particularly in light of the re-emergence of China and Russia as strategic rivals along with the threats posed by states such as Iran and other middle powers that fail to adhere to US dictates. They deny that they are imperialists, but in order play the role of world cop the GOP is willing to sacrifice the roots of domestic stability, in the form of an equitable tax base and the robust provision of public goods and services.

This brings up what the GOP and Tea Party extremists cannot see and what their policies will aggravate: class conflict. The US has always been good at deliberately down-playing class conflict in favour of racial tensions, cultural differences and issues of social choice. During times of plenty, say the 15 year period between 1993 and 2008, the underlying class divisions in US society could be more readily submerged by these distractions, making the electorate easily manipulable by the corporate-political elite that benefited the most by the macro-economic policies of the last two decades. But in the last three years, as the same economic elites who plunged the US economy into recession were awarded corporate bail-outs by both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, millions of “ordinary” Americans have lost their jobs, their homes and their future prospects. Now, rather than providing the federal safety net as a stop-gap against further social dislocation and the unrest that it brings, the GOP is successfully pressuring the federal government to remove key components of the fundamental social contract that has underpinned US society since the 1960s.

The proposed conservative roll back ignores the fact that what got the US out of the Great Depression, the New Deal, was founded on a federal job creation program, and that the Great Society of the 1960s was rooted in the expansion of civil rights tied to equal opportunity access promoted and enforced by the federal government. Instead, the American Right has adopted a “survival of the fittest” approach in no small part because they are the fittest to survive given who their economic benefactors are. The reality is that their proposed remedies are exactly the opposite of what has worked in the past to revitalise the economy and will have negative consequences far in excess of whatever benefit they hope to achieve.

What the GOP, Tea Baggers and the frothing-at-the-mouth media conservatives are blind to is the fact that their policies will accentuate class differences, leading to increasing alienation and dispair amongst those for whom the American Dream no longer exists. One only need to look at the UK riots to understand where such policies lead to, yet the likes of the infamous Koch brothers (billionaires who are funding the Tea Party movement) continue to push for policies that reduce the ability of the federal government to help those at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole.

There is irony in the fact that the Tea Party movement is made up of mostly white middle  and working class people yet advocates tax and fiscal policies that openly favour the rich and corporate interests instead of their own. In fact, the Tea Party movement is backing policy prescriptions that are a thinly veiled attack on the working poor and lower middle classes as much as they are a coddling of the wealthy. But then again, false consciousness is a common feature of declining class fractions confronted with the evolution of society in which they no longe matter, as they seek to cling to a nostalgic version of the past in which they served as the motor force of the economy and culture. They no longer are, and the conservative correctives will ensure that it stays that way.

The bottom line is that like the fools who ignored warnings about the hurricane, the American Right is plunging the country towards its worst nightmare: the day in which class conflict emerges out into the open and cannot be disguised by so-called “culture wars” and the other customary diversions that have been used successfully in the past. When that day comes not only will the discourse of politics be different. So too will be social interaction, which will begin to adopt centrifugal rather than centripetal characteristics as the fabric of society begins to fray.

NB: A note for Lew: you will be interested to know that television advertising in the US increasingly sees the use of military personnel (or actors protraying armed service people) in a variety of huckster roles, from selling donuts to cars to anxiety medicine. Most of the military personnel being potrayed (including female soldiers) are depicted as being from the enlisted ranks, as a common touch with the consuming masses. Since you are the media analysis guru I shall leave it to you to ponder the implications of the military presence in US advertising, but if it is true that advertising reflects more general social preferences, trends and mores, then from my non-expert vantage point it sure looks like the militarisation of public discourse is near complete (which only will make the impending clash of class interests that more alarming).

Really too big to fail.

datePosted on 12:34, August 17th, 2011 by Pablo

Market responses to the US debt crisis and financial downgrade have been like king tides as of late, and inevitably speculation centers on the possibility of a “double dip” global recession (this speculation is more than rhetorical. Gold and other precious metal prices have spiked overt the last three weeks as investors flee the stock, bond, commodity and currency markets). There is much talk, some fearful and some hopeful, of a global meltdown of epic proportions. The argument goes that downgrading the US credit rating devalues US Treasury bonds and the dollar, which slows US private investment at home and abroad, decreases domestic consumption, increases unemployment and generally prolongs the recession begun in 2008. This ripples negatively across the globe given the interconnectivity of commodity chains and the central role of the US in them. Be it on the Left or the Right, the belief in state bankruptcy is taken as an article of faith.

The reality is different. What is happening is a fiscal crisis of the Western State rooted in a cyclic crisis of capitalism. Arguments about the blown-out US public debt obscure the fact that it is the result of the same conditions that produced the 2008 recession and which are at root the cause of the next one. For the last thirty years the ‘bubble” of private debt was replicated by the US Government, in the last decade under the strain of simultaneously fighting two prolonged low intensity conflicts. In Europe public debt was in part procured in order to compensate for private debt (via the provision of subsidized entitlements). Capital was lent on looser and looser terms as interest payment calculations came to rival returns on productive investment as the dominant macroeconomic logic. The market in financial derivatives boomed, then busted, bringing with it a crisis in small scale property ownership at the same time that major manufacturers were being bailed out by the US government.

There is a difference, however, between the private sector and the State when it comes to fiscal crises. The analogy between States and firms is overdrawn. Firms go bankrupt; States do not. States may default on loans and suffer the indignities of downgrading by financial institutions, but they do not go out of business. The reason is simple. States  with a presence in the global economy may fail but they do not cease to exist.

Modern states are political entities with other measures of power beyond economic resources, are rooted in historical and cultural ties within more or less fixed borders, have distinct political systems and political regimes that govern them, and are therefore sheltered from the hard realities that beset wayward market agents in a globalised system of production, service and exchange. More importantly with regard to the social and political relations of production, the modern nation-state supercedes the market at any specific moment even while being generally subject to its rhythms and dictates. It is, after all, a capitalist type of state that is not reducible to the productive apparatus.

Imagine even if the US defaulted on its current obligations. Its credit rating would fall further in parallel with the value of its currency, but how long will that last? Even if the US fails its financial obligations, it would be the markets that push for a debt restructuring favourable to it.  As the core of the global economy, the US is simply too big to fail because its financial collapse would reverberate widely and deeply through the world. In fact, with the exception of undeveloped failed states and microstates with minimal economic resources to promote, virtually all modern states can survive a fiscal crisis and default.

 Take Argentina, which in 2000 defaulted on its foreign loans, uncoupled its currency from the US dollar and then renegotiated the terms of its obligations. Since most of the outstanding balance was interest rather than principal, foreign creditors were eventually forced to settle on terms favourable to the Argentines (about 60 cents on the dollar lent). The weakened Argentine peso stimulated commodity exports and attracted foreign investment in resources and primary goods. In spite of endemic corruption, political interference and a multitude of market inefficiencies, over the last five years Argentina has averaged growth rates in excess of six percent and attracted the highest levels of foreign investment ever even while maintaining a large public deficit.

 Greece, the poster child of all that is supposedly wrong with governments and societies that do not couple entitlements with production, is another such case. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its recently rescheduled loans? Will it cease to be? what it could do is drop out of the Eurozone, replace the Euro with the much less expensive drachma, and print money to fund its domestic obligations. Somee foreign investors may flee, but local capitalists will continue to engage the domestic market, people will continue to consume, albeit at lower rates with regards to imported goods, tourists will still flock to see the historical sites and visit the islands, and the country will continue to exist. In fact, should it be successful at restructuring its economy on more internally-focused terms out from under the straitjacket of Eurozone obligations (say, by making its tax collection system more rational and efficient), it could serve as a model for the other “PIGS” nations—Portugal, Ireland and Spain—as well as Italy.

It was Northern European, mostly German capital, directly and channeled through the European Central Bank, which sought to recycle in the European periphery the super-profits accrued during the last two decades of derivative market expansion. These are the creditors who took the risk in the PIGS and who now demand debt repayment schedules rooted in austerity measures and privatization programs. They are also the beneficiaries of a strong Euro, unlike the weaker Southern European economies now under siege. Should debtor countries in Europe decide to reconfigure their economies around a devalued national currency a la Argentina, the European Union will be finished as a currency regulator. Here the sub-regional ripple or contagion effect makes each of the PIGS too big to fail, something that is magnified in the case of the US. Loss of credit rating and a high debt to GDP ratio, in others words, does not translate into State bankruptcy.

 The larger point is that states can default but they cannot be bankrupted because they are not solely economic agents but instead sovereign political actors with interests that transcend a financial bottom line. They can be upgraded and downgraded as financial risks, but even if investment falls and inflation rises, they will not disappear. Think of Brazil and Argentina in the late 1980s when inflation ran at over 1000 percent per year. Did they disappear? Did all foreign investment dry up? Did local markets crash?

Truth be told, capitalism, led by finance capital, was on overheated overdrive for the two decades before 2008, only slowing down briefly after events such as 9/11, even when objective conditions advised against the maintenance of the macroeconomic policies private agents used to calculate the speed of their returns. Western States emulated private agent logics, whereas Asian banks and sovereign wealth funds  were less keen to adopt derivatives-led financial approaches backed by increasingly unsecured loans (although some of that did creep into Asian markets as regional economies attracted Western investment).

Here is where global networks come in. Rather than wage war on States with economies in default, other States that are debt free or less indebted work to cover their investments, and those of their private agents, in the debtor States. This means that even if private agents in the debtor States fail as a result of their market excesses or miscalculation, and State treasuries do n not have enough reserves to cover their debts, States remain open for business, perhaps even on more favourable terms depending on the nature of sovereign debt restructuring agreements (public debt for equity swaps are one measure that can improve State efficiencies as a result of restructuring). Inefficient producers are expelled from the market; inefficient States muddle along.

The entire Western capitalist combine was due for a retrenchment given the downward slope it has been on since spending, both public and private, exceeded productive output in material goods and services. So long as money could be made off of lending money and risks were passed on to increasingly lower-level actors, early 21st century capitalism saw States tax and spend without coherent productive purpose (which mirrored the approach of the financial markets). This was a good political calculation but not a sound economic grounding for future productive growth within current capitalist parameters. Thus the turn towards private sector retrenchment in 2008, with public sector retrenchment now following.

We hear about the demise of various States because they can no longer afford to repay what they have borrowed in order to maintain whatever it is that is considered precious to national identity and political stability–public goods and entitlements in Europe, a war machine in the US. Retrenching Western States may not be able to provide these services in the measure they used to, but thy remain (however diminished) as linchpins of an international system that has its origins in the Treaty of Westphalia rather than Bretton Woods or the Washington Consensus. States are the ties that bind that global system of exchange, and Western States continue to have a central role in it even as the system moves towards increased multipolarity.

Markets and politicians alike need to be cognizant of this fact, because as Keynes pointed out, it is political conditions, not economic conditions, that are the best guarantors of long-term investment. Rather than the economic particularities of a given investment climate at a specific moment in time, political stability offers better conditions for secure future private return. A stable national polity is the best guarantee of profit even if the public books are not balanced. That is the political cost for the social peace that is the basis for economic stability.

Ironically, it was the short-term focus of the macroeconomic logics that propelled the “bubble” that led first to the financial crisis of 2008 and now to the current conditions of political impasse and social instability in many liberal democracies. That is where the convergence of the fiscal crisis of the Western State and the cyclic crisis of capitalism can lead to liberal democratic State failure: when it produces a crisis of legitimacy of the political elite, often confused with regime crisis, that once rooted in and superimposed on the economic downturn and social unrest constitutes an organic crisis of the State. The UK evidences these type of pre-conditions.

Rather than demand zero-sum tax cuts and a diminished State role in guaranteeing the social relations of production,  the priority of the market during a State fiscal crisis should be to to express confidence in the State because delegitimisation of the latter is an absolute guarantee of disasterous market consequences for the private actors involved with them in the event that they are overthrown or fragment. That is where market ideologues have failed in their basic obligation: to help foster the political and socio-economic conditions in which stable rates of private return are generated. Instead, they are exacerbating the crisis with their jitters, demands and panic trading. This will not lead to an organic crisis in most liberal democratic states (which will muddle along), but it could produce legitimacy crises in newly democratic states or those with significant social cleavages. Even then the prospect of State, as opposed to regime or private sector failure, is unlikely.

All of which is to say that when it comes to the fiscal crises of modern Western States, this too shall pass.

 

 

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

As the gun smoke clears, the Right run for cover.

datePosted on 16:13, January 10th, 2011 by Pablo

As someone who once lived in the area of Tucson where the politically motivated shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others occurred, I have something of a personal connection to the event. I shopped in the strip mall where the attack took place and still have friends in Tucson who I visit when possible. Were I still living at my last address there,  Giffords would have been my Representative. I am well aware of Arizona political culture and the issues that divide it, and know something about its gun laws as well. Thus I am not surprised one iota that an assassination attempt on a “liberal” Democrat would happen in Arizona, although it is somewhat surprising that it happened in Tucson, which is a liberal college town oasis in an otherwise vast political landscape of new and old right-wing conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as news of the shootings hit the airwaves left-leaning commentators blamed right-wingers for inciting the killer while GOP leaders, Tea Party representatives and the populist demagogues in the media all moved quickly to put distance between themselves and the gunman even though the latter professed beliefs that were very much in concert with the thrust of the Tea Party message as well as those of earlier conservative fringe movements. In fact, some in the rightwing media suggested that the Left has its own violent extremists so the table is balanced on that score.

To which I ask: when was the last time a Left activist in the US attempted to kill a politician? Lee Harvey Oswald was less a committed Stalinist during his time in the USSR and more of a social outcast looking for a belief system to cling to (I shall defer from bringing in Mafia-related and other conspiracy theories at this point). John Hinkley’s attack on Ronald Reagan does not count as he was motivated by the demons in his head, and the attacks on Gerald Ford by members of Charles Manson’s gang in the mid-1970s were equally devoid of political content. But as recently as 2009 a right wing extremist, apparently egged on by the commentary of talkshow rabble rousers, killed abortionist George Tiller outside his church. This has followed a series of attacks carried out by right wing militants that include the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated attacks across the country on abortion clinics. Minutemen and other self-professed right wing militias have demonstrated a penchant for violence against others. The Unibomber was motivated by a mix of left and right views. Islamicists operate according to a profoundly conservative belief system. Anti-Castro Cuban nationalists have committed acts of domestic and international terrorism (including the bombing of a Cuban airliner) in pursuit of their conservative goals.

In contrast, Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front have lefty ideals and destroy property but do not kill people. Anti-trade protestors and anarchists have run riot in Seattle and DC but mostly gotten (some might say well-deserved) police beatings and tear gassed for their efforts. Puerto Rican nationalists have disrupted Congress and planted bombs but killed no one. Thus it would seem that contrary to the claim that the US Left has its fair share of murderous extremists, not since the days of the SLA, Weatherman and Black Panthers has there been a deadly attack carried out by Left militants on political targets. During that same time period, in contrast, the right wing fringe has claimed dozens of victims, of which those in Tucson are the latest. Truth be told, this is only the latest in a long history of right wing assassination attempts on “liberal” political targets that are seen as “communists,” “socialists,” Trilateral Commission and World Government surrender monkeys, atheists or some unholy combination of all of the above. Just as the John Birch Society had its fair share of armed extremists, so now it appears that modern US conservative movements attract a similar element to their ranks. 

To put a not-so-fine point on it: be it as lone wolves or as part of a criminal conspiracy, it is the fringes of the US Right where most political violence comes from. Even if in most cases the extremists involved exhibited signs of mental illness (as in this case), in the modern US it is right-wing militants who disproportionately get murderous. That could be due to the lack of appeal for calls for working class “revolution” in a country founded on the sanctity of individual liberties and property rights, but one would think that would make Leftist militants more rather than less prone to violence against those political figures that attract their ire. Instead, it is the reverse.

Rather than debate the question of how complicit, implicitly or explicitly, the Tea Party, GOP, Sarah Palin and conservative media have been in the Tucson attack, let me offer a simple formula that outlines the context in which it occurred (and will occur again). Note that this “formula” is exclusive to the US but can be altered, mutatis mutandis,  to apply to other countries as well:

Loose gun control laws+availability of semi-automatic weapons+polarised politics+venomous hate mongering political rhetoric in media and in election campaigns+rapid demographic change+economic crisis+ eroding social cohesion and solidarity+deranged or otherwise sociopathic personality disorders+precipitating event (personal or political)=likelihood of an armed attack on a perceived “traitor” by someone espousing militant ideological views.

In the contemporary US, this formula suggests that the attack in Tucson is neither unique or a once-off, and in fact points to a condition of ongoing anomie that barring a major change in both the structural and superstructural causal factors listed above, will lead to more such events in the near to medium future. Rather than the content of any one ideology or creed, it is the combination of factors that makes for the murderous enemy within, and no amount of blame-fixing and scapegoating of “foreign” beliefs detract from that fundamental fact.

PS: for those interested in a more immediate look at the tragedy, take a gander at my old home town newspaper: http://azstarnet.com/

UPDATE: As if on cue a NZ version of the unhinged reactionary chickenhawk faction weighs in, with a link to this post: http://truebluenz.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/it-is-not-about-loughner-or-palin-its-about-the-republic/

Priceless.

Small feels Large, but only to the Small.

datePosted on 14:37, November 14th, 2010 by Pablo

From the rhetoric and doe-eyed looks emanating from the PM and Foreign Minister during the signing of the so-called “Wellington Declaration,” one would have thought that NZ had just been awarded most favoured nation status by the US and assumed a place akin to that of France or Germany in US foreign policy. This belief seems to have gone to the head of the PM, who has taken to lecturing larger states such as Japan on NZ expectations when it comes to trading agreements. The truth is a bit different.

The “strategic partnership” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms what has been apparent to the international security community since 2001: NZ quietly dropped its concerns about engaging in military-to-military relations with the US in exchange for the US routinely granting executive permission for these to occur. NZ military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter reportedly involving more than just the one year rotation of combat engineers in Basra, something that the NZ government refuses to acknowledge), as well as NZ commitment of intelligence assets to both tactical and strategic intelligence gathering at home and abroad (such as the deployment of GCSB and SIS personnel to Afghanistan) all occurred without fanfare and in spite of the formal ban of military exchanges and exercises in effect since the dissolution of the ANZUS alliance. Not having US Navy surface ship port visits in NZ does not deter US submarines from entering NZ territorial waters with or without NZ government connivance, and any look at video of NZDF troops in action in foreign locales clearly shows that they work in close proximity to US troops and preferentially use US equipment during the conduct of their combat operations.

The Wellington Declaration just makes public this discreet relationship, which even as it deepens and becomes standardised over the long-term will not require signing of a formal alliance treaty. The latter is seen as an encumbrance for domestic political reasons on both sides (since both the US Congress and NZ Parliament would see opposition to the signing of a bilateral security treaty), so much as in the way the US conducts its foreign wars (which is to not seek Congressional ratification of a declaration of war for fear of opposition, but instead to use Executive authority as commander-in-chief to declare a state of national security emergency requiring military combat deployments abroad that presents Congress with a fait accompli), the Wellington Declaration circumvents legislative scrutiny at the same time that it reaffirms the obvious close security ties that exist between the two states.

What changed most clearly is that while Labour prefers to soft peddle the relationship due to its internal factional dynamics, National has always had issues with the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that has characterised NZ diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. Although it cannot reverse the anti-nuclear policy due to domestic political factors, National has always worked to reaffirm its “traditional” security ties, to the point that it supported NZ joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded and occupied Iraq without UN authorisation. With the Wellington Declaration it has gotten its wish.

But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

What Mr. Key and his company of advisors appear to not understand is that the US rapprochement with NZ is due to two basic strategic factors, one general and one specific, that have little to do with interest in NZ per se. The first general reason is that, after a delay in responding due to the obsession with counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US has moved to counter Chinese advances in the Western Pacific basin, which it sees as the next big strategic conflict zone. Not only is it in the process of moving the bulk of its military assets into the Pacific, in a reversal of the century-old Atlantic and Euro-centric orientation that characterised its strategic outlook until recently. It has also reaffirmed its bilateral security ties to all of its Asian partners as well as India. This includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and even Viet Nam. This defensive arc covers countries deeply concerned about Chinese neo-imperialist ambitions, many of whom have diplomatic or territorial disputes with the Chinese, and along with its soft power projection in the Pacific Island Forum countries (including Fiji, where the US has just announced the resumption of US AID development work), the US is moving to counter Chinese influence in SE Asia and beyond (most often gained via so-called “chequebook diplomacy” whereby China promotes infrastructure development projects with no apparent strings attached but which all have potentially dual civilian and military applications). The Wellington Declaration just adds NZ to the roster of US security partners that constitute a collective hedge against the looming Chinese presence, which is particularly noteworthy because of NZ’s increased dependency on Chinese investment and trade for its economic fortunes.

With the Wellington Declaration Chinese influence and ambitions in NZ are potentially fence-ringed. That may have been National’s undeclared intent, and if so that is the hypothetical NZ gain from the deal. But all of that remains to be seen  (if nothing else because it would contravene National’s public assurances that it welcomes the Chinese investment and cultural presence on NZ shores–cue revelations about Pansy Wong and her long obviously dodgy failed businessman-husband, who just might have caught US negative interest given the Chinese penchant for placing intelligent assets in their diaspora).

The second, specific strategic purpose that the Wellington Declaration serves is US nuclear counter-proliferation efforts. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has a basic, and apparently sincere interest in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond those that currently possess them. Having a small “neutral” non-nuclear state as a partner in such efforts provides a convenient and effective cover (some might say fig leaf), particularly with regards to “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran. NZ has already participated in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear programme, helping to gain a delay in Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve full weapons capability. In Iran’s case, NZ’s strong economic ties to the mullah’s regime is seen as providing a source of indirect diplomatic access and backdoor entry into the Iranian mindset with regards to nukes (via diplomatic and intelligence service information sharing). In other words, working with and through NZ on matters of nuclear proliferation, the US gains diplomatic cover for its own self-interested reasons to oppose the spread of the universally recognised deterrent.

What NZ does not get out of this strategic partnership, and which the National government continues to wax deluded about, is improved negotiating status with the US with regard to bilateral trade. The US is content to allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to take their course with respect to trade with NZ and other small Pacific partners, and domestic political considerations accentuated by the recent midterm elections make it nigh impossible for NZ’s leading export sector, dairy, to make inroads into the subsidised US market. Truth be told, for the US there is no “issue-linkage” between security and trade when it comes to NZ even if its rhetoric continues to hold out the promise of such being the case sometime in the future. Yet the current (and to be fair, the past) NZ government continues to insist that, “difficulties” notwithstanding, bilateral trade with the US in forthcoming if not imminent because of NZ efforts across a range of issues of mutual interest without qualification or constraint.

This is where Mr. Key and Mr. McCully fail the foreign policy leadership test. Given the US strategic interests at play, and its absolute need to secure partnership agreements that catered to these interests given the evolving world balance of power, NZ was in a position to bargain hard and leverage its credentials (mostly Labour-made) as an honest broker and reliable international interlocutor into some form of tangible, immediate benefit in exchange for accepting the role of US strategic partner. That did not happen. Instead, what NZ got was platitudes, promises and bilateral yearly meetings between foreign policy counterparts, something that is par for the course for any number of nations, in what essentially amounted to a stop-over on Secretary Clinton’s trip to more important meetings with the US proxy that is Australia. As a result of that brief rendezvous,  NZ is now saddled with the burden of being internationally perceived to be (if not in fact)  more closely tied to the US without the full benefits of being so. It is a junior partner of the US in security only, and that is bound to be noticed by the international community.

In effect, NZ is just a small cog in a larger US strategic plan that is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with NZ interests and all to do with how the US sees and proposes to shape the strategic environment currently evolving in the Western Pacific and with regard to nuclear proliferation. National believes that it has made NZ a “player” by signing a strategic partnership agreement with the US, but the truth is that it has committed the country to a relationship that has always been one sided and which just got more so. To put it bluntly: the Tories may feel big as a result of the “Wellington Declaration” but they still are small and myopic when it comes to perceiving, much less comprehending the bigger picture, to say nothing of  the realities at stake down the road.

PS: The farce only gets better. NZ announced that it is in FTA negotiations with authoritarian, crime mob-dominated klepto-oligarchic Russia even though it admits that Foreign Affairs and Trade have very limited Russian language comprehension skills and the deal will involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Russia negotiating for them, presumably), two states that NZ has admitted to having”limited” knowledge about (to include comprehension of Tajik or Uzbek dialects). In other words, National has staked its claim to being at the forefront of free trade agreements without understanding the business and political culture, much less language or human rights conditions, of potential partners just after it committed to a long-term security partnership with a country that has a troublesome relationship with all three.  This is amateurism taken to art-level heights.

Squandering Political Opportunity.

datePosted on 12:51, October 31st, 2010 by Pablo

The dramatic reversal in the Democrat’s fortunes since November 2008 and their impending defeat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections raises the question of how things went so wrong for them in such as short time. Needless to say, the situation they inherited did not help: a major recession with near record unemployment, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, two wars of occupation, immigration concerns and a deeply polarised electorate. Even so, President Obama had a wave of popular support, the Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a mood for change in the country and the world was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Inherited obstacles notwithstanding, the scene was set for a major shift in direction under consolidated Democratic leadership for years to come.

Instead,  the Democrats have foundered while the GOP-Conservative opposition has rebounded and mounted a formidable challenge that threatens to undermine any hope for significant alterations in US policy direction. The immediate reasons for this Republican resurgence and the pallorous state of the Democratic Party (and the President) in the run-up to the midterms has more to do with the latter’s strategic and tactical errors rather than the former’s platform for governance. The Democrat errors can be enumerated, and will be summarised here.

The first strategic error was to believe that playing a centrist game was going to work. That may have succeeded in years gone by, but with an Republican opposition operating off a script of obstructionism, fear-mongering, personal denigration, xenophobia and cultivation of populist ignorance, it was never going to prosper in today’s political climate. Appeasing a disloyal opposition simply encourages it to become more vicious in its attacks, particularly when it has a partisan media working on its side. Thus the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” and “Pelosi-Reid deficit spender” memes that have reverberated from the moment the Obama administration took office and the Democrats gained control of Congress.

What the President and his party should have done is staked out an explicitly Liberal-Left policy agenda that starkly differentiated their (relatively, given that it is in the US) progressive and pro-active  approaches to the nation’s woes. They were going to be vilified anyway, so the stark differentiation of their platform from the reactionary and failed GOP approach would have clarified the lines of debate in ways that the public could clearly understand, both in terms of where the fault lay with regards to the economic woes of the country as well as in the solution set being offered as an alternative. After all, the US has not had anything remotely close to a “progressive ” policy agenda (and I say this phrase advisedly simply because what passes for progressive in the US is centrist is most other liberal democracies) since the early days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the inherited economic and political conditions were ripe for a bold move away from the failed policies of the Bush 43 administration. That would have been a real agenda for change.

Since the Democrats did not do so, they failed on a second strategic level: they failed to impose the terms of the policy debate and ceded that space to the Fox and talkback-led conservative opposition. Since the latter had little to offer other than invective, this allowed them to turn to the usual diversionary wedge issues in order to gain political traction: ethnic conflict, cultural mores, “socialism,” and taxation. Whatever the administration’s accomplishments (and there have been a number, including nuclear arms reductions with the Russians and the gradual military exit from Iraq), these have been lost amid the din of conservative outrage about sins more imaginary than real.

Thus the Democrats found themselves on the defensive even as they tabled their policy agenda. Since those who dictate the terms of debate are those who win the debate, that meant that they were fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

They compounded these strategic errors at a tactical level. President Obama granted leadership of the legislative agenda to his Congressional counterparts. That was a mistake. The November 2008 elections were about him, not the Congressional leadership. The Democratic take-over of both Congressional majorities was more a result of coat-tailing on the President’s popularity than on the intrinsic merits of Democratic candidates themselves. Obama had a mandate, and he had the political capital surplus to spend; Congress did not, and in fact remained one of the country’s most detested institutions even after his election. Thus, by delegating leadership on the legislative agenda to the likes of Pelosi and Reid (which he likely did in deference to his former senior colleagues), President Obama ceded his bully pulpit to the circus on the Hill. That gave the impression that he was weak and insecure, which in turn gave the Republicans space to go on the attack against “entrenched interests” and all the other failures of the DC-based “liberal elite.”

The tactical error was compounded by the choice of battles to commence with. Instead of focusing on mortgage relief and rescue for desperate homeowners, serious financial market reform, education opportunity enhancement, immigration policy adjustment and re-orientation of US military commitments abroad (among any number of policy areas), the President and Congress chose to address health care first. Although it is obviously needed given the deficiencies of the US private health care system, it was simply too contentious and big a problem to tackle at the onset given the image of Presidential lack of experience and his conciliatory nature. Democratic strategists may have believed that they had to spend the President’s political capital early so as to ensure its passage, but in fact taking that policy issue as the first order of business under Congressional leadership direction hamstrung the Democrats even if they succeeded in passing a watered-down version of health care reform that provides some level of universal benefit to all citizens.

Put another way: the last thing the American public wanted to hear at a time of deep recession and after the financial bail-outs of the banking and automobile industries was that more public money would be spent of health care and that future taxes would reflect that increased level of deficit spending. Compared to the billion dollar figures being bandied about with regard to health care reform, Obama’s “middle class tax cut” (for those earning US$250,000 or less) and tax rebate (amounting to $500 per household) were seen as negligible drops in the bucket and meaningless political sop thrown for opportunistic purposes. For those who had spent a lifetime of paying for private insurance, it also seemed be a case of the indolent, irresponsible and unmotivated being gifted, at taxpayer expense, benefits that they did not deserve. Once the Republican-conservative spin machine got a hold of the issue, the spectre of “socialised” medicine replete with “death panels,” lack of individual choice, limits on care, endless delays and assorted other deficiencies soon dominated public discourse regardless of Democrat attempts to clarify the issue.

The combination of these four factors–failure to head to the Left and carve out a distinct position, ceding the terms of political debate to the opposition, allowing Congress to set the legislative agenda and choosing to reform health care as the first priority–set the stage for the political train wreck that is the Democrat’s midterm election campaign. To that can be added a failure to realise early that Republican operatives are using the Tea Party movement as a Trojan Horse with which to re-gain political momentum and a return to power. Similarly, the White House chose to ignore rather than frontally confront the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist”  allegations until they were well entrenched in the public consciousness–a full twenty percent of the US electorate now believe that the President is one, the other, or all three. It is too late to bolt the door against such attacks.

Some argue that the Democrats are playing to lose because the inevitable gridlock that will follow from Tuesday’s vote will allow the President to paint the Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists without a real agenda for solving national problems. That could be true if the Republicans do not win the Senate as well as the House, but if they win both branches then they will have the ability to impose a legislative agenda that among other things will repeal the health care reforms and other aspects of the Democrat’s agenda that have been accomplished so far. That puts the ball in the President’s court because it forces him to exercise his veto in order to salvage his original program, which in turn casts him as the obstructionist during the two years leading into the 2012 presidential election.

The bottom line is that although the Republican-conservative opposition play extremely dirty, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this impending election fiasco. If Clausewitz is correct in his assertion that war is politics by other means, than the reverse is equally true: politics is war by other means. The goal is to win, pure and simple, and that means that if the opponent is going to play dirty then the governing party must understand what it is up against and counter it decisively without equivocating about the niceties involved. Rather than understand this very simple logic, the Democrats returned to form, tried to play nicely to the center, tried to respect the separation of powers mythos that is ingrained in US political folklore, tried to be civil in the face of a disloyal opposition and tried to embark on big policy reforms before the the President and his new Congressional counterparts had fully moved into their offices. For their efforts they are going to get hammered on Tuesday.

The US as the new Greece.

datePosted on 12:33, October 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Conservative dementia in the US

datePosted on 20:08, July 6th, 2010 by Pablo

One has to hand it to the US conservative movement. They have no shame, or at least plenty of chutzpah.

They love to bark about the evils of Democrats while having no regard for the consistency of their own positions. Take the issue of corporate responsibility. Conservatives railed against the bail-outs of the Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers, arguing against the “they are to big to let fail” logic of the W. Bush and Obama administrations when these came to the financial rescue of the beleaguered  giants. “Let ’em fail” they screeched, since “the market will sort ’em out.” Yet, when Toyota lied about the causes of sudden uncontrolled acceleration in its cars and delayed recalls while “investigating” the incidents (which resulted in over a dozen deaths and more than a hundred injuries), these same groups demanded that the US government step in to investigate and charge those responsible for everything from criminal negligence to consumer fraud. Likewise, the US right wing is now raving that the US federal government has done too little too late to respond to the BP oil spill even though–surprise surprise–the US federal government does not have the deep water capping technology available to the private oil industry, had previously deregulated that industry at its request in order to stimulate production (and profits) and was initially relying on that industry to give honest estimates of the disaster and rectify the situation based upon its own expertise and record in controlling spills of that nature. Some conservatives even demanded that the US accept offers of foreign assistance in controlling the spill, and scolded the Obama administration when it declined to do so. Fancy that, conservatives calling for foreign aid at a time of domestic crisis. Thus, when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility, US conservatives cannot make up their minds about the why, how and when of government intervention.

As far as taxation is concerned, the likes of the Tea party movement are opposed to current federal taxation rates and demand cuts across the board without considering that it is taxes that pay, as just one example, for the US military’s trillion dollar budgets and prosecution of a seemingly endless procession of wars abroad in defense of the “freedom” they so much rhetorically cherish. They appear ignorant of the fact that without taxation the US would not be able to maintain its preeminent global position, and that the current federal budget deficits originated in the W. Bush administration’s deficit spending to fuel the wars while lowering the taxation rates for corporations and high income individuals. In fact, in this regard W. Bush was emulating the champion of all American conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who massively increased defense spending and the overall size of the federal budget while lowering taxes for the upper third of the population. How is this “fiscally responsible?”

Finally, although all conservatives are self-styled “patriots” who literally wear their flags on their sleeves, bumpers and lapels, some are of the “America first” persuasion whereas others are of the “US superpower” kind. The former prefer that the US concentrate on its own affairs and limit its foreign entanglements, while the latter wants to see the US as the major player on the world stage. One view is isolationist; the other is imperialist. The two views are irreconcilable.

In effect, American conservatives are not the limited government champions they claim to be, nor are they consistent in their linkage of national necessities with taxation. They are divided on their views of the US role in the world. Instead they are a collection of blustering fools, economic retrogrades and illiterates, corporate toadies, religious zealots, assorted bigots, xenophobes and militarists mixed in with a minority of true libertarians and honest believers in the primacy of individual over collective rights and responsibilities. That means that even if they make major gains in the November 2010 elections, the centrifugal forces within the US conservative movement, as well as the lack of a coherent core rationale underpinning it, will prove deleterious to their chances for successful overhaul of the US political system. In fact, such a victory could well make the crisis of US politics even worse.

Posted without comment

datePosted on 07:39, April 12th, 2010 by Lew

… as none is necessary.

mrkey

Attached to this article in Stuff’s splash spot.

L

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