Skirting the storm.

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).

19 thoughts on “Skirting the storm.

  1. The German Army was once not just a military organisation. In a country which valued it’s regional differences, it was the one universal, successful and credible institution. It’s very existence brought about unification and the army was central to the idea of a united Germany and to the exceptionalism of German identity. In the end, this conflation of patriotism, militarism, and exceptionalism paradoxically proved almost fatal to the German people. It isn’t difficult to draw parallels with the nature and extent of German militarism between 1866-1945 and the changing role of the military in public and civilian life in the United States. My worry is the US military is increasingly being seen as the one functioning Federal institution in an otherwise completely schlerotic and dysfunctional Federal government. If you combine that with “Brasilianisation” of US society and it seems to me the inexorable logic points to the US system of democratic government completely collapsing, an enormous economic disaster precipitating a final politcal crisis, and the last respected, credible and functioning institution stepping in to restore order – in other words, a military coup, justified in terms of protecting the “deep state” ideals of the founding fathers (yes, I understand the contradiction of a military coup to protect the US constitution…), and perhaps with an associated civil war/insurrection thrown in.

    What end game do you forsee Pablo? it looks bleak to me. The new Confederates are introverted, ignorant, pig-headed, obstinate but cunning. Do you think reform is possible within existing institutions? Is a second civil war now plausibly on the horizon? Or are those Russian predictions of the demise of the United States into a number of mutually loathing successor states looking less and less like a product of wishful thinking?

  2. Sanctuary:

    That is amost interesting parallel. When I worked in the Pentagon in the early 1990s, an article was circulated within the building on the subject of a possible military coup in the US along the lines you describe (this was before the Clinton-era economic rebound). Although most of the officers I dealt with scoffed at the idea, I could sense amongst some that they believed, as wasgthe case with the Wermacht officer corps, that they were “above” the partisan fray and thus more able to get things done in the general interest (as part of being one of the few commonweal organisations in the country).

    Now the scenario is even more plausible, and although I tend to discount what the Russians say given their attitude towards democracy (although I must admit to enjoying Russia Today and in particular that lunatic Max Kaiser), the idea that the centrifugal tendencies now evident in US politics may lead to a dissolution of the federation cannot be discounted entirely–although it would be very bloody and spell the end of the US as a global power even if most states stayed in the Union).

  3. “There is a black guy with a slave name (Alan West) who ran a chain of pizza shops and seems to think this is enough experience to run the country.”

    I think you’ve confused Allan West with Herman Cain??

  4. A very poor effort Pablo. You are running Krugman’s memes and believing liberal hype. Your attacks on Republicans show ignorant prejudice that is just as bigoted as anything you accuse Republicans of. Is that OK because you are on the “right side”?

    I make this prediction here. Rick Perry will win the presidency in 2012. The simple reason is Texas creation of 40% of total US net new jobs in the noughties under his governorship.

    You completely ignore the cost of the stimulus. Obama has failed to create any jobs other than in DC by increasing the size of the state.

    The reason that stimulus has failed is that business and those tea partiers you slag off understand that the fiscal deficit will need to be paid for sometime and whilst their president is being profligate they best have reserves. Business have huge cash reserves that are not being invested to create new jobs because collectively they don’t have confidence in the direction Obama has taken the country.

    You of all people should understand the long term strategic necessity of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq followed by the need to reduce America’s deficits. America has defeated Al Qaeda. We can agree that a huge number of mistakes were made along the way but the interventions were necessary to confront the jihadist threat to the Western way of life.

    It is fortunate that Bernanke has been intimidated out of further wasteful stimulus. What Obama should focus on is reforming the US tax code and removing exceptions, not raising the top rates or increasing any kind of welfare, whether corporate or personal. That would level the playing field and ensure that many of the egregious examples of tax imbalance that you refer to and would gain popular support if sold properly. I am almost certain he and the Democrats do not have the guts to do that which is why he will lose. He will instead increase dependency and the size of the state.

  5. I am not surprised that you are disappointed Phil. It takes the willful suspension of belief (and grasp on reality) to suggest that the US economic crisis–which is different than a fiscal crisis of the state, as I have written before–is Obama’s fault. You also ignore the fact that the Texas governorship is largely a ceremonial post (they get to sign execution warrants, as Dubya avidly did) with no real power, and that the investment climate in the state was set up before smilin’ Rick came to power. The economic growth in Texas, fueled by gas and oil exploration as in many other places, began before Perry entered office and will continue after he leaves. In sum: Texas is an exceptional case that has nothing to do with Perry’s aptitude for public office.

    Withholding of capital by the corporates is a political ploy, not a market decision. Obama has continued, by and large, the macroeconomic policies of his predecessors, which are all market-supportive. He continued and deepended Bush 43’s corporate bail-outs. Now he is trying to push job creation programs, but that is where the GOP congressional rabble have thrown a spanner into the works because, surprise surprise, it will cost money.

    We have argued at length about the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion. Let me just repeat two things: Afghanistan was a war of necessity driven by the al-Qaeda attacks and the Taliban harboring them; Iraq was folly that has left that country fractured and more under the influence of Iran than ever before in modern times, which is precisely the opposite of what was intended by the invasion.

    Lastly, you seem to wish away that overt racism, anti-scientific and xenophobic views of the GOP rump, which have now infected most of that party. Since you do not strike me as any of these things, I say shame on you for trying to defend the indefensible.

  6. Lets distinguish between birthers and tea partiers. I have no truck with the former. Those middle class tea partiers you refer to are legitimately concerned about the long term impact of uncontrolled federal government spending.

    On the subject of disrespecting the President my memories go back to the contempt with which Reagan was treated by the liberal left. GW is apparently a moron despite better grades at Yale than Gore. Both of those men stepped up to the mark and made decisions for the long term betterment of the world. It is very easy to claim the disrespect that Obama is being shown as racist. It is instead an indication of a close fought race. Personally I believe he was and is well out of his depth and the reason he became candidate in preference to Hillary was because of his colour not despite it. He was fortunate that the liberal left successfully mocked Sarah Palin.

    The disrespect he is getting now comes with the territory.

    Bush was responsible for making decisions on fighting two wars and the first stimulus plan. I can understand the first stimulus plan as simply giving some confidence to the markets but I share Perry’s criticism of GW Bush that he was never a fiscal conservative. Obama has simply taken the easy tactical option of ratcheting spending ever higher without figuring out the means to get it under control.

    You and Krugman share the weakness of not being able to convincingly explain why a low tax low regulation environment has nothing to do with a governor who ensured the same. Perry deserves credit for creating the right policy, in stark contrast to those liberal bastions of California and New York. Even Arnie could not turn around the foolishness that is California.

    The Germans and Chinese have long demonstrated fiscal conservatism and the UK has started to show it. That is what the US needs now if it is to avoid being dominated by China in the coming decades. I remain utterly gobsmacked that the chosen course for the US is to devalue their debts through inflation rather than force the Chinese to allow their currency to trade at fair value. It is a very sneaky way to take a discount on imported oil and chinese manufactures.

    But the point of your post is the Republican primaries. Despite your reservations, who do you believe will be the winner and how do you think they will go next year? I have made clear my outcome, with reasons.

  7. If you believe, Phil, that the deficit is a bigger problem than unemployment than you’re not a “fiscal conservative” but rather someone who doesn’t understand basic macro-economics.

  8. Matt
    You appear to have three problems. You can’t read and you have no sense of history or economics.where do I specifically argue against your strawman point. Keynesian stimulus has been shown to promote jobs subject only to certain criteria. Excess debt will always cripple a family or an economy but a headline unemployment rate signals only workers looking for a job not participation.

  9. “I make this prediction here. Rick Perry will win the presidency in 2012.”

    Somebody should really make a central registry of blog commentator’s earnest predictions, just to encourage accountability.

  10. Hugh. Heh. Actually my record is better on US presidents than NZ voters. This blog is about the only place I write or comment online nowadays so it seems appropriate. Would you like a small bet?

  11. I must say, Phil, that even though we agree on pretty much nothing, I much appreciate your regular critiques. It forces me to re-think things even if I do not change my mind on them, and gives me perspective on the alternate reality in which you live.

    As for the bet. I am not the betting type (one of the few vices I have not cultivated over the years), but I would say Perry’s chances of being president are slightly better than Donald Trump’s (who I decided to omit from my list of GOP circus freaks). The GOP’s best bet would be a Romney/Huntsmann ticket (due to their combined experiences and backgrounds), but having two Mormons running the big show is too much even for the most rabid conservative fundies.

  12. Pablo, you are obviously a raving socialist! Any chance you could get yourself an invite to my favourite fantasy show, The O’Reilly Factor? It would be fun watching you two go at it!

    You guys can find on the LSE website an interesting debate between Austrians and Hayekians, featuring a Kiwi former philosopher Jamie Whyte, for whom I have great respect.

    Austrians are at a disadvantage, really, because to my knowledge, no developed nation has adopted fully Hayekian economics (something to do with the imperative of winning elections, I believe).

    Therefore all the empirical evidence essentially is of Keynesianism.

    I had a few questions I would have loved to put to Austrian Whyte, in particular his assertion that Keynesianism has never worked anywhere. There seem to be quite a few examples of reasonable success, not the least the one mentioned by Pablo.

    National is largely carrying out classic Keynesian economics as we speak, and all I can say is thank goodness!

    But a faux-devotion to Austrianism is the least of the Republican sins because once in power, realism becomes the mantra. The US deficit is caused by tax cuts combined with increased spending and can easily be reversed, as Bill Clinton demonstrated. I would suggest that just where the burden will fall is the major question. The poor are usually suckers for another kick in the guts over there.

    Normally, Obama would be dog tucker purely because of the economic situation, but the Republicans seem determined to find the loopiest character available to put up to oppose him, so he may well go against the tide of history – not for the first time.

    Finally, any even superficial research would find the economic miracle Perry boasts of is simply a mirage.

    Check out Krugman in the NYT (sorry, Phil!) and maybe Rachel Maddow and others for the real story of Texas’ race to the bottom.

    Oh, and I don’t get me going on Perry’s desire to video the uterus of every pregnant woman in Texas who wants an abortion! Just revolting.

    Pablo, I’m glad I’m not the only one who enjoys Max Kaiser, but my wife thinks I’m mad.

  13. Luc:

    I get compared to Krugman all the time by right-wingers who read this blog or elsewhewre where I comment. I resent the comparison. He is an economist, to begin with, and I am not fan of pseudo-scientists. Plus, I do not read him that much because what he says is obvious to anyone grounded in the social division of labour in a capitalist economy. Doh!

    I was exposed to a fair range of market-oriented thought while at Chicago (my supervisor required that I attend Milton Friedman’s macro-micro sequence along wiht a bunch of Chilean and Korean officers so I would know what the enemy was learning), and all I can say is that their translation of theory into practice (in this case a social millieu filled with human beings with different preferences) is fraught. Hence their association with late 20th century capitalist dictators because the umbrella of state repression/terror gave them the laboratory in which to conduct their real-live experiments. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions on that.

    Neither the US or NZ need Hayek or the Austrian School as a way out.

  14. I’m not sure a Romney/Huntsman ticket makes a lot of sense – their appeal is essentially identical, in that they both mostly draw their supporter’s from the GOP’s less conservative wing (calling it the “left” wing would make sense from a comparative perspective but I just can’t bring myself to do it).

    If Romney does win the election I expect we’ll see him giving the Veep’s spot to somebody whose movement conservative bona fides are solid – a Palin/Quayle strategy, essentially. Who that would be, I don’t know, but I would expect somebody who didn’t run against him. I’d say Bobby Jindal but my understanding is that he’s blotted his copybook lately (anybody know how?)

  15. Pablo said: The economic growth in Texas, fueled by gas and oil exploration

    Chasing up every factual inaccuracy from Pablo on this blog would take too much time, but I looked up this one. From political math blog on Rick Perry and the Texas Job Numbers

    When we finally get the data, we discover that energy isn’t really the biggest part of the Texas economy. Increases in jobs in the energy sector (or closely related to it) account for about 25% of the job increases in the last year. Since the energy sector only makes up 3% of all employment, there is some truth to this claim.

    However, take the energy sector completely out of the equation and Texas is still growing faster than any other state. This indicates to us that the energy sector is not a single sector saving Texas from the same economic fate as the rest of the states. It’s not hurting, but Texas would still be growing like a weed without it.

    Luc said: Finally, any even superficial research would find the economic miracle Perry boasts of is simply a mirage.

    Go to the above link to the political math blog and see the work of someone who isn’t a Perry supporter, wasn’t expecting to find what he did and who really crunched the numbers on this and you’ll see that view is wrong.

    We can see that Texas has grown the fastest, having increased jobs by 2.2% since the recession started. I want to take a moment and point out that second place is held by North Dakota. I added North Dakota to my list of states to show something very important. North Dakota currently has the lowest unemployment rate of any state at 3.2%. And yet Texas is adding jobs at a faster rate than North Dakota. How can this be?

    The reason is that people are flocking to Texas in massive numbers…

    As you can see, Texas isn’t just the fastest growing… it’s growing over twice as fast as the second fastest state and three times as fast as the third. Given that Texas is (to borrow a technical term) f***ing huge, this growth is incredible.

  16. QtR:

    Not sure what other inaccuracies you are referring to, but your link should be sent to Gov. Perry, since he is claiming that energy exploration has driven Texas’ growth. And he would be right, because once you factor in the “trickle down” effect of energy sector growth on attendant service industries (construction, accounting, plumbers, electricians, real estate etc.), then it is clear that my statement is factually correct. In other words, your use of narrowly defined stats in the link may support your challange but does not accord with the reality of the situation.

  17. Pablo – Since you make the claim that when you factor in the “trickle down” effects of the energy sector you must have some data (do you ever?) to back up your claim. Can you quantify this effect? Because without it no it is not clear that your statement is factually correct. The energy sector makes up only 3% of employment in Texas. When you consider that approximately 9.3 million people in all the US are employed directly or indirectly by the oil and gas industries that’s not remarkable. There is much more to Texas’ job numbers than simply oil and gas that much is clear.

    You can break down the employment numbers in texas with BLS data here.

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