What goes up?

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder. Arnold J Toynbee

I’m not sure where to start but as a result of finishing a particular book, plus a recent essay on Tom Dispatch, then another recent essay from Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario fame, there were so many thoughts bumping around this aged brain that I had no alternative than to offer them to you, dear reader.  You should also be warned that this is going to be two posts, covering today and tomorrow.

So let’s start with the book: The United States of Fear by Tom Engelhardt.  To be brutally honest, I purchased the book more as a gesture of support to Tom who has been very supportive of Learning from Dogs, in particular allowing me permission to reproduce any essays that were published on TomDispatch, as a number have so been.  What an error of judgment!  Tom’s book provided another one of those rare but inspirational occasions where you know the world will never look quite the same again!

The back cover page of the book sets out the theme, thus,

Published 2011

In 2008, when the US National Intelligence Council issued its latest report meant for the administration of newly elected President Barack Obama, it predicted that the planet’s “sole superpower” would suffer a modest decline and a soft landing fifteen years hence. In his new book The United States of Fear, Tom Engelhardt makes clear that Americans should don their crash helmets and buckle their seat belts, because the United States is on the path to a major decline at a startling speed. Engelhardt offers a savage anatomy of how successive administrations in Washington took the “Soviet path”—pouring American treasure into the military, war, and national security—and so helped drive their country off the nearest cliff.This is the startling tale of how fear was profitably shot into the national bloodstream, how the country—gripped by terror fantasies—was locked down, and how a brain-dead Washington elite fiddled (and profited) while America quietly burned.

Think of it as the story of how the Cold War really ended, with the triumphalist “sole superpower” of 1991 heading slowly for the same exit through which the Soviet Union left the stage twenty years earlier.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that it was put together from 32 essays previously published online by Tom; the complete list with titles and dates is on pps. 205 & 206.  So giving you a real feel for the book is easy!  I’m going to do that by linking to one of those essays available in the archives of TomDispatch here.  That essay was called Washington’s Echo Chamber and appears in the book starting on page 170 under the sub-heading of Five Ways to Be Tone Deaf in Washington. Let me quote you a little,

So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable, even before this moment swept it away.  Just take any old phrase from the Bush years.  How about “You’re either with us or against us”?  What’s striking is how little it means today.  Looking back on Washington’s desperately mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have predicted.

It would seem like a good moment for Washington — which, since September 12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this planet and repeatedly miscalculated the nature of global power — to step back and recalibrate.

As it happens, there’s no evidence it’s doing so.  In fact, that may be beyond Washington’s present capabilities, no matter how many billions of dollars it pours into “intelligence.”  And by “Washington,” I mean not just the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all.  It’s as if the cast of characters that makes up “Washington” now lives in some kind of echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.

As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books.  While many have noticed the Obama administration’s hapless struggle to catch up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a familiar coterie of grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area entirely — the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan.  After all, hardly noticed, buried beneath 24/7 news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course with nary a blink.

That was published by Tom a little over 18 months ago!  Seems as relevant today as then!  Let me stay with perspectives from 2011.

Chomsky, visiting Vancouver, Canada in March 2004

On the 24th August 2011 Noam Chomsky wrote an essay entitled American Decline: Causes and Consequences.  Chomsky, as Wikipedia relates, is Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years.  Here is how that essay opens,

In the 2011 summer issue of the journal of the American Academy of Political Science, we read that it is “a common theme” that the United States, which “only a few years ago was hailed to stride the world as a colossus with unparalleled power and unmatched appeal — is in decline, ominously facing the prospect of its final decay.” It is indeed a common theme, widely believed, and with some reason. But an appraisal of US foreign policy and influence abroad and the strength of its domestic economy and political institutions at home suggests that a number of qualifications are in order. To begin with, the decline has in fact been proceeding since the high point of US power shortly after World War II, and the remarkable rhetoric of the several years of triumphalism in the 1990s was mostly self-delusion. Furthermore, the commonly drawn corollary — that power will shift to China and India — is highly dubious. They are poor countries with severe internal problems. The world is surely becoming more diverse, but despite America’s decline, in the foreseeable future there is no competitor for global hegemonic power.

So, according to Chomsky, it’s not as ‘black and white’ as Engelhardt sets out.  But do read the full essay.

Nevertheless, the idea that the USA is ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ is supported in an essay published by Mattea Kramer on TomDispatch on the last day of September.  I’m going to end Part One by republishing the essay in full.  (Note that this is being published here after the first ‘debate’ had taken place.)

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Tough Talk for America

A Guide to the Presidential Debates You Won’t Hear 
By Mattea Kramer

Five big things will decide what this country looks like next year and in the 20 years to follow, but here’s a guarantee for you: you’re not going to hear about them in the upcoming presidential debates. Yes, there will be questions and answers focused on deficits, taxes, Medicare, the Pentagon, and education, to which you already more or less know the responses each candidate will offer. What you won’t get from either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is a little genuine tough talk about the actual state of reality in these United States of ours. And yet, on those five subjects, a little reality would go a long way, while too little reality (as in the debates to come) is a surefire recipe for American decline.

So here’s a brief guide to what you won’t hear this Wednesday or in the other presidential and vice-presidential debates later in the month. Think of these as five hard truths that will determine the future of this country.

1. Immediate deficit reduction will wipe out any hope of economic recovery: These days, it’s fashionable for any candidate to talk about how quickly he’ll reduce the federal budget deficit, which will total around $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2012. And you’re going to hear talk about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and more like it on Wednesday. But the hard truth of the matter is that deep deficit reduction anytime soon will be a genuine disaster. Think of it this way: If you woke up tomorrow and learned that Washington had solved the deficit crisis and you’d lost your job, would you celebrate? Of course not. And yet, any move to immediately reduce the deficit does increase the likelihood that you will lose your job.

When the government cuts spending, it lays off workers and cancels orders for all sorts of goods and services that would generate income for companies in the private sector. Those companies, in turn, lay off workers, and the negative effects ripple through the economy. This isn’t atomic science. It’s pretty basic stuff, even if it’s evidently not suitable material for a presidential debate. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service predicted in a September report, for example, that any significant spending cuts in the near-term would contribute to an economic contraction. In other words, slashing deficits right now will send us ever deeper into the Great Recession from which, at best, we’ve scarcely emerged.

Champions of immediate deficit reduction are likely to point out that unsustainable deficits aren’t good for the economy. And that’s true — in the long run. Washington must indeed plan for smaller deficits in the future. That will, however, be a lot easier to accomplish when the economy is healthier, since government spending declines when fewer people qualify for assistance, and tax revenues expand when the jobless go back to work. So it makes sense to fix the economy first. The necessity for near-term recovery spending paired with long-term deficit reduction gets drowned out when candidates pack punchy slogans into flashes of primetime TV.

2. Taxes are at their lowest point in more than half a century, preventing investment in and the maintenance of America’s most basic resources: Hard to believe? It’s nonetheless a fact. By now, it’s a tradition for candidates to compete on just how much further they’d lower taxes and whether they’ll lower them for everyone or just everyone but the richest of the rich. That’s a super debate to listen to, if you’re into fairy tales. It’s not as thrilling if you consider that Americans now enjoy the lightest tax burden in more than five decades, and it happens to come with a hefty price tag on an item labeled “the future.” There is no way the U.S. can maintain a world-class infrastructure — we’re talking levees, highways, bridges, you name it — and a public education system that used to be the envy of the world, plus many other key domestic priorities, on the taxes we’re now paying.

Anti-tax advocates insist that we should cut taxes even more to boost a flagging economy — an argument that hits the news cycle nearly every hour and that will shape the coming TV “debate.” As the New York Times recently noted, however, tax cuts might have been effective in giving the economy a lift decades ago when tax rates were above 70%. (And no, that’s not a typo, that’s what your parents and grandparents paid without much grumbling.) With effective tax rates around 14% for Mitt Romney and many others, further cuts won’t hasten job creation, just the hollowing out of public investment in everything from infrastructure to education. Right now, the negative effects of tax increases on the most well-off would be small — read: not a disaster for “job creators” — and those higher rates would bring in desperately-needed revenue. Tax increases for middle-class Americans should arrive when the economy is stronger.

Right now, the situation is clear: we’re simply not paying enough to fund the basic ingredients of prosperity from highways and higher education to medical research and food safety. Without those funds, this country’s future won’t be pretty.

3. Neither the status quo nor a voucher system will protect Medicare (or any other kind of health care) in the long run: When it comes to Medicare, Mitt Romney has proposed a premium-support program that would allow seniors the option of buying private insurance. President Obama wants to keep Medicare more or less as it is for retirees. Meanwhile, the ceaseless rise in health-care costs is eating up the wages of regular Americans and the federal budget. Health care now accounts for a staggering 24% of all federal spending, up from 7% less than 40 years ago. Governor Romney’s plan would shift more of those costs onto retirees, according to David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, while President Obama says the federal government will continue to pick up the tab. Neither of them addresses the underlying problem.

Here’s reality: Medicare could be significantly protected by cutting out waste. Our health system is riddled with unnecessary tests and procedures, as well as poorly coordinated care for complex health problems. This country spent $2.6 trillion on health care in 2010, and some estimates suggest that a staggering 30% of that is wasted. Right now, our health system rewards quantity, not quality, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of paying for each test and procedure, Medicare could pay for performance and give medical professionals a strong incentive to provide more efficient and coordinated care. President Obama’s health law actually pilot tests such an initiative. But that’s another taboo topic this election season, so he scarcely mentions it. Introducing such change into Medicare and the rest of our health system would save the federal government tens of billions of dollars annually. It would truly preserve Medicare for future generations, and it would improve the affordability of health coverage for everyone under 65 as well. Too bad it’s not even up for discussion.

4. The U.S. military is outrageously expensive and yet poorly tailored to the actual threats to U.S. national security: Candidates from both parties pledge to protect the Pentagon from cuts, or even, in the case of the Romney team, to increase the already staggering military budget. But in a country desperate for infrastructure, education, and other funding, funneling endless resources to the Pentagon actually weakens “national security.” Defense spending is already mind-numbingly large: if all U.S. military and security spending were its own country, it would have the 19th largest economy in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Switzerland. Whether you’re counting aircraft carriers, weapons systems, or total destructive power, it’s absurdly overmatched against the armed forces of the rest of the world, individually or in combination. A couple of years ago, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave a speech in which he detailed that overmatch. A highlight: “The U.S. operates 11 large carriers, all nuclear powered. In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship.” China recently acquired one carrier that won’t be fully functional for some time, if ever — while many elected officials in this country would gladly build a twelfth.

But you’ll hear none of this in the presidential debates. Perhaps the candidates will mention that obsolete, ineffective, and wildly expensive weapons systems could be cut, but that’s a no-brainer. The problem is: it wouldn’t put a real dent in national defense spending. Currently almost one-fifth of every dollar spent by the federal government goes to the military. On average, Americans, when polled, say that they would like to see military funding cut by 18%.

Instead, most elected officials vow to pour limitless resources into more weapons systems of questionable efficacy, and of which the U.S. already owns more than the rest of the world combined. Count on one thing: military spending will not go down as long as the U.S. is building up a massive force in the Persian Gulf, sending Marines to Darwin, Australia, and special ops units to Africa and the Middle East, running drones out of the Seychelles Islands, and “pivoting” to Asia. If the U.S. global mission doesn’t downsize, neither will the Pentagon budget — and that’s a hit on America’s future that no debate will take up this month.

5. The U.S. education system is what made this country prosperous in the twentieth century — but no longer: Perhaps no issue is more urgent than this, yet for all the talk of teacher’s unions and testing, real education programs, ideas that will matter, are nonexistent this election season. During the last century, the best education system in the world allowed this country to grow briskly and lift standards of living. Now, from kindergarten to college, public education is chronically underfunded. Scarcely 2% of the federal budget goes to education, and dwindling public investment means students pay higher tuitions and fall ever deeper into debt. Total student debt surpassed $1 trillion this year and it’s growing by the month, with the average debt burden for a college graduate over $24,000. That will leave many of those graduates on a treadmill of loan repayment for most or all of their adult lives.

Renewed public investment in education — from pre-kindergarten to university — would pay handsome dividends for generations. But you aren’t going to hear either candidate or their vice-presidential running mates proposing the equivalent of a GI Bill for the rest of us or even significant new investment in education. And yet that’s a recipe for and a guarantee of American decline.

Ironically, those in Washington arguing for urgent deficit reduction claim that we’ve got to do it “for the kids,” that we must stop saddling our grandchildren with mountains of federal debt. But if your child turns 18 and finds her government running a balanced budget in an America that’s hollowed out, an America where she has no chance of paying for a college education, will she celebrate? You don’t need an economist to answer that one.

Mattea Kramer is senior research analyst at National Priorities Project and a TomDispatch regular. She is lead author of the new book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget.

Copyright 2012 Mattea Kramer

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Let me close with another quote from Arnold J. Toynbee:

Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed

when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.

Part Two continues tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “What goes up?

  1. I am very encouraged to hear/see that Tom Englehardt got a book published by re-packaging things he had previously written on his blog. Mattea Kramer also shows much insight and wisdom about the politically-inconvenient roadblocks to change in the USA.

    In accordance with previous recommendations, I have tried to be more positive in today’s post on my blog (link appended below) – summarising all the reasons why Solar power could solve our energy crisis. However, even doing this – I have found myself lamenting the fact that our politicians do not seem to have the moral backbone to implement those solutions… So much for being positive.
    http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/saved-by-the-sun/

    Like

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