The Shape of Things to Come

If you had wanted to know what was going to happen from 1933 through 2106 you would have read H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come – in 1933 of course. Most of that book is silly, but Wells did predict World War II starting right where it started, with Germany attacking Poland, even if he got everything else wrong. And he was also wrong about mankind getting fed up with nonsense and suppressing all religion, although the abolition of Islam – carried out by the Air Police who “descend upon Mecca and close down the main holy places” – is something our drones might do one day. It’s just that if we did that we’d then immediately send in the young fresh-faced born-again evangelical fellows to hand out Bibles and talk about Jesus. Religion isn’t going away. One man’s arrant nonsense is another man’s article of faith – the sly talking snake and the burning bush that also chats and all the rest – and Wells’ notion that there’d soon be a world government seems as unlikely. Few governments, if any, can run their own country effectively. There’s nothing to scale-up anywhere. You wouldn’t want the Germans to run the world, much less the House Republicans. Maybe the Canadians would do, but they’d refuse the job. They’re sensible people.

It doesn’t matter. Wells was just noodling around. Speculative fiction was his thing – take what is happening at the moment and extrapolate what would happen if what’s happening now were to continue to happen. All you have to do is imagine logical consequences – imagine what happens next which then causes the next thing to happen, and so on and so forth. It’s an elaborate game of what-if that can provide useful warnings – or wry smiles in a year or two. No one takes it seriously. You won’t be commuting to work in your flying car anytime soon, to that four-hour-a-week job of the future where everyone is rich and the machines do all the real work. No one really knows what happens next, and it probably won’t be wonderful.

That doesn’t stop the Wells in all of us from fretting about how what’s happening at the moment might portend what happens next. If you want things to go well in the future you arrange things very carefully in the present, especially on New Year’s Day, to start that chain of good consequences that logically follow that year. That day, in the South, you eat black-eyed peas for some odd reason, as that’s supposed to bring you luck. Elsewhere you might slurp up some lentil soup, because lentils sort of look like coins and thus must be associated with good fortune. You’d better have some pork too – chickens scratch backwards and cows stand still but pigs root forward, which must mean something. And don’t wash clothes or even dishes on New Year’s Day, as that means someone in your life will be washed away too. And nothing – absolutely nothing – should leave the house on that day, for the same reason. Don’t take out the garbage. It can wait. Wear new clothes too, and pay all your bills, setting a precedent. The list of such things is extensive. Perhaps you can control the shape of things to come.

An alternative is to hide on New Year’s Day. If this is how the year starts out we’re all in trouble, logically speaking. Look to Washington. On New Year’s Eve the Senate finally agreed on measures to keep us from sailing off that fiscal cliff – make the Bush tax cuts for most people permanent but let the rich go back to paying the normal rates, permanently, and also cap their deductions. The Republicans gave in, and this agreement also assured a full year’s extension of long-term unemployment insurance – no strings attached and without offsetting spending cuts. That’ll cost thirty billion, but the prospect of at least two million people suddenly penniless was something the Republicans seemed to want to avoid, for a change. They didn’t even make a fuss about keeping the child tax credit for the poor, or tax credits to offset the cost of college tuition for those who are struggling to get their kids some sort of degree. The point was that at least some of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent, even if the riff-raff got those and not the very rich good guys. Something was better than nothing.

The other part of the fiscal cliff problem, the planned automatic spending cuts that both sides would find appalling, cuts in all the spending on healthcare and social services and education, which would infuriate the Democrats, and cuts in defense spending too, which would infuriate the Republicans, was tabled for two months. This was no time for a grand bargain on fixing everything all at once. They split the problem in two – revenue and spending. The Senate bill fixed the revenue problem – settling the matter of who paid what, and where it would be spent. Wall Street and the big corporations and all the investment bankers now know what’s what and can plan accordingly – much to their relief. The spending side of things comes next, with three things that happen all at once – the hold on across-the-board cuts will expire just when the debt-ceiling stuff comes to a head, just as everything authorizing financing the government expires. Obama may have won this time, but this is small beans compared to the Republicans in the House about to tell Obama to cave in on all their demands in spending cuts, or they’ll not only create worldwide economic collapse, declaring America insolvent, unwilling to pay its bills, they’ll also shut down the government entirely, just like Newt Gingrich did so long ago. They just traded a few minor items on the revenue side for immense leverage in a month or so, on the spending side. But at least half the problem was solved. The lopsided 89-8 vote in the Senate showed even the Republicans felt that half a loaf is better than none when you’re trying to avoid economic disaster.

That may have been a propitious way to start the year, but that was New Year’s Eve. The next day the bill moved to the House, so those complex tax increases and selected spending could go forward. If the House acted quickly and sent the legislation to Obama to be signed into law right away things would be fine – the markets were closed New Year’s Day so there’ll be no crash or anything the next day. Of course the folks in the House, with that Tea Party crew, could force John Boehner to refuse to let the Senate revenue agreement come to the floor for a vote at all, or the House could vote it down, or the House could amend the thing and send it back to the Senate to be rewritten, which would effectively kill the bill.

That would be a hell of a way to start the year – getting all high and mighty and crashing the markets, refusing a partial fix because it didn’t fix everything? Would the whole year be like this?

Maybe the whole year will be like that, because they tried it all, before they finally gave in:

Congress approved a plan to end Washington’s long drama over the “fiscal cliff” late Tuesday after House Republicans surrendered to President Obama’s demand to let taxes rise on the nation’s richest households. The House voted 257 to 167 to send the measure to Obama for his signature; the vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the legislation.

It’s just that it wasn’t easy:

Conservatives complained bitterly that the legislation would raise taxes without making any significant cuts in government spending. For much of the day, the measure appeared headed for defeat as Boehner contemplated tacking on billions in spending cuts, a move that would have derailed a compromise that the White House and Senate leaders had carefully crafted.

In the end, GOP lawmakers decided not to take a gamble that could force the nation to face historic tax increases for virtually every American – and leave House Republicans to take the blame.

Their demand to NEVER let taxes rise on the nation’s richest households, even if everyone else had to pay through the nose and the economy collapsed, was making them look bad. They dropped it – and they gave up on adding an amendment with an immediate three hundred billion dollars in cuts to all but military spending. They couldn’t specify what to cut, and their Senate colleagues kept reminding them this wasn’t about spending cuts this time – not yet. That would come later.

They caved, and this split their party too:

The bill drew 85 votes from Republicans and 172 from Democrats, meaning well more than half of its support came from the Democratic minority. With 151 Republicans voting “no,” the GOP tally fell far short of a majority of the GOP caucus. That broke a long-standing preference by Boehner to advance only bills that could draw the support of a majority of his Republican members.

This bypassed his caucus, rendering it meaningless now, but maybe it was wise:

Boehner was humiliated just two weeks ago when the Republican rank-and-file refused to support a GOP alternative that would have permitted taxes to rise only on income over $1 million a year. But when he scheduled a vote on the Senate bill, even some of the chamber’s staunchest conservatives agreed that giving up the fight was probably the best course.

You can only pretend that Obama didn’t really win the election, and that the public wasn’t really on his side, for so long, and then Obama rubbed it in:

Obama warned again that he would not negotiate with Republicans over the $16.4 trillion debt limit, which must be raised in the coming weeks. “While I will negotiate over many things,” he said, “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether they will pay the bills they’ve already racked up.”

With that, Obama took off for Hawaii, where he left his wife and daughters the day after Christmas.

John Boehner can return to Cincinnati. He had a bad day. His second in command, Eric Cantor, had proudly told reporters “I do not support the bill!” It wasn’t pretty, as Josh Marshall notes:

Much to be written on this vote tonight – but for starters, Majority Leader Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted no. That’s just stunning. It is almost as though Cantor is plotting or hatching or just purchasing his coup on layaway.

Brian Beutler reports this:

At a second conference meeting Tuesday afternoon House GOP leaders attempted to talk their members off a ledge by offering them a stark choice: First, the House could amend the Senate’s fiscal cliff bill, tack on more than $300 billion domestic spending cuts, and toss it back into Harry Reid’s lap. That would be on the condition that 218 Republicans committed to voting for the amended bill.

Beneath that level of support, leaders said, they’d put the Senate bill on the floor for a clean up or down vote and let fate dictate the outcome. But, before asking members to commit in either direction, leaders warned the conference that amending and passing the Senate bill would be tantamount to killing it. The subtext was clear. House Republicans would take the blame for the ensuing economic fallout.

That worked. Political suicide is not an option, and even if liberals think Obama gave too much away, he did win, as Andrew Sullivan notes:

I can see Obama’s logic here. What he’s getting – which is a gradual shift toward more fiscal responsibility, with key protections for the working poor and the unemployed in place – is all he really wants right now. Like many of Obama’s incremental achievements, you can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. We have the biggest tax hike in decades – without a sudden recession. And we have huge, painful spending cuts looming unless new revenue is found through tax reform. The end result – for all its unseemly messiness right now – may still be a sane, graduated fiscal readjustment as the economy recovers. The sequester cuts can be back-loaded a little to find that elusive sweet spot between structural fiscal rebalancing and economic growth. And we could even clean up the tax code a little.

It’s not great, but it will do. Sometimes, the little advances are preferable under certain circumstances to big breakthroughs. And Obama has to face a rabid Republican House probably for his next four years.

That was what everyone saw on New Year’s Day – the shape of things to come. Eat all the black-eyed peas you want, try the lentil soup, and ham-hocks are traditional too. None of it will help. This is the present. Extrapolate the future. H. G. Wells saw a utopia of sorts. You won’t, but really, utopian thinking is the problem here. Michael Lind explains that, first by noting his own history:

Two decades have passed since I began my gradual and reluctant break with the conservative movement, in which I had been a protégé of the late William F. Buckley Jr. and an employee of the late Irving Kristol, as executive editor of The National Interest. Since then, I have been followed by, among others, Andrew Sullivan, Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukuyama, David Frum and Bruce Bartlett, all of whom, for different reasons and at different times, have become estranged from the American right. Of the British Labour politician Tony Benn, a young conservative who moved leftward over time, Harold Wilson sneered, “He immatures with age.” Others may judge whether I have immatured with age. In thinking about my career, first on the right and then (to quote FDR) “slightly left of center,” I think I have been consistent in opposing utopianism in politics, something once characteristic of part of the left and now the defining quality of the contemporary American right.

Lind has no use for utopian visions:

In the age of Barack Obama, who would have been considered a moderate conservative a generation ago, it is easily forgotten that there was a radical left that was really radical – and not in a good way. As late as the 1980s, a classmate of mine at Yale insisted that Lenin was a noble fellow who was betrayed by Stalin (we now know that Lenin invented the Soviet system of secret police, torture and judicial murder). Another classmate told me that a Yale professor had denounced Poland’s General Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law on communist Poland in 1981, as a bourgeois deviationist who was insufficiently Stalinist. In those days Marxists were not limited to friendly, decent “democratic socialists” who were indistinguishable from welfare-state liberals; there was a dwindling minority of hardcore leftists who saw the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba as a flawed model of the future socialist order that would soon emerge from the breakdown of Western capitalism. As it happened, Western capitalism did break down partly in 2008, but by that time nobody any longer thought that models could be found in communism, which had finally been discredited two decades earlier.

Obama isn’t any of that, no matter what Rush or Sarah says. Today anti-government militants seem to be those white supremacist conservatives, but the real problem is the utopians:

What attracted me in my college years to conservatism was its hostility to utopianism, to the attempt to remake society according to some abstract theory. This was a theme shared by the older generation of “vital center” liberals like Arthur Schlesinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as conservatives like Bill Buckley. Their distrust of doctrinaires using power to achieve utopia on earth was inspired not just by thinkers like Edmund Burke but even more by the examples of Hitler’s genocidal racist utopia and the mass murders and famines that accompanied Stalin’s and Mao’s attempts to use terror to remake society.

Things used to be clear, but Communism folded its tent and militant sixties radicalism faded away, so now there’s not much to work with and we get what Lind calls the three forms of demented right-wing utopianism: religious, military and economic:

The religious utopianism was that of the Protestant religious right, which grew in influence in the 1980s and peaked in the 1990s. While the religious right included some Catholics and Jews, its roots were in the Calvinist project of creating a sanctified Christian theocracy on earth. To be sure, most members of the religious right were more moderate than Christian Reconstructionists, who wanted to create an actual Iranian-style theocracy with Christian rather than Muslim content. But the project of remaking a modern, diverse, continental nation on the basis of a book was equally insane, whether the holy book was Marx’s Kapital or the Bible.

The religious right faded as a force by the early 21st century, largely because of the growing secularization of younger Americans.

Yes, but the next tsunami of utopianism was military:

The older generation of neoconservatives had been New Deal liberals who had grown cautious and skeptical about the ability of public policy to remake American society. In contrast, the younger generation of neoconservatives – some of them literal heirs of the older generation, such as Irving Kristol’s son William Kristol – were wildly optimistic about the ability of the American military to remake foreign societies. Their utopian project of a “new American century” and a “global democratic revolution” exported by force of arms collided with reality in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first decade of the century. When democratic revolutions ultimately did come to the Arab world, they were brought about by citizen revolts, not by American invaders and occupiers.

That too faded, but it was followed by a sort of libertarian utopia:

This time, the utopian social engineering project was not rebuilding America as a theocracy or bombing foreign nations into democracy. This time the utopia was that of the libertarians. Ron Paul went from being a marginal figure to a folk hero for young people in search of gurus, and the works of mid-20th-century prophets of the free market like Ayn Rand and Friedrich von Hayek enjoyed a revival. The libertarian utopia peaked in 2010, around the same time as the Tea Party movement, which helped the Republicans to regain the House of Representatives. To judge by the elections of 2012, in which more Americans cast votes for Democrats for the gerrymandered House as well as in Senate and presidential elections, the public has turned against free market utopians like Paul Ryan, who want to replace social insurance with vouchers and cut taxes further on the rich.

Like Wells’ speculative fiction, utopian castles built in the air are silly, or so most people discover. The movements fizzle out, and Lind will have none of it:

For my part, I am in no hurry to see any new misguided projects to force reality to fit theory, whether carried out by militants of the left, right or center.

Thus speculation about a totally changed system strikes Lind as foolish, as step-by-step reform of the system we have at hand gets more done:

Single-issue lobbies are a deplorable feature of American politics, but single-goal campaigns have given us everything from the abolition of slavery and segregation to the rights of women and, more recently, of gays and lesbians. Unlike utopian movements, campaigns against specific evils – the sale of assault weapons or the death penalty, for example – are attempts to eliminate specific, limited evils, not efforts to remake society as a whole according to this or that supernatural or secular scripture. A sane society can never have too few utopian movements or too many reformist campaigns.

It’s just that we don’t have a sane society. Everyone saw what happened in Washington on New Year’s Day, with the practical folks trying to arrange that a few serious problems be solved, even if everything can’t be solved right away, and the wild-eyed utopians imagining the wondrous government-does-nothing-much world of 1927 or so, with a soundtrack from the early fifties, before rock of course. It’s not for nothing that Pat Boone is big in the Tea Party movement. Obama is fluent in Arabic and read the Koran in Arabic as a boy, you know – and all these folks want “their America” back right now. They are hard to deal with.

If you want to see the shape of things to come, forget Wells – just note what happened on New Year’s Day in Washington this year. It won’t be a good year. Now these folks, having lost, are angry. Lentil soup won’t help now.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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