The Lure of the Apocalyptic

Tuesday, August 23 – now that was some day – there was wall-to-wall coverage of the Rebel Alliance basically chasing Gadhafi out of Tripoli. Yeah, all day long the cable news folks kept calling them the Rebel Alliance. But it wasn’t Luke and Leia and Han Solo fighting the guys in the big white plastic suits. Using those two words from the Star Wars movies was just a coincidence. But what was happening was sufficiently epic and world-shifting and all that. Syria is next. The entire Middle East is being reinvented, one rotten regime at a time. And it’s being done by the people, much to the chagrin of our neoconservatives. Maybe we didn’t have to do that Iraq thing after all – all we had to do was wait.

Yes, John McCain and Lindsey Graham lit into Obama for his failure to lead – we should have liberated those people, damn it.

Alex Pareene, who found the same argument in the Wall Street Journal, puts it this way:

One definite way to make a civil war faster and less bloody is for a foreign country to enter it fully, right? (It tends to unite the populace, for one thing!) And conflicts are always less bloody when America drops more American bombs. That’s how we won Vietnam!

There’s no point in countering McCain and the Journal’s arguments with reason, of course, because these are not actually fact-based responses to news, they’re just rote recitations of Republican dogma: Obama weak! (Except domestically, where he is an autocrat.) And this is the “respectable” Republican talking point.

Yes, it is. Every Republican has taken it up. This could have been OUR victory. But no, Obama let the Libyan people, and our NATO allies Obama talked into helping out, get all the credit. We just looked weak, not like when we did our Iraq thing and pretty much all on our own rid the world of Saddam Hussein and all those weapons of mass destruction, and after a decade of occupation left Iraq a paradise on earth and the world loved us for it.

And what can you say to that? Sigh. Gadhafi is gone, and that Osama fellow is quite dead, and no one wants to kill us all for butting-in in one more Muslim county. What more do you want?

But all that was rendered moot within a few hours. Other things happened – a major earthquake near DC and a massive hurricane on the way and the markets soared.

Huh? Were these things interconnected? One might conclude that we have become a nation that welcomes the apocalyptic. Somehow it feels right, and maybe that has something to do with the Tea Party folks and the Religious Right finally convincing us that we are living in dire End Times – they hammer that home often enough. Heck, maybe people are hoping for that last scene in the Nathanael West novel Day of the Locust – that’s where it all burns to the ground, all of it, as the hapless and emblematic victim-of-everything – appropriately named Homer Simpson – just loses it.

But that’s understandable. People embrace the apocalyptic when they’ve convinced themselves that the situation is hopeless. West’s novel was published in 1939 – written in the depths of the Great Depression, just after the 1937 debacle, when after things had been looking up, finally, they all crashed again. And his buddy out here, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had just died. So West was in a foul and apocalyptic mood no doubt. Burn it all down.

But who isn’t in that mood these days? The Republicans say we’re broke – John Boehner says it all the time. And they did suggest we default on our debt and just not pay our creditors, and thus crash the world’s economy, rather than raising the debt ceiling a bit, as usual. The national debt is out of control. And there is only one solution. Burn it all down.

Yes, that did not impress Standard and Poor’s. They knew we could pay our debts and this was just choosing not to – thus the downgrade. And given that burn-it-down attitude they didn’t see how we’d ever agree on anything that might slowly reduce the deficit. The burn-it-all-down crowd precluded that.

But we’re all familiar with the Republican line now. We’re broke. And we cannot raise taxes – or at least we cannot raise taxes on the rich and corporations, as they are the job creators. Yes, the jobs they create always seem to be overseas, but no one is supposed to mention that. And anyway, taxes are stupid, as government is stupid. That’s the word. Government is always the problem, never the solution – to anything. They were elected to office to dismantle as much of the government as possible. And that’s what they’re doing. And the business community loves it – so there!

Well, Mark Trumbull, reporting in the Christian Science Monitor, finds that is not quite so:

US deficit-taming strategy should include boosting tax revenue say a big majority of 250 business economists in the private sector. Their views, per a new survey, are at odds with GOP’s position. 

It seems that a new National Association for Business Economics poll found that “three-quarters of economists who do forecasting for the private sector say tax revenue should rise as a part of efforts to tame unsustainable budget deficits.” Of the two-hundred-fifty business economists who participated in the survey, only nineteen percent said tax reform should be done in a “revenue-neutral” way. Actually, a majority of these economists argued that a major part of our deficit challenge “stems from low tax revenue.”

Well, tax revenues are currently at a sixty-year low – even if the Republicans say we’re taxed far too much. Almost all the economists for the major corporations and banks and such say that’s just nonsense. Go figure. And so Joan McCarter offers this:

Being reality-based, it’s hard to expect that the GOP will be convinced. Nonetheless, the people who are paid to think about this stuff might be worth listening to; more so than, say, the people who wear funny hats and demand government keep its hands off their Medicare.

But she doesn’t understand it’s the end of the world. Ask your Republican friends about that.

David Weigel has a Slate column about this nonsense – as there’s an interview in the Wall Street Journal with the suddenly sensible Jon Huntsman, who decided to be all that sensible. They asked Huntsman if “the half of American households no longer paying income tax – mainly working poor families and seniors – should be brought onto the income tax rolls.” He agreed – saying that “we don’t have enough people paying taxes in this country.”

And Weigel notes that’s the word out there:

The Journal called this position the “new GOP orthodoxy,” which it is. When he announced his presidential bid two weeks ago, [Rick] Perry told a room of conservative activists and bloggers that “we’re dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don’t even pay any income tax.” He was following on Bachmann, who’d just told the South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce the very same thing.

“Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing,” said Bachmann. “We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it’s a dollar. Everyone should pay something, because we all benefit.”

Huntsman, Perry, Bachmann: All of them are taking a bold stand in favor of cognitive dissonance.

By that he means this:

The main reason Washington couldn’t get a “grand bargain” on the budget and debt ceiling was that Republicans balked at increasing taxes on anyone. How did we get from there to the notion that it would be a good idea to raise taxes on the 60-odd million people who didn’t end up owing the IRS any money last year?

Conservatives have an argument: You can’t, and shouldn’t, balance the budget and pay for entitlements by continually raising taxes on the rich. Doing so, they say, is “class warfare.” At the same time, however, they must contend with persistent support for the welfare state. So conservatives are betting that regular Americans are losing track of how much it costs to give them what they want.

Ah, but in End Times, what with earthquakes and hurricanes and whatnot, people do lose track of lots of things. And Weigel notes there is nothing really new here:

In 2002 and 2003, long before it got Huntsman in the room, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that poor people who didn’t pay income taxes were “lucky duckies.” The poor slob with a low income and child tax credit would get a small or nonexistent tax bill, not one that would “get his or her blood boiling with tax rage.” The problem here wasn’t that the poor slob wasn’t paying any taxes; the problem was that his meager tax bill failed to foment enough anger to reduce taxes on other people. Tax cuts for the rich – tax cuts for anyone, really, but the Journal has always been concerned about tax cuts for the rich – require a broad base of outrage.

So the issue was never taxes per se – the issue was generating blind burn-it-all-down anger. And Weigel points out how this is playing out:

One funny thing about the non-payers: They do pay taxes. Everyone who works pays FICA taxes. Everyone who fills up a car pays federal gas taxes. The theory that these people don’t appreciate how much the government is moving around money is just that: completely theoretical. This may be why the policy responses to the problem are so gimmicky. Bachmann said that the lucky duckies might get a better appreciation for the size of government if they paid a “dollar” a year. Last month, I heard Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., make the case for tax reform and suggest some sort of nominal charge that would “broaden the base” and make the system more fair.

“Those who are not paying any taxes but are receiving benefits from the government because of their income status – there ought to be a reduction from the benefit they receive,” Coats said. “Even if it’s 10 bucks, or 15 bucks, we [need to say we] have deducted for your participation in helping to support our country’s needs.”

Bachmann’s “dollar” plan would net around $60 million, or two-thirds of NPR’s annual federal funding. Coats’ plan would net a little more. We’re being generous, though, because these aren’t plans. They’re debating tactics.

Of course they are. It’s like a formal debate contest. Proposed: We’re living in End Times and we’re all going to die. You have four minutes to make your argument. Go for it.

Actually you’d probably start with the powerful east coast earthquake. On the other hand you might have decided that the government should stop doing things like spending money on earthquake detection and preparedness. That raises some issues, and is it unfair, on the day of the big quake, to point that out? Matthew Yglesias doesn’t think so:

I really don’t understand how people can be so blinkered as to think that it’s somehow unfair to point out that a political movement that supports across the board cuts in federal spending does, in fact, wants to cut spending on each and every program. That includes programs that are currently newsworthy. However, since it’s apparently unfair to accurately characterize the consequences of across-the-board cuts in federal spending as applied to newsworthy events, let’s just discuss other things.

He suggests these:

When you cut funding across the board, you cut funding for responding to forest fires.

When you cut funding across the board, you cut funding for hungry children.

When you cut funding across the board, you cut funding for medical research.

When you cut funding across the board, you cut funding for infectious disease monitoring.

So consider the implications:

As it happens, neither homes burning down in wildfires nor malnourished children nor cancer deaths nor flu epidemics are in the news today. So the fact that congressional Republicans cut spending on preventing those things isn’t highly salient. But the good news is that pointing out that they cut funding on this stuff doesn’t constitute “politicizing” any ongoing natural disasters. Astute readers will note, however, that the meaning of across the board spending cuts is that you’re cutting spending on all programs.

But as it’s the end of the world such cuts are necessary, right? Maybe you have to be in the right apocalyptic mood.

But that’s easy enough. You want apocalyptic you get apocalyptic, as Judge Richard Posner argues that, regardless of what the economists call it, we are actually in the middle of a depression:

The American economy currently has both a short-term problem and a long-term problem. The short-term problem is that the economy is depressed; it is growing more slowly than the population, with the result that per capita income is declining. The high rate of un- and underemployment is a factor, but is itself the product of other factors, having mainly to do with the reluctance of over-indebted consumers (over-indebted in major part because of loss of equity in their houses, the major source of household wealth) to spend, the reluctance of the impaired banking industry to make risky loans, and the reluctance of businesses to invest and to hire, which is due in part to weak consumer spending and in part to profound uncertainty about the nation’s economic future.

The roots of this catastrophic situation lie primarily, I think, in the incompetent economic management of the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve. The persistence of the depression, however, is due in part at least to surprising failures of the Obama administration – poor leadership, poor management, the sponsorship of incomprehensibly complex health care and financial regulation laws that have created widespread uncertainty that has discouraged consumption and investment, and the inability to explain the nature of the economy’s problems to the general public. These failures caused the stimulus enacted in February 2009 to be botched in both in its design and its administration, resulting in the discrediting of deficit spending as a response to depression.

But other than that, things are just peachy. Except Posner goes on to argue that there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about the short term economic problem at this point. You see, more spending is out of the question politically, given the Tea Party leading the Republicans by the nose there, and that’s probably out of the question fiscally – we actually do have a long-term deficit problem. And there may be no real way to fix that:

It’s not clear that we have enough years. Suppose that the economy recovers by the end of 2012, and in 2013 and in subsequent years grows at a 4 percent annual rate. (The long-term growth rate is about 3 percent, but growth is usually more rapid when it starts from a low level.) The public debt won’t continue to grow at 17 or 18 percent a year, but suppose it grows at 7 percent a year. Then the already very large federal deficit will continue to grow, and indeed, to compound: At a 7 percent annual growth rate, our public debt in 2012, estimated at $12.4 trillion, will grow by 40 percent in five years if none of the reforms designed to limit that growth are implemented before the end of that period. Yet if they are implemented while the economy is still struggling, the result may actually be to increase the deficit by driving tax revenues down (because incomes will be depressed) despite the elimination of loopholes, and by increasing transfer payments to the unemployed and others hard hit by the economic crisis.

We’re screwed. It’s the end of everything. And Felix Salmon says it may be worse than that:

What I’m seeing as I look around the world is a massive decrease of trust in the institutions of government. Where those institutions are oppressive and totalitarian, the ability of popular uprisings to bring them down is a joyous and welcome sight. But on the other side of the coin, when I look at rioters in England, I see a huge middle finger being waved at basic norms of lawfulness and civilized society, and an enthusiastic embrace of “going on the rob” as some kind of hugely enjoyable participation sport. The glue holding society together is dissolving, whether it’s made of fear or whether it’s made of enlightened self-interest. …

Countries and institutions can ultimately survive only with the will and consent of those they govern – and that consent is evaporating around the world. Europeans have no love for Europe’s institutions, be they the euro or the ECB or the EFSF [the European Financial Stability Facility]. Unemployment, in much of Europe, has reached the point of no return – the point at which it becomes endemic, stubbornly immune to attempts to tackle it. In turn, that results in broad-based cynicism and disillusionment when it comes to politics and politicians generally.

And Salmon points to Rick Perry and his comments about Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Board – lynch the guy as he’s a traitor – to show America is stuck. And Doug Mataconis, reviewing all this, elaborates:

I think limiting the analysis to Perry misses the point significantly. The political movements that have sprung up in the United States in the last five years or so – on the left and the right – seem to express a profound distrust of government at its most fundamental levels, and a willingness to believe the worst about the motives of politicians one happens to be opposed to. The Tea Party movement specifically has tapped into a strand of distrust in government that has run through American politics since the Colonial Era, and created a mass movement that more resembles the rhetoric you would’ve heard in the era when the states were parties to the Articles of Confederation than the type of political discussions we would’ve been having even five or ten years ago. Call them crazy if you want, but ignoring what the Tea Party represents is a mistake, because it’s revealing serious fault lines in our political culture that won’t just be repaired with a single election.

And Salmon sees the next step:

It looks increasingly as though we’re entering Phase 2 of the global crisis, with 2008-9 merely acting as the appetizer. In Phase 1, national and super-national treasuries and central banks managed to come to the rescue and stave off catastrophe. But in doing so, they weakened themselves to the point at which they’re unable to rise to the occasion this time round. Our hearts want government to come through and save the economy. But our heads know that it’s not going to happen. And that failure, in turn, is only going to further weaken institutional legitimacy across the US and the world. It’s a vicious cycle, and I can’t see how we’re going to break out of it.

Mataconis:

It seems pretty clear to me that continued slow economic growth, combined with the consequence of failing to deal with our long term debt problems, is likely to lead to social instability and more Americans concluding that there’s no point in putting any hope in the government. What the consequence of that might be I don’t know, but I doubt they’ll be good.

Well, for now we’re welcoming earthquakes and hurricanes and epic revolutions in unexpected parts of the world as just things being what they should be, as the world ends. We have become a nation that welcomes the apocalyptic. And that is, of course, a sign that we, like West’s Homer Simpson, have just given up. And we now have only one policy response. D’oh!

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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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