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The Wasteland

Across two evenings this week, we’ve been offered America’s future in a couple of visions. Neither of them offered the prime vitamin of bearable politics, the prom­ise of good cheer and a better life at the end of a shortish tunnel.

Version one came in the Republican presidential can­didates’ debate at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday evening. This was Texan governor Rick Perry’s first joust with the other contenders. As is custom­ary, feather-puff punches and leaden sarcasms were inflated by the press into Swiftian repartee.

There were some disappointments. I’d been hoping for fire and brimstone from Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party’s Passionaria. Her performance was pallid, her vibrant persona dulled down. Even her natural hair resem­bled a wig.

Hardly had I raised a cheer for her denunciation of the Libyan adventure – delivered with a clarity appar­ently beyond the powers of America’s left leaders– before she was doing some Cheney-esque tub-humping about the Iranian threat and groveling to the Israel lobby.

Ron Paul, who attracts passionate and well-deserved adherents for the clarity of his denunciations of Empire, came over as principled but a bit daffy, in the mode of a nutty professor, like a character in one of Thomas Love Peacock’s splendid satires. His fans swiftly claimed he was aced out of the debate, which I don’t think is true. He just didn’t use the openings he was given to best advantage.

Paul hates every manifestation of government. I don’t think he cares much for immigrants from south of the border either. I didn’t hear a cry of outrage from him when most of his fellow debaters were calling for a heav­ier federal presence – “boots on the ground,” drones, a continuous fence – along the US-Mexican bor­der. And he seems to favor the Keystone XL pipeline, even though – as my coeditor Jeffrey St. Clair points out to me, it will require one of the larg­est and most aggressive eminent domain actions since the construction of the Interstate highways. Opposition to eminent domain is bedrock for any libertarian.

The most rational sounding Republican was Utah’s former governor and Obama’s ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr., probably because he’s languishing in the low single digits and has nothing to lose by occasionally extending a friendly hand towards the world of reason, excepting his predictable servility to the AGW (anthropo­morphic global warming) lobby. He called for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan and refused to make absolutist pledges about no new taxes. He doesn’t stand a prayer.

Former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney had the task of trying to cut Governor Perry of Texas down to size. They bickered back and forth, but without any deci­sive knockdowns.

Perry had some simple assignments – mainly to show that he could speak in coherent sentences and hold his own without hauling out his laser gun. (Perry says he packs heat even in jogging rig because he’s frightened of snakes. I guess if you grow up in a semi-dried up water­course in northwest Texas you can get that way.) Simply as something of a Reagan look-alike, in decent physical shape and with a strong voice, he did okay. He and his advisors are sticking to the gameplan which is presently aimed at capturing the right-wing core votes in the early caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Two Perry plusses: he really hates Karl Rove and Kinky Friedman likes him.

Perry’s headliners were an accusation that Social Security is a vast Ponzi scheme, that Obama is most likely a brazen liar, and, amid wild cheers in the Reagan library auditorium, that he hasn’t lost a wink of sleep after signing execution warrants for convicted murderers – 234  at time of writing, more than any other governor in US history.

It seems hard to imagine that an onslaught on Social Security won’t cost him among the vital elderly independ­ents, assuming he gets the Republican nomina­tion and goes head-to-head with Obama just under a year from now.

But then, having followed Reagan through his early primary battles back in 1979 and early 1980, I remember all the demented campaign statements of the Californian, his reiterated belief that ‘Apocalypse’ would come in our lifetimes, his amazing fictions, like liberating Auschwitz, his folksy imbecilities. If Reagan could win in 1980 and 1984, Perry certainly has a fighting chance in 2012. Many a polished politician, Bobby Kennedy for exam­ple, learned that it could be fatal to underestimate the Gip­per in debate.

No Republican offered a Plan, except the African-American Herman Cain. They all contented themselves with brickbats for government and a call for the release of supposedly pent-up market forces hog-tied by govern­ment red tape and onerous taxation.

America’s problems are huge: 14 million Americans officially looking for jobs—about four job seekers for every job vacancy; 8.8 million part-time workers since the recession began; roughly 2.6 million people too dis­couraged even to look for a job: total – about 25 million people needing work or more work and an economy that is creating no new jobs.

This brings us to Thursday night, and Obama’s address to Congress. He flourished a $447 billion plan involving tax cuts, public works, extensions of unem­ployment relief, credits to business hiring people who’d been out of work for more than six months.

It’ll do something. Economists raced to their calcula­tors and said that the proposal might add about a million jobs.

But as the economists Randall Wrey and Stephanie Kelton point out, “Business will not hire more workers until it has more sales. Consumers will not spend more until they’ve got more jobs.

“A private-sector recovery requires 300,000 new jobs every month. But the private sector doesn’t need 300,000 new workers per month to meet prospective sales. The new jobs can only come from the federal government — the only economic entity that can afford to hire. Obama’s 1 million infrastructure jobs is a nice down-payment, but it is only three month’s worth.”

They call for a real New Deal program like Roose­velt’s Works Progress Administration. The program would offer a job to any American who was ready and willing to work at the federal minimum wage, plus legis­lated benefits. No time limits. No means testing. No mini­mum education or skill requirements.

There’s a problem, aside from the fact that Obama has displayed zero appetite for big liberal ideas, crucially at the very start of his term when he was at the apex of public goodwill. He has to get any plan, let alone a really bold new plan, past Republicans in Congress who, with his eager co-operation, ate him for breakfast in the show­down over raising the debt ceiling and who will sabotage even his present modest proposals.

“Stop the political circus,” he cried to Congress Thurs­day night. Why should the Republicans listen to him after he himself stopped the circus at the start of August by mumbling, “You win.”

You can find America’s future in blueprints minted in business-funded thinktanks 30 to 40 years ago at the dawn of the neo-liberal age: destruction of organized labor; attrition of the social safety net; attrition of govern­ment regulation; a war on the poor, fought with­out mercy at every level. Last year the New York police stopped and questioned 601,055 people, predominantly blacks and Hispanics, and the numbers were up 13% for the first six months of this year.

Texas, near the bottom in so many social indicators, is the model: Rick Perry is its latest salesman. But who­ever the Republican candidate may be, they face in Obama an opponent who agrees with at least half of what they say. In 40 years I’ve not seen a gloomier politi­cal landscape.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

One Comment

  1. Chuck Becker September 21, 2011

    Oh, not so quick:

    “The new jobs can only come from the federal government — the only economic entity that can afford to hire.”

    First, let’s dispose of federal deficit stimulus spending in relation to the current situation. That solution was proposed by Keynes to mitigate downturns in the business cycle. It was not intended for structural decline and collapse (both of which we are now in ).

    Deficit stimulus spending can’t fix the still-smoldering ruins of the financial industry, nor can it undue the job-killing ravages of the twin nemesis: highly advanced industrial automation and a global transportation network that makes it feasible and economical to ship the cheapest goods the greatest distances.

    If this were a typical business cycle downturn, deficit stimulus spending would be efficacious, but that’s simply not the case.

    Excess sovereign and personal debt are exacerbating the structural problems we do have. At the federal debt level, these levels of debt and imbalances in currency flows are stressing the financial system in the US and worldwide. At the personal debt level, we’ve never had more Americans who can’t shop because they can’t borrow any more … they’re tapped out.

    So to get back to the original claim that only the federal government can lever us out of this situation, that proposition of false. Any boost the federal government can provide will be temporary (as in 1936-37, after 4 years of wild spending, when the tap was tightened the economy fell right back on its butt). Nothing done during the New Deal did a things to “fix” the economy. It was only WWII level spending that finally put America back to work, and left us with debt unmatched until today.

    And it was only the almost complete absence of foreign competition from 1945-1970 that blessed America with the post-War prosperity that allowed the formation of the middle class, and enabled the US to pay down its war debt. We won’t see those conditions again. So taking on debt at that level is the riskiest gamble there is, it puts us in a burn-rate situation and if we don’t magically catch fire, then there are zero attractive options left.

    What can save America? Only We The People. Every dollar we spend is a nano-stimulus. We should make every effort to spend that dollar on products made in America, by Americans. Every American has thousands of dollars to spend each year, they get to choose whether to create a stimulus in the United States (for their family, friends, and neighbors) or in some country far away, for citizens who don’t pay taxes here and probably don’t even like America very much.

    Only fully-aware and self-interested consumption patterns can save the American future. That Mercedes is a nice strong nose-thumbing at the American worker … and yes, I know, many M-Bs are manufactured in the US … in the South … in right-to-work states … under labor conditions that would not be allowed in Germany. Ford, on the other hand, employs union labor and produces a product that proudly answers JFK’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country.”

    Things have reached the point where we Americans are going to have to rely on each other to dig our way out of this.

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