Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Everyone's looking back...

... at the very bad, quite terrible, just plain awful past decade, and the not-so-heartwarming past year, and, apart from the seriously propagandized and addled wingnutz, the consensus seems to be that we've been living through some really unpleasant shit.

Of course, not as unpleasant a pile of shit as that in which the victims of various U.S. wars have found themselves... so, disaster is relative.

But, one has to look back at the last couple of decades to get a more complete picture of why things seem so desperate today. We ended the `80s with a couple of object lessons in the dangers of deregulation--the bailout of Citibank and the savings and loan debacle--that went completely unheeded, and, in what is now seen as typical fashion, proceeded in these past two decades to heap greedy self-interest of the elites on top of imprudent disregard by politicians, and the result has been a succession of bursting bubbles that have severely damaged the "real" economy of the country.

We ended the `80s with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the accelerating crack-up of the Soviet Union, which held the promise of not only ending the Cold War, but also of ending four decades of wildly extravagant military spending which, in most of those years, was three to four times what would have been necessary in peacetime. In equally typical fashion, we instead resisted any significant demobilization of U.S. forces and proceeded to unleash that military in now at least nine different theaters. Military spending has, instead, skyrocketed from its already high Cold War levels, and the U.S. currently operates about 750 known bases outside our territorial limits, along with perhaps 150-200 more in classified locations.

We ended the `80s with the sober realization that the combination of excessive military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations had done extensive damage to the country's finances, that in just the two terms of one President, Reagan, the national debt had ballooned from less than one trillion dollars to three trillion dollars. Instead of reversing the policies that had allowed that to happen, governmental, corporate and personal debt headed for the ionosphere, while, at the same time, the maldistribution of real wealth continued to become even more lopsided. We gained billionaires, but, the national debt nearly tripled from its end-of-the-`80s level and the safety net below the middle class and the poor became progressively more tattered and careworn. Productivity nearly doubled in the successive two decades, but the wages of ordinary workers, corrected for inflation, were virtually stagnant.

At the end of the `80s, there was budding awareness that climate change was quickly gaining on us, that issues of sustainability were paramount, that changes in the ozone layer indicated that human activity could, indeed, affect the biosphere in relatively short periods of time, and that corporate profits and the consumer consumption driving those profits figured prominently in the problem. Over the intervening two decades, little to nothing has been done, climate agreements without teeth continue to be made, wars for resources continue to be fought, and the trade agreements created in the meantime have disproportionately benefitted the wealthy corporations of the wealthiest countries, to the detriment of the biosphere and ourselves.

Over the intervening two decades, we've seen a general diminishment of both human rights around the world and diminishment of our civil rights at home, with both of those trends greatly accelerating in the past decade due to a timid and feckless Congress and a President and Vice President steadfastly, ruthlessly, determined to expand the powers of the administrative branch of government. Over the same period, we've also seen the courts moved ever rightward, producing decisions that generally have favored the power of the state and corporations over those of the individual. Government has become, contrary to Constitutional mandate, decreasingly secular and more inclined to entertain the whims and demands of fundamentalist Christian groups (consider, for example, the tawdriness of the Terry Schiavo business and the damaging results of political and religious interference in stem cell research).

Congress and Reagan abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in the late `80s, while media power through consolidation and legislation became greater in the `90s. As a consequence, news media have become increasingly tendentious, less informative and more accustomed to pleasing corporate stockholders than meeting their obligations to the citizenry. News gathering and dissemination are steadily being drained of life, and two of the worst examples in this regard are publicly-funded radio and television, both of which no longer see their primary role as speaking truth to power.

There were high expectations for 2009, in very large part due to the election of Barack Obama and the prospect of his first term coinciding with strong Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. The country was hungry for a reversal of these trends adverse to both democracy and citizens' well-being, and yet, by and large, there's no firm reason to expect much. Health care reform has been transformed into business-friendly health insurance reform, and the process by which that has been done has been both ugly and indicative of the degree to which Democrats have been co-opted by big business. Congress has thus far failed to undo the damage to civil rights done in past years, and the Obama administration has adamantly refused to bring war criminals to justice. Moreover, it seems to have adopted many of the most offensive tactics employed by the Bush administration to evade government accountability with regard to domestic spying, torture and the prosecution of war. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proceed apace, and Obama has expanded them into Pakistan, and, most recently, Yemen. The banking industry continues to be propped up and protected from both its own mistakes and prosecution for its crimes, in large part because Obama has surrounded himself with many of the Wall Street players who helped create the crisis, and a compromised Congress has avoided repealing the laws that permitted those finance industry excesses and encouraged the underlying fraud on Wall Street. Those hopes that Obama would emerge as the FDR of this current crisis have been effectively dashed by Obama himself, although there were indications well before his election that those expectations were unfounded.

All in all, we might be better off if the political process in the country were moribund, but, in fact, it's not--it's actively working against the general interests of the electorate, and that's a phenomenon that began with Reagan and has been gathering steam ever since, in part because Republicans are determined to prove, by their actions, that government can't solve problems, and in part because the Democrats have succumbed to the false belief, promoted by the so-called New Democrats (the old DLC), that kowtowing to big business is the key to electoral success.

If there's any lesson to be learned from the last few years, it's that representative democracy in the United States has been rendered impotent by the elite, and that concentrated power has created a level of corruption and hypocrisy in the nation that likely cannot be expunged by any of the systemic means still left to the ordinary citizen.

One of the principles of transcendentalism is that one must go through a "dark night of the soul" before one is receptive to enlightenment, and as bleak as the prospects for genuine democracy have seemed in the recent past, that dark night is still yet to come.


Post a Comment

<< Home