The Anthropocene Event (Part II)

By the beginning of the 21st century the developed word had slowly begun to realize the dimensions of the existential threat facing it on a number of fronts. And slowly, and reluctantly, people were beginning to face the fact that to stave off the threat major changes in life style were necessary. There were still a few who were proclaiming that there was no problem, and still few who claimed that we could invent our way out of the problem. But they were becoming quieter and fewer. You could see the dawning realization in the response to gasoline prices. As crude oil went through the roof (owing in no small part to American and British adventurism in the Middle East), and later as inadequate refining capacity prevented lower oil prices from being translated to the pump, consumer responses to doubling and tripling of gasoline prices was muted. In other times in America such a disruption would have resulted in great political upheaval. That it didn’t was at least partially attributable to the realization that we had been living far too long with cheap oil and that we would now have to pay the piper.

[For those walking in on the middle of this, you can start at the beginning with Part I.]

There was also a political dimension to it. There was a Republican President, and Repubicans stick together like coagulated blood. Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment (which he personally kept like he kept the other commandments–when it was in his interest) became internalized by the group of Reagan followers–Republicans who had little personal merit and probably would have wallowed in the backwaters but for him. As a result, the GOP became a party designed to maintain a monolitic front in order to obtain and keep power. It meant that they no longer had a principled basis–individually or collectively. Barely a peep was heard from any of them as George W. Bush violated nearly all of their vaunted ideals. It didn’t matter, however, because, purely from a power-grabbing perspective governing was an afterthought. Their basic world-view is that all government is bad. So if a Republican governs badly (and the Bushes seemed particularly enamored of bank crises, recessions and war), it only proved the point of the Republicans: government is always bad.

The Democrats learned another lesson from Reagan. They believed that the country was center-right. Or right-far right. So they adjusted individually. As the Republicans were marching lock-step, the Democrats believed that it was everyone for himself (much like the moral philosophy of Reaganism). So beginning in the 1970s partly for good and partly for bad reasons, the Democrats began dismantling the authority of the central party, which increased the need of each individual candidate to find funding from sources other than the party. And so they had to reach out to the very wealthy. This was the same source that Republicans had successfully tapped for years, but it was becoming essential for Democrats as the cost of buying an elective position escalated. Looking just at the past decade, the total expenditures in all House election campaigns was:

In 1998: about $300 million
In 2000: about $370 million
In 2002: about $526 million
In 2004: about $575 million
In 2006: about $742 million
In 2008: about $828 million

(These figures are from a September 2010 General Accounting Office Report to the Senate (see p21).)

It being a buyers’ market for contributors to federal politicians, the contributors naturally were able to extract concessions from the Democrats and the result was the decade of the “naughts.” Wall Street was deregulated under the economic theories of Alan Greenspan and ultimate opportunist Phil Graham. Their theories held that unbridled greed was the best restraint on financial actors. It was a novel theory. One not shared, for example, by the authors of the Federalist Papers (see, e.g., No 7 by conservative Alexander Hamilton).

And it worked: Just like it worked in the 1920s. Unregulated financial “products” created unsustainable demand for such things as real estate. And it came crashing down, just like it did in the end of the 1920s. But, hey, who could have guessed, right? We had lived for so long under the financial regulations of the New Deal that it was natural to assume that when they were dismantled things would go on as before, right? And they did. The 1920s were right before the New Deal.

So now we had a world financial crisis comparable to the one that plunged the world into the 20th Century’s second greatest misery. That misery directly led to the 20th Century’s greatest misery: WWII. And here is why: when people are desperate they are subject to being “harnessed” by those who seem to have the answer. In the 1930s the democrats of Germany had as much as said they had no answer, and the National Socialists claimed they did.  This same scenario played out slightly before and slightly after in many parts of Europe. But we need not dwell on that now.

In 2008 it seemed that there was a group that had the answers. When Barack Obama began what seemed like a quixotic quest for the presidency, however, the questions seemed to be different. The questions then were: how to stop out-of-control militarism, how to rid government of partisan corruption, how to bring rationality back to governing after years of letting blind ideology run rampant.

Then the summer of 2008 happened. Obama had won (i.e., he had the delegates) the nomination, but the economy was coming apart at the seams. No one had debated what to do in the primaries, because no one thought the economy was going to collapse like it did. But no matter. Obama was a smart guy. Presumably at Columbia he read Aeschylus and Smith and Paine and Marx. You had to; it was required there. (Surely he didn’t read the Cliff Notes, right?) Anyway, he was a smart guy and the ground had been covered before. Surely he had heard of the New Deal. Anyway, what choice was there? The alternative was John McCain, once affable, but always clueless, whose desperation caused him to lunge dramatically rightward and in an appeal to the authoritarian right picked Sarah Palin for his running mate.

The Democrats won, but not as convincingly as you would suppose. In 1932, for example, FDR first won office by taking 472 of the 531 electoral votes. Of course, FDR was running in 1932, not 1930. If Obama were first running in 2010 (even if the Republicans had not further tanked the economy–a very dubious assumption given their views now on “stimulus”), he would no doubt have taken all but the most reactionary of the southern states.

But with all the great joy of the “historic” win, the transition period showed signs of trouble. As the world economy was teetering over an abyss, Obama was surrounding himself not with the best minds of the generation but political retreads whose word-view contributed (if not caused) the very deregulation that led to the financial crisis. Then in populating his cabinet he began to cripple the Democrats’ control of the Senate. Let’s take a quick look at how he did this.

When the dust settled on the November 2008 elections there were 56 Democrats and 2 Independents (including Joe Lieberman) who organized with the Democrats. Of course 3 would have to be taken away: Obama, Biden and Clinton would resign their seats. In the short term, that was not a problem because all three had Democratic governors. Of course, the ones in New York (David Paterson) and Illinois (Rod Blagojevich) were not known to be strategic thinkers and they both had their own axes to grind, so it was not a sure bet that they would pick replacements that could be counted on to hold the seat. (The Illinois seat now is a toss-up.) Biden’s seat depended on his son running and beating the state’s sole congressman, the highly popular Michael N. Castle. Biden’s son decided not to run and it was only the self-destruction of the Delaware GOP (which nominated a candidate from the party’s ever-growing lunatic subgroup) that gives the Democrats any hope of retaining that seat.

Then the President selected three highly popular figures, who probably would have run for Senate, to be part of his cabinet (in addition to Hillary Clinton): Janet Napolitano (sitting governor of Arizona), Tom Vilsack (highly popular two-term governor of Iowa) and Kathleen Sibelius (highly touted governor of Kansas). Why these politicians were considered the best choices for Homeland Security, Agriculture and Heath and Human Services is beyond me. What I am sure of is that the President took three races that could have been highly competitive and possibly all three winnable by the Democrats and allowed them to be essentially uncontested Republican seats. In Kansas the incumbent, Sam Brownback retired, leaving the seat open. The other two seats were occupied by Charles Grassley and John McCain. By conceding those seats, the President allowed both Grassley and McCain to worry about their right rather than their left. They thus spent the last two years harassing the Democrats instead of acting the “moderates”–a role they had performed in other times. The wooing of Grassley was the unseemly and moronic story of the campaign of Max Baucus to produce a “bipartisan” health bill. Grassley strung the simple-minded Baucus along, then poked him in the eye and voted against it. McCain has been acting the role of the “concerned” reactionary, hinting at but fearful of coming out and acting the Palinesque fool. Without any potential attack from the left, however, he was able (and did) come out full bore against the President and the Democrats in order to protect his right flank.

It was the White House’s coddling of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party as well as its misguided notions of unattainable bipartisanship that showed that this Administration would take the Weimar Republic and not the New Deal as its guide.

But because only so much salt can be rubbed in an open wound at any one time, we’ll take this up again in the next, which you can find here.

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  1. November 4th, 2010

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