Have we become delusional? Or were we always?

Portrait of King Totila from the 16th century book: Pauli Iovii Novocomensis episcopi Nucerini Vitae illustrium virorum: tomis duobus comprehensae, & proprijs imaginibus illustrata from the Digital Image Library of Pitts Theology Library. 1461 years ago today Totila sacked Rome. Sometimes you get sacked by the very people you make a deal with. Because, sometimes, they are not acting in good faith.

The two important events in our political life of the past two weeks show a stunning amount of self-deception.

I refer to the “Bush Tax Cut” deal and the Afghan policy review.

There’s really not much more to be said about the Tax Cuts. As a political matter, it was Waterloo. And Obama was Napoleon. For the working man and middle class it was Peterloo. And the working man was, well, the working man.

As a policy matter, there is no defense of it. The Republicans don’t even attempt a plausible one. No one seriously believes that there is any efficient job-producing benefit to the tax holiday for the wealthy. How many more servants can be hired? Even John McCain’s economic adviser, Mark Zandi of Moody’s,  subscribes to the almost universal view of economists that tax relief to the wealthy is a weak, at best, form of stimulus. If there was any doubt of the intellectual bankruptcy of the “trickle down” approach to economic policy-making (which is the fig that the GOP uses to hide the regressive wealth transfer that is the core of their philosophy), it was on display at the conference the President had with the CEOs this past week. After surrendering to pressures to ensure that these very individuals and their country club friends would have even greater after-tax take home pay, he evidently thought it was a good time to seek a favor: maybe some of them might now want to hire some people. He noted at the meeting with them at Blair House that they had $1.9 trillion on their books, so they clearly had the money for it. And after all, the compromise he worked out would get them more tax cuts for business, right? We’ll see, they said, making clear the point that the famed “rational actor” will only hire someone if he can make money off that employee. And it doesn’t matter how much money they have. That’s why the President told NPR anchor Steve Innskeep that if the “deal” were an emperor it would have no clothes:

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about something that we heard from one of our listeners.

We told our listeners we were going to have this conversation today. We got many questions for you. One came from a man named Tom Pluck of Montclair, New Jersey — a man who describes himself as a supporter.

The question that we got was: “Please ask him how keeping the tax rate for the richest the same as it has been for a decade creates one single job.”

OBAMA: It doesn’t, which is why I was opposed to it — and I’m still opposed to it.

The issue here is not whether I think that the tax cuts for the wealthy are a good or smart thing to do. I’ve said repeatedly that I think they’re not a smart thing to do, particularly because we’ve got to borrow money, essentially, to pay for them.

What’s a President to do? If he can’t get a sensible agreement, he has to get some agreement, no? After all, we don’t elect our leaders to come up with good policy, only to get along and make the Washington “pundits” happy.

So our tax philosophy is admittedly built on a delusion.

But enough about the tax cuts. We no longer expect any of our national politicians to care for anyone not rich enough to contribute to their political future. And boy have they delivered!

from the Wonk Room at Think Progress on March 17, 2008. I wonder if the subsequent economic collapse has helped enhance the standard of the nation's unemployed, workers and middle class?

Well, at least our leaders get their advice from the wealthiest. They certainly would never do anything to imperil our economy, eh?

On the foreign policy side, we have the annual Afghan assessment. This is the exercise where all the wise men of  the administration get together, lament the fact that the Afghan enterprise is going to hell in a handbag and dragging us with it, and draft a report that puts a happy face on the whole quagmire and allows the President and his men (and Hillary too) to liken the situation to a Boy Scouts expedition–with our Afghan friends trying out for merit badges in the hope that they, someday soon, might become Eagle Scouts.

The White House released the Executive Summary, of the report it calls the “Afghanistan and Pakistan Annual Review.” Of course the body is secret, but we have a pretty good idea about the bad news hidden there from cables released by Wikileaks and earlier by the New York Times.  The Summary, sugar-coated as it is, is probably all we can stomach anyway.

What does it say? Well, most important, of course, we are making progress. That’s a plus. Now the negative is “these gains remain fragile and reversible.” That can’t be good.

At least I got an answer to my question of what the goal is: “The core goal of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theater remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country.” That may be a hint as to why our progress is “fragile and reversible.” It seems al Qa’ida is in Pakistan, and we are in Afghanistan. And it seems Pakistan is doing nothing (or at least comparatively nothing) to “disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qa’ida in the region and to prevent its return to either country.”

Evidently, according to the author,  to meet “the challenge” (which is “to make our gains durable and sustainable”) it will “require the sustained denial of the group’s safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, among other factors.” So what is Pakistan doing along this front? It seems that our “progress” in terms of Pakistan’s cooperation with us “over the last year has been substantial, but also uneven.” If I weren’t completely confident in our leadership over the past decade of warfare there, this might cause me some concern. Fortunately, after the longest war in US history, we are having a “Strategic Dialogue” with Pakistan, which, the Summary noted, is “the challenge” going forward. What did that Dialogue entail? Let the Summary speak:

“The Dialogue improved mutual trust, prompted attention to reforms critical to long-term stability, and addressed development objectives important to the people of Pakistan. Civilian assistance increased with more aid flowing through Pakistani institutions, improved civilian stabilization activities, the development of critical energy and other infrastructure, and a robust flood response and recovery effort – which NATO directly assisted. We believe our renewed bilateral partnership is helping promote stability in Pakistan.”

Now that sounds like a start! But wait, haven’t we been at this for a while? So how is Pakistan doing in terms of rooting out Al-Qaeda? In the past year “Pakistan has made progress against extremist safe havens, taking action in six of seven agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.” But really, what did they accomplish by “taking action”? “Pakistan has endured thousands of casualties in their military ranks and among their civilian population from terrorist attacks.” But what did they accomplish? I can’t seem to find that in this report. It must be in the “body” that’s too depressing for us to see.

But at least tell us what remains to be done, please.  “[T]he denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.” But surely, we have been trying to cooperate? Oh, I get it, Pakistan has not been cooperating. Well, what can we do? “[T]he denial of extremist safe havens cannot be achieved through military means alone, but must continue to be advanced by effective development strategies.” So we have to pay them? How much will that cost? That too seems to be in the depressing part.

Well, since things are not going well in Pakistan, at least we are prevailing in Afghanistan, right? They have to let us do what we want. We account for nearly half the planet’s spending on military.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (armscontrolcenter.org), February 22, 2008. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Well, it seems there are problems on this front as well. You see, in order to achieve our objective of rooting out Al-Qaeda, we’ve acquired a new mission: “to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. We seek to achieve these objectives by degrading the Taliban insurgency, thereby providing time and space to build sufficient Afghan capacity.” Well, how is that additional mission going? “The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country.” That’s something at least. What, you say? “While the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas, these gains remain fragile and reversible.” What! What could possibly go wrong? “Consolidating those gains will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks. Durability also requires continued work with Afghanistan to transfer cleared areas to their security forces.” So in other words, Pakistan’s failure to root out the networks will allow the Taliban to re-enter the country at will and Afghanistan on its own can’t handle it.

Does this look like Vietnam to you? Does Pakistan remind you of Cambodia? I thought they said this was not in the least like our Vietnam adventure.

History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it punishes the delusional in pretty much the same way each time.

So there you have it. We are delusional in our central fiscal policy and the main focus of our military policy. We’ve been pursuing the fiscal policy for a decade now and we are becoming more and more hopelessly in debt and spending our money in ways that are not designed to address our central economic issue: providing jobs. We have been pursuing a military policy in Afghanistan for nearly a decade and the latest report is written as though we have just begun to fight.

It’s a good thing there are no Ostrogoths around or we would be in danger of surrender through corruption. Oh wait, the President had that meeting at Blair House. I wonder if it’s ominous that today is the 1464th anniversary of the fall of Rome, accomplished by the bribery of the Byzantine garrison by the King of the Ostrogoths?

  1. December 18th, 2010

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