Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Right Isn't Totally Wrong (Just Mostly)

I know I compared the Tea Party and Glenn Beck to the Nazis the other day, but that doesn't mean I think they're genocidally wrong about everything. They're right to oppose the bailouts, although they seem to think that the bailouts were meant to give government greater control over private enterprise. Members of Congress have said they were told by (Bush's) Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that, if they didn't vote for the first bailout immediately, the economy would collapse. I think the politicians were trying to save the economy, but they refused to attach strings to the money, due to either their faith in laissez-faire capitalism or their being so deeply tucked into the pockets of Big Business they can't see $#!+.

They should've demanded that the bailed-out financial institutions cease the risky behavior that precipitated the crisis. Instead, we're stuck with too-big-to-fail banks that are now even bigger after gobbling up a bunch of little banks that didn't get government handouts to help them through the crisis. As if that weren't enough to induce vomiting, the TBTF banks are still playing fast and loose with their money, secure in the belief that the government will bail them out the next time they go belly up.

No matter how much I loathe the idea of bailing out corporations, the economic devastation that could've resulted from doing nothing was scary enough to bring me around to George W. Bush's point of view, a monumental feat. Of course, the way the money was distributed left much to be desired. Rather than letting the companies use it to buy out the competition, the government could've paid off all those subprime mortgages. The banks then could've wiped the toxic assets off their balance sheets, and the homeowners could've kept their homes.

But the bailouts did achieve their stated goal: The economy didn't go into freefall. Unfortunately, all we got for our $42 billion (officially, the amount that hasn't been paid back) was the elitist oxymoron of a "jobless recovery." It's a recovery only for the financial industry, whose government-favored goliaths enjoyed a record-breaking rebound from the Great Recession. The rest of us have to deal with the lingering symptoms of unemployment and foreclosures, which don't seem to disturb the Wizards of Wall Street in their glass towers.

Besides redistributing wealth to the wealthy, the bailouts were misguided in another crucial way. They were predicated on the assumption that continued economic growth is good and, with correct government policy, inevitable. If our leaders knew the folly of infinite economic growth as it relates to resource depletion and environmental degradation, they would've used the bailouts to begin a managed contraction of our economy.

As it stands now, we've left Nature to manage the contraction, and, the more we rage against her limits, the more precipitous and chaotic our decline will be. It's possible that more bailouts will be passed by Congress and signed by the President as the economy lurches from crisis to crisis. But, given the extreme unpopularity of the bailouts and the emergence of a well-endowed, right-wing movement dedicated to their rejection, I doubt it. The only saving grace might be to attach meaningful strings to the money, and I don't see the free-market acolytes on the Right going for that.

What we're left with is the probability of a swift, chaotic collapse of the economy in the near future. The people who would be presiding over that situation range from those who think capitalism occasionally needs no-strings-attached handouts and a little regulation (Democrats) to those who think capitalism works best with no handouts and no regulation (most of the GOP and all of the Tea Party). I really don't think they have the knowledge to deal with such a contingency. Barring the ecological enlightenment of our federal government, they will keep trying to grow the economy, which will have the rather ironic effect of digging us deeper into a pit of poverty.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Weimar Days

Back in April, I saw the recording artist Ke$ha perform one of her chart-toppers on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. The spectacle resembled a musical number from Cabaret, even though she and her backup dancers were dressed and acted like robots from space. This insubstantial pop starlet appeared to be attempting some obtuse political statement with her absurdly overblown stage show featuring two U.S. flags, one draped over the mic stand and the other lining the underside of her cape.

I've fallen far behind the music scene these days, but Ke$ha seems to be a cut-rate composite of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, the Taylor Dane to their Madonna. It's astonishing to me, a child of the '80s and '90s, that a pop star of her slim caliber would try such ambitious social commentary. Of course, I wasn't around for the late '60s or early '70s, but there seem to be disturbing parallels between our era and the Weimar Republic, which produced an abundance of politically-conscious art.

Glenn Beck's rally to restore America's "honor" is Exhibit A in this theory. The Right has been thoroughly enraged by Obama's "global apology tour," his speeches overseas that expressed a teensy bit of regret over the recent conduct of U.S. foreign policy. They feel that he's dishonoring the glorious, righteous wars we've been waging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more than that, he's suggesting that America is capable of making mistakes when it comes to war. Such self-criticism rattles one of the pillars of their world, American exceptionalism. This is the belief that America is "the shining city on the hill" (in Reagan's words) chosen by God to spread Truth, Justice and the American Way.

They can't imagine that, as far as our foreign policy is concerned, the U.S.A. may be nothing more than the latest in a long line of empires that use war merely to aggrandize their power. The only moral distinction between us and previous empires is the lengths to which we'll go to rationalize mass murder. Our forerunners were comfortable with conquest. We must convince ourselves that our way of life is threatened before we can bomb Third World peasants with a clear conscience.

The Nazis had a similar version of German history. It denied or rationalized the crimes Germany had committed in World War I and led the Nazis to believe that the Fatherland had been betrayed and disgraced by its leaders when they accepted responsibility and punishment for starting the war. German exceptionalism convinced the Nazis they should rule the world and exterminate all non-Aryans. Of course, most American exceptionalists do not desire global dominion. But, if you claim the right to destroy a country that poses no threat to your own (like Iran), what's the difference?

The other red flag thrown up by the Beck rally was its co-opting of the civil rights movement. Beck calls himself and his Tea Party pals the true inheritors of that movement, a claim whose absurdity transcends both comedy and gobsmackery. They are the most sheltered and privileged demographic in history. It recalls the twisted logic of the Nazis insisting that Christian Germans were oppressed by Jews, a minority that had known centuries of subjugation in Europe.

I know I'm guilty of the cliche of comparing my political adversaries to the Nazis, but the similarities are too striking to ignore. And, as I'm sure we've all heard, knowing history is the best way to avoid repeating it. Of course, if you erase the unpleasant parts, you might be inclined to repeat it.