The Waste Land


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.

He 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 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 water course in north-west 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 game plan 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 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 last 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 think tanks 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 per cent 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.

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Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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