March 09, 2008

Although on the Other Hand: Who Would Want to be President Now?

Being a blogger myself, I read blogs. It's what I like best about the Internet: the chance to be an information junkie. I realize a lot of what one reads in this undisciplined, unregulated world is creative speculation, and practically all hard data in blog-writing is lifted, almost entirely, from reporters doing the actual work of interviewing and investigation. Although one must say that reporters are increasingly incompetent; even on the largest dailies, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, the writers seem dreadfully uninformed about the basics of economics, law and science. The politicians count on it in using Big Media to sell their patently illogical arguments. For example, Harry Reid's mush-mouthed excuse for never seriously opposing the Iraq war: "We don't have 60 votes in the Senate, and we have to have help from the Republicans to change course." Pelosi pulls the same crap in the House, using a different but equally specious argument. For every one writer who sees through the fallacy, there are five Stenographers of the Fourth Estate who will repeat it uncritically.

There are numerous exceptions. Rosa Brooks (a Yale-educated lawyer), who writes for the Los Angeles Times is a brilliant analyst and polemicist. She always gets the law right, for example. Dan Froomkin of the WashPost is similarly good; Bush never gets an even break with Dan, and it's an imbalance which W has earned and richly deserves.

Yet the mainstream writers cannot match les enfants terribles of the true Internet underground, writers like Mike Whitney on Big Media have to remain mainstream and respectable; I think when the solar system nears its end, and the sun begins its final expansion at the end of its Main Sequence, burning off the Earth's atmosphere and boiling our seas before we undergo complete vaporization, the New York Times will report that "numerous experts have cautioned that data are incomplete, and that the current average global temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit may abate sufficiently to allow life to resume on the surface within the next six to eighteen months." The non-Mainstream writers are not so constrained; the coming Apocalypse has never been described more colorfully. The Clusterfuck Man his own self, James Howard Kunstler, is another brilliant Cassandra and herald of impending disaster. As an example of their style, Whitney writes about the collapsing American economy thusly:

"Roach notes that the recession of 2000 to 2001 was a collapse of business spending which only represented a 13 per cent of GDP. Compare that to the current recession which “has been set off by the simultaneous bursting of property and credit bubbles.... Those two economic sectors collectively peaked at 78 percent of gross domestic product, or fully six times the share of the sector that pushed the country into recession seven years ago.”

"Not only will the impending recession be six times more severe; it will also be the death knell for America's consumer-based society. Attitudes towards spending have already changed dramatically since prices on food and fuel have increased. That trend will only grow as hard times set in."

There is, of course, a barely disguised glee in such doomsaying. Whitney and Kunstler positively hate what America has become. Their writing wallows in all our misfortunes. Underlying their approach is the tacit argument that the only way to move from the America of Henry Miller's "Air Conditioned Nightmare" to the Ecotopia they prefer is through a wrenching, incredibly messy, radically displacing Depression.

I have read for years, of course, about the mounting toll that America's loss of its manufacturing base; its excessive borrowing; our staggering trade imbalances; our astronomical national debt; our completely insane health care costs; our dangerous dependence on unstable sources of oil -- would take on our standard of living. One way or another, I have preferred to believe in American Exceptionalism. That while cranks and misfits might describe the disaster that must inevitably follow from such a daunting set of conditions, nothing really bad could actually happen. Those really bad things are now actually happening. I think, in truth, the full extent of the problem is being actively concealed by the government, to wit, the regulators are not being candid about the shape the big banks are currently in. The dollar is pancaking, the "derivatives" and mortgage-backed securities markets have ceased to function, the largest financial houses are allowing themselves to be taken over by foreign "sovereign wealth" funds, Americans are walking out of their houses and sending the keys back to the lenders, jobs are being lost (not added), gasoline is approaching four bucks a gallon, inflation is accelerating, the Dow Jones is where it was about eight years ago. And we have George W. Bush in charge of the American system of government.

Whitney predicts the Dow will be at 7,000 at year's end, using a different "methodology" than I used in pegging it at 9,100. My algorithm had more nuance, if you ask me. He's just being dire. But this certainly doesn't feel very good. The Iraq war debate is bound to change as the ground shifts under the feet of the Presidential candidates. It's one thing to talk about spending three trillion (as Joseph Stiglitz predicted) on an unnecessary war when times are relatively good; quite another when bread lines snake around the street and homeowners hold off the sheriff's eviction squads with sawed-off shotguns. McCain may find his admission that he doesn't know much about economics serves quite well as an exit line; no one is going to want to hear about how well the Iraqis are doing with the billions we're investing in them. The remaining question is whether anyone is going to want to preside over this triage tent beginning in January, 2009.

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