April 23, 2010

Imperial death throes, nativist version

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes that the current federal deficit to GDP ratio is 99%, a figure not reached since 1945. Paul Krugman, among others, sometimes cites this data point to prove we've been here before. One thing I would note before taking too much solace in this analogy is that in 1945 we were fighting World War II. That's maybe what you call your classic special circumstance. The globe was being encircled by two fascist empires and the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union were all that stood between them and success. So the question becomes: how can a country get into this kind of a mess without a world war to explain it? That's a much different way of looking at the same facts, don't you think? The United States overcame this monumental debt through post-War prosperity, something else Krugman and the Cornucopians also note without pointing out a rather obvious problem with this part of the analogy. The world lay in ruins in 1945, the USA was the economic colossus with the biggest manufacturing capacity on Earth, the homeland was essentially untouched, and we were on a racehorse productive footing. Does any of that sound remotely similar?

I never quite understand how Nobel Prize winners miss details like that. The GAO (and remember, this is a fairly neutral fact-finding body, maybe the only one we really have in Washington) goes on to note that in under ten years (in 2020), the USA will spend 93% of its budget on interest payments on the national debt, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Woody Allen once said, optimistically, that death should not be looked upon "as an end; think of it as a very effective way to cut down on your expenses." By comparison, the reduction of the central government to a disbursement office for medical and pension payments will mean we will not have to worry about runaway defense expenditures, the court system, federal pensions, national parks, the interstate highway system, Amtrak, or anything else. In other words, on the trajectory outlined by the GAO at some point during the next ten years (and before ten years, obviously, because well short of the 93% mark lies The Last Station), the USA will cease to exist.

I don't know whether such a termination will actually happen, but it's odd how little such an outcome is actually discussed in public life, because the simple mathematics of the situation (which is what the GAO is dispassionately working with) compel only one conclusion. And realistically speaking, I don't think anyone actually believes that the Congress can actually take any proactive measures which would avoid the problem. Rather, it will allow Reality to dictate the course of events. Somewhere deep in the American psyche a realization of the consequences of the last 30 or 40 years of group irresponsibility and lack of realism are beginning to cohere. This is the fount, in my opinion, of the "distancing" that is going on between Ordinary Citizens, such as those in the Tea Party and certain States, on one hand, and the federal government on the other. Certain Southern governors, for example, have talked openly about secession and reminisced fondly about The Good Old Days - you know, during the Civil War. This stuff is catching on, and not just among the rubes. In some cases, I'm sure, the impetus for separation is given a kickstart by racism, i.e., that some people just will not accept having a President who is not entirely from the same genetic stock as George & Martha Washington (although the truth is that George Washington is from the same stock as both Barack Obama and Grover Washington). But that doesn't come close to a complete explanation. People are getting it that Social Security is actually on thin ice. Medicare is breaking down. Real unemployment is around 20%. And when an economy already struggling before the "housing crisis" fell through the floor, the federal government made certain that Congress's wealthy benefactors in lower Manhattan were taken care of and coddled with money from Main Street. An Ordinary American does not need to understand the intricate details of all this in order to get the general picture, and to get it accurately.

In this context it's interesting to assess the Arizona "anti-immigrant" law that is sitting on the governor's desk in Phoenix. What is she going to do? In a fairly direct way, I see this legislative enactment as another step along the way toward federal breakdown. In their heart of hearts, even Liberals can't help but be somewhat empathetic to the frustration behind the AZ law, although they can't admit that out loud. President Obama says the law is "misguided" and may infringe "civil liberties," but his problem on that score is pretty simple: President Obama really has no credibility where "civil liberties" are concerned because he doesn't really believe in them, not as a bedrock principle. Glenn Greenwald documents Obama's laissez-faire attitude toward the Bill of Rights on pretty much a daily basis. If an American citizen has an Arabic last name, is a troublemaker, and if the Right Wing would not object to the guy getting whacked, then official White House policy is now established that the guy can be taken out, and that will have to suffice for his 5th Amendment Due Process rights. There isn't much exaggeration in that characterization.

Immigration control is supposed to be a matter of federal jurisdiction. So what is the federal government doing? Building part of a wall. There are many laws on the books regarding citizenship, but they're not enforced. So the question becomes: do we actually have an immigration policy or not? Does the United States assert the right to control its borders, not just against people from Latin America, but generally? Do we believe we have the right to control our population? The money shot from Senate 1070 in Arizona is the following provision:

Requires officials and agencies to reasonably attempt to determine the immigration status of a person involved in a lawful contact where reasonable suspicion exists regarding the immigration status of the person, except if the determination may hinder or obstruct an investigation.

The law is more complicated than that, and it has lots of subparagraphs that attempt to get in the way of people picking up day laborers out at the Home Depot, et cetera, for example, it becomes a "misdemeanor" to obstruct traffic so the guys can jump in the back seat for a day of trimming your hedges. There is, of course, absolutely no doubt against whom the bill is aimed. It's not a coincidence that the bill emerges during a severe economic downturn amid all the foreclosures and state budget deficits. This is when people begin looking with a gimlet eye toward the "foreigners," who only yesterday were your neighbors (kind of like the Twilight Zone's immortal "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.") But up above, in the legislative summary, we see the problem: what's a "lawful contact" and what's a "reasonable suspicion?" Does Jose have to be stopped or accosted by the police for something else before they start in on the driver's license and birth certificate stuff? Who knows. I think the law is deliberately vague.

I personally like the idea that I can walk around in America without my "identification papers" (especially the kind that "expired two weeks ago" - remember the opening scene in "Casablanca." Speaking of which, why does the guy run directly toward the wall in the last second before he's shot in the back by the gendarmerie? Were retakes just too expensive during World War II?). If Arizona passes this law (I'm sure Gov. Jan Brewer will sign it), then of course the police are going to feel obligated to stop all kinds of people to avoid charges of "racial profiling," just as grandmothers using walkers are taken out of the line at the airport for a full body search.

Arizona's state-level "solution" to the problem of immigration is a nightmare for Obama, who received 60-70% of the Hispanic vote in the last election, partly on the strength of his promise to, once again, "reform our immigration laws," which of course means a general amnesty for all illegals. And here's a state beating him to the punch, and perhaps overstepping the Bill of Rights, which Barack usually uses to clean stuff off the bottom of his shoes but has now become a sacred document, involving, as it does, the electoral votes from New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.

This won't end well, but it is another portent of those strengthening "centrifugal forces." Ten years ago, I don't think a state would have tried something like this, tempting though it may have been. That it's about to become law is a sign of the times.

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