Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 December 2010

A Critical Year End

The interval between Christmas and the New Year is a time to sum up. You can bet that every mainstream publication will be cranking out summaries of the year just passed and predictions for the one to come. You can also bet that most will compete vigorously in superficiality, focusing on celebrities and events whose significance is already vanishing. Conventional wisdom, repeated endlessly, will reach the point of nausea.

My own perspective differs wildly from that of the mainstream media I read (I hardly watch TV any more; its mindlessness is far too depressing.) I believe the year now passing was one of the most critical in our national history, and the year to come will be even more so. My reasons are simple but unusual.

First, after forty years of farting around, we have exhausted our lead time for intelligent response to our energy “crisis.” The future we feared is here now, and the time for an effective response is rapidly vanishing. In the next year or two we will be tossed about by economic and perhaps political forces like a ship without a rudder—all on depleting seas of oil, on which we are utterly dependent, and all without regard to the equally serious (but longer-term) problem of global warming.

Second, I believe we are entering a critical phase in our “ideological disease,” analogous to what the Russians went through in their anti-Gorbachev putsch of 1991. The analogy is far from perfect. But just imagine the pathetic economic state of Russia (or the Soviet Union) today if the putsch had succeeded and the same tired policies that had bankrupted the Soviets and destroyed their industrial infrastructure had continued to the present day.

If we don’t change course dramatically and soon, something similar will happen to us. That’s why the next year and the 2012 presidential election will mark a crisis in our ideological disease. We will either throw off the virus or likely succumb to it.

Unlike the unsuccessful Communist putsch in Russia in 1991, our own putsch was peaceful and successful. November’s midterm elections brought to power the same people, with the very same tired ideas, that caused our near economic collapse in 2008 and that have weakened us to the point of collapse over the last thirty years.

As I’ve argued in a recent post, which (due to its importance) I repeat below, we have an ideological disease just as serious as the Soviets’ and just as likely to bring us down if not cured soon. The only person qualified and positioned to effect a cure is our President—analogous to Russia’s Yeltsin on the tank, facing down the 1991 putsch.

Our own chief putscher, John Boehner, is third in line for the presidency. As the Apostle of No and perhaps the national political figure most fundamentally ignorant of economics (although he has many close competitors), he will be bad enough as Majority Leader. His tenure as president would be unthinkable.

As Yogi Berra once sagely remarked, the future is one thing that is hard to predict. But one thing is not hard to see. The health of our nation now depends on the health of two individuals: the President and Vice President. Outside of our War of Independence, the Civil War, and World War II, our dependence on individual leaders has never been so acute.

So when the New Year arrives, I will quietly toast the President’s and Vice President’s health and the Secret Service’s vigilance. Although not a religious man, I will also offer a corresponding (if secular) fervent prayer.

Here is a reprint of my post summarizing the analogy between our own ideological disease and the Soviets’:

Reds on the Right

A recurrent theme on this blog is the resemblance between the mindless ideology that the GOP has pushed for thirty years and the one that destroyed the Soviet Union. [See 1, 2, 3 and 4.] They differ in economic substance of course, but in methods they are surprisingly similar. The only major difference is that our system emphasizes propaganda more than terror, at least up to now.

I have argued that no one “won” the Cold War. Both sides lost. The War’s mutual paranoia caused each side to dig itself deep into an ideological hole—and away from reality—with ultimately catastrophic consequences.

Of course the ideologies differed in substance. Communism is not the same as fundamentalist, over-the-top capitalism. But both ideologies shared essential methods and means that made them dangerous to national health. Both were “totalitarian” in the sense that they ignored reality, brooked no dissent, and involved “creative” (some would say “fantastic”) rewriting of facts and history.

While the substance of GOP ideology differs from the Soviets’, the methods of enforcing the different lies are chillingly similar. Our propaganda organs, such as Fox, are privately funded, but they could have taught the Soviets a thing or three.

The Reds had their commissars in every department of government to enforce the party line on ideology, history and “truth.” Commissars even ruled the factory where the great aircraft designer Tupolev and his team of engineers designed warplanes at the height of World War II. Under Karl Rove, Dubya’s administration had the same thing: he just called them “political operatives” instead of “commissars.” But they did precisely the same job: (1) spying on their departments and reporting ideological transgressions to political controllers, (2) exercising direct authority outside the chain of command, and (3) owing absolute political loyalty to their ideological masters because of their youth, inexperience and ideological zeal. Our commissars even had their own universities where they received political indoctrination, places like the Orwellian-named “Liberty” University and Oral Roberts’ college of religious indoctrination.

A second characteristic of ideological totalitarianism is the cult of personality. During the Cold War, American scientists used to laugh at how Soviet commissars forced their scientists to begin papers on abstruse fields with several paragraphs of praise for Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Communist Party, and whoever was then its general secretary. Under Duyba, the surgeon general of the United States was ordered [search for “three times”] to mention Dubya, by name, at least three times on every page of his public speeches.

But word play is the worst and most Orwellian of the mutually observed totalitarian tactics. Just as the Soviets rewrote history and redefined words, so does our GOP and its talented PR operatives. I’ve already written extensively [see 1 and 2] on the redefinition of words, and I won’t repeat that analysis here. But Paul Krugman of the New York Times has just brilliantly summarized how the GOP has rewritten recent history and intends to continue to do so.

In order to blame the Great Economic Collapse of 2008 on government, rather than the unrestrained private banks that actually caused it, GOP dissenters on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission have blacklisted words like “deregulation,” “shadow banking,” “interconnection,” and even “Wall Street.” Having disposed of these inconvenient words and the underlying concepts, they concluded that government alone had caused the catastrophe.

Failing to face reality always has consequences. The Soviet Union is no more. Most of its subject (non-Russian) peoples are no longer part of it. They are not even satellites. Instead, they are citizens of separate nations with varying degrees of economic dependence on Russia.

Russia itself has only a fraction of the old Soviet Union’s GDP. It is now engaged in a long and painful struggle to rebuild its industrial base and create a modern industrial infrastructure, including roads throughout its vast territory. The only thing truly modern about it today are its armament and space industries. Even its oil industry, despite large reserves, is technologically backward and dilapidated.

A similar fate awaits us if we continue on our present course. It won’t be the arms race that bankrupts us, although our endless wars, financed by borrowing, surely will help. It will be our profligate use of fossil fuels and our utter dependence on them for our entire transportation infrastructure. You have only to look at this graph to see why. Together with Canada, we use eleven times as much oil per capita as the developing world, including the BRIC countries.

Unless we bind up this Achilles heel soon, it will be the cause of our economic collapse, just as an unwinnable arms race was for the Soviets. The precise trigger of our collapse will be a second banking crisis like that of 2008, brought on by failure to face honestly the causes of the first.

Some time ago, I pooh-poohed a theory of an old Russian KGB man turned professor. He had predicted a breakup of these United States much like the Soviet Union’s.

Now I’m not so sure I was right. Our Constitution is just a piece of paper. When economic powerhouses like California, Illinois, New York and Washington State begin to understand how the so-called “red” states are dragging them down, they may decide to head for the exits and make their own, better economic policy. Our nuclear weapons, evenly distributed around the nation, would avoid another civil war because, as I’ve argued, nuclear weapons keep the peace. So a Soviet-style breakup here, while still unlikely, is far from impossible.

How ironic is the resemblance! Even the nicknames are the same. In the old Cold-War days, we used to call the Communists “Reds” because their banners were red. Now we call the GOP states “red” states.

Whoever thought up that color scheme must have been clairvoyant. We Democrats are “blue” because we continue to lose despite having far better contact with reality. The “reds,” with a propaganda machine unmatched in human history, are winning. They’re not the old Russian or Soviet Reds, but our own reds on the right. Yet their “victory” will be a pyrrhic one, just as was the Soviets’, even if it takes another seventy years for the tragedy to play itself out. No person or political party, however powerful, can make his or its own reality for long.

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  • At Fri Dec 31, 01:44:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Let me begin by stating that Your comments in the NYT are always a refreshing and pleasurable way to learn new things.

    Secondly ,as a European, I am possibly somewhat more alert on the undeniable "soviet" undercurrent I see in America's daily political madness.

    We have been "close to the fire" for years (I am of 60"s vintage) and have seen the cold war develop from a rather difficult, but educational position in-between ,so to speak.

    The way I see right-wing propaganda spout total untruths reminds me of Goebbellian propaganda too.

    There is a joke/saying here that states the following: "America has learned much more from nazi-Germany's scientists than just rocket technology"

    There clearly is also a total divergence of culture going on between the "old" and the "new" world. Strangely enough, we are seeing the new world fall in the same traps that have marred Europe for ages. Greed ,religious strife, military enforced nepotism and egotism.

    Europe learned the hard way that co-operation is a necessity for survival . The same thought hasn't completely sunk-in at the right in America ,it seems.

    The "left" (although, in European terms more "center-left") knows it already, but constantly squanders the ability to do something about it by, either internal stryfe, or underestimating the pure evil and rucksichtloses undercurrent in the Right-Wing.

    The left's habit of "wanting to do the right thing' is used expertly as a weapon by the Right-Wing hawks.

    I consider myself lucky to be living in Northern Europe, where a general attitude exists of "taking care of the weaker parts of society" even our "right" doesn't dispute pensions, accessible healthcare etc.

    I know the American side of the equation all too well, having family in LA. The situation for them has become so dire, that we started to send THEM money to survive....while in the 60's THEY were the people that supported my parents when in a financial rut.. Things completely inverted, bizarre as that may seem.

    Well, enough blabbering.
    Looking forward to many more things to learn in Your sound posts.


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