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

24 July 2011

Watching the Sun Set

[For a brief comment on Elizabeth Warren’s possible Senate run, click here. For a sample letter to your representatives in Congress to avert default, and the reasons to send it, click here.]

Something extraordinary happened during the last week. The sun began to set on American global leadership and rise on China.

There were no signing ceremonies, no speeches, no brass bands. We Yanks might deny it. But at the end of the day, we have less than five percent of the world’s population. China alone has nearly one-quarter.

Here’s what the rest of the world saw in us this dismal week:

1. A country so divided it cannot function;

2. A nation held in thrall by an ideology so extreme, and so devoid of factual and evidentiary support, as to rival Soviet and Chinese Communism in their heydays;

3. A Constitution that allows a relatively small minority—primarily from the least populous, least productive, least developed, and least well educated states—to control our nation’s policy by obstruction and extortion;

4. Mass media avidly reporting the antics of supposed “candidates” for president whose ignorance of world affairs, economics and their own country’s history is appalling;

5. A prime mover behind the economic realism of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that won’t follow the same advice that it, through those institutions, imposes on others;

6. A people misled (in large part) by a terrifying propaganda machine, more powerful, more insidious and more effective by far than those of Joseph Goebbels and Josef Stalin (strange that they were both named “Joseph,” not “Rupert”);

7. A once pragmatic and reasonable people whose public face increasingly appears to be ignorant, shouting, and name-calling bullies or pretty but empty heads like Palin’s and Bachmann’s;

8. A rising (but so far not predominant) culture that increasingly looks like Adolph Hitler’s, but which poses only an internal threat, not an external one, and does little scapgegoating of minorities (except for Muslims); and

9. A relatively soft-spoken, chain-smoking, weeping House Majority Leader (Stalin wept, too!), who personifies all that has gone sour and is trying to hold the nation’s economy hostage in an extortion plot worthy of a Mafia gangster.

Of course the President cannot yield to the extortion. He would be America’s own, internal Neville Chamberlain if he did. Yield to bullies once and there will never be an end. With his off-the-scale emotional intelligence, the President knows that.

That’s why he has threatened to veto the GOP’s “kick the can down the road” solution, not just that it would roil markets almost as much as default. If he has to, he must make good on that threat.

But as necessary as is facing down the bullies, it won’t be nearly enough. The damage is already done. The rest of the world sees a great nation held hostage by a lunatic fringe, or a lunatic “fringe” much larger and more powerful than it ought to be.

After this week, no rational person observing us from abroad will ever see us in quite the same light again. The sun is setting on our empire with the same ineluctable force as it sets every day. Unlike King Canute and his clever propaganda, we can’t even seem to hold it back.

If we continue down the path of government-by-extortion that we’re on, we might become a fascist state. But we don’t pose much of a threat to the outside world, only to ourselves. We are going bankrupt, economically and morally, and we are already exhausted by our two endless wars and our interminable internal bickering. We are mostly objects of pity, not fear. But having still the world’s largest economy, we may drag a whole lot of innocent others down with us as we go.

The President doesn’t like to look back. But it’s worthwhile noting that our decline began almost three decades before he took office. It began when we elected a grade-B actor as president and fell under the spell of his seductive charm and simplistic ideology.

China was shaking off an equally simplistic ideology (Communism) at almost exactly the same time. Deng Xaioping took de facto control of China’s Communist party in 1978, two years before Reagan became our president. Deng had once quoted an old Chinese proverb: “Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

Deng’s rise to power turned China away from the barren ideology of Communism and back to traditional Chinese realism and pragmatism. At the same time, Reagan charmed us with wishful right-wing thinking like the “Laffer curve,” a graph by a previously obscure economist purporting to show that you can raise revenue by lowering taxes.

Everything that’s happened since flowed from those two events. China went from ideology to pragmatism and we the reverse. The rest is history.

Oddly enough, there is another parallel. After the agony of China’s so-called “Cultural Revolution,” Deng charged that its neglecting education and forcing students into ideological straitjackets had produced “an entire generation of mental cripples.” Can anyone reading the myriad of ungrammatical, illogical, entirely ideological comments in any on-line American medium today say that Fox Propaganda and the “Tea Party” revolution have not done the same for us?

President Obama is not our Deng Xiaoping. He has the brains and pragmatism but not the power. That’s why he often seems annoyingly centrist and wishy-washy, at least to those who don’t understand how deep is the hole we are in. We will have to wait, perhaps for years or decades, before our noisy and chaotic democracy can fully accept a leader like Deng. By then, of course, China will be not only the world’s leading economy, but the world’s universally recognized leading nation as well.

We will leave behind only a useful warning: don’t bind yourself with a written constitution that gives irrevocable power to bare land. And don’t ever, ever let small groups or individual local or regional leaders block policy for an entire great nation. With our sorry example and astoundingly rapid decline engraved in history, no new or reforming nation will ever have anything like our Senate, or our inability to recall a failing leader without proving “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

We Yanks might feel nostalgic and resentful as our leadership slips away. But we will get over it as we struggle to survive. Britain is still around and often admired, despite losing its empire over half a century ago. And it appears to be expelling the deadly parasites Murdoch faster than we.

The rest of the world won’t miss us for long. There are other democracies that promote individual liberty and freedom of speech. As long as China continues on its traditional path of trade and development, not militarism, the world may ultimately appreciate China’s leadership more than ours.

Whether a cat is Chinese or American makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat. We stopped catching mice and started believing in ideological fairy tales a long time ago. (1, 2 and 3) Now the dark fruits of that true belief are ripening, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Run, Elizabeth, Run!

With a story today, the New York Times raised speculation whether Elizabeth Warren, deprived of the chance to run the consumer protection agency that she conceived and set up, will run for Scott Brown’s Senate seat next year. Brown won that seat in a much-watched special election after Ted Kennedy’s death. Apparently Warren is going to take a vacation and think hard before making up her mind.

Warren will have at least three things to consider. First, she will have to decide whether she can tolerate the long hours, tedium, boredom and constant harassment of electoral politics. Second, she will have to think about her tenured professorship at Harvard and its “two-year rule.” Under that rule, a professor on leave for more than two years loses tenure and must petition to get it back. That rule probably applies to her already, and it’s hard to imagine her colleagues not inviting back a person who has done so much for her country.

The third thing to consider is probably most important: an apparent handicap of women running for electoral office in Massachusetts and the need to bone up on—of all vital issues in our rapidly declining society—major league baseball!

But I hope she runs, and I’m confident that if she does she will win. I know of no other person I would rather see in the U.S. Senate, preferably on the Finance Committee. And we desperately need more women in the Senate and in government generally.

Just the thought of her running gives me so much hope that I will make an open pledge on this blog. If Warren runs, I will stop sitting on my wallet and donate $500 toward her campaign, with more to follow if needed.

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  • At Tue Jul 26, 02:51:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Brilliant as always, Jay, but I think the "irrevocable power to bare land" part of our Constitution is only coincidentally part of the problem, and it won't be one of our main warnings for history. As you know, we aren't in this mess because a handful of unjustified red state senators play obstructionist games once in a while. Your own writing about Murdoch's media empire and the related right-wing propaganda machine points to the infinitely larger problem. It's shameful that we even have red states, considering what it means to be a Republican in this decade. Their slight over-representation has made the difference on some key policy fights lately, but it's their existence that poses an existential threat to America. The only way to fix all this is to turn them blue, or else drag the Republican Party back 40+ years to something resembling sanity.

  • At Tue Jul 26, 09:00:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    I agree that turning the red states blue, if possible, is the best expedient. If you haven't already read it, here's a post that suggests how.

    Still, I wonder how easy that will be to do. We're fighting the most resilient and intransigent of the three cultures in the US: Southern culture. Sometimes when I watch Mitch on TV the thought occurs to me that these folks actually relish the prospect of causing a national default, as revenge for Sherman's march through Georgia. They don't seem ever to forget or forgive, let alone give up their prejudices.

    As for the bare land issue, I think you underestimate how badly the Great Compromise and the Senate’s extremely antidemocratic rules have hurt us. As I noted eighteen months ago, they allow one-tenth of our population, producing one-tenth of our GDP, to block any national policy in Congress. And, as it turns out, that one tenth is not only the least productive, but also the least well educated.

    I am convinced we would be better off with a parliamentary system. If we had one, we never would have had to suffer eight years of Dubya. Obama might have had to survive a no-confidence vote, but he could have gotten much more done. The Founders' scheme of organization, designed to make change excruciatingly hard, was good for the eighteenth century, but not for the twenty-first. More adaptable governments, which are almost every one, are running rings around us.

    Anyway, if wishes were fishes we could all eat low-cholesterol protein. I agree that the best things to do now are try to turn the South as quickly as possible, and to do everything we can to bring Rupert’s Evil Empire down. I've already decided not to renew my subscription to WSJ and to rely on Bloomberg.com instead.



  • At Thu Jul 28, 02:56:00 AM EDT, Blogger seanseamour said…

    Two comments, first my disgust with George Will' editorial yesterday, in opposition to his political leanings I had respect for his intellect.

    Second, from Mathieu Ricard (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/opinion/global/24iht-june24-ihtmag-ricard-30.html?pagewanted=2&ref=ihtGlobalAgendaSummer2011)with an slight bracketed transposition:

    "Imagine a ship that is sinking and needs all the available power to run the pumps to drain out the rising waters. The first class passengers refuse to cooperate because they feel hot and want to use the air-conditioner and other electrical appliances. The second-class passengers spend all their time trying to be upgraded to first-class status. The boat sinks and the passengers all drown. That is where the present approach to [America's path] climate change is leading. "

  • At Thu Jul 28, 12:49:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Sean,

    Thanks for the apt analogy.

    I think it goes way beyond climate change. It is also a good one for our present contretemps on debt reduction. In fact, it helps explain our inability to make significant progress on any current issue that matters, including energy, infrastructure, war, our bloated military-industrial complex, and civil liberties.

    As for George Will, I'm surprised you thought much of him to begin with. In my view, all the so-called conservative “philosophers,” including especially the late William F. Buckley, Jr., are grossly overrated as thinkers.

    Some are good with words. Most are good at cocktail-party riposte. All are passable at speculating on abstract theory.

    But I have yet to read one who is good at the only thing that really matters: predicting the real-world consequences of actions and events. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a short but brilliant recent essay in Time Magazine (June 27, page 23), they say, “I know it works in practice. But does it work in theory?”

    What opened my eyes most was a column David Brooks wrote after Buckley died. Brooks described how the conservative saint had taken Brooks (as a young college student) under his wing and had introduced Brooks to opulent living, glitterati, wealth and power.

    It was a remarkable piece. Perhaps inadvertently, Brooks made clear his dominant personal motivation from an early age. These guys (they were all men) represented wealth, power and influence, and Brooks wanted some of it.

    That piece confirmed what I always suspected but never had fully conceptualized. These right-wing “pundits" are not independent thinkers, let alone great ones. They are rationalists and apologizers for power. They are parasites who have permanently attached themselves to the underbellies of the alpha males.

    Sycophants is perhaps to strong a word. Yet even it applies to all but a few.

    Brooks is probably the most independent. An example is his recent column describing precisely what the GOP now have done as making them “not fit to govern.”

    But, all in all, the conservative saints are a singularly unimpressive bunch to anyone who can reason. It is ludicrous to compare them to our Founders, who tried gamely (and often successfully) to predict the results of their own actions for decades and centuries.

    Our Founders, above all, were realists. The GOP punditry, not so much.




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