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 December 2015

A National Convalescence?


Winter solstice has just passed. The days are getting longer. As hours of light increase, the atavistic hope of primitive Man surges within us. No, the light that sustains our lives will not dim until it fails altogether. At least not this year.

There is a solstice in US politics, too. For six years, our Southern states have thrown a temper tantrum because a half-black, half-white man became president. Like a two-year old threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue, they have repeatedly threatened a national default. They have actually shut the government down a time or three. And they have begrudged and bewailed every practical measure to make our lives better, from the post-Crash stimulus, through modest and incremental health-insurance reform, to accepting the reality of climate change.

The so-called “Tea Party” was and is overwhelmingly a Southern phenomenon. Deceptively evoking the memory of our Founding, it threw out all the central tenets of the GOP—Lincoln’s equality, balanced budgets (with taxes as necessary!), and prudence and restraint in foreign affairs. Like a two-year-old writhing and screaming, it indulged itself in mindless rage.

Cynical pols and demagogues exploited the tantrum like devils. They convinced the South (and much of the rest of the country), that the Crash of 2008 was all Obama’s fault, although it had happened months before he became president.

To drive this false point home, they did their best to make the Crash’s consequences worse. They dragged their heels on necessary stimulus, drove up deficits by lowering taxes, and turned Congress into a mud-wrestling pit. They also resisted every reasonable measure to control guns, watching cynically as domestic mass shootings became an epidemic and now are morphing into lone-wolf jihadist terrorism.

All that had happened—and all the consequences of their own tantrum—they assured us, was and is the President’s fault. And with the megaphone of Fox to blare their big lie, and the ogre of racism behind them, a substantial minority of the public believed them.

But the world turns. Slowly the Earth moves in its orbit around the Sun, mocking the quarter or so of us who don’t believe in science. And term limits—the best invention in politics ever—have their effect. Barack Obama’s unprecedented and fraught presidency is coming to a close.

So slowly, stupidly, like the two-year-old gradually noticing his parents’ suppressed smiles and laughter, the GOP is coming to see the consequences of its tantrum. The most obvious consequence, of course, is the sickly hilarious GOP presidential debates.

Dubya was not one of the worst presidents in our history by accident. He was the least experienced. His total of six years in elective political office was, by far, the least of any president-elect in our history, excluding our Founders and our general-presidents, who substituted years of military command for time in elective office.

And so we have one of the oddest spectacles ever. We have a “debate” among presidential candidates, three of whom (Trump, Carson and Fiorina) have held no political office whatsoever. The most notable of the rest are ingenues to national politics (Cruz, Kasich, Rubio), demagogues (Cruz), or both. The “best” of the lot, the once-leading “Jeb!,” would barely have made the short list in the old days, when savvy and experienced elders selected the party’s best not by popular demagoguery, but on the basis of experience, accomplishment, and long and intimate observation and familiarity. It is as if the GOP wannabes are vying to see who is least qualified.

The next most obvious consequence of the Southern tantrum is the absence of any policy at all, let alone a coherent one. Six years of “just saying no” have left the GOP with absolutely no positive agenda. (Building a big fence to keep Hispanics out, or deporting eleven million of them, doesn’t quality as “positive.” Nor does exiling millions of innocent, peaceful Muslims, including US citizens.) With their tantrum waning, the few remaining rational GOP strategists are beginning to worry that the public might begin to smell their relentless negativity.

The final consequence of the tantrum is blind fear. If a flaming asshole like Trump gets the nomination, or even runs as an independent, the GOP would not only get the presidential drubbing it richly deserves and now reasonably expects. It also might lose control of Congress and many states as well—control it has devoted years to consolidating with gerrymandering and voter suppression. If the public sees that the Party of Lincoln has done nothing but throw a tantrum because of the logical conclusion of Lincoln’s policies, it could lose all.

So slowly, erratically, the tantrum is ending. The blue-faced two-year-old is now trying to insinuate himself into the Age of Reason in a few short months, in the hope that voters will forget his tantrum. In our Twitter Age of video propaganda, that’s not necessarily a vain hope.

Yet however vile the stink in morals and accountability, the results are welcome. Grown-ups always heave a sigh of relief when a two-year-old’s tantrum ends. And so we have, for the first time since President Obama took office, an actual bipartisan budget of $1.8 trillion.

Within that monster budget is a vital compromise on energy and climate policy. Renewable-energy subsidies continue for another five years, and Yankee Big Oil gets to sell its crude abroad.

About a year ago, I argued against selling our crude abroad because doing so will raise gasoline prices here at home and exhaust our national reserves (and Canada’s) more quickly. But in Bob Dylan’s immortal words, “Things have changed.” The Saudis are now trying to use their control of OPEC to knock our fracking producers out of business with low crude prices. If they succeed, they could thwart our push toward energy independence and, by sidelining drillers, disrupt our oil-production infrastructure. (In order to keep producing oil by fracking, you have to keep drilling. Individual wells don’t last long.)

At the same time, it has become clear that, at current burn rates, our species will exhaust known global crude reserves in around four decades. If current reserve estimates are high, known reserves might last as little as two decades. A few years more or less are not going to make much difference.

What will make a difference is converting our energy infrastructure and vehicle fleet to clean electricity. And there the other part of the compromise is crucial. Not only does it save the 80,000 or so jobs already in wind and solar electricity businesses. It also give those businesses a stable future, including firms like First Solar, Solar City and Tesla. It lets us Yanks follow the lead of Germany’s Energiewende while (as is our wont) claiming it was our idea all along.

Other signs of convalescence have nothing to do with the GOP’s tantrum or Congress’ sudden recollection that its job is to govern, not throw tantrums. They stem from a vastly under-appreciated feature of our society: parts of our government are run by independent, steely-eyed experts immune to tantrums and demagoguery.

The Fed is one such part, and Janet Yellen one such expert. After the most extended and careful series of warnings in financial history, she has begun the long process of raising interest rates back to something resembling normalcy. Her doing so will have two salubrious effects.

First and foremost, raising the price of money will, over time, reduce speculation in things like equities, real estate, collectibles and artwork. Speculation in derivatives caused the Crash of 2008, and the near-zero price of money since then has done little to curtail it. And as we all know, the bankers whose speculation caused the Crash have not suffered as much as a slight rap on the wrist. By slowly turning the interest-rate screws and making speculation more expensive, Yellen will direct their vain and self-serving gazes back toward real, productive business.

Second, as interest-rates rise, geezers like me will have more money. As our streams of income get bigger and more reliable, we just might spend more, if not on ourselves, then on children and grandchildren. And because there are so many of us, our increased spending just might help grow our economy.

It’s a long, long way from the tantrums of the Tea Party and the GOP’s so-called “Freedom Caucus” to the steady, expert hand of Janet Yellen. But the tantrums appear to be subsiding, and the structures of our government that rely on independent experts appear to be holding up. So the temporary insanity that, through no fault of his own, began with Barack Obama’s inauguration appears to be ending.

It would be too much to expect a sense of shame from those who have brought a great party and a great nation low for little more than bald racism. Two-year-olds are not big on shame. But at least the more sensitive and perceptive might inwardly acknowledge that their behavior the last six years has been neither practical nor patriotic.

As for those of us who know who and what caused the insanity, we will never forget. As long as we live, we will scorn the GOP’s wretched betrayal of its Founder’s and our nation’s principles. None of us will ever vote Republican again.

But forever is a long time. Impossible two-year-olds sometimes grow into fine adults. Maybe, some day, the GOP will do that.

In the meantime, governing the nation will have to depend on leaders who already have reached adulthood. New House Speaker Paul Ryan just might be one of them. Next year the catatonic racist from the state of coal, whiskey and horses may follow economic cretin Boehner (see 1 and 2) down the toilet of history, where both blue-faced two-year-olds self-evidently belong.

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