Friday, October 28, 2005

Creeping Robber-Baronism
The new economy, also known as "the ownership society" is beginning to take shape. Someone at that noted humanitarian organization, Wal-Mart, leaked a memo outlining the steps the company will take to tackle its 300-pound health care linebacker: "rolling all employees from traditional insurance to health-savings accounts, reducing company 401(k) contributions by 25 percent, and pushing out older and less healthy employees." For the uninitiated, "health savings accounts" really mean "the end of health insurance as we know it." Instead of employers or the state bearing the unbelievable costs of American health care, the burden will be shifted to Americans themselves, who will take huge chunks out of every paycheck and put them into "high-yield" savings accounts that they will draw from every time they need treatment.

As everyone knows, health care and retirement costs are crippling U.S. employers, particularly those employers who are forced to compete with cheap overseas laborers in the era of unfettered free trade. So instead of allying themselves with progressive forces that seek a more inclusive governmental role in health care and retirement, we are seeing the outlines of a regressive, creeping robber-baronism led by Wal-Mart and its fellow union-busting employers of the working poor. Companies will warn of their own extinction if they have to live up to their contractual or moral obligations to provide for their own employees, and the Bush regime will happily make itself complicit in the further evisceration of the working and middle classes. Either that or the companies will declare bankruptcy and force the government to assume more and more de facto responsibility for broken pension promises while the GOP continues its drive to "starve the beast." The bankruptcy of GM auto-parts manufacturer Delphi is just the opening salvo in this battle, as the looming bankruptcy of all the major American car manufacturers and airlines has cast a pall over the entire U.S. economy.

Meanwhile there is no end in sight to the war in Iraq, which has become an albatross around the neck of the Bush Administration and a strain on an already ailing economy. That constitution, which gives regions the right to form new super-regions, is an admirable attempt at compromise, but ultimately looks to me like a pre-nuptial agreement for a doomed marriage. Imagine if the U.S. constitution allowed states to form quasi-countries which could compete with the federal goverment for resources and power! Now imagine a U.S. criss-crossed with ethnic and sectarian cleavages (ok, imagine that those cleavages were territorially concentrated). The Iraqi state does not currently have the capacity to enforce its own fledgling legal order, meaning that U.S. troops will probably be asked to stick around indefinitely. But as they seem to be dying at about the same rates as they have been for the past two-and-a-half years, their presence is as much part of the problem as part of the solution. Leave and we condemn the Iraqis to state failure; stay and we will continue to sacrifice the lives of soldiers and civilians for a cause with no clear endpoint other than the partition of the Iraqi state. For the record, in the long-run that might not be a bad thing, but it would entail further suffering and bloodshed. What is the moral calculus here?

Amazingly, the administration seems angling for a similar outcome in both Syria and Iran, where presumably we prefer chaos to the edgy but stable status quo. Syria is every bit as vulnerable as Iraq to ethnic conflict and post-authoritarian anarchy, but the Bush Administration steadfastly refused to engage in even a tactical and short-term agreement with the Asad regime, an agreement which could defuse the current spiral of hostility between the United States and the new axis of evil. The ideologues in the neo-conservative circle insist that a sweeping reordering of the Middle East is still possible and desireable. It only serves to prove that, like cats, neo-conservatives cannot be trained. They will keep eating out of the wrong bowl again and again, and they are incapable of connecting their actions to their punishment. The cognitive dissonance required to look at Iraq as something to be emulated is almost too great to imagine. The idea that a pitiful, enfeebled and bankrupt kleptocracy like Syria is a strategic threat to the United States of America would be laughable in another context, but in the current political climate of fear, paranoia, and zero-sum political calculations, it is taken seriously.

And the media is shocked -- shocked! -- when U.S. and Israeli hostility to Iran leads the Iranians to make outrageous and pathetic threats to "wipe Israel off the map." Everyone forgets that the U.S. is partly responsible for the "election" of this man after our threats in Bush's 2002 Axis of Evil speech emboldened hardline nationalists and conservatives to clamp down on reformers. Did we expect our threats and hostility to be met with flowers and sweets? Weren't those expectations dashed for good on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates? Regardless of our precarious strategic position, don't be surprised to see Ahmedinejad's bluster to be met with Israeli or American airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. Such a move would further undermine our position in Iraq, but this gang has never thought even one step into the future anyway. Remember that the complaint from the Curtis LeMay wing of the Republican Party about the Middle East is that we haven't fucked things up enough. It is eerily reminiscent of the call to start World War III with the Soviets during the Vietnam War in order to save Vietnam from communism.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the Plame scandal and the Supreme Court battle. I have never been very compelled by the specifics of the scandal, but clearly something very nefarious went on in the White House, part and parcel of the WMD cover-up, and surely much more serious than Bill Clinton getting off with his interns. There was a conspiracy at the highest levels of this government to peddle false and misleading information about the Iraqi threat to the American people, and to cover its tracks Bush had senior members of his administration smear Joe Wilson, one of the whistleblowers, and his wife, a covert agent working on the sensitive and critical area of weapons of mass destruction for the CIA. There will never be a smoking gun, but is there any doubt that this is what happened? They lied to get us into an unnecessary war that has taken the lives of over 2,000 Americans and countless thousands of Iraqi civilians. And then they broke the law to cover it up. Only a deeply corrupted and blind ideology could see Clinton's crimes as more serious.

The Miers withdrawal is timed suspiciously to divert attention away from today's indictments. The hope is clearly that media attention will be divided, the public will dismiss the scandal as a minor affair concerning one or two marginal players in the administration, and that Bush will be able to ram an ultra-conservative jurist through Congress. I would fear the worst if I were you. Frankly, I would have preferred a malleable and weak Bush crony, who would be isolated as soon as Bush leaves office, to some powerful, Constitution-as-suicide-pact originalist like Janice Rogers Brown, who will form an alliance with Scalia and Thomas to overturn a century of jurisprudential precedent in the service of 19-century aristocratic, free-market ideology. I don't think the Democrats are strong enough to block the nomination of any qualified candidate, even if their ideology is bat-shit crazy. People just don't care enough, nor do enough of them recognize the long-term reordering of American society that this regime wants to usher in through the back-door of the Supreme Court. They are too busy figuring out how to pay the skyrocketing heating bill this winter when their wages haven't risen in any serious way against inflation since Bush took office.

The only good news is that there is a turning point in sight in the form of the 2006 congressional elections. If the Democrats can unite and either take away or cut into Bush's governing majority, it could set the stage for a more comprehensive comeback in 2008. But this will only happen when Democrats start telling the truth about the effects of and alternatives to Bush's destructive policies. They need a narrative, and that narrative needs to include things like fair trade, national health insurance, and the moral right a decent life in America, even for the worst off. Otherwise no one will vote for them, nor should they. Unfortunately, 2008 is three years away, and there is no ceiling on the amount of damage these people can do at home and abroad in the intervening years. But hey, America, you voted for them. You know what they say about beds and lying. Get cozy.


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