One of the most astonishing facts about the Bush presidency is simply that it continues to exist.
Only a combination of certain critical conditions have kept the man and his government from suffering the same fate as Mussolini or Ceaucesceu. A politically naive public, a neutered opposition, a compliant press, a Constitutionally-fixed term of office, a truckload of fear, a moderately sufficient economy and a remotely plausible victory in an unpopular war have all conspired to encourage a surly public to simply wait out the clock for the demise of the Creature from Crawford.
Now, however, both of those last two factors are imploding. The Bush administration is consistently on the wrong side of (repeated) history, and more pressure is riding on the other remaining factors – especially the knowledge that these fools are required to leave, regardless, in nine months time – to keep the dam from bursting.
Side-by-side headlines in Thursday’s New York Times more or less say it all. The front-page-above-the-fold article entitled, "In Economic Drama, Bush Is Largely Offstage", proceeds to tell the story about how the president hadn’t heard that gas prices are approaching four bucks a gallon, and how he was lecturing the public on the dangers of government action while his own Treasury Secretary (a member of the government, last I checked) was in fact acting, cutting a bullshit deal with Congress.
Next to that article we find this: "U.S. Cites Planning Gaps In Iraqi Assault on Basra: Maliki Underestimated Militias, Officials Say, and Overestimated Iraq Army". Remember, for those of you whose scorecards are somewhat out of date, said Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is the ‘good guy’ over there, the one we’re pinning our hopes on. And his army is the one that’s supposed to stand up so that ours can stand down. By all accounts, Maliki just woke up one morning and launched. Apparently having little else on his schedule, he decided it would be a good day to invade Basra. No planning, no consultations, no reinforcements. I mean, they had this stuff figured out as far back as the sixth century BCE, didn’t they? Back when Mesopotamians were Mesopotamians!
Looks to me like Mr. Bush has managed to clone himself in Iraq: None of that democracy crap, loads of impetuous and imperious incompetence. If you see Maliki running around for forty years with a bottle in his hand, you’ll know how deep go America’s lessons in good governance for the Iraqi people. Trust me, they’ve learned a lot more than any nation should ever have to.
Meanwhile, as if the economy hasn’t been crummy enough for working stiffs these last three decades, now jobs are fleeing, and gas and food prices rising steeply. But that’s just the good news. A lot of the signs out there suggest that this could be the Big One this time. And why not? We’ve deregulated the financial industry to the point where, for all intents and purposes, it’s the fiscal equivalent of a no-limits-mixed-martial-arts-free-for-all. Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck inside some kind of PBS documentary series on the Great Depression, and it’s the segment on 1929. Oh boy.
No worries, though, ladies and gentlemen. All that cheerleading experience at Andover is now coming in handy for George W. Bush. (By the way, if we ever needed any proof of the ‘liberal bias’ in the American press, the fact that a prep school cheerleader [click here comes off as a tough guy international sheriff, and the last two Democratic presidential nominees, both of whom served in Nam, are portrayed as effete wimps ought to be quite sufficient.)
Meanwhile, as one after the next of the props holding up the American economy get kicked out from underneath it, there he is reminding us that mere ice could never sink a ship as big as the Titanic. Of course, idiocy and smugness are by this time fully expected from this particular Deciderer. But what is truly a sight – though hardly less expected – are the attempts by Bush and Paulson and the rest to scavenge the last remaining crumbs of national wealth still to be raided before the tsunami washes away half the continent, house and breakfast table included. I guess some habits are just hard to break. Are these the clowns Joni Mitchell had in mind when she wrote "Raised on Robbery"?
Regulation? Oh, no, we can’t have that. That will kill risk-taking and entrepreneurialism. It could harm the economy! Musn’t allow responsible Wall Street speculators to have their greediest impulses regulated, even if the welfare of an entire world economy might be at stake. Support for homeowners getting tossed out of their houses because of scuzzy financing scams they were sold? That would be a bail-out, young nipper! Smells sorta vaguely communist, don’t you think? It would imperil our free enterprise system by introducing the moral hazard of government underwriting personal risk. Follow me carefully now, as I explain the nuances of government assistance in a capitalist economy: Bailouts are fine for massive corporations like Chrysler, foreign countries like Mexico, or fat speculators like the nice people over at Bear Stearns, but we can’t have ordinary working folks getting government hand-outs! Don’t wanna wind up with a nation full of Frenchmen, you know.
If Americans knew the first shred of history, they’d realize that this just a replay of Herbert Hoover. "Don’t Worry, Be Happy", that particular Republican president sang (or at least he would have if the song had been written back then). Sure, Herb, that’s cool, babe, but next time Americans came up for air, one-fourth of them had pink slips in their hands and nothing in their cupboards, not even the occasional disoriented cockroach. Still, as Hoover reminded them, the appropriate role for government is to stand by and watch. Charity is a private matter. Starvation is an option. Food, healthcare, housing – it’s not appropriate for the government to help out with this, even in a disaster. If you liked Hurricane Katrina, you’ll love Tsunami Bush, the twenty-first century’s reprise of Typhoon Hoover.
Right now the economy feels about as sturdy as a rice-paper umbrella in a hailstorm, and about equally likely to keep the bad stuff away. Jobs are disappearing, healthcare benefits eroding, houses foreclosing at record rates, and inflation is rising, even when the government conveniently excludes the escalating costs of food and petrol from the measure. The proximate source of all this instability is – of course – insatiable greed in unregulated financial markets meeting the inevitable brick wall of economic reality, at about 140 miles per hour. Turns out even Ponzi schemes can’t escape the laws of physics. All of which, of course, is more than just a little reminiscent of all the good fun the grandparents of today’s corporate sharks brought your grandparents in the 1930s. What’s that old saying about the second time being farce...?
But, hey, we’re not stupid. Okay, well, we’re not always stupid. After the first iteration we learned that trusting ‘the market’ to regulate itself was a bit like trusting Eliot Spitzer to enforce anti-prostitution ring laws. So we created a regulatory apparatus that prevented the worst abuses by the worst offenders, on the theory that putting bad rich people in jail was not quite a sufficient remedy after they might have wrecked an entire global economy in pursuit of their greedy ambitions. And, lo and behold, in the decades following the New Deal, America had an enormously prosperous and stable economy that produced a massive increase in the size of the middle class, and still even allowed the rich to get richer.
But that wasn’t enough for the greediest amongst us, and so Reaganism was created to dupe the middle class into participating in their own fleecing. You know: "Bad communists!" "Bad terrorists!" "Nice tax cut!" "Satisfying nationalist chest-thumping!" What’s that about the national debt? What’s that about crumbling infrastructure? What’s this business of stagnant wages? Cuts to poverty programs? Oops! Time for another war to distract public attention from certain inconvenient realities. Let’s invade... uh, uh, Panama! They’re evil, aren’t they?
Now we’ve got Bush and his bag men out-Reaganing Reagan, who in turn had made Hoover look like Trotsky by comparison. The only difference between the Bush administration and the Enron corporation is that Ken Lay forgot to hire Dick Cheney as its shotgun-wielding enforcer and Alberto Gonzales as its chief counsel. Talk about stupid.
So what’s the right’s prescription for a tanking economy? As the rivets pop one by one in an accelerating crescendo of failing institutional bulwarks, the Bush administration trots out – what else? – a program of bailouts for the investor class, a half box of crumpled-up Kleenex for the middle class, and more of the lovely deregulation that got us here in the first place. Anyone remotely surprised by this turn of events hasn’t been paying attention for a very long time. Remember when candidate Bush called for massive and reckless tax cuts for the wealthy in 2000, when the economy was booming? Remember when he called for the same remedy in 2001, when the economy was in the toilet? There can only be one explanation for wantonly violating the laws of both Keynesianism and monetarism at the same time: fixing the economy was never your real agenda.