Letters at 3AM

Welcome to the Situation

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

The administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, as well as the candidacies of John Kerry and Ralph Nader, all relate to what may be called the Situation – a Situation that they have not and will never discuss frankly. Which is not entirely their fault. Whatever mix of ambition, self-deception, and fear that each must struggle with – for they are merely human and we all struggle with such weaknesses – they also know that Americans of the left as well as the right are an immature people hell-bent on remaining immature. The mass media market immaturity so successfully because Americans crave immaturity on a mass scale. Most of our entertainment and fashion, as well as the presentation of most news, and virtually all our phenomenally effective advertising, assumes that one must not treat Americans as adults – and America eats up such condescension manically, if not happily. No one can hope to lead by confronting the Situation honestly and directly. So each concocts his own brand of gibberishy cant, shaded to his constituency, and hopes his rap will give him enough cover to deal with the Situation as he sees fit. And the Situation is this:

The great days of the United States of America are over. Nothing will bring those days back. It's too late. The damage has been done. There is no possible political, military, or economic solution. The general prosperity of the Fifties and Sixties (as opposed to the one-sided prosperity of the Nineties) is irretrievable. The capacity of the U.S. to lead the world has been drained. The only question is how America will decline – gracefully, clumsily, or tragically? Will we decline with our Constitution intact? Will our decline make us more tolerant and interesting, or meaner and more dulled? Britain declined drastically between 1914 and 1950, yet still produced great literature and a leader of the caliber of Winston Churchill. France declined just as badly, yet still had the cultural power to produce influential art and philosophy. Europe as a whole declined during the 20th century, but retained the intellectual vitality to reinvent itself for the 21st and become another kind of power. How will America decline? At this moment in history, that is the important question: How will America decline?

Look briefly at some specifics of the Situation:

China has become a manufacturing colossus while our factories are gone or going, for keeps. Our agriculture is on welfare: 18% of U.S. farm income comes from government subsidies; what happens to U.S. agriculture when we're too broke to sustain such subsidies? China invests vast sums a year in its infrastructure, on all levels, from cultural and educational institutions to grand construction projects; we're spending comparable sums futilely in Iraq while our infrastructure, on all levels, crumbles. We're fighting for oil in the Middle East; China is in negotiation with Russia to have oil piped through its back door – while, through its front door, it has a sweet deal with Australia for natural gas (while we spend millions "defending" Australia against – China!). We've allowed our corporations to become non-national entities. Not only are they financing the rise of China, moving our manufacturing to China or to its sphere of influence, but through off-shore tax havens and the like these so-called American businesses contribute next to nothing to the only entity empowered to ensure our domestic tranquility: the federal government. As to our heavily indebted federal government, its solvency is now supported mostly by Asians buying our bonds. Why do they buy our bonds? Because the American consumer is still the engine of world prosperity. How is this possible? Because of credit cards and the like. Without the American way of credit, we'd be in a depression. The paramount fact: The United States (as opposed to its nominally American corporations, which demonstrate no allegiance) is now important economically only because of its citizens' consumption. That consumption is fated to decline while in the near future – maybe five years, maybe 10 – China will prosper enough for its 1.3 billion citizens to become significant consumers. There are so many of them that they don't have to consume as much as we do to become the world's economic engine; if, individually, they consume merely one-fifth of what we do, they will surpass us in buying power. When that happens, China and Southern Asia can support their own growth and will have no more use for us. Then they need not defeat us militarily. They have merely to stop buying our bonds. Or even to threaten to stop buying our bonds. America will have the choice of being either severely destitute or following China's lead – perhaps both! That is the Situation.

To cope with the Situation, each of the five men mentioned in the first sentence of this column has had, beneath his pointless rhetoric, a plan.

George H.W. Bush tried to proclaim a "new world order." The U.S. still had enough credibility, manufacturing clout, and consumer strength to lead and control the big changes that were afoot – or so Bush the First hoped. He temporarily secured both our oil dominance and our world leadership. But he couldn't be honest with our childish voters about the Situation, so he was accused of not having the "vision thing," though in fact he did. He lost his moment and his momentum, and America lost its last chance at dominance. (Do not take this to mean that I approved his policies. He sold out the American worker in order to retain American world clout. I'd rather we not be dominant. I'd rather we grow up.)

Bill Clinton knew the score. He opted for a relatively soft landing. His plan: Let the corporations have whatever they want – given the makeup of Congress and the immaturity of the American voter, they'd get it anyway (so his thinking went); serve big business, but keep the American way of life more or less viable. Thus his priority was to balance the budget. I hate the way he balanced it; for instance, with a double-digit lead in the polls in '96 he cut school lunches for impoverished children to appease the right. Clinton knew that our middle class is small-of-heart and run by fear, and that they care nothing for the suffering of others as long as they're taken care of. He balanced their budget. But say this for him: His goal was that America decline gracefully, retaining most freedoms and some privileges. With a balanced budget America wouldn't be beholden to creditors, and would retain its agriculture and much of its powerful consumer value. China would dominate the 21st century, but would still need the U.S. as a junior partner, as the U.S. needed Western Europe in the last half of the 20th century. With their combined power, China and America could stabilize the world. So Clinton hoped. Not an entirely ignoble plan.

George W. Bush sees things differently: America may be lost, but the American elite must still call the shots on the world stage. Screw the middle class as well as the poor, bankrupt the government long-term for power short-term. His goal: a military solution. A missile shield would allow us to dictate to China and Europe; even a fake missile shield might be a playing card. Find any excuse to root the American military in the Middle East. Its oil would be under our command, while a poorer America would swell the ranks of our "volunteer" forces. Gut the Constitution's checks and balances, for belief in raw power admits no checks and balances. Iraq is a mess? Inconvenient, but ultimately it doesn't matter as long as the American military is committed to the Mideast. That keeps everybody off balance. With everything so crazy, China will hesitate, Europe will hesitate, and the American elite will have enough time to move entirely off-shore, and then – screw America too, who needs it? How will America decline in the Bush plan? Precipitously, but the elite will still be the elite. That's all Bush cares about.

Ralph Nader says to the Situation: "End corporate welfare!" His stance was barely viable in '96, when I voted for him, but now it's '04 and the damage has been done. Corporations don't need us anymore, yea or nay. Their profits are ultimately Chinese. Nader can't fix that. His plan is politically unfeasible and economically outdated.

And John Kerry – he's like one of those damaged but functioning Mars landers. Clinton's soft landing is no longer possible, but bumpy is better than a crash. Given the Situation, make things as bearable as possible. That's Kerry's real policy: Salvage what's salvageable. His goal is straight from Mars: a damaged but functional landing. It won't be pretty but it might work, and when all is said and done we might yet have a functioning Constitution. With that, we can pick up the pieces of what's left of America. Which is still something worth fighting and voting for. end story

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