By Joe Bageant
Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
When Barack Obama took office it seemed to some of us that his first job was to get the national silverware out of the pawn shop. Or at least maintain the world's confidence that it was possible for us to get out of debt. America is dead broke, the easy credit, phantom "growth" economy has been exposed for what it was. A credit scam. Even Hillary Clinton and Obama's best efforts have not coaxed much more dough out of foreign friends. But at least we again have a few friends abroad.
So now we must jackleg ourselves back into something resembling a productive activity. No matter how you cut it, things will not be as much fun as shopping and speculative "investing" were.
The fiesta is over, the economy as we knew it is dead.
The national money shamans have danced around the carcass of our dead horse economy, chanted the recovery chant and burned fiat currency like Indian sage, enshrouding the carcass in the sacred smoke of burning cash. And indeed, they have managed to prop up the carcass to appear life-like from a distance, if you squint through the smoke just right. But it still stinks here from the inside. Clearly at some point we must find a new horse to ride, and sure as god made little green apples one is broaching the horizon. And it looks exactly like the old horse.
Then too, what else did we expect? His economic team of free market billionaires and financial hotwires includes most of those who helped Bill Clinton sell the theory that Americans didn't need jobs. Actual labor, if you will remember, was for Asian sweatshops and Latin maquiladoras. We, as a nation one third of whose population is functionally illiterate, were going to transmute ourselves into an information and transactional economy. Ain't gonna sweat no mo' no mo' — just drink wine and sing about Jesus all day.
Along with these economic hotwires came literally hundreds of K Street and Democratic lobbyists. Supposedly, every president is forced to hire these guys because no one else seems to have the connections or knows how to get a bill through Congress. Consequently, the current regime's definition of a recovery is more of the same as ever. A return of the mortgage market and credit to its former level — the level that blew us out of the water in the first place. Ah, but we're gonna manage it better this time. There is no one-trick pony on earth equal to capitalism.
Somewhere in the smoking wreckage lie the solutions. The solutions we aren't allowed to discuss: adoption of a Wall Street securities speculation tax; repeal of the Taft-Hartley anti-union laws; ending corporate personhood; cutting the bloated vampire bleeding the economy, the military budget; full single payer health care insurance, not some "public option" that is neither fish nor fowl; taxation instead of credits for carbon pollution; reversal of inflammatory U.S. policy in the Middle East (as in, get the hell out, begin kicking the oil addiction and quit backing the spoiled murderous brat that is Israel.
Meanwhile we may all feel free to row ourselves to hell in the same hand basket. Except of course the elites, the top five percent or so among us. But 95 percent is close enough to be called democratic, so what the hell. The trivialized media, having internalized the system's values, will continue to act as rowing captain calling out the strokes. News gathering in America is its own special hell, and reduces its practitioners to banality and elite sycophancy. But Big Money calls the shots.
With luck we will see at least some reverse of the Bush regime's assault on habeas corpus, due process, privacy. Changing such laws doesn't much affect that one percent whose income is equal to the combined bottom 50 percent of Americans.
Beyond that, the big money is constitutionally protected. Our Constitution is first and foremost a property document protecting their money. In actual practice, our constitutional civil liberties, inspiring as they are in concept to people around the world, are mainly side action to make the institutionalization of the owning class more palatable. You can argue that may not have been the intent of the slave owning, rent collecting, upper class founding fathers. But you would be full of shit. We can keep on pretending to be independent, free to keep on living in those houses on which we still owe $300,000. But they own and control the money that comes through our hands. And they plan to keep on owning it and charging us to use it.
On the positive side, there has probably been no more fertile opportunity to improve U.S. international relations since post World War II. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bolton were about as endearing as pederasts at a baby shower. And now that we have shot up half the planet, certainly there is no more globally attractive person to patch up the bullet holes than Barack Obama (yes, I know Bill Clinton's feelings are hurt by that). Awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize (again Bill Clinton's feeling are sorely wounded) was an invitation to rejoin the human race.
Of course, there are a significant number of Americans still who could not give a rat's ass about world opinion of the good ole USA. Nearly every damned one of my neighbors back in Virginia, in fact.
The sharks are still running the only game in town and they have never had it better. To be sure, with the economic collapse some of the financial lords won't pile quite up as many millions this year. Others will however have a record year. All are still squatting in the tall cotton.
Their grandfathers who so hated FDR's reforms must be chugging cognac in hell celebrating today's America. America's unions have been neutered and taught to beg. At long last we have established a permanent underclass and deindustrialized the country in favor of low wage service industries here and dirt cheap labor from abroad. We've managed to harden the education and income gap into something an American oligarch can take pride in. Hell, my bank card is issued by Prescott Bush's Union Bank and my most recent mortgage was held by J. P. Morgan's creation. My electricity is generated by Rockefeller's coal and energy holdings and my Exxon gasoline credit card is issued by a successor to Standard oil. The breakfast I eat comes from Archer Daniels Midland. So did my dog's breakfast. We are the very products and property of these people and their institutions.
With peak oil, population pressure, vanishing world resources and global warming, we can never again be what we once were — a civilization occupying a relative material paradise through a danse macabre of planetarily unsustainable growth. But no presidential candidate is going to run on the promise that "If we do everything just right, pull in our belts and sacrifice, we can at best be a second world nation in fifty years, providing we don't mind the lack of oxygen and a few cancers here and there." Better to hawk the myth of profitable pollution through carbon credits. Which Obama is doing.
We burn the grain supplies of starving nations in our vehicles. Skilled American construction workers now unemployed drive their big trucks into town and knock at my door asking to rake my leaves for ten bucks. There is nothing ironic in this to their minds. "Middle class" people making $150,000 a year will get a new tax break (as if we were all earning 150K). Energy prices are predicted to stabilize because we intend to burn the state of West Virginia in our power plants. The corpses of our young people are still being unloaded from cargo planes at Dover Delaware, but from two fronts now. Mortgage foreclosures are expected to double before they slacken. I cannot imagine debtors not getting at least temporary relief, if not decent jobs or affordable health care. Surely we will see more "change."
But never under any conditions will we be allowed to touch the real money, or get anywhere near it, much less redistribute it. Because, as a bookie friend once told me, "You got your common man living on hope, lottery tickets, or the dogs or the ponies, and you got operators. People who can see the whole game in play. They set the rules. Because they hold the money. That ain't never gonna change."
On the other hand national opinion changes almost hourly. But if the starting gate bell rang right now for the next presidential race, I'd have to put ten bucks on Obama to place. We cannot assume the Republican party will remain stupid. Assumptions don't work at all.
Remember what happened when we assumed the Democrats were capable of courage and leadership?