Political paralysis and the drift to war

LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley at his arraignment in 1967.  Where is he now that we really need him?

LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley at his arraignment in 1967. Where is he now that we really need him?

In case you haven’t noticed, the Middle East is exploding.  Yes, I know, it’s always exploding, but this time is different.  In a replay of the fitnas that raged across the Muslim world in the seventh and eighth century, the Shiite-Sunni conflict is flaring from the Persian Gulf to the Nile, threatening to bring the entire region down with it.  Is an extremely ugly situation with no obvious way out.  So what should the United States do in response?  The only answer is to get itself out of harm’s way double quick.  Nothing it does will make the situation better and, in fact, will only make it worse.  So the only solution is to pull out before it finds itself badly singed as well.

But it is impossible to withdraw from the Middle East without addressing what got the U.S. involved in the first place, i.e. oil.  With per-capita consumption double or triple West European levels, America is far and away the heaviest major user of fossil fuels in the world.  Despite the recent uptick in domestic energy production, it remains massively invested in the Middle East, not only as a consumer but as the leader of a global economy that is highly dependent on fossil fuels as well.  The situation is grim, therefore, but not hopeless.  If only on a technical level, the solution is actually rather easy.  All the U.S. has to do to dig itself out of its hole is (a) institute a comprehensive program of carbon taxes and other reforms aimed at de-incentivizing fuel consumption and encouraging a shift to conservation and alternate energy sources and (b) re-jigger the tax code so as to preserve progressivity and insure that the burden does not fall on workers and the poor.  As any competent economist will attest, human beings are highly price sensitive.  Keeping prices artificially low creates the illusion that oil is cheap and abundant, no matter how much you tell them otherwise.  Taxing oil and eliminating a host of hidden subsidies such as free highways and free parking drives home the point that fossil fuels are actually highly expensive once the full range of associated costs – global warming, military expenditures, etc. – are factored into the equation.  Directing the resulting revenue stream to other forms of transport renders everything from trains and trolleys to walking and cycling more attractive and more competitive.  Americans may claim to love their SUVs, but all you have to do is change the price structure to see how fast tastes can alter.

So in the end it is rather simple.  All Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and John Boehner have to do is lay the problem out, come up with a plan that is both simple and effective, and then walk it through Congress.  No U.S. politician likes voting for a new tax no matter how many good causes it will fund.  But no U.S. politician wants to be ensnared in a nightmare like the one unfolding in the Middle East.  So once the situation has been explained, we can be confident that the people’s representatives in Washington will do the right thing by putting the country on the path to energy sanity.

Thank God for LSD, eh?  So much better than the dreary reality we all find ourselves in….

In fact, the chances of anything like this happening are absolute zero.  If Obama were to so much as whisper the phrase “carbon tax,” the Republicans would begin firing on Fort Sumter while the Democrats would head for the hills.  Not only does America’s superannuated political system render any such reform impossible, it makes it impossible even to think about it in a rational, comprehensive way, which is why no pundit who wants to be seen as practical and realistic would so much as pen an op-ed article on the subject.  Global warming is accelerating while conditions in the Middle East grow more dangerous by the day.  Yet both the White House and Congress are structurally incapable of doing anything other than burying their collective head in the sand.

This is an old story, admittedly.  But think what the consequences of such political paralysis will be.  While carbon taxes would lead to higher prices at the pump, the effect on the global oil market would actually be the opposite.  By putting the world’s most voracious oil consumer on a diet and inviting others to follow suit, it would send a message to producers like Saudi Arabia that the market for their sole export is shrinking.  The pressure on prices would be increasingly downward.  Not acting, on the other hand, sends a message that demand will continue despite the depressed capitalist economy.  Prices will remain strong, while profit margins will stay healthy.  Thousands of Saudi princes will rest secure in the knowledge that they can to continue blowing huge wads of cash on casinos, prostitutes, and Ferraris while arms will continue flowing to Wahhabist pro-Al Qaeda rebels in Syria.  Considering that Saudi Arabia already spends an astounding 13 percent of GDP on its military – nearly fifty percent more than what Israel spends – U.S. arms manufacturers will also have the satisfaction of knowing that generations of petro-sheiks will continue buying F-16s and other baubles.  But it will also means deeper involvement on the part of the Pentagon and a growing likelihood of American “boots on the ground” in Syria and elsewhere.

Mobil, Exxon, and Grumman will make out very well.  But more and more sons and daughters of the American working class will come home either in body bags or minus various organs and limbs, while the consequences for the masses of ordinary people in the Middle East will be even more horrendous.  In a 2009 cable made public by Wikileaks, Hillary Clinton confided to her fellow diplomats that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”  If so, then with crude currently at $105 a barrel and rising, higher in real terms than even during the oil spikes of the 1970s and early ’80s, U.S. energy policies enable them to donate even more.  The effect is to fuel terrorism even as Washington launches massive domestic-monitoring operations to supposedly combat it.  It’s the best of all possible worlds for militarists and authoritarians.

The deepening constitutional rot in Washington is thus not only a domestic problem but an international one as well.  Looking back across the decades, we’re often struck by how clever the architects of the post-war capitalist order were.  Instead of the renewed depression that everyone expected (the threadbare Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 is a perfect example of this mindset), they engineered a 25-year boom that remade the world.  They stumbled badly in Vietnam, but recovered sufficiently under Reagan and Bush I to vanquish the Soviets and impose law and order of a sort in the Persian Gulf.  But as the economy has crumbled, the instability has deepened.  Although Americans still think of him as a liberal do-gooder, Obama has done nothing to stop the drift to war.  In fact, with his ready resort to drone warfare, his subservience to the Saudis, Qataris, and Turks, and his sword-rattling in Syria, he’s done everything to exacerbate it.  The masses are sleepwalking over a precipice, yet so far there seems to be no way to wake them up.

I think I need another hit of that acid….

Principled thoughtlessness

Jonathan Schell ... liberal constitutionalist

Jonathan Schell … liberal constitutionalist

Jonathan Schell has the lead editorial in The Nation this week on – what else? – the Edward Snowden affair.  The piece is a classic of liberal constitutional analysis, and not in a good way.  How did it happen, Schell wants to know, that the federal government came to launch a massive internet dragnet aimed at downloading information from countless emails and phone calls?  The answer, he says, is by straying from the true path laid down by the founders two-plus centuries ago: “If there is any single political idea that deserves to be called quintessentially American, it is the principle that government power must be balanced and checked by other government power, which is why federal power is balanced by state power and is itself divided into three branches.”  Yet as surveillance mania intensified after 9/11, checks and balances were nowhere to be found.  Casting aside their “appointed constitutional role[s],” the three branches plunged in headfirst.  Instead of objecting when the Bush administration adopted “warrantless domestic surveillance by the NSA,” Congress incorporated some of the program’s worst features into federal law.  The courts failed to protest, with the result, Schell now writes, that “[o]ur system of checks and balances has gone into reverse …. Balanced, checked power has become fused power – exactly what the founders of this country feared above all else.”

If this is what gave the founders shivers back in the 18th century, then it is our patriotic duty to be doubly terrified today.  Schell’s solution is to undo “this executive usurpation” by returning checks and balances to all their ancient glory:

What’s needed is counterrevolution – an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded.  Edward Snowden … saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of bringing it back into line is the public.  He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name. …  He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share.

Instead of going forward, it is necessary to go back to the past.  Presumably, 99 percent of American liberals agree with Schell on this count, as would many Tea Partiers, even if they did not quite share in his enthusiasm for Snowden.  But this just shows how pervasive this sort of retrograde thinking has become.  Liberals and conservatives are of one mind that the founders represented an unsurpassable summit of political wisdom and that it is the fate of us moderns to forever labor in their shadow.  Instead of thinking for ourselves, we must conform to their dictates.  If the founders believed in checks and balances, then we should, too.  If they feared a fusion of powers above all else, then out knees should positively shake at the prospect.  Like Little Red Riding Hood, we must nevert deviate from the path laid down by a long-ago group of slaveholders, merchants, and lawyers.

It is child’s play to pick this strain of argument apart.  Take, for example, Schell’s casual reference to certain ideas as “quintessentially American.”  The phrase is certainly apt when it comes to checks and balances and the like.  But does that make them any better than, say, ideas that are quintessentially French or British?  As all-American as checks and balances are, how do we know they are true?  Because James Madison said so?  Schell’s notion that the public is “the only force with a chance of bringing [government] back into line” makes little sense.  The word “public” is troublesome because it is supra-political.  (The public interest is always said to trump narrow partisan interest.)  But leaving that aside, why would a unified public take charge of America’s out-of-control government only to see its authority sundered into three separate parts?  If “we the people” are the source of all political power in the United States, then it seems that their “appointed constitutional role” is to subdivide their own authority and turn it against itself.  Since a house divided against itself cannot stand, why do it at all?  Why not strive for true popular sovereignty in which the people reign over the whole of society as a single undifferentiated force?

As I showed in The Frozen Republic, constitutional traditionalism of the sort that Schell represents goes back at least to the Elizabethan Age when English government was also divided along legislative, executive, and judicial lines.  (The union of functions under an all-powerful House of Commons would not get underway until the 18th century.)  Since then, whenever anything has gone wrong, a certain kind of old-fashioned patriot could be counted o[n to cry out that it’s all because those in power have failed to stick to the good old old ways while the various branches have failed to maintain eternal vigilance in defense of ancient liberties.  The solution, invariably, is to restore the “ancient constitution,” as it was known, with all its checks and balances and separation of powers.  It’s a formula that has been applied to everything from the Stamp Act to electronic snooping.  Yet because it is repetitive, boring, and patently ahistorical, people nod their heads in agreement but otherwise pay less and less attention — which probably suits people like Schell fine since it confirms them in their view that the modern world is going to rack and ruin.

One effect of such thinking is to ignore the specifically new things that have contributed to the current crisis.  Rather than separation of powers (or lack thereof), the real problem is a vast acceleration of militarism and imperialism since 9/11 and a corresponding shrinkage of political democracy.  Political debate virtually shut down the moment the first airliner crashed into the World Trade Center.  Journalists who failed to toe the official patriotic line – they hate us because they hate our freedom – were fired, questioning of any sort was essentially prohibited, and the draconian Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) sailed through Congress with only a single dissenting vote (that of Representative Barbara Lee, who was so frightened by the reaction that she refused to talk about it for six months after).  Since then, it has been impossible to criticize the war on terror in any fundamental way and hence impossible to criticize in any fundamental way the repressive apparatus that goes along with it.  The war machine is on automatic pilot as a consequence, with no oversight by Congress, the courts, or even Obama, who by this point seems to be little more than a tool of the NSA and CIA.  The war on terror was supposed to wipe Al Qaeda off the face of the earth, along with its assorted aiders, abettors, and apologists.  Yet no one seems to notice that the U.S. now finds itself effectively allied with Al Qaeda in the struggle to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria.  It is manufacturing the terrorism it has pledged to combat.  One would think that the Congress and the media would be up in arms over this obvious violation of the Bush doctrine that if you aid a terrorist, you’re no better than a terrorist yourself.  Yet there is only silence as the U.S. blunders into yet another Mideast war in Syria.  Americans are so deferential to the past that they have quite forgotten how to think for themselves in the present.