Catching Up On Correspondence, part 2

Greater Depression, or Greatest Depression?  Let the rampant speculation commence.

So last week my old friend Mike Leach expressed his reservations about President Obama’s ambitious agenda, offering up a metaphor for policy-making that I like a lot:

Unfortunately for all of us, what we are currently stuck in is not a crossword puzzle where [we] can simply take hints from the market, the world, and the people and get the right answer, but rather a Rubik’s cube, where when we focus on merely one side of the puzzle, the other sides get jumbled up in a counterproductive mess.

And this is true all the time, we’re just more acutely aware of it right now because we’re not just trying to solve a rubik’s cube, we’re trying to solve a rubik’s cube with a bomb inside that’ll go off if we make the wrong move or don’t solve the cube in time.

Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t vote for Barack Obama because I thought he could prevent a massive 4 to 8 year shitstorm of terribleness; I voted for him because I expect we are  headed into that shitstorm unavoidably, destined for a massive clusterfuck of epic proportions as a consequence of many years and in some cases decades of short-sighted or counterproductive policies. And that being the case, we damn sure needed to elect the smartest, most level-headed, dare I say the wisest candidate, so maybe (MAYBE) such a person could lead through multiple crises without making things fatefully worse.

That said, there is a lot of concern that Obama’s major new proposals will end up being nightmares of government bureaucracy that don’t do anything except balloon our unwieldy national debt and funnel taxpayer money into broken institutions (ZOMBIES!!!).  No doubt, like in the Rubik’s cube analogy, there will be problematic mistakes and unforeseen consequences.  We have to stay vigilant about this to minimize collateral damage, but you know the saying about the best laid plans of mice and men. And if you expect the economic situation to get worse in 2010 instead of better (we’ve all written off this year as doomed, right?), laying the tracks for major reform now may be the only politically realistic option.

Since the counterargument is that all of this meddling in the economy will be a huge factor in why things get worse instead of better in two years, I think it’s very important to understand that Obama is not pushing health care reform, a cap-and-trade carbon emissions policy, economic stimulus, and deficit reduction goals just because it’s fun to see how much Change you can cram down a country’s throat before it throws up all over you. As Ezra Klein points out, every single one of these issues are long-term dilemmas that should have been addressed in the past 8 or 16  years and weren’t.  Obama’s not being so ambitious just for the sake of swinging his dick around Washington.  He has to play catch-up on years of government neglect and malfeasance.

After all, erasing the deficit isn’t that big a deal if the financially sound government spends all its money on outdated, self-destructive policies.   We could have tackled one issue at a time every two years for the past decade and there’d be no need to propose so many new programs in today’s precarious environment.  But that didn’t happen.  And especially in the case of health-care reform, the biggest liability against the country’s long-term fiscal health, the onus here is on the immaturity of America’s Baby Boomer-led governments, and not Obama.

But with that defense of President Badass in place, let’s take a look at a few of the myriad reasons why he has the worst job in the world:

*IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN. Obama’s announcement about Iraq last week re-affirmed his INTENTION and WILL to leave, but he has also decided to keep troop levels constant for another year through the next set of Iraqi elections, and extend the withdrawal plan three months beyond what he proposed during the campaign. This conservative approach to leaving (a wise one, in my opinion) is the reason the Commander-in-Chief is getting a lot of Republican support for this policy, and mixed reactions from Democrats.  If the situation there were to deteriorate, Obama is now better poised to react, but that would also likely mean a significant delay in troop drawdowns.  And as Mike noted in his comments last week, Afghanistan will never not be a clusterfuck. I’d also add that in this scenario any use of the word Afghanistan should be read as “Afghanistan & Pakistan.”  So between these two theaters of conflict, one can easily see Obama’s foreign commitments exceeding the budgeted $500 billion/year.

*ISRAEL. But at least to this blogger, Iraq & Afghanistan are shining beacons of hope when compared to the brass ring of Middle East peace.  I guess Israel decided that now was the time to have its own version of the 2000 election and not-really-elect a right-wing nationalist government that denies the possiblity of an independent Palestinian state.  I literally see no way that this does not result in awful humanitarian tragedies smack dab in the middle of Obama’s term. Fun!

*MEXICO & THIRD WORLD COLLAPSE. In case you hadn’t heard, Mexico is falling to pieces.  This will hardly be an isolated incident.  Global financial collapse means far less international capital and far fewer IMF and World Bank loans flowing into developing nations. I’d venture to guess that most development money was handled corruptly at some point in the process anyway , but the issue here is that poor regions with enormous populations will have even more trouble finding adequate resources and gainful employment for its people, leading to population migrations, conflicts over resources, and political instability.  These were all projected side effects of global warming, too, so it seems that the point everybody can agree on here is that for whatever reasons you prefer, the world is going to hell soon.

*THE BRIGHT SPOT: CHINA. Which brings me to my final, optimistic angle.

Even if Iraq goes smoothly and Afghanistan ends up being an (expensive) twofer because it helps resolve issues with Pakistan, let’s say.  Even if Netanyahu’s coalition collapses and Israel ends up with a less awful government.  Even if the claims of third world instability are greatly exaggerated… Even if all that goes right, Obama will still probably not meet his budget goals, because our economy won’t recover at the rate he projects, or health care costs won’t drop as fast as he hopes, or solar and wind power will get a ton of subsidies but the engineering won’t be advanced enough yet to efficiently and cheaply mass-produce enough energy, so the whole “clean energy” initiative just ends up being another economic bubble that bursts at the wrong time.  Too many things could go wrong for something not to go wrong.  It’s a Murphy’s Law thing.

And that’s where China comes in.  Obviously the people in charge understand Murphy’s Law.  And the most important relationship for bracing against the unforeseen is the one between the U.S. and China.  China has invested in the U.S. heavily, so collapse in the U.S. mean China’s investments lose value and drags China down. Likewise, a collapse in China could force Chinese officials to demand America pay back the investments, which America can’t afford to do right now, again accelerating economic implosion. Both countries need the other to stay afloat or we’re all screwed. If the 20th century superpower and the 21st century superpower-in-training have each others’ back, there might be enough confidence and morale to survive whatever black swans come swimming our way.

To that end I’ve been very pleased with the things I see coming out of the State Department.  Hillary Clinton told Israel that it should quit being such an asshole all the time, while on the other hand said about U.S.-China relations, “Maybe I’ll care about your human rights abuses again, AFTER we save the world from ruin through a cooperative economic Alliance.”  (Alliance is capitalized because the future looks exactly like Joss Whedon’s Firefly).

So sure, I just finished an offensively long post that consists mostly of reasons why the next 4-8 years will be an apocalyptic horror show, BUT…  you know… there’s a phrase I’m looking for here, what is it? Oh yeah. The Audacity of Hope.

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