Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2005: Predictions Are Hard, Especially About the Future

Okay, this one's kind of embarrassing. It was a column in the Santa Cruz Comic News with a number of off-kilter predictions about Bush's second term. I did predict that about half of them would be wrong, but I'm not sure I even did that well. It's true, I said the economy would tank, but for the wrong reasons. It's also true that the situation in Iraq is a lot like Northern Ireland in the '70s - it's still a very violent place. But I'll gladly eat some crow over the second terror attack, the reinstatement of the draft, and the invasion of Azerbaijan. Oh, and next time you're in DC, say hello to President Warner.

What does Bush's second term hold in store for us? The past is not exactly a useful guide. In 2000, he campaigned as a "compassionate" conservative (as opposed, presumably, to the regular kind). But he presided over massive benefit cuts to the poor. And in the face of continuing job losses, he refused to extend unemployment payments, lift the minimum wage, or offer anything more than symbolic tax cuts to non-wealthy Americans.

Bush the candidate actually promised us a "humble" foreign policy - and then spit in the face of international law. He claimed his massive tax cuts for the wealthy were needed to return the budget surplus to "the people" - and long after the surplus was gone, he continued to loot the federal treasury on behalf of a tiny fraction of those people.

And then, after four years of broken promises, Bush campaigned as the guy who never flip-flops.

So perhaps the easiest prediction to make about the next four years is that Bush will break more promises. He won't deliver a gay marriage amendment. He will reinstate the draft. He won't cut the budget deficit in half. And what else?

If you'd like to save this column and refer back to it in 2009, I predict that about half of my predictions will be wrong. In 1972, I predicted that Nixon would not finish his second term because of Watergate - but in 1971 I predicted that George McGovern would be the next president. In 1980 I predicted that Reagan would give us massive budget deficits - but I also predicted that this would lead to hyper-inflation. In 1988 I predicted that Bush the Elder would start a major war and then be defeated for re-election - but I also predicted in 1996 that Clinton would preside over a recession.

So with that caveat in mind, here's what shows up in my crystal ball:

ENTITLEMENTS: Bush will not succeed in privatizing Social Security, due to near-unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as some Republicans. But this battle will force the Demos to spend lots of money and energy. They may benefit from the exercise if they play their cards right. But in the meantime Bush and the GOP will decimate Medicaid with budget cuts and ruin Medicare with private accounts that draw off the healthiest and wealthiest contributors to the system. Employers and insurers are going to shift major costs onto the shoulders of employees and patients - resulting in less prevention and more crisis visits. There isn't much the Demos can do about this, even if they had the vertebrae to oppose it, which many of them don't.

ECONOMICS: Bush's fiscal policies are simply unsustainable, but (as with his foreign policies) he's just fired anyone who would dare to tell him the truth. Republicans may succeed in making most of the first-term tax cuts permanent, leaving a mess for future congresses to unravel. But bracket creep from the Alternative Minimum Tax will raise taxes for more and more upper-middle-class taxpayers. The cost of a fix gets higher every year, but the political will to do so will be in short supply. Something will have to give. With both trade deficits and budget deficits at historic peaks, that something is likely to be the dollar. Our trading partners have no interest in seeing the dollar collapse, but the odds are about 50/50 that a gradual shift to the Euro could tip into panic selling of dollars. Then we get sharp interest rate hikes and a recession that makes the last one look mild.

IRAQ WAR: A tip of the hat to blogger DailyKos on this: best case scenario is Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles; medium case scenario is Columbia over the past decade; and worst case scenario is the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. (And right now we're losing troops at about the same rate the USSR did in the 80s.) Elections won't work any better than they did in South Vietnam, because the real issue is foreign occupation. Much to the chagrin of the Shi'ites who think they won the election, the US simply has no intention of leaving anytime soon. Alawi will remain in power and Halliburton will continue to build our 14 permanent bases and fortress embassy. The rising unpopularity of the war will lead to shows of "Iraqization" before the '06 and '08 elections - but if we can't control the road to the Baghdad Airport, what makes anyone think Alawi can?

FOREIGN POLICY: After the next terrorist attack, some form of the draft will return in order to provide fresh cannon fodder for neo-con dreams of regime change in Iran or Syria. Since Iran is bigger than Afghanistan and Iraq combined, Syria seems like a better bet, but even that may be too much to chew. Look instead for a surprise "humanitarian" intervention in some oil patch with an unstable or unfriendly government. Likely candidates: Sudan, Venezuela, or Azerbaijan. But don't bet against a remake of the Bay of Pigs if Castro should drop dead; they just discovered oil there, too.

SOCIAL ISSUES: With the election behind him, Bush dropped the gay marriage issue like a buttered bowling ball. Religious conservatives will cry betrayal but continue to back the GOP at election time - especially as the issue plays out in the states (though a generation from now, most of these state amendments will be repealed). No matter how many Supremes retire, Bush will be careful to replace them with justices who will chip away at abortion rights without repealing Roe. Religious conservatives will cry betrayal but continue to back the GOP at election time. The real hot-button social issue in the next election will be immigration, as the GOP paints Demos as traitors who favor the Mexican invasion of America.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: After spending political capital on the Social Security fight, Bush will start to look more and more like a lame duck as prominent Republicans jockey for position in 2008. Luckily for him, there will be another terror attack, and Bush will get the legislative honeymoon that now eludes him. Within 100 days Alberto "Torture Memo" Gonzales will push through a Patriot Act sequel that will allow unlimited preventive detention and removes the right to counsel. Democrats will lack the political will to oppose it, though they may be able to muster more than one vote next time (thanks again, Senator Feingold).

ELECTIONS: Democrats will utterly fail to pass any sort of election reform, or even to raise it as much of an issue in the public discourse. (Three helpful words for those who'd like to try: Jim Crow Republicans). As a result, the 2006 election will again feature several weak GOP Senate candidates who make dramatic upsets on election day. Demos have an outside chance at taking back the House if the economy falters and the Texas gerrymander is overturned. In 2008, the Democrats will nominate popular governors Mark Warner of Virginia and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Despite GOP efforts to leave Demo votes uncounted, the ticket will coast to victory over, erm, Chuck Hagel and Bill Frist, thanks to massive discontent over the economy and the continuing Iraq War.

You heard it here first. If you have better predictions, send them to me, and we'll all meet back here after four miserable years.

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