Sunday, March 6, 2011

Procrastination Nation: Uncle Sam's Overdue Homework

Procrastination afflicts everyone one way or another – after all, I meant to write this essay last month. Still, when I stalled on a college term paper because of perfect Frisbee weather, that warn’t nobody’s business but my own. But given the latest iteration of the perennial Crisis in the Middle East, it becomes obvious that Uncle Sam has a few overdue homework assignments of his own.

It’s not like nobody could have predicted this; somebody usually does. But for better or worse, our Founders blessed us with a system that defaults to the status quo, absent a two-by-four upside the head. So duck, America, because here it comes again.

Now, maybe if America hadn’t been at the beach working on its tan, America might have been ready for the pop quiz. Maybe America could have cracked open the Energy Policy textbook, or copied some Foreign Policy notes off that nerd in the next row, or stopped texting during the Econ lecture. But America must have the same professor I had in college, the one who arched an eyebrow as he noted that “when you wait until the last minute to do something, you have a lot more energy to devote to the task.”

So we hit our collective snooze alarm about thirty years ago. Had a couple of wake-up calls from the Middle East already; oil price spikes, popular revolts against US-backed autocrats. That annoying President Carter suggested turning down the thermostat, wearing sweaters around the house. He put solar panels on the White House roof, and outlined an energy policy designed to wean us off of dependence on fossil fuels and foreign suppliers.
And America’s response to that was to go to a toga party with the cool kids. President Reagan took the solar panels down and rolled the dice on backing as many autocrats as we could pack into the minivan. After twelve years of the Reagan/Bush Administrations, our dependence on foreign oil rose from 40.5% to 47.2%. Today it stands at 66.2%.

By the time another Democrat sat in the White House, the world was already grappling with the reality of global warming. The first President Bush had responded to the Rio Summit by declaring “the American way of life is not negotiable!” The Clinton/Gore response was to try to pass a carbon tax, which was shot down by members of their own party. And so we hit the snooze alarm again.

The second President Bush just doubled down on the reality denial, inspiring the popular bumper sticker “War is Not an Energy Policy.” And he ended up his term with gas prices at historic highs. By the time another Democrat sat in the White House, he was able to put some serious money into clean energy and alternative transportation. But he utterly failed to pass global warming legislation, in the face of determined opposition from buggy whip manufacturers. Even with extreme weather patterns, pressure on food supplies, and disappearing snowpacks, it’s anybody’s guess how long we’ll continue to put this off.

If we’d followed the advice of Jimmy Carter (or that other 1980 candidate, Barry Commoner), maybe we’d be better prepared for the oil shocks to come as new regimes take power in the Middle East. But it takes quite an effort to turn a supertanker around, and the fact is, we invested trillions of dollars in a war machine that helped to insure access to the resources we wanted. After all, it was also Jimmy Carter who promised the world that we’d go to war if necessary to maintain our oil habit in the Middle East.

The Cold War manifesto NSC-68 promised that we’d devise “a pattern of relationships” to maintain our position of disparity in the world, dispensing with sentimentality and “unreal objectives” like human rights and democratization. To that end, we overthrew nascent democracies in Iran and Syria, and sponsored coups and assassinations throughout the Middle East. Our pattern of relationships has come back to bite us on the ass more than once, but we never seem to be able to learn our lessons.

To virtually no one’s surprise, the pattern continued long after the Cold War that provided its rationale. As another backstage memo spelled it out, "in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region's oil." Aside from sentimental concerns like human rights, the main problem with this strategy is that it can’t last forever. And there doesn’t seem to have been much planning for what to do when we can no longer maintain our position of disparity.

Given the national decision to embrace ever-deeper oil dependency, it was inevitable that we’d have to keep plugging the holes in the levees holding back popular discontent in the Middle East. Bush the Lesser’s incoherent foreign policy only makes sense in this context. Instead of using our leverage with the dictators who depended on us for billions of dollars of support, we decided to spend hundreds of billions removing one dictator from Iraq. We supported free elections, except when we didn’t like the outcomes. We couldn’t let the Syrians receive our ambassador, but they could receive prisoners to torture on our behalf. And we got sentimental over Saddam’s human rights violations, but decided Qadaffy was somebody we could do business with.

At this point, Uncle Sam has been propping up dictators for so long, it’s become reflexive. We knew the day of reckoning would come for Mubarak someday, just as it will for the Saudi royal family. And the longer we put off dealing with it, the harder these transitions are going to be. When you provide the boots that stand on people’s necks, they’re going to be able to read that “Made in USA” imprint for a long time to come.

And just as our foreign entanglements arise from our shortsighted energy policies, our economic woes are tangled up with both failures, in a Gordian knot of procrastination. We’ve been engaged in military Keynesianism for so long, the political pain from trimming a few billion off the Pentagon budget is excruciating. The idea of voluntarily decommissioning our empire – as the British, French, and Russians managed to do – is so far off the table, it’s out in the yard. Remaining the “predominant outside power” in the global oilpatch is a huge indirect subsidy to the fossil fuel industry, which in turn helped to inflate that suburban sprawl bubble which just popped so painfully in our faces.

One dysfunction leads to another, like the crack addict’s kids showing up in school too scattered and fearful to learn anything. We’ve restrained innovation in the energy and transportation sectors for so long, our global competitors are leaving us in the dust. We’ve bailed out our financial sector so many times, they’re both too big to fail and too top-heavy not to. We’ve let our health insurance middlemen grow so immense, they have veto power over any plan to reform them.

In fact, that’s our problem across the board. People have been raising alarms about our growing wealth inequality for a couple of decades now. But the problem with the wealth gap isn’t just that most people don’t have enough cash to get the economy moving again – bad as that is.

It’s that we’ve empowered our oligarchs so thoroughly that they stand in the way of any meaningful reforms. Bloated defense contractors bilking the taxpayers, petroleum giants poisoning our seas and walking away, Wall Street fatcats converting our bailout money into their bonus checks, Big Pharma making the cure to our health care ills as painful as the disease – they’re all buggy whip manufacturers. But they’re all too powerful to topple. Kind of like Hosni Mubarak was.

So, good morning, America. Professor Eisenhower told you not to let the military-industrial complex accumulate unwarranted power. Professor Carter asked you to figure out how to stop importing oil and start working on clean energy. Professor Clinton advised you to use your surplus to save Social Security and pay down your debts. Hate to tell you this, but your assignments are all coming due, and just pulling an all-nighter or two may not be enough to save your grade. You need to – hey, are you listening to me? He’s nodded off again. No sleeping in my classroom, mister!

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