The Long View 2005-01-01: Things to Keep in Mind in 2005



Why does nothing ever change? I'm half-kidding, but in the beginning of 2005, the Democratic Party was going through major soul-searching from an electoral loss, and the biggest issues were terrorism, how expensive healthcare is, and immigration.

Also, here is a prediction that didn't turn out well. At best, I could give John half-credit:

I leave the Terror War to last, not because it is last in my thoughts, but because everything has already been said: now it is just a matter of winning or losing. The phase of the war involving the Iraqi insurgency is self-limiting: within the next few months, the Sunni establishment will either opt for electoral politics, or the Shia will eat them alive.

The Sunni establishment did badly lose the insurgency. Then they became the core of ISIS ten years later.

Things to Keep in Mind in 2005


Two months after the presidential election, I am still reading "whither the Democratic Party" pieces. Did John Kerry lose because he failed to get the Democratic message out? Was he a victim of successful character assassination? Were the voters just too stupid? The gist of these ruminations is that there might be something about the American electorate that the Party's leaders and activists don't know. Watching the American Left think through this problem is rather like reading about Gollum's discomfiture during the Riddle Game, when he tried to answer the question, "What does Bilbo Baggins have in his pockets?":

S-s-s-s-s," said Gollum more upset than ever. He thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fishbones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on, and other nasty things. He tried to think what other people keep in their pockets.

The current Democratic Party coalition does keep some foolish, crooked, and even anti-human things in its pockets. It is a source of great merriment to follow the internal debate about whether the better course is to throw away some of the goblins' teeth, or to educate the American public in their utility and beauty. More embarrassments are on the way. The one culture-war victory of the Left in 2004 was persuading the people that embryonic stem cells are the key ingredient to the elixir of eternal life. In point of fact, there is not much difference between those cells and cancer cells. Experimental fetal-tissue therapies in general have a record of killing the patients horribly. We will see this again in due course.

On the other hand, we should remember that the Republicans have some pretty disgusting things in their pockets, too, and have not suffered the sting of electoral defeat to awaken them to just how far out of touch the party's activists are drifting on some issues. Three come to mind:

The Republican Party's relentless pro-immigration, cheap-labor policy. America's assimilation problem is not as intractable as Europe's, but the fact remains that every town has become a border town, and it is beginning to grate.

Ballooning Health Insurance costs. These are now the chief brake on employment in the United States. It would be one thing if the costs paid by employers were merely high. The problem is that they are unpredictable, except they never go down. This pattern is not sustainable.

Foreign Policy versus Fiscal Policy. Again, I think that some version of the Bush Administration's foreign policy is the only possible course for these years. I also think that you can't lower taxes during a world war. So do the world's financial markets.

I might have added the Bush Administration's proposal to partially privatize Social Security to that list, if anyone cared about it but the president and the securities industry. The proposal will fail for the same reason the Clinton Administration's national health care proposal failed: the fiscal premises are so incoherent that a detailed plan cannot even be formulated.

* * *

Moving on to foreign policy, one notes the growing consensus that the world system is becoming a folie a deux between China and the United States. I myself am not much worried by the hypothesis that China might stop buying up United States Treasury bills. The US federal debt is the only investment large enough to absorb the Chinese trade surplus, and the only alternative is to spend the money in the United States. Actually, the latter point is one of the two key things to keep in mind about China: it's an important producer, but it is an even more important customer.

The other notable point is that the country could fall into the hands of a flying-saucer cult, or some such thing. One notes more and more reports like this, from a New York Times story about a major civil disturbance in a Chinese city that was caused by a trivial argument in the street:

Though it is experiencing one of the most spectacular economic expansions in history, China is having more trouble maintaining social order than at any time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

"Though"? When are foreign-affairs analysts going to learn that economic growth is not the opiate of the people; rather the opposite in fact. In any case, an interesting feature of this general unrest is that it is not directed against inequality of wealth, but against the Party, which has outlived its usefulness. (This is one of the main themes of the invaluable Gordon Chang.) There is no organized opposition in China that we know of, but there is a lot of social energy to be organized. The usual scenario in this sort of situation is that a well-meaning autocrat conjures up popular support to bring pressure on administrative and social structures that he wants to reform. Louis XVI and Mikhail Gorbachev come to mind.

And the American connection, aside from the market for T-bills? One notes that China and America have sometimes been oddly in sync, as we saw during the simultaneous cultural revolutions in the 1960s. There were similar parallels, though less striking ones, during the Second Great Awakening. Sometimes I think that, once again, things could snap on both sides of the Pacific at the same time.

* * *

I leave the Terror War to last, not because it is last in my thoughts, but because everything has already been said: now it is just a matter of winning or losing. The phase of the war involving the Iraqi insurgency is self-limiting: within the next few months, the Sunni establishment will either opt for electoral politics, or the Shia will eat them alive.

The Terror War from the beginning has been an issue in the larger debate about the locus of legitimacy in the international system. It flickers back and forth among the US government and the UN and the EU, though in fact these institutions share the same classes of academic and economic support. The issues will not be finally decided in 2005, you may be sure. As for the longer term. let me close with an excerpt from Robinson Jeffer's I Shall Laugh Purely:

But this, I steadily assure you, is not the world's end,
Nor even the end of a civilization. It is not so late as you think:
----give nature time.
These wars will end, and I shall lead a troupe of shaky old men through Europe and America,
Old drunkards, worn-out lechers, fallen dictators, cast kings,
----a disgraced president; some cashiered generals
And collapsed millionaires; we shall enact a play, I shall
----announce to the audience:
"All will be worse confounded soon."

But not today. Happy New Year!

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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