Maybe There’s Hope for the Place, After All; or Not?

The Telegraph reports that a proposal to outlaw blasphemy in the new Tunisian constitution has been dropped.

Tunisia was where the so-called Arab Spring started, in those starry-eyed months so long ago.  Now we’ve got Islamofascists running rampant in Libya and Egypt, Assad no nearer to being run out of town on a rail than ever, and Jordan showing signs of being undermined.  Sweet.  Depending on how one is keeping score, our diplomacy in that part of the world is one-for-not-much.

We still haven’t retaliated for what happened in Libya.  To some extent that’s understandable, and as difficult as it is to say, commendable.  There were, after all, more or less genuine demonstrations around the country against the militias who staged the movie review carefully-planned attack, demanding they be disarmed.  The problem in Libya seems to be that there is no real effective government that could do the disarming; contrast Tunisia where at least there seems to be some adults in charge.

Dear Leader has expressed “relief” that the Muslim Brotherhood is now in charge of Egypt.  At the same time we’re about to cut them a nice whacking great check.  At the same time the rumors are swirling that we’re going to release the man who masterminded the first WTC attacks in the 1990s.

Assad keeps slaughtering his own.  At least for the moment he’s got Turkey at his back door.  On the other hand, with Erdogan, who famously compared democracy to a streetcar that one exited at one’s stop, in charge of Turkey and sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently stoking fond memories of Ottoman glories, I’m not really comfortable that story has a good ending either.

Assad’s backers, the Iranians, are getting closer to nuclear weaponry by the week.  Only now, after nearly four years of sitting on our hands, they’ve managed to move their R&D and production facilities to places where we can’t get at them with anything other than boots on the ground.  Of course this tribe has long announced their intention to obliterate Israel from the map.  What doesn’t get nearly as wide play is how thoroughly they give the balance of the region the wind up.  They’re Persians, you see, not Arabs.  The “diversity” mavens of the U.S. academy notwithstanding, the rest of the world doesn’t operate that way.  They cordially despise each other and act accordingly.  And Iran’s only desirable product, hydrocarbons, aren’t going to save them from the cataclysm of going from 7 live births per female in 1979 to 1.6 today.

But at least Russia’s still going to hold to its nuclear disarmament treaties with the U.S., so we don’t have to worry about that specter in the room.  Oh, wait, never mind.  Now if this is the kind of “flexibility” that Dear Leader was promising Putin — not knowing he had a hot mic on him — that he would have “more” of than after the election, exactly what does Dear Leader have up his sleeve to give away?  He’s already sold out the Poles and the Czechs, two places in continental Europe where we were actually sort of well-liked.  In a high point for “smart diplomacy,” he chose to let the Poles know by a telephone call . . . on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet 1939 invasion.  For a street-level view of what happened next, after September 17, 1939, in Soviet-Polish relations, see Janusz Bardach’s Man is Wolf to Man; for the larger story, see, e.g. Allen Paul’s Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin’s Polish Massacre.  Think this is all just ancient history, stuff no one outside Poland ought to care about?  Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, f.k.a. the NKVD, still self-identifies among his buddies as a “Chekist.”

This is what I find worrying about all the above.  After 12 years of self-flagellation over Vietnam, years in which we Americans neglected and indeed vilified our military, a bunch of crazies in Tehran were able to storm our embassy and hold our citizens hostage for over a year (that is, by the way, still a payable on our books, so far as I’m concerned); our only serious effort to get them out turned into a Keystone Kops disaster.  In 1980 we tossed out the clown we had and elected Reagan, who (with the ironic exception of Dear Leader) has to be one of the most personally popular presidents of the past 40 years.  We borrowed ourselves silly to re-constitute our ability to protect ourselves and project our power abroad.  We managed it, but in the process we went from the world’s largest creditor nation to its largest debtor, pretty much within the space of Reagan’s presidency.  We’ve never come back.  We’re now in a world that is every bit as dangerous, every bit as hostile, with multiple loci of economic and military challenge which didn’t exist back in 1980 (I mean, seriously, who outside her immediate neighbors cared what China had to say? or India?).  As in the late 1970s, we’ve allowed our military strength to diminish, at least numerically and materially (in terms of quality of personnel we’re most likely close to the best we’ve ever had, and arguably the best anyone’s ever had).

The difference between 1980 and 2012 is this:  We’ve long since ground our seed corn, economically.  We owe $16 trillion.  Where are the resources going to come from if we are to crawl back now as we did then?

Genl Marshall, a truly extraordinary man, was extremely worried during the war.  He was not worried that we would lose it.  He was worried that it would go on so long that the derangements to American society and its economy would no longer be recoverable afterwards.  After some period of time, the massive spending, borrowing, intrusion of governments into the ordinary workings of American business and the substitution of its objectives for private persons’, diversion of men, money, and assets from peaceful and productive pursuits, and absence from the workforce of most of a generation of healthy males (the unhealthy ones weren’t in the military, recall), would so erode the channels of economic life that the U.S. would be economically defeated even though militarily victorious.  Perhaps he was thinking of the position that France found itself in the late 1780s.

I’m going to suggest that we may have arrived at the point Genl Marshall foresaw, but through largely non-warlike means.  Servicing a $16 trillion note will suck the oxygen from the air that American business needs to function.  The government spends a proportion of our GDP that is unmatched for any period since the war ended, and with the healthcare catastrophe it is proposing to take over, directly or otherwise, a full fifth of the economy.  The federal tax system is already pulling a proportion of the GDP that is pretty close to what it’s ever been able to raise (roughly 19-21%, as I recall), irrespective of the bracket structure in place at any point.  Over a third of all American working-age adults are simply no longer part of the workforce.  The collapse of the labor force is, by the way, a trend that goes back to 1950.  Somewhere I saw a chart that superimposed a graph-line of labor force participation over recessionary spells, going all the way back to 1950 or so.  What struck me was that with each recession, labor force participation plunges.  It then comes back as the economy comes out of recession . . . but it never again reaches the level it had just before the drop.

If growth shot up to a sustained breakneck pace per year we might be able to grow our way back, if at the same time we hived off massive portions of federal outlays.  But chopping off that kind of spending, when so much of the economy has become dependent on that spending, is going to do what to our short-term growth?  And exactly how realistic is it to suppose that we can sustain that frenetic growth rate for long enough to get the bills paid?  If every generation or so the business cycle takes a downward turn, and if we need multiple generations’ worth of uninterrupted growth to work our way out of our position, how likely is it that we’ll pull it off?

We may have painted ourselves into a corner.  Will we be permitted the time to stand pat and wait for the paint to dry?

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