I used to argue to my friends that America in the 1990s looked a lot like it did in the 1890s: mega-enterprise, unprecedented wealth among the economic top five to10 percent of the population, major recession in certain industries, prevalence of sit-back-and-watch mentalities, armchair presidencies, corporate lapdog officials and absolute domination of the market by gargantuan enterprises.
But as time proceeds, I am beginning to think that 1990 looked more like 1920 than 1890, and we are headed for more than some minor travails and tribulations. George Bush II might as well be Calvin Coolidge, whose famous words, “the chief business of America is business,” seem tragically comical and anachronistic when it is considered that his presidency directly preceded the Great Depression (1923-1929). Bill Clinton might be seen similarly, guilty as he is (as a Democrat!) of putting the last nail in the coffin, as one of my professors said, of the American welfare state.
Admittedly, a comparison of now to the politics of the Depression era is more than a stretch. Nonetheless, we are in a bind. Allow me to explain.
First, we have the Bush II administration, which is an assemblage of dinosaurs, troglodytes and money-mad economics types with as much sense as an inanimate carbon rod (overstated, but it stands). Don’t be fooled, Bush’s policies have been preposterous from the beginning. For starters: a trillion dollar tax giveaway that has had so few benefits so far it is nearly forgotten, Republican corporate and upper-class tax cuts, tapping into the social security surplus, multi-billion dollar anti-ballistic missile defense, etc., all made a bad situation worse. White House budget estimates released on Wednesday predict future deficit spending in the neighborhood of $106 billion, a significant part of which can be ascribed to bankrolling policies, under-the-table tax cuts (e.g. Enron) and handouts.
Second, we have recession. Recession is what happens when things that have been flying at the fan for a long time finally arrive at their destination. Enron goes down, the hypotenuse of the Houston-Bush-Energy triangle erased, or more appropriately, shredded, into oblivion. Kmart, the Fred Meyer of my childhood, files for bankruptcy. Polaroid is no longer. Airlines suffering from lacking demand and losses move into the third and fourth quarters. Most importantly, thousands have been laid-off. All of this makes for some dreary predications, especially for wage-earning Americans.
Third, we are engaged in a war that will likely be carried far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Bush today proposed an additional $48 billion to be allocated for defense spending. This, if passed, will be an addition to the unrevealed amount of funds going to missile defense and intelligence agencies. As Lyndon Johnson learned so many years ago, war ain’t cheap.
Fourth, dangerous situations are nearing boiling points around the globe: Israeli-Palestinian and Indian-Pakistani to name only two. More than a few observers have noted that until Isreali-Palestinian relations have come to some kind of resolution, we can expect problems like those we have recently seen stemming from ultra-nationalism in the Middle East for a long time to come.
Big trouble in little America.
Despite all of this, some economists and other commentators assuredly predict full economic recovery in however-so-many months. My response? In George W. Bush’s words, don’t “misunderestimate.” Economies are not like paper cuts, they can’t be covered with a Band-Aid and expected to heal on their own. The presidents of the depression era demonstrated this, particularly Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
If we retreat further into the laissez faire economic policies of the past, growing disparities between rich and poor, monopolization and big-business politics, passivity and political anesthetization, we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes. And that would suck.