The first year of the Obama administration has been a vertiginous pile of confusions and contradictions. In hunting for a theme to its decision making, we might start with Obama’s relation to his predecessor.
THE WORLD WAR II ANALOGY
George Bush, a purported conservative, ran up deficits reaching in aggregate $2.5 trillion; therefore I, Barack Obama, a liberal, can legitimately exceed that figure by a factor of three or four. That seems to be the thinking of the present administration. And its common defense of the massive new deficit is the historical analogy that it will snap us out of the recession in the same way that deficit spending during World War II lifted us out of the Great Depression.
Even many supporters of the new stimuli confess that the Depression was not cured by the New Deal, but rather by the strong demand in goods and services brought on by the war that followed. So the new mega-Keynesians describe their current remedies in terms not of 1933–39, but of 1941–45.
But even if one were to accept the questionable assumption that our current recession is anything like the downturn of the 1930s (10 percent unemployment versus 25 percent), we forget that what allowed us to manage the high levels of incurred debt was the rebound after 1945, when U.S. manufacturing, natural resources, and expertise met much of the industrialized world’s postwar demand until the wrecked economies of Europe, Russia, and Japan rebounded. Yet in the current weak recovery, we certainly will not be paying back our borrowed trillions by exporting to a needy world already well supplied by Europe, Japan, Korea, and China.
Bottom line: We have no easy means to create the wealth necessary to pay back the unprecedented trillions we now owe – and we have no accurate historical parallel to guide us through these upcoming years of unsustainable levels of indebtedness, other than perhaps a Greece or Argentina writ large.
WAR AS CRIMINALITY
The Obama administration may be right in the abstract that we can try in criminal courts individual terrorists who are apprehended here in the United States, on the assumption that they are not uniformed combatants of a declared enemy. But so far, in our post–9/11 world, the administration has offered no comprehensive exegesis concerning who the terrorist enemy is and how he is to be fought and defeated. Instead, Obama came into office with a generic mantra that “Bush did it” and therefore “it” was wrong — and apparently figured that a knee-jerk antithesis of any sort must therefore be right.
I used to think radical Islamic fundamentalists were the problem, but now I’m not quite sure whether our military is prepared for domestic guys mad at the IRS, natural disasters, anti-Muslim backlash, or poverty and hunger.
So we are not in a “war,” we’re in an “overseas contingency operation” (against whom?). Non-uniformed combatants are criminal suspects — sort of. If they try to blow up hundreds of people in our passenger jets we will arrest them, read them their Miranda rights, and try them in American civilian courts.
But because we are terrified that one rogue juror might nullify an obvious verdict, edgy high-level administration officials will assure the public beforehand that the grotesquely misnamed “suspects” will be found guilty and either executed or imprisoned for life after their show trials. So prejudicial pre-trial publicity is now as acceptable as the absence of Miranda rights once was not.
We will also investigate former officials for waterboarding three confessed mass murderers in Guantanamo, but we will not investigate current officials for ordering dozens of assassinations in Pakistan as judge, jury, and executioner of suspected terrorists — and any living thing in their immediate environs.