War and Debt
We are told-we are told ad nauseam-that the issues facing us are many and complex: so many and so complex that only the experts and the elites can understand or solve them. This nonsense is a lie created and maintained for the benefit of those experts and elites who, in most cases, have neither the intention nor the desire to solve problems that, in most cases, they themselves have created. In truth, America faces two critical issues: debt and war. Nearly all other issues, from Social Security and health care to America’s place in the world to the fate of the planet, partake of these two.
Debt and war. War and debt. Other items, such as abortion or gun control or gay marriage, still matter greatly. But we as a nation and a people will live or die according to how we handle our addiction to debt and our addiction to militarism.
There are two kinds of debts. One is incurred to accomplish something: start a business, build a building, write a book, make a film, fund an education, move to a place of greater opportunity. The key aspect here is that the debtor expects to gain something permanent-to pay off his or her indebtedness and make significantly more. The other kind of debt is incurred to pursue one’s vices or one’s follies…or just to stay alive. Here the debtor plays it short-term and without hope, whether the goal is getting that next drug fix or just getting through the month. Do it long enough and catastrophe awaits. For an individual or for a nation.
It must be asked: As a nation, what kind of debtors have we become?
There are also two kinds of creditors: those who expect you to repay your debt and those who hope that you don’t. The former include those old-fashioned banks, S&L’s and credit unions who serve those whom they consider to be responsible human beings. The latter include criminal loan sharks and corporate predators who want you to fail so they can exact exorbitant interest, ultimately claiming your house, your business…and you. And your country.
It must be asked: As a nation of debtors, as a nation in debt, with whom are we dealing today?
There are also two kinds of wars, those of necessity and those of choice, and two kinds of people who advocate and make these wars. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Debt at all levels now pervades American life, from a federal deficit of approximately 9.5 trillion dollars to individual credit card debt, which averages $8,565 per family. Many families, of course, carry no debt, because they can afford to pay cash, because they pay in full each month (These people are known in the credit card industry as “deadbeats”) or they cannot obtain credit. Others hurl themselves into it because they’ve lost their jobs or can no longer survive on their present income.
For those of us in debt, debt is now rarely a straight-forward investment in our future, such as a college education that increases our earning power, or a home that will hold its worth, even appreciate over the years, that we will pay off and own in our retirement. The soaring costs of most college educations, coupled with the meaninglessness and mindlessness of much of the American workplace today, makes paying-much less going into debt-for college a sick joke. And there is nothing remotely funny about what has happened and will continue to happen to housing prices: a collapse that was not driven by individual stupidity or greed, but by the stupidity and greed of large corporations who should have known much better. Rather, debt has become how the average American lives and pays the bills.
In short, we are spending money we don’t have in order, more or less, to live. And while interest rates of, say, 18 to 20% are not usurious if the borrower can conservatively expect a profit of, say, 50%-and a return on investment of 18, much less 50% is extremely rare for the average person-a year, these rates are usurious when the borrower is borrowing to pay the utilities, buy groceries, keep the car running. Annual interest rates of 37% ought quite literally to be a crime, the more so because these ordinary people are borrowing from corporate lenders who pay a fraction of the interest they charge (as of August 29, 2008, the prime rate was 5%).
There are several reasons why so many Americans are now indebted for the basics of life, as I outlined in my essay The Political Psychology of Debt. Their desperation stems less from individual failure or profligacy than from the wanton destruction of our manufacturing base, resulting in a half-trillion dollar-a-year trade deficit; from the importation of aliens, both legal and illegal, by the tens of millions; from the grotesque inflation of home prices beyond any rational value and the subsequent, on-going crash. In short, the drive for corporate profits and speculative gain has outstripped all common sense and economic rationality. No developed nation can run trade deficits of this size without losing the skills and plant it requires to manufacture goods itself, which has happened. And people cannot live on credit indefinitely. You can’t borrow forever, not without going bankrupt. You have to produce for yourself, and this is as true for nations as it is for individuals.
If you are in debt for anything but lucrative investments, your time-your life-belongs to others.
This is the situation Americans are now in. So is the federal government, which has chosen corporate election donations and a cancerous sense of bureaucratic self-preservation over the common good. The federal government has permitted the ongoing destruction of American manufacturing and the degradation of American labor, permitting the nation to fall to such a low point that it is on the cusp of belonging to its foreign creditors. Government has also permitted the destruction of the union movement, which means that individuals, including illiterate illegal aliens-horrendously vulnerable to the most degrading exploitation-must submit to both giant predatory corporations and smaller companies, equal in their determination to exploit them. Profit is more important than the most basic human decency. And let’s not indulge that tired old canard about how a corporation’s fundamental purpose is to maximize the profits of its shareholders. The only profits being maximized are those of senior management and of the large institutional (and foreign) investors who own most of the nation’s stock-and who share a common interest in keeping the racket going, no matter what the consequences to others or, in the long run, themselves.
In sum, our economy is now fundamentally unsound and has been for decades. Private debt and governmental debt at all levels continue to explode; the last time we ran a trade surplus was 1975.
In a very fundamental sense, we have come to belong to our creditors, be they purveyors of plastic or foreign interests. If Americans wish to once again be citizens of a republic, we must demand an economy that permits us to own our lives. Every person who wishes to must be able to readily obtain work under safe, respectful conditions, at a wage and benefit scale that, at a maximum of 40 (preferably 35) hours a week, permits a dignified standard of living-including provision for health care, including a reasonable rate of savings. We used to call it a living wage, a family wage, and the American economy once provided that standard of living. The ability of the American economy to provide a decent living for all who work is not a question of economics, because the money and productivity are there, but of citizenship. And in this sense, citizenship begins with a single vow and a single realization. The vow: just as we would not be exploited, so we would not be exploiters. And the realization: we have so much, so desperately much to do at home. That’s where the money and the jobs ought to stay.
Anything else-anything less-is wage slavery or the serfdom of endless debt and the ruination of our country.
As we are starting to realize.
The point of this is not merely for Americans to own what they produce and consume, not even to enjoy their manufacture and use, although the purpose of human life is to be happy, and the importance of being able to take pleasure in one’s work and its fruits cannot be overstated. But if we do not exist merely as the means of corporate profits, neither do we exist merely to consume. Consumption is too small a life for Americans-or any human being. But America was founded upon the political ideal of a genuinely participatory democracy, in which the common person is not just a producer and a consumer, or even a taxpayer and a voter, but a citizen. The citizen is an active participant in her or his polity, and just as there is happiness to be found in purely private pleasures, there is also happiness to be sought in the pleasure of participating in public affairs-from the local to the national level. And for that, one needs not just a degree of economic security and dignity-real economic freedom-one also needs time, not only to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor but also to read, to think, to talk with other citizens, to persuade on the facts and be persuaded in turn.
As citizens, we do not exist to be manipulated, spun, lied to-or ignored.
For just as we are well into the process of becoming wage slaves and debt serfs, Americans have become slaves to a war machine. Since 9/11, we have gone from being an often militarized but rarely militaristic nation into one that is genuinely militarist. Here, I’m not talking about military-inspired toys in the supermarket and fashions on the runway, or even military power and big military budgets. I’m talking about becoming a nation that sees constant military action, including major wars of choice, as a normal part of its policies and goals, not as a last resort.
By that standard, the Russians may be militarists. But then, so are we.
I write this as neither anti-military nor a pacifist. When militaries practice the profession of arms, they are honorable and important institutions, and war is a necessary, if hideously tragic, part of international relations. I also accept that, in the struggle against violent extremists, much must be done in the shadows. But once again, the United States is engaged in an unnecessary war that is doing horrible damage to the region around the area of operations. We are making a mess that in the end we will leave for other people to clean up as best they can. And we will do it in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq.
Today, what little enthusiasm there ever was for the War in Iraq has cooled. Osama bin Laden has been missing these seven years, (as new generations of leaders and new groups come forward), and there is no public enthusiasm for repeating the Iraq experiment in Iran. But the Republicans, the neocons and segments of the Christian Right are casting around for another enemy. We’re too indebted to China, too dependent on their merchandise and money, to antagonize them for purely domestic purposes. So for a good year now, the administration and its shills have been poking sticks at the Russians. Perhaps they expected the Russians to just take it, as they had to take it in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. They had to take it when we bragged about how we were too decent to gloat over their collapse, then sent them some relief supplies and Harvard economists and told them, in effect, “Good luck. You’re on your own.”
We were too busy taking our presumptively rightful place as “The World’s Sole Superpower,” destined for decades of unopposed and unappeasable “benevolent hegemony.” And then we botched it utterly. The Russians took umbrage when, as part of the botch, we moved NATO eastward toward a non-threatening Russia; when we established bases on the territory of and signed agreements with former Soviet republics; and when we superciliously lectured them on human rights, democracy, organized crime and environmental degradation.
We had assigned them their place in our New World Order. They were to be the former thugs and bullies who’d fallen on hard times and whom we urged to change, but neither expected nor desired to recover.
But they did change-back into Russian patriots who don’t like to be treated with contempt. And they are recovering. Vladimir Putin, whom we are being told now replaces Saddam Hussein as the man we are supposed to love to hate (and maybe Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler as the next would-be conquering tyrant), has determined that Russia will once again be master in its own house. Russia did not commit “aggression” in Georgia. Russia had a problem with Georgia, a real and vexatious problem, and solved it. Militarily. But now we’re told there’s a New Cold War afoot, and best we…increase defense spending.
In short, the Republican Party and conservatism in generally has become a party and a movement that needs enemies to justify continuing its failed policies. If Americans quite sensibly decline to regard Vladimir Putin (and his protégé, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev) as boogeymen-rapists of Georgia and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as anything but an idiotic blowhard, perhaps the Republicans and conservatives can trot out other enemies. Some are domestic: the illegal immigrants (most of whom have committed only the crime of working brutally hard for slave wages under often degrading and sometimes deadly conditions); welfare mothers (who between all of them can’t scam the system for more than the average CEO) or gay and lesbian couples who want to get married. And they will try. As an organization, the Republican Party can no longer conceive of getting itself elected without enemies to hate.
And let it be said: for some of these people, the need for enemies goes deeper than political or economic manipulation. They like to hate. They love to hate. Whether it’s neocons casting about for a lifelong crisis worthy of what they deem to be their brilliance or old-style racists and bigots now turning their attentions to immigrants and gays, the need-and the pleasures-are the same.
American liberalism, parts of it, used to need enemies to hate. But that has abated in recent decades, if only because so much of their formerly revolutionary agenda is now the normal way of life. The sad truth is, of course, that neither conservatism nor liberalism had to become hateful: the need to perceive the world in terms of enemies is a sign of at least profound mental pathology and usually brain death as well. The Democratic Party has recovered intellectually enough that it no longer needs enemies. But it has yet to offer Americans a coherent and constructive vision of this nation in the 21st Century.
While the Democratic Party takes its time returning to life and the Republic Party continues in its death spiral-a spiral into which it will drag this country if we let it-it is up to us to remember that we are citizens. Which means: full participants in our lives and the life of our Republic, fragile, endangered, beloved. We will demand, civilly but also implacably, that our government help us create a fit nation for citizens.
And if the two present parties refuse-neither God nor Act of Congress nor Executive Order nor Supreme Court decision ever decreed them and their dominance, eternal.