Friday, October 5, 2012

The Republican Vietnam, the Democratic Nixon II

It is, at this point, not difficult to build a case for GW Bush as the Republican attempt to create a LBJ Presidency: use a flush of political capital to remake the society and cement a generation of political gains in the concrete institutions which successive Presidents would have difficulty over turning. It was a case I made at the time, so to repeat the details of how "The Ownership Society" and its props are a mirror of "The Great Society" underlines the depth of the fall of American aspirations, and indeed global aspirations among developed nations.

The first prop is the Global War on Terrorism as the mirror image of the Cold War: a permanent, or quasi permanent program to shape economic and political policy, a constant river of money and support. Bush took power in an American born on the 4th of July, dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal, and left one born on September 11th, dedicated to killing the evil doers.

The second prop was the drive towards housing as the engine of the American economy – which pushed money into the hands of the disorganized, that is Republican, working class. This was bolstered with tax rate reductions, and with a domestic spending binge – which even far right commenters noticed.

These pieces fit together – the Global War on Terrorism increased uncertainty, and this drove demand for US backed securities, while the repackaging of mortgages as those securities funded the economy. It also had subsidiary effects, in that it promoted the purchase of large vehicles, where American makers had an advantage. Did anyone need to mention that trucks were a good indicator of Republican support? Or that talk radio was funded by auto dealer ads, which saw their profits increasingly from sales of light trucks, i.e SUVs and pickup trucks? These subsidiary effects fit in to a system by which falling wages in general were buffered for supporters of the Administration.

The long term weaknesses of this system is that it required very low interest rates – to support home buying, and to drive investors to search for more risk, and greater US imports, because US manufacturing was dominated by war needs. This meant more imports. The positive of this for the policy was that it created a global boom, selling to the US, and hence quiescence abroad. The negative was that this driving dollars overseas lead to those nations that could raise prices to do so, which meant oil.

The glue then, was to invade Iraq, and force its oil onto the market. Saddam had to go, not because he had WMD, but because if he could sell oil, no one trusted him not to try and acquire them. This was a bi-partisand understanding.

Thus the triumvirate was using a foreign threat to reshape domestic policy and create a larger dollar sphere was the same, but both the intent, and the context, where different. The objective of LBJ was another round of universalization of the American economy, this was based on the liberal theory that more consumers and high quality workers meant economies of scale would more than offset materials costs, and that such an improved workforce and market could win either war, or peace. The Guns and Butter theory. GW Bush was to create affluence for fewer people and use the reduced access to the affluent economy to offset material prices. This more dedicated core elite market and military force could win both war and peace.

Thus, Vietnam and Iraq were a test of their respective theories of government, and of society. Two administrations gambled on a theory, and both lost a generation in the process. As I write this, icasualties.org has recently updated their counts that shows a total of 8,001 coalition military dead, and nearly 7,000 US dead. This puts it ahead of all of the small wars in history. But this understates its impact, as it has left more surviving severe casualties, and when contractor deaths are included, the total swells. While not as large a swath as Vietnam, these deaths and casualties represent a culling of a generation of a comparable order.

Thus, each war represented a failed attempt to translate a particular social theory into hegemony, political and domestic.

Both failed, but that was not clear in the same way on the next election.