Monday, January 26, 2009

American Madness

How can an entire country go mad. The while thing - a people, their economy, their governments - all of them mad as hatters.

As details emerge demonstrating that America is gripped not by a liquidity problem but a widespread insolvency problem, the question must become how could such a powerful, privileged and advanced people have thought to spend themselves into a fiscal gutter?

We know where the madness began. It started with the Nixon administration. That ushered in what Lewis Lapham has described as the moment when Americans began to equate wealth with virtue. It was when the Calvinism of the pilgrims began yielding to hedonistic nationalism. But it was the presidential mad hatter himself, Ronald Reagan, who launched America headlong onto the path of illusion and self-deception.

Remember the anecdote of Cheney, goading Bush into a second wave of tax cuts for the rich, noting that Reagan had shown that "deficits don't matter." It was lunacy enough that Cheney should make the point but even more insane that Bush should swallow it. It echoed in a blue collar class fed a diet rich in triumphalism to mask their famine.

There's been a lot of nonsense spawned over the last decade about Canadians harbouring a seething anti-Americanism. In my case, at least, it wasn't envy at American prosperity that led me to speak out, it was fear of American profligacy. I knew that Reagan had transformed the United States from the world's largest creditor nation, when he took office, to the world's largest debtor nation, when he left office just eight years later. I followed America's balance of trade deficits and their balance of payments deficits along with their wholesale outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia. I watched the Dot.Com bubble and saw how people made and lost fortunes on companies that never, ever, not once turned a profit before they disintegrated. I watched as the Dot.Com bubble gave way to an equally insane housing bubble. I watched, and worried, as the initiative to deeply integrate the Canadian and American economies quietly progressed.

And yes I did speak out about this and I freely criticized the United States and the American people for acting as though they could actually defy gravity. Bear in mind that there were a great many Americans saying the same thing - a lot but just not enough.

And yes I criticized the Bush government at every turn. I criticized the juvenile Bush doctrine and a foreign policy that undermined global security and even fueled Islamist extremism. I criticized Bush for his illegal invasion of Iraq, a folly that, like so many stupid things he did, added more bricks to the backpack America carried until it could carry it no more.

And when we became ensnarled with a prime minister who actually admired the people and politics that were bringing America to the edge of collapse, I criticized the American government even more. It was a close thing. It was more than fate that kept the Reform/Alliance/Conservatives from coming to power with the majority they would have required to steer Canada down the Bush/Cheney/Howard path. It was a level of awareness, or unease that stopped Harper in his pro-Republican tracks.

The madness of America is only starting to be played out. The recession won't be like other downturns in which an otherwise sound economy bounces back. This recession has a millstone tied around its feet, a massive indebtedness that reaches through the federal, state and municipal governments; most of the corporate sector; and straight into American families. Losing your job is one thing but losing your job right when you're up to your alligators in debt with assets whose value is steadily dwindling is another matter altogether. It's enough to drive you mad.

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