Conrad Black: American apocalypse

Conrad Black

as Published in the National Post
August 28, 2010

As one whose recollections of the American presidency go back to the august, relatively tranquil, unchallenged majesty of the terms of General Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and of the respected ex-presidents living in that era, Herbert C. Hoover and Harry S. Truman -- I can only look with dismay and amazement at what has happened to that great office. It is now clear that this marked the end of a golden age of the U.S. presidency.

The United States now is in a shockingly deteriorated condition. It is debt-ridden, hobbled by grievous failings in honesty of government, integrity of the justice system, competitiveness of the education system, anomalies in immigration policy, insupportable health-care costs, a presidency that has almost no credibility, a foreign policy that has foundered on the appeasement of Iran (as well as absurd nostrums such as the pursuit of a non-nuclear world and the war on global warming) and an economic policy that has been an epochal failure. The second half of the double dip yawns before us like the Grand Canyon, and it will be deeper and longer than the first, until leadership provides the radical solutions that are required.

The United States is blundering through its fourth consecutive failed presidency, and the economic apocalypse that is about to occur may be the only way, since decades of less soul-shaking opportunities have been squandered, of restoring America and its headship of state, to the practical and moral strength of former times.

America's problems are not imperial overreach, or social decay, which have brought down the world's previous leading nations and peoples; they are profound but corrigible public-policy errors. The nation was transformed into a white-collar fool's paradise, where lawyers bill $1-trillion a year, manufacturing departs and too few people are actually doing anything useful. The result: no saving, little investment and instant gratification on borrowed money.

What is needed is a reorientation of America away from consumerist hedonism and back to a sensible balance between production, consumption, discretionary spending, saving and investment; an end to current-account and budgetary deficits and a comprehensive plan to reduce debt and not just devalue the currency in which it is denominated. Where foreign policy is concerned, the country must redefine its national interest in a way that does not have it on both sides of the war on terror (by its support of Islamist oil exporters and of Pakistan's patronage of Taliban factions). And there must be profound reform of the competing public-policy shambles of justice, education, immigration, environment, health care and the incandescent scandal of corrupt campaign-funding and congressional vote-buying. This is the accumulated sludge of decades of misgovernment by a system that, in its cowardice, ducked illegal immigration, abortion, wealth disparity and most other crunch issues that legislators and government officials are paid to address. The pace of America's renascence and with it, of stability in the world, now depend on whether the United States can again identify and elevate a president equal to these daunting tasks.

Barack Obama, certainly, is not that president. To give himself a greater mandate for a lurch to the left, he did nothing for months while warning the country of imminent catastrophe. He promised a reduction of unemployment to less than 8% with an $800-billion stimulus bill that was just a pig trough for his party's barons in Congress. Unemployment rose to 9.6% and the administration was reduced to utter flimflam about prevention of further job losses. (More relevant is that when chronically underemployed people are added to the mix, unemployment actually is over 18%, near Depression levels.)

The playbook was there for Obama, but he ignored it. He should have taken FDR's workfare programs to absorb unemployment by repairing infrastructure and advancing conservation, and Ronald Reagan's tax cuts to revive the economy. Revenue could be raised by sales taxes on luxury goods and gasoline, and charges to purely elective financial transactions. The idea that savings or job creation can be stimulated by increasing income taxes is a fusion of heresy and idiocy, but this regime has managed it. If Obama wanted to tackle health care the right way, it had to be bipartisan -- because to bring costs (the real issue) down to the level of comparable social-service countries such as Canada, only a bipartisan agreement can take $4,000 per patient back from the medical and legal professions, and drug, hospital and insurance industries. Neither major party can take on all of them and the other party at the same time, and any American political scientist who knows who's buried in Grant's tomb knows it.

Now, after 18 months, the Keynesian spending bolt has been shot, ineffectually: Each new job created by the stimulus bill cost the government about $195,000, and the projection is for a decade of trillion-dollar money-supply increases that would reduce the United States dollar to wallpaper by 2015 and toilet paper a few years after that. Income tax increases, as the administration advocates, will aggravate the recession, and so, at this point, would spending reductions, even if the Democratic leadership had the stomach for them.

The United States cannot be taken seriously in the world as long as it is an economic stretcher case. The best that can be hoped for is two years of frenetic plumbing, by a Republican Congress, to avoid an Old Testament flood, the emergence of a plausible alternative president, and the beginning, next inauguration day, of the long road to reestablishment of the greatest country in the history of the world, as the greatest country in the contemporary world, at least in the elemental statistics of economic and military power. It will happen, one of these election years, but it could be quite a sleigh ride just getting to the starting line.