American Discontent

I’ve always found it difficult to stay in the present. Armchair Mutineer comes from a love history and studying the theories and ideas from the past that shaped today’s world. At the same time I’ve always enjoyed futurism and the vision of science fiction writers, especially those who write near future realism. The context for science fiction, in its essence, is a history of the future. In my intellectual and creative life I’m always going back and forth between the murky past and the unclear future.

I’ve also had to battle anxiety for most of my life. Staying mindful and in the current moment is one of the best ways of remaining healthy. I realize when I look outside my window that in 100,000 years the place I’m standing will likely be at the bottom of an ocean or buried under tons of ice or rock. Everything I know will be gone and, assuming intelligent life is still around, the specifics of this time will most likely be unknown, forgotten, or just ignored. In the midst of this nihilism is the bright kernel of mindfulness, reminding myself to focus on the present moment, acknowledge the agency I possess, and remember all I can do is try to find meaning in how I spend my limited lifespan. 

Politics is certainly a challenge to mindfulness. Prior to the pandemic, I was working on an essay about how most Americans probably never wanted the America they ended up inheriting–or, really, being ruled by. I wanted to convey the quiet dismay we feel for the empire, incompetent state and Federal governments, lacking of economic and political freedoms, and the stifling consumer-employee-debtor lifestyle so many of us live. These are animal spirits Trump tapped into in 2016, his populist message encouraging class conflict. While not a Trumpist, I think there’s something to Vulgar Marxism. With the exception of those at the top of the power structure, American discontent is more than a political narrative; it’s a very real condition for most Americans.

***

It’s the end of August 2020 and it is hard not to feel a sense of dismay in the US. Current events have made it difficult not to long for a better time, and I suspect many people would like to escape the current moment. I think this time is especially hard for the American that embraces the ideals of personal liberty and free markets. There are many great things about life in US and yet its national politics are utterly broken. There’s a feeling we may be going backward instead of forward.

The coronavirus pandemic’s negative consequences to society are largely man-made and state-sponsored. This is not to deny the seriousness of COVID-19 or to say nothing should be done to attempt to slow infection rates: individuals should protect themselves and try to protect others. Coronavirus is simply a Darwinian challenge that humankind will win and–obviously–not an extinction event nor even close to one. The virus is a nasty biological entity that prays on the vulnerable. As such the coronavirus shortens the lives of those who have lived the longest. This is not to minimize the personal tragedy of losing loved ones, but an honest assessment of the coronavirus pandemic–free of sanctimony and hyperbole–should tell us that losing 1-5 years of life for thousands of old, sick people should not have merited governmental overreaction.

Governments are treating coronavirus like it’s a war or prosecuting a criminal enterprise where money and brute force can be applied to “solve the problem.” From March to the summer the policy goal of “flattening the infection rate curve” transmuted to eradication, no infections, no deaths. This is completely unrealistic. I believe hindsight will prove governments both overreacted by ordering lockdowns while also failing to assess, determine, and communicate relevant information about the virus to the public.

We are still in the middle of this. There may be another series of outbreaks in the fall and over the winter. The US fiscal situation has never been worse. Perhaps the additional deficits and debt will be mitigated by the avoided transfer payments that would have been made to victims of the virus. Nevertheless it is hard to see how the secondary effects of the pandemic (economic retraction, fiscal recklessness, a weakened dollar) are not another nail in the US empire.

The 20th century–the “US century”–feels like it was a long time ago.

***

The outbreak of urban instability is another consequence of Federal and state governmental overreaction to the pandemic. This is what happens after people lose jobs, are put on a public dole, and are forced to stay at home. American is over-policed, and most of this is a function of having too many laws and expecting the state to raise armies of police to enforce those laws. I’ll write a post about the police someday–while I don’t think “systemic racism” is the root of the problem, I’ve been concerned with police force militarization and acting like an occupying force. Racism exists and it’s particular dangerous when exhibited by officials of the state, especially armed ones. Portland, Seattle, and Chicago are headline grabbing, like a car crash you can’t take your eyes away from. The establishment media has done its level best to both sensationalize riots while also acting as a shill for the rioters. “Mostly peaceful” will probably become an eternal joke for media euphemism–I could argue World War II was “mostly peaceful” because the war was only confined to Europe, the Pacific, and parts of Asia. This is on top of the outrage from May when, after months of alarmism about social distancing, the urban masses gathered for the Floyd protests drew no critical comment from public health officials or the establishment media COVID alarmists.

Despite all of the heat from urban instability, I still feel this is less signal and more noise. I find myself parting ways with “burn it down” libertarians who argue any disruption of the state is a positive step toward liberty. Often times these types are the “anti-anti-Trumpists” who are so quick to accuse others of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I find myself agreeing with anti-Trump conservatives who argue Trump’s presidency has helped to create an atmosphere of extreme rhetoric in the US. Despite all of the outrage from the so-called Resistance, Democratic and establishment media opposition to Trump was totally ineffective up the the Coronavirus outbreak. By all accounts Trump was well-positioned to win in November and remind voters that Biden leads the party that brought us the national farces of the Mueller investigation, the Kavanaugh confirmation, and Trump’s impeachment. (Paradoxically, I’d argue both the establishment media and Democratic Party love Donald Trump as his divisive chaos has people paying attention to politics: tuning in, clicking on links, and making contributions to campaign funds.) Meanwhile, far left activists (some of them perhaps disillusioned by another failed Sanders’ presidential bid and subsequent sellout) have no faith in the Democratic Party, whatever faith they may have had was lost in the toothless resistance to Trump. While Antifa and BLM are the groups that get the media attention, far left activist leaders can mobilize young people to demonstrate for all manner of leftist causes: universal healthcare, income redistribution, student debt forgiveness, the “Green New Deal”, and more laws to create “social justice.” Thanks the the monumental mishandling of the pandemic, left wing activists got their opportunity to sow chaos against the establishment.

The protestors (often rioters) seem to be hobbyists, lacking coherent ideology but sharing the same pedestrian critiques of capitalism, social justice, and the patriarchy. Many are dudes into violence, but most are likely just LARPing–and, no doubt, just there for the party and opportunities to hook-up with other black-clad malcontents. Watching the protest coverage on TV, I like saying “brimming with the passions of youth” in a cheesy news anchor voice. The protestors hold placards with the dumbest slogans, their faces full of mock outrage. It’s laughable to think those tools are “woke” to anything. The protestors are a bunch of muppets being manipulated by a handful of ideologues who have figured out the activist game is a better way to make money than working 9-to-5. News coverage of roving gangs on city streets seem like episodes of an awful kids’ show called Jim Henson’s Jacobin Babies.

I’d expect these protests to continue no matter who wins in November. The idea pedaled by the establishment press that the activists are mostly anti-Trump is absurd; they hate Biden and the Democratic Party leadership just as much. So I don’t think this is a short-lived phenomenon now that protests and riots have been allowed to take place in so many cities, and the establishment media has provided sympathetic coverage that gets the leftist messages out. Perhaps this foreshadows the politics of the 2030s; in the short run, I see the largest consequence of leftist protesting and rioting being that certain US cities are going to lose population.

***

The next two months are bound to be ugly ones for the US. Trump’s desperation to avoid humiliation in the November is an x-factor, as there’s no telling where his egomaniacal brain takes us. There are worries that state governments are dangerously ill prepared to both hold the election and to count ballots. Trump’s awful rhetoric about potential voter fraud only sets the stage for a large portion of the country believing the election was stolen should he lose. Imagine the 2000 election with Trump’s Twitter stream, the coronavirus, urban unrest, and the frightening prospect of heightened tensions with China.

While the establishment media obsesses about riots and COVID infection rates, the US fiscal situation became unsustainable. The crisis response was a predictable one: more Federal debt as a result of billions given out to the public and business interests. The Federal Reserve has gone back to what appears to be permanent quantitative easing where the growth of its balance sheet never ends. The US dollar has begun to wobble while capital markets reached new highs over the summer–further proving the complete lack of connection between valuations and financial reality. At $25 trillion, the nominal US debt is now 120% of US GDP (for perspective, perpetual economic basket case Greece is at around 180% GDP-to-debt). Note that the US does not include the present value of future entitlement liabilities for Social Security and Medicare in its calculation of long term debt, as the nominal US debt is just what is owed to holders of Treasury bonds.

Is this what happens when you elect a President who took his hotels and casinos through 6 bankruptcy reorganizations? Trump certainly did his part but we can also thank all of the previous administrations for this situation. However, the most culpable is the US Congress that has continued to expand the US budget every year since the Great Depression. The fiscal conservatism of the GOP is gone, the Tea Party is long forgotten as some of its Congressional class have become big spenders like the Obama Democrats they reviled 10 years ago.

All of this makes the Trump presidency and MAGA movement feel like a last gasp of the dying, self-obsessed Baby Boom generation. The Baby Boom received most of the benefits of the Great Moderation and the neoliberal order, refusing to pay taxes or doing anything to address entitlements, supporting the Uniparty policies of the establishment until disaster struck: 9-11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” (failure of foreign policy), the 2008 Financial Crisis and the policy prescriptions which followed (combined failure of fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies), and the slow recovery accompanied by the growing divergence of economic outcomes in the US. In the face of all of these headwinds instead of reform the US electorate doubled-down on the neoliberal order by re-electing Bush in 2004 and electing Obama in 2008.

Although Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric was a departure from neoliberalism, his administration merely played a political game to get “better deals” from trading partners. I don’t think Trump signified the end of the neoliberal order as much as he was experimenting with new policies to preserve it.

The lack of energy and ideas coming from Trump, Biden, and their respective parties are further signs of America’s discontent. Trump’s cynical nationalist policies are not real solutions, and he is incapable of articulating a vision for his second term. The GOP did not bother creating a party platform for its convention. Biden, seemingly at least as coherent as post-stroke Woodrow Wilson, promises a return to those so-so days of the Obama Administration. There a simply no easy political answers anymore. I think there’s genuine confusion among political elites as to what direction they should bring the country. The changes needed to mitigate discontent are simply too dramatic and cannot be delivered by a state whose design is from the 18th century state and now attempts to bestride a hyper partisan, high tech, extremely diverse, complex society.

This post has brought up other subjects I’d like to delve into. The US political parties are transforming to new coalitions and platforms. The US is exhibiting all the signs of a fading hegemon, showing exhaustion and decadence. Personally, my hope remains for a peaceful dismantling of Federal power in a kind of Velvet Revolution where American society would win back freedoms from the state.

Copyright © Burgett Capital Partners LLP 2020

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