By Jim Kunstler
While it’s gratifying to watch Hillary Clinton melt back into her senate seat — in the process foiling the ascent of Emperor Bill the 1st — one can’t help but feel that the contest for president is taking place in a different “world-line” (shall we say) than the melt-down of the US financial sector, and with it, the US economy.
Whoever wins on November 5 will wake up to preside over a different America than the schematic one he was debating about during the primaries and the election. The long campaign will beat a path straight into the long emergency. The new president will inherit a wrecked banking system, an economy in freefall, a wobbling world oil market, and an American public extremely ticked off by its startling, sudden impoverishment. (This is apart from whatever melodramas spool out on the geopolitical scene.)
The president-elect will quickly realize that the number one problem is not that Americans can’t afford health care — it’s that they can’t afford anything, because their income is evaporating in terms of both lost jobs and a dollar that is racing toward worthlessness. They’ll be hard put to pay for food and gasoline, nevermind Grandma’s emphysema treatments. They will be walking away from home ownership — or yanked kicking and screaming by default-and-repo — and any government scheme devised to abridge their mortgage contracts will only undermine basic contract law that has made mortgage lending a credible thing in the first place. And that too, of course, would redound straight to a real estate sector already in price free-fall, with no one willing or able to think about buying a house.
As Obama and McCain go at it through the next eight months, they will likely focus on our situation in Iraq. (Calling it a “war” now is imprecise.) As merely one commentator among thousands, I’m not satisfied that either one of the contenders has defined his position on this coherently. Obama is disposed to get the US military out of there as quickly as possible. He’s right that the sheer awful cost of the adventure is one big factor in wrecking US finances while it erodes our standing in the world. But with our Iraq garrison shut down, he’d better be prepared for a further breakdown in Middle East stability and the oil markets that depend on it — meaning, the basis of American life for four generations, dependable oil imports, will sharply end. That would accelerate the disorderly abandonment of our massive misinvestment in suburban living, and also ramp up the anger and resentment of the public grieving over its lost entitlements.
McCain’s contrasting hundred-year plan does not take into account the severe impoverishment and exhaustion of the military itself, not to mention the overall purpose of the adventure — to keep suburban life and all its accessories running in the homeland — which is an exercise in futility under any terms. McCain would have to confront the terrible paradoxes of the war, namely that thousands of legs have been blown off for the sake of WalMart, which company will be hemorrhaging customers anyway, as incomes wilt, at the same time that WalMart’s own operating system — the “warehouse on wheels” — surrenders to the reality of five or six dollar-a-gallon diesel fuel. In any case, the implosion of the US economy during the next eight months will overshadow whatever we decide to do in Iraq, and that cratering will be laid directly at the feet of the Republican party. If the party survives that, which I doubt, it would a long time before anybody trusted it again.
Whoever wakes up as the next president on November 5 will have to preside over the comprehensive reorganization of American life. The big question is whether he can persuade the public to let go of its sunk costs, and all the sheer stuff that represents, and move ahead in a unified way that doesn’t end up tearing the nation apart. The danger is that the public will want to mount a kind of last stand effort to defend a way of life that has no future under any circumstances, and they will ask the president to lead that last stand.
To avoid that deadly outcome, the new president will have to be equipped with a realistic vision of what this society can actually do to survive the discontinuities that circumstances present. This will require him to confront the prevailing delusion that the US can become “energy independent” in the sense that we can run WalMart on something other than oil from foreign lands. The new president would have to carefully restate American expectations and goals — for instance, not to keep all the cars running at all costs, but to get us living in places where driving is not mandatory. I’m concerned that the American people will hate the new president if he tells them the truth: that an old way of life is over and a new one has to begin now. We’re about to find out how much “change” the public can really stand.