Reflection: Government by Witch Doctor

When the going gets tough, the tough call on witch doctors to run the country. (Photo by RobertandAmanda/Flickr)

People who find themselves in impossible situations often resort to magical thinking. Examples are all around us: the overweight person who becomes convinced that a pill or a supplement or a surgical procedure will melt the excess weight without effort; the flabby couch potato who believes he can tone his abs by wearing an electric belt — while reclining, of course; the serial adopter of any and every get-rich-quick scheme that comes along. When an impossible situation is heading for an outcome that is unacceptable, such as illness, death or poverty, and the remedies — such as discipline, self-denial or hard work — are also unacceptable, then magical thinking often ensues. And that is one reason the United States is descending rapidly to the status of failed state: its political leaders, in attempting to do the impossible, while refusing to face the inevitable, have resorted to magical thinking.

The politicians’ impossible task is to serve the industrialists whose gifts of cash they must have to stay in office, while appearing to serve and protect the people whose votes they must have to stay in office. As it becomes more and more obvious that the industrialists are destroying the world in which the voters live, and the plight of the voters approaches the destabilizing levels of unemployment, hunger, deprivation and anger that bring down political systems — it’s time for magic.

We hardly notice when the incantations shift gears slightly, from the magical diet pill and the wonders of modern technology to the magic government, that never raises taxes and never, for any reason, interferes with industrial mayhem. (Industrial mayhem, in this scenario, puts on a mask like a witch doctor’s and is never called by its real name, but by such Orwellian terms as “job creator,” “private enterprise” and “the free market.”)

The witch doctors took over the US in 1980, proclaiming that government was not the solution to any problem, it was the problem, and vowing privately to “starve the beast” — to so emaciate government that it would be too weak to interfere with corporate polluters, defrauders and tax evaders, and too poor to help the weak, the hungry and the sick. Publicly, of course, they could not admit to their real agenda, and instead indulged in magical thinking.

The first incantation, still heard today, is that lowering taxes does not decrease government revenues and raising taxes does decreases revenues. If you accept that reverse arithmetic, and only if you accept it, you can then believe that cutting taxes for rich companies and individuals is good for you; not because you’re rich, of course, but because the rich will respond with more jobs and the government will have more money to fund your unemployment benefits. That this has never happened in the 30 years it has been conventional right-wing wisdom does nothing to decrease the public fervor of its adherents.

Those who wish to starve the beast do not mind living well while doing so, and occasionally public anger wells up. When it becomes uncomfortable, the witch doctors cast a spell: we can eliminate corruption, cronyism and incompetence without confronting any of the evils, but by simply imposing term limits! No need for complicated investigations or judgments, just change the occupants of office regularly, like diapers (and for the same reason) and everything will be fine. As if the new occupants will not have the same need for cash as the old; as if the old occupants will not find ways to evade, or simply ignore, the limits as soon as the public goes back to watching reality TV.

Government spending too much? Shake this medicine rattle: there’s no need for any of those unhappy funding cuts that upset voters, we’ll just pass a law that says any new spending has to be “paid for” (without, it goes without saying, any new taxes), then, like magic, we’ll look responsible while we keep on spending. Government debt too high? We’ll pass a law that limits the debt, so that we look like we’re dealing with the problem while we are not. If we’re out of power, we’ll do everything we can to keep the people who are in power from raising the debt limit, so they will look bad and we can get power back and raise the debt limit. Magic.

There is a similar voodoo option available to politicians who find distressing numbers of their voters upset by pollution. These days there is little discussion of dead zones, sterile fields, sick people, tainted water, toxic air and vanishing species, the entire range of pollution problems has been wrapped in a single bumper sticker; global warming. After decades of watching the onset and acceleration of this threat to the continued existence of human civilization — one of many such threats, but a major one — enough citizens are becoming apprehensive to make the politicians think they have to appear to be doing something. Not something that will constrain their industrial mentors, of course, but something to quiet the mob. And they have just the magic bullet: cap-and-trade.

Cap-and-trade is the kind of win-win-win scenario beloved of the money changers who long ago took possession of the temple. All the temples. The formula says, give everybody a permit for their current level of pollution. Anyone who reduces their emissions in the future can sell their permit for that amount of non-pollution to someone who wants to pollute more. This gives an extra financial incentive for efficiency and cleanliness, and the environmentalists win! And it gives the really big polluters a way to pollute more because they have lots of cash to buy pollution permits with, and the industrialists win! Oh, and every once in a while, theoretically, the government is expected to reduce ever so slightly the overall cap on emissions, and the gasping, sickly, climate-besieged people win! See? Win-win-win!

Cap-and-trade began as a corporate shell game proposed by the industrialists and their wholly owned politicians to avoid the oncoming juggernaut of environmental protection by government. Now that they have pulled the teeth of that guard dog, and are in the process of starving that beast as well, they no longer need cap-and-trade and oppose it as another socialist plot. Now progressives, who started out condemning cap-and-trade for what it was, support it because it’s the only vehicle left on our side of the battlefield that hasn’t been blown up.

After thirty years of pursuing avidly this theory of non-governmental government, standing in the wreckage of America, the witch doctors insist we can get our country back by doing more of the same, only with deeper faith or more frequent reading of the Constitution.

The outcomes of industrial destruction are imminent, and unacceptable. The remedies — a precipitous, immediate reduction of pollution and adoption of sustainable practices — are also unacceptable. Call the witch doctor.


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