Meet the New Boss
by Jerry Silberman
Question: Will President-elect Donald Trump change the direction of the country?
The Right Question: How much influence does a president actually have?
In reality, not much. The political tenor of this, or any country—as well as its economic success or failure—operates in response to systemic factors that have their own momentum. Often, they are completely invisible or even actively denied by those nominally holding great power, such as the president.
A historical look back may be helpful in this respect. Let’s just go back to 1980. Since that time, the policy trajectory of the country at its core has been consistent, regardless of the party of the president, and regardless of the issues that garnered the most press.
The issues that are actually shaping our country’s direction have, in contrast, been steadfastly ignored by both major political parties.
By 1979, the U.S. was clearly beginning to lose its position as the dominant economic and political power in the world. Wall Street and the State Department were both clear on that. Ronald Reagan made the reversal of this trend the cornerstone of his campaign, and he won. Every president since then has taken up the theme with various policies, but none has been able to reverse them. Reagan began by loosening corporate regulation, cutting social welfare and making life tough for unions. He made it easier for companies to move out of the U.S. in search of cheaper labor, and he dramatically increased military spending in an effort to restore the ability of the U.S. military to control the world directly if need be.
President George Bush the first continued that agenda, launching the war against Iraq, which was unpopular enough to cost him his job. He failed to achieve major goals of free trade and cuts to welfare.
Bill Clinton accomplished those goals. He signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which immediately accelerated the exodus of good paying manufacturing jobs from the U.S. He ended the welfare system established during the New Deal, renewing the right of people to starve to death in the USA. He continued the war against Iraq, inflicting huge suffering on the Iraqi people in an effort to maintain U.S. control of Iraq’s oil. As a bonus, he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which enabled the risky and irresponsible behavior by banks that resulted in the 2008 crash.
George W. Bush will best be remembered for accelerating U.S. aggression, turning the Middle East into the continuous battleground it is today, and for degrading public education by reducing funding and attempting to standardize teaching to tests instead of for life skills.
President Barack Obama continued and extended Bush’s military adventures. He primarily protected banks instead of working people after the 2008 crash. He pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a trade deal described as NAFTA on steroids—as the signature achievement of his presidency. (At the moment, the TPP is off the table. But don’t assume it’s dead.)
The basic goal of restoring American influence and power was shared by every administration, but none of them have succeeded. They all promised that their policies would restore prosperity and full employment to American workers. The opposite has happened.
The decline of U.S. economic power and military efficacy has accelerated. Real income, and the health of American working people, has declined significantly since the mid-’70s. Equity and justice become more and more remote, as the gains of the civil rights movement erode.
President-elect Trump, even if he is able to impose protective tariffs and channel money to rebuild our infrastructure, will not change these trends, nor would they have changed under any set of policies Hillary Clinton would likely have adopted.
Why has every president, over 36 years, been unable to achieve their most basic goals?
Simple: Neither party is willing to acknowledge, let alone address, the reality that we have reached the limits of growth on our finite planet yet that is the issue exerting controlling influence on our country.
The decline of U.S. power and prestige dates from, among other things, the point at which our country became a net importer of energy, in the form of oil, in the early ’70s. The article of faith held by every president —that growth is the ultimate good and must continue—prevented us then and prevents us now from transitioning to a steady state economy with a focus on human happiness instead of the accumulation of money and goods.
Continuing to seek to exploit nonrenewable resources is imposing unacceptable costs on the people of our planet in the form of pollution, the destabilizing effects of climate change and rising prices for scarce goods.
Start locally to lighten your footprint on the earth, and organize your community to reduce consumption and be mutually reliant and respectful. Withdraw from the corporate value system and don’t worry about who’s in the White House. You’ll be doing much more to change the direction of our country.
Jerry Silberman is a cranky environmentalist and union negotiator who likes to ask the right question and is no stranger to compromise.