Bad Luck All Around
I spent two years in Tanzania teaching secondary school math as a Peace Corps volunteer. The only Swahili left in my head is greetings and curses (one of the latter is substantially more offensive than anything we've come up with in English) along with a few memorable phrases. One phrase is "bahati mbaya" which literally translates as "bad luck." The reason it's memorable is because it was also used to describe completely predictable bad outcomes. If you started drawing a bath, for some reason left the house for a few hours and came back to a flooded living area...bahati mbaya. It is a wonderfully diplomatic way to avoid saying, wow was that stupid. It is in that spirit that I write: This is the bahati mbaya President.
His unwillingness to change course has been a major source of such misfortune. He came into office championing tax cuts and got them. Initially the argument was that we ought to reduce rates since we were running a surplus, and would be able to continue to do so even if the cuts were enacted (a position that became politically acceptable in large part due to its endorsement by Alan Greenspan). There were two problems. First, in 1998 we had just gotten back to surpluses after decades of deficits. Since it took so long it may have been prudent to leave the tax structure in place for a while and see if the new surpluses were ephemeral. Second, the surplus was helping us pay down the national debt, so even if they proved to be durable - and even if we paid it off even sooner than expected - there was real good coming out of it. Instead we plunged right back into deficits and now have a devalued currency as a result. The corresponding loss of confidence in the dollar as a store of value may have even greater impact down the road.
Another foreseeable disaster was the Iraq war. You did not have to be Sun Tzu to recognize that Donald Rumsfeld's "light footprint" strategy was not designed for a long occupation. He clearly wanted to go in, decapitate the government and get out. There was no intention to leave soldiers there for years and therefore it was never part of the design. The military is breaking beneath the strain of a burden it was not supposed to carry. It did not become overtaxed and overstretched because the stars aligned against it but because those in charge deliberately ignored the implications of moving from major combat operations to occupation. In fact, the administration and its supporters have made looking away a political strategy. David Brooks wrote last year of us being in a postwar period. This week Tom Coburn wrote an analysis for one of the most important newspapers in the country and never once mentioned the Iraq war, except as a budget item. The problem is, as long as our nation's blood and treasure continues to be spilled in the sands of the Middle East we will be very much aware of it. This election season it will be the (dead) elephant in the room.
I began thinking about unsurprising terrible results this week because of immigration policy. Along with tax reform and Social Security reform, immigration reform stands as a failed second term policy initiative. The President appears to have been surprised at his inability to keep his base in line, and as President he can do more than just stamp his feet when he has a fit of pique. In what appears to be his only case of actually changing a policy due to a negative response, he appears to have decided on a policy of draconian enforcement. Dave Neiwert has an invaluable summary of an immigration raid in Iowa last week that included the menace of federal helicopters hovering overhead and using a meat processing plant as a detention facility (the administration may have an unrealized gift for brutal symbolism). The President, denied his legislation, decided to begin applying the law in as punitive a way as possible. The result was chaos and cruelty, and no one should pretend it happened like that because this particular operation was cursed by the gods. Of course, it could also have been the preferred outcome. Having federal agents round up people into a makeshift holding pen in the middle of the heartland is an impressive display of executive power. We have been complacent so far in the face of audacious new claims of authority; presumably we will allow this to go unchallenged as well. And as we do so we knowingly take that many more steps into this new, unhappy territory.
Or in other words, bahati mbaya.