Saturday, October 5, 2013

Does Shutdown Presage Global Meltdown?

An edited version appeared in New America Media.

The mightiest democracy in the world has grounded to a screeching halt by the tyranny of few.

Somehow the Tea Party members, roughly 10% of the House, were able to hold the Speaker of the House of Representative hostage and force him into an impasse with the White House.

The US Federal government can no longer operate because the political leaders of the two political parties cannot find common ground and agree.

Instead the parties are now feverishly engaged in explaining to the public why the other side is to blame. Nobody has a solution.

Befuddled observers around the world watch in morbid fascination even though they are hard put to explain how or why this can happen to the only superpower still standing.

The US is worse off than Italy: not even a person of Silvio Berlusconi’s ilk is around to bail out the American impasse and avert a government shutdown. (Berlusconi “saved” Italy by not bolting from the ruling coalition.)

The people of Lebanon are saying, “Hey, you Americans come and learn from us, we have gotten along without a functioning government for decades.”

To the Egyptians, this was an aha moment, namely how to get rid of a government without bloodshed.

Other western democracies such as France, Germany and U.K. are congratulating themselves for having the parliamentary form of democracy where the prime minister stays in power so long as a majority of the parliament supports him or her.

When the prime minister no longer has majority support and loses the confidence vote, the government falls. But, unlike the U.S. a minority cannot violate the basic tenet of democracy and shut the government down.

The bloggers in China seem to be having the most fun seizing the shutdown as an opportunity for a twofer.

On the one hand, the bloggers are praising the American civil society to the sky for its ability to go about business as usual, in contrast to China where a shutdown would assuredly lead to chaos and disorder.

On the other, some slyly suggested that a shutdown of the Chinese government wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Tourists visiting the U.S. do not find the shutdown amusing. Many from China left for the US around October 1, China’s national holiday and the beginning of China’s Golden Week.

For many that scrimped for the trip of their lifetime, they will be going home without the customary photos of Yosemite and Statue of Liberty and other popular icons from the land of the free.

The bad taste of disappointed tourists is hardly the only damage to international relations for the U.S.

Because of the shutdown, Obama had to cancel his visit to Malaysia and Philippines and possibly the entire trip to Southeast Asia just to pivot back to Washington—further shaking the confidence of the region in the leadership of the U.S.

In contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping went to Indonesia and became the first foreign leader to address Indonesia’s parliament where he spoke for nearly an hour (and then he went on to Malaysia).  

The Taiwan based Apple Daily made a fuss over one of the phrases Xi used in his speech. He said jilidangjitianxiali, which the English China Daily has translated as, “The interests to be considered should be the interests of all.”

The cause of the excitement is because the same exact phrase used to be one half of the operating motto belonging to Chiang Ch’ing Guo when he succeeded his father, Chiang Kai Shek, and became the second president of Republic of China in Taiwan.

Indonesia would seem to be an unlikely venue to send a coded message to Taiwan. More likely Xi was using a phrase in common usage to emphasize the principle that one should consider the greater good over the narrow interest of a select few.

This, of course, is the very message that the political leaders of the U.S. are ignoring, namely, total focus on their individual agenda and not at all on national interest.

The gridlock continues and the U.S. is expected to hurtle over the fiscal cliff around October 17.  Without a Congress to work with the White House and raise the debt ceiling, the U.S. will have to default.

When the world sees the full faith of the U.S. Federal Government as worthless, there will be a worldwide financial Armageddon. Perhaps the crazies in Congress relish the idea of an Armageddon, but no one else will.

The self-inflicted wounds to American prestige will take time to recover. But if the United States actually defaults, the damage will be fatal and the world will never trust the U.S. ever again.

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