“There is no greater joy,” K’ung-fu-tzu remarks somewhere in the Analects, “than watching an old friend fall off his own roof”. Those of us who think that the world is a better place the more America is humbled and chastened – a category which seems to include a fair few Americans themselves – must oft restrain our schadenfreude in these times.

Truth is, there is almost an embarrasment of evidence to suggest that the country has been on the wrong track for quite a while, that some days it seems to come in clumps of three or fours.

Take this idea of a gas tax holiday that’s been taken up by first John McCain, and now Hillary. The idea is that the taxes on petrol would be suspended for most of the summer, as a way of stimulating shopping and domestic tourism, to keep the faltering economy going for a few more clicks.

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The idea is pretty much what economists would need to invent, were it not to exist, as an illustration of “bad policy” for the textbooks. Lacking the consistency that would actually lower costs – will it be extended, will it end early – it also fails to address the big pain Americans are getting from high gas prices, the spiralling cost of the daily commute in cities where public transport is very often literally not an option. Sexier than a sustained lowering of the gas tax, “the holiday” at best provides another spending jolt, on top of the one-off stimulus rebate, to give people time to think of a brilliant strategy (“get him angry and he’ll blurt out something on the witness stand”).

Longer term, it would be a further shock to the tax take that a two-war country can’t afford at the moment, and it would distract from the idea that something has to be done about dependence on oil. Even that Dr Phil lookalike potato-head booby Thomas Friedman got it right, calling it an initiative to “borrow money from China and then export it to Saudi Arabia”.

The most fun consequence of the policy, should it happen? Exploding garages. As the tax holiday would be drawing to a close, people would fill whatever hollow object they could with the stuff, and lodge it in any available storage space. That’s tiring work and sooner or later you need to stop for a cigare- … Nigeria comes to Levittown.

The gas tax holiday is denial pure and simple, the national equivalent of retail therapy, world’s most expensive ever pair of Jimmy Choo’s. Predicated on a belief that the American attention span has been reduced to single-digit seconds by TV and refined sugar, it appears to be meeting with only tepid enthusiasm, because what Richard Nixon used to call the “precise length and breadth of the coming shaft” is focusing the public mind on the deeper nature of current problems.

The gas tax holiday hit in the morning. News that Al-Qaeda has regrouped – hilarious, really, Al-Qaeda regroups like the Sex Pistols “reform” these days, sending out a press release for their next quickbucks tour – through its bases in Pakistan, and undoubtably supplied in part by Saudi money, appeared in the afternoon.

The main game has always been in Pakistan, and Afghanistan and the Taliban was pretty much a projection of Pakistan’s ISI secret service, working as a state-within-a-state. Bogged down in the Afghanistan sideshow, and in Iraq, the sideshow’s sideshow, there is no simply no space to admit that there is nothing to be done about the real crucible of radical Islamist fundamentalism, because it lies within the territory of a necessary ally.

Obama put a placemarker on this issue early, by remarking that he’d violate Pakistan’s sovereignty in order to get Bin Laden, a policy which neatly establishes hawkish credentials while refuting the entire logic on which the current wars have been based.

Presuming there’s no tape out there of him promising to off the honky pigs mofo, once in office, and defray the deficit by lining the whole of Idaho with tinfoil and growing dope in it, the Pakistan angle will be something we’ll hear more of when he’s up against McCain. And McCain can only denounce the means of warmaking in the last seven years, not the entire logic on which it is based, thus giving Obama the scope to push him into further into a corner, while keeping the debate on the plane of “national security”. If US casualties in Iraq continue to climb back to 2005-6 levels, as they have this month, it should be a slam-dunk.

Yet none of this is really brought together by anyone in a really compelling way, due to the absence in America of an oppositional parliamentary system to which the leader would be accountable. Were Dubya required to defend himself face-to-face against an effective Opposition leader, the man would be flesh and giblets slurping down a grate by now like, you know, Brendan Nelson.

Instead the Prez can appear at a press conference and blame an eighteen month old Congress for the woes effecting the country, and gain some – though not much – traction from it. Meanwhile the opposition lacks a focus by which its political energies can be focused outward, unifying the party behind them. Thus they have only one place to go and, well it’s not outward.

After all, the office of President was designed to preside over, rather than govern, a federation of united states, created in a revolution that generated, as revolutions do, a sense of unity that its founders could not imagine would be dispelled by subsequent events. The US would be an agrarian republic, turned inward, not an imperial power projecting itself onto the world.

That illusion didn’t last long, and the set-up as dictated by the constitution had so many gaps that there was effectively a vacuum of executive power – one filled by the remorseless expansion of presidential power. The real instituting act of that was Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, an act for which there is no provision whatsoever in the President’s enumerated powers. Thus was born the paradox that a nation founded on states rights and recallable representatives projected itself into an imperial future, led by a dictator elected quaternally.

To work, the set-up relies on a limitation of executive power by the legislative and judiciary – a situation Dubya has got around by the use of “signing statements”, statements by the President as to how s/he propose to interpret laws or judgements. Most Presidents have used signing statements to give themselves wiggle room; Dubya has used them to disregard the other powers, flagrantly and entirely, thus obliging the Congress to either swallow it, or go ballistic and impeach. Effectively, Dubya has tested the US system to destruction.

The resulting set up bears out to a limited degree Karl Popper’s point about the ultimate inefficiency of dictatorships – lacking a set of feedback processes, they cannot ensure a steady flow of true information back to power, on which to act rationally. Popper’s argument was made for closed societies, but it can be reasonably applied to degraded ones like the US, where the manner of scrutiny is so partial and limited that the leader is never really called to account. The blithe drift into military and economic disaster – where to utter the words “defeat, recession” etc is to be with the terrorists – could not have happened without this set-up, as effective a dream factory as Hollywood ever was.

But as with many dreams, we are woken by that banging sound somewhere, distant guns, or an exploding garage. Or an old friend falling off his own roof.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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