In a cave somewhere on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, Osama Bin Laden must be laughing as he watches the collapse of American capitalism as we know it, which -- with an assist from George Bush -- he has done so much to catalyze.
Indeed Osama Bin Laden's efforts to help wreck the pillars of the American "free market" economy bear a striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan's strategy that helped lead to the collapse of Soviet communism: Scare them into an arms race which they couldn't afford and which would undermine the very fabric of their economic, social and political system.
Thanks to the overreaction by the Bush/Cheney administration along with the neocons and free market fundamentalists of the Republican Party, Bin Laden has succeeded in harming America far beyond his wildest dreams, much as the overreaction by the leaders of the Politburo to Reagan's arms build-up undermined an already faltering Soviet system.
By 1980, when Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was already in long term crisis due to an over-reliance on centralized planning and a command economy that could not meet the economic needs of its people, while they tried to maintain the largest conventional armed forces in the world and a high-tech nuclear force. The Soviets were also bogged down in an unwinnable counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan that was sapping the strength and morale of the Russian military. The Afghan insurgency was led by Islamic fundamentalists, funded by tens of millions of dollars in secret US aide, and one of whose American-supported leaders was a young Saudi millionaire named Osama Bin Laden. In a supreme irony, Bin Laden's organization, which was in part an American creation, may have significantly contributed to the decline of the two great empires of the late 20th Century, the Soviet Union and now the United States.
In an effort to cripple the Soviet economy, Reagan began a $1.5 trillion dollar US military increase. Foolishly, the Soviet leaders were suckered into believing that they had to match American's military build-up. In doing so, while dogmatically following their outdated economic orthodoxy, they pushed the Soviet economic system beyond the breaking point and presided over the break-up of the Russian empire.
While Reagan's unprecedented military build-up may have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union, it also did great long-term harm to the United States. Reagan increased defense spending by 45% while cutting domestic programs by 21% and ballooning the national debt. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes has written, "The superpower nuclear arms races and the corresponding militarization of the American economy gave us ramshackle cities, broken bridges, failing schools, entrenched poverty, impeded life expectancy, and a menacing and secretive national-security state."
In short, while perhaps hastening the end of the Cold War, Reagan's policies also began the process that undermined America's long-term economic vitality which eventually, after 7 ½ years of Bush/Cheney's similar policies, has brought the American economic system to the brink of collapse.
Confronted with the danger of the very same Osama Bin Laden -- whose insurgency weakened the Soviet empire -- the Bush/Cheney administration made the same mistakes as the old Soviet leaders made in their response to the threats from Ronald Reagan.
The Bush/Cheney administration began an unsustainable military build-up and initiated an unwinnable counterinsurgency war which it could not afford, putting extreme strain on the economy. After failing to catch Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora where it had him trapped, Bush invaded Iraq where Al Qaida did not previously exist, at a hard cost to date of over $700 billion dollars which is continuing to increase by $12 billion a month. (Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that when the hidden costs like death benefits and long-term health care expenses for the troops, equipment replacement costs, and interest on the debt are added, the real cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars could reach $3 trillion dollars.)
Moreover, Bush paid for the War by putting the cost on the US government's credit card, asking no sacrifices from the American people except for the overstretched military, and cutting taxes in a time of war, primarily for the wealthy. In the last year of the Clinton Presidency, the US government ran a surplus of $236 billion and projections going forward were for a 10 year surplus of $5.6 trillion. It was the last black ink America would see for decades, perhaps forever. Even before the recent credit crisis and last week's $840 billion bailout, it was a projected that the next President would inherit an annual budget deficit of about $400 billion. This past weekend, the National Debt Clock in New York, which calculates the long-term national debt, passed the $10 trillion mark, actually running out of space to keep counting.
In addition, Bush used the political capital he gained from waging a war on terrorism to institute extreme fundamentalist "free market" policies, much as the Soviet leaders had doubled down on their own flawed economic policies. The Bush/Cheney administration further deregulated the economy, among other things allowing Wall Street to leverage its debt to equity ratios on mortgage backed securities up to 30-1, leading to the recent freeze up of credit markets.
As his final coup de grace to the American way of life, Bush and his Wall Street backers have convinced Congress and the American people, rightly or wrongly, that the only way to avert complete economic meltdown is for President Bush and Treasury Secretary Paulson to drive their Brinks truck up to the Treasury and load it up with $840 billion dollars of increased government debt. Let's only hope that this plan succeeds in partially alleviating the worst of the catastrophe.
Grover Norquist, the theoretician of the Bush economic strategy, said that he wanted to shrink government until it would drown in the bath tub. Instead, under Bush/Cheney, government grew to the size of a gorilla that is literally eating the American people out of house and home. American capitalism as we know it is over. I don't know if you can call the result socialism, since only the losses are socialized while the profits continue to be privatized. But it's certainly not free market capitalism--The Secretary of the Treasury will have economic powers that may exceed even those of the old Soviet Union's Minister of Finance. Even if the bailout works, at the very best, America faces a long recession, increased unemployment, more foreclosures, further bank failures, and a debt that will still be being paid off by our children and grandchildren. A President Obama may have to spend the first years of his administration cleaning up the toxic economic and military mess left by Bush/Cheney administration. A President McCain, with his policies of endless war and renewed tax cuts for the wealthy, would only add to the toxicity.
While it took Ronald Reagan hundreds of millions of dollars to hasten the end of the Soviet communist system, it only took Osama Bin Laden 20 men and 3 hijacked airplanes to hasten the end of the American free market system as we know it. In fact, on Friday an Al Qaida leader released a video on the internet proclaiming that "the enemies of Islam are facing a crushing defeat, which is beginning to manifest itself in the expanding crisis their economy is experiencing, a crisis whose primary cause...[is] the abortive and unsustainable crusades they are waging in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq."
Somewhere in Waziristan, Osama Bin Laden has a big smile on his face. Thank you, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.