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by Alexander Cockburn

The default option these days is fantasy -- a trend in American politics kicked off in this epoch by Ronald Reagan

Time magazine made Vladimir Putin its Man of the Year. Chalk it up as nostalgia for the Cold War, when America was great and a working man in a state like Michigan had two cars, a nice house, a country cottage, a health plan, a pension and a wife who stayed at home, canning fruit and batting her eyes at the postman. These days he has two lousy jobs, she has three and they have negative equity in their home, no health plan and no pension.

A couple of indices of how down many Americans are feeling about the future: The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans has reached its highest point in at least 25 years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a couple of weeks ago.

The rate rose by about 20 percent between 1999 and 2004 for U.S. residents ages 45 through 54 -- far more than among younger adults, whose own suicide stats are also on the rise.

In 2004, there were 16.6 completed suicides per 100,000 people in the 45-54 cohort, the highest it's been since the CDC started tracking such rates, around 1980. The previous high was 16.5, in 1982, a year when there was a terrible farm crisis in the Midwest.

These days, it's the health-care crisis. People can't even afford to get finished off by a doctor or a hospital, so they have to do it themselves.

The second index of desperation is a sudden spike in teen pregnancies, particularly among young black women. As the sociologist Ruth Blader says, "When we believe in our opportunities, we safeguard our futures. Conversely, we behave self-destructively when we have no hope. For many teenagers in America, the options aren't heartening. In a society where opportunities are scarce and life is getting harder, getting pregnant puts a positive spin on a vote of no-confidence." Indeed, some argue that having babies early is a very rational choice for a young black teen, since her support network of kin are still alive and her own body not wasted by the toxins associated with low-income neighborhoods.

In less than a week, America will start trudging through the endless months of Campaign 2008. Worthy Iowans, their quadrennial season in the limelight at its apex, will cram into the caucuses and kick off the horse races. In all the torrents of rhetorical hot air thus far expended, it's hard to find a single sentence from any politician that could give any comfort to that suicidal 50-year-old or the teen with a toddler as her only solace. There are gestures to populism by the Democrat John Edwards, but I've not met anyone who believes that there is the slightest chance of substantive reform of health care or a reversal of soaring trends in inequality. The bad guys have a lock on the system.

The default option these days is fantasy -- a trend in American politics kicked off in this epoch by Ronald Reagan. Reagan knew how to keep things simple. When Reagan died, a Pentagon official told me that when Ron became president in 1981, and thus "Commander in Chief," the Joint Chiefs of Staff mounted their traditional show-and-tell briefings for him, replete with simple charts and a senior general explicating them in simple terms. Reagan found these briefings way too complicated and dozed off. The Joint Chiefs then set up a secret unit, staffed by cartoonists. The balance of forces were set forth in easily accessible caricature, with Soviet missiles the size of upended Zeppelins, pulsing on their launch pads, with the miniscule U.S. ICBMs shriveled in their bunkers. Little cartoon bubbles would contain the points the Joint Chiefs wanted to hammer into Reagan's brain, most of them to the effect that "we need more money." Reagan really enjoyed the shows and sometimes even asked for repeats.

Reagan set the bar for the level of national political debate. They called him the Great Communicator and no one has moved the bar since. So who cares if his great contribution to the national fantasy "missile defense," a.k.a. "the strategic defense initiative," a.k.a. "Star Wars, is now scheduled to consume 19 percent of the defense budget even though it's well nigh universally admitted the system is useless. The system is impregnable to reform and everyone knows it.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   December 29, 2007   (

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