Saturday, August 06, 2011

Delusions, Politics and the United States

As a counselling psychologist, which I was for a number of years, I often encountered delusional individuals or families. The term “delusional” has a specific meaning: a belief that is either mistaken or not substantiated and is held with very strong feelings or opinions and expressed forcefully. A common delusion may be that “my son Jason is probably the best hockey player of his generation” when in fact he is “really average” or that Angela is a near genius when in fact she is not. Being delusional should not to be confused with a delusional disorder, which is more complex psychiatric disorder with a range of symptoms.

One current example of delusional thinking is the President of the United States. He says several times a week that the US is the “greatest country on earth” and does so with seeming conviction. Yet over eighteen million are un or underemployed and the official jobless rate (always an underestimate) is over 9%. Many US states are technically operating in a close to bankrupt financial situation and US debt and unfunded liabilities are in excess of $60 trillion. Some of its former great achievements have been shadow3ed by modest or mediocre performances – its army operations in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the failure of the war on drugs, the poor showing of the US in a variety of sports. While it is true that the US contributes massively to the global economy – US firms and activities provide 25% of the world’s GDP – a great deal of this wealth is dependent on a small number of firms, most of whom outsource manufacturing and logistics to other countries. The US is a great country, but the greatest on earth – a delusion.

Another current example is the idea in Washington that they have responded to the debt crisis by the decisions made this last few days on a process for tackling the debt ceiling and spending. When you look at the agreement it is delusional. The debt ceiling is raised to a lower level than many holding US debt required; cuts to spending are unspecified and to be delayed over a decade; the process for making deeper cuts remains political and vague and few believe the last minute deal will be enough to tackle the real challenge of American’s addiction to debt. There are also no proposals for a significant look at taxation and revenue – the delusion being that cutting spending over a decade will somehow solve the debt addiction problem – a delusion.

My final example of delusion is that the US political system is broken. It is broken in several ways – it is cumbersome, ineffective, riddled with lobby-based agendas (“bought” politicians) and relies on cross-party agreement when the ideological differences both between and within parties are so substantial that such agreements will always be “shams”. It is a very young political system, but it is clearly broken. The delusion is that some hail the agreement in the debt-ceiling and budget as “showing that the system works”. It doesn’t. Exhibit A: the Senate has yet to pass a budget. Exhibit B: the Senate and the House are unlikely to agree on what to cut when – they have had several commissions and task forces over the last decade to address this issue and have not acted. There is no compelling evidence that anything has changed – ask the Chinese Government.

A starting point for “treating” delusional thinking is to confront the delusional thinkers with evidence that their talk and thought process is delusional. This is what Standard & Poor (S&P) did yesterday. They lowered the credit rating of the United States Government, pointing out that the US is delusional and gave an evidence based critique. This was quickly followed by the largest holder of US debt – China – making clear that the US better deal with the underlying problem of living in a delusional world, spending money in ways that do not reflect reality or revenue. Other debt holders (like Brazil and the EU) have also made similar statements recently.

The chattering classes on the hill cannot talk themselves out of the current delusion by substituting it with a new one – they have not “solved” the debt addiction problem, they have merely found language and some limited action which postpones having to do so. What is needed is a reform of the budget process and spending / revenue and a reinvention of US political process. Until this occurs, delusions will continue.

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