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The Popcorn Paper Trail

Early in the twenty-first century, the United States lost its way. As the last chime of midnight tolled in the darkness of the eastern seaboard, the cold autumn winds extinguished the fragile candle flame of an old, rugged dream, under the battle blasted skies of a war between ideologically opposed factions. October of 2013 began with the not-so-novel flat-line of a terribly confused and schizophrenic derelict, caught in the duplicitous diversions of its own mania. This brief study attempts to eulogize its passing and to speculate upon the potential of its restoration, through the use of (among other sources) a survey of several articles and commentaries collected during the period of the first seven days of the American Government Shutdown.

These include references to such sources as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune, in addition to Bloomberg News, USA Today, and the Scientific American. The goal has been to construct not just a broad narrative of this event, but one that considers both the internal and external factors leading to it, and some possible outcomes that may transpire.
In 1964, the U.S. Gross Public Debt was $316 billion. In terms of 2013 currency, that value is equivalent to $2.4 trillion. Interestingly, the 2013 Gross Public Debt of $17.25 trillion would have been worth about $2.3 trillion in 1964. Without accounting for inflation, the debt at face value has increased by 5,400%. However, accounting for the increasing cost of goods and services, the public debt has increased in proportion by 725% over the course of fifty years. A bit of simple math reveals that the U.S. public debt has basically increased by 15% per year, as if like clockwork.

The greater portion of this debt as it stands in 2013 must be attributed to the recent trends of federal spending on health care and defense over the last ten years. Through the late 1990's into the first years of George W. Bush's first term as president, the government had gotten away from deficit spending. In 2001, there was a budget surplus of $128 billion. The debt hovered at $5.7 trillion. In 2002, the streak broke, and the federal budget required a deficit of $157 billion. All told, this pushed the national debt to $6.2 trillion. By 2004, the federal government had increased deficit spending to $412 billion, while the public debt had increased to $7.3 trillion, a margin of nearly 150% in only two years.

Observing this fifty year period of increase in public debt illustrates the novelty of the new twenty-first century gusto for red-line spending in America. From 1964 to 1974, the debt went from $0.316 trillion to about $0.5 trillion. By 1984, the debt had increased by about a trillion dollars, to a paltry $1.6 trillion. The most remarkable trend skywards in this series coincides with the Reagan and (first) Bush Administrations, during which the public debt had increased to a face-melting $4.6 trillion by 1994. Throughout the remainder of Clinton administration, this phenomenon attenuated, by did not abate altogether. over the course of the next six years, only about a trillion dollars had been added by the first draft of the new budget under the Bush administration. However, from the start of Bush's second term, and onward through the course of the presiding Obama administration, over the course of ten years, the pen has run away with the purse.

During this period, the U.S. spent a staggering $7.367 trillion on defense and an equally impressive $7.1 trillion on healthcare. Foreign policy and domestic policy conspired together to dig a hole, the depths of which policy-makers and voters exhausted themselves from pursuing long before peering up to consider the distance they had traveled. Pensions were the only other government function to compete with these two runaway trains, though no argument shall be made here or elsewhere about the ethical prospects of reneging on the retirement benefits of civil servants and American citizens. However, the ever-increasing cost of maintaining the burden of retired civil servants does provide a chilling insight into the potential consequences of the size of government in the twenty-first century, and also adds little advantage to the argument for its justification, considering the position the nation has found itself in.

These can be pursued on three vectors. The first, most obviously, is the government shutdown itself. The second is the state of U.S. foreign policy an relations as they relate to the international theater. Finally, the third position is the condition of the American healthcare system its relationship with the government in the eyes of the American people.

The Chicago Tribune syndicated an article from Bloomberg News on 5 October, 2013, detailing the a bill (which passed by a unanimous vote of 407-0) in favor of reimbursing furloughed federal workers for lost pay.1 This occurred five days into the shutdown. This article describes the most recent proposal from House republicans to fund the government. According to Bloomberg, the proposal included a requirement for a one year delay of the mandate in the Affordable Care Act requiring individuals to purchase healthcare insurance or be penalized.2 Considering the United States federal spending on healthcare alone in only ten years has amounted to almost half of what it has been required to borrow to stay solvent, it would seem less like the government was trying to burden its people with undue responsibilities, and more like the government was suffocating under the weight of the irrational bridle it has been made to wear by those it governs.

Nevertheless, the stated position of the House Majority was that the U.S. Government would not receive funding unless the Affordable Care Act, which has withstood over forty attempts at repeal, would be voluntarily sacrificed by the majority of the Senate, the higher ruling body, essentially on John Boehner's terms. Notably, these terms also included approval of subsidies for TransCanada Corp. and the Keystone Pipeline.3

The Bloomberg article also mentions a few other consequences of this impasse between ruling elites: The Bureau of Labor and Statistics did not release its monthly employment report in October4, so for the following weekend, analysts and planners across the world who would likely have been pouring over facts and figures, consolidating them, and hastily preparing Monday morning reports for C.E.O.s and investors everywhere, were instead confined to sitting on their hands and making uncertain guesses.

For the purposes of propriety, two other topics in the article are worth relaying. First, among (relatively) unaffected services in this debacle were Air Traffic Control, Mail, And Social Security, and obviously the military.5 The other noteworthy detail is that the U.S. will not be able to participate in the upcoming trade negotiations in Brussels.6 Another article, from the same day in the Scientific American, details the recall of a small team of researchers from the National Institute of Health attending a conference held in San Francisco by the unfortunately named Infectious Diseases Society of America. By this articles account, the nearly 10% of the speakers at this event were told "that giving their talks after the shutdown would be a federal crime," and "to return home by any means necessary."7

Scot Wilson published a report, also on the fifth, in the Washington Post entitled "U.S. Strikes al-Shabab in Somalia and Captures Bombing Suspect in Libya." This article describes a "pre-dawn" raid by U.S. Navy SEALS on the "sea-side home of a leader of the al-Qaeda linked group," with the intent "seize a high value al-Shabab militant," justifiable by the "threat posed by the organization that recently launched an attack on a shopping mall in neighboring Kenya."8 Though the agencies responsible claimed that "all necessary precautions were taken[to avoid civilian casualties]," they "were not in a position to identify those casualties."9 This is illustrative of U.S. foreign policy during this era, especially under the Obama administration. A quote from the same article adeptly describes the primary arm of American strength: "Strikes on terrorism suspects that aim solely to kill people are carried out with drone or missile strikes."10

A prominent online think-tank at asserts that as of October, there have been no reported civilian casualties of drone strikes in nine months.11 This is either evidence of a new, useful, fraudulent expansion of the already ubiquitously broad term "suspected militant," or evidence of the most miraculous New Years Resolution ever made. In either case, critics remain skeptical. The statistics presented by this study are mind-blowing.

There have been 376 drone strikes since 2004, roughly one every ten days.12 Estimates of the number of victims range from 2,525 to 3,613, which offers a mean average of 8 victims per strike.13 Of these, the number of civilian casualties is reported to be between 407 and 926,14 and of these two numbers the mean is 666, which is 25% of the averaged number of total victims reported. Needless to say, what has been so popular with Americans has not been so warmly received by most of the Arab nations.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry has repeatedly issued condemnations of U.S. Drone Strikes on its soil. But while these appeals have accomplished little, the Syrian government has managed, with the help of Russia, of all countries, to avoid such strikes after blatant demonstrations of crimes against humanity using internationally forbidden chemical weapons. In a New York Times article, also from 5 October, Alan Cowell explains how after decades of living in the shadow of the U.S. Cold War supremacy in international affairs, true to Stalin's word, the Russians have essentially triumphed without having to fire a single shot.15 Such a turn of events would not have been possible had the United States not made such a mess in the Middle East that even the atrocities of the Assad regime would no longer invoke European support for American initiatives.

Fall of 2013 found America at the center of a global crisis of economies and ideologies. Radicalism and social strain clouded the judgment and threatened the resolve and solidarity of a once seemingly successful people. A USA Today article entitled "The Most Dangerous States in America" reports a 1% uptick in domestic violent crime after "twenty years of steady decline" in the national average of annual instances of rape, murder, robbery, and aggravated assault.16 Though the farthest reaching effects of this collapse in Democratic diplomacy have yet to be felt -let alone measured- at the time of this writing, the strain of a receding economy and of unrestrained internal conflict have already begun to manifest their symptoms. A man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire on the National Mall.17 Capital Police and Secret Service officers fired 17 rounds into an unarmed lady after she rammed her Infinity through a perimeter barrier at the White House, and then led them on a high speed chase across the city.18 Aaron Alexis shot and killed twelve people in the Navy Yard Massacre.19 Add in the Snowden leaks, the Manning Trial, and the depravities (judicially sanctioned or otherwise) of Arial Castro, George Zimmerman, and the potential introduction of the West-European flesh-eating zombie drug "Krokodil" into American suburbia, and the prospects for light at the end of the tunnel seem to diminish.

In the Bloomberg article mentioned previously (syndicated by the Chicago Tribune), John Fleming, Republican Representative from Louisiana, is quoted saying "My constituents aren't concerned about the shutdown," and "I don't think many of my constituents even know that there is a shutdown."20 Louisiana voters may have been pretty dismayed to hear such a description of themselves (unless, as Mr. Fleming asserts, they are in fact so oblivious as not to notice), especially in light of a quote from the same article, this time of the Congressional Budget Office: "The U.S. will run out of borrowing authority on 17 October, and will have $30 billion in cash."21 In terms of 2013 currency, that sum is the equivalent of a single roll of toilet paper at the Philadelphia Convention, regardless of who signed it.

Image Source:
1. Micheal Bender, Kathleen Hunter, and Roxanna Tiron, "House Passes RetroActive Pay as Shutdown Enters First Weekend," Bloomberg News via Chicago Tribune, 5 October, 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Bender, Hunter, and Tiron. "Retroactive Pay...".
4. Ibid
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid
7. Sara Reardon. "U.S. Government Researchers Barred from Scientific Conferences," Scientific American, 5 October, 2013.
8. Scott Wilson and Ernest Londono. "U.S. Strikes Al-Shabab in Somalia and Captures Bombing Suspect in Libya." Washington Post, 5 October, 2013.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid
11. Jack Serle. "U.S. Covert Actions and Drone Attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.", 1 October, 2013.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid
15. Alan Cowell. "Russia Redraws Lines of Diplomacy." New York Times: Europe, 3 October, 2013.
16. Charley Blaine and Micheal Sauter. "The Most Dangerous States in America." USA Today, 5 October, 2013.
17. Max Ehrenfreund. "Man Who Set Himself on Fire on Mall Dies." Washington Post, 5 October, 2013.
18. Peter Herman and Sari Horowitz. "Use of Force on Capitol Hill Debated." Washington Post, 5 Ocotober, 2013.
19. Ibid.
20. Bender, Hunter, and Tiron. "Retroactive Pay..."
21. Ibid

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