Rajan Menon

The graveyard of empire: Why American failure in Afghanistan was guaranteed

On May 1st, the date Donald Trump signed onto for the withdrawal of the remaining 3,500 American troops from Afghanistan, the war there, already 19 years old, was still officially a teenager. Think of September 11, 2021 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the date Joe Biden has chosen for the same — as, in essence, the very moment when its teenage years will be over.

In all that time, Washington has been fighting what, in reality, should have been considered a fantasy war, a mission impossible in that country, however grim and bloody, based on fantasy expectations and fantasy calculations, few of which seem to have been stanched in Washington even so many years later. Not surprisingly, Biden's decision evoked the predictable reactions in that city. The military high command's never-ending urge to stick with a failed war was complemented by the inside-the-Beltway Blob's doomsday scenarios and tired nostrums.

The latter began the day before the president even went public when, in a major opinion piece, the Washington Post's editorial board distilled the predictable platitudes to come: such a full-scale military exit, they claimed, would deprive Washington of all diplomatic influence and convince the Taliban that it could jettison its talks with President Ashraf Ghani's demoralized U.S.-backed government and fight its way to power. A Taliban triumph would, in turn, eviscerate democracy and civil society, leaving rights gained by women and minorities in these years in the dust, and so destroy everything the U.S. had fought for since October 2001.

By this September, of course, 775,000-plus Americans soldiers will have served in Afghanistan (a few of them the children of those who had served early in the war). More than a fifth of them would endure at least three tours of duty there! Suffice it to say that most of the armchair generals who tend to adorn establishment think tanks haven't faced such hardships.

In 2010 and 2011, the Obama surge would deploy as many as 100,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon states that, as of this month, 2,312 American soldiers have died there (80% killed in action) and 20,666 have been injured. Then there's the toll taken on vets of that never-ending war thanks to PTSD, suicide, and substance abuse. Military families apart, however, much of the American public has been remarkably untouched by the war, since there's no longer a draft and Uncle Sam borrowed money, rather than raising taxes, to foot the $2.26 trillion bill. As a result, the forever war dragged on, consuming blood and treasure without any Vietnam War-style protests.

Not surprisingly, most Americans know even less about the numbers of Afghan civilians killed and wounded in these years. Since 2002, at least 47,000 non-combatants have been killed and another 43,000 injured, whether by airstrikes, artillery fire, shootings, improvised explosive devices, or suicide and car bombings. A 2020 U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan notes that 2019 was the sixth straight year in which 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded. And this carnage has occurred in one of the world's poorest countries, which ranks 187th in per-capita income, where the death or incapacitation of an adult male (normally the primary breadwinner in a rural Afghan home) can tip already-poor families into destitution.

So how, then, can the calls to persevere make sense? Seek and you won't find a persuasive answer. Consider the most notable recent attempt to provide one, the Afghanistan Study Group report, written by an ensemble of ex-officials, retired generals, and think-tank luminaries, not a few of them tied to big weapons-producing companies. Released with significant fanfare in February, it offered no substantive proposals for attaining goals that have been sought for 19 years, including a stable democracy with fair elections, a free press, an unfettered civil society, and equal rights for all Afghans — all premised on a political settlement between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban.

Still Standing After All These Years

Now, consider Afghanistan's bedrock reality: the Taliban, which has battled the world's most fearsome military machine for two decades, remains standing, and continues to expand its control in rural areas. The U.S., its NATO allies, and the Afghanistan National Security and Defense Forces have indeed killed some 50,000 Taliban fighters over the years, including, in 2016, its foremost leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor. In 2019-2020 alone, several senior commanders, also members of the Taliban's shadow government, were killed, including the "governors" of Badakshan, Farah, Logar, Samangan, and Wardak provinces. Yet the Taliban, whose roots lie among the Pashtun, the country's historically dominant ethnic group, have managed to replenish their ranks, procure new weapons and ammunition, and raise money, above all through taxes on opium poppy farming.

It helps that the Taliban continues to get covert support from Pakistan's military and intelligence service, which played a pivotal role in creating the movement in the early 1990s after it was clear that the leaders of the Pakistan-backed Pashtun mujahedeen (literally, those who wage jihad) proved unable to shoot their way into power because minority nationalities (mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks) resisted ferociously. Yet the Taliban has indigenous roots, too, and its success can't be attributed solely to intimidation and violence. Its political agenda and puritanical version of Islam appeal to many Afghans. Absent that, it would have perished long ago.

Instead, according to the Long War Journal, the Taliban now controls 75 of Afghanistan's 400 districts; the government rules 133 others, with the remaining 187 up for grabs. Although the insurgency isn't on the homestretch to victory, it's never been in a stronger military position since the 2001 American invasion. Nor has the morale of its fighters dissipated, though many are doubtless weary of war. According to a May U.N. report, "the Taliban remain confident they can take power by force," even though their fighters have long been vastly outmatched in numbers, mobility, supplies, transportation, and the caliber of their armaments. Nor do they have the jets, helicopters, and bombers their adversaries, especially the United States do, and use with devastating effect. In 2019, 7,423 bombs and other kinds of ordnance were dropped on Afghanistan, eight times as many as in 2015.

Tallying Costs

As 2019 ended, a group of former senior U.S. officials claimed that the Afghan campaign's costs have been overblown. American troops killed there the previous year, they pointed out, amounted to only a fifth of those who died during "non-combat training exercises" and that "U.S. direct military expenditures in Afghanistan are approximately three percent of annual U.S. military spending" and were decreasing. It evidently escaped them that even a few fatalities that occur because a country's leaders pursue outlandish objectives like reshaping an entire society in a distant land should matter.

As for the monetary costs, it depends on what you count. Those "direct military expenditures" aren't the only ones incurred year after year from the Afghan War. Brown University's Costs of War Project, for instance, also includes expenses from the Pentagon's "base budget" (the workaday costs of maintaining the armed forces); funds allotted for "Overseas Contingency Operations," the post-9/11 counter-terrorism wars; interest payments on money borrowed to fund the war; the long-term pensions and benefits of its veterans; and economic aid provided to Afghanistan by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Do the math that way and the price tag turns out to be so much larger.

But even if you were to accept that 3% figure, that would still total $22 billion from the $738 billion fiscal year 2020 Pentagon budget, hardly chump change — especially given the resources needed to address festering problems on the home front, including a pandemic, child poverty, hunger, homelessness, and an opioid epidemic.

Nation-Building: Form vs. Substance

Now, consider some examples of the "progress" highlighted by the proponents of pressing on. These would include democratic elections and institutions, less corruption, and inroads against the narcotics trade.

First, the election system, an effective one being, of course, a prerequisite for democracy. Of course, given the way Donald Trump and crew dealt with election 2020 here in the U.S., Americans should think twice before blithely casting stones at the Afghan electoral system. In addition, organizing elections in a war-ravaged country is a dangerous task when an insurgency is working overtime to violently disrupt them.

Still, each of Afghanistan's four presidential elections (2004, 2009, 2014, 2019) produced widespread, systematic fraud verified by investigative reporters and noted in U.S. government reports. After the 2014 presidential poll, for instance, candidate Abdullah Abdullah wouldn't concede and threatened to form a parallel government, insisting that his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, had won fraudulently. To avert bloodshed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a power-sharing deal that made Abdullah the "chief executive" — a position unmentioned in the Afghan constitution. (Incidentally, elections to the national legislature have also been plagued by irregularities.) Although USAID has worked feverishly to improve election procedures and turnout, spending $200 million on the 2014 presidential election alone, voting fraud remained pervasive in 2019.

As for key political institutions, which also bear American fingerprints, the respected Afghanistan Analyst Network only recently examined the state of the supreme court, the senate, provincial and district assemblies, and the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution (ICOIC). It concluded that they "lacked even the minimum independence needed to exercise their constitutional mandate to provide accountability" and aggravated the "stagnation of the overall political system."

The senate lacked the third of its membership elected by district assemblies — the remaining senators are appointed by the president or elected by provincial assemblies — for a simple reason. Though constitutionally mandated, district assembly elections have never been held. As for the ICOIC, it had only four out of its seven legally required commissioners, insufficient for a quorum.

When it comes to the narcotics trade, Afghanistan now accounts for 90% of the world's illicit opium, essential for the making of heroin. The hectares of land devoted to opium-poppy planting have increased dramatically from 8,000 in 2001 to 263,000 by 2018. (A slump in world demand led to a rare drop in 2019.) Little wonder, since poppies provide destitute Afghan farmers with income to cover their basic needs. A U.N. study estimates that poppy sales, at $2 billion in 2019, exceeded the country's legal exports, while the opium economy accounted for 7% to 11% of the gross domestic product.

Although the U.S. has spent at least $9 billion attempting to stamp out Afghanistan's narcotics trade, a 2021 report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that the investment had next to no effect and that Afghan dominance of the global opium business remained unrivalled. The report didn't, however, mention the emergence of a new, more insidious problem. In recent years, that country has become a major producer of illegal synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine, both cheaper and more profitable than opium cultivation. It now houses, according to a European Union study, an estimated 500 meth labs that manufacture 65.5 tons of the stuff daily.

As for the campaign against corruption, a supposed pillar of U.S. nation-building, forget it. From shakedowns by officials and warlords to palatial homes built with ill-gotten gains by the well-connected, corruption permeates the American-installed system in Afghanistan.

Though U.S. officials have regularly fumed about the corruption of senior Afghan officials, including the first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai, the CIA funneled "tens of millions" of dollars to him for years (as he himself confirmed). Investigative reporting by the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock revealed that many notorious warlords and senior officials were also blessed by the Agency's beneficence. They included Uzbek strongman and one-time First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, accused of murder, abduction, and rape, and Mohammed Zia Salehi, the head of administration at the National Security Council under President Karzai.

In 2015, a U.S. government investigation revealed that $300 million earmarked to pay the Afghan police never actually reached them and was instead "paid" to "ghost" (non-existent) officers or simply stolen by police officials. A 2012 study traced 3,000 Pentagon contracts totaling $106 billion and concluded that 40% of that sum had ended up in the pockets of crime bosses, government officials, and even insurgents.

According to SIGAR's first 2021 quarterly report to Congress, one U.S. contractor pled guilty to stealing $775,000 in State Department funds. Two others, subcontractors to weapons giant Lockheed Martin, submitted nearly $1.8 million in fraudulent invoices, while hiring local employees who lacked contractually required qualifications. (They were asked to procure counterfeit college diplomas from an Internet degree mill.)

And lest you think that this deeply embedded culture of corruption in Afghanistan is a "Third World" phenomenon, consider an American official's recollection that "the biggest source of corruption" in that country "was the United States."

Hubris and Nemesis Strike — Yet Again

While writing this piece, a memory came back to me. In 1988, I was part of a group that visited Afghanistan just as Soviet troops were starting to withdraw from that country. After a disastrous 10-year war, those demoralized young soldiers were headed for a homeland that itself would soon implode. The Red Army had been sent to Afghanistan in December 1979 by a geriatric Politburo leadership confident that it would save an embattled Afghan socialist regime, which had seized power in April 1978 and soon sparked a countrywide Islamist insurgency backed by the CIA and Saudi dollars that spawned a small group that called itself al-Qaeda, headed by a rich young Saudi.

Once the guerillas were crushed, so Soviet leaders then imagined, the building of a modern socialist society would proceed amid stability and a shiny new Soviet-allied Afghanistan would emerge. As for those ragtag bands of primitive Islamic warriors, what chance did they stand against well-trained Russian soldiers bearing the latest in modern firepower?

Moscow may even have believed that the Kabul government would hold its own after the Soviet military left what its new young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had then taken to calling "the bleeding wound." The Afghan president of that moment certainly did. When our group met him, Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai, a burly, fearsome fellow who had previously headed the KHAD, the country's brutal intelligence agency, confidently assured us that his government had strong support and plenty of staying power. Barely four years later, he would be castrated, dragged behind a vehicle, and strung up in public.

The Politburo's experiment in social re-engineering in a foreign country — no one said "nation-building" back then — led to more than 13,000 dead Soviet soldiers and perhaps as many as one million dead Afghans. No two wars are alike, of course, but the same vainglory that possessed those Soviet leaders marked the American campaign in Afghanistan in its early years. The white-hot anger that followed the 9/11 attacks and the public's desire for vengeance led the George W. Bush administration to topple the Taliban government. He and his successors in the White House, seized by the overweening pride theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had long ago warned his fellow Americans about, also believed that they would build a democratic and modern Afghanistan.

As it happened, they simply started another, even longer cycle of war in that unfortunate country, one guaranteed to rage on and consume yet more lives after American soldiers depart this September — assuming Biden's decision isn't thwarted.

Copyright 2021 Rajan Menon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Hunger in America: On the frontlines of the COVID-19 nightmare

As autumn fades and winter looms, the dire predictions public-health experts made about Covid-19 have, unfortunately, proven all-too-accurate. On October 27th, 74,379 people were infected in the United States; less than a month and a half later, on December 9th, that number had soared to 218,677, while the 2020 total has just surpassed 15 million, a number no other country, not even India, which has a population three times that of the U.S., has surpassed

And now, it seems, the third wave of the virus has arrived. As recently as late October, the embattled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, warned that "we are in for a whole lot of hurt" and that infections could reach 100,000 a day. As it happens, he was wildly optimistic. A little more than a month later, there were more than twice that many. Is it possible, however, that the current surge is due in part to increased testing, as President Trump and others have regularly claimed? Here's the problem. Even if that theory were true, it can't account for the spiraling death toll, which is now more than 300,000 and could hit 450,000 by February, according to Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nor can it explain the daily Covid-19 hospitalizations, the first round of which peaked at 59,712 on July 23rd, dropped pretty steadily to a low of 28,606 on September 20th, and then started to soar, reaching 106,671 on December 9th.

Though big-picture statistics like these should help us grasp the staggering magnitude of our current public-health crisis, what they don't reveal is the searing effects it's had on the lives of millions of Americans, even those who have managed to evade the virus or haven't seen friends or family fall ill or die from Covid-19. The pandemic has been especially hard for those on the front lines: doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers who experience battle fatigue and despair while besieged by suffering and deaths, visceral reminders of their own vulnerability.

In society at large, precautions -- lockdowns, social distancing, limits on festive gatherings -- necessary to keep Covid-19 at bay have increased loneliness and social isolation. Contrary to early expectations, reports of abuse and violence within families haven't actually spiraled, but experts suggest that may be because the victims, confined to their homes alongside their tormentors, are finding it harder to seek help and fear reporting what's happening to them. As for children, teachers are no longer seeing their pupils in person as regularly and so are less able to spot the typical warning signs of mistreatment.

Thankfully, the pandemic has yet to increase this country's already alarming suicide rate, but the same can't be said for levels of stress and depression, both of which have risen noticeably. School closures and the move to online learning have forced parents, particularly women, to scramble for childcare and to work less, even though many of them were barely getting by while working full-time, or stop working altogether, often a genuine disaster in poor families.

Not surprisingly, people who have been laid off or had their work hours reduced have fallen behind on their mortgage and rent payments. Although various federal and state moratoriums on such payments, as well as on evictions and foreclosures, were enacted, such protections will eventually end. And the moratoriums don't negate renters' or homeowners' obligations to settle accounts with their bankers and landlords somewhere down the line (which for many Americans may, in the end, prove an impossibility).

Food and the Pandemic

Apart from the illness and death it causes, perhaps the most poignant consequence of Covid-19 has been the way it's increased what's called "food insecurity" across the United States. That ungainly term doesn't refer to the chronic food scarcity and undernourishment, which afflicts more than 800 million people in poor countries, but rather to the disruption of people's typical food-consumption patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distinguishes between what it calls low food security ("reduced quality, variability, or desirability of diet") and the very low version of the same ("multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake").

Surveys by the USDA and the Census Bureau show that both variants have risen steeply during the pandemic. Just before the coronavirus struck, 35 million Americans, 11 million of them children, experienced food insecurity, the lowest figure in two decades. This year, those numbers are projected to reach 54 million and 18 million respectively. In 2018, 4% of American adults reported that at least some members of their family did not have enough to eat; by July 2020, that figure had hit 11%, according to a study by Northwestern University's Food Research and Action Center, and will only increase as the pandemic worsens.

Income supplements provided by the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March in response to the economic problems created by Covid-19, increases in the government's Supplementary Nutritional Program (SNAP), and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit (P-EBT), which helps parents whose children no longer get free or subsidized school lunches, have made a difference -- but not enough to make up for lost or reduced income, lost homes, and other disasters of this moment. And sadly, any follow-up to the CARES Act, assuming Congress reaches some kind of agreement on its terms before the current legislation expires at the end of December, will almost certainly be far less generous than the original law. The SNAP increases already excluded the poorest seven million households that were then receiving the maximum amount, and the new increases now under discussion in Congress would add less than one dollar to a four-person family's maximum daily benefit. P-EBT expired in most states at the end of September, in some as early as July.

That food insecurity has "skyrocketed," as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, during the pandemic despite government assistance shouldn't come as a surprise. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have seen their earnings diminished because of furloughs, wage cuts, freezes, or reduced working hours. Others have looked for jobs in vain and finally given up (but aren't included in official unemployment statistics). Millions of adults have children who no longer receive those free or subsidized lunches because of the switch, in whole or part, to online teaching. Worse yet, as pandemic-induced firings, layoffs, and wage cuts have reduced incomes, and so consumer purchasing power, food prices, especially for meat, fish, and eggs, have only risen. Such costs have increased for other reasons as well. The pandemic has disrupted supply networks, national and international. Leery consumers, anticipating shortages or seeking to reduce trips to grocery stores to avoid being infected by Covid-19, have also resorted to panic buying and the stockpiling of food and other necessities.

Who You Are and Where You Live Matters Most

Of course, not everyone has been hit with equal force by rising food prices. Americans high on the income ladder can absorb such extra costs easily enough and, in any case, spend a substantially smaller portion of their income on groceries. According to the USDA, adults with incomes in the top fifth of society spent 8% of their income on food last year; for the bottom fifth, it was 36%. The first group also obviously has a lot more money available to stock up on food than that bottom fifth, so many of whom have also become jobless or seen their paychecks diminish since the pandemic started. In March, for example, 39% of those making less than $40,000 had already lost their jobs or had their paychecks reduced, but only 13% of those who earned $100,000 or more, and that gap continued into the fall.

Not surprisingly, then, the bigger the hit people took from the Covid-19 recession, the more likely they were to experience food insecurity, which is why aggregate statistics on the phenomenon and other societal problems attributable to the pandemic can be misleading. They tend to mask the reality that its effects have been felt primarily by the most vulnerable, while the others have been touched much more lightly, or not at all.

The variations are rooted in ethnicity and location as well as income level (and the three tend to be closely linked). A USDA report classified 19% of Black households and 16% of Hispanic households as food insecure in 2019, compared to 8% of their white counterparts. By this summer, food insecurity had increased significantly across the board, afflicting 36% of Black, 32% of Hispanic, and 18% of white households. While the pandemic has certainly made matters worse, African Americans had the highest rate among those three groups even before it started. This was especially true of counties -- the U.S. has more than 3,000 of them -- in which they were in the majority. In 2016, those particular counties accounted for a mere 3% of the national total, but 96% of them had "high food insecurity," as the Department of Agriculture defines it, as well as a poverty rate more than twice the national average (12.7% that year).

Native Americans have had the worst of it, however, since many of their families lack access to running water and plumbing (58 per 1,000 households compared to three per 1,000 for whites). Nearly 75% of Native Americans must travel more than a mile to reach a supermarket, compared to 40% of the population as a whole, and the disruption of supply chains has only diminished their food security further relative to other ethnic communities. Even prior to the pandemic, counties in which they (or Native Alaskans) constituted a majority were among those with the highest levels of food insecurity. Not coincidentally, in 2016, the poverty rate in nearly 70% of Native American-majority counties averaged a whopping 37%.

In other words, while every group has suffered in this pandemic year, race matters -- a lot -- when it comes to the degree of suffering.

So does income. In coronavirus-stricken America, only 1% of adults with an annual income exceeding $100,000 surveyed by the Census Bureau this summer responded that, during the preceding week, their household "sometimes or often did not have enough to eat." Compare that to 16% of those making $25,000-$35,000 and 28% of those earning less than $25,000.

Finally, food insecurity during the pandemic has varied by location as well. Ten states (and the District of Columbia) had the highest rates, ranging from Mississippi (33.5%), which stood atop this group, to Alabama (27%), which had the lowest. In between, in descending order, were Washington, D.C., Nevada, Louisiana, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Food Banks and Pantries: On The Front Lines

The other day, a close friend described to me the daily scene at a food distribution center in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. Well before trucks laden with food pulled up early in the morning, he said, the lines had already started forming, hundreds of people waiting patiently in a queue that encircled the block. And that's just one of many neighborhoods in New York where this is all too typical these days. In Queens, for instance, one pantry regularly faces a demand so steep that lines can extend for eight blocks. Try to imagine what the waiting time must be. All told, 1.5 million people in the city, unable to buy the groceries they need, rely on food pantries, and New York is anything but unusual. Photographs abound of cars lined up by the hundreds, even thousands, at food pantries in major cities around the country.

Feeding America, a non-profit organization that supports 200 food storage centers and 60,000 pantries nationwide, reports that the country's food banks have provided the equivalent of more than 4.2 billion meals since March, a 50% increase compared to a year ago and 40% of the people who come to such pantries are first-time visitors. A Consumer Reports survey of grocery shoppers found that nearly a fifth of them had turned to a food pantry since the pandemic began (half of whom hadn't sought such help at all in 2019). In March, before the first wave of Covid-19 began to peak, 18 million Americans already used food pantries; by August, that number had climbed to 22 million, even though an additional 6.2 million people had received benefits from SNAP (the food-stamp program in common parlance) between March and May alone. By early July, 37.4 million people had signed up for SNAP compared to 35.7 million for all of last year.

Little wonder, then, that food banks, facing a tsunami of demand, have struggled to stay stocked amid rising prices, shortages, reduced donations from big chain supermarkets, and disrupted supply chains. It's also become even harder for them to raise the money they need to operate. Not a few have buckled under the strain and many have been forced to shut down. Pantries have also had a hard time mustering volunteers, in part because seniors, particularly vulnerable to the virus, made up a significant segment of such helpers. Not surprisingly, then, food banks and pantries have battled to function or simply survive in these months, while also having to implement an array of cumbersome and costly safety measures to keep volunteers, staff, and clients infection-free.

Despite their heroic role, such food banks and pantries are the equivalent of the proverbial finger in the dike. For Covid-induced food insecurity and hunger to decline significantly, the third wave of infections will have to subside and Congress will have to offer more effective aid. The Trump administration's recent proposal, blessed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to provide a one-shot $600 check to all adults (whether they're unemployed or not) certainly isn't. At the same time, vaccines will have to be produced in sufficient quantities and distributed rapidly. (We are far from ready on that front.) All this in a country where striking numbers of people look askance at vaccination -- in a December survey only 63% of Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19 -- and are also drawn to conspiracy mongers whose appeal has grown, thanks in part to social media.

Once the virus is vanquished or at least brought under reasonable control, the economy can be reopened. Then, many of the nearly 11 million at-present unemployed people will perhaps have a shot at working again or having their employers end reduced hours and cut wages.

Here's hoping that these various stars align by summer 2021. We can then revert to pre-pandemic normalcy, even though that state of affairs was marked by substantial poverty -- 34 million people last year -- and rising inequality.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, senior research fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rajan Menon

The nightmare Joe Biden could inherit

Donald Trump isn't just inside the heads of his Trumpster base; he's long been a consuming obsession among those yearning for his defeat in November. With barely more than a week to go before the election of our lifetime, those given to nail biting as a response to anxiety have by now gnawed ourselves down to the quick. And many have found other ways to manage (or mismanage) their apprehensions through compulsive rituals, which only ratchet up the angst of the moment, among them nonstop poll tracking, endless "what if" doomsday-scenario conversations with friends, and repeated refrigerator raids.

As one of those doomsday types, let me briefly suggest a few of the commonplace dystopian possibilities for November. Trump gets the majority of the votes cast in person on November 3rd. A Pew Research Center survey found that 60% of those supporting the president intend to vote that way on Election Day compared to 23% of Biden supporters; and a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll likewise revealed a sizable difference between Republicans and Democrats, though not as large. He does, however, lose handily after all mail-in and absentee ballots are counted. Once every ballot is finally tabulated, Biden prevails in the popular vote and ekes out a win in the Electoral College. The president, however, having convinced his faithful that voting by mail will result in industrial-scale fraud (unless he wins, of course), proclaims that he -- and "the American people" -- have been robbed by the establishment. On cue, outraged Trumpsters, some of them armed, take to the streets. Chaos, even violence, ensues. The president's army of lawyers frenetically file court briefs contesting the election results and feverishly await a future Supreme Court decision, Mitch McConnell having helpfully rammed through Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to produce a 6-3 conservative majority (including three Trump-appointed Supremes) that will likely favor him in any disputed election case.

Or the vote tally shows that Trump didn't prevail in pivotal states, but in state legislatures with Republican majorities, local GOP leaders appoint electors from their party anyway, defying the popular will without violating Article II, Section I, of the Constitution, which doesn't flat-out prohibit such a stratagem. That was one possibility Barton Gellman explored in his bombshell Atlantic piece on the gambits Trump could use to snatch victory (of a sort) from the jaws of a Biden victory. Then there are the sundry wag-the-dog plots, including a desperate Trump trying to generate a pre-election rally-around-the-flag effect by starting a war with Iran -- precisely what, in 2011, he predicted Barack Obama would do to boost his chances for reelection.

And that, of course, is just part of a long list of nightmarish possibilities. Whatever your most dreaded outcome, dwelling on it doesn't make for happiness or even ephemeral relief. Ultimately, it's not under your control. Besides, no one knows what will happen, and some prominent pundits have dismissed such apocalyptic soothsaying with assurances that the system will work the way it's supposed to and foil Trumpian malfeasance. Here's hoping.

In the meantime, let's summon what passes for optimism these days. Imagine that none of the alarmist denouements materializes. Biden wins the popular vote tally and the Electoral College. The GOP's leaders discover that they do, in fact, have backbones (or at least the instinct for political survival), refusing to echo Trump's rants about rigging. The president rages but then does go, unquietly, into the night.

Most of my friends on the left assume that a new dawn would then emerge. In some respects, it indeed will. Biden won't be a serial liar. That's no small matter. By the middle of this year, Trump had made false or misleading pronouncements of one sort or another more than 20,000 times since becoming president. Nor will we have a president who winks and nods at far-right groups or racist "militias," nor one who blasts a governor -- instead of expressing shock and solidarity -- soon after the FBI foils a plot by right-wing extremists to kidnap her for taking steps to suppress the coronavirus. We won't have a president who repeatedly intimates that he will remain in office even if he loses the election. We won't have a president who can't bring himself to appeal to Americans to display their patriotism through the simple act of donning masks to protect others (and themselves) from Covid-19. And we won't have a president who lacks the compassion to express sorrow over the 225,000 Americans (and rising) who have been killed by that disease, or enough respect for science and professional expertise, to say nothing of humility, to refrain from declaring, as his own experts squirm, that warm weather will cause the virus to vanish miraculously or that injections of disinfectant will destroy it.

And these, of course, won't be minor victories. Still, Joe Biden's arrival in the Oval Office won't alter one mega-fact: Donald Trump will hand him a monstrous economic mess. Worse, in the almost three months between November 3rd and January 20th, rest assured that he will dedicate himself to making it even bigger.

The motivation? Sheer spite for having been put in the position -- we know that he will never accept any responsibility for his defeat -- of facing what, for him, may be more unbearable than death itself: losing. The gargantuan challenge of putting the economy back on the rails while also battling the pandemic would be hard enough for any new president without the lame-duck commander-in-chief and Senate Republicans sabotaging his efforts before he even begins. The long stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day will provide Donald Trump ample time to take his revenge on a people who will have forsaken, in his opinion, the best president ever.

More on Trump's vengeance, but first, let's take stock of what awaits Biden should he win in November.

Our Covid-Ravaged Economy

To say that we are, in some respects, experiencing the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression of the 1930s is anything but hyperbole. The statistics make that clear. The economy had contracted at a staggering annual rate of 31.4% during the second quarter of this pandemic year. During the 2007-2009 Great Recession, unemployment, at its height, was 10%. This year's high point, in April, was 14.7%. Over the spring, 40 million jobs disappeared, eviscerating all gains made during the two pre-pandemic years.

There were, however, some relatively recent signs of a rebound. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank's survey of economic forecasters, released in mid-August, yielded an estimate of a 19.1% expansion for the third quarter of 2020. But that optimism came in the wake of Congress passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, on March 27th, which pumped about $2.2 trillion into the economy. The slowdown in job growth between July and September suggests that its salutary effects may be petering out. Even with that uptick, the economy remains in far worse shape than before the virus started romping through the landscape.

However, while useful, aggregate figures obscure stark variations in how the pain produced by a Covid-19 economy has been felt across different parts of American society. No, we aren't all in this together, if by "together" you mean anything remotely resembling equalized distress. A Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) release, for instance, reveals that September's 7.9% nationwide unemployment rate hit some groups far harder than others.

The jobless rate for whites dropped to 7%, but for Hispanics it was 10.3%, for African Americans 12.1%. Furthermore, high-skill, high-wage workers have gotten off far more lightly than those whose jobs can't be done from home, including restaurant servers and cooks, construction workers, meatpackers, housecleaners, agricultural laborers, subway, bus, and taxi drivers, first responders, and retail and hotel staff, among others. For workers like them, essential public health precautions, whether "social distancing" or stay-at-home decrees, haven't just been an inconvenience. They have proven economically devastating. These are the Americans who are struggling hardest to buy food and pay the rent.

More than 25 million of them fall in the lowest 20% of the earnings scale and -- no surprise here -- have, at best, the most meager savings. According to the Fed's calculations, of the bottom 25% of Americans, only 11% have what they require for at least six months of basic expenses and less than 17% for at least three. Yes, unemployment insurance helps, but depending on the state, it covers just 30% to 50% of lost wages. Moreover, there's no telling when, or whether, such workers will be rehired or find new jobs that pay at least as much. The data on long-term unemployment isn't encouraging. The BLS reports that, in September, 2.4 million workers had been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, another 4.9 million for 15 to 27 weeks.

These disparities and the steps the Fed has taken, including keeping interest rates low and buying treasury bills, mortgage-backed securities, and corporate bonds, help explain why high stock prices and massive economic suffering have coexisted, however incongruously, during the pandemic. The problem with bull markets, however, is that they don't bring direct gains to the chunk of American society that's been hurt the most.

Nearly half of American households own no stock at all, according to the Federal Reserve Bank, even if you count pension and 401k plans or Individual Retirement Accounts -- and for black and Hispanic families the numbers are 69% and 72%, respectively. Furthermore, the wealthiest 10% of households own 84% of all stock.

Trump preens when the stock market soars, as he did on April 10th, when 16 million Americans had just filed for unemployment. Tweets trumpeting "the biggest Stock Market increase since 1974" were cold comfort for Americans who could no longer count on paychecks.

The Signs of Suffering

Even such numbers don't fully reveal the ways in which prolonged joblessness has upended lives. To get a glimpse of that, consider how low-income workers, contending with extended unemployment, have struggled to pay for two basic necessities: housing and food.

Reuters reported in late July that Americans already owed $21.5 billion in back rent. Worse yet, 17.3 million of the country's 44 million renter households couldn't afford to pay the landlord and faced possible eviction. A fifth of all renters had made only partial payments that month or hadn't paid anything. Again, not surprisingly, some were in more trouble than others. In September, 12% of whites owed back rent compared to 25% of African Americans, 24% of Asians, and 22% of Latinos. A May Census Bureau survey revealed that nearly 45% of African Americans and Hispanics but "only" 20% of whites had little or no confidence in their ability to make their June rent payments. (Households with kids were in an even bigger bind.)

The rent crunch also varied depending on a worker's education, a reliable predictor of earnings. Workers with high school diplomas earned only 60% as much as workers who had graduated from college and only 50% of those with a master's degree. And the more education workers had, the less likely they were to be laid off. Between February and August, 2.5% of employees with college degrees lost their jobs compared to nearly 11% of those who hadn't attended college.

Those, then, are the Americans most likely to be at risk of eviction. Yes, the federal government, states, and cities have issued rent moratoriums, but the protections in them varied considerably and, by August, they had ended in 24 of the 43 states that enacted them; nor did they release renters from future obligations to pay what they owe, sometimes with penalties. In addition, eviction stays haven't stopped landlords nationwide from taking thousands of delinquent renters to court and even, depending on state laws, seeking to evict them. The courts are clogged with such cases. Eventually, millions of renters could face what a BBC report called a potential "avalanche" of evictions.

Nor have homeowners been safe. The CARES Act did include provisions to protect some of them, offering those with federal-backed mortgages the possibility of six-month payment deferrals, potential six-month extensions of that, and the possibility of negotiating affordable payment plans thereafter. In many cases, however, that "forbearance" initiative hasn't worked as intended. Often, homeowners didn't know about it or weren't aware that they had to file a formal request with their lenders to qualify or got the run around when they tried to do so. Still, mortgage forbearance helped millions, but it expires in March 2021 when many homeowners could still be jobless or have new jobs that don't pay as well. Just how desperate such people will be depends, of course, on how strongly Covid-19 resurges, what future shutdowns it produces, and when it will truly subside.

Meanwhile, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the residential mortgage delinquency rate hit 8.22% as the second quarter of 2020 ended, the highest since 2014. Meanwhile, between June and July, mortgage payments overdue 90 or more days increased by 20% to a total unseen since 2010. True, we're not yet headed for defaults and foreclosures on the scale of the Great Recession of 2007-2008, but that's a very high bar.

As for hunger, a September Census Bureau survey reports that 10.5% of adults, or 23 million people, stated that household members weren't getting enough to eat. That's a sharp increase from the 3.7% in a Department of Agriculture survey for 2019. In July, the Wall Street Journal reported, 12% of adults said their families didn't have enough food (compared to 10% in May). A fifth of them lacked the money to feed their kids adequately, a three-percent increase from May. Recent food-insecurity estimates for households with children range from 27.5% to 29.5%.

Meanwhile, enrollments in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known until 2008 as the Food Stamp Program) grew by 17% between February and May, forcing the government to increase its funding. Food banks, overwhelmed by demand, are pleading for money and volunteers. In August, a mile-long line of cars formed outside a food bank in Dallas, one of many such poignant scenes in cities across the country since the pandemic struck.

What Happens After the Election?

For those who have lost their jobs, the CARES Act provided $600 a week to supplement unemployment benefits, as well as a one-time payment of $1,250 per adult and $2,400 for married couples. That stipend, though, ended on July 31st when the Republican Senate balked at renewing it. In August, by executive order, the president directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step in with three weeks of $300 payments, which were extended for another three. That, however, was half what they would have received had the CARES supplement been extended and, by October, most states had used up the Trump allotments.

In the ongoing congressional negotiations over prolonging supplemental benefits and other assistance, President Trump engaged, only to disengage. With a September ABC News/IPSOS voter survey showing that just 35% of the public approved of his handling of the pandemic, and Joe Biden having opened a double-digit lead in many polls, the president suddenly offered a $1.8 trillion version of the CARES Act, only to encounter massive blowback from his own party.

And that's where we are as the election looms. If Trump loses (and accepts the loss), he will hand Joe Biden an economic disaster of the first order that he's made infinitely worse by belittling mask-wearing and social distancing, disregarding and undercutting his administration's own medical experts, peddling absurd nostrums, and offering rosy but baseless prognostications. And between November 3rd, Election Day, and January 20th, Inauguration Day, expect -- hard as it might be to imagine -- an angrier, more vengeful Trump.

For now, as his prospects for victory seem to dim, he has good reason to push for, or at least be seen as favoring, additional aid, but here's a guarantee: if he loses in November, he won't just moan about election rigging, he'll also lose all interest in providing more help to millions of Americans at the edge of penury and despair. Vindictiveness, not sympathy, will be his response, even to his base, for whom he clearly has a barely secret disdain. So accept this guarantee, as well: between those two dates, whatever he does will be meant to undermine the incoming Biden administration. That includes working to make the climb as steep as possible for the rival he's depicted as a semi-senile incompetent. He will want only one thing: to see his successor fail.

Once Trump formally hands over the presidency -- assuming his every maneuver to retain power flops -- he'll work to portray any measure the new administration adopts to corral the virus he helped let loose and to aid those in need as profligacy, and as "socialism" and governmental overreach imperiling freedom. Last guarantee: he won't waste a minute getting his wrecking operation underway, while "his" party will posture as the paragon of financial rectitude. It won't matter that Republican administrations have racked up the biggest budget deficits in our history. They, too, will ferociously resist Biden's efforts to help millions of struggling Americans.

And think of all of this, assuming Biden wins, as the "good news."

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, senior research fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Rajan Menon

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