“…the essence of American politics.  This essence, when distilled, consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most in touch with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist’.”

Christopher Hitchens, No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, p. 18

 

“The wrenching irony of American history was that, while many of the Populist ideas eventually triumphed, the people themselves were utterly defeated.”

William Greider, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, p. 243

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Paul Krugman begins his 1994 book Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations with a quote from an unnamed Indian economist: “If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist, you are reborn as  a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.” Krugman goes on to explain that “[e]conomics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.”

Staring down the barrel of what might be a dark week in American history, I can’t help but feel a sense of helplessness before a political system in which the dominant party refuses to or is perhaps unable intellectually to manage the economy according to what we, as humans know to be true about how modern economies operate. But, unlike perhaps Obama, I’m not surprised. Simpler subjects such as biology and climatology have been poorly understood in the years since “Morning in America,” and I don’t have reason to expect improvement.

Earlier this week I came across Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias commenting on a nice post from Brendan Nyhan about what effect, if any, Ronald Reagan had on the size of the federal government and on American perceptions of the size of the federal government. Which is interesting to me because I’m trying to become a bit of a Reagan wonk but also because this topic came up in a discussion on my facebook page last week.  There was a discussion between a friend and me regarding Jonathan Chait’s post about how conservatives are reading Arthur Brooks’ The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future. Based on the write-up, it’s a ridiculous book, but what is interesting about this episode is that it’s yet another example of how conservatives (at least pretend to) live in a netherworld where actual facts about the US economy do not obviate theoretical frameworks for how they would like to view the US economy.

I quoted James K. Galbraith’s The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, from page 112:

Taking everything together, we find that the US is not a ‘free-market’ economy with an underdeveloped or withered state sector. It is, rather, an advanced postindustrial developed country like any other, with a government sector responsible for well over half of economic activity…And it is particularly good at disguising this fact and at cutting parapublic institutions in on the action.

This is basically the thesis of Galbraith’s book. I went on to quote page 114:

Overall, the New Deal survived Reagan quite intact, and the economy recovered–partly led by housing, partly by technology, partly by military spending. This was not because the conservatives around Reagan succeeded but because they had failed. Those who describe themselves as political conservatives but who are mainly interested in power rather than in ideas drew the lesson. They adapted. Rather than defeat the system, they decided to join it. And to turn it to their own purposes. Without saying a word.

But more to the point of the current discussion:

The history of the past three decades has often been written as a struggle between the spirit of Milton Friedman and the ghosts of Keynes and FDR–between the market and the state.  The Reagan revolution was successful primarily in forcing changes in the way people thought and spoke:  it resurrected Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek and established a new church of the free market, giving the right wing of the economics profession unprecedented exposure for its most extreme ideas.

Regardless of fluctuations in public opinion, Reagan’s tenure solidified a certain type of rhetoric that you still hear today, that you didn’t hear much of before 1980.  There were harbingers, such as the “tax revolts” in California and other states, but it was a new development that outlived Reagan to have large swaths of conservatives expressing “skepticism toward government solutions to every problem.”

It’s also worth noting that Reagan, in addition to NOT actually shrinking the size of the federal government, was no free trade advocate, either. According to Benjamin Friedman in his Day of Reckoning: The Consequences of American Economic Policy Under Reagan and After,

President Reagan’s consistent rhetorical devolution to free trade notwithstanding, America during the 1980’s has taken more steps away from genuine free trade than in any comparable period since World War II. Outright duties, like the 100 percent tariff imposed on some electronic and semi-conductor products in 1987, have been infrequent. But protectionism built on back-door devices like “voluntary” export restraints, which exclude foreign-made goods while maintaining the fictionof free trade, is protectionism nonetheless. The share of America’s nonoil imports subject to such nontariff restriction has already grown from 17 percent in 1981 to 25 percent in 1986. And now businessmen abroad are concluding that the decline in the dollar since early 1985 is a modern equivalent to the Smoot-Hawley tariff we imposed in 1930.

 


Understanding neoconservatism is requisite to understanding post-Cold War US foreign policy.  Discerning neoconservatism’s motives can be frustrating.  How is it that they honestly believed and justified some of the things they said and did?  How is it they repeatedly denied their many failures, sometimes even citing documents which prove a point opposite the ones they attempted to make?  How are they allowed to remain a part of the political system?  Are their loyalties to the Likud Party, arms dealers, or do they somehow have a Hobbesian view of the world that simply entails a perpetually offensive military posture?  There is certainly nothing new about belligerent elements in governments, but with the neoconservatives there is an element of utter incompetence that nearly defies understanding.

These questions went unanswered for some time until I saw The Power of Nightmares, a three part documentary produced by the BBC in 2004, that tied up a lot of loose ends in my mind.  I recently re-watched it because I was in a class that covered “Team B” and am also working on a post about Michael Ledeen, who is featured prominently.  Some high-profile interviews are featured in the film (I’m not sure if they were done for this film exclusively or were part of BBC’s archival footage, which was drawn upon for parts of the film) including Richard Perle, William and Irving Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Richard Pipes, Milt Bearden, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gilles Kepel, Brent Scowcroft, Melvin Goodman, Vincent Cannistraro, David Brock and Anne Cahn, author of  Killing Detente:  The Right Attacks the CIA, amongst others.  The Power of Nightmares traces in parallel the rise of radical Islam and the rise of neoconservatism.  Sayid Qutb, an Egyptian teacher and extremist, is shown as the intellectual architect of much of the strategy and thinking of radical Islam, and the University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss is shown as the godfather of neoconservative thought.

Qutb and Strauss are similar as they thought their respective societies could be saved from decay only by an elite vanguard–groups such as radical Muslims or neoconservatives–who would deceive their countrymen into constructing a kind of society that those thinkers thought desirable.  The interweaving of these stories is masterfully done.  Qutb’s writings remain a watershed for modern radical Muslims, and, interestingly, Strauss is praised by neoconservatives for his insights into Western society.

All three parts can be streamed here and here.

I’ve been working toward a post on the Tea Party phenomenon but wanted to read Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons first in order to get some historical perspective.  My view is probably in line with most progressives in that I am continually frustrated by what seems to be pretty obvious–that popular resentment of elite control of the systems of power in our society have, in the case of the Tea Party, been co-opted by those very same interests and channeled toward further entrenching those interests.  (The Jane Mayer New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers has obviously received much well-deserved attention.)

My general view of the Tea Party differs from many condescending progressive and liberal critiques in that I both empathize with many middle class economic grievances related to personal income stagnation and also sympathize with frustration related to federal fiscal mismanagement. And I cannot help but think that if true liberalism, the likes of which have not been seen in recent US politics,  is to have any place of power, THE ONLY WAY TO GET THERE is to capitalize on the reality that people should be really pissed off about what the Conservative Revolution has done for their economic interests. Absent a mass-movement centered on real, concrete self-interest, the structures of US democracy are inherently opposed to working in the interests of those without wealth and privilege.

So, I’ve made it through the first couple of chapters of Right-Wing Populism in America and already have some interesting ideas to relate.  It turns out that the authors see the entire history of the US through the right-wing populist lens, with one form of elite co-optation of populist sentiment being funneled into another.  Their model is of a sort of revolving situation whereby “outsider” elements of the elite manipulate lower class popular sentiment in order to oust more prominent elite or to carve out a more elite role for themselves.

The US War for Independence is even portrayed as a “repressive populist movement”.  Berlet and Lyons maintain that the war was fought not only to end “excessive taxes and arbitrary government” but also “for greater freedom to attack American Indians and expand slavery”:

First, by equating tyranny with the British crown, the struggle for U.S. Independence promoted a form of antielite scapegoating that deflected discontent away from inequities within colonial society. Second, the drive for independence was also a drive to expand and intensify the system of White supremacy.  People of color were not simply “left out” of the Revolution–they were among its major targets…Efforts to keep African people enslaved and to crush their resistance were in fact central to the Revolutionary movement…From Georgia to Maryland, fear of British-inspired slave revolts became one of the key factors rallying Whites to the cause of independence.  In many areas, patriot militias were charged with two tasks: to fight British troops and to suppress or recapture disobedient Blacks…In addition to targeting people of color directly, the Revolutionary movement used fears of Indian and Black resistance to bolster its critique of British “tyranny”. In Common Sense, Paine–who earlier had advocated Black emancipation–denounced the British government as “that barbarous and hellish power, which hath stirred up the Indians and Negroes to destroy us.” A few months later, the Declaration of Independence, in its list of accusations against King George III, charged that “He has excited domestic Insurrections [slave revolts] amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Condition.” Here is a classic example of repressive populist scapegoating.  Not only did this passage hide the colonists’ own muderous aggression and project it onto their victims, but it also treated people of color as passive beings manipulated from the outside.  Thus the founding document of the United States of America harnessed a racist stereotype to a classic conspiracist image: the plot by a power-hungry elite, controlling a primitive, violent horde, to dominate freedom-loving people. (emphasis my own)

The other major targets were American Indians and loyalist colonial elites.  Rather than addressing the inequities between the land-owning elite and the bond slaves (lower class Europeans worked alongside African slaves on land owned by the colonial elite) the War for Independence allowed for the revolutionary elite to buy off the lower class whites with promises of land from westward expansion, which was forbidden by the British [through the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774] because of the large costs of quelling and exterminating American Indians in the process:

To an overwhelming extent, however, the Revolution deflected popular aspirations away from the possibility of radical land reform and focused on the supposedly empty land to the west. Rather than tax the rich to pay their troops, the proindependence forces offered western land as standard payment for those who enlisted in the Continental Army or state militias.  In the South, soldiers fighting for liberty from Britain were also paid in slaves captured from loyalists.

To conclude, they maintain that “the central tragedy of the American Revolution is that, with few exceptions, it deflected people’s legitimate grievances and aspirations away from a fuller examination of the oppressive structures and elite groups within colonial society.  The British monarchy provided a scapegoat for the system of elite rule.”

Indeed.

I recently read The Essence of Decision:  Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow for my first upper level political science class, the politics of nuclear weapons.  My primary reaction is awe at the competence of most of the key players in the Kennedy administration, especially Kennedy himself.  The book makes clear that there was a lot of luck involved in the successful resolution of this crisis, and that there was plenty that was out of the hands of the principal players on both sides, but here was an executive who rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the gritty details of policy and followed through their implementation. And, inexorably, the descriptions of the internal deliberations of the Kennedy administration lead me to think of the administration I’m most familiar with, the Bush administration, and, more specifically, its handling of Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

Consider, for instance, Allison and Zelikow’s description in Chapter 4 of the implementation of the naval blockade, which is representative of the Kennedy management style as a whole during the crisis:

Kennedy and his advisers eventually knew each of the ships by name and argued extensively about which should be stopped first, at what point, and how.  [Theodore] Sorensen records “the President’s personal direction of the quarantine’s operation…his determination no to let needless incidents or reckless subordinates escalate so dangerous and delicate a crisis beyond control.

Contrast that with the remarkably consistent descriptions of former Bush administration insiders, who outline a sort of  deliberational mimicry and  bankrupt policy formation process in general but especially with regard to Iraq.  Typical of these is Paul O’Neill’s account as former Bush administration Treasury Secretary, recounted in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty:  George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill.   O’Neill describes meetings and policy formation on page 147 and following:

Everybody played their parts:  literally. For this President, cabinet meetings and the many midsize to large meetings he attended were carefully scripted.  Before most meetings, a cabinet secretary’s chief of staff would receive a note from someone on the senior staff in the White House.  The note instructed the cabinet secretary when he was supposed to speak, about what, and how long.  When O’Neill had received his first such note, he was amazed.  The idea of a cabinet meeting or any significant meeting between the President and his seniormost officials being scripted seemed to kill off the whole purpose of bringing people together.  He had been in many White Houses.  He had never heard of such a thing.

Recounting a cabinet-level meeting on energy policy on the heels of Cheney’s energy task force, Suskind reports:

O’Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports.  In his personal experience, the President didn’t even appear to have read the short memos he sent over.

That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions.  There are so many worth asking about each of these areas, O’Neill thought as he sat quietly, dozens of queries running through his head.

Suskind goes on to quote John J. DiIulio, Jr., who ran Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, on the Bush administration’s deliberation process:  “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one:  a complete lack of a policy apparatus.”

Into the void that was President Bush’s role, stepped Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, consummate bureaucrats.  Condoleezza Rice, whose role as National Security Adviser meant she was responsible for the policy formulation process in the NSC, completely failed in that regard, and is generally regarded as the most incompetent person to ever hold the position.  Again, there is a remarkable consistency to virtually all the insider accounts and studies of the Bush administration, from Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies to DiIulio’s Tempting Faith, extending into the books analyzing the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Aside from being a work of history about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision is a reflection of the different ways of understanding complex organizations’ decision-making.  Chapter 5 explores the most refined of the three models of understanding discussed in the book, Governmental Politics, in which it is understood that not only are nations’ decisions made by individual institutions within, but also that those decisions are “formed, and deformed” by bargaining amongst and within these institutions.

The section beginning on page 265 entitled “Better Decisions” reflects on the different ways in which organizations can produce good and bad outcomes.  The authors cite Brian Villa’s study of the Dieppe raid during World War II as a good example of how bad outcomes occur, so-called “‘orphan’ actions”.  They quote a section from Villa’s book:

“[A]n unrecorded decision may well be, indeed should be, considered as a sure sign that something fundamental has gone wrong with the decision-making process; that one should also look for the presence of schemers who can impose projects on those who should know better; that one should also look for powerful external pressures reverberating through the decision-making process–pressures that cannot be resisted and lead to decisions for which there is no real acceptance of responsibility (and are therefore unrecorded).  All of this serves to underline a point that is not stressed enough in the political-science literature:  decision-making is fundamentally a process for assuming responsibility for a proposed action.

A better description of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and its execution of the invasion and occupation could not be fit into a paragraph. The first things I thought of when reading “an unrecorded decision…” were the disastrous decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and de-Baathify the government, taken in May 2003, at the beginning of the 13-month reign of Paul Bremer and the CPA.  The decision to do so is generally credited to Bremer, but responsibility for such a crucial decision has generally been difficult to pin down, with reports that Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith from their posts at the Defense Department played roles in the decision.  That these two decisions were not even discussed or approved by the Executive branch is symptomatic of the more general failure of leadership during Bush’s tenure.

That the neoconservative influence was instrumental in directing the response to 9/11 into an attack on Iraq is by now a forgone conclusion.  Neocon “schemers” were spread throughout the relevant cabinet-level agencies, and exercised their influence to a considerable extent.  New offices were created to compile raw intelligence, which were “stovepiped” directly to the executive branch.  The effect of this was that of the five purported Iraqi threats presented by the Bush administration (uranium purchases in Niger, mobile bioweapon labs, UAV’s as WMD delivery vehicles, aluminum tubes for uranium centrifuges, and an Iraqi connection to al Qaeda), all of them could have been and indeed were disproven before the March 20, 2003 invasion.  Cheney’s unprecedented trips to CIA in the months leading up to the war were instrumental in pressuring the analysts to reach the accepted conclusions in the October 2002 NIE.  Not to mention the fact that Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC had free rein throughout Iraq in early 2003, and, despite earlier administration claims to know where WMD facilities were located, and despite coordination between the administration and UNMOVIC, none could be found at this most critical juncture.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Record’s Wanting War:  Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq.  Record, a perennial contrarian, professor at the Air War College, and author of two previous books on the quixotic American experiences in Iraq, maintains that the 2003 war in Iraq was “irresistible” for a Bush administration drunk with hubris arising from its perceptions of American military power.  That there were “irresistible” pressures from the administration’s unprecedented close ties to the oil industry, hawkish elements in the Defense Department, and close ties to Israel’s Likud Party are given as a matter of course.

Record points out the reason behind Bremer’s hurried orders, namely a complete lack of planning for the post war.  His view is that neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney shared neoconservative plans for democracy and transformation of the Middle East, and used their power to limit planning.  Also noted are Rumsfeld’s plans to transform the military, which ran completely counter to the force requirements and duties necessary for a post-war occupation.  For Record, this rift is ultimately what explains the lack of a post-war plan planning.  According to Record, “Rumsfeld didn’t want any plan for post-Baathist Iraq, and because President Bush had granted Rumsfeld complete authority over the entire American enterprise in Iraq, there was no plan.  Rumsfeld wanted a ‘hit-and-run invasion,’ and he got it”.  Record continues:

Rumsfeld created a fundamental contradiction between the war plan and the critical objectives of quickly securing Iraq’s suspected WMD sites and the provision of security necessary for Iraq’s political reconstruction…Rumsfeld’s obsession with the technological transformation of the U.S. military into a lighter and more agile instrument that could quickly win wars and do so on the human cheap, irrespective of political policy and context…Rumsfeld either did not understand the disconnect between his invasion plan and the war’s political objective, or he did understand it but simply chose to ignore it because he had no intention of prolonging the U.S. military’s stay in Iraq beyond the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  In either case, he subverted President Bush’s purpose in Iraq.

I think this is mostly right, but I can’t readily dismiss the explanation given in David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s Hubris:  The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.  The authors maintain that the neoconservatives were themselves not receptive to sufficient post-war planning because doing so would reveal the utter nightmare of a US invasion of Iraq.  Corn and Isikoff quote a military analyst:  “They felt arguments that it would be hard were actually designed to cause people to rethink whether the war was worth doing in the first place.  This was appalling.  They were trying to rig the cost-benefit analysis.  So they ended up not properly planning for the aftermath of the invasion because that might interfere with getting the war they wanted.”

So, I began Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism and was so thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t make it past the introduction.  Having read little of his previous work (a couple of articles but none of his books), I expected something in line with the realism of a Stephen Walt but with the added credibility and gravitas one expects from a retired Army colonel–someone who recognizes the unsustainability of the current US imperial project and who advocates realistic ways to extricate our forces from the trap into which we stumbled.

I was surprised at his errors in logic.  After the usual talk of the US as the sole superpower with responsibilities and prerogatives, and the US facing 3 crises (economic/cultural, political, and military) I began to lose him.  Bacevich seems to think that the GWOT is being waged on behalf of the freedoms and lifestyles of most Americans:

“…especially since the 1960’s, the reinterpretation of freedom has had a transformative impact on our society and culture.  That transformation has produced a paradoxical legacy.  As individuals, our appetites and expectations have grown exponentially…The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand.  As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders.  Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.”

So, Bacevich cites the “paradoxical legacy” of the “reinterpretation of freedom” that the US underwent in the 1960’s as the underlying cause of the flailing US response to 9/11 and the GWOT.   So, rising living standards, civil rights, the woman’s movement, the environmental movement have had the unintended effect of inuring Americans to having its soldiers dying in far-off lands fighting for the expansion of their freedoms.  He goes on to say that “heightened claims of individual autonomy have eviscerated the concept of citizenship” that Americans find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of consumption, which fuels the need of politicians to support Americans habit of overconsumption by, it is assumed, invading defenseless Muslim nations.

Bacevich sticks with the freedom theme:

“The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy.  Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire.  The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one.  In an earlier age, Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom.  Today, as illustrated above all by the Bush administration’s efforts to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, empire has seemingly become a prerequisite of freedom.”

Bacevich goes on to say “[t]hat President Bush is waging his global war on terror to preserve American freedom is no doubt the case.”

While I agree that the American people are basically politically illiterate and overly vegged out, and that they are also fed on a steady diet of overconsumption, I do not for one moment believe that the imperial actions of the US are taken for the benefit of the general populace or that US imperial action is taken on behalf of the citizenry.  That overconsumption is, to the contrary, what provides the cover or distraction for Bush to go on his imperial adventure.

Bacevich seems to be conflating Bush’s perceived strategic encirclement of the Persian Gulf as being an outgrowth of Americans’ freedom.  And  his lumping rising standards of living and consumer goods with civil rights and freedom is highly problematic.  Maybe Bacevich just needs to choose his words more carefully.  Freedom is one thing; consumption is another.

But the things is, even if we were to take freedom out of the equation and try to assume that he simply means Americans’ abililty to consume, it’s not at all clear that the outcome of the war in Iraq will be that US consumers are better off than they were before.   After all, in the long term the US will spend $3 trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, largely at the expense of programs that actually benefit the broad swath of Americans.  Bacevich certainly has made some personal sacrifices for the war in Iraq, but lashing out at the greatest achievements our society has produced in the last century is not the way to set things straight.

I just finished The Triumph of PoliticsWhy the Reagan Revolution Failed by David Stockman. Of all the books I’ve read about politics, foreign affairs, economics, etc. I’ve read since getting interested in government, this is one of the most memorable.  I kept shutting the book and saying to myself:  “No way!”  And despite its being a 400 page book in which about 350 pages are about the formation of a federal budget from January 1980 to December 1980, I found myself laughing at the style, the anecdotes, and, ultimately, being very sympathetic to someone who is in many ways my ideological opposite.

After reading The Education of David Stockman and Other Americans by William Greider, I figured that Stockman’s book would offer a series of mitigating factors that would blunt the severity of the budget fiasco described in Greider’s book.  I figured I would be reading apologetics for Reaganomics.  In fact, Stockman’s book actually makes all of the bad things in Greider’s book appear incalculably worse.  He savages most of the senior Reagan administration officials, does worse to the supply-side “central committee”, and ultimately portrays Ronald Reagan as a dangerously incompetent actor responsible for a fiscal crisis unimaginable in previous years.  According to Stockman, for eight years in the 1980’s the US was led by a man who could not understand very elementary concepts about governance, mathematics, and, finally, responsibility.  I’ve read books about Reagan before, and he is certainly never (aside from the hagiographies) depicted as an intelligent man, but in Stockman’s book he is shown to be a dangerously (for lack of a better word) stupid man.  The anecdotes about Reagan not understanding that he could not cut taxes while not cutting spending without generating huge deficits were incredible.  And a particular anecdote involving then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger using cartoon characters to convince Reagan that he should increase defense spending was outrageous.

The depiction of the congressional deliberations leading to the tax cut and the subsequent attempts to cut spending are worth reading.  I’m not going to get into the depiction of Congress because I’m too busy with other things.  I’ll leave you with a chart I scanned from the book.  It shows the costs of Kemp-Roth:

I noticed a segment on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS in which Naomi Klein, Eliot Spitzer, David Frum, and Stephen Dubner discuss financial regulation in the aftermath of the worst recession in over 70 years.  After Klein and Spitzer had a chance to give their views on the need for financial regulation to prevent another disaster like we experienced in 2008-09, Dubner steps in, saying

“…government right now in Washington is at this bizarre place where, if it’s not paralyzed or broken, it’s pretty darn close.  It’s really hard to…it’s really hard for me, as someone who doesn’t really traffic in the political realm willingly or all that often to see where’s a good outcome here from a political perspective because I don’t see it.”

Zakaria then goes on to agree with him:  “…on any issue if you look at…immigration, energy, it’s just paralyzed in general.”  Then Frum adds “The US government doesn’t govern well, we’ll concede that, but the American private sector does deliver unbelievable things and we are sitting here at the end of an extraordinary innovation…”

I’m pretty much done with trying to figure out if conservatives and neoconservatives actually believe that an unhinged, unfettered marketplace would yield beneficial results or are just saying so because their jobs depend on them not understanding the adverse effects of such deregulation.  The fact is that on a range of issues, from energy to healthcare to financial regulation, Republicans in Congress have blocked efforts at reform, choosing to side with their corporate paymasters who benefit financially from the status quo.  When Republicans control the executive branch, they appoint hacks to head government agencies about which they are ideologically opposed, while de-funding and under staffing those same agencies.  And then when Democrats have control, conservatives say, gee, look at how bad the government works while they block reform.

Thomas Frank was on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal recently and discussed this stupefying phenomenon.

The analogy that works for me is that Republicans are the lead elephant on the back of our collective airplane and we are trying to take off before we reach the end of the runway, but it is a very heavy elephant.  And on issues such as climate change, the whole world is on board.

I’m trying to not be apoplectic about today’s Supreme Court decision, but, absent some Congressional intervention, I don’t see how this isn’t one of the worst things that could’ve possibly happened to progressive causes in the US.  The Republican Party, already overtly the radical wing of the business party (the other wing being the Democratic Party), will now have an unlimited flow of funds to finance its candidates in any and all US elections (judicial, congressional, gubernatorial, presidential, etc.).  If Exxon was to spend just over 2% of its 2008 profits on financing a Republican presidential candidate, it would outspend all the money spent by both McCain and Obama in the 2008 presidential election, the most expensive in history.

PBS’ Newshour has an interesting segment online.

By an accident of history (and some argue, a distortion), corporations are considered legal persons in the US.  This has allowed shills for big business to argue that the First Amendment, which grants US citizens with free speech, extends to corporations freedom to donate money to political candidates.

Fortunately, the campaign donation disclosure laws are still pertinent as upheld by the Supreme Court (Clarence Thomas dissented).

** Disclosure requirement: Any corporation that spends more than $10,000 in a year to produce or air the kind of election season ad covered by federal restrictions must file a  report with the Federal Election Commission revealing the names and addresses of anyone who contributed $1,000 or more to the ad’s preparation or distribution.

** Disclaimer requirement: If a political ad is not authorized by a candidate or a political committee, the broadcast of the ad must say who is responsible for its content, plus the name and address of the group behind the ad.

It is difficult to imagine the consequences if these disclosure laws were not upheld.

Hopefully, the Democratically-controlled Congress will pass some new laws that place some limits on corporate campaign contributions or at least allow for politicians to opt into public funding for their campaigns.

Ultimately, this is about more than the ability of corporations to bribe politicians with campaign contributions and receive favors.  I would argue that the worst problems facing the US today have not been solved as a result of corporate domination of government policy formation because corporate interests are often diametrically opposite US’ interests.  Furthermore, most of the major problems the US faces are a result of this same domination in the first place.  What happened today is the US went from being between the teeth of the corporate monster into its belly.

Update:

Kevin Drum has a distressing post on the subject.

Update II:

So, I’m probably completely wrong.

Update III:

And Kevin Drum has a another thoughtful post regarding the ruling, referencing the above Greenwald post.

I’m really ambivalent about this.  I appreciate the significance of limiting the First Amendment but I also acknowledge that this ruling unleashes corporations, which would have no qualms about selling each and every American a fistful of cyanide if it promised a good quarter for the shareholders.

I suppose a key question is where to go from here.  How can our current system limit the slant toward corporate power?

@ntyork on twitter

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