Thursday, 30 April 2009

Key words

Obama signaled two very positive things last night at his 100-days news conference that went some way to restoring my somewhat wobbling faith in his approach to governing.

The most curious was the announcement that his administration’s slavish adherence to Bush-era doctrine on state secrets, roundly blasted by Glenn Greenwald at, could be reexamined. Obama admitted that they hadn’t taken time to review the issue upon entering office, which suggests that they were taken aback by the ferociously negative reaction to his Bush-ite assertion of blanket presidential privilege.

This welcome backpedaling could be particularly significant as it shows that Obama’s instinct for papering over ‘controversy’ is more pragmatic than ideological and that he’s open to challenge on matters of principle. That’s a relief. For the record, torture, arbitrary executive power, illegal wiretapping and vastly expanded police powers are not mere ‘controversies’ that we can resolve over lunch; they are burning issues of democratic life that a lot of people are determined to defend against Bush, Cheney and, yes, Obama himself if need be.

The president also was rhetorically generous on the issue of immigration reform, avoiding the inflammatory ‘illegal aliens’ phrase and focusing on immigrants as working people rather than criminals. What a breath of fresh air. We can now hope it will be translated into some sober thinking and talking about the issue so that public discourse can be recaptured from the screaming demagogues and race-baiting nativists. The Republican obstructionists will have a collective coronary over it, as they should, which could nicely illustrate how their tub-thumping nastiness on immigration is exactly of a piece with their defense of white, male, rich-guy privilege on every other issue.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


So Arlen Specter’s switch is being read off by his erstwhile Republican colleagues as crass political opportunism. Oh my, how shocking! The idea that a professional politician would stoop to this, cravenly to seek short-term electoral advantage at the cost of abandoning Principle. . . I am breathless with astonishment.

Specter’s flying leap recalls the crossover by traditional Southern Democrats to the G.O.P. in the post-civil rights era, later hastened by the advent of Saint Ronald at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. It deepens the feeling that 2008 was indeed a transitional election year and that Obama’s play-nice strategy has some potential for a long-term payoff.

The spectacle of his bosses-until-yesterday sputtering that Senator Specter is not a nice person was particularly hilarious. These are the same guys insisting that real men are ready to swallow their wuss-ant scruples and torture the flack out of anyone who looks dangerous. With an outlook like that, it’s hard to be taken seriously when you denounce cynicism.

That pathetic hack William Kristol insists in today’s Washington Post that the Republicans should be glad they’re a shrinking minority because now they get to blame everything on the other guys. Oh right, that was such consolation to all of us over the last decade.

Goofy party chairman Michael Steele added a dignified and sober note by accusing Specter of ‘flipping the bird’ to his ex-buds. I guess that’s urban street patois, sure to catch fire among all those minority voters sour on Barack and Michelle.

So it’s fun to gloat, but a note of caution is also in order given that Specter was a loyal accomplice of the worst acts of the Bush presidency, including the conquest of Iraq, the security police state, tax cuts for the rich and unwavering support for the most repulsive Bush appointees like Michael Mukasey. The best we can hope for is that Specter’s refined nose for shifting political winds will drag him kicking and screaming into less reactionary positions. But seeing the Democrats welcome this creep into their fold reminds me why I don’t care to crawl under that tentflap myself.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Swine epidemic

Slow death by pigs didn’t just begin, and it didn’t originate in Mexico either. We’ve been under assault by the porkermeisters for years now including the first 100 days of the Obama Administration. But unfortunately we continue to be blocked by his chief hog-swill salesman, Timotheus Geithner, now appropriately de-pantsed by the New York Times for being a charter member of the massively bloated, decades-long Wall Street hamfest.

Geither was merrily exposed Sunday as the worst sort of schmoozie buddy-boy of all the banker types he was supposed to be regulating as the top Fed officer for the New York region. Instead of maintaining a prudent distance, he regularly enjoyed a bountiful lunch with them while vigorouly defending their interests in all his high-paying jobs, for which he forgot to pay his taxes.

The narrative is nauseatingly reminiscent of the Rita Lavelle scandal of the early 1980s when this Reagan appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency was caught supping and dining regularly with every industry lobbyist whose business she was supposed to be overseeing. I had the time of my life covering the hilarious spectacle of Lavelle being confronted with the inconvenient facts of her busy datebook in a congressional hearing in 1982. She was forced out and much later did time for perjury in a case involving an attempt to swinishly swindle Superfund money—dubbed “Sewergate.”

Also appropriate is the de-skirting of the opportunistic Susan Collins of Maine who led the charge against wasteful ‘pork’ spending in the Obama stimulus package by excising nearly $1 billion in preparedness money for. . . a flu outbreak! Collins, wielding the carving tools like she was deboning a shoat carcass, played to the Republican rafters as a fiscal tough-girl to solidify her base among frugal Mainers. These are the Republican ‘moderates’ we should get all weepy over as they slowly fade and dissolve into nothingness throughout the Northeast.

So it’s perfectly hilarious that Arlen Specter should choose this moment to jettison the party of Greedy Old Reprobates especially since Specter just shoehorned a shitpotful of new cash into medical research as the price of his vote for the February stimulus package.

I wonder if the governor of Texas is going to refuse swine flu meds for the residents of his state in a noble defense of his newly secessionist principles. Hey, this might be a good moment to build the wall around the place and start making Texans apply for visas to the upper 49 given their proximity to all those disease-afflicted border towns.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Let's (not) be reasonable

It’s annoying to hear Obama’s invocation of qualities like ‘reflection’ and magnanimity (as in avoiding ‘retribution’) to justify his refusal to confront the mess left behind by his predecessor. He insists that being oh-so-reasonable is required because a thorough airing of criminal activity and official torture will somehow interfere with his reform plans.

In fact, there is every reason to believe that the exact opposite is the case—that the failure to go after the Bush legacy full throttle has emboldened its partisans to dig in ever deeper and defend their nauseating record from the rooftops. Trying again and again to reach for that elusive, non-partisan, forward-looking, equanimous tone assumes that Dick Cheney and the screamers on Fox News have a real interest in formulating a viable national health strategy or getting people back to work. Maybe it’s a good communications strategy, guys, but don’t start believing your own rhetoric.

Meanwhile, seeing the bombs go off daily in Baghdad once again and the strewn body parts of dozens of slaughtered Iraqis reminds me that all the morally repugnant defense of torture emanating from our TV screens rests on the purported goal of protecting Americans from violence—exactly what Bush and the entire U.S. military apparatus was and is unable to provide the Iraqis they ‘liberated’. There is something particularly grotesque and nasty about a country that can placidly contemplate tying people up and torturing them out of an abstract concern for their own safety while not even noticing that the nation it conquered enjoys none.

Another aspect of the torture discussion left out: what exactly are we going to say when American soldiers are trussed up and waterboarded by foreign enemies? That it’s not fair? After all, these military personnel are entirely likely to possess valuable ‘actionable’ intelligence about where bombs are going to drop on Pakistani villages or Colombian coca fields. If those are the criteria we apply, we better get ready to have them turned around and thrown in our faces.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Cheney: Torture is good

The torture issue has whipsawed back and hit the Obama Administration in the face despite O’s best efforts to keep the guilty happy by traipsing out to CIA headquarters in Langley and reassuring the spooks. But the revelations of exactly what has been happening in our government-run secret dungeons is just too ugly to brush under the rug.

Congress now looks likely to dig deeper and bring out more unsavory facts, and the intellectual authors may face scrutiny and perhaps sanctions for their role in ordering prisoners to be tortured. In any case, the national debate will continue despite Emanuel Rahm’s frantic insistence that we focus attention on today’s deals and away from yesterday’s crimes.

But Obama and his team need to grow a pair and find a way to answer the Dan Burton’s and the Dick Cheney’s who are insisting that torturing defenseless prisoners was and is something to be proud of. ‘Serving America’ is the catchword, I believe.

So yes, let’s take Cheney up on the offer to review all the results of the systematic use of torture and objectively examine how much or how little protection it provided us. Then let’s set that data against the moral rot that has set in to our society due to its use. Let’s include the failure to pay attention to the terrorist threats in the first year of Bush’s reign, too, since the 9/11 incident and the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario continue to be the justifications for using torture. And why not throw in the use of torture-derived ‘intelligence’ to drum up support for the Iraq debacle, too, given that the next terrorist act may well be a direct result of that catastrophe.

All that would not fit Obama’s fantasy about looking forward and avoiding ‘retribution’, a desire clearly not shared by his enemies.

Obama’s appeal was post-partisan, post-racial and post-Washington-slugfest, but he was foolishly naïve to think that just wanting to do what’s best for the country was going to attract cooperation from the organized criminal racket that has been in power there. The Cheneyoid opposition is the gang that seized power as a minority in 2000 and used that non-mandate to radically shift the nation’s course. They ignored our safety and cynically manipulated patriotic fervor to launch foolhardy wars of conquest, bankrupt the national treasury and push us closer to a police state. Pelosi, Obama and Reid seem to have forgotten that the Democrats were painted as virtual traitors for voicing opposition to any of this.

These ideologues seem downright eager to see another terrorist attack occur so that they can score political points against Obama as a softie. Making verbal nice with them as if they care about solving economic, energy, diplomatic or other policy problems is fine as long as Obama is not so lulled by his own rhetoric that he fails to notice his raging partisan enemies are winking at calls to secede from the union and the frantic buying up of assault rifles. It’s not the time to look or act weak, and letting these bug-eyed hysterics set the terms of the debate on torture is potentially Obama’s worst mistake so far.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Torture Glen Beck

I am forced to concede that I was wrong on the torture issue—the talk-show pundits have convinced me that, yes, we do need to do everything possible to assure that Americans are safe from future terrorist crimes.

I have serious moral qualms about inflicting agonizing pain on another human being. However, as George Will stated Sunday, ‘intelligent people of good will’ will agree that the president must do whatever he deems necessary to defend our country.

That is why with a heavy heart I have concluded that we have no choice but to immediately seize Glen Beck and proceed to interrogate him in an ‘enhanced’ fashion.

It is an unfortunate fact that after 4/19—yesterday was the Oklahoma City bombing anniversary in case you missed it—we are at risk more than ever from vicious, terroristic assaults on Americans employed on federal government property, putting innocent lives at risk. There’s a pretty good chance that someone as openly hostile to America as Beck knows about what plans are being cooked up at this time to repeat that infamy and kill more Americans.

So I don’t see any way around the necessity of biting the bullet and putting to use some of the ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ that former Vice President Cheney knows helped to head off crimes during the seven peaceful years we enjoyed under the Bush Administration—before Obama put us all at risk by pulling back from these essential tactics.

I think it would be perfectly humane to start out by placing a large plastic brace around Mr Beck’s neck and carefully slamming his head against the wall of his cell. As Brit Hume of Fox News pointed out on a Sunday talk show, ‘It’s a soft wall that gives way. I’m not at all sure that’s torture’.

Doh! Of course it isn’t, but that technical term hardly matters when we’re talking about American lives. I think it’s way past time to give Mr Beck this incentive to come clean before it’s too late, and bombs are going off all over the place.

As a ‘high-value’ detainee, Mr Beck would be expected to attempt to resist sharing the information he has most likely collected in his role as a public mouthpiece for extremist groups. He may even attempt to confuse interrogators by pretending to cooperate or sending them astray with false information.

But I suspect a few days hung by his wrists in a ‘stress position’ aided by the removal of his clothes, freezing temperatures and blaring rock music, accompanied by frequent inspection visits from female guards, might give him a thing or two to think about. In all fairness these loyal women serving their country should be given access to PTSD specialists after performing that operation.

I know, some namby-pamby Chardonnay-drinkers will complain that Beck might be completely innocent. Okay fine, you tell me you’re ready to have innocent Americans receiving anthrax-laced envelopes and drinking from poisoned wells! Heaven forbid we should violate the precious rights of criminals and terrorist sympathizers. Gimme a break, you scum!

Anyway, I think all this panty-twisting about people being tortured is way exaggerated. I mean, just read the big-deal secret memos—it’s all laid out there with careful guidelines so that no one goes overboard with the waterboard, heh heh. It’s like getting a blast from a squirt gun—get over it!

Anyway, our country doesn’t ‘torture’ anyone and never has. Anyone who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear. Including Glen Beck.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Adults and kiddies

Despite serious shortcomings in the domestic department, Obama’s handling of the country’s affairs on the road has been masterful. Diplomacy obviously taps his major strengths like calm reasonableness, empathy and charm and exploits his celebrity status. W gave him a terrific honeymoon set-up, too, by being such an asshole. All he needs to do is show up and ask an informed question, and he looks great.

We don’t know how he’ll respond to the inevitable conflicts, but the Somali pirate episode suggests a low-key public stance and competent management. The Fox News wacko brigade plays right into his style by responding with instant hysteria to everything and looking like schoolchildren. They score points with their base, but those of us who don’t put on tinfoil hats each morning can feel that our affairs are being handled by an adult.

Speaking of wackos, I’m not sure what to make of the secession talk from Texas and elsewhere especially since I spend a lot of time in the South where that kind of talk led to civil war and half a million deaths a while back. It’s rather amazing that defending our civil liberties post-9/11 was considered treasonous, but open sedition by the losing side in an election is taken to be amusingly folkloric.

Reports of the resuscitation of ultra-conservative and neofascist groups is always disturbing, too, but that and the secession fantasy all suggest the dying yelps of the beaten who know they can’t get back on top through argument or the electoral process and can only dream of coups or Alamo-style self-immolations. The Republican Party’s kneejerk obstructionism fits this mindset, and while they undoubtedly can run substantial interference, they look petulant and nasty and clueless about why people turned against them.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Obama won’t prosecute CIA torturers, but he doesn’t have to

‘One tortured, always tortured’, said a French resistance figure who survived capture by the Nazi occupiers and knew what he was talking about. He meant that the experience left him irrevocably changed in ways no therapy, no rest, no return to normal life could ever repair.

I think the principle works in reverse, too, that once having tortured, one cannot return to the pre-torture state of grace. That goes for nations too, so we should now prepare for the long, troubling, discomfiting descent into the realization that as a society, we wasted no time in trading in our moral compass for the promise of safety and authorized, passively for the most part but no less definitively, Bush’s goons to torture their way through Bagram and Guantánamo in search of the mythical ticking bombs.

The release today of most of the hidden, but hardly ‘secret’, memos prepared by Bush’s thug lawyers to authorize torture gives us another piece of the puzzle, and the announcement that the Obama Administration will not pursue the criminal acts contemplated therein for prosecution will disappoint many.

I am among them, but having been through all this before, I know it’s far from the end of the story. The Chilean state had much more power to immunize its gorilla squads and cover up their sadistic work. But there’s just something about torture—it doesn’t go away even when the victims’ bodies have been dropped into oblivion at sea.

I have no idea exactly how the symbolic corpse of the tortured will bob all bloated and mutilated back into the national consciousness. But I haven’t the slightest doubt that it will.

Maybe there will be criminal prosecutions in foreign lands, a grand opportunity for Limbaugh to denounce dastardly Europeans. Perhaps Congress will dare to investigate. Perhaps repentant underlings will publish their memoirs. Or as occurs to this day in Chile, maybe the victims will post flyers on telephone poles pointing out that a former torturer lives at such-and-such an address and that his wife is president of the PTA. Maybe it will all come out on Facebook.

But it will occur in due course. I am young enough that I will gleefully trumpet my I-Told-You-So’s from the rooftops when it does.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Tancredo Tanks

The disruption of racist idiot Tom Tancredo’s speech at the University of North Carolina last night strikes me as a significant new development.

Yeah, yeah, free speech, the right of assholes to makes their views known, etc., etc. Don’t bore me. I’m as close to a free-speech absolutist as you can get, but I’ve been around political battles long enough to know that’s not really the point in this case. The Ku Klux Klan has the right to march through Harlem, but it wouldn’t be too smart for them to try to exercise it.

When the heat rises, people’s emotions take over, and shit happens, sometimes including flying mojones (or broken windows, like the one Tancredo’s appearance engendered). Enough people’s lives have been destroyed by the wave of xenophobic hatred unleashed by Tancredo and his nativist followers that the Colorado congressman should be grateful he escaped with his nalgas still attached to his lower back.

Youth for Western Civilization [sic], the UNC student group that invited Tancredo, is busily lamenting the takeover of their meeting hall by barbarian hordes. But the fact is that Tancredo was chased out of town by 200 students and no doubt some ‘outside agitators’ too. I think that means the fury isn’t just on one side of this debate any more—‘bout time.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Fags Forever

Last week’s House passage of a bill to place tobacco products under the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration looks at first glance like a no-brainer, especially given its hefty list of backers, which includes everyone from the American Cancer/Heart/Lung etc. societies to the anti-smoking group Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Society of Chest Surgeons and the ‘Justice and Witness Ministry’ of the United Church of Christ. All the iconic liberals are on board, too, from Ted Kennedy to Henry Waxman, along with some retired cabinet secretaries, a former CDC director, a surgeon-general, three French hens and a partridge in a pear tree. And the tobacco-state pols are predictably hostile to it.

So why are so many people in the tobacco-control community deeply worried? The lusciously titled ‘Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act’ would empower the agency to regulate the contents of tobacco products, publicize their ingredients at long last, prohibit flavored cigarettes, require much larger warning labels and restrict marketing campaigns, especially those geared toward children. Isn’t this good?

For a hint about why it might not be, consider why the Philip Morris parent company, Altria, is a firm backer of the bill. A top Philip Morris priority, according to an internal document, is to ‘stop the decline in, and start re-building, the social acceptability of smokers and smoking in society’. The bill is a step in that direction.

The worldwide tobacco industry has invested considerable energy and funds in something called ‘corporate social responsibility’ to try to show themselves in some kind of positive light while steadily donating millions to charity and the arts. The idea is to admit that while a given company may market a controversial ‘product’, it itself somehow is not.

Tobacco Free Kids has been a big proponent of the bill from its inception, and although the tobacco-control community is careful to keep its internal disagreements as quiet as possible, it’s not hard to find some rather pointed comments about the origins of this bill to put tobacco under the FDA in TFK’s secret negotiations with PM dating back to 2001.

The arguments against the bill are several: Jeffrey Wigand, the real-life figure played by Russell Crowe in The Insider, says the FDA is totally inadquate to regulate what is on its plate now, much less add tobacco products. ‘One only needs to read the recent history of their regulatory competency’, he wrote acidly.

Another fear is that FDA oversight of tobacco will translate in the popular mind—no doubt subtly helped along by the tobacco companies—into FDA approval of same. After all, that’s what the FDA does: it reviews substances used for human consumption and either approves or prohibits them. Other commentators say that at the very least the measure ‘perverts the mission’ of the FDA by giving it supervisory responsibilities without—for the first time ever—empowering it to ban the poisonous substance involved: nicotine.

Given the industry’s expensive and ongoing legal problems, critics also warn that FDA supervision/regulation of tobacco products may be used in court by the companies as a shield against lawsuits. We are just doing what the government says we can do, might go the argument, certainly a plausible, if devious, one.

Given all the distractions we’re facing these days, it’s no wonder this dubious and strangely uncontroversial measure is flying toward passage. It would be a shame to find that the tobacco industry plying its deadly trade with greater impunity as a result of a laxly-designed ‘anti-tobacco’ measure.

[Curious parties can read more at Anne Landman’s hair-raising account, ‘The Untold Story of How & Why Philip Morris is Pushing for FDA Regulation’ at the Center for Media and Democracy website]

Friday, 10 April 2009

How soon they forget

April 9 was the anniversary of the triumphant 2003 American conquest of Iraq, a day filled with stirring, martial imagery of American flags flying in the desert winds and the toppling of Saddam’s Stalinesque statuary.

Curious that hardly anyone took note of that fact in the United States. I guess we’re not feeling all that triumphant any more given the utter failure of the U.S. armed forces to achieve their long-term war aims. Let’s review: these included introducing a new ‘democratic’ era throughout the Middle East, intimidating Iran and eventually overthrowing the mullahs, and advancing a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian mess. Hmm, that would be a batting average of roughly .000.

It’s one thing to blast your way into a country and kill the enemy. It’s quite another to create something viable out of the rubble.

But instead of taking a moment to meditate on this discomfiting truth, we are off to the next showdown with the latest enemy du jour—is it North Korea or Iran? I can’t remember.

Israeli P.M. Netanyahu is doing his part to shift our attention by thumping the drums about Iran’s nuclear weapons, which do not exist, while remaining silent about his own, which do. The U.S. political class, including President Obama, dutifully echoes this surreal refrain although Obama, to his credit, raised the principle of nuclear weapons possession in his Prague address. As long as they are ‘used’ as a means of intimidating the enemy (as Bush and Cheney did regularly with their threats to nuke the Iranians), every country on earth will be tempted to obtain them.

Simultaneously, the predictable debate is now taking place about whether to ‘dig up the past’ and hold to account those responsible for institutionalizing torture as state policy. The establishment and its media, as Glenn Greenwald at and others note, are eager to push all that under the rug, which they will fail to do because torture doesn’t go away.

But the real point, to my mind, is the desire to forget about our military failures as quickly as possible, just as occurred in the post-Vietnam epoch. Less than a decade after the collapse of the U.S. puppet regime there, we had forgotten that the Vietnam war had produced over 50,000 American deaths and countless physical and psychological injuries, and all for nothing. (And who even remembers the Vietnamese casualties?)

Soon, Reagan was president, and it was time to rearm, face down the Russians and invade Caribbean islands. The smell of napalm in the morning!

I wonder how long it will take to get over the Iraq and Afghanistan hangovers, and what new narratives will emerge from the militarists as Obama tries to salvage something from the debacle they created. The fight over understanding what happened, just like the culture wars over the meaning of Vietnam, is crucial to determining what we will do with our warmaking capacity in the future.

Monday, 6 April 2009


Charleston, South Carolina, where I just spent three days was the site of the opening salvo of the Civil War. It preserves parts of its planter architecture and has a curiously ambiguous relationship with the plantation culture that brought it about.

It’s striking to an outsider how fascinated South Carolina remains with Confederate wartime heroics. The seafront peninsula is dotted with statuary lauding their exploits as is the Fort Sumter monument in Charleston harbor where the secessionist forces shelled the federal garrison in April of 1861.

No one doubts that slave labor built the city’s marvels, and the tour materials are pretty explicit on that topic. At the same time, the museum curators can’t resist including a long quote from a defender of slavery telling off that Harriet Beecher Stowe as a cheap librettist. Our tour guide explicitly promised not to tilt towards one side or the other as he related the facts for fear of ruffling sensibilities of anyone in the tourist crowd.

The same defensiveness filters into individual conversations too. Questions about Obama drop into uneasy silence or quick clarifications that the state is just like anywhere else: ‘Some people like him, and some people don’t.’ But South Carolina doesn’t feel like just another of the 50 states.

Governor Mark Sanford was making national headlines during my visit by trying to turn down federal stimulus money, arguing that the state needed first to reduce its debt burden. He even has the state Republican Party riled up as ideology doesn’t usually interfere with the prospect of getting federal dollars to flow into the home districts.

Sanford argued that South Carolina was heavily indebted and that he couldn’t control what happened to most of the federal largesse because the state constitution provides for a weak executive and a powerful legislature. But he could dictate the terms of one portion and had determined not to spend it. That was the money for public schools, which—by mere coincidence—would benefit the state’s large black population.

My work involves the burgeoning numbers of Latino immigrants throughout the South, and we had the opportunity to attend a bilingual public meeting on the state’s new immigration law, which severely penalizes employer and employee alike for the use of undocumented labor. The hall was jammed with over 200 Mexican and Central American laborers who sat transfixed trying to quiet their squirming children while lawyers explained the many ways South Carolina had devised to stack the system against them.

Tomato farmers out on the sea islands haven’t planted this year because the new fines for hiring illegals are too stiff to risk, and vigilantes are eager to phone up the police to denounce the crime. Locals repeatedly assured me that no white or black citizens would spend any part of the blistering summer picking tomatoes for $2.50 a bucket either, so the crop simply won’t be grown this year.

I suspect the local Lou Dobbses will be indignant if tomatoes go to $5.00 a pound and will find a way to blame someone else, like maybe the meddling government in Washington, for it. A place that glorifies its secessionist past and continues to call the practice of chattel slavery a ‘peckuliar institution’ from yesteryear probably will be slow to appreciate the irony.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Needed: one new Montesquieu, a Keynes and a James Madison

Hearing the day-to-day updates on our economic travails, it’s easy and probably psychologically necessary to forget that we managed to create vast wealth and then squander it. In addition to the immediate drama of unemployment and debt-induced penury, it’s tragic to observe what a range of socially worthwhile activities were ignored while we had the money to perform them in the rush to build more exurban tract McMansions and to peddle ever-greater piles of consumer goods produced by Chinese industrial slaves.

Here in New York we are facing cutbacks on all fronts, new taxes chipping away at our earnings and a devastating crisis in public transport funding, one of the greenest and most efficient aspects of life for the 14 million people who live here and a huge contributor to the cultural and intellectual life of the city. But instead of devoting some of our enormous accumulated capital to improving it, we saw our trillions disappear into hedge fund salaries and war profiteering while half the country applauded.

We need politico-economic thinkers on the historical scale of a Smith, a Hamilton, a Veblein and a Karl Marx to unspool the complexities of biped foolishness and pack mentality and from there construct new ways to protect us from ourselves. Just as the overthrow of Roman republicanism and French monarchy and the ensuing catastrophes led historians and philosphers to look for better ways to organize the state, the break-down of the capitalist engine ought to stimulate real innovation of thought and deed.

So far, however, the disaster, big as it is, remains too small to engender that kind of radical review and revision. Geithnerite gradualism prevails, and the system is subjected to the kinds of superficial tinkering that will leave most of its dangerous tendencies largely intact, especially if the threatened cataclysm is averted.

Simultaneously, the rhetoric of everyday economic life is only slightly dislodged from the Reaganite ideological straitjacket. Our on-air commentators nod to the extraordinary times but quickly return to the comfort zone of objections to increased taxes and doubts about the role of ‘gummint’, a tendency fed by populist revolt against the bankers’ sneaky opportunism.

But the bankers are only doing what the logic of their tiny world demands, and if those objecting to their sleazy ways were part of it, few would resist similar blandishments. The rules of our game, freely agreed to for the most part, permitted quick riches, ostentation and blithe unconcern, tempered by a dash of pity and a check to the United Way. No asset relief management scheme will overturn that Weltaunschaaung, and a two-year recession, rough as it promises to be, won’t either.