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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Information Warfare

In order to make sense of their world, understand what ails us, and fix what needs fixing, Americans have to have reliable sources of information. These have been declining, it seems to me, for at least thirty years, and the situation has hardly ever been as bad as it is today. The political process is largely to blame, but not, it seems to me, in exactly the way that most people think—that is, because of excessive partisanship. Two trends are converging—one, the right’s belief, both inside and outside the Administration, that information must be controlled, and the other, a bizarre self-denial on the part of the press, that has been persuaded that its opinions do not matter.

In one of the few genuinely revealing moments in the documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara stated his rule for dealing with interviews: don’t answer the question you are asked, answer the question that you wanted to be asked. (The film-maker Errol Morris either had failed to do his homework or had decided not to be controversial, and therefore allowed McNamara to get away with a number of whoppers, such as the statement that he had never contemplated or imagined the assassination of Fidel Castro.) The Bush Administration has begun by turning McNamara’s rule into an art form. The responses of Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan to any question from the White House press corps can be absolutely predicted based upon the subject matter of the question. Any query about Iraq elicits a paragraph on the establishment of democracy and our plans to withdraw when the Iraqis take over their own security; any question about the economy provokes a disquisition on the pro-growth effects of “tax relief;” anything about Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita produces a speech on how the Administration is coordinating every level of government to meet the needs of those affected. McClellan had a bad week when Matthew Cooper revealed his conversations with Karl Rove, but endless repetitions of the need to wait for the outcome of the investigation wore the press down. This, however, is only one aspect of the Administration’s technique, and not the most important one, since hardly anyone reads press briefings anyway.

More important is the refusal of the Administration to give reporters anything to write about by refusing to answer questions. The President has set the tone by holding virtually no press conferences, and by confining reporters to two questions when he appears with foreign leaders. But others have followed. Two weeks ago, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, I saw Michael Chertoff, whose Agency was failing to deal with the situation, haughtily tell reporters after making a statement that he would take just three questions, and that they had better craft their questions carefully, since that was all he would take. At about the same time, President Bush met reporters briefly but denied any knowledge when asked about Mike Brown’s resignation. He thereby avoided having to explain why he had told “Brownie” he was “doing a heckuva job” a few days before, but meanwhile, no reporter even dared ask him about the revelations that Brown had faked his resume—a story that died with Brown’s resignation. Two days ago the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration resigned after just a few months in office, without giving any real explanation.

The Administration’s reflexes work most reliably about anything having to do with terrorism. Another amazing story passed almost unnoticed two weeks ago, when the members of the 9/11 commission, after more than a year of effort, secured the partial release of a portion of their report the Administration had insisted on classifying. It explained that in 1998, the FAA had issued a warning that terrorists might try to hijack airliners and fly them into prominent American landmarks, and added warnings about lax security at various airports, including at least one of those from which the 9/11 hijackers took off. Knowledge of this warning could not possibly have hurt the security of the United States at this point, and it reflected at least as harshly upon the Clinton Administration as the Bush one, but it would have decisively undermined Condolezza Rice’s statements that no one had imagined this scenario, and therefore, it had to be withheld at least until after the election of November 2004. So it was. The 9/11 Commission, one of its authors recently explained in The New Republic, was determined to issue a nonpartisan report. Did that mean that the commissioners were not willing to defy the Administration or threaten to resign on issues like the FAA report that might be seen to reflect too unfavorably on an incumbent President running for re-election?

Such self-denial, rather than bias, is, I think, the heart of the conservative ascendancy in the current information wars—and I don’t think it is very well understood.

As I have noted many times, the current Administration and its allies have mounted an attack not only on the domestic and foreign policies of the last seventy years, but upon the foundations of the last 250 years of western civilization. Economically they are committed to the unbridled exercise of market power. In foreign policy they believe in unilateral American action, not common observance to impartial principles. And intellectually they are exalting faith over reason, refusing to accept the lessons of science on medical and environmental issues, and attempting to make faith, rather than reason, the source of truth. In none of these areas, I suspect, do their views represent a majority of Americans, but they do not care. What remains to be explained, however, is how such ideas, which 45 years ago would have struck the American public as ludicrous, can have gone so far in the twenty-first century.

The older vision, emphasizing rationalism over faith, took over the American higher educational system, especially at the highest levels, beginning in the late nineteenth century and extending through most of the twentieth. Beginning in the 1980s a new generation of academics began attacking the rationalist paradigm within universities, but although that attack has had a terrible impact upon university life, it has only marginally affected American politics. The young men and women who emerged from our elite universities and went into the media were products of three centuries of western civilization—nominally religious at most, trusting in science, and committed to some measure of real equality among citizens. By the 1980s, however, it was increasingly unlikely that any of them would have learned anything about the limitations of the free market in economics courses, since the New Deal/Great Society generation of economists was suffering an almost total professional eclipse.

What has happened, it seems to me, is that the editors and publishers who control our media have decided that their own beliefs are not worthy of any particular respect merely by virtue of their pedigree. Since Ronald Reagan they have actually been inhibited about expressing their own views—because they are their own views. Since Reagan, and now George W. Bush, have been elected twice apiece, their views deserve as much respect as anyone’s. And of course, as outsiders for so long, the right wing have been much less inhibited about expressing their views than the center. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of religion. It is probably still true that most Americans with advanced degrees are atheists or agnostics, but can anyone name one major public figure or commentator who is proud of his atheism or agnosticism, or who is willing to argue, as many courageous folk did a century ago, that religion is essentially superstition unworthy of intelligent human beings? I would not go quite that far myself and I have no wish to impede anyone’s exercise of their own religion, but I do think that the unilateral disarmament of the rationalists among us is giving religion far more influence in our public life than it deserves.

Oddly, too, the Right has stolen a march on the rest of us by projecting its own emotionalism. As neoconservative David Brooks made clear in a recent column, to “hate” the Administration, in the eyes of the right, disqualifies one as a serious observer. A serious person, apparently, would accept the Administration as well within the new mainstream. (It would be interesting to see if Bush in 1998 were similarly criticizing the unreasoning hatred of Bill Clinton. Somehow, I doubt it.) But difficult times do, and should, arouse strong emotions. The unilateral disarmament of the center has gone far enough, and it is becoming necessary to take sides if we want to avoid recreating the early Victorian era in the first half of the twentieth century. It is not clear, however, that the heirs of the Enlightenment will be able to do this.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

What the Crisis Means for the Administration

In the early 1990s William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted the fourth great crisis in our national life by sometime around 2010 in their first book, Generations When I reviewed their second book The Fourth Turning in 1996, I noted that they wisely declined to specify exactly what the crisis was likely to be about, and added some speculation of my own. The crisis, I suggested--drawing on work I had written on other periods--would occur because the solutions we were trying to apply to a given problem were making this worse, and therefore causing it to spin out of control. I am sorry to say that I have never been more right in my life.

The Bush Administration, clearly, has a more ideological agenda than any in the second half of the twentieth century. That agenda has been honed and developed by thirty years of work in think tanks, conservative journalistic circles, and on K Street. It involves enormous tax cuts (designed to culminate in a flat tax), a virtual end to federal government regulation, the curtailing of the rights of workers in both the private and public sectors, an erosion of civil liberties, a multi-stage attack on the public educational system, an end to abortion, and an end to restraints on executive power. Abroad, it involves attempts to bring down all perceived enemies of the United States, the weakening of international restraints upon us, and the securing of energy supplies while forsaking conservation measures. It is clear, however, five years into the Administration, that its domestic agenda is the real priority that drives it, and that Grover Norquist, to put it bluntly, is a more powerful figure in Washington today than anyone involved in foreign policy.

The problem for the country, of course, is that the implementation of this agenda is making things much worse for almost all of us. Abroad we face an endless war in Iraq that will never achieve our original objectives, and that, as Mark Danner pointed out rather brilliantly in last Sunday's NY Times magazine, is playing into Osama Bin Laden's hands. We have alienated most governments and the public of the entire world, and the appointment of John Bolten to the UN proved that the Administration plans to continue down this road. We are weakening our armed forces, which were never anywhere near large enough for the Administration's grandiose plans in the first place. But we are not changing course. Reports last week spoke of Pentagon plans to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against nuclear or chemical stocks held by unfriendly states--plans awaiting Donald Rumsfeld's approval. We cannot exclude the possibility that such plans might be put into effect in the next three years. That, I think, would convince most of the world that the United States is an aggressive menace with which the whole world has to deal.

That scenario remains speculative; what is happening at home is not. Hurricane Katrina struck liberal or neutral commentators (the latter including Thomas Friedman) as a chance to reverse course at home, to restore the finances of the federal government, and to begin assuming some of its basic responsibilities. It is now clear that that is not going to happen. The Administration will use Katrina the way it used 9/11--as a wedge to advance its already disastrous agenda. Nothing, in short, is going to make it turn back.

In this regard, the most interesting offshoot of 9/11 was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Initially the Bush Administration remained true to its anti-government stance and opposed it, but public clamor and Congressional elections changed its mind. There was, however, a catch. In establishing the department, the Administration took a big step towards one of its most cherished goals: the elimination of federal workers' rights. The President and the Republicans in Congress insisted on stripping the employees of the new Department of civil service protections, and when the Democrats opposed this step, Republican commercials branded Democratic candidates (like triple amputee Max Cleland in Georgia) as unpatriotic as a result. It worked. The Administration immediately moved to remove the same protections from Defense Department employees, although they have been blocked so far by the courts, who have ruled that their procedures are illegal. They have also introduced legislation to do the same through the whole federal civil service--to eliminate automatic promotion and retention and to give political appointees far more power. Like the Reagan Administration, the Bush Administration has decided that union busting begins at home.

Meanwhile, once created, DHS was staffed, as we can now see, by political operatives and cronies, who have used their power and money to reward key friends (such as the voters in Florida in 2004, whose claims of hurricane damage were promptly met without even verifying their validity), and punish their enemies. That is, evidently, the role of those parts of the Federal government that area allowed to continue, and that is the role of privatization. Federal employees can't make large contributions to campaigns and tend to vote Democratic. Federal contractors, on the other hand, can be counted upon to kick back, with the money they save by paying their workers less.

And now comes Hurricane Katrina. Two weeks into the recovery process, the outlines of the Administration's long-term response are clear.

1. Reconstruction shall be used to cut workers' rights and compensation. The President immediately suspended the provision of the Davis-Bacon Act that requires contractors to pay "prevailing wages" in the areas they are working with respect to construction workers. The law does provide for that in case of emergencies, but a few days later, the Administration took the same step with regard for service workers. That step has no legal basis, but the Bush Administration has actually made quite a few such unfounded exercises of executive power, ruling arbitrarily, for instance, that laws mandating the release of Presidential documents from previous administrations can be modified as they wish. As one who has recently spent a little time in the Mississippi Delta region, I would suggest that "prevailing wages" were, presumably, low enough already; but I am not a Republican.

2. As in Iraq, conservatives will attempt to turn the rebuilt Gulf Coast into a supply-side, unregulated paradise. Proposals for suspending environmental regulation and providing more business tax cuts are in the air as well. Those few affected citizens still subject to the estate tax, according to one conservative proposal, will not have to pay it. The Administration hopes to give schoolchildren vouchers to allow them to attend private or religious schools, instead of public ones, if they so choose--a huge step in an area where thousands of white parents already refuse to send their kids to integrated public schools. A huge question, of course, involves the fate of poor people's housing, especially along the development-prone Gulf Coast: having been destroyed, will it now make room for retirement condominiums? Time will tell. Today's Washington Post reports that 1500 Florida survivors of Hurricane Andrew are in fact still living in the trailer park they were put into when their homes were destroyed, and can't afford to move back into their communities now.

3. The usual suspects--favorite contractors led by Halliburton and Bechtel--are snapping up the big reconstruction contracts, a certain percentage of which will find their way back into Republican campaign coffers.

4. And lastly, of course, there will be no tax increase, as the President explained yesterday--not even any reconsideration of the repeal of the estate tax. Instead, what reconstruction money is made available will be used as an excuse to cut further necessary government services, leaving us even less ready to deal with our next serious problem, whatever it turns out to be.

We have, in short, nothing to hope for the next three years except more of the same. Meanwhile, the failure to do anything to address two serious economic problems--the rising cost of energy on the one hand, and health care on the other--is moving us towards economic and social catastrophe. Energy prices will drain more and more of the stagnant or diminishing income of many Americans. (Of course, if this forces Americans to leave big government blue states in the Northeast and upper Midwest to move to the low-government, poverty-ridden Sunbelt, Republicans will count this as a gain.) A recent story suggests that the rising costs of health care may soon decide many employers that they can no longer afford to offer health insurance either to retirees or to present-day workers. The consequences of such a trend are almost unimaginable.

Like the SDS inside universities 35 years ago, the Administration is too committed to its goals to worry about their impact. George W. Bush differs in many ways from Herbert Hoover, but they have some things in common--as revealed by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen in the midst of the Depression in the book that made them famous, The Washington Merry-Go-Round.

Hoover, the two men wrote in 1931, had built up a reputation as a miracle-worker in business and government before becoming President, and had apparently come to believe it. As a result, he routinely exaggerated the achievements of his Administration, especially in areas like cutting expenditures and keeping the depression-era deficit low, by large amounts-confident that the press and public would not notice the truth. In those days of a more adversarial press, this brought him to grief.

How did Hoover get this way? To understand "why he does not get along with people, and why he has surrounded himself with yes-men," they argued, one must look to his earlier career. "All of that period of his life during which a man's character and mental process are molded was spent far from the field of politics in isolated parts of the world. Months and years spent on the edge of the Australian desert or in the interior of China rob any man of that contact with his fellowmen so essential if he is to inspire leadership. Especially true is this when the people with whom he is surrounded on the edge of that desert or in the interior of China remain there subject to his whim and pleasure.
"It was in these circumstances that Herbert Hoover developed the habits of autocracy which have so handicapped him in the White House. Because he had the power to command, he never developed the power to lead."

And here is their comment about Hoover's response to the Depression.

"It in the long and tragic travail of the economic depression, the most tragic thing was the President's fear of admitting that a great disaster had befallen the country. For months, while gloom, unemployment, and deflation settled on the land, he refused to admit their reality or do anything fundamental about the situation. His approach to the problem was wholly that of the boomer [sic], the bull-market operator, concerned only with his own political interests and willing to resort to any device or misrepresentation to further them.
"Facts, statistics, plan organization--there have been none, and when proposed by others have been rejected and stifled, secretly when possible, openly when that was impossible.
"One policy alone has dominated his course: not to do or say anything that would reveal the truth about the great catastrophe. Suppression and inaction have been his unshaken role."

No further comment, I think, is necessary.

In the near term, the fate of the country rests largely with five or ten Republican Senators--roughly the same ones who reached the filibuster compromise--who have the power, together with the Democrats, to stop the further erosion of the government and propose a different approach. It is very doubtful, however, that they will be willing to call for the tax increases that we obviously, desperately need. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives, dominated by extreme conservatives absolutely secure in their seats, will continue along. Whoever runs for President, on both sides, in 2008 will have a great deal more to worry about than simply getting elected.

President Bush--or rather, Karl Rove--is unfortunately a better manager of information than President Hoover was. That, however, will the subject of another post--either tomorrow, or next week.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Collapse of Government

Continuing with the theme of my last post, let’s take a look at some of the news from just one newspaper: the September 1 issue of the New York Times.

The main story, of course, is the New Orleans flood, almost surely the worst natural disaster in American history. While sensational footage of flooded neighborhoods and armed police dominates TV screens, word is emerging that the Bush Administration has systematically been cutting appropriations for shoring up the New Orleans flood control system for several years, willfully ignoring the obvious threat of a category 4 or 5 hurricane for which the existing system was known to be inadequate. The Washington Monthly is running a brief history of FEMA since 2001, during which time it has had two new managers, neither with any experience in disaster management, and proclaimed that expectations for its role had grown too high. The New Orleans Times Picayune had in fact, published a series on the funding cuts for the Army Corps of Engineers for New Orleans quite recently. Congress had always appropriated somewhat more money than the Bush Administration had asked for, but far less, in every year, than what Louisiana officials described as necessary.

Others are asking whether the Department of Homeland Security, focused on terrorism, will be able to handle the job. That Department is, in fact, a living contradiction—created to help the Bush Administration cripple the federal government. The Administration resisted its creation for about a year, until some one—probably Grover Norquist or Karl Rove—came up with a brilliant idea—to insist that the employees of the Department be stripped of civil service protection. That, to begin with, stuck a foot in the door to the elimination of civil service protection for all federal employees. The Pentagon is currently struggling, in the face of union opposition and court suits, to implement a similar set of rules, which will make promotion and retention the prerogative of political appointees, and the Bush Administration wants to extend the same system to the whole federal service. In addition, because Democrats opposed this provision, Republicans in the 2002 elections accused Democrats like triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland of being unpatriotic—and took control of the Senate, allowing them to push their anti-government agenda ahead on all fronts and put through another round of tax cuts.

Meanwhile, Bob Herbert reports that in Tennessee, the Governor, a Democrat, has decided to meet a Medicaid funding crisis by cutting tens of thousands of recipients from the rolls. A great many of these people are very seriously ill and require medications which they cannot afford. A good many of them, obviously, will die.

Meanwhile, Dr. Susan Wood of the FDA’s office of women’s health has resigned because her Commissioner, Lester Crawford, overruled all the recommendations of staff and advisory boards and refused to allow the sale of the morning after contraceptive RU-438, reputedly because it would be impossible to avoid selling it to women under 18 (although why one should want to avoid doing so is quite beyond me), but actually, everyone agrees, to appease the Bush Administration’s political base. It turns out that Crawford was confirmed by the Senate only after he pledged that the FDA would make a decision on over-the-counter sales by September 1. Now that he has been confirmed, a decision not to decide has been announced.

In California, four former inmates of a California state prison have been indicted for hatching a terrorist plot based upon radical Islamic tenets which they propagated while behind bars. One of them is a Pakistani, the other three are Americans. For the past 40 years our prison system has been one of the few government programs to grow in funding, both absolutely and relatively. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, among other things, have diverted attention from our own gulag at home, where our prison population dwarfs that of any other industrial nation. This news, while only one straw in the wind, suggests that our criminal justice policies may now start to have serious political consequences.

Gas prices have hit $3.55 for mid-grade at my local convenience store, and everyone expects them to rise much, much more thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the continuing worldwide shortage.

All these stories, in one way or another, reflect the most important political development of the last forty years: the attack on taxation and government which actually has continued uninterrupted from the New Deal until this day. Although hardly anyone still knows it, the United States in the much-lamented 1950s had marginal income tax rates of 90%--yet our economy thrived, in complete contradiction to what is now accepted economic theory. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, ironically, started the ball rolling downhill in 1962-4, when they proposed a tax cut centered on those brackets—although even under their proposal as passed in 1964, the top rate remained above 70%, and it was still 50% in the late 1970s. Then came Proposition 2 in California, gutting the property tax base and starting a precipitous decline in public services in what had been one of the country’s most progressive states, and the invention of “supply-side economics,” whose founder, Jude Wanninski, coincidentally died this week. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, and the rest, as we know, is history. Meanwhile the bulk of the GI generation—those Americans born from 1905 or so to 1925, whom the federal government provided generous opportunities and benefits for the whole of their lives—have now died, and a majority of voters, probably, no longer even remembers the days in which the American people trusted their government.

The Republicans who have built up the apparently unstoppable momentum for these changes believe deeply that federal and state bureaucrats are wasteful, greedy slackers preying off the productive members of society—and they have done an extraordinary job of intimidating anyone likely to disagree. Those of us who live in the blue states, where as I pointed out last fall taxes and expenditures are higher and society is healthier by almost any indicator, have not taken what they are doing seriously. All this could only have one outcome, and it is here: a series of economic and social catastrophes that adequate public services could have eased or prevented. We have now experienced the destruction of a major American city and the loss, almost certainly of far more lives than we suffered on September 11, 2001. Widespread deaths for lack of medical care, more pressure on infrastructure, and a long-term energy crisis are not far behind.

The younger generation—those born since 1982 in particular—have spent their lives solving problems and, as always in history, will we glad to cast aside their parents’ assumptions when the need arises. Perhaps, as one catastrophe follows another, they will be able to rebuild some spirit of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, and put the United States to work, as FDR said, rebuilding itself, its institutions, and our mutual trust. But that process has not yet begun, and things will surely get quite a bit worse before they get better. Nor will the anti-government ideologues ever change. Those born before 1960 still have to show some leadership at something other than destruction.

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