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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.


Anonymous said...

I'm still inclined to go with the "End of the Roman Republic" motif, but the Huge Crisis idea is looking increasingly tenable.

Frankly, the whole situation is making me wonder whether our form of government really works. Are there other two-party governments that are actually able to deal with problems?

Well, it's all kind of like a man camped on top of a Greenland glacier- how often do you get to be there when the glacier actually comes apart?

Every once in a while I think about the Charley Chaplin film where he skates blindfolded on a mezzanine that has no safety railing.

I appreciate your keeping this blog up, as I feel these times deserve a somewhat more expanded and thoughtful post than we usually find on a group blog.

ye olde serial catowner

alena said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!

Anonymous said...

The health care crisis has grown to a large extent and something must be done to improve our health care system. Health insurance is a major aspect to many.