Wednesday, September 26, 2007

H.L. Menkin's 1920 Prophecy Fulfilled

Joseph L. Galloway, of McClatchey (giving passing credit to Leon Daniel and to Keith Olberman), uses a 1920 quote from the Baltimore Sun's great curmudgeon, H.L. Menkin, to express what some of us have been feeling about Bush since before he became President (note: not "was elected" -- because a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to order a halt to the counting of votes is *not* the same thing as actually getting elected).

While some have come around to a point of view that is critical of Bush's performance, only after years of persistent disappointment, quite a fair number of us (a majority, I believe) actually were critical of this clown from the get-go. To those who took so long to get with the program, here's a hearty "I told you so:"

It took just eight decades but H.L. Mencken's astute prediction on the future course of American presidential politics and the electorate's taste in candidates came true:

On July 26, 1920, the acerbic and cranky scribe wrote in The Baltimore Sun: " . . . all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily (and) adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

My late good buddy Leon Daniel, a wire service legend for 40 years at United Press International, dredged up that Mencken quote several years ago and found that it was a perfect fit for George W. Bush, The Decider. MSNBC's Keith Olberman highlighted the same quote this week. A tip of the hat to both of them, and to Mencken.

The White House is now so adorned by Mencken's downright moron, and has been for more than six excruciatingly painful years. It wouldn't be so bad if the occupant had at least enough common sense to surround himself with smart, competent and honest advisers and listen to them. But he hasn't.

We inflicted George W. Bush on ourselves — with a little help from Republican spin-meisters, slippery lawyers, hanging chads and some judicial jiggery pokery — and he has stubbornly marched to the beat of his own broken drum year after year, piling up an unparalleled record of failures and disasters without equal in the nation's long history.

He inherited a balanced budget and a manageable national debt, and in just over six years has virtually bankrupted the United States of America and put us in hock to the tune of nine trillion dollars — a sum larger than that accumulated by all the 42 other presidents we had in two and a quarter centuries.

The man from Crawford, Texas, stood Robin Hood on his head almost from Day One, robbing the poor and the middle class so he could give to the rich and Republican. When the bills for those selective tax cuts, and his war of choice in Iraq, began coming due our president simply signed IOU's for a trillion dollars, with those markers now held by our traditional ally communist China.

* * * *

George Bush . . . posture[s] and strut[s] as a wartime president; . . . style[s] himself The Decider, and . . . [purports to] decide which parts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights bought so dearly by generations of Americans he would give or take away.

The mills of the military-industrial complex [have gone] into high gear, as the defense contractors jostl[e] for their places at a trough filled each year with half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money. The Republican political operatives mil[k] them all like so many Holstein cows and the Republican lobbyists rom[p] over to Capitol Hill buying congressmen by the baker's dozen to keep the pumps primed.

When one raison du jour for the war in Iraq failed — and all have failed — President Bush and his general-of-the-month could always come up with another to appease the gods of war and keep the machinery turning.

Throughout this ongoing national catastrophe Bush has kept close around him a coterie of incompetents and ideologues always on guard to defend the indefensible and justify the unjustifiable. They brush the lapels of the emperor's suit of gold and whisper that he is right and God will make him shine in American history.

Perhaps the crowning blow came when it was revealed that The Decider is now getting his strategic advice and counsel from none other than Henry Kissinger, the author of genocide in Cambodia; wholesale slaughter in Chile; abandonment of American POWs in Laos; betrayal of South Vietnam, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now getting his advice from Henry Kissinger? That suggests, mistakenly, that the Kissinger development is, somehow, a recent revelation. It isn't. Kissinger has been advising Bush from the shadows, for years. And this has been known for over a year. And Henry Kissinger's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize is not all that shocking, if one has first been desensitized to the rage by reading about the track-records of a number of Nobel economics laureates, in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. Although some of Galloway's comments can benefit from some additional context (including the observation that Bush was not really elected in 2000),
still the Menkin quote is a good find, and a worthy "hook" for criticizing the Bush presidency.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Pullin' the Wagon vs. Ridin in the Wagon

Paul Krugman, of the New York Times, offers some helpful insight into how "pullin' the wagon" (namely, working for a living, and paying payroll taxes on the wages one earns) and "ridin' in the wagon" (namely, living off the labor of others by collecting dividends and capital gains) are treated quite differently by the Bush Administration. Krugman also points out (correctly) that working Americans have every right to demand an answer to the question: "Where's my trickle?:"

Four years ago the Bush administration, exploiting the political bounce it got from the illusion of success in Iraq, pushed a cut in capital-gains and dividend taxes through Congress. It was an extremely elitist tax cut even by Bush-era standards: the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says that more than half of the tax breaks went to Americans with incomes of more than $1 million a year.

Needless to say, administration economists produced various misleading statistics designed to convey the opposite impression, that the tax cut mainly went to ordinary, middle-class Americans. But they also insisted that the benefits of the tax cut would trickle down — that lower tax rates on the rich would do great things for the economy, helping everyone.

Well, Friday’s dismal jobs report showed that the Bush boom, such as it was, has run its course. And working Americans have a right to ask, “Where’s my trickle?

It’s true, as the Bushies never tire of reminding us, that the U.S. economy has added eight million jobs since that 2003 tax cut. That sounds impressive, unless you happen to know that a good part of that gain was simply a recovery from large job losses earlier in the administration’s tenure — and that the United States added no fewer than 21 million jobs after Bill Clinton raised taxes on the rich, a move that had conservative pundits predicting economic disaster.

What’s really remarkable, however, is that four years of economic growth have produced essentially no gains for ordinary American workers.

Wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated: the real hourly earnings of nonsupervisory workers, the most widely used measure of how typical workers are faring, were no higher in July 2007 than they were in July 2003.

Meanwhile, benefits have deteriorated: the percentage of Americans receiving health insurance through employers, which plunged along with employment during the early years of the Bush administration, continued to decline even as the economy finally began creating some jobs.

And one of the few seeming bright spots of the Bush-era economy, rising homeownership, is now revealed as the result of a bubble inflated in part by financial flim-flam, which deceived both borrowers and investors.

Now you know why 66 percent of Americans rate economic conditions in this country as only fair or poor, and why Americans disapprove of President Bush’s handling of the economy almost as strongly as they disapprove of the job he is doing in general.

Yet the overall economy has grown at a reasonable pace over the past four years. Where did the economic growth go? The answer is that it went to the same economic elite that received the lion’s share of those tax cuts. Corporate profits rose 72 percent from the second quarter of 2003 to the second quarter of 2007. The real income of the richest 0.1 percent of Americans surged by 51 percent between 2003 and 2005, and although we don’t yet have the data for 2006, everything we know suggests that the income of the rich took another upward leap.

The absence of any gains for workers in the years since the 2003 tax cut is a pretty convincing refutation of trickle-down theory. So is the fact that the economy had a much more convincing boom after Bill Clinton raised taxes on top brackets. It turns out that when you cut taxes on the rich, the rich pay less taxes; when you raise taxes on the rich, they pay more taxes — end of story.

But it’s not just trickle-down that has been refuted: the whole idea that a rising tide raises all boats, that growth in the economy necessarily translates into gains for the great majority of Americans, is belied by the Bush-era experience.

As far as I can tell, America has never before experienced a disconnect between overall economic performance and the fortunes of workers as complete as that of the last four years.

America was a highly unequal society during the Gilded Age, but workers’ living standards nonetheless improved as the economy grew. Inequality rose rapidly during the Reagan years, but “Morning in America” was nonetheless bright enough to make most people cheerful, at least temporarily. Inequality continued to increase during the Clinton years, but wages rose, as did the availability of health insurance — and the great majority of Americans felt prosperous.

What we’ve had since 2003, however, is an economic expansion that looks good if not great by the usual measures, but which has passed most Americans by.

Guaranteed health insurance, which all of the leading Democratic contenders (but none of the Republicans) are promising, would eliminate one of the reasons for this disconnect. But it should be only the start of a broader range of policies — a new New Deal — designed to turn economic growth into something more than a spectator sport.

(emphasis added).

Detroit Free Press Thinks Everyone Else Ought to Be Courageous

"A plague o' both your houses" (Romeo & Juliet, Act I, Scene 1), is easy enough a position for the Detroit Free Press (from the comfort of their non-legislative offices) to stake out.

What makes it so easy, is that it demands so little real analysis -- only instinctive reaction. And, by merely validating and reinforcing the gut-level reactions of the vast majority of readers who don't think much (rather than exhorting readers to spend some extra time in thought and contemplation -- which exhortation most readers inevitably will resent like schoolchildren resent homework), the newspaper probably boosts -- rather than risks -- sales, and its own revenue stream.

"Hard-hitting?" Self-serving is more like it. The Free Press is just as guilty of putting its own interests ahead of the public interest as are the legislators that the Free Press self-servingly claims to have the moral authority to criticize.

In order to have the moral authority to level the criticisms it makes, the Free Press needs to exhibit the courage that it claims Michigan's legislators lack. What it really needs to do, if it wants to claim moral authority, is to publish the editorial (you know, the one that actually tells the real truth and that does not resort to easy and mindless platitudes) that will actually put some of its own advertising revenue -- and even, perhaps, some of its subscriptions -- at risk.

Until the Free Press has the courage to take the kind of risk that it claims legislators ought to take, then it has no business pretending -- on the safety of its own front page (the content of which the Free Press controls) -- to be more courageous than any of the people it shamelessly calls cowards.

That said, do you actually expect Grand Rapids voters (for instance) to throw *THEIR* bums out, and to elect more responsible, less-ideological, Legislators to go to Lansing? Should we expect the same from any other voters in this state, for that matter?

Sure, there appear to be a handful of gutless wonders in the State House, who are afraid to go on record voting to raise taxes. (Then again, their approach is demonstrably rational. After all, if such a vote is pre-destined to fall flat once the measure gets to the Senate, anyway, then who really wants to take an action that accomplishes nothing other than to fuel the other party's patented Slime Machine for the next election? Ask Julie Dennis (in Muskegon) if voters are more inclined to punish -- or to reward -- candidates who employ underhanded and deceptive "Slime Machine" tactics. Dennis lost in a close race -- and the last-minute intervention of the "Slime Machine" was decisive in securing her opponent's victory. The choice that the Free Press appears to criticize House members for not making, is what is known as a Hobson's choice. Is the newspaper's criticism really fair?).

So, what can the Free Press say to trigger real progress and to start fixing the crisis?

Presumably, if the Free Press bothers to look beneath the surface, it should quickly become apparent that the incentives for individual Republican state Senators (who don't have much time in office, as it is, to make their mark) are all in the opposite direction from compromise.

The way for a Republican state Senator to line up the financial resources to mount a campaign for his or her next job (and which of them is not looking, constantly, for the next job?), is to behave as aggressively as possible in manufacturing a budget confrontation. That approach: "We can have 'unity' -- but only if it is solely on the terms dictated unilaterally by the Senate Republicans and by their campaign-fundraising sponsors" -- ought to be quite familiar now to anyone watching the national political scene. And the beauty of this phony rhetoric is that it makes it so easy (even for people as smart as the Free Press editorial staff) to start blaming the other side -- the people who respectfully decline to accept the "unity" position unilaterally dictated by the Senate hold-outs.

Even if some Republican state Senators lose their jobs in the next election, and cannot manage to line up the resources to run for some new office, the question is worth asking: Will it be easier for them to "cushion the blow" of being voted out of office, by lining up a new job (presumably, using the connections of generous party donors) if they take a hard line, or if they compromise? Presumably, it is easier to find a job (and to find one that pays better), if one remains loyal to the party agenda. The possibility that the opposite might be true would certainly seem counter-intuitive.

Also worth asking (though ignored by the Free Press) is this: Where do the policy prescriptions of the Senate Republicans' money-masters actually threaten take the State of Michigan, if adopted? We've seen this same experiment run many times before, and the results are remarkably consistent -- when one looks at the actual numbers and not the P.R.

An immoderate and anti-centrist package of fiscal austerity, unreasonably low taxes, regressive taxes (lotteries, sales taxes, liquor and cigarette taxes), and deregulation, has been prescribed again and again in various places by the same group of people -- Chile, for example, on September 11, 1973 (the day Augusto Pinochet seized power, and Salvador Allende was killed); Argentina; the "five tigers" of Southeast Asia; Bolivia; the list could go on and on. And it has been tried domestically, too: Mississippi, Alabama, and other notoriously low-tax states.

Who, in their right mind, would not prefer to live (and to send their children to school, and to look for a job) in such high-tax, "Blue State" jurisdictions as New York or California (or, internationally, take your pick of Scandinavian countries that are out-stripping the United States in quality-of-life measures), than in Mississippi? In fiscal experiment after fiscal experiment, the prescription offered by the people who pay Republican legislators to run for office, has been shown repeatedly to be a dismal failure. That prescription, with apparent uniformity, does more harm to the patent than good. And yet, they keep pushing the same tired and ineffective policies over and over and over again.

In this regard, if you get a chance to pick up a copy of Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine," which just became available at bookstores. I think it is quite helpful in putting certain much-discussed policy proposals in a larger historical and economic context. See <>. She's done an admirable job at separating myth from reality, when it comes to evaluating the real impacts of Milton Friedman's (and his disciples') policy prescriptions on real populations.

Isn't it time for the Free Press to stop pretending (as it knows is false) that the "neutral" or "objective" or "centrist" position can be summarized as "a plague o' both your houses?" That argument presupposes that both sides in the argument are equally wrong, that they are equally interested in compromise, and that the truth is necessarily equidistant between the extremes. I respectfully suggest that all three presuppositions, if you think about it, are simply wrong, and the reasons why all three are wrong should be so obvious as not to require further elaboration.

In some arguments -- say, between absolute command-economy Marxism and pure deregulated laissez-faire capitalism -- the "truth" might arguably lie somewhere close to the midpoint between the extremes. In other debates - such as the "intelligent design" controversy, one side (evolution by natural selection) has all the facts, while the other side is not even wrong, because its position does not even qualify as science in a manner to justify opening debate in the first place. I'd respectfully suggest that the current budgetary impasse in Michigan has much more in common with a debate between faith and reason, than it does with a policy debate between two equally-unreasonable, reasonable opponents (where the truth lies more-or-less at the midpoint between the extremes).

Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade, and to reveal "faith-based" policymaking (this time knee-jerk "faith" in Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, by their economic disciples) for what it really is -- a recipe for disaster.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

"The Big Con" -- Jonathan Chait reprinted in NY Times

Yet another book about how "American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane."

Not a few of us were alarmed by this prospect in the wee hours of the morning on November 7, 2000. I actually remember where I was that evening, watching the returns. Hotel New York, I think it was -- on a visit to the Big Apple. Earlier that night, it was my pleasure to see Picasso's Guernica outside the Security Council meeting-room at the United Nations Building. One did not have to be prescient, or even of above-average intelligence, to see what kind of trauma likely was in store for the U.S. (and the world) if that idiot bumpkin from Texas and his criminal friends from his father's (and Reagan's, and Nixon's) administration(s), actually captured power. All it took was a little attention to history and to detail -- which, sadly, far to many Americans pride themselves in lacking.

While informative, a description like Chait's, coming at the end of George Bush's Presidency (he leaves office in 484 days and some-odd hours, according to the ubiquitous countdown clocks all over the Internet), merely describing the magnitude of the harm that already has been done, doesn't really seem to add much to the conversation other than to augment an already-formidable mountain of prose detailing the failings of what undoubtedly will be remembered as the most abysmal U.S. Presidency of all time. (At least, that is, it will be remembered as the worst, until proteges of Cheney and Rumsfeld and Gonzalez -- the people who occupy the positions that Rumsfeld and Cheney and Weinberger and others occupied back in the Nixon administration, not to mention the people who Monica Goodling has packed into the ranks of career prosecutors at Justice, and who other Goodling-equivalents have seeded elsewhere -- seize power yet again.).

Precisely because that mountain of prose will be ignored by most Americans, and remembered by too few, while far too many Americans will instead seek to have their nationalist enthusiasms and petty resentments validated (and exploited) by talking heads on television, it will not be long before the criminal cycle repeats itself all over again.

The American memory is short. Memories of the Nixon Administration and its crimes, both here and abroad, certainly did not prevent American voters from making the same mistake, and granting power to the same cabal, in 1980, and in 1984, and yet again 1988. And they did it again, more recently -- even despite the economic good-times and budget surpluses seen in the period leading up to the 2000 elections.

What is really needed, this time, is a persistent focus on un-doing the harm caused by the Bush administration, and on immunizing against a future resurgence against the "tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots," who seized and held power for the last eight years.

The Bush "true believers" who hijacked the government in 2000, and engaged in eight years of systematic looting to benefit their corporate friends, also have spent at least the last four of those years making sure that the next generation of "true believers" has been well-positioned (and infiltrated into all levels of government) to wage ideological war against the next administration from within the halls of power. Bush's people already have pre-positioned the next generation of Federalist Society drones and Milton Friedman disciples, to re-take control of the government when the American people (with their short memories, and assisted by disinformation from television) get fed up with the 2008 crop of reformers, and buy in (yet again) to a bunch of phony focus-grouped promises.

John Dean was absolutely correct, in June 1973, when he explained that "there was a cancer growing on the presidency." In the intervening 34 years that same metaphorical "cancer" -- made up of a self-replicating ideological cadre of people pursuing a truly anti-democratic agenda -- has metastasized into something far worse.

If only information alone were enough to immunize American politics against frequent relapses. But that has proven demonstrably untrue.

Indeed, criminal prosecutions (of North, Pondexter, and Weinberger, most notably), or even the embarrassment of presidential pardons or commutations issued in an effort to prevent the truth from being revealed through criminal prosecutions (Weinberger, again; or Sccoter Libby; and even of Nixon, himself), have not been enough.

What is really necessary, in the marketplace of ideas, is a new and firm consensus that the phony corporatist ideology or Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, and George Bush has been thoroughly discredited -- that it has no more merit than the equally obsolete and discredited extremist notion of central planning (to the exclusion of free markets) as a core principle of social organization. Extremists and faith-based ideologues have no place in the halls of power, when the problems to be solved (poverty, environmental sustainability, human rights, privacy, and others) are both practical and urgent.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

$6 Billion in Iraq contracts under criminal investigation; $88 Billion more audited for "financial irregularities"

Remind me again.

Why, precisely, was the United States in such a doggone hurry to invade Iraq?

Why -- remind me again -- was the hallucinatory vision of a "smoking gun . . . in the form of a mushroom cloud" seemingly so imminent (in the minds of some people in Washington, at least; certainly not here in the "fly-over" states) that the Bush Administration could not even bother to wait for Hans Blix to complete the weapons inspections, and to reveal what we now all know: namely, that there never were any WMDs, and that Colin Powell was absolutely correct in his February, 2001, remarks in Egypt?

Quoth Secretary Powell:
We had a good discussion, the [Egyptian] Foreign Minister and I and the [Egyptian] President and I, had a good discussion about the nature of the sanctions--the fact that the sanctions exist-- not for the purpose of hurting the Iraqi people, but for the purpose of keeping in check Saddam Hussein's ambitions toward developing weapons of mass destruction. We should constantly be reviewing our policies, constantly be looking at those sanctions to make sure that they are directed toward that purpose. That purpose is every bit as important now as it was ten years ago when we began it. And frankly they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors. So in effect, our policies have strengthened the security of the neighbors of Iraq, and these are policies that we are going to keep in place, but we are always willing to review them to make sure that they are being carried out in a way that does not affect the Iraqi people but does affect the Iraqi regime's ambitions and the ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and we had a good conversation on this issue.
As many (including this writer) have pointed out since *before* the time of the Iraq invasion, the U.S., by choosing not to invade Iraq, might have been in a better position to devote more resources to accomplishing its mission in Afghanistan.

And, presumably, that mission includes making sure that Afghanistan does not produce record crops of opium poppies. Discouragingly, the Washington Post, in December, 2006, offered the following to report:

Opium production in Afghanistan, which provides more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, broke all records in 2006, reaching a historic high despite ongoing U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts, the Bush administration reported yesterday.

In addition to a 26 percent production increase over past year -- for a total of 5,644 metric tons -- the amount of land under cultivation in opium poppies grew by 61 percent. Cultivation in the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, was up by 132 percent.

According to Spiegel, NATO now even is considering whether to legalize the Afghan heroin trade -- presumably (though not overtly) to enable enterprising persons or organizations to redirect some of that profit (recall the CIA's use of drug trafficking during the Reagan Administration, to finance its Congressionally-unapproved wars against democratic movements in Central America) to promoting neoconservatives' agenda (even after Bush is out of office), rather than for the drugs to be used to promote solely the agenda of the people described as "enemies" of the U.S. when the President does news conferences.

Perhaps the reason for the Iraq invasion really was WMDs; but then, if that were true, might not it have made some sense to give the inspections another six months or a year, in order to get better information about the real situation in Iraq?

Perhaps the reason really was that Saddam Hussein was a really bad guy (indeed, the same bad guy he had been during the Reagan Administration -- when we were actively equipping him with weapons, including chemical weapons (a/k/a "WMDs")). But that rationale does not seem so plausible, either.

After all, the U.S. not only seems to have exhibited a persistent and historic tolerance for really bad dictators who abuse their people (often with the assistance of training from U.S. government special "schools" that teach all manner of unsavory techniques for abusing and controlling subject populations) -- people like our friends Pinochet, Suharto, the Shah of Iran, and the list goes on; but on top of mere tolerance, the U.S. has a history of actively intervening in other countries to put such despots into power and to keep them there.

Perhaps the real reason for going into Iraq was to write on a clean slate -- to set up, for all the world to see, a "free market democracy" conceived -- from scratch -- in the image of how right-wing think tanks believed (and believe) that every nation (including ours) ought to be governed. With billions of dollars in oil reserves to support, and kick-start, an "economic miracle" in Iraq, how could such an experiment conceivably fail to produce spectacular results?

Tom Friedman pitched such a notion, as did a fair number of the well-paid intellectuals at AEI, the Hoover Institute, and other such places. If that was the real agenda, then suffice it to say that the project (quite predictably) has indeed produced spectacular results (just not the kind of spectacle that Mr. Rumsfeld and his friends at Hoover presumably had in mind). It also almost goes without saying that this is hardly the first time that experiments in imposing the Fredrich Hayeck / Milton Friedman / Ludwig von Mises vision of "the way things ought to be" upon some hapless target state have produced something entirely different from the capitalist utopia that the Republicans' favorite intellectuals have been so eager to promise since even prior to World War II.

On the other hand, if the real agenda in Iraq was simply a reverse-robin-hood scheme, in the basest tradition of crony capitalism, to divert the proceeds of federal income taxation (vehemently opposed, on principle, by those same right-wing think-tanks who brought you the War) away from needed investments in domestic infrastructure, health-care, or education -- by instead focusing billions of dollars of government spending on large and profitable contracts for companies like Bechtel, Halliburton, Blackwater, CACI and others (not to mention the other contractors who build all the weapons and equipment that our military uses) -- then the Iraq war has actually been a spectacular success, perhaps even exceeding the wildest dreams of the people who conceived of it in the first place.

No wonder the people profiting from the war want it to go on and on and on, without end.

After all, this time they're fucking the taxpayers like they've never fucked the taxpayers before, and who hasn't -- in the passionate throes of truly profound carnal satisfaction -- had the thought cross his or her mind, "I wish I could keep doing this forever?"

The real beauty of how the Bush Administration has engineered things is that the people on the receiving end of the benefits of war (all those generous payments that are going to Iraq, and to the contractors serving the U.S. government in Iraq, rather than to domestic needs) are paying remarkably little of the taxes that the U.S. government collects to support all this spending. Granted, much of the money is borrowed (to be payed by future taxpayers), but the point still remains that working people are paying most of the taxes, while the ultra-rich are receiving most of the financial benefits of the War.

Remember, in contrast to the level of taxes imposed on workers' payrolls, when it comes to non-payroll income, such as dividends or capital gains from investment securities (or, even worse, the inheritance of large estates), the Bush Administration has seen to it that not everyone actually is required anymore (as they were, to a greater degree in, say, the Republican Eisenhower administration) to pay their fair share.

No longer is the percentage of annual income paid by individuals and corporations, in taxes, to support the common good, even remotely comparable between those who earn their livelihood exploiting the labor of others (a U.S. Senator once aptly described them as "riding in the wagon" -- although Phil Gramm seemed to have a different population in mind when he was actually, and without realizing it, describing the ultra-rich), and people who actually work for a living.

Now, one would think that the deal concocted by Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld for Bush's cronies at Halliburton, Blackwater, Bechtel, et al., would have been good enough. It ought to be possible to make decent (indeed, obscene) profits, just on the crony contracts alone -- without piling fraud on top of the "legal" profits that the companies are receiving.

After all, if these companies -- "loyal Bushies" all -- really are as "patriotic" and as interested in promoting and preserving truth, justice, and the American way, as we have been told, then wouldn't they want to make certain to take extra pains to carry out their contracts in the most exemplary manner imaginable -- efficiently, free from fraud and over-billing, transparently, and accountably. Wouldn't it be so much easier to persuade all those countries (including the U.S. -- starting with prisons and schools, but rapidly moving on to roads and other infrastructure) that your kind are so eager to take over and to operate, that they really want you running the show, if you were able to point to a track record of efficiency, honesty, and results, in Iraq?

And yet, now it appears that the impulse to pile fraud on top of cronyism and graft may have proven irresistible. If only the American people could focus on the reality in Iraq -- and how things got to be the way they are over there -- long enough for the knowledge to become permanently seared into the national memory. Sadly, I'm afraid, American memories are short.

We won't do much better at remembering not to be burned again by Bush's cronies (and remembering to spend the money on keeping our domestic affairs in order, before launching expensive adventures overseas), than we will at un-doing the long-term damage done by Monica Goodling's hiring practices at the Justice Department, now that Alberto Gonzalez's head has been taken as a trophy for display in the public square.

Friday, September 14, 2007

More People Receptive to "Two Americas" Narrative?

The Pew Research Center released an interesting poll, yesterday -- using terms that seem to resonate somewhat with John Edwards's "Two Americas" campaign theme. According to Pew, in 1988 (almost 20 years ago, when Bush 41 took over from Ronald Reagan), 71% of people polled rejected the notion that the United States was divided into "haves" and "have nots," while just 26% saw a divided nation.

Today, according to Pew, "Americans are split evenly on the two-class question, with as many saying the country is divided along economic lines as say this is not the case (48% each)." Further, "the number of Americans who see themselves among the "have-nots" of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the "haves" (59%) than the "have-nots" (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% "haves" vs. 34% "have-nots")."

In the time from 1990 to 2007, U.S. population has increased 21.78% from 248,709,873 to 302,873,594 (and counting) (incidentally, even if each and every one of those extra individuals were from a foreign country, and in this country illegally -- which demonstrably is not true -- the recent anger we have heard about, via some media sources, about immigration, would appear to be based more on subjective perception than fact). In the time from 1990 to 2006, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States (measured in 2000 dollars) grew 59.15% from 7,112.5 $Bn in 1990, to 11,319.4 $Bn in 2006.

Sometimes, perceptions (as reported in opinion polls) are dramatically divorced from reality -- as for instance, a claim from the Department of Justice some years ago that increased spending on incarceration was justified, not based on any actual increase in crime (indeed, crime was declining dramatically), but instead based on a popular (and wrong) perception that the crime rate was exploding.

So, is the Pew poll just reflecting a common mis-perception, while the real numbers show that people are actually better-off than they were 17 years ago (with a good chunk of that "better off" attributable to the admirable economic expansion between 1992 and 2000)? Or are the people polled by Pew starting to tune in to a trend that is considerably more real?

In my view, George Carlin, in his "big club, and you ain't in it" monologue, was largely right (2:30 to 6:25 on the video) about putting the real issue in perspective, in a manner rather more blunt and considerably less delicate than the Pew Center. Carlin is hardly the canary in the coal mine -- some intellectuals and writers have been saying the same things for quite some time, while publishing statistics about (among other things) how executive compensation is obscene, and how ordinary workers' wages have stagnated (or worse). But, unlike intellectuals (and people like me who sometimes use big words), Carlin is good at making his point in a way that everyone can understand.

In a similar vein, in about the middle of the 1987 - 2007 period, Susan Faludi, in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (
William Morrow & Co. 1999), admirably pointed out how the post-WWII "deal" struck between the elite of the "haves" (the small percent of a percent Carlin calls "the owners"), and the broad middle class, had been, in effect, called off by America's elites. Faludi (undoubtedly -- to digress for a moment into pointless name-calling -- still likely to be called a "feminazi" by Mr. Limbaugh, on behalf of disgruntled and angry white ditto-heads, everywhere) had previously written a book concerning "the undeclared war on American women" (but, note the conspicuous absence of an identification of who had initiated said war, without making a formal declaration). Her book "Stiffed" reflected a rather remarkable change of attitude (though not a departure from the view that most women are oppressed), based on spending a lot of time with American men who were not the elite decision-makers of American business and government. Turns out that ordinary men were experiencing a lot of the same oppression as American women, and that both had (and have) a common oppressor.

Of course, there is no grand conspiracy to oppress the "little guy," to wage "war" against women, or to increase (rather than narrow) the gap between rich and poor. At least, there's none that I know of. But, at the same time, social and economic policies can (and do) have predictable consequences for society as a whole. And some people (the current administration, most notably) seem Hell-bent on imposing bad policies on the rest of us, in the apparently faith-based belief that, sooner or later, if the guvvament just sticks to the program of economic and civil-liberties fundamentalism, things really will turn out for the best (or, the Rapture will arrive, which is the same thing). Of course, these "insider" fundamentalists privately have a good laugh about the "outsider" fundamentalists -- the Bible-beaters all across the American South, who've been duped, repeatedly, into voting for their own exploitation by leaders who (in a way familiar to anyone who has read both The Prince and Leo Strauss) are much better at seeming to be pious, than at actually being pious and faithful to Christian belief. Recalling how Lee Atwater (the mentor both for Karl Rove and for Roger Ailes of Fox News) was known for reading The Prince not less often than once a year, I suppose the following passage from Republican scripture (i.e., Chapter XVIII of the Book of Machiavelli), is more than a little revealing:

"Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. . . .

"For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are . . . ."

Returning, then, to the "two Americas," Michael Moore, in his recent (and excellent) movie, "Sicko," helpfully poses the question to middle-class Americans (the audience watching his movie) of how likely they are to be to challenge the status quo, knowing how easy it is suddenly to wind up without employer-sponsored health coverage. In virtually the same breath, he also mentions student loans -- a topic about which I have much to write in the future. What really put things into perspective, for me, on the subject of student loans, was sitting in the offices of a Park Avenue law firm with some lawyers whose whole job was to protect the tobacco industry from paying compensation to the victims of deceptive advertising, junk science, manipulation of nicotine levels in products to control addiction, and other rather rather extraordinary behaviors of corporate executives and employees (including paid health professionals with medical degrees), in pursuit of profit. I was not even told about the tobacco aspect of the position, until after I showed up for the interview. The pay for such a position is quite attractive to a young lawyer facing tens of thousands of dollars in student debt; and the hours are *much* better than for most big-firm lawyers. What is not to love about such a job? But I digress. Needless to say, I chose conscience over compensation.

The way in which exploitative social institutions (the tobacco industry, to name just one) and public policies (student loans, American healthcare), can evolve and metastasize into something horrendous, through the ordinary and incremental working of the free market and democratic institutions of government (and, of course, of the market and government working together) fascinates me, and brings me to two more recent, and very interesting, books.

The first has been published, but is not due to for general release until next week. I'm looking forward to it (as, apparently, is Miguel de Icaza). Naomi Klein, of The Nation, is about to release The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books 2007). From what I gather from advance reviews and a short film that reminds me rather too much of the trailer for Godfrey Reggio's Naquoyquatsi, Klein's book appears to be about how ideas can have profound (and, perhaps, unintended) consequences.

In another post, I'll write about the influence of a movement of academic political thinkers, such as Leo Strauss and Harvey Mansfield on contemporary politics (blogger Glenn Greenwald has touched upon the rather astonishing influence of Strauss and Mansfield, in recent posts).

Naomi Klein focuses on another academic whose work is much-treasured by right-wing think tanks, and often followed like gospel by disciples in government and industry -- Milton Friedman. Friedman, it is no secret, has been to neo-liberals in Economics departments (where the next generation of middle-managers for the global empire are identified, tapped and groomed) what Strauss, Mansfield, and others (and their favorite authors -- Machiavelli and Plato), have been to Political Science / Political Philosophy departments (where promising students often are encouraged, as I once was, to sign on with The Federalist Society promptly upon entering law school, lest those crazy law professors fill your head with ideas that movement conservatives consider anathema) for several decades.

Needless to say, Friedman's ideas have been hugely influential. And it seems to me those ideas have been hugely influential, at least in part, precisely because they tended (and still tend) to validate the pre-existing social, political, and economic preferences of some very powerful people who already had (and have) considerable influence in American society. Little wonder that so much money has been poured into making sure that well-expressed ideas like Friedman's (and Hayeck's, and others'), that happened (and happen) to validate the pre-existing prejudices of the influential, were, and continue to be, taught and propagated far and wide.

In an interesting turn of events, hundreds of young "true believers" -- raised through college on a healthy (ahem.) intellectual diet of Milton Friedman, and Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand, and the Holy Bible -- were (as described in Bob Woodward's book State of Denial, among other sources) handed the opportunity recently to re-make an entire country (Iraq) in the image of the deregulated, privatized, free-market utopia of which they (or at least their leaders, mentors and professors) have long dreamed -- with as little criticism or oversight from, and opposition by, American progressives, as might ever be conceivable. And what an unmitigated disaster they managed to create in so short a time! It perhaps came as at least as much of a surprise, to the young cadre of conservative / neo-liberal "true believers" in the CPA, that exposure of the Iraquis to the wisdom of Milton Friedman did not produce the desired result, as it came as a surprise to Spanish conquistadors that native Americans did not instantly grasp the "good news" in the Holy Bible, and convert the instant they heard it.

Klein will, needless to say, hardly be the first person to document (or at least to start documenting) the actual consequences, through U.S. policy in country after country throughout the world (including here in the U.S. itself), of the schools of thought that became ascendant during the Bush 43 administration (even more so than during the period from 1980-88, or 1968-76 -- during which periods, not co-incidentally, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and the Bush family also played important and prominent roles in government).

Among the recent books pointing out the profoundly un-democratic things the U.S. has accomplished, while allegedly "promoting democracy" around the world, is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Plume 2004), by John Perkins. In it, Perkins chronicles his personal role in helping U.S. engineering and construction companies (and the government with which these companies are closely intertwined) expand and reinforce the U.S. global empire by pursuing the same pattern of exploitation in country after country -- Iran, Indonesia, Equador, Panama, Chile, and the list goes on. The most interesting aspect of the story is that Perkins claims that he knew exactly what he was doing (thus implying that his "bosses" knew exactly what *they* were doing, too), while he was doing it. Of course, Perkins's "confession" rings a little hollow, today, in light of the reasonably comfortable lifestyle he is able to enjoy as a result of his knowing participation in exploitation and empire -- and he certainly does not seem to be interested in giving it all back, out of guilt for what he personally (and, he says, knowingly) did.

Perkins also is not as good a scholar as he is a story-teller about his own experience. His story starts, largely, with the 1953 CIA-mounted coup in Iran -- which Perkins claims was essentially the first in a pattern of interventions throughout the period following World War II, up through the early 1980s (when Perkins got out of the empire business). A somewhat more thorough historian might look back several years to Panama, during the first Roosevelt administration (and the odd relationship of the U.S. with the inimitable Philippe Bunau-Varilla), as well as the U.S. actions throughout Central America during Woodrow Wilson's administration, as a better starting-point for the story of America's persistent pattern of imperial behavior. Then again, someone truly thorough would certainly push the story right back into the colonial period, as does James Lowen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone, 1995) -- which is about to be issued in an updated version this month.

As an interesting aside, while we touch on Panama, Iran, and the name Roosevelt, it is no secret that Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt (the President when the Panama Canal was built -- and the unexpected beneficiary of some rather interesting and conveniently-timed accidents, such as the assassination of President McKinley or the explosion of the Maine in Havana harbor) happened to be the American assigned to orchestrate the coup in which the Shah of Iran replaced his father as leader of his country. The Shah's reign lasted from 1953 until 1979, and would not be fair to characterize as "democratic." Rather, it had much more in common with such U.S. "allies" such as Indonesia (under Suharto), Chile (under Pinochet), Guatemala (Garcia and others), Haiti (under Duvalier), and a list that goes on and on. Our latest is Musharraf, in Pakistan.

The second-most-interesting aspect of Perkins's book is his explanation about how the Saudi Oil Crisis in 1973 changed everything, from the standpoint of (what Perkins calls) the "economic hit men" and their bosses. The Saudi embargo was unexpected, and helped American political and business leaders understand quickly how much power over us the Saudis actually had (and were, apparently, willing to wield). The ultimate response of the U.S., however, was to begin work, very rapidly, to turn Saudi Arabia into a U.S. client state, through vast infrastructure projects, as had been done before by the U.S., in many other (debtor) nations. The Saudi case was different, however, according to Perkins, in the sense that the Saudis were able to finance the spending with oil revenue, rather than debt, and also due to the scale of what Perkins claims his company called "The Saudi-Arabian Money-Laundering Affair."

Something changed, in America, it seems to me, about the time of (or not long after) the grand deal struck between our national leaders, and the Saudi Royal Family -- that enabled U.S. economic and political interests to have confidence that America would never experience another "oil shock" like 1973, again -- ever.

At some point, somebody started pulling up the ladder. Some say it was 1980, but that is probably just the most dramatic inflection-point of a trend that was already underway.

At some point, the post-WWII "deal" -- between elites and the middle class, in America -- changed, and social-mobility numbers started changing as well (still, there is some degree of social mobility in America, but mobility is considerably less dynamic than it was in the period from the 1930s to the 1970s). The gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" started widening -- in ways that, today, seem rather alarming. And, peculiarly, country whose GDP, from 1988 to 2007, was rising at twice the rate its population was rising -- somehow has had difficulty finding the resources, through the tax system, of addressing basic needs like infrastructure (though seemingly limitless funds can be found for offensive weapons systems).

The U.S. not only seems, today, to have difficulty finding the tax resources (as it could in the 1950s to build the Interstate highway system, to finance low-interest home loans, and to fund the GI Bill) to bother to maintain its infrastructure, to educate all its children adequately, and to make sure that everyone (not just the "haves") would have access to decent health care -- but has experienced (at least perceived) fiscal difficulty of this sort, for quite some time. Then again, I suppose it must not be forgotten that, with a slightly different level and distribution of taxation, the United States as recently as 1998-2000 ran a surplus, and was able to manage record-breaking levels of economic growth.

Some of the trends seen in the U.S. in recent years (from 1980 - 1992, and for the past eight years, at least) -- in particular, widening inequality and pronounced social injustice issues, not to mention the corruption of political elites -- Perkins points out in "Economic Hit Man," inevitably (not "almost inevitably," but *inevitably*) accompanied U.S. and World Bank "economic development" loans and investments in these countries. I expect that Klein also will document, country-after-country, how U.S. policies have increased (rather than reduced) poverty, have reduced civil liberties (at the hands of dictators like Pinochet, Suharto, or the Shah of Iran), have resulted in widespread environmental damage, and has enriched and benefited, principally, a small and corrupt global elite.

There's just one point that I think Perkins didn't quite drive home: At some point (and it is purely speculation on my part to say, perhaps, it was 1973 or shortly thereafter), somebody (or, perhaps a lot of somebodies, entirely independent from one another) got the bright idea that the United States -- and its population -- was not necessarily different, as a matter of principle, from any of the other "client" countries (and their populations) that multinationals, with the help of the U.S. government, were exploiting.

The point that needs to be made (at least to U.S. voters) is not just a point about what the U.S. has enabled its companies to do to other countries' populations (what Perkins describes, in this regard alone, is shameful enough). The point that really ought to hit home (and I'll speculate that Klein may actually get around to this) is: And, now, they're doing it to us, here, too.

The U.S. isn't just an imperial exploiter of other countries; the same techniques of exploitation have been turned loose on our own population, too.

So as to avoid the same criticism that I leveled at Klein (who is it, precisely, who "undeclared" "the" war on women?), I'll do my best to try to identify the "they," who are doing it to "us." "They" is not a single integrated and unified cabal, pursuing a common and well-organized plan but rather "they" vary project-by-project, and policy-by-policy. "They," like the rest of us, do things largely on an ad-hoc basis. The "they" who are removing mountaintops in West Virginia, in order to fuel coal-burning power plants, are not necessarily the same "they" who engage in predatory lending, and who managed to get draconian changes in the bankruptcy laws passed through Congress. Still another "they" consists of people like Richard Mellon Scaife, who -- so appreciative of the personal benefits of a large inheritance -- financed an aggressive and protracted campaign to ensure that the inheritors of concentrated wealth (people who we might describe, using Phil Gramm's colorful description, as "ridin' in the wagon," from birth), are not required (like the rest of us -- those "pullin' the wagon") to pay their fare share of what it takes to keep society running smoothly and well. Scaife's personal subset of "they," presumably includes Grover Norquist and others who enjoyed being handsomely paid to promote some really kooky ideas. "They" includes government contractors, like Halliburton and defense contractors, who have turned the national government into a reverse-Robin-Hood rip-off scheme, in which average Americans, who receive most of their income in the form of payroll checks, are taxed disproportionately in order to funnel a truly staggering amount of government largess into the pockets of relatively few, very wealthy, people. Some of those same captains of the government contracts industry (the same people who helped elect Bush 43 as President), will oddly applaud when "their" kind of politician rants against income re-distribution, or mouths platitudes about how "the guvvament should not be picking winners and losers." Evidently, "they're" only opposed to the guvvament "picking winners and losers," when the government's activity happens to involve something other than awarding lucrative defense and construction contracts to them.

Some of "them" seem to keep turning up in the halls of power, from administration to administration. Dick Nixon was far from the only Eisenhower administration official to return to the Executive branch in 1968. The Reagan and Bush 41 administrations from 1980-92, were populated quite heavily with people (Cheney, Weinberger, Schultz, Bush 41, Rumsfeld) who had served their country in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Since Bush 43 took power, names have shown up on the roster (like John Poindexter) that would lead one to marvel at the chutzpah of the current administration and its penchant to resurrect crooks (but they're loyal crooks) from past administrations.

"They" are not completely unified -- and often disagree on points both minor and, sometimes, even major. But, it seems to me, the thing that most unites "them" is a system of shared beliefs, many of which they learned in high school and college -- the set of ideas (perhaps best exemplified by Milton Friedman)
exemplified by low taxes (Always lower taxes!), race-to-the-bottom trade liberalization (Always lower prices! at Wal-Mart, with the help of Chinese labor and environmental practices), repeal of the so-called "death tax" (even though the estate tax was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, and some of the richest people in America -- such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett -- strongly urge that large estates *should* be taxed), and "the free market" as a panacea for whatever ails your society. Of course, not everyone who clings to these free-market economic (and Straussian political) ideas, actually belongs to the "them" club. Many of the people on Fox News or the radio -- the ones with veins bulging out of their foreheads whenever the dominant orthodoxy is questioned (let alone openly challenged) -- are not really driving the train. They're just helping shovel coal into the locomotive. They're just followers who are either: (1) not astute enough to know any better, or (2) (more likely, it seems), too well-compensated and too good at what they do to stop doing what they are doing.

Seems to me that if the Bolivians can send a message -- loud and clear -- both to Washington and to Bechtel (Enron, for a time, also
was pitching the privatization of water systems) about the unconscionable exploitation of U.S. "client states," then Americans -- given access to adequate information, and through communities in which they realize (like other persecuted minority -- or are they actually majority? -- viewpoints are coming to realize) that their beliefs and concerns are commonly-shared -- ought to be able to insist on meaningful change. Just because the mass media tends to be uncritical of the dominant orthodoxy (or critical only in the shallowest sense), does not mean that the truth cannot start at least filtering out. For the first time in a long time, large numbers of Americans seem to be waking up and asking some of the right questions.

The recent Pew poll, it seems to me, reflects -- more than anything -- the success of non-traditional media (the Web, blogs, etc.), in starting to overcome so-called "mainstream" orthodoxies that have, until quite recently, been difficult to challenge in the same sense that one has difficulty shouting over a nearby jet engine.

And what about the much-touted desire, discussed on television for "unity . . . like we had in September, 2001?" Well, presumably, there are two ways to achieve "unity" between the "two Americas" -- the first is for the few and the many to "unite" behind the agenda of the many; the other is the one that Bush seems to insist upon -- that "unity" is only possible if everyone else "unites" behind his agenda (even if it is only good for less than 1% of the country and bad for everyone else). Why, exactly, is it, that every time the topic of unity comes up on television, it is always framed as whether the rest of America will "unite" with Bush's America -- and stop dissenting from "their" policies. Isn't the real question, when it comes to "unity" whether "they" will stop waging an undeclared class war, and join the rest of us -- in one America (and, one hopes, a better world as a whole) by redirecting resources to do good for everyone?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Marketplace of Ideas -- Part I

If Wikipedia is right (as has been known to happen, from time to time), then "The concept of [a] 'marketplace of ideas' is most often attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes'[s] dissenting opinion in Abrams v. U[nited] S[tates] , 250 U.S. 616 (1919). Interestingly, while Justice Holmes (1919) implied the idea in his dissenting opinion, he never used the term."

The "Marketplace of Ideas" page of Wikipedia (at least on August 25, 2007 -- I suspect somebody will do a better job with it, eventually) goes on to talk about the notion of a *classroom* as the "marketplace of ideas." There's a lot to unpack in just these introductory references. The really interesting idea, that prompted this post in the first place, is at the end (or may even wind up in Part II . . . forgive an old man his ramblings!). First, lets touch briefly on Holmes and classrooms.

At some point, I really need to write (and will write) something about Justice Holmes's jurisprudence of the First Amendment, including the Debs case (that's Eugene Debs -- who later was released from prison after the "Red Scare" cooled down a little, Warren Harding took office, and the federal government got a lot busier on subjects like crony capitalism, instead of the ideological obsessions that prevailed during Woodrow Wilson's administration), the Schenck case, and how Holmes's early thinking at least appears to relate to the Italian Hall Massacre. Also of related interest are Learned Hand's apparent influence on Holmes's thinking, and Holmes's eventual change of perspective, which ultimately led at least part of the way toward modern First Amendment jurisprudence. All these subjects are fascinating, and probably aid in a deep understanding of what a real "marketplace of ideas" should be all about. But this does not seem to be quite the time to go beyond spotting the issues. Deeper analysis can wait for later.

As to the issue of a "classroom" as the marketplace of ideas, I cannot seem to resist the impulse to get beneath the surface of this notion. First, I've recently been reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (actually, the link is to the updated version, set to be released in October, 2007 -- I've been reading the 1996 version with great enthusiasm). Not to get too far into the subject (on which, again, I expect to write "really soon, now") of the difference between talking about facts and talking about metaphorical symbols, and how the latter can really get in the way of understanding when it comes to (1) understanding what *really* happened in history, or (2) having a conversation between two people who don't realize that each is talking about different things -- one about reality, the other about symbolic (though inaccurate) metaphors; or (3) actually thinking clearly about reality.

Too many Americans somehow have acquired (or have been indoctrinated since Kindergarten into) the bad habit of thinking about history in terms of symbolic imagery -- "Squanto the helpful Indian;" "The First Thanksgiving;" "The Mayflower Compact." Reality is far more instructive, and ought to be understood. For instance, Tisquantum (rendered a "Squanto" in schoolbooks) was quite a remarkable historical figure, was (before the "Pilgrims" met him) a polyglot who spoke several European languages, who had crossed the Atlantic several times (by 1620, he was far better-traveled than was, say, George W. Bush, in 2000), and who had probably learned that "plant a fish with your corn" trick, not from native Americans, but from Europeans in Cornwall. On the subject of what Europeans learned from the Natives, textbooks tend to focus on the trivial and the quaint, like the fish-and-corn story, while giving Europeans sole credit for things like . . . well, Constitutional Democracy. That had its origins in the Mayflower Compact, no? Well, perhaps to some degree, but it would be a mistake to disregard (to the extent that textbooks are predisposed to do) the much more substantial contribution of the example of the Iroquois Confederacy. And, while "The First Thanksgiving" makes for charming kindergarten pageants, it is probably a good idea to mention how the version we now know grew out of a morale-boosting propaganda effort initiated by the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War, or how the "Pilgrims" resorted to grave-robbing to survive (at least some survived) their first winter. Even more to the point, when we celebrate the so-called generosity shown by the European "hosts" to their native American "Guests," it is worth remembering that the traditional foodstuffs -- maize, turkey, cranberries -- were not European transplants. Somehow, the real direction of the generosity gets turned-around in the Europeans' re-telling of it.

The blog Mahablog does a quite remarkable job of framing the issue of how bizarre it is to engage in discourse by referring to historic events as metaphorical symbols, as our current leaders are inclined to do when they intone solemnly the phrases, "Churchill and Stalin at Yalta;" or "Ronald Reagan before the Berlin Wall;" or (as Bush 43 recently invoked) "Helicopters on the roof of the Vietnamese Embassy." As Mahablog goes on to explain (and the explanation is both cute, and so true):

The key to understanding right-wing rhetoric can be found in an episode of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In “Darmok” (originally aired 1991) the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Tamarians, a people with an incomprehensible language. “We come in peace,” say the Enterprise crew. “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra,” reply the Tamarians. “Temba, his arms wide.” The Next Generationers are baffled.

But then Captain Picard and Dathon the Tamarian have an adventure together battling an invisible beast, and during this adventure Picard has a “Helen Keller at the water pump” moment and realizes that Tamarians speak in metaphors taken from stories. For example, “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” refers to two enemies, Darmok and Jalad, who became allies at Tenagra. As a phrase, it means “Let’s put aside our differences and be friends.” So after much suspense and drama and the death of the unfortunate Dathon, by the end of the episode Picard knows enough Tamarian to say, “Bye. It’s been real.”

By the way, when Mahablog refers to "Helen Keller at the water pump," presumably, this is done in an ironic sense, because that, too, is a metaphor that gets in the way of reality. Somehow, the tellers of the Helen Keller story rarely get past the water pump, to talk about the real work of Keller's life. In this regard, Wikipedia actually turns out to be reasonably helpful (no wonder there's a movement afoot among self-identified "conservatives" to manufacture their own version of Wikipedia, where they don't have to be bothered by inconvenient things like facts):
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.

Newspaper columnists who had praised her courage and intelligence before she expressed her socialist views now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her "mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development." Keller responded to that editor, referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:

"At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him...Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent."

Keller also joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1912, saying that parliamentary socialism was "sinking in the political bog." Keller wrote for the IWW between 1916 and 1918. In ([1]) Why I Became an IWW, Keller wrote that her motivation for activism came in part due to her concern about blindness and other disabilities:

"I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness."
Conservapedia, conveniently (at least as of September 15, 2007), just disregards Hellen Keller entirely, and apparently consigns recollection of her accomplishments (and her politics) to the memory hole.

So, getting back to Mahablog's point about communicating with metaphor -- "Squanto and the Pilgrims at Plymouth," or "Churchill during the Battle of Britain," or "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall," or even "Helen Keller at the water pump" -- as used in too much (but not all) recent political discourse, does not necessarily refer to the historical reality of the event, but rather to all the baggage of symbolism and metaphor (and distortion) that people with an agenda have labored hard to manufacture and cultivate around the event (or the person -- too bad Peggy Noonan can't be more like John Dean, but that probably doesn't pay quite so well, or result in quite so many television appearances). The modern-day myth-makers are hardly the first to do it. Compare Hittite and Egyptian accounts of battles fought between them, or just read the Old Testament.

But the key point is this: It is worthwhile to recognize (and to equip students and citizens to recognize) what they're doing, so as to make it possible to step back and start unpacking the metaphorical baggage, so as to keep the buts with real value and to discard the rest in the trash.

So, with that distinction in mind between the habits of thought that *are* cultivated in the classroom, compared with the critical thinking skills that *ought* to be taught (I think George Carlin had a few choice words on this subject, too), it seems a good time to mention (and to respond to the Wikipedia "marketplace of ideas" page) that the *classroom* seems, quite recently, to have become nearly the farthest thing we have from a "marketplace of ideas" -- especially, with the Supreme Court upholding a content-based (indeed, viewpoint-based) restriction on even whimsical speech, without even bothering to apply the customary "strict scrutiny" compelling governmental interest / narrowly tailored and necessary / least restrictive means, test that ought to apply.

It seems rather odd and incongruous that -- at least in the eyes of *some* justices -- the Constitution provides so much protection for free speech, when a minor (apparently, flirting with white supremacist ideology) burns a cross in the yard of the minor's black neighbors, yet the same document (or Holy Writ, depending on your view) offers so little protection when a student of roughly the same age (perhaps a little older, in fact) happens to broach the apparently "taboo" subject of marijuana legalization (at least in the eyes of the disciplining school administrator, that was the viewpoint of the message) by unfurling a "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" banner.

In 1992 (the tail end of the Bush 41 administration), Justice Scalia in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, correctly recognized that: "The First Amendment generally prevents government from proscribing speech, or even expressive conduct, because of disapproval of the ideas expressed. Content based regulations are presumptively invalid." Further, while recognizing that, "our society, like other free but civilized societies, has permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas, which are 'of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality,'" Justice Scalia went on to recognize that cross-burning on a neighbor's yard, while offensive, evidently (in his view) had enough redeeming social value to outweigh any countervailing social interest in order and morality. In Scalia's view (in RAV) the "hate speech" ordinance went beyond mere content discrimination, to viewpoint discrimination -- in part because the legal prohibition tended to turn on the reaction of the intended audience: "In its practical operation, moreover, the ordinance goes even beyond mere content discrimination, to actual viewpoint discrimination. Displays containing some words--odious racial epithets, for example--would be prohibited to proponents of all views. But 'fighting words' that do not themselves invoke race, color, creed, religion, or gender -- aspersions upon a person's mother, for example -- would seemingly be usable ad libitum in the placards of those arguing in favor of racial, color, etc. tolerance and equality, but could not be used by that speaker's opponents. One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all 'anti Catholic bigots' are misbegotten; but not that all 'papists' are, for that would insult and provoke violence 'on the basis of religion.' St. Paul has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensbury Rules."

How things change in fifteen years, when the subject turns to drugs instead of white supremacy. Justice Scalia, of course, did not write the majority opinion in Morse v Fredrick -- that was Justice Roberts. Justice Scalia only signed on whole-heartedly to the Court's pro-censorship decision. According to Roberts, the "BONG HiTS" speech can be punished -- not only based on the speaker's viewpoint -- but even based on a government official's subjective perception about the message that (in the listener's mind) the speaker might mean to convey. Especially if that perceived communicative (and, in the Morse case, core political) expression happens to favor a change in public policy in the form of marijuana decriminalization -- well, then -- such ideas are simply beyond the pale, and we cannot have students competing for mindshare with government-subsidized expression promoting the opposite viewpoint: "But Principal Morse thought the banner would be interpreted by those viewing it as promoting illegal drug use, and that interpretation is plainly a reasonable one. As Morse later explained in a declaration, when she saw the sign, she thought that 'the reference to a "bong hit" would be widely understood by high school students and others as referring to smoking marijuana.' App. 24. . . . We agree with Morse. At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs."

To use Scalia's analysis from the R.A.V. case, Justice Roberts's attempt to hang his hat on perceived advocacy of "illegal drug use," as opposed to perceived advocacy of the view that the activity should not even be illegal in the first place, is nothing more than "word play."

The real point I meant to get around to, and will in Part II, is one about the differences and similarities between the commercial marketplace, and the "marketplace of ideas."

The mere commercial success of a particular source of information (say, a news channel, or a shrill author who routinely accuses well-meaning and intelligent people of treason and heresy) ought not to be considered a measure of the accuracy or informative value of the information conveyed by that source -- any more so than the commercial success of flavored tortilla chips or pizza (compared with, say, spinach or asparagus) should be considered the best way to judge the nutritional value of supermarket products.

Let me suggest, just briefly, that Roger Ailes recognized something important about the time that Rush Limbaugh's radio show became a huge, and unexpected, commercial success. Prior to that time, the assumption seemed to be that news outlets should compete (in what was thought of as the "marketplace of ideas" -- especially in Supreme Court cases like Red Lion) largely on the basis of accuracy and journalistic standards and airing "both sides of the issue." The best job of journalism ought to win, in "the market-place of ideas." According to Red Lion: "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited market-place of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee."

If the commercial marketplace and the "marketplace of ideas" work the same way, and the commercial marketplace works the way envisioned by the Supreme Court, then, presumably, broccoli ought to win in the "marketplace of the grocery store," and outsell junk food by wide margins. That's not exactly what we observe -- either in the grocery store, or television, or the bookstore.

What if a large segment of the broader audience wants (and strongly demands) something else entirely -- having little to do with making sure that "truth will ultimately prevail" -- such as validation. What if (like visitors to the Creation Museum) they desperately crave to be misinformed, and to have their pre-existing prejudices validated by the media they consume. That's also a demand that can be (and, today, is) filled quite profitably.

The really disingenuous part of it all is when the shareholders and management of what used to be legitimate news outlets (remember the *old* CNN that was worth watching?), insist on pretending that ratings comparisons between Fox and the *old* CNN somehow constitute(d) apples-to-apples comparisons. If the two are targeting completely different audiences -- Fox news, by targeting those who crave validation, while the *old* CNN targeted people who actually wanted news -- then Wall Street's insistence that CNN (to compete in a phony "ratings war") must somehow start emulating a completely different category of enterprise, seems only calculated to cause CNN not only to fail to capture the "validation" audience, but also to turn off the "news" audience as well. And that's why, today, to get the news on television, one must turn either to an hourly show on cable television (there's no all-news cable channel anymore that has not substituted either entertainment or right-wing-validation for the news), or to Comedy Central's 11-midnight lineup of Colbert and John Stewart.

Some marketplace. More on this later.