Saturday, October 13, 2007

The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 14, 2007

“BUSH lies” doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves.

Ten days ago The Times unearthed yet another round of secret Department of Justice memos countenancing torture. President Bush gave his standard response: “This government does not torture people.” Of course, it all depends on what the meaning of “torture” is. The whole point of these memos is to repeatedly recalibrate the definition so Mr. Bush can keep pleading innocent.

By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. As Andrew Sullivan, once a Bush cheerleader, observed last weekend in The Sunday Times of London, America’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques have a grotesque provenance: “Verschärfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the ‘third degree.’ It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and long-time sleep deprivation.”

Still, the drill remains the same. The administration gives its alibi (Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples). A few members of Congress squawk. The debate is labeled “politics.” We turn the page.

There has been scarcely more response to the similarly recurrent story of apparent war crimes committed by our contractors in Iraq. Call me cynical, but when Laura Bush spoke up last week about the human rights atrocities in Burma, it seemed less an act of selfless humanitarianism than another administration maneuver to change the subject from its own abuses.

As Mrs. Bush spoke, two women, both Armenian Christians, were gunned down in Baghdad by contractors underwritten by American taxpayers. On this matter, the White House has been silent. That incident followed the Sept. 16 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqis were killed by security forces from Blackwater USA, which had already been implicated in nearly 200 other shooting incidents since 2005. There has been no accountability. The State Department, Blackwater’s sugar daddy for most of its billion dollars in contracts, won’t even share its investigative findings with the United States military and the Iraqi government, both of which have deemed the killings criminal.

The gunmen who mowed down the two Christian women worked for a Dubai-based company managed by Australians, registered in Singapore and enlisted as a subcontractor by an American contractor headquartered in North Carolina. This is a plot out of “Syriana” by way of “Chinatown.” There will be no trial. We will never find out what happened. A new bill passed by the House to regulate contractor behavior will have little effect, even if it becomes law in its current form.

We can continue to blame the Bush administration for the horrors of Iraq — and should. Paul Bremer, our post-invasion viceroy and the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts, issued the order that allows contractors to elude Iraqi law, a folly second only to his disbanding of the Iraqi Army. But we must also examine our own responsibility for the hideous acts committed in our name in a war where we have now fought longer than we did in the one that put Verschärfte Vernehmung on the map.

I have always maintained that the American public was the least culpable of the players during the run-up to Iraq. The war was sold by a brilliant and fear-fueled White House propaganda campaign designed to stampede a nation still shellshocked by 9/11. Both Congress and the press — the powerful institutions that should have provided the checks, balances and due diligence of the administration’s case — failed to do their job. Had they done so, more Americans might have raised more objections. This perfect storm of democratic failure began at the top.

As the war has dragged on, it is hard to give Americans en masse a pass. We are too slow to notice, let alone protest, the calamities that have followed the original sin.

In April 2004, Stars and Stripes first reported that our troops were using makeshift vehicle armor fashioned out of sandbags, yet when a soldier complained to Donald Rumsfeld at a town meeting in Kuwait eight months later, he was successfully pilloried by the right. Proper armor procurement lagged for months more to come. Not until early this year, four years after the war’s first casualties, did a Washington Post investigation finally focus the country’s attention on the shoddy treatment of veterans, many of them victims of inadequate armor, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.

We first learned of the use of contractors as mercenaries when four Blackwater employees were strung up in Falluja in March 2004, just weeks before the first torture photos emerged from Abu Ghraib. We asked few questions. When reports surfaced early this summer that our contractors in Iraq (180,000, of whom some 48,000 are believed to be security personnel) now outnumber our postsurge troop strength, we yawned. Contractor casualties and contractor-inflicted casualties are kept off the books.

It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war. Part of this was achieved with the usual Bush-Cheney secretiveness, from the torture memos to the prohibition of photos of military coffins. But the administration also invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.

Instead of taxing us for Iraq, the White House bought us off with tax cuts. Instead of mobilizing the needed troops, it kept a draft off the table by quietly purchasing its auxiliary army of contractors to finesse the overstretched military’s holes. With the war’s entire weight falling on a small voluntary force, amounting to less than 1 percent of the population, the rest of us were free to look the other way at whatever went down in Iraq.

We ignored the contractor scandal to our own peril. Ever since Falluja this auxiliary army has been a leading indicator of every element of the war’s failure: not only our inadequate troop strength but also our alienation of Iraqi hearts and minds and our rampant outsourcing to contractors rife with Bush-Cheney cronies and campaign contributors. Contractors remain a bellwether of the war’s progress today. When Blackwater was briefly suspended after the Nisour Square catastrophe, American diplomats were flatly forbidden from leaving the fortified Green Zone. So much for the surge’s great “success” in bringing security to Baghdad.

Last week Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war combat veteran who directs Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sketched for me the apocalypse to come. Should Baghdad implode, our contractors, not having to answer to the military chain of command, can simply “drop their guns and go home.” Vulnerable American troops could be deserted by those “who deliver their bullets and beans.”

This potential scenario is just one example of why it’s in our national self-interest to attend to Iraq policy the White House counts on us to ignore. Our national character is on the line too. The extralegal contractors are both a slap at the sovereignty of the self-governing Iraq we supposedly support and an insult to those in uniform receiving as little as one-sixth the pay. Yet it took mass death in Nisour Square to fix even our fleeting attention on this long-metastasizing cancer in our battle plan.

Similarly, it took until December 2005, two and a half years after “Mission Accomplished,” for Mr. Bush to feel sufficient public pressure to acknowledge the large number of Iraqi casualties in the war. Even now, despite his repeated declaration that “America will not abandon the Iraqi people,” he has yet to address or intervene decisively in the tragedy of four million-plus Iraqi refugees, a disproportionate number of them children. He feels no pressure from the American public to do so, but hey, he pays lip service to Darfur.

Our moral trajectory over the Bush years could not be better dramatized than it was by a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard. George Frenkel, 87, recalled that he “never laid hands on anyone” in his many interrogations, adding, “I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those “good Germans” who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It’s up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war’s last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country’s good name.

Sri Chinmoy, Athletic Spiritual Leader, Dies at 76

The New York Times
October 13, 2007

Sri Chinmoy, the genial Indian-born spiritual leader who used strenuous exercise and art to spread his message of world harmony and inner peace, died Thursday at his home in Jamaica, Queens, where he ran a meditation center. He was 76.

The cause was a heart attack, said representatives of his organization, the Sri Chinmoy Center.

Mr. Chinmoy spread his philosophy through his own way of life, exercising and creating art and music. He drew attention by power-lifting pickup trucks and public figures like Muhammad Ali and Sting. He said he had drawn 16 million “peace birds.”

He slept only 90 minutes a day, he said, and when he was not traveling to perform in concerts and spread his message, spent the rest of the time meditating, playing music, exercising and making art.

His followers said he had written 1,500 books, 115,000 poems and 20,000 songs, created 200,000 paintings and had given almost 800 peace concerts.

Drawing upon Hindu principles, Mr. Chinmoy advocated a spiritual path to God through prayer and meditation. He emphasized "love, devotion and surrender" and recommended that his disciples nurture their spirituality by taking on seemingly impossible physical challenges.

“His life was all about challenging yourself and being the best you can be,” said Carl Lewis, the Olympic sprinter, a friend of Mr. Chinmoy’s. “He told his disciples to go out and meet a challenge you don’t think you can do.”

“He’s the reason I plan on running the New York marathon when I’m 50,” Mr. Lewis said in a telephone interview yesterday.

In the 1970’s, Mr. Chinmoy was a guru to several prominent musicians, including the guitarist John McLaughlin, who for a time ran the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a name given it by Mr. Chinmoy, as well as the bandleader Carlos Santana, the singer Roberta Flack and the saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

Mr. Chinmoy gathered with his disciples at a private clay tennis court off 164th Street that doubled as a verdant meditation site known as Aspiration Ground. He built a worldwide network of meditation centers and had more than 7,000 disciples.

Yesterday at the compound, Mr. Chinmoy’s followers — dressed in their traditional white attire — lined up at an altar where he lay in an open coffin. Memorial services are planned throughout the weekend.

Sri Chinmoy Kumar Ghose was born a Hindu in 1931 in what is now Bangladesh. From the age of 12, he lived in an ashram. He said he idolized the track star Jesse Owens.

Mr. Chinmoy immigrated to New York in 1964 to work as a clerk at the Indian Consulate. He opened a meditation center in Queens with a philosophy of celibacy, vegetarianism and meditation and attracted hundreds of followers, many settling near his two-story home on 149th Street.

To achieve spiritual enlightenment, he advocated extreme physical activity, including weight lifting, distance running and swimming.

Disciples put his philosophy of self-transcendence into practice by undertaking challenges like swimming the English Channel or running ultra-marathons, including an annual 3,100-mile race run every year over a two-month period in Queens.

After a knee injury ended his own running, in his 60s, Mr. Chinmoy began lifting weights and within several years could shoulder-press more than 7,000 pounds on a special lifting apparatus. He publicly lifted heavy objects including airplanes, schoolhouses and pickup trucks, to help increase awareness of the need for humanitarian aid.

He also lifted more than 8,000 people since 1988, including world peace figures like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. He hoisted the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Susan Sarandon, Yoko Ono and Richard Gere. Mr. Chinmoy lifted 20 Nobel laureates and a team of sumo wrestlers. He lifted Sid Caesar and a (reformed) headhunter from Borneo, and picked up Representative Gary L. Ackerman, a Democrat, and Representative Benjamin Gilman, a Republican at the same time.

“I thought it was some magician’s trick, but it wasn’t,” Mr. Ackerman said yesterday. “He was running extreme marathons before people even knew what extreme sports were. When you were around him, you had the sudden realization you were in the presence of somebody very, very holy and very devout.”

Yesterday, hundreds of his disciples gathered at the tennis court. Many, like Mr. Lewis, had flown in from places around the world. There were condolence letters faxed from world figures, including former Vice President Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who met and corresponded with Mr. Chinmoy frequently.

Mr. Gorbachev wrote that Mr. Chinmoy’s passing was “a loss for the whole world” and that “in our hearts, he will forever remain a man who dedicated his whole life to peace.”

A Prize for Mr. Gore and Science

The New York Times
October 13, 2007

One can generate a lot of heartburn thinking about all of the things that would be better about this country and the world if the Supreme Court had done the right thing and ruled for Al Gore instead of George W. Bush in 2000. Mr. Gore certainly hasn’t let his disappointment stop him from putting the time since to very good use.

Yesterday, the Nobel committee celebrated that persistence and awarded the Peace Prize to Mr. Gore and a panel of United Nations scientists for their efforts to raise awareness of the clear and present danger of global warming.

The committee said that the former vice president “is probably the single individual who has done most” to create worldwide understanding of what needs to be done to halt the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions. It credited the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for creating “an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.”

What the citation didn’t mention but needs to be said is that it shouldn’t have to be left to a private citizen — even one so well known as Mr. Gore — or a panel of scientists to raise that alarm or prove what is now clearly an undeniable link or champion solutions to a problem that endangers the entire planet.

That should be, and must be the job of governments. And governments — above all the Bush administration — have failed miserably.

There will be skeptics who ask what the Peace Prize has to do with global warming. The committee answered that unhesitatingly with its warning that climate change, if unchecked, could unleash massive migrations, violent competitions for resources and, ultimately, threaten the “security of mankind.”

There will also be those who complain that this prize — like the committee’s earlier awards to Jimmy Carter and the chief United Nations nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei — is an intentional slap at President Bush. It should be. We only wish that it would finally wake up the president.

While other leaders are beginning to recognize the urgency of climate change and the need for ambitious and costly solutions, Mr. Bush and his administration still drag behind: conceding the obvious only when there is no remaining choice, boycotting any initiative that is not their own and rejecting any action that might cut into the immediate profits of industry.

All this was on depressing display last month at Mr. Bush’s summit on global warming, where he again refused to accept the necessity of obligatory targets for reducing greenhouse emissions. His refusal to lead has made it far easier for China and others to refuse to act.

Having squandered the last seven years, Mr. Bush is unlikely to change. Mr. Gore and the United Nations panel of scientists have shown how much citizens with courage and determination can do.

Now it’s up to Congress, the presidential candidates and other world leaders to take up their challenge and the challenge of the Nobel committee. We cannot afford to squander any more time.

The Trivial Pursuit

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 13, 2007

Yesterday began with the gratifying news that Al Gore, derided by George H.W. Bush as the “Ozone Man,” had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The first thing media types wanted to know was whether this would prompt Mr. Gore to elbow his way into the presidential campaign. That’s like asking someone who’s recovered from a heart attack if he plans to resume smoking.

Mr. Gore, who won an Academy Award for his documentary on global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and an Emmy for his cable TV network, Current, knows better than anyone else how toxic and downright idiotic presidential politics has become.

He may be one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, talented men in America and remarkably well-equipped to lead the nation, but it’s Mr. Bush’s less-than-curious, less-than-distinguished son, George W., who is president.

There are all kinds of ironies wrapped up in the title of Mr. Gore’s latest book, “The Assault on Reason.”

When I heard that Mr. Gore had won the Nobel, my thoughts wandered to the younger Mr. Bush and to Rudolph Giuliani, who is leading the current field of Republican presidential candidates.

Mr. Bush came to mind because, for all of the obvious vulnerabilities he exhibited in 2000, it was not him but Mr. Gore who was mocked unmercifully by the national media. And the mockery had nothing to do with the former vice president’s positions on important policy issues. He was mocked because of his personality.

In the race for the highest office in the land, we showed the collective maturity of 3-year-olds.

Mr. Gore was taken to task for his taste in clothing and for such grievous offenses as sighing or, allegedly, rolling his eyes. It was a given that at a barbecue everyone would rush to be with his opponent.

We’ve paid a heavy price. The president who got such high marks as a barbecue companion doesn’t seem to know up from down. He’s hurled the nation into a ruinous war that has cost countless lives and spawned a whole new generation of terrorists. He continues to sit idly by as a historic American city, New Orleans, remains wounded and on its knees. He’s blithely steered the nation into a bottomless pit of debt.

I could go on.

Mr. Gore actually polled the most votes in 2000, but he was criticized for not having whipped Mr. Bush decisively enough to have avoided the madness in Florida.

Mr. Gore knows the system is in trouble, and not just because of the way he lost in 2000. The last time I spoke to him, a few months ago, he said: “Having served in the White House with the Gingrich Congress, and having watched the best of intentions so often turned into small changes ballyhooed as revolutionary, sometimes having no lasting mark, I really do believe that fixing the dynamic of democracy is an urgent task.”

That’s just the kind of thoughtful comment that can’t get a real hearing in our sound-bite politics. The result is that reality, untidy and complex, is almost always trumped by well-crafted phoniness.

Which brings us to Mr. Giuliani.

The entire basis for this former mayor’s candidacy is his contention that he is some kind of expert, a veritable guru, on matters related to terrorism.

“I understand terrorism,” he says, “in a way that is equal to or exceeds anyone else.”

And yet in the two most important decisions he has made with regard to terror, he has miserably failed.

Mr. Giuliani foolishly insisted, against expert advice, on placing New York City’s state-of-the-art emergency command center on the 27th floor of a 47-story building that was known to be a terror target and that was destroyed in the World Trade Center attack.

And he pushed hard for the corrupt and grotesquely underqualified Bernard Kerik to be appointed to the top antiterror post in the Bush administration, secretary of homeland security.

In an episode that humiliated the president, the nomination had to be scrapped after boatloads of damaging information began to emerge about Mr. Kerik. (He has since pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and remains under federal investigation.)

But Mr. Giuliani, who shares with Mr. Bush a Manichaean view of the world and an aggressive, authoritarian temperament, remains not just a viable candidate, but the G.O.P. front-runner.

Al Gore is a serious man confronted by a political system that is not open to a serious exploration of important, complex issues. He knows it.

“What politics has become,” he said, with a laugh and a tinge of regret, “requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I have found in short supply.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Sliming Graeme Frost

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 12, 2007

Two weeks ago, the Democratic response to President Bush’s weekly radio address was delivered by a 12-year-old, Graeme Frost. Graeme, who along with his sister received severe brain injuries in a 2004 car crash and continues to need physical therapy, is a beneficiary of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Mr. Bush has vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have expanded that program to cover millions of children who would otherwise have been uninsured.

What followed should serve as a teaching moment.

First, some background. The Frosts and their four children are exactly the kind of people S-chip was intended to help: working Americans who can’t afford private health insurance.

The parents have a combined income of about $45,000, and don’t receive health insurance from employers. When they looked into buying insurance on their own before the accident, they found that it would cost $1,200 a month — a prohibitive sum given their income. After the accident, when their children needed expensive care, they couldn’t get insurance at any price.

Fortunately, they received help from Maryland’s S-chip program. The state has relatively restrictive rules for eligibility: children must come from a family with an income under 200 percent of the poverty line. For families with four children that’s $55,220, so the Frosts clearly qualified.

Graeme Frost, then, is exactly the kind of child the program is intended to help. But that didn’t stop the right from mounting an all-out smear campaign against him and his family.

Soon after the radio address, right-wing bloggers began insisting that the Frosts must be affluent because Graeme and his sister attend private schools (they’re on scholarship), because they have a house in a neighborhood where some houses are now expensive (the Frosts bought their house for $55,000 in 1990 when the neighborhood was rundown and considered dangerous) and because Mr. Frost owns a business (it was dissolved in 1999).

You might be tempted to say that bloggers make unfounded accusations all the time. But we’re not talking about some obscure fringe. The charge was led by Michelle Malkin, who according to Technorati has the most-trafficked right-wing blog on the Internet, and in addition to blogging has a nationally syndicated column, writes for National Review and is a frequent guest on Fox News.

The attack on Graeme’s family was also quickly picked up by Rush Limbaugh, who is so important a player in the right-wing universe that he has had multiple exclusive interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney.

And G.O.P. politicians were eager to join in the smear. The New York Times reported that Republicans in Congress “were gearing up to use Graeme as evidence that Democrats have overexpanded the health program to include families wealthy enough to afford private insurance” but had “backed off” as the case fell apart.

In fact, however, Republicans had already made their first move: an e-mail message from the office of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, sent to reporters and obtained by the Web site Think Progress, repeated the smears against the Frosts and asked: “Could the Dems really have done that bad of a job vetting this family?”

And the attempt to spin the media worked, to some extent: despite reporting that has thoroughly debunked the smears, a CNN report yesterday suggested that the Democrats had made “a tactical error in holding up Graeme as their poster child,” and closely echoed the language of the e-mail from Mr. McConnell’s office.

All in all, the Graeme Frost case is a perfect illustration of the modern right-wing political machine at work, and in particular its routine reliance on character assassination in place of honest debate. If service members oppose a Republican war, they’re “phony soldiers”; if Michael J. Fox opposes Bush policy on stem cells, he’s faking his Parkinson’s symptoms; if an injured 12-year-old child makes the case for a government health insurance program, he’s a fraud.

Meanwhile, leading conservative politicians, far from trying to distance themselves from these smears, rush to embrace them. And some people in the news media are still willing to be used as patsies.

Politics aside, the Graeme Frost case demonstrates the true depth of the health care crisis: every other advanced country has universal health insurance, but in America, insurance is now out of reach for many hard-working families, even if they have incomes some might call middle-class.

And there’s one more point that should not be forgotten: ultimately, this isn’t about the Frost parents. It’s about Graeme Frost and his sister.

I don’t know about you, but I think American children who need medical care should get it, period. Even if you think adults have made bad choices — a baseless smear in the case of the Frosts, but put that on one side — only a truly vicious political movement would respond by punishing their injured children.

The Hamiltonian Ground

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 12, 2007

Alexander Hamilton was an ambitious young striver and created an economy where people like him could rise and succeed. He used government to rouse the energies of the merchant class, to widen the circle of property owners and to dissolve the constraints on commerce and mobility.

Abraham Lincoln was another ambitious young striver. As a young politician, he championed roads, canals and banks so enterprising farm boys like himself could ascend and prosper. While he was president, the Republican Party passed the Homestead Act, which gave people access to property they could enrich and develop. It passed the Land Grant College Act, so the ambitious would have access to knowledge. It passed railroad legislation to open vistas for the young and aspiring.

Margaret Thatcher was another young striver. When she became prime minister, she gave the British working class access to homes and property so that they would become more industrious and independent.

You’d think that in this and every election, the Republicans would want to continue this tradition. You’d think that they’d start every election by putting themselves at the kitchen tables of middle-class families with ambitious kids. Their first questions would be: What are the barriers to their mobility? What concrete help do these people need to realize their dreams?

Yet at the Republican economic debate in Michigan this week, there was no talk of that. The candidates declared their fealty to general principles: free trade, lower taxes and reduced spending. They talked a lot about the line-item veto and the Chinese currency. But there was almost nothing that touched concretely on the lives of the ambitious working-class parents who are the backbone of the G.O.P.

Sometimes the candidates seemed more concerned with massaging the pleasure buttons of the Club for Growth than addressing the real concerns of the middle class. They talked far more about cutting corporate taxes, for example, than about a child tax credit for struggling families.

At other times, they sounded as if they were running for a ceremonial post. The person who is elected president will need concrete proposals, but the G.O.P. contenders scarcely have them. Mike Huckabee has some sketchy plans. John McCain answered one element of middle-class anxiety yesterday with his new health care plan. Others seem to have decided concrete proposals are for geeks.

In this way, the Republican Party has abandoned the Hamiltonian ground. It has lost intimate contact with the working-class dreamer who longs to make good.

Instead this ground is being seized by a Democrat. Over the past few months, Hillary Clinton has issued a string of specific policy programs aimed directly at members of the aspiring middle class.

Yesterday, it was a tax credit for college. Earlier in the week, Clinton offered a plan to give families down the income scale access to 401(k)-style plans. Right now, 75 million workers have no employee-sponsored pension accounts. The way our tax code is structured, people up the income ladder get big tax incentives to save, while working people, who have the most trouble saving, get the smallest incentives.

Under the Clinton plan, if a family making up to $60,000 a year put $1,000 into a new 401(k) account, they would get a $1,000 matching tax credit. The plan would create millions of new investors. Struggling families could choose mutual fund options and participate in the capital markets. They’d be encouraged to move away from a month-to-month mentality to a saving-for-the-future mentality.

Clinton’s plan poaches on economic values that used to be associated with the Republican Party. Moreover, it undermines the populist worldview that is building on the left of her party. Instead of railing against globalization and the economic royalists, Clinton gives working people access to Wall Street and a way to profit from the global economy.

No Republican would design asset-building plans the way Clinton does. No Republican would pay for them the way she does. But at least she has a middle-class agenda. Right now, the general election campaign looks like it’s going to be a replay of the S-chip debate. The Democrats propose something, and the Republicans have no alternative.

When Hamilton was alive, big landowners stifled competition and economic dynamism. Hamilton created national capital markets to smash local oligarchies. When Lincoln was rising, vast distances retarded trade. The Whigs, and later Republicans, championed internal improvements to build national markets. Today, the global information economy makes it hard for people without human capital to prosper and participate.

There are potential Republican responses to this. But right now the message is: Proposals? We don’t need no stinkin’ proposals!

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

October 11, 2007, 10:25 pm
Where’s the Safety Net?
Tags: ,

I just can’t get out of my mind the story of Carol Gotbaum, the 45-year-old Manhattan mother of three who died in a Phoenix airport holding cell on September 28th on her way to alcohol rehab in Tucson. Her funeral was held this past Sunday on the Upper West Side. At the start of it, Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom said, “The central teaching of both Judaism and Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself. But at that airport … there was no such love offered to our Carol.”

This lack of basic agape is, far beyond what the police did or didn’t do, or her family did or didn’t arrange, or what the already contested autopsy report will or will not find, the disturbing crux of Carol’s story. The base level of lovingkindness, decency, compassion and empathy that most of us assume, or at the very least hope, we and our loved ones will encounter in life appears to have been entirely absent from the boarding area where Carol lost it completely, after repeatedly being denied access to a connecting flight. She became hysterical, was arrested and locked up and, within a matter of minutes, was dead.

The seeds for the tragedy that has now left her three young children motherless were sown before the police showed up and wrestled her to the ground. They’d blossomed well before she was left alone, handcuffed and shackled to a bench in her cell. They were planted when airport personnel called the police, rather than attempting in any real way to deal with her on a human level. As she bent herself double, threw her Blackberry and screamed, did it dawn on no one that she was a woman who needed help?

“If the airline or the police authorities had treated Carol with some modicum of sensitivity and grace, or if one single person at that airport had put an arm around her shoulders, sat her down and given her some protection, she might still be with us today,” her husband, Noah, said at her funeral.

Perhaps witness reports will eventually show that some such care was shown to Carol. But none have emerged thus far and, frankly, there’s every reason to assume the worst. For we all know what air travel is like today. For passengers, it’s one petty insult and indignity after the other.

And that’s when things go without incident.

In the past, when faced with the frustrations of air travel, passengers had, if not the right, then some ability to fight back. If, say, you were seated on a trans-continental flight 10 rows away from your four-year-old, you could raise the issue, and if you were ignored (as you often were), you could kick up a fuss and pretty much embarrass someone into setting things right.

Now that’s all over. You voice a complaint and they threaten to call security. This is enraging for anyone, under any circumstances.

Imagine what it would do to you if you were already depressed, even suicidal.

Imagine some bit of typically maddening airline officiousness happening to you on a day when you were already feeling embarrassed and ashamed. You were all alone – half a continent away from your husband and children, and the friends who were supposed to meet you hadn’t shown up. Imagine, under these circumstances, that you got to your gate one minute late. You learned that your seat had been given away. A man then offered you his seat on the next flight out, but the gate agents wouldn’t let you take it, because to do so, they said, would be a “security breach.”

“I’m not a terrorist,” Carol Gotbaum screamed. She was, she said, just “a pathetic, depressed mother.”

You may say that you’d never lose your cool like Carol Gotbaum. You’re not an alcoholic. You’re not a depressive. You are supremely self-controlled. Good for you. Right now. Today.

But have you never had the experience of being close to losing it? Have you never felt yourself starting to crack when, say, you’ve been fighting with your husband and your credit card’s rejected, or you’re worried about your health and you’re late for a long-scheduled, absolutely critical doctor’s appointment, and they cancel it, and won’t reschedule it? At times like this, if there’s something bigger going on — and at times like this there often is — it’s very easy to snap.

It’s easiest to snap when you feel you’ve been trying to do your absolute best. This, I imagine, underlay some of the rage that Carol Gotbaum felt when she saw herself stranded in Phoenix. Think about it: the sole reason she was in that airport, instead of having flown directly to Tucson as planned, was that she’d decided at the last minute to see her children off to school for one final morning. She’d had to take a later, non-direct, plane as a result. (And to the many readers who will say – as people around the country have already said – that Carol’s husband should have been there on that plane with her, I would just suggest that perhaps he wasn’t there because Carol wanted him, in her absence, to be in New York, close to their kids.)

Carol, of course, can’t tell us any of this for herself. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of soul-searching to imagine what she must have felt.

A friend of mine, newly divorced, has been struggling a great deal lately with the financial and emotional stress of being a single mother. Recently she found herself screaming at a man in a parking lot who, she believed, had drawn his car in too closely to her young son. She’d berated the man until he started screaming back.

“Am I losing it?” she asked me a few days afterward.

“Yes,” I said. “You have to be careful.”

You have to be careful – because it’s never a good idea to yell at strangers, particularly when you don’t know the mental state of the stranger who triggers your explosion. You have to be careful, because, as a woman, you are always at a physical disadvantage. You have to be careful because, as a mother, you cannot afford to put yourself in a position of danger.

When we have our wits about us, we know all this. We may often enough feel like we’re about to “lose it,” but we don’t, because, when push comes to shove, a self-preservation instinct prevails.

But what if it’s precisely that instinct that’s gone missing?
Who, then, will catch us if we fall?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Impeach!…ASAP!…Before it’s too late!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Captives of the Supply Side

Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
October 9, 2007


REMEMBER the Republican presidential debate a few months ago, when three candidates raised their hands to indicate they didn’t believe in evolution? Something just as laughable is likely to happen today, at the first Republican debate on the economy. Every candidate will probably embrace the myth that cutting taxes increases government revenues. At the very least, no one will denounce it as a falsehood.

It’s been said for years that the Republican nominating process is controlled by social conservatives, and that any aspiring nominee must kowtow to their demands. But this year’s Republican primary is making it increasingly clear that a different tiny minority — the economic far right — truly calls the shots.

Last year, Senator John McCain earned widespread ridicule for publicly embracing Jerry Falwell, whom he had once described as “evil.” But an equally breathtaking turnabout occurred earlier in the year, when Mr. McCain embraced the Bush tax cuts he had once denounced as an unaffordable giveaway to the rich. In an interview with National Review, Mr. McCain justified his reversal by saying, “Tax cuts, starting with Kennedy, as we all know, increase revenues.” It was the political equivalent of Galileo conceding that the Sun does indeed revolve around the Earth.

Mr. McCain is not alone. Every major Republican contender — Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney — has said that the Bush tax cuts have caused government revenues to rise. No prominent Republican office-seeker dare challenge this dogma for fear of offending the economic far right.

Yet there is no more debate about this question among economists than there is debate about the existence of evolution among biologists. Most economists believe that it is theoretically possible for tax rates to be high enough that a reduction in rates could actually produce more revenues. But I do not know of any tenured economist in the United States who believes this is true of the Bush tax cuts.

Granted, economic growth sometimes causes revenues to rise faster than expected after a tax cut, as has happened since the 2003 tax cut. But sometimes revenues fall faster than expected after a tax cut, as they did after the 2001 tax cut. And sometimes revenues rise faster than expected after a tax increase, as they did after the 1993 Clinton tax increase.

Even very conservative economists who have worked for the Bush administration — including Greg Mankiw, a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bush who is now an adviser to Mr. Romney — have publicly stated that today’s tax revenues would be even higher were it not for the Bush tax cuts.

No Republican candidate can risk committing heresy by acknowledging this bipartisan consensus among economists. On social issues, however, Republicans actually tolerate diversity of thought. For example, Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Thompson all oppose, on federalist grounds, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

The Republican Party is organized around a strategy of building political capital on social issues while spending political capital on economic issues. Republicans will advance the social conservative agenda, but they will rarely risk their popularity to do so.

As Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, recently observed: “Republicans tend to squabble, but when it’s fiscal issues, when it’s economic issues, we tend to come together. That’s what makes us Republicans.” Mr. Lott is right if he’s referring to the members of the Washington establishment who run the Republican Party. But when it comes to the party’s rank-and-file members, he has it exactly backward. Grassroots Republicans agree on social issues but disagree on economics.

The most recent Pew survey of the electorate, which came out two years ago, revealed that Republicans find common ground on social issues like discouraging homosexuality and teaching creationism alongside evolution in the public schools. They disagree on economic policy. In the survey, most members of the Republican coalition preferred deficit reduction to tax cuts.

Ardent anti-tax conservatives represent a clear minority among Republican voters. And yet the most extreme and counterfactual subgroup among them — supply-siders — remain firmly in control of the party.

The party’s economic priorities are reinforced at Grover Norquist’s weekly “Wednesday Group” meetings, where conservative activists, politicians, business lobbyists and pundits meet to hash out a common agenda. Mr. Norquist is known to cut off any mention of issues like abortion or homosexuality with a curt “No sex talk, please.”

A handful of fanatical ideologues, along with a somewhat larger number of money men who stand to gain a fortune from supply-side policies, relentlessly enforce the faith. They do so with far more success than the religious right, and they receive far less mockery for their efforts.

Just last month President Bush insisted, yet again, that “supply-side economics yields additional tax revenues.” Hardly an eyebrow was raised.

Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, is the author of “The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.”

Social theorist André Gorz dies, aged 84

By Stefan Steinberg
9 October 2007

On September 24, the economist and social theorist André Gorz, 84, committed suicide together with his wife in their house near Paris. The couple had made a pact to end their lives together following a prolonged illness on the part of Gorz’s beloved wife, Dorine.

For a number of decades towards the end of the twentieth century, Gorz played a central role in the elaboration of theories relating to the role of labour and the working class in capitalist society. In particular, Gorz’s rejection of the working class as a force for social progress in his book Farewell to the Working Class (1980) was eagerly espoused by layers of the so-called European “New Left,” and his theories became the theoretical underpinning for policies adopted by sections of the western European trade unions and the Green movement.

Born Gerard Horst in Vienna in 1923, Gorz grew up in a fractious, unhappy family consisting of a Catholic mother and Jewish father. His mother changed his name to Gorz to disguise his Jewish roots. As a boy, Gorz sought to resolve his unhappy childhood through a series of abrupt affiliations—first at the age of 12 with strict Catholicism, and then just a year later with even a brief flirtation with Nazism.

Moving to Switzerland as a young man, Gorz met the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Lausanne in 1946. A principal factor in Gorz’s move to France at the end of the Second World War was his enthusiasm for Sartre’s writings. Amid the turmoil of postwar Europe, and under conditions where the atrocities committed by fascists in both Germany and France were increasingly coming to light, Gorz—the ex-Jewish, ex-Austrian citizen—found solace in the nihilist traits of Sartre’s philosophy. Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, which held the promise of unbridled freedom for the individual, appealed to the young intellectual who, in his autobiographical book The Traitor (1958), described himself as a “nullity rejected by the world.”

Gorz commenced a career as a writer and journalist in postwar France working closely with Sartre. In 1954, Gorz co-founded the influential French magazine Nouvel Observateur and in 1961 took over as political director of Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes.

Like Sartre and many other postwar French intellectuals, Gorz’s political evolution took place under the auspices of the most influential party of the left—the French Communist Party (PCF). In the first legislative elections after the war (1946), the PCF had won the largest share of the vote (28.6 percent). In The Traitor, Gorz declares that the ultimate objective of any intellectual was to join the Communist Party.

Gorz’s enthusiasm for the Communist Party waned (together with Sartre’s) following the crushing of the Hungarian workers’ uprising by Russian tanks in 1956. But both Gorz and Sartre failed to draw any fundamental lessons from the emergence of Stalinism in Russia in the 1920s and the domination of Moscow over the French Communist Party. While Sartre turned increasingly to the so-called Third World and the advocacy of such figures as Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-Tung as role models for “anti-imperialist” politics, Gorz first formulated a strategy of so-called “revolutionary reforms” for the working-class movement in developed Western countries with his book Strategy for Labour (1964).

Gorz made clear that he completely rejected any notion of a Leninist-type party to lead the working class. Instead, in the mid-1960s, Gorz discovered a “new working class” of skilled technicians capable of exerting pressure in the factories and trade unions for his self-proclaimed revolutionary reforms. Gorz spelt out what he meant by such reforms in his book published three years later, Socialism and Revolution (1967).

Socialism, he writes, “can be brought about only by deliberate, long-term action of which the beginning may be a scaled series of reforms, but which as it unfolds must grow into a series of trials of strength, more or less violent, some won and others lost, but of which the outcome will be to mould and organise the socialist resolve and consciousness of the working class.”

Gorz’s demands for reforms centred on the factories became a key element in the French autogestion movement—an anarchist-type movement that concentrated on the demand for workers’ self-control in factories. This concentration on militancy within the factory at the expense of broader political questions played an important role in diverting attention away from the treacherous role carried out by the French Communist Party in the revolutionary movement of students and workers in Paris in 1968.

Following the restabilisation of French capitalism due to the betrayal of the PCF in 1968, Gorz renewed his analysis of the development of capitalist society and revised his theories. In the 1970s, Gorz increasingly turned to the ecology movement and, in particular, the works of Ivan Illich, who had launched his own broad attack on many aspects of modern culture, including centralised education and its concentration on consumerism and production at the expense of the freedom of the individual. Gorz went on to integrate and articulate the implications of such a “limits to growth” theory for those layers of the middle class who, in the 1970s, were increasingly turning away from social democracy and the Communist Party in favour of ecological and Green politics.

Over this same period, Gorz also shifted his standpoint with regard to the division of labour. In his early works, Gorz described the division of labour and the resulting alienation of the worker as a historically necessary evil to be surmounted through the overthrow of capitalism—in line with the analysis of Karl Marx. Now, in the 1970s, Gorz depicted alienation arising from the labour process as an ineradicable feature of any complex modern society. For Gorz, alienation is inherent in the very socialisation of the process of production, and not merely in the capitalist form of its organisation.

In his book Division of Labour, Gorz refutes the Marxist conception that identifies production for profit and the private ownership of the means of production as the source of social oppression. For Gorz, technology is the principal problem. He writes: “It is the technology of the factory that imposes a certain technical division of labour, which in turn requires a certain type of subordination, hierarchy, and despotism. Thus technology is apparently the matrix and the ultimate cause of everything....” For Gorz, workers’ control of production would change nothing. Social progress was to be sought beyond the production process and the sphere of economics.

Farewell to the Working Class

Having rejected the Marxist conception of society, Gorz went on to draw the inevitable conclusion—the impotency of the working class. One year before the accession to power of a coalition between the PCF and the Socialist Party led by Francois Mitterrand in France, Gorz published the book that most clearly delineated his break with Marxist and socialist ideas—Farewell to the Working Class (1980).

In this book, Gorz provided the arguments upon which an entire layer of the radical left wing and intelligentsia in France and elsewhere finally broke with any adherence to the working class as a force for change.

Based on a superficial analysis of statistical evidence that demonstrated a decline in the numbers of industrial workers in Western developed societies, Gorz concluded that those layers of the working class involved in organised production were a privileged minority and incapable of playing a progressive role in social transformation.

Drawing upon his previous rejection of production and technology, Gorz argued that the only potentially progressive social force was those sections of society not involved in productive work—what he called “the non-class of non-workers.” For Gorz, this category embraced the unemployed and underemployed who could, under transformed conditions, play the role of a revolutionary subject. Gorz’s vision of social change taking place entirely independent of material factors assumes an unabashed voluntarist form when he declares:

“The realm of freedom can never arise out of material processes; it can only be established as a constitutive act which, aware of its free subjectivity, asserts itself as an absolute end in itself within each individual. Only the non-class of non-producers is capable of such an act. For it alone embodies what lies beyond productivism: the rejection of the accumulation ethic and the dissolution of all classes” (p. 74).

In an interview published one year after the publication of Farewell to the Working Class in English, Gorz was even more explicit about his rejection of the working class: “One of the things I have tried to show is that the working class is structurally incapable of taking control of production and society.” And later in the interview, he returns to the same theme: “The post-industrial neo-proletariat is obviously incapable of seizing power and the same goes for the traditional working class. No strategy or tactic for seizing power can resist the current repressive counterrevolutionary capabilities of the modern state.”

Gorz’s repudiation of the working class and depiction of the state as an omnipotent monolith was eagerly taken up by those active in the trade union headquarters and Green movement who at the same time sought to integrate a number of his concrete proposals into their programme. In line with his advocacy of the merits of the unemployed and underemployed as a new progressive force, Gorz declared that the mass unemployment in Western capitalist countries arising from the introduction of new technology should actually be welcomed. According to Gorz, the ongoing revolution in productive technology enabling employers to shed labour could be seized as a historically unprecedented opportunity to “abolish” work in favour of what Gorz variously termed “autonomous activity” or “work-for-oneself”— i.e., activity conducted without a wage on behalf of the interests of the individual.

His notion of liberation independently of the productive process found fruition, for example, in the 1989 programme of the Irish Greens, which stated: “Full employment for all adult human beings would be a social and ecological nightmare.” (!)

Gorz also proposed other measures that were increasingly taken up by Green parties, and later by the anti-globalisation Attac movement, such as encouraging small and middle class businesses as a counterweight to big business and the banks. Gorz expressed his enthusiasm for such initiatives as the Local Employment Trading System (LETSystem)—i.e., non-profit associations of community businesses and individuals in which members exchange goods and services using local currencies. According to Gorz, such small businesses can help subvert the power of global capital because “local currency abolishes the fetishism of money...and merchandise, encouraging reflection on needs and deterring wastefulness.”

While he dismissed the working class in Farewell to the Working Class, Gorz continued to extol the role of trade union unions in social struggles, calling for a new type of unionism combined with vaguely defined “social movements” aimed at subverting a work-based society in favour of “imaginative” ideas for the exploitation of leisure time. His notions were to be taken up by sections of the trade union movement in Italy, Germany and France, which used many of Gorz’s arguments to push for a shorter working week or campaigns for the payment of a universal social wage.

The shipwreck of Gorz’s “socialist utopia”

In his later writings, Paths to Paradise, Critique of Economic Reason, and Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, Gorz continued to drape his proposals in the mantle of socialism while at the same time explicitly stressing the utopian nature of his enterprise.

“A new utopia is needed if we are to safeguard what the ethical content of the socialist utopia provided; the utopia of a society of free time. The emancipation of individuals, their full development, the restructuring of society, are all achieved through the liberation from work” (Critique of Economic Reason, 1989).

Gorz’s advocacy of a “socialist utopia” based on individual liberation divorced from production and consumerism recalls much of the writings of the German-American theorist Herbert Marcuse as well as more contemporary theorists, such as Zygmunt Baumann. In fact, the task of realising Gorz’s “utopia” fell into the hands of the hardened bureaucratic trade union leaders of such organisations as the IG Metall in Germany and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT— French Democratic Confederation of Labour).

In 1984, the IG Metall union successfully implemented a 35-hour week for many of its members working in industry following a seven-week strike. The strike came at the end of a series of struggles by workers in Germany for better wages and conditions, and for a brief period in the late seventies and early eighties, it appeared as if some of Gorz’s initiatives could genuinely benefit some layers of workers. However, a renewed offensive by the bourgeoisie, in the form of policies introduced by such figures as Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in America, finally shipwrecked any possibility of winning extensive reforms.

Gorz’s proposals for a “liberation from work” were always based on the premise of an expanding welfare state. But the accelerating process of the globalisation of production based on entirely new technologies first developed in the 1970s stripped away the possibility for national concessions and an extension of the social welfare state. In one country after the other, the business and political elite began a systematic campaign to dismantle existing social gains and attack workers’ wages and working conditions.

In France, the left government of Francois Mitterrand (including four ministers from the PCF) elected in 1981 quickly capitulated to pressure from the markets, junked its own programme of “revolutionary reforms” and commenced a campaign of systematic attacks on the working class.

In Germany, the deal reached by the IG Metall over a shorter working week failed to yield any long-term benefits for workers. Instead bureaucrats justified new concessions to employers on the basis of arguments developed by Gorz—i.e., the necessity to adapt to “changes in the world of work” and the emergence of new “social layers with different working expectations.” Increasingly, new deals struck by the trade unions became the basis upon which managements institutionalised increased flexibility in the workforce with no corresponding increase in income. In practice, shorter-working-week agreements have become a key element in allowing management to break up the traditional concept of a full-time job with an adequate wage in favour of a host of forms of low-wage labour based on flexible shifts and the dismantling of previous forms of contractual guarantee.

In a number of major companies, the IG Metall is now actively seeking to restore the 40-hour week (e.g., at Siemens in 2004). At the same time, recent statistics have revealed that during a period largely dominated by the rule of a Social Democratic-Green Party government (1998-2007), workers’ wages have stagnated in Germany, under conditions where profits for major companies and salaries for management have risen by leaps and bounds. In the space of a few short decades, history has delivered its own harsh judgement on Gorz’s repeated attempts, over four decades, to breath new life into a programme of a radical reform.

Two centuries ago, the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, delivered their own withering critique of the limited conceptions of the early utopian socialists, which they declared to be a “kind of eclectic, average socialism,” a “mish-mash.” Today, Gorz’s own failed “eclectic mish-mash” of utopian policies, based on the rejection of the working class, serves as a political cover for layers of the petty bourgeois and the trade union bureaucracy—including many former radicals—who now occupy ministerial posts in a number of European governments, and are implementing thoroughly reactionary social policies at the behest of big business and financial interests.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Same Old Party

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 8, 2007

There have been a number of articles recently that portray President Bush as someone who strayed from the path of true conservatism. Republicans, these articles say, need to return to their roots.

Well, I don’t know what true conservatism is, but while doing research for my forthcoming book I spent a lot of time studying the history of the American political movement that calls itself conservatism — and Mr. Bush hasn’t strayed from the path at all. On the contrary, he’s the very model of a modern movement conservative.

For example, people claim to be shocked that Mr. Bush cut taxes while waging an expensive war. But Ronald Reagan also cut taxes while embarking on a huge military buildup.

People claim to be shocked by Mr. Bush’s general fiscal irresponsibility. But conservative intellectuals, by their own account, abandoned fiscal responsibility 30 years ago. Here’s how Irving Kristol, then the editor of The Public Interest, explained his embrace of supply-side economics in the 1970s: He had a “rather cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit and other monetary or fiscal problems” because “the task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority — so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

People claim to be shocked by the way the Bush administration outsourced key government functions to private contractors yet refused to exert effective oversight over these contractors, a process exemplified by the failed reconstruction of Iraq and the Blackwater affair.

But back in 1993, Jonathan Cohn, writing in The American Prospect, explained that “under Reagan and Bush, the ranks of public officials necessary to supervise contractors have been so thinned that the putative gains of contracting out have evaporated. Agencies have been left with the worst of both worlds — demoralized and disorganized public officials and unaccountable private contractors.”

People claim to be shocked by the Bush administration’s general incompetence. But disinterest in good government has long been a principle of modern conservatism. In “The Conscience of a Conservative,” published in 1960, Barry Goldwater wrote that “I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”

People claim to be shocked that the Bush Justice Department, making a mockery of the Constitution, issued a secret opinion authorizing torture despite instructions by Congress and the courts that the practice should stop. But remember Iran-Contra? The Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran, violating a legal embargo, and used the proceeds to support the Nicaraguan contras, defying an explicit Congressional ban on such support.

Oh, and if you think Iran-Contra was a rogue operation, rather than something done with the full knowledge and approval of people at the top — who were then protected by a careful cover-up, including convenient presidential pardons — I’ve got a letter from Niger you might want to buy.

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s efforts to disenfranchise minority groups, under the pretense of combating voting fraud. But Reagan opposed the Voting Rights Act, and as late as 1980 he described it as “humiliating to the South.”

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s attempts — which, for a time, were all too successful — to intimidate the press. But this administration’s media tactics, and to a large extent the people implementing those tactics, come straight out of the Nixon administration. Dick Cheney wanted to search Seymour Hersh’s apartment, not last week, but in 1975. Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, was Nixon’s media adviser.

People claim to be shocked at the Bush administration’s attempts to equate dissent with treason. But Goldwater — who, like Reagan, has been reinvented as an icon of conservative purity but was a much less attractive figure in real life — staunchly supported Joseph McCarthy, and was one of only 22 senators who voted against a motion censuring the demagogue.

Above all, people claim to be shocked by the Bush administration’s authoritarianism, its disdain for the rule of law. But a full half-century has passed since The National Review proclaimed that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail,” and dismissed as irrelevant objections that might be raised after “consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal” — presumably a reference to the document known as the Constitution of the United States.

Now, as they survey the wreckage of their cause, conservatives may ask themselves: “Well, how did we get here?” They may tell themselves: “This is not my beautiful Right.” They may ask themselves: “My God, what have we done?”

But their movement is the same as it ever was. And Mr. Bush is movement conservatism’s true, loyal heir.

Terror and Demons

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 8, 2007

History happens, but only just. The lives of individuals, as of nations, may hinge on a millimeter’s difference in the trajectory of a bullet, a road not taken on a whim or the random spray of shrapnel. But there is no undoing what is done.

Nothing, for example, can bring back the life of Carol Ann Gotbaum, 45, whose terrible end in a holding cell at the Phoenix airport was chronicled in a Times report by Eric Konigsberg. Depressive and fighting alcoholism, Carol missed a connection by minutes. She became hysterical and was subdued, handcuffed, shackled, abandoned and found dead with the shackle across her neck.

All this happened fast. We can hear her cry: “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a sick mother.”

We can see the heavy-handed police officers, their sense of mission redoubled by the alcohol on her breath, muscling Carol to the ground.

In their zeal — for American airports are now temples of zealotry — they would not have imagined her three young children, her distraught husband, much less the dislocated life that had put her en route, alone, to an Arizona addiction-treatment clinic.

As it happened, on another perfect New York morning redolent of the endless summer of 2001 (a time when sunlight mocked pain), I was particularly affected by Carol’s story; and here I am writing about her, rather than brave monks in Burma, because certain signals are too powerful to ignore.

In many particulars — her South African upbringing, her uprooted life, her acute postpartum depression after the birth of her last child, her hard-working and often absent husband, her radiant smile overlying pain and her powerlessness before her own self-destructive urges — Carol resembled my mother.

So having read about Carol, my head filled with her disoriented rage before punitive officialdom, I did something I rarely do. I went back and read my mother’s suicide note of July 25, 1978.

The note reads in part: “It’s as though I’ve turned to stone. I can’t relate, I can’t communicate and I can no longer bear the pain and gloom I cause to those I love most. I feel I’ll never completely throw off this mood and hopelessness and depression. I know I have everything to thank God for and be thankful for, which only makes my ordeal worse and worse.”

In conclusion, my mother asks if “my body — any part of it — can be used for research.” With that, she downed valium, antidepressant drugs and gin.

That was almost the end of the story, or the start of a different tale of anguish, but my father, a doctor, found her just in time. Her life hung in the balance and was salvaged. Other suicide notes would follow — one of June 15, 1982, says: “I’m just too tired to fight anymore” — but never again was the attempt so serious.

Technology leaps forward. Medicine advances. Lives grow longer. Diseases are vanquished. But the brain, and in particular the vagaries of mental illness, present mysteries as deep as the elusive enigma of life itself.

When Carol, raised in Cape Town, had her postpartum depression after the birth of her now 3-year-old son, she was a relative newcomer in New York. When my mother, raised in Johannesburg, had hers after the birth of my sister in 1957, she was new to London, with its chill postwar pall.

What happened to my mother in the 1950s — insulin shock therapy, electric shock treatment, hospitalization in harrowing wards; things about which she could never speak without a shudder — were of that time. Nobody would have treated Carol’s despair, or anybody’s, like that today.

But the riddle remains, etched in radiant mothers’ faces clutching laughing children, faces that seem to mock the very idea of panic, delusion and suicidal self-hatred, but contain them nonetheless.

You can look at Carol’s end in many ways: as an innocent’s devastating encounter with terror-obsessed police, as a ghastly but haphazard event, as a death foretold.

In the days of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorism in London, my mother was thrown into what amounted to a holding cell at Fortnum and Mason, the department store, after she left a bag unattended. Under questioning, she became hysterical, confused, unhinged — and was locked up. There was no shackle, however.

Thus do the affairs of the world intersect with individuals’ pain. The upshot then rests on a razor’s edge. Lives veer into a vortex.

Carol Ann Gotbaum and June Bernice Cohen are dead. Cancer took my mother in 1999; she viewed the illness as a trifle beside depression. Her favorite book, unsurprisingly, was “Anna Karenina.” Her favorite line was from “Othello”: “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Leavitt seeks deal on children's health

Associated Press
Oct. 7, 2007

President Bush's health secretary said Sunday he does not expect Congress to override a veto on children's insurance and warned that the popular program could be at risk unless Democrats restrain spending.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said Bush would be willing to provide more than the $5 billion increase over five years that he first proposed. He declined to say how much additional money was possible.

But in a warning to Democratic leaders who have pledged to stick with their $35 billion increase, Leavitt said Bush would not waver despite attempts to override his veto last week.

An override requires a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate. The Senate approved the increase by a veto-proof margin, but the House fell about two dozen votes short of a two-thirds majority. The House has scheduled an override vote for Oct. 18.

Leavitt said the Democratic-controlled Congress, not the Republican administration, would pay the political price if the State Children's Health Insurance Program stalls due to gridlock. Congress has continued funding the program at its current level until mid-November as part of legislation keeping government agencies operating beyond Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year.

"I'm presuming the Democrats do in fact want the children's insurance program to be reauthorized," Leavitt said.

"The president knows bad policy when he sees it. He has said as clearly as possible that 'I want to reauthorize this program and I'm prepared to add to the 20 percent increase I've already proposed.' But we need to have a serious conversation that involves all of the points of view," Leavitt said.

He added, "Once we agree on our priorities, then the proper number will arrive."

After his veto, Bush immediately signaled a willingness to compromise on a new bill, but congressional Democrats stood firm.

"You cannot wring another ounce of compromise out of this," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week.

In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seeking support from 14 more Republicans to vote against the GOP president.

"It's hard to imagine how we could diminish the number of children who are covered," said Pelosi, D-Calif., in an interview broadcast on "Fox News Sunday." "The president calls himself 'the decider,' and I don't know why he would want to decide that one child has health care and another does not."

"So we take it one step at a time. And right now, we have the next 10 days to two weeks to try to peel off about 14 votes in the House," she said.

The program provides health insurance to children in families with incomes too great for Medicaid eligibility but not enough to afford private insurance.

Bush and Leavitt have decried the spending increase primarily supported by Democrats as unnecessarily subsidizing middle-income people as part of Democrats' "goal of government-run health care for every American."

Leavitt said the veto override effort was sure to fail and as a result would waste two weeks during which the administration could work with Congress on new legislation.

"We're prepared to have negotiations at any time the Democrats want to," he said. "Unfortunately they put it off for two weeks so they can play politics with children's health care."

But Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Congress had already compromised enough, noting that House leaders wanted $50 billion for the program but dropped it down to $35 billion to appease Senate Republicans.

Rangel said Bush would suffer the political consequences if the program were not reauthorized, adding that Republicans such as Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah were working to sway wavering House GOP lawmakers.

"We're almost convinced that if the moral thing is being done and you listen to the children's agency, the churches and the synagogues and the mosques, that we'll have those votes to override the president," Rangel said on "Face the Nation" on CBS.

An Uneasy System: Stocks Are on the Rise Even as the Economy Loses Steam

By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007; F01

The economy is slowing, the dollar is falling. Wall Street is laying off workers. Defaults by homeowners are rising. Corporate buyouts have lost momentum.

But none of it has rattled stock market investors. Just weeks after the shock of the summer credit squeeze, they are shaking off one bad report after another, sending shares ever higher. Call them the Teflon investors.

On Monday, the Dow Jones industrial average of 30 blue-chip stocks soared to a new high, even as two major investment banks announced that they lost billions of dollars in the credit market turmoil. Then a positive jobs report Friday gave investors an excuse to buy, and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, a broader market measure, surged to a record. But even as investors celebrate, the questions hovering over the economy's future are far from settled.

If you're scratching your head about the seeming disconnect between stocks and the economy, you're not alone. The stock market, after all, is supposed to be a leading indicator of economic performance.

So what's going on? Does the stock market know something the rest of us don't?

The answer, analysts say, lies in a mix of investor optimism about a responsive Federal Reserve, an upbeat outlook for the global economy and not-so-gloomy reports about how badly the credit crunch has affected companies and the U.S. economy.

"The dynamic of the market right now is, 'Yes, we acknowledge there are problems in residential real estate. We acknowledge there are problems in the mortgage industry. We acknowledge that there continues to be tightness in the credit market,' " said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. "But not withstanding those issues . . . there's a perception that with a friendly Fed, and no signs of increased spillover from what's happening in residential real estate and the credit markets to the broader economy, that earnings growth can still be robust going into 2008."

But the wild summer, if anything, has shown how fragile such perceptions can be.

The third quarter kicked off strong, continuing a giddy spring during which investors snapped up riskier assets such as shares of small companies and low-quality corporate debt. The Dow closed above 14,000 for the first time July 19 despite signs that easy access to credit, the engine of the economy in recent years, was drying up.

But soon, mounting evidence of weakness in the lending market became too much to bear, and fear overtook all aspects of investing. Stock prices plummeted. Corporate dealmaking ground to a halt.

On Aug. 9, central banks around the world began pumping money into the financial system to keep it operating smoothly. Among them was the Fed, which just days earlier had appeared more concerned about inflation than a credit crunch. With markets still unsteady, the Fed on Sept. 18 cut a key interest rate by half a percentage point, prompting an end-of-the-quarter rally in stocks. The rate influences other short-term rates, including those on credit cards and many business loans.

The Dow, despite falling as much as 10 percent from its all-time high during the credit crunch, finished 3.6 percent higher for the quarter and is up 12.9 percent for the year as of Friday. The S&P 500 rose 1.6 percent for the quarter and is up 9.8 percent for the year. The technology-heavy Nasdaq composite index rose 3.8 percent for the quarter. It is up 15.1 percent year to date.

Money managers said investors should not be lulled into complacency. In many ways, the third quarter was about repricing risk, and it is unclear how far along that process is, especially in the high-yield corporate bond market, they said.

"Investors said, 'Wait a minute. I need higher returns in order to compensate me for holding onto this asset,' " said Brett Hammond, chief investment strategist for TIAA-CREF. "And that leads to more volatility."

Against that backdrop, the prediction of many market analysts -- who for two years had been calling for the return of large, growth-oriented companies -- finally came true during the third quarter.

Mutual funds that invest in large-cap growth funds gained 6.2 percent, compared with 1.2 percent for small-cap growth funds, according to Lipper, a data firm. Larger, stable companies are seen as better able to weather an economic downturn, in part because of they would have less difficulty accessing credit.

Natural resources funds, as well as science and technology funds, fared best among the sector-specific mutual funds, gaining 7.2 percent and 6.4 percent, respectively, Lipper said.

Among stocks, energy and information technology were the strongest performers. Energy, which benefited from higher oil prices, gained 9.4 percent. Tech shares, which returned 6.1 percent, are seen by some as good bets for later in an economic cycle in part because companies use profit to invest in technology infrastructure.

Financial and consumer-discretionary stocks replaced utilities and consumer staples as the worst performers, shedding 4.9 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. Financials include Wall Street firms and mortgage lenders; consumer discretionary stocks include retailers and home builders.

Meanwhile, consumer staples and utilities, sectors considered to be safer bets because they provide goods and services consumers always need, rose modestly.

The repricing of risk partly reflects what some equity analysts said was a healthy change in focus, away from the premium paid for potential targets of leveraged-buyout deals by private-equity firms to the fundamental value of companies.

Such deals slowed in the third quarter. A total of $86 billion in buyouts of U.S. firms was announced, according to data firm Dealogic. That's down from $249 billion in the second quarter and from $94 billion in the comparable quarter a year ago.

Although the buyout party may be over, major Wall Street investment banks still have on their balance sheets billions of dollars in loans they underwrote to finance deals that were struck in happier times. These are loans that the firms had counted on selling to investors but that may now have to stay on their books.

Many of the banks have already adjusted their books accordingly, announcing they would write down their portfolios of loans when they report third-quarter earnings. Standard & Poor's on Thursday revised earnings estimates for the quarter, saying profit would fall 0.4 percent compared with the corresponding period last year -- the first year-over-year decline since the fourth quarter of 2001.

Write-downs from Wall Street firms, several of which have shrunk their mortgage units and cut hundreds of jobs, have been cheered by the market. The adjustments are seen as part of a painful but necessary cleansing process from the era of excess.

Max Bublitz, chief strategist at SCM Advisors, which manages $12 billion in bonds and other fixed-income assets, said: "I'm not entirely sure a lot of these firms are done with those adjustments."

While the credit woes are far from over, some money managers predicted stocks would finish the year even higher. The fourth quarter is traditionally a strong one for stocks, they said, and equities are one of the few games left in town at a time when many investors are wary of securities backed by mortgages and other assets that gave them such headaches this summer. "A little bit like the cat on a stove, they're not going to invest in places where they've been burned recently," Bublitz said.

Another factor favoring stocks is the overseas economy, which is growing at a faster pace than the United States'. Combined with the weaker dollar, that means domestic companies drawing revenue from abroad get a boost.

"It's the rest-of-the-world phenomenon," said Joseph Quinlan, chief market strategist at Bank of America. "They're growing. We're exporting more. Global growth is allowing the U.S. to work through its soft patch."

But money managers and economists warn that plenty of risks remain.

For starters, some parts of that strong global economy have been showing signs of slowing. Europe's growth has stalled recently. Home prices are falling in England.

And while a weaker dollar bodes well for some U.S. companies, it also means higher costs for raw materials and other imported goods, which could add to inflationary pressure. That could prompt the Fed to reverse course on its interest-rate cut -- never mind that the market is already pricing in additional rate cuts before the end of the year.

Friday's much-anticipated Commerce Department report showing solid job growth in September may reduce the likelihood of further rate cuts. Many analysts think August job data, which initially showed the first decline in four years, played a role in the rate cut. Those figures were revised upward Friday.

At the forefront of the worries is the health of consumers, whose spending accounts for two-thirds of domestic economic growth. Their continued willingness to spend despite falling home prices has surprised many analysts.

But most adjustable-rate mortgages are scheduled to reset over the next several years, which could lead to higher foreclosure rates, lower home prices and less consumer spending.

"We think prices will have to come down 11 percent from their peak," said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor's. "Right now, they're only 4 percent from their peak. How will the average consumer on Main Street take that?"

Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial, said the most important variable going forward is employment.

"If we don't have decent job growth, if income growth doesn't accelerate, then there won't be anything to offset the decline in borrowing," he said. "In other words, if we're going to have an increase in consumer spending going forward, it's got to be honest consumer spending, financed by current quarter income as opposed to borrowing against some future income stream."

5 Myths About Sick Old Europe

By Steven Hill
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007; B03

In the global economy, today's winners can become tomorrow's losers in a twinkling, and vice versa. Not so long ago, American pundits and economic analysts were snidely touting U.S. economic superiority to the "sick old man" of Europe. What a difference a few months can make. Today, with the stock market jittery over Iraq, the mortgage crisis, huge budget and trade deficits, and declining growth in productivity, investors are wringing their hands about the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, analysts point to the roaring economies of China and India as the only bright spots on the global horizon.

But what about Europe? You may be surprised to learn how our estranged transatlantic partner has been faring during these roller-coaster times -- and how successfully it has been knocking down the Europessimist myths about it.

1. The sclerotic European economy is incapable of leading the world.

Who're you calling sclerotic? The European Union's $16 trillion economy has been quietly surging for some time and has emerged as the largest trading bloc in the world, producing nearly a third of the global economy. That's more than the U.S. economy (27 percent) or Japan's (9 percent). Despite all the hype, China is still an economic dwarf, accounting for less than 6 percent of the world's economy. India is smaller still.

The European economy was never as bad as the Europessimists made it out to be. From 2000 to 2005, when the much-heralded U.S. economic recovery was being fueled by easy credit and a speculative housing market, the 15 core nations of the European Union had per capita economic growth rates equal to that of the United States. In late 2006, they surpassed us. Europe added jobs at a faster rate, had a much lower budget deficit than the United States and is now posting higher productivity gains and a $3 billion trade surplus.

2. Nobody wants to invest in European companies and economies because lack of competitiveness makes them a poor bet.

Wrong again. Between 2000 and 2005, foreign direct investment in the E.U. 15 was almost half the global total, and investment returns in Europe outperformed those in the United States. "Old Europe is an investment magnet because it is the most lucrative market in the world in which to operate," says Dan O'Brien of the Economist. In fact, corporate America is a huge investor in Europe; U.S. companies' affiliates in the E.U. 15 showed profits of $85 billion in 2005, far more than in any other region of the world and 26 times more than the $3.3 billion they made in China.

And forget that old canard about economic competitiveness. According to the World Economic Forum's measure of national competitiveness, European countries took the top four spots, seven of the top 10 spots and 12 of the top 20 spots in 2006-07. The United States ranked sixth. India ranked 43rd and mainland China 54th.

3. Europe is the land of double-digit unemployment.

Not anymore. Half of the E.U. 15 nations have experienced effective full employment during this decade, and unemployment rates have been the same as or lower than the rate in the United States. Unemployment for the entire European Union, including the still-emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe, stands at a historic low of 6.7 percent. Even France, at 8 percent, is at its lowest rate in 25 years.

That's still higher than U.S. unemployment, which is 4.6 percent, but let's not forget that many of the jobs created here pay low wages and include no benefits. In Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-retraining programs, housing subsidies and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can end up destitute and marginalized.

4. The European "welfare state" hamstrings businesses and hurts the economy.

Beware of stereotypes based on ideological assumptions. As Europe's economy has surged, it has maintained fairness and equality. Unlike in the United States, with its rampant inequality and lack of universal access to affordable health care and higher education, Europeans have harnessed their economic engine to create wealth that is broadly distributed.

Europeans still enjoy universal cradle-to-grave social benefits in many areas. They get quality health care, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, paid sick leave, free or nearly free higher education, generous retirement pensions and quality mass transit. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week. In some European countries, workers put in one full day less per week than Americans do, yet enjoy the same standard of living.

Europe is more of a "workfare state" than a welfare state. As one British political analyst said to me recently: "Europe doesn't so much have a welfare society as a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping everyone healthy and working." Properly understood, Europe's economy and social system are two halves of a well-designed "social capitalism" -- an ingenious framework in which the economy finances the social system to support families and employees in an age of globalized capitalism that threatens to turn us all into internationally disposable workers. Europeans' social system contributes to their prosperity, rather than detracting from it, and even the continent's conservative political leaders agree that it is the best way.

5. Europe is likely to be held hostage to its dependence on Russia and the Middle East for most of its energy needs.

Crystal-ball gazing on this front is risky. Europe may rely on energy from Russia and the Middle East for some time, but it is also leading the world in reducing its energy dependence and in taking action to counteract global climate change. In March, the heads of all 27 E.U. nations agreed to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of the union's energy mix by 2020 and to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent.

In pursuit of these goals, the continent's landscape is slowly being transformed by high-tech windmills, massive solar arrays, tidal power stations, hydrogen fuel cells and energy-saving "green" buildings. Europe has gone high- and low-tech: It's developing not only mass public transit and fuel-efficient vehicles but also thousands of kilometers of bicycle and pedestrian paths to be used by people of all ages. Europe's ecological "footprint," the amount of the Earth's capacity that a population consumes, is about half that of the United States.

So much for the sick old man.

Steven Hill, director of the New America Foundation's political reform program, is writing a book comparing Europe and the United States.

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