Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Reagan’

The Assault on Reason, 2007, by Al Gore

WHAT IF AL GORE HAD BEEN THE PRESIDENT?

A Review of

THE ASSAULT ON REASON, 2007, by Al Gore

One of the great “what ifs” in American history is “what if Al Gore had become president in 2000?”   Notice I did not say, “What if Al Gore had won the 2000 election?”  For some, George W. Bush did not defeat Al Gore, instead the Supreme Court in what many left-wing thinkers consider a coup-d’état handed him the presidency.  Who knows who really won?  The counting of the votes, hanging chads, butterfly ballot and all that, was never completed but was halted by the Court.  The Republican response to the Democratic dismay was to “suck it up” and accept the loss.  While this transfer of the presidency to George W. Bush has never left the consciousness of the Democrats, and while we will never know who actually won the most votes in Florida, some things we do know for certain and that is what would not have occurred if Gore had become president.

Imagine what we would not have had

  • No war in Iraq
  • No “discretionary” wars
  • No Patriot Act
  • No torture, no torture memos,
  • No wholesale spying on the American people
  • No Guantanamo Bay
  • No Abu Ghraib
  • No flouting of the Geneva Convention
  • No privatization of the military
  • No Haliburton, no KRB
  • No wars fought on credit cards
  • No unfunded prescription drug programs
  • No government lying
  • No outing of CIA agents
  • No inaction on Katrina
  • Job outsourcing offset by jobs at home
  • No Great Recession
  • No Bush Tax Cuts to the Wealthy
  • No massive debts
  • No union-busting governors
  • No Defense of Marriage Act
  • No polarization between political parties
  • No John Roberts
  • No Samuel Alito
  • No Citizens United Decision
  • No Tea Party
  • No Sarah Palin
  • No Michelle Bachmann
  • No Barack Obama

What we would have had:

  • A Short War in Afghanistan
  • A Green Economy
  • Green Jobs in America
  • Smaller Wall Street Crash
  • Illegal Immigrants made legal tax-paying citizens
  • The Protection of Reproductive Rights
  • The Protection of Voting Rights
  • Well-funded Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid
  • Compromise and Negotiation
  • A Respect for Truth and for Reality

Each president teaches the nation a series of lessons, some of them with lasting repercussions, some good and some bad.  Lyndon Johnson taught us that presidents lie.  Richard Nixon taught us that government is not to be trusted.  Ronald Reagan taught us that greed was good.  George H. W. Bush taught us to use racist lies as a campaign strategy.  Bill Clinton taught us that presidents have sex while in office.  George W.  Bush taught us that it was just fine to spend money we do not have and had no way of paying back.  Barack Obama taught us that resistance is futile.  Al Gore taught us how to lose gracefully.  Al Gore also taught retired public servants who to make the most of their retirement and how to maximize their experience for the public good. Of all the ex-politicians, Al Gore has contributed to the globe perhaps the most admirably, warning the world of the coming catastrophe of Global Warming or Climate Change or whatever you want to call it.  Only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have equaled Gore in public service after serving in elected office.  We are still waiting to see what the Bushes, Senior and Junior, will do to show that they deserved the faith their voters put in them to serve the people.

We know what happened under George W. Bush.  But what if Gore had been president?  What are the arguments that things would have been better as the result of a Gore presidency?  First, Gore would have retained the surplus accrued under Clinton.  There would have been no tax cuts for the rich.  So how would all that extra money have been spent?  Undoubtedly, the deficit would have been paid down over time.  But there are always rainy days and the unexpected.  During the first decade of the twenty-first century, there were two events that could not have been planned for.  In making the second point, we could arguably ask: would there have been a September 11th?

While it is doubtful that the terrible insane plan to turn planes into weapons could have been detected, there would have been much more awareness of the dangers of Islamic terrorism in the Gore administration than in the Bush administration.  The Bush State Department was fully briefed by the outgoing administration on the threats from Al Qaeda and chose, famously, to ignore the information.  Third, while we can assume that, regardless of the increased vigilance that 9/11 would have happened anyway, we also know that there would have been no war in Iraq.  Certainly after September 11th, American would have fought what probably would have been a short and sharp war in Afghanistan.  How short, we cannot know, but certainly not the ten plus years we are witnessing now.

Another cost of the Bush wars was the very expensive privatization of the military. Once the military took care of itself, from cooking to cleaning to fighting.  Under the Bush administration, the basic cost of running a war was enormously increased by outsourcing what had been standard military tasks to private companies, which proceeded to overcharge the government.  It has long been known that the Defense Department had always been the target of enrichment scams on the part of civilian businesses and there were attempts, however feeble, to keep the outrageous overcharges under control.  Under the Bush administration, the ceding of the military to private enterprise exploded the cost of the war beyond what it would have normally been.

And none of the increased costs were paid for.  During the Second World War, the military was self-sufficient and the citizens paid the costs, one day at a time, through the sale of war bonds.  Instead, no bid contract were handed out from everyone to electricians to caterers to commandos, effectively doubling the personnel and causing costs to spiral out of control.  It is doubtful that under a Democratic president that the wars would have been either plural or privatized.  Without the wars, there would have been no Patriot Act, no wholesale spying on the American people, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib, no torture memos, no flouting of the Geneva Convention, no decline in American credibility and no loss of American honor.

Fourth, this war would have been paid for.  The two Bush wars were the first in American history to be waged without a tax increase and fought totally on borrowed money.  Fifth, it is unlikely that going into two wars on credit cards would have been coupled with another charge on the card, the unfunded and unpaid-for prescription drug plan.  Although it would be safe to assume that none of the budget busting events that happened under Bush—two wars, a tax cut and a prescription drug deal, none of which were ever paid for—under a Gore Administration, it would not be safe to assume that there would have been no financial melt-down.  The crisis of 2008 could well have come about regardless of who was in charge. The only real question is how bad would it have been?

The Gore administration would have, in all probability, continued the de-regulation of the lending financial industries undertaken by the Clinton economic team.  What is unclear is the extent of the financial excesses.  During the Bush years, Wall Street came to resemble Las Vegas even more than usual.  The stock market and its minions take its cues from political leadership and the market clearly followed the lead of the Bush administration and adopted the philosophy of short-term goals and short-term gains, to borrow and spend with no thought to the consequences.  The market will always take advantage of the slightest permissive loophole and even invent a few more but, under Bush, there was clear permission to binge.

Recall that after 9/11, the president urged the nation to shop.  Credit cards were flashed and homes were used as the proverbial piggy bank and, thanks to “liar’s loans,” value was extracted from what was the homeowner’s major financial asset.  The market may always be counted on to behave badly and selfishly but, under Bush, the basic fabric of responsibility and morality and ethical behavior became openly unraveled.  The bills finally came due and the entire structure, built on fantasy, came crashing down.  Would the Gore administration have bailed out Wall Street?

It is possible that, given the precedents, such as the Savings and Loan debacle, the answer would have been “yes.”  But it is probably safe to assume the crash would have been much less severe and the money would have been there to pump into the economy.  Not only that, but the economy would have been in much better shape and could have better absorbed such a blow.  Under the Bush administration, there was no job creation and no rise in middle class income.  Jobs were going out the door and traveling to other nations with cheap labor.  Tax incentives were created to encourage outsourcing and corporations were allowed to not pay taxes.  Of course with the high cost of labor and the stringency of regulations in America, all the businesses that could do so shipped their jobs overseas.

This practice was nothing new and had been going on since the 1970s.  Outsourcing is not a bad thing in and of itself.   American consumers have certainly enjoyed affordable commodities; from television sets to automobiles, and it make sense to allow certain societies to specialize in manufacturing if the advantage exists.  The problem is that, under Bush, these lost jobs were never replaced.  Real wages went down and, when taxes were cut, especially on the people who continued to experience a rise in income, revenues fell sharply.  With not enough coming in and with huge unprecedented amounts of money going out, a deficit rapidly replaced the surplus and America went into a deep financial hole.

With the Afghanistan War over, with the rich paying their fare share, with no unpaid-for prescription drug plan, with no war in Iraq, and with a healthy economy, the Gore administration would have been ready for the Wall Street Crash of ’08.  The Bush administration encouraged jobs to leave America and did nothing to encourage job creation at home.  Eight, here is where there would have been an enormous difference between Bush and Gore.  Environmentally conscious, Gore would have started green industries in America, creating green jobs.  Green jobs are the kind of jobs that cannot be outsourced and the range of these kinds of jobs is enormous, offering opportunities to men and women with a wide range of skills and education.  In addition, green jobs would have been located everywhere, eliminating the pockets of joblessness and limiting the dependence on federal spending seen in the southern part of the United States, for example.  People could have actually afforded their homes, paid their bills, and, who knows, maybe there would have been no total meltdown that impacted homeowners.  Maybe Wall Street would have had to suffer for its own excesses.  Who knows?

Given the aging Baby Boomers under Gore would there have been an upswing in socialized medicine and health care?  Or to put it another way, would Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid been in financial trouble?  The crisis in these government guarantees of public health is due to the lack of taxes to support them.  With normal tax revenues, there is no problem for the future of any of these programs.  It is even possible that, under Gore, American would have been allowed to buy drugs on a competitive market, even allowed to buy drugs in Canada, bringing down the cost of health care. But there is something more to consider.  Under Gore would there have been a Democratic push to legalize illegal immigrants?  Given the rewards, why not?

Legal citizens pay taxes, instead of sending the surplus to Mexico, because they now have a stake in their new nation.  The influx of income would be felt immediately in local and state and federal governments. People of Latino descent are a fast growing demographic and a young demographic, more than taking care of the spaces left by the Baby Boomers who will very shortly stop paying taxes and will start extracting their contributions to their retirement.  The current budget “crisis” could be solved simply by ending the Bush tax cuts and by making illegal aliens legal.  Legal citizens can vote and in gratitude, they would vote for the party that had given them citizenship.

Republicans know this fact of life and will continue to obstruct Democratic efforts to solve the “immigration problem,” which like many of the so-called “problems” we are told we have are problems of Bush’s making, because they know that the Republican base is a small one.  The idea of a permanent Democratic majority is simply unthinkable to the Republicans, even Bush knew that, but his own party blew the opportunity he gave them.  The Republicans can offset their smaller numbers with larger campaign spending, which is no anonymous and unlimited, thanks to the Supreme Court infamous Citizens United decision.  And that Decision brings up another major difference between the administration of Bush and Gore.  Under Gore, there would have been no John Roberts and no Samuel Alito and no rightward turn to the Supreme Court.  Instead, Gore would have nominated two more liberal or neutral justices to the Court and there would have been no rollback of civil liberties and no decisions that favored corporations over citizens such as we have seen over the past decade.

Finally, the last thing that we do know is that without Bush and the drift rightward of his administration, there would have been no Barack Obama.  Obama, a conservative Reagan Democrat, was able to position himself left of Bush, only because of the extreme right leaning positions taken by that administration.  Obama’s mild Republican health care policies, which seek to shield American citizens from predatory health care companies, were a shock due to the strong contrast to Bush’s laisse faire attitude towards the poor and the middle class. Without a right-wing Bush administration, there would also have been no Sarah Palin.  The Bush administration prepared the ground for an extreme Republican agenda and for extreme Republican candidates who do not read newspapers and who want to pray the gay away.

At the end of a Gore administration, the next president could have been a moderate Republican, like Romney, or another environmentally conscious Democrat.  It is doubtful that whomever the President would have been in 2008 that there would have been the latest upsurge of the John Birch Society, the Tea Party.  The Tea Party emerged, as did Sarah Palin, on the fertile soil of the Wall Street Bailout.  With a good economy, there would have been no need for a faux “tax revolt.”   Today, when nothing substantial gets done in Washington, it is hard to imagine what might have been.  As unimaginable as it seems, the Democrats and the Republicans would be talking to each other today.

Just as Ronald Reagan allowed greed to emerge unchecked in America, George Bush allowed and encouraged a take-no-prisoners approach to politics.  Taking a page from the book of his father’s late unlamented advisor, Lee Atwater, for the campaigns of the younger Bush, no trick was too dirty, no lie was too extreme, as long as it worked politically.   The result was the birth of scorn for “reality-based” narratives and the door to stories that had no basis in fact was opened.  It was fine to lie about the weapons of mass destruction, it was OK to reveal the identity of an officer of the CIA, just as it was perfectly acceptable to torture and to hold people indefinitely without charge or trial.  If one side believes in an untenable scenario and castigates anyone who wants to tell the truth, then compromise is impossible.  Once facts become meaningless then the party, which believes in non-facts can neither see nor agree to other points of view.  When the Bush administration showed its willingness to buy into improbable versions of actual reality, the way was cleared for political gridlock.  Without an agreement on basic facts and basic truths, no actions could ever be taken.

What the Bush administration taught us is that there was no accountability.  Would the Wall Street Robber Barons have been allowed to go free in a post-Gore administration? Probably not, but Obama, following a regime without penalties, threatened the bankers with only Elizabeth Warren. But there is such a thing as accountability and we, the middle class American citizens, are still paying for old sins that we did not commit.  In his best selling 2007 book, The Attack on Reason, Al Gore does not mention any of the might-have-beens listed above. He simply outlines in a clear precise language the failings of the Bush administration.  Writing before the Wall Street Crash, his concerns have to do with civil liberties lost and the campaign of misinformation that passes for “news” during the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Gore is especially concerned about the spread of false information by a mass media that is controlled by corporations and political interests.  Gore quotes Edward Muskie, a former presidential contender, brought low by media manipulation in 1970,

“There are only two kinds of politics.  They’re not radical and reactionary or conservative or liberal or even Democrat and Republican.  There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust.”

We all know that the next famous quote was “I am not a crook,” uttered by Richard Nixon.  The president engineered his own demise by turning a small political misdemeanor into a massive cancerous cover-up, bringing the term “Watergate” and all things “gate” into being to designate scandals that could not be overcome.  Watergate, like the McCarthy Hearings, was played out on television to a fascinated audience who was dazzled at the cast of luminaries brought low.  Watergate was a rare case of the truth coming out and of that truth having consequences and of those responsible being held accountable.  It would be the last time such a public political punishment would occur.  Watergate was a story broken by a great newspaper, The Washington Post and what lodged in the public psyche was that newspapers, print media, was the last resort of truth.  Since Watergate the public spends more and more time passively consuming television in a one-way no-exchange experience.  As Gore points out, today, television is the public’s main source of political news on government business and newspapers are folding one by one.

Not only are newspapers dying and television ratings are soaring but television viewing has become more and more of a niche experience.  Unlike newspapers where a range of news and opinions co-exist, television programs appeal to the fears and prejudices of the audience.  Television exists to entertain and to make money for the owners not to seek and find the truth.  Furthermore, competition has greatly lessened among media outlets since the 1970s and a few vast conglomerates control everything.  Monopoly capitalism has captured the news, turning it into a source of revenue.   In such an atmosphere, reason has no place.

Gore’s main thesis is that reason has been replaced by “dogma and blind faith.”  The result is “a new kind of power” that is arbitrary because the public is not informed and cannot consent from an informed position.  Gore also states that this power comes from “deep poisoned wells of racism, ultranationalism, religious strife, tribalism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia…” In such an atmosphere, the ugliness that always underlies any body politic is allowed and even encouraged to emerge.  Real problems can be ignored while non-problems and fake crises distract the American people.  The result is a replacement of our system of checks and balances with unchecked power and influence thanks to a “coalition” that serves their own interests, not that of the public.

Gore used the Iraq War and the systematic lies that led to it as a prime example of the techniques of distraction.  It is now known that the Bush administration came into office with the goal of deposing Saddam Hussein and the administration’s spin machine diverted attention away from Osama bin Laden to phantom weapons of mass destruction.  Anyone who disagreed with President Bush or brought facts to bear was dismissed as “unpatriotic.”  Ideology replaced facts, faith replaced information, fantasy replaced history, and dogmatism replaced reason so that Bush could “benefit friends and supporters.”

The coalition, or the “friends with benefits,” that Gore describes is made of a number of groups or what Bush called “my base.”   He lists “the economic royalists” who want only to eliminate taxation and regulation, an “ideology” which has an “almost religious fervor.”  The public interest does not exist for these people.  Indeed, any government programs that aid the people are disincentives to make these people work hard for low wages.  The interests of the “wealthy and large corporations” have the highest priority for Republican ideology.  The infallibility of this ideological position is buttressed by what Gore lists as “well funded foundations, think tanks, action committees, media companies, and front groups capable of simulating grassroots activism and mounting a sustained assault on any reasoning process that threatens their economic goals.”

True, Republicans have been trying to dismantle the New Deal and the prosperity of the middle class for eighty years, but Gore asserts “this is different: the absolute dominance of the politics of wealth is something new.”  He traces the long struggle in America to create an equal society, which is also a struggle against monopoly power and corporate interference with the workings of government but once regulations that made sure that there were many choices of media outlets to ensure competition.  Under Reagan, Gore points out, media competition was ended when regulations were lifted allowing vast corporations to gather together many television and radio stations and newspapers into one bundle that spoke with a single mind, devoted to preserving the wealth of the wealthy.  Any information that should get in the way of ideology is promptly distorted for the cause or spun in a favorable direction.  Gore says of the Bush administration, “I cannot remember any administration adopting this kind of persistent, systematic abuse of the truth and the institutionalization of dishonesty as a routine part of the policy process.”  Gore states that the result of administration tactics was “to introduce a new level of viciousness in partisan politics.”

The Supreme Court, always compliant with right wing agendas, helped President Bush garner unprecedented and unchecked power to the executive branch.  The Bush doctrine became whatever the president did was legal, a stance taken unsuccessfully by President Nixon.  Bush was allowed to flout the American legal system and to disdain international laws.  All Supreme Court decisions were made in favor of corporations and their powers and against the people, leaving the individual with no recourse, not even the right to a trial by jury.  Bush was less interested in social issues than the later Republicans would be.  He was far more interested in amassing the power to do what he wanted, whether it was warrantless wiretapping, searches without search warrants and the “right” to put an unprecedented number of innocent citizens under surveillance for no particular reason.  The public was not allowed to assemble freely and any protestors were removed far away from the President and corralled in special sections so that Bush’s day would not be ruined by any sign of dissent.

Gore ends his description of the illegal and unconstitutional abuses of the Bush administration by stating what it would take to create a “well-informed citizenry” that democracy requires.  He does not have much faith in television and puts his faith instead in the Internet.  Gore warns that there are powers, corporate powers, which want to control the Internet by giving the content the rich and famous approve the green light of high speed and forcing the dissenters into the slow land of endless downloads.  This compartmentalization of the Internet into fast and slow ideologically structured lanes is a real and present danger.  One can only hope that the True Believers and the Bloggers will keep protecting the last bastion of true participatory democracy.  This book was published before the Bush presidency ended and does not account the last days of the Bush Bonfire when Wall Street burned.  Reading The Assault on Reason three years into the Obama presidency is to recognize how totally the Bush administration ruined the very promising situation it inherited from the Clinton-Gore administration.  One realizes that this is a group of politicians where were discredited to a man and woman but they were never held accountable.  They just got out of town and left the government in a shambles.

What was gained?  What was the Bush Administration all about?  Reading Gore’s book helps us understand that what was gained by the monied interests was a significant weakening of regulations of all kinds, a shrinking of taxes on the rich, an enlargement of subsidies even for the wealthiest corporations, and a lack of meaningful consequences when oil spills or chemicals leak or coal mines cave in and people die.  Wall Street banks can demand money from taxpayers and then refuse to help the very same citizens refinance their mortgages while giving themselves record bonuses.  Global Warming is now a hoax and every time it snows, the right wing throws verbal snowballs at Al Gore.  Every time there is a tornado or a flood or a drought, then the same people call the federal government.  Labor unions, especially teachers, are now the villains and these groups are under assault so that more tax breaks can be given to the wealthy.  States’ rights have made a comeback and even Obama, a black man who should know better, says that states should decide on whether or not to “allow” gay marriage.  “Compromise” and “negotiation” are bad words for a person whose election promise is to destroy government as we know it.  Washington is in gridlock. Media has rewritten lived history: the deficit was caused by Obama who was not born in the United States and who wants us to all become “European,” whatever that means.

Gore has been largely silent about these events that have unfolded since his book was published, but he cannot be surprised by the trend of today’s events.  He has not been outspoken like Bill Clinton, nor has he overtly supported Obama.  He has put forward the facts of Global Warming, won his Nobel Prize, and he will watch to see all his prophecies come true in forest fires, tornadoes, floods, droughts, melting ice caps, the extinction of polar bears, the widening of the hole in the ozone layer, endless winters, rising sea levels—Gore watches it all.  Some Americans look away from the dust storms and cry “Hoax.”  Other Americans have lost hope, and no wonder.  The game, we learned, was rigged for the rich and not for the public interest.  The land will be raped for the profits of the few and we the many will pay for the destruction.  Meanwhile, we watch television and see good-hearted well-meaning Americans demonstrating in Revolutionary War costumes to preserve tax cuts for the Wall Street bankers.  The media they watch has convinced them to dismantle all the social programs they enjoy and use.  These good people have been gathered together by powerful corporate interests who can bend them to their will.  Reason has no place in politics.  Nor do facts. Nor does reality.  Spin rules.  Slogans speak.  If Al Gore is right, the last refuge of the honest broker is the Internet…while it lasts.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

 

Inside Job (2010)

LOSING HONOR AND CREDIBILITY: ACADEMICS AND THE MELTDOWN OF 2008

After the Second World War, the veterans came home to parades and to the GI Bill that rewarded them for the sacrifice of years of their lives in the service of their country.  One of the greatest benefits of this bill was a free education and cheap home ownership.   A GI could buy a home with little money down, and without much ado, a piece of the American Dream was theirs.  That is….if this GI was white.  Thanks to the GI Bill, thousands of average white males were able to achieve middle class status but the many men of color who had also fought for democracy were “redlined.” To be “redlined” was to be defined as less than creditworthy due solely to the color of one’s skin.  A man of color might possibly get a loan, yes, but it would be at a higher interest rate and the monthly payment would be higher than that of his white counterpart.  The higher the payment, the harder it is to keep up the monthly payments, forcing a self-fulfilling prophecy from the banks upon the veteran of color.  Fast forward sixty years and “redlining” is renamed “sub-prime,” and hereby hangs our tale.

Inside Job, brought to you by the same man, Charles Ferguson, who made No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq (2007), continues the sordid tale of redlining aka sub-prime.  The other significant documenter of the follies of our time, Michael Moore, is more sardonic, more sarcastic than Mr. Ferguson but the sheer lunacy of the actors in what is nothing less than the Financial Crime of the Century is so unbelievable that the audience was howling with incredulous laughter.  By now, most Americans have a dim idea of how a handful of New York bankers lost an unfathomable amount of money. Combining reckless and immoral behavior within the financial sector with the equally inexcusable passage of tax cuts while two unnecessary wars were being fought entirely without funds resulted in the Mother of all Meltdowns.  If you were middle class and had any money in your house, your pension, or your stock portfolio, chances are all your investments are gone, never to return.  We know what happened: we have only to look at—or should I say for—our vaporized retirements accounts. What we don’t understand is why did this happen?

Getting back to redlining—this was a bank practice to “safeguard” the bank’s “risk” but the bank’s policies were underwritten and supported by the American government, making redlining, not a private decision, but public policy.  The field of public policy was not the full-blown academic pastime it is now but whether or not such practices are named (or not), they amount to social engineering of the general public by private interests on a massive scale.  The bankers and the government had two choices.  One, you can argue that to allow as many people as possible access to the American dream gives the participants a stake in the society, as the result of a literal investment in the nation’s future.  If, as the result of social inequities, a certain group of people were disadvantaged, it would make sense to help them participate, by giving them a lower rate of interest and lower payments over a longer period of time.  It would be important to incorporate everyone into society for the benefit of everyone.  Or two, the public policy could deliberately exclude as many potential players of color as possible, thus creating a permanent underclass of color, disenfranchised and disaffected, alienated and unable to support itself, costing the government great expense in the short and long run.   The post-war public policy of the banking industry and the American government chose the second path, which led to a decade of riots and protests in the Sixties from people who could see the American Dream as lived by the whites and yet capriciously denied to them.

Public Policy is an academic discipline but it is clearly an ideological position.  If a government is deliberately created an underclass of color, the reason cannot be an economic one in terms of the benefits to the nation as a whole.  An underclass is not cost-effective. So why create and perpetuate one?  A better question would be qui bono? Who benefits?  For a start the white middle class benefits, not necessary financially, because it will have to pay the cost of crime, welfare, and the huge price of controlling and maintaining a large group of very discontented citizens, but in terms of a warm feeling of superiority.  The white middle class elevated itself at the expense of divesting the people of color of their rightful share, as citizens, of the American way of life.  Of incalculable cost is the loss of talent and national productivity by not allowing a large percentage of people to participate in the nation’s growth.  What happened was not economic policy but a belief system, an ideology of inequality and superiority.

But why did redlining return?  After the Civil Rights legislation forced a positive public policy upon the nation, the middle class of color grew and a growing number of Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics achieved bourgeoisie status.  By the beginning of the Twenty-first Century, we knew full well how much America had benefited from allowing an Oprah or a Mario Rubio or a Stephen Chu rise to their potential.  Why repeat the same mistake by rolling out the sub-prime one more time?  The answer to the question of why a government would introduce and enforce bad deleterious public policy is that wealthy financial interests would benefit.  In other words, so that a few thousand people could get massively wealthy, the rest of us had to lose everything.  And these few rich people—old white males for the most part—are more powerful than all of us put together.

Charles Ferguson’s film is perhaps the most effective in the last two segments when he discusses the disgrace of the so-called experts and the lack of criminal or social accountability.  Even in Enron. The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), there was some measure of criminal liability and one of the participants was honorable enough to kill himself. But here, as Inside Job notes, we have lost even that modicum of morality.  All the perpetrators walked away, richer than ever, and completely unscathed, and totally unrepentant.  Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), who linked the capitalist impulse with the Protestant ethic, would be amazed at the distance between the will to power and profits and common decency. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right), who was the main inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, would be horrified at the extent to which the fabric of the Social Contract upon which America was founded has unraveled.  It will take generations to recover from the moral, ethical, and financial damage done to America by a few greedy people.

The leaders of the financial institutions refused, to a man, to speak to Ferguson, underlining their total disregard for public accountability.  It is quite possible they think they have done nothing wrong.  Ferguson portrays these men as unthinkably isolated from the real world and solely motivated by the profit motive.  Nothing matters to them but short-term gains.  Like five year old boys, and badly behaved ones at that, they were—are—all Id, no Ego and no Superego.   If one replaces morality with the profit motive, if one replaces ethics with answering to the stock holders, then lending money to people who could never pay even the first mortgage payment for the sake of a brief burst of cash, then having to strong arm the government to bail out a few banks is a mere temporary inconvenience.  The suffering of the perpetrators was brief, a few moments grilling before a powerless Senate committee.  Martha Stewart was fined $30,000 and was sentenced to five months in prison and five months house arrest.  And her crime?  She lied to the FBI.  For that you go to jail.   Wrecking an entire economy for the foreseeable future?  You get a huge bonus.

I was amazed at the assumption, obviously shared by all of the men of Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, et al., that they are smarter than we are.   We could not possibly understand, they insist.  We are not smart enough to regulate them, they state.  We must not fire them, they protest.  We need them, the experts.  Actually, no, we don’t need these men.  And they are not smart.  Even I am smart enough to know that the economy is now a global one and has been for decades.  I was stunned to learn from Inside Job that Hank Paulson, the Secretary of the Treasury, did not realize that letting Lehman fail would have global impact.  Was he too insulted to know that Lehman had foreign branches?  Was he too panicked to think the decision through?  Apparently, Paulson was, if nothing else, so sectarian in his concerns, he did not give his foreign counterparts a heads up and international monetary chaos ensued.   Undoubtedly, the debacle in New York City would have had global ramifications with or without Paulson but his strange lapses in a time of crisis are inexcusable.  Likewise, we have to keep in mind that Paulson and his team, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, were the Wall Street insiders who deliberately panicked Congress into bailing out the (their) banks.  Their action is the moral equivalent of asking innocent bystanders to repay a bank that has been robbed by masked bandits.

And these are the Wall Street wizards President Obama has put in charge of what’s left of the economy: Timothy Geithner, who ran (didn’t run) the New York Fed, had the closest proximity to the insanity of his colleagues, and Larry Summers, who thinks women can’t do math.  If I were as irresponsible as they are, I would be fired immediately.  But Obama has put them in the lead of Operation Nothing Will Be Done.  The only gesture of seriousness I have seen from Obama is the appointment of Elizabeth Warren who will attempt, in the face of the Old Boy’s Network, to protect us, the meek and helpless, from the clutches of the likes of Chase.  The gender component of the disaster has been discussed at great length.  Women, it is asserted, are more prudent when it comes to money.  Whether or not this is true, we still do not know, but the behavior of the males was nothing short of astonishing in the levels of irresponsibility and immaturity.  Most normal humans invest in Wall Street more or less blindly, through a variety of pensions (now all gone) and they trust a “broker.”  But, like the film about Enron, Inside Job takes a look at the brokers.  Which brings us to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll—-well, maybe not the rock ‘n’ roll—these guys are too stuffy, but certainly to sex and drugs.

We are told we are too uneducated and ill informed about the mysteries of economics to understand the ways of Wall Street.  But economics is simply common sense.  Ask yourself, who is the typical broker on Wall Street?  A twenty five year old while male, otherwise known as “the Talent.”  Now ask yourself a common sense question: would you give your retirement account to your neighbor’s twenty five year old nephew to invest and to handle?  Of course not.  Ask yourself another question: would you give your retirement account to your neighbor’s twenty five year old nephew, who is high on cocaine because he had spent the night boozing with prostitutes, to invest and to handle?  You just did.  If you had money in Merrill Lynch, Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs or AIG, a twenty-five year old with a college degree and maybe a couple of years of business school was given your money and your dreams of retiring to play with.  And he was on drugs, and that’s who was in charge of your money— your money that is now gone.   And the twenty-five year old man? Still snorting.

As an academic, I was most distressed at the fall of the academics involved in the Collapse.  Cynically, I had thought that the profession of economics could not fall any lower, after the debacle of Reaganomics in the 1980s. I was wrong.  The most horrifying interviews in the film were those of the academics who styled themselves as economists.  Economics is a dismal science indeed.   Inherently a soft and social science, the practitioners have attempted to distance themselves from the mushy softness of the humans (who actually are the actors) by “hardening” the discipline into a phallic pseudo-science in which a barrage of numbers and screen of mathematical formulas which separate actual economic activity from theoretical economic models.  The result is a fatal separation of the real world from an academic discipline.  Economic activity  is at the very heart of society. Ask Marx.  Or better yet, ask Nietzshe.

According to Marx, the economy is the secret engine of any society and it is this driving force that shapes human relations.  Reduced to abstractions, like money, human beings are alienated from themselves and each others and are mere pawns in a system of exchange.  People have been dehumanized and the moral ties that hold us together become weakened in favor of the profit motive.  Echoing Adam Smith, Marx understood that capitalism, unfettered, would benefit the few at the expense of the many.  Nietzsche, writing in state of syphilitic madness, spoke of the Ubermensch, the Superman who seized power because he had the will to do so.  This Superman was above normal beings in his Will to Power and therefore deserved any power he obtained.   The Superman is a celebration of the Id, the rejoicing of the irrational, the acting out of the Dark Side, our Dionysian Other in all its glory.  Sound familiar?  The titans of Wall Street, already rich, already powerful, only want to seize more wealth and wield more power.  Nothing will ever be enough for those people.  The Crash of ’08 is a study of the Irrational Man.

John Rawls wrote his Theory of Justice in 1971, at the end of the Civil Rights era and the period of war protests.  He had every right to assume that there was a social contract, a public morality that was founded in rational thinking.  Doing the right thing for the entire society made moral and economic sense, as the Civil Rights movement and the eventual ending of the Vietnam War seemed to suggest.    There was a time when Rawls was taken seriously and one can only wonder what he would have thought of the sorry spectacle set before us in Inside Job. Unfortunately, Rawls died in 2002, having outlived his time.  By 2002, the forces of irrational behavior had taken over and the nation was on a slippery slide towards the abyss.  Leading the way, were dry and dull economists who might have known better if they had not sold out long ago to the lure of Washington.  Worse than being merely dazzled by their brush with power, is the apparent lack of training and education on the part of the individuals interviewed for this film.  I assume they all have advanced degree.  Business schools offer professional degrees, that is, three more years of specialized training, but academics have different degrees, doctorates, which stress scholarship, research, and rigorous application of theories.  For example, as a professor, I have a combined thirteen years of education, from undergraduate to a doctorate.  I assume the economists in the film have somewhat less graduate education, as art history is a notoriously difficult discipline, but I also assume that these individuals should have mastered the basics, after all, they all have posh jobs at Ivy League schools.  But not so.  None of these men has gotten beyond the high school level in a academic integrity and proficiency.

Up to this point, the audience for the film had been watching the recounting of the horrors of financial inventions, such as CDOs and Derivatives in stunned and subdued silence.  But when the parade of the economists marched on screen, the audience roared with laughter.  To begin with there is the imperious Dr. Martin Feldstein who has been in the service of Republican administrations since Nixon.  He comes across as an unflappable and bemused Gulliver, baffled that the Tiny People are attempting to prick his conscience.  Wrong? He ponders, what me do anything wrong?  How could that be?  And he is a professor at Harvard, teaching impressionable young people.  Presumably the students will get their ethics elsewhere.  Then there is Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of the Columbia University Business School, who puffed up indignantly at the impertinence of inopportune questions about uncomfortable issues such as conflict of interests.  There is a revolving door between these academics and the political establishment, meaning that their so-called scholarship is for sale to the highest bidder.  Hubbard who regretted his decision to grant (in the Kingly sense) an interview, began a countdown: “You have three minutes left.”  The interviewer asked simple common sense questions and caused great offense.  We are left with the impression of a condescending and pompous man, Hubbard, who was convinced that we are unworthy of an explanation.

That attitude—that the public is too stupid to comprehend the convolutions of economic theory—oozed from every pore of the academics.  However, Frederic Mishkin, a professor at Columbia, was not as smooth and self-righteous and un-self-consciously immoral as Hubbard and Feldstein.  I have seen just enough of Lie to Me to know that if a person says one thing, all the while shaking his head to the negative, that either he is lying to us or to himself.  His subconscious is frantically telegraphing “no, this is a lie, this is not true, don’t believe a word I say.”  Mishkin fled his government post to, as he put it, to “write a textbook.”  Even I, in my lowly academic post at an art college, know that textbook writing is something no self-respecting academic would do—that’s a task for a group of graduate students.  And who writes textbooks anymore?  Even the interviewer, presumably not an academic, did not accept his lame excuse for his Profile in Shame.  Before he was writing his textbook, Mishkin had “delivered a paper” on the state of the three banks of Iceland, huge conglomerates that had gambled the entire nation away.  These banks, unleashed by an unwise government, lost three times the GNP of the country.  But Mishkin, hired for over $100,000 by the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, had given these banks a glowing report.  The interviewer asked how he could have gotten it so wrong.  Well, Mishkin explained artlessly, one trusts one’s friends. In other words, instead of going to Iceland with a forensic accountant and going over the books for a few months, Mishkin took a hundred grand and wrote a report for an agency whose job it was to boost Iceland.  The “report” or the “paper” was really an advertisement and an inducement for investors who would be lured in.  Instead of research, Mishkin produced a document based on gossip.  Not his fault that his “friend” was wrong about Iceland.

The President of Columbia also refused to comment on the University’s integrity and the possible conflicts of interest.  The President of Harvard also refused to comment about loss of integrity over conflicts of interest among the University’s scholars.

One of the best points the film makes is the extent to which leading Ivy League universities have been compromised morally through conflicts of interest such as Mishkin’s ethical failure.  Professors for sale.  Professors who pretend to teach.  Professors who apparently do not know the first rules of research.  Did Miskin at least do a Google search of Iceland?  He might have learned something.  And this man has tenure.  This man is allowed to teach economics and business.   I would have given Mishkin an “F” in my class.  I would have made him do his work over until he learned basic skills of scholarship. In the end, all I can do is to invite the students of Columbia and Harvard to come to my little art college here in Los Angeles.  I, and my colleagues, will teach you how to do research and how to write a real research paper.  As for the professors in the film, undoubtedly, I am beneath their notice, but I came away from Inside Job wondering if I know more about the Dismal Science than they do.  One can only hope that someday, they will find the late-breaking courage of David Stockman and plead guilty to their scams.  In an August interview with Guy Raz of NPR this year, Stockman said that the current Republican economic policy was,

Utterly disingenuous. I find it unconscionable that the Republican leadership, faced with a 1.5 trillion deficit, could possibly believe that good public policy is to maintain tax cuts for the top 2 percent of the population who, after all, have benefited enormously from this phony boom we’ve had over the last 10 years as a result of the casino on Wall Street.

And I blame Paulson on it. I blame the Bush White House. They basically sold out the birthright of the Republican Party when they bailed out Wall Street unnecessarily, in a state of complete panic in September 2008. That’s really, at the end of the day, one of the greatest misfortunes in fiscal governance since the Reagan revolution tried to straighten things out beginning in 1980.

Many people would disagree with Stockman that Reagan tried to “straighten things out.”  Inside Job starts, as do many other observers of public policy, with Ronald Reagan’s social re-engineering of America.  It was in the 1980s that The American Social Contract began to be shredded.  As the movie pointed out, as have many other sources, it was precisely in this era that the income gap between rich and poor began to expand.  The rich were enriched at the expense of the less fortunate who began to lose ground.  It is those left behind who became prey, twenty years later, for the bankers who would talk them into sub-prime loans, which could be bundled into tranches and sold and resold until no one knows who owns the houses that are being repossessed.  The Reagan Administration opened the door for Greed and irresponsibility and the Clinton Administration held the door open.  After the S & L meltdown, deregulation began in earnest and continued with abandon after the Tech Bubble.  Then came the Great Recession and the hounds of the hell of total deregulation have been let loose with the midterm election of 2010.

People have been wondering to which point back in time we have been pushed.  Some have suggested the Fifties.  Wrong.  The Fifties was a decade of government intervention in the economy, building freeways, creating the military industrial complex, fueling the space race.  Some have suggested that, because we are now getting ready to “Hoover” the economy,  we are witnessing the end of the New Deal.  Wrong.  We are re-experiencing the Gilded Age of the Late Nineteenth Century, a time of rampant free-booting and raging and unrepentant capitalism.  Wall Street is now the Wild West and the Outlaws are running the town.  The criminals have taken over the prison.  The inmates are in charge of the asylum.  Inside Job makes it clear that the Obama Administration will not help us get the bad guys.  There will be no punishment for any of the architects of the Tragedy of 2008.

We are on our own.  Welcome to the Ownership Society.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger