Posts Tagged ‘Ronald Reagan’

“Drift” by Rachael Maddow

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012)


The heart of the question of what Rachael Maddow calls Drift is how do we wage war in the twenty-first century?  What is the purpose of war in the contemporary era? And who fights these wars? Or to twist the title of a famous film from World War II, why do we fight?

The answer is: because the President wants us to fight.

American history has been based on the predicate that Americans fight for our rights to be free and to live in a democratic society. We imagine ourselves to be valiant warriors—citizen soldiers, as Stephen Ambrose named those who fought in the last “good war.”  Maddow quoted future President Thomas Jefferson as saying in 1792, “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier,” noting that once the “necessary” war is fought, the “necessary” soldiers fade back into civilian life.  But that image of Jefferson’s Yeoman Farmer who could be counted on to spring to the country’s defense when needed is a highly idealized one.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Jefferson’s concerns about the dangers of keeping a standing army had melted in the heat and fire of expansionism and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Maddow quickly skips over a sizable chunk of American history, from the decades of Manifest Destiny and an extended campaign of genocide against Native Americans. This slide into Empire was capped with the Spanish-American War when America finally controlled the maximum territory possible. But making and maintaining an American Empire required having a standing army—how else do you wage a war of conquest from one end of the continent to the other?

I mention this seventy year slice of history, not to criticize Maddow for not covering it, but to make the point that the desire to keep an army, a strong military force, under close command and control of the executive branch, has always been present in American culture, no matter how much the national mythology denies this history. Certainly the Great War was a rude interruption in a self-satisfied isolationism and Americans were dragged with great reluctance into this and the Second World War. Maddow emphasizes how quickly the military was demobilized after these two great wars. However, to paraphrase Karl Marx, the insistence that America was, at heart, a peace-loving nation was a discourse pregnant with its opposite. The ability of a strong President to wage war on command was always present and had been practiced for the bulk of the nineteenth century—war disguised as Manifest Destiny.

That said, the importance of the model or the paradigm of the Second World War cannot be overstated. It was not just the “Last Good War,” as has been often noted, it was also the last conventional war, because it was the last war America fought with Europeans. A shared culture of combat enabled the armies of World War II to fight on the basis of shared assumptions. Japan, having become “modern” by first copying the West and then by beating the West, for the most part complied. Here and there, like Germany, Japan broke the laws of “civilized warfare,” surely a contradiction in terms, but for the most part the basic “rules” were followed. Armies faced and fought one another, Navies faced and fought one another. The goal was for one group to defeat the enemy, invade the territory, seize the capital, and force a formal surrender.

The new enemies did not share these cultural expectations and proceeded to ignore the European forms of fighting. The fact that this rather stilted and formal mode of thrust and parry had a long history, stretching back to Medieval times did not impress the Vietnamese or the tribes of the Middle East. After a brief foray into South Korea, America fought a European style war only once again—an even more brief visit to Iraq. What followed would be a continuation of the Viet Nam style quagmire, a series of non-wars that could not be won, only endured until exhaustion intervened. Despite these unpalatable facts, or because of them, the “Dream War” was a re-run of the Second World War, the Good War, the Winnable War, where words like “victory” and “win”  had some meaning.

The Proxy War

After the Second World War, America somehow entered into a continuous state of total war and these were mostly undeclared “wars,” called interventions of some other nomenclature. It seems that after four years of  national militarization, it was hard to break the habit of defensive belligerence. The new enemy was the Soviet Union and the Cold War began. There is, apparently, something comforting, in an ordering, logical sort of way, to have a known enemy. The “enemy” sorts the world neatly into two halves: good and evil, simple dualities. We know how hard it has been to let go of a good Foe. Once the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded, America has continued to seek another Opponent. As Maddow comments in her section on Ronald Reagan,

We’d got in the habit of being at war, and not against some economic crisis, but real war—big, small, hot, cold, air, sea, or ground—and against real enemies. Sometimes they’d attacked us, and sometimes we’d gone out of our way to find them.

But the post-war and the post-Cold War world is not so neat and tidy and the new enemies were not schooled in eighteenth century military tactics of opposing lines protecting important strategic sites.  And herein lies the trouble with contemporary war and this is the point where Maddow begins to make her point about “drifting” away from traditional formal ways of waging war through declaration and mobilization.  Maddow writes of the  of the standing army  after 1945,

We had 150,000 troops in the Far East, 125,000 in Western Europe, and a smattering in such diverse and far-flung locations as Panama, Cuba, Guatemala, Morocco, Eritrea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Samoa, and Indochina. Wary as never before of the Communist threat—now a constant “speck of war visible in our horizon”—America had come to see Jefferson’s preoccupation with standing armies and threats from inside our own power structure as a bit moldy. We were, after all, the only country still capable of keeping the planet safe for democracy.

The Cold War set a precedent for war with a goal but no foreseeable ending. Most people thought that the Cold War would never end, precisely because it was cold. Until the twenty-first century, Americans had not considered the possibility that that a Hot War would not have no foreseeable ending but also no articulated purpose. Maddow takes the reader on a Long March from the Viet Nam War into Iraq and Afghanistan, but her purpose is not to refight these endless wars but to discuss why we are fighting them in the first place. The answer seems to be a particularly male or males—the President and the military— need to feel manly and a rather frightening willingness on the part of a temporary leader, i. e., the President, to alone be responsible for the spending of blood and treasure.

In laying out how Maddow made her case, I want to first, move directly past the Viet Nam War into the peculiar non-wars of Ronald Reagan and second, to use the “Reagan Wars” as examples of the lingering Viet Nam Syndrome. The reason for skipping over the conduct of the war in Viet Nam is because this was an inherited war, with long, long roots back to the French Empire. After the Second World War, the tiny Asian nation wanted to be independent of the French who, after surrendering to Germany, were driven to retrieve their dignity by reclaiming parts of their “empire,” such as Viet Nam. The French dragged America into this dubious enterprise through blackmail: if we gave them military and monetary assistance, they would join NATO. And then, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in the summer of 1954. They withdrew and left America holding the bag, so to speak.

Viet Nam became an “American” war by circumstance, doubly damning the conflict as having nothing to do with “our” vital interests. Even though all Viet Nam wanted was national self-determination, as promised by American President Woodrow Wilson, the American government decided that this was the ground where they would fight a proxy war against Communism. From 1959 to 1975 American fought a war that was never declared. Maddow recounts that in an ill-considered desire to carry out the supposed wishes of the deceased President John F, Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson slip-slided into war sideways through a draft of marginal young men. Privileged young men, future President George H. W. Bush and future Vice-President Dick Cheney and future Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, could receive  draft “deferments.”

The point that Maddow, in laying out her argument concerning wars ordered at the whim of the Executive Branch makes, is that by the 1960s, in the midst of the post-war boom, it was unwise to both wage war and the mobilize the population for war. People did not want another war, not the kind of war that involved the entire population. In order to fight this new war, President Johnson sought recruits from the sons of citizens who had no political clout.

So from the first 3,500 combat Marines Johnson sent ashore near Da Nang on March 8, 1965, to support the first sustained bombing of North Vietnam to the 535,000 American troops who were in Vietnam at the end of his presidency, something like 1 percent would be Guard and Reserves. The active-duty armed forces shouldered the burdens of Johnson’s land war in Asia—fleshed out by draftees, chosen at random from among the ranks of young American men who were unable or unwilling to get themselves out of it.

A dangerous step had been taken—fighting a wrong war with the wrong—or unwilling people—all in the name of an abstraction: The Cold War. Unfortunately, for President Johnson, television had been invented and Americans indicated strongly that they did not want to send their children off to foreign wars, nor did they wish to see nightly battles on television. So for future presidents, the problem would be compounded: how to go to war with the minimum amount of soldiers—no need to call attention to the fact that wars are fought by real people—and with as few witnesses as possible, all the while achieving maximum glory. And here is where Ronald Reagan rode to the rescue with the solution to the problems Lyndon Johnson had left behind.

The Viet Nam War ended in a humiliating defeat for America. The greatest nation in the world had to withdraw ignominiously from an inglorious conflict that had been fought to make a political point for an opponent who was never present. The “manhood” of America had been emasculated, damaged by  a guerrilla force impervious to traditional warfare and offended by occupation and division of their nation by colonial masters. Instead of studying the experience of the war and coming to the realization that the myth of American isolationism could make an excellent reality, President Ronald Reagan wanted to help America to “man up.”

The Reagan Solution

However, Reagan was thwarted by a belated law passed by a chastened Congress, a law to curtail adventurous presidents and to limit their War Powers. As Maddow descibes it,

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an imperfect law. But by passing it, the legislative branch was putting the executive on notice—it no longer would settle for being a backbencher on vital questions of war and peace. If the president wanted to execute a military operation (any military operation), he had to petition Congress for the authority to do so within thirty days; if Congress didn’t grant explicit authorization, that operation would have to end after sixty days by law. The Oval Office would no longer have open-ended war-making powers.

Rather than putting an end to  the unfortunate “foreign entanglements” that George Washington warned of, the War Powers Resolution became an obstacle for annoyed Presidents to overcome. At this point, Maddow begins to describe how one president after another strove to wage war by other means. Reagan’s answer to the Resolution was to order strange little “interventions” or tiny wars, waged on defenseless territories. Reagan was considerably boosted in his Presidential aspirations by his contention that America should reclaim the Panama Canal. The fact that his jingoism, as Maddow puts it, struck a nerve with many Americans suggests that the post-Viet Nam War syndrome—the shame of defeat—was, twenty years later, a national mood.

Once he became President, Reagan immediately began building up the military. To the end of his Presidency, he dreamed of a fantastical mirage of the conquest of space with a weapon called “Star Wars.” Indeed, there was always a strange and surreal aspect to Reagan’s military adventures: he ran when attacked and attacked when there could be no reply. As Maddow explains, Reagan seemed to lack the ability to separate rhetoric from reality and it appears that he actually believed that America had “lost” the Panama Canal and that it was necessary to invade Grenada and then to attempt to overthrow the government of Nicaragua with secret stashes of arms to contras. War under Reagan became a curious mixture of secrecy and public relations.

Maddow lays out how the Reagan administration worked very hard to write a metanarrative that was both teflon and atomic: it was an untouchable story and it would have a long half life. The untouchable narrative was that America had to be Number One and that it had enemies everywhere. Therefore, regardless of facts to the contrary or regardless of the lack of facts, America was in danger, ringed with enemies, in constant danger. From today’s vantage point, the paranoia of the Reagan years seems predictive: a Republican administration frightens the American people with a threat that does not exist, calls those who dare to bring facts to the table “Communist stooges” and what have you, and ignores the impact on those outside of America, who are observing these antics. As Maddow writes,

The Soviets put their own intelligence services on high alert, watching for any and every sign of American military movement. And their ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, who spent much of his adult life in Washington, was gently passing the word to his bosses in the Kremlin that Reagan really did believe what he was saying. Dobrynin later wrote in his memoir that “considering the continuous political and military rivalry and tension between the two superpowers, and an adventurous president such as Reagan, there was no lack of concern in Moscow that American bellicosity and simple human miscalculation could combine with fatal results.” In 1983, when fear at the Kremlin was at an all-time high, the Reagan administration was more or less oblivious to it.

The dangers of this story with a long half-life and this myopic inward vision is apparent. Clearly, Reagan believed everything he was told (he apparently neither read daily briefings nor spent much time in the Oval Office) and clearly he was playing to a local audience for political purposes. Otherwise, why, out of all the nations in the world, invade Grenada? Maddow writes in an ironic spritely style that, in certain contexts, can be somewhat disconcerting, but here, in her description of the Battle of Grenada, excuse me, Operation Urgent Fury, the amused detached tone of near-parody is perfect. The trick the Reagan Administration needed to pull off was to both keep this Operation a secret but to convince the nation that a small group of American medical students were being threatened by an evil Latino dictator.

The story of Operation Urgent Fury reads like a script from the Keystone Cops. It would be a funny story, except for an earlier event that would prove to be prophetic:

On the morning of October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck containing six tons of explosives and a variety of highly flammable gases into the US Marine barracks at the airport in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 soldiers there on a don’t-shoot peacekeeping mission. Fourteen months into the deployment, and after an earlier suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut, Reagan was still unable to make clear to the American people exactly why US Marines were there.

The answer to an unanswerable attack in Lebanon was to invade Grenada and to save medical students from Fidel Castro. Except that, according to Maddow, “Fidel Castro, knew about the invasion well before the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.” Not only had the rescue teams not bothered to locate the students, who were scattered in various locations, but also, in Maddow’s words, “The chancellor of the medical school had already been telling reporters that their students hadn’t needed rescuing.” Indeed, some students were left behind, never to be “rescued.” But never mind, America was getting its macho back and the public’s attention was diverted from the 240 Marine deaths in Lebanon. Therefore, the Administration took its eye off a very significant ball: the Middle East to gaze southward to Latin nations, where Communism was supposedly fomenting at America’s very doorstep.

Although Congress was not pleased with Reagan and slapped his (now popular) hand, these unilateral actions continued under Reagan’s not always certain management. Maddow quotes the Speaker of the  House, Tipp O’Neill:

“He only works three and a half hours a day. He doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read his briefing papers. It’s sinful that this man is President of the United States. He lacks the knowledge that he should have, on every sphere, whether it’s the domestic or whether it’s the international sphere.”

The Iran-Contra experience is now a matter of history and it is still unclear  who was in charge or whether or not Reagan was or was not in the grip of Alzheimer’s. What is certain is that the “victory” in Grenada gave the President a sense of entitlement and he was determined to have another war in Nicaragua. As Maddow states,

Reagan was convinced that a president needed unconstrained authority on national security. He was also convinced that he knew best (after all, he was the only person getting that daily secret intelligence briefing). These twin certainties led him into two unpopular and illegal foreign policy adventures that became a single hyphenated mega-scandal that nearly scuttled his second term and his legacy, and created a crisis from which we still have not recovered. In his scramble to save himself from that scandal, Reagan’s after-the-fact justification for his illegal and secret operations left a nasty residue of official radicalism on the subjects of executive power and how America cooks up its wars.

In order to have his war and eat it too, Reagan and his sidekick, Oliver North, privitized this little war, which was funded through wealthy (Republican) donors and the Saudis. This unlikely enterprise—too strange to unwind here—came undone and the clear illegalities were exposed to withering investigations. As Maddow summued up this misadventures of Ronald Reagan,

Even before all the indictments and the convictions of senior administration officials, Reagan’s new way—the president can do anything so long as the president thinks it’s okay—looked like toast. In fact, Reagan looked like toast. Whatever his presidency had meant up until that point, Iran-Contra was such an embarrassment, such a toxic combination of illegality and sheer stupidity, that even the conservatives of his own party were disgusted. “He will never again be the Reagan that he was before he blew it,” said a little-known Republican congressman from Georgia by the name of Newt Gingrich. “He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily.” The president had been caught red-handed.

However, due to the wonderous alchemy of Republican spin, “Reagan could be reimagined and reinvented by conservatives as an executive who had done no wrong: the gold standard of Republican presidents.” Maddow goes on to describe and recount further adventures of the Presidents who came after Reagan. Reagan laid down not just a gauntlet to a meddling Congress but also a path to Executive Power to use the military. The key was not to wage war but to sent out the troops. The problem was that the Draft had been eliminated and the President had to use a professional or volunteer army and the National Guard or the Reserves. It is interesting to note that the liability of not having a large standing army was now an asset. A small but flexible force, especially when combined with an international force, as in the Balkans and in the Gulf War, enabled the President to sent out a focused force without “waging war” and without declaring war.

Once Reagan had established the (specious) “legal” precedent that the military was the President’s tool, there was no check to balance this power. As Maddow states,

Congress has never since effectively asserted itself to stop a president with a bead on war. It was true of George Herbert Walker Bush. It was true of Bill Clinton. And by September 11, 2001, even if there had been real resistance to Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush starting the next war (or two), there were no institutional barriers strong enough to have realistically stopped them. By 9/11, the war-making authority in the United States had become, for all intents and purposes, uncontested and unilateral: one man’s decision to make. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I have been moving through Maddow’s book, or drifting through her arguments by trying to set up, step by step, the trajectory from waging small but satisfying wars somewhere else with a tiny number of military personnel with low psychological cost to the public and with high pay-offs in bragging rights. I think that Maddow is correct to put the starting point of the rise of executive power over war with the Cold War and its ambiguities. That said, during the nineteenth century, there was also a long history of expansion and empire via military campaigns that were informal “wars.”  The lack of large and formally declared wars led to the misleading myth of America rousing itself only when necessary while overwriting a longer and more complete story that was actually laced with combat.

The Two Wars of the Bushes

In order to solve the pesky “Viet Nam Syndrome,” or the reluctance on the part of Congress venture into pointless and costly wars, Reagan had solved one problem by seizing the power to put troops in the field and solved the problem of cost by financing the action with a deficit: fight now, pay later. But Reagan’s wars, in and of themselves, were dubious and unsatisfying. What America needed was a “real” war, something that would wipe out the stain of defeat in Viet Nam and when Saddam Hussein invaded the very small and very rich nation of Kuwait, the opportunity to re-masculinize presented itself. After a long and winding wrangle with a recalcitrant Congress, President George Bush put together an international coalition to drive Saddam out of Kuwait.

Thanks to Reagan, Bush felt that he could call up an army without consulting Congress. While Congress complained, Bush and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, Colin Powell, planned. Powell, a veteran of the Viet Nam fiasco, had his own theory of the case on how to fight a war—with deep preparation and with overwhelming force. As Maddow explains,

Powell wanted an overwhelming, decisive use of force to meet American military objectives clearly and quickly. The whole Powell Doctrine of disproportionate force, clear goals, a clear exit strategy, and public support was designed to create a kind of quagmire-free war zone. He was unequivocal—he and his commander on the ground, Norman Schwarzkopf, had agreed: two hundred thousand more troops was what it would take. And they’d already made sure the president understood the numbers would go up if he decided he wanted not only to eject Saddam from Kuwait but to destroy his army, or to depose him. The mission objectives would have to be clearly defined before H-Hour. In any case, Powell and Schwarzkopf wanted five, maybe six, aircraft carrier task forces deployed to the Persian Gulf, which would leave naval power dangerously thin in the rest of the world. By the time the offensive capability was in place, about two months down the road, there would be something in the neighborhood of 500,000 American troops in the Middle East—nearly as many as at the high-water mark in Vietnam. Two-thirds of the combat units in the Marine Corps would be deployed in the Gulf. There would be no more talk of rotating troops home after six months. Soldiers had to understand they were in the Gulf until the job was done, however long that took.

This was the famous “Powell Doctrine,” which was designed to guarantee success. And it worked magnificently in the Gulf War, resulting in a great victory over an inept foe in a truly stupid war that ended in a graceless slaughter along the Highway of Death. Only after long and protracted fight did Congress agree to go to war. According to Maddow, Congress objected to fighting a war in which American interests were not directly involved, but Congress was also disinclined to accept the consequences of not saving Kuwait. The Bush Administration fought a successful war and Kuwait, a nation that circumcised the women, was restored to its (male) owners, but there were hidden costs for the future.  The jumping off point into Kuwait was Saudi Arabia and that meant that to one very indignant man infidels were on sacred soil. Osama bin Laden would wait a decade to take his revenge.

Since the “good” Gulf War was fought with Reserves, it was fortunate that the engagement was, thanks to Colin Powell, a short one. But in this short amount of time, certain rules of engagement were laid down—not for the enemy but for fellow Americans. The Viet Nam War had run into trouble as much at home as in the field due to the fact that this was the first war since the Civil War that was uncensored. The military would not make that mistake again.  The Gulf War was stage managed, information was controlled and doled out, and press and public was placated with video games of the “smart bombs” over Baghdad.  As Maddow said,

Our military dazzled. The First Gulf War was all Powell could have hoped for: a clear mission, explicit public support, and an overwhelming show of force. It was fast—the ground assault lasted just a hundred hours, the troops were home less than five months later. It was relatively bloodless for the away team—fewer than two hundred American soldiers were killed in action. It was cost-effective—happy allies reimbursed the United States for all but $8 billion spent. And it was, withal, a riveting display of our military capability, almost like it was designed for TV. Americans, and much of the world, watched a Technicolor air-strike extravaganza every night. The skeptics were forced to stand down; our military had proved beyond doubt or discussion that we were the Last Superpower Still Standing.

But for longer missions, the Reserves and the video games would not be enough to placate the public. Although, thanks to Reagan, there was no serious thought given to balancing a budget and the military was given whatever it needed or wanted or desired. Aside from boys and their toys, supporting an adequately sized volunteer army was proving to be a very expensive proposition.  The military had always supported itself. A young man could enlist or be drafted and find himself, not fighting, but doing laundry or providing food or doing mechanical work. For every combat fighter, there were a dozen or so working in the support systems, as engineers or office workers.

Once the military Draft was ended in 1973 under Richard Nixon, the armed forces all became “volunteer.” At the time, those who were opposed to the Draft, complained of “opportunity costs,” or the economic losses incurred by middle class white males, now likely to have the prospect of high salaries during the post-war boom. Once the white males moved out the way, the males of color could raise themselves socially and economically by volunteering for the military where new “opportunities” could be found. Those who were opposed to the end of the Draft, felt that the ethnic and social mixing that occurred in the military knitted America into a whole nation, instead of a divided country. There was some discussion of patriotism and service to the Flag, but the urgent voices of disgruntled white males had to be heard.

Twenty years later, the all volunteer army was an excellent career choice, but only certain demographic groups took advantage of what the government was offering: young men and women of color and young men and women from the South. The rest of the youth were not interested.  The result of these very different life paths would have consequences that would take another twenty years to play out. In the short run, there was the sheer unexpected cost of maintaining a large and long term military full of careerists and their families. As opposed to the draftees, these “volunteers” did not cycle out after a couple of years, they stayed and got married and raised families. Each soldier could easily have three or more dependents living on the base and needing care and feeding.

Maddow brings up a very interesting point about the sheer financial scale of the obligations the government takes on when it commits to a Volunteer Army. The cost of maintaining soldiers and their spouses and children and all the attendant services was huge. As Maddow explained,

In the ten years after 1985, the procurement budget had dropped from $126 billion to $39 billion and represented a paltry 18 percent of total defense expenditures. Sure, the active-duty force had been pared by nearly 30 percent and a few bases had been closed, but that didn’t come close to solving the problem. How were we supposed to ensure our Last-Superpower-on-Earth superiority when just the overhead cost of keeping our standing army milling around was swallowing between 40 and 50 percent of the Pentagon’s annual cash allotment?

The problem was solved by a now familiar term, “outsourcing.” Now, on one hand, it is more expensive to privatize and the corruption when private companies take the place of military personnel is vast, unchecked, and continues today unabated. However, outsourcing can be a very good thing, as Martha Stewart would say, because one can outsource actual soldiers. If one outsources soldiers, not just food services, then the President who is in charge of deploying the mercenaries is now undeterred by such nuisances as Congressional approval. The corporation, such as Xe, assumes the risks and the expenses of the mercenaries who are not eligible for Veterans’ benefits—hospitalization, education, legal protection—but they are paid accordingly with very high salaries that, unlike benefits, have end points. The government is off the hook and the mercenaries can be charged with all kinds of illegal and dishonorable tasks, off the books.

Outsourcing began in earnest in the 1990s. President Bill Clinton was wise enough to not fight wars but to participate in peace-keeping missions, such as the one in the Balkans, where some kind of military presence needed to be in place for years. By the 1990s, the problem of going to war was solved and now it was easy to avoid the skepticism of Congress or the suspicions of the American people or the high cost of casualties. As Maddow explains,

President Clinton never really expended much effort on the politically costly task of convincing the American public of the need to arm the Bosnians or Croatians, or the need to unleash American air power on Miloševic and the Serbs, or the need to put US boots on the ground. Instead, he found a way to do something without the necessity of making any vigorous public argument for it, and without much involving his own balky Pentagon…So it was soon after the peace accords were signed that those twenty thousand American peacekeepers—who would be joined by twenty thousand private citizens under contract to provide support services—arrived in Bosnia and Croatia as part of an international force to keep Miloševic and his Serbian military under heel. And did Clinton have a hard time selling that manpower commitment to the American people? He did not. He was helped greatly by—what else? Outsourcing.

The civil war and the genocide in the former Yugoslavia needed to be quelled and then order had to be restored, a process that took years. Private Contractors, as these mercenaries were then called, made their first appearances in the Balkans. The consequence of the decision to privitize were disastrous, as Maddow says,

…the acute and lasting problem was that they cut that mooring line tying our wars to our politics, the line that tied the decision to go to war to public debate about that decision. The idea of the Abrams Doctrine—and Jefferson’s citizen-soldiers—was to make it so we can’t make war without causing a big civilian hullabaloo. Privatization made it all easy, and quiet.

By the time President Barack Obama inherited two wars, one in Afghanistan and Iraq, the private contractor was a fixture in the American military. During the second Iraq War under a second President Bush, the ratio of the Reserves on active duty and the Private Contractors/Mercenaries was one to one. When the American public is told how many men and women are on active duty in these two war zones, this number should be doubled. In terms of the troops in the field, the actual force is twice as large as we are told. Unfortunately, the troops and the mercenaries are unsuited to the task of “nation building” or modernizing and westernizing a Medieval culture that has no history of democracy or equality.

Into the Cauldron

By the twenty-first century, reasonably good excuses had to be given for rounding up the Reserves and one had to attend to public relations and “nation building” or “bringing democracy” to benighted places seemed to be worthy causes. The invasion of Afghanistan, a barren land, suitable only for the breeding of war and poppies, should have been short-lived once the objective had been obtained—to drive Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and to kill or capture the architects of the “attack on America” on September 11, 2001. The problem conceptually was that “objective” or goal was not a “victory,” and the second Bush administration cast about for an alternative war on better terrain where a good old-fashioned war could be fought.

Perhaps in the distant future, psycho-historican will explain the psychology of launching a “preemptive war,” also known as the “Bush Doctrine.” The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a strange and surreal event, too familiar to be retold here, but there is one element that remains intriguing—the willingness to not just lie but to create an alternative reality. In contrast to the Cold War, which has been deemed a Simulacra of a war, the Iraq War was a real war fought for fictitious reasons in the fevered mindset of a neo-con fantasy. As with the Reagan administration, it is unclear if the major players actually believed their own rhetoric, if they actually inhabited the alternative universe they created out of whole cloth or whether for unknown reasons they simply wanted to send men and women off to kill other men and women on a whim.

Experience suggests that it is futile to argue with alternative universes and no manner of proof to the contrary will convince the perpetrators otherwise. But what the Iraq was does demonstrate is another step towards executive capriciousness. The second Bush Administration proved to be incapable of governing but the energy of the government was wholly swallowed up in dreams of glory. Maddow suggests that we have now reached the point where the Executive Branch is nearly unchecked and the Pentagon has, thanks to generous Republican (deficit-fueled) spending on defense, the military has taken on a life of its own, regardless of need or regardless of real conditions on the ground.

A fact that’s underappreciated in the civilian world but very well appreciated in our military is that the US Armed Forces right now are absolutely stunning in their lethality. Deploy, deploy, deploy … practice, practice, practice. The US military was the best and best-equipped fighting force on earth even before 9/11. Now, after a solid decade of war, they’re almost unrecognizably better. Early worries such as how much gear we were burning through in Iraq were solved the way we always solve problems like that now: we doubled the military’s procurement budget between 2000 and 2010.

Obama Country

New President Barack Obama won the office, partly on “hope and change,” and partly because he was against “dumb wars.” He inherited two dumb wars and virtually unchecked Executive Power to go to war. Obama is no cowboy. A thoughtful man, he is an intellectual with an analytic mind and it seems that somewhere along the line, he has gently and silently slipped the nation into the new century. As the Obama administration is demonstrating daily, the way in which President George H. W. Bush waged war was old-fashioned and outmoded, a nineteenth century idea of fighting with twentieth century weapons.

To return to a point I made earlier, if the starting point is the “good war,” the Second World War, then the post-war dream is already an outmoded one, one of “victory” and “glory” and “win.” These terms, in the twenty-first century, are without definitions. Even the Powell Doctrine, invading with maximum force, only gets you so far—into the territory—but does nothing in terms of a long occupation and is a hindrance when it is time to get out. And the Powell Doctrine was totally disregarded when the Bush Administration decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Iraq War was a horribly expensive war, fought on the cheap in terms of the numbers of troops deployed. While bending to public disapproval of the unnecessary war in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Pentagon kept the number of Reserves low but augmented with Contractors. Iraq is a huge territory that did not want to be invaded or occupied and the shoestring forces could not control the reluctant population. The major objective when waging an unpopular war, justified in a variety of confusing and conflicting ways, is to win this war. But to do so, the Powell Doctrine must be put into play, an impossibility if the war is a “War of Choice.”

Maddow does not spent much time on the fiasco of the Iraq War, already ably covered by other incredulous historians, but she notes that

By 2001, the ability of a president to start and wage military operations without (or even in spite of) Congress was established precedent. By 2001, even the peacetime US military budget was well over half the size of all other military budgets in the world combined. By 2001, the spirit of the Abrams Doctrine—that the disruption of civilian life is the price of admission for war—was pretty much kaput. By 2001, we’d freed ourselves of all those hassles, all those restraints tying us down.

Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, did not go well. The British, how had tried to contain Iraq in the 1920s and the Soviets who had tried to control Afghanistan in the 1980s could have warned the deaf Americans of their ridiculous quest. No amount of time or effort could bring about a “victory” or a ” success” in these ancient lands of Mesopotamia. As if to satisfy himself that the Neo-Conservative assertions that these wars could be won with more troops (remember that the actual number of soldiers is double what we are told), Obama conducted a “surge.” In male military language a surge is an increase of personnel for a limited period of time. The hope is to stabilize the situation long enough to get out of Dodge. Obama’s surge allowed America to save face and taught the President that surges are futile.  To ask for a surge is like asking for the price in a fancy boutique—-if you have to ask, you can’t afford it; it you have to surge, you’ve lost the war.

Quietly, Obama took the advice of his Vice-President, Joe Biden, to use commandos instead. And this is where the book ends. Maddow makes the point that every step along the way disconnects “war” from national responsibility, national participation, and democratic participation. As Obama pulls out of the Twin Wars of Bush’s devising, he is escalating the ultimate dislocated war, a War of Drones waged by the CIA, augmented by occasional strikes by elite Special Forces. The Administration has a supposed “secret kill list” of those who are to be removed through long-distance strikes and the rule of engagement are unknown. Congress is kept in the dark about the details but the benefits are clear.

First, the President and the CIA and a small portion of the military can operate at will. They are not engaged in a war but in a program of planned assassinations, designed to take out the leaders and discourage the followers. Compared to a large number of “boots on the ground,” the Drone Program saves lives and money, blood and treasure. The result is the Ultimate Video Game. As Maddow explains it,

When one of those Blackwater-armed drones takes off with a specific target location programmed into its hard drive, it is operated remotely by a CIA-paid “pilot” on-site, in a setup that looks like a rich teenager’s video-game lair: a big computer tower (a Dell, according to some reporting), a couple of keyboards, a bunch of monitors, a roller-ball mouse (gotta guard against carpal tunnel syndrome), a board of switches on a virtual flight console, and, of course, a joystick. Once the drone is airborne and on its way to the target, the local pilot turns control over to a fellow pilot at a much niftier video-game room at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The “pilot,” sitting in air-conditioned comfort in suburban Virginia, homes the drone in on its quarry somewhere in, say, North Waziristan. Watching the live video feed from the drone’s infrared heat–sensitive cameras on big to-die-for-on-Super-Bowl-Sunday flat-screen monitors, the pilot and a team of CIA analysts start to make what then CIA chief Leon Panetta liked to call “life-and-death decisions.” Maybe not sporting, but certainly effective.

According to an article by NPR, the local pilots are required to wear uniforms and there are programs to help these people to cope with the after effects of frequent killing, even at a distance. Maddow’s concern is that there is such a dislocation between the decision making process and the public and the distance between the moral responsibility of waging war that it is easy to be in a state of constant conflict without any accountability. She is concerned that the breakdown is between Congress and the President, but I think that there is another trajectory that also needs to be looked at—the increase in distance between the target and the triggerman.

The real question might be another kind of separation, one that dates back to the bombing of civilians in the 1920s. When these bombings first occurred, there was little concern, because the victims were in Iraq and Ethiopia. Only when Europeans were assaulted in Guernica did any outcry occur but these moral qualms vanished, and ten years later, the Allies had firebombed Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo and had dropped two atomic bombs on non-military targets in Japan—all on civilians.

The ethical aspects of killing helpless human beings was wiped out by the blanket assumption that the populations of Germany and Japan were complicit in the Second World War. The rationale for these civilian bombings was that the morale of the people had to be broken. Studies after the war have suggested that these bombings, such as that of London, were not effective in either lowering morale or in slowing war time production, but it was hard to break the spell of cost-free or effective aerial warfare.

In fact, Powell had dissuaded Clinton from attempting to settle the Serbian conflict through bombing. Maddow quotes Clinton assistant, Nancy Soderberg, who reported that Powell had advised, “ ‘Don’t fall in love with air power because it hasn’t worked,’ [he said]. To Powell, air power would not change Serb behavior, ‘only troops on the ground could do that.’ ” Indeed, the Second World War was won on the ground in a long slow and deliberate drive to capture and hold territory. In the end, the most effective bombing was those two that were dropped in the end on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, the second Bush Administration was still enraptured by air power and treated the helpless and blameless Iraqis to “shock and awe” in 2003…again to no avail.

Wars in the Mideast were quite different from wars in Europe. These new wars were asymmetrical, tribesmen with a cache of modern weapons against a large contingent of well armed twenty-first century warriors who become mired down in what is part of an ongoing tribal conflict. Even though America was convinced that it was fighting a “War on Terror,” the nation was confronting an old culture that was fighting against modernism or modernity. In addition to fighting unwelcome change and colonialism from the outside, these tribes were fighting each other for religious reasons that were unclear to Westerners. But however sectarian these local issues, America is committed to fighting a condition that has been named a “War” to give the American public a framework through which to “read” the traumatic “event” of September 11th.

Obama has definitively changed the way in which this non-war is not waged. The troops are coming home, while the Drones carry on the killing. On one hand, if we follow this line of thinking—kill at a distance—from the bombing of Dresden to the Drone attacks on terrorists in Pakistan, the two points are certainly connected. What remains unclear, even in Maddow’s book, is why a President would want to take sole responsibility for body bags, ours or theirs. Drift seems to imply that one President after another “drifted” into taking more and more power because they could do it, because there was no power capable of stopping them. As the wars became more and more arbitrary, from Viet Nam to Iraq, the personal responsibility became greater, and, as Johnson and Bush found out, the consequences, the judgment of history can be harsh for those who wage war unsuccessfully and for no good reason.

But if the costs of blood and treasure are relatively low, as with the secretive Drone Wars, then the power shifts decisively towards to the Executive Branch. If “war” is redefined as tracking down designated targets on a “kill list,” then the ostensible cost of war goes down as does the size of the military.  If Drone attacks can do the job of people, then the need to attack or invade or occupy should diminish. The public will be happy to allow this kind of invisible war to continue, no questions asked. No more flag draped coffins. Maddow ends her book with a list of problems that need to be solved—what she calls a “to do list.” Most of the points on her list concerning going to war, the role of the citizen soldiers, privatization and the disposal of nuclear weapons, will resolve themselves within a few years.

Two of her objections—the “secret” Drone Wars and Executive Power—are here to stay and are the future of war: a President in the Situation Room waiting for the outcome of a covert operation by a team of Seals or for a report on a strike on a target thousands of miles away. If we accept the “necessity” of dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, how can we complain about a single Drone strike on one person? If we want to balance the budget, then how can we not accept this cheap and reliable manner of taking the war to the terrorists? If we could go back in time and assassinate Osama bin Laden, would we do it? If so, then targeting other individuals before they do their worst is a moral act.

Although, such strikes now come under the auspices of the CIA and are “secret” and based on”intelligence” that the public and Congress do not know, Rachael Maddow ends hopefully,

We just need to revive that old idea of America as a deliberately peaceable nation. That’s not simply our inheritance, it’s our responsibility.

I wish I could agree with her hopeful assessment. America has not been a “deliberately peaceable nation,” but we decidedly do not want to take responsibility for these new wars. I was shocked to learn that one of my former art students has become a Drone Pilot. Happy and satisfied in a military career, he is in charge of sorting out the designated target from innocent civilians, and he is convinced that these assassinations save money and lives. What is the more moral position—send thousands of men and women off to die or quietly kill the “terrorists” identified by “intelligence?”

This could well be a question that we will never be asked in any formal way. While there are those who are questioning the Drone War, the real Drift is away from taking collective responsibility. So war becomes the provence of the President who wages it in secret and we may be told from time to time of its causalities. This is the future.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



The Shock Doctrine (2008) by Naomi Klein




Naomi Klein is my hero.  She is beautiful and brilliant and can look at the sick world in which we are trying to exist, diagnose it, and give a prognosis for the future.  If you want to understand how we got from there—-middle class security and prosperity—-to here—-the death of the middle class, then read Naomi Klein.  Start with No Logo and then continue to The Shock Doctrine and you will come away feeling disgusted, discouraged and sadly enlightened.  As Naomi Klein said this morning on the MSNBC program Up w/Chris Hays, “The system is broken.”  How true.

The Shock Doctrine is a harrowing account of how a particular economic theory, popularized by economist Milton Friedman and spread by his Ayn Rand-dazed acolytes to many helpless nations, has created vast wealth for corporations and vast misery for the people who live in these countries.  Briefly and perhaps crudely, one can explain this economic doctrine as “free market capitalism,” or the myth of the free market which translates in reality to corporate monopolies over the lives of people—not just their economic lives, as in what kind of products they are forced to buy at non-competitive prices—but their social and political lives.

The Shock Doctrine is a phrase coined by Klein referring to the Milton Friedman doctrine of crisis.  Private business interests should take advantage of a public or social crisis in a nation and force radical change quickly, set these changes in place before the population can recover and then sit back and reap the economic rewards.  This cultural monopoly imposed by corporate interests must be all-encompassing because the political system needs to be co-opted in order to create a machine that delivers money to the business interests.  Government money, otherwise known as taxes paid by the citizens that should be returned to the people as part of a social contract, is used to subsidize the moneyed class to assist them in making profits without interference of inconveniences such as financial or environmental regulations.

The Shock Doctrine begins with the reaction of the Bush Administration to the flooding of New Orleans by the epic hurricane Katrina.  Although Klein is not making a new observation—many other commentators remarked at how quickly the African-American refugees were driven out of state, dumped and abandoned, leaving Louisiana a much whiter state, she analyzes the post-Katrina situation in terms of “disaster capitalism.”  This doctrine, which originated with Milton Friedman, urges the conservative government to rush in when a population is in shock and to upend existing structures and to replace them with private interests in the service of free market capitalism.

Klein remarks upon how quickly the Administration swooped down upon New Orleans and swept away the public school system as efficiently as Katrina had swept through the Ninth Ward.  The goal was to whiten the city by not rebuilding the African-American neighborhoods where people who traditionally voted for the Democrats once lived.  Lest any of these displaced persons think of returning, steps were taken to not rebuild their neighborhoods and to make education economically beyond their means.  The replacement for free public education? Charter schools, a privatized mode of education, accountable to no one, even its customer base, parents and children.

A public system was replace by a private one: this is what happened to the school system in New Orleans. Instead of having a public system of education that we all pay into because we all benefit from an educated society, this city now has charter schools.  For those who are well-to-do, a private school, excuse me a charter school, can be as expensive and as exclusive (and as segregated) as it wishes, out of reach of government supervision.  Such schools can teach what they wish, again with very limited government oversight.  Through the back door, separate but equal comes on little cat feet and steal the American dream.

For Milton Friedman, public schools are nothing short of socialism.  As the late guru once stated, “The preservation of freedom is the protective reason for limiting and decentralizing governmental power. But there is also a constructive reason. The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or in literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.”

That statement is astoundingly ignorant, especially for a university professor.  As an art historian, I would like to waft a few names heavenward to Dr. Friedman (if he is in heaven) Egyptian pyramids, Jacques Louis David, Joseph Awkwright, Werner von Braum—-all these accomplishment, from architecture to art to invention to the “advance” of rocketry—came from centralized governments.  I can only suppose that his students were too intimidated to try to inform him of the facts.

However, Friedman, when speaking against public education asserted,

“…It isn’t the public purpose to build brick schools and have students taught there. The public purpose is to provide education. Think of it this way: If you want to subsidize the production of a product, there are two ways you can do it. You can subsidize the producer or you can subsidize the consumer. In education, we subsidize the producer—the school. If you subsidize the student instead—the consumer—you will have competition. The student could choose the school he attends and that would force schools to improve and to meet the demands of their students.”

Sounds good, but the flaw in the argument is that charter schools actually lower competition and prevent intervention of the “consumers,” by limiting the alternatives.  With public school, all the officials, from the governor, the mayor, the superintendent, the teachers, etc. are accountable to the public who can elect those who represent them.  Neighborhood schools can respond to the needs of the community, while a charter school reacts to the desire for profit.

Certainly the profit motive and selfishness—virtues praised by Friedman—are great motivators—but certain public services are public goods paid for by the public and provided by the government, which does not have and should not have a profit motive.  Friedman and his followers, called Neo-Conservatives (those lovely people who drove the American public into the Iraq War to the lasting profit of contractors), think the government should be run like a business.  This philosophy, the neo-conservative ideals, is at odds with the founding ideals of the American government, expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

America is a nation built on the philosophy of the Enlightenment and is, therefore, is based upon The Social Contract.  The Social Contract is an idea based upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, written in 1762.   Rousseau was contemplating the end point of the logic of the Enlightenment philosophy, which proposed individual freedom and individual responsibility as opposed to the divine right of Kings and Queens.  If human beings are not governed by a central authority ordained by God, then how are we to govern ourselves?  His answer was that people came together freely and gave their consent to govern and to be governed and guided by the foundational idea of mutual respect and mutual rights and mutual aid.

The American government was not founded on the ideal of the profit motive.

The American government was founded on the ideal of mutual consent.

The problem of privatization of government services is that privatization removes mutual consent and removes accountability as privatization “gets government out of the way.”

Once the government is out of the way, the corporations have free reign over the citizens who are their captive customers.

The Chicago School, or the economic philosophy of Milton Friedman, thinks about the role of government in terms of not-government or not-governing.  In other words, less government means more corporate control and more profits for the wealthy at the top. When the government is shrunk, its withdrawal creates a space and power vacuum, and the corporations rush in and fill up the open territory.  The citizens become consumers without a vote.  Neoconservativism is a form of public policy that is set on disenfranchising the public and reshaping society for the benefits of private profit.

Klein begins with an early experiment with the Shock Doctrine in Chile by Augusto Pinochet who overthrew the legitimate government by a coup-d’êtat and was advised in the conduct of his economic policy by Friedman himself.   As Klein described, the experiment in Chile would be repeated elsewhere.  The formula was simple, find a country in which an event has put the population in a traumatized state, “shock” the people, and seize the system and reshape it to your own ends.  According to Klein, Friedman advised Pinochet to implement

“…rapid-fire transformation of the economy—tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation. Eventually, Chileans even saw their public schools replaced with voucher-funded private ones. It was the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere, and it became known as a “Chicago School” revolution, since so many of Pinochet’s economists had studied under Friedman at the University of Chicago. Friedman predicted that the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that “facilitate the adjustment.”  He coined a phrase for this painful tactic: economic “shock treatment.” In the decades since, whenever governments have imposed sweeping free-market programs, the all-at-once shock treatment, or “shock therapy,” has been the method of choice.

The United States (the CIA) supported the 1973 coup but Pinochet quickly revealed himself to be a particularly ugly bedfellow.  Nevertheless, the dictator, who wrecked Chile and killed and tortured its people, was preferable to any socialist politician, such as the socialist Allende, who had nationalized industry. As Klein pointed out, the citizens are always opposed to the economic theories of the Chicago School, because these theories do not benefit them, only the corporations.  Indeed when Pinochet died in 2006, the Chilean government probed the financial corruption of almost thirty years of misrule.  According to The Washington Post, Pinochet, though dead, had amassed ten tons of gold or $160 million dollars.

Imagine what $160 million could have done for the people of Chile.

Although Klein goes through a number of case studies of the Chicago School intervening with foreign nations that have dictators eager to emulate Pinochet, she concentrates on the “event” in America that unleashed our own Shock Doctrine within our nation: September 11th.   It is perhaps a coincidence that Pinochet seized power on September 11th, 1973 and that his coup was a dress rehearsal for the immediate reaction of the Chicago School neo-conservatives embedded in the Bush Administration. After 911, the astonishing leap from Afghanistan to Iraq may have surprised those of logical mind was in fact a long planned campaign into Iraq, site of massive oil fields.  Klein states,

The Bush team seized the moment of collective vertigo with chilling speed—not, as some have claimed, because the administration deviously plotted the crisis but because the key figures of the administration, veterans of earlier disaster capitalism experiments in Latin America and Eastern Europe, were part of a movement that prays for crisis the way drought-struck farmers pray for rain, and the way Christian-Zionist end-timers pray for the Rapture. When the long-awaited disaster strikes, they know instantly that their moment has come at last.

Klein correctly points out that the doctrines of the Chicago School had never been popular or desired by the American people.  That said, many of the ideas and principles were implemented by the Reagan Administration’s program of what George H. W. Bush called “voodoo economics,” also known as the “trickle down theory.”  The concept that, if taxes were cut for the wealthy, then the benefits would trickle down to the lower classes, was disproved by the fact that 1. The incomes of the middle class have stopped rising (and have stayed static to this day) and 2. Taxes had to be raised by Reagan eleven times to offset a growing deficit.  However, the great success of Ronald Reagan was that he introduced the idea that the “government is the problem.”

If that was the case during the Reagan Administration, during the Bush administration, the “government is the solution” to enriching corporations.  For the first time in the history of America, the nation went to war on a credit card.  The nation was urged to shop, not sacrifice, as the government conducted an endless “war on terror.”  Except that it was not the government that was waging this war. The “military” or the “troops” in the field that the American people heard about were something of a screen for what was really going on in Iraq. As Klein explained it,

“…the Bush administration outsourced, with no public debate, many of the most sensitive and core functions of government—from providing health care to soldiers, to interrogating prisoners, to gathering and “data mining” information on all of us. The role of the government in this unending war is not that of an administrator managing a network of contractors but of a deep-pocketed venture capitalist, both providing its seed money for the complex’s creation and becoming the biggest customer for its new services. To cite just three statistics that show the scope of the transformation, in 2003, the U.S. government handed out 3,512 contracts to companies to perform security functions; in the twenty-two-month period ending in August 2006, the Department of Homeland Security had issued more than 115,000 such contracts.”

Furthermore in the best tradition of the Chicago School, the huge cost increases incurred by privatizing the military and outsourcing fighting to contractors were hidden “off the books” and not put into the deficit until the Obama Administration.  As Klein pointed out, while the American people were improvised by this for-profit war of choice, Halliburton earned a $20 million profit. The Iraq was an experiment in large-scale privatization of war waged by corporate interests and their stockholders.  Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, put forward the idea of a small army, which hid the subtext of a large force of private contractors, who would fight in “our” name with taxpayer dollars but without accountability.  This hidden army was never counted in the number of people who were fighting in Iraq but they doubled the number of military personnel fighting for American interests in Iraq.  The result was a ten-year trillion-dollar war that started with a lie and will end in resignation.

Klein points out that the Shock Doctrine of the Chicago School calls its followers by a number of names: neoconservatives in America, living in so-called “Think Tanks,” such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, and “neoliberals” in Europe, indicating the interest in Macroeconomics or in corporate globalization.  The author decides upon a more descriptive term,

A more accurate term for a system that erases the boundaries between Big Government and Big Business is not liberal, conservative or capitalist but corporatist. Its main characteristics are huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, often accompanied by exploding debt, an ever-widening chasm between the dazzling rich and the disposable poor and an aggressive nationalism that justifies bottomless spending on security. For those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created by such an arrangement, there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance (once again, with government and large corporations trading favors and contracts), mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture.

By making an analogy to “torture,” Klein explains that the victim/nation is “softened up” through terrible events, which make human beings temporarily defenseless and susceptible to doing whatever it takes to remedy the crisis.  As she says,

That is how the shock doctrine works: the original disaster—the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane—puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect.

The Chicago School, according to Klein, long though of itself as a School of Thought or a philosophy, rather than an economic theory.  Just as the American military sought a city that had not been bombed upon which to drop the atom bomb the better to ascertain the results, the Chicago School economists sought a “clean slate” upon which to write their doctrines the better to ascertain the results.  These economists imagined that the capitalist system was faultless, endlessly flexible and endlessly self-correcting, and, hence, infallible. This is typical Enlightenment thinking, based upon an idealized model, generated by math, and based upon a hypothesis.

The problem begins when the elegant model meets the real world.  The economic system works only for corporations; the populations hate how they are disenfranchised and become restive.  In order to control the experiment, the government must increase surveillance on its own citizens who are constantly signaling their discontent.  The disconnect is caused by a conceptual misfit: the government is now for the benefit of the corporations but is masquerading, as in America, as a democracy and allows a charade of elections which are financed and manipulated by corporations in a viscous circle.  Caught in the middle,  “We the People” become more and more angry and, eventually, a rebellion ensues to put things right again, as in Chile.

The fact that while the Shock Doctrine may work, the Chicago School economic ideas do not has not given the Neoconservatives pause.  Instead, they simply double down and repeat their assertions, for years, in the fact of facts and documentation, all of which point to the contrary.  As Klein points out, the Neoconservatives are “purist” thinkers, meaning that they think in theory and feel the need to wipe away any pollutants that sully or interfere with what they think of as the “free market.”  One can understand the insistence of the Republican Party that the Environmental Protection Agency prevents jobs from being created by realizing that regulation per se is “impure.”  The problem is, that many have pointed out, the logical outcome of Enlightenment thinking: such a stance of “purity” would end regulations totally and we would not be able to drink the water and the Cuyahoga River will be ablaze once again.

Klein mentions that the Neoconservatives of the Chicago School were in the intellectual wilderness for decades, and, indeed, even today, orthodox economics and mainstream economists have pointed out that the government has to take a role in regulating and directing the economy.  Today, as we are mired in neo-Depression, these economists are calling for Keynesian economic policies to prime the job market and to stimulate the economy.  And the neoconservative politicians stand firm for a policy of purity and refuse to help any element of society, except the wealthy.  Their philosophy is in line with that of Milton Friedman who decided that the nation went off the rails with the New Deal and created a “welfare state.”  For nearly a century, it has been the goal of these anti-Keynesians to dismantle the role of government in society, from social safety nets to regulations that promote public health and safety.

Because of the popularity of the New Deal and its programs and the success of post-war government intervention in building a prosperous middle class through public policies, the “Chicago Boys” had to practice overseas, mostly in South American nations.  Despite the fact that some of the students at the University of Chicago protested the corrupt and brutal killing regimes brought into being by Chicago style politics, Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976 and apparently he never apologized for or agonized over all the horrible injustices done under his policies.  As Klein explained it,

This intellectual firewall went up not only because Chicago School economists refused to acknowledge any connection between their policies and the use of terror. Contributing to the problem was the particular way that these acts of terror were framed as narrow “human rights abuses” rather than as tools that served clear political and economic ends. That is partly because the Southern Cone in the seventies was not just a laboratory for a new economic model. It was also a laboratory for a relatively new activist model: the grassroots international human rights movement. That movement unquestionably played a decisive role in forcing an end to the junta’s worst abuses. But by focusing purely on the crimes and not on the reasons behind them, the human rights.

Somehow the Chicago School escaped being discredited on moral and ethical grounds and politicians realized that those economic policies were bad for the people who still casts votes in free nations.  Therefore, Milton Friedman was disappointed in the performance of Richard Nixon who understood that a contented population would reelect him.  As James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But later politicians would be bolder. Despite the undeniable truth of the terror and torture implemented by the Pinochet regime, free market politicians looked upon his work in Chile with favor.  Klein states,

When Friedrich Hayek, patron saint of the Chicago School, returned from a visit to Chile in 1981, he was so impressed by Augusto Pinochet and the Chicago Boys that he sat down and wrote a letter to his friend Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain. He urged her to use the South American country as a model for transforming Britain’s Keynesian economy. Thatcher and Pinochet would later become firm friends, with Thatcher famously visiting the aging general under house arrest in England as he faced charges of genocide, torture and terrorism. The British prime minister was well acquainted with what she called “the remarkable success of the Chilean economy,” describing it as “a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons.”

Klein studied Margaret Thatcher’s implementation of Milton Friedman’s doctrines which worked so badly that her position as Prime Minister of Great Britain was saved by a strange and unnecessary war, the Falklands War of 1982, fought on behalf of less that three thousand people and an almost equal number of sheep.  Friedman would have preferred an economic crisis, a depression, a currency meltdown, or something like we have today, a global collapse of the economic system.  But Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, went to war to cloak her failures.  England was a difficult site for Chicago School politics to flourish, and, as Klein continues, the former Soviet Union and China were more successful in following the “purity” of the free market philosophy of Milton Friedman who unapologetically advised China at the moment of Tiananmen Square.  But then Freidman always maintained that the ends always justify the means.   He said,

A common objection to totalitarian societies is that they regard the end as justifying the means. Taken literally, this objection is clearly illogical. If the end does not justify the means, what does? But this easy answer does not dispose of the objection; it simply shows that the objection is not well put. To deny that the end justifies the means is indirectly to assert that the end in question is not the ultimate end, that the ultimate end is itself the use of the proper means. Desirable or not, any end that can be attained only by the use of bad means must give way to the more basic end of the use of acceptable means.

As Klein points out, the former Soviet Union, now known as Russia, was an ideal proving ground for a doctrine that had continually failed.  She chronicles the psychological impact of the theories-come-home-to-roost as practice of the Chicago School: alcoholism and AIDS and prostitution and drug addiction and wealth concentrated in the hands of the few.  Such is the lament of the hopeless under a doctrine of “planned misery.”  She states,

Russia’s population is indeed in dramatic decline—the country is losing roughly 700,000 people a year. Between 1992, the first full year of shock therapy, and 2006, Russia’s population shrank by 6.6 million.83 Three decades ago, André Gunder Frank, the dissident Chicago economist, wrote a letter to Milton Friedman accusing him of “economic genocide.” Many Russians describe the slow disappearance of their fellow citizens in similar terms today. This planned misery is made all the more grotesque because the wealth accumulated by the elite is flaunted in Moscow as nowhere else outside of a handful of oil emirates. In Russia today, wealth is so stratified that the rich and the poor seem to be living not only in different countries but in different centuries. One time zone is downtown Moscow, transformed in fast-forward into a futuristic twenty-first-century sin city, where oligarchs race around in black Mercedes convoys, guarded by top-of-the-line mercenary soldiers, and where Western money managers are seduced by the open investment rules by day and by on-the-house prostitutes by night.

One might wonder why, with the many manifold and manifest failures of the Shock Doctrine and the Chicago School philosophy, the Neoconservatives continued to be fruitful and multiply.  The only answer that I could come up with is that the corporations like the policies because, once implemented, they become vastly enriched, even when the Chicago Boys can get only part of their agenda through, as in America.  To return to the Rumsfeld idea of “transforming” the military into a corporation by outsourcing fighting to contractors Klein recounts how unpopular this idea was to the generals who would watch the military double in size with half of the personnel beyond their control.  As she pointes out, the role of the government is to subcontract services to private businesses (which inevitably charge two or three times more), which cause the cost of any “government” service to spiral.

The philosophy of Milton Friedman made corporations and businesses profitable beyond their wildest dreams.  Thanks to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, more and more areas traditionally reserved for government professionals, who were often unionized, were turned over the corporations.  The result was a gutting of unionized labor (which started with Ronald Reagan) and the disenfranchising of the voter who could not confront a corporation in a town hall.  Klein points out that Bush had energetically privatized the prisons in Texas and then went on to privatize the War on Terror.  What Bush wanted to do, she asserts is to “hollow out the government.”  With what seems like a preternatural patience, the neoconservatives who had been waiting and practicing for years came into own, thanks to the calamity and trauma of September 11th.  She states,

September 11 has changed everything,” said Ed Feulner, Milton Friedman’s old friend and president of the Heritage Foundation, ten days after the attack, making him one of the first to utter the fateful phrase. Many naturally assumed that part of that change would be a reevaluation of the radical antistate agenda that Feulner and his ideological allies had been pushing for three decades, at home and around the world.

911 allowed for the collapse Enron to happen with less notice than it would have otherwise have subjected to.  But Enron and its mode of doing business was a harbinger of things to come: total economic collapse through one of the maladies that has plagued the Chicago School since the experiments began in the 1970s: corruption.  The problem of outside contractors happily ripping off the government had been going on for years but under the Friedman style government of George Bush, the process accelerated to the extent that we still do not have a complete accounting of taxpayer money that was misspent or simply lost.  Vast sums of money went, not to stimulate the American economy, which remained stagnant, but to corporations.  As Klein recounts,

New Deal would be exclusively with corporate America, a straight-up transfer of hundreds of billions of public dollars a year into private hands. It would take the form of contracts, many offered secretively, with no competition and scarcely any oversight, to a sprawling network of industries: technology, media, communications, incarceration, engineering, education, health What happened in the period of mass disorientation after the attacks was, in retrospect, a domestic form of economic shock therapy. The Bush team, Friedmanite to the core, quickly moved to exploit the shock that gripped the nation to push through its radical vision of a hollow government in which everything from war fighting to disaster response was a for-profit venture.

The economic doctrine of the Bush Administration, expressed by  Bush’s Budget Director, Mitch Daniels and others, was that the government did not provide services but purchased them from an outside contractor and resold them to the American public who was then forced to pay for these services at two or three times the market value.  The result was a guaranteed deficit, draining the government surplus created under Bill Clinton and the future of the nation, which was not floating off on a sea of endless and unmentionable debt.  The War on Terror made contractors and corporations rich, and the nation poor.

For decades, America has been fighting one war after another and has been existing in a low level state of Total War, flying low under the public radar.  In the same way, the War on Terror was fought by corporations and by a small group of beleaguered American soldiers who were used as window-dressing.  These soldiers were isolated from the mainstream, which allowed the War to be fought globally without much scrutiny or without inconveniencing the American people who were busy “shopping” for homes and commodities.  The best part of the War was that it could conceptually go on as long as American could borrow money from China.  As Klein says,

From a military perspective, these sprawling and amorphous traits make the War on Terror an unwinnable proposition. But from an economic perspective, they make it an unbeatable one: not a flash-in-the-pan war that could potentially be won but a new and permanent fixture in the global economic architecture.

What Naomi Klein calls the “disaster industry” was based on high tech venture capital businesses ideally suited to hunting “terrorists” with sophisticated technology.  Such technology is superbly expensive and is ideally suited to endless improvement, or to put it another way, an endless revenue stream.  An entire corporate structure sprung up, designed to fight a war that could not be won—by definition—and, therefore, a war that could never end—like the profits.  Klein points out the vast fortunes some fortunate individuals amassed following 911, predicting and causing the current inequities between the very rich and the stalled and suffering middle class. She says,

From a military perspective, these sprawling and amorphous traits make the War on Terror an unwinnable proposition. But from an economic perspective, they make it an unbeatable one: not a flash-in-the-pan war that could potentially be won but a new and permanent fixture in the global economic architecture.

The problem is that once government services are auctioned off to no-bid contractors, the nation has been given to corporations whose motive is profit, not democracy and not public service and not the public good.  Corporations answer to stockholders, not to voters.  For example, insurance companies are motivated to make money not to make people healthy.  A corporation could be providing any sort of good and a health care company or a military contractor is simply filling in a blank corporate space, providing a good or a service, not because it is dedicated to public service but because the business wants to make a profit.  For those who have wondered why America invaded Iraq or for those who charged that the war was waged to enrich Vice President Dick Cheney’s company, Halliburton, Klein offers this succulent explanation:

Saddam did not pose a threat to U.S. security, but he did pose a threat to U.S. energy companies, since he had recently signed contracts with a Russian oil giant and was in negotiations with France’s Total, leaving U.S. and British oil firms with nothing; the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world were slipping out of the Anglo-American grasp.  Saddam’s removal from power has opened vistas of opportunities for the oil giants, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP, all of whom have been laying the groundwork for new deals in Iraq, as well as for Halliburton, which, with its move to Dubai, is perfectly positioned to sell its energy services to all these companies.   Already the war itself has been the single most profitable event in Halliburton’s history.

When Klein went to Iraq to investigate this economic story, she, of course, could find few people to talk with her about the underlying cause and effect of the war for profit in Iraq.  There was enough public scrutiny on the war and the amount of money that was wasted, the toll of American lives in the service of Halliburton and the cost of the war on American honor so that the Bush Administration was forced to scale back its occupation forever dream and agreed to begin withdrawal and scale back—of the military, not the contractors.   It is still unclear what kind of or extent of an American presence will remain in Iraq.  Klein discusses her trip to Iraq,

The fact that it was hard to find people in Baghdad who were interested in talking about economics was not surprising. The architects of this invasion were firm believers in the shock doctrine—they knew that while Iraqis were consumed with daily emergencies, the country could be auctioned off discreetly and the results announced as a done deal. As for journalists and activists, we seemed to be exhausting our attention on the spectacular physical attacks, forgetting that the parties with the most to gain never show up on the battlefield. And in Iraq there was plenty to gain: not just the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves but territory that was one of the last remaining holdouts from the drive to build a global market based on Friedman’s vision of unfettered capitalism. After the crusade had conquered Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, the Arab world called out as its final frontier.

It was clear from the start that Iraq was considered to be, not a nation, but a site of corporate exploitation on a scale that made nineteenth century imperialism look tame and lame.  Iraq was to be a staging ground for extraction and profit while the compliant and grateful population looked on in “shock and awe.”  As often happens with these best-laid plans of the Chicago Boys (who seem perennially divorced from reality), those very pesky people caused problems from the start: looting, complaining, and forming insurrectionary groups.  As Klein recounts, because the “planners” did not plan for the Iraqi people, the occupation was a disaster from the start:

The Bush cabinet had in fact launched an anti-Marshall Plan, its mirror opposite in nearly every conceivable way. It was a plan guaranteed from the start to further undermine Iraq’s badly weakened industrial sector and to send Iraqi unemployment soaring. Where the post-Second World War plan had barred foreign firms from investing, to avoid the perception that they were taking advantage of countries in a weakened state, this scheme did everything possible to entice corporate America (with a few bones tossed to corporations based in countries that joined the “Coalition of the Willing”). It was this theft of Iraq’s reconstruction funds from Iraqis, justified by unquestioned, racist assumptions about U.S. superiority and Iraqi inferiority—and not merely the generic demons of “corruption” and “inefficiency”—that doomed the project from the start. None of the money went to Iraqi factories so they could reopen and form the foundation of a sustainable economy, create local jobs and fund a social safety net. Iraqis had virtually no role in this plan at all.

Predictably, the Iraqis were angry with the Bush Administration and reacted appropriately and reactively.  Instead of working with the people they had invaded and conquered, the government treated the innocent Iraqis ruthlessly, disenfranchising them from their own country and offering them no choice but insurrection.  The worst elements in Iraqi society floated to the top, while the very people who could rebuild the country simply left.  Unable to work with the occupation government, which was intent on sucking the natural resources dry, the best and the brightest, the educated and the trained sectors of the society fled the conditions created by the ineptness and greed of the Bush Administration.  But Klein insists that the real cause of the disaster was deeper than mere inexperience:

Iraq’s current state of disaster cannot be reduced either to the incompetence and cronyism of the Bush White House or to the sectarianism or tribalism of Iraqis. It is a very capitalist disaster, a nightmare of unfettered greed unleashed in the wake of war. The “fiasco” of Iraq is one created by a careful and faithful application of unrestrained Chicago School ideology.

The occupation forces viewed local Iraqi businesses as elements to be purchased by international corporations that would then proceed to “downsize” the employees and globalize the assets. While the Iraqis rebelled against their livelihoods being wrested from them by global corporate interests, Klein points to another aspect of the Occupation—the reluctance of the Neoconservatives to allow a government to be built for the people.  The Neoconservatives did not believe in government and it would be hard to imagine a contingent of the American population more ill suited to putting a shocked and defeated people on the road to democracy.  The followers of Milton Friedman believe, not in democracy, not in the Social Contract, but in an everyman-for-himself philosophy.

Every person has to compete within an economic zone where everything is for sale.  If you fail to compete on this narrow and specialized field, it is your fault.  The government’s only role is to stage and facilitate economic warfare, the Darwinian survival of the fittest scenario.  It has been remarked on over and over, especially in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s excellent 2006 book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, that the people hired to undertake the delicate and difficult task of reconstructing Iraq were young and inexperienced and given their jobs based, not on their understanding of nation building, but on having the “correct” positions on conservative “values,” such as abortion.  Klein makes it clear that such litmus tests that so puzzled me when I read Chandraskekaran’s book were probably just proofs of philosophical positions.  As she explains of the young people,

…they were frontline warriors from America’s counterrevolution against all relics of Keynesianism, many of them linked to the Heritage Foundation, ground zero of Friedmanism since it was launched in 1973. So whether they were twenty-two-year-old Dick Cheney interns or sixty-something university presidents, they shared a cultural antipathy to government and governing that, while invaluable for the dismantling of social security and the public education system back home, had little use when the job was actually to build up public institutions that had been destroyed.

Thanks to this army of neoconservatives, there was a vacuum where a government should have been.  Klein points out that the Iraqis who remained in their country had no government to coalesce around. There was no government, only an army of corporate occupiers, determined to loot and leave.  With few Iraqis allowed to be public presences or to have roles or jobs in the new corporate state, the people turned to the one element of society that had not been abolished, looted or corrupted: the fundamentalist Islam.  The Muslim religion in what had been a secular state under Sadaam became the only unifying force for the Iraqis.  A nation that had not allowed terrorists to disturb the dictator was now in the hands of terrorists and small fires of resistance broke out everywhere.  Soon the Green Zone was under siege and under fire, interrupting the contractors in their systematic looting of the nation’s resources.

The corporations were interested in taking money for not rebuilding Iraq, bombed into submission by its “liberators.”  In activities still incomprehensible, corporations such as Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown, and Root spend billions of borrowed money to “construct” facilities and buildings so bad and so dangerous that one has to wonder how such atrocities are actually carried out.  If anyone should be so bold as to sue, the corporations were beyond accountability: we paid them but we could not control them—the perfect situation for global looters.  As Klein says,

In March 2006, a federal jury in Virginia ruled against the company, finding it guilty of fraud, and forced it to pay $10 million in damages. The company then asked the judge to overturn the verdict, with a revealing defense. It claimed that the CPA was not part of the U.S. government, and therefore not subject to its laws, including the False Claims Act. The implications of this defense were enormous: the Bush administration had indemnified U.S. corporations working in Iraq from any liability under Iraqi laws; if the CPA wasn’t subject to U.S. law either, it meant that the contractors weren’t subject to any law at all—U.S. or Iraqi.

At the end of the book, Klein circles around from her long analysis of the looting of Iraq and returns to New Orleans after Katrina.  It seems that the Iraq model could be used in New Orleans to the benefit of tourist industries and developers.  This time, the disaster allowed the government to transport any citizens who might protest and ship them out of state so that the dismantling of entire neighborhoods and school districts could proceed unopposed.  As in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, the “abandoned” territory was privatized and gentrified.  The model of privatization has become so stealthily and systematically insinuated into the fabric of the American way of life that the private contractors have become stronger and less accountable.  As Klein expresses it,

The emergence of this parallel privatized infrastructure reaches far beyond policing. When the contractor infrastructure built up during the Bush years is looked at as a whole, what is seen is a fully articulated state-within-a-state that is as muscular and capable as the actual state is frail and feeble. This corporate shadow state has been built almost exclusively with public resources (90 percent of Blackwater’s revenues come from state contracts), including the training of its staff (overwhelmingly former civil servants, politicians and soldiers).  Yet the vast infrastructure is all privately owned and controlled. The citizens who have funded it have absolutely no claim to this parallel economy or its resources.

That these private corporations have the fate of the nation in their unaccountable hands is made clear when one looks at the banking industry.  Nowhere is the idea of public money and private gain truer than in the world of finance.  It is the public who risks and looses and the private that is saved and rewarded.  Klein’s thesis of “disaster capitalism” is playing out across America where we are seeing what she calls “disaster apartheid.”  The rich become richer and isolate themselves from the increasingly alienated lower classes, the middle and working and unemployed and underemployed classes.

It is not just the gated communities that withdraw from the Social Contract, such as one that Klein describes in Georgia; it is the gated minds that withdraw from the American promise: that we are one people and one nation.  Today, we are nation divided between the rich and protected who reap the rewards of a tax code rigged to make them rich and everyone else poor.   They are protected by powerful interests who are less interested in a single wealthy person on a Long Island estate in the Hamptons than in the “slippery slope” that the attentions of the citizens might turn to the corporations who also do not pay taxes.  Klein points out that Israel, like America has become a divided society, profiting from the “threats” of “terrorism” coming from tribes people who are living in a seventeenth century society.

The absurdity that twenty first century nations should establish an economic system dedicated to arming themselves against people who would leave us alone if we just left them alone has created a huge gulf between privatized wealth and public poverty.   Klein states that the American governments under the spell of Milton Friedman fear democratic socialism more than they fear any outside threat.  Any hints of “income redistribution” or “economic fairness” bring about instant assaults from the conservative media, which howls with charges of “Marxism” and “Nazism.”  Either these people are uneducated and don’t know the difference between the theories of Marx and the practices of Hitler or they simply hurl word grenades indiscriminately.

“Socialism” or a government that actually governs is a dire threat to the followers of Milton Friedman.  The people who run as conservatives run for office, not to govern, but to un-govern.  Their role is that of moles; to “hollow out” the government, leave it an empty tunnel under the crumbling sod of a nation that was once called “America.”  Running this brave new world will be a handful of corporations, those “people” who cannot vote but can buy elections.

As I write, there are protestors on Wall Street, “occupying” Zuccotti Park. The protests against the implementation of the Shock Doctrine upon Americans have been going on for years, ever since the Wall Street Bail Outs.  In another post, on Inside Job (2010) I wrote of the complicity of now-discredited economists and economic doctrines in causing a global economic crisis from which it will take us years to recover.  I say “us,” but most of “us” will never regain our strides or places in a once-thriving society that was looted by the rich and powerful who are affronted when “we” demand “economic justice.”  “We” are “Marxists” and “unpatriotic.”  The Shock Doctrine ends on a hopeful note as Naomi Klein sees signs that people are trying to take their country back.   Our future hangs in the balance and some of us wonder if this is our last chance before we all become “America, Inc.”

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger










The Assault on Reason, 2007, by Al Gore


A Review of


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)


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