Posts Tagged ‘Culture War’

Experimenting With National Security Policy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.

A Generational Bargain (in which we are getting screwed)

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:

California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.

Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:

We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.

California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:

  1. a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
  2. the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of  increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)

This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.

This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.

Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

David Brooks explained this grave situation facing Obama and the difficult tasks ahead (focusing especially on the growing deficit). Brooks concludes with reasons for hope and despair:

The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.

Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.

[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]

  1. This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. []

The Battle of the Rich

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Newsweek Finance editor and Slate contributor Daniel Gross and I seem to be thinking along the same lines, as we independently came to a similar response to his column of last week:

Last week, I wrote that the Republican claim that Obama is fighting a war against the rich was bogus. Over the weekend, I thought better of it. It turns out there is a war on the rich. Only it’s not being waged by vicious overlords in Washington intent on depriving honest, hardworking stiffs of their livelihoods. Rather, it’s a civil war, a war between the rich. It’s Park Avenue marauding through SoHo, Buckhead rampaging through Hilton Head, Palm Beach shelling Bal Harbour with the big cannons.

Call it the War Between the Estates.

While we both came to the conclusion that there is a battle going on amongst the rich, I came to a somewhat different conclusion about where to draw the lines in, as I wrote:

I realize that we are now observing a “Culture War” between the haves and the have mores, between the elites and the financial elites, between two opposing sides in the “overclass.”