Monday, August 30, 2010

The Clocks Are Striking 13

On the same weekend that Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and insisted they were "reclaiming the Civil Rights Movement," Frank Rich -- in The New York Times -- wrote about the weatlthy trinity who are giving Beck and Palin their financial mojo -- Rupert Murdoch, and the Koch brothers, David and Charles. And, wrote Rich, these three are not a new species:

You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League's crusade against the New Deal "socialism" of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our president.

Jane Mayer, in the New Yorker, recently exposed the cabal. And she reminded her readers that David and Charles' father, Fred, was one of the original Birchers -- who considered Dwight Eisenhower a Communist agent. Rather than reclaiming the Civil Rights Movement, the elder Koch claimed that the movement was part of a larger conspiracy: "The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America," he wrote.

Paranoia is nothing new in American politics. On the day following Rich's column, Paul Krugman wrote that, during the Clinton administration, Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife were funding the same army. They were on the march then, claiming that (somehow) Hilary Clinton was implicated in Vince Foster's death. The difference this time is that The Paranoid Army has more money and a bigger megaphone. "It will be an ugly scene," Krugman wrote:

and it will be dangerous, too. The 1990's were a time of peace and prosperity; this is a time of neither. In particular, we're still suffering from the after-effects of the worst economic crisis since the 1930's, and we can't afford to have a federal government paralyzed by an opposition with no interest in helping the president govern. But that's what we're likely to get.

Facing the same kind of opposition, Franklin Roosevelt met his detractors head on."The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty," he said," is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government."

Murdoch and the Kochs would like Americans to believe that they are leading a popular revolt. Their strategy rests on the assumption that voters will forget that Beck -- who said Saturday that "we must be better than what we've allowed ourselves to become" -- also said (of President Obama) "I believe this guy is a racist [with] a deep seated hatred of white people." The trinity is also betting that Americans will forget that Sarah Palin recently defended Laura Schlessinger's use of the word "nigger" and advised her to "reload."

It's as if Martin Luther King had been a spokesman for the Klan. And that Americans -- or at least a significant number of them -- now live in an Orwellian alternative reality, where War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength -- and the clocks are striking 13.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Imperial Burden

Back in June, The Canadian Press revealed that, in March 2009, Stephen Harper sat down to lunch with Rupert Murdoch. Also present was the president of Fox News, Roger Ailes, who was instrumental in bringing Rush Limbaugh to television, and who has since given Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly prominent perches at Fox. The CP story leaked after Pierre Karl Peladeau hired Kory Teneycke -- who joined the Harper-Murdoch-Ailes affair -- to oversee the start up of Peladeau's Sun TV News Channel.

A coincidence? Hardly. But, Jeffrey Simpson advised his readers, there was no need to push the panic button:

Sun TV isn't going to make, break or even influence the shape of Canadian politics, whatever the ideological fervour of Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former spokesman now in charge of assembling the Sun TV challenge.

And, besides, Simpson wrote, The Canadian Radio and Television Commission was not likely to grant Sun TV a "basic" licence -- which would require all cable systems to carry the channel. The commission has placed a moratorium on such licences.

Then, less than a week ago, Lawrence Martin reported the rumour that Mr. Harper was seeking to replace the head of the CRTC, Konrad von Finckenstein -- who would oppose Sun's application -- with someone more to the prime minister's liking. Thus, von Finckenstein would join a growing list of civil servants who Harper has removed because they have been thorns in his government's side.

The recent police response at the G20 Summit, the counter intuitive drive to dismantle the long gun registry, the attempt to shackle Statistics Canada, and now the news that Mr. Harper's former spokesman seeks to establish "Fox News North" offer proof that the Harperites are on a mission. That mission is to establish long term control of the levers of power and to remake this small corner of the world. They approach it with the same zeal nineteenth century British Imperialists displayed when they set out to "civilize" those they considered "naked savages."

Harper's vision is a 21st century version of "the white man's burden," the purpose of which is to purge his charges of what he considers dangerously radical tendencies -- and, in the process, to make true believers of us all. Applying that vision over a century and a half ago was disastrous. Colonialism's legacy was the First World War. The longer these people remain in office, the longer the trail of debris they leave in their wake. One hopes that the sun will soon set on the Harperite Empire.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Price of Empire

Chalmers Johnson has led an interesting life. Trained as a political scientist with a special interest in Asia, he was a strong Anti-Communist, who worked as a consultant for the C.I.A. and supported the War in Vietnam. During those years, he wrote, he was

irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework [on the history of communism in East Asia] . . . . As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America's imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect I wish I had stood with the anti war movement. For all its naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy was wrong.

It is that perspective which informs Johnson's latest book, Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. In a recent article at TomDispatch, Chalmers reevaluates American foreign policy, almost fifty years after Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August was first published. And he asks the question which no one else dares to ask:

What harm would befall the United States if we actually decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us?

He then answers that question: "Not likely. . . .the main fears you might hear in Washington -- if anyone bothered to wonder what would happen should we begin to dismantle our empire -- would prove but chimeras."

That is not to say that Washington would then cast aside a hornet's nest of troubles:

In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession -- none of these are likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies, weapons, wars, global garrisons and bribes for petty dictators.

But there is an alternative. It is, says Chalmers, to invest in productive, not destructive, industries and to invest in America's infrastructure and its people. "Unfortunately," he writes, "I don't see that happening.

My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her. I wish I could be more optimistic about what's in store for the U.S. Instead there isn't a day that our own guns of August don't continue to haunt me.

Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Johnson can hope that Americans awake a sadder but a wiser people on the morrow morn -- particularly in the week after the last combat brigade has left Iraq.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Preston Manning on Stephen Harper

This week, the Harper government began walking two more civil servants -- Veterans Ombudsman Col. Pat Stogran and RCMP Chief Superintendent Marty Cheliak -- to the exits. Both men were charged with holding the government accountable for its actions -- something Mr. Harper claimed he and his party stood for, without exception.

But that was before Mr. Harper became Prime Minister. Now Stogran and Cheliak join a long list of people who were fired or let go because they did their jobs. Meanwhile, Mr. Harper has retreated to his bunker, staying out of the limelight, while other ministers -- like Tony Clement and Stockwell Day -- take the heat for his decisions.

What is interesting is that this is nothing new. In his book, Think Big: My Adventures in Life and Democracy, Preston Manning recounts how Stephen Harper simply had a hard time working with others. Manning writes, for instance, of how Harper objected to the appointment of Rick Anderson as the Reform Party's campaign director. Anderson had supported the Charlottetown Accord; and Harper simply didn't trust him. But it went beyond that. Anderson was Harper's intellectual equal. And, Manning wrote, Harper
had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy. And Stephen, at this point, was really not prepared to be a team player or team builder.

Mr. Harper has never been one to work collaboratively. Manning recounts how, in 1992, he quit as the party's Chief Policy Officer to concentrate on his own election campaign. This was "a blow to our overall campaign effort, and it put more of a burden on those who had to fill the gap left by his withdrawal." Despite his desertion, Harper was one of 52 Reformers elected to Parliament in 1993.

But, as another election approached in 1996, he began to fear that the team, which he had done so little to build, was going to lose:

Rather than pitching in to help turn things around [Manning wrote] Stephen again chose to withdraw. This was now the third time that Stephen had vacated the field prior to a battle -- the first time when he retreated from our Charlottetown Accord campaign, the second time when he withdrew from the 1993 national election campaign to concentrate solely on his own riding.

And six months prior to the election, Harper resigned his seat and went back to Calgary, to become the head of the National Citizens Coalition, where the only other person who worked in the organization's office was his secretary.

Those who know Stephen Harper best -- those who have worked with him from the beginning -- long ago reached the conclusion which Andrew Coyne voiced this week in the pages of Macleans:

And the Prime Minister? Consider how his image has changed over the years. Once he was viewed as rigid, but upright; doctrinaire, but with a certain integrity. Over time that gave way to a more Machiavellian cast. Perhaps it was true, it was said, that he would do anything and say anything to hold on to power, but you had to admire his cunning.

But now? After so many miscues, unforced errors, too clever tricks and utter botch ups, does anyone still cling to the "strategic genius" view of Stephen Harper?

Holden Caulfield had a simpler, more direct phrase to describe people like the Prime Minister. He is, to put it plainly, a "phony."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Tipping Point

"A democracy which refuses to heed the will of the majority as routinely as it embraces the narrow interests of a vocal fringe," Alec Bruce wrote in the Times and Transcript this week, "is no democracy at all; it is, by ambition and practice, an elected oligarchy."

In the face of opposition from over 200 organizations, the Harperites can only point to three organizations -- the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and The National Citizens Coalition -- which support their decision to abandon the long census form. No matter, wrote Bruce,

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have, for years, waged a stunningly successful campaign against the twin concepts of expertise and collaboration in political culture. Their hard line right wing mentality has extolled the virtue of certitude in all matters of state, as bias and presumption have proscribed the meritorious, once meretricious, qualifications for public office. Meanwhile, reasonable dissent has become the province of eggheads, elitists and other assorted traitors.

Add to that the confirmation -- contained in emails from Statistics Canada -- that the agency never supported the government's decision to abandon the long form -- as Tony Clement claimed -- and you have a tipping point.

"Canadians witnessed the disgusting spectacle," Jeffrey Simpson wrote in The Globe and Mail

of careerist ministers -- Industry's Tony Clement in the lead -- tap dancing to the Prime Minister's tune. Their justification for dispensing with the long form -- the best chance of getting the most accurate data -- was a melange of distortions, misrepresentations and exaggerations of so gross a kind that Canadians recoiled in indignation.

The history of the Harper government has been a series of blunders -- from sabotaging his chance at majority rule by making intemperate comments about cultural organizations, and thus alienating Quebec supporters -- to attempting to eliminate funding for opposition parties six weeks after that election and proroguing Parliament to avoid a vote of confidence -- to proroguing Parliament yet again this year when questions about how Afghan prisoners were handled by Canadian authorities made it too hot in the parliamentary kitchen. Each blunder has been an over reach -- an attempt by an oligarchical prime minister to have his way and answer to no one.

The census decision is yet another example of Harper's insistence that he does what he does because he can. Only this time it's clear that, in spinning the rationale for the decision, he and his ministers have simply not told the truth. And the public understands that destroying Statscan's data base will make it easier for them to not tell the truth.

Jeffrey Simpson is right on target: "The long form will return. Voters won't."

The Trials of Jeremiah

There must have been times over the last couple of years when Bob Herbert felt like Jeremiah -- warning that a reckoning was on the way, and being ignored by those who might be able to avoid it. His frustration was evident in Saturday's New York Times:

The country is a mess. The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution. Steadily increasing numbers of middle class families, who never thought they'd be seeking charity, have been showing up at food pantries.

Throughout the battle for health care reform and the battle for Wall Street reform, Herbert has written that the government's first priority should be job creation. While it is true -- as Peter Orzag stoutly maintained -- that the best way to control ballooning deficits is to control health care costs, it is also true that, for average Americans, the best way to pay the bills is to be employed.

Herbert is in good company. Like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, he believes that without government supported employment, the economy will not recover:

The problem with the U.S. economy today, as it was during the Great Depression, is the absence of sufficient demand for goods and services. Consumers, struggling with sky high unemployment and staggering debt loads, are tapped out. The economy cannot be made healthy again, and there is no chance of doing anything substantial about budget deficits, as long as so many millions of people are left with essentially no purchasing power. Jobs are the only real answer.

And there is plenty of work to do. Like the TVA and the Interstate Highway System -- two pertinent examples -- investments must be made in America's infrastructure, to ensure the nation's economic viability in the 21st Century. Those investments will require a staggering amount of money -- a thought which sends modern Republicans into apoplexy. But Herbert correctly quotes Franklin Roosevelt, "You cannot borrow your way out of debt, but you can invest your way into a sounder future."

Roosevelt's proposition will be tested in November. If one believes the polls, that proposition may go down to defeat. However, the very Republicans whose poll numbers have them dreaming of a return to power, may be President Obama's salvation. As Eugene Robinson reminded readers of The Washington Post and The Moderate Voice last week:

Democrats may be facing a tough fight this fall, but Republicans are giving them plenty of material to work with. In several high-profile contests, candidates who won nominations with fervent tea party support appear to be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In Colorado, the Republican candidate for governor sees urban cyclists as part of a United Nations conspiracy. In Nevada, Sharon Angle wants the press to ask her only the questions she chooses to answer. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon, the wife of the man behind the WWE, has been known to enter the ring with other brutish bores and kick men in the crotch. And, in Kentucky, Rand Paul has expressed doubts about the wisdom of the Civil Rights Act.

Herbert's premonition that it's a hard rain's a gonna fall on Democrats may be justified. Certainly, he would say, they should have seen it coming. On the other hand, with candidates like Angle, McMahon and Paul, the tide may run the other way.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Say That Again?

As President Obama's approval numbers tanked again last week, Michael Steele donned a red hat, emblazoned with the logo "Fire Pelosi," and kicked off a six week bus tour. He was jubilant as he spoke to a crowd in Kansas City, predicting that he and the RNC would send Pelosi to "the back of the bus."

One could be forgiven for thinking that one's hearing was faulty. But a few weeks ago -- speaking about the war in Afghanistan -- Steele said, "This war was of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."

And shortly after assuming the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Steele claimed that Obama's election was a fluke: "The problem we have with this president," he said, "is we don't know him. He was not vetted, folks. . . . He was not vetted because the press fell in love with the black man running for office." The longest primary season in American political history somehow did not register with Mr. Steele.

Alot of history has not registered with Mr. Steele. On the subject of the stimulus package, he said, " Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job." He was, of course, conveniently forgetting that he used to be the Lt. Governor of Maryland.

His gaffes have not gone unnoticed. William Kristol has suggested that he should be guided to the door marked Exit. Steele, however, has an answer for his critics: "I'm very introspective about things. I'm a cause and effect kind of guy. So, if I do something there's a reason for it. . . It may look like a mistake, a gaffe. There is a rationale, there is a logic behind it."

Mr. Steele's logic increasingly eludes even members of his own party. Perhaps that's because he has -- in the now famous words of one of George W. Bush's advisers -- left "the reality based community." There was a time when those who checked out of that community resided in the Twilight Zone.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Party of the Paranoid

Errol Mendes raised hackles on the right two days ago when -- in a column in the Ottawa Citizen -- he wrote that Stephen Harper's war against the public service increasingly makes his government look like a dictatorship. "It is primarily in totalitarian regimes," Mendes wrote,

that there is little use for an independent public service, or judicial or quasi-judicial bodies that seek to promote the public interest regardless of politics. The undermining of the public service of Canada should be one of the most important ballot box issues in the coming federal election.

What prompted Mendes column was the resignation of Munir Sheikh, the Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada. Sheikh joined a growing list of public servants who Mr. Harper either fired or replaced, because they did not bow appropriately before the throne. Among the departed were:

Peter Tinley of the Military Complaints Commission, Linda Keen of the Nuclear Safety Commission, Paul Kennedy of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, Adrian Measner of the Wheat Board, John Reid and Robert Marleau of the Information Commissioner's Office, Bernard Shapiro, the former ethics commissioner, Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer of Canada, and, of course, at the front of the firing line is Kevin Page of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Harper's suspicion of the public service has become pathological. That became absolutely clear, later in the week when Stockwell Day brushed aside suggestions that the new prisons the government says are a priority are not required, because the crime rate in Canada has been dropping for ten years. Those numbers, said Day, were not to be believed. The real problem is unreported crimes. In 1993, 42% of victims reported crimes. In 2004, 34% reported crimes."Those numbers are alarming," Day said, "and it shows how we can't take a liberal view of crime [or] suggest that it's barely happening at all." The numbers are vague. But the bogeyman gets bigger.

Day did not indicate how the government would find these unreported criminals. So the question of how those empty cells will be filled remains unanswered. It is worth remembering that Day's cabinet colleague, Jim Flaherty -- when he ran for the leadership of the Ontario Conservative Party -- suggested that the homeless should be swept off the streets and put in jail for their own protection.

It is also worth remembering that the driving force behind Harper's Conservatives are left overs from Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution. Lawrence Martin wrote last week in The Globe and Mail, that the Harris stamp on policy is best symbolized by Harper's replacement of Ian Brodie with Guy Giorno, Harris' right hand man. "The changeover," Martin wrote, "may come to be seen as the turning point in Mr. Harper's governance, the moment when the die was cast, when the chance of these Conservatives ever becoming a big tent party ended."

Giorno's ascent marked the point where paranoia became the prime directive in the Prime Minister's Office. One need look no further than the police response at the recent G20 summit. It is no accident that the government's response bears striking similarities to the Ipperwash Confrontation, where Mr. Harris allegedly told the Ontario Provincial Police that he "wanted the [expletive deleted] Indians out of the park."

Americans learned during Richard Nixon's presidency that paranoia in power can shake the foundations of a democracy. A word to the wise.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Back to the Future?

Two competing narratives appear to be making the rounds these days. The first is the saga of The Failed Salesman, in which Barack Obama -- a kind of 21st century Willy Loman -- crashes and burns in the wreckage his dreams inspired. The second is a fourth installment of Back to the Future, in which the Republican Party dusts off its political flux capacitor, rides into Washington, takes back Congress, builds a national monument to Arthur Laffer and rewrites history. The first narrative leaves Democrats depressed; the second leaves Republicans energized.

Those who favour either narrative should read The Political Genius of Supply Side Economics, by Martin Wolf, which appeared last Sunday in The Financial Times. "To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy," Wolf wrote

we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: "supply-side economics." Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue.
The political genius of this idea is evident. Supply-side economics transformed Republicans from a minority party into a majority party. It allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits, and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?

The problem, of course, is that Americans have been running up a tab at the cafeteria for thirty years. And Mr. Obama has been stuck with the bill. In an era of low interest rates, he has tried to consolidate the debt -- and included the cost of two wars in the total. Faced for the first time in thirty years with real numbers, Americans are scared; and they blame Obama for building the mountain they must now climb.

But what is truly ironic, Wolf writes, is that if Republicans regain power, they will build a higher mountain:

This is extraordinarily dangerous. The danger does not arise from the fiscal deficits of today, but to the attitudes to fiscal policy, over the long run, of one of the two main parties. Those radical conservatives (a small minority, I hope) who want to destroy the credit of the U.S. federal government may well succeed. If so, that would be the end of the U.S. era of global dominance. The destruction of fiscal credibility could be the outcome of the policies of the party that considers itself the most patriotic.

Wolf reminds his readers that "conservative" in Britain means something very different than it does in the United States. As E.J. Dionne recently noted, David Cameron -- the new Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom -- has increased the Value Added Tax from 17.5% to 20%. And Paul Krugman, who has criticized the president's economic policy as being too little too late, warned his readers last Thursday that "Mr. Obama may not be the politician of their dreams, but his enemies are definitely the stuff of their nightmares."

The first three installments of Back to the Future were highly entertaining and made a fortune at the box office. The fourth installment would bomb. More importantly, it would bankrupt the country.

This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.