Monthly Archives: February 2010

Not Really a Progressive

I went to hear George Packer, of The New Yorker fame, speak this week and was struck by his references to the Progressives; the real ones in 1905, not the vague term that people use today.  Mr. Packer said President Obama is like the Progressives in his passion for clean, open government; he deeply values a political system where issues are discussed in a spirit of good faith, where leaders struggle to work out what actions are in the best interest of the country.  This progressive, good government impulse is deeply embedded in the president’s “come, let us reason together” personality and is the source of his persistent attempts at bi-partisanship.

Mr. Packer also said that Obama, like the Progressives, believes in expertise and group discussion in order to reach the right policy prescriptions.  Once he reached the White House, Obama moved away from his campaign “man of the people” persona and adopted a more deliberative, expert-oriented, decision-making process.  While this was most evident during the three month process that preceded his decision to drastically increase military activity in Afghanistan, the same process was also used for major issues like saving the financial system, pushing for health care reform, and addressing climate change.

Unfortunately, the mere listing of those last three issues, banks-health care-climate change, highlights the dramatic way in which President Obama is not at all like the Progressives of the early 20th century.  Those reformers were passionately opposed to the abuses of large corporations and banks.  The “Robber Barons” were not loved by most Americans and numerous movements rose up to challenge their ability to exploit workers and consumers.  In fact, by the 1912 presidential campaign between Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Howard Taft, there was a fierce debate over whether big companies should be dismantled through anti-trust court action (Taft), closely managed through a system of powerful federal regulatory agencies (TR), or some combination of the two (Wilson).

Needless to say, Mr. Obama has never considered any of those alternatives.  Instead, following the advice of his experts, he, and the Democratic leadership in Congress, have attempted to purchase good behavior through open-ended bail-outs of financial firms, concessions that preserve the profits of drug and insurance companies, and subsidies and exemptions for dirty energy providers and users in the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House last summer.

Obviously, President Obama has been confronted by over-the-top belligerence from the Republican Party, but the policy choices he has made in an attempt to moderate their opposition and get cooperation from our modern day Robber Barons have added up to a demoralizing failure to promote the national interest.  Millions of his strongest supporters have been reduced to stunned disbelief.  Perhaps what we are seeing is the exhaustion of modern liberalism; a philosophy that was once guided by the principle of using government resources to improve the well-being of the great majority of the population.  Now the party of liberalism seems to have no political strategy other than using tax money to bribe rogue corporations and banks in the vague hope of moderating their behavior.

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On Our Own

The business pages of the Boston Globe seldom have deep stories analyzing economic trends.  The main healines are reserved for stories about the ups and downs of local and regional businesses and the people who manage them.  However, buried in smaller stories are bits and pieces of information that, when put together, give us clues to trends in our dismal economy.

For example, on January 29th, a small A.P. story noted that durable goods orders (things that last a while like refrigerators and televisions) rose only 0.3% in December, far less than the 2% rise predicted by professional economists.  Traditionally, when our economy rebounds from a recession, durable goods orders jump as consumers begin spending again.  The latest number was a huge disappointment, given that durable good orders fell 20% during 2009.  The same article points to the reason – 470,000 people filed claims for unemployment benefits the week before – that is, even as government statistics show the GDP going up, nearly half a million Americans got laid off.

On January 30th, a small A.P. story reported that even if you kept your job during 2009, things got worse.  Overall, wages rose an average of 1.5% in 2009, far below the official (doctored-down) inflation rate of 3%.  On February 1st, a tiny Bloomberg News article reported that Nouriel Roubini, the economics professor who predicted the financial crisis before most “experts” noticed there was a problem, said that unemployment will remain over 10% even if statistics show the GDP is growing.  He said, “It’s going to feel like a recession even if technically we’re not going to be in a recession.”

On January 28th, Michell Singletary wrote about President Obama’s “Middle Class Task Force,” which has, after a year of study, recommended that debts for the Federal college Loan Program be forgiven after the student pays 10% of his or her income for twenty years – a reduction from the current 25 year requirement.  This minor change comes from an administration that has fully cooperated with the Bush administration’s handout of more than $600 billion to banks and hedge funds with no requirements for increased business lending, no requirements for renegotiation of mortgages with individuals who are facing foreclosure, and no significant limitations on management bonuses.  Highlighting the contrast, an A.P. article on the same day noted that the Federal Reserve reported that lending is still contracting.

I could go on, I clipped out a week’s worth of stories with the same message – the aftermath of the great financial crash of 2008 is not going to be a return to normal.  While GDP “growth” might be trumpeted in the news, our friends, neighbors, and family are going to be unable to find jobs and the purchasing power of those who keep jobs will continue to decline.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration, moving in slow-motion as it follows the advice of its Wall Street born and bred economic advisors, will only propose tiny changes at the margins, while right-wing Republicans in the Senate will howl about government deficits and bloc even those reforms.  We are on our own.

Reversal of Fortune

The last post on this blog was in November of 2008.  In it, I compared Obama to Quinn the Eskimo in the famous Bob Dylan song.  At that time a giddy euphoria swept much of the country and there were pundits calling for President Bush to resign so that Obama could take office immediately.

At the time, I felt there was no longer a pressing need for a blog about the American empire; a systematic, historically-based criticism of the wars and hardships that accompany the country’s restless urge to control the earth’s resources and destiny.  Deep down, I had been rooting hard for Obama and, like many others, projected my hopes and dreams of reform onto his candidacy.  I also thought that he understood the urgent need for change and would be eager to seize the moment.

Most ironically, about the time of my last post it was becoming clear that Al Franken was going to eventually win the Senate seat in Minnesota, giving the Democrats 57 seats along with two Independents – even if one of them was that miserable tool Joe Lieberman.  With the help of the remaining moderate Republicans like Snow and Collins from Maine and the political weathervan Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, a series of reforms would wash away eight years of awful rule by Dick Cheney and his amiable sidekick.

How misguided that whole mood seems today!  The 60-40 split in the Senate morphed with President Obama’s odd desire for bi-partisan legislation, giving enormous power to the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.  Combined with the “filibuster everything” strategy followed by all of the Republicans, the Senate has become a bastion of reaction.  Just as Cato and his faction in the Senate of the Roman Republic were willing to risk civil war in order to crush reform politicians, the hard-line conservatives who control the Republican Party and much of the media are will to bring Obama’s government to a halt.

Disheartening as these events were, the real shock was President Obama’s willingness to pump up the defense budget and expand the war in Afghanistan.  These actions confirm the thesis presented in my book – that the American empire is a deeply bi-partisan effort to dominate political and economic affairs in every part of the globe.  Thus, the blog is back and I hope that people of good-will all over the U.S. turn their efforts toward restoring the vitality of the American Republic before it is too late.