Monday, June 28, 2010

Reagan Was Wrong: The Nine Most Terrifying Words Are, "I'm a Libertarian and the Market Will Save You"

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

I was tailgating with my wife and two friends in the parking lot of Miller Park before a Brewers game yesterday, when a guy with a pasted-on, plastic, local-news-anchor smile approached our group. He wanted us to sign a petition to get his "buddy" on the ballot for state treasurer. Of course, the first question I asked him was which party his "buddy" belonged to, and the guy told us he was a Libertarian.

Poor guy, he didn't realize he was approaching a liberal blogger and his progressive friends. Not an audience that was going to easily buy what he had to sell. I politely told him that I wouldn't support a Libertarian candidate, and like a telemarketer dutifully and mechanically following a script provided to him to handle rejection, he asked why I didn't support Libertarians. I explained that I did not harbor a dislike or distrust of government, and that I thought there were certain jobs that only government could do. Without removing the wooden smile from his face, he moved to the next page of his telemarketer script and asked me if he could have one minute to "rebate" what I had said, and he proceeded to tell us that the free market is perfectly efficient and the best way to solve problems. I started to laugh and told him that, yes, the financial collapse two years ago was a great example of the market solving problems. And also, another great example was the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. My wife and friends joined in the laughter, and our Libertarian guest could no longer maintain his fake smile. His voice and facial expression turned angry, and he stormed off to the next group of tailgaters, spitting out something barely intelligible at us as he left.

I thought this interaction perfectly encapsulated the anti-government, pro-market-solution obsession currently running through the right, especially among tea baggers and self-proclaimed libertarians. They love to cite Ronald Reagan's line that the "nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" But I'm far more afraid of someone telling me, "I'm a Libertarian (or Tea Party member) and the market will save you."

You would think from listening to the rhetoric that we have two choices in this country: Either you adopt the right's notion of deregulation and an unfettered free market, or you are a socialist. There is no in-between. Which is, of course, patently false, but also maddeningly ignorant of recent American history. Taking the financial industry as an example, after the election of Franklin Roosevelt, Congress quickly enacted legislation, like the Securities Act of 1933, the Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall), and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, meant to curb the excesses of an unfettered financial system, which had led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that ensued. And for the next 45 years, the country was able to avoid any mass financial collapses.

Then, beginning with Reagan, and continuing through George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and reaching its peak with the ultimate deregulation messiah, George W. Bush, the government took down the post-Depression financial regulation structure brick by brick, following a mantra that deregulation helped the market to function freely, and a free market will produce the best results.

What did we get? The savings and loan scandal, the Enron-induced power outages in California, corporate fraud (Enron, etc.) and, ultimately, a financial industry run amok (arcane financial instruments, insanely risky investments that banks profited from regardless of their success, and credit rating agencies handing out AAA ratings like candy to keep customers, just to name some examples), all leading to a near financial collapse that plunged the country (and the rest of the world) into a job-sapping, deep recession.

All evidence would seem to point to the need for some regulation to keep the banks from running amok, but the right still clings to its mantra of deregulation and unfettered free markets.

I also thought it was not a coincidence that not once, not twice, but three times during his two-minute pitch to us, our Libertarian petitioner talked of having the opportunity to "rebate" what I had said about his cause. (Not "rebut" or "debate" or whatever else he actually meant, but "rebate," which had me secretly hoping he had a way to refund to us some of our time he had wasted.) It was fitting because so much of the right wing/Tea Party/libertarian anger is based on false notions (much of it, no doubt, a product of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the right wing media misinformation machine), and the urgency of his words was not supported by a basic ability to use the English language to make an argument, leaving the content of his claims even more suspect.

I can already hear the complaints now: I'm an elitist snob for chiding someone for making a mistake. If I was pointing out that, say, the guy who scanned our tickets at the Miller Park gate had been less than smooth with his words, I would deserve the criticism (that didn't happen, it's just an example). But here was a guy who was so sure of his beliefs, he not only gave up a Sunday to walk around a baseball stadium parking lot to collect signatures (admirable commitment), but he felt empowered to tell everyone there that he was right and they were wrong. And if you are going to take such a position and hold yourself out as an authority, it is fair to question the knowledge and intelligence underlying the strong assertions.

Our Libertarian petitioner's certainty isn't just simplistic, it is a real impediment to solving our country's problems. The alternative to unfettered free markets is not socialism, but rather, it is free markets with basic regulations in place to prevent abuse, just like the financial regulation architecture that protected the country after the Great Depression. (Somehow, I don't think we were living in a socialist state when Eisenhower and Nixon held the presidency.) I know subtlety is a lost art in modern politics, but if we are to survive, we will have to recognize that there are more than two extreme choices. These same right wingers don't seem to mind when the government subsidizes the oil industry, and I doubt that they want to shut down the libraries, public schools, fire departments, and highway maintenance departments, all of which are run by the government (and would not exist if left to a private, free-market model). Conservatives, tea baggers and libertarians want you to think it's a simple dichotomous choice: free markets or socialism, or no government or all government. But such a reductionist view fails to account for how complicated and integrated the relationship between public and private actually is. (Yes, I know, asking for nuance rather than black-and-white distinctions is tragically 20th century.) Let's remember the angry town hall attendees last summer telling members of Congress to keep their government hands off of their Medicare. Even they liked a government program, but they didn't even know it.

There was one aspect of our Libertarian petitioner's approach that especially rang true to me: The false smile covering his real anger. Tea Party leaders are quick to say there is no place in their movement for racism, but at those same rallies you see racist signs about President Obama. Let's not forget the March Harris poll that revealed that 57 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and 45 percent think he wasn't born in the United States. Somehow, I doubt these people would be concerned about the religion or place of birth of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, let alone John McCain, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. When right wingers talk about taking "their" country back, it's hard to see "their" as meaning anything but a system in which power rested in white, male, Christian hands. When tea baggers put a happy, smiley face on the movement, I can't help but be wary of the angry snarl underneath. So I wasn't the least bit surprised when our Libertarian petitioner's plastic grin quickly devolved into an angry scowl when he realized that he didn't have the ammunition to win over someone who was even marginally informed.

These are not merely philosophical questions. Late last week, financial reform legislation was watered down at the last minute to ensure its passage. After what happened in 2008, opposing real reform in areas like derivatives and the so-called "Volcker Rules" defies logic. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent thanks to a recession precipitated by a near financial industry collapse, I don't agree with Ronald Reagan. I'm not scared of the government trying to help. But I am terrified of an unfettered free market allowing industry leaders, whether they be in the financial industry or the oil business, ruled by greed, putting the country at risk to unfairly further line their already bulging pockets.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

GOP Leaders Play Games While Oil Pours into the Gulf

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Nero, it is said, fiddled while Rome burned. When they write about the early 21st century United States, maybe they'll say Americans blustered as oil ravaged the Gulf.

As a country, we seem to have lost the plot, with grandstanding, strategizing and even lying taking center stage while real problems threaten many of the core elements of our day-to-day lives. We don't realistically address the issues, but use them as opportunities to score political points. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is far from the only example, but it is the latest one.

For coming up on two months now, tens of thousands (and maybe hundreds of thousands, we can't get a straight answer) of barrels of oil have been pouring into the Gulf of Mexico every day. The result has been miles of oil in the Gulf, threatening the shores of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida. How much oil? We don't know for sure, partially because BP won't let independent scientists measure it. BP won't even admit that oxygen-sapping oil plumes exist below the Gulf surface, even as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has confirmed that they are there, as big as 10 miles long, three miles wide and 300 feet deep.

In short, BP drilled a mile below the floor of the Gulf to get to the oil supply, despite not having the ability to stop oil from gushing from the well if something went wrong (as it did, when an explosion occurred on the platform). BP's attempts to seal or contain the flooding oil failed again and again. And the result has been an environmental disaster that will affect not just the ecology but also the economy of the area for a long time. (One estimate put Florida's loss at $10 billion.)

In light of such a disaster, it would seem appropriate to have a rational discussion about what happened, and what it means for the future. After all, the spill has turned a possibility into a reality, and BP's reaction has been actual, not theoretical. If nothing else, shouldn't we try and learn lessons from this disaster?

It would seem that things are pretty straight forward, if you put politics aside. But when do we ever put politics aside in this country anymore? So we get Rush Limbaugh blaming the Sierra Club, Sarah Palin blaming environmentalists, Republicans trying to pin the disaster on President Obama (with the nonsensical and illogical Katrina-BP comparisons), and a parade of leaders (most, but not all, Republicans) standing up for BP (like John Boehner, parroting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying tax payers should help BP pay for the cleanup). We have also experienced a line of politicians (again, mostly Republicans, but not all, including Democrat Mary Landrieu) saying that despite the oil disaster in the Gulf, we should keep drilling. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican from Texas, wrote a letter to President Obama opposing the moratorium on off-shore drilling, saying that the BP spill was nothing but a "statistical anomaly" since only "0.001 percent spilled" in the past. I wonder if Culberson would also argue that the nuclear reactors in Chrenobyl are safe, since they operated fine for nearly a decade with only one incident.

I feel like all perspective has been lost. It's like many of the politicians (again, mostly but not all Republicans) can't forget even for a millisecond the interests they truly represent (and those interests clearly don't include the best long-term interests of their constituents). Rather, in the case of Republicans like Boehner, priority number one is the corporate interests they always protect (the same ones they have looked out for in opposing health care reform and financial regulation). It's not surprising that when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says "jump," Boehner starts hopping.

It's one thing to oppose policy for the wrong reasons, but when politicians defend BP after the oil disaster, we've crossed some kind of line.

How did we get here? There has always been partisan battles, and the parties have always looked out for their core constituencies, even as they changed over time. But things feel different now, as if there is no situation under which the entrenched interests will budge. Even our national security isn't exempt, as right-wingers like Liz Cheney and Newt Gingrich engage in a campaign to scare the American people into believing that the president isn't keeping the country safe from terrorism, even as this administration has had far greater success in taking out top al-Qaida leaders than the Bush crowd ever did (and, whether you like the policy or not, Obama has been more aggressive using drone attacks in Pakistan than Bush ever was).

I think the key to the problem can be found in a little-noticed media story from last week. For the first time during a sweeps period, the weekly viewership of the nightly network newscasts fell below 20 million. By way of comparison, the three network evening news broadcasts in 1980 averaged more than 50 million viewers. This dissolution of one of the primary sources of hard news that Americans generally accepted as providing objective facts about any given situation has left the country not just battling policy, but not even agreeing on the underlying facts.

To be clear, I am not defending the network newscasts, nor am I saying that modern news sources, especially on the Internet, don't play an important part in informing and persuading Americans. But many online sources are partisan, and with a common set of accepted facts gone, it opens the door for outlets to put together their own set of "facts," regardless of whether or not they are actually true. There is value in a commonly agreed upon set of facts that citizens can rely on when debating policy.

The emergence of a right-wing media machine, led by Fox News, for which the truth of "facts" is less important than their strategic value, has enabled Republicans not only to oppose a moratorium on off-shore oil drilling, but to deny that the current oil disaster is, in fact, a disaster. I can't help thinking that if there was still an objective news source to which a majority of Americans looked to get their facts about current events, it would be almost impossible for a politician to deny the impact of the BP spill. And we would be forced to face the real issues surrounding off-shore drilling.

No ideology is so perfect that it solves every problem. Acknowledging the implications of what has happened in the Gulf and adjusting policy accordingly doesn't mean that those who believe in the power of free markets have to completely abandon their ideological positions. But you wouldn't know that from listening to the purity-testing, Tea Party-kowtowing, facts-challenged right-wing media machine.

From a jobs crisis to Afghanistan to Iran to oil taking over the Gulf of Mexico (and more), we have real problems in the United States that have to be addressed. But how can we solve anything when too many political leaders are more interested in seizing on these issues to score political points? As we fight these petty battles, the problems march on, unaddressed. Nero might have fiddled, but I doubt he denied the existence of the fire.