Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Persistence of Ideology

If conservatism at its best involves sticking with policies that have proved effective, at its worst it entails sticking with policies that have proved unsuccessful or even disastrous. It's not as if some pure, beneficent strain of conservatism is common, though, to the degree it exists at all. Movement conservatism has long consisted of policies that benefit a select few at the expense of the nation as a whole. In many cases, conservatives are still obstinately pushing ideologies and policies that have yielded horrible results – sometimes even for themselves. Admitting error is rare among this ideological crowd, taking blame is rarer still, and actually changing approaches is seen as anathema. Here's a look at this dynamic in three areas. (Be warned this is a long post; please feel free to skim it or skip around.)


Most of the teabaggers weren't quite sure exactly what they were for, but they were sure they were against Obama. Some unwittingly or willingly were demonstrating to lower poor Steve Forbes' taxes. As many liberal bloggers observed, merely raising the top marginal tax rate to Clinton levels was somehow labeled socialism, while many of the protesters seemed unaware that the middle class was getting a tax cut under Obama. The disconnects were many, but the most glaring was probably that many were effectively protesting for the same ideology and policies that had proven so catastrophic during the Bush administration.

Some of this is the old conservative shell game of moneyed elites and their shills, selling resentment to the base against the "cultural" elites and minorities who are supposedly oppressing them - all the better for those moneyed elites to increase wealth inequity in America to ever more harmful levels. Yet at times, it seems some conservative shills have convinced even themselves of an alternative reality where the New Deal was a colossal failure and Reaganomics (and its many variations and attendant policies) were somehow successful for the country as a whole.

Back in October 2008, Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) spoke at the University of Chicago about Milton Friedman's economic philosophy. I'd strongly recommend reading (or watching) the whole thing, but here's one key section:

When Milton Friedman turned ninety, the Bush White House held a birthday party for him to honor him, to honor his legacy, in 2002, and everyone made speeches, including George Bush, but there was a really good speech that was given by Donald Rumsfeld. I have it on my website. My favorite quote in that speech from Rumsfeld is this: he said, “Milton is the embodiment of the truth that ideas have consequences.”

So, what I want to argue here is that, among other things, the economic chaos that we’re seeing right now on Wall Street and on Main Street and in Washington stems from many factors, of course, but among them are the ideas of Milton Friedman and many of his colleagues and students from this school. Ideas have consequences.

More than that, what we are seeing with the crash on Wall Street, I believe, should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian communism: an indictment of ideology. It cannot simply be written off as corruption or greed, because what we have been living, since Reagan, is a policy of liberating the forces of greed to discard the idea of the government as regulator, of protecting citizens and consumers from the detrimental impact of greed, ideas that, of course, gained great currency after the market crash of 1929, but that really what we have been living is a liberation movement, indeed the most successful liberation movement of our time, which is the movement by capital to liberate itself from all constraints on its accumulation.

So, as we say that this ideology is failing, I beg to differ. I actually believe it has been enormously successful, enormously successful, just not on the terms that we learn about in University of Chicago textbooks, that I don’t think the project actually has been the development of the world and the elimination of poverty. I think this has been a class war waged by the rich against the poor, and I think that they won. And I think the poor are fighting back. This should be an indictment of an ideology. Ideas have consequences.

Now, people are enormously loyal to Milton Friedman, for a variety of reasons and from a variety of sectors. You know, in my cynical moments, I say Milton Friedman had a knack for thinking profitable thoughts. He did. His thoughts were enormously profitable. And he was rewarded. His work was rewarded. I don’t mean personally greedy. I mean that his work was supported at the university, at think tanks, in the production of a ten-part documentary series called Freedom to Choose, sponsored by FedEx and Pepsi; that the corporate world has been good to Milton Friedman, because his ideas were good for them…

Now, the Friedmanites in this room will object to my methodology, I assure you, and I look forward to that. They will tell you, when I speak of Chile under Pinochet, Russia under Yeltsin and the Chicago Boys, China under Deng Xiaoping, or America under George W. Bush, or Iraq under Paul Bremer, that these were all distortions of Milton Friedman’s theories, that none of these actually count, when you talk about the repression and the surveillance and the expanding size of government and the intervention in the system, which is really much more like crony capitalism or corporatism than the elegant, perfectly balanced free market that came to life in those basement workshops. We’ll hear that Milton Friedman hated government interventions, that he stood up for human rights, that he was against all wars. And some of these claims, though not all of them, will be true.

But here’s the thing. Ideas have consequences. And when you leave the safety of academia and start actually issuing policy prescriptions, which was Milton Friedman’s other life—he wasn’t just an academic. He was a popular writer. He met with world leaders around the world—China, Chile, everywhere, the United States. His memoirs are a “who’s who.” So, when you leave that safety and you start issuing policy prescriptions, when you start advising heads of state, you no longer have the luxury of only being judged on how you think your ideas will affect the world. You begin having to contend with how they actually affect the world, even when that reality contradicts all of your utopian theories. So, to quote Friedman’s great intellectual nemesis, John Kenneth Galbraith, “Milton Friedman’s misfortune is that his policies have been tried.”

Throw in the Laffer curve, the Two Santa Claus Theory, E. Coli Conservatism, dishonest attacks on Social Security and the tax code, "deficits don't matter," Phil Gramm, strangling government in a bathtub, and vowing never to raise taxes, not even in the face of Armageddon – and it all adds up to a disaster, except for a select few.

For any economic philosophy, it's important to ask, what are its goals? Who benefits? What are the actual consequences of implementing policies based on this philosophy? In the case of conservative economic approaches, are wealth inequity and poverty even seen as problems? How is "the public good" defined and addressed, if it is at all?

Defenders of these conservative approaches still abound, especially among devotees of Reagan or George W. Bush. The ever-popular conservative mantra, "no one could have predicted," was especially fashionable for them after the financial crisis hit and before the looming presidential election. On NPR show Left, Right and Center back in early October 2008, conservative columnist Tony Blankley, both a free marketeer and pro-bailout, claimed there was no contradiction in his positions. He went on to offer one of my favorite attempts at white-washing conservative ideology (about 13:10 in):

Let me suggest – and we can have this discussion, and we will – that the causes of the Great Depression, the causes of the French Revolution, continue to be seriously debated, decades or centuries after the event, and we're going to be debating what caused this crisis for a very long time. I would argue that it was not free markets, and you'll argue that it was, and this is a debate we can have, nobody at this point knows, because we're in the middle of it. We haven't had a chance to step back and start looking at the data. That's something that will be done over the next number of years.

It's a wonder anyone studies history or the market at all, given this fog. Details may not be known, but the broad strokes and key culprits are. In Blankley's defense, he's acknowledged elsewhere that some deregulation was harmful (Robert Scheer and Matt Miller both challenged him in the same segment). But conservatives' perfect free market - a sort of capitalist Garden of Eden of purity and innocent, victimless greed – simply doesn't exist. It's dangerous to insist that it does or that it should. It's not as if conservative solutions to grave problems in the actual market responsibly address reality, either. The only "consistency" between widespread deregulation and a bailout is always giving the rich what they want - allowing them high profits for themselves in good times and protecting them from risk at public expense in the bad. Like many conservatives, Blankley also acted as if the crisis was some mysterious natural occurrence outside of human agency, and no one could possibly say why it happened.

If it's a mystery that passeth all understanding to these people, it raises the question as to why they should be running things at all, or consulted - but economic theories of movement conservatism often seem more grounded in theology and fantasy versus empirical data. It's not just economics that seems to mystify them, though, but basic human nature. DDay's recent post on Brooksley Born featured this tidbit:

Greenspan had an unusual take on market fraud, Born recounted: "He explained there wasn't a need for a law against fraud because if a floor broker was committing fraud, the customer would figure it out and stop doing business with him."

The mind reels. Although Greenspan's tried to revise his own culpability in creating the financial mess, he did admit to Congress last year that:

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

As Digby quipped at the time, "Apparently, it never occurred to the great guru that wealthy people would be greedy enough to destroy the system. It didn't show up in his "models.""

Unfortunately, Tim Geithner and the Obama gang seem to be too willing to continue the dodgy moves of Paulson and the Bush administration. Maybe it's class solidarity, similar ideologies, or the difficulty of fighting the bankers who own Congress. Maybe they simply aren't working hard enough to protect the country's economy against astonishingly arrogant, reckless and selfish corporate narcissists. Maybe they simply fail to realize the true nature of these oligarchs, and how dangerous they are. Maybe they're just too corrupt themselves. What Jonathan Schwarz wrote back in October about a flabbergasted establishment is as relevant as ever:

Who wouldn't be stunned when the most greedy, venal, vicious, cruel, arrogant, ignorant human beings on earth aren't eager to work in the public interest? Especially when people like them have never been willing to do so in the entire history of mankind, except on the rare occasions when they've been directly threatened with execution? It's stunning!

Somehow, it never occurred to them that human beings would be greedy and selfish.

Foreign Policy

In The Prince, Machiavelli advised it's better for a political leader to be feared than loved, but neoconservatives and followers of the Bush Doctrine clearly believe that's just too tame. Why bother with the good will of most of the world and cooperative approaches when instead, you can charge ahead, foster hatred in a greater number of people and nations, and cultivate distrust and disapproval even among allies? Yet strangely, this pugnacious approach has not helped national security.

If the neocons have been right about anything of consequence, it's a well-kept secret. For years now, they've blamed the mess in Iraq on the Bush administration's poor execution of their lovely plan, and ignored that America has been bogged down already in two wars in all their reckless saber-rattling against Iran. Just as conservative economic theory presumes that a perfect free market exists, neocons hold that America is simultaneously infallible and omnipotent. Let the reality-based community worry about such paltry things as the actual consequences of policies; great thinkers and armchair warriors cannot be trifled with such matters.

Back in 2006, neocon Francis Fukuyama wrote a book about his disenchantment with the movement, and Louis Menard made a number of sharp observations:

Although “America at the Crossroads” is intended, in part, for policy intellectuals—the journal-of-opinion writers and editors, political advisers, and think-tankers who deal with questions of governance from a philosophical point of view—Fukuyama is not, fundamentally, a policy intellectual himself. He is an original and independent mind, and his writings have never seemed to be constructed on a doctrinal foundation. He takes ideas seriously and he tries to see the big picture, and even if you think that he takes ideas too seriously, and that his pictures tend to be too big to help with the practical challenges of political decision-making in the here and now, his views on American policies and their implications deserve thoughtful attention. Such attention might begin, in the case of the present book, with the observation: No duh. It took Fukuyama until February, 2004, to realize that Charles Krauthammer, who has been saying basically the same thing since the end of the Cold War, is the intellectual cheerleader of a politics of American supremacy that appears to recognize no limit to its exercise of power? And that the Bush Administration, to the extent that it has any philosophical self-conception at all, operates on the basis of the crudest form of American exceptionalism? And that neoconservatism, whatever merits it once had as a corrective to liberal wishfulness and the amorality of realpolitik, long ago stiffened into a posture of reflexive moral belligerence about everything from foreign policy to literary criticism?

The present condition of the neoconservative movement is the outcome of a classic case of the gradual sclerosis of political attitudes. All the stages of the movement’s development were based on the primitive psychology of the “break”—the felt need, as one ages, to demonize the exact position one formerly occupied. The enemy is always the person still clinging to the delusions you just outgrew. So—going all the way back to the omphalos, Alcove 1 in the City College cafeteria, where Kristol and his friends fought with the Stalinists in Alcove 2—the Trotskyists hated the fellow-travellers they once had been; the Cold War liberals hated the Trotskyists they once had been; and the neoconservatives hated the liberals they once had been. Now the hardening is complete. Neoconservatism has merged with the politics that its founders, in their youth, held in greatest contempt: the jingoist and capitalist American right. We look from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but it is impossible to say which is which.

(Gotta love a really apt Orwell reference.)

To his credit, Fukuyama has criticized his past positions, and some conservative economic dogma as well. That's in sharp contrast to the deep intellectual dishonesty endemic to a neocon movement that views war as glorious and war spending as good business. As Steve Clemons noted back around the 2006 midterm elections, neocon Richard Perle's 'truthfulness depended on whether it was before or after the election.' And in February 2009, in "How to Disappear Completely," Eric Martin noted how several neocons (including Perle) have gone to darkly comical lengths to erase their own histories, down to denying that the neoconservative foreign policy they themselves crafted and named has ever existed. I find the dynamic fascinating and damning – most of the neocons still won't admit that they're wrong, but they're aware enough of the damage to their reputations to lie about their central role in one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

Neocons and most movement conservatives seem to take a dismissal of consequences as proof of seriousness and a disconnect from reality as a point of pride. As Fred Kaplan observed back in 2006, "The Republican administration has violated so many precepts of International Relations 101 that clichés take on the air of wisdom." Back in 2002, as the administration was trying to sell the Iraq War, Bush officials spoke with several conservative think tanks. The American Enterprise Institute supported regime change in Iraq – yet opposed reconstruction, because that was "nation-building." The Bush administration, in turn, didn't want to talk about reconstruction or overall costs, either, because it might hurt selling the war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to fire anyone who talked about Phase IV (reconstruction), although he also insisted that Defense and not State be in charge of all operations. It's a convenient ideology, that allows for bombing the hell out of a country and its population without any responsibility for picking up the pieces. It's an arrogant and cruel approach, especially when one also actively interferes with others' attempts to fix any of the mess.

Damning the consequences (or the torpedoes) seems to be one hallmark of cowboy diplomacy. But these cowboys and wannabe warriors are a strange breed, viewing cooperation as wimpy, and preoccupied with asserting their dominance and tough guy bonafides. For people obsessed with their own images, they're shockingly unaware of how others see them. John Bolton's approach to diplomacy amounted to walking into a bar and punching some poor schlep in the face, thinking everyone else in the bar would be impressed (or intimidated) and want to buy him a drink. When informed in 2007 that 80% of Iraqis wanted American troops out of their country, neocon father and imperialist Norman Podhoretz said, "I don't much care." Meanwhile, Bush was positively fixated on the Iraqis showing gratitude; back in 2006:

President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .

[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd.

Nor is cluelessness and belligerence limited to one party. In October 2008, Glenn Greenwald scrutinized an op-ed on Iran by "Two former Senators -- conservative Democrat Chuck Robb and conservative Republican Dan Coats (that's what "bipartisan" means)." Predictably, it contained more sabre-rattling and tough, serious talk. As Greenwald observed (emphasis his):

It's just objectively true that there is no country in the world -- anywhere -- that threatens to attack and bomb other countries as routinely and blithely as the U.S. does. What rational leader wouldn't want to obtain nuclear weapons in a world where the "superpower" is run by people like Dan Coats and Chuck Robb who threaten to attack and bomb whatever countries they want? Even the Coats/Robb Op-Ed argues that Iranian proliferation would be so threatening to the U.S. because "the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent" -- in other words, they'd have the ability to deter a U.S. attack on their country, and we can't have that.

So: It's not that we necessarily want to attack Iran, but we can't allow them any safeguards should we choose to attack them in the future. Their potential self-defense is a grave threat to our potential invasion. It's comparable to Bush administration claims about torture back when they were still officially pretending we didn't torture – another law outlawing torture would be harmful, because even though we didn't torture, we might choose to do so in the future.

This mad approach to foreign policy and human rights is strikingly similar to an old Monty Python book gag, Llap-Goch (caps in the original):

"LLAP-Goch is the Secret Welsh ART of SELF DEFENCE that requires NO INTELLIGENCE, STRENGTH or PHYSICAL courage… It is an ANCIENT Welsh ART based on a BRILLIANTLY simple I-D-E-A, which is a SECRET. The best form of DEFENCE is ATTACK (Clausewitz) and the most VITAL element of ATTACK is SURPRISE (Oscar HAMMERstein). Therefore, the BEST way to protect yourself AGAINST any ASSAILANT is to ATTACK him before he attacks YOU... Or BETTER... BEFORE the THOUGHT of doing so has EVEN OCCURRED TO HIM!!! SO YOU MAY BE ABLE TO RENDER YOUR ASSAILANT UNCONSCIOUS BEFORE he is EVEN aware of your very existence!

(It's a bit frightening that the Pythons basically predicted almost the entirety of the conservative blogosphere.)

Jonathan Schwarz captured a similar level of insanity and befuddlement about human nature in a post that quotes from an old news article (his emphasis):

Intelligence officials believe [Hezbollah leader Imad Moughniyah] is seeking personal vengeance on the United States and Israel for the deaths of his brothers, which explains in part his willingness to lend his expertise to operations organized by other groups. Mugniyeh's brothers were killed in retaliatory attacks in Lebanon believed to have been carried out by Israeli and U.S. operatives.

"Bin Laden is a schoolboy in comparison with Mugniyeh," an Israeli-intelligence officer told Jane's Foreign Report recently. "The guy is a genius, someone who refined the art of terrorism to its utmost level. We studied him and reached the conclusion that he is a clinical psychopath motivated by uncontrollable psychological reasons, which we have given up trying to understand. The killing of his two brothers by the Americans only inflamed his strong motivation."

Wait...you're telling me that a young man, when his country was invaded by foreigners, got angry? And then when they killed his brothers, he became even madder? And he wanted revenge on the people who'd done it?

Somehow, it never occurred to them that people won't appreciate having their loved ones killed.

Torture and Human Rights

(Read the full cartoon here.)

I'm not going to spend much time on this one (since I've tried to do so in greater depth before), except to note a handful of points. The Bush administration was warned about abusing and torturing prisoners many times by some of their own people – but did it anyway. The JPRA report even told them that any information obtained through torture was unreliable –something that's been known since at least Roman times. Perhaps they knew that torture "worked" well enough for their purposes – false confessions to justify a war of choice – or they just didn't care. Regardless, it was impossible for them to arrive at that dark place without monumental arrogance, dehumanization of all potential victims, and a deep and utter contempt for democracy. Conservatives Glenn Reynolds and Jonah Goldberg, among others, condemned the abuses at Abu Ghraib - until it became apparent how high up the blame probably went. Then they started making excuses. Is it possible to be more authoritarian, partisan and dishonorable than that? Most of the movement conservative base has done the same, supporting torture - torture - and done so rabidly, all because their leaders told them it was necessary and done to mysterious, dangerous men who don't look or speak like the "real" Amuricans who love their country. It's hard to imagine a more clear moral line than torture, but for authoritarians, it's all about tribal loyalty – torture is wrong when done to them, right when done to an Evil Other (even if he or she happens to be innocent). For the far right, torture is like everything else – the right thing to do when so ordered by Republicans, and absolutely imperative to do if it upsets a Democrat or liberal. Spite and tribal identity are about their only "moral" standards. A significant number of rule-of-law conservatives, including members of the JAG corps, oppose torture and support due process for the innocent and guilty alike, but the conservative base and most of the conservative punditry ferociously oppose them on both counts.

Somehow, it never occurred to them that people will say anything if tortured.

More likely – and more frightening – they simply don't give a damn.

It'd be nice, and good for the country, if any remaining sane, fiscally responsible and rule-of-law conservatives could take over the Republican party. As it stands, it'll be a wonder if they can even get back to the good ol' days, when the Republican party stood merely for screwing over the poor and hating minorities, and not torturing people to start unnecessary wars.

As for the Democrats - my concern for the Obama administration is that in too many areas, they're adhering far too closely to the Bush playbook. The tasks they face are monumental, and often with powerful, entrenched interests opposing them. But while competent management helps a great deal, it can only do so much if the plans themselves are fundamentally flawed. Their stances on military tribunals, possible indefinite detention and state secrets range from troubling to horrible. On the economic front, I have to wonder if Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin are similar to liberal war hawk Michael O'Hanlon. For O'Hanlon, still resistant to admitting error on Iraq, it's not enough that he be right in the future – he needs also to have been right. His reputation and pride hinges on his past, dreadful policies somehow being vindicated (even though attempting that is a quagmire on its own). I wonder if Obama's economic team is comparably set on vindicating their past, harmful policies. They certainly seem committed to rescuing the established, corrupt order versus the economy itself. (Then there's the possibility of good ol' corruption itself.) Human folly isn't limited to one political party, even if one has a strong natural advantage.

Conservative stances on economics, foreign policy and human rights provide a pretty bleak snapshot of the Republican party. The poor remain faceless to them, as do foreigners blithely bombed and the victims of torture and abuse. Torture, with its dynamics of power and false confessions, actually makes a frighteningly apt metaphor for movement conservatives and obstinate ideologues everywhere. Why do these people ignore data and counsel, inflict suffering on populations foreign and domestic, and fiercely dismiss overwhelming evidence against their favored approach? Just as with torture itself, it's simple - they like the answers it gives them.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo and Blue Herald.)

1 comment:

libhom said...

I don't think most rightist ideology really originates as such. I think it is the product of marketing and pr mills, originally produced by people who know it is bullshit.