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Worries of a Liberal Conservative
Posted By Peter Bridges On March 17, 2008 @ 8:03 am In Non-Fiction Reviews,Politics | 4 Comments
If anyone disputes my ability to be both liberal and conservative, I can offer myself with equally cogent reasons as a progressive federalist. These are stickers and monickers, not definitions. Let us talk instead about concrete national problems. Let me add for identification purposes that I vote Democratic but have never been a registered party member. My first Presidential vote was for a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower; my first campaign contribution, in 1980, went to a former Republican congressman, John Anderson; as ambassador to Somalia I served President Ronald Reagan and received, I don’t mind saying, his deep thanks for my service.
My view now is that George W. Bush and Richard Cheney have done more harm to our country than any previous President and Vice President. They richly deserve impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors—most notably for (1) having led the United States under false pretenses into a war, and then deliberately failing to provide sufficient force to secure the scene, thus gravely damaging our national interests; (2) sanctioning the use of torture in contravention of the Eighth Amendment (which says “cruel and unusual punishments” shall not be inflicted—a ban not limited to citizens); and (3) perverting the Constitution with Presidential signing statements that announce the President’s intent not to execute portions of laws that do not please him, in contravention of Article II, Section 3, which requires that he “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”
Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about having sex with an intern and thus, it was charged, subverting the rule of law and justice. That seemed to me exaggerated, although certainly he harmed the Presidency and should have resigned. How much greater harm to our country have the present President and his deputy inflicted!
I would not address myself to the Americans who look about them and see such a sad scene that they dream of escape through “rapture” into heaven. We have problems but we can resolve them. These problems pale in comparison to problems America faced in the past. Our descendants and our neighbors on earth can, even within this century, come into a golden time for humanity—if only we are wise and prudent. (I will come back to this question of prudence.)
We need to set a schedule for clearing our army out of Iraq but there is more to be said, and done. Iraq remains a problem both for us and for the world, and we must work together on it. We can honor Barack Obama for opposing the war from the beginning but we do not need to beg the world’s pardon for going into Iraq. Greater mistakes have been made there. The Kurds were denied the independent state that the 1920 Treaty of Sevres had foreseen. In the 1920s, when the British cobbled together Iraq and installed a client ruler, they only postponed the question of how Iraq’s disparate parts could live together, absent harsh rule. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 and in the ensuing eight years, while we backed Saddam, a million people were killed in a war that resolved nothing.
A Republican friend objects that we must fight terrorists in Iraq and in Afghanistan if we are not to fight them here at home. That is a false proposition, as many people including Barack Obama have made clear. We have in no sense protected America by going to war in Asia; we failed to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Asia when we were in a position to do so. Our actions have given the radical fringe of Islam more arguments to turn to terrorism.
My friend objects that “Islamofascists” will never change their ways. Sure, there are deadly and dangerous people out there (and also here), but they may not always be so. Members of Italy’s Red Brigades, who were targeting Americans when I last worked in Rome, decided to turn to sales or accounting after their movement failed to attract public support and the government began to grab them. One former terrorist, Menachem Begin, later got the Nobel Peace Prize; another, Michael Collins, is revered as a creator of independent Ireland. Do I speak lightly about such things? I have lost four friends and former colleagues to terrorism. How many have you lost?
If we are to involve the world more fully on Iraq, should that include talking with Iran, as Obama urges? Hillary Clinton objects that high-level meetings must be planned beforehand—to which Obama agrees—while Republicans say they are aghast at the idea. Both Clinton and the Republicans like to ignore the fact of meetings between American and Iranian officials during the present administration, as well as the continuing private meetings between Americans and Iranians that began five years ago and have the support of at least one leading Republican, Senator Chuck Hagel.
In America too many slogans get exchanged. Democrats say they want change, but many are timid about defining what is needed. Republicans say the great evil is too much government and too much taxation, but they love some kinds of government. Ronald Reagan, who came into office vowing to do away with two Cabinet departments, ended up adding one. George W. Bush presided over the creation of a new bureaucratic monster, the Department of Homeland Security, while doing nothing to try to make it work well. Instead of reforming the government’s intelligence apparatus, Bush created a Director of National Security with little oversight authority but with considerable authority to hire staff. This Director’s Office now numbers over fifteen hundred people, and stands alongside—not over—CIA, DIA, NSA and other agencies, as just one more new member of the bulging “intelligence community.”
A main responsibility of Homeland Security is managing immigration. When I was born, Mexico’s population was one-seventh what it is now. Like all Americans I am a child of immigration, but I never thought we could solve the problem of overpopulation by taking into the United States all the people that other countries could not employ. The first President Bush extended the US-Canada NAFTA agreement to Mexico without any study of possible economic consequences. However, an expert told me at the time that it would take a steady 5% Mexican economic growth rate to create enough jobs there to slow or stop the flow of illegals into our country. Mexico’s growth rate has never been that high since the beginning of NAFTA; it was 3% last year. Immigration remains a dilemma without a clear solution, and our Presidential candidates will do well to be circumspect on the subject in coming months.
What we need, in general, is not less government operation but less bureaucratic complexity: simpler and more efficient organization. In some areas government should be doing more. The Food & Drug Administration, Consumer Products Safety Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, and Forest Service are just a few examples of badly underfunded agencies. Even in the Great Depression we provided adequate funding to preserve and maintain the precious heritage of our national forests, parks, and monuments. Our failure to do so now is a national shame.
Meanwhile, as government goes down the number of top posts goes up. Clinton and Gore reduced the overall size of the Federal work force for the first time in decades, but they expanded instead of reducing the number of chiefs. Bush has continued the practice, while also expanding the number of political appointees in top positions by more than four hundred. (Is there anything wrong with political appointees? Yes, if they are inexperienced like Bush’s ambassadors who lacked any experience in foreign affairs or, like other Bush appointees, ignore the difference between public interest and private gain.)
Bureaucracy is a problem in every part of government and every part of our society. The Army has one-third more generals per hundred thousand soldiers than it did a quarter-century ago. Our largest embassies abroad contain attachés from as many as thirty Federal agencies. Ford produces only two-thirds as many vehicles as Toyota but has 36 vice presidents, half again as many as Toyota’s equivalent “senior managing directors.” In academia, the number of non-teaching administrative jobs has exploded. The University of Illinois, to take just one example, has a Provost, two Vice Provosts, and a total of eleven Associate and Assistant Provosts—not to speak of all the Deans and their deputies.
In almost any organization, including our Executive Branch, reform must begin at the very top, which as Mr. Truman said is where the buck stops. Will an Obama or a Clinton carry out the reforms in government—and it is not just a question of government—that Bush ignores the need for?
A wise President can in many ways lead the nation without bureaucracy or funding—by using the bully pulpit. Imagine, for example, what George W. Bush, the most physically fit of all our Presidents, might have accomplished if he had decided to urge the nation to follow his example and turn to physical exercise. A major part of our huge expense for medical care is due to the poor physical condition and poor diet of our citizens, and their use of drugs instead of sports. Barack Obama discusses this problem but Bush never has, probably because it is not in the interest of the medical and pharmaceutical lobbies. Nor did Hillary Clinton do so, when in 1993 she tried and failed to resolve the problem of health insurance for her husband the President; nor does she tell people now that they are responsible (absent chronic disability or disease) for their own condition.
I hope that Obama, now as candidate and later if he becomes President, will keep reminding people of the adage “A sound mind in a sound body.” I never worked so well as in I did in the years I ran thirty miles a week; running kept me sane when my wife and I were putting kids through college on a modest income during double-digit inflation. Many—I suspect most—of the kids today who are drugged to keep them quiet in class would do better if they ran or walked a mile or two to school instead of taking the bus, and spent afternoons playing sports instead of video games.
I am a conservative because I want to preserve the good things from our past. True conservatism means conservation: more protection for our air and water, vanishing countryside, and precious public lands. Our first major work on conservation was written by a conservative Republican, George Perkins Marsh. Another conservative Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, in just six years created 150 new National Forests, quadrupling their acreage. Today, people who claim to be conservatives want to cede this heritage to miners, lumberers, drillers and despoilers.
My conservatism also rebels at the sight of a President—I mean George W. Bush—who threw fiscal conservatism to the winds, after Clinton and Gore had reversed the years of Republican deficits and produced a surplus in the Federal budget.
A better word than conservatism is prudence. A prudent President will, for example, acknowledge that there is no absolute proof of what is causing global warming but will act as if there were. A prudent President will similarly urge fiscal discipline in government, business, and private life; will urge our citizens to spend less and save more, to accumulate capital instead of debt. If we keep falling farther into debt as individuals and as a nation, and thus farther and farther into the clutches of our creditors, we will reach a point of despair that can only encourage new demagogues to arise. This too is a good subject for the bully pulpit, but we have heard nothing on it from George Bush, who until recently was still saying that the more we spend, the better off we are. (If he were talking about infrastructure I might agree, but he meant consumer goods.)
As both a conservative and liberal, I am shocked by the speed with which our nation is dividing and we are seeing the creation of a new class of super-rich. Few Republicans talk about this, although Bush is on record as saying that these new multimillionaires are his political base. Some years ago it was still being argued that such people played a useful role; that they provided capital and entrepreneurship that the country needed. Today that argument is no longer heard. At a guess, much of their money goes abroad. Here in this country, they create and then sell companies with destructive speed. Few of them want to build structures that will last, other than sixty-room mansions. One successful CEO was quoted recently in the Washington Post as saying that his company was for sale every day. I myself have several friends who have sold their companies, and none who has kept a company for his or her children to run.
I am in no sense against entrepreneurs; we need more of them. But we need entrepreneurs who build for the future—and we will not discourage entrepreneurship by progressive taxation. Some of America’s best business years came when Eisenhower was President and the top marginal income tax rate was 91 percent.
Look at one small group of America’s super-rich, the 25 top-earning hedge fund bankers who in 2006 earned an average of $570 million each. They paid, at a guess, Federal taxes that amounted to less than twenty percent of these earnings. If their tax rate had been seventy percent, the additional $600 million of revenue would have covered the entire annual budget of one of our most valuable and prestigious institutions, the Smithsonian. Instead, the Smithsonian is left underfunded, so that it must turn to—guess who?—the super-rich, who if they provide a few tens of millions can get their private names put on our public buildings.
I mentioned demagogues. Huey Long is long in his grave, and David Duke is, one hopes, discredited after his term in Federal prison. We do not know what new beast, to use Yeats’s term, may be lumbering toward his or her birth. If the Democrats win the White House but the next four years do not bring real moves toward reform, in 2012 people will seek some better choice than either a Democrat or a Republican. A reformist third party then would seem the country’s best hope, some new demagogue the worst. Neither is inevitable. Barack Obama as President and a sizable Democratic majority in Congress can, and I hope will, begin what must necessarily be a long process of bringing the country back to health.
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