Perverted Priorities: One Year Later
The Empire and Inequality Report
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967
One year after President Barack Obama’s historic election in the name of “change” and “hope,” Gallup and USA Today report that the
In November of 2008, 67 percent of the American population thought that the Obama administrations would be able to reduce unemployment. By mid-October of 2009, just barely more than half (51 percent) believed that.
In the month of the president’s election, 64 percent of Americans told Gallup and USA Today that the next White House would be able “to improve the health care system.” Fifty-eight (58) percent thought President Obama would be able to “bring
Eleven and a half months later, just 46 percent believed that Obama could improve health care. The same exact percentage (46) thought the same way about Obama and
At one level, we might consider these reduced expectations something of a victory for the American corporate and imperial power elite. Realistically or not, much of the majority
The corporate and imperial ruling class that backed Obama’s campaign and staffed many of his key cabinet and other policymaking positions had different priorities for
WHAT THE ESTABLISHMENT WANTED AND EXPECTS
“Towards Making the Burdens Yet to Come More Bearable”
Two good places to get a sense of what the American establishment has expected from Obama are the editorial pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post The real world ideological orientation of these two leading citadels of corporate-imperial ideology have nothing to do with the “leftist” project to which both papers are routinely and absurdly connected by fanatical right-wing propagandists like Bernard Goldberg, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. Strongly committed to the preservation of existing power relations, that orientation is suggested in a statement from the Times’ editorial board three weeks before Obama’s Inauguration. In a December 22, 2008 editorial entitled “The Printing Press Cure,” the Times explained that Obama had to walk a fine line in relation to the damaged domestic business order he was inheriting from George W. Bush. The next president needed, the Times felt, to embrace a level of government intervention that was adequate to save the profits system while distancing himself from promises that might encourage the citizenry to resist. “As president,” the Times lectured, “Mr. Obama will have to convey optimism without over-promising. He will have to inspire confidence, even in the absence of a dramatic turnaround - which is simply not on the cards.” The editorial ended on an interesting note: “While Mr. Obama must continue to level with the American people - the economy is unlikely to turn up until 2010 at the earliest, and even then it will probably rebound slowly - his near term moves will go a long way towards making the burdens yet to come more bearable.”
Translation: it was Obama’s job – on the model of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1930s – to prevent the citizenry’s anger and struggles (under a dramatically failing capitalism) from coalescing into a popular rebellion. The Times’ editors felt that Obama's proper role would be to stop potential “populist rage” and the deepening economic crisis (imposed by capital) from sparking a powerful new working class movement. To repeat the words of the Times' editorial, it was all about “making the burdens yet to come more bearable.”
“A Military Large Enough and
Interestingly, however, the Times had a different take on Obama’s duties to Empire. The editors’ emphasis on Obama’s need to “realistically” downsize popular hopes in regard to domestic policy stood in curious contrast to the grandiose expectations the paper’s opinion authorities held for Obama’s obligation to repair and expand the power of
“As president, Barack Obama will face the most daunting and complicated national security challenges in more than a generation — and he will inherit a military that is critically ill-equipped for the task.”
“Troops and equipment are so overtaxed by President Bush’s disastrous
“This is intolerable…To protect the nation, the Obama administration will have to rebuild and significantly reshape the military. We do not minimize the difficulty of this task. Even if money were limitless, planning is extraordinarily difficult in a world with no single enemy and many dangers…”
The Times editors recommended:
* Provision of “sufficient troops, ships and planes to reassure allies in Asia, the Middle East, and
* Efforts to “ensure [the Pentagon’s] ability – so-called lift capacity – to move enormous quantities of men and material quickly around the world and to supply then when necessary by sea.”
* “A military that is large enough and mobile enough to deter enemies.”
* “A significantly larger ground force.”
* Provision of “new skills” to fight not just “traditional wars against hostile regimes” but also “guerilla insurgencies wielding terror tactics or possibly weapons of mass destruction.”
* “Hiring more linguists, training more special forces, and building expertise in civilian affairs and cultural awareness” so to more effectively conduct “counter-insurgency” wars and occupations that “protect the civilian population and legitimize the indigenous government” abroad.
* The training of military forces to be “prepared to sustain long-term operations [occupations, P.S.].”
Taken together, these two post-election Times editorials were a striking example of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the middle and late 1960s called the “perverted national priorities” of the American empire. The nation’s leading newspaper called for cautious, conservative, and hope-chilling modesty when it came to addressing domestic pain and inequality. At the same time, it advocated the expansion of Superpower’s already gargantuan capacity to deliver death and destruction across the planet, described (in the standard paranoid parlance of the imperial militarist) as “dangerous.”
“Universal Health Care...is Not ‘Fundamental to the Defense of Our People’”
Now let’s look at the Washington Post ten months later. Another example of the same seeming inconsistency and of the same continuously conservative, corporate and imperial world view has recently been given by the editors of that other leading establishment newspaper. In an unusual move on Saturday, October 24th, the Post’s editorial page condescended to address a critical response from a reader who "challenged [them] to explain what he sees as a contradiction in our editorial positions.” The reader had raised an interesting question. He had wondered how the Post could justify (A) demanding that Obama's health care plan not be paid for with borrowed money while at the same time (B) strongly supporting U.S. escalation in Afghanistan without specifying how to pay for it. "Why is it okay to finance wars with debt, asks our reader, but not to pay for health care that way?"
The Post’s editors gave three answers. Their first claim was misleading and false. It held that Obama was saving money by cutting defense spending and withdrawing from
The Post’s second claim was also deceptive. It argued that “wars, unlike entitlement programs, eventually come to an end." But do they, really? As the noted
The Post’s third and deeper answer was darkly revealing and emblematic of the deeply distorted priorities and perverted values of the nation’s political class. It held that escalating in
“All this [the troubled reader’s sense of contradiction between open-ended war funding and limited health-care funding, P.S.] assumes that defense and health care should be treated equally in the national budget. We would argue that they should not be . . . Universal health care, however desirable, is not ‘fundamental to the defense of our people.’ Nor is it a ‘necessity’ that it be adopted this year: Mr. Obama chose to propose a massive new entitlement at a time of historic budget deficits. In contrast, Gen. McChrystal believes that if reinforcements are not sent to
This was a remarkable proclamation. Besides its abject repetition of the White House’s highly problematic “safe haven” argument in defense of the brazenly illegal and unjust occupation of
No doubt the Post editors who explained why the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan was a higher national priority than universal health care for Americans are all enrolled in gold-plated health insurance plans. It is all too easy for them to dismiss tens of thousands of annual deaths in the imperial “homeland” as "not fundamental” – as something that does not need to be overcome as quickly as possible.
“No matter your views on Obama's health care reform plan,” the incisive left-liberal writer Glen Greenwald notes, “does it really take any effort to see how warped [their] dismissive mentality is?” As Greenwald adds, “it becomes ...much worse when one considers” that the Obama administration’s “venerated ‘counter-insurgency’ mission in Afghanistan” entails an open-ended commitment to “securing the population” through years and perhaps decades of military, social, and political intervention guided by “an enormously ambitious project of nation-building.” The cost of that project would certainly run well into the trillions.
Greenwald aptly summarizes and criticizes the “warped” priorities of The Post’s editors:
“So according to The Washington Post, dropping bombs on, controlling and occupying Afghanistan -- all while simultaneously ensuring ‘effective governance, economic development, education, the elimination of corruption, the protection of women's rights’ to Afghan citizens in Afghanistan -- is an absolutely vital necessity that must be done no matter the cost. But providing basic services (such as health care) to American citizens, in the U.S., is a secondary priority at best, something totally unnecessary that should wait for a few years or a couple decades until we can afford it and until our various wars are finished, if that ever happens. ‘
“As demented as that sounds, isn't that exactly the priority scheme we've adopted as a country? We're a nation that couldn't even manage to get clean drinking water to our own citizens who were dying in the middle of
“Beltway elites have health insurance and thus the costs and suffering for those who don't are abstract, distant and irrelevant. Identically, with very rare exceptions, they and their families don't fight the wars they cheer on – and don't even pay for them – and thus get to enjoy all the pulsating benefits without any costs whatsoever.”
The Post’s October 24th editorial rightly reminds Greenwald of a notable passage in Adam Smith’s much-misunderstood Wealth of Nations (1776): “In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies...” It’s as if Smith had seen into the posh corridors of the Post 233 years later. “Lounging around in the editorial offices in the capital of a rapidly decaying empire, urging that more Americans be sent into endless war paid for with endless debt, while yawning and lazily waving away with boredom the hordes outside dying for lack of health care coverage, is one of the most repugnant images one can imagine. It's exactly what Adam Smith denounced. And it's exactly what our political and media elite are,” Greenwald writes (Glen Greenwald, “‘
It is repugnant indeed – no less when the argument is deployed in service to an urbane, eloquent black president from
OBAMA IN THE REAL WORLD OF POWER
There should be little doubt as to who has prevailed under the first nine months of the Obama White House. The “perverted national priorities” of the Beltway and Wall Street elite have trumped the progressive hopes and needs of “democracy’s” purported masters the citizenry. President Obama has lectured Wall Street chieftains on the immorality of their bonuses and visited hard recession-hit towns like
“Tinkering Around the [Financial] Edges” While “the Wise Guys of Wall Street Lick Their Fat-Cat Chops”
Obama and the Democrats’ “financial reform” efforts “tinker around the edges” in ways that do little to prevent another financial meltdown on the model of September-October 2008. If anything, they increase the likelihood of another disaster, for they fail to address what Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson (no leftist) calls “the most significant issue of all: how to make sure that companies do not grow to the point where they become too big or interconnected to be allowed to fail.” This dark reality goes largely unacknowledged in “mainstream” media reports that focus heavily on Obama’s superficially progressive proposal to briefly temper politically volatile executive pay levels at seven companies that together received hundreds of billions in federal taxpayer assistance over the last year (G. Morgenson, “Wall Street Follies: The Next Act,” New York Times, October 25, 2009).
Liberal Times columnist Bob Herbert writes of his shock at “another orgy (with taxpayers as the enablers) of [Wall Street] bonuses” inflicted while a rising
Meanwhile, “health reform” has become a sick, plutocratic joke under Obama. As tens of thousands of Americans die each year in connection with the lack of insurance coverage, Obama’s overly complex and corporate-captive “reform” efforts are a great gift to the Democratic Party’s ’ “frenemies” atop the big insurance and drug corporations and those firms’ Wall Street investors.
Five weeks go, 65 percent of more than 1000 Americans randomly surveyed by the CBS and The New York Times responded affirmatively to the following question: “Would you favor the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?” (CBS-New York Times, September 23, 2009). In the same month that Obama was inaugurated, 59 percent told same pollsters that they supported a Canadian-style single-payer health insurance system.
But so what? The most that a Democratic president (Obama) and a majority Democratic U.S. Senate seem ready to advance as I finish this essay (on the first anniversary of Obama’s election) is a strictly limited, deeply conservative version, and hopelessly weakened and ghettoized, high-cost version of “the public option” – one that would be available only to those without access to private insurance and only in certain states. President Obama, who once (as a state senator in 2003) argued passionately for an “everybody in, nobody out” single-payer system, is reported to prefer a “public option” with a “trigger,” meaning a small and weak program for the otherwise uninsured that would only be activated at some time in the future, if it was determined that the private insurers had failed to meet certain benchmarks. And Obama’s plan will hand the insurance companies millions of new customers, who will now be required to purchase health insurance or face government fines.
The president’s former willingness to acknowledge the superiority of single-payer dates from the period right before he knew he had a shot at national office and therefore fully subordinated himself to America’s “unelected dictatorship of money,” which “vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009)
The Pentagon Reports: “Climate Change Seen as Threat to
Also in a sickening corporatist vein, Obama’s auto restructuring plan gave the big
The Obama administration has won accolades from environmentalists for acknowledging the legitimacy of global warming science. But again, the sad question arises: “so what?” The new White House has rewarded the top energy firms by leading a retreat from the imposition of serious carbon emission controls on the rich nations just months after leading climate scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of showed that “without rapid and massive action, the problem [of global warming] will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago – and could be even worse [since] the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks than can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane.” A prominent earth scientist heading the report said that, “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks” and argued that “the least-cost option to lower the risk it to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies.” (“Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009, read at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/roulette-0519.html#).There has been no indication of any serious movement in that direction by Obama, who branded himself a candidate to be “a green President” and spoke eloquently on the problem of global warming to enthusiastic liberal and progressive audiences in 2007 and 2008.
In a macabre and surreal front-page story titled “Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security” last August, the Times reported on the conclusions of a recent study from Obama’s Pentagon: “The changing global climate will pose profound changes to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics” (John Broder, New York Times, August 9, 2009, A1). Notwithstanding the interesting facts that American petro-capitalism (subsidized, protected, and advanced by a largely oil-focused and oil-fueled U.S. global hyper-militarism) is the leading force driving climate change in the first place (!) and that the leading early victims are concentrated in poor nations that contribute only minimally to global warming, the Pentagon is making sure to “war game” the Earth’s rising temperature, treating that development as an external threat to freedom in “the homeland.” (At least the Pentagon has yet to claim that Islamic extremists are the real force behind global climate change)
There was no comment reported on this remarkable story and the Pentagons fascinating new research from Obama’s National Security Advisor, the retired Marine Gen. James Jones. Jones is the former supreme allied commander of NATO. Before his selection as Obama’s top military brain, was president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which called for the immediate expansion of domestic oil and gas production and issued reports that criticizing application to the Clean Air Act to fight global warming. “Recently retired from the military,” Amy Goodman noted last December, “Jones has parlayed his 40-year military career into several corporate directorships. Among them is Cross Match Technologies, which makes biometric identification equipment. More germane to Jones’ forthcoming role in Obama’s inner circle, though, might be Jones’ seat as a director of Boeing, a weapons manufacturer, and as a director of Chevron, an oil giant” (A. Goodman, “Chevron in the White House,” Truthdig, Dec. 2, 2008, read at www.truthdig.com/report/item/20081202_chevron_in_the_white_house).
Orwell would be impressed. So would Kafka, Vonnegut, and perhaps Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22.
“No Peace Dividend”
Speaking of the Pentagon, Obama’s record-setting “defense” budget and related colonial war expansion in
“As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend…In addition, we believe, based on discussions with industry sources, that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first 18 months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood.”
These last two sentences come from a report issued by the leading Wall Street investment firm and Bush-Obama bailout recipient Morgan Stanley one day after Obama’s presidential election victory. “The Democrats,” Morgan Stanley’s researchers noted, “are sensitive about appearing weak on defense, and we don’t expect strong cuts.”
“Defense” is an interesting label for a giant military budget that pays for two mass-murderous occupations (in
The “peace dividend” refers to the notion of reversing such “perverted national priorities” by taking money spent on war and the preparation for war and using it to address human problems like poverty, ecological crisis, crumbling infrastructure, joblessness, and inadequate education, health, housing, and schooling. This happens to have long been a very popular idea with the
TOWARDS A NEW DEFINITION OF POLITICAL OBLIGATION BEYOND THE MASTERS’ “ELECTION MADNESS”
But, again, so what? Such mere public opinion does not go very far under the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship.” As the venerable left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin predicted last year in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton 2008), “Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society.” In the
Citizens must and can mobilize themselves as something more than voters in corporate-coordinated, candidate-centered electoral burlesques every four years. There have been some examples of a deeper, more radical popular engagement since the election, including two in Obama’s “home city”
As Howard Zinn reminded us in the spring of 2008, reflecting on the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the springtime of Obama’s election year:
“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.”
“…Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.”
“But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.”
“Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore….. (Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive, March 2008).
One can bemoan and feel (like the liberal-left filmmaker Michael Moore) “betrayed” by Obama’s predictable service to the corporate and military power elite and by his failure to act in accord with the more progressive-sounding aspects of his stirring campaign rhetoric. But candidate Obama made his centrist (right-wing by global and historical comparisons), business- and military-friendly commitments clear to those willing to do a bit of due-diligence research on his background, values, and world-view (see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics [Paradigm 2008] for a reasonably comprehensive account). It was and is foolish, childish even, to expect progressive change from a carefully corporate-choreographed bourgeois election in the headquarters of world imperialism. “Do not,” The Bible counsels, “put your faith in princes” (Psalms, 146:3).
More relevant than Obama’s values or character and history is the simple cold fact that progressive forces have not developed the strength to hold Democratic or other elected officials’ feet to the fire in ways that the political class feels forced to respect. We lack the capacity to compel politicians to reconsider their soulless service to concentrated power.
We need to build a progressive revolutionary movement before the establishment’s perverted priorities finally poison the Earth and society beyond all hope of democratic renewal.
Helpfully enough for clearing away electoral illusions that obstruct that building project, the Obama presidency and the current Democratic Congress are great demonstrations of the richly bipartisan nature of the proto-totalitarian corporate-imperial system of American governance, in which, as C Wright Mills noted fifty-three years ago, “Public relations displace[s] reasoned argument; manipulations and un-debated decisions of power replace[s] democratic authority” (Mills, The Power Elite [New York: Oxford University Press, 1956], p. 355). The change we need isn’t about electing and defending Democrats every few years, that’s for sure. The last year has made that clear enough.