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Archive for October, 2014

Reagan vs. Obama: Battle of the GDP

A Welterweight Fight! At Best.

 

The other day I entered into a Facebook argument (I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing on Facebook) about the comparison between President Obama and Ronald Reagan with regard to their economic achievements. The argument began from a posting of an article by Adam Hartung in Forbes Magazine, “Obama Outperforms Reagan on Jobs, Growth and Investing.” Okay, it was an iffy article, but I can’t resist an opportunity to provoke my right wing friends (of which I have many for some reason).

Right on cue, one of my right wing friends posted a response in the form of an article by Lance Roberts that appeared on the Advisor Perspective website called “Obama Outperformed Reagan? Hardly.” This article contained the typical homage to the miracle of the Reagan economy. Trite comparisons of the recession in the early eighties with the Great Recession faced by Obama. Lame rationales for why any progress under Obama doesn’t count. Graphs arranged in such a way as to emphasize dramatic shifts despite their irrelevance. Complete silence about the fact that Reagan ran monster deficits, grew the government and raised taxes during his time in office. Plus, the author offers the requisite claim that Reagan ushered in an era (20 years according to Roberts) of unprecedented prosperity, despite growing inequality, stagnating wages and an economic shift from manufacturing to a finance driven service sector. Pretty typical stuff, really.

On the other hand, let’s give my right wing friend credit where it is due. Hartung offers some interesting data to support his inference that Obama is “economically, the best modern President.” However, he really does not offer an analysis of GDP. Roberts does, but he hedges by comparing Reagan’s full term to only six years of Obama’s performance. So I figured I would rectify that. Below is the real GDP for Presidents Reagan and Obama in their first six and a half years. Now in this case, I’m looking at the slope of the line, not the raw numbers.

What I see appears to give Obama the edge when it comes to economic growth, but only slightly. So I figured I would bring these two lines together and focus them specifically on growth of GDP with both Presidents starting at zero. The results are as follows.

Again, advantage Obama. Now that does not mean that this advantage will last. There’s still a year a couple of years left.

But this leads me to the larger point. Being in a position to referee this welterweight fight (nothing against real welterweights…you guys are awesome!). When it comes to the economy neither Obama nor Reagan are anything to wave a big, foam finger in the air for. Since at least the Carter Administration, modern presidents, regardless of party, have turned their backs on the New Deal policies that really did usher in an era of prosperity. Economic policies since the seventies have concentrated on just subtle variations of the same theme: deregulation, privatization and free trade. The only real difference between the parties has been in protection of some vestige of the social safety net, with Republicans wishing to pull the rug out from under the poor and privatize the benefits of the old while Democrats continue to, more or less, support at least the existence of a basic, government funded safety net.

Reagan provided the legitimizing paradigm for this shift. “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” The Great Communicator so effectively denounced the very government that he grew that it is now inconceivable to argue that government even has a function that cannot be better served by the private sector. The existence of something called “the commons” and “the public interest” are no longer a part of the political vernacular. The message of the Progressive Era and the New Deal has been replaced by admonitions of “big government” and “tax and spend liberals.”

That is the true nature of the so called economic miracle that was the Reagan Era. Indeed, most people have not benefited from the economic growth that has happened since the eighties. Yes, we have some fancier toys, but as far as our standard of living, our wages, our security, most Americans are worse off in the new finance based economy that has supplanted the industrial revolution for which Reagan was the chief spokesman. Yes, it could be argued that this is, in and of itself, transformative. Indeed it is. But “great?” No. Not even close.

So has President Obama diverged from the economic trend of the last thirty years? Well, there’s still a couple of years left, but it’s unlikely. True, there were some early victories. Obama’s stimulus saved the nation from complete economic collapse. Thanks for that! The auto industry was saved despite right wing frothing about “Government Motors.” Dodd-Frank, and the Consumer Financial Protection Agency revealed some early signs that maybe the United States was due for a return to the progressive paradigm. We even got an ever so slight tax increase on the wealthy.

Since those slight detours, however, President Obama has largely returned to the Reagan path. Unlike Reagan, Obama has actually shrunk the size of government. Though Dodd-Frank offers some protection and oversight, the very financial system and arcane derivatives mechanisms that brought about the great recession remain in play. The Obama Administration continues to fight for free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the negotiations of which are in secret. Yes, there’s been an uptick of manufacturing, but most of the returning jobs are being done by robots, not human beings. Obama has even overseen the renaissance of the U.S. oil industry despite some increased investments in green energy. If President Obama isn’t exactly on the Reagan Road, he is certainly running parallel to it.

Yes, the Republicans! The Republicans! The confounded Republicans! Keep blocking everything Obama tries to do. Okay. But let’s be honest. Obama hasn’t put an awful lot of effort in getting through the Republican roadblocks. Might things have been different if it weren’t for 2010? Maybe, but I see no indicator that a Democratic 112th Congress would have vouched for us the transformative policies that are necessary for reversing the damage done from thirty years of what we’ve come to know as Reaganomics. We would have gotten more stimulus, which would have been a significant improvement in the lives of millions of people. That’s nothing to scoff at. We’ll be paying for the mistakes of 2010 for at least another decade, if not more. But there is nothing to indicate that President Obama would have presided over an exciting new direction for the American economy. Sorry.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the Obama legacy since reading Paul Krugman’s article in Rolling Stone defending the President. I’ve found that I’ve spent much of the Obama presidency defending the President from idiotic attacks from the right when what I really wanted to do was challenge the President to make real changes, to institute meaningful reforms that would make for a more just and equitable society. Perhaps, in being so distracted, I’ve been part of the problem. I can’t answer to this quite yet.

At this point, barring some significant changes, good or bad, in the next couple of years, I’m secure in my belief that Barack Obama has been a good president as presidents go. At the very least, I prefer President Obama over the possibility of a President McCain or a President Romney. What he has not been is a great president. And we are in dire need of a great President.


Don’t Let the Right Wing Breathe New Life Into the Old Iraqi WMD Lie

It was bad enough the first time

 

Back in 2001, I was actively involved in the peace movement. This was, of course, a losing proposition. Our nation had been violently awakened from our delusions of insularity from an otherwise unsafe and uncertain world. Our people were killed, our buildings were burning, and the taste of blood was rising in our throats. We would have justice…and justice meant blood. Those of us who believed that ‘blood for blood’ was not the answer were in the minority and relegated to social and, more importantly, media obscurity.

In 2003, however, the focus of our cause became even more acute. The Bush Administration bloodlust was not satisfied with bombing peasant villages in Afghanistan. There was only one target that could sate this bloody appetite, Saddam Hussein. Bush, Cheney and their loyal, or in the case of Colin Powell, cowed, minions were beating the drums for war against Iraq. This was not a surprise. Among the first things Bush did upon taking office in 2001 was a bombing mission over Iraq. That the President held an especial grudge against Hussein for allegedly trying to “kill my dad,” was common knowledge among those of us who were paying attention. We just didn’t really know the lengths through which the administration would go to open a second front in the so-called war on terror and institute a second combat theater in Iraq. We didn’t realize until 2002 when the tempo increased and became an incessant reminder of possible nightmares the likes of which would make 9/11 look mild. All administration speeches at that time conjured the hellish image of the mushroom cloud.

It was during this time that I started to participate in protests and public education campaings against war. In this area, I often found myself working with a local branch of the Roman Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi.¹ We struggled against the persistent claims that Saddam Hussein had an active Weapons of Mass Destruction program with which he could directly threaten America, or pose an even greater threat by giving such lethal weapons to his ally, Osama bin Laden. Our argument was that Iraq’s WMD program was not reason, in and of itself to go to war with a nation that had not actually attacked us, nor threatened to attack us, despite having been victimized by the United States in the early 90’s (for the record, my first forays into the peace movement was in protesting the First Gulf War). This was especially true considering the fact that the United States helped Saddam build this WMD program back when he was using it to kill Iranians (gee, I wonder why they don’t like us!). After seven years of inspections and dedicated destruction of Iraq’s WMD arsenal, and eleven years of brutal economic sanctions, it was unlikely that Hussein posed an uncontainable threat to the United States. We also knew that the mostly secular Hussein and his Baathists were no friends of bin Laden and al Qaeda regardless of what the Administration was saying.

Strange as it might seem it was a simpler time. We knew that the President and most of his staff were lying—we were still holding out misplaced hope for Colin Powell as the voice of reason in this far right cabinet, but this hope was misguided. The whole administration was lying to perpetuate this war. With history as a guide, this was no surprise. After all, we were well versed in the “Remember the Maine” lies that brought us into the Spanish American War, or the Gulf of Tonkin lies that escalated the slaughter that was Vietnam and the Indo-Chinese Wars. That Bush would distort the facts to drum up support for an unnecessary war that he really, really wanted, was not unprecedented.

Events revealed, however, that the Bush Administration lies were of a qualitatively different caliber from the original templates going back to the Rio Grande/Nueces River conflict. We always assumed that Hussein did, in fact, have some small WMD program hidden away, or at least some active remnants of the original program. The traditional media strategy was to take some potentially threatening fact and twist it out of proportion until war was justified. After all, the Maine really did explode and there really was an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. The lie was legitimized in the distortions of some underlying reality. That was not the case with the Bush war claims. These turned out to be of a different variety.

I saw the veil fall when I was reading a report from Amnesty International about a virus that was spreading uncontrolled through Iraq. This virus was spread by sand fleas that had mostly been eradicated until the First Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions. Because of the sanctions Iraq was not allowed the pesticides and the associated chemicals used to keep the sand fleas in check. This was a poignant report to me because the cover photo was of a small boy racked with pain from the virus. The boy was of the same age as and looked very much like my own son. I remember thinking, ‘My God! These people are not even a threat to their own sand fleas. How can they be a threat to the United States?’

Shortly after that, all of the phony Bush claims fell apart to anyone who was paying attention, to anyone who wasn’t motivated by fear of some fabled mushroom cloud. Information came quickly. There was a rumor that an ambassador to Nigeria was calling the lie on Bush claims that Iraq had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from West Africa. The aluminum tubes were certainly not for nuclear centrifuges. The mainstream press was gearing up for war, and the consequent ad space such an adventure sells, but even still, there was enough information there to cast doubt on the administration’s claims.

Most critically for me, however, were interviews conducted with actual weapons inspectors who had been in Iraq that I read, if memory serves, in The Nation. These inspectors were clear and unanimous. There was no WMD program in Iraq, and there were no active WMDs available to Saddam Hussein. Then Hans Blix returned with his report to the United Nations. “How much, if any, is left of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and related proscribed items and programmes? So far, UNMOVIC has not found any such weapons, only a small number of empty chemical munitions, which should have been declared and destroyed.” Blix did suggest that there were weapons that were not accounted for. Later, in the documentary, Uncovered, The Truth About the Iraq War, I learned that the missing chemical and biological agents not accounted for were irrelevant. The experts explained that the shelf life of such materials were short, no more than two years under the best conditions—conditions that did not exist in Iraq after the First Gulf War. After a few years, the inspectors saw little reason to hunt down material that was no longer weapons grade.

Then there was the debunking of Colin Powell’s shameful speech before the UN. This was the deepest cut. No one in this administration was uncorrupted or incorruptible.

The United States invaded Iraq…for no reason. Almost five thousand American soldiers were killed. Countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. Hundreds of thousands of bodies and minds were torn asunder to satisfy the Bush Administration’s bloodlust. Instead of roses thrown at our soldier’s feet and a nursery for democracy as promised by administration officials, US presence was hated, the resulting Iraqi government scorned, and sectarian violence spread. Now the region is a hot bed of instability requiring permanent American presence, weapons, money and blood to combat. This was the nation that we created. Not a crucible for democracy, but destructive, chaotic wildfire burning out of control.

Before the war, the military estimated that it would take around 400,000 US soldiers to stabilize Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Bush Administration scoffed at this estimate. It appears, in hindsight, that this estimate was correct. Is the United States willing to keep almost half a million soldiers stationed in the Iraqi sand in perpetuity? If not, are we willing to deal with the consequences, psychotic scourges like ISIS and whoever succeeds them in the coming years, spreading hate and violence and stacking up the bodies of the innocent. We can thank the Bush Administration and their lies for this conundrum.

So, naturally, the answer that we get from the right is—more lies. If the verdict of history is against you, change the history rather than learn from the verdict.

Recently, there has been a pathetic attempt on the part of the right wing media to bring these warmongering lies back to life. The focus of this renewed attempt to rebuild the shattered remains of the Bush Administration’s legitimacy is an article by the New York Times, “The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons.” The article documents the illnesses suffered by American soldiers after happening upon long discarded and long forgotten chemical weapons canisters and warheads. “American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.”

These were weapons that were operational and weapons grade back when Saddam Hussein was our guy, before Poppy Bush’s war, long before the Axis of Evil. The New York Times has uncovered a government cover-up, but has not breathed new life into the WMD controversy. Everyone knows that Hussein had WMD in the eighties. He had none in the 90’s. Period. Yet this article is being used as the rational for re-establishing the lies that led us to war in Iraq. Chemical weapons made our soldiers sick. Obviously, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It’s in the New York Times. Case closed. Bush was right.

No. The article is very clear in stating, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” These warheads and canisters pre-dated the First Gulf War and the sanctions program, a time in which it was understood that these weapons existed. About the chemicals weapons to which our soldiers were exposed, the New York Times states, “All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all.”

In fact, these warheads proved that Hussein did not have an active WMD program. To suggest otherwise is an willing lie. The article notes that attempts by the government to cover up the discovery of these weapons put soldiers at risk and resulted in their being denied medical care, medals and recognition. That is the current controversy. The journalist who broke the story, C. J. Chivers, states that “participants in the chemical weapons discovery” claim that the government covered up the story because the aged nature of these weapons were further proof of U.S. intelligence failures regarding the rational for war. Chivers also points out that five out of six incidents in which American soldiers were injured, “the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.” Yet another reason to keep this story on the down-low for ten years.

Right wing claims that Bush was right after all based on the revelation that U.S. soldiers were made ill by decrepit remnants of chemical weapons is nothing more than a desperate attempt to reclaim political legitimacy. The Iraq War is a dark spot on the history of conservatism and on those liberals, like Hillary Clinton, who were fool enough to buy their balderdash. It’s predictable that modern conservatism, an institution famous for perfecting the art of re-writing history would take this opportunity to do the same. However, we cannot let it happen—especially with the Iraq war.

Back in 2003, shortly before the fateful invasion, I often declared during debates and education sessions that I had enough information to know that there were no WMD in Iraq. At the very least, the intelligence was inadequate. If I, a high school teacher in South Florida, knew that the intelligence was insufficient to justify war, the President of the United States must know as well. They did know. They distorted the intelligence that they did have. They ignored intelligence that they did not like, and created intelligence where it didn’t exist. They lied.

The right wingers who are using the New York Times article to push their claims also know the truth. They know the story does not vindicate the Bush Administration. It’s clearly stated. Yet they continue to perpetuate the lie. The nature of this lies is exactly the same as the original false claims that led us to war. We cannot afford to allow history to be distorted like this. That period in which the American people were deliberately and cynically led into a meaningless war should not be subject to further right wing distortion. The Iraq war is a lesson in blind obedience, in allowing fear to trump reason and in trusting those in power in making decisions of national and global consequence, on life and death, without debate. The lies leading us into a quagmire in the Middle East from which we have yet to extract ourselves are a prime reason why President Obama, who has proven that he is no pacifist, hesitates to involve our nation in yet another war in the region. That’s a good thing. We in the peace movement were clearly and unambiguously right about the Iraq War and had, for the first time, organized a global protest before the war even began. We cannot afford to lose the lessons gained from this experience to militarists insistent upon dropping their biggest transgression down the memory hole.

As it stands, when those in power start beating the drums for war, we in the peace movement can point to Iraq and say, “remember!” The power elite hate that we can do that.

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  1. I was not a member of Pax Christi, nor am I a Catholic. At that time, our interests converged. It was a pleasure working with such fine people.