Political Book Summaries, Reviews and Opinions

Political Book Summaries, Reviews and Opinions

Category Archives: Excerpts

Book Excerpt:Worse Than Watergate by John W Dean


Book Excerpt: Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Book Excerpt: Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Book Excerpt from Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush by John W Dean

The George W Bush administration will probably give historians something interesting to discuss for decades to come, easily longer. Love him or hate him, he changed America. Starting with 9/11, two occupations, a global war against islamic extremism, and a crippled economy. Here’s a book excerpt from several years ago detailing the more secretive side of the Bush Administration. I thought it was appropiate in relation to the current wikileaks controversy. Read more of this post

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Book Excerpt: War is a lie by David Swanson


War is a Lie by David Swanson

War is a Lie by David Swanson

Book excerpt from War is a lie by David Swanson

What follows is a book excerpt from an avid anti-war protester. A lot of people made the argument that Bush lied to get us to war. Others argue he lied to himself, or just simply got it wrong. Personally, I know as that matters, I’m more offended by the incompetence that followed the invasion.

This guy does believe Bush lied to get us to war, but he has a much larger and deeper point, that all wars are lies. He very much anti-war, and like any of the other books I talk about, I’m not about to endorce the guy. But, for all that’s said for the sake of argument, here’s something said for the sake of peace. Read more of this post

Book Excerpt: A Journey: My Political Life by Tony Blair


This is essentially a memoir by Tony Blair, who’s most famous in America for helping Bush invade Iraq. He’s sorta the Brittish version of Bush. Sorta. This is about 9/11 from his perspective and how he viewed it. Worth a read. Additionally, it’s well written. I found it very easy to read, nothing surprising, but definetely an interesting light into his mind.

Book Excerpt: A Journey: My Political Life by Tony Blair

Book Excerpt: A Journey: My Political Life by Tony Blair

CHAPTER TWELVE
9/11: ‘SHOULDER TO SHOULDER’

It is amazing how quickly shock is absorbed and the natural rhythm of the human spirit reasserts itself. A cataclysm occurs. The senses reel. In that moment of supreme definition, we can capture in our imagination an event’s full significance. Over time, it is not that the memory of it fades, exactly; but its illuminating light dims, loses its force, and our attention moves on. We remember, but not as we felt at that moment. The emotional impact is replaced by a sentiment which, because it is more calm, seems more rational. But paradoxically it can be less rational, because the calm is not the product of a changed analysis, but of the effluxion of time.

So it was with 11 September 2001. On that day, in the course of less than two hours, almost 3,000 people were killed in the worst terrorist attack the world has ever known. Most died in the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that dominated the skyline of New York. It was a workplace for as diverse a workforce as any in the world, from all nations, races and faiths, and was not only a symbol of American power but also the edifice that most eloquently represented the modern phenomenon of globalisation.

The explosion as the planes hit killed hundreds outright, but most died in the inferno that followed, and the carnage of the collapse of the buildings. As the flames and smoke engulfed them, many jumped in terror and panic, or just because they preferred that death to being on fire. Many who died were rescue workers whose heroism that day has rightly remained as an enduring testament to selfless sacrifice.

The Twin Towers were not the only target. American Airlines Flight 77, carrying sixty-four people from Washington to Los Angeles, was flown into the Pentagon. A total of 189 people died. United Airlines Flight 93, bound from Newark to San Francisco with forty-four on board, was hijacked, its target probably the White House. It came down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Its passengers, realising the goal of the hijack, stormed the cabin. In perishing, they saved the lives of many others.

It was an event like no other. It was regarded as such. The British newspapers the next day were typical of those around the globe: “at war,” they proclaimed. The most common analogy was Pearl Harbor. The notion of a world, not just America, confronted by a deadly evil that had indeed declared war on us all was not then dismissed as the language of the periphery of public sentiment. It was the sentiment. Thousands killed by terror—what else should we call it?

Opinions were forthright and clear, and competed with each other in resolution, not only in the West but everywhere. In the Arab world, condemnation was nearly universal, only Saddam ensuring that Iraqi state television played a partisan song, “Down with America,” calling the attacks “the fruits of American crimes against humanity.” Yasser Arafat condemned the acts on behalf of the Palestinians, though unfortunately, most especially for the Palestinian cause, the TV showed pictures of some jubilant Palestinians celebrating.

The most common words that day were “war,” “evil,” “sympathy,” “solidarity,” “determination” and, of course, “change.” Above all, it was accepted that the world had changed. How could it be otherwise? The reason for such a description was also not hard to divine. The first attempt to attack the World Trade Center, in 1993, had been foiled, but the planning this time had obviously been meticulous. The enemy had been prepared to wait until it had accumulated the necessary means and opportunity.

However, more than that, a terror attack of this scale was not calculated to do limited damage. It was designed for maximum casualty. It was delivered by a suicide mission. It therefore had an intent, a purpose and a scope beyond anything we had encountered before. This was terror without limit; without mercy; without regard to human life, because it was motivated by a cause higher than any human cause. It was inspired by a belief in God; a perverted belief, a delusional and demonic belief, to be sure, but nonetheless so inspired.

It was, in a very real sense, a declaration of war. It was calculated to draw us into conflict. Up to then, the activities of this type of extremism had been growing. It was increasingly associated with disputes that seemed unconnected, though gradually the connection was being made. Kashmir, Chechnya, Algeria, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon; in each area, different causes were at play, with different origins, but the attacks, carried out as acts of terror, were growing, and the ideological link with an extreme element that professed belief in Islam was ever more frequently expressed. Until 11 September, the splashes of colour on different parts of the canvas did not appear to the eye as a single picture. After it, the clarity was plain, vivid and defining.

We look back now, almost a decade later when we are still at war, still struggling and managing the ghastly consequences which war imposes, and we can scarcely recall how we ever came to be in this position. But on that bright New York morning, not a cloud disturbing the bluest of blue skies, we knew exactly what was happening and why.

We knew that so far as we were concerned we had not provoked such an outrage. There had been acts of terror committed against us: Lockerbie, the USS Cole, the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. We had tried to retaliate, but at a relatively low level. They were individual tragedies, but they did not amount to a war. They were the price America paid for being America. The other conflicts we reckoned were none of our business; or at least they were the business of our diplomatic corps, but not of our people.

So those carrying out such acts were wicked; but they weren’t changing our world view. George Bush had won the presidency after the controversies of the most contested ballot in U.S. history, but the battle between him and Al Gore had focused mainly on domestic policy. At my first meeting with him — Camp David in February of the same year — his priorities were about education, welfare and cutting down on big government as he saw it.

So there was no build-up to 11 September, no escalation, no attempts to defuse that failed, no expectation or inevitability. There was just an attack — planned obviously during the previous presidency — of unbelievable ferocity and effect. No warning, no demands, no negotiation. Nothing except mass slaughter of the innocent. We were at war.We could not ignore it. But how should we deal with it? And who was this enemy? A person? A group? A movement? A state? I was in Brighton that day, to give the biennial address to the Trades Union Congress. Frankly, it was always a pretty ghastly affair for both of us. As I explain elsewhere, I was frustrated they wouldn’t modernise; they were frustrated with my telling them how to do their business. Not that they were ever slow in telling me how to do mine, mind you. And sure-fire election-losing advice it was too. They ignored my counsel; and I ignored theirs. For all that, we sort of rubbed along after a fashion, and in a manner of speaking, and up to a point.

The great thing about Brighton is that it is warm, closer than Blackpool to London, and retains the enormous charm of yesteryear. Blackpool can be a great town and has a unique quality, but it needs work done on it. Brighton was where Neil Kinnock, posing for photos on the pebble beach on the day he became Labour leader in 1983, lost his footing and fell in the sea. You can imagine the pleasure of the assembled press. It must have been replayed a thousand times and became a slightly defining misstep; unfairly so, of course; but such things are never fair. In public, you are always on show, so always be under control. The trick, actually, is to appear to be natural, while gripping your nature in a vice of care and caution. Don’t let the mask slip; don’t think this is the moment to begin a new adventure in communication; don’t betray excesses of emotion of any kind; do it all with the ease and character of someone talking to old friends while knowing they are, in fact, new acquaintances.

Over time, I began to think there was never a moment when I could be completely candid and exposed. You worried that even sitting in your living room or in the bath, someone would come to photograph, question and call upon you to justify yourself. I became unhealthily focused on how others saw me, until, again over time, I refocused on how I saw myself. I realised I was considered public property, but the ownership was mine. I learned not to let the opinion of others, even a prevailing one, define my view of myself and what I should or should not do.

The TUC took place in early to mid-September, and the party conference a couple of weeks later. Both always made September a little nerve-tingling. From the TUC you could get a sense of where the party were liable to be in terms of contentment and/or otherwise. Trouble at the first usually presaged trouble at the second. The 2001 TUC was no exception. Having just won our first ever consecutive full term, in a second landslide victory, you would have thought it an occasion for general rejoicing. “I think mostly they’ll want to congratulate you on the victory,” Alastair said to me, po-faced, as we boarded the train.

“Do you think so?” I said, perking up.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied.

Sure enough, the mood as I arrived at lunchtime was the usual mixture of sweet and sour, but with the sweet a decided minority. I went straight to the Grand Hotel. We had an hour and a half before I had to go to the new Conference Centre a hundred yards or so along the beachfront. I worked in the bedroom as the team gathered in the living room of the suite. Just after a quarter to two, around 8:45 Eastern Standard Time, Alastair was called out of the room by Godric Smith, his very capable deputy. Alastair came back in, turned on the television and said, “You’d better see this.” He knew I hated being interrupted just before a speech, so I realised I’d better look. The TV was showing pictures of the Trade Center like someone had punched a huge hole in it, fire and smoke belching forth. Just over fifteen minutes later, a second plane hit, this time graphically captured live on-screen. This was not an accident. It was an attack.

At that moment, I felt eerily calm despite being naturally horrified at the devastation, and aware this was not an ordinary event but a worldchanging one. At one level it was a shock, a seemingly senseless act of evil. At another level, it made sense of developments I had seen growing in the world these past years—isolated acts of terrorism, disputes marked by the same elements of extremism, and a growing strain of religious ideology that was always threatening to erupt, and now had.

Within a very short space of time, it was clear the casualties would be measured in thousands. I ordered my thoughts. It was the worst terrorist attack in human history. It was not America alone who was the target, but all of us who shared the same values. We had to stand together. We had to understand the scale of the challenge and rise to meet it. We could not give up until it was done. Unchecked and unchallenged, this could threaten our way of life to its fundamentals. There was no other course; no other option; no alternative path. It was war. It had to be fought and won. But it was a war unlike any other. This was not a battle for territory, not a battle between states; it was a battle for and about the ideas and values that would shape the twenty-first century. All this came to me in those forty minutes between the first attack and my standing up in front of the audience to tell them that I would not deliver my speech but instead return immediately to London. And it came with total clarity. Essentially, it stayed with that clarity and stays still, in the same way, as clear now as it was then.

Book Excerpt: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang


I found this while suring today. It was the most interesting opening chapter I’ve read of a political book in a long time. The guy is a Korean economist from England making the essential argument that the Free Market is anything but.

 

Book Excerpt: 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Book Excerpt: 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Thing 1: There is no such thing as a free market

What they tell you

 Markets need to be free. When the government interferes to dictate what market participants can or cannot do, resources cannot flow to their most efficient use. If people cannot do the things that they find most profitable, they lose the incentive to invest and innovate. Thus, if the government puts a cap on house rents, landlords lose the incentive to maintain their properties or build new ones. Or, if the government restricts the kinds of financial products that can be sold, two contracting parties that may both have benefited from innovative transactions that fulfill their idiosyncratic needs cannot reap the potential gains of free contract. People must be left “free to choose,” as the title of free-market visionary Milton Friedman’s famous book goes.

What they don’t tell you

The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How “free” a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition. The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politically motivated as anyone. Overcoming the myth that there is such a thing as an objectively defined “free market” is the first step towards understanding capitalism.

Labor ought to be free

In 1819 new legislation to regulate child labor, the Cotton Factories Regulation Act, was tabled in the British Parliament. The proposed regulation was incredibly “light touch” by modern standards. It would ban the employment of young children – that is, those under the age of nine. Older children (aged between ten and sixteen) would still be allowed to work, but with their working hours restricted to twelve per day (yes, they were really going soft on those kids). The new rules applied only to cotton factories, which were recognized to be exceptionally hazardous to workers’ health.

The proposal caused huge controversy. Opponents saw it as undermining the sanctity of freedom of contract and thus destroying the very foundation of the free market. In debating this legislation, some members of the House of Lords objected to it on the grounds that “labor ought to be free.” Their argument said: the children want (and need) to work, and the factory owners want to employ them; what is the problem?

Today, even the most ardent free-market proponents in Britain or other rich countries would not think of bringing child labor back as part of the market liberalization package that they so want. However, until the late 19th or the early 20th century, when the first serious child labor regulations were introduced in Europe and North America, many respectable people judged child labour regulation to be against the principles of the free market.

Thus seen, the “freedom” of a market is, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. If you believe that the right of children not to have to work is more important than the right of factory owners to be able to hire whoever they find most profitable, you will not see a ban on child labor as an infringement on the freedom of the labor market. If you believe the opposite, you will see an “unfree” market, shackled by a misguided government regulation.

We don’t have to go back two centuries to see regulations we take for granted (and accept as the “ambient noise” within the free market) that were seriously challenged as undermining the free market, when first introduced. When environmental regulations (e.g., regulations on car and factory emissions) appeared a few decades ago, they were opposed by many as serious infringements on our freedom to choose. Their opponents asked: if people want to drive in more polluting cars or if factories find more polluting production methods more profitable, why should the government prevent them from making such choices? Today, most people accept these regulations as “natural.” They believe that actions that harm others, however unintentionally (such as pollution), need to be restricted. They also understand that it is sensible to make careful use of our energy resources, when many of them are non-renewable. They may believe that reducing human impact on climate change makes sense too.

If the same market can be perceived to have varying degrees of freedom by different people, there is really no objective way to define how free that market is. In other words, the free market is an illusion. If some markets look free, it is only because we so totally accept the regulations that are propping them up that they become invisible.

Piano wires and kungfu masters

Like many people, as a child I was fascinated by all those gravity-defying kung fu masters in Hong Kong movies. Like many kids, I suspect, I was bitterly disappointed when I learned that those masters were actually hanging on piano wires.

The free market is a bit like that. We accept the legitimacy of certain regulations so totally that we don’t see them. More carefully examined, markets are revealed to be propped up by rules – and many of them.

To begin with, there is a huge range of restrictions on what can be traded; and not just bans on “obvious” things such as narcotic drugs or human organs. Electoral votes, government jobs and legal decisions are not for sale, at least openly, in modern economies, although they were in most countries in the past.

University places may not usually be sold, although in some nations money can buy them – either through (illegally) paying the selectors or (legally) donating money to the university. Many countries ban trading in firearms or alcohol. Usually medicines have to be explicitly licensed by the government, upon the proof of their safety, before they can be marketed. All these regulations are potentially controversial – just as the ban on selling human beings (the slave trade) was one and a half centuries ago.

There are also restrictions on who can participate in markets. Child labor regulation now bans the entry of children into the labor market. Licenses are required for professions that have significant impacts on human life, such as medical doctors or lawyers (which may sometimes be issued by professional associations rather than by the government). Many countries allow only companies with more than a certain amount of capital to set up banks. Even the stock market, whose underregulation has been a cause of the 2008 global recession, has regulations on who can trade. You can’t just turn up in the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) with a bag of shares and sell them. Companies must fulfill listing requirements, meeting stringent auditing standards over a certain number of years, before they can offer their shares for trading. Trading of shares is only conducted by licensed brokers and traders.

Conditions of trade are specified too. One of the things that surprised me when I first moved to Britain in the mid-1980s was that one could demand a full refund for a product one didn’t like, even if it wasn’t faulty. At the time, you just couldn’t do that in Korea, except in the most exclusive department stores. In Britain, the consumer’s right to change her mind was considered more important than the right of the seller to avoid the cost involved in returning unwanted (yet functional) products to the manufacturer. There are many other rules regulating various aspects of the exchange process: product liability, failure in delivery, loan default, and so on. In many countries, there are also necessary permissions for the location of sales outlets – such as restrictions on street-vending or zoning laws that ban commercial activities in residential areas.  

Then there are price regulations. I am not talking here just about those highly visible phenomena such as rent controls or minimum wages that free-market economists love to hate.

Wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any minimum wage legislation. How is the immigration maximum determined? Not by the “free” labor market, which, if left alone, will end up replacing 80–90 per cent of native workers with cheaper, and often more productive, immigrants. Immigration is largely settled by politics. So, if you have any residual doubt about the massive role that the government plays in the economy’s free market, then pause to reflect that all our wages are, at root, politically determined.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the prices of loans (if you can get one or if you already have a variable rate loan) have become a lot lower in many countries thanks to the continuous slashing of interest rates. Was that because suddenly people didn’t want loans and the banks needed to lower their prices to shift them? No, it was the result of political decisions to boost demand by cutting interest rates. Even in normal times, interest rates are set in most countries by the central bank, which means that political considerations creep in. In other words, interest rates are also determined by politics.

If wages and interest rates are (to a significant extent) politically determined, then all the other prices are politically determined, as they affect all other prices.

Is free trade fair?

We see a regulation when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it. The 19th-century high-tariff restriction on free trade by the U.S. federal government outraged slave-owners, who at the same time saw nothing wrong with trading people in a free market. To those who believed that people can be owned, banning trade in slaves was objectionable in the same way as restricting trade in manufactured goods. Korean shopkeepers of the 1980s would probably have thought the requirement for “unconditional return” to be an unfairly burdensome government regulation restricting market freedom.

This clash of values also lies behind the contemporary debate on free trade vs. fair trade. Many Americans believe that China is engaged in international trade that may be free but is not fair. In their view, by paying workers unacceptably low wages and making them work in inhumane conditions, China competes unfairly. The Chinese, in turn, can riposte that it is unacceptable that rich countries, while advocating free trade, try to impose artificial barriers to China’s exports by attempting to restrict the import of “sweatshop” products. They find it unjust to be prevented from exploiting the only resource they have in greatest abundance – cheap labor.

Of course, the difficulty here is that there is no objective way to define “unacceptably low wages” or “inhumane working conditions.” With the huge international gaps that exist in the level of economic development and living standards, it is natural that what is a starvation wage in the U.S. is a handsome wage in China (the average being 10 per cent that of the U.S.) and a fortune in India (the average being 2 per cent that of the U.S.) Indeed, most fair-trade-minded Americans would not have bought things made by their own grandfathers, who worked extremely long hours under inhumane conditions. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the average work week in the U.S. was around 60 hours. At the time (in 1905, to be more precise), it was a country in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a New York state law limiting the working days of bakers to 10 hours, on the grounds that it “deprived the baker of the liberty of working as long as he wished.”

Thus seen, the debate about fair trade is essentially about moral values and political decisions, and not economics in the usual sense. Even though it is about an economic issue, it is not something economists with their technical tool kits are particularly well equipped to rule on.

All this does not mean that we need to take a relativist position and fail to criticize anyone because anything goes. We can (and I do) have a view on the acceptability of prevailing labour standards in China (or any other country, for that matter) and try to do something about it, without believing that those who have a different view are wrong in some absolute sense. Even though China cannot afford American wages or Swedish working conditions, it certainly can improve the wages and the working conditions of its workers. Indeed, many Chinese don’t accept the prevailing conditions and demand tougher regulations. But economic theory (at least free-market economics) cannot tell us what the ‘right’ wages and working conditions should be in China.

I don’t think we are in France any more 

In July 2008, with the country’s financial system in meltdown, the US government poured $200 billion into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage lenders, and nationalized them. On witnessing this, the Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky famously denounced the action as something that could only happen in a “socialist” country like France.

France was bad enough, but on 19 September 2008, Senator Bunning’s beloved country was turned into the Evil Empire itself by his own party leader. According to the plan announced that day by President George W. Bush and subsequently named TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), the U.S. government was to use at least $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to buy up the “toxic assets” choking up the financial system.

President Bush, however, did not see things quite that way. He argued that, rather than being “socialist” the plan was simply a continuation of the American system of free enterprise, which “rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the market place only when necessary.” Only that, in his view, nationalizing a huge chunk of the financial sector was just one of those necessary things.

Mr. Bush’s statement is, of course, an ultimate example of political double-speak – one of the biggest state interventions in human history is dressed up as another workaday market process. However, through these words Mr. Bush exposed the flimsy foundation on which the myth of the free market stands. As the statement so clearly reveals, what is a necessary state intervention consistent with free-market capitalism is really a matter of opinion. There is no scientifically defined boundary for free market.

If there is nothing sacred about any particular market boundaries that happen to exist, an attempt to change them is as legitimate as the attempt to defend them. Indeed, the history of capitalism has been a constant struggle over the boundaries of the market.

A lot of the things that are outside the market today have been removed by political decision, rather than the market process itself – human beings, government jobs, electoral votes, legal decisions, university places or uncertified medicines. There are still attempts to buy at least some of these things illegally (bribing government officials, judges or voters) or legally (using expensive lawyers to win a lawsuit, donations to political parties, etc.), but, even though there have been movements in both directions, the trend has been towards less marketization.

For goods that are still traded, more regulations have been introduced over time. Compared even to a few decades ago, now we have much more stringent regulations on who can produce what (e.g., certificates for organic or fair-trade producers), how they can be produced (e.g., restrictions on pollution or carbon emissions), and how they can be sold (e.g., rules on product labelling and on refunds).  

Furthermore, reflecting its political nature, the process of re-drawing the boundaries of the market has sometimes been marked by violent conflicts. The Americans fought a civil war over free trade in slaves (although free trade in goods – or the tariffs issue – was also an important issue). The British government fought the Opium War against China to realize a free trade in opium. Regulations on free market in child labour were implemented only because of the struggles by social reformers, as I discussed earlier. Making free markets in government jobs or votes illegal has been met with stiff resistance by political parties who bought votes and dished out government jobs to reward loyalists. These practices came to an end only through a combination of political activism, electoral reforms and changes in the rules regarding government hiring.

Recognizing that the boundaries of the market are ambiguous and cannot be determined in an objective way lets us realize that economics is not a science like physics or chemistry, but a political exercise. Free-market economists may want you to believe that the correct boundaries of the market can be scientifically determined, but this is incorrect. If the boundaries of what you are studying cannot be scientifically determined, what you are doing is not a science.

Thus seen, opposing a new regulation is saying that the status quo, however unjust from some people’s point of view, should not be changed. Saying that an existing regulation should be abolished is saying that the domain of the market should be expanded, which means that those who have money should be given more power in that area, as the market is run on one-dollar-one-vote principle.

So, when free-market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the “freedom” of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. Their ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics is not really political, but rather is an objective economic truth, while other people’s politics is political. However, they are as politically motivated as their opponents.

Breaking away from the illusion of market objectivity is the first step toward understanding capitalism.

Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama


Book Excerpt: kabuki democracy by Eric Alterman

Book Excerpt: kabuki democracy by Eric Alterman

“The self-critical element of the progressive mind is probably a healthy thing, but it can also be debilitating,” Barack Obama told Rolling Stone magazine in the fall of 2010. Progressives need to keep this in mind, particularly in light of the amazing series of interlocking challenges that faced Obama’s presidency in merely restoring some sensible form of equilibrium to the governance of the United States. What’s more, he was attempting to work with a minority party with no strategic stake whatever in sensible governance.

When, for instance, the unemployment figure reached 9.5 percent—or, more accurately, 16.5 percent if we include the people who had given up looking—in the summer of 2010, some of the lost jobs could be attributed to the failure of Congress to appropriate funds to replace lost state and local revenue in time for localities to retain their needed staffing levels of police, firefighters, schoolteachers, and the like; a legislative package was purposely delayed in the Senate by a combination of single-senator holds and party-line obstructionist votes. But bad employment numbers were actually good news for Republicans, as they were roundly interpreted as evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s economic policies and therefore increased the likelihood of strong Republican showings in the coming November midterm elections.

As a matter of fact, the worse things got for the country, the better they looked for Republican candidates. And given that Republicans can plausibly claim to be ideologically in sync with just about any nonmilitary budget cut no matter what the ultimate effect, what possible incentive do the Republicans have to cooperate with the Democratic majority to pass legislation that will actually improve economic conditions? The two parties are demonstrably different in this respect. Democrats, even in the minority, participate in solutions designed to improve governance. They cannot help themselves. A commitment to the principle of good governance is the primary reason most Democrats tend toward politics in the first place.

One might argue that this faith in government’s ability to improve people’s lives is misplaced, or that it becomes easily corrupted over time by the temptations of power and privilege, but few serious political observers would deny its initial presence. This is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice and therefore happy to see government programs fail and, ideally, disappear entirely.

Ironically, given the deeply contested manner in which George W. Bush ascended to the presidency in 2000 despite his second-place finish in the popular vote and a transparent power grab on his behalf by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is Obama’s, not Bush’s, legitimacy that has come under attack by mainstream Republicans. As environmental reporter Dave Roberts describes it, “At the federal Congressional level, the Republican Party has become tight in its discipline, extreme in its ideology, and utterly unprincipled in its tactics.”

To be fair to the Democrats, they are a far more ideologically diverse party than the Republicans and contain many moderates, many of who, in past Congresses, would easily have been conservatives. To further complicate matters, the more conservative or “centrist” representatives are almost always the most vulnerable because they do not represent reliably liberal districts (many were recently recruited for the purposes of winning in “purple” districts). As NPR’s Ron Elving observed following the publication of yet another poll predicting a Republican landslide, House Democrats were divided between their safe “sitting pretty faction” and “the more fragile ‘scaredy cat’ faction that could be carried off by even the gentlest of anti-incumbent breezes.” As a result, the Democratic leadership in both houses is forever forced to compromise with its own side rather than its opposition.

Now add to this the fact that, as Roberts rightly notes, “Congressional Republicans exercise far more party discipline, are far more extreme ideologically, and are far more willing to twist and abuse procedure than are Congressional Democrats.” It’s true, as pundits like to claim, that both sides “do it,” but Republican conservatives do it better, more often, and to far greater effect. As New York congressman Anthony Weiner wryly observes, too often Democrats arrive at “knife fights carrying library books.”

Again, to offer just one relatively insignificant example, when Democratic congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii announced his plans to leave Congress to run for governor, he picked as his date of departure February 28, just before the big make-’em-or-break-’em series of votes on health care reform. Barely a week later, Republican congressman Nathan Deal of Georgia made the same announcement regarding his ambition to occupy his state’s governor’s chair, but his Republican colleagues prevailed upon him to stick around long enough to vote against health care.

Meanwhile, and I wish I were making this up, Abercrombie’s Democratic colleagues not only let him run away from the fight but also gave him a going-away party. Too bad Abercrombie was already gone. (And in an almost too-fitting ending, the Democrats lost this bluest of blue seats—temporarily at least—in the May special election, owing to their inability to settle on a single candidate in time for the vote.)

Take the example of health care reform, for instance. Clearly, the American health care system demanded an overhaul for reasons of both equity and efficiency. Per capita health spending in the United States had been increasing at nearly twice the rate as that in other wealthy countries; by 2004 U.S. health care spending was two and a half times per citizen that of the median amount for its competitors and far more than any other country as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). And what do we get for all our money? Given that about one-third of the spending went into wasteful and counterproductive bureaucratic shuffling and endlessly redundant layers of administration, not nearly as much as one would have had a right to expect.

Going into 2009, the United States and South Africa were the only two developed countries in the world that did not provide health care for all of their citizens. Nationally, roughly 30 percent of American children were without health insurance, and it was not unusual for them to receive no checkups or vaccinations for the entire year. The United States ranked eighty-fourth in the world for measles immunizations and eighty-ninth for polio. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States were lower than average. Infant-mortality rates were in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations. And children were hardly the only problem. American life expectancy was lower than the Western average. According to the World Health Organization, the United States ranked twenty-eighth in the years its citizens could expect to live healthy lives.

Republicans never bothered to come up with an alternative proposal to Obama’s health care plan. Actually addressing these issues could hardly have been less relevant to their political agenda. All they needed were the words “socialism,” “government takeover,” “death panels,” and, most of all, “no.” (“We’re the party of ‘Hell, no!’” cried Sarah Palin to a crowd of cheering southern Republicans in April 2010.) When Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced a GOP stimulus plan, authored by the Heritage Foundation, it consisted in its entirety of making the Bush tax cuts permanent and adding to them additional tax breaks for corporations and wealthy Americans. If enacted—never a serious possibility—this plan would have cost roughly three times what Obama’s plan is estimated to cost over the next ten years. Even DeMint found it necessary to admit that the plan was “not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it’s only eleven pages.”

Republicans stuck to this line throughout Obama’s first two years in office, deriding the impact of the stimulus, complaining of out-of-control deficit spending, and yet demanding the retention of the enormously costly Bush tax cuts aimed primarily at the extremely wealthy. They did so despite the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed the short-term effects of eleven potential options for dealing with the present unemployment crisis and found that retaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy offered the least powerful “bang for the buck,” owing to wealthy people’s proclivity to save, rather than spend, additional income.

But when on a Fox News Sunday program in late July 2010 Chris Wallace inquired of then-GOP House minority leader, now House Speaker, John Boehner as to whether he was aware that “a number of top economists say what we need is more economic stimulus,” the Republican leader replied with apparent pride in his ignorance, “Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists. All I need to do is listen to the American people, because they’ve been asking the question now for eighteen months, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

This is an excerpt for the next book on my to read list. 🙂 That list is quite rediculously long, so good luck to me. Maybe my libray has it. If not, maybe I’ll get it as an ebook.