John Yoo, Social Security, & Korean Threat

The liberalism of the Philadelphia Inquirer has long been something of a laugh, as its leaders and editors have persistently strained their backs bending rearward to supply right-wing commentators and prove their own non-liberal credentials. They were always harsh on Clinton, calling for his resignation for his unsaintly behavior, but never calling for the resignation or impeachment of the rather more serious law violator George W. Bush. They gave their editorial approval to Supreme Court seats for John Roberts and Samuel Alito, while claiming an interest in court "balance." Their most regular columnist over the past 20 years has been the "enlightening" Charles Krauthammer. All in all their commentaries have been a combination of trivia and obfuscation.

The Inquirer was acquired from the McClatchy Company in 2006 by a local syndicate led by ad executive and Bush activist Brian Tierney. This was not a wise financial investment as, despite valiant and sometimes compromising ad campaigns, the newspaper’s decline put the paper into bankruptcy proceedings. But Tierney, so far, maintains control. His main imprint, apart from ad intensity and lightening the paper’s content, has been a strong push to the right on the editorial page with the addition of former Senator Rick Santorum as a columnist, along with right-winger Michael Smerconish—and with a lineup including Mark Bowden, Jonathan Last, Kevin Ferris, and Krauthammer.

The inside "left" is Trudy Rubin, who loved Yeltsin, thought that Arafat’s death made peace in the Middle East possible, and finds each "surge" by U.S. forces in distant lands promising even if not a sure winner.

It was in this context that Tierney urged the hiring of John Yoo as a regular contributor. This may have been a mistake. One reason is that Yoo is notorious for his advocacy of torture and executive power over-reach, both involving legal and constitutional violations. This makes him at minimum an opponent of the rule of law, but also a candidate for trial as a war criminal. That Tierney and the editors would actually solicit such a person as a commentator does not speak well for their own morality or sense.

A second reason why this choice was problematic is that it is overkill—the Inquirer already has four regular commentators who are open defenders of torture (Smerconish, Krauthammer, Ferris, and Bowden), and then there is Santorum who, in effect, voted for it by supporting the Military Commissions Act. Editor Harold Jackson defended the Yoo appointment, among other reasons, on the grounds of "wanting to make sure our pages present alternative points of view" ("Why I Hired John Yoo," May 17). This is a double hypocrisy: the right-wing gang they already installed offers plenty of defense of that "alternative view" on torture and it is, in fact, a genuine left presence that is missing on the "Inky" editorial page: somebody who would call for the prosecution of home-country war criminals; someone who would oppose "free trade" (i.e., special protection of foreign [U.S.] investors in Third World states); someone who would call for an end to "power projection" under the guise of a "war on terror" and for major cutbacks in the military budget. The Inquirer provides nobody like this and has even cut back its occasional visitors from the left.

The bringing in of Yoo has caused Tierney and the editors some headaches, as manifested in Harold Jackson’s feeble but aggressive defense. Criticism was widespread, extending to coverage on "Democracy Now!," attacks on many blogs, a campaign initiated by the phone company CREDO, local protests, and many highly critical emails and letters to the editor.

Possibly as part of a response to these criticisms, the Inquirer offered readers a new regular commentator, Susan Estrich. Estrich was campaign manager for Michael Dukakis in 1988, has been the nominal "leftist" on Fox, and is a reputed feminist—so for the Inquirer leadership this package presumably makes her a leftist and offset to Yoo. But the first column of this alleged feminist-leftist was a nasty and dishonest attack on Michelle Obama ("Powerful women: They just can’t win," May 24). Estrich says that "half the people I run into every day" don’t "love" Ms. Obama, and her article is largely a snide list of Michelle Obama’s alleged mistakes and reasons why people "resent her." In the 14th paragraph Estrich finally mentions that her own feeling that many people don’t like Ms. Obama conflicts with "whatever the polls say." In fact, a USA Today/Gallup poll published on April 24 found that 79 percent of those polled approve of the way Michelle Obama has handled her position while only 8 percent disapprove. A solid majority of Republicans also approve of her performance. Her rates are also higher than those of her husband (Jeffrey M. Jones, "Michelle Obama’s Favorable Rating Eclipses Her Husband’s," Gallup, April 2, 2009,

It takes some chutzpah to refuse to confront such clear poll results. How can powerful women "win" when they are treated in this unfair attack mode? Estrich is clearly going to be a great addition to "intellectual" life in Philadelphia.

Medicare, Social Security, and Pentagon Insolvency

The media and pundits are once again worried that the trust funds for Medicare and Social Security might run out of money and fall into a state of insolvency (see Robert Pear, "Recession Adds to Fiscal Peril of U.S. Benefits," NYT, May 13, 2009). There have been regular little crises of fear that these funds face a financial debacle and billionaire former investment banker Pete Peterson has made a late-life work of, and plugged lots of dollars into, a campaign to inject fear and create the moral environment for cutbacks in, and possible privatization of, Social Security. In fact, while Medicare does present serious problems, mainly because of the absence of single payer and cost controls in the medical system, Social Security won’t face even minor funding problems for decades. The periodic hysteria reflects establishment hostility to a well-working government system that services ordinary people.

The Pentagon has regular gigantic overruns in its payments for weapons systems and fraud and waste are endemic. But the Pentagon is never threatened with "insolvency." Its overruns and waste are simply passed on to taxpayers. The supine media, while occasionally chiding the Pentagon for, say, "running almost $300 billion over estimates and averaging 22 months behind delivery" never talk about any crisis in the funding of overkill, military boondoggles, and waste (editorial, "Military-Industrial Redux," NYT, May 22, 2009). In a 2005 ZNet blog, writer David Peterson imagined a situation where the Pentagon was funded by worker taxes and implicitly by a taxpayer-based trust fund, which it threatened to exceed drastically, putting the Pentagon on the road to bankruptcy. Thus, "Unfortunately, the ratio of workers-paying-taxes to wars-being-waged is falling steadily. By the year 2018, it is projected that the Department’s future expenditures will begin to exceed its revenues. What this means is that by 2018, the Department will go into the red—spending more on waging wars than it receives in taxes. After that, the shortfalls will grow larger until 2042, when the whole Department of Defense will go bankrupt. By the time today’s workers in their mid-20s begin to retire, we expect to be fighting wars on as many as six different continents. If we do not fix the Department’s funding mechanism, it will not be able to pay for the wars we promise to wage on behalf of our children and our grandchildren" ("Social Contracts, American-Style," ZNet, March 13, 2005).

Laughable, isn’t it? We know that in the real world the taxpayer funds the Pentagon on an open-ended basis without any trust funds or limits beyond what logrolling can produce. After all, it is protecting our "national security," using the phrase with its usual infinite elasticity to cover anything the Pentagon, its contractors, their lobbyists, and the congressional servants of the military-industrial complex want. We live in what Ralph Lapp called a "weapons culture," which is at quite a distance from a democratic or humane culture.

President Obama has had to adapt to these structural biases. Despite the economic crisis, he isn’t proposing to end the Iraq and Afghan-Pakistan wars and he isn’t cutting the military budget, for which he proposes a $30 billion increase in the next fiscal year. To do otherwise would be to vindicate the charge that the Democrats are weak on national security, a chronic charge that the Democrats must constantly deny and disprove in the weapons culture. It was interesting to read how Defense Secretary Gates has been debating which weapons programs might have to be sacrificed or cut back to keep the military budget within small growth limits (e.g., Christopher Drew and Elisabeth Bumiller, "Military Budget Reflects a Shift in U.S. Strategy," NYT, April 6, 2009). This is Pentagon business, not the business of elected officials and leaders, who might debate and veto funds for foreclosure victims or other civil society programs, but in a long tradition the military budget is out of bounds.

The North Korean Threat

No wonder the military budget is out of bounds, given the steady stream of "National Security Threats." Consider North Korea, audaciously testing a missile when the Godfather and its Pooh-Bah global associates agree that only the United States, Israel, and other Godfather-approved parties can thumb their noses at the Non-Proliferation Treaty and international law more generally. Iran could do it under the Shah, but Iran’s thumb-your-nose rights ended with the Shah’s overthrow. With this "dire" North Korea threat—that it might be able to defend itself—the international community and media are up in arms, quaking almost as severely as they were at the threatened mushroom cloud from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003.

But if the North Korean "threat" disappears, thankfully we can return to Iran. And maybe Russia, newly aggressive in the face of all those Western-funded and organized "democratic" revolutions and enlarged arms supply and joint military exercises around its borders. Those paranoids apparently see something there beyond a commitment to democracy everywhere.


Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst. He is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of numerous articles and books, among them Manufacturing Consent (with Noam Chomsky).