The Readily Available Reality of American Policy in an Age of Empire and Inequality

Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home


The harsh realities of American life and policy don’t appear much more clearly in the nation’s mainstream (corporate) media than they have during the last few days. We can look, for example at the January 6th New York Times.  On the top left hand column of page one of the nation’s “paper of record” that day, we learned that the Bush White House is “assembling plans” for an 18- month occupation that will “promote a democratic Iraq.”  White House officials are researching, the Times reported, “the legal basis for taking control of the country.” Plans are fluid and contingent upon numerous factors, the Times noted, but under all scenarios imagined by White House planners, “the American military would remain the central player in running the country for some time.” There will also be a “quick takeover of the country’s oil fields to pay for the [democratic] reconstruction of Iraq.” 


We can turn to a story in the upper right hand column of the same day’s Times to learn about Bush’s proposal to eliminate taxes on corporate dividends paid to America’s corporate shareholders.  The proposed measure “could cost the government $300 billion over 10 years” and will “create much bigger budget deficits for the future,” reported the Times.  “Analysts,” the Times elaborated, “have estimated that more than half the tax benefit of eliminating dividend taxes would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers.” 


Another story on page one of the same paper on the same day provides some context for the Bush proposal, whose regressive radicalism surprised some of his advisers. It noted that America’s corporations are “switching from defense to offense” in pursuing their policy agenda in a Republican Congress. “Counting on receptive ears in the new Congress,” The Times reported, the business class sees the current alignment in Washington as its “chance to be heard.”  It is therefore moving forward aggressively in pursuit of business- and privilege- friendly “tax-cuts, deregulation, changes in tort law and new profit opportunities from the war on terrorism” (emphasis added).


Key Deletions 



To be sure, there were a few key things missing from the Times’ coverage of these stories that day. Regarding the occupation plans, there was no honest discussion of what the Bushies mean by “democracy.”  Noam Chomsky makes a useful distinction between the “dictionary” meaning of “democracy” and the operative “doctrinal” meaning used by the architects of American policy and opinion. The former involves “one-person, one vote,” de-concentrated power and equal policymaking influence for all regardless of wealth and other distinctions. The latter meaning “refers,” in Chomsky’s words, “to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites” and in which “the public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants.’ They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters—like public policy—that are none of their business.”

 Leaving aside the absurdity of the idea that one nation can militarily impose democracy on another nation, we can be sure that the “democracy” promoted by the Pentagon will be restricted to the second definition, with crucial ethnic and imperial qualifications.  American occupation authorities would have no interest in empowering Iraq’s Shiite and ethnic Kurdish populations and they would certainly subordinate Iraqi business interests to those of American and international corporations.

 Of course, the Times could not note the underlying absurdity of a nominally bipartisan corporate plutocracy like the US claiming the right to export “democracy” to anyone. The first place to install democracy would be at home in a nation where 1 percent of the population owns roughly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the policymakers. Big business’ voice is always the loudest one in Washington’s corridors of policy power, no matter which wing of the US Chamber of Commerce Party happens to hold sway in Congress.

 And does anyone seriously believe that the White House wants to take over Iraq’s rich oil fields only to “pay for reconstruction” and, in the Times’ words,  “to protect [the oil] for the Iraqis?” Curiously absent here was any reference to the considerable French and Russian investment in Iraqi oil, something that bothers the petroleum soaked suits in the White House. 


  It is probably too much to expect the establishment media to discuss these issues in honest, meaningful and comprehensive ways.

 Available Truths 

A second thing missing from the January 6th Times was any sense of what the occupation of Iraq will cost American taxpayers. This, however, can be found in the establishment press. A recent analysis in the New York Review of Books by William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale, estimates that over the next decade a US occupation of Iraq would cost no less than $120 billion and could cost as much as $1.6 trillion. Nordhaus thinks that the Bush administration’s “obsession” with Iraq carries an unjustifiable price tag in a time of “slow growth, fiscal deficits, a crisis of corporate governance and growing health care problems” in the American “homeland.” 

 A third deletion concerned the unnecessary nature of the war being planned by the White House – the madness of King George’s insistence that Saddam Hussein represents a serious threat to Americans or even his own neighbors in the Middle East.  Again, however, that is an open topic for honest mainstream commentary for those who are willing to look.  See, for example, the recent essay by distinguished University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer and his Harvard colleague Stephen Walt in the most recent issue of the establishment journal Foreign Policy (www.foreignpolicy. com). Titled “an Unnecessary War,” this excellent if rather narrow article skewers the transparently manipulative Bush line on Saddam as an inveterate, irrational and even suicidal aggressor who is oddly hell-bent on exploding Weapons of Mass Destruction. It reviews the historical record to show that the Iraqi regime is entirely deter-able and extremely unlikely to use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or to handoff such weapons to his historical blood-enemies in al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. 

 A fourth thing missing from the January 6th Times was the absurdity of the notion that Bush’s proposed giveaway to the rich will stimulate the nation’s economy. This, however, is quite readily acknowledged in mainstream media in general, including the Times itself later in the week. Among the Bush plan’s problems that it was easy to learn about without reaching for the radical press, none is more glaring than its failure to put significant money in the hands of those most likely to spend it – the majority of lower- and middle-income Americans. What Chicago Sun Times columnist Ralph Matire calls the “morally and fiscally irresponsible” Bush package will only exacerbate the economy’s basic underlying problem of excess capacity – too much capital relative to real purchasing power. Coupled with massive “defense” expenditures, it deepens the federal government’s ever-growing deficit, “pushing the bills for today’s spending off to our children” in Matire’s words.


Columnist Paul Krugman provided useful context for understanding the non-stimulus plan in the January 7th Times.  White House officials, Krugman noted, are “betting that the economy will recover on its own” and “intend to use the pretense of stimulus mainly as an opportunity to get more tax cuts for the rich.”  Krugman rightly wondered if those officials “will ever decide that their job includes solving problems, not just using them” and chided reporters for being too frightened of the charge of “liberal media bias” to tell the full story on the plan. 

 But Chicago Tribune analyst R.C. Longworth put Bush’s plan in useful perspective today (January 8, 2003) in a front-page report on Bush’s recent visit to Chicago. “In his speech Tuesday at the Economic Club of Chicago,” Longworth wrote, “Bush called his proposal a ‘jobs and growth plan’ and said it would stimulate a sluggish economy with tax-cuts aimed mostly at ‘middle-income Americans.’ But most economists said the cuts actually would largely benefit the super-rich.  Even conservatives doubted the cuts would offer much stimulus.  But this misses the point, the economists said.  The real story, they insisted, is the guiding philosophy behind the cuts, which is a shift in the American tax burden from earnings by business and investors, toward taxes on income and consumption.”

 An unusually sophisticated journalist who writes to the left of his paper’s reactionary editorial board, Longworth understands quite well Bush’s dark agenda: using the people’s difficulties to distribute wealth upward yet further in the industrialized world’s most unequal nation. 

 It’s all very consistent with the underlying motif of American policy in the post 9-11 world. The jetliner attacks of September 2001 and the fear and insecurity they deepened have been a windfall for an administration whose essential mission has always been to deepen the concentration of wealth and power and to marginalize dissent at home and abroad. This is the unmentionable truth behind Bush’s words uttered just three days after the tragic events: “through the tears,” Bush told the American people, he saw “an opportunity.”

 The Myth of the Powerless and Cash-Strapped State 

With all the relevant qualifications and limits, a dark and significant story about American society and policy is largely there for the taking by those with the time and energy (key qualifications on which the ruling class counts heavily) to dig around a little in the establishment informational outlets. 

 In the wealthiest but most unequal and fiscally regressive nation in the industrialized world (the US), this story runs, the public sector lacks the money to properly fund education for all of the country’s children.  It lacks the resources to provide universal health coverage, leaving 42 million American without basic medical insurance. It can’t properly match unemployment benefits to the numbers out of work.  It lacks the funds to provide affordable child-care, housing and prescription drugs for those on the bottom of its steep socioeconomic hierarchies.

 It lacks the money to provide meaningful rehabilitation and reentry services for its many millions of very disproportionately black prisoners and ex-prisoners, marked for life with a criminal record. It lacks money to provide adequate job-training benefits and family cash assistance grants for inner city and rural poor, to protect consumers and the environment and to shield minorities from discrimination in crucial labor and real estate markets.  It lacks money for publicly financed elections and free television time for candidates, both necessary to counter the corrosive impact of private wealth invested in our “dollar democracy” – the “best that money can buy.” The list of basic social, economic and civic needs that American government can’t meet goes on and on.

 There is much, however, that policymakers seem to think that American government can and should pay for. It can somehow afford to spend trillions on Fat Cat Tax Cuts that reward those who are least in need. It can spend more on the military than all of its possible enemy (“evildoer”) states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and “defense” systems that bear no meaningful relations to any real threat faced by the American people.  It can afford to incarcerate a greater share of its population than any nation in history and to spend hundreds of millions each year on various forms of corporate welfare and routine public subsidies to not-so “private” industry.

 American government can somehow afford hundreds of billions and perhaps more than a trillion dollars for an openly imperialist invasion and occupation of a devastated nation that poses minimal risk to the US and its own neighbors. 

 The American public sector is weak and cash strapped when it comes to social democracy for the people but its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to meeting the needs of wealth and empire. 

 Contrary to one type of analysis on the left, the state is not powerless in the face of the market. It is actually quite powerful, but its capability is exercised in authoritarian and regressive rather than democratic and egalitarian ways. It is highly effective in state-capitalist service to hierarchies of private power sustained by the interplay of private and public privilege in an age of empire and inequality. Such is the harsh truth of American policy, readily available to those with the time, energy and desire to look, in these dark times

Paul Street is a ZNet commentator who writes frequently for Z Magazine.  He can be reached at [email protected] .


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