Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home
The harsh realities of American life and policy donâ€™t appear much more clearly in the nationâ€™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 nationâ€™s â€œpaper of recordâ€ that day, we learned that the Bush White House is â€œassembling plansâ€ for an 18- month occupation that will â€œpromote a democratic Iraq.â€ White House officials are researching, the Times reported, â€œthe legal basis for taking control of the country.â€ Plans are fluid and contingent upon numerous factors, the Times noted, but under all scenarios imagined by White House planners, â€œthe American military would remain the central player in running the country for some time.â€ There will also be a â€œquick takeover of the countryâ€™s oil fields to pay for the [democratic] reconstruction of Iraq.â€
We can turn to a story in the upper right hand column of the same dayâ€™s Times to learn about Bushâ€™s proposal to eliminate taxes on corporate dividends paid to Americaâ€™s corporate shareholders. The proposed measure â€œcould cost the government $300 billion over 10 yearsâ€ and will â€œcreate much bigger budget deficits for the future,â€ reported the Times. â€œAnalysts,â€ the Times elaborated, â€œhave estimated that more than half the tax benefit of eliminating dividend taxes would flow to the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers.â€
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 Americaâ€™s corporations are â€œswitching from defense to offenseâ€ in pursuing their policy agenda in a Republican Congress. â€œCounting on receptive ears in the new Congress,â€ The Times reported, the business class sees the current alignment in Washington as its â€œchance to be heard.â€ It is therefore moving forward aggressively in pursuit of business- and privilege- friendly â€œtax-cuts, deregulation, changes in tort law and new profit opportunities from the war on terrorismâ€ (emphasis added).
To be sure, there were a few key things missing from the Timesâ€™ coverage of these stories that day. Regarding the occupation plans, there was no honest discussion of what the Bushies mean by â€œdemocracy.â€ Noam Chomsky makes a useful distinction between the â€œdictionaryâ€ meaning of â€œdemocracyâ€ and the operative â€œdoctrinalâ€ meaning used by the architects of American policy and opinion. The former involves â€œone-person, one vote,â€ de-concentrated power and equal policymaking influence for all regardless of wealth and other distinctions. The latter meaning â€œrefers,â€ in Chomskyâ€™s words, â€œto a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elitesâ€ and in which â€œthe public are to be only â€˜spectators of action,â€™ not â€˜participants.â€™ 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 mattersâ€”like public policyâ€”that are none of their business.â€
Leaving aside the absurdity of the idea that one nation can militarily impose democracy on another nation, we can be sure that the â€œdemocracyâ€ 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 Iraqâ€™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 â€œdemocracyâ€ 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 nationâ€™s wealth and a probably larger share of the policymakers. Big businessâ€™ voice is always the loudest one in Washingtonâ€™s corridors of policy power, no matter which wing of the US Chamber of Commerce Party happens to hold sway in Congress.
It is probably too much to expect the establishment media to discuss these issues in honest, meaningful and comprehensive ways.
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 administrationâ€™s â€œobsessionâ€ with Iraq carries an unjustifiable price tag in a time of â€œslow growth, fiscal deficits, a crisis of corporate governance and growing health care problemsâ€ in the American â€œhomeland.â€
Columnist Paul Krugman provided useful context for understanding the non-stimulus plan in the January 7th Times. White House officials, Krugman noted, are â€œbetting that the economy will recover on its ownâ€ and â€œintend to use the pretense of stimulus mainly as an opportunity to get more tax cuts for the rich.â€ Krugman rightly wondered if those officials â€œwill ever decide that their job includes solving problems, not just using themâ€ and chided reporters for being too frightened of the charge of â€œliberal media biasâ€ to tell the full story on the plan.
But Chicago Tribune analyst R.C. Longworth put Bushâ€™s plan in useful perspective today (January 8, 2003) in a front-page report on Bushâ€™s recent visit to Chicago. â€œIn his speech Tuesday at the Economic Club of Chicago,â€ Longworth wrote, â€œBush called his proposal a â€˜jobs and growth planâ€™ and said it would stimulate a sluggish economy with tax-cuts aimed mostly at â€˜middle-income Americans.â€™ 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.â€
An unusually sophisticated journalist who writes to the left of his paperâ€™s reactionary editorial board, Longworth understands quite well Bushâ€™s dark agenda: using the peopleâ€™s difficulties to distribute wealth upward yet further in the industrialized worldâ€™s most unequal nation.
Itâ€™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 Bushâ€™s words uttered just three days after the tragic events: â€œthrough the tears,â€ Bush told the American people, he saw â€œan opportunity.â€
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 countryâ€™s children. It lacks the resources to provide universal health coverage, leaving 42 million American without basic medical insurance. It canâ€™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 â€œdollar democracyâ€ â€“ the â€œbest that money can buy.â€ The list of basic social, economic and civic needs that American government canâ€™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 (â€œevildoerâ€) states combined many times over, providing massive subsidy to the high-tech corporate sector, including billions on weapons and â€œdefenseâ€ 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 â€œprivateâ€ 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] .