Bob Herbert’s latest New York Times column, "Our Epic Foolishness," could (and perhaps should) serve as the introduction to a book about how America got into the various messes we’re in — from the ongoing ecological disaster in the Gulf, to the unrepentant and un-remedied recklessness of Wall Street, and beyond. Herbert, a featured speaker at America’s Future Now!, deftly puts into context the considerable crises facing the country, hitting the high (or, perhaps, low) points of a long, depressing story that still more voices would tell in greater detail.
It is the story of a great nation whose people for too long placed the reins of government in the hands of those who did not — and do not — "believe in" government, and left the public interest in the care of people whose primary interest was— and remains — profit.
As Herbert details, we have gone from a "great nation" to one helpless to confront challenges that demand action right now.
When are we going to stop behaving so stupidly? We nearly wrecked the economy and we’re all but buried in debt. But we can’t break up the biggest banks, and we can’t raise taxes. Now we’re fouling the magnificent Gulf of Mexico and ruining entire communities along the southern Louisiana Coast.
And, by the way, we’re still fighting a futile war in Afghanistan that we’ve been fighting with nonstop futility for nearly a decade. (I’m sure the troops saddled with this thankless task were thrilled to see fans and teams demonstrating their undying support for their efforts by wearing fancy baseball caps on Memorial Day.)
For a nation that can’t stop bragging about how great and powerful it is, we’ve become shockingly helpless in the face of the many challenges confronting us. Our can-do spirit was put on hold many moons ago, and here we are now unable to defeat the Taliban, or rein in the likes of BP and the biggest banks, or stop the oil gushing furiously from the bowels of earth like a warning from Hades about the hubris and ignorance that is threatening to destroy us.
It is a learned helplessness that we need desperately to unlearn. That’s the rest of the story.
The lack of urgency regarding the gusher in the gulf is just one example of the helplessness Herbert cites. And if ever an event deserved the "Epic Fail" label, this one would be a prime candidate — and not "epic" because it promises to be an ecological disaster of biblical proportions, but because it was a slow disaster that began long before the April 20th oil well blowout that took the lives of 11 workers. It was underway years before 21.7 million gallons of oil contaminated the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as much as 45 million, with 12,000 to 19,000 barrels leaking into the Gulf each day.
Much like the invisible damage from the oil in the gulf, our current crises and the seeming inability of any entity with the will and resources to act are representative of the damage done by a poison that seeped into American politics decades ago. The damage it has done and will do to the lives and livelihoods of Americans, much like the damage done by Wall Street’s casino culture, has roots that stretch back as many decades as the damage will stretch into the future.
We’re talking about the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and as BP goes through a dwindling list of options for stopping the flow of oil, the reality is that an answer is two months away — with the drilling of another oil well, because no one, including government has the resources to stop it.
As Dave Johnson pointed out earlier, that was the plan all along — government without the resources to handle these crises.
The answer, these days, is always, "Government doesn’t have the resources." And that, in a nutshell, was exactly the plan.
We, the People no longer have the resources to solve our problems. We now must depend on and defer to the corporations and the wealthy few to make the important decisions and get things done instead of being able to decide and do on our own.
This is the legacy of 30 years of conservatism. They called it "starving the beast." Reagan called it "cutting their allowance." President Bush, told that his policies had turned the country back to massive deficits, said this was, "Incredibly positive news” because it will create "a fiscal straitjacket for Congress." He came into office with a $236 billion surplus. His last budget left us with a $1.4 trillion deficit. "Incredibly positive news."
They disemboweled the regulatory agencies. They "privatized" government functions and resources, letting a well-connected few profit at the expense of the rest of us.
From the Gulf oil disaster to the economic crisis and beyond, many of the crises we face today do indeed have their roots in the catastrophic success of conservatism in the last few decades. Their long campaign to "starve the beast" included not just disemboweling agencies, but filling them with people who did just about everything but carry out their agencies’ missions. The Securities Exchange Commission and the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service are prime examples.
As the New York Times reported back in September 2008 — the tail end of the George W. Bush administration — those "industry objections" to additional layers of protection may well have been in the form of "pillow talk" between an agency in bed with the industry it was supposed to monitor. The times reported that a "a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch," where officials not only accepted gifts from energy companies, but "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives."
No fewer than three reports to the Bush administration (posted here, here and here) detail the kind of behavior demonstrated by Gregory W. Smith one high ranking official the Bush administration refused to prosecute.
The other high-ranking official the Justice Department has declined to prosecute is Gregory W. Smith, the former program director of the royalty-in-kind program. Mr. Smith worked in Colorado and reported to Ms. Denett. He retired in 2007.
The report said that Mr. Smith improperly used his position with the royalty program to get an outside consulting job helping a technical services firm seek deals with oil and gas companies with which he was also conducting official business.
The report accused Mr. Smith of improperly accepting gifts from the oil and gas industry, of engaging in sex with two subordinates and of using cocaine that he purchased from his secretary or her boyfriend several times a year between 2002 and 2005. He sometimes asked for the drugs and received them in his office during work hours, the report said.
The report also said that Mr. Smith lied to investigators about these and other incidents, and that he urged the two women subordinates to mislead the investigators as well.
In discussions with investigators, the report said, Mr. Smith acknowledged buying cocaine from his secretary and having a sexual encounter with her at her home, but he denied discussing drugs at work. He also denied telling anyone to lie, saying that he only told people that "no one has a right to know what I do on my personal time."
If this all bears a striking resemblance to the SEC pornography scandal, which also took place on the George W. Bush administration’s watch, it’s no coincidence. It’s the same story of an government agency driven by an ideology that doesn’t even believe the agency should exist in the first place, let alone believe in the agency’s mission. It’s the story of what happened to key government agencies during the Bush era, which were remade by filling the ranks of permanent employees with appointees whose strongest credentials were their conservative beliefs, and others "burrowed in" to permanent federal positions as the Bush administration wound down.
The real MMS scandal actually isn’t the sex or the drugs, any more than the real SEC scandal the pornography. It’s the willful lack of oversight driven by a conservative ideology that believes not merely that "government doesn’t work," but truly believes that it shouldn’t work, and once in power sets to work making sure that it can’t work. The end result is setting the government up for what’s called "regulatory capture."
It’s the same point of conservative failure that’s inevitable where government is concerned. It’s not just that the folks in MMS and the SEC were doing everything but their jobs. It’s a culture and political philosophy which holds that their jobs shouldn’t be done, nor should the agencies they worked for (if only in theory) exist.
But that doesn’t mean it’s just a question of resources, as Bob Borosage pointed out with regards to jobs, but the political will to prioritize resources appropriately.
Congress is about to pass an additional $32 billion to pay for the war In Afghanistan. It will have overwhelming bipartisan support, with legislators eager to display their fealty to the troops in an election year.
At the same time, the Congress is struggling with a $23 billion bill to forestall the layoff of nearly 300,000 teachers next year, championed by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller. This faces a Republican filibuster and the opposition of many blue Dog Democrats, who argue that it shouldn’t be considered emergency spending. (Harkin has now given up on passing it in the Senate directly. The only hope is that the House will pass it as part of the military supplemental and perhaps then the Senators will swallow it.)
What kind of country are we? In the worst economic recession in 70 years, competitive industrial nations must choose their priorities—what gets saved, what must be sacrificed. No sensible leadership would choose to make children—particularly the children of working and poor families—pay the cost of the downturn.
The resources in question are not just government appropriations, but if and how Americans respond. As Josh Marshall and Tom Engelhardt point out, we’ve been here before, in recent memory and with starkly different results. Engelhardt explained it in commencement speech he was never asked to give.
The hollowing out, however, goes deeper — right down to the feeling that, with disaster in the air, little can be done and nothing reversed. The can-do nation of my youth has given way to a can’t-do nation with a busted government.
I think I can guarantee you one thing, for instance, about the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When the commissions have commished, and Congress has investigated, and the president has re-staffed the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, and the pundits have pontificated, and everything else that could possibly happen has happened, we will, once again, have learned next to nothing — other than, perhaps, how to drill for offshore oil at the depth of one mile marginally more safely. We will not be any closer to an alternative energy future. We will not have one mile more of high-speed rail.
Nothing that matters will have happened. And months from now, BP will again be announcing profits in the billions and pouring more money into the pockets of politicians heading for Washington, while the people of Louisiana, among others, will be left to their misery as the 24/7 media moves on to the next set of disasters, real or ephemeral.
When the first deep-water oil spill happened in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, Americans were shocked and there were actual protests. In the streets. Shock, that is, was followed by the urge to act. As parts of the Gulf of Mexico are being turned into a dead sea, shock there may be and even complaint, but next to no protest. Here’s a recent headline that catches something of the mood of the moment: "A nation mesmerized: Can BP plug the Gulf gusher?" Mesmerized is a good word for it. The whole world is watching — and nothing more. The media tells us that there is anger, and there’s certainly plenty to be angry about. But look around. Do you see anger? Does outrage march past you any day of the week?
Is this the American world you really want?
At present, it’s the one we’ve got, and the one we may be stuck with if we don’t demand better.
Herbert, ends his column with a warning that if we keep waiting to confront these issues we won’t have to wait for the consequences. They’ve already begun.
All around us is the wreckage of our failure to master the challenges confronting us. We see it in the many millions of Americans who remain out of work and whose hopes are not rising despite all the talk of economic recovery. We see it in the schools where teachers are walking the plank by the scores of thousands because of state and local budget problems.
We see it in the shrinking middle class and in the black community where depressionlike conditions are fostering not just a sense of helplessness, but despair.
What’s needed is dynamic leadership (it doesn’t have to come from the top) to reinvigorate the spirit of America and turn that sense of helplessness around.
But whether we have the dynamic leadership we need depends on whether, and how strongly, we demand it.