December 30, 2008


Sam Smith

The Illinois Senate appointment is a truly strange story. Or perhaps not. At the very moment when liberals are talking so smugly about moving into a post racial society, the Senate Democrats have voted not to admit a black man because they are embarrassed by the white guy who appointed him. Roland Burris would be the only black member of the Senate. If blacks were proportionally represented, there would be 13 of them.

The law is admittedly marginally debatable, but precisely because it is so, the wisest course would be to defer to the jurisdiction sending the legislator to Washington. Once the Senate and the House start making such choices, they become hardly distinguishable from a private club.

Forty years ago, this issue came up in Congress and, ironically, it also involved a black man, Adam Clayton Powell. Whatever Powell's personal failings, he would join another far less then perfect politician, Lyndon Johnson, in getting more good legislation passed in less time than anyone else in American history. But that didn't matter to the goo-goos who preferred the appropriate to the useful.

In a 1967 piece, "Keep the Seat, Baby," I argued:

|||| The punishment proposed for Mr. Powell is the loss of his congressional seat. A strong case can be made against such punishment on constitutional and other legal grounds. Furthermore, there is a good defense based on precedent.

As recently as 1956, a member of the House was convicted of income tax evasion, sentenced to jail and fined $10,000. Not only did the offending gentleman subsequently regain his seat, but his seniority as well. Senator Dodd has not been made to stand aside while more serious charges against him are examined. Nor were Mississippi's GOP congressmen unseated last session despite massive evidence of the disenfranchisement of Negroes in their districts. Congress has repeatedly declined to act in cases involving far more evil than that alleged in the instance of Mr. Powell. Even Senator [Joseph] McCarthy got off with censure.

Should the charges lodged against the former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee be pressed with equal vigor against all other deserving legislators in the land, it would become difficult to raise a quorum in either house of Congress or for our state legislatures to exist at all. . .

There are too many fingerprints on the apple to justify the current display of public sanctimony in the case of Adam Powell. And if all we are going to get in return for Powell's riddance is more mealy-mouthed, psychologically blanched Negroes who sit respectfully at the back of party caucuses, then by all means let's save Adam. For in the long run, we must judge the man's politics more important than his morals.||||

A couple of years later the Supreme Court agreed with my position if not my arguments, finding, according to the New York Times, that "the House could not bar Mr. Powell, who had been accused of financial impropriety, if he met the constitutionally determined qualifications for age, citizenship and residency.

The Roland Burris case is far simpler. Not only is Blagojevich still the governor of Illinois and thus legally entitled to name a successor, to condemn his choice is an act of hypocritical excess that libels Burris by inference.

It is worth noting, for example, that Burris

- was the first black national bank examiner for the Office of the Comproller of the Currency.

- was National Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for Operation PUSH

- was elected to the office of Comptroller of Illinois. He was the first African American to be elected to a statewide office in the state of Illinois. Burris was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1984, losing to Paul Simon who went on to defeat incumbent Senator Charles Percy.

- was the second African American elected to the office of Attorney General in the United States.

- ran for mayor of Chicago, losing to incumbent Richard M. Daley. In 1998 and 2002

- was Vice-Chairman, Democratic National Committee Chairman

- was named by Southern Illinois University one of its Ten Most Distinguished Alumni

Instead of some modicum of decency, he is being dissed by the incompetent and useless Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, joined by the other members of the Senate Democratic caucus, using a weak and narrow legal argument to slap a black politician accused of nothing worse but being appointed by the wrong man. The motivations behind this move - although couched as a moral judgment - are in fact nothing more than sucking up to public outrage over Blagojevich and trying to rig the seat their way. If the Democrats really want a post racial society, showing a little respect of the most ordinary variety would be a good place to start.

December 29, 2008


Sam Smith

It's probably a sign of me having lived in Washington too long, but I've been thinking of a solution to the gay marriage controversy based on the carbon cap and trade principle. Since we are being asked to support heterosexual domestic partnerships and gay marriages at the same time, and since I can come up with no legal or philosophical argument for this lack of synchronicity other than that, in either case, it's none of my damn business, it occurs to me that a true Washington resolution of the problem would be for heterosexual domestic partners to trade their sacred marriage privileges to gay couples for a fee. I'm not quite sure what to do if the heteros later decide to get married or the gays want a divorce but I've sent emails to several lawyer friends and expect an answer shortly. In any case, it seems a perfect Washington solution: a hopelessly complex response that deftly resolves a moral and spiritual issue by converting it into an aggressively amoral economic one.

Judging from the carbon cap and trade program, however, my plan may not work all that well, in which case I will have to return to my previous proposition on the matter i.e. if you don't like gay marriage, don't marry a gay.

But this thesis also has a problem, which is the large number of people who think that not only do they know whom they should marry but everyone else's proper choice as well. This is the matrimonial equivalent of choosing what the whole neighborhood will have for breakfast.

The purported basis for this intrusion is supposedly the concerns of law, but other than needing children and providing adequate protection for them, the state has little serious concern with this matter. Of course, some like the Reverend Rick Warren have argued that letting gays marry each other could lead to an "older guy marrying a child" or presumably even an animal. The problem with this argument is that it could also be made against allowing a man and woman to get married. You let marriage happen in any form and there's no telling where it will lead.

But since we have no need for additional children in this world and since there is no evidence that gay couples are any harder on their children than straight ones, the law's real interest is minimal at best.

What actually currently drives the definition of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman is not the interests of the state but religion - or, more precisely, some religions.

In other words, what is being presented as a gay vs. straight issue is actually a religion vs. religion issue. Any law against gay marriage is an act establishing religion because it says, for example, that what Mormons or the Reverend Rick Warren believes is more important than the views of Quakers and Unitarians. The Constitution forbids this sort of differentiation as it clearly represents the "an establishment of religion."

Unfortunately, the more enlightened sects have been completely overwhelmed by extremist voices from Jerry Falwell to Rick Warren. With the help of politicians and a media that considers only loud mouthed Baptists to be "faith based," and cowed by the evangelical onslaught, progressive Christians have failed to fight back or even hold their own.

A direct challenge to laws like Prop 8 by these groups - defending the establishment clause of the Constitution - would be one of the healthiest things that could come out of the conflict. We need more progressive Christian soldiers marching as to war and fewer of them, like our president to be, palling around with those perpetrating bigotry in God's name. Civil liberties groups also need to get a better handle on the establishment clause and fight the growing governmental preference of one religious approach over others.


Sam Smith

A conversation with a friend in the dialysis business reminded us that we still haven't caught Osama Bin Laden. Over the past seven years we have ruined our budget, our constitution and our reputation in an effort to suppress the incapacitated warrior and we seem no closer than ever. Since it sounds like the Obama administration plans to continue this escapade, it may help to put it into some perspective. Assuming that AlQaeda exists - and even a British police commissioner has said it was more an idea than a reality - estimates of its force size are in the 5,000 range with an annual budget, according to the 9/11 Commission, of around $30 million (with an unknown proportion laundered through hedge funds and the like). That's what it cost the Pentagon to build a new mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base.

If a country the size of the United States can't handle 5,000 guerrillas operating on one tenth the amount with which Bernie Madoff absconded, we really are in serious trouble. On the other hand, it may occur to the new crowd that the way to reduce the threat ofguerrilla activity is to lessen the cause. After all, Osama bin Laden is a monster created by American foreign policy. You can kill him but unless our foreign policy changes, there are more monsters where he came from.

Sam Smith, 2002 - So here we are a year later, $37 billion out of pocket and still scared as hell someone's going to attack us. We're not the first with the problem. Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys away. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either security for our bodies nor solace for our souls, for we are simply attacking ourselves before others get a chance.

This is not the way to peace and safety. Peace is a state without violence, interrogations, and moats. Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naivete but because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works for everyone..

This discovery is often hard to come by, but it is still cheaper, less deadly, and ultimately far more effective than the alternative we seem to have chosen, which is to imprison ourselves in our castle and hope the moat keeps the others out.

December 20, 2008


Sam Smith

From the March 1996 issue of the Progressive Review


The nomination of General Barry McCaffrey as drug czar symbolizes the nation's dramatic retreat from the principle of separation of military and civilian power. It further demonstrates the degree to which the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 -- which outlaws military involvement in civilian law enforcement -- is being ignored and undermined by both the drug warriors and the Clinton administration.

Disturbing as the McCaffrey appointment may be, however, it is only an unusually visible sign of something that has been going on quietly for a long time -- the military's steady intrusion upon, and interference with, civilian America.

In order to avoid violation of the law, General McCaffrey has retired from the military, but he will not retire from his military contacts, philosophy, loyalty and access. He is, after all, a man some thought in line to become the next chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

General McCaffrey headed the US Southern Command, which provides military backup for American policy in Latin America -- a policy long linked with support of dictatorships, suppression of dissidents, human rights abuses, death squads as well as chronically ineffective and corrupt management of drug smuggling. The price of this policy has been heavy: for example, over 100,000 people have been killed since 1960 in Guatemala, many of them by armed forces and police trained and supported by the US.

One former US ambassador to a Central American country says of Southcom, "I wouldn't even let them in the country" because Southcom would "inexorably militarize political problems." Today, he added, "very few countries outside of Central America welcome visits" from the commander of Southcom.

A Pentagon official describes Southcom's role as "military to military diplomacy." Rather then functioning like an old-fashion colonial army -- "they're not like the Bengal Lancers" -- they go in and work quietly with the local military to make sure the right elements are in charge and show them how to put down dissidents and how to interrogate.

The embassy military attaches are the point men in these operations. McCaffrey came into conflict with the State Department in his attempts to gain authority over the attaches and run his own foreign policy. Further, the Dallas Morning News reports that a year ago McCaffrey circulated a classified plan under which the military would assume direct control of the Latin American drug fight. The idea "drew the wrath of civilian agencies from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the CIA. It was a brash plan to fuse power now spread among dozens of agencies while raising the military from a limited support role. The proposal quietly died."

The Dallas paper noted that "colleagues widely describe [McCaffrey] as outspoken and strongwilled, a man whose self-esteem shone brightly even amid the white light of four-star egos."

One drug enforcement official told US News & World Report that under McCaffrey, Southcom's "idea of coordination was to brief you after their plan was fait accompli."

In its announcement of McCaffrey's drug czar appointment, the White House said:

He has spent his military career engaged in coordinated campaigns that are directed toward solutions and winning. He will not tolerate bureaucratic turf wars or grandstanding on this critical issue.

While his career may have been directed towards solutions, it was a goal McCaffrey never reached at Southcom. Southcom has gone through anti-smuggling strategies likes a Hollywood hooker through designer drugs. As recently as two years ago, for example, the military dumped its touted reliance on AWAC planes. Meanwhile the military virtually gave up on interdiction efforts in the Pacific. One source told the International Defense Review that "the Pacific is just too big to monitor properly."

The IDR also reported a shift towards attempting to stop drugs before they leave the source Latin American country: "The shift is due to a variety of factors, including the relatively low volume of drugs seized in transit; US budgetary restraints and a variety of organizational and force structure changes. . ."

In other words, it didn't work and it cost too much money. But there is no evidence that the source country approach is any better. One study found that such strategies were, in fact, seven times as costly as controlling demand through education and medication.

Furthermore, they do substantial damage to the stability and democracy of the targeted country. Thirty religious, health, and human rights activists wrote Secretary of State Warren Christopher complaining about American trained and encouraged anti-narcotics operations in Bolivia. The letter describes well the sort of drug policy fostered by Southcom and other US agencies:

Since mid-January, the Bolivian anti-narcotics police have undertaken massive sweeps in the Chapre, arbitrarily detaining over three hundred people. Those detained are typically held several days and released without charges; indeed, without even being presented to a judge . . . Neither Bolivian law nor international human rights standards permit these warrantless arrests of individuals against whom there is no evidence of participation in criminal conduct. The government is clearly using police powers to stifle lawful political opposition . . . The Bolivian anti-narcotics efforts also continue to rely on special judicial procedures that violate fundamental due process considerations. Under Bolivia's Law 10008, those who are formally charged with drug offenses -- no matter how minor -- are imprisoned without the possibility of pretrial release and must, even if acquitted, remain in prison until the trial court's decision is reviewed by the Supreme Court, a process that takes years. The US government provided funding for the salaries and expenses of special prosecutors for the anti-narcotics courts.

As the military zig and zags in its Latin American anti-drug tactics, these operations retain one common attribute: failure. Between 1994 and 1995, for example, coca leaf production rose seven percent in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. The drug trade continues so merrily along that the radio stations on the Mexican border are even mocking counter-drug efforts with ballads celebrating famed traffickers.

The model of a modern major general

Rather than pointing out such facts, press reaction to the McCaffrey appointment has been overwhelmingly favorable. This is perhaps not surprising. The media is increasingly composed of journalists who have had no military experience and who see war as just another movie script, even if the battle is on our borders or in our own cities.

These new journalistic romanticists are easy prey for Pentagon flacks and the drug warriors. Their understanding of such matters comes not from experience and history, but from Stalone and Schwarzenegger. So badly was the Iraqi War covered, for example, that Americans still don't know how many of the enemy were killed. Or that the UN Food & Agriculture Organization found that over a half million Iraqi children may have died as a consequence of the economic sanctions we imposed after the conflict.

Meanwhile, in dangerous counterpoint, the American officer corps is increasingly composed of those who have had no democratic experience. With the end of the draft and the professionalization of the services, the leavening effect of reserve and national guard troops has greatly diminished. Further, officers like Colin Powell and Barry McCaffrey earned their spurs and their medals almost entirely in the defense of non-democratic regimes -- from troglodytic sheiks in the Gulf to corrupt generals in Vietnam to drug-pushers in Latin America.

The untold truth is that the post-WW2 American military hasn't that much to be proud of. It fought to a draw in Korea, was humiliated in Vietnam, removed a drug dealer from Panama but left all his peers and all the drugs, slunk off from Somalia and was careful not to hang around too long in Haiti. As for the Gulf -- well, Bush and Thatcher were ousted from office in its wake, but not, unfortunately, the intended target.

The one place where the modern American military has been successful is right here in the US, where it has long occupied much of the budget and captured many of the politicians. The sanctity of defense spending is so taken for granted that cutting it was hardly mentioned in the recent budget debates.

Like any good army, the troops have secured their own base first, moving quietly into key civilian posts at the Pentagon. Says one official, "They want to fill the DOD jobs with industry people but the pay isn't high enough, so they get military. The military is willing to whore for industry." The latter, in turn, gladly hires them upon retirement.

Many of these officers are part of an over-staffed brass brigade that developed in the wake of the Cold War and which helped to gobble up the "peace dividend." With their seepage into civilian billets, an important protection against a military takeover -- direct civilian control of the military -- is quietly and steadily being eroded.

Perhaps all this isn't so surprising when one examines the real metier of a modern major general. It is not, after all, fighting wars -- for there doesn't exist an enemy capable of challenging us. The US defense budget is 120 times the combined strength of the nine next biggest military spenders, and 1,600 times that of six adversarial favorites: Cuba, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya. In truth, the modern major general's trade consists of occupying, managing and manipulating weak and disorganized small countries, not infrequently primarily for domestic political reasons.

This is the trade for which Powell and McCaffrey were trained and helps explains why each feels comfortable in domestic politics. Where easier to practice the civil and psychological operations they mastered than right here at home? After all, what is the war on drugs but "low intensity" or "non-conventional" warfare? If a Pentagon memo can label Israel a "non-traditional adversary," then why not our own inner cities as well? We're all Northern Ireland now.

The quiet creep

The McCaffrey nomination also follows a dramatic increase in the use of the military and its resources, especially the National Guard, in domestic law enforcement -- from Waco to Ruby Ridge to the inner city. It also follows greater intrusion of the military into high schools, the use of troops on the Mexican border for the first time in modern history and sporadic proposals to involve the Army in everything from inner city works projects to concentration camps for first time drug offenders.

Bill Clinton, who has rarely seen a civil liberty worth standing up for, even submitted legislation last year that would have virtually overturned the Posse Comitatus Act. His bill would have allowed the military to provide "technical assistance" to civilian law enforcement, a term Clinton himself defined as including "conducting searches, taking evidence, and disarming and disabling individuals." So awful was this measure that even Casper Weinberger and Sam Nunn objected. As the director of the Florida ACLU, Robbyn E. Blumner, wrote in the St Petersburg Times:

Throughout history and around the world, involvement by the armed forces in civilian law enforcement is one of the trademarks of a repressive regime. Yet the administration's proposals would chip away at the wall that separates the two and, by that action, greatly enhance the power of the presidency. In the wrong hands, the results could be devastating to freedom.

Much of the military's intrusion has been accomplished without public notice. For example, the Pentagon has greatly expanded JROTC programs. Last year, the American Friends Service Committee found retired military personnel teaching approximately 310,000 students, ages 14 and up, in about 2200 high schools (with another 700 on the docket). As the AFSC pointed out:

Public schooling strives to promote respect for other cultures, critical thinking and basic academic skills in a safe environment. In contrast, JROTC introduces guns into the schools, promotes authoritarian values, uses rote learning methods, and consigns much student time to learning drill, military history and protocol, which have little relevance outside the military.

It pays off, though, for the Pentagon. Although the JROTC denies it is engaged in recruiting, 45% of all cadets completing the program sign up, mostly as enlisted personnel. AFSC also found that JROTC programs are more often found in schools with a high proportion of non-white students -- now providing 54% of all cadets -- and in non-affluent schools.

And what are these cadets being taught? Says the report:

A comparison of the JROTC curriculum and two widely used civilian high school civics and history textbooks demonstrates that the JROTC curriculum falls well below accepted pedagogical standards. Units on citizenship and history are strikingly different from standard civil texts on these subjects.

For example, . . . the JROTC text portrays citizenship as being primarily achieved through military service, provides only a short discussion of civil rights; and downplays the importance of civilian control of the military. . . .

In comparison to the civilian history text, historical events in the JROTC curriculum are distorted . . History is described as a linear series of accomplishments by soldiers, while the progress engendered by regular citizens is marginalized. America's wars are treated as having been inevitable.

While it claims to provide leadership training with broad relevance, in fact the JROTC curriculum defines leadership as respect for constituted authority and the chain of command, rather than as critical thinking and democratic consensus-building . . . Finally, the text encourages the reader to rely uncritically on the military as a source of self-esteem and guidance.

Further, at a time that schools are trying desperately to discourage violence, the JROTC is teaching students how to kill more effectively. It is also teaching them -- in a text that addresses the "Indian menace" that "Fortunately the government policy of pushing the Indians farther West, then wiping them out, was carried out successfully. "

Colin Powell's army

And just where did the idea come from for the expansion of military indoctrination in our high schools? From none other than that very media model of a major modern general: Colin Powell.

Following the LA uprising in 1992, writes Steven Stycos in the Providence Phoenix, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "proposed a massive expansion of the program. Powell urged the new units be targeted to inner-city youth as an alternative to drug use and gang membership." In New England the number of students involved nearly tripled.

Was Powell seeking citizen officers to balance the academy-trained military? Absolutely not. The JROTC students are grunt-fodder. Besides, while referring to ROTC as "vital to democracy," Powell closed 62 college-based ROTC units during this same period. The inevitable result was that the proportion of academy-trained officers rose and the role of the citizen-officer diminished.

You may recall that Powell was the man whom the media pushed for president, depicting him as in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower. The media forgot to tell us that while Eisenhower warned of a growing military-industrial complex, Powell has been one of its biggest beneficiaries and boosters. While Eisenhower fought to restore democracy, Powell fought to preserve sheikdoms. While the Eisenhower-era military followed the wartime orders of strong civilian leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt, the Powell-era military won't even follow Bill Clinton's orders in peacetime. While Eisenhower was part of a unique military demobilization after the Second World War, Powell was among those who prevented demobilization after the Cold War. On top of which he wants kids to know that the Indians were a menace.

Taking charge of the drug war

One might further ask just when it became the business of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to set policy on drugs and urban gangs, but in today's Washington the question won't produce more than a shrug. Thus when, upon McCaffrey's appointment, Clinton transferred $250 million from the Pentagon to the drug czar's office, no one took notice. The accounts are already heavily commingled.

Browsing DOD literature makes this clear. For example, there is the Manual for Civil Emergencies that says it applies not only to the various branches of the military services but

serves as a reference for other Federal, State and local agencies on how the Department of Defense supports civil authorities and DOD assets can be used to support civilian leadership priorities in returning their communities to a state of "normalcy."

Those are DOD's quote marks around the last word -- a reminder that what may be normal to a general may not seem normal to an ordinary citizen. You have to watch the language carefully. For example, the manual defines hazards as "natural or man caused events, including, without limitation, civil disturbances, that may result in major disasters or emergencies."

And what are civil disturbances?: "Riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages, group acts of violence and disorder prejudicial to public law and order. . ."

In short, words are so broadly defined as to mean almost anything the Pentagon wants them to mean -- right down to a noisy crowd at the street corner. As Mort Sahl once pointed out, a federal conspiracy is now defined as "whenever two or three are gathered together."

Another unnerving manual is the resource guide for the 1994 Counterdrug Managers' Course at the National Interagency Counterdrug Institute at Camp San Luis Obispo CA. In it we learn that among the problems ordinary cops may face is that "the vast DOD bureaucracy will overwhelm the requesting law enforcement agency."

The manual adds reassuringly, "To date such fears have proven to be unfounded. DOD has not become a law enforcement agency . . There is, however, much that DOD can do without usurping a police role."

A few pages on, however, the manual lists what some of these things are:

In appropriate cases, armed forces personnel and equipment will be detailed directly to law enforcement agencies to assist in the fight.

The Department of Defense will be prepared to assist the Department of Justice with its responsibilities for incarceration and rehabilitation of drug criminals, through means such as training federal, state, and local personnel in the conduct of rehabilitation-oriented training camps for first-offense drug abuses and providing overflow facilities for incarceration of those convicted of drug crimes.

[DOD will] arrange for assigning military personal to federal drug law enforcement agencies and the ONDCP [the office of the drug czar] to perform liaison, training, and planning functions as appropriate to assist in implementation of the National Drug Control Strategy and the DOD guidance for implementation of that strategy.

[DOD will] review the potential for DOD to provide temporary overflow facilities, upon the request of appropriate federal, state, or local authorities, for incarceration of individuals convicted of drug crimes.

Verbal shell games are being played here. On the one hand, the Defense Department is declared not to be a law enforcement agency; on the other, its personnel and equipment "will be detailed directly to law enforcement agencies to assist in the fight."

Such postmodern linguistic mush is a key part of the camouflage used to conceal the military's mission creep. For example, the Navy is prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act from engaging in domestic law enforcement, so the Coast Guard gets around this by hoisting a Coast Guard flag on any naval vessel it wants to use. The ship thereupon becomes a Coast Guard vessel -- for the sole purpose of circumventing the law.

Of particular concern to anyone wishing to retain a democracy in the US are the oblique references to concentration camps for drug offenders. To be sure, the manual prefers Maoist phraseology -- "rehabilitation-oriented training camps" -- but it means the same thing. This idea may have been launched some years back by a former high US drug official named Robert Dupont, who proposed in the Washington Post that there be mandatory drugs tests for those attending school or getting a driver's license. Those who failed drug tests repeatedly would be incarcerated in "large temporary health shelters." There would be some invasion of privacy and civil rights, the doctor admitted, but "this is a price we would need to pay for life in a modern, interdependent community."

The concentration camps, the manual notes, could also be used to provide "temporary overflow facilities . . . for incarceration of those convicted of drug crimes" at the request of "appropriate" officials.

Both Dupont and the manual use the word temporary. Does this refer to the quality of the gulags' construction or to the transitory nature of their need? And if the latter, then what precisely are the conditions under which temporary overflow facilities would be required? One thing history teaches us is that drug use rises and falls in a stately fashion; there are no sudden mass LSD binges or waves of ecstasy parties that sweep the nation. On the other hand, what can change rather rapidly is the government's desire and willingness to lock persons up --such as under martial law.

Finally, the manual indicates that not only are military personnel assigned to the drug czar but that the nation's domestic drug strategy is subject to "DOD guidance for implementation of that strategy." In other words, under McCaffrey our drug program will be run by a general, aided by military personnel, funded by military dollars and guided by military policy. In short, it is not unlike the sort of arrangement McCaffrey's Southcom has worked out for places like Bolivia and Colombia. Our cities have become just another third world country to keep under the military's control.

The handwriting has been on the wall for a long time. In speaking before the 1991 National Guard Association Conference, Lt. General John B. Conaway, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, said:

Our commander in chief has declared war on drugs. Our mission as America's National Guard in this war is clear: make America drug-free in as short a time as possible using any means necessary no matter what the cost.

So between January and August of the following year, the National Guard made nearly 20,000 arrests, searched 120,000 cars and searched over 1200 buildings. Said one National Guard official, "The National Guard is America's legally feasible attitude-change agent."

The regular Army, however, was anxious to get in the act as well. Lt. Gen. J. H. Bindford Peay III, the chief of staff for operations and plans, asserted in an Army publication a few years back that military forces are required for such purposes as internal peacekeeping, anti-drug operations and support of civil authorities to maintain stability in a rapidly changing America. Said Peay:

We can look forward to the day when our Congress repeals the Posse Comitatus Act and allows the Army to lend its full strength towards making America drug-free.

And Inside the Pentagon quoted the commander-in-chief of the US Special Operations Command saying in a speech:

[Drugs are] the greatest threat that is out there . . . We've got to get our stuff together. The battle is not going to be won in the source countries or in the transit countries. The battle is going to be won here in the United States and we better start doing something about it.

Major General Barry McCaffrey reporting for duty, Sir.

Such dreams have been partly realized without even bothering to repeal the troublesome Posse Comitatus Act. Thus we now find Army reservists working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in anti-pot forays. Said one Army official:

We want the public to become more aware of what we're doing. This is an ongoing war on our soil. We want people to see the Army involved in a war right here -- a war against drugs . . . We're fighting a war in our own hometowns -- a war we'll fight every day until, finally, we win.

Over-flights and litterbugs

Considerable benefits accrue to those civilian law enforcement agencies that kowtow to the military. For example, AP has reported that the Pentagon intends to give police departments 2,000 of its helicopters over the next few years. On the other hand, when Arizona Governor Fyfe Symington spoke of using the state national guard to keep the Grand Canyon open during the recent budget crisis, the Pentagon went on alert and prepared to federalized the Arizona militia if necessary to prevent any such residual display of states rights.

Of course, bringing the might of the Pentagon to bear on recalcitrant pot planters is not quite as heroic as defeating the Evil Empire. And it can have some peculiar results. For example, citizens in Monterey County CA have been complaining about a US Marine invasion of the Los Padres National Forest and nearby private lands. These incursions are part of Operation Alliance run by a intergovernmental "coordination center" that handles military-civilian actions in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The operation is under the control of Joint Task Force 6 in El Paso, which according to a Forest Service memo, "is now scheduled to handle all military drug raids done thru local law enforcement in the lower 48 states and Puerto Rico. The Forest Service gets military support by going through Operation Alliance." (All military drug raids? Apparently no one has told the Forest Service that the Pentagon is not a law enforcement agency.)

For example, Mission JT-105-96 carried out "approximately October 5 through October 31, 1995" included:

Military over-flights and photography of National Forest Service land

Aerial reconnaissance about 500' from the ground, but allowing aircraft as low as 100' for "confirmation" and as low as 75' for "inserting and extracting military personnel via rappel, fast-rope and spy operation."

"Listening/observation posts on National Forest and National Forest Wilderness areas" and "overnight bivouac."

Landing aircraft in the wilderness area in emergencies.

A situation report from one of the Marine teams described finding a "garden" and then tracing the waterlines to it. Later that afternoon a jogger wandered into their midst. They gave him a drink of water and lied to him about their purpose, claiming that they were training.

On October 15th Team Two was discovered by a woman on horseback who was clearly not pleased to find them. They repeated their lie about training. She said she feared for her daughter's safety and that they had trespassed and broken a water main. She also blew the whistle on the operation when she got back to safety. Soon thereafter both Congressman Sam Farr and the Monterey Herald called and the "mission was compromised."

There were other complaints. An investigative report cited

allegations made by concerned residents that this patrol had established a campfire, littered, defecated and left soiled toilet paper in an exposed condition in the watershed that supplies water to several homes.

The investigator found the allegations were true but happily had not occurred on private property.

The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, formed by local citizens twelve years ago when the first assaults began, counted 100 complaints of invasions of privacy and illegal searches in 1995. There was also "a surprising amount of damage from helicopters."

According to CLMP:

Helicopters overflights are often conducted at or near tree-top level (say 150' from the ground) despite an agreement by law enforcement to maintain a 500' height except when actually landing or taking off. The noise from these low flights is incredibly loud, causing much disturbance to wildlife, domestic animals and of course, human beings. A sudden loud noise from above triggers fight or flight response in most birds and animals. Much of the injury to animals is impossible to document in a largely forested rural area like the Mateel, but we have documented the deadly injury to a horse, death of a deer and its fawns, stampeding of cattle and destruction of eggs and young birds in the nest at several commercial aviaries. This latest effect is especially disturbing as we have several endangered species of birds in our forests including the spotted owl.

Adults can generally handle the effects of overflights. They get angry, call their congressperson, call the local sheriff, and make complaints. They document their grievances with us. This reduces the long-term effects upon them, if you don't count a deep and abiding distrust of law enforcement and government in general. Two groups cannot handle the psychological effects well, however. They are children and Vietnam vets with flashback problems. We have documented cases of children becoming fearful of going outside, where they had previously enjoyed gardening with their parents; of nightmares about helicopters, and similar effects . . .

Vietnam vets flashbacks are well known, and we are seeing them here. In the worst case the vet was simply advised by his doctor to abandon his home and leave the area until the raids ended.

Military lurkers

One of the ways the military conducts its domestic version of psychological and civil operations is to spy on American citizens. As far back the early 40s, for example, Army intelligence kept tabs on the likes of organizer Saul Alinsky. The practice blossomed with the civil rights and peace movements, possibly even, in the view of some investigators, including direct involvement of Army agents in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the practice continues albeit in modern garb. According to the Computer Fraud and Security Bulletin, the National Security Agency is already spying on the Internet by "sniffing" data at key router and gateways hosts. NSA is also said to have made deals with Microsoft, Lotus and Netscape to prevent anonymous e-mail or encryption systems on the Net.

And last July, Charles Swett, who works for the Pentagon office handling "special operations and low intensity conflict" wrote an internal memo titled: Strategic Assessment: The Internet. The report, uncovered by the Federation of American Scientists, provides an overview of the Internet, particularly its usefulness for spying on both Americans and foreigners and for spreading disinformation during psychological operations.

Of course, Swett didn't use those words, so to be absolutely fair let's quote the man:

The Internet could also be used offensively as an additional medium in psychological operations campaigns and to help achieve unconventional warfare objectives. Used creatively as an integral asset, the Internet can facilitate many DOD operations and activities. . .

The Internet is a potentially lucrative source of intelligence useful to DOD. The intelligence can include . . . information about the plans and operations of politically active groups.

Networks of human sources with access to the Internet could be developed in areas of security concern to the US, and these sources could be oriented to seek specific needed information. If contracted and managed correctly, such a system could be much more responsive and efficient than the current complex, unwieldy, intelligence tasking and collection processes we must use.

If it became widely known that DOD were monitoring Internet traffic for intelligence or counterintelligence purposes, individuals with personal agendas or political purposes in mind, or who enjoy playing pranks, would deliberately enter false or misleading messages. Our analysis function would need to account for this. A great deal of "brain power" exists on the Internet, and if it could be harnessed and channeled for productive purposes, it might be a useful addition to DOD's informational and political assets. Any such use, of course, would have to be protected by appropriate security measures.

It would be possible to employ the Internet as an additional medium for Psychological Operations (Psyops) campaigns. E-mail conveying the US perspective on issues and events could be efficiently and rapidly disseminated to a very wide audience. DOD intelligence agencies should investigate the role of the Internet in helping coordinate the operations of political activists and paramilitary groups in regions of interest.

The Internet should be incorporated in our Psyops planning as an additional medium.

Means of employing the Internet offensively in support of our unconventional warfare objectives should be employed.

While the talents of civ ops and pys ops could be clearly quickly turned from third world lands to our own, Swett specifically declares that his recommendations "should be carried out only in full compliance with the letter and the spirit of the law, and without violating the privacy of American citizens."

Yet Swett himself sets a poor example. After all, he has already been spying on us. And his report gives a strong sense of what the forthcoming dossiers of the Pentagon's Internet strategic assessment office will look like.

For example, he sees as "startling" the use of the Internet to organize against the Contract with America with its charges that it, in effect is encouraging "class war, race war, gender war, and generational war."

He lumps as fringe groups the white supremacist National Alliance, the Michigan Militia, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Earth First, and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

He quotes from the Wall Street Journal:

Fringe groups are increasingly going on-line, gathering converts and seeking validation on the Internet. The network's far-flung links and low-cost communications are a boon to backwater groups that can't afford to use direct mail to make their pitches . . . The more a group is shut out of the mainstream, the more likely it is to go on-line.

Swett takes particular interest in the Institute for Global Communications and the Association for Progressive Communications, which he describes as "largest and most active international political groups using the Internet." He calls IGC/APC (used by the Review among tens of thousands of others in the US and elsewhere) as "clearly a left-wing political organization." And he informs his Pentagon colleagues that its conferences addresse subjects such as:

Lists of companies and/or products to be considered for a boycott . . . State security activities, surveillance, tapping The Left List Aid in the planning and execution of campaigns to end the nuclear weapons era.

Information relevant to the campaign opposing US military bases in Australia and the Asian-Pacific region. News, announcements and information from War Resisters International, on all aspects of anti-militarist and nonviolent action worldwide. Information and discussion regarding the anarchist and anti-authoritarian movement and non-hierarchical organizing.

Alarmed by all this, Swett shows the spook's unique perspective on matters political, lumping anti-authoritarian movements and non-hierarchical organizing as among the threats the Pentagon should keep its eye on. He also notes that "groups of conspiracy theorists exchange e-mail explaining their often bizarre theories about conspiracies conducted by the US government in general and DOD in particular."

If this all sounds a tad familiar; it is. Only the source material back then was hard copy and it was deposited not on hard disk at the Pentagon but in the files of J. Edgar Hoover.


The military's extraordinary role in contemporary civilian life can be traced back at least to the Carter administration. In a July 1983 series in the San Francisco Examiner, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Knut Royce reported that a presidential directive had been drafted by a few Carter administration personnel in 1979 to allow the military to take control of the government for 90 days in the event of an emergency. A caveat on page one of the directive said, "Keeping the government functioning after a nuclear war is a secret, costly project that detractors claim jeopardizes US traditions and saves a privileged few." According to Royce there was a heated debate within the Carter administration as to just what constituted an "emergency."

The issue arose again during the Iran-Contra affair, but even in the wake of all the copy on that scandal, the public got little sense of how far some America's soldiers of fortune were willing to go to achieve their ends. When the Iran-Contra hearings came close to the matter, chair Senator Inouye backed swiftly away. Here is an excerpt from those hearings. Oliver North is at the witness table:

REP BROOKS: Colonel North, in your work at the NSC, were you not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for the continuity of government in the event of a major disaster?


SEN INOUYE: I believe that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so may I request that you not touch on that.

REP BROOKS: I was particularly concerned, Mr. Chairman, because I read in Miami papers, and several others, that there had been a plan developed by that same agency, a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered if that was the area in which he had worked. I believe that it was and I wanted to get his confirmation.

SEN INOUYE; May I most respectfully request that that matter not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I'm certain arrangements can be made for an executive session

With few exceptions, the media ignored what well could be the most startling revelation to have come out of the Iran/Contra affair, namely that high officials of the US government were planning a possible military/civilian coup. First among the exceptions was the Miami Herald, which on July 5, 1987, ran the story to which Jack Brooks referred. The article, by Alfonzo Chardy, revealed Oliver North's involvement in plans for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take over federal, state and local functions during an ill-defined national emergency.

According to Chardy, the plan called for 'suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the government over to the Federal Management Agency, emergency appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and declaration of martial law.' The proposal appears to have forgotten that Congress, legislatures and the judiciary even existed.

In a November 18, 1991 story, the New York Times elaborated:

Acting outside the Constitution in the early 1980s, a secret federal agency established a line of succession to the presidency to assure continued government in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, current and former United States officials said today.

The program was called "Continuity of Government." In the words of a recent report by the Fund for Constitutional Government,1 "succession or succession-by-designation would be implemented by unknown and perhaps unelected persons who would pick three potential successor presidents in advance of an emergency. These potential successors to the Oval Office may not be elected, and they are not confirmed by Congress.

According to CNN, the list eventually grew to 17 names and included Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeanne Kirkpatrick James Schlesinger, Richard Thornberg, Edwin Meese, Tip O'Neil, and Richard Cheney.

The plan was not even limited to a nuclear attack but included any "national security emergency" which was defined as:

Any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States.

This bizarre scheme was dismissed in many Washington quarters as further evidence of the loony quality of the whole Iran/contra affair. One FEMA official called it a lot of crap while a representative for Attorney General Meese described it as 'bullshit."

The problem is that there is a long history of compatibility between madness and totalitarian takeovers, Adolph Hitler being a prime but far from lone example. Further, there is plenty of evidence in this case that the planning was far more than simply an off-the-wall brainstorm. At least one report found that the US Army had even gone so far as to draft a legal document providing justifications for martial law.

Nor was the planning limited to crises involving the total breakdown of society as in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Among the justifiable uses of martial law were "national opposition to a US military invasion abroad" and widespread internal. dissent.

At least one high government official took the plan seriously enough to vigorously oppose it. In a August 1984 letter to NSC chair Robert McFarlane, Attorney General William French Smith wrote:

I believe that the role assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the revised Executive Order exceeds its proper function as a coordinating agency for emergency preparedness . . . This department and others have repeatedly raised serious policy and legal objections to the creation of an 'emergency czar' role for FEMA.

FEMA was clearly out of control. Another memo, written in 1982 to then FEMA director Louis Giuffrida and given only tightly restricted circulation even within the agency, made this astonishing assertion:

Over the long term, the peacetime action programs of FEMA and other departments and agencies have the effect of making the conceivable need for military takeover less and less as time goes by. A fully implemented civil defense program may not now be regarded as a substitute for martial law, nor could it be so marketed, but if successful in its execution it could have that effect.

The memo essentially proposed that the American people would rather be taken over by FEMA than by the military. When those are the options on the table, you know you're in trouble.

The head of FEMA until 1985, General Louis Giuffrida, also once wrote a paper on the Legal Aspects of Managing Disorders. Here is some of what he said:

No constitution, no statute or ordinance can authorize Martial Rule. [It commences] upon a determination (not a declaration) by the senior military commander that the civil government must be replaced because it is no longer functioning anyway . . . The significance of Martial Rule in civil disorders is that it shifts control from civilians and to the military completely and without the necessity of a declaration, proclamation or other form of public manifestation . . . As stated above, Martial Rule is limited only by the principle of necessary force.

Those words come from a time when Giuffrida was the head of then-Governor Reagan's California Specialized Training Institute, a National Guard school. It was not, for Giuffrida, a new thought. In 1970 he had written a paper for the Army War College in which he called for martial law in case of a national uprising by black militants. Among his ideas were "assembly centers or relocation camps" for at least 21 million "American Negroes."

During 1968 and 1972, Reagan ran a series of war games in California called Cable Splicer, which involved the Guard, state and local police, and the US Sixth Army. Details of this operation were reported in 1975 in a story by Ron Ridenour of the New Times, an Arizona alternative paper, and later exhumed by Dave Lindorff in the Village Voice.

Cable Splicer, it turned out, was a training exercise for martial law. The man in charge was none other than Edwin Meese, then Reagan's executive secretary. At one point, Meese told the Cable Splicer combatants:

This is an operation, this is an exercise, this is an objective which is going forward because in the long run . . . it is the only way that will be able to prevail [against anti-war protests.]

Addressing the kickoff of Cable Splicer, Governor Reagan told some 500 military and police officers:

You know, there are people in the state who, if they could see this gathering right now and my presence here, would decide their worst fears and convictions had been realized -- I was planning a military takeover.

The Reaganites were not, however, the only ones with such thoughts. Consider this from a NSC directive written by Frank Carlucci in 1981:

Normally a state of martial law will be proclaimed by the President. However, in the absence of such action by the President, a senior military commander may impose martial law in an area of his command where there had been a complete breakdown in the exercise of government functions by local civilian authorities.

The military coup of 2012

To those who would dismiss all the foregoing as the fantasies of a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I fully understand. Such are our times, such is the propaganda in which our minds swim, that the real can frequently, almost inevitably, seem but a mirage.

But how about this? In the winter 1992 issue of Parameters, the quarterly of the US Army College, there appeared an article by Lt. Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. USAF Dunlap was a graduate of St. Joseph's University, Villanova School of Law, the Armed Forces Staff College, and a distinguished graduate of the National War College. In 1992 he was named by the Judge Advocates Association as the USAF's outstanding career armed services attorney. In short, not your average paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Dunlap's article was called The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012. In it, he pretends to be writing to a fellow military colleague in 2012, explaining how the coup had occurred. With eerie precision he described America's current state:

America became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation's dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military.2 Buoyed by the military's obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country's problems. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, non-traditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.

Though not obvious at the time, the cumulative effect of these new responsibilities was to incorporate the military into the political process to an unprecedented degree.

Dunlap quoted one of Washington's journalistic cherubs, James Fallows, in a 1991 article:

I am beginning to think that the only way the national government can do anything worthwhile is to invent a security threat and turn the job over to the military . . . The military, strangely, is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good.

Dunlap recounted the slow attrition of civilian independence from the military:

In 1981 Congress passed a bill, the Military Cooperation with Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies Act "specifically intended to force reluctant military commanders to actively collaborate in police work. By 1992, combating drugs had been declared a "high national security mission."

By this same time, the military had become deeply involved in environmental cleanup, and would regularly show up in uniform in high crime areas.

The balance of power between the various services was being undermined by an emphasis on "jointness," thus weakening an internal check on the military.

Dunlap then imagined what might happen next:

Other problems were transformed into "national security" issues. As more commercial airlines went bankrupt and unprofitable air routes were dropped, the military was called upon to provide "essential" air transport to the affected regions. In the name of national defense, the military next found itself in the sealift business. . . .The nations' crumbling infrastructure was also declared a "national security threat." As was proposed back in 1991, troops rehabilitated pubic housing, rebuilt bridges and roads, and constructed new government buildings . . . . Voices in both Congress and the military had reached a crescendo calling for military involvement across a broad spectrum of heretofore civilian activities. Soon, it became common in practically every community to see crews of soldiers working on local projects. Military attire drew no stares.

Not so long ago, Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post wrote a bizarre and scary column praising one of the Army's advocates of Dunlap's bad dream. Rosenfeld described US Army Major Ralph Peters this way:

At home, use of the military appears inevitable to him -- though not yet to an American consensus -- "at least on our borders and in some urban environments" . . . He deplores our military's reluctance to join the war on drugs, which he attributes to a fear of failure. He would dutifully prepare for the traditionally 'military' missions, plus the new one of missile defense. But he would be ready to engage with drugs and crime, terrorism, peacekeeping, illegal immigration, disease control, resource protection, evacuation of endangered citizens . . .

What Dunlap was described and Peters advocated was not a bold military stroke against the civilian government, but simply a coup by attrition. Wrote Dunlap:

By the year 2000 the armed forces had penetrated many vital aspects of American society. More and more military officers sought the kind of autonomy in these civilian affairs that they would expect from their military superiors in the execution of traditional combat operations . . . They convinced themselves that they could more productively serve the nation in carrying out their new assignments if they accrued to themselves unfettered power to implement their programs.

By 2012, it was all over.

Col. Dunlap's calculations are that we have about 16 years to come up with an alternative approach.

And he may be a bit optimistic.

1 The author is on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government but did not work on this report.

2 This remains true. A recent poll showed that 47% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the military. The Supreme Court, colleges and medicine were lumped at about 30% and every other majori institution lagged far behind. Only 15% have high condidence in the white House and only 10% in Congress.

December 14, 2008


Sam Smith

I may be jumping the gun a bit or perhaps I've let some childish optimism sneak out from under my usually cynical brow, but I think there may be a movement underway.

A movement is not like a campaign. No one gets to start a movement and no one gets to own it. You don't have to file any contribution reports. The archaic media pretends you don't even exist for as long as it can. And it doesn't even have to have a name.

That's why I just call it the movement. It's sort of like the Gulf Stream, hard to see yet undeniable as it moves you faster in a certain direction.

And if a movement hasn't started, it may not be long before it does. I have never seen so much cause for so many Americans to be so mad at so many of those who have been running the place - establishment politicians, academics, media, economists and corporations. They've lied, denied, connived and contrived, often with an unprecedented blend of stupidity and greed for which we all now paying.

If a movement has started, then present at the birth were those factory workers who staged the sit in until Bank of America backed off.

And if a movement hasn't started, then one reason why may be the Reddit, headline that read, " Vote up if you would rather bail out NPR for 30 lousy million than failing auto companies for 15 billion."

You had to travel a third of the way down the 500 comments before any responders even mentioned the auto industry, and when they did many didn't like it or its workers. An exception came when one of the workers wrote:

"I like reddit a lot. But sometimes it really gets me down. People here so often come across as children in the way they speak, or how biased they are. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people may lose their income if the auto industry goes under, and you joke about it."

It's not just the people in power who are the problem; it's the ones they've taught. Taught to believe in lies and now think they're clever by being snarky about anyone who wasn't smart enough to believe those lies, the sort of education that leads you to think that saving NPR is more important than saving the auto industry. The sort of education that makes you think you have to choose between them.

When I saw it, I remembered that it was like that under segregation, too. You had the bad guys at the top and then you had all those who went along, either to get along and get ahead or because they had come to truly believe the stupid stuff the bad guys at the top had taught them. And even educated people talked about blacks back then like educated people talk about auto workers today.

But now the market for myths and lies has dried up and there's nothing on the shelves any more but reality. The folks who deceived us can't come up with the answer so it has to come from somewhere else.

We are now into the third month of the most severe financial breakdown since 1929. And, worse, we are in the third month of repeated demonstration of the incapacity of leaders of both parties to deal rationally with the problem other than to throw money at it in directions unknown, for uses unknown, and with results unknown. Add to this the disaster in Iraq, our inability to respond sensibly to climate change and the dismantling of our constitution, and it would be hard to point to a time when the American elite has reacted worse to its problems. We are, for all intents and purposes, a dysfunctional country in a state of collapse.

The solution lies not in a new administration whose appointments seem to reflect more a team of revivals rather than of rivals, including repeat performances by some of the very people who created the mess in the first place.

The answer, if there is one, lies in a movement that that gathers the wisdom of the disaster's victims, the critics of what created it, and the imagination of those able to see past both cause and effect to a truly better time.

It is hard for some to conceive of such a phenomenon because of the current obsession with Barack Obama and the still widespread belief that he will, through some personal magic or gift of God, come up with answers that not only have eluded all the rest of Washington, but eluded his own campaign and transition as well. Those of us who question such a fantasy are called mean spirited and instructed to be silent until the wise one works his way.

But then America often works like that. There's always some myth to distract us from what's really going on. We're like a schizophrenic trying to play soccer. One minute our eye on the ball, the next moment we're deep into some national delusion.

Truly bad times don't have much tolerance for that sort of thing. And so ordinary, rational people have to come up with their own answers, often small solutions in many different places. Such as the group in Milwaukee creating a local currency. Or the sit-in at the factory.

We can expect more of this as matters continue to deteriorate. It will include new ideas as well as ones brought back to life and ones that have already been pursued for years with too little money and respect. It will include union workers, environmentalists, teachers tired of test totalitarianism, 401Kers discovering the difference between stock funds and a pension, unemployed professionals, women losing their jobs only a few decades after gaining a right to them, minorities learning that white guys can also get screwed, white guys learning what it feels like be dissed like a minority, the ill without proper care and people who want their constitutional rights back again

Add it all together and you start to see a movement. It doesn't need a name; it doesn't need an address; it doesn't need an icon on the alter.

At times the movement may find itself allied with Barack Obama; at other times he may be its major opponent. In either event, Obama will define change no better than John Kennedy defined the civil rights movement or LBJ the anti-Vietnam war movement. Change doesn't originate in the White House; what happens there merely reflects the power of the change around it. Which is one good reason not to go soft just because Obama's in the White House. If he won't be an ally, then he must be made irrelevant.

Where might the movement lead us? Sarah van Gelder of Yes Magazine has given us a clue based on polls -, "an agenda that the majority of Americans support, whether they vote red, blue, green or something else."

67% favor public works projects to create jobs.

55% favor expanding unemployment benefits.

76% support tax cuts for lower- and middle-income people.

71% say unions help their members; 53% say unions help the economy in general.

80% support increasing the federal minimum wage.

59% favor guaranteeing two weeks or more of paid vacation.

75% want to limit rate increases on adjustable-rate mortgages.

58% believe a court warrant should be required to listen to the telephone calls of people in the U.S.

59% would like the next president to do more to protect civil liberties.

79% favor mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

90% favor higher auto fuel efficiency standards.

75% favor clean electricity, even with higher rates.

72% support more funding for mass transit.

64% believe the government should provide national health insurance coverage for all Americans, even if it would raise taxes.

55% favor one health insurance program covering all Americans, administered by the government, and paid for by taxpayers.

81% oppose torture and support following the Geneva Conventions.

76% say the U.S. should not play the role of global police.

79% say the U.N. should be strengthened.

85% say that the U.S. should not initiate military action without support from allies.

63% want U.S. forces home from Iraq within a year.

47% favor using diplomacy with Iran. 7% favor military action.

67% believe we should use diplomatic and economic means to fight terrorism, rather than the military.

86% say big companies have too much power in politics

65% believe attacking social problems is a better cure for crime than more law enforcement.

87% support rehabilitation rather than a “punishment-only” system.

81% say job training is “very important” for reintegrating people leaving prison.

79% say drug treatment is very important.

56% believe NAFTA should be renegotiated.

64% believe that on the whole, immigration is good for the country.

A stunning portion of these choices of the American people are at odds with those of their leaders in both parties and with the way popular opinion is routinely described by the major media. The choices are also far from radical. They are actually conservative, aimed at conserving our constitution, our integrity, our economy, our environment and our standing in the world. It is the establishment center that led us into this disaster which has been radical and extreme: radically wrong and extremely incompetent in dealing with the consequences.

Back in 2001, in my book "Why Bother?," I tried to describe what was happening to America and what could be done about it:
The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it."

The unwitting dead -- universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties -- reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. . .

Yet even as we complain about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.

We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to -- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.

To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.

Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.

It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.

How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.

We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions.

People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.

Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.
What I was talking about was a movement of the sort that may now or soon be underway. Providing mediation for anger, structure for hope, and pragmatic plans for tomorrow, a movement can seem anarchistic, disjointed or directionless, yet what we see may be no more the little waves on the surface that conceal the force of the current underneath.

Further, it is sometimes hard to perceive because while the cause is national, the action is often local. We have become trained in recent decades by both liberals and conservatives to define action by simply being on a national mailing list and making a contribution. Which is why Move On and Emily's List are so powerful but nobody knows what a liberal is any more.

Movements work differently. They don't use popes; they rely on independent congregations. They are driven not be saviors but by substance. They assume a commitment beyond the voting booth, they think politicians should respond to them rather than the other way around, and they believe in "Here's how" as well as "Yes, we can."

If you are presently doing anything to try to repair the damage that has been done by our cynical, greedy and incompetent leadership you are part of the movement. Student, union worker, teacher, retiree, infirm, ecologist, defense attorney, community organizer, informed or reformed - you are part of the movement.

So welcome to the movement. If you don't believe there is one, trying using the word anyway. The very term is a weapon in our arsenal. If the politicians and the press start hearing the phrase in places they thought had little in common, they will start to pay attention. We can leave it to the historians to define it. In its very ambiguity lies its strength. We may contradict ourselves, but as Walt Whitman once noted, that's okay; it merely proves that we contain multitudes.

December 10, 2008


Sam Smith

From Shadows of Hope, Indiana University Press, 1993

In 1816, Columbus, Ohio, had one city councilmember for every hundred residents. By 1840 there was one for every thousand residents. By 1872 the figure had dwindled to one to every five thousand. By 1974, there was one councilmember for every 55,000 people.

The first US congressional districts contained less than 40,000 people; my current city councilmember represents about twice that many. Today the average US representative works for roughly 600,000 citizens. This is double the number for legislatures in Brazil and Japan, and more than five times as many as in Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, and West Germany.

It isn't just a matter of numbers. Back in the early days of television and the late days of the Daley era in Chicago, Jake Arvey was an important man in national Democratic politics. At Democratic conventions, Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley would ponder what Arvey was going to do; presidential candidates would seek his blessing.

Yet Arvey's power base was not a national organization nor telegenic charisma, but rather the 24th Ward of Chicago, from which he helped to run the city's Democratic machine.

Another Chicago politician described it this way: "Not a sparrow falls inside the boundaries of the 24th Ward without Arvey knowing of it. And even before it hits the ground there's already a personal history at headquarters, complete to the moment of its tumble."
There was plenty wrong with the Daley machine and others like it. One job seeker was asked at a ward headquarters who had sent him. "Nobody," he admitted. He was told, "We don't want nobody nobody sent."

Among those whom nobody sent were women and minorities. The old machines were prejudiced, feudal and corrupt.

And so we eventually did away with them.

But reform breeds its own hubris and so few noticed that as we destroyed the evils of machine politics we also were breaking the links between politics and the individual, politics and community, politics and social life. We were beginning to segregate politics from ourselves.

George Washington Plunkitt would not have been surprised. Plunkitt was a leader of Tammany Hall and was, by the standards of our times and his, undeniably corrupt. As his Boswell, newspaperman William Riordon, noted: "In 1870 through a strange combination of circumstances, he held the places of Assemblyman, Alderman, Police Magistrate and County Supervisor and drew three salaries at once -- a record unexampled in New York politics.". Facing three bidders at a city auction of 250,000 paving stones, he offered each 10,000 to 20,000 stones free and having thus dispensed with competition bought the whole lot for $2.50.

Tammany Hall was founded in 1854; its golden age lasted until the three-term LaGuardia administration began in 1934. For only ten intervening years was Tammany out of office. We got rid of people like Plunkitt and machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a philosophy and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

Plunkitt was not only corrupt but a hardworking, perceptive and appealing politician who took care of his constituents, qualities one rarely find in any plurality of combinations in politics these days. Even our corrupt politicians aren't what they used to be. Corruption once involved a complex, if feudal, set of quid pro quos; today our corrupt politicians rarely even tithe to the people.

Politics, Plunkitt said, "is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business" and it was based on studying human nature. He claimed to know every person in his district, their likes and their dislikes:
I reach them by approachin' at the right side . . . For instance, here's how I gather in the young men. I hear of a young feller that's proud of his voice, thinks that he can sing fine. I ask him to come around to Washington Hall and join our Glee Club. He comes and sings, and he's a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You'll find him workin' for my ticket at the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin' them op¬portunities to show themselves off. I don't trouble them with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin'.
Plunkitt also believed in sticking with his friends: "The politicians who make a lastin' success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary . . . Richard Croker used to say that tellin' the truth and stickin' to his friends was the political leader's stock in trade." These principles have become largely inoperative.

His prescription for becoming a statesman was to go out and get supporters. Even if it's only one man, "go to the district leader and say: 'I want to join the organization. I've got one man who'll follow me through thick and thin'" and then you get his cousin and his cousin and so on until you have your own organization. It was a principle that worked well for Tammany Hall, which at its height early in the 20th century had 32,000 committeemen and was forced to use Madison Square Garden for its meetings. In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to all its workers a few years ago, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.

But most of all Plunkitt believed in taking care of his constituents. Nothing so dramatically illustrates this than a typical day for Plunkitt as recorded by Riordon:
Plunkitt was aroused a two am to bail out a saloonkeeper who had been arrested for tax law violations. At six he was again awakened, this time by fire engines. Tammany leaders were expected to show up at fires to give aid and comfort. Besides, notes Riordon, they were great vote-getters.

At 8:30 am he was getting six drunk constituents released. At nine he was in court on another case. At eleven, upon returning home, he found four voters seeking assistance. At three he went to the funeral of an Italian, followed by one for a Jew.

At seven PM he had a district captains' meeting. At eight he went to a church fair. At nine he was back at the party clubhouse listening to the complaints of a dozen pushcart peddlers. At 10:30 he went to a Jewish wedding, having "previously sent a handsome wedding present to the bride." He finally got to bed at midnight.
Concluded Riordon:
By these means the Tammany district leader reaches out into the homes of his district, keeps watch not only on the men, but also on the women and children, knows their needs, their likes and dislikes, their troubles and their hopes, and places himself in a position to use his knowledge for the benefit of his organization and himself. Is it any wonder that scandals do not permanently disable Tammany and that it speedily recovers from what seems to be crushing defeat?
These glimpses are instructive because they contrast so markedly with the impersonal, abstract style of politics to which we have become accustomed. It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:
I ain't got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we'd beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don't run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders. Me, Vito Marzullo. that's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .

My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I'll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, "Let your conscience be your guide."
In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammny's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return. In fact, we didn't really do away with machines, we just replaced them.

December 09, 2008


Other than breaking the law, Rod Blagojevich's two biggest problems are that he's a piker and he's dumb. Over the past couple of years, both John McCain and Barack Obama accepted far larger bribes than the Illinois governor allegedly did, but they did it the smart way: by inference rather than by tapped phone. This is why we find the Congress so speedy in bailing out Wall Street and so indifferent to the fate of auto workers.

The alternative is public campaign financing before an election, rather than after, which is what we have now as politicians pay off their contributors by funding pet projects or granting tax favors. Until we deal with this, we shall continue to get outraged by the Blagojevichs of politics while happily ignoring the vast legal corruption that supports our electoral system.

Sam Smith, US Capitol Rally, 1999 - I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.

This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip. . . could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.

As George Orwell rightly warned, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.

Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.

I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.

If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.

December 08, 2008


One of the problems with hiring a Harvard Law School graduate as president is that you're likely to find someone steeped in precedent and shallow - even skeptical of - possibility.

The law, after all, represents the rules of the existing order. It favors the past over the future, the tested over the experimental, the documented over the imagined.

It is necessary, of course, but it is, in the end, a skill rather than a philosophy and is based on reviewing old records rather than opening new windows.

There are plenty of lawyers who understand this and use the law as a tool rather than as a product, which is why, for example, we have the ACLU or the countless volunteer legal advisors to worthy non-profit organizations. My lawyer father used to advise my friends to go to law school but then do something different.

Barack Obama, however, seems one of those attorneys who pride themselves in turning reason into a religion rather than as a road to some place else, the sort who either pompously or pedantically elevate their belief (often self-serving) in caution, the status quo and elite consensus into a god, ignoring Jim Hightower's wisdom that there is little to be found in the middle of the road other than a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.

This is not a political problem, but a cultural one. Here we are, at a moment screaming for new ideas, imagination and reasonable risk and we find ourselves stuck with a Harvard Law School grad whose appointments and pronouncements have been, to date, almost pathetically conventional.

Obama, of course, is not alone. What is truly scary about this crisis is that no one in power has offered a single exciting or appealing idea as to what to do about it. Not Paulson, not Congress, nor the Washington media.

A major part of the problem is that we are run by a generation highly educated in the skill of coming up with approved answers according to the standardized tests of our culture. The current fiasco is a grim warning to those persisting in the mechanical solutions of No Child Left Behind: they produce the sort of adults who are now leaving us all behind. And at the top of the list are the huge number of lawyers that have come in recent decades to control Washington, people who have never had to start, invent, convert, salvage or create anything. At a moment crying for massive change, we are guided by those trained in the art of keeping things as they are.

This struck home when, on the same day, I read the latest frustrating news on the bailout and then this from the Maine Life website

Maine's lobstermen are in such dire straits that many fear the industry won''t survive this recession. But Mainers and Maine businesses have pulled together and are doing everything possible to help out. . .

Downeast Toyota in Bangor has promoted Maine lobster in its automotive advertising, while a full-scale community lobster bake was spearheaded by Heidi Stevens, co-owner of By George Jewelers in Rockland.

Lobster appreciation events in the coastal Maine communities of Georgetown, Rockland, Stonington and Boothbay Harbor have resulted in the sale of over 10,000 lobsters, with additional lobster bakes and promotional plans in the works in other communities.

Maine state representative Leila Percy of Phippsburg wrote and recorded a lobster jingle featured in the PSA campaign.

Hannaford, Shaw''s and Wegmans supermarkets are featuring Maine lobster promotions in their stores in New England and New York.

Restaurants, including the Weathervane seafood chain and DiMillo''s Floating Restaurant in Portland, also have launched lobster promotion efforts and advertising campaigns.

Lobster retailers are donating back proceeds from their sales to the Maine Institute and Grudens, who make the foul weather gear and overalls worn by almost every lobstermen, is donating a portion of the proceeds from their "eat lobster" t-shirts back to the institute as well.

Recently, we've been invited to and have eaten more lobster dinners than I care to count. Everyone is buying lobsters having friends over and doing what they can to help out. Others are shipping lobsters to friends and family far and wide.

Such behavior is in the old Maine tradition of "fix it up, make it do, wear it out, use it up, do without," a spirit that is almost entirely absent from Washington. Lobstering is also a complex form of competition and cooperation totally foreign to free marketers. I once knew a lobsterman in Maine who was badly injured. With a few days, all of his traps had been hauled and neatly stored - a service to him, his competitors and the lobsters, a communal act totally alien to the way Washington thinks and acts.

While Obama's public works program will undoubtedly help, it is a sign of how far the capital is from reality that the new administration is being compared to FDR's New Deal. As Steve Fraser wrote in Tom Dispatch, it is no such thing:

A suffocating political and intellectual provincialism has captured the new administration in embryo. Instead of embracing a sense of adventurousness, a readiness to break with the past so enthusiastically promoted during the campaign, Obama seems overcome with inhibitions and fears. . .

All of these people [of FDR's administration] -- the corporatists and the Keynesians, the planners and the anti-trusters -- were there at the creation. They often came to blows. A genuine administration of "rivals" didn't faze FDR. He was deft at borrowing all of, or pieces of, their ideas, then jettisoning some when they didn't work, and playing one faction against another in a remarkable display of political agility. Roosevelt's tolerance of real differences stands in stark contrast to the new administration's cloning of the Clinton-era brainiacs.

It was this openness to a variety of often untested solutions -- including at that point Keynesianism -- that helped give the New Deal the flexibility to adjust to shifts in the country's political chemistry in the worst of times. If the New Deal came to represent a watershed in American history, it was in part due to the capaciousness of its imagination, its experimental elasticity, and its willingness to venture beyond the orthodox. Many failures were born of this, but so, too, many enduring triumphs.

Of course, failure is a dirty word these days in national politics, Far better to simply spend a lot more money doing things the same old way. Then, when you fail, it will be harder to notice.

The mere fact that Obama, his aides and the Washington media speak of rebuilding "infrastructure" is a clue. No one outside of politicians, think tankers, and media uses this term. Real Americans call it bridges, roads, and schools or, if you want to be really abstract, public works. The term "infrastructure" reveals both the distance of the capital from ordinary people and the ability of the city to turn even the most visibly tangible object into an invisible, intangible gossamer.

A major portion of his plan involves roads and bridges. As Obama puts it, "We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s.

Clearly roads and bridges need rebuilding. But why at a time when people are so ready for change - they even thought they voted for it - is Obama limiting himself to something so cautious? Here are a few of the things that appear to have been ignored:

- Why not provide money for parallel mass transit rail lines or exclusive bus lanes on roads being rebuilt?

- Why not provide money for creation or expansion of such services within cities as well as intra neighborhood transit as we move towards more self-sufficient and less transportation dependent communities? Americans are already voting with their fare cards: transit and rail ridership is going up while road use is down.

- Why not provide for a major expansion of rail service in the US? How can such a self-assumed intelligent administration ignore the need for America to catch up with the rest of the world in this area? And we're not talking, Biden like, about sexy high speed trains that will serve the elite but freight lines and ordinary passenger routes that are desperately needed.

- Why not spend money on facilities that will reduce the need for people to commute, such as neighborhood business centers where workers can hold video conferences, such as with their colleagues at suburban headquarters?

- Why not spend money on facilities that will reduce the need for people to travel longer distances by helping to change the general migratory culture of business? Much of this movement - such as for conferences and conventions - is ritualistic, while it remains unnecessarily difficult for colleagues on a specific topic to come together because, say, one is in Denmark, one in Thailand and the other in Des Moines.

In short, why is so little of this money being spent on two of our most pressing needs: stopping people from having to move around so much and finding cheaper ways of doing it when they must?

One reason is that the modern, well educated, legalized, corporatized and bureaucratized official finds it hard to think this way. The other answer is that we need results in a hurry and we don't have time to plan.

That would be an appealing argument if it were not for a bit of history that doesn't get enough attention - not the New Deal depression years but the massive conversion of the country as a result of World War II. Christopher J. Tassava described it for Economic History Services . As you read it, ask yourself: could we do this now and if not, why not?

"Conversion" was the key issue in American economic life in 1940-1942. In many industries, company executives resisted converting to military production because they did not want to lose consumer market share to competitors who did not convert. Conversion thus became a goal pursued by public officials and labor leaders. In 1940, Walter Reuther, a high-ranking officer in the United Auto Workers labor union, provided impetus for conversion by advocating that the major automakers convert to aircraft production. Though initially rejected by car-company executives and many federal officials, the Reuther Plan effectively called the public's attention to America's lagging preparedness for war. Still, the auto companies only fully converted to war production in 1942 and only began substantially contributing to aircraft production in 1943. . .

Merchant shipbuilding mobilized early and effectively. The industry was overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission, a New Deal agency established in 1936 to revive the moribund shipbuilding industry, which had been in a depression since 1921, and to ensure that American shipyards would be capable of meeting wartime demands. . . The entire industry had produced only 71 ships between 1930 and 1936, but from 1938 to 1940, commission-sponsored shipyards turned out 106 ships, and then almost that many in 1941 alone. . .

[Another] wartime socioeconomic trend was somewhat ironic, given the reduction in the supply of civilian goods: rapid increases in many Americans' personal incomes. Driven by the federal government's abilities to prevent price inflation and to subsidize high wages through war contracting and by the increase in the size and power of organized labor, incomes rose for virtually all Americans - whites and blacks, men and women, skilled and unskilled.

Despite the focus on military-related production in general and the impact of rationing in particular, spending in many civilian sectors of the economy rose even as the war consumed billions of dollars of output. Hollywood boomed as workers bought movie tickets rather than scarce clothes or unavailable cars. Americans placed more legal wagers in 1943 and 1944, and racetracks made more money than at any time before. In 1942, Americans spent $95 million on legal pharmaceuticals, $20 million more than in 1941. Department-store sales in November 1944 were greater than in any previous month in any year. Black markets for rationed or luxury goods - from meat and chocolate to tires and gasoline - also boomed during the war.

As observers during the war and ever since have recognized, scientific and technological innovations were a key aspect in the American war effort and an important economic factor in the Allies' victory. While all of the major belligerents were able to tap their scientific and technological resources to develop weapons and other tools of war, the American experience was impressive in that scientific and technological change positively affected virtually every facet of the war economy. . .

Aerospace provides one crucial example. American heavy bombers, like the B-29 Superfortress, were highly sophisticated weapons which could not have existed, much less contributed to the air war on Germany and Japan, without innovations such as bombsights, radar, and high-performance engines or advances in aeronautical engineering, metallurgy, and even factory organization.

Encompassing hundreds of thousands of workers, four major factories, and $3 billion in government spending, the B-29 project required almost unprecedented organizational capabilities by the U.S. Army Air Forces, several major private contractors, and labor unions. Overall, American aircraft production was the single largest sector of the war economy, costing $45 billion (almost a quarter of the $183 billion spent on war production), employing a staggering two million workers, and, most importantly, producing over 125,000 aircraft. . .

Between 1939 and 1945, the hundred merchant shipyards overseen by the U.S. Maritime Commission produced 5,777 ships at a cost of about $13 billion. Four key innovations facilitated this enormous wartime output. First, the commission itself allowed the federal government to direct the merchant shipbuilding industry. Second, the commission funded entrepreneurs, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser chief among them, who had never before built ships and who were eager to use mass-production methods in the shipyards. These methods, including the substitution of welding for riveting and the addition of hundreds of thousands of women and minorities to the formerly all-white and all-male shipyard workforces, were a third crucial innovation. Last, the commission facilitated mass production by choosing to build many standardized vessels like the ugly, slow, and ubiquitous "Liberty" ship. By adapting well-known manufacturing techniques and emphasizing easily-made ships, merchant shipbuilding became a low-tech counterexample to the atomic-bomb project and the aerospace industry, yet also a sector which was spectacularly successful. . .

Reconversion spurred the second major restructuring of the American workplace in five years, as returning servicemen flooded back into the workforce and many war workers left, either voluntarily or involuntarily. . .

Servicemen obtained numerous other economic benefits beyond their jobs, including educational assistance from the federal government and guaranteed mortgages and small-business loans via the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 or "G.I. Bill." Former servicemen thus became a vast and advantaged class of citizens which demanded, among other goods, inexpensive, often suburban housing; vocational training and college educations; and private cars which had been unobtainable during the war. . .

The U.S. emerged from the war not physically unscathed, but economically strengthened by wartime industrial expansion, which placed the United States at absolute and relative advantage over both its allies and its enemies.

In brief, as economic historian Alan Milward writes, "the United States emerged in 1945 in an incomparably stronger position economically than in 1941". . .
Will we be able to say something similar four years from now? We might if we shifted automobile production to trains and ecological products just as Walter Reuther got plants to shift to planes or as Budd shifted from building Dodge parts to building railroad cars before World War I. We might if we treated the environmental crisis with the same seriousness was we did WWII. Or if we were willing to use this time to build an exciting, imaginative future rather than just rebuilding freeways we shouldn't really be using anyway.

It clearly happened during the Roosevelt years. In a non-economic sense, it also happened during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society when more good legislation was passed in less time than at any other point in American history.

But it's not happening now, despite all the talk about hope and change, and it won't happen unless we honor innovation, imagination, creativity, reasonable risk and possibility more than we do today - the sort of values that built America until we decided being smart didn't have to include them anymore.