June 26, 2010


Sam Smith

There is no reason not to be angry with BP and its CEO Tony Hayward, but contrary to most news reports, the oil spill is far from the greatest catastrophe of the moment. It is vastly outweighed by an economic spill that will kill far more people, destroy far more of their jobs, and leave far more businesses in a desperate condition.

Yet, unlike the oil spill, we have few villains for the economic collapse, little talk of criminal investigation, and little sense that it was instigated by the same sort of greed, carelessness and arrogance that is now ruining the Gulf of Mexico.

Instead, the same media that helped enable the fiscal crisis through its sycophantic coverage of a rightwing economic revolution is now treating the problem almost as if it were an act of God, rather than of its advertisers and most favored sources. The Financial Times recently even ran a headline – “Praise for tough and austere measures” – as if making ordinary folk suffer for the rapacious indulgences of the rich was a noble cause.

While there is no single figure as prominent as Tony Hayward, there is a long list of economists, politicians, columnists, business schools and other powerful voices whose advice and encouragement directly led us to this disaster. You won’t read about it, however, because the very media that helped cause the problem is now directing your attention away from its causes.

With a few exceptions like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman, the major media has been devoid of voices saying the obvious: an economic policy that increasingly feeds the rich at the expense of everyone else can lead to nothing but trouble. Call it the free market or whatever other cute name you want, but at its heart it was a vicious con perpetrated against the majority of America.

The evidence is endless and endlessly ignored but here are a few examples:

- Percent of workers with defined benefits pension plan down 50% since mid 1980s

- According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the gap in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and Taken together with prior research, the new data suggest greater income concentration at the top of the income scale than at any time since 1928. Here’s what the change looks like:

- In 1950 the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's was about 30 to 1. Since 2000 that average has ranged from 300 to 500 to one.

- According to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two-thirds of income increases between 2002 and 2007 went to the wealthiest 1% of society, a higher share of income than at any time since 1928.

This is not economic theory put into practice but state sponsored robbery. So when you complain about Tony Hayward, save a little time for all those economists, columnists and politicians who told you to just let the free market be and it would all work out fine.

June 18, 2010


Sam Smith - The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote a column in the Washington Post that would have made her a prime candidate for psychotherapy had she been talking about alcohol or sexual problems. Fortunately, she was just writing about Obama and how "progressives" were not really opposed to him: "What's happening on the left isn't the equivalent of the anti-incumbent anger on the right. Most progressives support Obama and want his agenda to succeed."

Leaving aside the distortion of the term progressives - properly applied to those tired of liberals in denial - the claim raises some precise questions that vanden Heuvel never addressed. For example, do her "progressives" support:

- The war in Afghanistan?

- The continued use of Gitmo and similar facilities?

- The continuation of unconstitutional practices in wiretapping?

- The harassment of government whistleblowers?

- The corporate-driven war against public education?

- The bailout of huge banks while foreclosure-threatened homeowners are left to fester?

- Increased funding for war on drugs?

- Obama's plans offshore drilling?

- His handling of BP crisis?

- The support Israeli apartheid and occupation of Palestine?

- Obama's plans to undermine the Miranda ruling?

- The extension of the Patriot Act?

- Obama's attempt to wrest more budgetary control from Congress?

- A commission designed to cut Social Security and Medicare?

- Plans to turn public housing over to corporate slumlords?

In fact, true progressives oppose all the above and as a result do not want Obama's agenda on these points to succeed. Vanden Heuvel best go back to calling herself a liberal, because for them, it’s an agenda, sadly, they can live with.

June 16, 2010


Sam Smith - The establishment is struggling to gain metaphorical control over the BP oil spill. It feels entitled to control metaphors just as much as it does oil drilling policy and doesn't it like when the non-establishment comes up with its own. Thus Chris Matthews goes berserk when anyone refers to the present government as a "regime" and others get hysterical when someone calls something 'fascistic" or "Nazi-like." Curiously, these are the same establishment people who regularly refer to critics as "conspiracy theorists" or "wing nuts."

As a writer, I like metaphors even if I'm never quite sure when they stop and similes pick up. I don't even mind people who dislike metaphors, such as Jack Nicholson, who said once, "People who speak in metaphors should shampoo my crotch."

But what I don't like is the elite using bad metaphors. For example, even Eugene Robinson, in an otherwise fine column on the oil crisis, fell for the "war" image, arguing, along with Obama and many others, that we need to treat the BP spill as we would a military battle.

In fact, wars are carried out in the name of virtue but almost inevitably leave both sides in worst shape than when they started. Wars destroy the environment, kill large numbers of people, and take decades to recover from. The last thing we need in the Gulf right now is a war.

A happier allusion would be to a serious medical operation. The first task is to get the patient in good enough shape so that long term recovery can take place. And, along the way, you want to avoid something called iatrogenic medicine, where the cure does the patient harm.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of a war, and a far better way to think about the oil spill.

Unfortunately, our political and media elite are infatuated with the military - even if they were never part of it. And for men in power, the metaphor has a comforting masculine ring to it. (Having you ever wondered why there is not a psychiatric term for those who become sexually aroused at the thought of sending others to their death in battle?)

If, in fact, we were to send our military into the Gulf like we sent it into Iraq, things would soon be ten times worse than they are right now.

And you may not need a metaphor at all. After all, the BP disaster is what we will be using as a metaphor in endless commentaries and political campaigns well into the future.

As for me, when I see stories about the disaster, it reminds me of that great oil spill back in April 2010. Remember that one? Sadly, it looks like there's a metaphor that will hold up for some time yet.

June 08, 2010


Sam Smith

In trying to figure out why so many people think Barack Obama is a socialist, it finally occurred to me that it wasn't a matter of politics or ideology at all, but one of class and culture.

Because of the way Americans have been raised - in school, in the media and in the barroom - they have come to think that there is only one type of governmental cloud that can descend and ruin their day. To them, Hitler was the only fascist ever made, communists are so 1950s, the excesses of conservatism are hardly noticed, and no one’s ever heard of corporatism. What’s left is socialism.

By any logical standard, Obama has hardly a socialist bone in his body but we don’t live in a time when logic owns definitions. Still, if one accepts that many feel something is going on that is intrusive, indecipherable, and uncomfortable, then it is the discomfort rather than the misnomer that should be examined. And politics may have surprisingly little to do with it.

For example, we live in a time of class disparity unlike any in recent history. A few examples:

- Income inequality is at an all time high

- Since 1980, the richest Americans have seen their incomes quadruple, while for the "lowest" 90% of America, incomes fell.

- The average real wage is lower today than it was in the 1970s.

- In 1950 the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's was about 30 to 1. Since 2000 that average has ranged from 300 to 500 to one.

- Between 1978 and 2008, almost 35% of America's total income growth went to the top one-tenth of one percent.

- From 1990 to 2008, middle class incomes rose just 20%, and most of that happened in the 1990s. Since then, income has stagnated for people in the middle, yet home prices shot up 56%, college costs 60%. As for health care, it's up 155%.

- Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.

- Percent of workers with defined benefits pension plan is down 50% since mid 1980s

- Long term unemployment rate is the highest since 1948.

- In 1983 middle class debt held at 67% of income. By 2007, middle class debt had gone over the falls to 157% of income.

-Personal bankruptcies are up 400% since the 1980s

Bad as these conditions are, they are exacerbated by ineffective action to deal with them by our elected leaders and seemingly only a passing interest by these leaders and the media.

To them an oil spill or a war is just far more interesting to worry about. But terrible as either may be, they don’t immediately and directly affect the average American the way economic factors do.

Imagine, if all the cable coverage we've had of the oil spill had been given to the mile deep, hidden malfunctions of our economy.

But this won't happen because the top controls the media as well as our politics.

And it's not just about economics. For example, only about nine percent of our population has been to graduate school, yet it is this segment of the population that is increasingly controlling our policy choices. Similarly nearly half of Congress is composed of lawyers, which these days means, among other things, people who do legal work for corporations.

And both these groups are bipartisan. Just look at the contributors to Barack Obama's election and you'll find that every thing you were taught about the political views of big business is just about as wrong as, say, what an average Tea Party member thinks about socialism.

Or consider the lack of small business people, labor leaders, teachers, or social workers in Congress other political bodies.

It helps, therefore, to jettison - at least temporarily - the ideological and political divisions and look at the matter more anthropologically. Because what really divides the leadership of the country from ordinary citizens is class and culture.

And not necessarily the sort of culture we like to talk about. For example, the election of Obama was buried in an influx of commentary on the ethnic implications. But have you noticed how little this has actually mattered?

Obama has done practically nothing that can be attributed positively or negatively to his ethnicity. It turns out that it was not that he was black that mattered; it was that he was a Harvard Law School graduate steeped in the perspective, biases, arrogance and assumptions of an elite subculture that has an increasingly difficult time relating to those not of their class.

This is not to say it has to be like that. FDR and JFK showed otherwise. Of course, FDR lived in a smaller, less economically segregated America and JFK was a war hero.

Even Bill Clinton, who went to Yale and Oxford, was save by an Arkansas accent, which helped him until he lied and got laid once too often. It may also be one reason no one noticed that 77% of Clinton’s initial cabinet were millionaires, beating out both Reagan and Bush in this category. And that one third of his top appointments came from Harvard and Yale.

Obama has continued this strange new Democratic Party tradition. The Washington Post reported that 22 of his first 35 appointments had "a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford or Cambridge. Since then, Obama has appointed a Harvard alumnus as education secretary, a Nobel-prize winning Stanford physicist as energy secretary, and a handful of Harvard law school classmates."
Further, his appointment of Elena Kagan insures that Harvard will retain a super majority on the Supreme Court.

Increasingly, the people running our country act as though they belong to a private club. The Washington media, of course, doesn't mention this, because it belongs to the same club (albeit on probation depending on what it writes) So only occasionally is there a true glimpse of what is going on.

For example, Lorraine Adams, a onetime Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post, left the paper and became a novelist. In her latest book she has a character modeled on Bob Woodward. Asked on a PBS program to elaborate, Adams said:

"I think if you're a student of American journalism, Bob Woodward is an undeniably potent figure. . . . I think he practices access journalism, which is different from what I did at the Post.

"[I] would talk to the people who have no power and who are affected by the people in power, and that gives a much more useful picture of the way policy affects the human soul. Woodward, who started as a reporter who did that, who knocked on doors and talked to people on the ground, became a celebrity. In becoming a celebrity, he invariably saw it as a much better deal for him, in terms of making money, to talk to other celebrities inside Washington: presidents, their chiefs of staff, vice presidents, their chiefs of staff.

"We have learned that Deep Throat was an FBI official, not an agent, an official. He was on, what we call the 7th Floor. I think Woodward's capitulation to interviewing people in limousines, as opposed to people on the subway, is something I feel is partly responsible for the fact that we ended up in Iraq. Because so many reporters, Judith Miller is the most egregious of them, spoke to Scooter Libby and some other higher officials, and never spoke to intelligence people on the ground. They swallowed wholesale Colin Powell at the U.N., and [ultimately] their limousine reporting meant that 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives."

The assumption of the capital club class is that ordinary Americans will buy into limousine politics and limousine reporting. But they don't. They may not understand it, they may mistakenly call it socialism, and they may not have the slightest idea what to do about it, but they recognize the gap between their lives and what is going on in Washington. And it makes them mad.

In another era, a populist progressive movement might have gathered up that anger and put it to good use for a social revolution or two. But the potential for such a movement these days has been emasculated by a horde of indentured liberals willing to line up behind anyone who calls themselves a Democrat. And as they do so, their beloved president of the moment - a Clinton or Obama - moves the country further to the right with impunity, even as an increasingly angry populace becomes an ever greater market for the real right.

All of which is not helped in the slightest when a president - hailed as eloquent - can't even get the public to feel his pain over the oil spill. Imagine a White House news briefing exchange like the following - only with a FDR, Harry Truman, JFK or LBJ - and you can sense the problem:

Chip Reid, CBS: You said earlier that the President is enraged. Is he enraged at BP specifically?

Press secretary Robert Gibbs: I think he's enraged at the time that it's taken, yes. I think he's been enraged over the course of this, as I've discussed, about the fact that when you're told something is fail-safe and it clearly isn't, that that's the cause for quite a bit of frustration. . . Which is one of the reasons you heard him discuss the setting up of the oil commission in order to create a regulatory framework that ensures something like this doesn't happen again.

Reid: Frustration and rage are very different emotions, though. . . . Have we really seen rage from the President on this? I think most people would say no.

Gibbs: I've seen rage from him, Chip. I have.

Reid: Can you describe it? Does he yell and scream? What does he do? (Laughter.)

Gibbs: He said. . . he has been in a whole bunch of different meetings. . . clenched jaw. . . even in the midst of these briefings, saying everything has to be done. I think this was an anecdote shared last week, to plug the damn hole.

Again, what we face is not an ideological problem, but a class and cultural one; a president so practiced at self-protective reserve that he can't get cross when he needs to. By trying so hard to act intelligent and measured, he ends up seeming distant and a bit dumb.

But the problem extends far beyond speech and manners. For example, the techniques of traditional politics are fading, largely replaced by what is presumed to be good public relations, although often seeming like just one more bad cable TV news clip.

I was reminded of this when Obama recently went to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans. My first reaction - thinking politics rather than PR - was, "Uh oh, this isn't going to go well."

Turns out, I guessed right, as the Chicago Tribune explained later:

"One angry Republican accused Obama of treating members of the opposition like political props, saying the president's bipartisan words have repeatedly been followed by partisan deeds on such issues as regulation of Wall Street, healthcare and economic stimulus.

"'I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him showing up today,' said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who accused the administration of sabotaging efforts to write a bipartisan Wall Street bill. 'I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity.'

"Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Obama's response to the GOP criticism showed he was so 'thin-skinned' that he should 'take a Valium' before he comes to talk to Republicans again."

Real politicians would have seen it coming. But because the PR ethos has so overwhelmed politics, real politics is pushed aside in favor of easy to puncture performances.

Lyndon Johnson would have had Bob Corker and Pat Roberts over for drinks, given them the pork they were looking for, and you wouldn't have even read about it until the next volume of Robert Caro's biography came out.

But the public relationists of today's politics get so wrapped up in sending a clever message that they completely forget the other side gets to speak into the microphone as well.


The capital club class also works on a restricted set of assumptions on how to best get something done, assumptions that involve an overwhelming reliance on centralized decision-making, endless review, public messages, and data that spews itself over the capital as from an uncapped well head.

Thus the sense you often get is that people who should be leading are behaving more in the manner of someone writing a college thesis or appearing on a CPAN panel; they explain, analyze and calculate; they just don't know quite what to do.

And here is where socialism raises its head again. It is part of the popular belief that socialism is, if not a dictatorship, a system run tightly from the top. There is no sharing of power, no decentralization of authority, no letting difference places do things their own way.

This is not an accurate description of socialism, but it is, I think, a fair description of much popular thought on the subject.

Thus the irony of a small group of corporate-sponsored politicians, devoid of any real ideology other than the maintenance of their own power, becoming regarded in popular culture as mean and nasty Marxists.

Obama has produced a series of overly complex, almost indecipherable pieces of legislation that share an additional common trait: extraordinary centralized control by his administration. Worse, perhaps, some of this legislation will clearly result in ordinary citizens having to fill out more forms, go through more procedures, and feel rationally confused about this or that.

Right now, for example, small businesses and small non-profits are facing significant additional tax reporting requirements.

The health bill includes an ungodly aggregation of uncertainties and new obstacles to doing things simply.

The stimulus package had so many restrictions that the paperwork alone would have prevented a reiteration of New Deal public works efforts.

Further, the Obama administration has been clearly unwilling to share power on these matters. It even wants to restrict Congress' budget power by a back door approach to the line item veto.

But perhaps more importantly, there is no sense that Obama and his staff have any feel for the fact that governors and mayors are part of our government as well and that if he wants to look good, they have to look good, which means sharing power. This doesn't even have to be a matter of honor, just good politics.

In public education, he is working to eliminate the whole two century tradition of local control over public schools. Underlying a lot of this is the assumption that people like the Obamites know best how to do things. After all, they have fine law degrees and MBAs from some of the best universities.

And so we find FEMA coming close to causing a disaster on the Portland Maine waterfront by declaring it a flood zone on which no further major construction could ever take place. It wasn't true, but it took not only the Maine congressional delegation but the Portland fire chief coming down to Washington to explain to FEMA that they didn't now what the hell they were talking about.

And while Obama represents these values, he is far from alone. The Supreme Court recently decided a case desribed by Time's Adam Cohen:

"Van Thompkins, a criminal suspect, was not interested in talking to the police, and he never affirmatively waived his right to remain silent. But the court ruled that by not saying clearly that he was exercising his right to remain silent, he in fact forfeited the right - and that a one-word answer he gave late in the questioning could be used against him.

"The ruling flies in the face of the court's long-standing insistence that a suspect can waive his rights only by affirmatively doing so."

Now, mind you, this was a 5-4 decision of the court. This means that the average purported perp without even a GED has to know a bizarre ruling that silence only matters if you first say you're being silent and also has to choose which of the Harvard Law grads on the court to believe on the topic. You don't get more culturally out of touch than that.


Finally, the oil spill story still has too many loose ends to analyze fairly, but what we do know is that local talent and judgment, and alternative approaches, have been squashed in favor of a one big solution (actually a series of one big solution) which has yet to come

A problem with people with fine law degrees and MBAs from some of the best universities is that they are unlikely to know squat about oil spills.

Of course, there's at least a partial solution to this: find out who does. This might be called the reporter's approach to life. A good reporter wakes up in the morning not knowing a thing about Topic X, but by the end of the day or week will have found a whole bunch of people who do. Essential to this, however, is first admitting that you don't know a thing about Topic X.

The problem is that those in the capital club class don't think like this. They see themselves and their friends as the best source of knowledge.

Which may be why you heard so much of late about the "Nobel Prize winning Energy Secretary," Mr. Chu.

If you've got a Nobel Prize winner, what more do you need? But as Eugene Robinson pointed out the other evening on MSNBC, Chu didn't get his prize in ending oil spills but in the "development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light."

Much of the public sees the Obama administration as arrogant, power-hoggng and indifferent ot the concerns of the ordinary citizen. A strong case can be made that this is true. This, of course, doesn't make Obama a socialist, but the misappropriation and misuse of power is a far great offense than a mundane misnomer. Besides, whatever you call it, it's not helping the Democrats or the country one bit.

June 07, 2010


Sam Smith - The departure of Helen Thomas leaves me as one of the last of those who covered Eisenhower news conferences who is still active in the journalism trade. I will miss her as she was a lonely figure who still remembered how reporters were meant to represent their readers and viewers and not those they were interviewing.

One of the differences between Helen Thomas and myself is that she ended her career for having said something that was not considered appropriate, whereas I have spent my entire career saying things that are not appropriate. This tends to make you more tolerant of the inappropriate, even when you don't agree with it.

Thomas' solution for the Israeli-Palestine problem, while steeped in justified anger, reflects the dangers of trying to recompose history. After all, if her approach were valid, then her family should have been sent back to Lebanon and her home state of Kentucky should be given back to the Indians so they wouldn't have to live in Gaza strips we call reservations.

Much of the seemingly most insoluble problems of the world are based on unsettled ancient anger. Depending on which century or saga one wishes to cite, one can make whatever case one wants. The Israelis remember the Holocaust; Helen Thomas no doubt remembers the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The Israelis can recount ancient wrongs; the Palestinians need only go back one week to the nine dead in the supply flotilla.

But with few exceptions - such as the much maligned Jimmy Carter - America's leadership has taken one side in all this and, in the process, has helped to make matters much worse. It now finds itself threatened by radical Muslims - in part motivated by anti-Israeli anger - who have trapped the U.S. in Afghanistan in a near hopeless military dead end and economic disaster.

Behind the excoriation of Helen Thomas is not an American desire for fairness, but an extraordinarily expensive and masochistic commitment to the almost suicidal policies of the current Israeli government.

The fact that her words caused such a furor merely affirms how little America - and its leaders - are willing to deal fairly with the issue. One need only compare the elite reaction to Thomas to the criminal assault on the flotilla to see how lopsided this all is.

It has long been striking how little people are willing to talk about contemporary, rather than historic, problems in the Mid East - problems such as the lack of water and the growing Arab population in Israel. These are hidden subtexts in the debate, but that doesn't mean they disappear.

For example, how much longer can Israel remain a segregated Jewish state? They might want to check out the American experience in this regard; after all the percentage of Arabs in Israel is greater than that of blacks in the U.S.

In 2000 retired Israeli High Court Justice Theodor Or wrote a report in which he stated:

"The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they experience discrimination as Arabs. This inequality has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents. Although the Jewish majority’s awareness of this discrimination is often quite low, it plays a central role in the sensibilities and attitudes of Arab citizens. This discrimination is widely accepted, both within the Arab sector and outside it, and by official assessments, as a chief cause of agitation."

Nature takes its course and sooner or later the Israelis may discover that their real enemy was not the Arabs but time - time that inevitably will run out for their purified culture, just as it did for white Americans.

The sad thing is all the time that has been wasted that could have been used to deal sensibly with the problem instead of just slapping down the endless stream of Palestinians and Helen Thomas' of the world and then saying, well, we took care of that.

The techniques for backing off of such madness are complex and not respected. When was the last time you saw a peace expert on CNN or MSNBC?

But they are well worth it. The Strategic Foresight Group has estimated that the lost opportunities caused by conflict in the Middle East from 1991 to 2010 have cost $12 trillion - and a trillion of that at Israel's expense. Their report figures that if there had been peace since 1991, the average Israeli would be earning almost twice as much as under present cultural values and policies.

The World Trade Center attack and other incidents owe a part of their roots to our mishandling of the Middle East conflict. Our collapsing political status in the world and our economic problems are other penalties partially due to our one-sided treatment of this conflict.

We can either let these trends grow and perhaps collapse under the weight of our own self-righteous futility or we can admit the decades-long failure of our approach and try to make some peace and common sense instead.