HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 30, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Economic Facts

David Brooks ends his column in the New York Times today with the stirring adage: "in the long run, facts matter." He is attempting to persuade us that the U.S. economy is essentially healthy and that criticisms about the growing gap between the wealthy and everybody else are simplifications which don’t begin to address what’s really happening.

He bases his conclusions on what he chooses to call the economic facts.

He doesn’t bother to tell you that what economists call facts are a highly artificial definition of that seemingly straight-forward term, and one that doesn’t take into account what functions as fact in the lives of ordinary people.

In the measurement system of economists, growth is anything that generates dollars, and for economists growth is good. It doesn’t matter what the underlying activity is. In the mind of an economist, if a nation could capture and enhance the global cigarette market, and thereby generate billions of dollars, that would be a great thing, even thought the actual economic activity would be spreading poison all around the world. In fact, the treatment of cancers caused by those cigarettes, is also generating dollars, which add to economic growth. Whoopee!

In the value scheme of men like Brooks and the dispensers of Republican philosophy there is no concern for the human quality of an economic activity. It can be murderous and still be cheered on because the cranking out of dollars is the only thing that matters. Maybe that involves a certain sort of factuality but it’s not one to offer much consolation to people who see the quality of their lives degenerating. There have been reports recently that within a decade a majority of the adults in the United States will be obese. Making them fat generates billions of dollars also, but it takes a peculiar notion of betterment to see their fatness as a great advance.

If Mr. Brooks is really concerned with facts he might want to shift his attention to what’s actually happening and moderate his fascination with the statistics  by which economists spin out their restricted vision of what it is that gives meaning to human life.


Family Wisdom

Maureen Dowd has an amusing column today about how even her right-wing siblings are beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of George W. Bush. I understand, at least partially, how she feels because I too have quite a few relatives who were supporters of the Great Decider. I’m not sure whether their admiration remains as avid as it once was because I haven’t talked with them about him over the past eighteen months.

I confess, though, that I doubt many of them have fallen away from the true faith. That’s because their support has been based not on a mistaken reading of Bush and his cronies but rather because they know exactly who he is, and they like him for it.

We are in error if we think the core of modern Republican loyalty has been garnered through manipulation. The people I know who admire Bush have not been duped -- at least no more than they want to be duped. Instead, they like him because he actually wants the kind of country they want.

Those of us who find that sort of country detestable shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that a revelation of Bush’s genuine character will win virtually everyone to our side. It won’t.

On the key issue of respect and cooperation with the rest of the world, the genuine Bushites love the president because they know he cares nothing for international amity. They don’t either.  They want the United States to be a nation that scorns other parts of the world. They are genuinely like the TV character who goes around proclaiming, “God bless America, and no place else!” They can’t imagine why God would have any concern for foreigners and they believe that in the mind of the deity, all persons not born in the USA are foreigners. If you find that hard to believe, that’s because you haven’t hung out in the right filling stations at the right crossroads in what the mainstream media love to call the “Heartland.”

You can go down the list of quarrels Bush’s critics have with him -- protection of the environment, respect for scientific knowledge, over-reliance on military force, a cavalier attitude toward civil rights, the use of torture and incarceration with no hint of habeas corpus, the assumption that we know, exactly, who God is and we have not a sliver of doubt that he’s always on our side, a dismissive stance towards the idea that the public has a right to know what its government is doing. On every one of these issues, I have members of my extended family who are completely on Bush’s side and can’t imagine that he has ever done anything wrong.

Does this mean they are bad, or stupid people? Not necessarily. It just means they want to live in a country that’s markedly different from the one I want. And if you think they’re going to change their preferences any time soon, you are seriously naïve.


Perpetual Mystery

The death of Pat Tillman in the spring of 2004 appears to be a case that can never die. I would be willing to bet that questions of how he died, who killed him, and why, will never be settled definitively. And for that reason conspiracy theories will mushroom.

We now have evidence that the medical pathologists who examined his body suspected that he was murdered, and asked for further investigation. But, of course, no investigation occurred. Every incident of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had to be used to bolster nationalistic propaganda about the glories of U.S. military action, and the death of a famous athlete was too tempting to be surrendered to the truth. He had to be turned into a great hero dying in a confrontation with the enemies of his country.

I guess one could argue that the death of a single soldier is not a stupendous issue, but as an action representative of who we are and how our armed forces behave it is a significant event. It shows that our government is convinced it has to keep the truth about the nature of war from the public. War must be presented as something heroic rather than being ghastly and, quite often, crude and degrading. If war were depicted as it actually is, it would be hard to raise political support for it. And we now have a political class determined to use war frequently. But since they have found propagandistic devices for masking what war actually is, they don’t have to explain to us why they are as eager to engage in it as they are.

Incidents like the killing of Pat Tillman punch holes in the nationalistic myth, and if there should be a full-scale revelation, the hole might become a considerable tear. But it’s likely that the government will find ways to keep that from happening.


Bang for the Buck

Here’s how it goes. The United States has decided to sell Saudi Arabia and its small neighbors $20 billion worth of arms. But in order to offset worries that these weapons might threaten Israel, we’re going to sell the Israelis $30 billion worth, which is about $10 billion more than we had previously intended. But none of this, of course, is designed to initiate an arms race. We’re just trying to counter the influence of Iran in the Middle East.

This fifty billion will be added to our other international arms sales. Supplying  foreign nations with instruments to kill people is the principal way the United States helps the world population. And, besides, it’s big business. It creates lots of jobs.

I suppose all this should be making my heart beat with pride but for some reason I can’t shake the thought that the people conducting U.S. foreign policy are insane. And when I employ that term I’m not using it figuratively.

If a major conflagration does break out in the Middle East, we can sit back confident that it’s bigger and more bloody because of our assistance. And, who knows? It might make us enough money to balance the radical increase in gas prices.


Too Much for Attention

A major advantage in running an administration as rotten as George W. Bush’s is that there are so many abominations no one of them can receive the public attention it deserves. A good example is the case of Richard H. Carmona, outgoing surgeon general, whose medical reports were suppressed because Bush’s political appointees didn’t think they were favorable enough to the president.

The Washington Post has just published an important article by Christopher Lee and Marc Kaufman about William R. Steiger, a Health and Human Services official who refused to release Carmona’s report on how the United States could cooperate with other nations in improving global health. Steiger, who has no scientific or medical background, said his refusal had nothing to do with politics but was based on sloppy work and poor analysis. How would he know? His excuse is ridiculous and falls in line with other Republican claims that the party hasn’t been playing politics with public welfare issues when, obviously, it has.

Steiger, who is a godson of President George H.W. Bush, has now been nominated to be the United States ambassador to Mozambique. I hope the Senate will question him carefully about his tenure at Health and Human Services and, then, shoot down, the nomination. But even if they do, it won’t draw much journalistic attention because there will be something even more horrendous to report on the day he fails to get approval.


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