also depressing. Pray the apolcalypse is not upon us. How could any
administration possibly be this bad?
Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2006 8:43:56 PM Eastern Standard Time
Subject: Kevin Phillips, Keillor, Ivins, Conason on Bush Policies
Decline and fall
Kevin Phillips, no lefty, says that America -- addicted to oil, strangled by debt and maniacally religious -- is headed for doom.
By Michelle Goldberg
Mar. 16, 2006 | In 1984, the renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Barbara Tuchman published "The March of Folly," a book about how, over and over again, great powers undermine and sabotage themselves. She documented the perverse self-destructiveness of empires that clung to deceptive ideologies in the face of contrary evidence, that spent carelessly and profligately, and that obstinately refused to change course even when impending disaster was obvious to those willing to see it. Such recurrent self-deception, she wrote, "is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: 'No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.'"
Though the last case study in "The March of Folly" was about America's war in Vietnam, Tuchman argued that the brilliance of the United States Constitution had thus far protected the country from the traumatic upheavals faced by most other nations. "For two centuries, the American arrangement has always managed to right itself under pressure without discarding the system and trying another after every crisis, as have Italy and Germany, France and Spain," she wrote. Then she suggested such protection could soon give way: "Under accelerating incompetence in America, this may change. Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable, or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size as in the United States during its period of expansion. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable."
For all her prescience, it seems likely that Tuchman, who died in 1989, would have been stunned by the Brobdingnagian dimensions of American folly during the last six years. Just over 20 years after she wrote about the Constitution's miraculous endurance, it's hard to figure out how much of the democratic republic created by our founders still exists, and how long what's left will last. The country (along with the world) is in terrible trouble, though the extent of that trouble is both so sprawling and multifaceted that it's hard to get a hold on.
It's not just that America is being ruled by small and venal men, or that its reputation has been demolished, its army overstretched, its finances a mess. All of that, after all, was true toward the end of Vietnam as well. Now, though, there are all kinds of other lurking catastrophes, a whole armory of swords of Damocles dangling over a bloated, dispirited and anxious country.
Peak oil -- the point at which oil production maxes out -- seems to be approaching, with disastrous consequences for America's economy and infrastructure. Global warming is accelerating and could bring us many more storms even worse than Katrina, among other meteorological nightmares. The spread of Avian Flu has Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, warning Americans to stockpile canned tuna and powdered milk. It looks like Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon, and the United States can't do anything to stop it. Meanwhile, America's growing religious fanaticism has brought about a generalized retreat from rationality, so that the country is becoming unwilling and perhaps unable to formulate policies based on fact rather than faith.
At any time, of course, one can catalog apocalyptic portents and declare that the end is nigh. Obviously, things in America have been bad before -- there has been civil war, depression, global conflagrations. The country seems to have exhausted its ability to elect decent leaders, but some savior could appear before 2008. One doesn't want to be hysterical or give in to rampaging pessimism. Books about America's decline in the face of an ascendant Japan filled the shelves in the 1980s, and a decade later, the country was at the height of power and prosperity.
Yet just because America has endured in the past does not mean it will in the future. Thus figuring out exactly how much danger we're in is difficult. Are things really as dire as they seem, or are anxiety and despair just part of the cultural moment, destined to be as ephemeral as the sunny mastery and flush good times of the Clinton years? It's human nature to believe that things will continue as they usually have, and that we'll once again somehow stumble intact through our looming crises. At the same time, it's hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which the country regains its equilibrium without first going through major convulsions.
So how scared should we be?
Kevin Phillips' grim new book, "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century," puts the country's degeneration into historical perspective, and that perspective is not conducive to optimism. The title is a bit misleading, because only the middle section of the book, which is divided into thirds, deals with the religious right. The first part, "Oil and American Supremacy," is about America's prospects as oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, and the last third, "Borrowed Prosperity," is about America's unsustainable debt. Phillips' argument is that imperial overstretch, dependence on obsolete energy technologies, intolerant and irrational religious fervor, and crushing debt have led to the fall of previous great powers, and will likely lead to the fall of this one. It reads, in some ways, like a follow-up to "The March of Folly."
"Conservative true believers will scoff: the United States is sue generis, they say, a unique and chosen nation," writes Phillips. "What did or did not happen to Rome, imperial Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Britain is irrelevant. The catch here, alas, is that these nations also thought they were unique and that God was on their side. The revelation that He was apparently not added a further debilitating note to the later stages of each national decline."
There's a sad irony to the fact that Phillips has come to write this book. His 1969 book, "The Emerging Republican Majority," both predicted and celebrated Republican hegemony. As chief elections and voting patterns analyst for the 1968 Nixon campaign, he is often credited for the Southern strategy that led to the realignment of the Republican Party toward Sun Belt social conservatives. Today's governing Republican coalition is partly his Frankenstein.
Phillips has been disassociating himself from the contemporary GOP for some time now -- his last book, "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," attacked the presidential clan as a corrupt threat to American democracy. His concern with the growing power of religious fundamentalism was evident then. As he wrote in the introduction, "Part of what restored the Bushes to the White House in 2000 through a southern-dominated electoral coalition was the emergence of George W. Bush during the 1990s as a born-again favorite of conservative Christian evangelical and fundamentalist voters. His 2001-2004 policies and rhetoric confirmed that bond. The idea that the head of the Religious Right and the President of the United States can be the same person is a precedent-shattering circumstance that had barely crept into national political discussion."
Since then, there's been much more attention paid to the role of evangelical Christians in the Republican Party. In "American Theocracy," though, Phillips brings something important to the discussion -- a global historical perspective on the relationship between growing religious zeal and the end of national greatness. "[T]he precedents of past leading world economic powers show that blind faith and religious excesses -- the rapture seems to be both -- have often contributed to national decline, sometimes even being in its forefront."
To tell the story of the impending end of American supremacy, Phillips ranges through history and across subjects, going into detail about seemingly tangential matters like the production of whale oil in 17th century Holland. It can be a slog -- Phillips is sometimes a dry writer who builds his arguments by slapping down numbers and statistics like a bricklayer. (At least he's self-aware -- at one point in his section on religion, he notes, "By this point the reader may feel baptized by statistical and denominational total immersion.") Much of what he writes in individual chapters has been covered elsewhere in numerous books about peak oil, the religious right and economic profligacy.
But Phillips' book is very valuable in the way he brings all the strands together and puts them in context. He has a history of good judgment that affords him the authority to make big-picture claims: In 1993, the New York Times Book Review wrote of him, "through more than 25 years of analysis and predictions, nobody has been as transcendentally right about the outlines of American political change as Kevin Phillips." Other recent books foresee American meltdown; James Howard Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" deals with some of the same gathering threats as "American Theocracy." Kunstler is a far more engaging writer than Phillips, but he's also more prone to doomsday speculation, and he sometimes seems to relish the apocalyptic scenario he conjures. It's Phillips' sobriety and gravitas that gives "American Theocracy" ballast, and that makes it frightening.
The first section, "Oil and American Supremacy," covers the history of oil in American politics, both foreign and domestic, and what it means for America when oil starts running out. The subject of peak oil has been extensively covered elsewhere, yet it remains on the fringes of much of the political debate in America, despite its massive implications. Essentially, peak oil is the point at which more than half the earth's available oil has been extracted. "After this stage, getting each barrel out requires more pressure, more expense, or both," writes Phillips. "After a while, despite nominal reserves that may be considerable, more energy is required to find and extract a barrel of oil than the barrel itself contains." Before that point comes, scarcity will drive prices to unheard-of levels. If that happens, the entire American way of life -- the car culture, agribusiness, frequent air travel -- will become untenable.
Experts differ about when we might pass the peak, but as Phillips notes, "even relative optimists see it only two or three decades away." Unfortunately, the United States is uniquely unable to grapple with the mere idea of life after cheap gasoline, because the country's entire sprawling infrastructure was built on the assumption that oil would remain plentiful. Writes Phillips, "[B]ecause the twenty-first-century United States has a pervasive oil and gas culture from its own earlier zenith -- with an intact cultural and psychological infrastructure -- it's no surprise that Americans cling to and defend an ingrained fuel habit …The hardening of old attitudes and reaffirmation of the consumption ethic since those years may signal an inability to turn back."
The end of previous empires, Phillips explains, also corresponded with the obsolescence of their dominant energy source. The Netherlands was the "the wind and water hegemon" from 1590 to the 1720s. In the mid-18th century, Britain, harnessing the newly discovered power of coal, became the leading world power, only to be left behind by oil-fueled America. "The evidence is that leading world economic powers, after an energy golden era, lose their magic -- and not by accident," he writes. "The infrastructures created by these unusual, even quirky, successes eventually became economic obstacle courses and inertia-bound burdens."
"American Theocracy's" middle section deals with religion. Once again, the book's value lies not in any new revelations -- Phillips mostly relies on the work of other reporters and analysts -- but in the context provided. In his sweeping overview, he misses some subtleties. He writes, for example, "Opponents of evolution -- successful so far in parts of the South -- are indeed busy trying to ban the teaching of it and textbooks that support it in many northern conservative or politically divided areas." That's not quite true -- Darwin's foes might dream of the day when he's expunged from the schools, but right now, their focus is on having creationism or "intelligent design" taught alongside evolution, not in place of it.
That's a relatively small point, but it's indicative of the rather cursory treatment Phillips gives to the dynamics of the movement he decries. He's much more interested in what it portends -- a kind of soft theocracy that itself is an indication of an empire in decline. What he's talking about is not a Christian version of Iran, but a country ruled by an evangelical party whose electoral machinery is integrated into a network of fundamentalist churches.
Again, the most fascinating part of this section lies in Phillips' comparisons of America with past global powers -- the intolerance of Christian Rome, the militant, expansionist Catholicism of 17th century Spain, the theocratic Calvinism of the mid-18th century Netherlands and the evangelical enthusiasms of Victorian Britain. Toward the end of the Netherlands' worldwide dominance, he writes, "Dutch Reformed pastors called for national renewal and incessantly attacked laziness, prostitution, French fashions, immigrants and homosexuals."
Phillips' final section, about national debt and the increasingly insubstantial nature of the United States economy, follows the model of the rest of the book, offering a summary of others' research on the subject, followed by historical analysis. What concerns Phillips here is not just the country's staggering national debt -- although that concerns him plenty -- but also the shift from a manufacturing to a financial-services economy, which he calls financialization. Instead of making things, Americans increasingly make money by moving money around. Finance, he writes, "fattened during the early 2000s -- this notwithstanding the 2000-2002 collapse of the stock market bubble -- on a feast of low interest enablement, credit-card varietals, exotic mortgages, derivatives, hedge-funded strategies, and structured debt instruments that would have left 1920s scheme meister Charles Ponzi in awe."
Unless the United States proves immune from the economic laws that have heretofore prevailed, this arrangement is unsustainable. As former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker wrote last April in the Washington Post, under the placid surface of the seemingly steady American economy, "there are disturbing trends: huge imbalances, disequilibria, risks -- call them what you will. Altogether the circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember, and I can remember quite a lot. What really concerns me is that there seems to be so little willingness or capacity to do much about it."
Again, as Phillips shows, the historical record provides warnings: "Historically, top world economic powers have found 'financialization' a sign of late-stage debilitation, marked by excessive debt, great disparity between rich and poor, and unfolding economic decline."
Looking at the possible crises facing the country, Phillips writes of the "potential for an incendiary convergence if -- a big if, to be sure -- several of the worry-wart camps prove to be correct … I can't remember anything like this multiplicity of reasonably serious calculations and warnings. It is as if the United States, like the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes's 'One-Hoss Shay,' is about to lose all its wheels at once."
For someone who is profoundly uneasy about America's future right now, there's something perversely comforting about reading this from a figure like Phillips. It suggests that one's enveloping sense of foreboding is based on something more than the psychological stress of living under the Bush kakistocracy. A feeling that the world is falling apart is usually associated with neurosis; now, it's possible that it's a sign of sanity.
But if Phillips is correct, the coming years are going to be ugly for all of us, not just blithe exurbanites with SUVs and floating-rate mortgages. With oil growing scarce and America unable or unwilling to even begin weaning itself away, we could see a future of resource wars that would inflame jihadi terrorism and bankrupt the country, shredding what's left of the social safety net. As Phillips notes, a collapsed economy would leave many debt-ridden Americans as what Democratic leaders have called "modern-day indentured servants," paying back constantly compounding debt with no hope of escape via bankruptcy. The prospect of social breakdown looms. The desperation of New Orleans could end up being a preview.
Desperate economic times are not good for democracy. The Great Depression, which ushered in the New Deal, was an anomaly in this regard. In an Atlantic Monthly article published last summer, the Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman wrote, "American history includes several episodes in which stagnating or declining incomes over an extended period have undermined the nation's tolerance and threatened citizens' freedoms." During the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, when tens of thousands of families lost their land due to a combination of rising interest rates and falling crop prices, the Posse Comitatus, a far-right paramilitary network, made exceptional recruiting inroads. One poll had more than a quarter of Farm Belt respondents blaming "International Jewish bankers" for their region's woes.
The right's ideological infrastructure has only grown stronger since then. Kunstler may not have been exaggerating when he told Salon, "Americans will vote for cornpone Nazis before they will give up their entitlements to a McHouse and a McCar."
Eventually, like Spain, England and the Netherlands, the United States, shorn of imperial fantasy, may evolve into something better than what it is today. But terrible times seem likely to come first -- years of fuel shortages, foreign aggression, millenarian madness and political demagoguery. A Democratic president could stop exacerbating the country's problems and could reconcile with the rest of the world, but it's unclear how much he or she could really turn things around. America's economic and energy foundations are too badly eroded to be restored anytime soon. Besides, redistricting and the overrepresentation of rural states in the Senate mean that the GOP will remain powerful even if a decisive majority of Americans vote against it. Zealous conservatives in Congress and the media will almost certainly mount an assault on any future Democratic president just as they did on Bill Clinton. Governmental deadlock, as opposed to flagrant recklessness and misrule, is probably the best that can be hoped for, at least for the next few years.
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, it was clear to everyone that the United States had suffered a hideous blow, but few had any idea just how bad it was. It didn't occur to most people to wonder whether the country's very core had been seriously damaged; if anything, America had never seemed so united and resolute. Almost five years later, with Bush still in the White House, a whole cavalcade of catastrophes bearing down on us and a lack of political will to address any of them, the scope of Osama bin Laden's triumph is coming sickeningly into focus. He didn't start the country on its march of folly, but he spurred America toward bombastic nationalism, military quagmire and escalating debt, all of which have made its access to the oil controlled by the seething countries of the Middle East ever more precarious. Now the United States is careening down a well-worn road faster than anyone could have imagined.
-- By Michelle Goldberg
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Day of Reckoning For the Current Occupant
by Garrison Keillor
Spring arrived in New York last week for previews, a sunny day with chill in the air, but you could smell mud, and with a little imagination you could sort of smell grass. I put on a gray jacket, instead of black, and went to the opera and saw Verdi's "Luisa Miller," a Republican opera in which love is crushed by the perfidiousness of government. A helpful lesson for these times. I am referring to the Current Occupant.
The Republican Revolution has gone the way of all flesh. It took over Congress and the White House, horns blew, church bells rang, sailors kissed each other, and what happened? The Republicans led us into a reckless foreign war and steered the economy toward receivership and wielded power as if there were no rules. Democrats are accused of having no new ideas, but Republicans are making some of the old ideas look awfully good, such as constitutional checks and balances, fiscal responsibility, and the notion of realism in foreign affairs and taking actions that serve the national interest. What one might call "conservatism."
The head of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, Lt. Gen. William Odom, writes on the Web site NiemanWatchdog.org that he sees clear parallels between Vietnam and Iraq: "The difference lies in the consequences. Vietnam did not have the devastating effects on U.S. power that Iraq is already having." He draws the parallels in three stages and says that staying the course will only make the damage to U.S. power greater. It's a chilling analysis, and one that isn't going to come from the Democratic Party. It's starting to come from Republicans, and they are the ones who must rescue the country from themselves.
I ran into a gray eminence from the Bush I era the other day in an airport, and he said that what most offended him about Bush II is the naked incompetence. "You may disagree with Republicans, but you always had to recognize that they knew what they were doing," he said. "I keep going back to that intelligence memo of August 2001, that said that terrorists had plans to hijack planes and crash them into buildings. The president read it, and he didn't even call a staff meeting to discuss it. That is lack of attention of a high order."
Over the course of time, the Chief Occupant has been cruelly exposed over and over. He sat and was briefed on the danger of a hurricane wiping out a major American city, and without asking a single question, he got up from the table and walked away and resumed his vacation. He played guitar as New Orleans was flooded. It took him four days to realize his responsibility to do something. When the tsunami killed 100,000 people in Southeast Asia, he was on vacation and it took him 72 hours to issue a statement of sympathy.
The Republicans tied their wagon to him and, as a result, their revolution is bankrupt. He has played the terrorism card for all it is worth and campaigned successfully against Adam and Steve and co-opted whole vast flocks of Christians, but he is done now, kaput, out of gas, for one simple reason. He doesn't represent the best that is our country. Not even close.
He openly, brazenly, countenanced crimes of torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram. He engaged in illegal surveillance, authorized the arrest of people without charge and "disappeared" them to foreign jails. And he finagled this war, which, after three years of violence, does not look to be heading toward a happy ending. And now it's up to Republicans to put their country first and call the gentleman to account.
The Current Occupant is smart about handling a political mess. The best strategy is to cut and run and change the subject. You defend the Dubai ports deal in manly terms until you lose a vote in a House committee and then you retreat--actually, you get the Dubai people to do it for you--and that's it, End of Story.
Harriet Miers was fully qualified one day and gone the next. Social Security was going to be overhauled to give us the Ownership Society, and then the stock market went in the toilet and Republicans got nervous, and suddenly it was Never Mind and on to the next new thing.
Let's bring the boys home. Otherwise, let's send this man back to Texas and see what sort of work he is capable of and let him start making a contribution to the world.
Garrison Keillor is an author and the radio host of "A Prairie Home Companion."
© 2006 Chicago Tribune
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Bush, the Statesman
by Molly Ivins
It’s hard to keep up with George W. Bush’s shuttles between internationalism and isolationism. You may recall he first ran for office declaring he was against nation-building and other such effete, peacekeeping efforts. None of that do-gooder, building-a-better-world stuff for him—he couldn’t even be bothered to learn the names of the Grecians and Kosovians.
Until Sept. 11, except for staring deep into Vlad Putin’s ice-blue eyes and concluding the old KGB shark had soul, Bush evinced little interest in foreign affairs.
Then he literally became an internationalist with a vengeance. Absolutely everybody signed up to help go after al-Qaida in Afghanistan—offers of help gushed in. Next came the campaign to bring down Saddam Hussein because he had weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world didn’t think Iraq had much in the way of WMD, or at least felt the United Nations inspectors should be given more time to see if they were there.
The unseemly haste with which Bush pushed toward an unnecessary war alienated many of our closest allies, and the Bush team could not have made their contempt for those allies and the United Nations more clear.
So for a while we were the new imperialists and disdained the rest of the world. We didn’t need anyone—we would go our own way, and good riddance to the United Nations, what a bunch of wusses they were. It was the season of hubris, arrogance and rudeness.
In the ultimate “up yours,” Bush named John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton is a man so undiplomatic, not to mention so anti-U.N., that half the administration was appalled by the idea. These were the days when mental pygmies outside the administration were dismissed as the “reality-based community.” The senior Bush adviser famously quoted by Ron Suskind explained, “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Gosh, that was an exciting time.
Unfortunately, reality uncharitably refused to conform to the Bush administration’s demands—in fact, reality kept blowing up in our faces. In Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, reality turned out to be downright ugly about not obliging our blithe president.
Several months after our invasion of Iraq, it turned out we had actually invaded in order to bring democracy to that lucky little country. In the odd, dreamlike way that Bush policy morphs, all the conservatives began to pretend we had always gone in to create democracy and anyone who suggested otherwise was misremembering that pesky reality.
Indeed, so dedicated were we to the promotion of democracy around the world that it was the very first principle of our foreign policy. And if we still aren’t too keen on nation-building—well, we’ll just outsource it to Halliburton and let them worry about it. And what a fine job they’re doing.
So here we are, internationalists again, and Bush sets off for India, where he promptly reversed decades of American foreign policy to exempt India from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. It had been our policy since Nixon was president to refuse to share nuclear energy technology with nations unwilling to agree to the nonproliferation regime. Both India and its mortal enemy, Pakistan, became nuclear-armed powers in 1998, leading to the truly horrific possibility of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.
Having made this lamentable deal, Bush then proceeded to Pakistan, which naturally feels insulted and slighted at not getting the same deal. This is particularly unfortunate, as President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is critical to the control and capture of al-Qaida.
Bush, who dropped the entire subject of Osama bin Laden like a hot rock in 2003, is now back to saying we want to capture him. Having offended Pakistan, our critical ally, Bush then returned triumphantly to—ta-da!—send exactly the wrong message to Iran. Just in time, showing the Iranians that if they persist in developing nuclear weapons, they, too, will eventually be rewarded like India. Naturally, this in turn strengthens the hard-liners in Tehran and undercuts the pro-Western reformers. What were they thinking? Does anybody here know how to play this game?
So far, it looks as though Bush does better on foreign policy when he’s being an isolationist. Maybe he should just stay home and cut taxes for the rich some more, or go expose some CIA agent for political payback against her husband, or just spy on a lot of American pacifists.
When I heard him deploring xenophobia (that’s fear of foreigners) on the Dubai Ports deal, I did a double-take. Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security again has said the trouble with homeland security is that it threatens trade—all important, all sacred trade, profits above all. For the umpteenth time, it is not only possible, but smart to insist on adjusting free trade for labor standards, for environmental standards and even so your ports don’t get blown up.
Molly Ivins is the former editor of the liberal monthly The Texas Observer. She is the bestselling author of several books including Who Let the Dogs In?
© 2006 TruthDig, LLC
For folly, billions; for survival, pennies
Bush bankrupts the nation paying for a needless war -- while cutting budgets that could protect us against catastrophes like bird flu.
By Joe Conason
March 17, 2006 | Anyone who doubts that the priorities of government are dangerously warped should consider what is -- and isn't -- being done in Washington to cope with the potential disasters that preoccupy ordinary citizens.
We are about to begin the fourth year of a terrible, bloody and expensive invasion of a crippled country that posed no threat to us at all -- a foolish adventure that we supposedly undertook to protect ourselves from weapons that we ought to have known did not exist. Yet during those three years of war, the same officials in the White House and Congress who insisted on spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq and on tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens in America have refused to spend far smaller amounts that might begin to protect us from real dangers.
Six months after the invasion of Iraq came the discovery of the first confirmed case of "mad cow disease" on American soil. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a third U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in a dead cow in Alabama.
As is true in so many important government agencies, the officials who oversee the safety of our food supply regulate the same industries in which they formerly worked, and in which they surely expect to work again. At the USDA, these officials predictably emphasized the "good news" about the alarming incident in Alabama, namely the advanced age of the cow, which was supposedly born before restrictions on dangerous feeding practices went into effect several years ago. Evidently they weren't quite certain about the reassuring good news, however, because the cow is about to be exhumed to ascertain how old it really was.
Whatever the age of that poor Alabama beast, the most alarming news about mad cow is that the Bush administration -- with the usual collusion of the Republican Congress -- plans to reduce testing for the disease from minimal to minuscule. From now on, the government will test approximately 40,000 of the 36 million cattle slaughtered annually in this country, or less than one-tenth of 1 percent -- a far lower percentage than in Europe, where mad cow devastated agriculture and killed 150 people, or in Japan, where officials took heed of those unhappy events.
Evidently those nations don't feel overburdened by the expense of safety testing, but here our officials try to save every penny so that we can spend as much as possible on crooked contractors in Iraq.
The mad cow embarrassment, which has so far inflicted suffering mainly on American beef exporters, fades in comparison with the government's frighteningly tardy, feeble and stingy response to the prospect of an avian flu pandemic in this country. With disease-bearing birds almost literally on the horizon, the latest advice from Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt was none too comforting: Store some cans of tuna and some boxes of crackers under your beds, he said -- and don't expect much help from the federal government if and when the pandemic strikes.
The pandemic threat, whose conceivable cost may be measured in millions of lives and trillions of dollars, has likewise been known for at least three years. The government's own top experts have been urging the Bush administration to invest in vaccines and improvements in the public health infrastructure since 2002.
(Actually, the Government Accountability Office first warned of the influenza danger, and the inadequacy of federal preparation, in October 2000 and has issued five critical reports since then, according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.) But the White House and its friends on Capitol Hill did nothing to address the problem until a few months ago. And much of what they did until then actually made matters worse -- again in the name of saving money.
By cutting public health services, a conservative trend in government that has worsened under Republican rule, all levels of government have diminished their capacity to save lives in the event of a pandemic. Although the fear of bioterrorism briefly created a countertrend, particularly during the Clinton presidency, when federal, state and local governments started to create stockpiles of medicine and equipment and perform disaster drills, the underlying situation remains poor. President Bush finally asked Congress for $7.1 billion to prepare for a possible pandemic last fall, but to date the Republican leadership has appropriated less than half that amount. Even health experts at conservative think tanks are beginning to question Congress' failure to act.
Saving what are literally pennies compared with what we squander every month in Iraq, Republicans have insisted on trimming funding from public health budgets every year. In 2005, for example, they cut $105 million in aid to local public health agencies. (To understand the appalling results of these policies, and why they have left us so vulnerable to a pandemic, consult Effect Measure, a superb blog written by anonymous public health officials.) And the Bush "plan" for dealing with a pandemic, while spending significant amounts on vaccine production, provides only $350 million for state and local preparedness, or about $70,000 for each of the nation's 5,000 local health departments. At the same time, the president's latest budget called for $130 million in cuts to state and local health agencies. There is still no real national plan to deal with a pandemic, and the official in charge of handling the problem -- a crony of former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson -- has just resigned.
Instead of cutting budgets for public health, we should be spending billions more annually, not only at home but also abroad, where disease threats can be stopped at their source. The World Bank estimates that the first year of a flu pandemic would cause at least $800 billion in global economic losses, but other estimates run into the trillions. So perhaps our "fiscal conservatives" can think of public health spending as business insurance, rather than as liberal do-gooding that merely saves lives.
Lavishing billions on war (and war profiteers) while shortchanging health is right-wing idiocy at its worst and most destructive -- and we may soon pay an intolerably high price for it.