Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How Many Facts Are Needed to Destroy a False Beltway Orthodoxy?

This is my question after reading this morning’s papers: How many cold, hard facts are needed to kill tired Beltway orthodoxies? Or, now that we are in the Age When Journalism Died, is it true that when an orthodoxy has enough money and insider vanity behind it, it becomes immortal? Here are five orthodoxies that jump out from just this week’s news - orthodoxies that have little - if any - relation to the facts. They elicit a simple question: Has our political debate been hijacked by Washington power-worshipers and consequently divorced from the “reality based” world?

1. How many jobs need to be eliminated and how long to wages have to stagnate before Democrats stop promoting the orthodoxy that says Bob Rubin is the greatest economic guru in American history?

As writer Bill Greider notes, when Citigroup executive “Robert Rubin speaks his mind, his thoughts on economic policy are the gold standard for the Democratic Party.” The former Clinton Treasury Secretary is considered by Democratic policymakers to be a deity on everything from trade to job creation. Yet, pick up the New York Times today, and you will note that at the same time Rubin is being asked by candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to write their economic policy platforms, Rubin is overseeing one of the largest single layoffs in recent memory, with Citigroup announcing plans to fire 17,000 employees. Meanwhile, nobody bothers to mention that Rubin’s supposedly stellar record on behalf of ordinary workers - the record that purportedly gives him his moxie in Democratic circles - is actually fairly unimpressive. United for a Fair Economy’s new report shows that during the Clinton years, wages stagnated, even as CEO pay and corporate profits rose - and worse, immediately after Rubin’s crowning achievement, the China PNTR deal, passed, those divergences intensified.

I say this record “purportedly” gives Rubin his moxie among Democrats, because that’s only the public rationale. Democrats know all of the hard data - they know Rubinomics helped rig an economy that creates much, much more for much, much fewer people. But they also know that Bob Rubin can deliver a lot of Wall Street cash to a political campaign. And so the question remains: At what point do all of the undebatable economic data overwhelm the manufactured orthodoxy of “Rubin as guru” that this corporate moneyman is able to buy from Democrats with his Wall Street cash? Is laying off 17,000 workers not enough? How many does he have to layoff to lose his luster? And how much flatter do national wage trends have to be for the chief economic architect of those wage trends to lose the “guru” label?

2. How many union organizers have to be executed, forests defoliated and children enslaved before Washington politicians stop promoting the orthodoxy that “free” trade is designed to help people in the developing world?

Unable to explain away the economic destruction “free” trade pacts have wrought in America, the last refuge of the “free” trade fundamentalists in Washington is the claim that pacts like NAFTA are all about helping poor people in impoverished countries like Mexico. We are supposed to simply ignore the fact that, say, 19 million more Mexicans have been driven into poverty since that pact was signed. But perhaps even worse, we are expected to be prospectively ignorant - that is, project ignorance into the future by ignoring things right here in the present, before we sign new trade pacts. As I noted in a post yesterday, President Bush is pushing a proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement as a way to promote “freedom and prosperity” in that country. Yet, as the Washington Post reports, the Colombian government that Bush is proposing to reward with this trade pact in the name of “freedom and prosperity” is right now helping paramilitary death squads execute workers who join unions. This says nothing of the other trade pacts being pushed that economically reward countries that have no basic environmental or child labor standards.

Obviously, the politicians pushing these trade pacts know all of this - but they also know huge corporate money is behind the drive for trade agreements that create an international legal framework for cost-cutting human and environmental exploitation. So again, the question is simple: At what point do the human and ecological data surpass the orthodoxy that claims this trade policy is good for people in the developing world?

3. When will corporate executives and politicians stop citing retail sector “challenges” as the rationale for the orthodoxy that says retail workers must be paid substandard wages?

Executives, economist and other corporate apologists tell us that the low wage orthodoxy at places like Wal-Mart is justified because the retail sector supposedly subsists on tiny profit margins. Even after taking a peek at Wal-Mart’s healthy, multi-billion dollar profit margins, that justification might hold a drop of water, except when you read a story like this one in the New York Times about how executive pay in the retail industry is skyrocketing. How high do profit margins and executive salaries have to go for “experts” to stop assuming the orthodoxy that says low wages in the retail sector are an economic necessity?

4. How clear do the numbers have to be for the media to stop parroting President Bush’s claims that negotiations over military funding are endangering troops?

It seems everywhere you look, major newspaper reporters are transcribing President Bush’s claim that congressional negotiations over the Iraq War supplemental bill are delaying money that the military imminently needs, and that this supposed delay is endangering the troops. This is a version of the Washington orthodoxy that claims any congressional input into or restrictions on military spending threatens to “cut off funds for the troops” and effectively leave American soldiers naked, starving and unarmed in a Baghdad shooting gallery. Yet, as at least some trade journals like National Journal note, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has definitively reported that “the Pentagon can finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until as late as July.” Faced with these facts, when will the media and politicians back off the fact-free, “you are cutting off funds for the troops” orthodoxy?

5. How specific did the Founding Fathers have to be about three separate, equal branches of government for today’s Washington power-worshipers to back off the orthodoxy that claims the President of the United States is an all-powerful king? This past Sunday’s Meet the Press roundtable (stacked, of course, with a right-wing pundit and no progressive counter-voice) provided a typical view into power-worshiping, constitutionally-illiterate Washington. Tim Russert read a Washington Post editorial criticizing a visit by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Syria which claimed she was "attempt[ing] to establish a shadow presidency" by "substitut[ing] her own foreign policy" for the White House’s. That Pelosi delivered the White House’s exact policy in her message to Syria, that Pelosi was accompanied by Republican lawmakers, and that Pelosi was following in the well-trodden footsteps of past speakers of both parties wasn’t mentioned - but that’s not even the point. What’s disturbing is the overarching orthodoxy from these Washington pundits that says the leader of a branch of government co-equal to that of the executive branch should have absolutely no voice at all in foreign policy matters and that, in effect, when it comes to issues of global reach, the President is a king.

We are expected to assume that this orthodoxy is exactly the way the Founding Fathers set things up, even though a cursory glance at a 4th grade history book shows that preventing a monarchy like this was precisely the reason the Founding Fathers created co-equal branches of government in the first place. Obviously the president is supposed to be the lead person on foreign affairs, but the idea that constitution somehow declares that the legislative branch should have no say over such matters at all is an insult to the principles this country was founded on. I’m not sure where this Beltway media orthodoxy comes from, beyond basic power-worshiping and vanity. For example, someone like NBC White House reporter David Gregory, desperate to feel important, has proximity to an increasingly irrelevant president, and thus the more he goes on TV to insist that presidential power is omniscient and god-like, the more important he can feel when he goes home and struts before his bathroom mirror. Yet that doesn’t negate the facts of our constitution. So I ask: How much do we have to hear the "president is dictator" orthodoxy from Washington’s power-worshiping press corps before someone starts handing out civics textbooks at the next White House press briefing?

Fact-free orthodoxies like these are, sadly, pretty standard in today’s politics. My book Hostile Takeover looks at many of these, basically asserting that Big Money interests have created an entire maze of economic orthodoxies designed to perpetuate a war on the middle class. In recent months I’ve given special treatment to the Great Education Myth and the Great Labor Shortage Lie - two particularly hideous orthodoxies. I’m not sure exactly what it will take to put these orthodoxies in their grave once and for all - but I do know that unless we return to the “reality-based” world, no well-packaged, soothing, fact-free orthodoxy is going to help this country confront its very real and very imminent challenges.

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