US Diary: the sad state of the nation (on neocons, lame-duck Bush, unemployed teens & Americans getting shorter)
1. Neocon II: Lie Hard with a Vengeance
By Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone
Call it the Leslie Nielsen effect. Your first attempt at a show-biz career fizzles out and dies, but your failure is so quirky and charming that it wins you a whole second career. Think Robert Goulet, Bill Shatner, even John Travolta. America loves a brave second act, particularly one that doesn't mind doing a take or two with egg still on his face.
What the Zucker brothers did for actors, the neocons are now doing for politics. In the first six years of the Bush presidency the administration's ideological nucleus -- a tribe of humorless conservative revolutionaries led by Dick Cheney and including the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith and Elliott Abrams -- racked up a startling record in matters of official policy. From their juking of the case for the Iraq War to their Jacobin-esque purges within the government's intelligence apparatus to their paranoid and sometimes criminal fragging of political enemies great and minor, the neoconservatives working for George Bush botched virtually every important move they made in the last six years.
Moreover, each time they used the presidency's bully pulpit to make a prediction, be it about the post-invasion spread of democracy in the Middle East, the utility of Iraqi oil revenues in financing the occupation, or the chilling effect our presence in Iraq would have on Palestinian resolve, more or less exactly the opposite ended up taking place.
And yet, despite the walloping defeat of the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections that seemed to spell the end of neocon rule in Washington, the clowns are once again spilling out of the Volkswagen. Lately the neocons seem to be all over the public airwaves, and not as the targets of purgative public flogging or tarring ceremonies, but as the subjects of serious interviews, with respected journalists treating them like real human beings with real opinions. Even worse, a few are still in office, and appear to be cooking up a last-minute encore before the curtain finally comes down in '08.
Richard Perle, the former head of the Defense Policy Board, known in the Beltway as the "Prince of Darkness," has been on TV a lot lately in a much-publicized public spat with former CIA director George Tenet, who recently accused Perle of targeting Iraq days after 9/11. John Bolton, former UN-hating ambassador to the UN, recently won the Bradley Prize for "outstanding intellectual achievement" -- achievement that presumably includes helping make the case for the Iraq disaster and support for a future invasion of Iran. In his acceptance speech, Bolton cheekily credited Tehran, Pyongyang and other rogue nations for his success, thanking them just for "being themselves." And while Scooter Libby crashed at trial, Doug Feith soft-landed into a tenure track at Georgetown, where he will now teach history, a subject he spent the past five years or so violently misinterpreting.
he neocons remain a bold presence in the media for a number of reasons. Number one, they still have real political power. Dick Cheney is still the vice president, and the Pentagon is still guided heavily by the neocon-dominated Office of Special Plans (OSP), where the power is now reportedly concentrated in an office called the Iranian Directorate, charged with helping make the case for war with Iran. Amid all the public hand-wringing about a congressional demand for an Iraq withdrawal timeline, Washington is abuzz with rumors that the neocons are loading up for one last historical Hail Mary, a "long bomb" to throw at Tehran before Bush leaves office. The knowledge that they are crazy enough to try something like that makes people in the capital take them seriously.
But beyond that, there just hasn't been any effort in the media to identify and really make clear the root causes of the Iraq policy failure. In the current Washington mythology -- a mythology reflected in public statements of everyone from John McCain to Hillary Clinton -- the Iraq War blew up in our faces for logistical reasons, because we didn't send enough troops, or have a sound occupation plan, or have an "understanding of the insurgency." It was the right war, wrong execution, wrong defense secretary. The failure had nothing to do with the mistake of placing our bets on a radical revolutionary policy of "pre-emptive invasion," or with the White House's authoritarian efforts to castrate the Pentagon and the CIA and replace them with their own intelligence-gathering and policymaking apparatuses.
The neocons may have been proven wrong in the particulars, and to ordinary people their legacy may turn out to be a nightmarish Middle East bloodbath and decades of debt, but in Washington they're still revered as canny operators who swept two election seasons with a drooling mannequin for a candidate and for years ruled Washington with almost Caligulan abandon. They were idiots in terms of how the world worked, but they understood power in the Beltway better than Nixon, better than Clinton, better really than any White House clan since the Roosevelt years. That's why they'll keep getting top billing on talk shows and invites to all the best Washington parties, even if, as seems likely, they leave office 18 months from now with half the planet in flames.
In Washington there is no shame in being wrong; there's only shame in losing. The neocons were wrong as hell, but they were also winners. That's why no one should expect them to go away now. That's especially true since their only real competition in the intellectual arena is the cynical third-way corporatism of the Democratic party, a tenuous and depressing alliance of business interests and New-Deal interest groups whose most persuasive "idea" is that it is not neo-conservatism. The neocons, wrong and stupid as they might be, at least represent a clearly-articulated dream of unchecked greed, power and big-stick foreign conquest that appeals in an elemental way to the dark side of the American psyche. Until America rejects that dream -- and don't hold your breath for that -- don't count on the Boltons and the Perles disappearing from view.
(Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine. His book, Smells Like Dead Elephants, is due out next year.)
2. Flip Side of the Dream
by BOB HERBERT/NY Times
Emmanuel Wayne pressed his back against the shabby, one-story building, trying unsuccessfully to escape the downpour. The blue-and-white sign overhead said Bill’s Liquors.
I was standing there with him. The water pouring down the teenager’s face created a funhouse mirror effect, making it look like he was laughing and crying at the same time. It was an absurd place to conduct an interview, but a lot of things about the inner-city are absurd.
“I been looking for a job,” he said, “but you know ... .” He shrugged. “I went to the McDonald’s. I was up to the Cherry Hill Mall. Ain’t too much out here.”
It was a gloomy late afternoon. Throughout the rundown neighborhood, young people were gathered in clusters on porches, looking out at the rain. I talked to some and they told the same story as Emmanuel. No jobs. No money.
“That’s why people go on the hustle,” said one young man. “Got to get the money somewhere.”
The summer job outlook for teenagers is beyond bleak. A modest 157,000 jobs were added to the nation’s payrolls in May. But teen employment fell for the fifth consecutive month, an ominous trend as we head into the summer months when millions of additional teenagers join in the hunt for jobs.
From January through May, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, “the national teen employment rate averaged only 33.1 percent, tying for the lowest employment rate in the past 60 years.”
For youngsters like Emmanuel Wayne and others in this distressed city just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the problem is much worse. Last summer, the employment rate for black teens from low-income families was an abysmal 18 percent.
This is the flip side of the American dream. Kids who grow up poor and never work at a regular job tend not to think in terms of postgraduate degrees, marriages and honeymoons, careers and the cost of educating the next generation.
A steady job could make all the difference. Along with the paycheck comes a sense of the possibilities. Kids develop a clearer understanding of the value of education and are more likely to stay in school. The heightened sense of self-worth that comes from gainful employment can be a bulwark against negative peer pressure. Contacts are made and a work history established.
“The more you work today, the more you’re going to work tomorrow,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies. “And the more you work while you’re in school, the easier it is to transition to the labor market when you graduate.”
It seems obvious that we should be putting as many young people to work as possible, but the opposite is happening. The youth labor market in the U.S. has all but collapsed. Teens were especially hard hit by the recession that followed the employment boom of the late 1990s, and there has been no substantial recovery in the teen job market since then.
Years ago the federal government played a major role in bolstering job opportunities for teenagers. There was substantial bipartisan support for both year-round and summer employment programs. But that important commitment vanished with the conservative onslaught of recent years.
The result was inevitable. As the center has reported, “Far fewer youth across the nation are gaining exposure to the job market and to the real world of work than in the late 1980s and 1990s.”
What you are left with are frustrated youngsters, full of energy but lacking appropriate outlets, who have trouble figuring out what to do with themselves. It’s an environment that is all but guaranteed to spawn bad choices.
I asked Emmanuel what he might do if he couldn’t find a job for the summer.
“Don’t know,” he said. “I got a buddy doing this and that. He could help me out.”
The rain had eased up and Emmanuel was off. A man named Darnell, who said he was 23, came out of the liquor store. He and I talked for awhile about the summer prospects for teens in the neighborhood.
“Well, there ain’t no jobs in Camden,” he said. “Not for teenagers. If you can’t get a job, you have to hustle. People be pushing weed. Cutting hair. Lifting stuff. The girls do their thing. It ain’t no picnic out here. It’s depressing.”
3. United, not divided -- against Bush
Courts, conservatives, military officers and everyone outside Albania can agree on one thing: They're tired of the president.
By Rosa Brooks
YOU KNOW YOU'VE got a problem when only the Albanians welcome you with open arms — and even then you need to take your watch off to keep them from stealing it.
This is what it's come down to for President Bush, a duck so lame he's nearly quadriplegic. Six and a half years into his interminable presidency, the whole world is sick of him.
American presidents used to make triumphal tours of Europe, where they'd be greeted by enthusiastic crowds. Bush's European trips bring out crowds too, but they're usually calling enthusiastically for his indictment.
Last week's presidential tour featured lots of protest and precious little adulation. In the Czech Republic, demonstrators greeted Bush with signs reading "Bush number one terrorist." In Italy, where more than two dozen CIA agents face criminal trial for the illegal "rendition" of terror suspects, tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters took to the streets. At the Vatican, the pope took Bush to task over the Iraq war. Only in Albania did Bush receive a rapturous welcome — though video footage led to speculation that in the celebration an Albanian Bush "fan" may have relieved the president of his watch.
White House spokesman Tony Snow denies that the president got fleeced by his admirers. But let's be honest: Even if Bush made it home with watch untouched, it's not clear that wild enthusiasm from the Albanian public is something he should feel pleased about.
After all, the last time the Albanians showed wild enthusiasm, it was for the fraudulent Ponzi schemes that nearly destroyed their national economy. In the mid-1990s, two-thirds of the Albanian population got suckered into investing in get-rich-quick "investment companies." Built on trickery and empty promises, the pyramid schemes finally collapsed, leaving a shattered economy, millions of betrayed citizens and a discredited government.
Kind of reminiscent of the Bush presidency, actually.
Bush didn't return from his European trip to a warm welcome here at home either. The political left doesn't like him — not that that's anything new. The political center doesn't like him either: A new NBC/Wall Street Journal report finds that only 29% of Americans approve of the job Bush is doing, the lowest level of his presidency. Even on the political right (where most of the 29% of Americans who aren't yet sick of him reside), many have developed an acute case of buyer's remorse.
The GOP's Republican primary candidates are competing to distance themselves from Bush, and more and more conservatives are in open revolt. Some, like economist Bruce Bartlett, fume at the explosion of government spending under Bush. Others, like Sen. Chuck Hagel and a growing cadre of Republican foreign policy experts, are appalled by Bush's mishandling of the Iraq war and other national security issues.
Others, such as Richard Viguerie (conservative direct-mail pioneer) and former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr (the House's lead prosecutor during the Clinton impeachment), are so angry at what they see as Bush's constitutional abuses that they've started channeling (and in Barr's case, joining) the ACLU. "Since 9/11," they assert, "the executive branch has chronically usurped legislative or judicial power and has repeatedly claimed that the president is the law. The constitutional grievances against the White House are chilling." Even the three harpies of far-right punditry — Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham — have denounced Bush's favored immigration bill as soft on illegal immigrants.
Oh yes, then there are the courts. Last week, judges in two of the administration's military commissions announced that the commissions lacked jurisdiction to try Guantanamo detainees. This week, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals — one of the nation's most conservative courts — gave Bush another slap in the face, declaring that "the president lacks power to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain" terror suspects in the United States.
Then there are the military and defense establishments, which are increasingly taking positions opposite those of the president. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates thinks Guantanamo should be closed. So does former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Uniformed officers complain openly that Bush has broken the back of the military. And no one, including the generals charged with overseeing military operations in Iraq, seems to think that Bush's "surge" is succeeding.
I could cite more examples of people fed up with Bush, but … why bother? These days, when you announce that the Bush presidency has been an epic flop, you face a sea of nodding heads.
Come to think of it, there is one thing for which we should all give the president credit. Bush famously promised to be a uniter, not a divider — and at long last, he may have managed to keep that promise. Though there's still much that divides us, the nation and the world are increasingly united on at least one issue: We're sick and tired of the presidency of George W. Bush.
4. America Comes Up Short
by PAUL KRUGMAN /NY Times
Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.
No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.
To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.
The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”
This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.
For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.
So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?
There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.
It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.
And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”
We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.
One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”
“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.
A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.
Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short