Paul Craig Roberts is a writer (and former Wall Street Journal columnist) of great moral clarity and a wonderful heartfelt outrage at the economic and social injustices in the United States this last decade, and especially during the George W. Bush Administration. He was an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan Administration (1981-1988), and perhaps the lead technician implementing the fiscal mechanisms within the overall economic policy known as “Reaganomics”, which has since become institutionalized as the orthodoxy for managing the United States.
Reaganomics is essentially unlimited military spending, plus a strident and mean-spirited anti-social and anti-environmental bias as regards public spending and the enforcement of regulations, plus an obsession with tax reduction (and elimination) for the highest economic classes, plus an overriding concern that government action invariably results in corporate benefit at the expense of the economic and political interests of labor (organized and unorganized) and the public. (There is no praise for Reaganomics in this article).
I had great difficulty reading through Roberts’ defense of Reaganomics. What follows is my explanation of my difficulty.
I remember Reagan-time well, as it coincided with my early and peak career years as a nuclear bomb-testing physicist. During the last years of the Carter Administration I was unable to find any physics and engineering college teaching job that actually paid (e.g., Proposition 13 had erupted in California, initiating the collapse of public education there, and by example leading the national trend), and even corporate work was not so easy to find, so to nuclear bombs I went. I had been shopping around my new Princeton University Ph.D. in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (a sort of “rocket scientist”). I actually began working in a nuclear weapons laboratory in the second half of Carter’s term, when the post-Watergate political swing to the right (‘the wrong,’ actually) had became overt.
I had a very personal interest in the course of U.S. policy because I wished to apply my high tech skills to solving the “energy crisis” problems that had finally captured public attention with the 1973 and 1979 oil embargoes. There was that window of time between 1972 when the Watergate scandal erupted, and 1978 when Zbigniew Brzezinski was the undisputed master of U.S. policy (which was entirely a visceral Polish hatred of Russia), during which the American public mind was receptive to the idea of a concerted national effort to develop alternative and ecologically sound sources of energy.
During this Ford-Carter window of about six years, there was the last lingering 1960s’ sense of liberating possibilities, combined with the relief and opportunity offered by the “end” of the Vietnam War (in 1975, though covert missions continued for years afterward), and there was also a bracing realism inserted into public consciousness about oil and energy. I had the highest hopes my technical skills (gained with ten years of hard work) could connect to real social progress. I was excited that my personal development and career aspirations seemed to be fortuitously synchronized with the needs and hopes of the times.
Reagan was the total destruction of that dream. His first substantive act as president was the removal of the solar energy system on the roof of the White House, which had been installed during Carter’s term. This was as clear a message as a new Pharaoh in ancient Egypt ordering the defacement of a predecessor’s images on national monuments, or of one male lion who had killed another to win command of a pride (a group of females and their cubs) then killing all the cubs fathered by his beaten rival.
Reagan was a mean-spirited prick, and his administration was rich with similar types. The Reaganauts were careerist pasty-faced near-fascist pirates out to rape the national economy for their corporatist-plutocratic faction. The excessiveness of Reagan’s overblown and patriotic hyperbole was matched by the avidity and crassness of the plundering intent his public speech was meant to cloak.
I’m sure Paul Craig Roberts actually believed the self-serving hyperbole used by the Reaganauts, in the same way many military veterans will believe the justifications used to recruit and exploit them, and which many of them in turn use to maintain their own self-images thereafter. Patriotic myths are used as personal mantras of denial, for example over a functional role as a cog in a larger system that perpetrated war crimes, or as a functionary of military-industrial complex economic parasitism.
Listen to the old soldiers of Spain’s Falange or Pinochet’s military, who become sentimentally patriotic about how they and theirs “saved the country,” while they are much more reticent about their work as torturers and thieves. There are too many similarly self-satisfied veterans in many nations. I’ve heard too many U.S. military veterans (i.e., more than one), who had decades of cushy jobs and subsidized living, whine about “welfare” and “illegal immigrants,” when it is they who represent the most heavily subsidized lifetime-welfare class of them all.
The few veterans we can really respect are those who have wakened up to the reality of what their roles really were, and who actually state these facts. Veterans of this type are invariably anti-war, and invariably for social and economic justice. Someone like Chalmers Johnson, who just recently died, won my grateful and admiring respect with his introduction to his book “Blowback.” He stated unequivocally that he was wrong to support the Vietnam War during the 60s; the student protestors who he and his academic and policy specialist peers viewed as immature, uninformed and uneducated were, in fact, right, while he and the U.S. policy establishment were wrong.
Johnson had enough brains to ascertain the truth, and enough character to admit it, and then go on to change the direction of his work. Yes, this means he was willing to allow the world to see his prior life as a Vietnam War advocate as a wasted effort, as a contribution to human misery. He was a man.
The film “Sir! No Sir!” is about soldiers who went through similar transformations while the Vietnam War raged. See it to be humbled by real patriotism. Was Johnson’s awakening of lesser merit because it occurred after the war? Some might assign lesser merit to individuals who admit much later in life that their youthful contributions to empire produced unnecessary misery rather than social value. In my view, anyone who has this type of realization deserves respect and appreciation, because whenever such an awakening occurs it adds to the positive example to youth, and the wider advocacy of humanistic politics. So hurrah for Chalmers Johnson, hurrah for Daniel Ellsberg, hurray for Ray McGovern, hurrah for Scott Ritter, hurrah for Chuck Spinney, Hurrah for William Blum, hurrah for Jessica Lynch, hurrah for all the veterans against the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and hurrah for Bradley Manning. Whether they came to it early or late, I say hurrah for anyone who is unequivocally against the wars and the imperialism behind them, especially when they graduated themselves out of the troops implementing those wars (whether the shooting wars or the class war).
Naturally, my views on this are self-serving, so I can reconcile my life today with my own contributions to building up the U.S. nuclear stockpile. There are many other current and former weapons workers who prefer to take the apologist tack, like the Spanish Falangists, Chilean Pinochetists, and U.S. military welfare overhead class: “we weren’t trying to enrich ourselves, we were trying to serve the country by ensuring the technology needed for its defensive systems was as robust, reliable and efficient as possible; we were primarily interested to ensure the peace, and to keep people safe.” The implicit psychological message of imperial legionnaire apologist cant is: “Aren’t I holy? Don’t you owe me your gratitude for what I did for your benefit, unseen, all those years ago, when I could have been in the private sector making more money?”
My response is: sorry, so-called patriots, but puffing up your self-images with false history is an insult. Regardless of what you did then, and what you thought you thought then, if you can’t admit the facts about the past you participated in, and which are so obvious today, then I can’t extend my complete appreciation for those good turns you are doing today. Perhaps if I were Christ or Buddha, my charitable understanding would be perfect; but I’m not, and it isn’t. This is my reaction to Paul Craig Robert’s defense of Reaganomics.
Reaganomics was not meant to help most of the American (or any other) people. It was a scheme of larding the rich. That is what it did, and to the detriment of the United States as a nation, a result that was as clearly inevitable then as it is obvious in retrospect today. The American republic of 2010 is a paper-thin shell whose substance was hollowed out by thirty years of Reaganomics dry rot.
One can accept an idealistic politically conservative Paul Craig Roberts believing implicitly in the hyperbole that promoted Reaganism in 1980, but thirty years later? After what we’ve seen it destroy? It seems that in the contest of ego versus truth, ego still dominates here. Of course, that is a personal choice that has its right to be made (our wish about another person’s choice on self-image maintenance can never be imagined as their obligation), but it throttles the appreciation I would prefer to extend unhindered.