It happens in every president’s second term, if a president gets a second term. Jimmy Carter and first George Bush lucked out – if losing it all is lucking out. After one term, Carter lost to Reagan, and Reagan had that Iran-Contra thing blow up on him in his second term, while Carter went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize more than twenty years after he left office. Carter was far better at being an ex-president. In his second term, Reagan had to admit he really had no idea what his folks had been doing – sorry about that. Then it happened again. After one term the first George Bush lost to Bill Clinton and Clinton’s big scandal – in his second term of course – was about hot and heavy illicit sex with a sweet young thing. That didn’t hurt him all that much, but it was a bother, even if things turned out fine. All the shouting and the impeachment just made the Republicans look like sex-obsessed perverts, who also managed to shut down the entire government for a short time, to prove something or other. No one knew quite what. The nation shrugged, the Democrats actually gained seats in the House in the midterm elections that followed, and Clinton, after he left office, went on to become the Big Dog – the man who knows everything about how politics really works, and the blunt but likable guy who can give a brilliant speech that put all the issues in perspective, in a way everyone can understand. Even Republicans like him now, or fear him, but they sure had it out for him in his second term. That’s when everything’s a scandal.
Now it’s Obama’s turn, but the scandal thing isn’t going well for Republicans. Benghazi didn’t work out. The IRS scandal is running on empty. They can’t touch the AP-Fox spying-on-reporters-scandal, because of what they used to say about the traitors at the New York Times and whatnot. Yes, the government is building a massive database of everyone’s phone records and also figuring out a way to track absolutely all online activity in real time – scary stuff – but this isn’t like other scandals. It’s hard to be outraged at the data-mining of metadata. Normal people don’t know what those words even mean. This is not catching fire, and the people have spoken. Absolute and complete security trumps everything else, even who we are as a people, even if absolute and complete security is impossible and always will be. Obama wants to have a discussion on the appropriate trade-offs. No one else, anywhere, does. Privacy disappeared long ago anyway. Maybe tired cynicism is the only appropriate response. It’s not Obama’s scandal. It’s ours.
That’s why scandal news isn’t that compelling, even if, the latest bombshell, it certainly is startling:
A 29-year-old who says he is a former undercover CIA employee said Sunday that he was the principal source of recent disclosures about top-secret National Security Agency programs, exposing himself to possible prosecution in an acknowledgment that had little if any precedent in the long history of U.S. intelligence leaks.
Edward Snowden, a tech specialist who has also contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, unmasked himself as a source after a string of stories in The Washington Post and the Guardian that detailed previously unknown U.S. surveillance programs. He said he disclosed secret documents in response to what he described as the systematic surveillance of innocent citizens.
In an interview Sunday, Snowden said he is willing to face the consequences of exposure. “I’m not going to hide,” Snowden told The Post from Hong Kong, where he has been staying.
He’s willing to face the consequences, but he’s holed-up in Hong Kong. Yeah, well, whatever.
This sums up his reasoning:
Asked whether he believes his disclosures will change anything, he said: “I think they already have. Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten – and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.”
They’ve already decided. The government is listening and watching, and building a massive database of everything, but maybe that’s a good thing, or if not a good thing, a necessary thing, unfortunately. This item, from the Washington Post, goes on to note that the White House said late Sunday that it would not have any comment on the matter. The government will go after him, as best they can, but that’s normal operating procedure, and the administration also seems to know no one has much sympathy for this guy. It’s a bother, not a scandal. Republicans dare not call Edward Snowden a hero – one doesn’t reveal what we’re doing to deal with the bad guys, messing everything up so we have to start all over.
At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall adds further detail:
He is – that awful word – articulate and seems to have given quite a bit of thought to his actions. He is – also – notably quick to distinguish what he’s done from Bradley Manning, making clear that he did not leak information that would harm individuals or do what he deems real harm to the United States as opposed to revealing the existence and full scope of the NSA’s and US Intelligence Community’s surveillance apparatus. As some of you know, I’ve never been very sympathetic to Manning, thinking him mainly a naïf who revealed US government secrets in such a wildly indiscriminate manner as to lose almost any conceivable justification for his acts. This appears to be a different case. Snowden seems to be who Manning’s supporters always wanted to pretend he was but wasn’t.
It’s only fair for me to say that, in my mind, they’re fundamentally the same.
This guy is also a shallow and confused fellow, and a bit-player:
In the substance of his comments, Snowden suggests that the kinds of surveillance we’ve been hearing about are widely abused, though he doesn’t state specifically just how that is. I think it’s probably fair to say that most people who support this kind of surveillance in a general sense assume, hope – choose your verb – that there are technical and legal protections in place to curb or prevent abuses, even though they can never be full [sic] proof. I’d be very curious to hear more specifically what kinds of things he’s referring to.
Finally, just who is Snowden, in the context of the US Intelligence Community? Did he have access and visibility into quite as much as he suggests? He suggests that as a computer technician he essentially had a view into basically everything. That’s not inherently implausible given the role of specialized technical knowledge. But that makes me skeptical. I have little doubt that people in the intelligence community will try to present him as a more marginal figure than he described, regardless of whether it’s true. But that’s another point that has me curious.
Marshall also points out the Hong Kong problem:
Even though I’m tentatively willing to accept Snowden’s claim that he is doing this only because he thinks it’s right, he still seems to be hoping to evade the criminal consequences by defecting to China, a key US rival and one that comes up rather short of being the kind of libertarian and transparent society Snowden apparently believes in.
Look, I get it. He doesn’t want to go to prison. I don’t blame him. He says in the article that his highest hope is get asylum in Iceland. I can pretty much guarantee you that that’s not going to happen. A small country that wants to be close friends of the United States is not going to do that. I could see arguments for Russia or Venezuela or perhaps Iran. But of all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice. Hong Kong might even give you the best of both worlds, hosted by repressive government which is a US rival and yet living in a city with Western standards of openness, wealth, etc.
The guy has also set up a potential diplomatic stand-off:
I’ve seen people linking to the current US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US “state repression.”
There’s that – a mess that has nothing to do with domestic spying, which few see as a scandal anyway. Nevertheless the story will have legs, even if the Republicans will have a hard time finding anything here to pin on Obama, as a fourth second-term scandal. The second Bush wrote the book on spying, breaking the law. His won Justice Department threatened to resign. That might have been his second-term scandal, that and the Valerie Plame business, but Obama is following the law, such as it is, and you can’t have a scandal when the law itself is the scandal. You need a nefarious person. This is just a compelling distraction – something to talk about.
People sense there’s a bigger scandal, one that’s hard to talk about, because of who really runs the country – but there’s a widespread sense that most of us are getting screwed. The economy is recovering from the Bush apocalypse, but something isn’t right. The stock market is hitting record highs almost every trading day, and corporate profits have soared to record highs too, and interest rates remain low – but no one can qualify for a loan, and unemployment is still sky-high, and now we have eight or ten million permanently unemployed too – they will never work again – and wages have been flat or even declining for a decade. The middle class is almost gone now, seemingly forever. It seems that all the money made, once again, after the crash, has gone to the top one or two percent – no one else has seen a bit of it. That should be a scandal, but if you’re one of the very few doing wonderfully again you don’t see it, and those who are stuck with nothing, forever now, are told it’s their fault. They’re lazy, or God doesn’t like them – and they believe it, perhaps due to the absence of any likely nefarious person. The rich and successful can’t be nefarious. They’re successful after all.
Something is terribly wrong here. Maybe we all should be scandalized by the government building a massive database of everyone’s phone records and figuring out a way to track absolutely all online activity in real time, but somehow it’s hard to work up the appropriate outrage. The world as we have known it has disintegrated. What the hell happened?
Kathleen Geier at Mother Jones wonders about that. She notes that The International Labor Organization (ILO) just released its Global Wage Report 2012/13 – and it’s dismal. She points to the economic blogger Timothy Taylor highlighting one of the report’s most disturbing findings, that labor’s share of GDP is declining ominously in nearly all countries everywhere:
The OECD has observed, for example, that over the period from 1990 to 2009 the share of labor compensation in national income declined in 26 out of 30 developed economies for which data were available, and calculated that the median labor share of national income across these countries fell considerably from 66.1 per cent to 61.7 per cent … Looking beyond the advanced economies, the ILO World of Work Report 2011 found that the decline in the labor income share was even more pronounced in many emerging and developing countries, with considerable declines in Asia and North Africa and more stable but still declining wage shares in Latin America.
It’s not just us, and Geier takes it from there:
It wasn’t always this way. As Taylor notes, before the 1980s, labor’s share of national income fluctuated somewhat from year to year but tended to be stable overall. Also, during this period, we’ve seen large surges in productivity – and yet those productivity gains are not being shared by labor. This is an ominous sign for any society. One of my all-time favorite quotes is this one, from John Maynard Keynes: “Nothing corrupts society more than to disconnect effort and reward.”
Taylor makes a couple of helpful comments. One is that, “When a trend cuts across so many countries, it seems likely that the cause is something cutting across all countries, too.” So, yes, I agree with him, when he says that blaming something American-specific like Democratic or Republican policies for this is a bit off the mark. Specific policies may either worsen or alleviate the trend, but they’re unlikely to be the root cause.
The problem is the absence of any likely nefarious person here, and Taylor offers other things that might be nefarious:
They include technological change, globalization, the rise of financial markets, altered labor market institutions, and a decline in the bargaining power of labor. But after all, technological changes in information and communication technology are part of what has fed globalization, as well as part of what led to a rise of the financial sector. Globalization is part of what has reduced the bargaining power of labor. The ILO report offers some evidence that the rise of the financial sector is a substantial part of the answer.
The financial sector is the problem here? That’s the scandal?
Geier argues that may be the case, but offers another way to look at this:
The aftermath of the Great Depression resulted in a historic shift in the power balance between capital and labor. The disruption, mass unemployment, and suffering of the Depression radicalized many workers, and caused them to organize and make demands. At the same time, capitalists, seeing the communist revolution that had taken place in the former Soviet Union, had the fear of God put into them. They made concessions to keep the peace with labor, because they feared losing everything if they didn’t. For them, the USSR was the writing on the wall.
An additional motivation was to show that it was possible to have a society that was fair and provided a good standard of living and decent social protections for workers, without being communist. The continuing existence of the Soviet Union acted as a prod to their conscience; certainly, many capitalist elites wanted to persuade the world (including developing countries where Marxist uprisings were afoot) that they were “better than that.”
Thus, you had the Great Compression, where wage inequality was kept in check, and the excesses of the previous era’s robber barons (and what a wonderful turn of phrase that was!) seemed a thing of the past. Paul Krugman and others have noted that it wasn’t market forces or laws against self-dealing or excessive executive compensation that reined in the corporations of yesteryear. It appears to have been “social norms.” Or, as I would describe it, a soundly based, and healthy, fear of working class power.
She admits that’s a quick-and-dirty summary, but even so, the point is that it all began to unravel:
The trauma of the Great Depression was forgotten. Global competition cut profit margins and the capital class realized they didn’t want to be so generous to their workers any more. More to the point, it dawned on them that they didn’t have to be. Thus, the neoliberal new world order was born – not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, there were cuts to social welfare programs in many countries, and there were also a number of important worldwide fights against labor unions, which labor usually lost. In the U.S., the corporate right poured enormous resources into political lobbying efforts and to propaganda shops that massaged public opinion. It worked! It’s taken the current years-long depression to finally dislodge some that neoliberal propaganda from a lot of folks’ skulls.
Now add Ronald Reagan and his friend into to mix:
The fall of the Soviet Union was a key moment in all of this. When the Soviets fell, it really did seem as if, to quote Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative.” Capital no longer had anything to fret about. Non-socialist countries didn’t have to worry about workers getting any ideas. God knows I would never want to bring back the USSR, but I don’t think there’s any question that it was one of the things that helped keep capitalist excesses in check.
So that’s the scandal, and she is not hopeful:
I have no idea what would turn it around, other than an ever-deepening economic crisis that leads to organizing of that sort that greatly empowers labor, seriously threatens economic elites, and restores labor’s bargaining power. Until then, I’m afraid, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
It is likely to get worse. Paul Krugman’s recent column on Republicans’ efforts to effectively end the food stamps program, which they’ve been trying to end since Reagan was in office, ends with this:
Look, I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency – and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.
But I wonder whether even Republicans really believe that story – or at least are confident enough in their diagnosis to justify policies that more or less literally take food from the mouths of hungry children. As I said, there are times when cynicism just doesn’t cut it; this is a time to get really, really angry.
George Packer sees it this way:
Not equality of result – no successful political tendency or President in this country, not even FDR’s New Deal, has promised that. As Richard Hofstadter shows in his great 1948 book, “The American Political Tradition,” the deal in this country has always been equal opportunity. That was Jefferson’s meaning when he inscribed in the annals of our civic religion the conviction that “all men are created equal.” Even a populist like Andrew Jackson demanded only “the classic bourgeois ideal, equality before the law, the restriction of government to equal protection of its citizens.” But when the results are distributed as unequally as they are at this moment, when the gap between promise and reality grows so wide, when elites can fail repeatedly and never lose their perches of privilege while ordinary people can never work their way out of debt, equal opportunity becomes a dream. We measure inequality in numbers – quintiles, average and median incomes, percentages of national wealth, unemployment statistics, economic growth rates – but the damage it is doing to our national life today defies quantification. It is killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise – their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance. That’s where things have unquestionably deteriorated over the past generation. The game seems rigged – and if it is, following the rules is for suckers.
That’s the scandal. Yeah, the government is data-mining the metadata from everyone’s phone records, and from everything online. That feels creepy, or comforting, depending on your politics, but some things are even creepier. That’s only a compelling distraction. Those Tea Party folks say they want their country back – which seem to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away and Hispanics and Asians being Ricky Ricardo and Charlie Chan, and back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, and Jesus everywhere – but they have it all wrong. Those are just random secondary cultural markers from a time long ago. It would be nice to have the actual country back.
Ah well, don’t think about it. It’s Obama’s second term. We’ll be told to be outraged at one scandal after another, as each turns out to be nothing much at all. The next one will come along soon enough, like clockwork, as compelling distractions are useful, as the world ends.