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The Nation

"Galbraith for President"

Had it not been for the accident of his birth in Iona Station, Ontario, John Kenneth Galbraith, the greatest public intellectual of the second half of the American century, would surely have been considered presidential timber. As it was, the man whose Canadian birth barred him from seeking the nation's highest office had to settle for shaping every presidency since that of Franklin Roosevelt – either as a trusted counselor to the occupant of the Oval Office, a wise critic or, as was frequently the case, both.

One of the last veterans of the Roosevelt's epic first term – during which he worked with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration – he would go on to advise FDR's National Defense Advisory Committee and then to serve as an administrator of the Office of Price Administration, where the man who was as quick with a quip as he was with economic charts and tables noted that he ''reached the point that all price fixers reach -- my enemies outnumbered my friends."

It will be his epigrams, his one-liners and his sharp asides that many of his friends will miss most about Ken Galbraith, who has died at age 97. The genius of the economics professor so long associated with Harvard and with most of the good – or at least tolerable – presidencies of the 20th century, was that he was never so impressed by his immense knowledge or his powerful positions that he could not find a humorous, and sometimes cutting, phrase with which to note the obvious.

When he was one of President Kennedy's most trusted aides – and, ultimately, the ambassador to India – Galbraith was dispatched to Vietnam to survey the country to which Kennedy was being advised by others to dispatch military forces. Galbraith, who tried harder than just about anyone else to avert the turn toward quagmire, sent back a memo in which he reflected on the difficulty of distinguishing "friendly jungle" from "Vietcong jungle" and asked, "[Who] is the man in your administration who decides what countries are strategic? I would like to...ask him what is so important about this real estate in the Space Age."

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As Galbraith biographer Richard Parker noted in his essential review of his subject's attempt to prevent Cold War hawks from convincing Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson from expanding U.S. military involvement in southeast Asia, it was in the fall of 1961 that, "Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, then Ambassador to India, got wind of their plan--and rushed to block their efforts. He was not an expert on Vietnam, but India chaired the International Control Commission, which had been set up following French withdrawal from Indochina to oversee a shaky peace accord meant to stabilize the region, and so from State Department cables he knew about the Taylor mission--and thus had a clear sense of what was at stake. For Galbraith, a trusted adviser with unique back-channel access to the President, a potential US war in Vietnam represented more than a disastrous misadventure in foreign policy--it risked derailing the New Frontier's domestic plans for Keynesian-led full employment, and for massive new spending on education, the environment and what would become the War on Poverty. Worse, he feared, it might ultimately tear not only the Democratic Party but the nation apart--and usher in a new conservative era in American politics."

(Parker's recent biography, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics [Farrar, Straus & Giroux], is necessary reading, as are Galbraith's own books, particularly 1958's The Affluent Society, with its Keyneseian indictment of "private wealth and public squalor" in American life, and 1992's brilliant The Culture of Contentment, which offers what is still the best explanation of the contemporary crisis in its observation that, "The long years of high budget deficits when they were not needed made it seemingly impossible to initiate stimulating public expenditures when they were now needed. The celebrated tax reductions for the upper-income brackets and the accompanying economics in welfare distribution had substituted the discretionary spending of the rich for the wholely reliable spending of the poor.")

The wittiest and wisest of "the best and brightest," Galbraith broke early and publicly with President Johnson over what had become the Vietnam War and helped the influential liberal group he had co-founded decades earlier, Americans for Democratic Action, move toward an opposition stance that confirmed that even Cold War liberals recognized the madness of engaging in a long-term ground war in southeast Asia.

Galbraith would serve as a distinguished father figure for the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, lending his towering presence to student protests and the campaigns of insurgent Democratic presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. Over the ensuing years, he would remain a steady critic of the imperial endeavors that would rob the U.S. treasury of the resources that could have built the great society.

Several years ago in a valedictory essay that drew together the vital themes of his long career as both an economist and as the Cassandra who warned of the overwhelming costs of misguided foreign policy , Galbraith observed, "We cherish theprogress in civilisation since biblical times and long before. But there isa needed and, indeed, accepted qualification. The US and Britain are in thebitter aftermath of a war in Iraq. We are accepting programmed death for theyoung and random slaughter for men and women of all ages. So it was in thefirst and second world wars, and is still so in Iraq. Civilised life, as itis called, is a great white tower celebrating human achievements, but at thetop there is permanently a large black cloud. Human progress dominated byunimaginable cruelty and death. Civilisation has made great strides over thecenturies in science, healthcare, the arts and most, if not all, economicwell-being. But it has also given a privileged position to the developmentof weapons and the threat and reality of war. Mass slaughter has become theultimate civilised achievement.

"The facts of war are inescapable - death andrandom cruelty, suspension of civilised values, a disordered aftermath," Galbraith continued. "Thusthe human condition and prospect as now supremely evident. The economic andsocial problems here described can, with thought and action, be addressed.So they have already been. War remains the decisive human failure."

The clarity of his vision led several generations of insurgent political strategiststo imagine a "Galbraith for President" candidacy, only to be jarred back toreality by the fact that, while Galbraith had been a U.S. citizensince the 1930s, the Constitutional bar on foreign-born candidatesdisqualified the most attractive contender from consideration. Few political realities frustrated Allard K . Lowenstein, the boldest advocate for a 1968 Democratic primary challenge to Johnson than the fact that Galbraith, his friend and frequent ally, could not be the candidate. George McGovern, who made no secret of his esteem for Galbraith, would have been delighted to make the former Roosevelt aide and Kennedy ambassador his vice presidential running mate in 1972 – a selection that surely could not have hurt, and might well have helped, the Democratic cause of that year. And how amusing it would have been in 1984 if the mentally agile 76-year-old Galbraith had been the Democratic nominee against his doddering 73-year-old contemporary, Ronald Reagan. As it was, he would be boomed by liberals now and again over the decades as a potential candidate for the Senate from his adopted home state of Massachusetts. But it was never to be, perhaps because Galbraith's healthy ego told him that he was best suited for the top job.

Galbraith professed to be amused by the "Galbraith for President" talk, as he was by Canadian suggestions that he might want to come back and serve as that country's prime minister. But he did, with tongue planted only slightly in cheek, imply an interest in presidential politics that was more than merely academic. When the 200th anniversary of the Constitution was celebrated in 1987, American Heritage magazine asked prominent Americans to suggest how they would amend the founding document. Galbraith's reply: "My answer is obvious: That clause that excludes Canadians and others of foreign birth from the Presidency and, possibly, from the Vice-Presidency as well. My whole life was altered, as also, quite clearly, was the history of the Republic. Henry Kissinger, I cannot doubt, vociferously agrees."

A quite serious law professor Jonathan Turley would suggest some years later that Galbraith provided the classic argument for elimination the Constitutional restriction that "denied the nation some of our best and brightest."

When Austrian-born actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California in 2003, there was a flurry of talk about amending the Constitution in order to allow Americans who had been born beyond the nation's borders to be seek the presidency. It seemed at the time that the best argument for the measure was the fact that Galbraith, at 94, was still physically fit, intellectually exceptional and as committed as ever to the liberal ideals that had powered the most successful Democratic presidencies – a combination that made him far more qualified not only than the current occupant of the Oval Office but than most of the Democrats who aspired to it.

With Galbraith's passing, we are left with one less counter to his observation that, "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."Thankfully, we are left, as well, with John Kenneth Galbraith's wisest piece of political advice; his suggestion that: "In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also, one should afflict the comfortable, and especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong."

When Democrats nominate a presidential candidate who is as capable as Galbraith was of articulating that sentiment, the liberalism that our late economist so loved will indeed be resurgent.

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1908-2006

John Kenneth Galbraith died at the age of 97, shortly after 9:00 on Saturday night.

America has lost a great and iconoclastic economist, thinker, writer and political figure.

As William Greider wrote in The Nation last year, the striking quality about "Ken" Galbraith--the man and his work--" is how forcefully the books he wrote across nearly fifty years speak to our present circumstances."

Read Galbraith "to recognize the many important matters--society's condition, for instance--excluded from the brittle, math-obsessed economics that poses as hard science. Study Galbraith's critical voice in the serious public policy debates of his time to appreciate what is missing from today's politics and media. Listen to Galbraith address such taboo subjects as corporate power to understand what honest economists and politicians should be confronting now."

Galbraith, who never shied away from the (relentlessly demonized)term liberal, was also a man of wonderful and droll wit whose fluid prose and pithy notes delighted and inspired.

As Richard Parker's fine biography, John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics reminds us, Galbraith never lost his critical-minded, unconventional and truly liberal-minded temperament--a quality that ensures so many of his books (a staggering forty-eight) remain remarkably relevant to the present.

As we wrestle with his loss to our society and politics, let's celebrate how this great man (and at 6 foot seven he did seem great in so many ways) never ceased to act on behalf of the common good, common sense and powerless people.

Sweet Victory: Arkansas Gets a Raise, Who's Next?

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

The evidence is mounting: there is perhaps no issue that transcends ideology like increasing the minimum wage. 86 percent of America supports boosting the federal minimum wage, deeply frustrated that the rate hasn't budged since 1997. Even in the so-called red states, the minimum wage movement is gaining serious traction.

On April 10th, in Arknasas, Republican Governor Mike Huckabee signed a massive $1.10 state minimum wage increase into law. Arkansas was desperately in need of a wage hike; it currently ranks at the bottom of the nation in median income. But the bill, which takes effect on October 1, will dramatically improve conditions for 127,000 Arkansans, whose wages had long languished at the pathetic federal standard of $5.15 per hour. And contrary to right-wing nonsense, the law won't just help teenagers working at burger joints; approximately 80% of those affected are over 20 years old.

Spearheading the bill was Give Arkansas a Raise Now (GARN)--a coalition including religious groups, community organizations, and state and local chapters of AFSCME, ACORN, AFL-CIO, and the NAACP. But the public was overwhelmingly supportive as well; in a state that went for Bush by 9 percentage points over Kerry, 87 percent favored a minimum wage increase.

"The victory in Arkansas, like the recent win in Michigan, demonstrates both the popularity of the minimum wage issue and the power of grassroots organizing," said Jen Kern of ACORN. "People understand this is a simple issue of fairness - a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it - and elected officials are being forced to respond."

Arkansas is just the beginning. Ballot drives have kicked off in five other states that voted Bush in 2004--Ohio, Montana, Missouri, Ohio, and Arizona. And Albuquerque--which comprises 25% of New Mexico's population--http://today.reuters.com/investing/financeArticle.aspx?type=bondsNews&st... ">just passed a bill that would increase the city's minimum to $6.75 by next year and $7.50 by 2009. Albuquerque is only the fourth city in the US to do so.

"As grassroots momentum builds in the face of Congressional inaction, no state - no matter how "red" - is off the list," said Kern.


Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

March for Peace, Justice and Democracy

If you took part in Saturday's antiwar protests, click here to download a free poster/flyer, created for the occasion by the Public Works Project. It's distinguished, in large part, by the fact that it possesses actual artistic merit--at least in my humble opinion. Print the flyer, post it, pass it out, or email it around.

And if you couldn't be at any of the marches in person, here are a few ideas for some e-activism online.

Click here to tell your elected reps to oppose funding this illegal, unnecessary and, increasingly, unpopular war.

Add your name to a global antiwar petition demanding a cessation of the Iraq occupation and a pledge to combat preemptive US military actions in the future.

Throw your support to the National Campaign for a Peace Fund Tax.

You might also spread the word about the PWP, a fledging project with vast potential. Aiming to inject a healthy dose of art and political consciousness into the landscape of the American city, the Public Works Project--a project of The Nation Institute--is hoping to revive the concept of conscripting art to influence the citizenry on timely issues of the day. Check out its past projects and click here to help make more of them happen.

Bruised & Battered

Even figuring out the terms of debate for legislation is a tough task for Republicans these days--as the fight over lobbying reform in the House illustrated yesterday. First the GOP leadership introduced a rule to prevent reformers from offering amendments, then they pulled the rule from the House floor fifteen minutes later. They didn't have the votes. Then they did. When they reconvened to vote again, no one knew for sure. At the end of the day, the rule passed 216-207. Translation: Republicans 1, Democracy 0. A supposedly "open government" bill will come to a vote next week under closed debate. For those interested in backroom legislative minutia, here's yesterday's (sub-only) synopsis from National Journal's Congress Daily:

A last-minute agreement between House Speaker Hastert and Appropriations Chairman Lewis salvaged the lobbying and ethics overhaul package Thursday, but not before exposing divisions across the Republican Conference.

Following a two-hour afternoon Conference meeting, Hastert and Majority Leader Boehner were prepared to pull the trigger on a procedural vote that appeared destined for failure amid opposition from a united bloc of GOP appropriators.

The decision to put the rule up for a seemingly hopeless vote was against the wishes of Rules Chairman Dreier, who crafted the legislation at Hastert's request, and Majority Whip Blunt, who has never lost a procedural vote on the floor.

However, GOP leaders and appropriators appeared at a stalemate after appropriators balked at a commitment Dreier made to Lewis Wednesday that a bill would not come out of conference that did not include changes agreeable to the spending panel.

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Tensions flared in leadership after the Conference meeting as leaders and their aides scrambled to reach an agreement just as debate resumed on the floor--with the widely held expectation that the rule vote would fail.

Several GOP leadership sources said Hastert was furious with Lewis and appropriators who remained opposed to the bill despite commitments to extend the overhauls in conference.

Defeating the rule would make it increasingly difficult for the House to pass a bill in the future, and Hastert has put a high priority on the legislation. Leaders were also concerned that the failure to pass the rule would open the door to a barrage of Democratic criticism and undermine the GOP leadership team.

"That case was made," said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio. "Not only [would it undermine] the leadership, but the whole majority."

An hour before the vote, Hastert and Boehner huddled in another meeting with appropriators, including Lewis and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. This time, Lewis accepted the commitment to fix the bill in Conference.

Walking out of the meeting, Lewis remarked, in classic Washington-speak: "The Speaker is a very persuasive man."

Gore Goes Hollywood

I first posted this at www.davidcorn.com....

Al Gore for President?

Not really. But l recently attended a screening of his new film, An Inconvenient Truth. And as the film ran, I--and probably many in the crowd--couldn't stop thinking this one thought: why wasn't he like this in 2000? The documentary follows Gore as he travels the world giving a slide show on the reality and perilous consequences of global warming, and much of the film shows him presenting his laptop show-and-tell to what seems to be a hand-picked crowd in a space-age auditorium. On the screen, he comes across as passionate, smart, committed, self-deprecating, and funny--all in the right balance. But when the film shows Gore delivering the slide show to real audiences, he does seem a slight bit pedantic. It's a distinction the movie does not emphasize--but a telling one. This guy had the potential to be a decent leader, but when it counted he could not pull it together. And this film is a painful reminder.

That is not the point of this engaging documentary. It is meant to be a wake-up call. And it does sound one damn big alarm bell. Halfway into it, my gut was clenched, as I despaired about the future of our beautiful blue and white orb. Professor Gore presents a tutorial that overwhelms with facts and graphics, including graphs, satellite imagery of the Earth, video footage from Antarctica, and fancy computer stimulations (such as a harrowing one showing how much of Beijing, New York City, Holland, and San Francisco would be flooded by rising sea levels). Gore makes the point over and over--and it does bear repeating--that there is no longer any debate over the science: global warming is happening, its causes are predominantly human-linked, and the results will be awful. Take that, Michael Crichton. And while Gore's spiffy presentation--which includes a cartoon from Matt Groening's Futurama (an animated Fox show that one of his daughters worked on)--is full of bad news, he does list all the first-steps that could be taken to lower global warming emissions quickly, if there were the political will to do so.

That political will does not yet exist--particularly within the current administration and Congress, as Gore notes (with various jabs) in the film. And Gore is honest about the overall failure of the political system to deal with this issue--and his own failure. He talks about his efforts within Congress over many years to turn global warming into a compelling legislative matter. "I feel as if I have failed to get this message across," he says, explaining that he thought the story was so "compelling" that Congress would have to act. But it hasn't. And he knows why: if a politician acknowledges the full ramifications of global warming then he or she has a "moral imperative" to address it. And that's the tough part: telling Americans they have to change their energy-gorging ways. So they duck the issue. (One nifty graphic in the film shows that the United States is now responsible for about a quarter of all the global warming gasses being spewed into the atmosphere. Another chart noted that mileage standards for cars are much higher in China than the United States.)

After the film was over, Gore spoke to the crowd and took questions. He was much better than his performances in the 2000 presidential debates but not as engaging as he was in the film. One lesson: we all can use a good director. But the question I wanted to ask--alas, I was not called on--was this: why didn't you give this slide show during the 2000 campaign? I'm not suggeting that a doomy hi-tech, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it presentation would have won him the election (though showing the computer stimulation depicting the bottom fifth of Florida state being subsumed by the sea might have helped him in that swing state). But at least it would have allowed Gore to show off his best side. I haven't read Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, but I'm told the section on Gore notes that at one point Gore's aides, concerned about the authenticity gap issue, asked him what he really cared about and what he really wanted to talk about on the campaign trail. Global warming, he replied. His aides then proceeded to undermine his big global warming speech, making sure it did not receive much media attention. And Gore never broke loose from such restraints.

The point of my question was not to get Gore to admit he let Democrats--and himself--down (even if he did win a majority of the popular vote and lost the election due to a lousy Supreme Court decision). I wanted him to reflect on why--now that he is free from electoral politics (or so it seems)--he is able to fiercely throw himself into this crusade. What does that say about the political system's apparent inability to handle such a grave threat and to accommodate a concerned crusader taking on a large and difficult challenge? In other words, can Gore convincingly say that we are not doomed by the limits of our political system (which, perhaps, mirror the limits of human nature--or, at least, American human nature)? These issues did not come up in the Q&A. But Gore did quip, "I don't claim expertise in politics." No comment.

The movie is strong and well-composed by director Davis Guggenheim. It is indeed, as the promo says, the most frightening film you'll ever see, and it is cause-y. The team behind it--including Laurie David and Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender--do not hide their agenda: to scare folks into action. Will they succeed? I don't know how much success one ex-pol with a slideshow can have. But it certainly cannot hurt if his message is echoed in theaters across the country. (It starts arriving in theaters on May 24.) And since this is a campaign, not merely a movie, Gore, Guggenheim and the producers want you to visit the film's website. In the meantime, anyone who watches this no-happy-ending flick will have to hope that addressing Gore's "inconvenient truth" is not a Mission Impossible.

Reconstruction Watch Part V: We Deserve Answers

In the Washington Post last week, Griff Witte reported that American businessman Philip Bloom--whose companies were awarded $8.6 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts--pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe US officials with more than $2 million in cash and gifts in exchange for the reconstruction deals.

Three officials of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority have already been implicated and more arrests are expected.

According to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (and former Associate Counsel to the Bush White House), "This shows oversight is working. It will send a message to those involved in similar schemes that we are on the case."

Will it?

As the Wall Street Journal reports, attorney Alan Grayson is representing dozens of whistleblowers who are suing contractors suspected of defrauding the government. But under The False Claims Act, not one of these cases can proceed or be disclosed to the public until the Bush administration makes a decision as to whether to join in the suit.

There are reportedly 50 such lawsuits pending against firms like Halliburton. Some were filed more than two years ago, and the law states that decisions are supposed to be made by the Bush Administration within 60 days. But the law also allows the administration to seek extensions as it sees fit and so far it has done so in all but one case.

Grayson thinks the reason for the delay is all too clear. "The Bush administration has made a conscious decision to sweep the cases under the rug for as long as possible. And the more bad news that comes out of Iraq, the more motivation they have to do so."

The one case the Bush administration did allow to proceed--though it declined to be a party to it--was against Custer Battles, which was forced to pay $10 million in penalties.

With a White House that is more than cozy with so many of its no-bid contractors...and a motive to keep bad news from hitting the press--especially when it comes to the misuse of taxpayer (and 2006 voters') money… it is once again clear that only a bipartisan independent war profiteering commission will get the answers the American people deserve.

Until that happens, tell your representative to turn up the heat for full disclosure on these pending whistleblower lawsuits. Enough with the sorry delay tactics. It's time for answers now.

*Previous Reconstruction Watch Posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.And on the need for an Independent War Profiteering Commission: here and here.

GOP Retreats on Reform

In the ongoing fight to clean up Congress, the reformers won a minor victory when the House Republican leadership was forced to yank its bogus lobbying "reform" bill off the House floor today.

The move came shortly after Democrats Louise Slaughter and Jim McGovern, both on the House Rules Committee, spoke out against a rule to close debate on a supposedly "open government" bill. When Chairman David Dreier realized he didn't have the votes to pass the rule, he simply yanked it from consideration. As Slaughter told Dreier at a Rules hearing yesterday, "Everybody in this town has beaten up on your bill."

Members of the House Appropriations Committee, led by powerful chairman Jerry Lewis, wanted earmark reform to extend to tax and spending bills. GOP moderates, led by Chris Shays, were unhappy about the steady weakening of an already-toothless piece of legislation. Democrats were virtually united against its passage. And Republican Rep. Joel Hefley, who Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert booted as chairman of the House Ethics Committee in February 2005 after the panel rebuked Tom DeLay three times, was going to speak on the Democrats side.

Rather then face another humiliating defeat for the House Leadership, Dreier pulled the plug. No word yet on when it will resurface. As McGovern, a stalwart progressive, said today: "The Republican Leadership's so-called 'reform' bill deserves to collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy."

UPDATE: House just reconvened to debate lobbying reform rule for one hour.

Bring the Troops Home Amendment

As the Senate considers another emergency supplemental appropriations bill to fund the occupation of Iraq, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has proposed an an amendment that would require the redeployment of U.S. forces from the country by the end of this year.

"Our country desperately needs a new vision for strengthening our national security, and it starts by redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq," Feingold explained. "Our military has performed valiantly in Iraq, but the indefinite presence of large numbers of U.S. forces there tends to weaken our ability to fight the global terrorist networks that threaten us today."

Feingold, who in June, 2005, became the first senator to call for an exit strategy, won the support of 40 Senators in November, 2005, for an amendment that proposed a flexible timetable for the withdrawal. His current amendment, while pressing for a deadline for a general withdrawal, maintains a measure of flexibility with regard to limited initiatives that might continue beyond December 31. In other words, it is a moderate proposal that will be opposed only by those who n-- whether they admit it or not -- have embraced the concept of open-ended occupation.

"Our current path is unsustainable," says Feingold. "While this amendment recognizes the need for certain U.S. forces to be engaged in counter-terrorism activities, the training of Iraqi security services, and the protection of essential U.S. infrastructure, it also recognizes that the President's current strategy in Iraq is undermining our nation's national security."

The Feingold amendment tests all senators. It asks Senate Democrats to stop playing games and make a clear commitment to opposing the Bush administration's policy of permanent warmaking. It asks Senate Republicans -- especially those, such as Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who have been critical of the war -- to make an honest break with the White House.

The American people now recognize that the war was a mistake. They understand that an exit strategy is needed. If the Senate fails to back Feingold's proposal, it will not be the Wisconsin Democrats who stands outside the political mainstream, but, rather, those senators in both parties who cannot bring themselves to chart a course indepedent of that misguided one dictated by George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.