Top Ten Worst Things about the Bush Decade; Or, the Rise of the New Oligarchs

By spring of 2000, Texas governor George W. Bush was wrapping up the Republican nomination for president, and he went on to dominate the rest of the decade. If Dickens proclaimed of the 1790s revolutionary era in France that it was the best of times and the worst of times, the reactionary Bush era was just the worst of times. I declare it the decade of the American oligarchs. Just as the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union allowed the emergence of a class of lawless ‘Oligarchs’ in Russia, so Neoliberal tax policies and deregulation produced American equivalents. (For more on the analogy, see Michael Hudson.) We have always had robber barons in American politics, but the Neoliberal moment created a new social class. At about 1.3 million adults, it is not too large to have some cohesive interests, and its corporations, lobbyists, and other institutions allow it to intervene systematically in politics. It owns 45 percent of the privately held wealth and is heading toward 50, i.e. toward a Banana Republic. Thus, we have a gutted fairness doctrine and the end of anti-trust concerns in ownership of mass media, allowing a multi-billionaire like Rupert Murdoch to buy up major media properties and to establish a cable television channel which is nothing but oligarch propaganda. They established ‘think tanks’ like the American Enterprise Institute, which hires only staff that are useful agents of the interests of the very wealthy, and which produce studies denying global climate change or lying about the situation in Iraq. Bush-Cheney were not simply purveyors of wrong-headed ideas. They were the agents of the one percent, and their policies make perfect sense if seen as attempts to advance the interests of this narrow class of persons. It is the class that owns our mass media, that pays for the political campaigns of ‘our’ (their) representatives, that gives us the Bushes and Cheneys and Palins because they are useful to them, and that blocks progressive reform and legislation with the vast war chest funneled to them by deep tax cuts that allow them to use essential public resources, infrastructure and facilities gratis while making the middle class pay for them.

Here are my picks for the top ten worst things about the wretched period, which, however, will continue to follow us until the economy is re-regulated, anti-trust concerns again pursued, a new, tweaked fairness doctrine is implemented, and we return to a more normal distribution of wealth (surely a quarter of the privately held wealth is enough for the one percent?) It isn’t about which party is in power; parties can always be bought. It is about how broadly shared resources are in a society. Egalitarianism is unworkable, but over-concentration of wealth is also impractical. The latter produced a lot of our problems in the past decade, and as long as such massive inequality persists, our politics will be lopsided.

10. Stagnating worker wages and the emergence of a new monied aristocracy. Of all the income growth of the entire country of the United States in the Bush years, the richest 1 percent of the working population, about 1.3 million persons, grabbed up over two-thirds of it. The Reagan and Bush cuts in tax rates on the wealthy have created a dangerous little alien inside our supposedly democratic society, of the super-rich, with their legions of camp followers (sometimes referred to as ‘analysts’ or ‘economists’ or ‘journalists’). The new lords and ladies are the Dick and Liz Cheneys and the people for whom they shill. They are the Rupert Murdochs and the Richard Mellon Scaifes, and they are guaranteed to own more and more of the country as long as more progressive taxation (i.e. pre-Reagan, not pre-Bush) is not restored. They are the ones who didn’t want a public universal health option, did not want the wars abroad to end abruptly, did not want the Copenhagen Climate convention to succeed. They are driven by pure greed and narrow profit-seeking for themselves. They always get their way, and they always will as long as you poor stupid bastards buy the line that when the government raises their taxes, it is taking something away from you. It is the alliance of the Neoliberal super-rich with the new lower middle class populists led by W. and now by Sarah Palin that produces clown politics in the US unmatched in most advanced industrial countries with the possible exception of Italy.

9. Health and food insecurity increased for ordinary Americans. Health care costs skyrocketed. Most Americans in the work force who have health care are covered via their employers. ‘From 1999 to 2009 health insurance premiums increased 132%” for the companies paying most of the costs of coverage to their employees. Euromonitor adds, “Average private health insurance premiums for a family of four in 1999 were US$5,485 per annum or 7.2% of household disposable income. 2008 premiums were estimated at US$12,973 per annum or 14.8% of average household disposable income.” By Bush’s last year in office, food insecurity among American families was at a 14-year high. About 49 million Americans, one in six of us, worried about having enough food to eat at some points in that year, and resorted to soup lines, food stamps, or dietary shortcuts. Some 16 million, according to the NYT, suffered from ‘“very low food security,” meaning lack of money forced members to skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point in the year.’ Hundreds of thousands of children are going hungry in the richest country in the world. From being a proud, wealthy people, our social superiors reduced us to the estate of third-world peasants, so as to make sure their bonuses were bigger.

8. The environment became more polluted. The Bush administration was the worst on record on environmental issues. Carbon emissions grew unchecked, and the threat of climate change accelerated. In fact, Bush muzzled government climate scientists and had their reports rewritten by lawyers from Big Oil.

7. The imperial presidency was ensconced in ways it will be difficult to pare back. But note that its powers were never used against the oligarchs (unlike the case in Putin’s Russia), but rather deployed to ensure the continued destruction of the labor movement and the political bargaining power of workers and the middle class, and to harass and disrupt peace, rights and environmental movements. A part of this process was the abrogation of fourth amendment protections against arbitrary search, seizure and snooping into people’s mail and effects, and of other key constitutional rights under vague and unconstitutional rubrics such as ‘providing material aid to terrorists,'(rights which seem unlikely ever to be restored).

6. The Katrina flood and the destruction of much of historic African-American New Orleans, and the massive failure of the Bush administration to come to the aid of one of America’s great cities. The administration’s unconcern about the unsound dam infrastructure, about climate change, and about the fate of the victims are all a wake-up call for what all of us have in store from the small social class that Bush served.

5. The Bush administration’s post-2002 mishandling of Afghanistan, where the Taliban had been overthrown successfully in 2001 and were universally despised. The Bush administration’s attempt to assert itself with a big troop presence in the Pashtun provinces, its use of search and destroy tactics and missile strikes, its neglect of civilian reconstruction, and its failure to finish off al-Qaeda, allowed an insurgency gradually to grow. It should have been nipped in the bud, but was not. Once an insurgency becomes well established, it is defeated militarily only about 20 percent of the time. Eight years later, the Neoconservative thrust into Central Asia (in search of hydrocarbon leverage, or in a geopolitical pissing match with Russia and China?) of the early years of this decade has bequeathed us yet another war, this time one that could destabilize neighboring Pakistan– the world’s sole Muslim nuclear power.

4. The Iraq War, in which the US illegally launched a war of aggression that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displaced 4 million (over a million abroad), destroyed entire cities such as Fallujah, set off a Sunni-Shiite civil war, allowed Baghdad to be ethnically cleansed of its Sunnis, practiced systematic and widespread torture before the eyes of the Muslim Middle East and the world, and immeasurably strengthened Iran’s hand in the Middle East. All this on false pretexts such as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘democratization,’ for the sake of opening the Iraqi oil markets to US hydrocarbon firms– a significant faction of the oligarchic class. Cost to the US in American military life: 4,373 dead as of Dec 15 and 31,603 wounded in combat. The true totals of war-related dead and injured are higher, since 30,000 troops who were only diagnosed with brain injuries on their return to the US are not counted in the statistics, according to Michael Munk. The cost of the Iraq War when everything is taken into account will likely be $3 trillion.

3. The great $12 trillion Bank Robberry, in which unscrupulous bankers and financiers were deregulated and given free rein to create worthless derivatives, sell impossible mortgages to uninformed marks who could not understand their complicated terms, and then to roll this garbage up into securities re-sold like the
Cheshire cat, with a big visible smile of asserted value hanging in the air even as their actual worth disappeared into thin air. Having allowed the one-percent oligarchs to capture most of the increase of the country’s wealth in recent decades, Bush and Paulsen now initiated the surrender to them of nearly a further entire year’s gross domestic product of the US, stealing it from the rest of us by deficit budget financing that will have the effect of deflating our savings and property values and relative value of our currency against other world currencies. That is, we are to be further beggared for sake of the super-rich. And while the banks and bankers are held harmless, the hardworking Americans who have lost and will lose their homes are extended virtually no help. While 500,000 American children will go hungry at least some of the time this year, the Oligarchs at Goldman, Sachs, will get millions in bonuses, on the backs of the ordinary taxpayers. It seems likely to me that the creation of a pool of vast excess liquidity for the super-rich by the Reagan-Cheney tax cuts was what impelled them to develop the derivatives, since they had too much capital for ordinary investment purposes and were restlessly seeking new gaming tables. The conclusion is that until we get our gini coefficient back into some sort of synch, we are likely at risk for further such meltdowns.

2. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington by al-Qaeda, an organization that stemmed from the Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and which decided that, having defeated one superpower, it could take down the other. Al-Qaeda’s largely Arab volunteer fighters had confronted the Soviets over their occupation of a major Muslim country, Afghanistan. Bin Laden was himself a Neoliberal Oligarch, but he broke with the Gulf consensus of seeking a US security umbrella, thus creating a fissure within his powerful social class. Al-Qaeda viewed the US as only a slightly less objectionable occupier, though they were willing to make an alliance of convenience in the 1980s. But they were increasingly enraged and galvanized to strike, they said, by the post-Gulf-War sanctions on Iraq that killed 500,000 children, the debilitating Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, and the establishment of US bases in the holy Arabian Peninsula (with its oil riches that Bin Laden believed were being looted for pennies by the West, aided by a supine and corrupt Saudi dynasty). Al-Qaeda was a small fringe crackpot group of murderous conspiracy theorists, since most of what they considered an American ‘occupation’ of Muslims was no such thing. The leasing of Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia was comparable to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? They intended to make themselves look like a world-historical force, and the US new Oligarchs, who no longer had the international Communist conspiracy with which to scare the American public into letting them have their way, were happy to buy in to the hyping of al-Qaeda, as well. But the catastrophe was not only the attacks, deadly and horrific though they were, but the alacrity with which Americans surrendered their birthright of yeoman liberties to a Bonapartist regime that ran roughshod over law, the constitution, the Congress, and anyone, such as Ambassador Joe Wilson, who dared oppose it.

1. The constitutional coup of 2000, in which Bush was declared the winner of an election he had lost, with the deployment of the most ugly racial and other low tricks in the ballot counting and the intervention of a partisan and far right-wing Supreme Court (itself drawn from or serving the oligarchs), and which gave us the worst president in the history of the union, who proceeded to drive the country off a cliff for the succeeding 8 years. And that is because he was not our president, but theirs.

End/ (Not Continued)

47 Responses

  1. IMO, Barak Obama is clearly continuing the Bush policies.

    Give "credit" where it is due.

  2. Excellent column. I recall Sy Hersh on TV perplexed by how a small group could take over the whole government. Now we see that it was the acceleration of trends already in place.

    I am going to send this to my friends and try to get it out on the web.

    Suggest reading the excellent book of political philosophy by Sheldon Wolin. He is an 80+ year old emeritus professor from Princeton who describes the rise of the oligarchs and the decline of our democracy. The book is "Democracy Incorporated: Managerial Democracy and the Rise of Inverted Totalitarianism."

  3. We refer to it as the "Bush Deathcade" around here. Thanks for the summary, Juan Cole.

  4. A-f—ing-men brother Cole. I remember celebrating at midnight on New Year's Eve, 2001, having lost friends and family in the 9/11 attacks, and been through a divorce to boot – and thinking, "good riddance to the worst year of my life." Shame to look back and see there was worse to come for this country.

  5. There is now, not only WHAT to do about this USA, but HOW—given the SIZE of the never-ending $lu$h, the fact that the root of 'lawyer' is 'liar'and resources [such as who has mic's and who does not] are lopsided, in the extreme??? Will the NET provide Johnsons & Johnsons??

    Ancient Rome was sophisticated enough to provide that long list of what we can call 'advanced culture,' administering 750,000 sq miles of Empire, for over 1900 years—and they went DOWN.

    Prof. H. Barron

  6. That about says it all. Amen. Salaam. Shalom.

  7. .
    With the ?war? in Afghanistan recognized as a counterproductive abortion, how is it you criticize Bush for his stupidity, but don't even acknowledge Obama's complicity ?

    After Taliban was routed, neither President believed that Afghanistan impacted US security; both considered it merely a football to be toyed with as part of a reelection campaign.
    So why does Mars-worshiping Obama get the kid-glove treatment from you ?
    .

  8. Dang, dude! Did you write this? I didn't know you had it in you. Bush is Coolidge, Obama is Hoover and with talk like this we may yet get our Huey P. Long. Only this time, let's not kill him.

  9. "Egalitarianism is unworkable", I spoke to soon, but at this point I will settle for FDR

  10. All these are great points, but most are an indictment of our system in general. The ongoing distinction between Democrats and Republicans baffles me and I think is something people cling to on the level of sports fans who feel like they need a team to support.

    We have institutionalized bribery in the form of lobbyists. Liberal politicians and media outlets are just as beholden to corporate interests. All American politicians are elected by donors, not voters. The Obama response to the financial crisis was identical in every way to the response begun under the Bush administration. Democratic opposition to health reform was even cheaper and more effective for insurance companies to buy than Republican opposition.

    Conservatism is a means of marketing our oligarchic system to the masses by using fear, xenophobia and religion. Liberalism is a means of marketing the exact same oligarchic system to the masses using the promise of peace, equality and multiculturalism.

    And yet, people still look back on the wrongs of the Bush years as if they are points in Obama's favor – and vice versa. Wake up.

  11. Wow Juan- that's some set there. I'd bump one though and put the healthcare debate (or lack of) and/or bill (or whatever that thing is) in your list. Never once in all the congress I can recall- back to Carter- has it ever been more clear that both sides of the aisle are bought and paid for by these oligarchs. The New York Times published this story:
    link to nytimes.com

    The quote I keep returning to for it utter sheer frightening honesty:
    "Asked about the Congressional statements, a lobbyist close to Genentech said: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.”"

    It seems that there is nothing left to do anymore- protests are now sanitized, safe and easily dismissed, voting barely matters, writing and calling your congress people results in a prefabricated statement that can't stand up to any logical line of questioning.

    I think there are a few things we could try:

    1. Publicly funded elections. Sure they aren't perfect but at least it's a step to getting the oligarchical influence out of the election process.

    2. Disqualification of voting rights if a congress person has taken money from a group that directly benefits from legislation. If Sen. McCain took 200k from Genentech- he gets no vote on any legislation that would directly effect them- healthcare bill, stem cell research, etc.

    3. Selective tax distribution. Every year at tax time you get to actually choose which parts of the budget your money goes to fund. Do it like 401k fund investing, percentages.

    Bless you for all your great work this year. May the next one be as productive and joyful.

  12. Good list, although the word good somehow doesn't seem appropriate under the circumstances. However, I
    would have put something about civil liberaties in there. I know America isn't as pure as it likes to believe it is on this front, but this is the only time I know of where an administration was systematically torturing people and having its OLC legally justifying it. This achievement, which broke the Geneva conventions and lead to the death of over 100 people, surely belongs on the Bush/Cheney wall of shame.

  13. Love it:

    Egalitarianism is "unworkable", but over-concentration of wealth is merely "impractical".

    1% owning 25% of the country's wealth is "normal".

  14. wow. just wow. that was one too many triggers/flashbacks in one place. and yet it was just amazing. time to take out the cheerleading pom-poms :)

  15. It does not matter which of the two parties are in power. We need public financing of our elections and we need a third party.

    Many are disappointed with Obama, but I am not. I was never convinced of his progressive credentials and did not vote for him.

  16. If the Imperial Presidency is so powerful now, why don't we have someone in that office who will use it for the rest of us? Rep. Alan Grayson is exactly that sort of guy. He's as smart as President Obama and he's a real fighter who is actually in the people's corner whacking away at the oligarchs. If Grayson runs against Obama in 2012, he could actually win, or at least scare Obama into doing his job properly. For a more thorough exploration of this idea, see Evert Cilliers' essay at 3 Quarks Daily.

  17. Great list, though I'd add the general 'war on science' that Bush seemed to nurture to the list.

  18. OK, so it's not just me then.

    Seriously, this excrement is waaaay beyond depressing. But what's worse is how many people don't know what's going on, or couldn't give a John Howard.

    Thanks Juan Cole for being a voice of reason. Your sanity, courage and intellect ripple around the world in ways you can scarcely imagine. Best wishes for an unimaginably better decade to come: sometimes good things are born from adversity, that's about the best I can come up with right now.

  19. Roll on a rebirth of American populism.

    The great English novelist Charles Dickens did some crystal ball gazing in 1842. It makes for sober reading, particularly alongside this devastating Informed Comment "wrap".

    Here's Dickens' "read".

    "I believe the heaviest blow ever dealt at Liberty's Head, will be dealt by this national in the ultimate failure of its example to the Earth."

    "…'the Mass' (to use our monarchical term) are miserably dependent in great things, and miserably independent in small ones."

  20. I recall being in Europe in 2000 and thinking to myself how cool it was to be an American, how proud I was. Bush destroyed the American image in the eyes of foreigners. That is worthy of being squeezed into your spot-on list.

  21. Great list, but Obama's willingness to work almost 100% with the Oligarchs needs to be added.

    He hasn't prosecuted any of the Bush criminals

    Put the same financial crooks, in power with no real reform

    Added to our Defense budget & is invading Afghan & expanding Blackwaters role.

    Cut a deal with the Pharm & Health Insurance

  22. My first impulse was to thank you for this effort, and having read down through the comments, I see that I am only one of many who owe you thanks. Your brave mind has led me through most of this decade, assuring me in my relative isolation that I am not misperceiving our slide into oligarchic control. Thank you Dr. Cole, and I hope you can enjoy the seasons rituals, you deserve some joy. JF

  23. This article is not about President Obama it it about the shortcomings and the oligarch pandering that took place during the Bush era.

    Great Article.

  24. Informed Comment has been the most consistently accurate and reliable source of news on Mideast politics for the last decade. Juan Cole should be Secretary of State, and Hilary Clinton should be writing her memoirs.

    Thank you, Professor Cole, for your steadfast defense of the truth against the propaganda onslaught of the worst bunch of scoundrels ever to disgrace the American government.

  25. -a perceptive analysis and right-on in all respects but one: The bad guys, even including Osama be Laden are/were "neo-liberals"?! Surely you meant neo-cons. None of the liberals I know subscribe to the outlandish positions you listed.

  26. Here, here, and HERE! Great job on this, though outing a CIA agent and politicizing the Justice department are also high on my list. I was especially happy to see the Great American Coup of 2000 at the top of your list. For the first time in my life, I was paying close attention to an election in 2000, and I was astonished at the level of animosity on political online discussion boards, and at the complete lack of fact-checking by mainstream media. On EVERY issue raised in Florida, the Democrats were 100% correct and by-the-book, and the Republicans were wrong, lying, and being deceitful. We now know for sure, via the NORC study that more voters in Florida in 2000 went to the polls and attempted to vote for Gore than for Bush.

    I disagree completely with the commenter who suggests that it is just politics as usual, and the Democrats are just like the Republicans. I believe that the Republican Party is nothing more than a front for big business and the wealthy. They are not concerned with or for the people they represent, and that is why they have to lie, mislead, and SPIN the truth. And, they have the money and the abilities to be master spinners indeed.

    It is sad that journalistic integrity is no longer a factor in mainstream media – lies are not corrected, misleading statements are not clarified, and deceit is left standing as if it were truth.

    Here are some system ideas I have had. 1) All televised political debates should include a panel of fact-checking experts who call the candidates immediately on any lie or misleading statement, 2) it should be illegal to say anything about any other candidate in any speech, commercial, or other media dissemination outlet – talk about yourself and YOUR stance on the issues only! 3) ALL political donations should be made to the RACE, not to the candidates, and the proceeds should be divided equally amongst the candidates for that race, and 4) just as the FDC and FDA regulate what is disseminated through media to the American public, all political statements and advertisements should be regulated so that lies cannot be broadcast to millions. You cannot lie about the safety or abilities of your products via paid commercials, why can people lie about issues and candidates via commercials??

  27. Re David Desautel's notion on splitting the campaign money pot — how about this notion for the economists and their notions of markets and efficiency?

    Winner in any election is determined by number of votes cast for a person or proposition by the number of dollars spent to try to persuade/sucker/hoodwink voters into casting their ballot for same. Biggest quotient wins.

    It's long since past time to discard the fanciful fiction that there is such an animal in America as "one person, one vote."

  28. Are the 1 percenters paying attention? People are pissed. Take, for instance, the teabaggers. Their anger is real, though misguided. They know they've been ripped off, just not by whom. Unfortunately, thanks to the ignorance this country seems to wallow in, they're duped into raging against those who are most likely to help them.
    Obama may not be what we hoped for, but it is sooo great not to have to watch that strutting, smirking clownturd Bush anymore.

  29. One comment mentioned the "war on science," which surely belongs on the list, but the politicization of the Justice Department must be one of the worst offenses.

  30. I had not known about your site until now; my loss. Your overview of the first decade of the 21st century is the most astute and sweeping indictment of the current political system I've encountered. Should be required reading in our high schools, though given the lack of reading skills and knowledge of politics in our high school grads (I'm a university professor–I see it first-hand), I don't know how many would even grasp it.

    And I agree about the war on science–reprehensible.

    Again–simply brilliant piece. Like the governator said–I'll be back.

  31. Good list and generally spot on assessments. There is one part that somewhat misses the mark. Where you indicate that al Qaida is crackpot conspiratists because of an air base misses what they perceived as our proppoing up corrupt, repressive and totalitarian governments like those in Saudi Arabia and throughout the middle east. It has only worsened and now Yemen is in the crosshairs.

    I do totally agree with your number 1 item. That election was a watershed moment for democracy and our country's future. We have been drowning ever since.

  32. Ahhh – Progressive truth spews forward…and only those intellectuals with a liberal arts degree might agree….lol

  33. Best «Ten worst» list for the decade that I've yet seen – and yet for some reason I'm reminded of the purple cow, which I'd rather not have seen ! In any event, thanks for posting, Professor Cole ; let us hope that many more people become cognizant of this odd bovine !…

    Henri

  34. Beautifully stated, you make a strong case. I have thought for years regarding the growing divide in the US, and the need for moderation thereof. Regretfully, I see more and more, there is to be no mitigation in the power grab of the few, the proud, the rich, with their cadre of buffoons to keep them amused and the poor distracted.

    It is time to rise up.

  35. As soon as someone uses the term "illegal war" I know to tune out. Who makes a war legal or illegal? This is meaningless and ill thought out. As anti-Bush as I am, at least he sounds more coherent than this rant.

  36. THANK YOU for including the 2000 election as #1. One of the greatest travesties and injustices of our nation's history isn't usually given the emphasis that it deserves.

  37. I'd like to add either number 11 or 1A depending on your view:
    The murder of the respectability of the position of President of the US…From his dumb-downed ridiculously bogus Texas man persona to his butchering of the English language and middle-school-esque public speaking skills, Bush destroyed any respect the American people had for the President

  38. OK, but I would think Iraq & torture & prisoner/detainee treatment belong at #1…

  39. Thanx Juan…you've applied intellect and integrity to an issue that the neoconservatively enslaved will never understand.

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