Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bad Government 101: Lessons to be Learned from the Bush Administration

The following are two popular (though contrary) sayings:

"Experience is the best teacher"

"History has a way of repeating itself!"

I seldom comment on contemporary politics on this blog, but today I want to make an exception. I was motivated to write this post by a number of factors. One major impetus has been my interest in the hotly contested, and sometimes inspirational, Democratic race going on between Obama and Clinton. While many commentators have suggested that dragging out this contest could harm the Democratic Party I think its likely impact will be the opposite. To have the nightly news dominated by issues like gender and race is a welcome (and long overdue!) distraction from the almost exclusive media coverage that has been given to the "war on terror" and the fear instilled by 9/11. So to watch CNN's Lou Dobbs partaking in a humane debate about racial tensions in American (rather that his usual tirade against immigration and the outsourcing of jobs) suggests, at least to an outsider like me , that it is reasonable to assume that the Democratic race could have a significant positive impact on American culture. If nothing else, it might help awaken Americans from the haze of fear and despair that has taken hold since 9/11.

The primary goal of this post is not to critique the Bush Administration (which would be an obvious and uninteresting contribution) nor do I intend to offend or chastise Americans. Rather my aim is more positive, and it aspires to help us (all of us, not just Americans) live up to the sage insight that "experience is the best teacher".

If we can learn from the mistakes of the past 8 years of the Bush Administration then perhaps this period of American history will serve as a useful reminder of how high the stakes of good government really are, and that we can not become complacent about this issue. And so I offer some brief reflections on two central policy decisions that the Bush Administration has pursued which effectively reveal the dangers of a government that lacks a sense of proportionality and is guided by dogma. The combination of these two things can be devastating for the citizens of a polity. So let me highlight why by reflecting on the war on terror and Bush's veto of the stem cell bill.

When assessing these two issues I want to limit my examination to concerns of just domestic justice. In other words, the impact the war on terror and stem cell research have had on the lives of Americans (rather than the impact on the world in general). This is something all Americans should consider as they deliberate about the future direction of their country.

As I noted in many previous posts, all societies face many, many problems. There is crime, traffic accidents and congestion, natural disasters, risk of infectious disease, terror attack, obesity, etc. Humans are intrinsically vulnerable, and thus if we want to derive some sage general insights concerning what constitutes a just government (and society), we really need to start at the level of non-ideal theory.

So how should a government go about prioritizing among the many, many problems that it could address. There are concerns about terror attacks, global warming, disease (e.g. cancer), poverty, etc. After 9/11 the Bush Administration decided to make the "war on terror" the #1 priority of America. This was in direct response to the attacks on 9/11. The costs of the war on terror (from 2001-2117), according to this estimate, will be approximately $2.4 trillion ($21,500 per American household).

And so the question to ask is this: how wise was this investment? The attacks of 9/11 resulted in almost 3000 deaths. And yet 300,000 U.S. deaths a year are associated with obesity and excess weight (see here). Furthermore, 400,000 deaths a year are associated with cigarette smoking (which has enormous costs in terms of human lives and direct and indirect costs to the economy). But a war on obesity and tobacco have not been concerns of the Bush Administration. Bill Clinton, by contrast, has done a lot to emphasis the importance of tackling obesity, especially childhood obesity. And Al Gore has been a vocal critic of the tobacco industry. Here is an excerpt from his passionate 1996 speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most inspirational political speeches I have ever heard:

Some of the most powerful forces that do the most harm are often hard to see and even harder to understand. When I was a child, my family was attacked by an invisible force that was then considered harmless. My sister Nancy was older than me. There were only the two of us and I loved her more than life itself. She started smoking when she was 13 years old. The connection between smoking and lung cancer had not yet been established but years later the cigarettes had taken their toll.

It hurt very badly to watch her savaged by that terrible disease. Her husband, Frank, and all of us who loved her so much, tried to get her to stop smoking. Of course she should have, but she couldn't.

When she was 45, she had a lung removed. A year later, the disease had come back and she returned to the hospital. We all took turns staying with her. One day I was called to come quickly because things had taken a turn for the worse.

By then, her pain was nearly unbearable, and as a result, they used very powerful painkillers. And eventually it got so bad they had to use such heavy doses that she could barely retain consciousness. We sometimes didn't know if she could hear what we were saying or recognize us.

But when I responded to that call and walked into the hospital room that day, as soon as I turned the corner - someone said, "Al's here" - she looked up, and from out of that haze her eyes focused intensely right at me. She couldn't speak, but I felt clearly I knew she was forming a question: "Do you bring me hope?"

All of us had tried to find whatever new treatment or new approach might help, but all I could do was to say back to her with all the gentleness in my heart, "I love you." And then I knelt by her bed and held her hand. And in a very short time her breathing became labored and then she breathed her last breath.

Tomorrow morning another 13-year-old girl will start smoking. I love her, too. Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's, and that is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.

And that is also why I was intensely proud last week when President Clinton stood up for American families by standing up to tobacco advertising aimed at getting our children addicted. He proposed - he proposed the first-ever comprehensive plan to protect children from smoking; to ban tobacco advertising aimed at our children, and to ban it for good.

Contrast the compassion and insight of Gore's comments with Bush's speech on the War on Terror almost a decade later:

The terrorists in Iraq share the same ideology as the terrorists who struck the United States on September the 11th. Those terrorists share the same ideology with those who blew up commuters in London and Madrid, murdered tourists in Bali, workers in Riyadh and guests at a wedding in Amman, Jordan. Just last week they massacred Iraqi children and their parents at a toy giveaway outside an Iraqi hospital.

This is an enemy without conscience, and they cannot be appeased. If we're not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people.

Against this adversary there is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory.

So both a war on smoking and a war on terror seek to save American lives. And to determine how sage waging either war is one must consider what the costs (in both human lives and to the economy) of both inaction and intervention will be and the likelihood of success. To do this government must have (in addition to credible empirical facts) a sense of proportionality, and this comes from having a competent grasp of the "big picture" of things. Many things kill Americans. Americans are much more likely to die from an unhealthy diet or smoking than they are from a terrorist attack. Furthermore, tackling obesity and smoking are more cost-effective measures than invading other countries. And so the lesson to be learned from the response to 9/11 is that it is imperative to keep things in perspective, and respond in a proportionate fashion. The money spent on the war on terror is money that could have been spent on other laudable goals. Goals that would have saved more American lives and increased American prosperity.

And so Bush's track record fails even the benchmarks he outlined with his philosophy of compassionate conservatism. A central commitment of that philosophy was that the government would only spend money on those things it could actually achieve. And so one can ask if the benefits of the war on terror are proportionate to the costs of the war. And I think it is fair to say that, of the various things the Bush administration could have done to improve the health prospects of Americans, the war on terror was way down the list in terms of cost-effective interventions.

The second policy issue I want to draw attention to concerns Bush's decision to veto the Stem Cell Bill. Recall my earlier post here. In September 2006 Bush vetoed the embryonic stem-cell bill, a bill that both the House of Representatives and the Senate supported. When explaining his decision to veto the bill Bush replied: "It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect. So I vetoed it." The real tragedy of Bush's contempt for science and democracy is that those who will pay the highest price are among the most vulnerable Americans- citizens afflicted with diseases like Parkinson's disease. And so once again we can ask about proportionality in this case- how many American lives has Bush's decision saved vs how many it will likely kill? And once again the numbers are stacked up against Bush's decision. The embryos used for this scientific research would not become real people anyways (barring someone agreeing to have the embryo implanted in their uterus and even then there is no guarantee that this would result in a live birth). Of course there is no guarantee that stem cell research will result in effective medical interventions. But there is a credible scientific basis for this belief. Bush's decision was not based on an informed and humane sense of proportionality, it was based on dogma. And so the second lesson to be learned from the Bush Administration is that power and dogma make for a very dangerous combination.

So this completes my brief lecture on Bad Government 101. If there is any truth to the motto "Experience is the Best Teacher" then the past 8 years of American politics should prove very valuable to all of us. And we should remain optimistic that the next President of the United States will help inspire the best of the American people and culture.