Economics of Place
Letter from America
Cover: Illustration: Corbis
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IN A LAST gesture, President George W. Bush in his final sixty days in office did his best to tear down the laws put in place for the protection of America’s wilderness. With a few pen strokes, Bush opened up 2 million acres of the Rocky Mountains to oil-shale exploitation, did away with pollution controls on coal plants, and exempted mountain-top strip mining operations and industrial-scale hog farms from the Clean Water Act. He even tried to weaken regulation of a pollutant in drinking water that can affect brain development in children.
The editors of Resurgence were shocked when they read about it in The Guardian, and they wrote to me, asking me to interpret this latest American outrage. “Is there some kind of action afoot to reverse all this deregulation? How do the American public feel about this? Is there anything being done to stop him?” So with the cynicism that has grown like a carapace over my soul these past eight years, as the stuff of political satire has become reality here in the Land of the Brave and the Free, I replied:
Dear Satish, Lorna and Jo,
Even though George W. Bush is our worst president since James Buchanan, what he is doing here is so common in American politics that it even has a name. These are Midnight Regulations, and every president since Jimmy Carter has made them. A man gets to the end of his term, sees all that he’s left undone, and by his Midnight Regulations shall ye know him. Bush is a corporate man whose presidency has left us with a reeking slag-heap where our economy and our environment used to be. It follows that his Midnight Regulations should lift restrictions on those who destroy Nature, torture helpless animals and poison the land.
This is nothing new. The former oil, gas, mining and timber executives Bush appointed to head the relevant federal departments have been dishing up our natural resources to their once and future employers since day one. These Midnight Regulations represent their wish list: the things they dream about when they’re alone in the executive men’s room. As spineless as Congress and the media have been all this time, Bush never could have got it past them in the light of day, so he tries to sneak it through as regulation under cover of night. There is, naturally, a public outcry, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the movie star Robert Redford. Everyone knows most of it will be cancelled by the incoming Obama administration.
Bush is almost universally discredited. Even Richard Nixon in the hour of his resignation had a higher approval rating. Look, the Democrats ran a black man for president and he won. I am enormously proud of my country. When I was born, Jim Crow was still the law. But there’s no way we’d have a black family in the White House if Bush had not screwed up so badly. He knows it, too.
I predict the relatively small noise over this affair will be drowned out by howls of outrage from coast to coast when Bush issues presidential pardons to everyone who might ever testify against him for violating US and international laws. All those tame lawyers who told him what he wanted to hear, all those CIA operatives and generals, Vice President Dick Cheney – I expect them all to receive a presidential pardon, which unlike an agency regulation, is forever.
THIS BRINGS ME to the most serious and lasting damage done by Bush and Cheney – not to our mountains and rivers, or even to our international reputation, but to our republic. Cheney’s theory of the unitary executive holds that the president is under less legislative and popular constraint than George III of England, and the Bush administration has comported itself accordingly. Congress would pass a law, and Bush would sign it, and then in a ‘signing statement’ explain that he disagreed with it and did not intend to enforce it. Warrantless surveillance, detention of Americans as ‘enemy combatants’ without due process: the whole catalogue of abuses follows from a philosophy of government that says the president can do whatever he pleases.
It is a hopeful sign that the president-elect was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He has vowed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. I cannot imagine that he will permit an oil-shale mining operation within sight of Delicate Arch national monument, or let stand regulations that allow rocket-fuel residue in drinking water. I can’t see him launching a war out of a sense of personal vendetta, or supporting a coup against a democratically elected leader of a nearby country.
I hope he will lead us in the necessary transition to a new economy based on renewable sources of energy. I hope he will be conservative enough to see that if there is any company in America to which the laws of capitalism should be rigorously applied, it is General Motors, and liberal enough to see that if there is to be a bail-out of the financial sector, it should start with the people locked into unconscionable mortgages rather than the bankers who sold them.
I am aware, however, that our new president is a screen upon whom Americans, myself included, have projected their dearest hopes and their darkest fears. When I take off my rose-coloured shades and really look at Barack Obama, he is a centrist, establishment politician. I suspect everyone who supported him in his historic campaign is going to be disappointed in some measure by the decisions and the compromises he makes in office.
Just because Obama is president doesn’t mean gravity has been suspended. There are still Republicans in Congress, the Supreme Court is not improved from the one that put Bush in office eight years ago, and Washington is still Washington. It’s going to be hard for Obama to play Roosevelt with the national credit card maxed-out from all the money that’s been shovelled at Wall Street and the big banks these past few months. A real restructuring of the automobile industry would turn out the lights in Michigan and Ohio, states any Democrat needs in order to get re-elected.
OBAMA IS POSSESSED of extraordinary political skills. He defeated the supposedly invincible Clinton machine, and spanked the Republicans so hard that the talk-radio bullies were practically weeping. He defied all the conventional wisdom, broke all the unbreakable rules, never got flustered or made a false move. I believe he has what it takes to become a great president, a Lincoln for the crisis of the new century. But it’s 1st December 2008 and your readers won’t see this until March 2009. Time will tell.
Best wishes – Daniel