Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coal Ash and Republican Misrule

The recent flood of muck that buried a dozen homes in Roane County Tennessee is a clear visual way to understand not only the last eight years of Bush-Cheney but the whole Regan inspired free market misrule of the last thirty years. Our nation is now buried in a huge pile of toxic mud thanks to a shoddily constructed containment wall built at the lowest possible price.

Look at why that containment wall was there in the first place. Its very construction was a bad idea from very start. Responsible actors, engineers pointed out that damming the toxic coal waste was a dangerous concept. The people who do the heavy intellectual lifting noted that the toxic waters could somehow seep into ground water supply, that the containment pond should have been at least lined.

Such concerns were swept under the rug because of the cost they would incur. In the Regan-Clinton-Bush philosophy ( yes Big Bill the Triagulator and his corporatist DLC buddies aided and abetted the Regan “small government” mantra) corporation should not be inconvenienced by the costly requirements of protecting the general public good. The market knew best and profit overruled caution. The very rules were changed so as to the cost of regulation to corporations. Economic considerations trumped science and engineering.

We have seen this type of tilting of the playing field in other areas. Bush was especially shameless in the re-branding of the gutting of civic protections. There was the “healthy forests act” the “clear skies initiative “and the “pure water act” all oxymoronic Orwellian double-speak for Corporate-friendly gutting of government protections. It was par for the course for the Republicans; from union-busting Labor departments to Safety regulators being run by corporate safety violators.

The whole assault on the common good for private profit began with Regan. Bush was not the first President to nominate staunch free-market believers to regulatory positions. People have too quickly forgotten the shop of horrors that James Watt set up in Regan’s Interior Department. People also have forgotten how Bush Senior foisted the deeply unqualified Clarence Thomas into the slot held by Thurgood Marshall. The contempt for good governance that Regan and the Bushes showed was and is manifest. Papa Bush gets more credit than he deserves because of his good breeding and zaftig personality. Both Bush and Regan had a charm about them; Regan was a genial and optimistic grandfather figure, Bush Sr. had patrician goofiness about him. Both were reined in by a much friskier Democratic Party and a basic common sense. Bush Sr. and Regan would only go so far into Conservative orthodoxy. Clinton found ways to accommodate the Conservative philosophy in ways that maddened the stalwarts of both parties.

Still for thirty years the Regan mantra of “less government” became the political faith of the land. Latched to the less government ideology was the idea that the market could do no wrong. If government would unshackle the genius of the Free Market we would all live in the land of milk and honey so the story went. The market was the ultimate rational actor; government on the other hand was totally irrational and could only do harm.

Well surprise, surprise, it turns out that when people are let loose without any kind of oversight or regulations bad things happen. The de-regulation of the financial markets lead to two speculative bubbles that harmed the long term health of the economy. The first bubble, the dot-com speculation that evaporated billions of dollars of wealth was followed later by the housing / sub-prime explosion. In both case people were “investing” in totally opaque investment “opportunities” In both cases irrational exuberance seized the market and in both cases more than a little out right fraud was perpetrated. In both cases the root cause for the failure was an ideological rigidity from the very regulators who where supposed to control the excesses of the market.

Allan Greenspan is the fall-guy de jure for the sub prime mess. He is a rather large and convenient target of opportunity. It helps that he was one of the people directly responsible and that he was a lock-step true believer in the magic of the free market. As an accolade to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism he was and is the perfect exemplar of an ivory tower intellectual set loose to cause a wide path of destruction in the real world. The problem is that Greenspan was no Lee Harvey Oswald; he did not act alone. Greenspan had help from right-wing think tanks and a complacent media. For decades Greenspan was hailed as the all conquering hero and boy- genius even after evidence to the contrary was readily available. His full and vocal support of gutting Glass-Steagel helped the Republicans pass a toxic “reform” bill that directly lead to our present economic disaster. Even before the passage of the Gramm-Leach Bliley act Greenspan eagerly beavered away at weakening Glass-Steagel. Way before Grover Norquist came out with public ideology of drowning government in a bathtub Greenspan and friends accomplished the deed in at least one critical portion of civic oversight.

What is truly amazing about the G.O.P is they seem bound and determined to continue on their Hooverite misadventure. Even after the Republican gutting of Depression era regulation lead directly to the worst economic situation since the dark days of the thirties they still contend that the only cure is more deregulation. There is an echo in the coal-ash disaster; the Authority that allowed the dam to exist in the first place still insists that there was no real problem with the original structure. The Authority claims the burst occurred because of a freak alignment of weather events. Somehow the very idea that a responsible construction of such a structure should take in account such “freak events” evaded them. Somehow they missed the memo that stated that thanks to global climate change “freak events” will become much more common in the coming years. Neither the present leadership of the Authority nor the leadership of the Republican Party can admit that their world view needs a serious overhaul. Neither can admit that the structures they have allowed to be constructed were both dangerous and fundamentally flawed. Neither can accept responsibility for the inevitable toxic fall out from the failure of their constructs.
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