Greenspan Changes His Mind.

September 23, 2007

Greenspan Changes His Mind.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, September 23, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: We just watched Alan Greenspan on “Meet the Press.” Here are three political positions that he articulated in the discussion with Tim Russert: Bill Clinton governed as a Republican; the Iraq war is about oil; and neither political party is addressing the economic and social challenges we face. Should we be surprised to hear Alan Greenspan, who people think of as a mainstream conservative, a Republican economist, putting forth these remarks?

Newman: No, I don’t think we should be surprised by it. And I think he’s correct on all three.

Salit: Okay. So, let’s make him chairman of the Fed again! Seriously though, let’s talk about each of these propositions. Bill Clinton governed as a Republican. Greenspan says Clinton supported free trade, globalization, welfare reform and fiscal restraint – all policies that Greenspan, as a conservative Republican, endorsed. He was chairman of the Fed under Clinton though he seemed surprised that Clinton supported all those policies. He thought Clinton’s policies were beneficial to the country overall. Now, however, he says the Democratic Party has moved to the left and a new Clinton administration is going to approach things with a different philosophy.

Newman: The problem with Bill Clinton’s policies was not so much what he did, it’s what he didn’t do. The initiatives you described were okay things to do. But, he failed to support traditional progressive Democratic Party issues with the same hard-line vigor. And the failure to address issues of poverty while you’re implementing welfare reform, the failure to support the trade unions while you’re backing free trade and globalization, the failure to deliver universal health care while you’re balancing the budget – that’s what has left the people of this country vulnerable and under-protected. In some sense this is what helped to create the context for George Bush getting elected and then pursuing extremist right-wing policies. That’s what’s to be criticized about Bill Clinton. But the particular things he did were, in many cases, pragmatically required. It’s interesting to hear Greenspan call him a Republican because I’ve said for many years that Clinton was the primary architect of the current George Bush, so I couldn’t agree more.

Salit: Greenspan says, ‘I know this is politically incorrect to say, but the Iraq war is mainly about oil.’ And then he goes on to elaborate about the extent to which Sadaam Hussein was looking to be in control of the Strait of Hormuz, through which about eighteen million barrels of oil move every day, and that ultimately, if you take away the hyperbole and the ideology, that’s what the war is really about.

Newman: You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. Yes, that’s of course what the war’s about. It’s also what our policies in that area of the world are about. And it’s why we’re going to be there for a very long time. All this stuff about creating a workable democracy in Iraq is nonsense. Washington’s interest in workable democracies is entirely secondary to its concern to protect resources important to the U.S. economy. And one could even argue that it should be that way. Part of the responsibility of the president is to make sure the United States of America does well. And part of what the United States of America is dependent upon to do well is oil. Now, there are less imperialistic ways of handling that. The Iraq war is not an example of that. The war has been conducted in a way that is aggressively imperialistic and it was conceptualized by aggressively imperialist thinkers. What can you say except, of course, as Greenspan says, if there wasn’t oil underneath the sand, it would be a whole different situation.

Salit: Then Greenspan says that neither political party – neither the Democrats nor the Republicans – are addressing the economic and social changes that we face in this country. Greenspan denied there was any kind of serious crisis in Social Security, but asserted that the genuine crisis is in Medicare. The size of the retirement age population is going to double over the next 25 years and Medicare can’t handle that. He added the moral issue of a kind of false advertising. He says that if people knew that Medicare wasn’t going to be there, they would make different decisions and choices in their lives than those they make on the assumption that the program is going to be there. Greenspan points to a disconnect between the major parties and their capacity to find solutions to the real issues that the country faces. Obviously, this is something that we agree with.

Newman: Well, here I think Greenspan is hiding out. The real underlying issue is that American capitalism has benefited enormously in the last 20, 30, 40 years, exceeding its wildest expectations, on the basis of very contained commitments to the well-being of the population. For example, America doesn’t have universal health care. That overall framework, which Greenspan has supported, has been so excessively pro-capitalist, that we now have a great economic boon, but the people of our country do not have the basic bottom line protections that other Western industrialized countries provide. So now you have a situation in which U.S. big business is faced with a serious quandary, namely, if it wants to continue to prosper at the rate that it has by disregarding these issues, it faces the prospect of a social crisis. This is something that the two major parties are not taking seriously. The basic policy shift is that you’re going to have to say to the capitalist community as a whole You’re going to have to reduce the rate of profit that has benefited you so extraordinarily, in order to fund an investment in social needs. When he says that the parties haven’t taken that into consideration, I would agree. But I don’t know that Alan Greenspan has shed very much light on the structural nature of a crisis that is so serious for the American people.

Salit: Hillary Clinton was also a guest on “Meet the Press.”

Newman: Indeed, she was.

Salit: She was asked about her vote on the war. Nothing new there. She was asked about the ad and the controversy over that. ‘We should all stop that,’ she said. ‘No one should be doing that.’ She talked about her experience with attempting to introduce universal health care and how she’s modified and developed her plan. This was an interview with the frontrunner, both for the Democratic nomination and I guess for the presidency. Was there anything new or interesting there?

Newman: No.

Salit: Then we’ll move on.

Newman: So to speak.

Salit: This is perhaps a little thing, but I was struck by something on “Meet the Press.” Tim Russert did his classic thing with Hillary: ‘On such and such a date, you said X. Now, today, you’re saying Y. There’s a difference between those two. Doesn’t that mean that you’ve changed your mind?’ The paradigmatic Russert question. So Hillary responds, ‘Well, I think the circumstances on the ground have changed, and I have to continue to appraise what’s in the interest of the American people.’ But what you see in that exchange is that as a politician, as a government leader, Hillary’s not allowed to say, “I changed my mind.” Twenty minutes later, Russert is interviewing Alan Greenspan. He says, ‘On such and such a date, you said A, and then on a subsequent date you said B. What happened?’ And Greenspan says, ‘Oh, I changed my mind.’ And then he explains how he changed his mind. Now, this is someone who is talked about in the most hallowed and hushed tones as being one of the smartest people in America, indeed in the world. It’s perfectly okay for him to say, “I changed my mind.” But if you’re running for the president of the United States you’re not allowed to change your mind. I was struck by the double standard.

Newman: In a way, it’s not a double standard. One person’s looking for votes in a vicious two-party system and the other person is not. Arguably, it’s not a double standard, it’s a different thing. American two-party politics brings out the worst in us. I was struck by something Andrew Sullivan said on “Chris Matthews.” I’m not sure I completely agree with it, but it was an insight – that a Giuliani/Clinton campaign, would, of necessity, bring out the absolute worst in the American psyche. And that’s the likely general election match-up to take place right now. He would prefer a more civil campaign – between McCain and Obama, where he thought that the debate would be more beneficial to the country. But generally, two-party politics is a winner-take-all dogfight. Dogfighting has been in the news lately with Michael Vick and all. It’s a cruel and brutal thing. But it occurred to me at one point during the Vick scandal that the dogs would probably not have thought of doing this if they hadn’t seen the American political system first. I’m just joking here, of course. But, as for there being a double standard, I think it’s more that there’s a diversity of standards for different situations.

Salit: But, what is it about changing your mind that is an expression of weakness? Because that’s presumably why there’s a dogfight or such a thing about this. So you changed your mind! Does that mean there’s something weak in you that you didn’t get the right answer the first minute and stick to it all the way through?

Newman: It’s part of our entire culture. I hope people don’t consider this blasphemous, but Jesus is not allowed to stand up and say, Oh, by the way, I’m not the Son of God. There’s a whole construct based on these things being foundational and people use and misuse that and say What? You were wrong? Well, if you were wrong then maybe everything you’re saying now is wrong and you’re going to change your mind tomorrow…. It’s part of the construct of Western culture. In some situations it’s permissible to say you changed your mind. But to change your mind and not maintain your position within the rigid construct that has emerged over thousands of years in Western culture can be, in certain situations, absolutely self-destructive. And so Hillary doesn’t do it. As you say, she can’t simply say, “I changed my mind… I looked it over….” Other people think you can do that and that appeals to them. But it is going up against something big – culturally big – in Western constructs. It happens, but it doesn’t easily happen.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

Newman: You’re welcome.