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).

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, which the US illegally launched a war of aggression that killed
hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displaced 4 million (over as 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.

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.

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 Muslimm 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 atliance 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 rsurrendered 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

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.

© 2023 Juan Cole