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Monday, May 22, 2006

Oil, Religion, and Debt

An email (thank you) says to take a look at this review of Kevin Phillip's book outlining three perils facing the U.S., oil, religion, and debt:

The US in Peril?, by Jeff Madrick, The New York Review of Books, June 8, 2006: Review of  American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips:

1. ...In Kevin Phillips's view, the Bush energy policy is a prime example of America's failure to confront its most difficult challenges. Phillips, once a member of the Nixon administration, ... argues that America is very different from the independent and omnipotent nation portrayed by President Bush and his administration. Dependency on oil is one of three major tendencies that will seriously undermine America's future, he writes, the other two being the influence of radical religion and the growing reliance on debt to support the economy. For Phillips, these constitute "the three major perils to the United States of the twenty-first century," and he offers little hope that the US will avoid the consequences...

Phillips is concerned with problems that all nations have to contend with in one form or other as they grow older. The very sources of national success, whether in resources or industrial innovation, eventually reach their limits; what lasts is a structure of power and influence that inhibits reform. But by limiting the scope of his book to oil, religion, and debt ... Phillips has only partially described what is wrong with the US. Moreover, in this new book clear analysis is too often displaced by sermonizing...

Phillips's three major threats to the nation are well chosen...; but he could usefully have considered other perils to the US as well. The rising cost of health care, for example, is as grave a concern as the three issues on which he concentrates. ... The cost of education is on a similar trajectory... Similarly urgent are the failures of the economy. ... after the five recent years of economic expansion, median family income is roughly what it was in 1999, even though wages at last rose early this year.

In foreign affairs, one could argue that oil dependency and born-again religion have much influence over this administration's unfortunate policies. But they cannot alone account for its advocacy of preemptive war... Bush's assertion of presidential authority to ignore Congress and authorize wiretapping, torture, and illegal detentions threatens the principles on which America's republican democracy is based. Phillips does not give these threats the attention they deserve.

Still, the damage being done by the administration's irresponsible energy policies ... is an appropriate place to begin a book on American ills. ... A serious energy policy providing for security, diversity of sources, and, most important, conservation is necessary. But as Phillips shows in detail, such a policy is stymied by a US administration that is highly sympathetic to the powerful oil companies that would rather promote further exploration than reduce oil use. It is also an administration that does not want to ask Americans to make sacrifices. This was a political lesson learned from the Reagan administration...

Phillips also argues that oil dependency had an important part in the American decision to go to war. Access to Iraqi oil, he believes, has long been on the minds of the Bushes, father and son. Both made personal fortunes thanks ... oil interests, and Vice President Cheney ... also got rich on oil. Before the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush said, we "would all suffer if control of the world's oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein." According to one source cited by Phillips, Cheney closely studied maps of Iraqi oil reserves before the 2003 Iraq invasion to determine how much could be sold on the market...

But Phillips does not make a convincing case that the central purpose of the war was to gain access to Iraqi oil. It seems more likely that the control of Iraqi wells was seen as an added benefit of the war. But the reader does not have to accept all of Phillips's claims to be disturbed by the obvious threats to national security posed by dependency on oil...

Phillips sees no way out. America's aging system for supplying energy, ... which is "guarded by a globally aggressive, entrenched-interest political coalition, is a harbinger of costly confrontations and military embroilment likely to lead to national decline." Yet according to recent public opinion surveys, a large majority of Americans are now demanding new energy policies as prices rise and the damage from carbon emissions is more widely acknowledged. ...[I]t is not inconceivable that a new Congress could take steps in this direction and even ask Americans to accept new taxes to pay for it. Phillips does not discuss such a possibility.

2. The spread of fundamentalist religion in America is Phillips's second concern, and his analysis of its growing influence is sobering. As he shows, the rise in fundamentalist Protestantism has come at the expense of the more moderate churches. ... Phillips says that one in four Americans is now affiliated with self-described evangelical or similar churches, an estimate that does not include the rising numbers of Mormons and members of other sects. The calculation also does not include a similar evolution among Catholics.

The growth of such religions accounts for widespread belief in the literal truth of much of the Bible, he argues. ... Phillips finds that the so-called red states that vote Republican almost all have high levels of evangelical residents. Religious preferences, he argues, tell us as much as any other factor about the current political alignment.

It is true that President Bush's support has been strongest among evangelicals, and among practicing Christians generally. Of those Americans who attended church more than once a week, nearly 70 percent said they would vote for Bush before the 2004 election. Only 40 percent of those who went to church a few times a year reported they would vote for Bush. To Phillips, the Republican Party has become America's first religious party, and it leans toward policies that reflect the predilections of these religions, including "zealotry, exaltation of faith over reason, too much church-state collaboration, or a contagion of crusader mentality." ... Among the examples of what Phillips describes as a war against reason are the call for teaching creationism, the castigation of stem cell research, the refusal to accept the scientific findings confirming global warming, and the pandering by President Bush and his brother Jeb to those who asserted a right to life on behalf of Terri Schiavo.

But religion by itself is not necessarily a cause of right-wing zealotry. After all, Jimmy Carter is a born-again Christian... Evangelism among black Americans typically favors progressive political programs such as universal health care. ... Phillips could have said more about the sources of right-wing religious fundamentalism. ...

Attributing the war in Iraq and Bush's right-wing policies chiefly to religious fundamentalism in America is in some ways similar to attributing much of today's terrorism to Islamist fundamentalism. In both, religious doctrine can be a strong direct cause, but it is equally true that poverty and falling wages, national humiliation, high levels of unemployment, and lack of economic development contribute to a rise in dangerous extremism. Phillips cites two scholars, Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, who write:


Fundamentalisms arise in times of crisis, real or perceived. The sense of change may be keyed to oppressive and threatening social, economic or political conditions, but the ensuing crisis is perceived as a crisis of identity by those who fear extinction as a people.

Phillips argues that the events of September 11 stimulated just such irrational fear of extinction, a conclusion that seems supported by some of the panicky reactions that could be observed throughout the country after September 11. But there were other confusing and threatening changes in American circumstances long before 2001, and, clearly, the rise of fundamentalism started well before 2001. In the 1970s, inflation and slow growth badly hurt most Americans, and the economic expansion of the 1980s, on balance, did not help middle- or low-income male workers. A large proportion of men saw their incomes fall or at best stagnate over twenty and thirty years. At the same time many men felt they were faced with threats to their dominance such as the rise of feminism... Such factors may help to explain why many working men have turned to religion in search of a confident sense of identity, and a reassertion of aggressive patriotic convictions favoring militarist foreign policy.

By not considering in more detail the historical causes for the rise of evangelical fundamentalists, Phillips misses opportunities to see how their effects on public life might be mitigated. Similarly, ... there are other causes of political extremism beyond religious fervor. For most of American history the South has been underdeveloped economically. A government that could constructively respond to people's deepest fears, whether economic, social, or indeed physical, might also soften the harshest and most destructive tendencies of religious evangelism....

Phillips's third concern, the rise of personal and public debt, has become more urgent during the last two decades. The rapid increase in personal and public borrowing began with the Reagan presidency... In the late 1990s, the federal government under Bill Clinton at last produced budget surpluses, but private debt rose to still greater levels. Today, the federal government is again running deeply in the red, and consumers and home owners keep borrowing at high rates as well. America's level of debt is at its highest during the last one hundred years, some three times as large as the annual Gross Domestic Product...

Is decline inevitable as a result? It might be argued that after more than two hundred years of prosperity the American economy will now have difficulty growing in a globalized world, despite the advent of the so-called information age. But Phillips's predictions that the US economy is destined to decline need more supporting argument than he supplies.

What Phillips sees as new problems have confronted America in different forms for two centuries. The very sources of its success have periodically come back to haunt it. Had Phillips not been so determined to conclude that decline is inevitable, he might have considered how in the past the US has overcome historical rigidities and the influence of powerful interests. ...

Particularly troubling are the challenges to the US that Phillips does not address. The potential bankruptcy of General Motors suggests one of the nation's greatest concerns. America's systems of health care and private pensions have long been deliberately linked to jobs through tax benefits for corporations. But now, as these companies fail, they reduce their coverage and they do not pay off their pensions. The system of private social protections is unraveling.

Phillips did not foresee fully the damage done by the Republican majority as a counterforce to what he once saw as the tendencies of liberal Democrats to promote social engineering and anti-religious sentiment during the 1960s and 1970s. The Republicans succeeded by portraying government social programs and market regulations as obstacles to the nation's progress. In doing so, the new Republican majority crippled the most important instruments with which to deal with a rapidly changing world. The neoliberal system of largely unregulated markets has had its share of spectacular economic developments, information technology high among them. But it never alone could solve the nation's major problems, and now, increasingly unregulated, the oil and finance industries, among others, are doing much damage. The Republican majority has been taken over by extremists who promise their own version of social engineering, from teaching intelligent design in public schools to the promotion of various "pro-life" causes.

The test of an industrialized nation is whether it can maintain a balance between community and private interests. To what extent is America doomed to decline as a result of the policies imposed by the Bush administration and its allies that favor the rich and powerful? This is the unspoken issue that hovers over Phillips's book. For all its dramatic and useful emphasis on oil, evangelism, and debt, it remains too narrow in its approach to fully engage the large threats we face.

    Posted by on Monday, May 22, 2006 at 04:20 PM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Oil, Religion | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (22)


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