June 27, 2010

The Corporate Power of BP

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When I was in the White House I arranged a meeting between President Carter and progressive activist Tom Hayden (and one-time husband of Jane Fonda). The meeting in the Oval Office started with the usual pleasantries. Hayden then launched into an attack on the power of international corporations and the damage their greed inflicted on ordinary American’s. He urged Carter to make them more accountable. Carter responded by saying that he did not particularly disagree with Hayden’s analysis but added “You do not understand how little power I actually have. I may be President of the United States but what I can do to reign in corporate abuse is really very limited. They are very powerful.” Hayden was quite taken-aback and I too was stunned both that Carter would admit this and also by the truth of his statement. 

I often thought back about this discussion over the years but the recent BP oil spill in off the Gulf coast brought it vividly back to mind. President Obama has been fiercely criticized for not doing enough to solve the problem and for failing to hold BP sufficiently accountable. In fact he has extracted a great deal from BP, but he like Carter is relatively powerless when confronted by a global corporate giant. BP generates enough income in a year to make it financially more powerful than many nation states. While nominally based in the UK its operations and its reach are global, making it immune to any real regulatory control. In addition the scale of their income allows them to buy regulators and legislators whenever they stand in the way of their profit making. I am sure they view elected officials who are here today and gone tomorrow with a considerable degree of contempt. In the long run, for them, an oil spill is a minor inconvenience, causing at worst an undesired PR problem. Being forced to face a Congressional hearing or a White House dressing down is just a minor bump in the road as far as their long-term profits and power are concerned.

We talk about the security threat from “non-state” actors by which we are usually referring to Islamic activist groups we do not like. Actually global corporate entities like BP with their almost unlimited economic power pose a far greater threat to the US.


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Barack Obama Postcards
Image source: Zazzle

In the nineteen sixties I was working on a project at the Atlanta city jail looking at how the thousands arrested for public drunkenness each year could be better handled. Periodically I gave a presentation and progress report to the all-white members of the city council and their staff. I worked with an African-American, Ernest Wright, who had master’s degree in counselling who had far better insights into alcoholism in the black community than I. Because of this expertise I had him share with me one of my presentations to the council. I could hear mumblings as he started to speak and afterwards I was told in no uncertain terms that it was quite inappropraite and insulting to expect white people to sit and be lectured to by a black. That any African-American could have superior information to impart to them struck at the core of their sense of racial superiority. When I scheduled a later presentation with the implication that Ernest Wright would again be involved, no one showed up. For a presentation you have to have a presenter and an audience. By not showing up they wanted to invalidate him as a credible presenter and maintain their sense of racial superioity.

I had not thought about this in years until the almost universal Republican “no” vote against the Obama stimulous package. Whatever they might say about the need for more tax cots, too much pork, or not enough time to read the whole bill, it all seemed to me a lot of smoke to hide the fact that they just could not accept Obama as president. They were absenting themselves from the process as a way of rejecting and invalidating him as the nation’s leader. His outreach for bi-partisanship enabled them to maximize the insult they inflicted on him. I am not saying all Republicans are racists or that the majority of them thought about their “no” votes in racial terms. However, all or virtually all come from districts that Obama lost. In Alabama and Mississippi Obama secured only 12 per cent of the white vote. I can assure you the 88% who voted for McCain did so for the most part not because of the policies he espoused but because they flatly rejected the notion of a “nigger” as president. They rely on exactly the same arguments that I heard throughout the South in the sixties and seventies in opposition to giving African-Americans the right to vote or access to public accomodations. “We are not yet ready for that change” they argued and  “never will be” they might have added. Their Republican House and Senate members know they can not go wrong as far as their constituents are concerned by opposing Obama and doing anything they can to undermine him and have him fail. We must not under-estimate the legacy of racism that remains in the country. Rush Limbaugh was perhaps the most honest in saying Republicans should want Obama to fail. I believe that is true of many Republicans in the Congress, whether they admit it or not, who are primarily interested in pandering to a racist electorate to get themselves re-elected and have little interest in, or understanding of, the best interests of the country. If Obama fails it will delight their electorate who will say “the nigger could not cut it” and use it to try to prevent any future African-American becoming president as well as those seeking lower elective positions.

I think it admirable that Obama continues to rise above the fray and continue to seek bi-partisanship. It is also encouraging that among younger voters even in the most racist districts were more likely to vote for Obama. If Obama succeeds it will go a long way in helping racism to wither, and in laying the path for white support of African-Americans candidates at every level.  In the mean time we must not under-estimate the scale of the continuing vicious struggle to wrest America from its dark and frightening past. Republicans in the Congress will continue to conflate an unspoken racist agenda with arguments about taxes, the defecit. welfare, health care, and any program to benefit poorer Americans.

Peter Bourne

April 28, 2009

The Truth about Health and Social Problems

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There is a fundamental truth about health and social problems that we in America seem completely unwilling to face up to. It is that the magnitude of the disparity between the income of the wealthiest twenty per cent and that of the poorest twenty per cent in a nation correlates directly with the health of the population (as measured by such things as life expectancy and infant mortality), violence in the society, the quality of education, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, and many other problems that we seek to address in an ineffectulal and piecemeal way. This is true across the board among the developed nations and between the states in the US.   

Among developed nations the US has the largest disparity between rich and poor. Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland have the least. The UK, Australia, Italy, Switzerland and Canada are somewhere in between. If you look at not just physical health but mental health (including drug and alcohol addiction), obesity, childrens educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility the US has the worst statistics, the countries with the narrowest gap between rich and poor have the best. Interestingly while the US prides itself as being the land of opportunity it in fact now offers the poorest opportunity for social mobility. On a scale that measures happiness on the part of the average citizen, while the US ranks relatively high, it is exceeded by Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and Norway. Perhaps most important, particularly in understanding why income inequality so impacts these other social issues, Americans have a very low level of trust in their fellow citizens. Those peole who live in the countries with a small gap between rich and poor have a far higher degree of trust. 

                         If we look internally in the US we find the same correlation between rich states and poor states and health and social problems. Those states such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont and North Dakota that have the narrowest range between rich and poor also have the best scores on health measures and social problems while states like New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Tennessee that have the biggest gap between rich and poor have the worst health, the most violence, the most obesity, the most divorce, the most teenage pregnancies, and the lowest levels of trust among their citizens. With the exception of New York the states with the highest levels of distrust, social problems, violence, poor health, low educational accomplishment were states that mostly voted overwhelmingly Republican in the last presidential election. To learn more and to see the data in far greater detail read the recent excellent book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published by Allen Lane and also go to the website of the World Health organization ( and click on the report of the Commission on the Social Determinants of Health.

                         Unless we as a nation are willing to come to grips with the central role that our skewed economic system has in effecting all these quality of life factors for the population as a whole we will remain at the bottom of the international scale for developed nations by almost every measure. No amount of tinkering around the edges, no amount of health insurance plans, no amount of drug treatment centers, no amount of putting more people in prison, no amount of talking about improving education, no amount of diet or exercise plans will solve society’s problems in this country unless we are willing to addresss the fundamental economic inequality that underpins all these problems.

June 17, 2008

Which America will it Be?

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John McCain’s comments that what mattered in Iraq was not when the troops come home but reducing casualties was dismissed as at worst an insensitive slip. In fact it was a profound statement about what kind of America we might have in the future. He does not see Iraq as a mistaken war that having gotten into we should  get out of as rapidly as possible. He sees it as justified unilateral aggression and an opportunity to add that country permanently to the American empire. An American military presence (preferably without US casualties) would, far from promoting democracy, insure there was always a puppet government in Iraq compliant with US government interests. It would allow US corporations to exploit its oil and other resources and military bases from which a McCain administration could, at a minimum, threaten to attack Iraq’s neighbors. Under the ‘status of forces agreement’ the Bush administration is seeking to impose on the Iraqis, 58 permanent bases would be established and US military personnel would be exempt from Iraqi law. Under the Bush/McCain plan America would never withdraw from Iraq. 

                       The US has around 1,000 military bases around the world (the Pentagon admits to 725, the others are secret). These military garrisons, often in impoverished nations, are in many instances massive settlements, complete with air conditioning, quality health care, supermarkets, bowling alleys, golf courses (the military has 234) and various recreational facilities including a ski and resort center in the Bavarian alps and a resort hotel in the center of Tokyo. A fleet of one hundred and one Learjets, Gulfstream IIIs, and Cessna Citations (averaging $50 million a piece) are available to ferry admirals and generals around the empire. The purpose is in part to insure that GIs can enjoy a standard of living as good as and usually much better that they can enjoy in the US. It is also calculated to remind the local population of American superiority. In most places the reaction is similar to that Americans would feel if there were Iraqi or Ecuadorean military bases in New Jersey or Kansas. 

                            While billions are spent to support these luxury outposts around the world, America domestically is in many respects a failed state. It ranks, despite its immense wealth, at the bottom or close to the bottom among developed nations when it comes to the generally accepted measures of quality of life-infant mortality, life expectancy, children in poverty, access to affordable health care, literacy, educational levels in science and technology, high school graduations rates, high school math, access to in-house water supply, teenage pregnancy, public transportation and decent housing. At the same time the US leads the world in the percentage of its population that it has in prison. The US also has the largest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation.

                            McCain comes from three generations of existence in the military bubble. His world view is that of the US imperialist state in which support of a miltary juggernaut intent on world domination trumps investment in the quality of life for ordinary Americans. Casting the US military shadow over the poorer nations of the world is immensely expensive and prevents us from dealing with the problems at home. Recent polls show that 84% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. They are aware there is something desperately wrong. We do not know if Obama’s commitment to change is on the scale that would be necessary to solve the country’s domestic problems or whether he would be willing to end America’s imperial role. Even if he is, will he have the power, even as president, to overcome the entrenched forces that benefit from the status quo? What we do know is that as time runs out for the country McCain has no intention of threatening the power of the military industrial complex of which he is an integral part. We are being offered a vision of two Americas, one with hope and a chance that the country can be saved from  military over-reach and domestic collapse, the other in which we continue a delusion that military triumphalism can be a substitute for facing America’s domestic failures.

Peter Bourne


June 10, 2008

Beware of Hillary

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After Hillary’s speech this weekend I was sitting in a sushi bar in Manhattan (Hatsuhana at 48th and Madison, which I highly recommend) reflecting, with the help of excellent saki, on her failed campaign. I had misgivings about her from the start, because I believed her main problem was not misogyny, although there was some of that, but rather a more a serious character flaw. Soon after Obama announced his candidacy he passed her on the Senate floor and gently touched her arm, an act, if not of friendship, at least of courtesy. She ignored him, cutting him dead and walking away. To me it showed her sense of anger contempt towards him for having the temerity to run against her when she considered herself the pre-ordained Democratic nominee.

                     To me it was nothing new for Hillary and Bill. On the night of the first Clinton inaugural they held an event at the White House attended by President and Mrs Carter. The senior statesman of the Democratic Party and its only living former president was deliberately seated by the Clintons six rows back in the audience. Despite acknowledging many of those attending, Clinton failed to mention Carter’s presence, ignored him for the entire evening and in his remarks talked about how much he admired Ronald Reagan who had defeated Carter. Subsequently Clinton, with the exception of Warren Christopher who was more a foreign policy bureacrat than a Carter supporter, failed to a appoint to his administration anyone who had served in a senior position under President Carter. Republicans continuously enhanced the strength of their party maintaining continuity from one Republican administration to the next by rewarding life-time party loyalists with new appointments. The Clintons set out to destroy everything that had preceded them. The new Democratic Party would begin with the Clintons alone as though nothing had existed before them.

                              Hillary took on healthcare not withstanding the fact that she had little knowledge of the field.  She put together a sizable committee to work with her which included not a single physician ( can you imagine a committee to deal with legal reform that included no lawyers). She also failed to consult with the many people, myself included, who had worked on national health care issues under Carter. Admittedly we failed, but we had a great deal of knowledge about how to avoid the pitfalls that had tripped us up which we were happy to pass on. In 1992 there were a number of distinguished people still in Washington who had secured the passage of MEDICARE and MEDICAID under President Johnson and they were similarly ignored. At that time I attributed these shortcomings to ignorance and inexperience.  I later came to realize that the Hillary was determined to see she received  exclusive credit for her health plan and to insure that no one else would share the limelight. The poorly conceived hodge podge she ended up with went nowhere. The bottom line is that because of Hillary’s ineptitude and narcissism the opportunity was blown and American’s have now gone another fifteen years without adequate health insurance.

                          The nature and style of campaigns very much reflect the personality of the candidate they are serving. Like Obama his campaign seems to be smooth, and well-organized, with deep loyalty to the common cause.  By contrast the Clinton campaign has been characterized by destructive in-fighting, self-indulgent opportunism, poor strategy and worse management. The arrogance of Hillary set the tone for her campiagn. In the Sunday, June 8th, New York Times, Peter Baker and Jim Rutenberg wrote:

                          “As she flew from town halls to rallies on the road, she did little to stop the infighting back home among the advisers who nursed grudges from their White House days. The aids grew distracted from battling Senator Barack Obama while they hurled expletives at one another, stormed out of meetings and schemed to get one another fired.”

                          All politicians are by nature egotistical but the better ones see running for elective office as an opportunity to acquire enough power to make a lasting difference in society and in people’s lives. Although both Clintons are not without significant altrusitic accomplishment they are both to a large extent arrested in the first stage of the process. Excessive ego-gratification, holding on to power, the accumulation of finacial wealth, adulation and swimming in the limelight are seen as ends in themselves.

                         After Hillary finally conceded defeat and urged, with all the right words, her followers to work for Obama. The latter had little choice but to show gracious appreciation and express his eagerness to involve both Clintons in the general election campaign. But he would be mad to take her on the ticket. I believe she (and Bill) do not want him to win and will use the general election campaign to advance her own interests not Obama’s. They will make a sufficient show of support to insure that she is not accused of contributing to his loss if he were to lose. I was struck that in her concession speech while urging support for Obama she did not mention the name of McCain and the dire prospects for the country if he were to be elected. Does she not want to antagonize someone that she will have to work with in the future in the Senate or was she just going through the motions but at the same time not willing to lend the clout of her position against McCain leaving the door open for a segment of her supporters to defect to him?

                          The bottom line is that the Clintons are for themselves, not the party, not any other candidate and by implication not much for the longterm welfare of the country. Barack Obama should beware of Hillary Clinton.


Peter Bourne

June 3, 2008

Carter Visit

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          Mary and I spent the last two weeks in Wales. When I arrived I found a new baby llama (female that is largely white with a brown tail) born since while I was away. This time of year is always physically demanding. The grass and hedges are growing at a ferocious rate, weeds have come up all over the farm yard and the drive way, and the general detritus of winter needs to be cleaned away. This spring matters were made worse by the additional need to clean and rehabilitate the house after a construction project during the last year involving the wood panelling of our main living room. The project included the installation of a large screen high definition television giving us an even bigger selection of television channels than we have in Washington. 

                            It is also a beautiful time in Wales. Pink and red rhododendrons were in full bloom. Around the lake yellow irises and blue bells were in flower. Birds were nesting everywhere and a pair of Canada geese had flown in and produced five goslings. The man came from the trout hatchery to restock the lake with 300 rainbow trout.

                            After a week of intense activity President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn and daughter Amy came for a twenty-four hour stay. He had spent the previous two days at the annual Hay-on-Wye book festival (which I am told is the largest such event in the world). He had spoken to capacity audiences and had been very warmly received. He is deeply admired in the UK as one American leader who is profoundly committed to peace and resolving international conflict. This was widely reflected in both the very positive newspaper articles and the TV interviews during his visit.

                           Sadly after a week of magnificent sunshine it rained during much of the time they were with us. But, after an hour sitting by a warm fire, we made the most of the situation going on a long tour of the farm clad in rain gear and wellington boots trailed by the secret service who seemed much less prepared for the weather. In the afternoon we went into the little town of Tregaron (population 3,000) to visit the local church where there was a floral exhibit honoring different female figures in the Bible. We went from there to the local pub to drink cider. President Carter was approached by a woman who had heard him speak to a packed football stadium in Newcastle in 1977. Carter had been advised to open his speech with a boisterous “Away the lads!!” a chant for the local team. He received thunderous applause. Thirty years on this was the only thing from the speech that either of them could recall.

                         In the evening we had dinner at the Harbormaster Hotel in Aberaeron, a picturesque fishing village on the sea. Another diner passed a message through the secret service to President Carter saying that he desperately needed to speak to him. It turned out that what he really wanted was just to shake his hand and get him to sign his menu. The man turned out to be Elfyn Llwyd the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party (Plaid Cwmru) in the parliament in Westminster, so the conversation with him was of some interest to Carter.

                       Unlike the two previous occasions when the Carters visited us in Wales we had structured things this time to be purely relaxation. We did, however, have time to talk to him about the highly successful role he had played in the Nepalese elections, his visits to Gaza and Syria, and Egypt, and his role with the group of so-called “Elders,” the sad death of Hamilton Jordan, and his view of the US presidential elections (as of this writing he had not formally indicated his vote as a superdelegate, but his optimism about the possibility of an Obama presidency was clear.) Because of their mutual interest in the Palestinian situation he and Mary talked about this topic at length.

                                   What impressed me most as he heads towards his 84th birthday was his continuing energy and mental acuity, his deep dedication to the causes in which he believes was, and the vigor with which he clearly intends to continue pursuing them. 


Peter Bourne


May 7, 2008

Head of State, Head of Government

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           When Americans vote for president they are electing someone to fill two jobs, head of state and head of government. In most countries these positions, because the functions are quite different, are filled by two separate individuals. It is a lens through which journalists or other pundits commenting on the presidential race rarely view the contest, but it has an important impact on the way people vote, how the candidates present themselves, and how they perform or misperform in office. 

           In most countries the head of state, be it a monarch or an elected president, has little involvement with the day to day operation of the government. Instead their job is to represent the self-identity, spirit and values of the nation, performing ceremonial duties and making uplifting (if often largely content-free) speeches. In times of crisis their job is to rally the p[atriotic sense of nationhood. Above the fray and separated from the vicissitudes and heated partisanship of politics they can enjoy the broad support of the people as an act of patriotism to the extent that in Thailand it is against the law to publically criticize the king.

              The head of government is an elected official, a career politician, responsible for running the government and seeing that it responds to the needs of the people or at least those who elected them. To criticize them or vote them out of office is seen as in no way unpatriotic or an attack on the country and what it stands for.

             Because of the unique history of the United States and its aversion in 1776 to anything resembling monarchy American voters make their decision based on a confused understanding of these two jobs that seem often in conflict. It is easy to over-state the case, but in general Republicans run for the job of head of state, extolling national virtues, appealling to patriotism (often in the most crass ways), and playing up moral values that may have little or nothing to do with the role of government. Their argument for smaller government is more an argument to the voters that the operations of government are not that important and they should make their decision on the more lofty messages they are promoting. Democrats, on the other hand, feel they are primarily electing a head of government who will manage its operations efficiently in a way that will benefit their supporters. They tend to focus less on electing someone to be head state and are frequently made to look vulnerable by Republicans because of this. By successfully denigrating the role of government Republicans seek to make the presidential election more importantly an election for head of state as opposed to head of government. Many of the Republican positions then flow from this. Apart from greed the argument that “the American people do not want their taxes raised”, is really about weakening the role of government and hence the power of the party of government. Reagan and George W. clearly saw themselves as more the head of state than the head of government. Jimmy Carter saw himself quintissentially as head of government which led public opinion to coalesce into criticism of him as being obsessed with detail. FDR is probably the one president in recent history who was most successful in combining both roles. 

                           There is a segment of the American population, perhaps 20 to 25 percent, that sees the US president almost exclusively in the role of head of state. They view the president as a national symbol and believe that attacking the president, regardless of party or failure on the job, is unpatriotic. They tend to be be more Republican than Demoocrat which gives a Republican president a higher floor, below which their approval ratings will not go purely out of the respect for the job they hold. George Bush is probably at that point right now.

                          First ladies, being themselves unelected, are seen as being the wives of the head of state not the wives of the head of government. It was a failure to understand this distinction that got Hillary Clinton into trouble. As the spouse of the head of state the public is happy for you to be a powerful public advocate for a variety of causes. Where they draw the line, as with Hillary’s health plan, is when a first lady, unelected in her own right, seeks to play a direct role in the operations of governmet.

                         Our appreciation of the president as head of state is interestingly recognized in the fact that every former president is still referred to as “President so-and so” forever after they leave office.  No where does a prime minister continue to carry the title once she or he is out of office. 


Peter G. Bourne

April 30, 2008

Welcome to the Peter Bourne blog

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This is a special message to all my friends inaugurating my blog site. Beginning next week I plan to start writing about my life, current events, and whatever else takes my fancy. I will look forward to your comments and feedback.

Welcome to you all

Peter Bourne  

April 24, 2008

Hello world!

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