The Legacy of the Obama Administration

Noam Chomsky interviewed by CJ Polychroniou

Truthout, June 2, 2016

CJ Polychroniou: Barack Obama was elected in 2008 as president of the United States in a wave of optimism, but at a time when the country was in the full grip of the financial crisis brought about, according to Obama himself, by “the reckless behavior of a lot of financial institutions around the world” and “the folks on Wall Street.” Obama’s rise to power has been well documented, including the funding of his Illinois political career by the well-known Chicago real estate developer and power peddler Tony Rezko, but the legacy of his presidency has yet to be written. First, in your view, did Obama rescue the US economy from a meltdown, and, second, did he initiate policies to ensure that “reckless financial behavior” would be kept at bay?

Noam Chomsky: On the first question, the matter is debated. Some economists argue that the bank rescues were not necessary to avoid a serious depression, and that the system would have recovered, probably with some of the big banks broken up. Dean Baker for one. I don’t trust my own judgment enough to take a strong position.

On the second question, Dodd-Frank takes some steps forward — making the system more transparent, greater reserve requirements, etc. — but congressional intervention has cut back some of the regulation, for example, of derivative transactions, leading to strong protests [of] Frank. Some commentators, Matt Taibbi for one, have argued that [the] Wall Street-Congress conniving undermined much of the force of the reform from the start.

CJP: What do you think were the real factors behind the 2008 financial crisis?

NC: The immediate cause of the crisis was the housing bubble, based substantially on very risky subprime mortgage loans along with exotic financial instruments devised to distribute risk, reaching such complexity that few understand who owes what to whom. The more fundamental reasons have to do with basic market inefficiencies. If you and I agree on some transaction (say, you sell me a car), we may make a good bargain for ourselves, but we do not take into account the effect on others (pollution, traffic congestion, increase in price of gas, etc.). These “externalities,” so called, can be very large. In the case of financial institutions, the effect is to underprice risk by ignoring “systemic risk.” Thus if Goldman Sachs lends money, it will, if well-managed, take into account the potential risk to itself if the borrower cannot pay, but not the risk to the financial system as a whole. The result is that risk is underpriced. There is too much risk for a sound economy. That can, in principle, be controlled by sound regulation, but financialization of the economy has been accompanied by deregulation mania, based on theological notions of “efficient markets” and “rational choice.” Interestingly enough, several of the people who had primary responsibility for these destructive policies were chosen as Obama’s leading economic policy advisers (Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and others) during his first term in the White House. Alan Greenspan, the great hero of a few years ago, eventually conceded quietly that he did not understand how markets work — which is quite remarkable.

There are also other devices that lead to underpricing risk. Government rules on corporate governance provide perverse incentives: CEOs are highly rewarded for taking short-term risks, and can leave the ruins to someone else, floating away on their “golden parachutes,” when collapse comes. And there is much more.

CJP: Didn’t the 2008 financial crisis reveal once again that capitalism is a parasitic system?

NC: It is worth bearing in mind that “really existing capitalism” is remote from capitalism — at least in the rich and powerful countries. Thus in the US, the advanced economy relies crucially on the dynamic state sector to socialize cost and risk while privatizing eventual profit — and “eventual” can be a long time: In the case of the core of the modern high-tech economy, computers and the internet, it was decades. There is much more mythology that has to be dismantled if the questions are to be seriously posed.

Existing state-capitalist economies are indeed “parasitic” on the public, in the manner indicated, and others: bailouts (which are very common, in the industrial system as well), highly protectionist “trade” measures that guarantee monopoly pricing rights to state-subsidized corporations, and many other devices.

CJP: During his first term as president, you admitted that Obama faced an exceptionally hostile crowd in Capitol Hill, which of course remained hostile throughout his two terms. Be that as it may, was Obama ever a real reformer or was he more of a public manipulator who used popular political rhetoric to sideline the progressive mood of the country in an era of great inequality and mass discontent over the future of the USA?

NC: Obama had congressional support for his first two years in office, the time when most presidential initiatives are introduced. I never saw any indication that he intended substantive progressive steps. I wrote about him before the 2008 primaries, relying on the webpage in which he presented himself as a candidate. I was singularly unimpressed, to put it very mildly. Actually, I was shocked, for the reasons I discussed.

Consider what Obama and his supporters regard as his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. At first, a public option (effectively, national health care) was dangled. It had almost two-thirds popular support. It was dropped without apparent consideration. The outlandish legislation barring the government from negotiating drug prices was opposed by some 85 percent of the population, but was kept with little discussion. The Act is an improvement on the existing international scandal, but not by much, and with fundamental flaws.

Consider nuclear weapons. Obama had some nice things to say — nice enough to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There has been some progress, but it has been slight and current moves are in the wrong direction.

In general: much smooth rhetoric, some positive steps, some regression, overall not a very impressive record. That seems to me a fair assessment, even putting aside the quite extraordinary stance of the Republican party, which made it clear right after Obama’s election that they were, substantially, a one-issue party: prevent the president from doing anything, no matter what happens to the country and the world. It is difficult to find analogues among industrial democracies. Small wonder that the most respected conservative political analysts (such as Thomas Mann or Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute) refer to the party as a “radical insurgency” that has abandoned normal parliamentary politics.

CJP: In the foreign policy realm, Obama claimed to strive for a new era in the US, away from the militarism of his predecessor and towards respect for international law and active diplomacy. How would you judge US foreign and military strategy under the Obama administration?

NC: He has been more reluctant to engage troops on the ground than some of his predecessors and advisers, and instead has rapidly escalated special operations and his global assassination (drone) campaign, a moral disaster and arguably illegal as well [on the latter matter, see Mary Ellen O’Connell, American Journal of International Law volume 109, 2015, 889f]. On other fronts, it is a mixed story. Obama has continued to bar a nuclear weapons-free (technically, WMD-free) zone in the Middle East, evidently motivated by the need to protect Israeli nuclear weapons from scrutiny. By so doing, he is endangering the Nonproliferation Treaty, the most important disarmament treaty, which is contingent on establishing such a zone. He is dangerously escalating tensions along the Russian border, extending earlier policies. His trillion-dollar program for modernizing the nuclear weapons system is the opposite of what should be done. The investor-rights agreements (called “free trade agreements”) are likely to be generally harmful to populations, [and] beneficial to the corporate sector. Sensibly, he bowed to strong hemispheric pressures and took steps towards normalization of relations with Cuba. These and other moves amount to a mixed story, ranging from criminal to moderate improvement.

CJP: Looking at the state of the US economy, one can easily argue that the effects of the financial crisis of 2007-08 are not only still around, but that we have in place a set of policies which continue to suppress the standard of living for the working population and produce immense economic insecurity. Is this because of neoliberalism and the peculiarities of the nature of the US economy, or are there global and systemic forces at play such as the free movement of capital, automation and the end of industrialization?

NC: The neoliberal assault on the population remains intact, though less so in the US than in Europe. Automation is not a major factor, and industrialization isn’t ending, just being off-shored. Financialization has of course exploded during the neoliberal period, and the general policies, pretty much global in character, are designed to enhance private and corporate power. That sets off a vicious cycle in which concentration of wealth leads to concentration of political power, which in turn yields legislation and administrative practices that carry the process forward. There are countervailing forces, and they might become more powerful. The potential is there, as we can see from the Sanders campaign and even the Trump campaign, if the white working class to which Trump appeals can become organized to focus on their real interests instead of being in thrall to their class enemy.

To the extent that Trump’s programs are coherent, they fall into the same general category of those of Paul Ryan, who has granted us the kindness of spelling them out: increase spending on the military (already more than half of discretionary spending and almost as much as the rest of the world combined), and cut back taxes, mainly on the rich, with no new revenue sources. In brief, nothing much is left for any government program that might be of benefit to the general population and the world. Trump produces so many arbitrary and often self-contradictory pronouncements that it isn’t easy to attribute to him a program, but he regularly keeps within this range — which, incidentally, means that his claims about supporting Social Security and Medicare are worthless.

Since the white working class cannot be mobilized to support the class enemy on the basis of their actual programs, the “radical insurgency” called “the Republican Party” appeals to its constituency on what are called “social-cultural issues”: religion, fear, racism, nationalism. The appeals are facilitated by the abandonment of the white working class by the Democratic Party, which offers them very little but “more of the same”…. It is then facile for the liberal professional classes to accuse the white working class of racism and other such sins, though a closer look often reveals that the manifestations of [this] deep-rooted sickness of the society are simply taking different forms among various sectors.

CJP: Obama’s charisma and undoubtedly unique rhetorical skills were critical elements in his struggle to rise to power, while Donald Trump is an extrovert who seeks to project the image of a powerful personality who knows how to get things done even if he relies on the use of banalities to create the image he was to create about himself as a future leader of a country. Do personalities really matter in politics, especially in our own era?

NC: I am very much down on charismatic leaders, and as for strong ones, [it] depends on what they are working for. The best, in our own kind of societies, I think, are the FDR types, who react to, are sympathetic to and encourage popular movements for significant reform. Sometimes, at least.

CJP: And politicians to be elected to a national office have to be pretty good actors, right?

NC: Electoral campaigns, especially in the US, are being run by the advertising industry. The 2008 political campaign of Barack Obama was voted by the advertising industry as the best marketing campaign of the year.

CJP: Obama’s last State of the Union address had all the rhetoric of someone running for president, not someone who has been in office for more than seven years. What do you make of this — Obama’s vision of how the country should be and function eight to 10 years from now?

NC: He spoke as if he had not been elected eight years ago. Obama had plenty of opportunities to change the course of the country. Even his “signature” achievement, the reform of the health care system, is a watered-down version, as I pointed out earlier. Despite the huge propaganda assault denouncing government involvement in health care, and the extremely limited articulate response, a majority of the population (and a huge majority of Democrats) still favor national health care, Obama didn’t even try, even when he had congressional support.

CJP: You have argued that nuclear weapons and climate change represent the two biggest threats facing humankind. In your view, is climate change a direct effect of capitalism, the view taken by someone like Naomi Klein, or related to humanity and progress in general, a view embraced by the British philosopher John Gray?

NC: Geologists divide planetary history into eras. The Pleistocene lasted millions of years, followed by the Holocene, which began at about the time of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and recently the Anthropocene, corresponding to the era of industrialization. What we call “capitalism,” in practice various varieties of state-capitalism, tends in part to keep to market principles that ignore non-market factors in transactions: so-called externalities, the cost to Tom if Bill and Harry make a transaction. That is always a serious problem, like systemic risk in the financial system, in which case the taxpayer is called upon to patch up the “market failures.” Another externality is destruction of the environment — but in this case the taxpayer cannot step in to restore the system. It’s not a matter of “humanity and progress,” but rather of a particular form of social and economic development, which need not be specifically capitalist; the authoritarian Russian statist (not socialist) system was even worse. There are important steps that can be taken within existing systems (carbon tax, alternative energy, conservation, etc.), and they should be pursued as much as possible, along with efforts to reconstruct society and culture to serve human needs rather than power and profit.

CJP: What do you think of certain geoengineering undertakings to clean up the environment, such as the use of carbon negative technologies to suck carbon from the air?

CP: These undertakings have to be evaluated with great care, paying attention to issues ranging from narrowly technical ones to large-scale societal and environmental impacts that could be quite complex and poorly understood. Sucking carbon from the air is done all the time — planting forests — and can presumably be carried considerably further to good effect, but I don’t have the special knowledge required to provide definite answers. Other more exotic proposals have to be considered on their own merits — and with due caution.

CJP: Some major oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are in the process of diversifying their economies, apparently fully aware of the fact that the fossil fuel era will soon be over. In the light of this development, wouldn’t US foreign policy toward the Middle East take a radically new turn once oil has ceased being the previous commodity that it has been up to now?

NC: Saudi Arabian leaders are talking about this much too late. These plans should have been undertaken seriously decades ago. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states may become uninhabitable in the not-very-distant future if current tendencies persist. In the bitterest of ironies, they have been surviving on the poison they produce that will destroy them — a comment that holds for all of us, even if less directly. How serious the plans are is not very clear. There are many skeptics. One Twitter comment is that they split the electricity ministry and the water ministries for fear of electrocution. That captures much of the general sentiment. It would be good to be surprised.