Henry Kissinger Is a Disgusting War Criminal. And the Rot Goes Deeper Than Him / by Ben Burgis

The ugliest truth about Henry Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. (Adam Berry / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 27, 2023

It’s Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday today. The fact that this monster is celebrated instead of in jail tells you that he’s part of a much bigger problem — and that problem is America’s global empire.

The late Anthony Bourdain wrote in 2001 that “once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”

However many people might have wanted to do that over the decades, Kissinger remains with us. Today is his hundredth birthday. And he continues to be treated as a respected elder statesman. That should tell you everything you need to know about America’s global empire.

At Least He Likes Sports

Tributes have been flowing to Dr Kissinger all week. At CNN, foreign correspondent David Andelman enthuses that “at 100, Henry Kissinger is still teaching us the value of ‘Weltanschaüng.’” (Weltanschaüng roughly translates to “worldview,” and here it means something like “a comprehensive understanding of how the world works.”) On the website of the International Olympic Committee, IOC president Thomas Bach calls Kissinger a “great statesman” and “political genius” who is also a “great sports enthusiast” and has long been involved with the Olympics.

None cared to mention his various crimes.

As Richard Nixon’s national security advisor — and then secretary of state, a role he took on without giving up his original job — Kissinger personally oversaw a bombing campaign that killed 150,000 civilians in Cambodia. And among many other atrocities he abetted, he helped overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. Kissinger notoriously said that he didn’t see “why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

The evidence for these crimes has never been in doubt. It’s all a matter of public record. So why hasn’t “Dr K” ever seen the inside of a jail cell?

The ugliest truth about Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. He is an unusually plainspoken representative of a monstrous system of US global hegemony.

Kissinger and Nixon

Nixon didn’t live to see his own hundredth birthday. He died at the age of eighty-one in 1994. But a posthumous centennial birthday celebration was held for the disgraced former president in 2013. Kissinger spoke at that event, ending his remarks by proposing a toast to Nixon as a “patriot, president, and, above all, peacemaker.”

It’s true that Nixon was willing to pursue pragmatic détentes with America’s superpower rivals, China and the Soviet Union. But when I watched the clip of Kissinger’s “peacemaker” toast, all I could think about was an infamous snippet from the 1970 conversation between Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig in which Kissinger relays Nixon’s instructions for the bombing of Cambodia. Kissinger knew some members of the administration might have qualms about extending the war to a neutral country, but he made it clear that the commander in chief didn’t want to hear it.

K: Two, he wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?

H: (Couldn’t hear but sounded like Haig laughing.)

A few years later, Nixon and Kissinger would burnish their “peacemaker” credentials by finally throwing in the towel after several years of ratcheting up bloodshed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Perhaps this is the achievement Kissinger was fondly remembering when he toasted his old boss’s memory.

If so, Kissinger was conveniently forgetting that he and Nixon had been spurning essentially the same deal the whole time they’d been escalating the war. In fact, even before Nixon arrived at the White House, he’d worked to sabotage his predecessor Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks — encouraging the South Vietnamese delegation to stonewall in the hopes of getting a better deal when Nixon assumed office.

That much no one bothers to deny. There is some controversy about the extent of Dr Kissinger’s role. In his CNN tribute, David Andelman defends Kissinger by arguing that while “some have suggested that it was Kissinger who sought to slow the process toward peace during Nixon’s presidential campaign,” the evidence from the White House tapes points to H. R. Haldeman as Nixon’s primary accomplice in “monkey wrenching” the talks. But even Adelman allows that Dr Kissinger “may well have tipped off Nixon’s campaign team to Johnson’s thinking.”

A small point, maybe, to hold against an Important Statesman who throws around words like Weltanschaüng.

A Story of Continuity

When Congress brought articles of impeachment against Nixon for corruption and obstruction of justice, Michigan Democratic representative John Conyers proposed including an article on the illegal bombing of Cambodia — which had initially been kept secret from the US public. The proposal was defeated 26 to 12. As Conyers reflected in an article later that year, this may have been because raising the issue of war crimes in Southeast Asia would have impugned “previous administrations” and Congress’s own failure to constrain presidential war-making power.

When Nixon left office, Kissinger stayed on, continuing to serve his highly unusual dual role as national security advisor and secretary of state for Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford. And every single president between Ford and Joe Biden — Democrats and Republican alike — has at some point extended an invitation to Dr K to come to the White House to discuss matters of war and diplomacy.

Some of those visits may have even afforded Kissinger a chance to catch up with old friends. That ghoul softly laughing on the other end of the line as Kissinger relayed Nixon’s instructions for the indiscriminate mass murder of Cambodian civilians, Alexander Haig? He served as commander of US European Command and NATO supreme allied commander for most of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state.

Kissinger Isn’t the Only Kissinger

Oddly, Kissinger hasn’t been to the Biden White House, or at least not yet. I’d like to believe that the current president is disturbed by Kissinger’s long history of involvement in prosecutable crimes against humanity. But Biden’s history suggests otherwise.

Does it bother Biden that Kissinger killed lots of civilians in Cambodia? Senator Biden showed no such qualms about the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq when he backed that war in 2003.

Does it bother Biden that Kissinger plotted coups against elected leftists in Latin America? Vice President Biden doesn’t seem to have uttered a peep of protest when President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton supported the coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

And while we’re on the subject of Hilary Clinton, it’s worth remembering that she touted her relationship with Henry Kissinger — whom she called a friend and trusted advisor — when she was running for president in 2016. When her primary challenger Bernie Sanders responded by bringing up Salvador Allende, the response from both Clinton and the moderator might as well have been, “Salvador who?”

Kissinger has never deigned to conceal his complicity in clear violations of US and international law that killed vast numbers of innocent people. The fact that he’s reached the age of one hundred as a free man isn’t an oversight; it’s a symptom of a much deeper pathology.

A willingness to bend the global rules — order an assassination heremassacre some villagers there, depose an elected leftist or two in countries that, come on, don’t really matter anyway — was integral to how the United States managed its spheres of influence around the world long before Henry Kissinger came on the scene.

It’s not like Dwight Eisenhower needed advice from Henry Kissinger, who was just about finishing up graduate school at the time, when he decided to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company by overthrowing the government of Guatemala in 1954. And Secretary Clinton may or may not have picked up a phone to consult with a very elderly Dr K about how to handle the crisis in Honduras.

I certainly won’t shed any tears when Dr Kissinger finally dies. And I’ll be ecstatic — if shocked — if he sees the inside of a courtroom before that happens. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that he’s unique. You don’t run a globe-spanning empire for this many decades, batting down geopolitical rivals, peasant revolutions, insurgencies in occupied countries, and inconvenient electorates in crucial client states, without a lot of people staffing your imperial apparatus who think like Henry Kissinger.

There may be something almost demonic in how unabashed Dr K is about his crimes. But when it comes to his basic willingness to disregard legal and moral obstacles to the United States working its will in the world?

It’s Kissingers all the way down.

Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

Once Dismissed as Absurd, Ronald Reagan’s “October Surprise” Is Now Confirmed as True / by Branko Marcetic

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands as they greet one another before their presidential debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, October, 28, 1980. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on March 26, 2023

It’s not a conspiracy theory: Ronald Reagan secretly negotiated to keep the Iran hostages captive for an extended period to try to keep President Jimmy Carter from winning reelection.

It seems like some small marker of cosmic justice that just as former US president Jimmy Carter lies in a hospice awaiting death, the long-alleged but never-proven political crime that sabotaged his reelection just got another, major piece of corroboration.

This is the original “October surprise”: the charge that Ronald Reagan, Carter’s Republican opponent in the 1980 presidential election, made a secret deal with the new, fundamentalist Iranian government to delay releasing the American hostages held in the wake of the revolution that brought it to power. The 444-day-long hostage crisis had become a major black mark on Carter’s presidency, and resolving it before the election would have given him a major, unexpected bump going into voting. Hence the phrase, “October surprise.”

Through it has long been charged that a Reagan campaign with victory in sight went behind the US government’s back to secretly reach out to the Iranians and prevent this bump from happening, this weekend, the New York Times published an explosive piece of evidence that backs it up. Ben Barnes, a former Texas politician, told the paper how he and his mentor — former Democratic Texas governor John Connally, who had run for the GOP nomination in 1980 and had a plum Reagan administration post in his eyes — traveled around the Middle East delivering a message to be relayed to Iranian leadership, that Reagan would give them a better deal when he won the presidency. Connally then briefed Reagan’s campaign chair, William Casey, about the effort upon returning home, according to Barnes.

While acknowledging that confirming the account is “problematic,” the Times did, to its credit, corroborate parts of the story. Four prominent Texans confirmed to the paper that Barnes had told them the story years earlier, and various personal records back up Barnes’s claims about his and Connally’s travel dates and locations, their contact with the Reagan campaign, and their meeting with Casey upon getting back.

Blindfolded American hostages being held by their Iranian captors, 1979. (Reuters via Wikimedia Commons)

But this is far from the only recent piece of reporting backing up the “October surprise” story. A little more than three years ago, the Times published another report that touched on the matter, this one charging that Chase Manhattan Corporation chair David Rockefeller (brother of GOP politician Nelson) and a team assembled at the bank “helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release.” Unlike the most recent Times piece, this report was based on documents that had been sealed until Rockefeller’s death, one of which was a letter from his chief of staff (incidentally, named Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco in 1981) to his family admitting he had “given [his] all” to sabotaging the Carter administration’s efforts “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise.’”

Former world leaders have also corroborated the story. As the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz pointed out on the occasion of the death of former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr (the country’s first following the revolution), the leader had written in his 1991 memoir that “Americans close to Reagan” had proposed to the nephew of Iran’s postrevolutionary supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini “a secret agreement between leaders,” and that in late October 1980, “everyone was openly discussing the agreement with the Americans on the Reagan team.” Twenty-two years later, Bani-Sadr again repeated this charge, adding that the deal between Khomeini and Reagan had prevented his and Carter’s efforts to resolve the crisis, with two of his advisors “executed by Khomeini’s regime because they had become aware of this secret.”

Others who have affirmed the existence of such a deal include former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (who told the late Robert Parry that “of course” there was such an agreement) and former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and one of his senior aides, who both affirmed that Republicans offered a deal to the Palestine Liberation Organization if they helped keep the hostages in Iran. Years later, Parry also discovered — in a converted women’s bathroom in the parking garage of a federal building — a report sent by Moscow to the House task force investigating the story, which similarly backed up the claims, and was left out of the task force’s final report.

In other words, there was good reason to believe the story long before this past weekend, but the latest reporting by the New York Times offers even more reason. Yet the “October surprise” was dismissed widely and confidently, often by being slapped with the instantly delegitimizing label of “conspiracy theory,” a term thrown around with breathless irresponsibility in the ironically named “post-truth” era. The evidence for the story was a “myth,” blared a 1991 Newsweek headline, the contents of which declared it a “conspiracy theory run wild,” while the New Republic confidently deemed it “a total fabrication.” (One of the coauthors of that story, Steven Emerson, later wound up on Fox spreading racist nonsense about Muslims controlling British cities).

“It never happened,” asserted the hard-right Daniel Pipes in George Mason University’s History News Network, claiming it was merely the “guilty pleasure of die-hard conspiracy theorists.” (Like Emerson, Pipes is also an anti-Muslim racist who warned about “massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene,” and once expressed concern that the “enfranchisement of American Muslims” would threaten Jews). As recently as 2012, a Daily Beast headline declared that the “October surprise” is “still getting debunked.”

In other words, according to all the “serious” people, the “October surprise” story was misinformation, a conspiracy theory, fake news, and so on . . . until more evidence came to light and it turned out it wasn’t. None of this should inspire confidence that the traditional gatekeepers of political discourse — politicians, the mainstream press, intellectuals in establishment circles, and the fact-checkers and government bureaucrats that treat their words as gospel — can be trusted to responsibly regulate “misinformation” and wield censorship powers, as many such figures long for these days.

It’s also a reminder that contrary to the fairytale the public is being fed by many of these same sources, US politics and the GOP were far from bastions of decency and righteousness until the dastardly Donald Trump came along and messed everything up. It was Reagan, the Republican president most often cast these days as Trump’s polar opposite, who carried out something close to treason to win an election, before carrying out a host of other crimes and outrages as president. Everything in our scandal-filled times is, sadly, part and parcel of decades of US political tradition.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Corporate Democrats ‘Passing the Torch’ / by Norman Solomon

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries in 2020. (Brookings Institution, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Originally published in  Common Dreams

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but Norman Solomon says that affiliation for the man tapped Wednesday to take over as leader of House Democrats should not be taken at face value.

Images of passing the torch can be stirring.

President John Kennedy reached heights of inaugural oratory when he declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Three decades later, when Bill Clinton won the presidency, a Newsweek headline proclaimed “THE TORCH PASSES.” The article underneath glorified “a film clip that made its way into a widely seen campaign ad: a beaming, 16-year-old Bill Clinton on a sun-drenched White House lawn, shaking the hand of his and his generation’s idol, John F. Kennedy.”

Weeks later, when Time magazine named Clinton “Man of the Year,” its cover story carried the headline “THE TORCH IS PASSED.”

The Clinton presidency went on to carry the torch for corporate-friendly measures. The NAFTA trade pact destroyed many well-paying union jobs; “welfare reform” harmed poor women and their families; a landmark crime law fueled mass incarceration; Wall Street deregulation led to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

Now, the top of the Democratic Party is passing torches on Capitol Hill. When Nancy Pelosi announced two weeks ago that she will no longer lead House Democrats, she said: “The hour has come for a new generation to lead.” But in what direction?

President Joe Biden with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, center, and Vice President Kamala Harris after the president delivered his State of the Union address to Congress on March 1. (White House, Adam Schultz)

Pelosi quickly endorsed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to replace her as leader. NBC News offered the common media frame: “Pelosi made history as the first female speaker of the House, while Jeffries, the current Democratic Caucus chairman, would become the first Black leader of a congressional caucus and highest-ranking Black lawmaker on Capitol Hill.” On Wednesday, House Democrats selected him

Problematic Record

You can count on much of the mass media to shower the 52-year-old Jeffries with accolades, largely supplied by fellow Democrats. But, overall, a closer look reveals a problematic record.

Early on, before becoming a New York state legislator, Jeffries worked for years as a corporate lawyer. In Congress — while he has taken a few progressive positions like cosponsoring Medicare for All and voting to cut 10 percent of the military budget — his emphasis has been in sync with the party establishment.

“I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now,” Jeffries told The Atlantic in August 2021. But during the same interview, Jeffries added: “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” (Ironically, Jeffries was echoing the “fierce urgency of now” phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., who was a democratic socialist.)

Jeffries likes to jab leftward. In 2016, he called Bernie Sanders a “gun-loving socialist with zero foreign-policy experience.” A 2018 profile in The Economist—titled “High Hopes for Hakeem Jeffries” – concluded that he “is nearly as moderate as a safe-seat Democrat gets.” The article pointed out: “Though he supports the principle of universal healthcare coverage, he speaks of ‘the importance of market forces and getting things done in a responsible fashion.’ Quoting Ronald Reagan approvingly, he suggests this means promoting a flourishing private sector outside the ‘legitimate functions’ of government.”

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, January 2016. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Congressman Jeffries takes umbrage at negative press portrayals to such an extent that his office tries to quash critical assessments. When I wrote in a HuffPost piece in January 2019 that “Jeffries has been more attentive to serving corporate power than the interests of voters in his Brooklyn district,” the response was swift and angry.

Jeffries’s communications director and senior advisor at the time, Michael Hardaway, fired off emails to HuffPost, claiming that my characterization was “factually inaccurate and easily disproven.” Despite the escalating fulminations, the HuffPost editor explained that he saw “no reason to correct or update the piece.”

Jeffries has not been a sponsor of the Green New Deal (which Pelosi famously denigrated in 2019: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”). He also has not cosponsored the Green New Deal for Cities Act.

During the latest election cycle, Jeffries joined forces with one of the most corporate and vitriolic anti-progressive Democrats in the House, Josh Gottheimer, to form Team Blue PAC. Its priority – to protect the party’s incumbents against Squad-like primary challengers – was summed up last winter in a Rolling Stone headline over an article about Jeffries’s initiative: “Top House Democrat Unveils Plan to Beat Back Progressive Rebellion.”

Last year, The American Prospect reported, Jeffries was conspicuously absent from efforts to support public housing in his home city. “When all [other] New York City House Democrats sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to protect all $80 billion for public housing in the BBB [Build Back Better bill], Jeffries was the only member not to sign that missive, especially surprising given that New York Dems are known to act as a bloc.”

Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the magazine noted, but that affiliation should not be taken at face value: “Jeffries is a mute member of the CPC, the largest caucus in the party, but has recently chosen to ally himself with its more conservative factions. And while the party’s moderate wing has moved left on everything from foreign policy to social welfare, Jeffries has not moved with it.”

In fact, Hakeem Jeffries is thoroughly corporate, As The Intercept reported four years ago, after he won a close race against Rep. Barbara Lee to become chair of the House Democratic Caucus, “Jeffries is heavily backed by big money and corporate PACs. Less than 2 percent of his fundraising comes from small donors, who contribute less than $200, according to Federal Election Commission records.”

Rep. Barbara Lee speaking against U.S. war with Iran, January 2020. (Twitter)

While in his fourth term, “Jeffries was the leading congressional recipient of hedge fund money in 2020,” The American Prospect reported last year:

“He banked $1.1 million from the financial sector, real estate interests, and insurance industry in the 2019–2020 cycle. Everyone from JPMorgan Chase to Goldman Sachs to Blackstone contributed. Zimmer Partners, a hedge fund, is one of Jeffries’s top donors in 2021. From the outset, he has governed with those interests at heart. While Democrats were reconsidering their coziness with Wall Street, he broke ranks to vote with the financial services world, including on a high-profile measure literally written by Citigroup lobbyists in 2013 that killed the Dodd-Frank ‘swaps push-out’ rule, allowing banks to engage in risky trades backed by a potential taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Thirty years younger than the outgoing speaker, Jeffries is a fitting symbol of media eagerness to herald generational change for Democrats in Congress. But investigative journalist Alexander Sammon has provided an apt sum-up:

“Barely in his fifties, Jeffries is young numerically, but aligned with an older mode of Democratic politics, and has repeatedly distanced himself from the younger crop of Democrats that is almost categorically more progressive (and more popular). He’s made a reputation for himself as the party’s future by becoming a foremost representative of its past.”

When a torch passes, we might be glad to “meet the new boss.” But we should discard illusions. That way, hopefully, we don’t get fooled again.

Norman Solomon is co-founder and national coordinator of RootsAction.org. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death“ (2006) and “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State” (2007).

Consortium News, December 2, 2022

Student Loan Debt Is an American Malignancy Born of Ronald Reagan / by Thom Hartmann

Former President Ronald Reagan addressing the audience at the White House News Photographers Association dinner on May 18, 1983. (Photo: Bettmann/Contributor/via Getty images)

Originally published in Common Dreams, https://www.commondreams.org/

Forgiving student debt is not a slap at anybody; it’s righting a moral wrong inflicted on millions by Reagan and his morbidly rich Republican buddies.

President Joe Biden just made good on his campaign promise to forgive billions in student debt. Republicans, predictably, have gone nuts.

When you search on the phrase “student debt forgiveness” one of the top hits that comes up is a Fox “News” article by a woman who paid off her loans in full. 

“There are millions of Americans like me,” the author writes, “for whom debt forgiveness is an infuriating slap in the face after years of hard work and sacrifice. Those used to be qualities we encouraged as an American culture, and if Biden gets his way, we’ll be sending a very different message to the next generation.”

This is, to be charitable, bullsh*t. Forgiving student debt is not a slap at anybody; it’s righting a moral wrong inflicted on millions of Americans by Ronald Reagan and his morbidly rich Republican buddies.

When you invest in your young people, you’re investing in your nation.

Student debt is evil. It’s a crime against our nation, hobbling opportunity and weakening our intellectual infrastructure. Any nation’s single biggest asset is a well-educated populace, and student debt diminishes that. It hurts America.

Student debt at the scale we have in America doesn’t exist anywhere else in the rest of the developed world.

American students, in fact, are going to college for free right now in Germany, Iceland, France, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, because pretty much anybody can go to college for free in those countries—and dozens of others.

Student debt? The rest of the developed world doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

Student debt largely didn’t exist here in America before the Reagan Revolution. It was created here in the 1980s, intentionally, and we can intentionally end it here and join the rest of the world in again celebrating higher education.

Forty years on from the Reagan Revolution, student debt has crippled three generations of young Americans: over 44 million people carry the burden, totaling a $1.8 trillion drag on our economy that benefits nobody except the banks earning interest on the debt and the politicians they pay off.

But that doesn’t begin to describe the damage student debt has done to America since Reagan, in his first year as governor of California, ended free tuition at the University of California and cut state aid to that college system by 20 percent across-the-board. 

After having destroyed low-income Californians’ ability to get an education in the 1970s, he then took his anti-education program national as president in 1981. 

When asked why he’d taken a meat-axe to higher education and was pricing college out of the reach of most Americans, he said—much like Ron DeSantis might today—that college students were “too liberal” and America “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.” {empahsis added}

Four days before the Kent State Massacre of May 5, 1970, Governor Reagan called students protesting the Vietnam war across America “brats,” “freaks,” and “cowardly fascists.” As The New York Times noted at the time, he then added: {emphasis added}

“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!”

Before Reagan became president, states paid 65 percent of the costs of colleges, and federal aid covered another 15 or so percent, leaving students to cover the remaining 20 percent with their tuition payments.

That’s how it works—at a minimum—in many developed nations; in many northern European countries college is not only free, but the government pays students a stipend to cover books and rent.

Here in America, though, the numbers are pretty much reversed from pre-1980, with students now covering about 80 percent of the costs. Thus the need for student loans here in the USA. 

As soon as he became president, Reagan went after federal aid to students with fervor. Devin Fergus documented for The Washington Post how, as a result, student debt first became a widespread thing across the United States during the early ‘80s:

“No federal program suffered deeper cuts than student aid. Spending on higher education was slashed by some 25 percent between 1980 and 1985. … Students eligible for grant assistance freshmen year had to take out student loans to cover their second year.”

It became a mantra for conservatives, particularly in Reagan’s cabinet. Let the kids pay for their own damn “liberal” education. 

Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, told a reporter in 1981:

“I don’t accept the notion that the federal government has an obligation to fund generous grants to anybody that wants to go to college.  It seems to me that if people want to go to college bad enough then there is opportunity and responsibility on their part to finance their way through the best way they can. … I would suggest that we could probably cut it a lot more.”

After all, cutting taxes for the morbidly rich was Reagan’s first and main priority, a position the GOP holds to this day. Cutting education could “reduce the cost of government” and thus justify more tax cuts.

Reagan’s first Education Secretary, Terrel Bell, wrote in his memoir:

“Stockman and all the true believers identified all the drag and drain on the economy with the ‘tax-eaters’: people on welfare, those drawing unemployment insurance, students on loans and grants, the elderly bleeding the public purse with Medicare, the poor exploiting Medicaid.”

Reagan’s next Education Secretary, William Bennett, was even more blunt about how America should deal with the “problem” of uneducated people who can’t afford college, particularly if they were African American:

“I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime,” Bennett said, “you could—if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

These various perspectives became an article of faith across the GOP. Reagan’s OMB Director David Stockman told Congress that students were “tax eaters … [and] a drain and drag on the American economy.” Student aid, he said, “isn’t a proper obligation of the taxpayer.”

This was where, when, and how today’s student debt crisis was kicked off in 1981. 

Before Reagan, though, America had a different perspective. 

Both my father and my wife Louise’s father served in the military during World War II and both went to college on the GI Bill. My dad dropped out after two years and went to work in a steel plant because mom got pregnant with me; Louise’s dad, who’d grown up dirt poor, went all the way for his law degree and ended up as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan.

They were two among almost 8 million young men and women who not only got free tuition from the 1944 GI Bill but also received a stipend to pay for room, board, and books. And the result—the return on our government’s investment in those 8 million educations—was substantial. 

The best book on that time and subject is Edward Humes’ Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dreamsummarized by Mary Paulsell for the Columbia Daily Tribune:

[That] groundbreaking legislation gave our nation 14 Nobel Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three presidents, 12 senators, 24 Pulitzer Prize winners, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 17,000 journalists, 22,000 dentists and millions of lawyers, nurses, artists, actors, writers, pilots and entrepreneurs.

When people have an education, they not only raise the competence and vitality of a nation; they also earn more money, which stimulates the economy.  Because they earn more, they pay more in taxes, which helps pay back the government for the cost of that education. 

Republican policies of starving education and cranking up student debt have made U.S. banks a lot of money, but they’ve cut America’s scientific leadership in the world and stopped three generations of young people from starting businesses, having families, and buying homes.  

In 1952 dollars, the GI Bill’s educational benefit cost the nation $7 billion. The increased economic output over the next 40 years that could be traced directly to that educational cost was $35.6 billion, and the extra taxes received from those higher-wage-earners was $12.8 billion.

In other words, the U.S. government invested $7 billion and got a $48.4 billion return on that investment, about a $7 return for every $1 invested. 

In addition, that educated workforce made it possible for America to lead the world in innovation, R&D, and new business development for three generations.  We invented the transistor, the integrated circuit, the internet, new generations of miracle drugs, sent men to the moon, and reshaped science.

Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln knew this simple concept that was so hard for Reagan and generations of Republicans since to understand: when you invest in your young people, you’re investing in your nation.

Jefferson founded the University of Virginia as a 100% tuition-free school; it was one of his three proudest achievements, ranking higher on the epitaph he wrote for his own tombstone than his having been both president and vice president.

Lincoln was equally proud of the free and low-tuition colleges he started. As the state of North Dakota notes:

Lincoln signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, giving each state a minimum of 90,000 acres of land to sell, to establish colleges of engineering, agriculture, and military science. … Proceeds from the sale of these lands were to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund which would provide support for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states.

Fully 76 free or very-low-tuition state colleges were started because of Lincoln’s effort and since have educated millions of Americans including my mom, who graduated from land-grant Michigan State University in the 1940s, having easily paid her minimal tuition working as a summer lifeguard in Charlevoix. 

Every other developed country in the world knows this, too: student debt is a rare or even nonexistent thing in most western democracies. Not only is college free or close to free around much of the world; many countries even offer a stipend for monthly expenses like our GI Bill did back in the day.  

Thousands of American students are currently studying in Germany at the moment, for example, for free. Hundreds of thousands of American students are also getting free college educations right now in Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, among others. 

Republican policies of starving education and cranking up student debt have made U.S. banks a lot of money, but they’ve cut America’s scientific leadership in the world and stopped three generations of young people from starting businesses, having families, and buying homes.  

The damage to the working class and poor Americans, both in economic and human terms, is devastating. It’s a double challenge for minorities.

And now President Biden has eliminated $10,000 of student debt for low-income people and up to $20,000 for those who qualified for Pell Grants.

The official Republican response came instantly, as USA Today reporter Joey Garrison noted on Twitter:

“The @RNC on Biden’s student loan debt cancellation: ‘This is Biden’s bailout for the wealthy. As hardworking Americans struggle with soaring costs and a recession, Biden is giving a handout to the rich.’”

Which is particularly bizarre. “Wealthy” and “rich” people—by definition—don’t need student loan forgiveness because they don’t have student loans. How gullible do Republicans think their voters are?

Just like for-profit health insurance, student loans are a malignancy attached to our republic by Republicans

Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote on Twitter that student loan forgiveness was “completely unfair.” That’s the same Republican congresswoman who just had $183,504 in PPP loans forgiven, and happily banked the money without a complaint.

Republican members of Congress, in fact, seem to be among those in the front of the debt-forgiveness line with their hands out, even as billionaires bankroll their campaigns and backstop their lifestyles.

As the Center for American Progress noted on Twitter in response to a GOP tweet whining that “If you take out a loan, you pay it back”:

Member —— Amount in PPP Loans Forgiven
Matt Gaetz (R-FL) – $476,000
Greg Pence (R-IN) – $79,441
Vern Buchanan (R-FL) – $2,800,000
Kevin Hern (R-OK) $1,070,000
Roger Williams (R-TX) $1,430,000
Brett Guthrie (R-KY) $4,300,000
Ralph Norman (R-SC) $306,250
Ralph Abraham (R-AL) $38,000
Mike Kelly (R-PA) $974,100
Vicki Hartzler (R-MO) $451,200
Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) $988,700
Carol Miller (R-WV) $3,100,000

So, yeah, Republicans are complete hypocrites about forgiving loan debt, in addition to pushing policies that actually hurt our nation (not to mention the generation coming up).

Ten thousand dollars in debt forgiveness is a start, but if we really want America to soar, we need to go away beyond that.

Just like for-profit health insurance, student loans are a malignancy attached to our republic by Republicans trying to increase profits for their donors while extracting more and more cash from working-class families.

Congress should not only zero-out existing student debt across our nation but revive the post-war government support for education—from Jefferson and Lincoln to the GI Bill and college subsidies—that the Reagan, Bush, Bush II, and the Trump administrations have destroyed. 

Then, and only then, can the true “making America great again” begin.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of “The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream” (2020); “The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America” (2019); and more than 25 other books in print.

Opinion: How to Stop the GOP From Killing Medicare, Social Security, and Us / by Thom Hartmann

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) in the Visitors Center Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jabin Botsford – Pool/Getty Images)

The Republican Party is quite literally taking aim at the lives of low-income and working-class people of this country.

It’s The Ronald Reagan Memorial Competition: which Republican can make the rich richer and the poor poorer the fastest?

This week, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin wants to one-up Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida in this perpetual GOP contest over who can most effectively screw working people.

Johnson wants Congress to vote every year whether or not to continue funding both Social Security and Medicare, while Scott says it should only be every five years.

On top of that, in a true tribute to Saint Ronny, they’re competing for how to most aggressively raise income taxes on working-class people, and how quickly.

(You may remember Rick Scott as the guy who ran the company convicted of the largest Medicare fraud in the history of America, who then took his money and ran for Governor of Florida, where he prevented the state from expanding Medicaid for low-income Floridians.)

Scott is the second-richest guy in the Senate and, true to form, he’s now echoing the sentiments of the richest guy in the Senate, Mitt Romney.

“There are 47 percent who are with him,” Romney said of Obama voters back in 2012, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. These are people who pay no income tax.”

Most low-income working people in America actually pay a higher percentage of their income as taxes than do many billionaires and multi-multi-millionaires. 

Working people pay Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes in the form of fees for everything from a driver’s license to road tolls to annual car inspections.

Billionaires, on the other hand, have bought politicians to write so many loopholes into the tax code that most — like Donald Trump — will go decades without paying a single penny in income taxes.

But that level of inequality isn’t enough for Senator Scott, who’s committed to out-neoliberaling Ronnie himself. He wants everybody in Romney’s “47 percent,” even people making $7.25 an hour or less, to subsidize billionaires by paying income taxes on their meager wages.

His logic is nuts. The simple reality is, if you want more Americans to pay income taxes, all you have to do is raise working people’s pay. This isn’t rocket science.

We saw it work out in a big way between 1933 and 1980, before Reagan’s war on labor, when unions helped wages — and income tax payments — steadily rise for working people. Those rising wages literally built the middle class, which peaked in 1980 and then began its long slide under Reaganomics.

In the early years of the Reagan administration, before his neoliberal “trickle down” and “supply side” policies started to really bite Americans, only 18 percent of Americans were so poor that their income didn’t qualify to be taxed. 

As “Right to Work for Less” laws spread across America and Republicans on the Supreme Court made it harder for unions to function, however, more and more working people fell below the tax threshold. When Romney ran for president in 2012, it was 47 percent of working people who had fallen out of the middle class and were then so poor that they lived below the income tax threshold.

Today, just a decade later (and after the $2 trillion Trump tax cut), it takes two working adults to maintain the same lifestyle that one worker could provide in 1980. That’s why an estimated 61 percent of working Americans this year will make so little money that they’ll struggle to pay the rent and buy food, and their income won’t be subject to taxation.

But Rick Scott’s solution to this situation isn’t to raise the income of working-class people so they make enough to pay for food, rent, and qualify to pay income taxes. 

Quite to the contrary, he’s suggesting that low-income people should be hit with their very own special income tax — in addition to the dozens of other taxes they’re already paying — so multimillionaires and billionaires like him and his friends can see their own taxes go down a tiny bit.

“All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game,” Scott says in his 11-point plan, “even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

But for Ron Johnson, even that’s not quite enough of a club to beat working-class Americans over the head, particularly those who are retired and no longer working. He’s targeting the older folks, in fact, for his punishment this week.

He wants to open the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to an annual vote by Congress by moving those programs from the “mandatory spending” category to the easily changed or deleted “discretionary spending.”  

“Defense spending has always been discretionary,” Johnson said on a recent radio show. “VA spending is discretionary. What’s mandatory are things like Social Security and Medicare. If you qualify for the entitlement you just get it no matter what the cost.”

While Scott’s plan would have Congress both impose an income tax on the lowest-wage workers in America and require Congress to vote every 5 years on whether Social Security and Medicare should even continue to exist, Johnson is in more of a hurry and wants to move that vote up to every single year.

“What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so that it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken that are going to be going bankrupt,” Johnson said, echoing a Republican refrain dating back to the 1930s that “any day now” Social Security is going down the drain so we should just hand it over to Wall Street now.

Democrats should flip the script — essentially, pull a Reagan on the GOP — with a plan of their own, only this one with some real middle-class tax cuts.

For example, Democrats could propose ending the income taxes on Social Security, unemployment benefits, and income from tips.

Before Reagan, the first two were totally tax-free and the IRS had never pursued tips until he directed the agency to do so in 1988.

After all, the money you receive when you retire or become disabled and begin to draw Social Security is money that you already paid in, in large part, throughout your working life.

Therefore, when Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, the money people got from Social Security was not taxable and not even tracked by the IRS.

When Congress passed legislation in the 1930s enacting unemployment insurance, they established a trust funded by employees, using money their employers could have paid them in other benefits.

Most workers never use this fund, but those who do are simply receiving what they already, indirectly, have paid into a system to create a safety net that will catch people so they don’t fall too hard or too far when they lose their jobs.

Because this money was usually deducted from people’s income before wages were calculated, unemployment benefits were also not taxable and not even reported to the IRS from 1935 until Reagan began taxing them.

Finally, people who work in jobs where they receive tips rarely have their own accounting system to daily keep track of those tips and report them to the IRS, and, besides that, tips are actually gratuities rather than income and are wildly variable.

They shouldn’t be subject to income tax. And weren’t from the beginning of the income tax in 1918 until just after the election of 1980.

Back in 1981, however, Reagan passed the biggest tax cut for billionaires and giant corporations in the then-history of the world, lowering the top rate from around 74% to around 28% and shoveling, in today’s money, over fifty trillion dollars from working class people up to the top 1% in the years since. 

The result was an explosion in the budget deficit the following year, so Reagan used that excuse to enact the largest tax increase since World War II. Being a Republican, he put it almost entirely on the shoulders of working people, unemployed people, and those receiving Social Security.

Reagan and his Republicans made Social Security income taxable for the first time in American history. It still is taxed, crippling people trying to live on that meager fare.  

Tips, Reagan and his GOP buddies figured, were actually part of wages so they changed IRS rules to force employers to count and report tips. As The New York Times reported in 1988:

“According to the Reagan Administration, which proposed the change, the expanded [tips] tax would raise $200 million this year and $1.6 billion over five years.”

And people on unemployment, Reagan decided, should also pay income tax on the money they received out of the unemployment trust funds that they, themselves, had paid into throughout their working lives via their employers.

He also raised taxes substantially on working-class people who still had regular jobs, and ended the ability of working-class people to deduct credit card, car loan, school loan, and most other interest payments from their taxes.

When Reagan arrived at the White House there was a 0% tax bracket for Americans making under the equivalent, in today’s dollars, of around $8,500 a year. Those folks paid absolutely nothing in income taxes.

Reagan did away with that altogether, so pretty much everybody making more than $0 and less than $29,750 in today’s money would pay up to a 15% tax rate, and anybody making over $29,750 would be taxed at 28%.

Finally, instead of indexing Social Security payments to one of the cost of living indexes like CPI-E that reflects the actual costs of older or disabled people, Reagan stuck seniors with a COLA irrelevant to retired people.

As an added slap in the face, he increased the Social Security tax paid by working people making under $147,000. (The morbidly rich, to this day, don’t pay a penny after the FICA tax on their first $147k in income.)

To add insult to injury, Reagan also raised the retirement age from 65 to 67, although to avoid political blow-back back in the 1980s he made sure it only applied to people born after 1960. Ironically, it phases into full effect this decade.

Reagan is gone, but his attacks on working class people roll on. Now they’re being carried on by Rick Scott, Ron Johnson, and all the rest of the multimillionaire Republican senators.

Let’s take the first step toward rolling back Reagan’s neoliberal legacy by making “income” from Social Security, unemployment benefits, and tips — money that exclusively benefits low-income and working-class people — free of taxation once again!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of “The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream” (2020); “The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America” (2019); and more than 25 other books in print.

Common Dreams, August 4, 2022, https://www.commondreams.org/