Diagnosing Dubya

The president who mistook his wife for a hat.


I showed him the cover, an unbroken expanse of Sahara dunes.”What do you see here?” I asked.”I see a river,” he said. “And a little guest-house with its terrace on the water. People are dining out on the terrace. I see coloured parasols here and there.” He was looking, if it was “looking,” right off the cover into mid-air and confabulating nonexistent features, as if the absence of features in the actual picture had driven him to imagine the river and the terrace and the coloured parasols.I must have looked aghast, but he seemed to think he had done rather well. There was a hint of a smile on his face. He also appeared to have decided that the examination was over and started to look around for his hat. He reached out his hand and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to put it on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if she was used to such things.—Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

The psychological disorder that Dr. Oliver Sacks described in his unforgettable essay “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” was visual agnosia. Agnosia is defined by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as “a rare disorder characterized by an inability to recognize and identify objects or persons despite having knowledge of the characteristics of the objects or persons.” Having lately read in quick succession Daniel Altman’s new book, Neoconomy, and James Fallows’ cover story in the October Atlantic (“Bush’s Lost Year“), I am now willing to stake my credentials as a medical diagnostician (an undergraduate degree in English, if you must know) on the proposition that there is an epidemic of agnosia inside the Bush administration.

Fallows’ piece argues that waging war against Iraq was a peculiar and self-defeating response to a vicious attack on American soil in which Iraq was not involved. Altman makes the corresponding point that pushing two major tax cuts aimed at increasing capital accumulation over the long term was a bizarre and unhelpful way to combat an economic recession. (His book’s awkward title is an attempt to spotlight this parallel, though the neoconservative movement has never been all that interested in economics.) Both arguments are familiar, but Fallows and Altman have done an unusually thorough job of compiling the evidence.

Based on conversations with national-security professionals, Fallows discovered “surprisingly little controversy” about the Iraq war: “Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration’s record, they tend to see America’s response to 9/11 as a catastrophe.” From a cost perspective, the $150 billion spent on the Iraq war has made it impossible to fund the Department of Homeland Security adequately. Only 2 percent of the 9 million shipping containers entering the United States each year get inspected, and a federal program to improve emergency response systems in major cities has reached fewer than one-quarter of the eligible municipalities. Preparations for the Iraq invasion dictated an over-reliance on Pakistan and the Northern Alliance to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan. James Dobbins, who was the Bush administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, told Fallows that the administration decided early on that it would not commit troops to peacekeeping in Afghanistan; that it would oppose other countries attempting to do so (because that would tie up American resources for airlifting donated supplies); and that it would not battle the re-emergence of narcotics trafficking. In all three cases cases, the apparent reason was the need to conserve troop strength for the Iraq invasion. As a result, Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large and (Peter Bergen writes in an accompanying piece) continue to plot against the United States.

Altman’s book (which he summarized last spring in thisSlate article) blames the Bush administration’s ineffectual response to the 2001 recession on the overzealous pursuit of a laudable long-term goal: increasing the savings rate.

Rather than pushing to enact short-term measures to deal with short-term problems, they set out a tax-cutting agenda that would last for a decade, and, oh yes, also have some positive side effects for the current malaise. It was like going to the doctor with a headache and ending up with an appendectomy—well, hey, at least you got some painkillers.

Typically, when the government tries to speed recovery from a recession by cutting taxes, the idea is to increase spending, because that gives the economy a quick jolt of stimulus. Those most likely to spend what they get from a tax cut are people in the lower- or middle-income tax brackets. But the Bush tax cuts were focused on the wealthy, something even Bush admitted in an unguarded moment captured in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty (“Won’t the top-rate people benefit the most from eliminating the double taxation of dividends?” Bush asked in a meeting about the 2003 tax cut. “Didn’t we already give them a break at the top?”) Wealthy people are much more likely to put any money they receive from a tax cut into savings, which take much longer to stimulate the economy. Altman cites a study showing that the savings rate rises 2 to 3 percentage points for every $10,000 increase in income, and that saving rates average as high as 49 percent among the wealthiest people, who have already paid for life’s necessities (and, in all likelihood, many of the luxuries). “[I]f the federal government wanted to spark a certain amount of new spending in the economy,” Altman notes, “aiming tax cuts at the rich would be only half as effective as aiming them at people who barely saved at all, like the working poor.”

The agnosia demonstrated by the Bush administration’s military and fiscal priorities is, of course, willed. The Iraq hawks avoided thinking about Afghanistan because they didn’t want to get bogged down in the dreary business of hunting down al-Qaida or boosting homeland defense. (This renders even more ludicrous Vice President Cheney’s grotesque claim that a Kerry presidency would make a terrorist attack more likely.) Dwelling on Afghanistan got in the way of the Bushies’ plan to spread democracy like a wildfire from Iraq to the rest of the Middle East. Nevermind that Iraq itself is in a state of near-anarchy. The tax-cutters chose not to dwell on the recession or the weak recovery because they were mesmerized by the idea that shifting the tax burden from capital to labor would bring about unprecedented growth. Nevermind that the tax-cutting involved brought about social injustice and a budget deficit likely to keep future interest rates high. (One interesting lesson from Altman’s book is that conservatives’ new tax-the-poor meme, which has been justified on the grounds that lower- and middle-income people need to be taught that government spending does not come free, is more or less dictated by the imperative to end taxation of savings. Lower- and middle-income people are simply the unfortunate suckers who, lacking any means to disguise their wages as investment income, get left holding the bag.)

A common theme is the theoretician’s contempt for empiricism. But how did George W. Bush, of all people, end up getting conned by a bunch of eggheads? Typically, it’s intellectuals, not party-hearty Dekes, who are most susceptible to grand untested theories. It was a reasonable worry, for example, with Bush’s 2000 opponent, Al Gore. Bush, who not only lacks intellectual curiosity but seems to hold in contempt those who possess it, does not belong to the risk group for willed agnosia. One would have expected Dubya to growl at his advisers, “Enough of this hifalutin’ talk. Tell me how we’re going to solve the problem at hand.” But on the evidence, whenever Bush attempts this (as in the quote from the Suskind book, above), it comes out a mere feint, easily quieted by the enunciation of one of the words his PR superstructure uses to define his presidency: “steadfast,” “entrepreneur,” “forceful,” or whatnot. This suggests that, although not easily conned by intellectuals, Bush is easily cowed by them. He is intimidated out of trusting his own Texas-bred common sense. So rather than willed agnosia, a better diagnosis for Bush is probably hysterical agnosia brought on by exposure to deep thinkers. No wonder he hates them as a class.

Next patient, please.