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Christie’s Authoritarian Shock Doctrine for NJ’s Environment

Inaugural Symbols and Executive Orders Reveal an Authoritarian

Christie example of the growing presence of conservative authoritarianism”

[Updates below]

It was hard to miss the symbolism of the cannons and national guard troops at last week’s Inaugural for Governor Chris Christie.

At a time when the US is at war in 4 countries across the globe and 11,000 US troops dispatched to Haiti are being criticized for militarizing a humanitarian rescue mission, it was a disgraceful and inappropriate show of force at a civic ceremony.

IMG_6508Does Christie long to be the first “war time” Governor?

I spoke with several senior State Police security officers and veteran Statehouse political pundits working the event, and none could recall cannon and Guard troops at any previous Governor’s Inaugural.

Not since Al Haig, in the wake of the 1981 assassination attempt of President Reagan, infamously declared “I’m in control here“, do I recall such a vividly revealing and embarrassing display.

Star Ledger columnists Tom Moran, in his Let’s Hope Christie’s Bark is Worse than his Bite and Paul Mulshine in his The prosecutors vs. the people of New Jersey both have vaguely hinted at what’s wafting through the Trenton air. (Mulshine, BTW, was the only writer to note Christie’s 19 gun salute).

But let me be blunt: Christie is an authoritarian.

In the must read book Conservatives Without Conscience, former Nixon lawyer and conservative Republican John W. Dean (yes, the Dean of Watergate repute) warned of what he called “the growing presence of conservative authoritarianism“:

Conservatism has noticeably evolved from its so-called modern phase (1950-94) into what might be called a post-modern period, and in so doing it has regressed to its earliest authoritarian roots. Authoritarianism is not well understood and seldom discussed in the context of American government and politics, yet it now constitutes the prevailing thinking and behavior among conservatives. Regrettably, empirical studies reveal, however, that authoritarians are frequently enemies of freedom, antidemocratic, antiequality, highly prejudiced, mean-spirited, power hungry, Machiavellian, and amoral. They are also often conservatives without conscience who are capable of plunging this nation into disasters the likes of which we have never known.” (p. xii) [emphases mine]

With this Dean warning in mind, and now that the Inaugural symbols have been backed by Christie’s own words, let’s shift gears from Christie’s temperament and focus on environmental policy, which was at the center of Christie’s first official acts in issuing 8 Executive Orders in the first hour of his first full day in Office [more to follow on substantive analysis of EO 1-4 in subsequent posts].

Briefly, for our purposes here, I will say simply that those Orders represent a radically different view of the role of government in environmental protection, and that they would substantially alter the institutional arrangements, principles, priorities, standards, and substantive policies that have guided NJ environmental policy for decades. As such, by demolishing existing institutions and regulations, and crippling the effective power of government viz a viz the private sector, they have the potential to permanently set back progress on the environmental and public health front at precisely the moment we need to be doing far more to sustain the health of the planet and NJ landscape.

Although I am loath to use the term, this could be a transformational change in the wrong direction. One example should suffice to illustrate the huge stakes involved: just one legal memo from Christie Whitman’s EPA General Counsel set back the efforts to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 years! A lost decade! (see Robert Fabricant’s August 2003 Memorandum denying that the EPA has authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Download PDF.

Or consider that Christie’s transition Teams are calling for the elimination of the Highlands Council (loss of land to development is forever), abandonment of the Energy Master Plan, more in state power plants & transmission lines, and scaling back stream buffers from 300 feet to 150 feet (just to name a few).

These Executive Orders were preceded by the nomination of Bob Martin as DEP Commissioner. Martin is a retired corporate executive, who has no environmental training or experience. Martin worked for the consulting firm, Accenture, that was spun off just before the collapse of parent corrupt accounting firm Arthur Anderson (who cooked the books in the Enron criminal scandal). Martin’s firm is notorious for exploiting off shore corporate tax shelters, privatizing government services, downsizing firms, and off shoring US jobs. Martin himself is a strong advocate of “cost benefit analysis” as a basis for policy.

The Martin nomination and Executive Orders were followed by the Friday afternoon (bury the news) release of the Environmental Protection Transition Report. This Report can only be described as an across the board all out attack on DEP as an institution and on environmental protections. [more to follow on substantive analysis of the Transition Report]. Here’s how a well respected moderate long time environmental colleague described it:

Seems that this is a bunch of tea-bagger, low grade right wing, poorly considered and hallucinatory crap.  God help us if ANY of this pile of lies makes it into policy.  It is absolutely scandalous that this kind of ill informed, ideologically driven demagoguery is being represented at this level of government.

The policy context for the Christie Administration can be described as a man made disaster: deep global economic recession, high unemployment, record rates of personal bankruptcy and home foreclosure, and a structural $6 billion state budget deficit. Across the nation, there is a huge political battle raging, as populist sentiments explode in response to deeply unpopular Wall Street bailouts and betrayal of Main Street.

The free market paradigm and de-regulatory pro-corporate policy that created the Wall Street collapse and economic crisis have begun to shift.  Not unexpectedly, corporate power is deeply resisting, supported by Republicans, corporate democrats, and various Tea Bagger faux populist movements.

Here in NJ, business groups and builders have long sought to use the economic crisis to rollback environmental protections and scapegoat DEP.

The corporate agenda was well described in New York Times best seller “The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Klein described

“orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities as “disaster capitalism“.

Klein’s book exposed in detail how deeply unpopular pro-corporate policies are cynically and opportunistically rammed through during times of crisis. For example, in the wake of Katrina, right wing forces pounced on the “opportunity” to attack government and impose a corporate agenda and privatize government services:

Katrina was a tragedy, but as Milton Freedman wrote in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, it was “also an opportunity.”. On September 13, 2005 – 14 days after the levees were breached – the Heritage Foundation hosted a meeting of like minded ideologues and Republican lawmakers. They came up with a list of “Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” – 32 policies in all, each one straight out of the Chicago School playbook, and all of them packaged as “hurricane relief“. The first three items were “automatically suspend Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws in disaster areas“, a reference to the law that required federal contractors to pay living wage; “make the entire affected area a flat-tax free enterprise zone”; and “make the entire region an economic competitiveness zone (comprehensive tax incentives and waiving of regulations).”. Another demand called for giving parents vouchers to use at charter schools. …

The meeting produced more ideas that gained presidential support. Climate scientists have directly linked the increased intensity of hurricanes to warming ocean temperatures. This connection, however, didn’t stop the working group at the Heritage Foundation from calling on Congress to repeal environmental regulations on the Gulf Coast, give permission for new oil refineries in the United States and green-light “drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge”. All these measures would increase greenhouse gas emissions, the major human contributor to climate change, yet they were immediately championed by the president under the guise of responding to the Katrina disaster. (p. 518-519) [emphases mine]

Does any of this sound familiar to the Christie agenda that is about to be imposed on New Jersey?

Welcome to the Shock Doctrine and Christie’s disaster policy.

Some argue that a constitutional crisis refers to a turning point in the health and history of a constitutional order“, which emboldens some politicians to play constitutional hardball. Similarly, I believe that we are approaching an environmental policy crisis, as the Christie administration plays hardball and prepares  to radically alter the rules of the game and destroy the existing order on behalf of their business clients.

Let’s hope the press, the Democrats, conscientious DEP employees, and environmental groups wake up in time and organize an opposition to block this assault.

Repeating my December 22 warning: this is no time for inside games:

In this economic and political context, progressive communities need to seek common ground in order to circle the wagons for the oncoming onslaught of the Christie Administration.

Update #1 – this would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous: the Star Ledger reports that Christie apparently feels he can put the NJ BIA and Chamber of Commerce in the “penalty box”, while Senator Kyrillos just declared “a new World Order”. Really. Pathetic. What’s next, the stockade? Public flogging? Where the hell does Kyrillos think he is, in High School?

“These organizations have shown a lack of political resistance to organized labor, to the (Democratic) majorities in the Legislature, to the partisans in the executive branch and the governor’s office,” said Kyrillos.

“Shame on them for caving in to conventional wisdom that the Democrats would continue to control the state. They did not serve their constituency. Now it’s the new world order.”

[Update #1: 2/11/10: looks like the message is starting to sink in – from today’s Bergen Record:

Stile: Combativeness may hurt Christie Thursday, February 11, 2010 – end update]

[Update#2 – 10/15/11 – I said Christie was an authoritarian: http://tinyurl.com/yc3xjak

Here’s more evidence – AG says NJ cops can use stun guns: http://tinyurl.com/43af2z3

 [Update #3: 7/29/13 – almost 4 years later, Christie’s support of Government spying more evidence of his authoritarian nature. Doblin opinion piece:
“These esoteric, intellectual debates — I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won’t, because that’s a much tougher conversation to have,” said Christie.
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