Press Watch: Clouded Windows

It is the function of the media to let light through. When the windows are dirty, mediation fails. — Anon

The National Catholic Reporter (May 27) is wrapped up in outrage at the conflict between the United States and Nicaragua, which it blames on President Reagan, not the Sandinistas. (It earlier blamed the Pope more than the Sandinistas, too.) NCR’s Arthur Jones accuses the Reagan administration of two acts of bad faith, five deliberate deceptions, three misrepresentations, and five double standards. As oracles of truth, Jones relies for his arguments on two extreme partisans of the left in Central America, Lawrence Birns of the leftwing Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Professor William LeoGrande of American University, who drafts Senate Democratic Policy Committee papers in this election year.

No doubt, Birns, LeoGrande and Jones have their own versions of reality in Nicaragua. To disagree with them, it is not necessary to regard them as liars, to accuse them of bad faith, or to attack their own double standards. Such situations are sufficiently complex for more than one point of view to be held, even passionately, in good faith.

On strictly factual matters, NCR’s accusations are scarcely plausible. On interpretive matters, its point of view is highly questionable.

Example: a U.S. State Department aide (May 11, 1983) tells newspaper editors that after Somoza’s fall “. . . we were pouring aid into Nicaragua . . .” NCR’s Arthur Jones says: “Not true.” His source is Don Graff of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, whose testimony actually confirms the State Department testimony. Graff says that in “the months immediately following the change in government” after the fall of Somoza, “$216 million was made available — all to private Nicaraguan organizations. A $75 million package was approved by Congress on Feb. 27, 1980 . . . Most of the package was again earmarked for private recipients. Only $15 million was to be at the direct disposal of the new government . . .”

So what is the untruth? The State Department and the President (April 27, 1983) speak of “aid to Nicaragua.” Graff and Jones hold out for “aid to the Nicaraguan government.” That is their privilege. The administration told the truth. NCR falsely accused it of lying.

Aid to Somoza is also falsely twisted by NCR. It quotes Graff again: “Almost up to the end, the Somoza government was receiving massive loans from American and European banks. As a consequence, the Sandinists inherited a $582 million debt to more than 100 banks, but none of the actual funds. They were in Somoza bank accounts abroad — a fact well known in Washington.”

The behavior of Somoza was clearly an outrage. This is one reason why the Carter administration sided with the Sandinistas. But the $582 million did not come from the U.S. Congress. It came from “more than 100 banks.” During the same period, the banks were lending money to governments in Poland, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere by the billions. Such moneys are not governmental moneys.

Thus, NCR faults the U.S. government for giving funds to private organizations in Nicaragua, and then faults private banks for lending money to the Nicaraguan government, which misused the funds.

So it goes. NCR creates a tissue of misrepresentation in order to accuse a president it loathes of misrepresentation.

The chief of the Nicaragua Human Rights Office, a Catholic layman, Jose Estaban Gonzalez, named by Somoza in his autobiography as his “number one enemy,” was jailed by the Sandinistas in February 1981. He was finally released under great international pressure, but his photographic and documentary evidence of human rights abuses by the Sandinistas (which he had been about to carry to Human Rights Commissions in Europe) was confiscated. He later fled Nicaragua in fear of his life. Gonzalez was the first to compare Sandinist human rights offenses with those of Somoza.

For the sake of argument, let us say that the highly organized Sandinist Nicaragua, with its neighborhood report groups, has not committed as many brutal murders as some of its neighboring states. Is it reasonable for some Nicaraguans to be disappointed that their dreams for a pluralist, free, democratic society have been dashed?

The nub of this matter is, as NCR says, the degree to which Nicaragua has been a conduit of arms to El Salvador. That this is beyond doubt has been testified to even by the Nicaraguans, by Democrats in Congress, by Carter’s Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, and by many others. It seems beyond dispute.

What should the U.S. do? Opinions diverge. There is no need to accuse one another of lies. The situation is not crystal clear, but neither is it wholly in doubt. NCR should clean its windows when letting facts in.

The New Republic seems more and more to be an estimable magazine, especially for its acumen in foreign affairs. It does get sloppy, though, on “the fairness issue.” The number one priority of the Democratic party, of course, is to show at all costs that the Reagan economic program (now that it is working, no one seems to write “Reaganomics”) “helps the rich” and “hurts the poor.” It is surprising how many mistakes with numbers are allowed to pile up in making this point, how many false logical steps are taken, and how many gaps are left in the argument. For it is not self-evident that the relation between “helping the rich” and “hurting the poor” is causal, one of the other. “A rising tide lifts all boats” is an old Democratic party maxim.

In its June 6 editorial TNR says that the Congressional Budget Office “found that households with incomes below $10,000 will lose a total of $17 billion for the period 1983 to 1985, while households over $80,000 will gain $55.6 billion.” But how did the C.B.O. arrive at this figure? Holding everything else equal, it calculated gains and losses of the new tax and welfare cuts. But will “everything else” be equal?

Almost certainly, income earners over $80,000 per year (approximately 1.5 percent of all taxpayers) will have paid more taxes in 1982, both absolutely and relative to other taxpayers, than ever before. Cuts in tax rates affect behavior. Such taxpayers may pay at a lower tax rate than before but still end up paying more taxes. Is it not desirable to take more taxes from the top income earners, even if, from their point of view, as they earn more income and pay more taxes they also keep more for themselves?

As for those who earn less than $10,000 per year (the official poverty level is $9,287 for a non-farm family of four), they already pay virtually no taxes at all. Cuts in tax rates, therefore, barely help them, even if the cut is exactly the same as that received by all others. Moreover, Reagan’s policies have worked to their benefit in an obvious way, not included in the C.B.O. estimate. Inflation is “the cruelest tax.” It falls most heavily on the poor. A continuation of Carter’s programs would almost certainly have hurt the poor through continuing high inflation. The severe reduction in inflation helps the poor (and all those on fixed incomes) in tangible ways. Those earning less than $10,000 per year during 1983-85 will hold stronger dollars than they would have under higher inflation.

It may be that Reagan’s programs — taken in aggregate — are harder on the poor than Carter’s programs were. But one wonders. During the four Carter years, cumulative inflation wiped out more than one third of the buying power of every dollar. The poor suffered from inflation most of all.


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