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This American president launched the modern drug war, imposed wage and price controls, kept a pointless war going in Vietnam long after he knew it was hopeless, and imposed massive new bureaucracies on the American economy. Nixon’s vision of government in general had no clear limits, and his view of executive power helped him commit and collude in crimes that he thought were not crimes because he did them. Richard Nixon should be a cautionary tale for all future presidents, but all too often he serves as an example.
34. Henry Paulson
When the nation’s financial markets collapsed in the fall of 2008, Hank Paulson, secretary of the treasury for President George W. Bush, came in with guns blazing. In September of 2008, he proposed the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), a scheme he falsely advertised as a way to remove “illiquid assets that are weighing down our financial institutions and threatening our economy.” Instead it became a justification for an endless series of bailouts, including of non-banks like General Motors. Even TARP’s biggest proponents acknowledge that the economy has underperformed the past five years.
35. Sean Penn
When not chewing the scenery in overrated Oscar-winning films, the multimillionaire brother of Christopher Penn spends much of his time acting as an apologist for authoritarians like the late Hugo Chavez and the still-breathing Fidel Castro. When Chavez died, Penn said: “the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion.” That’s one way of putting it.
36. Pol Pot
A French school flunkie turned peasant revolutionary, Pol Pot might have been the most efficient murderer in communism’s grisly history. It took the dictator and his Khmer Rouge less than four years to kill and centrally plan to death up to 3 million people—20 percent of the Cambodian population.
37. Vladimir Putin
While many were optimistic that Russia would manage to modernize after almost a century of Marxist misery, the former KGB agent and Russian president has vindicated skeptics of liberal progress while clamping down on free speech, mucking about in Russia’s “near abroad,” and supporting horrid governments such as the Assad regime in Syria.
38. Bruce Ratner
A real estate tycoon and serial beneficiary of eminent domain abuse, Ratner partnered with New York officials in 2001 to forcibly evict some 55 midtown businesses standing in the way of a new headquarters for the New York Times Company. A few years later in Brooklyn, Ratner and his government allies seized and razed dozens of homes and businesses in order to build a basketball arena for a team then owned by Ratner himself.
39. Diane Ravitch
A school reformer turned union flack, this New York University professor did an about-face after four decades as one of the nation’s most prominent charter advocates. Part of the right-wing think tank braintrust that hatched the initial policy proposals for vouchers, she now says “Vouchers are a con, intended to destroy public education.” She has been welcomed with open arms by defenders of the status quo.
40. John Rawls
The philosophical father of 20th century liberalism, Rawls’ seminal Theory of Justice (1971) has dominated moral and political philosophy for decades. His framing of “justice as fairness” and his notion that societies should be arranged to improve the lot of the least advantaged subtly underpin nearly all of our national policy debates, lending a justification to multitudinous extensions of state power. His longtime rival, the libertarian thinker Robert Nozick, offered an alternative based in property rights and personal liberty. Sadly, Rawls has been more influential.