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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, August 06, 2022

One step forward, one step back

 This is, in theory, a very good week for Democrats and liberals, starting with the Kansas abortion referendum and ending with Kirsten Sinema's agreement to what is left of the Build Back Better package.  Yet two stories on the front page of today's New York Times show just how hard--and perhaps impossible--it is to reverse the economic and political trends of the last 40 years, beginning with Ronald Reagan's direct attack on the principles of the New Deal and continuing through three subsequent Democratic and three subsequent Republican administrations.

The first of these stories, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Rebecca Robbins, deals with the measure allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs.  It explains that Democrats have been pushing for this measure, without success, since the Clinton era.  Now this measure, it reports, does include one critical provision: it will limit what Medicare patients (presumably those under Medicare part D), have to pay out of pocket for drugs to just $2000 a year.  It does not make clear where the rest of the price of their drugs will come from.  Far down the story, however, I found some fine print about the negotiation provision which casts some very real doubt on how much it is going to mean.  First of all, no negotiated prices will take effect for four years from now, in 2026--by which time we might easily have a Republican Congress and a Republican president who aren't interested in implementing the change.  That's four years for the massive drug industry lobbying army (which, the story informs us, has cost about $250 million a year since 1998) to find ways around the measure.  Even then, in 2026, only a maximum of ten drugs can be selected for negotiation, with more to follow later.  And Medicare won't be able to negotiate the prices of new drugs--only those that have been on the market for a certain (unstated) period of time, but whose patents have not yet expired. The new law will do nothing about what I regard as the biggest problem with our drug industry:  the incentive to develop drugs that alleviate chronic conditions, rather than desperately needed new antibiotics, for instance, which don't offer much profit opportunity.  In short, this new provision will have no impact for four years, and, it looks to me, only a marginal impact--at best--after that.

The second story, by Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley, is even more depressing to me.  Yesterday's remarkable jobs report--showing that unemployment is down to a 53-year low of 3.5 percent, with pay up 5.2 percent in a year--is, it explains, bad news from the standpoint of the Federal Reserve's fight against inflation.  It explains this very clearly in two paragraphs:

"Fed officials have been waiting for signs that the economy, and particularly the job market, is slowing. They hope that employers’ voracious need for workers will come into balance with the supply of available applicants, because that would take pressure off wages, in turn paving the way for businesses like restaurants, hotels and retailers to temper their price increases.

"The moderation has remained elusive, and that could keep central bankers raising interest rates rapidly in an effort to cool down the economy and restrain the fastest inflation in four decades. As the Fed adjusts policy aggressively, it could increase the risk that the economy tips into a recession, instead of slowing gently into the so-called soft landing that central bankers have been trying to engineer."

For 50 years the United States has had a big, increasing problem in inequality.  While the real wages of the lower half of the population have grown very little or not at all, the rich have gotten much richer.  The obvious solution, and the one that the nation tried with great success from the late 1930s until the 1980s, is to pay low-wage workers much more.  That means that those of us who already have money will indeed have to pay a little more for goods and services.  That's the simplest way for the nation to redistribute some income and undo some inequality.  Yet the story makes clear that the Fed will indeed plunge us into a recession--as it did under Reagan in 1981--if that turns out to be necessary to halt increases in wages and prices.  Our economic system, it appears, depends on cheap labor, which is another way of saying that it depends on maintaining, not lessening, inequality.  Nor is it even clear that higher wages are principally to blame for our very high inflation. While wages have risen 5%, inflation is at 9%, much of it fueled by much higher energy prices and housing costs which have nothing to do with the price of labor. 

On another front, I did not realize, and I am very surprised to learn, that the bill the Democrats have been working on would actually have closed the "carried interest" loophole that so sharply reduces the tax burden of those who work in hedge funds and private equity firms. Chuck Schumer, whose constituency includes Wall Street, has loyally defended it for decades. But have no fear--Kristen Sinema of Arizona insisted that that change be dropped to gain her support for the whole measure.  That guarantees more economic and political power for our financial interests.  [Update, August 8]:  And today the Times describes, in great detail, how Joe Manchin insisted not only on the immediate issuance of leases for more drilling for fossil fuel both offshore and on public lands, but secured fast-track approval for a new gas pipeline through West Virginia.  Pipeline interests have donated large sums both to Manchin's campaign and to Chuck Schumer's. How we are going to expand and reduce fossil fuel usage at the same time is not clear.

I am an historian who believes that the historian's task is to lay out what happened--not what should have happened, and not the best spin we can put on what happened from a particular point of view.  That should also be the job of journalists--and the four journalists who wrote these stories actually did a pretty good job for anyone who takes the trouble to read what they said to the end. When I began writing these pieces 18 years ago, I still believed things might fundamentally change.  That belief peaked in the late fall of 2008--but by mid-2010, as the archive shows, I realized that they would not.  I did not realize that six years later, the election of Donald Trump would signal the collapse of the US political system as I had known it--and Trump, I just discovered, is leading both Biden and Harris by several percentage points in almost every major poll.  Democratic administrations now take two whole sessions of Congress to put through reforms that sound good but have only marginal impact.  Meanwhile, the basic rhythm of American politics periodically returns the Republicans to power, and even marginal progress comes to a halt.  I think I will enjoy the rest of my life more if I can truly accept that, and all the grief that goes with it.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Modern Life and its Discontents

 The other day, preparing for an on-line movie group I belong to, I watched Francois Truffaut's first and probably his greatest movie, The 400 Blows.  It may be the best movie ever about childhood, and it has more specific meanings for me as well.  Just two years after the film was released I began two years of my own in a French lycée myself, in newly independent Senegal, when I was exactly the age of Antoine Doinel in the movie,  and I recognize the classroom atmosphere.  I also recognized the Paris of the film, which I experienced in brief visits in 1961 and 1962, when I was struck by how dirty much of it was, with used tickets strewn all over metro stations and bathrooms well below American standards. (All that has changed now.)  And the school scenes set me thinking about broader trends in western civilization.

France was the first thoroughly bureaucratic modern state.  That trend began, as Tocqueville argued in his classic The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in the 17th century, but the revolution and Napoleon's empire accelerated it.  The Emperor's education minister boasted that he knew what every child in the country was studying at every hour of the day.  And to succeed in life, a young man or woman had to conform to the rules of the schools.  I did not realize until 20 years later, thanks to a colleague who had studied  French public education, how the system was sorting out winners and losers from a very early age.  Students had to repeat grades much more frequently than in US public education, and anyone who had was not going to advance beyond the minimum school requirements.  That explains the intense alienation of Antoine Doinel and some of his schoolmates, and of some of mine in Senegal as well.  And the regimented style of French education may also explain the alienation of so many French intellectuals from "the system" during the twentieth century, led by those like Jean-Paul Sartre who had actually performed brilliantly all the way through it.  Meanwhile, however, the country is still run by those who made it to the very top of the pyramid, the "grandes écoles" that train various kinds of French professionals.  Its public services are still outstanding today, but more than 40 percent of the electorate is now alienated from the system and votes for the extreme right.

Something similar has happened in American history, of course.  American life became far more bureaucratized in the twentieth century, including its educational system.  The mid-century crisis created a remarkably uniform population that dressed alike, ate the same food, and watched the same three television networks.  And like generations of French intellectuals, the first American generation to grow up in this world--the Boom--immediately rebelled.  No achievement was more impressive, in retrospect, than the creation of the university of California system, which in the early 1960s was offering every state resident a superb education at virtually no cost.  Yet in the fall of 1964, before the escalation of the Vietnam war, when a political controversy broke out at Berkeley, Mario Savio drew applause from his fellow students when he explicitly compared the oppression of the university bureaucracy to the oppression of white supremacy in Mississippi.  Fueled by the war, that revolt spread around the nation during the next six years, and neither universities nor American life have ever been the same.  The revolt became intellectual as well as political, fueled in part by women, minorities and gays who insisted that traditional western civilization had ignored them.  At the same time, economic interests who resented the share of the resources that the government had taken were beginning to mobilize against the New Deal legacy, and by 1981 they were in charge.  Meanwhile, organized religion emerged once again as an alternative source of values and a counterweight to utilitarianism.

Millennials and Gen Z have carried the revolt against bureaucracy to a new level that exalts the "disruption" of existing institutions.  I cannot predict how far all of this will go  It's a very different kind of challenge than predicting the future of the world in 1938, say, when at least three different kinds of well-organized and bureaucratic states were embarking on a struggle for world domination.  I do think that the world in which I grew up came from particular historical circumstances, and valued certain aspects of human nature far more than others.  Perhaps it is generational change, more than anything else, that ensures that the neglected parts of human nature will always emerge once again.

Sunday, July 24, 2022


 My draft history of the US based upon presidential addresses is now complete through 1981 and I am doing the research for the Reagan years.  They were, I now see, a turning point comparable and parallel to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  Like the New Deal, the Reagan years set the country on a different path, and we have been on that path for as long as we remained on FDR's.  And that is why we have seen no federal response whatever to the economic crisis that we now face, and why our elite political system has become so disconnected from the lives of ordinary Americans.

The great change in the role of the government wrought by the New Deal had begun to emerge thirty years earlier, when Theodore Roosevelt began to talk about the need for the government to help make our economic order more just.  Woodrow Wilson built upon that legacy with some modest specific steps, but the momentum towards a new government role died out in the 1920s.  FDR in 1933 came to power in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in our history and made it the government's business to get us out of it.   He was only intermittently successful during the 1930s, but he did put millions of people to work, and he also created the modern American safety net by passing the Social Security Act, while organized labor secured new rights under the Wagner Act.  The government also spent billions on infrastructure.  When inflation emerged as a problem during the Second World War, the government imposed price controls to keep it in check, and they worked quite well until they were lifted.

By the time of Roosevelt's death in 1945, the federal government had a clearly defined role in promoting full employment (codified in the Full Employment Act of 1946) and trying to control inflation.  Presidents from Truman through Carter followed FDR's lead by making broadcast addresses to the American people in response to economic downturns or inflationary surges, trying to explain what was happening and what they planned to do about it.  Congress passed the single biggest federal infrastructure program, the Interstate Highway System, under Eisenhower, and it transformed the country.  Beginning in 1965, however, inflation--fueled in part by the war in Vietnam--and then the energy crisis presented the government with problems that it could not solve.  Nixon, Ford and Carter all vainly struggled with them, and Ford and Carter both lost elections because of them.  That brought Reagan into power.

Reagan stood by--as his predecessors would not have--while Paul Volcker raised interest rates to unheard-of heights, plunging the country into a deep recession that finally slowed inflation to much lower levels.  Meanwhile, he preached, again and again, a new gospel: that government was the source of, not the solution to, our economic problems, and had to leave taxpayers with more money and reduce its size and role.  Reagan's actual success was actually as uneven as Roosevelt's.  Unemployment, which had averaged 7.2 percent in 1980 and risen to 10.8 percent in 1982, had only fallen to 7.3 percent in 1984, and inflation remained at 3.9%.  But Reagan, like FDR, used numerous broadcast addresses to convince the American people that he had gotten the country on a new and better path, and his overwhelming re-election victory in 1984 was comparable to Roosevelt's in 1936.  Organized labor was also losing ground, and economic inequality began to increase.  Those trends have continued to this day.

George H. W. Bush also lost the White House largely because of a severe recession in 1992, but his successor Bill Clinton made only one change in the Reagan recipe--a tax increase, which, added to a previous one under Bush, eventually produced a balanced budget.  But Clinton famously declared in January 1996 that the era of big government was over.  NAFTA, which became law under Clinton, took a great deal of economic activity out of the government's control.  George W. Bush shifted the nation's attention overseas in his first year in office, but meanwhile signed two tax cuts that undid Clinton's work and recreated the permanent federal deficit.

The great crash of 2008 paralleled that of 1929, but Barack Obama never thought seriously about using it to get the country back on the New Deal track.  He and his conservative advisers yielded the initiative to the Fed--as Reagan had done--and allowed it to refinance the bankrupt big banks at very generous terms while doing nothing for the millions of Americans who lost their homes to foreclosures.  That decision helped cost him the control of Congress and the rest of his tenure focused on budget cutting.  Then came Trump and the at least temporary end of the enlightenment experiment in the US.

The pandemic led to another vast infusion of cash into our leading economic institutions, both from the Fed and from the federal government.  That in turn has fueled the first big inflationary surge we have experienced since the Vietnam years, while international crises have once again led to much higher energy prices.  President Biden however has not made any nationwide broadcast addresses either to try to explain what has happened or what we might do about it.  Even Presidents Nixon and Ford imposed some energy price controls on domestic sources in the 1970s, but I have not heard such an idea even mentioned this year, even though the US now produces all the energy that it needs. Biden has for the moment yielded the political initiative within his own party to the House committee investigating January 6.  Whether that will win many voters over in November remains to be seen.

Joe Manchin's refusal to vote for any energy legislation has drawn a lot of comment, but he is also threatening to block critical international promises on corporate taxes.  Secretary of the Treasury Yellen has negotiated a broad agreement to impose minimum corporate taxes around the world, to prevent multinationals from evading taxes by moving their headquarters.  The agreement will fail if Manchin blocks a US minimum tax.  Here we see a direct confrontation between the modern state's claim to control resources for the common good, and our new financial aristocracy which has become more powerful than national governments--as Henry Adams was already noting during the Gilded Age.  And simultaneously, the nation is more divided than ever by bitter, emotional social issues, which stand in the way of consolidating the lower economic half of the population behind a more egalitarian economic program.  We do seem to be in a new era.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Journalistic innumeracy

 Newspapers, of course, thrive on sensationalism, which in turn relies on scare statistics.  A certain form of innumeracy relies very heavily on a false use of the concept of percentages.  An example comes from an article in last Tuesday's Washington Post by columnist Karen Attiah, who attended a gun show in North Texas and wrote a column about women, guns, and pregnancy. It includes the following two sentences about death rates for pregnant women:

"The study, conducted by Tulane University researchers, revealed that the “pregnancy-associated homicide” rate in 2018 and 2019 was 3.62 per 100,000 women — 16 percent higher than homicides of women who are not pregnant or haven’t recently given birth. Homicide beat hemorrhage and pregnancy-related hypertension as the top single cause of death."

Now the killing of a pregnant woman is horrifying, just as any homicide is horrifying, but I want to go a little further into these numbers.  Let's start by figuring out a raw number, based on a single year, 2019.  There were 3,745,540 live births in the US in that year. 3 in 100 of those births were parts of multiple births--that means about 112,000 live births, and thus, about 3,634,000 women had their pregnancies go to full term.  Dividing that number by 100,000 yields a 36.3.  3.62 times 36.3 equals 132.  That is apparently a close approximation of the total number of murdered women who were either pregnant or had just given birth during 2019.  The total number of woman murdered in the US during 2019, according to the FBI, was 2991.  That means that 4 percent of the women murdered in the United States in 1991 were pregnant or had just given birth.  96 percent of them were not.

Ms. Attiah's article, however, claims that a pregnant woman runs a greater statistical risk of homicide than one who is not pregnant--that the risk is "16 per cent" higher.  What that means to her, I think, is that while about 132  pregnant women (or women who had just given birth)  were murdered during 2019, a comparable sample of non-pregnant women--that is, about 3,634,000--would have included 114 homicide victims.  (132 is 16 percent higher than 114).  But the first question that she and her editors should have tried to answer was, is a difference between 114 and 132 out of a sample of  more than 3.6 million statistically significant?  I strongly suspect that it is not, and that it is just as likely to be random.

More important, however, is the misuse here of the concept of percentage.  Percent means "per hundred," and it is computed by dividing a subgroup of a sample by the total size of the sample.  These statistics, however, aren't based on "per hundred," but on dividing per hundred thousand, that is, a thousand times as much.  The percentage, literally, of pregnant women murdered in 2019 was about  .00036 percent.  The percentage of non-pregnant women murdered was about .000031 percent.  That isn't 16 percent higher--it is in fact .00005 percent higher.  16 percent higher, however, seems like a significant difference, while .00005 percent higher obviously is not.  

But that is not all.  The statement that 132 is 16 percent higher than 112 takes 112--the number of women murdered in the non-pregnant sample--as the total sample itself.  That's a basic statistical error, in my opinion, but I see it all the time, particularly in politically sensitive statistics.  

 Two years ago, a New York Times story on school suspensions of black girls noted, "In Iowa, Black girls were nine times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union."  If one clicked the link to the study, one found that Iowa (which has a very small black population) was just one of three states to show a figure that high--states like Virginia and Florid showed only two or three times as many.  Totally absent from the story, however, were any figures on how likely it was, really, for a black or white student to be suspended.  I did some checking and found that about 2 percent of female white students and 10 percent of  female black students were suspended, on average.  The author of that article would have called that "five times as many" black students--but a more accurate way to put it would be that black girls are about 8 percent more likely to be suspended than white ones--and 90 percent of black girls never get suspended.  That, however, does not sound like a national crisis.  The Times and other major newspapers need editors that will ask these questions.

The Karen Attiah column raises another question as well.  It's about the murders of a relatively small group of women--132 our of a total of 2991 murdered women in the US in 2019.  It does not mention that 10,908 men were murdered in 2019--that is, four times as many.  Similarly, the Times ran a story about an "epidemic of femicide" in Central America not long ago, without ever mentioning that the murder of men remains far, far more common.   The reason, once again, that no editor asked Attiah about that is that our major newspapers, like our major universities, now divide the world into the virtuous oppressed on the one hand--women, minorities, and LGBTQ--and privileged oppressors on the other.  Within that narrative, those 10,908 men are unworthy of mention.  Female and minority op-ed columnists now boldly proclaim that their job is to focus on their own demographic.  This is bad journalism and bad citizenship, and we are paying a big price for it.. 


Saturday, July 09, 2022

Addiction in American life

 Addiction occurs, I have been taught, when one is obviously spending more time, energy and money on something than is good for one--so much so that it is becoming impossible to function normally in life.  In its classical period, I would argue, western civilization, and particularly American civilization, recognized addictive behaviors as dangerous both to individuals and to society as a whole and attempted to restrict or even ban them, most notably with prohibition, an attempt to stop alcohol and alcoholism.  That failed miserably, of course, but that does not mean that we do not need ways to keep certain behaviors within reasonable bounds.  That is not happening in the United States today.  Leading sectors of our economy are encouraging dangerous addictions, with very serious consequences for our physical and emotional health.

Because so many highly educated Americans in blue states have learned to eat healthily, the newspapers have remarkably little to say about the nation's most dangerous addiction, unhealthy food. Sugar, fat and salt contribute to diabetes, which is epidemic, and heart disease--and they are the key ingredients of the processed food and drink industry.  Soda sizes and packages have been getting bigger, not smaller, as time goes by.  Childhood obesity is at all-time high levels.  An excellent documentary, Food, Inc, went into this in some detail some years ago.  Some municipalities have made some effort to limit soda sizes, for instance, but without much success.  Things do not seem to be getting better on this front.

Drugs have been a major problem in the US for more than half a century, but the last thirty  years witnessed something new.  Big pharma, looking for new products, decided to counter the opioid market with new, more powerful, legal painkillers. Prescription drug overdoses killed about 3000 Americans in 1999 but grew to 12000 in 2006, and have continued to increase to about 15,000 a year since, costing about a quarter of a million lives from 1999 through 2020.  Pharma also prefers to develop long-term treatments for chronic diseases--another form of addiction, really--rather than to try to cure serious infections with new antibiotics.  It is clearly absurd to expect the free market to design the cheapest and most efficient system of health care. We have the opposite.

Legal gambling has grown enormously in the last four decades or so.  State lotteries, which notoriously find their market among the poorest Americans, now take more than $20  billion a year from the pockets of those who can afford them the least.  Casinos, confined to Nevada in my youth, have spread to nearly every state in the union. take in an estimated $53 billion. The Supreme Court has taken down the barrier to legal sports betting, and the baseball, football and basketball leagues are actively encouraging it as well.  Sports betting is now up to $4 billion a year and rising fast, and cable sports stations and talk radio focus on it too. 

Pornography, ironically, does not seem to make anyone a great deal of money any more, so much is available free on the internet.  It is nonetheless addicting a significant number of people--including even a few women--who are so dependent on it that they can no longer have normal sex.  It is only one of several major addictions found on the internet.  Social media is having a dreadful effect on the mental health of young people, especially girls.  Huge numbers of children, adolescents and adults are addicted to their phones.  And social media obviously creates an addiction to outrage and anger, fueled every day by millions of memes.  It leaves more and more people less and less time for serious intellectual pursuits or calm thought.

Behind most of these addictions lies the free market.  The nation has done better when we had the wisdom and the courage to realize that the market can do us serious harm if we do not limit its freedom in certain critical areas.  In the nineteenth century foreign observers like Tocqueville remarked upon the strictness of American morals (except among the southern aristocracy) and the moderaton of American habits.  Those qualities are far less in evidence today.  Now it seems to be impossible to limit the production of any good or the provision of any service that a lot of people want.  The consequences have not been good, and I predict that they will continue to mount.