Thursday, March 23, 2017

Echoes from another era

A week or so ago, my friend Jamie Galbraith brought a remarkable story of our parents' generation to my attention.  Parts of it, at least, have already been published, but I want to share it because of the light it throws on the United States in which I grew up.

Andreas Papandreou was the son of a liberal Greek family, born in 1919.  In the late 1930s he got into trouble with the military dictatorship that ruled his native land and managed to emigrate to the US.  He earned a Ph.d in Economics at Harvard.After joining the Navy and becoming a US citizen, Papandreous began a distinguished career in various American universities, becoming the chairman of the Economics Department at UC Berkeley during the 1950s.  In 1959 he returned to Greece and eventually joined the government of his father George, a leading liberal. He became a target of the right wing.

In 1967 the Greek political crisis culminated in a military coup.  (These were the events that were the basis for the magnificent French film Z in 1969.)  Andreas Papandreou was arrested, and press reports suggested that he might be shot.  Economists around the country contacted their colleague John Kenneth Galbraith, who had served in the Kennedy Administration but was now back at Harvard, to see what he could do.  Galbraith had written speeches for President Johnson early in his tenure, but he hadn't spoken to him for two years because he opposed the Vietnam War,   Galbraith called the White House and managed to get his plea to intercede with the Greek government to save Papandreou's life through to LBJ through an aide, Joe Califano.

Walt Rostow, the National Security Adviser, was also a Cambridge-based economist, and Johnson asked him what he knew about Papanndresou.  Rostow replied that he was not very nice, and that he had left some poker debts and "angry women" behind when he left Berkeley.  Johnson--who had made some women angry himself--was not impressed. "That's not a reason to kill a man," he said.  Lste that night, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach called Galbraith and read him a note he had received from the President.  "Nick: Call Ken Galbraith and tell him I've told those Greek bastards to lay off that son of a bitch, whoever he is."  Papandreou was eventually released on condition that he leave the country.  After the military regime fell in 1974, he returned and became Prime Minister.

The story fascinates me because of the light it sheds on the nature of the Democratic Party from approximately 1933 until 1968 or so--a party that crossed geographical, political and cultural lines, bringing together certain constituencies that had very little in common in pursuit of certain important goals.  At or near the center of that coalition for most of the period 1938-68 was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Johnson was certainly a bundle of contradictions that reflected the very diverse nature of the United States.   He came from Texas, a state of the old Confederacy, but he had worked in a New Deal agency and won election to Congress and the Senate as a New Dealer.  In 1940 he may have saved the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives by raising money from Texas oil men and funneling it to Democratic candidates around the country.  Johnson's views on civil rights early in his career, as Robert Caro has shown, were not advanced even by southern standards, and even in the White House, I can testify, he referred to "niggers" occasionally when talking to fellow white southerners.  (The editors of the transcripts of his phone conversations changed the word to "nigras," but I heard at least one tape myself and I know what he said.)  But Johnson by 1957, when he was Senate Majority Leader, knew that as a presidential candidate he had to make some kind of a civil rights record for himself, and he shepherded two rather tentative civil rights bills through Congress in 1957 and 1960.  He did not secure the nomination in 1960, of course, but he became JFK's Vice President because he represented the Deep South, where Kennedy needed critical electoral votes to win.  He got them.  Then, in November 1963, Johnson became President.

An omnibus civil rights bill calling for equal access to public accommodations was then before the Congress, and Johnson used both his legislative skills and the nation's grief over JFK to get it through by the next summer. In the spring of 1965 he followed that up with the Voting Rights act.  Meanwhile, he was pushing through the Great Society, including Medicare, a poverty program, aid to education, and a new immigration act.  The Voting Rights Act was about to shear white Southerners off from the Democratic coalition for generations to come, but for the time being, at least some Southern Democrats could still cooperate with Johnson on economic and social legislation.

The Democratic coalition, meanwhile, also included intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard and Walt Rostow of MIT.  Their generation of economists turns out to have been almost unique in American history, insofar as they believed in a vigorous fiscal role for the government to maintain economic growth and high employment.  Today their counterparts at Harvard and MIT would probably be either conservatives or neoliberals like Larry Summers.  Johnson was no intellectual.  He had read very few books in his life and he felt at an intellectual disadvantage in front of Kennedy's team. But he knew intellectuals could provide important help, not least because they could write good speeches for him.  He could also grasp the key elements of economic questions, as I heard listening to taped discussions between him and his economic advisers.  Johnson trusted Rostow--most of all because Rostow loyally supported the Vietnam War--and he respected Galbraith.  That helped save Papandreou's life.

Today the Democratic Party has been eliminated from the government in Washington and from a vast majority of states.  It remains for than ever the party of American intellectuals, but any link between them and the mass of the people outside of the two coasts appears to have been severed.  And the retreat from the New Deal that began in the 1970s, combined with the reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the white South, destroyed the possibility of an interregional coalition.  There is not one Democratic Senator now, liberal or conservative, from the whole Deep South.  In particular there is no one remotely like Lyndon Johnson, whose racial attitudes certainly evolved and who made his career serving as a bridge between Texas oil men and construction magnates on the one hand, and northern and western liberals on the other.

Today's Americans demand purity from their politicians, both among Republicans and Democrats.  They would rather keep their tents homogeneous than enlarge them.  Given that we have certainly not eliminated white racists from American political life, is it really better than virtually all of them now vote for one party?  That is also what happened on the eve of the civil war, and it is very bad for America. Both parties seem wedded to the idea that those who oppose fundamental aspects of their party ideology do not count.  That attitude will only dig us deeper into the hole that we have dug.

Friday, March 17, 2017

It didn't start with Trump

For some time now, students of Strauss and Howe have been arguing about when the current crisis began.  When 9/11 occurred a web forum discussing their ideas had already been operating for four years,and it certainly felt as though "this was it." The rhetoric of George W. Bush, who talked about the Global War on Terror as a generational struggle (or, in the words of some Neocons, "World War IV"), contributed to that view as well.  Yet Bush's decision to cut taxes instead of raising them and his inability really to get the bulk of the country behind him seemed to indicate that the crisis might lie ahead.   Then,in the last year of his Presidency, came the financial crisis, 79 years, remarkably, after 1929.  That certainly seemed to be "it," and Neil Howe has stuck to that date ever since.

One advantage of the 2008 date is that it allows for speculation that the crisis might last into the late 2020s, and thus, that we need not take current events too seriously. You may feel, as so many of us do,. that we're headed in the wrong direction right now, but there's still more than a decade to turn around.  Yet I am more and more convinced that the Crisis began in 2001, if not, indeed, a year earlier, at the time of the 2000 elections, when the Republicans revealed their determination to disregard all law and precedent in order to get back into power and resume rolling back the work of the previous century.  My reason relates to my view of what the crisis is: a series of events that puts a new order, and a new political constellation, in place, and sets the country on a new course.  9/11 did that.  The financial crisis most definitely did not.

We find ourselves where we are for many reasons,  The first, and biggest, probably, is the surge of individualism and selfishness that began in the mid-1960s as a reaction to a long period of strong authority and conformism.  Some of this was necessary, and all of it, apparently, was probably inevitable, but five decades later, the idea of every man and woman for him or herself has clearly deprived us of the cohesion and consensus that it takes to make our society function, if not indeed to hold it together at all.  One function of a Crisis or Fourth Turning is to renew civic virtue and cooperation as the nation copes with internal or external threat.  That was what Bush II was trying to do after 9/11, and what Barack Obama might have done, but didn't do, when he came into office.  Alas, Donald Trump's new budget is only one more confirmation that 9/11 defined the threat that we would face over the next couple of decades once and for all.  Unfortunately, it defined it wrongly.

To carry out 9/11, Bin Laden had to infiltrate 16 men into the United States, where some of them secured crucial pilot training.  Anyone who bothers to read the relevant sections of the 9/11 Commission's report will have no trouble understanding why nothing remotely similar has occurred since.  Even before that signal event, it was extremely difficult for al Queda to get the personnel they wanted into the United States.  Since then it has obviously become much harder, and not one terrorist act has been perpetrated or even attempted, as far as I know, by some one who had been recently infiltrated.  We could, in short, have coped with the threat of terrorism originating in foreign lands without creating the Department of Homeland Security or the enormous military-intelligence complex that now dominates suburban Washington, D.C. (and which will get a bit bigger, apparently,. under the Trump budget.)  But this, of course, was only part of our response.

Fueled by a post-Cold War fantasy of ruling the world, a resentment of Arab states that would not obey the US, and devotion to the interests of the State of Israel, the Bush Administration also seized upon 9/11 as an excuse to begin a string of endless wars in the Middle East.  These wars, too, could have brought the country together and created a new consensus--if they could have been successful. Broad strategic problems, however,. doomed them almost from the start.  Overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq was well within our capabilities, but establishing stable, friendly regimes in those countries--much less democracies--was far beyond them.  Sixteen years and many trillions of dollars later, our side is losing the war in Afghanistan, while the sectarian Iraqi government is destroying the country's second-largest city, Mosul, in order to save it.  But that was not all.  The fantasy behind those wars: that we could solve terrorism, and other problems as well, by replacing Middle Eastern autocrats with democracies, has continued to be a principle of our foreign policy ever since, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

I have several excellent reasons to believe that the Bush Administration expected to follow the Iraq war with similar strikes against Iran and North Korea. (None of these reasons relates to anything I learned at the time at the Naval War College.)  That did not happen, but the Obama Administration resumed this disastrous policy in response to the Arab spring.  Like Iraq, Libya went from dictatorship to chaos as a result, triggering a refugee crisis in Europe.  In Egypt the United States collaborated, first, in the overthrow of a dictatorship and its replacement by a new democracy,. and then, it would seem, in the overthrow of a newly elected leader by the military, which restored the old regime.  In Syria President Obama rightly avoided intervening yet again, but nonetheless made the end of the Assad regime a national objective.  Shi'ite and Christian Syrians, as it happens, believe that Assad's fall would mean their massacre, and the evidence of Iraq suggests that they are correct.  Meanwhile, using drones, the United States is now identifying and killing "bad guys" from Pakistan to many parts of Africa, even though these targeting killings haven't been any more successful in bringing peace to any areas than they have been for the Israelis who invented the tactic.  And we have never had a serious national discussion of this "strategy" and what it is actually doing for us or for the countries where we are applying it.  We have appointed ourselves judge, jury and executioner for the whole Islamic world.

And now, the endless Middle Eastern war has been linked to a critical domestic issue, immigration.  The immigration problem has very deep roots indeed.  One of its main causes, I would suggest, is the decline in our citizenry's birth rate, which, along with mass incarceration, has created a labor shortage that immigrants have come to fill.  And we have needed those immigrants:  Thomas Piketty argued three years ago that it is only because of immigration that US economic growth has been stronger than that of the EU.  Unfortunately, a very real effect of the terror war inside our own society has been to divert enormous attention and sums of money into these useless wars, instead of focusing on very real problems.  Those wars have contributed to the occasional terrorist attacks here in the US--always carried out by Muslims who have been living here for some time--which have allowed the Republicans (who have repeatedly blocked immigration reform) and now Donald Trump to arouse fear and hatred around the issue.  The war on terror is a divisive issue, not a unifying one.

It has however had another effect. These endless wars, fought by a volunteer army, have, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, turned our military and veterans into sacred cows before which we all must bow down.  And thus, yesterday Budget Director Mulvaney announced a budget that shifts more than $50 billion from various domestic programs to the military and homeland security.  As in 2001, the supposed terror threat (which will inevitably be "validated" in theory by another domestic attack at some point) has become an excuse to divert federal resources away from helping the American people.  Meanwhile, foreign war looms again as a means by which a Republican administration will try to keep the country behind it,

The hopes that Rex Tillerson, a man who has headed one of the world's largest corporations, might be an effective voice for reason in the new administration are fading fast.  He immediately acquiesced in proposals for drastic cuts in the State Department budget--one of the largest cuts, proportionately, to be proposed. Yesterday he made a statement pointing clearly in the direction of war against North Korea, a move that could have incalculable consequences.  Steve Bannon, as I pointed out back in November, believes in great wars as an inevitable part of a Fourth Turning.  And given that Trump's policies will surely leave the American people worse off, he and the President have few other choices to diver their attention.

I have not, as you can see, been able to stick strictly to my resolution to comment on the new Administration only every other week, but I have not focused on the news of the day. Nor should any of us.  It has taken a long time--and a lot of mistakes on all sides of the political spectrum--to get us where we are today.  Every major American institution needs a lot of help.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Breaking News - Trump, Putin, Jeff Sessions and the Russian Ambassador

My brother Charles just posted a series of tweets by a statistician known as Carolyn O., who decided to do a nexis-lexis search to identify events surrounding Jeff Sessions's September 8 meeting with Ambassador Kislyak--the one that Sessions spontaneously denied while Al Franken was questioning him.  The results were quite astonishing and I'm summarizing them here.

On September 2, President Obama met with President Putin at a G-8 Summit.  They discussed US sanctions against Russia that Obama had imposed the day before, and Putin described them as an obstacle to cooperation between the two nations.

Five days later, on September 7, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, suggested for the first time that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee.

On the very next day, September 8, Trump told a Russian TV correspondent that he did not believe Russia was behind the hack, and Sessions met with Kislyak. Trump also said publicly that, "If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS?" And on that same day, Trump and Pence made a whole series of statements praising Putin's leadership style. and on the same day, Tass announced, "Moscow expects Washington to display political will on building good relations with Russia after the presidential election," quoting Dimitry Peskov.

Now I can't post all this without registering a caveat.  Moscow time is about 8 hours ahead of Washington time, and thus it seems very unlikely to me that the Russian spokesman, Peskov, could have issued his optimistic statement as a direct response to whatever went on between Sessions and Kislyak.  But it seems that, in the wake of a difficult meeting between Obama and Putin, Trump went on the offensive seeking better relations with the Russians, Sessions's meeting with Kislyak was part of this, and the Russians did their part.  The question, of course, is what did the Russians do--or promise not to do--to secure Trump's good will and suggestions of a better relationship?

Carolyn O. did a fantastic demonstration of what is possible with open source research.  I did this post, exceptionally, because as far as I could tell with a google search 15 minutes ago, no news organization has yet picked up this story.  You read it here first!


Thursday, March 02, 2017

The 1930s and the 2010s - Politics and Economics

For the past 12 years here, I've been trying to provide long-term perspectives on current events.  During that time the great crisis in American life and world affairs has deepened.  This paradoxically makes it harder to stick to a long term perspective, since one so easily becomes absorbed by the news of the day.  But I am going to try to do so, partly by trying to post about the Trump Administration only once every two weeks.  And today's post will involve a glimpse into the past and into the future, rather than a look at today's headlines.

It also involves the third-rail comparison between Trump and the current Republican Party on the one hand, and Hitler and the Nazis on the other.  But I am not going to suggest that Trump plans to do away with our civil liberties, put millions of Americans into camps, or commit mass murder, or that he is going to  unleash a major war, even though I regard that as slightly more possible.  Instead the comparison will focus on one very important similarity between Trump and Hitler.  Both have gotten into power largely by protesting against the impact of economic change.  And my comparison goes to the question of whether Trump has any chance of actually restoring the economy that has slipped away over the last half century.  As it happens, Hitler and the Nazis also promised to do that--but in practice, they did the opposite.

My text today is a remarkable book from the late 1960s, Hitler's Social Revolution, by a very fine historian, now retired, David Schoenbaum.  Schoenbaum taught for decades at the University of Iowa and wrote at least three different works of modern German history, each concerned with a different era, as well as a study of US-Israeli relations.  His place within the department has now been taken by a scholar specializing in gender and sexuality issues in modern Germany--a very typical change in today's history departments.

Germany in the interwar period was very different from the United States during the last two or three decades, but both societies included large groups suffering from the impact of economic change.  In Germany, these included farmers hurt by low prices and international competition and a large new white collar class of clerks and retailers who often lived on proletarian incomes.  By 1930, the year of the first big Nazi electoral success, Schoenbaum argued that the Nazi core was brought together by various fears: "fer of the department store, frear of communism, fear of the Poles, fear of further decline in the price of farm commodities, and 'the politics of cultural despair' [a reference to far right opposition to the modern world in general.]  As I write this piece, I am increasingly troubled that no contemporary academic, to my knowledge, has produced a comparable breakdown of who is behind Trump, and why.  But surely many of his voters were motivated by fear of further job losses, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, and fear and hatred of political correctness.  There is, by the way, one critical and somewhat encouraging difference between Nazi followers and voters and Trump's. The Nazis were disproportionately young; Trump supporters are disproportionately old.

Both coalitions were in part protesting long-term economic and cultural changes.  In the German case these changes included the growth of great retail chains like department stores, the development of world agricultural markets, and the disruption of currencies caused, ultimately, by the First World War.  The contemporary United States is at a completely different stage of development. Our small farmers and small shopkeepers ceased to be a political force decades ago, the working class has been devastated by foreign competition, outsourcing, and automation, and service workers, not office workers, are the fastest growing part of our economy.  In addition, although both 1930s Nazis and today's Republicans rail against minorities, the immigrant presence in today's United States is much, much larger than the minority population of Germany in 1933.  As a matter of fact, successive German governments had used high tariffs to insulate Germany from some of the impact of globalization for more than 50 years by the time Hitler took power, and the Nazis went even further in that direction by trying to create an autarchic German economy.  The United States on the other hand has been moving towards freer and freer trade for about 80 years now, and it is very unclear whether Donald Trump will actually be able to change the role of trade in our economy to any significant extent.

Hitler, like Trump, came to power promising to help all economic sectors of the nation, and especially to protect those who had been losing ground.  The Nazis had also stood firmly for the preservation of the traditional status of women, who had been advancing into the professions at a rapid rate.  But none of these promises, as Schoenbaum showed at great length, came true, even before the catastrophe of the Second World War.  "In 1939," he wrote, "the cities were larger, not smaller; the concentration of capital greater than before; the rural population reduced, not increased; women not at the fireside but in the office and the factory; the inequality of income and property distribution more, not less, conspicuous; industry's share of the gross national product up and agriculture's down." Traditional elites remained in charge of major institutions.   Schoenbaum might have added, as I found in my own research on that decade, that while the Nazis had ended unemployment, the whole population had continuously to deal with shortages of basic consumer goods and foodstuffs such as butter because of tight controls on foreign trade.  This undoubtedly caused enormous frustration among the Nazis' original constituencies and indeed among the whole lower half of the population. They could however no longer express their dissatisfaction either at the polls or in print, since they lived in a police state, and the war gave everyone new and much bigger problems to worry about.

It is very likely, in my opinion, that Trump's followers will be similarly disappointed: that in four or eight years we will have fewer industrial workers, not more; that illegal immigrants will remain a huge presence in our economy and society, if indeed they have not been given some legal status; that the financial industry will be even more powerful than it was before;  that health care will be harder to come by for ordinary Americans; and that the white proportion of our population will have continued to shrink.  The question is whether the Trump Administration can keep dissatisfaction under control by continuing a daily propaganda campaign against its enemies in the media and the Democratic Party and by mobilizing resentment against political correctness and its political manifestations.  It seems very likely to me that law enforcement will eventually by unleashed against demonstrators, but I do not foresee a police state.  As in the case of National Socialism, those not belonging to our national community may face the biggest problems.  There may indeed by large-scale deportations of immigrants, although in the long run I doubt very much that their presence will be substantially reversed.

Both the elevation of Hitler to the Chancellorship in 1933 and the election of Donald Trump represent tremendous failures of democracy in modern western nations.  In both cases, a barely sufficient coalition of disaffected voters has put a dangerous man, leading a dangerous movement, in charge of a leading nation.  While I continue to believe that our danger is the lesser of the two, it remains real enough.  And Trump's inability to deliver on behalf of the men and women who elected him will only increase that danger.