Friday, November 01, 2019

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 the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  

My talk at the Harvard Coop last May 28 about A Life in History, can be viewed here.  Enjoy! An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Most Important Administration of Our Times

For the last few days I have been watching an extraordinary miniseries, The Loudest Voice, which tells the story of the Fox News career of Roger Ailes on Showtime.  It ranks with the British production of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson as one of the best historical dramatizations ever. Russell Crowe, who gained between 50 and 100 pounds for the part, turns in an extraordinary performance, and the show effectively uses real footage.  It also gives a terrifying portrayal of heavy duty sexual harassment at the highest corporate levels.  I haven't read the book on which it is based, but even some of the plot lines that might seem a bit over the top--including one that involves Rupert Murdoch's wife--have a certain ring of truth.The series focuses on critical years: 1996 (the launch of Fox News), 2001 (9/11 and its aftermath), 2008, 2009, etc.  The 2001 episode really got me thinking, once again, about the critical impact of the administration of George W. Bush on American life.  The collapse of the American political system, now so visible before our eyes, began, I believe, with him.

The collapse began, really, in November and December 2000, when our institutions failed a critical test.  Confronted with the closest election in American history, they failed to discover who had won and see that the right man was inaugurated.  Both sides of the controversy played a role in this sad outcome, because Al Gore didn't have the sense to demand a full recount of the whole state of Florida--a move which, a team of journalists later concluded, would probably have shown that he had won.  As it was, the Bush campaign orchestrated a coup d'etat, really, first by purging the Florida registration rolls before the vote, and then by getting a partisan Supreme Court to stop the recount altogether and award the election to Bush.  That, however, was only the beginning.

Once in office, Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove showed that they wanted to play the role Strauss and Howe had laid out only ten years or so earlier in Generations: to preside over a crisis or "fourth turning" that would take the nation in a new direction.  9/11, which they did not foresee, gave them the chance to do that.  (The Loudest Voice shows that Ailes gave them some important help, which in turn established his network as the Ministry of Propaganda for Republican administrations.)  Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives who dominated their Defense and State Departments wanted to use 9/11 and the theme of "terrorism" to establish American rule over the whole world by successively overthrowing the "rogue regimes" or Iraq, Iran and North Korea that stood in the way of American hegemony.  Over a two-year period they planned and mobilized widespread support for the invasion of Iraq, the last major presidential initiative in the 21st century that enjoyed genuine bipartisan support, including intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Michael Ignatieff.  Never since then has the American elite and public united around a common enterprise.  Their publicists announced the beginning of "World War IV," designed to democratize the Islamic world.  They eventually spent about $1 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while failing to locate and kill Osama Bin Laden.  They corrupted intelligence and created a myth of Iraqi WMD to make the war happen.  They created, as a senior official (probably Karl Rove) told Ron Suskind, "our own reality," and most of the country bought it for several years.  But the whole project turned into a disaster, because it rested on false assumptions about American power, the dominant historical trends in politics, and the specific politics of the Middle East.  The fall of Saddam in Iraq unleashed a catastrophic religious conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis that continues to this day, after taking hundreds of thousands of lives.  The Afghan War, conducted in effective opposition to our "ally" Pakistan, has lasted now for 18 years without positive results.  For the second time in half a century, a generation of American veterans has had to cope with PTSD incurred in a worse than useless war.

While pursuing this disastrous project, however, the Bush Administration demonstrated the characteristic flaw of the Boom generation; believing that they could have everything at once.  Rather than raise taxes to pay for their crusade, like Lincoln and FDR, they cut them, turning a federal surplus into a permanent deficit.  They allowed the new shadow banking system to flourish, and did nothing about the housing and subprime mortgage boom that kept the economy going until 2007.  They staffed the federal government with ideologues and cronies, leading to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.  Re-elected in another close election in 2004, Bush squandered any political capital he had on an attempt to privatize Social Security that never got off the ground.  The Iraq war dragged on, and the electorate had had enough.  The Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in 2006.  Then the housing bubble burst, and in 2008, the market crashed.  It was at that moment that a large part of the Republican base deserted their establishment, even blocking the passage of the banks' bailout on the first vote.  John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin did not placate them, and McCain went down to defeat.

Barack Obama came into office with larger Congressional majorities, but without ambitions comparable to those of Bush.  He managed to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress and passed a moderate-size stimulus, but any hopes of an FDR-style New Deal faded away quickly when he appointed a team of establishment economists and decided not to try to break up the big banks.  He failed to mobilize the anger in the country, and the Tea Party turned against him.  Under the influence of the Koch brothers, I believe, the Republican Party became entirely obstructionist.  Obama managed to win a comfortable re-election, and he remains the only Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win significantly more than 50% of the presidential popular vote.  But like his predecessor, he squandered any re-election dividend on a hopeless cause--in his case, on tighter gun control measures.  And to keep the government operating, he had to agree on tight rules on new spending that made it very hard for the federal government to take any new initiatives.  In his last years he relied more and more on executive orders.  By 2016 much of the  public had completely lost faith in professional politicians, and a reality TV star won the Republican nomination and the election.

Donald Trump's only legislative accomplishment, of course, is his tax cut, which undid the work of seven years of deficit reduction under Obama at one fell swoop. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have now passed some important legislation, but the Republicans in the Senate refused even to consider it.  Meanwhile, newspapers and web sites fill their pages with presidential tweets, endless rehashes of the Russiagate and other scandals, and stories about sex crimes.  The country has lost the habit of reading about public affairs, because since Bush II's disastrous grasp at world empire the government in Washington has given them so little to write about.  While the public cares a great deal, pro or con, about Donald Trump, it cares less and less about what its government is or might be doing.  This, it seems to me, is largely one of the legacies of George W. Bush.



Saturday, August 10, 2019

Race, Income, and Politics


A few weeks ago, I saw a video on Facebook that tried to explain the impact of “systemic racism.”  It compares the lives and family histories of two children, Kevin (white) and Jamal (black.) Kevin lives in well-to-neighborhood with good schools; Jamal lives in a poor neighborhood with bad schools. That, the video argues, is because, generations ago, Kevin’s grandparents bought a house with a cheap mortgage and went to college, whereas Jamal’s grandparents could not buy a house because of redlining, a practice which denied loans to residents of certain areas.  In addition, Kevin’s grandparents went into “a handful of top universities,” while Jamal’s grandparents’ college opportunities were limited by segregation.  The video also cites “implicit biases” which will make it harder for Jamal to get a job even if he goes to the same college and does just as well as Kevin.  The video also remarks, tellingly, that the problem with “systemic racism” is that no single person is responsible for it, making it very hard to fix.  It urges us all to become more aware of our implicit biases.

I have no doubt that in one way or another, racism, beginning with slavery, accounts for much of the aggregate difference in the lives of black and white Americans today.  I am writing this post, however, because I am convinced that that view, while accurate, is too narrow.  First, if one asks some different questions about Kevin, Jamal, and others like them, one finds that racism very clearly is not the only, or even the biggest, cause of economic distress in the United States today.  Secondly, to argue that it is makes it much less likely, in my opinion, that the nation will address the most profound causes of inequality today.   The equation of poverty and racial problems began in the 1960s and it has lasted, for different reasons, to this day.  Both conservative whites and many liberal whites and blacks, it seems to me, prefer to see poverty as primarily a problem of black people.  As it happens, it isn’t.

Focusing, like the video, on Jamal’s archetypal family and its neighbors, I decided to find out how many black families they might represent.  Uncle Google sent me to a nice table breaking down household income by race—white, black and Hispanic.  Unfortunately it dates from 2014 but I doubt that the picture has changed dramatically since then.  Let’s assume that Jamal’s family has an income of $25,000 or less.  That includes a lot of families well above the poverty line, but I think it defines, at the very least, a struggling family.  There were, as it happens, about 5.5 million black households in that category.  There were also 2.4 million Hispanic households in that category, making 7.9 million total black and Hispanic.  There were 22.3 million white households in that category—about four times as many as black households, and about three times as many as black and Hispanic combined.  If we change our threshold from under $25,000 to under $35,000, we get similar results. 32.2 million white households earn less than $35,000, compared to 8.1 million black ones and 4.6 million Hispanics.

Now the total numbers of 2014 households, the table shows, were 98.7 million white, 16.4 million black, and 16.2 million Hispanic.  That means that there were six times as many white households as black, but only four times as many under $25,000 annual income or under $32,000 annual income, confirming that blacks as a group suffer economic disadvantage. But counting the total numbers,we find that there far more white people in these categories than others.  (My household table has no figures for other ethnic groups such as Asians and American Indians.) And we decide elections by raw total numbers.

The video did not suggest to me that Jamal’s family was living in poverty, but I checked figures on families below the poverty line too.  A very thorough table on poverty included data through 2017.  It shows 39.7 million people in poverty in that year.  17 million of them were non-Hispanic whites, 9.8 million were black, and 10.8 million were Hispanic.  Here the black and Hispanic total slightly exceeds the white one, indicating that the overrepresentation of these groups at the lowest income levels is much greater than their overrepresentation in the under $25,000 or under $35,000 per household groups.  The same pattern emerges from census tables on single-parent, female-headed households and the number of them that live in poverty.  The largest racial group of such families (poor or not), 18.4 million, is also white, but the black total is 15.3 million and the Hispanic total is 12.2 million. The percentages of those families living in poverty is 33.3% for the black families (5.1 million people), 19.9 for the white families (3.6 million people), and 34.3% for Hispanics (4.1 million people.)  There are more poor white people in these families than there are blacks or Hispanics, but fewer than blacks and Hispanics combined.

What implications do these figures have?

We commonly see disparities between black and white wealth and income expressed in percentage terms, comparing the percentages of the two groups in poverty, or in terms of averages and medians for income and net worth.  All such measurements show that as a group, black America is much worse off than white America.  Often, median measurement are the only ones I seem to be able to find for important statistics.  I know that median black net worth is way below white, and that the disparity increased as a result of the Great Recession, but so far, I can’t find the numbers of black and white and Hispanic households with zero net worth.  (About 19 million households have net worth of $1000 or less, but I can’t find a racial breakdown.)  I also couldn’t find out how many of the homeowners who were foreclosed during the Great Recession (variously given out as 7 or 10 million) were white, how many were black, and how many were Hispanic. And I really would like to know.

What we do see here is this.  Racism has undoubtedly hurt the economic standing of black people and continues to do so.  But (limiting the comparison for a moment to white and black), for every specific economic problem from which black people suffer—relatively low household income, poverty, female-headed households, and probably, recently foreclosed homes—more individual white people suffer from it than black ones.  And this applies, remarkably, even to perhaps the most racially charged issue in our national life, the shooting of civilians by police.  Of the 992 people shot and killed by police officers in 2018—nearly 3 a day—452 were white, 229 were black, and 154 were Hispanic. (107 were listed as unknown.)  That too is a disproportionate number of black people, but a greater number of white people. So far this year the proportion of white victims (and the total number of victims) has dropped, but they remain the largest group.  And while the black incarceration rate is about five times higher than the white one and nearly three times higher than the Hispanic one, the number of white and black inmates is nearly equal overall.  Evidence suggests that one reason for the higher incarceration rates of blacks and Hispanics is that they have tended to receive longer sentences for the same crimes.

And why is all this important?

There are, it seems to me, two reasons, one intellectual and one political.  While racism has contributed to black poverty, it cannot be the only cause of poverty in the United States, because more white than black people remain poor.  I do not believe that the causes of poverty can be completely different for black people on the one hand and whites on the other.  People are poor, or have household incomes of $25,000 or less, for many reasons today, including poor education (which is what both low income blacks and whites receive), de-industrialization, the erosion of workers’ rights, our inflated housing market, involvement with the criminal justice system, family breakdown, and a great deal more. And those things affect large numbers of white, black and Hispanic residents of the United States.

The political reason is more important.

The great tragedy of politics in the United States today is this:  relatively poor white and black people (using the same scale) generally vote on opposite sides.  The 2016 CNN exit polls did not break down income and race, but they did break down educational levels (with or without a college degree) and race (broken crudely into white and non-white.)  Among nonwhites with no college degree, 77% voted Democratic and 22% voted Republican.  Among whites with no college degree—of whom about twice as many voted—31% voted Democratic, and 66% voted Republican.  That is why Donald Trump is in the White House. 

I don’t have access to a Gallup Poll database here, but I’m pretty confident that substantial majorities of both white and black voters without college degrees voted Democratic from 1936 through 1964.  In 1968, more than 15% of the white vote—much, though not all of it, from the lower half of our income distribution—moved to Nixon or Wallace.  The intervening four years had seen urban riots, the emergence of the black power movement, the beginnings of a crime wave, and, of course, the escalation of the Vietnam War.  It was during those years, I think, that liberal Democrats began associating poverty with race.  Since 1964, only one Democrat, Barack Obama, has won significantly more than 50% of the popular vote in a presidential election, and no Democrat has won 50% of white votes. 

Meanwhile, inequality has steadily increased, while income in the lower 50% of the population has been nearly stagnant for almost half a century.  Good paying working class jobs have disappeared by the millions, and the cost of a college education has at least tripled over that same half century. An exploding housing market has made it very difficult for young people to buy a first house in our richest metropolitan areas. We have, in short, a winner-take-all economy in which it has become much harder to reach the top.  We also have many more single individuals of all ages who cannot count on any other adults to help them get through life.  What this means is that the average person in the lower economic half of the population—regardless of gender or race—will probably be disappointed by their economic status, all the more so if, like so many, they have substantial student debt.  It is no accident, I think, that the United States made the greatest progress on racial issues in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, decades in which the economy was growing rapidly, inequality was decreasing, and so many millions of Americans had good reason to be satisfied with how things were going.  Now many fewer do, and many find it all too easy, I think, to blame racism, sexism, immigration, or what looks to many like a national obsession with nonwhite poverty, for their own inability to achieve as much as they would like.  While the less well-off blame other racial groups for their plight, we cannot do anything about steadily increasing corporate power. And neither party has really much of anything to arrest the trend towards inequality at the national level for a very long time.

Low income and wealth are diseases from which minority populations are more likely to suffer—but comparable or larger numbers of whites suffer from them too.  Any solution to the problem has to treat the disease for everyone.  History tells us how to do that: by taxing the wealthy much more heavily, by promoting rather than destroying the rights of labor, by building a lot more affordable  housing, by making the government an employer of last resort, and by raising the minimum wage.  Race- and gender-based political appeals will continue to thrive until we start dividing up the pie more equally.  The state of our economy is the thing which, more than anything else, has the chance to bring us together, improve our society, and leave some of the bitter antagonism of recent years behind.  And we need to do those things.




Friday, August 02, 2019

What a Democrat should say

The Democrats in this week's debates focused mostly on one another, making appeals to the most vocal and committed Democratic constituencies as they understand them in an attempt to make headway in the long struggle for the nomination.  They essentially ignored, in my opinion, the broader and more critical task of laying the groundwork for a successful general election campaign.  Count me among the many commentators who feel that they, and the nation, may pay very dearly for that approach next year--even though it is a sadly understandable result of the primary system that the late 1960s bequeathed to us.

Like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (my candidate at this moment), and some of the others, I too want to return to the principles of the New Deal and mount a real attack on inequality.  I fear, however, that after eight years of an Obama presidency that failed to make much progress on those issues, such plans are going to ring rather hollow. More importantly, I think that, with our political system in a state of nearly total collapse, policy advocacy puts the cart before the horse.  Before our government can do meaningful things, it must start functioning again at all.  And to illustrate my point, I have written a draft speech, below, that I would like to hear a Democratic candidate deliver.  I don't know if this may reach the eyes or ears of any of the campaigns, but let me take this opportunity to renounce any copyright over these words and to donate any or all of them to anyone who wants to use them in the hope of getting the United States out of the awful mess that it is in.


"Like other Democrats, I have many hopes and plans for a better future for us and our people—hopes and plans that I will immediately begin working with Congress to achieve if I am fortunate enough to be elected.  Yet for us to focus on such plans, it seems to me, risks obscuring the most important stakes of next year’s election, the reasons that it is truly vital—a matter of life and death for the nation—that the Democratic candidate, whoever it may be, defeat Donald Trump.  The nation faces an unprecedented crisis because no man remotely comparable to Donald Trump has ever occupied the White House.  That is not primarily because of any of the policies his administration is implementing, but rather because he is utterly unfit, and he shows us nearly every day, to perform the duties of the great office, the tasks upon which the proper functioning of our government, economy and society depend.  He has no personal managerial skills.  He has no idea where to get real information and how to use it.  His foreign policy, as a result, has been disastrous. At home, he has utterly failed to turn most of his proclaimed goals into reality.  His rhetorical style cannot possibly bring the nation together for a common purpose.  He was elected largely because both major parties failed to provide the nation with more inspiration and better candidates.  Whatever our political views, though—and here I speak from my heart both to my fellow Democrats and to the nation’s Republicans, who I know care just as much about our country as we do—we simply must remove him from office in the next election in order to get the United States back on track.

"No President, of course, can run the United States government by himself.  Every President’s success or failure depends on the men and women that he appoints and his ability to work with them.  Two and a half years into his  administration, President Trump has left no doubt that he cannot trust men and women with experience and competence, that such people rapidly find it impossible to work with him at all, and that he has no idea how to make use of the vast human resources at his disposal.
Simple statistics tell the story.  The President has already had three White House chiefs of staff.  He has had two secretaries of state, three secretaries of defense, three attorneys general, three secretaries of homeland security, two ambassadors to the United Nations, and three national security advisers.  Discarded officials include a former CEO of one of the world’s leading corporations, three senior retired generals, and a former senior US Senator.  The President has often berated his own appointees in public, something that I cannot recall any other President ever doing.  He has no sense, clearly, of the processes that make government work, and he has allowed his current National Security Adviser to stop holding the regular meetings that have generated and approved our foreign policies for decades.  Meanwhile, he has given unprecedented foreign policy authority to his son-in-law, and given security clearances to a number of people whom the security authorities had denied them.  As so many of us know from our own experience, the style of a top manager inevitably infects his whole organization, and that has happened in Washington now.  An extraordinary number of senior governmental positions still remain unfilled more than two year’s after the president’s inauguration.  All of us, of course, complain periodically about specific acts of our government, and Americans have different views of exactly what it should do, and how it should do it.  Yet very few Americans deny that we need it to function effectively. That it cannot do as long as Donald Trump remains President.

"Foreign policy in our system is largely the responsibility of the President and his subordinates.  This President has conducted most of his foreign policy singlehandedly, basing it, apparently, on his personal esteem for certain authoritarian leaders around the world, including Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and others.  The steps that he has been taken on major issues have therefore been inconsistent and ineffective. Nuclear proliferation remains a pressing problem around the world, and the Obama Administration had scored a remarkable success by reaching an agreement with Iran that stopped its progress towards a possible nuclear weapon. President Trump repudiated that agreement without having anything to put in its place. Meanwhile, after threatening North Korea with destruction if it did not halt its nuclear program, he has twice traveled halfway around the world to meet with the tyrant Kim Jong Un, signing a meaningless agreement that did nothing to halt his program the first time, and failing to make any progress the second.  The President has blocked bipartisan proposals from Congress to punish the Saudi government for murdering a journalist residing in the United States at its consulate in Turkey.  He has insulted many friendly foreign leaders, and even singled out local foreign officials in countries that he was visiting, violating the diplomatic norms that make international relations possible.  The President frequently rejects the judgments of professional intelligence officers on matters vital to national security, such as Russia’s interference in our elections.  Were Donald Trump a thoughtful and well-informed man, he might at times be able to substitute his own judgment for the bureaucracy’s, as other chief executives have done—but he is not.  He is probably the least curious and worst-informed man ever to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"In his career as a developer, Donald Trump continually announced magnificent projects, projected enormous profits for all, took out huge loans, failed to make good on them when his forecasts proved illusory, and had to declare bankruptcy.  A good deal of what has happened during his presidency fits the same pattern.  He railed against the federal deficit, which had shrunk steadily under President Obama, during the campaign—now he has more than doubled it, even though the economic growth begun under President Obama has continued.  He railed against illegal immigration, which has suddenly increased.  He is already blaming the Federal Reserve Board, loudly, for anything that might go wrong in the future.  He has no understanding of how the international economy works, and continues to insist that foreign countries pay for his tariffs, which in fact foreign exporters simply pass on to US consumers in the form of higher prices.  His trade war has hurt American farmers badly.  The United States cannot expect genuine economic progress under a man who insists, again and again, that two plus two make five.

"Having failed repeatedly as a businessman, the President discovered his true calling in our new century, hosting a reality show where he bullied contestants before a huge audience and further propagated the myth of his genius.  That was a harmless diversion, but we cannot afford any more of the same spectacle coming from the White House.  Presidents cannot fire their fellow citizens.  They owe us all honesty, respect for our views, and a genuine, sincere attempt to do the nation’s business well. That, this President cannot provide.  He continually insults large segments of the population in inflammatory terms.  He has demanded investigations of many political opponents, as well as officials of the federal government.  He delights in dividing us by race and national origin.
Today, as always, Democrats and Republicans disagree, both with each other and among themselves, on the future course of the nation.  Yet we can surely agree that the nation has no chance of steering a sensible course and working together for sensible aims as long as Donald Trump remains President.  Our system was not designed for, and cannot function with, a man like this in the White House.  Let us begin to restore some of our great traditions as a nation with a free government, re-establish respect and trust among us, and see, once again, what we can do.  We can start that process in the fall of November 2020 and get it underway full speed ahead the next January.  It is up to us."