Sunday, November 01, 2020

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.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Emergency Powers?

I have been skeptical about claims that Donald Trump aims to set up a dictatorship  He and the Tea Party Republicans upon which he increasingly depends are more interested in destroying the authority of the federal government than increasing it, and his mind is far too disorganized even to figure out how he might do so.  He and William Barr have perverted the criminal justice system to help his friends, but they haven't done much with it to try to hurt his enemies, even though some investigations of former FBI officials are continuing.  That is not to say that all our liberties are safe. We have somewhere between 13 and 20 million undocumented immigrants in this country, and although I can't find complete figures, it looks like Trump will have deported about a million of them during his first term.  The remarkable Netflix series, Immigration Nation, which I am halfway through, shows how ICE is harassing and terrifying many of these people, including many who have caused no problems while in the United States, and even some veterans of honorable service in the U.S. military.  That situation is the fault of the Congress and earlier administrations who have not been able to give those people legal status, leaving them at the mercy of the executive branch.  The Trump administration is also trying to cut back on some protections for LGBT citizens.

This week, however, new developments definitely send a shiver down the back of anyone familiar with how the Nazi regime came to power.  A little history is in order.

The Weimar Republic had an exemplary democratic constitution, but it came to power in 1919 under most unfortunate circumstances.  The country had just lost a war and was losing several chunks of its territory.  its currency had lost most of its value, and the victorious allies were presenting a large bill for reparations.  Returning veterans organized themselves into paramilitary units to fight socialists and communist revolutionaries.  Assassins made a concerted and largely successful attempt to kill all the officials who had signed the Versailles Treaty.  Last but not least, the electorate was split into at least half a dozen major parties based mostly on class and religion, with none of them anywhere near a majority.  And in the second half of the 1920s, the Republic's two most important statesmen died: Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat and first president of the Republic, and Gustav Streseman, the liberal foreign minister who had worked hard to re-integrate Germany back into Europe.

The economy, on the other hand, had recovered somewhat from about 1926 through 1928, and in the latter year, a broad coalition of parties led by the Social Democrats took office.  Then in 1929 came the stock market crash on Wall Street, leading to the withdrawal of American capital upon which the Germans depended.  Their own economy began to come apart, and in the spring of 1930 the government coalition broke apart over the issue of unemployment benefits--that's right, unemployment benefits.  Heinrich BrĂ¼ning  of the Catholic Center party took over as chancellor and called a new election.  it was a disaster. The Nazis came out of nowhere to become the most numerous party in the Reichstag or parliament, and together with the Communists--who were equally dedicated to the destruction of the regime--they were strong enough to block any effective government action.  With the cooperation of the President, Paul von Hindenburg--the most popular general of the First World War, who had little commitment to the regime himself--BrĂ¼ning took advantage of an emergency provision of the Weimar constitution that allowed him to rule by emergency presidential decrees.  For two years, he passed the budget and every other important piece of legislation that way, before he himself was dismissed from office, given way to two relatively authoritarian chancellors of short duration, who in turn gave way to Hitler.

 Events have been moving far more quickly in the US in the last six months than they did in the late stages of the Weimar Republic. Thanks to the pandemic, we suddenly face one of the three worst economic crises in our modern history, with no real idea of how to end it.  And like the Reichstag in 1932, Congress cannot agree what to do about it, because it is so divided. The Democratic House has passed a new plan, but in the Senate, Mitch McConnell has refused to even try to compromise with the Democrats there, because he is apparently sticking to his rule of never allowing legislation to pass without a large majority of the Republican Senators behind it.  (This is of course exactly the opposite of the way responsible politicians are supposed to behave in a national emergency, but it is not surprising.)  McConnell in the last two weeks allowed two executive branch figures, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows--a former Tea Party Congressman himself--to take them over.  Their attitude, however, now suggests that they had no intention of reaching an agreement at all.

Instead, President Trump has announced that his administration is preparing executive orders to extend unemployment benefits, stop evictions, 
 provide other unspecified forms of assistance, and perhaps even declare a cut in the payroll tax.   The President seems to think that he enjoys the emergency powers of the Weimar president--although I'm quite certain that he has no idea of the history I reviewed above.  He has been encouraged in this belief by Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who wrote a notorious torture memo for George W. Bush, and who is now arguing that a recent Supreme Court decision allows a president at least temporarily to claim any power that he wants.  In this case the problems Trump is claiming could hardly be more unconstitutional, since the Constitution specifically reserves the right to appropriate money to the Congress. The Supreme Court's 5-4 conservative majority, however, has already allowed Trump to get away with diverting money appropriated for other purposes to his border wall, even though a circuit court had ruled that he could not do so.   Trump has remarked that he will be sued for doing this, but he probably enjoys the idea of Democrats going into federal court to stop him from handing out more unemployment benefits, stopping evictions,  or cutting payroll taxes.

In fact, I am concerned that this political ploy may work.  As Sol Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) said to another (fictional) president in the next to last season of Homeland about some drastic action she had taken and its popularity, "It showed balls. They like a president with balls."  Trump can't persuade the American people that he is on top of the fight against COVID-19, but he might persuade some of them that he took action to help them when the Congress refused to do so.  Having almost unanimously surrendered their power to discipline the President for impeachable offenses earlier in this year, the Senate Republicans are probably more than happy to surrender their share of the power of the purse to him now as well.  

At the moment Trump's re-election seems very unlikely.  If however he gets away with executive orders declaring how billions of federal dollars will be spent and does win re-election, I think we could move to some kind of authoritarian rule, at least where the budget and the operation of the federal government is concerned.  The failure of Congress, over decades, to handle many serious issues, has helped pave the way for this.  I hope we don't have to find out.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Some COVID-19 numbers.

On April 22, I began keeping a weekly spreadsheet of COVID-19 deaths in the US and in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  I have kept up with it now for more than three months, and without it, I would not have much of a grasp on the course of the epidemic.  Innumeracy--an inability to make sense of statistics--is rampant in the media. and much of the reporting is about cases, for which our data is lamentably incomplete.  The death count is surely incomplete as well, but not by nearly as much.  Here are some of the most important things that the data now shows.

Nationwide deaths totaled 14,031 for the week ending midnight GMT on April 28.  That figure included more than 2,512 in New York, 1,379 in New Jersey, 821 in Massachusetts, 468 in Connecticut, and 418 in Illinois.  Deaths per million for that week--a key statistic-- were 42 nationwide, 128 in New York, and 155 in New Jersey.  Deaths per million were just 12 in Florida and 5 in Texas.  Nationwide deaths remained at about the same level in the next week, totaling 14,330 for the week ending May 5.  Then they began to drop, to 11,154 on May 12; and they continued to do so pretty steadily for another eight weeks or so, all the way through the month of June.  Deaths for the week ending July 1 totaled just 3,919, less than 1/3 of the week that ended on April 18--just 12 new deaths per million people, rather than 42 on April 28.  Among the states, Rhode Island was the leader for that week with 42 deaths per million, followed by Arizona with 35, Illinois with 30, New Jersey with 26, and Massachusetts with 21.  Connecticut and New York had just 10 new deaths per million each that week,  Both had cut their death rate by 90% or so in nine weeks, a remarkable achievement. 

I do not have this figure at hand, but I saw figures around that time stating that as many as 40% of all deaths had occurred in nursing homes.  The virus had spread through many of them, and through a significant portion (we have no real idea how big) of people in the Northeast, like wildfire, before anyone realized what was happening.  By May, however, if not earlier, nursing homes had become quarantine zones, and that must account for a significant portion of the reduction in deaths.  Meanwhile, the shutdown of the economy and the almost universal adoption of social distancing measures in the large urban areas of the northeast had obviously reduced the infection rate by a very large number as well.

After bottoming out at 3919 on July 1, new deaths nationwide increased to 4,064 on July 8; 5,282 on July 15; 6,039 on July 22; and 7,657 on July 29, last Wednesday. (I should note that all these figures are slightly approximate because they are the ones reported at the time, and states have frequently had to revise their figures upward somewhat later.) Total deaths in that period have been increasing at 5% a week--a rate of increase considerably higher than the long, slow decline from early May through early July.  Meanwhile, the distribution of deaths around the country has completely changed.  The leaders in new deaths per million for the week ending July 29 are Arizona (66), South Carolina (64), Texas (63), Mississippi and Louisiana (47), Florida (46), Alabama (36), Georgia (29), and Nevada (25.) Nationwide we suffered 23 deaths per million.  In the northeast, Massachusetts deaths per million were 16, New Jersey 10, New York 6, and Connecticut 5.  California, interestingly enough, has stayed quite close to the national average throughout most of the epidemic.

The epidemic, then, as been getting worse in terms of deaths since July 1, and therefore, it must have been getting worse in terms of new infections several weeks before that, when the "re-opening" of the country began in early June.  We hear from the news daily that we have set new records for new cases and total active cases.  I am not convinced that that is true.  Deaths for the week ending July 29 were only slightly more than twice as high as deaths in late April.  If we really have more cases now, that means that the death rate per infection must have fallen by 50%.  The early "nursing home effect" might have raised the early death rate that much, but it seems a little doubtful to me.  If the current trend continues, however, we probably will be as badly off in total cases as we were in late April, even though they will be in completely different areas.  It would however take about 50 days of increases of deaths at the current rate to get total deaths per day up to the late April level.  That's plenty of time for the Sunbelt states to get their cases on the decline, if they are willing to do so.

I have not kept week-to-week statistics on other countries, but daily data shows that several of the major European countries have reduced their deaths to very low levels indeed. COVID-19 deaths on July 29 totaled 12 in Canada, 16 in France, 9 in Germany, 3 in Italy, and 2 in Spain.  In the UK they were 38, and Russia 29.  In the United States, the total reported was 1,465, the highest in the world.  Even though we are about six times larger than the major European countries, those are sobering figures.  New England, New York and New Jersey, with about 42 million people total, had 62 deaths on that day, a noticeably higher rate than Germany or Spain.  Brazil is second to the United States in total deaths with 1,189 that day; India, with 3-4 times the population of the US, had 783.

The continental European nations have passed the first big test posed by the pandemic. We have not.

Friday, July 24, 2020

A very perceptive view of US politics

David Shor is an electoral data analyst who used to work for a firm called Civic Analytics.  In late May, during the George Floyd protests, he retweeted  a study indicating that historically, nonviolent protests have had a better impact on the electorate than violent ones.  A few days later he was fired.  This week a friend of mine sent me a long interview he did with New York magazine.  He refused to discuss his firing at all, but he said a great many things that have kept me thinking ever since. I will try to summarize.

One thing I took from the piece, even though Shor didn't put it exactly this way, is that the political elite of both parties is dominated by people who are much more ideological than the electorate at large.  People become Republican operatives because they care a gret deal  about deregulation or low taxes or  stopping abortions; they become Democratic operatives because they care about their own demographic's rights, or perhaps about  economic issues.  The country has become better educated and the media more ideological, and thus, such causes might now command the support of about 30% of the electorate (or more than half of one party.)  But many voters in the middle--of which more later--may not care about the same issues that the elite does, or may differ from them.  And the elite operatives, Shor says, want to believe that the public cares about their issues. Hillary Clinton, he says, stressed social issues in 2016 partly because her campaign's polling techniques didn't reach enough working class voters who would have responded more to economic issues.  This year, of course, the Democratic activists are obsessed with racial issues--including ones like cutting back police funding--and we don't know how potential swing voters will respond to them.  A lot,Shor seems to think, will depend on how much violence occurs surrounding those issues, and exactly how they are presented.

More specifically, Shor says, education is becoming the single biggest marker for political allegiance.  Educated people are more and more likely to vote Democratic; those without college are more likely to vote Republican--and that includes less educated  Hispanics and black people.   More of them, of course, still vote for Democrats, but they have trended slightly Republican in each of the last two elections.  This is a sad commentary on how far the educated elite has moved away from the rest of the country on social issues.  Ironically, as he points out, in mid-century America the educated elite was much smaller and it dominated both major parties.  It did not hold distinct, differing views on social issues and it maintained a relatively calm tone in our politics.  Now most of the edcuated elite is Democratic and convinced of the rightness of its views, while the Republican part of iot panders shamelessly to popular prejudice.  

The educated elite and party activists also hold pretty coherent sets of views.  Others do not.  Moderate voters, Shor says, are not middle of the roaders.  Instead, they straddle the views of the two parties, depending on the issue. Many pro-lifers favor higher taxes, for instance; many people worry about health care and immigration at the same time.  The latter group, he says, was more likely to vote Democratic in 2012 when health care was a major campaign issue, and less likely to do so in 2016 when immigration took up much more space. 

On another point, Shor is very pessimistic.  He thinks that racial resentment was more important than economics in turning significant numbers of Obama voters to Trump in 2016.  Since those voters had voted for a black man at least once, I have always found this hard to believe (I would be more inclined to thinks sexism played a role), but he has good evidence for it.

Shor's analysis suggests to me that Joe Biden has already made one mistake by committing to a female running mate.  This is something that many Democratic activists do care very much about--especially if the candidate is also black--but which is unlikely to have much resonance with voters in the middle, who might have been more impressed with Andrew Cuomo's handling of COVID-19, for instance.  Shor thinks Biden should focus on things like the minimum wage and health care.  If the recession keeps worsening, some kind of jobs program might work as well.  

It also suggests, sadly, that the Trump campaign is thinking about some similar issues.  The Administration, I think, is sending federal agents to Portland and Seattle, at least, to try to provoke more violence, and there's plenty of reason to believe that they will succeed.  And that could help them.  Shor does think, however, that scenes of police treating demonstrators roughly tend to arouse sympathy for demonstrators, too.  We can't tell how this will play out.

This election, in a rational world, would inevitably end in a landslide. Donald Trump has proven again and again that he is incompetent, corrupt, and divisive.  No American who takes government seriously (admittedly a shrinking number) should vote for him.  He is well behind in polls as I write.  But I still wonder if Biden will be able to persuade key voters that there lives will change significantly for the better if they elect him.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Our new oligarchy in action

I have mentioned before in this space that my most ambitious book, Politics and War (1990), looked at four periods of general war in Europe (1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1789-1815, and 1914-45) to shed light on the development of European politics.  In the first period, monarchs tried vainly to subdue an all-powerful European aristocracy that often made alliances across frontiers against the monarchs.  In the second, Louis XIV manged to tame his own aristocracy, and used his foreign policy to build up his fellow monarchs as well.  In the third, new monarchs, led by Napoleon, used the ideas of equality before the law and career open to talent to make state more powerful than ever.  In the era of the two world wars, European states tried to create huge empires all over the world, and to make themselves ethnically homogeneous--and expanded the scale of conflict to the point that they could not compete with two non-European powers, the US and the USSR.  History has written a new chapter in the thirty years since 1990.   The era of the strong national state seems to be over, and a new international oligarchy is taking charge.

How all this is working in the United States emerged this month from two New York Times articles--the kind of articles that appear much less frequently than they used to, but which show that even in the midst of our obsession with identity, traditional journalism still lives.  Both articles carry the bylines of Michael LaForgia and Kenneth Vogel, and one also includes Hailey Fuchs. The first, on July 6, focused on a particular lobbyist, Michael Urban, who happens to be a West Point classmate of the Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper.  and he had become friendly with President Trump by the time of the 2016 campaign, in which he served.  Urban has been a registered lobbyist since 2002, but he has nearly tripled his revenues--to $25 million in 40 months--since President Trump took office.  He intervened most dramatically to get Pompeo to reverse a Congressional ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia--imposed after the murder of Jamal Kashoggi--on behalf of his client Raytheon, which then proceeded with huge new sales.  The article identifies seven other lobbyists whose business has exploded under Trump, including two, Brian Ballard and Jeff Miller, who had never lobbied at the federal level before.  The same group of lobbyists has raised $8 million for Trump's re-election campaign since last year.  The article doesn't explain how each of these men got close to Trump, but it explains that they stepped into a vacuum after a failed developer and reality TV star parlayed his national image into the Republican nomination, in defiance of the Republican establishment.  The King in our system remains the American people, who elect a new one every four or eight years, and Trump in 2016 emerged, by the narrowest of margins, as the King's new favorite, outflanking the Bush and Clinton families that had dominated their respective aristocracies for decades.   Anyone who could get close to the new favorite could benefit handsomely, and they have done so.

The second article, on July 13, tells a slightly different story.  Michael B. Williams was before Trump's election the general counsel of the American Suppressor Association, the trade group of firms that make silencers for guns.  While moviegoers associate silencers with hit men, they are also used by the military, since they make it harder for enemy targets to tell where gunfire is coming from.  For this reason, the federal government as for many years banned their sale abroad, where they could fall into the hands of enemies of the United States and help to kill American troops.  Apparently seeing an opportunity, Williams in 2016--when he was 30--joined the Trump campaign, and then managed to join the Office of Management and Budget under former Tea Party Congressman Mick Mulvaney.  In 2019 Mulvaney became White House Chief of Staff--a position which he held for only a year--and Williams became a "counselor and deputy assistant to the president."  He continued daily contacts with his brother Knox Williams, the director of the American Suppressor Association, and he had now passed the two-year period in which government officials are prohibited from working on issues of interest to their former employers. This month, the State Department lifted the ban.  Since Mulvaney's departure from the White House, Williams has gone to work at the Department of Housing and Urban development.  Many expect him eventually to return to a lucrative position in the firearms industry.

Now stories like these have been part of Washington lore for many decades now, but at least until the 1980s, lobbyists pushing for policy changes that would help their clients had to contend with other priorities.  The vastly expanded federal government that Franklin Roosevelt put in place was trying to meet the needs of the American people and defend freedom abroad.  The Trump Administration does not care about either one of those objectives.  It represents a hostile takeover of our civic institutions, which Trump and his allies are milking for their own private purposes to the maximum extent possible. With Trump threatened with defeat, this process is likely to accelerate in the next six months.  Congressional Republicans, with rare exceptions, are now deeply implicated in it as well.

Meanwhile, the New Yorker has an excellent profile of Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, by  Sheelah Kolhatkar.  Mnuching's career, it turns out, has been intimately connected to the turmoil in the US economy in the last twenty years or so.  His father Robert, from the Silent generation, worked for many years at Goldman Sachs, and pioneered some new, innovative and very successful trading strategies there before retiring in 1990  Steven went to Yale, like his father, became the publisher (according to the New Yorker) of the Yale Daily News, and graduated in 1985, just as things were really opening up on Wall Street.  He immediately joined Goldman Sachs, where his father had worked as well, and became heavily involved in another new innovation, mortgage-backed securities.  He left Goldman in 2002 and joined up with a college roommate in ESL Investments, which specialized in buying debt-ridden companies, reorganizing them, and often, liquidating them.  They handled the merger between K-Mart and Sears, which promptly put K-Mart out of business, and has not allowed Sears to survive either.  Sears Creditors have now sued ESL for stripping the company of its assets. He was working with another investment firm when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Although Mnuchin had no banking experience, he joined a consortium of other heavy hitters to purchase a failed bank, IndyMac, that had originated thousands of hyper-risky mortgages and had to close its doors.  The F.D.I.C. gave them extraordinarily favorable terms, the new group, renamed, OneWest, turned billions of dollars in profits on the deal as the F.D.I.C. covered a billion of the previous losses.  OneWest also foreclosed on 36,000 homes.  I remember a brilliant article by Theodore Draper in the late 1970s pointing out that politicians and bureaucrats who had supported the Vietnam War never seemed to have paid any price for doing so, while those who had opposed it never earned any reward.  In the same way, many of those who wrecked the economy in the 2000s seem to have emerged stronger than ever and still hold our economic future in their hands.

Joe Biden, if he is elected, will restore a civil tone in the White House and try to take some steps on behalf of the American people. I do not know however if he will be able to reverse the trend towards aristocratic power.  He is the Democratic nominee today because Barack Obama chose him as Vice President in 2008 and thus gave him unmatched name recognition and access to the aristocrats who make the biggest donations to the Democratic Party.  His selection as Vice President will benefit in 2024 from the same kinds of connections, whoever she may be.  It has taken decades for us to sink to where we are, and it may well take more decades seriously to reverse the trend.