Saturday, December 18, 2004

Social Security and the Crisis in American Life

More than ten years ago, in 1993, Bill Strauss and Neil Howe published Generations, arguing that American life is periodically shaped in great crises that redefine the role of the government. Finding that these occurred every eighty years or so, they predicted another one beginning in about 2010--a timetable which now seems somewhat conservative. When I reviewed their next book, The Fourth Turning, in 1996, I tried to insert a caveat--that American life might have become so divorced from actual facts that we might no longer be able to cope with a crisis. The current controversy over the future of the Social Security system illustrates what I meant, and, I am sorry to say, suggests that I might have been right.
For the last 70 years--since the onset of the New Deal--the Federal Government has gotten bigger and more complex--and for the last 40 years, media coverage has gotten shorter and less sophisticated. As a result, even the relatively well-educated citizen no longer knows or understands the basic data regarding our government's economic role or the decisions it makes. How many of us can give a good rough figure for the size of our GNP (about $11 trillion), or the Federal budget ($2.16 trillion), or the Federal deficit (about $380 billion)? How many people understand how rapidly federal revenues have been declining under the Bush Administration, which has apparently drastically underrepresented the impact of its own tax cuts? And how many have understood the scandal that has surrounded the Social Security system for the last two decades, which will come home to roost some time in the 2010s?
The story dates from the early 1980s, when the Reagan Administration determined that the current benefit package was not sustainable and tried, in theory, to do something about it. Reagan began by announcing a sweeping set of benefit cuts, but a political firestorm forced him to abandon that tack. Instead, the Congress eventually passed a large increase in payroll taxes--one that would for about 35 years bring in considerably more revenues that benefits would demand. Coupled with Reagan's cuts in the top tax brackets, this made the tax system far more regressive, but astonishingly, no one seemed to care very much. (Because of the payroll tax hike and other "revenue enhancements," Reagan didn't actually cut taxes overall at all--he simply redistributed them from richer Americans to the middle class.) The extra revenue has theoretically gone to a trust fund, a huge nest egg that was supposed to make up for the Social Security deficit that was predicted to emerge sometime in the 21st century.
Within a couple of years, those few who noticed--led by Senator Pat Moynihan, who had helped broker the deal--realized that that was not what was happening at all. Instead, faced with huge deficits, the Reagan Administration was simply amalgamating the Social Security surplus with general revenues and spending it. The critical mistake in the legislation--and because historians no longer study legislation, we stil have no idea, and may never know, how this happened--was the failure to earmark the surplus in Social Security to purchase actual negotiable, interest bearing government securities. Instead, the Social Security Administration has received non-negotiable government bonds which represent unfunded future claims on the US Treasury.
When Al Gore talked in 2000 about a "lock box" for the $200 billion annual surplus that the government was running, he was actually trying to address this future problem, by finding a way to earmark the surplus to meet the future claims on social security. He had not, apparently, worked out a detailed plan for doing this--and even if he had, the media would never have reported it, preferring instead to laugh at his image as a hopeless policy wonk fond of exaggeration--but his basic principle was sound. The surplus, of course, did not survive two years of the Bush Administration, to whom it was an ideological affront and a threat to long-term plans to slash the role of the federal government in American life. This year's deficit will probably reach $400 billion after new appropriations for Iraq, and no improvement in our fiscal health is in sight.
Meanwhile, the President, who now wants to borrow several trillion dollars as part of a scheme to reduce future Social Security benefits and create private accounts, is leading a propaganda campaign based on the idea that a social security crisis is imminent. Two dates for the "insolvency" of Social Security are being bandied about--2018 (the favorite of the Administration) and 2052 (the figure cited by non-partisan entities like the Congressional budget office.) Both, alas, are ways of denying the terrible, unforgiveable fraud that the government has perpetrated on the American people for the last twenty years.
The 2018 date represents the year in which, at current rates, Social Security taxes will no longer cover projected benefits--and the Trust Fund that will have been theoretically accumulating for 35 years is supposed to kick in. That can only happen, however, if the government raises taxes or borrows more money to meet those obligations, since the trust fund is not composed of real negotiable assets. The 2052 date is the year in which the trust fund (which actually has no real assets even now) will be exhausted. The Bush Administration and its media acolytes (like Tucker Carlson) are simply adopting 2018 as the crisis year. This amounts to admitting that the Reagan Administration and every subsequent Administration (except the Clinton one, which brought the budget into balance) has been lying to the American people all along about where their payroll taxes have been going--but no one knows enough about that issue even to raise it.
What should be done? Without doing all the math, I would suggest that two obvious steps could at least postpone the evil day for at least a decade. One is to end the over-generous annual indexing of benefits, which have risen much faster than inflation, and substitute a more realistic figure for benficiaries, as well as federal employees. A second step is to end the cap on Security taxes, which is currently, I believe, at about $80,000 a year, and which makes the tax even more regressive. That step, of course, has been rejected by the President already.
But the deeper danger, it seems to me, is that the public no longer has the intellectual capital with which to confront these problems intelligently, and Congress and the Administration have therefore become completely unaccountable. That is the only way they could have perpetrated the 20-year "trust fund" fraud. The Bush Administration takes advantage of popular ignorance in other economic areas as well, arguing year after year that spending will decline and revenue will grow at rates for which there is no justification, but recognizing that no one but a few liberal economists will notice when the true figures come out. Nor have the American people paid any systematic attention to the hemmorhaging to blue-collar, agricultural, and now white-collar jobs overseas--a trend which has made our jobs picture almost impervious to economic recovery. Distracted by social issues and a war whose nature is also broadly misunderstood, the American people have lost the habit of intelligently thinking about our problems. Only a catastrophe of deperssion-era proportions, I am afraid,. will restore it--and how much ground will we be able to make up then?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Update

In a previous post, I suggested that the anti-tax move in the Sunbelt reflects, in part, white unwillingness to provide services for black fellow citizens. Two old friends of mine, both Deep South natives, immediately told me that should have been obvious.
The Washington Post has just run a story--http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16443-2004Nov27.html?referrer=emailarticle--on the narrow defeat of an Alabama ballot initiative that would have removed two provisions in the state constitution that dated fromt the 1950s. The first provision guaranteed that the public school system would be segregated, and the second one rejected any right to public education, laying the foundation for closing the whole school system if the Federal Government insisted upon integrating it. The vote was very close, but the initiative did fail, and those provisions remain in the constitution. Opponents cited the danger that removing it might allow courts to force the state to spend more money on poor districts.

Update

In a previous post, I suggested that the anti-tax move in the Sunbelt reflects, in part, white unwillingness to provide services for black fellow citizens. Two old friends of mine, both Deep South natives, immediately told me that should have been obvious.
The Washington Post has just run a story--http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16443-2004Nov27.html?referrer=emailarticle--on the narrow defeat of an Alabama ballot initiative that would have removed two provisions in the state constitution that dated fromt the 1950s. The first provision guaranteed that the public school system would be segregated, and the second one rejected any right to public education, laying the foundation for closing the whole school system if the Federal Government insisted upon integrating it. The vote was very close, but the initiative did fail, and those provisions remain in the constitution. Opponents cited the danger that removing it might allow courts to force the state to spend more money on poor districts.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Things fall apart

Falling Apart

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

This week the New York Times ran a Thanksgiving Day op-ed on the consequences of the European settlement of North America on both human and animal populations. The article gently suggested that the Europeans had done at least as much harm as good, because the Indian tribes had taken better care of the landscape, both by using fire to thin out forests and by remaining in balance with animal populations like passenger pigeons. While I cannot evaluate that specific claim, the article struck me as a relatively low-key illustration of a current academic trend: the tendency to blame the world’s ills on the spread of western civilization. That position struck me, as it always does, as a vast oversimplification—but it also made me think once again about whether any civilization has really discovered a lasting defense against the war and hatred that periodically devastate humankind.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on Nazi expansionism, and discussed Hitler’s belief that history was, at bottom, nothing but a struggle for space among different peoples. Fifteen years ago, in Politics and War, I described all the major European nationality conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, and had to conclude that Hitler had identified (and of course accelerated) a powerful and destructive current in European history. The passion for self-rule had broken up the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman and German Empires during the First World War, and led to both the deaths of more than ten million Jews, Poles, and Soviets at the hands of the Nazis and the forced transfer—or, as we would now say, the ethnic cleansing—of more than ten million Germans at the end of that war. In Asia the Japanese took millions of lives in their futile attempt to subjugate China, and after the end of the war the independence of India and Pakistan led to perhaps the largest recent exercise of ethnic cleansing of all. The establishment of the state of Israel had a similar impact on the Palestinian population, albeit on a far smaller scale. The formation of the United Nations and the attempt to codify international law and the rights of citizens—a project that had failed spectacularly during the interwar period—was of course a reaction to all these catastrophes.
Such conflicts, while relatively rare in Europe at least since the first half of the seventeenth century, had of course intermittently occurred for as long as history has been recorded. More importantly, there seems in fact to be little evidence that things were very different in other continents. The pre-Colombian population of North and South America was not made up of pacifists. Tribes seem to have been in a more or less constant state of war, and archeology has turned up whole civilizations, such as the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley, who somehow disappeared in the millennia before European contact. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were prevalent in Mexico. Africa and Asia, also, were the scene of frequent imperial conflicts and population movements. What has distinguished European civilization—which in the second half of the twentieth century became world civilization—was the attempt to regulate international conflict and establish agreed, universal principles of human rights. Any successes that such efforts have had, however, have been periodically interrupted by more or less catastrophic failures.
It was not until the mid-1990s, when I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that I first began to understand how temporary the achievements of my own lifetime might be. The relatively long periods of peace that the Atlantic world has enjoyed in the last two centuries—1815-1854, 1871-1914, and 1945 until the present—were each made possible by wars—in two cases, by prolonged and extremely costly wars, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts in the 1792-1815 period and the two world wars in the twentieth century. They not only redrew the map, but either secured or enforced the allegiance of the peoples involved to the victorious authorities. In every case, however, their effects lasted only as long as the lives of the people who actually remembered those conflicts, even as children. The order they had lived under died with them, destroyed by generations who did not remember the previous conflicts and, paradoxically, felt no stake in the world in which they had grown up. And the life of any new social and political order, as Strauss and Howe argued with respect to the United States, tended to be about eighty years. It was 83 years ago that William Butler Yeats published the poem I quoted at the beginning of this essay.
The process they described as been playing itself out in Eastern Europe for about fifteen years. Three major states created by the First World War—Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union—have ceased to exist. Tens of thousands have died or been uprooted in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and other parts of the former Soviet Union as a result. Another even more serious conflict now threatens in Ukraine, because Ukraine is really two nations, not one—a majority Ukrainian nation in its central and western regions, with a very large Russian enclave in the East. The new Russian government does not seem at all reconciled to the eclipse of its power and the Russian populations of other states are a temptation to further expansionism.
The same dynamic is at work in the Middle East. Although the region’s history is too varied and complex to make too many facile generalizations, some things are clear. The conflict that created Israel, which lasted from about 1919 until 1948, has been in a new and more intense phase for two decades, and fewer and fewer Palestinians or Israelis show any commitment to maintaining the settlement that was arrived at in 1948 and lasted until 1967. Sunni-dominated Iraq, a creation of the First World War, has been consigned to oblivion with a big push from the United States, although it was already cracking even before the invasion in 2003. This may create a civil war in Iraq, one in which Turkey is threatening to intervene to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. In Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where independence in the 1940s and 1950s led to relatively secular military rule, the postwar elites seem to have lost the allegiance of a much more religious younger generation—a process that has already played itself out in Iran, which seems to have been on a somewhat earlier cycle. Further east, the India-Pakistani conflict has been exacerbated by increased religious nationalism and the acquisition of nuclear weapons on both sides. In Africa, collapsing post-independence states range from the Congo to the Ivory Coast—the latter, until quite recently, a major success story.
Here in the United States, the Bush administration, as I have already noted, has been abandoning the domestic and international principles that have governed policy since 1945—and in so doing it has accelerated the progress of international anarchy in the Middle East, confident that we can put something much better in its place Europe, where the last crisis had far more devastating effects and lasted about ten years longer, remains committed to international institutions and the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the low European birth rate has led to the immigration of large Muslim minorities whose allegiance is inevitably suspect, and we cannot yet say what political consequences this will have during the next thirty years. Europe seems likely to continue to diverge from the United States, however, as a new generation of European leaders takes over—one whose memories of the United States begin, not with the aftermath the Second World War and the formation of NATO, but with the war in Vietnam.
The last time the world fell apart, from 1931 through 1945, the United States entered the fray relatively late and had a decisive impact both in Europe and in Asia. We created a new order, however, only by expanding, wittingly or unwittingly, the reach of Communism as well. (Within twenty years we may even be nostalgic for Communism; it was a far more western ideology, and in many ways an easier one to deal with, than the movements that oppose western values today.) Now, as other, but as yet less important parts of the world disintegrate, we must keep in mind, I would argue, that our population is relatively much smaller than it was then, and that the spread of anarchy, so far, has not reached the areas we have traditionally and rightly identified as vital interests, such as Europe and Japan. As in 1930-45, we will have to accept limitations on our power to shape outcomes to our own liking. In one hundred years Islamic fundamentalism may appear rather like Communism does today—a powerful ideological current that began as a revolutionary movement, secured control of several states, and eventually changed as a result of its internal contradictions. It was not necessary, and probably not possible, to stamp out Communism in 1918, and it is probably neither necessary nor possible to eliminate our new enemy, either.
“Globalization” will not put an end to history either, any more than the collapse of Communism did. Globalization is a complex, recurring process—one that characterized the 1850s and the 1900s, as well as the 1990s—which creates winners and losers and sharpens clashes between states and civilizations. The autarkic economic policies of Japan and Germany in the 1930s were responses to its failures. Globalization emphasizes interests, and civic consensus can only be built around values—whether they are Lincoln’s, Roosevelt’s, or Osama Bin Laden’s. The world as we have known it is disintegrating. Our task is to preserve our own values, to try to keep western civilization intact and at peace within its own borders, and to limit the scope and destructiveness of changes which, in large measure, we will not be able to prevent.


Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Two Americas

Note: This post has been updated November 21 with some additional data

As everyone now knows, the election on November 2 revealed a stark political contrast between two Americas. New England and the mid-Atlantic states voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry, and the Great Lakes region and the Far West did so by somewhat smaller, but still significant, margins. (The most anomalous result occurred, as we shall see, in Iowa, where President Bush eked out a narrow win.) Meanwhile, the old Confederacy, the Ohio Valley and the plains and mountain states voted overwhelmingly Republican, largely, it would seem, out of concern for cultural issues such as gay marriage, divorce, and the role of religion in education and American life generally. The major media usually rely upon anecdotal evidence and pithy quotes to get the difference between Red and Blue America across, but the magic of the web and the logic of readily available statistics actually reveals that the differences between Bush and Kerry states are both very definitely measurable and ironically significant. These figures do not, however, inspire a great deal of confidence about the direction in which the nation seems to be heading, or about the likely significance of Red-state domination of the national government.

Beginning with the most controversial social issues, we find that divorce, teen pregnancy, and alcohol are actually far more serious problems in Red America than in Blue. American divorce rates in 2002 range from about 2.5 per thousand population in Delaware, Massachusetts, and Georgia (where the rate has been cut almost in half in the last 14 years), to over 6 per 1000 in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. 9 of the 13 states with the lowest divorce rates voted for Kerry, and 2 of the other 4 were Iowa and New Mexico, which Bush carried by the narrowest of margins. At the other extreme, the states with the 13 highest divorce rates all voted for the President--and no figures are available for two other Bush states, Indiana and Louisiana. The percentage of enduring marriages, in short, seems to be much higher on the eastern, northern and western periphery of the country than in the center.

Teen pregnancy, an even hotter-button issue, shows the same pattern. Teen pregnancy is more than twice as common in some states than in others, and the nine leaders are the District of Colombia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia--all but one in the Red zone. 14 of the 17 leading states in this category voted for Bush, and 17 out of the top 25. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 of the 9 states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates went for Kerry (North Dakota being the exception). Looking at the table, one cannot escape the conclusion that the states in which sex education (as opposed to abstinence education) is under attack are those with the highest teen pregnancy rates. The Blue-Red divide in this table is less striking than in some others because high teen pregnancies still correlate with large urban populations, but it is quite observable nonetheless.

Alcohol consumption in the United States has presented a surprising regional pattern over the last four decades. Remarkably, consumption in the northeast and on the west coast has dropped--particularly with respect to hard liquor, as white whine has replaced martinis as the drink of choice--while it has remained high in the upper Midwest and skyrocketed in the South. These trends are reflected in two other statistics, traffic accident fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities. The top 20 states in traffic fatalities per population, and 24 of the top 25, are Red states; 15 of the bottom 16 are Blue states. Nor are these differences trivial, either--there are three or four times as many traffic deaths per capita in Wyoming, Mississippi and Montana as there are in Massachusetts, New York, or the state of Washington. The rankings for alcohol-related traffic deaths track those for total fatalities quite closely, although alcohol is actually to blame for a higher percentage of traffic deaths in the Blue states than in the red. Blue drivers are safer drivers drunk or sober, but their lead is larger when sober. (These statistics are not the result of the lower population density and longer driving distances in Red States. Even controlling for million miles driven, Bush took the top 22 states in traffic fatalities.)

Violent crime shows a less clear, but still discernible pattern because it is apparently quite heavily correlated with large urban populations. Even so, President Bush carried 22 of the top 31 states in violent crime, while John Kerry took 9 of the 17 least violent states.

To judge from these figures, a concern for declining moral values in the United States seems to be a reaction to high teen pregnancy, violent crime, alcohol consumption, and divorce, rather than an effective cure. A real skeptic like the author might suggest that Calvinist theology increases these problems by inculcating so much shame among believers--but this is only an hypothesis. What is undeniable from another set of statistics, however, is the extreme correlation between greater wealth and better public services on the one hand, and lower rates of social pathology on the other.

President George W. Bush carried 26 of the bottom 28 states in per capita income--all of them but Maine and Oregon. (Florida ranked at the top of that group.) John Kerry took home 18 of the top 23, the exceptions being Colorado, Virginia (which appears to have an extraordinarily split demographic profile), Alaska, Wyoming, and Nevada. The President took 21 of the 24 states with the highest percentage of their population living in mobile homes, while Kerry took the bottom 13 states in that category. And because public expenditures tend to correlate with overall wealth, the President also carried 22 of the 23 states that had the lowest median salaries for primary and secondary school teachers, while Kerry took 12 of the 14 highest states in that category. (California is one of the exceptions. While still one of the richer states, its public education system is now the victim of a low-tax driven, 25-year decline.) These figures are even more interesting in light of exit poll data showing that the truly rich did vote for Bush in significantly higher numbers. Richer people voted for Bush, but richer states voted for Kerry. It’s the better-off middle class, apparently, that still believes government has a responsibility for the well-being of the average citizen. But as a proportion of the national population, that group is probably shrinking.

More important is the lesson of combining these two sets of figures: the cure for social pathology, it seems, isn't religion, but income. More income means more stable families, fewer teen pregnancies, less drunk driving, and, of course, fewer people in prison. The economic policies of the last 25 years, including lower top tax rates, higher payroll taxes, a drastic decline in unionization, the collapse of family farms, and more free trade agreements, have made a few people much richer while the bulk of the population has held steady or lost ground. And that probably has more to do with escalating social problems than R-rated movies.

A recent book, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, makes some related points and argues that Red state voters aren't getting much for their votes. As I have not yet had a chance to read it, I do not know whether Frank noticed another ironic consequence of the Red-Blue split--that Blue state money is doing a great deal to keep Red state economies even at the level they are at. A table provided by a Washington non-profit, the Northeast-Midwest institute, lists states by their per capita tax burden and by federal spending, per capita, within their boundaries. (Figures are from 2002). New England's three smallest states--Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island--receive more from the Federal Government than they pay in, but the three largest and richest ones, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, show the opposite pattern, and as a whole the region receives only $.89 of every dollar that it pays in to the federal treasury. The Middle Atlantic, where New Jersey gets only $.66 of every dollar back and New York just $.87, shows a similar picture although Pennsylvania shows a small profit and Maryland, not surprisingly, a huge one. In the Far West California receives just $.79 of every dollar back, and neither Oregon nor Washington makes a profit either. And of Kerry's midwestern states--Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin--not one gets more than $.90 back on every dollar.

Astonishingly, the South, the most anti-federal government region in theory, does best in practice. With two interesting exceptions--Texas, which got only $.96 of every tax dollar back, and Florida, which broke even--the old Confederacy received from $.27 (Tennessee) to $.88 (Mississippi) extra cents back for every dollar paid in. (I would welcome any explanation of exactly what kind of payments these are.) Robert Byrd's care for his home state is no legend--West Virginia is near the leaders, getting $1.88 back for every dollar. All the Red states west of the Mississippi also showed a profit, with the single exception of Nevada. Farm subsidies, apparently, are keeping many of those states alive. Were it not for the federal government--the entity Grover Norquist wants to shrink until he can drown it in a bathtup--the per capita income disparities between the Red and Blue regions would be much larger. Relatively, if not absolutely, the Republicans are taking care of their own. Perhaps Blue staters should stop feeling guilty about federal income tax cuts--if the poorer states want to get poorer to our benefit, why should we worry?

Stepping backwards for a moment to evaluate these statistics and their political consequences historically yields an interesting conclusion. Eighty years ago (there's that figure again!), the Bible Belt was also culturally on the offensive, giving the nation both Prohibition (an even more disastrous attempt to wipe out sin) and a revived Ku Klux Klan. Those movements, however, belonged more to the Democratic than the Republican Party. Now the Red states have joined in an alliance with big business--an alliance which, as more and more observers are beginning to note, has done less than nothing for the heartland, either economically or culturally. Meanwhile, the Republicans have kept alive the transfers from the richer to the poorer states that were one of the hallmarks of the new deal. The question for the country is how long this alliance can endure--and whether Blue America will become more like Red America, or vice verca.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

How did We Come so Far? The Meaning of Tuesday's Election

With two days to go before the election, the evidence is mounting that the United States faces the third great turning point in its history as a nation. As William Strauss and Neil Howe have pointed out in their vitally important works Generations and The Fourth Turning, great crises in American political life occur roughly every eighty years—first in the era of the Revolutionary War and the Constitution, then during the Civil War, and then in the Depression and in the Second World War, which created the now-vanishing world in which every American under 62 has spent his entire life. (For more on their theories and their books, see www.fourthturning.com, where I have been a frequent contributor.) The election pits two entirely different philosophies against one another. On the one hand, the Democrat John Kerry wants, essentially, to continue building upon the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, with a nod to Bill Clinton’s remarkable budget-balancing achievements. On the other, George W. Bush wants almost entirely to undo the work of the twentieth century, vastly reducing public services, effectively ending environmental regulation, reducing or eliminating progressive taxation, privatizing social security, and essentially substituting faith for reason as our guide. Abroad, meanwhile, he has already junked 60 years of multilateralism and commitment to international law in favor of a belief in the efficacy of unbridled American force. These changes are so dramatic that many in the major media refuse to believe they are taking place. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has expressed astonishment at his many friends who see catastrophe lurking if Bush should be reelected, and when Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind told Chris Matthews that many Bush supporters see the President as a messenger from God, Matthews exclaimed, “Oh, come on!” –prompting Suskind to exhort Matthews to get out of Washington and see what was happening in the rest of the country.
The wholesale repudiation of the beliefs of our educated elite at the highest levels of our government—amply documented in Suskind’s recent New York Times Magazine article—does come as a shock, but Strauss and Howe’s historical scheme helps understand how it has happened. Nor is it without precedent in western history, as something quite similar happened in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. Every great crisis has winners and losers—and losers, as every sports fan knows, have longer memories and bigger incentives than winners. Bush, Karl Rove and the rest of the Republican establishment have managed to forge a coalition of the losers in both of our last two national crises—the business interests who resented the New Deal, and the white Southerners who have never been fully reconciled to the effects of the Northern victory in the civil war. Meanwhile the bi-coastal elite has made the natural but critical mistake of taking its parents’ victories for granted and assuming that nothing, really could change very much. The new conservative coalition, which initially emerged between the 1960s and the 1980s, now may be poised to set the direction of American life for most of our children’s lifetimes.
The New Deal, combined with the Second World War, created the most progressive tax structure in American history, and in the 1950s and early 1960s—a period of sustained economic growth—the top marginal income tax rate had reached 90%. Meanwhile, labor unions dominated the industrial work force and insured, until 1973, that workers’ income would continue to increase relative to the rest of the population. Corporate America had to live with these changes, and some more enlightened business leaders accepted them as the price of civic order, but by the 1970s the top rates had fallen and a tax revolt was beginning. Foreign competition was also making heavy inroads in critical areas like automobile production, and this in the long run was going to weaken the standing of American workers. But the real corporate offensive against both taxes and workers’ rights began, of course, in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, and the erosion of the union movement has been dramatic since then. The US Government had been pushing free trade since the late 1930s, when the United States was industrially supreme, and in the 1990s further extensions of free trade, most notably through NAFTA and agreements with the Chinese, essentially destroyed much of our high-wage industrial economy—and the most important part of the New Deal voting coalition along with it. With three days to go to the 2004 Presidential election, Michigan has become a toss-up—something that would not have happened, in my opinion, if Democratic legislators and administrations had done more to prevent the collapse of American industry that Michael Moore documented in Roger and Me. Accustomed to ruling and comfortable in Washington, the Democratic leadership apparently forgot where its votes came from.
Republicans, meanwhile, could not openly repudiate the principles of the New Deal—that the government owed the people the assurance of jobs that paid living wages. Supply-side economics came to the rescue, arguing not that great fortunes merely represented the survival of the fittest (the view of post-Civil War Republicans), but that they would benefit the rest of the country. (The Republicans’ need to pretend that their policies have the opposite effect that they actually have is one of the chief causes of the degradation of American political life. It has culminated in George Bush’s campaign stump speech, which argues that all the beneficiaries of his tax cuts are job-creating small business owners.) Officially we are seeking the same goals by more efficient means. Actually both the relative and the absolute bargaining power of working-class Americans are continually eroding, and the gap between executive pay and worker pay has increased by one or two orders of magnitude. Meanwhile the economic rights of retirees are being stripped away as well, as guaranteed pensions are eliminated from most private employment. Ironically, the diminishing resources of the elderly are bound to create a crisis in the economy of the Republican Sunbelt eventually, but that may take another decade or two.
Corporate America is now stronger in Washington than it has been since the 1890s, and stands for the most part firmly behind the Administration. The broadcast media are either firmly in the Republican camp or too intimidated to take it on directly. The print media, where rationality is still prized, remains more faithful to earlier traditions, and Kerry commands far more newspaper endorsements, but even there, several publishers (such as those of the Denver Post and the Chicago Tribune) have overruled their editorial boards and insisted on backing Bush. The corporate elite has been doing what it naturally does, trying to amass more wealth—and the restraints against it have gradually come down. It has now become the biggest single pillar of the Republican Party.
While corporate America funds Bush (and is rewarded in return), the foot soldiers who provide the votes come, in their largest numbers, from the white South and (in smaller numbers) from the Plains states. To understand how this has happened we must go back even further, to the aftermath of the civil war.
Few historical forces equal the strength of bad conscience. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the white elite of the Confederacy sought both to re-establish its power and to prove the justice of its principles by keeping freed slaves in a position of permanent civil and economic inferiority. But the southerners continued to see themselves as the exploited losers in the conflict, and between 1933 and 1945 they aligned themselves with northern workers as part of the New Deal coalition. In return, Franklin Roosevelt made no major moves to challenge white supremacy. And the South benefited considerably from the Second World War and the Cold War, since senior southern legislators managed to make sure that a substantial part of the new military-industrial complex was located inside their region.
The northern Democratic embrace of the civil rights movement in 1948, of course, began to crack the solid South, beginning with the candidacy of Strom Thurmond. But the Democratic retreat became a rout, as President Lyndon Johnson privately predicted, after the voting rights act of 1965. Since then only two Democratic southerners, Jimmy Carter (once) and Bill Clinton, have managed to win any southern electoral votes at all—and Al Gore, another southerner, was unable to repeat that performance in 2000. Johnson was right—by signing the Voting Rights Act, he turned the South over to the Republican Party for a generation.
These results suggest an unpleasant truth—that the whites of most of the old Confederacy have never accepted full equality for black citizens. But the civil rights movement has had other sad and ironic results as well. Because many southern whites refuse to send their children to school with blacks, segregation is at near-1950s levels in much of the rural south, such as the Mississippi Delta. Because white voters apparently are disinclined to fund public black schools as well as private white ones, spending on public education remains very low, and the anti-tax movement is extremely popular in the South. And that philosophy has now been introduced into our national life by the Bush Administration. The underfunded No Child Left Behind Act, as currently administered, will result in the discrediting of thousands of public schools and accelerate a movement towards private ones among better-off Americans. Meanwhile, the testing movement, by focusing on math and reading, seems designed to produce a generation of poorer children whose intellectual skills will be just sufficient to hold down jobs at Wal-Mart. The cost of higher education has increased by 2.5 times, controlling for inflation, in the last forty years. All around the country, even once-great state universities like Michigan and North Carolina are being crippled by budget cuts.
There remains, of course, the third pillar of the new Republican coalition, the cultural one. This too is a key to Republican strength in the South, the Midwest and the Plains states, and it has been the hardest for blue-zone Americans to take seriously. Much of it has come in reaction to the sexual liberation of the last few decades, which a vocal and increasingly powerful minority of Americans have never accepted. But more generally, the Republican cultural assault involves a new emphasis on faith and an attack on science and rational analysis in general that seems to have reached the highest levels of the government. George Bush’s disdain for factual analyses is well known, and American scientific authorities have frequently branded his whole Administration as unwilling to acknowledge accepted science in a variety of fields.
The United States was a child of the Enlightenment and has traditionally valued its trust in science and inquiry, but reason, alas, seems destined to remain what David Hume (himself an Enlightenment figure) called it more than two centuries ago: the slave of the passions. Reason, indeed, which was probably never more supreme in American life than around 1950 or so, has been under attack in the academy since the 1960s, with fairly disastrous results in the humanities and social sciences. If postmodernists no longer feel bound by objective truth, why should their counterparts on the right? As I pointed out in my last post, reverence for truth was a casualty of the Left’s war on the establishment in the Vietnam era—which divided the left, perhaps fatally, for the rest of our lifetimes. (To be sure, the establishment discredited its own respect for the truth by beginning and continuing the war in Vietnam, but the younger generation went much further down that path. )The Right has followed along, with devastating impacts on American life.
Who can be surprised, really, that so many Americans are no longer voting with their heads? In 1932 both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt made long speeches of astonishing factual complexity to show that they understood the country’s problems. During the last thirty years we have steadily sunk into a sound bite culture. How many Americans know how much the federal government spends every year, or what the deficit is? How many have a real sense of the recent economic changes in American life? How many could name the leaders of Congress, or actually follow the progress of legislation? In a famous and telling moment late in the 2000 campaign, Cokie Roberts suggested that Al Gore’s reference to the Dingell-Norwood Bill would turn off voters, because it was “Washington speak.” A well-known journalist for a major network, whose father had been a Congressional leader for decades, now regarded a knowledge of what was actually happening in Washington as something for a candidate to hide. With such opinion leadership, we cannot expect much from the American people.
And thus, it is possible, though hardly certain, that a Bush victory on Tuesday might indeed usher in an entirely new era in American life—one marked by an increasingly weak state, a shrinking safety net, a return of elderly poverty on a large scale, and a division of the country into a rich elite and a mass of insecure workers that would bring a smile to the face of Karl Marx. It would not be the first time that a western nation had taken a big step backward. Eighteenth century England had established the rights of man and a form of religious toleration. Its social life was frankly hedonistic and licentious; its politics, though largely limited to the aristocracy, were extraordinarily free; and religious belief had become a mere formality. Many leading Englishmen wanted to move towards democracy in the mid-eighteenth century, and but for George III, they might have. His rule, however, and the general reaction to the American and French revolutions, led England away from democracy and open inquiry and towards tighter aristocratic rule, a far greater role for the Church of England, and a more rigid and unequal class structure than ever in the first half of the nineteenth century, as the effects of the industrial revolution were first being felt. Only the Union victory in the American civil war, which the whole western world saw as a victory for democracy over aristocracy, reversed the trend.
It is possible that we are not destined for a new Victorian age. Even without a Kerry victory on Tuesday, Democrats and rationalists may yet find new energy and manage to reverse the tide. But to do so, they will need causes to rival the economic and religious totems of the Republicans. Merely standing for the status quo of the second half of the twentieth century is not enough. The losers in our last two crises have been in the ascendant for twenty years because they cared enough to do anything to win. That is the eternal advantage of those who have been denied victory for too long, and it is a far more powerful influence in history than we have generally recognized.

Note to readers: This rather lengthy post shall be the last one for at least two weeks. By then things shall look considerably different.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

George W. Bush--Man of the Sixties

George W. Bush—Man of the 1960s

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation.

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Adminstration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake.

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way.

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so.

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth.
Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their leftwing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election.

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . .

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

What "War on Terror"?

The "War on Terror" and American foreign policy

In Wednesday's third debate, John Kerry quoted President Bush (accurately, although the President quickly denied it) as having said, early in 2002, that he was not very concerned about Osama Bin Laden anymore, because Bin Laden was no longer running a country. During the past three years, while Bin Laden hides in what is supposed to be a major non-NATO allied nation, Pakistan, we haven't been able to find him. Instead, we conquered Iraq.

The President and Vice President explain, again and again, that the most dangerous "nexus" today is the possibility that terorists might get weapons of mass destruction from a state. Based on their policies and strategies, I think it has become quite clear that they don't see that as the most dangerous threat, they see it as the only threat. This is parallel to how successive Administrations (Johnson and Nixon, mainly) approached the Vietnam War: the threat was the state of North Vietnam and could be solved by going after it and its armed forces, to persuade it to stop sponsoring revolutions. Of course, under the Bush/Cheney doctrine, we don't try to persuade hostile states, we destroy them.

It is really not clear how much we have done to stop attacks within the US. Although we have heightened airport security we don't seem to be very interested in the kind of attack that actually killed 3000 Americans in 2001. We do not seem to be very interested in what small groups of terrorists could do. Our policy shows no conern for public opinion in the Muslim world, where the growth of terrorism is blamed on us. (See today's NY Times article about Saudi Arabia: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/international/middleeast/14saudi.html?oref=login. It doesn't matter how many millions of people hate us, apparently, provided no state exists that could give them weapons. We are, of course, trying to create a friendly democracy in Iraq, but the recent attack in the Green Zone, which killed seven people, show that secure areas there have shrunk, literally, to zero. (Reporters have been telling the same story.)

In fact, the Bush Administration's "war on terror" has simply become a convenient excuse to pursue the essence of neoconservative foreign policy (developed during the Cold War) more vigorously. The neoconservative approach targets hostile states, which must be intimidated or brought down by a mixture of relentless hostile propaganda, superior weaponry, and either arms races or, if the state is sufficiently weak, conquest. Those in charge of our foreign policy have been shaped by the Cold War as they saw it--a drama in which Ronald Reagan's rhetoric and arms build-up somehow forced the Soviet Union to collapse. Even before that happened, they had become wedded to the idea of missile defense, which could theoretically enable the U.S. to disable a hostile enemy with a first strike.

To many Americans, most foreign policy professionals, and even the first President Bush, the end of the Cold War seemed to usher in an era of peace and true international cooperation. To neoconservatives--led by Paul Wolfowitz of the first Bush's Defense Department--it removed any obstacles to American worldwide supremacy. By preventing the emergence of a peer competitor, Wolfowitz suggested, the United States could indefinitely dominate the world. We no longer needed either to rely on interational coalitions or to respect the deterrent powers of other states. Any hostile regime could simply be removed from the scene. Out of power in the late 1990s, the neoconservatives began to identify Iraq--which we know now had been weakened by sanctions and inspections to the point where it no longer posed a threat--as the target for a new American offensive. Once in power in 2001, as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill have both confirmed, they immediately began planning to implement this agenda.

A less ideological and more realistic approach would suggest that the real achievement of the Cold War period was to maintain a relatively peaceful world--a task in which the two major victors of the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union, actually collaborated. Athough the two superpowers inevitably competed for power and influence as well--often foolishly, especially in the Third World--they respected one another's vital interests, and, in very different ways, kept their spheres of influence under control. Now we need a new structure for peace, and the United States does not have enough power or enough ground troops, in particular, to impose one. (Our population is much smaller relative to the world's than it was in 1941, and even in the Second World War we only created a new world order with the help of the Soviets.) A successful structure for the future can only be a multilateral one.

Terrorism, as Clarke shows very clearly, was not initially a priority for the Adminstration, and it ignored the most explicit warnings the intelligence committee could draw up. But 9/11 immediately became an excuse to proceed, first against the Taliban, and then against Iraq. Even before the Iraq war we had also identified Iran and North Korea as the next targets.

The results of the Iraq war have been catastrophic because this policy essentially destroys for the sake of destroying. The Administration, to be sure, has emphasized the need to build democracy in Iraq, and President Bush himself, I think, takes this goal seriously. But had Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton and the rest of the war planners really believed in it, I do not think they would have so fatuously disregarded all available advice on the size of the force that would be needed to occupy and rule Iraq in the meantime--one at least double the number of troops that we have put there. (The best source on this fiasco that I have found was written by James Fallows in the January/February Atlantic and can be purchased online.)

The situation in Iraq seems to be much worse than most people realize. We have enough troops there for various insurgencies to mobilize against, but not enough to occupy and control territory. Our troops are too stretched to protect themselves, and Senator Patty Murray has just written the Defense Department on behalf of a Washington unit that has asked for, and been refused, more troops to guard the huge supply base it occupies, which has taken numerous casualties from rocket and mortar attacks. Nor have we been successful in recruiting a cadre of Iraqis who share our views about the country's future that could contend with the insurgents--the topic of a later post on Iraq and Vietnam.

What the Bush Adminstration's policies have done is to create anarchy within an oil-rich nation of 25 million people. Should Bush be re-elected, we shall very likely see a new war against Iran or North Korea--but this time, I suspect, without any ground troops at all. This time we shall simply use precision weapons to take out nuclear facilities. Under Bush's leadership, the United States, which as the richest nation in the world has the greatest interest in a peaceful world, has begun smashing the international order and promoting international anarchy. This is a catastrophic policy that neither we, nor the world, can afford.




Welcome

As a full-time history teacher and author whose work has contemporary implications, I frequently try to put the day's news in varoius broader contexts. Occasionally I have been able to do this in op-ed or Sunday pieces in various newspapers, but such pieces have become increasingly hearder to place, and finding a home for them takes longer than writing them does. I have therefore decided to open this blog, which I hope to contribute to about once a week. I plan to discuss long-term trends in American foreign and domestic policies as they relate to specific recent events.

Visitors may be interested in what I have written. My books are:

Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War (Princeton, 1980).

Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (co-author William Young) (Amherst, Mass., 1985).

Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).

Epic Season: The 1948 American League Pennant Race (Amherst, Mass., 1998)

American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).

All but the first are still in print.

My first post will appear very shortly.