Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New Civil Conflict

[People are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.] For an afterword on the hoax, see the bottom of this post.

War, wrote Mao Zedong,is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed. He was right: the advances of our civilization have depended upon finding non-violent substitutes for violent conflict. I first began to understand this in the 1980s, when I was working intermittently on two different books, one on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti (a project I inherited from a dead friend), and the second on European conflict over several centuries, beginning in 1559. As I studied in detail how the lawyers on both sides of that famous murder case tried everything they could get away with to win (the prosecution, in particular, withheld a lot of exculpatory evidence that today they would have to reveal), I realized that contestants in the legal process would be content with no less, since they have, in effect, submitted to it rather than fight the dispute out by force of arms. Meanwhile, as I showed in Politics and War, Europe from 1559 through 1659 was inherently, continually unstable because the rich, rather than the poor, routinely took the law into their own hands and refused to submit to higher authority--a situation that began to change in the latter half the 17th century. The United States was the first modern nation based entirely upon written laws, and Lincoln in the Civil War argued that the real stake in the war was not slavery, but whether a free government could preserve itself against a violent internal threat. The answer was yes.

Today's struggles, like those of early modern Europe, deal with money, prestige, and even religious hatred. Moneyed interests, represented by our leading industries--finance and health care--are perhaps as powerful in Washington today as they were in the late nineteenth century. Today's battles, like those of the civil war, also involve sectional rivalry. Much of the South lives in a different mental universe that the Northeast and the Far West, as illustrated dramatically in a book I have begun reading, Confederates in the Attic, as well as by the behavior of Southern legislators in Congress or the Justice of the Peace who refused to grant a marriage license to a biracial couple. (He has since resigned.) This is the country that Barack Obama wants to take in a new direction. It is not clear how much of a success will be possible.

Thus, as a vote nears in the House of Representatives, today's papers report that Speaker Pelosi has given in to conservative Democrats who insist that neither the public option (which will not be an entitlement program but will be funded by premiums) or any private plan sold through a government-sponsored exchange will cover abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. (It will be interesting to see if that exemption survives.) That is a concession to very strong religious beliefs, which are prevailing against the law as declared (perhaps unwisely, as a I have noted) by the Supreme Court in 1973 and frequently reaffirmed since. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, the Speaker has been attending fundraisers around the country in the company of some of the health care industry's leading lobbyists. For reasons which I do not understand, she has forbidden even a symbolic vote on the House floor on a single-payer plan. The whole process of designing the legislation, indeed, has largely been a matter of figuring out how much reform the insurance industry is willing to tolerate. Since we can save money only at their expense, this does not leave too much room for optimism about how much a new plan will do to ease the crisis in health care costs about which the President has said so much.

Some weeks ago I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism, A Love Story. It contained some wonderful footage and fascinating material, but I thought it was below his best work (including Sicko) because it was rather frenetic and, actually, contradictory. The movie began with a short love note to the 1950s, including a reference to 90% marginal tax rates, whose proceeds, Moore pointed out, went into schools, hospitals, and interstate highways (although they also went into nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.) But at the end he argued that capitalism needed to be given up and replaced with democracy, a view which I cannot share. Capitalism can be productive economically (although even that is once again in question now), and more important, it seems in the long run to reflect human nature far better than socialism. The best solution is to allow democracy to balance the excesses of capitalism, at which the United States was reasonably successful, I would argue, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The President and much of Congress would now like to restore that balance, but it is not at all clear that they can.

Franklin Roosevelt, to be sure, managed 75 years ago to implement changes far more sweeping than anything Obama is talking about, and in so doing saved democracy, not only in the United States, but ultimately in the rest of the industrialized world. But how did he manage it? Timing is everything, and Roosevelt, unlike Obama, did not reach the White House until our great economic crisis was three years old. Because of that, he initially enjoyed majorities of 318-117 in the House and 61-35 in the Senate--and even some Republicans, in those days, supported many of those reforms. Because the initial burst of New Deal legislation did something to relieve extreme distress, he actually increased those majorities in 1934 to 332-103 in the House and 71-26 in the Senate. (These figures include two left-wing Midwestern third parties, the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota and the Wisconsin Progressives, in FDR's column.) Those majorities allowed him to pass the Wagner Act, assuring union rights, and Social Security. And in 1936, when he carried 46 of 48 states and won 523 out of 531 electoral votes, he increased them yet again, to 347 to 88 in the House and 79-17 in the Senate. Those majorities were torn about, sadly, by his plan to pack the Supreme Court, but they did allow for the passage of the first federal wages and hours legislation before a Republican reaction occurred in the elections of 1938, two years into another new recession. And ironically, those majorities possible because race, for the most part, was not yet an issue in national politics. Because white supremacy still ruled the south, most southern whites unhesitatingly voted for FDR, whose programs literally saved many of their lives (although they also did what they could, in many instances, to prevent New Deal benefits from reaching blacks.) Because white supremacy has now been overturned, while the Democratic Party has been unable to deliver real benefits for southern whites, they now vote monolithically Republican.

This story does not bode well for Barack Obama's attempts to transform America again. Not only did he begin with considerably smaller majorities than Roosevelt, but he entered office when the bottom of the current economic crisis was years away. Now, last week's elections suggest, Democrats will bear much of the voters' anger over the economy next fall, and increases in their majorities do not seem very likely. Much may happen before then. The President may call for, and the Republicans will undoubtedly try to reject, a second stimulus package, on the very Rooseveltian grounds that the first one simply hasn't done enough. But so far his Administration, reflecting his own personality (similar in this respect to Lincoln's), has striven for relatively moderate solutions to our problems. Like Lincoln, he may find himself forced by events to take a new approach.

My mood about the political scene swings a great deal lately, rather like that of fans watching an athletic contest or soldiers in a battle. That, I realize, is altogether natural, since we are in a struggle for the future of the nation, and the outcome is not guaranteed. And to paraphrase Clausewitz, results in politics, as in war, are never final. Should the current crisis end with another Gilded Age, the new Prophet generation--which could start to be born within as little as ten years--will undoubtedly grow up with a keen sense of its injustices and a determination to set things right. I shall not live to see what they can accomplish, but history tells me that we must accept any outcome within our own lifetimes as temporary, certain that the human drama of the struggle over all our futures will continue as long as the human race.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Keiser:

I was wondering, if not people currently governing, who are the voters supposed to hold responsible in the next election
in Novermber, 2010?

Is everything still the previous administration/s doing and fault?

When will a moment arrive that current administration is actually responsible for its own action and the way it governs?

Should the voters be concerned about the deficits at all? Or should the current administration be give carte blanche to do as many stimuli as they think necessary? Notwithstanding the fact that the stimulus I was unabashed fiasco.

What do you think?

RUNNINGDOGLACKEY said...

Your article very interesting indeed. Being a Southerner i find myself cringing too often at the publicized actions of the southern Republican bloc. (There are those of us who are still fire-eating liberals who have not forgot what the 60's taught us, much to our parents' consternation!)
But i also find the idea of recurring generational types interesting for the reason that it resembles circular views of time instead of the typical Judaeo-Christian straight line time contiuum whose fundamental perception of the nature of time as linear has thus been an essential factor in the development of the discipline of History itself. It seems to be a competing theme, rather than an adjunct. Am i incorrect about this?

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Keiser: [actually, Kaiser]

I was wondering, if not people currently governing, who are the voters supposed to hold responsible in the next election
in Novermber, 2010?

Their elected officials, of course.

Is everything still the previous administration/s doing and fault?

The economic crisis is the fault of a lot of bad decisions over the last 30 years or more, of which he Bush Administration made some of the worst, especially it's tax cuts. Without them the deficit today would be much more manageable even if the crisis had still occurred. The current Administration should be judged on whether it has done enough to get us back on track. I think it should do more.

When will a moment arrive that current administration is actually responsible for its own action and the way it governs?

That moment arrived nine months ago.

Should the voters be concerned about the deficits at all? Or should the current administration be give carte blanche to do as many stimuli as they think necessary? Notwithstanding the fact that the stimulus I was unabashed fiasco.

The stimulus was not an unabashed fiasco. Among other things, it saved thousands of jobs in local government. I hope the Congress will vote more stimulus money. In the long run we need to be concerned about the deficits and in my opinion will need much higher taxes on upper incomes to help pay them down. In the short run, as in the Depression or the Second World War, we have to worry more about other things.

What do you think?

See above

David Kaiser said...

From Runningdoglackey:

Your article very interesting indeed. Being a Southerner i find myself cringing too often at the publicized actions of the southern Republican bloc. (There are those of us who are still fire-eating liberals who have not forgot what the 60's taught us, much to our parents' consternation!)
But i also find the idea of recurring generational types interesting for the reason that it resembles circular views of time instead of the typical Judaeo-Christian straight line time contiuum whose fundamental perception of the nature of time as linear has thus been an essential factor in the development of the discipline of History itself. It seems to be a competing theme, rather than an adjunct. Am i incorrect about this?

9:37 AM

I think you are correct about that, yes--although one can also observe a VERY long-term trend over centuries, which seems to be favorable. After all, even Germany and Japan, who went horribly off the track between the 1860s and 1945, have gotten back on it since then. I am delighted to hear from a southerner like yourself who apparently does not resent the comments I have made about your section. I am deeply depressed that there were far more visible southern liberals (including white ones) when I first got interested in politics half a century ago than there seem to be now. Do you think the success of the civil rights movement is the reason?

Tri-fectaa said...

I think you're a moron. Stop pretending to be someone you're not. Thanks.

King of the Snow said...

I do not think you are a moron. I see you have a different set of priorities than I do. I certainly hope your reply to one of the previous comments about the stimulus package saving government jobs was at least marginally "tongue-in-cheek". I do not find your arguments in this article convincing. You have also deftly parried the insightful questions of the first comment. I would have to label you more as a spin doctor, than historian, assuming the two can be separated. That last would be my own tongue, firmly embedded in a cheek.

RUNNINGDOGLACKEY said...

Being too close to the subject, particularly ill read on my homey political history, I'm afraid my answers can only be impressions from memory on one oyour issues, however, to address here:
1) I would like to take a look at your source(s) for this idea of longer term circularity, if you can recommend any reading, and;
2) Southern liberals have always been in the minority, notwithstanding the Revolutionary War - that is an interesting issue - and after the Civil Rights Act passed, as LBJ predicted the South reveresed longstanding Democratic voting trends - a trend already in motion in the 1964 election - and under Nixon the state Republican majorities began the process of gerrymandering districts which seems to have been almost complete by the time Reagan took office. During the Civil War there is the famous exchange of Yankess soldiers questioning why a captured Southerner was fighting when he had no slaves and the Southerner answered, "Because y'all are down here." That about sums it up even for Southern liberals, curiously. I don't know of any other section of the country as ready to fight. For that, one need only read Mark Twain. His comments about Southerners are as true now as when written. Politically, Southern liberals waned with LBJ, but their actual lifespan as a political force only began with FDR and, with his demise, it took only a generation or two for liberals to fade from public predominance. The Republicans put the coup de grace to that for another 50 years.

Bob in NC said...

How about some answers to the basic questions:

1. Why did Wall Street facilitate the deindustrialization of America from 1975-2009? Their commissions couldn't have been that big.
2. Why wasn't Clinton-Greenspan & Fannie/Freddie's push for "home ownership" seen as the quasi-socialist wealth transfer it was? And where was the NY Times, WSJournal etc on this?
3. Why can't Obama admin re-regulate Wall Street and why allow them to hide behind reorganization as "banks"? Can we get Glass-Steagall back?
4. Do you think the "dumbing-down" of US education will enable our kids to continue the standard of living on which they were raised, and can their purchase of Ipods, Rap and other consumer crap sustain economic growth and create jobs?
I look forward to reading your book on JFK Assassination!
Bob in NC

Acai said...

I don't know what to say!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser, - Part I

let me from the offset apologize for misspelling your surname.

Let me also for the purpose of full disclosure, let you know that I have emigrated
to the USA from a communist country/state that doesn't presently exist in the
configuration that I left, but as many more smaller states at the moment.

I reside currently in the state of Massachusetts.

Let me also mention that the said country/state had single payer healthcare system.
It didn't work, but I won't be talking about that at this time.

Let me get back to my original questions posed to you and provide some of my
own answers:

I was wondering, if not people currently governing, who are the voters supposed
to hold responsible in the next election in Novermber, 2010?

I believe that a voter should and must evaluate the current administration based on their
deeds, policies, actions, inactions.

The previous administration hasn't been in power for almost past 11 months and constantly
blaming someone/something else for the current administrations failings/faults (and I
can come up with a few more such descriptiors) doesn't hold the water. Notice that all
perceived successes, if any, belong only to the current administration.

I have never been a fan of the previous administration, but everything being their fault
simply doesn't hold factual water.

Repeal of Glass-Steagall Act on November 12, 1999, was not done by the previous
administration, but by the adminisration of President Clinton. As a historian, I am
quite certain that you can put the consequences of the repeal of Glass=Steagall
Act in much better historical perspective.

Bernie Madoff started his hedge fund in 1996 - not during the previous administration.

And there are many other such examples.

.....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kaiser: Part II


When will a moment arrive that current administration is actually responsible for its own
action and the way it governs?

I believe that the moment arrived after the president, his cabinet and the rest of
the administration were sworn in January, 2009.

Or as H. Truman said, to paraphrase, the buck stops withe the current administration.
Enough with excuses/spin/deflections. The current administration campaigned to get elected
and were elected. They own governing after being sworn in and not anyone else.

Should the voters be concerned about the deficits at all? Or should the current
administration be give carte blanche to do as many stimuli as they think necessary?
Notwithstanding the fact that the stimulus I was unabashed fiasco.

I am concerned with deficit. I don't think printing more money is the solution.

I believe that the stimulus was misdirected and didn't work and achieved the
goals stated by the administration when they were lobbting for its passages.

As for number of jobs saved, I can only offer you some published statistics
that are available to me:

Massachusets reported 12,374 jobs saved or created. Bridgewater State
College reported creating 160 jobs for $77,181 in stimulus money.
It turn out the jobs created were zero.
(reference available -Boston Globe)

For the state of New York, the administration has released the following figure
for the number of jobs the stimulus saved/created: 40,625 jobs -- including 25,526 in
New York City.

"A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg told The Post that the city had "created" 3,000 jobs and that
the rest represented already employed teachers and other city employees who faced possible layoffs
without the federal "shot in the arm."
(reference available at NY POST)

Fudging the purported numbers of jobs saved, will not put those people to
work.

And to conclude, based on those numbers, I believe that no one can lie their
way out of recession. Especially when one can look at current 10%+ unemployment
rate and growing.

Furthermore, the billions used for the stimulus I ,have simply added to the
largest yearly deficit ever seen and will be burden for future budgets
and generation.

As for your suggestion that people of certain income should be taxed hugher,
there could be some merit to it.

But in my experience, no matter how much money a government brings in, it can always spend all of what it had brought in and much more.

Anonymous said...

"The government paid more than $47 billion in questionable Medicare claims including medical treatment showing little relation to a patient's condition, wasting taxpayer dollars at a rate nearly three times the previous year."

And that is when obamacare and the government are NOT the only healthcare game available. Imagine what will happen whan the government and obamacare take over.

http://apnews.excite.com/article/20091114/D9BVE9L00.html

Anonymous said...

At the bottom of this post I did not see the promised "afterword on the hoax". I would be interested to read it... thanks.