Saturday, January 29, 2011

Barack Obama, revealed

While the future of the country remains entirely uncertain, the State of the Union left no doubt whatever as to what Barack Obama wants for America and for his Presidency. It is certainly not what either his more fervent supporters (like myself) or his paranoid detractors expected, and it may well be impossible of achievement; but it fits, in a rather extraordinary way, into Strauss and Howe's theory of generations, and it might hold the key to our future. Barack Obama is indeed nostalgic, but not, as Fox News would have it, for the glorious days of 1960s radicalism that he is supposed to be reliving under the influence of his purported friend Bill Ayers. Instead, he wants to recover the 1950s and perhaps the early 1960s, the last High, a real golden age, in some respects at least, in American life, an era of technological progress and consensus. Two things, however, stand in his way. First, there is as yet no evidence that the Republican party, now ascendant, has any interest in his vision. Second and more importantly, the country still has gigantic problems that cannot be solved without a struggle--a struggle which he is now renouncing.

The tenor of Obama's speech has been noted by almost everyone, and only a few quotes will capture it. "We are part of the American family," he said. "We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.
"That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

"Now, by itself, this simple recognition won’t usher in a new era of cooperation. What comes of this moment is up to us. What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.

"I believe we can. And I believe we must. That’s what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they’ve determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all -– for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics. . . .

"The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, 'The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.' Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

"And now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. (Applause.) We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future."

The President then stressed the need for investment and innovation to compete in a changing world, and then, in what was clearly intended to be the headline phrase of the speech, identified this as the "Sputnik moment" of this generation. Meanwhile, he was extraordinarily upbeat about the nation's economic situation, showing a satisfaction that Herbert Hoover never pretended to. "We are poised for progress," he said. "Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again." And that, indeed, represents the economic achievement of his team and especially of the Federal Reserve: by flooding financial markets with all the nearly-free money they want, they have completely disconnected the financial system from the economy at large. Wall Street's capital used to come from the earnings of productive American workers and corporations. Now it comes from the Federal Reserve at interest rates of about 1%. All will be well, the President suggests, if we can start focusing on innovation and quiet our voices. How he has settled upon this strategy is a fascinating question which, I am convinced, has a great deal to do with the course of his own life.

When Strauss and Howe wrote their books in the 1990s, they did not anticipate that a Generation Xer would be in the White House at this moment. In the previous crises in our national life the country had been led by relatively younger members of the current Prophet generations, the Transcendental Abraham Lincoln (born 1809) and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt (b. 1882.) These men, like today's Baby Boomers, learned in their childhood of the great and violent achievements of their immediate forbears (the Revolution and the Constitution in Lincoln's case, the Civil War in FDR's), yet grew up in times of peace and relative prosperity. When they entered the White House in times of great crisis, both specifically compared the situations they faced to the nation's earlier trials, and promised to emerge from them victorious with our freedoms both reconfirmed and expanded. Now in fact, Baby Boomers did occupy the White House from 1993 to 2009. Bill Clinton, who had quite an untypical childhood for a Boomer, had no hopes of transforming America: he was if anything less of a reformer than Obama. George W. Bush, on the other hand, wanted to emulate the great deeds of the Roosevelt Administration and transform large parts of the world. Being a Baby Boomer, as I often noted during his presidency, he thought he could do so cheaply and painlessly, and he was not capable, apparently, of the sustained concentration that would have allowed him to set realistic goals. In addition, while Lincoln and FDR had realized that the government and its revenue had to be enlarged and strengthened to deal with a crisis, Bush was ideologically committed to cutting it. And thus, for the first time, the United States in 2007 entered a tremendous economic crisis with an existing huge permanent deficit. That has made a truly effective response to the crisis--one that would actually put large numbers of people back to work--impossible. We now face the worst long-term unemployment problem that we have seen since the Great Depression and although it is less serous than it was then, we have, this time, no strategy to deal with it at all.

Now Barack Obama, born in August 1961, was too young to have remembered the confident, consensus era of the 1950s. In one of the most revealing passages in Dreams From my Father, he mentions that stories of his father were inextricably mixed up in his mind with the Kennedy period, that last era of hope, innocence and consensus which shattered--like Obama's own life--just Obama was becoming conscious. Many Gen Xers had extremely difficult childhood's, and Obama's was as tumultuous and disorienting as anyone's. His father's death was followed by his mother's marriage to an Indonesian, the birth of a new sibling, and a sojourn in that country. Then it was back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, who provided a taste of the stability they had known as young adults. Suddenly, in High School, he found himself catapulted into the local elite--Punahu School is to Hawaii what Andover is to Massachusetts--and thence to the embraces of the mainland elite, first on the west coast (Occidental College) and then on the East (Columbia and Harvard Law School.) Somehow, aside from a few typical youthful pranks in high school, he kept his equanimity through all this and remained a dedicated student and a young man who could get along with almost anyone. That could not have been easy, but it is the lot of many among his generation. After law school he worked as a community organizer in a Chicago neighborhood devastated by plant closings. He described this experience in Dreams from My Father, but without ever suggesting that radical economic reform was needed to rebuild the citizens' of the communities lives. That, indeed, is one of the astonishing omissions from that book.

And this leads me to the other astonishing omission from the State of the Union (and even more from the preview that was circulated to campaign contributors like myself): the complete failure to speak directly to the unemployed, the Americans who have lost their homes through foreclosure, or the poor. "That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets. I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -– proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game." That was his only reference to the millions whose lives have been shattered during the last few years and to whom today's economic statistics give little or no reason for hope--and even that reference spoke about them, not to them. One has to wonder whether he expects them, like himself as a child, to suck it up and deal with it. Franklin Roosevelt realized his contemporaries' lives had been shattered by forces behind their control--including, as he never tired of repeating, the greed of the wealthy--and that they needed active, sustained help. In today's New York Times Charles Blow points out that Obama's failure to refer specifically to the poor is almost unprecedented in a Democratic state of the union message.

Another interesting detail about Obama appears in this week's Time. Not too long ago he evidently hosted a second meeting of Presidential historians. (I do not have enough presidential credentials, apparently, to make the list.) The first such meeting, in the spring of 2009, I have been informed, spent a good deal of time on warnings to the President that war could destroy his hopes for progressive reforms. This time, the President wanted to hear, more than anything else, about Ronald Reagan. Now Ronald Reagan occupies a very special place in the hears of Generation X, whose oldest members were turning 20 when he came into office. He was the first President they had heard speak with confidence and optimism about the future--even though he presided initially, like Obama, over a terrible recession, and did not leave America's working class better off when he left office than when he came in. Obama now seems to be treating our profound economic troubles like a move to Indonesia: they are painful, but we must endure them and put our noses to the grindstone. Meanwhile, he would like, like Reagan, to cheer us up and get us focused on a more hopeful future--forgetting, apparently, that Reagan's actual policies started us down the road that led to our current economic hell.

Obama, like Clinton--whose former associates he is turning to more frequently than ever now--is above all a politician, and that is nothing to complain about. His pollsters and the election results have evidently convinced him that traditional Democratic responses to the crisis are indeed complete non-starters in today's political world, and he thus has no choice but to argue that the reforms he already managed to pass were more than enough to do the job. But it is not at all clear to me that his new consensus strategy can work. Yes, it delighted David Brooks, as I knew it would, and it probably would have brought cheers from Tom Friedman as well, but he seems to be on one of his periodic book leaves. But the Republican Party is now in a more revolutionary mood than ever. The new House majority wants to block the President at every turn. Representative Darrell Issa, whose most interesting background was laid out in great detail a couple of weeks ago by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker, plans to harass the Administration with ceaseless investigations. More importantly, the House majority is quite likely to create a worldwide financial crisis by refusing to raise the debt ceiling in just a couple of months, and the Republicans have plans to destroy much of the existing federal government. Simultaneously, Republican legislators and governors are planning the kinds of draconian cuts in their work force that did so much harm in various countries in the early stages of the Great Depression. Within the next six months we could face a new political and economic crisis in this country--not to mention the rather striking developments taking place in other parts of the world, which I must save for another time. In one respect and one only Obama has brought his vision of a return to the late 1950s and early 1960s to life: the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, removing a critical barrier to legal equality similar to the racial barriers that fell back then. The freedom to participate equally in today's economy, however, remains a very mixed blessing.

The political basis for Obama's strategy, in short, seems to be lacking--but that really is the less important problem he faces. We cannot move to an era of true consensus without a real and determined effort to solve our economic problems, and we are no longer even making any. The real question now is whether things are going to get worse. Did the George W. Bush Administration--like those of Lincoln and Andrew Johnson--actually create a new America which, despite huge financial and economic problems, can become the basis for a new consensus under Barack Obama? Can we limp along for a decade with unemployment between 8 and 10 per cent? Can political rhetoric moderate, as Grant wanted so badly, and can the parties start to cooperate? Or are we likely to face a new economic downturn and financial crisis, with consequences that we can only guess?

I cannot decide, actually, which alternative I prefer. Last Wednesday I met my Generations in Film class, composed almost entirely of middle-of-the-road generation Xers in the military, for the last time. Several had written papers addressing this very point, and all their papers expected--and in one case, actually welcomed--another crisis which would finally force the country to face reality, pull together, and do something about our problems. Yet as I see it, the destructive voices on the right are so much stronger today than progressive ones that I fear what a new crisis would do both economically and politically. In the long sweep of history, it would be a great setback to stabilize things where they are. But the history of other nations shows that other, much worse outcomes, are possible as well.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How violent is the US?

The shooting of Congressman Giffords and all those others so unfortunate as to be at her event has raised once again the issue of gun violence in the United States, a hardy perennial if ever there was one. It has also raised the question of whether violent rhetoric leads to violence. I have thought a great deal about that question, and I think that the answer, with respect to this case, is yes. It's quite true that Jared Loughner is evidently very emotionally ill, and may well be a paranoid schizophrenic. He was very likely to commit a violent act somewhere, sometime, and America's lax gun laws allowed him to use a semi-automatic weapon to do so. But I simply can't believe that his choice of target had nothing to do with the anti-government rhetoric that was all around him and which had evidently affected him through his own bizarre filter.

The broader issue raised by the shooting, of course, is the general availability of weapons in in the United States. There is not the slightest chance that anything will be done about that now or, quite possibly, for many years to come. The pro-gun movement started out around the same time as the gun control movement, in the 1960s, and it has won one victory after another at the national level with the sole exception of the assault weapon ban, passed in 1994 with the support of law enforcement agencies but allowed to lapse by a Republican Congress and Administration ten years later. Now the NRA has won its greatest victory in the Supreme Court, which I analyzed in detail at the time, and now, bizarrely, it is opushing to allow citizens to carry weapons virtually anywhere, including colleges and bars. As a kid in the 1950s I read about Wyatt Earp and other marshals who civilized western cow towns by requiring cowboys to check their guns when they came into town. That, it seems, is too much civilization for twentieth century America. There has in fact been a big and frightening shift in pro-gun rhetoric during the last 30 years. When Ronald Reagan was shot I remember reading an NRA-sponsored piece on the need to keep handgun possession legal. It focused entirely on hunting situations that required a hand gun. Now hunting has faded into the background as a justification for gun rights (not that there was any the slightest intention on anyone's part to ban hunting in the first place), and self-defense is in fact the preferred jsutification.

A discussion of this subject on my favorite on-line forum led me this morning to do some research. Another poster had suggested, in effect, that one part of our population--black Americans--were responsible for our high homicide rates, relative to other advanced countries. I had heard that before from a colleague who as rather edgy racial views, and I was finally moved to check it out. It turns out that it isn't true.

The data on murder rates I found had one problem: it did not give separate murder rates for Hispanics--it divided Hispanics into black and white Hispanics and put their murders in the black and white categories, respectively. (The vast majority of Hispanics were counted as white.) Data without this glitch would be more revealing and might change the results somewhat but not, I think dramatically.

Here were the 2008 murder rates by race in the United States: 2.9 per 100,000 for whites, 15.2 per 100,000 for blacks. The overall US rate was 5.4. I found data for various regions and countries of the world here.

The white American rate compares to 1.5 for west and central Europe, and .44 [sic] for Japan. And of course, that's a misleading comparison with Europe, because Europe also has minority populations which may well have higher homicide rates. The New Zealand rate is 2, the Australian rate is about 1 (it is broken down because the rate for Australia's "northern territories" is much higher, about the same as athe overall US rate.)

White Americans are in fact about twice as likely to commit murder as western and central Europeans, about three times as likely to commit murder as Australians, and more than six times as likely to commit murder as Japanese. (It is rather fascinating, by the way, that Germany and Japan have two of the lowest murder rates in the world.) The breakdown by region and country includes other extremely interesting findings. Southern Africa and parts of South America are the most violent places on earth; Eastern Europe is more violent than the US as a whole.

But these stats also become misleading if you look at [URL="http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/law_enforcement_courts_prisons/crimes_and_crime_rates.html"] a breakdown of US murder rates by state (table 304.)[/URL] In this as in so many other respects, we are several different nations. Your chances of being murdered are twice as high in the deep south as they are in my own New England, although my chances are higher than residents of Western and Central Europe, much less Japan. And this raises a critical question which I don't have time to address: is the black rate high because of race, or because blacks have southern roots? In 1968 all this was a hot political issue, and George Wallace was running on an anti-crime platform. Researchers discovered that Alabama had the highest murder rate in the nation and Wallace naturally blamed it on the black population. But in fact, it had the highest rate among both blacks and whites. (I learned this from a race relations professor, himself a Virginian, who stressed the traditional role of autonomous violence in southern life.)

There are a lot of interesting things to notice in the country stats. Russia has the same per capita number of murders as Mexico, for instance--two states that by rights should be well into Fourth Turnings, or even finished with them. This is a worrisome sign. Both these nations established strong states early in the 20th century, Communist in Russia and Social Democratic in Mexico (during the 1920s and early 1930s.) Both of these old orders came to an end more or less on schedule in the 1990s, marked successively by the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union and the fall from power of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. And both nations now have sunk into widespread lawlessness and have spawned powerful organized crime. Let us hope that Western Europe, Japan and the United States survive their own crises with government authority intact. The signs here in the US are not particularly hopeful.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Back to the Future

I am sure many readers are looking for my reaction to the shootings in Tucson. That will appear later this weekend. Today I am taking a step back, trying once again to place the events of the day in historical context.

For some time I have been arguing that the great national crisis through which we are passing looks more and more in its effects like the Civil War crisis than that of the New Deal and the Second World War. To be sure we have not suffered anything remotely comparable to the civil war, which even now killed more young Americans in absolute terms than any other conflict, and incomparably more as a percentage of our population. Despite Tuscon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and every other continuing horror in the world, we live in one of history's less violent eras so far. But paradoxically, as observers at the time such as Henry Adams noted, the Civil War did not in the long run strengthen the authority of the federal government: it weakened it. While the Republicans were fighting that conflict, they were also passing high tariffs, national banking legislation, and very generous railroad legislation that gave literally unprecedented power to corporations and made them the masters of our political order. In the last 20 years we have done something similar without the distraction of a great war. Financial markets were not yet regulated and the government had an enormous debt, leading to successive orgies of speculation that created panics in 1872 and 1894, and enormous hardship for the entire period in between. The Democratic and Republican parties fought over Reconstruction until 1876, but after that they became almost indistinguishable. From 1876 through 1892--five Presidential elections--they were more closely balanced than any two parties have been in our entire history. The outcome of every one of those elections could have been changed by the result in a single state. Reformers, meanwhile, were derided as effete, intellectual troublemakers out of touch with mainstream America. All this, needless to say, has a familiar ring.

Where are we in this process? On the assumption--in which I am increasingly inclined to believe--that our national crisis actually began in 2001, we would be in 1871; but I think our crisis was a somewhat more drawn-out affair. It seems to me more likely that we are in the neighborhood of 1867, after a Congressional Republican sweep. The President, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat out of step with the times, just as Barack Obama, sadly, seems to be. (Johnson, however--a Prophet--did not have Obama's conciliatory temperament.) The Congress was now overwhelmingly Republican, and was determined to curb the President's power to an unprecedented extent, taking away even his power to remove the cabinet officers he had inherited from Lincoln. That in turn was going to lead to Johnson's impeachment--something which could easily happen to Obama sometime during the next two years as well. The country was deadlocked on the major social problem of the time, Reconstruction and the fate of the newly freed slaves--one that it was destined not to solve.

Ulysses S. Grant took office as President in 1869. He was 47 years old at the time, exactly the same age as Barack Obama when he took office, and like Obama, he was the first of a Nomad generation--in his case, the Gilded--to take office. I thought it might be interesting to read his first inaugural address, to get some sense of what was on his mind, and the country's, at that time. I remembered the "Let us have peace" had been the slogan of Grant's campaign--a slogan rather reminiscent of Barack Obama's continual attempts to tone down political rhetoric. I did not find that phrase in the inaugural, but I did find much that was equally interesting. The inaugural was short--Grant was a man of few words, except in his magnificent memoirs, in which he emerged as one of the most brilliant military thinkers of all time--but to the point. Here is the entire text.


Citizens of the United States:

YOUR suffrages having elected me to the office of President of the United States, I have, in conformity to the Constitution of our country, taken the oath of office prescribed therein. I have taken this oath without mental reservation and with the determination to do to the best of my ability all that is required of me. The responsibilities of the position I feel, but accept them without fear. The office has come to me unsought; I commence its duties untrammeled. I bring to it a conscious desire and determination to fill it to the best of my ability to the satisfaction of the people.
On all leading questions agitating the public mind I will always express my views to Congress and urge them according to my judgment, and when I think it advisable will exercise the constitutional privilege of interposing a veto to defeat measures which I oppose; but all laws will be faithfully executed, whether they meet my approval or not.
I shall on all subjects have a policy to recommend, but none to enforce against the will of the people. Laws are to govern all alike—those opposed as well as those who favor them. I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.
The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained.
This requires security of person, property, and free religious and political opinion in every part of our common country, without regard to local prejudice. All laws to secure these ends will receive my best efforts for their enforcement.
A great debt has been contracted in securing to us and our posterity the Union. The payment of this, principal and interest, as well as the return to a specie basis as soon as it can be accomplished without material detriment to the debtor class or to the country at large, must be provided for. To protect the national honor, every dollar of Government indebtedness should be paid in gold, unless otherwise expressly stipulated in the contract. Let it be understood that no repudiator of one farthing of our public debt will be trusted in public place, and it will go far toward strengthening a credit which ought to be the best in the world, and will ultimately enable us to replace the debt with bonds bearing less interest than we now pay. To this should be added a faithful collection of the revenue, a strict accountability to the Treasury for every dollar collected, and the greatest practicable retrenchment in expenditure in every department of Government.
When we compare the paying capacity of the country now, with the ten States in poverty from the effects of war, but soon to emerge, I trust, into greater prosperity than ever before, with its paying capacity twenty-five years ago, and calculate what it probably will be twenty-five years hence, who can doubt the feasibility of paying every dollar then with more ease than we now pay for useless luxuries? Why, it looks as though Providence had bestowed upon us a strong box in the precious metals locked up in the sterile mountains of the far West, and which we are now forging the key to unlock, to meet the very contingency that is now upon us.
Ultimately it may be necessary to insure the facilities to reach these riches and it may be necessary also that the General Government should give its aid to secure this access; but that should only be when a dollar of obligation to pay secures precisely the same sort of dollar to use now, and not before. Whilst the question of specie payments is in abeyance the prudent business man is careful about contracting debts payable in the distant future. The nation should follow the same rule. A prostrate commerce is to be rebuilt and all industries encouraged.
The young men of the country—those who from their age must be its rulers twenty-five years hence—have a peculiar interest in maintaining the national honor. A moment's reflection as to what will be our commanding influence among the nations of the earth in their day, if they are only true to themselves, should inspire them with national pride. All divisions—geographical, political, and religious—can join in this common sentiment. How the public debt is to be paid or specie payments resumed is not so important as that a plan should be adopted and acquiesced in. A united determination to do is worth more than divided counsels upon the method of doing. Legislation upon this subject may not be necessary now, or even advisable, but it will be when the civil law is more fully restored in all parts of the country and trade resumes its wonted channels.
It will be my endeavor to execute all laws in good faith, to collect all revenues assessed, and to have them properly accounted for and economically disbursed. I will to the best of my ability appoint to office those only who will carry out this design.
In regard to foreign policy, I would deal with nations as equitable law requires individuals to deal with each other, and I would protect the law-abiding citizen, whether of native or foreign birth, wherever his rights are jeopardized or the flag of our country floats. I would respect the rights of all nations, demanding equal respect for our own. If others depart from this rule in their dealings with us, we may be compelled to follow their precedent.
The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians one deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.
The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any State. It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now, and I entertain the hope and express the desire that it may be by the ratification of the fifteenth article of amendment to the Constitution.
In conclusion I ask patient forbearance one toward another throughout the land, and a determined effort on the part of every citizen to do his share toward cementing a happy union; and I ask the prayers of the nation to Almighty God in behalf of this consummation.


The United States, then as now, had reached the end of an era of great experiments and great responsibilities. It also--then as now--had enormous problems to solve, specifically the problem of the freed slaves, of corporate power over government, and of workers' rights. But Grant showed little or no interest in those problems, and in that respect evidently spoke for both his party and for most of the country. Instead he singled out one familiar issue: the payment of the public debt. That and that alone would be the focus of his scandal-ridden Administration. In the same way the deficit is beginning to push every other issue off the national stage, even the issue of 9-10% unemployment for as far as the eye can see--something our parents would never have tolerated.

I would suggest that the inaugural speech of 2013 will have a good deal in common with Grant's, whether delivered by Barack Obama or a Republican as yet unknown. We owe today's debt largely to two Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but it has become a symbol, perhaps, both of the New Deal and Great Society (who actually were quite fiscally responsible) and of Boomer excess in general. Younger generations who have never known the abundant resources of the 1950s and 1960s, and who are increasingly struggling themselves, want to rein the government in. They do not understand that that strong government was the foundation of our prosperity--partly because no on has taught them so.

This seems to be where we are going, and for those of us who saw the New Deal and the reforms of our childhood as a beginning rather than an end, it is a sad commentary. Henry Adams himself concluded late in the nineteenth century that the American democratic experiment had turned out "a poor thing," and certainly it is not very inspiring now. But Adams' conclusion was premature. He had a stroke late in the Theodore Roosevelt Administration and took relatively little notice of the Progressive Era, and he could not see the New Deal on the horizon. Our slide towards anarchy and unrestrained greed will only go so far. No generation, it seems, lives through more than one great era of history--and sadly, for my own generation, the high point, politically, came in our youth.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A close-up look at the new Gilded Age

My wife and I just finished watching an amazing documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which is available on Netflix on demand. It is the story of the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff and it is the most astonishing and appalling portrait of Washington today that I have ever seen, which is saying quite a bit. Washington is now like early modern Paris. In Old Regime France the government sold the right to collect taxes. Now the government hands out the right to conduct money-making businesses such as Indian casinos and sweatshops in the Marianas. (Really). But to get your hands on such a cash cow, you need money, lots of it. That is where people like Abramoff come in--they channel the money to the politicians who can make things happen, such as Tom Delay and Bob Ney back in the days when the Republicans ruled Washington, as they now threaten to do again..

Abramoff overdid it, of course--along with that sweetheart Ralph Reed of the Christian coalition, he was taking money from rival casinos, one trying to shut down the other--money from casino A to shut down B, and then money from B to re-open. It apparently takes a certain amount of money to get introduced to certain powerful Congressmen. Bob Ney, who along with Abramoff wound up behind bars because of the scandal, evidently took contributions to insert items in the Congressional Record relating to various casino owners whom Abramoff wanted either to favor or to discredit, depending on who was paying him when. As my brother Robert (who makes cameo appearances in the documentary) notes, Congressmen have such an endless, hopeless need for money nowadays that they simply cannot say no to such requests. The Citizens United decision, of course, is only going to make things worse.

Two episodes in the documentary were particularly disturbing. One involved a Greek shipping and casino tycoon, Gus Boulis, who owned Sun Cruz, a line of casino boats operating off the Florida coast, which Abramoff wanted to buy, and eventually managed to pressure Boulis into selling in 2000 for much less money than Boulis wanted to pay. Abramoff financed the deal with a bank loan, and when the bank insisted that he put up some of his own money he produced a fraudulent wire transfer to make it appear that he had--the crime that landed him in jail. But then, shortly after the sale, Boulis--who was still fighting it--was murdered in a gangland hit. Three mob figures were charged with the murder in 2005. Chillingly, one of them, Anthony Moscatiello, was an associate of Abramoff and Adam Kidan, the Abramoff associate who has also done time for the fraudulent wire transfer. Moscatiello became a consultant to Sun Cruz after the Abramoff purchase and received, according to reports, a $200,000 payment. Some reports have also stated that Governor Jeb Bush used state regulatory influence to try to force Boulis to make the sale because he was not an American citizen. It also turns out that Moscatiello was an FBI informant at the time of the Gangland hit, a fact the Bureau initially concealed from Broward county prosecutors. For reasons for which I have found no explanation, the murder case still has not come to trial.

Another story was, for me, even more shocking. In the late 1990s the Prime Minsiter of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, got himself and his nation into serious international trouble with some wildly anti-Semitic statements about Jewish control of the world. Seeking to burnish his image, he hired Abramoff for $1.2 million to try to burnish his image (he later claimed, interestingly, that he did not know where the money actually came from.) Abramoff, who grew up in a non-observant Jewish family but became Orthodox as a young man, delivered by arranging a well-photographed meeting between Mohamad and President George W. Bush. Perhaps because I have spent my life studying professional diplomats, and because my own father was one, I am more disgusted by this story than anything else in the movie. My father never had to pay for the right to discuss matters of mutual interest with his host government, nor did he have to steer Presidents Senghor of Senegal or Ould Daddah of Mauretania to the right Washington lobbyist before he took them in for long conversations with President John F. Kennedy. The idea of a foreign government feeding the Republican or Democratic money machine for a photo op with the President of the United States simply curdles my stomach.

There are some other great mysteries opened up by the movie. Grover Norquist, I remember, was pretty heavily implicated in the scandal when it broke--I think it turned out he was getting money from Jack (an old college Republican buddy) and handing it to Newt Gingrich back in the 1990s--he called it "Newt maintenance." Oh, yes! Here's the document, from 1998. (What would we do without Google?) An email from Ralph Reed to Abramoff.

"From: ralphreed@
Sent: Thursday, November 12, 1998 12:19 AM
To: Abramoff, jack (DC)
Subject: RE: Hi Rlaph

Hey, now that I'm done with electoral politics, I need to start humping in corporate accounts. I counting on you to help me with some contacts. Have you talked to Grover since the Newt development. [N.B.: Gingrich's ethics problems that led to his resignation as speaker.] I'm afraid he took a hit on the consulting side with that since so much of it was Newt maintenance but I hope I'm wrong. I'm getting ready to do some work with mutual friends that we probably ought to discuss. Let's chat.

But this didn't go anywhere. Karl Rove, in addition, was up to his ass in the whole thing. He apparently helped arrange the Bush-Mohamad meeting, and a woman who worked for Abramoff went to work for Rove in the White House. Informed observers thought Rove was about to be indicted for something when he quit the White House--why else would he have quit?--but of course nothing ever happened. John McCain, as the documentary shows, made political hay out of the scandal on the Indian Affairs Committee, but didn't release a lot of data on how many contributions had gone to Republicans.

Much as I would like to believe that these abuses have solely or even predominantly involved Republican politicians, I know that that cannot possibly be true. The film mentions Harry Reid as another recipient of Indian casino contributions. (Indeed, I can't help but wonder if Reid's Las Vegas relationships, tying him to cash cows there, were critical in making him majority leader in the first place.) But more importantly, bipartisan corruption is the only possible explanation of how the Republicans, with rare exceptions, have managed to get away with all this. I was appalled when the Obama Administration decided not to take any action against the torture conspiracy in the Bush Administration, but their failure to do anything more about any of this is equally disturbing.

So here we are. 140 years ago the money that bought Congress was from railroads, iron and steel. Now it's from casinos and sweatshops, health insurance companies, and Wall Street. Thanks to the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court it's now as unregulated as it was then. Honestly, I didn't think of myself as an innocent political virgin but I didn't grasp until seeing this movie just how bad it was. For the time being, it seems, we're sunk.
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Sunday, January 02, 2011

A changing civilization?

As a new year begins, I see signs all around us that we have lived through one of the most profound changes in modern history. The last three centuries have been a profoundly transitional period, moving one part of the world after another into a new age of literacy, science, and political struggle. I am beginning to think that that age is coming to an end. One could examine these questions from many different angles, but I shall do so from the standpoint of the related fields of politics and history.

The eighteenth century--to which I was seriously introduced in my very first semester of college--gave birth to the great age of rationalism in western thought. Its great thinkers included David Hume, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was not at all the utopian many believe him to have been), and our own Founding Fathers. They did not, like various nineteenth and twentieth century successors, dream of utopias, but they believed that reason and science could improve human life. They also conceived of the idea of equal political rights, which the revolutions and wars of the eighteenth century crisis and its aftermath spread through most of Europe and the Americas. Thanks to European science, European civilization now had a critical technological lead over the rest of the world, and that helped spread European rule, and aspects of European civilization, around the globe. But within western civilization, domestic institutions remained the most consuming focus of interest. The North American democratic experiment in the United States faced and in one way or another overcame a long series of challenges, including slavery and, later, the consequences of industrialization. In Europe, the entire first two-thirds of the nineteenth century revolved around the intermittent struggle for democracy from the Elbe River west. By 1880 or so every major European nation enjoyed some kind of representative government, and socialism had become the issue of the future. Even all of Eastern Europe, where emperors still ruled, had some kind of constitution by 1905. Japan had adopted much of the western model in 1867 and some Chinese hoped to do the same. Educated youth were imbibing the essential texts and principles of western civilization in India, in Dakar, and in Indochina.

The First World War interrupted this pattern of relatively smooth progress forward with a vengeance. Originating in southeastern Europe, where Serbia, among other new nations, sought the overthrow of Austria-Hungary, it spread around the world when the German government decided to use this occasion for a bid for European dominance and world power. The war destroyed the Russian Empire and brought a new and terrible utopianism, Soviet Communism, into power. It also crippled representative institutions in Germany and brought Nazism into power. Democracy had already disappeared in Italy in 1922 and also vanished from Eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula during the interwar period. Japan retained democratic forms but became in effect a military dictatorship. It seemed moribund in France and relatively ineffective even in Britain. Only in the Americas did democracy seem to be governing effectively by the mid-1930s, and even there it could not overcome the economic crisis.

Yet--and this seems to me now the key point--the struggle among different forms of government defined the first half of the twentieth century, just as it became the organizing principle of the Second World War. The issue in 1940-1, the period I am now researching, was whether Fascist totalitarianism or democracy would become the leading ideology of the world, and a German victory in Europe was expected to have profound consequences even in the Americas. In the end democracy as represented by the US and Soviet Communism were the victors in the war, and those two nations promptly embarked upon a new ideological struggle. And thus, the world in which I grew up was focused upon issues of political change and competing political systems. I never took Government 1A at Harvard but hundreds of my classmates did, and it intensely examined the differences among the the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The whole Third World was now a battleground between two competing ideologies. And within the United States the issues of the first half the twentieth century still dominated public life: issues of economic organization and economic, civil rights for minorities, and poverty. The ruling generation thought they were all on the verge of a solution. They were wrong.

Two key developments, it seems to me, mark the last 45 years. The first is an erosion both of the role of government, especially in the United States and in Russia, the antagonists in the Cold War, and its increasing weakness relative to economic institutions in particular. In Russia the collapse of the Soviet Union has led within twenty years to the emergence of extraordinarily powerful oligarchs, backed by a highly authoritarian state that uses isolated acts of state terror to intimidate its opposition. In the United States, both parties are largely in thrall to corporate interests, whose lobbyists not only finance political campaigns but actually write the legislation that passes in response to public outrage. More importantly, we are entering a new phase of a nearly 40-year struggle to defund and cripple government at virtually every level. It is no coincidence, as I have suggested several times here, that the so-called "base" of the Republican Party and its propaganda arm have adopted Theodore Roosevelt as their new arch-villain, because they aim to undo the entire political work of the twentieth century. And on the world scene, western civilization is being directly challenged by traditional religious belief in ways that would have seemed unthinkable 50 or 100 years ago.

The second development, an intellectual one, is even more interesting: a loss of interest in history as it was understood from the eighteenth century until the last third of the twentieth. This began in the academy, in the midst of the Vietnam War, which taught a whole generation of young academics--my own--to regard authority as inevitably oppressive and corrupt, and to look for virtue and inspiration among the oppressed. Initially in the 1970s the oppressed were defined in economic terms, but in the next two decades race and gender became far more important categories. And interestingly enough, the academic focus on race, gender and sexuality as, it would seem, had important political consequences. Black and female Americans have gained enormously in power, and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, signals at long last the end of formal legal discrimination against gays in America. These are important achievements--but they have come at a gigantic price. The interest in those issues has led to a nearly total eclipse--really--of interest in the kind of great political struggles that I learned about, and wrote about, in college and graduate school. Virtually no one makes a career in history or political science any more by doing detailed research into politics and government. The courses they teach reflect this bias as well, and their students graduate with little or no knowledge of how the world they live in came to be, and by implication, how it might be changed. And that in turn has affected the reading public. Once again this morning I found just one work on history, as opposed to current events, on the hardcover New York Times best seller list: the third volume of Edmund Morris's biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which is rather low on the list and not likely to remain there very long. There are no such works on the paperback list. A parallel change has occurred in our print media. Not only are they far less influential, but they contain much less hard news about national, and especially international, politics. The internet can be and extraordinary resource for the collection of data, but it functions mainly as an outlet for the expression of personal opinion in practice.

And all this in turn is affecting our response to the current crisis in American economic life, which which history has become irrelevant. I have pointed out here repeatedly that both Lincoln and FDR understood that they were presiding, respectively, over the second and third great turning points in American political life, and specifically compared and related the issues they faced to those of the revolutionary period and, in Roosevelt's case, to the Civil War. But neither Barack Obama nor George Bush has done anything like that. George Bush, it is true, presented his foreign policy as the next step in the advance of democracy--but the results have inevitably been disappointing at best, largely because democracy has lost so much of its vitality even here in the United States. Barack Obama confines his rhetoric almost exclusively to the present or the very recent past. He did not take the opportunity to suggest that the economic crisis of 2008-9 grew out of the repeal of various New Deal regulations and reforms, because he and his team did not want to put the key ones back in place. He seems to think that he need only improve the operation of the current system.

Americans today, and particularly young Americans, are constantly distracted by their nonstop contact with their friends and by electronic media. University education was designed to give young people time to think, but it is no longer very successful at doing so now. Literacy and history enabled mankind to see itself in a broader context and to relate contemporary political struggles to the past. They were key elements, for this reason, in creating the 80-year cycle that Strauss and Howe developed. But both are now undergoing a severe decline, and this has already had, and will have, consequences.

Partly because so few of us have a real sense of the distant past, I no longer believe that any great and beneficial transformations of American life--particularly economic life--can be expected in the next decade or two. It is too early to declare that our great crisis is over, and indeed, international events may yet give it a whole new dimension. But there seems to be no real political constituency sufficiently dedicated to any kind of rebirth of the New Deal--not only money, but also organization and enthusiasm, are on the other side. As for history, I know myself that there are plenty of Americans who can still be moved by detailed historical narrative, and I am proud to have reached a few tens of thousands of them myself, in defiance of all the prevailing trends inside my profession. For the time being, however, its great era is over as well. I feel very lucky to have lived through enough of it to develop both the passion and the skills necessary to do what I could to keep it alive, and I plan to go on doing so for a long time.