I started this blog to put current events in a broader historical context. Back then, nearly 8 years ago, the broader context was the war in Iraq and the Bush Administration's attempts to transform our world role and increase the power of the executive branch; now, the context relates mainly to our limping economy and our painfully inadequate attempts to do something about it. But looming over both of those is something bigger--our movement away from the Enlightenment project of using reason to design better public policy and improve human life. It is becoming clearer, by the way, how little the Bush Administration thought about what it was doing in Iraq. Teaching the two Iraq wars last week, we reviewed the basic policy document the Bush I Administration wrote in 1990 before embarking on the Gulf War, a two-page memorandum that laid out quite clearly what they were trying to achieve and how they planned to achieve it. It is becoming increasingly clear that there was no such document in 2003--if there had been, I would have met some one by now who had seen it. That, however, is for another time.
Rather than use reason to try to figure out what to do, we have continued to follow the 1960s motto which George W. Bush, as I pointed out in one of my very first posts, criticized, yet followed: "If it feels good, do it." Several news stories this week illustrate where we are, in various ways. One op-ed column this morning, however, gives me a ray of hope.
The JPMorgan Chase scandal, to begin with, shows that little, if anything, has been done to rein in the freewheeling financial practices that landed us in this mess five years ago. The Dodd-Frank law has not fully been implemented, but I have read more than once this week that it's not at all clear that it would have stopped the loss of at least $4 billion in JPMorgan's London office. Jamie Dimon, who had enjoyed a relatively strong reputation, has emerged as the latest example of Keynes's definition of a sound banker: not a banker who is never ruined, but one who is ruined along with all the others. When Dimon testified before a Senate hearing, the Republican Senators argued that the problem was too much regulation--a portent of things to come, should Mitt Romney win re-election. In parallel, we have the ongoing story of how President Obama is going to treat Mitt Romney's past as the head of Bain Capital. On the one hand, the President can hardly hope to appeal to his core constituency if he does not point out, as Newt Gingrich did, that Romney zealously and successfully pursued profits without much caring who got hurt. On the other hand, as the Times reported last week, the President can't come on too strong without alienating the private equity firms, hedge fund managers and brokerage houses upon which he depends for campaign contributions as well. Another story suggests that both parties in Congress would like to deal with the issue of the Bush tax cuts before the election, which could even force the President to give up on raising taxes on the highest earning Americans. (As I noted a few weeks ago, he has no plans to raise them as much as Herbert Hoover did.) The likely outcome of all this is that they will indeed become permanent or at least be extended for two more years, confirming George W. Bush as the President in recent memory who did most to transform America.
On the other side of the political fence we have the Elizabeth Warren scandal, revolving around her, and Harvard Law School's, decision to list her as a minority hire on the apparently dubious grounds that she had a great-great-great grandparent who was Cherokee. Harvard Law did so rather proudly, it seems, because of the pressure it was under to hire non-white women in the 1990s, pressure which came in part from a black male faculty member, Derrick Bell, who was warmly introduced during the controversy by Harvard Law Professor Barack Obama. What depresses me about this is that Warren, in addition to being an obviously courageous woman willing to take on powerful institutions, represents a genuine rags-to-riches story of the kind that has become increasingly unusual in our society. But she works in big-time academia, whose corrupt values have corrupted the most basic value of academia of all, respect for truth. Her campaign is now arguing that the whole flap is designed to question her qualifications. Perhaps it is, in part, but she and Harvard have to take some responsibility for that, since they began claiming that her purported ancestry was part of her qualifications, an absurd position which could cost her a very close Senate race.
Greed and identity politics are two sides of the attack on the Enlightenment we have been suffering. I do not think we will make real progress on our economic problems until people begin stating the obvious: that it hurts society to allow anyone to acquire the kind of multi-billion dollar fortunes which now represent success on Wall Street, and that confiscatory tax rates should stop this, as they did in the middle of the century. I also think that racial, gender, and sexual preference issues will remain a distraction until we re-establish the goal of treating one another as citizens. And that leads me to my one hopeful sign this morning, a column by Charles Blow of the Times on the Louisiana prison system and what it means.
Blow's column is based on an amazing week-long series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune which I hope will become a book. About twenty years ago federal courts ordered Louisiana to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. The state responded not by letting more people out, but by passing a law encouraging the construction of private prisons. Many were constructed--and many local sheriffs were involved in their construction. These prisons became profit-making institutions for local law enforcement, and the overall prison population continued to grow. Today Louisiana incarcerates 1,619 people for every 100,000 population--twice as many as the rest of the United States, three times as many as Russia, and about thirteen times as many as China. More than half of them are non-violent offenders. The increasing proportion in local jails receive very little training of any kind and most inmates are back in prison within five years of their release. This is an appalling national scandal, and I hope the Times-Picayune writers win the Pulitzer they deserve..
What I really like about the story is this. Charles Blow is black--the only regular black columnist on the Times op-ed page. A mainstream minority academic would argue that he had to be hired, and that more like him should be, to provide a "minority perspective" on that hallowed page. But in this case, even though I feel quite sure that a disproportionate number of Louisiana's inmates are black, he wrote the entire column without mentioning race at all. He wrote about greed, essentially, taking away the freedom of large numbers of American citizens and disrupting their communities. He compared us unfavorably to the rest of the world for our remarkable incarceration rate, as we deserve to be compared. He wrote, in short, a piece for the ages, in no way reflecting the particular skewed views of our time.
Thank you, Charles Blow.