Saturday, January 26, 2019

Words of wisdom

Readers know that I am not afraid to voice unusual opinions, but that does not mean that I don't need some validation from outside.  I am always relieved to find even one person who can state my thoughts on a controversial topic as well or better than I can.  Some weeks  ago I read excerpts from a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein about Judaism and religion in the New York Times.  Nearly thirty years ago I borrowed a quote from Einstein for the frontispiece of my book Politics and War: "Politics is much harder than physics."  This one, in which Einstein described his relationship to Judaism, is equally telling.

“For me," Einstein wrote,  "the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

I would gladly echo that sentiment, although I would have to change the words "to whom I gladly belong" to "who include half of my ancestors,"  since I have no religion and am not Jewish according to Jewish law.  I believe that in 1954, when Einstein wrote those words, a great many American Jews would have agreed with the idea of the Jews as simply one people among many, entitled to all the rights of others, and I am sure many still do today.  Yet that is secondary for me, today, to to the third sentence of the quote: "As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. [emphasis added.]"  Within that sentence, I think, lies the key to one part of the moral confusion of our age--a confusion not specifically related to Jews and Judaism..

Today the intellectual elite of the West, in particular, tends to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, and defines both according to demography.  Many have reduced the history of the western world to an ongoing conspiracy of straight white males designed to subjugate everyone else.  With this goes the idea that virtue resides only among the oppressed--women, nonwhites, and LGBTQs.  These ideas have crept into the mainstream and into liberal politics.  They were given striking expression in one of the last episodes of the Amazon series Transparent, when Ali, the younger daughter in the family, speculated that gays and transsexuals and "everything the patriarchy marginalizes" might represent "the new Messiah."  (I'm not sure I quoted the first of those two phrases perfectly but I am sure I didn't do violence to the thought.)  These views also contribute to the excitement we can observe in many quarters over the election of more women, gays, members of immigrant groups, and transsexuals to public office.  This reaction goes way beyond a simple celebration that political opportunity has opened up for all, which of course I welcome.  Certainly we can all be thankful that we live in a nation where demography is no bar to election, but I frequently also feel in the reaction to their victories a sense that only such people can really be trusted to do good.  One of them, indeed, Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley of my own state of Massachusetts, has stated this pretty clearly, saying, "People closest to the pain should be closest to the power."  Not just "close," but "closest." The more famous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes enthusiastically retweeted that line during the campaign.  The contemporary campus obsession with the feelings and status of anyone who is not a straight white male also reflects this view.

Now the view that virtue can be found only among the oppressed has deep roots in our civilization, going back at least to the  New Testament.  "Blessed are the poor," Luke quotes Jesus as saying, "for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," and Jesus remarked that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.  Many subsequent Christian authors echoed this view, such as the twentieth century French novelist Georges Bernanos.  That idea obviously found its way into Marxism as well, even though Marx himself believed that the working class would triumph because it was their scientifically determined destiny, not because of moral virtue.  Now I think it is as strong as ever, at least in intellectual circles.  It also explains the left wing view that we have a duty advocate for immigrants, whatever their legal status, and the view that all will be well in the United States as soon as white people no longer constitute a majority.

Now I believe there is a grain of truth to the idea that the poor are more virtuous than the rich--but Einstein rather brilliantly put his finger on where that truth came from.  Although Jews, he wrote, were not morally superior to other groups, they were "protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power."  Bingo.  The poor, and women, and minority groups, and those of unusual sexual orientation have not been oppressors on a grand scale within western civilization because they could not be.  Freud would have argued, and rightly in my view, that they have just as many evil thoughts as the rich and powerful, but that they lack the power to act them out.  Both history and the contemporary scene offer many examples of individuals from those groups who have achieved some kind of power, political or otherwise, and have used it as ruthlessly as any white male.  The government of Israel, as many Israelis have noted, has taken advantage of its power to treat Palestinians the same way that Christian and Muslim nations historically treated Jews, as a people unworthy of equal rights.  That should not surprise us, since it merely proves our common humanity.  Tocqueville, and some 18th-century thinkers before him, expressed a related insight when they noted that small nations find it much easier to be virtuous than large ones.  They do less harm because they cannot do greater harm.

To argue that there is nothing inherently more virtuous about individuals within particular demographic groups does not suggest that we do not have too much inequality in our society, or that power remains a huge temptation to do evil, as well as an opportunity to do good.  It does mean, however, that the opening up of our elites to women and minorities does not guarantee by any means that those elites will treat the rest of us any better, or deal with the world according to more just or peaceful principles.  We have already had enough nonwhitemale leaders to accumulate data on that last question.  No society can exist without some people who are more powerful than others, and the justice of our society will always depend in large measure on the values of our elites.  They explain why our society is now so much more unequal economically than it was 60 years or so ago, despite our greater attention to the status of certain groups and the integration of those groups into our elites.

Two years ago, as I note late in my autobiography, two historians, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, published a New York Times op-ed, "Why did we stop teaching political history?"  One reason is that political history is seen in the academy as the exaltation of straight white males, who monopolized both politics and history for too long, and it is time to redress the balance.   It is no accident, as I also argue in my last chapter, that the eclipse of political history (and of any real reverence for the institutions we have inherited) coincides with the advent of the worst leadership that the nation has ever had.  A free society has to take its politics and its politicians seriously as individuals--no matter what their demographic characteristics have been, or may be.




Friday, January 18, 2019

What Hath 80 Years Wrought

No one, it seems to me, who found their way here now, would disagree that the United States is struggling with a very serious political crisis.  Regular readers know that I, influenced by William Strauss and Neil Howe, see this crisis as one in a series of crises, recurring every 80 years or so, that began with the era of the American Revolution and the Constitution (1774-1794 or so), continued with the Civil War (1860-68 approximately), and climaxed with the Depression and Second World War (1929-45.)  Each crisis marked the death of an old order and the birth of a new one, and each established new institutions and new beliefs that shaped political and economic life for at least 50 years to come.  All of us over 60--that is, all Boomers, Silents, and surviving GIs--lived most of our lives in the world created by the great crisis of the 1930s and 1940s.  I have found it useful, from time to time, to compare the nature of our current crisis with the last one by comparing today's New York Times front page--January 18, 2019--with its counterpart from 80 years ago, on January 18, 1939.  These were in at least one respect similar moments in history.  Franklin Roosevelt was in the middle of his second term, just as Donald Trump is in the middle of his first, and both faced new and far more hostile Congresses.  Roosevelt's Democratic Party still had majorities in early 1939, but it had lost heavily in the midterms, and conservative Democrats were starting to align with Republicans to block any further progress for the New Deal.  Trump's Republicans have lost the House of representatives. Those wishing to look at the 1939 front page themselves can do so here.  Today's is here.

The first thing that will strike any observer is how much more there was on the earlier page.  It has 14 different stories (two of them brief sidebars); today's has only six.   The shrinkage of the layout from eight columns to six obviously explains only part of that.  Five of the 13 1939 stories, four on the left side of the page, are foreign news. Three of them come from Mexico. The first tells of the dispatch of a Mexican general on a diplomatic mission to Berlin, where, it is thought, he may conclude new agreements bartering Mexican oil for German machinery.  The second recounts the expulsion of an American journalist from Mexico, and the third brief one talks about the resignation of three generals who are contenders for the Mexican presidency.  The fourth is a military update from the Spanish Civil War, which was then entering its final stages.  A brief but chilling sidebar reports that a British official has warned housewives to begin storing emergency food.  Three other stories involve local and state politics. In the first, District Attorney (and future presidential candidate) Thomas Dewey is feuding with the chairman of the Board of Transportation over the extent of thefts of subway fares from turnstiles.  The second speculates about a rift between Police Commissioner Valentine and Mayor LaGuardia, and the third reports progress for a housing program in Albany.  The remaining six stories deal with national news.

The lead, in column 8, reports that President Roosevelt and both factions of organized labor--the A.F. of L. and the CIO--are attempting to restore a $150,000,000 cut from the appropriation of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, one of two public works agencies that had been providing jobs for unemployed Americans during the Depression, which had worsened again in the last two years. In a second story, FDR has asked for an end to tax exemptions for income on federal, state and local municipal bonds, which had emerged as a popular tax dodge for wealthy people trying to avoid very high marginal tax rates.  A third story prints a letter the President had written to a key Congressman, asking for the construction of a Florida ship canal, and another project to harness power from the extraordinary tides of Passamaquoddy Bay on the Maine-Canada border, where, as it happens, FDR had his summer home.  Neither of those projects, clearly, ever came to much.  A fourth story quotes an Assistant Secretary of War to the effect that the US can produce 7000 war planes a year, enough to protect the nation in an increasingly dangerous world.  The bottom of the page reports a half-million dollar fraud case against certain contractors for the WPA, and another story,based on documents revealed in Vienna, seems to confirm that German agents during the First World War blew up a number of munitions factories inside the United States.  All these stories are about things that the government is doing, or might be doing, to employ Americans, raise more money for the government, improve our infrastructure, or make necessary improvements in our national defense. 

Today's front page tells a very different story.

The lead story, of course, deals with Donald Trump's childish cancellation of Nancy Pelosi's foreign trip.  That leads in turn to the "Washington memo" just below it, entitled, "A Sandbox Where the Adults Need to Be Given a Timeout," dealing with a very different Washington atmosphere.  A third story tells about economic help being given by private citizens to furloughed employees.  A fourth story reveals that the children separated from their parents at the border were undercounted, a fifth is about the acquittal of cops accused of covering up a police murder in Chicago, and the last is about the teachers' strike in Los Angeles and what it reveals about the economic divide in the city.  The contrast provides considerable food for thought.

In one way or another, four of the stories on the front page, including the three growing out of the shutdown, relate to immigration, which was absent not only from the January 18, 1939 front page, but from political controversy in the 1930s generally.  The reason was that nativist feeling had been growing against immigration from southern and Eastern Europe since the late 19th century, culminating in 1924 in a very restrictive immigration act that had essentially taken the issue off ot he table before the great crisis began.  Freezing our national community in place at that time, I am convinced, made it much easier for Roosevelt to cope with the national emergency he inherited in 1933 and to pull the country together for the Second World War.  Donald Trump swept both the major parties before him in 2016 largely because they had failed to heed popular resentment over immigration, and it is quite possible that our nation needs another freeze to regain its political sanity now--while meanwhile fully assimilating the immigrants who are already settled here.

The lack of foreign news on today's front page is also interesting.  Now as then, major European nations are in crisis, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but the Times and other newspapers maintain far fewer permanent foreign correspondents overseas.  Their readers know much less about what is happening and what it means to the US than they did then.

The specific problems we face today are less serious, I still think, than they were then.  Neither in Europe nor in Asia do we find militant powers fighting, or planning to fight, vast wars of expansion. Unemployment, well over 10% in 1939, is at historic lows now.  But as the front pages illustrate, our political system--very robust and effective in 1939, at federal, state and local levels, in most of the country at least--is in tatters, and the citizenry is far less informed.  The question remaining to be answered in the current crisis is, how long can our society continue without a functioning political system?




Saturday, January 05, 2019

New values, new aristocracies

This week I read another remarkable book, Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas.  Giridharadas, born in 1981, attended Sidwell Friends School in Washington--the alma mater of Chelsea Clinton and Sasha and Melia Obama--the University of Michigan, and Oxford. He was at one time a doctoral candidate at Harvard but appears to have abandoned that career path.  He did a stint at the consulting giant McKinsey and Co. in the mid-2000s, and then moved into journalism with the New York Times.  He became a fellow at the Aspen Institute.  He was in short a very successful young member of our diverse new intellectual aristocracy.  Suddenly, however, he had an epiphany about his role in the world and the system of which he had become a part, and this book is the result.

Winners Take All is an impressionistic but powerful survey of the role and attitudes of another part our new elite, the extraordinarily wealthy titans of IT and finance, our fastest growing sectors, as well as some heirs in other powerful industries such as pharmaceuticals and energy, and the leaders of some of our most prominent foundations.  Giridharadas lumps them all together under the heading of "Market World," which appears to be his own coinage. These people congregate periodically at the Aspen Institute, meetings of the now-defunct Clinton Global Initiative, and in many other organized conferences, and share their thoughts and plans for changing the world.  A remarkable consensus on basic issues prevails among them.   First of all, they regard the private sector--especially the parts of it that they represent--as dynamic and creative, while the public sector, in their eyes, is static, bureaucratic, and hidebound.  They believe, crucially, that only the dynamic private sector can solve the world's problems, primarily by maximizing efficiencies, opening up opportunities, and creating wealth.  They have a real 19th century faith that their own success confirms that they are at the cutting edge of history and profess superior skills and, I think, superior moral worth as well.  And while some of them feel some guilt about having so much while others have so little, that never seems to be enough to lead them to question their basic assumptions about the world and where it is going.

Giridharadas spends some critical pages in the book drawing on his experiences at McKinsey to explain the mindset that these people have learned in the corporate world.  McKinsey consultants, he makes clear, do not help companies by studying what those companies do in any detail.  Instead, they have their own algorithms for looking for ways to raise revenues or cut costs--and the latter often include proposals to eliminate whole portions of the enterprise that are not pulling their weight, profitwise.  The consultants' status--and their income--comes from the perception that their protocols embody the secret of corporate life, whatever the specific characteristics or the particular role of the company that has enlisted them.  One thing Giridharadas came to realize was that applying these protocols keeps the major trends of the world economy going: a growth in productivity, whose benefits flow exclusively to the owners of capital, not to the world's working classes, whether on the factory floor or in the office.

The protagonists of his book seem to understand this to a certain extent, and they want to do something about it.  That brings them together in these various venues to discuss what might be done and to contribute some money to do it.  But that money, naturally, never goes to challenges to the order that has made them (or their patrons) rich enough to worry about these things in the first place.  They tend to like causes that allow them to open up some opportunities for less well off people--such as providing better data processing networks to third world entrepreneurs--rather than anything that would keep them from earning, or keeping, so much money in the first place.  Resources remain under their control--rather than going into the coffers of a government that is elected by, and claims to act on behalf of, the whole people of the nation, as they did in the middle third of the twentieth century, when inequality reached historic lows and the lower orders of society actually shared in the proceeds of economic growth.  I found it interesting that like Thomas Piketty--whom he quotes approvingy--Giridharadas doesn't seem to understand how crucial the wars of the twentieth century were in creating such a society, both by mobilizing truly gigantic resources on behalf of a common effort, and by creating a real obligation from the government to the people who had fought the war.  Winners Take All is a very interesting complement to Crashed, which I reviewed last week.  They deal with different parts and different generations of our new global aristocracy, but they both illustrate the hegemony of free market values, and the embrace of their consequences, which completely dominates that elite, without any effective countervailing force in today's world.

It was when Giridharadas referred to potential countervailing beliefs, in fact, that I found his book weakest.  Again and again, when he refers to the evils of the modern world, he focuses on racism and sexism and implies that entrenched attitudes among a white male power structure are the biggest source of our problems.  That, probably, is the view he imbibed in the educational system, where it is utterly hegemonic.  That, however, is the problem.  First of all, in my opinion, that view is wrong.  The biggest problem we face isn't the role of race and gender in our society, it's the continually increasing concentration of wealth that is leaving the whole lower half of the population--and perhaps more--further and further behind, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.  The power structure can in fact easily bow to concerns about race and gender by integrating some favored men and women into its top ranks--and there, as Giridharadas shows very clearly and intimately, those people adopt the same pro-market values as everyone else.  That is also, obviously, the strategy of our major educational institutions, which seem to be more beholden to the economic power structure than they have ever been, but salve their consciences by feeding a diverse group of favored young people into it.  One such young woman, a Georgetown graduate, is a major protagonist in Winners Take All, and she abandons dreams of becoming a rabbi to go first to McKinsey and then to the new Obama Foundation, where she will help administer the new form of pro-corporate philanthropy, of which more in a moment.  The major effect of left-wing activism over the last few decades, it seems to me, has been to diversify the elite, first in academia and journalism and foundations, and also--albeit to a lesser extent--in the corporate world.  That does not change the elite's relation to the rest of the world.   More importantly, it seemed to me, a veteran of a life in academia, that Giridharadas was missing an important point about intellectual trends there.  The academic obsession with race, gender and sexual orientation, in my opinion, is just as dangerous an enemy to originality, free thought, and understanding the biggest problems we face as the emphasis on market efficiency is in the corporate world.  Both provide astonishingly simple answers to every problem--and neither one, in my opinion, will allow us to get to the heart of the matter.  Intellectually, the Boom generation--which shaped both of these trends--is a generation of sheep.

It was national governments, to repeat, that emerged in the middle third of the twentieth century as the supreme economic authority, effectively regulated financial markets and other parts of the economy, and gathered and redistributed resources on a massive scale.  In an argument that left me shaken--and eager finally to read a classic that I have never opened--Giridharadas argues that Thomas Hobbes, in his famous work Leviathan, was arguing for a powerful state to protect the citizenry from the tyranny of lesser authorities--aristocrats in his time, corporations in ours.  Out statesmen (and women) now, however, rely on corporate wealth to pursue their political careers, and accept that reforms in our society can only go as far as corporations will allow.  In a long interview with Bill Clinton, Giridharadas hears about Clinton's efforts to keep soft drink manufacturers from getting their products into public schools, where they have helped trigger an epidemic of childhood obesity.   Clinton in the end made no attempt to pass laws to keep these products out of schools, but settled for promises from the manufacturers to reduce their products' sugar content.

A new Democratic majority took over this week in the House of Representatives, pushing a new round of liberal proposals.  We shall find if they have the power to challenge the economic orthodoxy that now rules the nation and the world--and whether they can appeal to all of us as citizens, rather than to certain particular demographics.  I am skeptical that those things will happen. Tooze and Giridharadas, I think, have allowed me to see the future.  They suggest that our new value system has already been pretty well established, that dissenters will remain an isolated minority, and that our great crisis--in the sense of a struggle over the values and direction of our society--may well come to an end as soon as the corporate elite has managed to put a reasonably competent and reassuring figure into the White House once again.  And that figure, as we have seen in the last 20 years, can just as easily be a Democrat as a Republican.