Sunday, November 01, 2020

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  

My talk at the Harvard Coop last May 28 about A Life in History, can be viewed here.  Enjoy! An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Epidemic and its Consequences

Prince Max of Baden, born in 1867, was a trained lawyer and a one-time general in the Prussian Army.   He had left the army by the time of the First World War, and during that war, he became active in contacts with Germany's enemies to secure better treatment for prisoners of war.  In early 1918, he wrote one of the most brilliant strategic appreciations that I have ever seen, a plea to the highest German authorities to abandon hopes of total military victory and offer a generous peace at a moment when the Germans had once again secured a military advantage.  The government ignored his advance, and the great German offensive of March 1918 stalled in the summer, having wrecked the German Army.  By September Germany was clearly losing the war, and Prince Max suddenly became Chancellor, charged with putting through liberal reforms to the German constitution and seeking a negotiated peace with President Wilson.  By late mid-October, he was becoming convinced that the Emperor William II would have to abdicate to secure that peace.  Meanwhile, the influenza pandemic was raging, killing many thousands in Germany, where years of hunger had weakened the population.  On October 22, he came down with influenza himself.  He continued his delicate negotiations among all the German parties, as he described in his extraordinary memoirs, until November 1.  "I had not yet got over my attack of influenza," he wrote years later.  "The pressure of owrk of the last few days had utterly exhausted me, and I had a serious relapse.  The doctor was called and wanted above all things to ensure me rest. He administered a drug which in my weakened state had a stronger effect than had been intended, and put me into a deep sleep. For thirty-six hours all attempts to wake me were in vain."

The German Empire, as it turned out, had only 8 more days to live, but Prince Max survived to write his memoirs.  That is one lesson I am trying to keep in mind as I watch our own epidemic spread:  the vast majority even of those of us who have become infected will survive, even as many die.  Yet in another parallel, our political system as we know it may also face critical threats.

The fear that hangs over us all now has put some things in perspective for me.  We have temporarily lost many parts of our lives: visits to the gym, to restaurants, and the movies; professional sports; social gatherings.  Millions of us are losing their jobs, and traditional education has come to a halt.  We need to revive some of these activities as soon as we can, but some of them--such as the gym--are emerging as luxuries within a very well-off society.  Another luxury, I am convinced, are the political attitudes that have come to dominate various sectors of our society, and which never would have become so popular had we had more real problems to deal with.

Worst among those is the largely Republican belief in the superiority of free markets and the supremacy of private interests.  Fifty years ago we had an expensive, but necessary public sector, paid for in part by high marginal personal and corporate income taxes.  Now transfer payments make up the bulk of the federal budget and the discretionary part of it that provides critical public goods is proportionally much smaller. The situation seems to me much worse at the state and local level, where pension commitments, I suspect, have continually crowded out money for education and infrastructure at an increasing rate.  We now have to find extraordinary resources to deal with the economic crisis that goes along with the medical one, and this will challenge a very stressed system--especially in red states.

That is not all.  On the Democratic side of the fence, which has become the party of the economic and political status quo, what the government does has increasingly become less important than who exactly does it.  The party's key constituencies have focused more and more on the identity of its candidates, and the need to reduce the number of straight white males among them has become something of an obsession.  This year none of the minority, female or gay candidates managed to win over a sufficient portion of the Democratic electorate to contend, but Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, has made a guarded promise to put a woman on the ticket.   Meanwhile, despite eight years of Barack Obama (b. 1961) in the White House, the Democratic Party has failed to create any new national political figures of stature under 70.  During the crisis, Andrew Cuomo (b. 1957) has emerged as the most impressive leader that we have seen in some time, demonstrating a quick intelligence, an ability to lay out the essentials of a complex problem quickly, and the administrative ability to get solutions going  Nearly everyone I know seems to wish that he could become the Democratic candidate--even some New Yorkers who have not been smitten with him during his decade as governor.  Our nominating system, however, now lacks the flexibility that in earlier decades enabled parties to select a suitable candidate at the last minute.  Barring unforeseen events in Joe Biden's campaign, Biden seems sure to be nominated--even if the Convention has to be held virtually, instead of in Milwaukee as planned.

And last but not least, a real threat looms over the electoral process.  For the time being we are giving up much of our lives and shutting down much of our economy to save tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.  I do not think that this can continue indefinitely, although it could be, if the epidemic can be brought under control as in China, that lockdowns and shutdowns will become local events in response to small outbreaks instead of national ones until, somehow or other, the epidemic ends.  We would however have great difficulty, it seems to me, holding a national election under today's conditions.  We need planning right now to make sure that the election takes place on schedule, and in a manner that will command the nation's confidence in its results.  Having held elections during the Civil War and the Second World War, we can certainly carry on with this one--but we made need adjustments.  We can certainly survive even the worst case scenarios for deaths from the epidemic.  Surviving a complete collapse of our democracy would be much more difficult.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Drug treatments for COVID-19?

I have decided to use today's post to pass on some research I've done (via google) about the possibility that a combination of two drugs, Hydroxychloroquine & Azithromycin, might be effective against the COVID-19 virus.  This is a confusing story which I have already done a tiny bit to spread on facebook.  It has several dimensions, and at this point, I do not know what to think about it, but I think I can shed some light on what is going on.

To begin with, a team of French doctors has written and is about to publish a study arguing that a small sample trial showed effectiveness for these drugs.  I quote from their summary.

"French Confirmed COVID-19 patients were included in a single arm protocol from early March to March 16th, to receive 600mg of hydroxychloroquine daily and their viral load in nasopharyngeal swabs was tested daily in a hospital setting. Depending on their clinical presentation, azithromycin was added to the treatment. Untreated patients from another center and cases refusing the protocol were included as negative controls. Presence and absence of virus at Day6-post inclusion was considered the end point.

"Results
"Six patients were asymptomatic, 22 had upper respiratory tract infection symptoms and eight had lower respiratory tract infection symptoms.

"Twenty cases were treated in this study and showed a significant reduction of the viral carriage at D6-post inclusion compared to controls, and much lower average carrying duration than reported of untreated patients in the literature. Azithromycin added to hydroxychloroquine was significantly more efficient for virus elimination.

"Conclusion
"Despite its small sample size our survey shows that hydroxychloroquine treatment is significantly associated with viral load reduction/disappearance in COVID-19 patients and its effect is reinforced by azithromycin."

The study lists 18 different authors with French names (including two with Vietnamese or Arab roots) and I checked some of them to verify that they are indeed French doctors and medical scientists.  The study also includes some caution about the use of these drugs.  They have side effects and can be serious for patients with certain pre-existing conditions--which are, of course, exactly the patients most at risk from COVID-19. 

Now the CDC has posted comments about the use of these drugs for treatment.  Here is what it says:

"Hydroxychloroquine and Chloroquine
"Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are oral prescription drugs that have been used for treatment of malaria and certain inflammatory conditions. Chloroquine has been used for malaria treatment and chemoprophylaxis, and hydroxychloroquine is used for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus and porphyria cutanea tarda. Both drugs have in-vitro activity against SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and other coronaviruses, with hydroxychloroquine having relatively higher potency against SARS-CoV-2 [1,4,5]. A study in China reported that chloroquine treatment of COVID-19 patients had clinical and virologic benefit versus a comparison group, and chloroquine was added as a recommended antiviral for treatment of COVID-19 in China [6]. Based upon limited in-vitro and anecdotal data, chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine are currently recommended for treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in several countries. Both chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have known safety profiles with the main concerns being cardiotoxicity (prolonged QT syndrome) with prolonged use in patients with hepatic or renal dysfunction and immunosuppression but have been reportedly well-tolerated in COVID-19 patients.

"Due to higher in-vitro activity against SARS-CoV-2 and its wider availability in the United States compared with chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine has been administered to hospitalized COVID-19 patients on an uncontrolled basis in multiple countries, including in the United States. One small study reported that hydroxychloroquine alone or in combination with azithromycin reduced detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in upper respiratory tract specimens compared with a non-randomized control group but did not assess clinical benefit [7].   [The footnote cites  the French study, above.] Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are associated with QT prolongation and caution is advised when considering these drugs in patients with chronic medical conditions (e.g. renal failure, hepatic disease) or who are receiving medications that might interact to cause arrythmias.

"Hydroxychloroquine is currently under investigation in clinical trials for pre-exposure or post-exposure prophylaxis of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and treatment of patients with mild, moderate, and severe COVID-19. In the United States, several clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine for prophylaxis or treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection are planned or will be enrolling soon.  More information on trials can be found at:  https://clinicaltrials.gov/external icon."

Thus, medical scientists in two different countries--China and France--have reported, based on relatively limited evidence, that these drugs have been effective, and broader trials are underway here to test them further.  I do not know exactly why Dr. Anthony Fauci, in yesterday's press conference, described the evidence for their effectiveness as "anecdotal." I am not a scientist myself, and "anecdotal" might be a word frequently used to describe the results of very small clinical trials.  I will allow the above evidence to speak for itself, and wait for evidence from the additional trials that are going on.

Meanwhile, however, something else is happening.

The Huffington Post now reports that two men are waging a public relations campaign on behalf of this treatment: Michael Coudrey, a Las Vegas marketer with ties to Republican politicians, and Gregory Rigano, who claims to be an adviser to Stanford Medical School, but isn't.  Tucker Carlson of Fox News has interviewed Coudrey about this.  That's probably how President Trump heard about the drug, and he has plugged the idea that it might be a cure in his last two press conferences, while Dr. Anthony Fauci has replied that any evidence is anecdotal..  Trump is also retweeting Coudrey's tweets about this.   Coudrey's and Rigano's motives are unclear.

There is already a run on Hydroxycholoroqine as people beg their doctors to prescribe it, and arthritis and other patients who already relied on it are having trouble getting it.  In this as in so many other issues of public policy, we obviously need to proceed cautiously on the basis of real science, while looking for answers as thoroughly and quickly as we can.  With Donald Trump at the helm--a man who seizes upon the answers most convenient to him and refuses to study any data--this is not easy.  Now, more than ever, we have to try to read beyond headlines and use the tools available to us all to check important information out. That is what I have tried to day.  Best wishes to all in these difficult times.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Prospects for November, and what they mean

The corona virus has struck us at a critical moment in our politics, and there is every reason to believe that it will exacerbate trends already in progress.  It has drastically altered our national life at the very moment that Joe Biden's nomination as the Democratic candidate has become almost assured.  We have a long way to go to November, but as things look to me now, Biden will probably defeat Donald Trump by a significant majority.  That would put an end to a disastrous episode in American history--but it will not change the fundamental direction of the country or the outcome of the great crisis that may finally be nearing its end.

Donald Trump so dominates the news cycle, and so completely enjoys the abject devotion of the Republican Party in general and its Senate majority in particular, that we easily forget how unpopular he remained in the country even before the current crisis began.  The current poll averages at realclearpolitics.com show him with 52% disapproval and 44% approval and they have never shown him with more than 50% approval.  More to the point, a similar poll average shows Joe Biden leading him in trial heats by a full 6 percentage points, 50.7 to 44.4.  (Bernie Sanders, by the way, leads by almost as much.)  Biden, meanwhile, came out of nowhere after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary to demonstrate real enthusiasm among very broad segments of the Democratic Party--every segment, as it happens, except voters under 40, who did not vote in sufficiently large numbers to make a difference.  (Age, by the way, trumped race: younger black voters, like their white contemporaries, favored Sanders in exit poll after exit poll.)  Because Biden is well known thanks to 8 years as Vice President, he evidently inspires confidence.  That, clearly, is going to be Trump's biggest problem.

For a long time, it seems to me, both sides of our political spectrum have been practicing different kinds of vanity politics.  The nation works, to the extent that it still does, because of the institutions that earlier generations put in place in the middle decades of the last century, and both sides have been undermining the institutions they control both for monetary benefit and personal satisfaction.  Both the tightly regulated and heavily taxed economy of 1940-80 and the remarkable educational system that grew up in the same period have become extraordinarily rich and powerful institutions that principally benefit only the people who run them, corporate executives and university administrators.  Meanwhile, both parties use buzzwords to rally their base.  The system survived even the shock of the 2008 crash, largely because a Democratic President accepted the premise that it remained fundamentally sound.  The George W. Bush Administration had used the favorable situation it inherited to embark on useless, destructive, extraordinarily expensive crusades in the Middle East, because it had talked itself into the idea of a great crusade [sic] to keep the US supreme in the world.  By the 2010s, however, the political system was paying a price for its vanity.  Donald Trump in 2016 showed that the Republican Party had totally lost touch with its voters.  This year, it looked for a while as if Bernie Sanders might make the same point about the Democrats.

Sanders' fall from front runner status was the first signal of where things were going.  Several factors played a role, but one cannot ignore the absolute panic among nearly all of our punditry during the month of February over the possibility that he might actually be nominated.  That panic was only partly based on the fear that he might lose (a fear that had no support whatever from polling data that showed him beating Trump), or that his candidacy might hurt down-ballot Democrats.  It also reflected a terror that the Democratic Party might actually nominated a candidate who felt that economic inequality was a serious danger that required direct, determined steps to do something about it.  He drew heat, among other things, from the very reasonable statement (in  my opinion) that billionaires should not exist.  Several commentators cringed at the thought of a world without the philanthropic Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg, forgetting that we cannot have those few exceptions without the Koch brothers, the Scaifes, and the many other corporate giants who now dominate our politics.  It has become fashionable, by the way, to claim that sexism doomed Elizabeth Warren, but she faced the same onslaught of centrist panic when she seemed likely to become the front runner--and made the mistake, in my view, of backing away from Medicare for all in response.  In centrist mythology, private insurance--the reason that we have an increasingly unaffordable health care system, which doctors have told me we cannot sustain--has become something that millions of Americans love.  Biden's candidacy will reassure the health insurance industry and Wall Street--which is important, sadly, since it means they won't be tempted to vote for Trump, whom they already trust to allow their wealth to keep growing faster than the economy as a whole.

Trump, meanwhile, faces a real domestic crisis for the first time, and it is bringing out the worst in him.  He is trying to use it the same way he uses everything else: to make himself look like an innocent genius in a world full of guilty idiots.  He has already made absurd claims to give himself an aura of omnipotence and omniscience. It now turns out that the google website that will allow sick people to get tested--which he promised within a few days--hadn't gotten beyond the stage of a few conversations between Jared Kushner and a google subsidiary called Verily.  The president's bizarre claims have prompted Google to try to make them come true, but Verily had in mind only a pilot program in the San Francisco and Seattle areas.  Meanwhile, the virus has crashed the stock market, depriving the President of his favorite talking point. 

These two major developments point towards a Biden victory, followed by a return to the Obama-era status quo.  That means on the one hand that we will once again have a federal government led by men and women who believe in its mission and respect facts and science.  Given Biden's age, and the unlikelihood of him seeking a second term, he will also be less beholden to politics and less likely to be dominated by spin.  He can also try to restore  our stature in the world and arrest the drift towards war with Iran--although I doubt that our allies will ever have the same degree of trust in us again. He will get us, at least rhetorically, back on the right side of the climate change issue.  But I do not think that Biden and the Congress can be expected to make any fundamental attack on the direction of our economy.  Rather than try to dismantle our oligarchy, his administration will try to diversify it.  And even Democratic policies on social issues will face lots of opposition from the federal courts, now effectively packed by Trump and McConnell.  Those courts will exercise their enormous power--which they developed from the 1950s through the 1970s in pursuit of liberal goals--for conservative ones.  That marks a return to the traditional role of the courts in American history, from 1789 until about 1938.

I have said many times that we do not live in a heroic age.  Inequality, and the decline of state authority, define our era.  I will be having more to say about that after I read Thomas Piketty's new book, now on its way to me.  Under the circumstances I am grateful for any step away from disaster. That is what Biden's election would mean.  True progress, however, will fall to subsequent generations, some of them not yet born.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

End of a Boomer War

The New York Times has just reported the announcement of a deal between the US and the Taliban that will end our armed involvement in Afghanistan within 14 months.  That is good news.  It  has been obvious for years that we will never get any closer to our objective of an Afghanistan in our own image than we have now--which was not close at all.  Like the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Taliban have commitment, organization, and sanctuary that the successive Afghan governments we have sponsored never had.  We insisted on real elections as well as the forms of democracy in Afghanistan--as we did not in South Vietnam--and as a result, our client government is now fighting over the results of the last election.  There is an excellent chance that the Taliban will control most of the country within another three years.  That will not necessarily have any real impact on the security of the United States, any more than the loss of South Vietnam did.  It frees us of a burden that we should never have undertaken.

The defining foreign policy experience of my generation was of course the Vietnam War, but its legacy was far more complicated than many of us ever realized.  Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote nearly 30 years ago that the only thing that Boomers agreed upon about Vietnam was that their elders had mismanaged it--either by starting it in the first place, or by failing to win.  The Vietnam debacle did influence the leaders of the GI and Silent generations for nearly two decades.  Even though, as Theodore Draper pointed out many years ago, no establishment figure ever suffered for supporting the war, the Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush I administrations avoided any similar quagmires, no matter how anti-Communist their rhetoric might have been.  George H. W. Bush and James Baker deserve particular credit on this score.  They settled the conflict in El Salvador with a compromise and stuck to a limited objective in the first Gulf War.  The restraints began to come down under Bill Clinton, who signed a Congressional revolution committing the US to the fall of Saddam Hussein.  They came completely off under George W. Bush.

Even before 9/11, we know now, the Bush II Administration was contemplating an invasion of Iraq. 9/11 shifted their focus to Afghanistan.  Then began a series of wars and interventions, first in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later, under Barack Obama, in Libya, toppling yet another government with disastrous results, and in Syria, where we could do no good.   My contemporaries were convinced that they could transform third world countries with air power, encouragement, and a search for effective, friendly clients. They couldn't.

As early as 1974, when the Ford Administration decided to intervene covertly in the Angolan civil war, I was shocked to see how few people seemed to have learned some obvious lessons from Vietnam that I never abandoned.  American intervention in third world civil wars could wreak havoc and sometimes maintain a friendly regime in power but it rarely if ever seemed to get it on a stable footing.  When 9/11 occurred it was less than two years after I had published American Tragedy. Just a couple of weeks after it, the journal of the now-defunct Historical Society asked me to contribute to a short symposium on its significance.  I too had been affected by 9/11, of course, and I knew we had to take some action in Afghanistan, but I hadn't forgotten what I had learned before either. This is what I wrote.



No Clear Lessons from the Past
by David Kaiser

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt labeled the attack on Pearl Harbor a “day that will live in infamy,” and Congress declared war on Japan.Three days later the United States was at war with Germany.Three years and nine months later, with about 300,000 young Americans dead, our enemies were entirely defeated, and the creation of a new world began.The destruction of the WorldTradeCenter and the attack on the Pentagon may have had a similar emotional impact upon the American people, but the task of eliminating the threats posed by terrorism makes the Second World War seem almost simple by comparison.It is most unlikely that we will suffer 300,000 people killed over the next four years, but it is equally unlikely that we will have eliminated terrorism by then either.

Although the United States seemed woefully unprepared when the Second World War broke out—all the more so since the Pacific fleet had been crippled—both the problem we faced and the eventual solution were already quite clear.As Churchill put it in his memoirs, the new coalition of the Soviet Union , Britain and the United States had many times the combined resources of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the eventual destruction of the Axis was only a matter of production, mobilization, and deployment—that is, of time.We understood both the threat—the Axis military forces—and the appropriate response—the eventual conquest of two medium-sized countries, Germany and Japan . Despite many further reverses during 1942, the allies rapidly achieved superiority and reached their objectives.

Comparisons between September 11 and Pearl Harbor—focusing on America’s unpreparedness and the emotional shock felt by the nation—have already become commonplace. Beyond that, however, this historical analogy offers little guidance. The threat is not a purely military one, nor can it be easily dealt with by military means.Apparently, the threat is a large, well-trained organization—allied to other similar organizations—based in a remote and unfriendly country, but living everywhere and nowhere. Osama bin Laden has made clear that he wants to eliminate American influence, and the regimes that depend on it, from the Middle East. His weapon is not traditional war, but terror. Ideally, terrorists represent a problem for law enforcement rather than the military, but law enforcement agencies in various Middle Eastern countries allow them to operate—some from ideological sympathy and some out of fear.In theory, that deprives these governments of all legitimacy and makes them enemies of the United States. In practice, it may make the problem we face insoluble for many years to come.

World reaction suggests that the United States can now build a broad coalition designed to make it impossible for organized terrorism to operate anywhere— a coalition including not only Western Europe and our Asian allies, but also Russia and other former Soviet States, which have already been victims of terrorism themselves. Arab states such as Egypt and Algeria, well accustomed to terrorist threats, also seem willing to participate. But even if we set aside Iraq, the full cooperation of the predominantly Muslim nations is highly unlikely.

Although we now have a right and a duty to strike at any perpetrators we can identify, it seems to me far from certain that the kind of precision strikes in which the American military now specializes will be able to destroy Osama bin Laden, much less his organization, within Afghanistan. That country is very large—approximately 1000 by 400 miles of mostly mountainous terrain—and has a population of more than twenty million people. The Soviet Union had no success operating there; can our army expect much more? Can we really commit the resources necessary to establish law and order in a hostile country in which Muslim fundamentalists are the strongest political force? Can we conquer Iraq, which the Bush administration clearly suspects of complicity, at the same time? Is the western world prepared to re-occupy large portions of the Middle East for decades to come?

And there are further concerns. Bin Laden and his associates could flee to a neighboring country—Iraq is mostly likely. Is there any doubt that they would continue trying to mount fresh outrages? New security measures may make another incident like September 11 unlikely, but other kinds—some even worse—are entirely possible. Won’t a greater American presence in the region increase the number of their recruits? Might it not actually topple some friendly governments?

The new anti-terrorism coalition which must now form—and which needs, if at all possible, to work through the United Nations—must discover effective means of putting pressure on states that refuse to cooperate. These may include refusing to allow their nationals to live abroad—a draconian measure, certainly, but one that seems to be both logical and appropriate, given the difficulty of distinguishing innocent people from terrorists who threaten thousands of people. But perhaps most important of all, we must enlist all the nuclear powers of the world in an attempt to inventory and secure every single nuclear warhead in their possession. Clearly, the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center would have detonated such a warhead if they could have gotten their hands on it. This is the most urgent problem that we face.

Given the nature of modern society and its vulnerabilities, we will not be safe from hijackers and bombers until effective and cooperative political authorities essentially rule the world. Missile defense will do nothing to bring that about. No matter what happens, we will probably have to endure more attacks for at least ten years. We must try to establish some momentum toward a true new world order, and the role of traditional military force in this process is anything but clear.

David Kaiser, a historian, teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, 2000) .
[end article]

Certainly some of my comments were not born out.  Bin Laden did flee Afghanistan, but not to Iraq.  he fled to Pakistan, where the government evidently sheltered him for about a decade.  I did not realize the extent to which the transformation of the Middle East would become the goal of the Bush Administration, pushing anti-terrorism into the background.  The threat of nuclear terrorism turned out to be overblown.  Many of my concerns however have turned out to be more than warranted.  And because the establishments of both parties remained committed to this hopeless war, Donald Trump will now reap the political benefits of disengaging from it.  I am very happy to see that the whole, I kept my head while many around me (and above me) were losing theirs.  I was not the only one, but we were too few.  Now the attempt to extend the American empire seems to have led, by a circuitous route, to its global retreat, and perhaps to its end.

"

Saturday, February 22, 2020

It's early 1938 in America

The 2010s have resembled the 1930s in one critical respect:  both experienced the collapse of old political orders around the western world.  The laissez-faire capitalist order that had essentially ruled the United States since the Civil War fell victim to the Depression and gave way to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  In Germany, where the First World War had already destroyed the German empire that began it, the successor Weimar Republic--which put a new, shaky political structure on top of the same bureaucracies--also died during the Depression and gave way to Nazi totalitarianism.  The Spanish civil war brought Fascism to Spain.  The political systems in the powers that had won the First World War, Britain and France, survived the decade, although the French government lasted only until its defeat in 1940 and Britain under the wartime national government began to transform out of all recognition as well.  In the Far East, the Japanese military and naval leaders terrorized the civilian government into submission, paving the way for the Second World  War in Asia, while the Chinese state had to retreat into the interior to survive at all.

In today's west, the political elites that have governed the most important nations have lost the confidence of their peoples.  This has happened most dramatically in the United States and Britain, of course, where two demagogues, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have seized the reins of the leading conservative parties and won electoral victories of different sizes.  The established parties in Germany are steadily losing ground,   In France, Emmanuel Macron led a new majority party into power three years ago and is giving the best example anywhere in the West of a functioning democracy, even though some of his measures have aroused stiff opposition.   Because the United States remains the world's leading democracy--albeit, at the moment, one of the least inspiring ones--developments here are still crucial at least to the rest of the western world.  This week it has become clear that we have reached a turning point comparable to what Germany experienced early in the fateful year of 1938.

Gleichschaltung--roughly, "coordination"--was the German word the Nazis used to describe the way that they handled the established institutions of the Weimar Republic, whose constitution, as it happens, remained in force right up until the end of the Second World War.  It began in government ministries and spread to state and local governments, educational and artistic institutions, and some major economic institutions.  It did not involve wholesale purges of personnel.  Instead, it installed Nazi leadership in various institutions (although not all of them), removed some dissident or Jewish personnel, and began adapting institutional goals to Nazi purposes.  The bulk of officials fell into line.  Meanwhile, for the first five years of his rule, Hitler, like Trump, benefited from an expanding economy.  In neither case did the new leader deserve all the credit. The German recovery had begun in 1932, and the American one in 2010 or so.  In addition, although both new governments presided over full employment, that hardly meant that everyone was happy, especially in Germany, where shortages of basic goods had become a big problem by late 1935.

Meanwhile, Hitler had established new institutions to handle domestic security and law enforcement.  The SS and SA had created a network of concentration camps within months of his taking power, sending several hundred thousand political opponents into them for some months or years.  In 1936, Hermann Goering's Four Year Plan had begun reshaping the German economy to meet the needs of rearmament for war.  New bureaucracies began persecuting Jews, encouraging them to leave the country and eventually stripping them of citizenship.  Trump has done nothing comparable.  Even regarding immigration, where his treatment of illegals has some parallels with the Nazis' early policies towards Jews, he has relied on the ICE bureaucracy, although it has taken him some time to get leaders into power over ICE that share his views.  And in Germany, until 1938, the key national security bureaucracies--the ministries of foreign affairs and the army--remained firmly in traditional hands, advising against overly dangerous moves and reassuring potential foreign enemies.

That changed in early 1938, when Hitler suddenly removed his foreign minister, the diplomat Constantin von Neurath, and the War Minister, General Werner von Blomberg and Army Commander Werner von Fritsch.  The Nazis used more or less spurious accusations of personal misconduct to justify these moves.   Neurath gave way to the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, a wine salesman whom Hitler had made Ambassador to Britain, and Hitler abolished the post of war minister and took over the supreme command himself.  Relieved of any high-level opposition, Hitler proceeded to annex Austria and provoke the dangerous Munich crisis in the fall of 1938, enabling him to dismember Czechoslovakia and occupy most of it early in 1939.  The Nazi-Soviet pact and the outbreak of European war followed later in that year.

Donald Trump, as I have written several times before, has much more in common with the Emperor William II of Germany that with Adolf Hitler.  Unlike Hitler, he has no real ideology and no sweeping plans for the future.  While Hitler saw himself as the leader of the Aryan race in a struggle for existence against other races, Trump sees himself as lonely and embattled, almost without any real allies.  For this reason, Trump, unlike Hitler, has never been able to trust any man or woman with real independence and ability with serious responsibility.   Trump in addition lacks any real grasp of national economics or international politics, whereas Hitler had some real insights into both.  Trump spends his life trying to make his own views--his instincts and impulses--prevail against those of everyone around him.  Since so many of his views fail to reflect reality, this struggle never ends, and becomes more desperate as time goes on.   Like Hitler, Trump draws sustenance from a devoted mass following and from an adoring broadcast network.  The real innovation of the Republican Party in general and Trump in particular has been to allow the opposition press to function while simply ignoring its views, except to turn it into a whipping boy.  Active enemies apparently rally the base better than made-up ones.

It is now clear that Trump's control over the federal government has entered a new phase with two critical aspects.  First of all, anyone with his own strong views about anything has left the administration some time ago.  Mick Mulvaney is a shameless sycophant, and Mike Pompeo at State completely identifies with the President and labels anyone who challenges him as a Democratic plant.  William Barr has put the Justice Department firmly in the President's corner, despite his recent attempt to sound independent.  Richard Grenell, a very loose and partisan cannon as ambassador to Germany, has now become acting Director of National Intelligence, apparently to make sure that nothing reflecting badly the Trump Administration and its Moscow supporters leaks out.  He has hired Kashyap Patel, a former staffer to Trump acolyte (and Ukraine co-conspirator) Devin Nunes, to "clean house" in the intelligence committee, according to a report.  Robert O'Brien, the inexperienced national security adviser who replaced John Bolton, starts meetings on policy issues by handing out the presidential tweets on the subject and going from there.  And White House staffer Johnny McEntree, a former personal aide to the President, is looking through the State and Justice Departments for disloyal political employees to replace.  The federal government, in short, is looking more and more like the Trump organization--and we know how the great enterprises of that organization have turned out.

Trump, to repeat, is not Hitler.  Hitler's complete Gleichschaltung of the German national security establishment led almost immediately to a hopeless attempt to conquer Europe at the risk of world war, which in turn led to the destruction and long-term partition of his country.  Trump has no such plans, merely an overpowering need to feed his ego daily and persuade the world that he is indeed the smartest and most effective leader who has ever lived.  Illegal immigrants are by far the largest group personally threatened by his policies, although his administration is also rolling back various protections for gay and transgender people.  All of us, however, will suffer enormously from our government's descent into sycophancy and chaos.  It now lies with the voters to save us in November.  That is far from a hopeless prospect.  Nearly every trial heat shows Trump losing to any of his major Democratic rivals.  Polls in key individual states are also encouraging.  The supposed unelectability of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front runner, is not supported by the data at all.  The question is whether enough of our fellow citizens care enough about maintaining a functioning democratic government to vote out the man who is destroying it.  The survival of democracy here and elsewhere is once again the key issue of our crisis, just as in 1861 and 1932.



Friday, February 14, 2020

The Collapse of American Politics, Part II

The election of 2016, I have often remarked, showed that American politics as we have known them at least since 1960 had collapsed.  A serial bankrupt and reality tv star  had ridden fame and resentment to the White House--and neither major party had come up with a candidate who could beat him.  The situation was obviously particularly critical within the Republican Party, which could not field an effective candidate.  Hillary Clinton did, after all, win the popular vote by 3 million votes, although the Democratic nomination process showed her vulnerabilities as well.  Unfortunately, the biggest lesson of the 2020 primary process so far is that the collapse of our political system continues.   The Democratic Party this year is having the same problem that the Republicans had last time: it has not produced a national political figure who can win the nomination.

Many of the Democrats I know expected something completely different.  They saw AOC and the squad as the wave of the future after 2018 and thought that progressives were taking over the party as a prelude to taking over the country.  I think the early signs tell us clearly that this is not going to happen.  Yes, Bernie Sanders narrowly won the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but he got less than half the votes in New Hampshire that he got in 2016, and his fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren is rapidly dropping off the radar.  Fivethirtyeight.com shows him with the best chance of winning the nomination among the candidates, but it also shows a deadlocked convention as more likely.  On the Republican side, a consensus unity candidate might have beaten Trump in 2016, but no such person existed.  That is happening among the Democrats this year as well.  Joe Biden, upon whom the party establishment counted, is flaming out quickly, just as he did in 1988 and 2008.  The relatively centrist candidates from Generation X--Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker--crashed and burned before a single vote had been cast.  Pete Buttigieg (a Millennial) and Amy Klobuchar (a late-wave Boomer) have drawn some support based on their personalities and their demographic novelty, but neither one has shown much polling strength around the country.  The really interesting question about Buttigieg, it seems to me, is whether his big-tent moderation will prove to be more characteristic of Millennial politicians than Ocasio-Cortez's left wing militance. I suspect that the answer is yes.

The Democratic establishment needs a savior, but they are not turning to any elected Democratic official Instead, they have seized upon Michael Bloomberg, listed this month as the ninth-richest person in the U.S., with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $61.8 billion.  Bloomberg won his two terms as mayor of New York as a Republican.  Like Biden, he was born in 1942 and would turn 80 in the middle of his presidential term.  The billionaire (or, in Trump's case, self-proclaimed billionaire) candidate may become the norm in our politics.  The other Democratic candidate who has been gaining some ground lately is hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, whose net worth is estimated at $1.6 billion.  He has spent ten times more money than the next-highest candidate in both Nevada and South Carolina.  Such men can finance their own big tv ad campaigns, and they seem to have a stature among the public at large that politicians lack.  Our politicians, of both parties, have failed to address very real problems such as immigration, climate change, the impact of globalization, and the cost of health care for decades, and the public, at some level, knows it.  From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, the less experienced major candidate has won every one of the last seven elections.  That should tell us something about the American public's taste. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has used emergency powers that accumulated during the Cold War era to rewrite our Constitution.  He is building a border wall with Defense Department money that Congress appropriated for entirely different purposes.  This too could be a portent of things to come.

I am afraid that the reputation of politics and politicians may get worse as the year goes on. In 1956, when I was 9, I saw the Democratic convention take two ballots to decide a hot race for the vice-presidential nomination between Estes Kefauver and John F. Kennedy.  It was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen, but I did not know that it would be the last time that a convention had to take more than one ballot on anything for the next 60 years at least.  There is a good chance that it will happen at Milwaukee when the Democrats meet this summer--and if it does, the result will probably be disastrous.  Neither the convention chairman nor the delegations will have any experience with actual balloting, and the spectacle may make the Iowa caucuses look like a model of efficiency.  Donald Trump would benefit in such a case.  All this has profound causes on many fronts, and I hope to discuss them further in months to come.


Friday, February 07, 2020

Romney for Vice President?

I have said many times that we are in the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel in its own way to the periods 1774-94, 1860-68, and 1929-45.  Because the George W. Bush Administration squandered the feeling of national unity after 9/11 in disastrous, useless wars, and because the Republican party remains determined to undo the domestic order we inherited from the last crisis, this one has been marked by an increasing erosion of our political traditions and a disintegration of our political order.  A serial bankrupt and reality tv star now occupies the White House and rules the Republican Party with an iron hand, and he has survived his impeachment for perverting foreign policy to promote false allegations against a political rival.  We also face tremendous economic and environmental problems, but I am beginning to think that we will not really be able to address them without a major change in our political climate.  We need something dramatic to restore a sense of civic virtue to the nation.  A bipartisan government might do it.

Both Lincoln and FDR used this tactic in our last two great crises.  Three members of his wartime cabinet--Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair--came from the opposition Democratic Party.  In 1864, facing what looked like a difficult re-election campaign, Lincoln replaced his first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, with Tennessee Demorat Andrew Johnson, the only Senator from the Confederacy to remain in his seat and support the war for the Union after secession.  That selection, of course, turned out disastrously after Lincoln's assassination, when Johnson moved to allow the South to restore white supremacy without slavery, but it did help re-elect Lincoln and make victory possible.  FDR also drew on progressive Republicans from the beginning of his Administration, including Harold Ickes, his Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration.  He took another critical move in June 1940, when the fall of France and the threatened defeat of Britain had forced him to make serious preparations for war.

In that  month, Roosevelt replaced his Secretaries of War and of the Navy with two very prominent Republicans.  His fellow New Yorker Henry M. Stimson had already served as Secretary of War under Taft and Secretary of State  under Herbert Hoover, and he was now a key figure in efforts to sanction Japan for its war on China, and an advocate of a peacetime military draft.  Roosevelt's selection of him confirmed his own interest in a sudden, vast increase in the US Army.   Even more interesting was his choice of Chicago newspaper publisher Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy.  Knox, who had served in both the Spanish-American and First World Wars, had run for Vice President on the Republican ticket in 1936, violently attacking the whole New Deal in general and the new Social Security Act in particular.  Two years later, he had published an anti-New Deal Polemic, We Planned it that Way,  "Without fully recognizing it," he wrote, "Mr. Roosevelt has taken us far along the path of socialism.  This path leads straight into Communism, Nazism, Fascism,  or whatever 'ism' the fancy of the moment dictates it be called."  But Knox also believed in a strong US Navy, and he and Roosevelt had maintained friendly relations.  About 8 months earlier, in the fall of 1939, Roosevelt had offered him the Navy Department, but Knox had declined so as not to anger his fellow Republicans. Now he accepted.  Senior Republicans blasted both men of joining the hated New Deal Administration, but Roosevelt won another smashing election victory in November 1940, and Stimson and Knox remained at their posts through all or most of the war.   Meanwhile, Britain had moved in the same direction.  Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister in May 1940 partly because Britain obviously needed a truly national government in its time of trial, and the leaders of the Labor and Liberal Parties would not serve with Neville Chamberlain.  Ministers from those parties sat in the Cabinet all the way through the war.

This year's Democratic candidate, whoever it turns out to be, might take a comparable step by selecting Mitt Romney as his vice presidential candidate.  Since his decision to vote to convict President Trump of abusing his powers, Romney has become a symbol--almost our only one--of nonpartisan commitment to our fundamental civic values.  He decided that the fate of the country was more important than his standing with his fellow Republicans--and the Democrats' chances in November depend to some extent on convincing Republican voters of the same thing.  His policy stances in 2012 were those of a mainstream 21st century Republican and there were few if any of them that I agreed with, but he showed a lot of political flexibility as governor of Massachusetts, and he need not have any great influence upon policy in a Democratic administration in any event.  Alas, one aspect of the current situation militates against such a choice.  538.com now lists Bernie Sanders as a narrow favorite to win the most delegates (although not necessarily to win a majority before the convention.)  Sanders will turn 79 this year and recently had a heart attack, and many Democrats would oppose the risk of Romney succeeding him should he become the candidate.  Vice President Biden is nearly as old, although his chances have taken a big hit and may well take another next Tuesday in New Hampshire.  The process of selecting a presidential nominee threatens to be long and difficult.  Whoever wins, the party and the nation might benefit from a selection clearly designed to foster greater national unity.

Both sides, in our current political struggle, cherish the fantasy that it can end with a complete victory of the competing ideas of either Republicans or Democrats.  I do not believe that it can.  We need more of a consensus and we may need to build it upon genuine respect for our institutions, rather than specific policy outcomes.  This week, Mitt Romney did his part to contribute to that process.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Keynes and Us

In the last week I finished a remarkable book, Money and Government, by the British historian Robert Skidelsky.  Eight years older than I am, Skidelsky made his reputation writing a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, which appeared between 1983 and 1992.   This exhaustive work--most of which I have not read--paid tribute to the man who provided the theory behind the enormous economic success of the middle third of the twentieth century.  I too had learned to revere him in my youth, and have been almost as astonished to find him become unfashionable in my middle and old age.

Keynes was the hero of by far my most important course as a Harvard freshman in 1965-6, Economics 1.  As I described in my autobiography (see above), the course spent the first term on microeconomics and the second, more important term on macroeconomics.  Microeconomics focused on the theory of competitive markets and the Pareto optimum, which, it was easy to see then, was an ideal type (a concept I learned later) with only very intermittent relation to reality.  Firms large and small were always looking for edges that would make markets less competitive, to prevent the market from driving profit down to the affordable minimum.  Macroeconomics, on the other hand, were in the midst of the climax of the Keynesian era, which had saved both capitalism and civilization.

Classical theory held that national economies naturally reached an equilibrium, and that disturbances came from non-economic factors like famine, war, or unwise government policy.  Classical economists and their allies in national banks and treasury ministries believed that economies would self-correct, provided the banking system maintained stable prices.  For much of the 19th century this seemed like a reasonable approximation of the truth, since all the advanced economies grew quite impressively and prices remained stable, even though serious panics occurred at least every 20 years or so.  Things changed, however, in the wake of the First World War, and especially, of course, during the Great Depression.  Keynes, a Cambridge academic who had also worked in the British Treasury during the war, had too much respect for reality to stick to the old theory in the midst of inflation and depression in the 1920s and 1930s.  He eventually argued in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that national economies could reach a kind of equilibrium that involved high unemployment, without any natural countervailing force operating to reduce it.  He also realized that savings did not necessarily turn into investment, and argued that when private interests failed to invest enough of their wealth to stimulate the economy, the government had to use that money itself--obtained if necessary by borrowing--for investment in public goods that would stimulate the economy effectively.  That was, of course, also the theory, in a very raw form, of FDR's New Deal, although Roosevelt got the nation and the world economy back into serious trouble again in 1937 when he decided to try to balance the budget,  helping to trigger another serious recession.  In Keynes' own Britain, however, no government tried his prescription seriously until the Second World War came.  And indeed, Skidelsky's first book--probably his Ph.d thesis--entitled, Politicians  and the Slump, described how the Labour Government of 1929-31 failed to try to Keynesian remedy when the Depression hit, and split itself and formed a government with the Tories instead.

I used that book to write one of the presentations I gave in my first-year graduate school colloquium in the spring of 1972.  I had been brought up in a New Deal household, I had read Arthur Schlesinger's New Deal histories at a pretty early age, and I had also learned in Economics 1 how well the Keynesian theory had been working the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.  Indeed, I recall how my section man, David Major, in our very last class, remarked that the economics profession had made remarkable strides in solving macroeconomic problems in recent years, but not in microeconomic ones.  I also remember that he spent about 20 minutes of one class talking about the bizarre ideas of a rogue economist named Milton Friedman, then regarded as an oddball. "I think it's good for you to be exposed to this," he said.

Skidelsky's new book is a survey of large-scale economic thought since th 18th century, focusing on the rise and fall of Keynesianism.  Clearly he, like me, never imagined that the man to whom he devoted several decades of his life, and who had done so much to create the benevolent world that he and I grew up in, could become so unfashionable.  But he has, and Skidelsky explains how.  The pretext for discarding him was the advent of stagflation--a combination of high unemployment and veyr high inflation--that hit the western world, and especially Britain, in the 1970s and 1980s.  Keynesians had not anticipated this and had no remedy for it.  Others, however, eagerly seized upon this to repudiate the whole Keynesian model, because they wanted to restore the economic sovereignty of private enterprise and eliminate the government as a competitor for the use of capital, and accumulator of revenue, and a serious regulator of private enterprise.  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Paul Volcker of the Fed tossed the Keynesian idea out the window, and in the 1990s Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not really pick it up again.  The idea of the economy as a benevolent self-regulating mechanism returned to favor, and from about 1990 to 2006,  the combination of steady growth and lower inflation seemed to favor it.

I cannot take the time to summarize Skidelsy's academic arguments. Suffice it to say that the neo-classical model of economics that once again dominates the profession relies on an absurd view of human nature, as he realizes.  Economic men and woman ruthlessly maximize their well-being, always buying at the lowest available price, investing eagerly at equilibrium interest rates, and willingly working for the prevailing wage.  Unemployment, this view holds, occurs when prevailing wages are too high, period.  Markets, such as the housing market (!!) regulate themselves far better than any government bureaucrat could.  Economics, I think, attracts a lot of scholars attracted to the beauty of mathematical theory--but not to the study of actual reality.  Such is the hegemony of a certain set of ideas, however, that one can spot only a few dissenters such as my old friend Jamie Galbraith here and there on the horizon, and they do not exert significant influence in either Republican or Democratic administrations, or Labour or Tory governments in Britain.

The great financial crash of 2008 grew out of the absurd new faith in unregulated markets, which, combined with cheap money, had allowed the big banks to create an enormous subprime mortgage bubble, one that would have destroyed the world economy when it burst without the massive intervention of the government.  This time however Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner showed no interest in Keynesian intervention as the primary solution (although the Obama stimulus was a significant Keynesian move.)  Indeed, Bernanke in particular wanted to show that Hoover and FDR had chosen the wrong remedy by spending more government money instead of just restoring liquidity in the banking system--a term which meant, in practice, buying up all the worthless trillions of assets on the balance sheets of the banking system with money created by the federal reserve.  That, and the stimulus, did lead to a fairly successful recovery in the US, although inequality continued to increase.  But it has not done so in Europe, where economies have grown very slowly now for well over a decade, while central bankers, just like their counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s, continue to insist on austerity.  And as a result, the established parties in nearly every European country are losing ground, particularly to right-wing populists.

Skidelsky's last chapters are chilling.  He was trained as an historian, not an economist, and he knew at an early age that bad, traditional economic policy had done a lot to destroy democracy in parts of Europe--most notably in Germany--in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Now, he argues, the insistence on neoclassical economic principles and on depriving national governments of a major economic role has crippled politics in much of the West.  Private interests and national banks, not elected officials, are the most important actors in our economic system, which they have organized for their own benefit.  The financial community in particular has taken advantage of deregulation to find many new ways to create, and hoard, enormous sums of money that benefit no one but themselves.   The most advanced western nations face critical shortages of many public goods such as infrastructure.  Millions of voters in the west now understand this and are repudiating the established politicians who have gone along with it.  Free trade and globalization are two other shibboleths of modern economic thought, and Skidelsky feels they need to be held back as well because of their disastrous economic impact in older industrial areas and their political consequences.  Many nations in past eras such as the late 19th century, he points out, prospered under protectionist regimes.  We need, he argues, new policies, and new economic thinking to go with them.  He does refer at one point to Thomas Piketty's 2014 work Capital in the Twenty-First Century and to its principle finding--borrowed, actually, from Karl Marx--that capital naturally grows more quickly under capitalism than the economy.  This still seems to me to be the biggest single reason that a Keynesian approach involving high taxes (including taxes on capital) and high spending on public goods is necessary to get us off the path that we are on now.

I completely agree with Skidelsky that the hegemony of the idea of self-regulating economies has crippled political power in the West.  The problem continually gets worse, of course, because our unregulated economies channel more and more of our wealth into a very few hands, increasing both their political and economic influence.  Our generations--Skidelsky's and mine--are victims of our parents' success.  They had to focus on public goods, broadly defined, to defeat the Depression, win the Second World War, and set up the western alliance for the Cold War.  Now that those threats have faded, the government seems to lack a compelling reason to mobilize private resources.  Worst of all, deeply flawed classical theories of economics remain hegemonic because they benefit the wealthy--whose largesse universities now need more than ever.  Like me, Skidelsky has remained faithful to what he learned in his youth--but he is now 80, and few replacements seem to be emerging either from our politics or from academia, and his remarkable book has gotten very little attention.  I learned about it from a very favorable review in The New York Review of Books, but even that review, I know think, didn't do justice to its scope.  It was panned, not surprisingly, in the Wall Street Journal, and it has not been reviewed at all in the daily or Sunday New York Times or in the Washington Post. 


Friday, January 24, 2020

Endless War and Political Collapse


18 years after 9/11, American foreign policy in the Middle East lies in tatters.  In Afghanistan, the US government is searching for a way to end its military involvement that will not result in the immediate victory of the Taliban, which we invaded the country in 2001 to overthrow.  Iraq, which the Bush Administration saw as the keystone of a new Middle East, remains wracked by civil war, and its government, for the second time, is trying to force the withdrawal of American forces from its territory.  President Trump, we have just learned, is about to issue a Middle East peace plan that will give the Israelis more concessions than they have ever dared to ask for in public.  The Arab spring overthrew the authoritarian government of Egypt with US encouragement, only to see a democratic experiment end in a military coup just a few years later.  The US decision to help bring down the Libyan government created chaos in yet another state, and triggered a destabilizing flood of refugees into Europe.  A similar attempt in Syria has failed completely.  Russian influence in the region has substantially increased, the US abandoned its Kurdish allies on the Turkish-Syrian border, and the Trump Administration foolishly abandoned the nuclear agreement with Iran, a significant step towards peaceful coexistence in the region.  Now Iran and the US stand on the brink of armed conflict.

Yet for all that, the foreign policy consequences of the Bush Administration’s decision to reshape the Middle East—which the Obama Administration in many ways adopted for itself—are no more significant, I think, than its domestic consequences.  The election of 2016 marked the collapse the American political system.  Neither major party could field a candidate who could defeat an oft-bankrupted businessman and reality television star who obviously lacked both the intellectual and temperamental qualifications to be President.  At least 50% of the voting-age population had evidently lost all confidence in our governing elite.  One reason, undoubtedly, was the complete failure of the US government’s major enterprise in the new century, our attempt to subdue or influence large areas of the Middle East.

About 25 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe, two amateur historians, discovered an 80-year rhythm in American history in two books, Generations(1991) and The Fourth Turning(1997).  The great crisis of 1774-1794 had thrown off British rule, written the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, and given the nation a new government.  About 80 years later, in 1860-65, the Civil War had restored the union, ended slavery, and changed the relationship between the federal government and the states forever.  80 years after that, Franklin Roosevelt once again transformed the government’s role both at home and abroad during the Depression and the Second World War.  Each of these crises had created a new order and established a new ideological and social consensus.  That consensus, in each case, had begun to erode 20-40 years after the crisis, and the erosion accelerated when the generation that had lived through it as young adults aged, lost power, and died off.   One of the many things I learned from their books is that no government wins the support of its people simply because of the design of its institutions: it must win their trust by accomplishing great things and mobilizing resources for common aims.  That is what Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson had done in the first crisis, Lincoln and Grant in the second, and Roosevelt and Marshall and many others in the third.  But this was not all. Doing the math back in the 1990s, Strauss (who died in 2007) and Howe observed the decline of the post-1945 order that went along with the aging of the GI (or “greatest”) generation, and predicted a new great crisis that would once again reshape the United States during the first 15 years of the 21st century.  That prediction has now come true, but with disastrous consequences they did not predict.  This time our luck ran out and our leaders embarked upon a hopeless crusade.

2001 was only 72 years after the stock market crash had kicked off the last great crisis, but the new Administration of George W. Bush had big plans in both foreign and domestic policy which it eagerly moved to implement after 9/11.  Specifically, they wanted to take down hostile dictatorships in at least three countries—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—under a new doctrine that asserted the right to move unilaterally against any regime that sought weapons that the United States did not think it should have.  That was, among other things, a risky strategy domestically.   During the preceding 60 years American military power had first defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, and then held the line, on many fronts, in the Cold War.  The tragic decision to deploy hundreds of thousands of Americans in Southeast Asia—which failed to achieve its objective—had dealt the first huge blow to the postwar consensus.  The foreign policy elite, as Andrew Bacevich showed in Washington Rules, had not abandoned its belief in the utility of American force around the world, but our political and military leadership had stayed out of any major conflict during the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, allowing them to maintain their prestige.  George. H. W. Bush had fought a limited war against Iraq in 1991, but he had done so only as the leader of a very broad coalition, and with the limited objective of restoring the independence of Kuwait.  After 9/11, however, the new Bush Administration cast caution to the winds, defining a new generational task of spreading democracy through the Muslim world, largely by eliminating hostile regimes.  To do so, they took advantage of an outburst of national feeling after 9/11, which, like Fort Sumer and Pearl Harbor, created a bipartisan consensus behind new wars.  At the same time, they embarked upon a crusade for energy independence, one that drew little notice at the time, but which has now succeeded—in its own terms, at least—with other huge economic, environmental and political consequences. And the decision to combine new wars with tax cuts instead of tax increases turned a budget surplus into a huge permanent deficit that has made it much harder for the government to deal with domestic problems.

Karl Rove and George W. Bush clearly hoped to create a new Republican majority based in part on successes overseas.  This they failed to do when the war in Iraq went badly, and other failures at home, culminating in the financial crisis, reduced the Republican Party to minority status once again from 2006 to 2010.  Barack Obama could probably have reversed key Bush policies both at home and abroad, but for the most part, he declined to do so.  He did eventually withdraw our troops from Iraq, but he increased them in Afghanistan.  As we have seen, he too adopted regime change as a Middle East policy in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, with similarly disastrous results.  He had to put US troops back into Iraq to cope with ISIS.  He continued the spread of the “war on terror” into more continents, and it has now become business as usual in the US military establishment.  In 2016 the Democratic Party fielded former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a frequent supporter of military action abroad and the architect of the Libyan disaster. 

Tens of millions of American voters have lost confidence in our political leadership for domestic reasons as well.  Both parties embraced and pushed globalization without regard to its impact on many American communities.  Both deregulated the economy in ways that have allowed inequality to increase.  Both are more responsive to special interests of one kind or another than to the needs of average Americans.  Yet the decision of both parties to pursue endless, worse than useless wars in distant lands has surely contributed a great deal to the fraying of their relationships with the electorate.  These wars have turned out to be a political luxury that the nation could not afford.


Saturday, January 18, 2020

The State of US Publishing



I now belong to an organization called the Independent Publishers of New England, and it sent an email around last week summarizing trends in publishing.  The email is about four years old, but I'm sure the trends it describes have continued.  It does not bode well for the future of serious writing.  Here it is.

Steven Piersanti, President, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Updated September 26, 2016
1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. According to the latest Bowker Report (September 7, 2016), more than 700,000 books were self-published in the U.S. in 2015, which is an incredible increase of 375% since 2010. And the number of traditionally published books had climbed to over 300,000 by 2013 according to the latest Bowker figures (August 5, 2014). The net effect is that the number of new books published each year in the U.S. has exploded by more than 600,000 since 2007, to well over 1 million annually. At the same time, more than 13 million previously published books are still available through many sources. Unfortunately, the marketplace is not able to absorb all these books and is hugely oversaturated. [Note: self-published books topped 1,000,000 in 2018.]

2. Book industry sales are stagnant, despite the explosion of books published.

U.S. publishing industry sales peaked in 2007 and have either fallen or been flat in subsequent years, according to reports of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Similarly, despite a 2.5% increase in 2015, U.S. bookstore sales are down 37% from their peak in 2007, according to the Census Bureau (Publishers Weekly, February 26, 2016).

3. Despite the growth of e-book sales, overall book sales are still shrinking.

After skyrocketing from 2008 to 2012, e-book sales leveled off in 2013 and have fallen more than 10% since then, according to the AAP StatShot Annual 2015. Unfortunately, the decline of print sales outpaced the growth of e-book sales, even from 2008 to 2012. The total book publishing pie is not growing—the peak sales year was in 2007—yet it is being divided among ever more hundreds of thousands of print and digital books.

4. Average book sales are shockingly small—and falling fast.
Combine the explosion of books published with the declining total sales and you get shrinking sales of each new title. According to BookScan—which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books (including Amazon.com)—only 256 million print copies were sold in 2013 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined (Publishers Weekly, January 1, 2016). The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.

5. A book has far less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

For every available bookstore shelf space, there are 100 to 1,000 or more titles competing for that shelf space. For example, the number of business titles stocked ranges from less than 100 (smaller bookstores) to up to 1,500 (superstores). Yet there are several hundred thousand business books in print that are fighting for that limited shelf space.

6. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.

Many book categories have become entirely saturated, with a surplus of books on every topic. It is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than thirteen million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time. Result: investing the same amount today to market a book as was invested a few years ago will yield a far smaller sales return today.

7. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

Everyone in the potential audiences for a book already knows of hundreds of interesting and useful books to read but has little time to read any. Therefore people are reading only books that their communities make important or even mandatory to read. There is no general audience for most nonfiction books, and chasing after such a mirage is usually far less effective than connecting with one’s communities.

8. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.

Publishers have managed to stay afloat in this worsening marketplace only by shifting more and more marketing responsibility to authors, to cut costs and prop up sales. In recognition of this reality, most book proposals from experienced authors now have an extensive (usually many pages) section on the authors’ marketing platform and what the authors will do to publicize and market the books. Publishers still fulfill important roles in helping craft books to succeed and making books available in sales channels, but whether the books move in those channels depends primarily on the authors.

9. No other industry has so many new product introductions.

Every new book is a new product, needing to be acquired, developed, reworked, designed, produced, named, manufactured, packaged, priced, introduced, marketed, warehoused, and sold. Yet the average new book generates only $50,000 to $150,000 in sales, which needs to cover all of these new product introduction expenses, leaving only small amounts available for each area of expense. This more than anything limits how much publishers can invest in any one new book and in its marketing campaign.

10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing (such as the disappearance over the past decade of over 500 independent bookstores and the Borders bookstore chain). Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

STRATEGIES FOR RESPONDING TO “THE 10 AWFUL TRUTHS”
1. The game is now pass-along sales.
2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.
3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.
5. Master new digital channels for sales, marketing, and community building.
6. Build books around a big new idea.
7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short. [end email.]

My comments:

    Great books, both fiction and non-fiction, are works of art.  Authors who can write them are extremely rare--and the capacity to write them has nothing to do with race, gender, or sexuality.  From the 18th until the late 20th century, I would argue, the major western nations had some mechanism--however imperfect--for identifying, publishing, and marketing really superior works, and large segments of the public would read them.  Most published books fell far short of greatness, and some great authors labored in obscurity, but the overall mechanism worked fairly well.

      That is no longer the case.  I personally think that publishing has self-destructed by giving in to the values of marketing, and looking for niches and trying to replicate previous successes.  The same thing has happened to film. In such an environment, a truly original work has little or no chance of being taken by a major publisher or even represented by an agent--since the agents' role is now to anticipate what the publishers want.  I realized quite  a few years ago that most of my favorite books would never be accepted for publication today.

      One can, as I did last year, publish work one's self, but it's very difficult, even with professional  help, to get effective publicity for it.

      Thus to every writer with serious aspirations, I would recommend this passage from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece, The First Circle, set in a Soviet technical institute that doubles as a prison camp.  The inmates are engineers and scientists, and one of them, Sologdin, has just presented a breakthrough design to the  learned Professor Chelnov, whose political unorthodoxy landed him in Stalin's prison system a long time ago.   The project is a scrambler telephone--ordered for the personal use of Comrade Stalin himself.  Sologdin is not sure that he wants to submit his breakthrough to the institute's leadership at all. I quote:

"How shall I put it? [asked Sologdin.]  Isn't there perhaps a certain moral ambiguity?. . .It's not as if it were a bridge, or a crane or a lathe.  Our assignment is not for something of great importance to industry--it's more like making a gadget for the boss.  And when I think of this particular 'customer' picking up the receiver we'll make for him. . . .Well, anyway, so far I've been working on it just. . .to test my strength. For myself."

"He looked up.

"'For myself.'  Chelnov knew all about this kind of work.  As a rule it was research of the highest order."

Yup.






Saturday, January 11, 2020

Rotten in Denmark

This week I watched the amazing HBO miniseries, Chernobyl.  The production had one feature that left me chuckling all the way through the first episode: it follows the American cinematic tradition that all foreigners must speak with British accents.  The performances and the whole production were so good, however, that this didn't bother me for long.  The high drama of the story begins when some Russians in a high rise apartment actually see, and hear, what they do not know is a nuclear explosion.  It then turns to the battle to contain the disaster before something much worse happens.  Without some quick thinking and the sacrifice of some emergency workers to radiation sickness, water tanks around the reactor might have turned to steam and created a four megaton explosion sending radioactive fuel all over Belarus and Ukraine and making huge areas uninhabitable forever.  I was also struck in the first episode by parallels to Randy Shilts's classic about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On.  While some smart people low in their hierarchies immediately grasp at least that they are dealing with something completely new and different, higher management refuses to believe it.  In the last episodes of the series, however, as the government of the USSR tries to handle the aftermath, another analogy occurred to me--one with tragic historical implications, and terrifying contemporary ones.

The two heroes of the story are nuclear physicists who not only help bring the disaster under control, but try to understand how it happened.  One, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, whom I recognized from Mad Men, but not from some of his other work), was a very real person; the other, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is a composite, as the closing credits point out, introduced in part to give Legasov some one to talk to.  In the course of their investigation they realize that while operator error played a big part in the disaster, it did not tell the whole story.  A design flaw in the reactor--one of more than 20 of the same type in the USSR--led directly to the explosion at the critical moment.  This the government of the USSR, now led by Mikhail Gorbachev, refused to admit.  At the climax of the series, in the trial of the operators whom the regime wanted to blame for the whole catastrophe, Legasov, who knew that his own radiation exposure during the disaster was certain to kill him fairl soon, told the truth.  He lost his career as a result, and committed suicide a few years later.

This triggered my memory of a book I haven't looked into for more than 40 years, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, the first volume in his huge, multi-volume historical novel of the Russian Revolution, The Red Wheel. (It's the only volume I've read.)  The Legasov of August 1914 is fictional: Colonel Georgi Mihailovich Vorotynsev, who is suddenly attached to General Samsonov, the commander of the Second Army, now advancing into East Prussia in the first month of the war.  Vorotynsev, Solzehnitsyn explains, belonged to a group of younger officers of relatively modest origins who had witnessed first hand the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5, which included both a humiliating military defeat and a revolution that had nearly toppled the throne.  They had tried to learn from this experience and from the example of Germany, their foe in this war.  They knew that another defeat might mean the end of the empire, although they did not know what would follow it.  As the book continues, Vorotynsev watches in helpless fury as the higher-ups botch the campaign, eventually bringing it to a disastrous conclusion by ordering a completely unnecessary retreat.  Then, in the wake of catastrophe, he gets the opportunity to attend a postmortem conference that includes the very highest authorities of the Russian Army, and he is determined to discuss the broader failures within that army that led to the disaster, rather than simply blame Samsonov, who, like Legasov about 75 years later, has committed suicide.  I have never forgotten the riveting argument he has with one of his best friends, who counsels him to keep his mouth shut, since speaking out will only ruin his own career while remaining silent might allow him to do some good.  What made the scene so riveting to me as a graduate student back in 1972 was the knowledge that the argument was meaningless in the context of the history to come.  The whole system, we knew then, had only two and a half years to live, and nothing Vorotynsev could do could change that.  As it was, he did speak out, only to be excused from the conference when he became too frank. 

And the same was true, of course, of the USSR in 1986, when Legasov, according to the miniseries, told the authorities at the trial that the reactor explosion had been so disastrous because the authorities had refused to find the necessary resources for containment towers and other safety features that were standard in the West.  The authorities' refusal to face facts, to admit error, and to listen to lower-level officials who had not given up their power to think had led the whole regime to the brink of collapse, and they went over it just a few years later as well.  Gorbachev, indeed, once remarked that Chernobyl was the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  I would call it the last attack of a progressive disease that was bound to result in death, sooner or later, whatever the specific symptoms of the final crisis.  And I cannot help noting once again that the collapses of 1917 and 1989 were separated by 72 years--not exactly the 80 anticipated by Strauss and Howe, but close enough, as one might say, for good meta-history.

We do not live in an empire or a party dictatorship.  In  my opinion we have too little central authority over our institutions today, not too much.  Yet I could not watch Chernobyl and review August 1914 without asking myself if our leading institutions are not similarly corrupt, and whether the election three years ago of Donald Trump signals a more general collapse that will have undreamed of consequences.

Certainly this does look true in the institutions I know best, our institutions of higher learning.  They operate almost entirely for their own benefit now, run by bloated bureaucracies.  The few men and women they still contain who really care about their educational mission keep to themselves and never reach positions of power and influence.   They are dominated by an ideology that has very little resonance among the public at large, and which actively undermines faith in our institutions.  The public knows that they cost much too much and has some sense of their ideological nature, but it does not realize how bad the education they provide has gotten. They provide a gateway to our economic elite.  They no longer create a real intellectual one.

Much of the corporate world has also lost any sense of responsibility.  Wall Street had no real second thoughts after a speculative frenzy brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, and successfully fought off any attempts at major reform.  The food industry inflates its profits by addicting us to fat, sugar and salt.  Purdue Pharma, we have learned, pushed the addiction of millions of Americans to its new legal narcotics, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands and the destruction of their families--and no one has ever been criminally charged for it.  A recent New York Times story reported that most of the pharmaceutical firms that have been trying to develop desperately needed new antibiotics to fight superbugs have shut their doors, partly because there isn't enough profit in drugs that cure a fatal illness within a week or so.  And today's New York Times describes horrifying internal communications within Boeing, whose refusal to spend the money on essential simulator training for pilots of the new 737 Max reminds me of Purdue's refusal to admit their drug was addictive.  And perhaps our most powerful institutions--our energy companies--have decided to do everything they can to avoid any attempt to deal with global warming.  Meanwhile, our government remains paralyzed by partisanship, unable to deal with any of the problems I have listed here, or many others as well.

The cycle of greatness, decline and renewal has of course dominated history  since the beginning of recorded time.  Exactly how far we shall fall, what the consequences might be, and what we can do now, I do not know.  Yet I could not watch this miniseries and review this book without raising these questions.  Legasov and Vorotynsev rightly argued that only a proper diagnosis could lead to a real cure.  In that spirit I have written this, perhaps the most important post I have made here in the last 15 years.  I hope it will be widely shared.