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.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Postmodernism in the mainstream

The great crisis that the United States is passing through has many different elements.  Politically, for more than three years, an incompetent, almost illiterate demagogue has occupied the White House, showing that he is in every way incompetent to function as President of the United States.  The Republican Party has done nothing about this because he has given it so much of what they wanted. Medically we face the worst epidemic since 1918, and our initial success in cutting down its spread is now threatened in large part because of the President's incompetence.  Economically we have had an economic collapse without parallel in its rapidity, and we really have no idea of how we shall get out of it.  It is an intellectual crisis, however, which I want to talk about today, because I think I provide some understanding of how we got where we are today.

Reading the first fifteen inaugural addresses and 46 state of the union addresses of the Presidents--the source material for the book I am now writing--has brought home to me clearly that the United States was founded as an Enlightenment experiment.  Our founders were not starry-eyed idealists.  They had grappled first hand with the most serious political issues, they had fought a revolution that was in part a civil war, and they had watched the British constitution--which they had valued as the most enlightened government on earth--try to impose tyranny upon themselves.  They had also read histories of ancient Greece and Rome and knew how early republics had become tyrannies. Attempting to establish a government based upon complete political equality among the citizenry--an entirely new experiment in the western world at that time--they spoke frequently of the dangers of the abuse of power.  They also understood that only an educated citizenry that was alive to the dangers of too much passion in politics could make the new nation work.  

This heritage is threatened now on both sides of the political spectrum.  Nearly 20 years ago, a high official of the George W. Bush Administration--generally thought to have been Karl Rove--placed that administration in opposition to what he called the "reality-based community." "We're an empire now," he said, "and we create our own reality."  Now our president recreates reality to satisfy his own unconscious several times a day, and his whole staff and an entire television network bow, scrape, salute, and go forth to preach the new gospel.  Yet things are not that much better on the other side of the political fence.  I want to illustrate this by discussing two letters that were published this past week. Then I want to draw on my own experience as an academic to try to explain where new views, increasingly in the ascendant, originated.

The first letter, signed by about 150 journalists, academics, and artists, was published early last week on the web site of Harper's magazine. While applauding recent protests for racial and social justice, they reject "a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity." They specifically cite a number of specific newsworthy incidents without mentioning any names. "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes." "This stifling atmosphere," they continue, "will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes."  The signatories include some of the best-known names in journalism, the arts, and literature, including Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Linda Greenhouse, Randall Kennedy, Mark Lilla, Winton Marsalis, George Packer, Orlando Patterson, J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Gary Wills, and Fareed Zakaria.  The list, as you can see, is very diverse with respect to both race and gender.   On the other hand, although I do not have the time to look everyone up, the list does not, sadly, seem to be very diverse with respect to age.  The vast majority of signatories come from the Silent and Boom generations.

Before turning to the reply, I want to talk about the developments in academia over the last forty years or so that lie behind it.  

During the 1980s, new views of reality, language, and the nature of intellectual life became popular.  Their most important exponent was probably the French historian Michel Foucault, and they rapidly came to dominate both gender studies and racial and ethnic studies.  They held, to begin with, that language was the ultimate reality and the medium through which politics took place.  It always seemed to me quite understandable that that principle became popular in academia, because it does quite accurately describe academic reality, though not reality out in the real world.  At any given moment in disciplines like history and literary criticism, certain ideas and approaches are particularly popular, and careers are indeed made, and occasionally broken, by choices to go with the flow.  The exponents of the most popular ideas hold academic power.  What academics often forget, however, is that the citizenry at large often knows little and cares even less about their intellectual flavor of the month, because they live in their own world.

The second key aspect of postmodernism was the identification of power--expressed through language--with particular demographic groups.  This was not new.  Marxists had long argued, with some justice, that economically dominant classes more easily got their messages across than poorer ones.  The new categories, however, turned on gender and race, not wealth.  Straight white males, the new orthodoxy came to argue, had dominated intellectual discourse--and had used this dominance to advance their own interests at others' expense.  Meanwhile, the voices of women, nonwhites, gays, and (later) transgender folk had been "marginalized".  It is very clear, I think, why this world view became so popular among academics who were not straight white males--to the point where very few straight white males dared to speak out against it or to put forward any alternative views of what history or literary criticism should be.  For many (though never all) female or nonwhite academics, the new orthodoxy not only defined the problem, but prescribed the cure: to hire them, allowing them to correct a centuries-old power imbalance by "giving voices" to their own groups.  Their perspective deserved more space because it had had so little in the past--and no straight white male had the right to question it, since to do so would simply try to maintain the previous power balance.  And every perspective was equally valid, regardless of the relative numbers of people belonging to a particular demographic.  

Being myself a straight white male who has spent his life writing (mostly, although not exclusively) about the doings of other straight white males, I have to take a moment now to put forth an alternative view.  My books were never about unified attempts of straight white males to dominate women or other racial groups (although imperialism played an important role in some of them.)  They were about arguments, struggles, and wars among different white males, who often had very different views of what the world should look like and what appropriate decisions in certain situations might be.  That dynamic, it seems to me, has shaped far more of the history of the western world than conflicts between demographics.  That view is now directly threatened, however, especially with respect to the history of the United States.  The New York Times's 1619 Project, which I wrote about at length in an earlier post, argued that slavery and the oppression of black people was "central" to the American experiment from the beginning.  Now slavery was already central to society in the southern colonies, but it certainly was not central to the issues that led the colonies to fight a war for independence. In addition, as I pointed out just last week, the founders made sure that it was not central to the new Constitution, by refusing even to mention it explicitly or to give it any permanent legal sanction.  It is time now, however, to return to the issue at hand.

A reply to the Harper's letter, also signed by about 150 people, appears to have been published yesterday.  The signatories include many academics, writers, and journalists, who are much less well known.  That is, in a sense their point. Their argument is a perfect representation of the ideology that I described in the last three paragraphs.

"The signatories," they write, "many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country."  This sentence, I must remark, exemplifies another aspect of postmodernist scholarship that I have encountered many times: when you check their footnotes, the original source doesn't say what they claim it does.  The original letter never says that its signatories fear being silenced themselves or losing their own jobs.  It pleads the case of much younger people who have lsot their jobs and advocates freedom of expression in principle.  The response, however, in good post-modernist fashion, has to deny that any such thing as the advocacy of free expression in principle even exists.  In its view, no one ever advocates for speech except on behalf of their own demographic or class.

The next paragraph is equally revealing:

"The letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes 'that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level.' Since the letter was published, some commentators have used Williams’s presence and the presence of other non-white writers to argue that the letter presents a selection of diverse voices. But they miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing."

The quote from Thomas Chatterton Williams is designed to discredit him.  Any good postmodernist now thinks that racism is systemic, structural, and bound up with white and black identities to an extent that none of us can possibly escape.  The last sentence is key: because, in their view, "marginalized voices" have been silenced for generations--a statement which would have surprised a long list of black and female writers going back for over a century that I could make--no one else can be allowed to complain about infringements upon other speech untl the balance has been redressed. How many years, decades or centuries that will take, they do not say.  I am struck, by the way, by the letter's failure in this paragraph to refer at all to marginalization based on gender.  This reflects the current moment. The controversy over the death of George Floyd has definitely put gender equality on the back burner.  

Continuing, the reply argues that the original letter is really concerned about something else entirely. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive."  This, of course, is projection:  obseesed themselves with racial and gender identities (although not, once again, with simple femaleness), they assume that the men and women who signed the letter--despite their racial diversity--are simply standing their own obsessions on their head.  They aren't.

Then comes the other key postmodernist word:

"The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. [To repeat: no, they didn't.] Many of the signatories have coworkers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some who feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not."

One more paragraph makes clear exactly what is at issue.

"The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform. They are afforded the type of cultural capital from social media that institutions like Harper’s have traditionally conferred to mostly white, cisgender people. Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out."

The idea of integration by race and gender originally was to open up various fields of endeavor to more candidates to let them show the world what they could do and secure appropriate reward for their talents.  Today, however, the signatories of the reply letter would denounce what I have just said as pure straight white male elitism, designed to keep the values of people who look like me in power.  Not only do we have an obligation to give women, racial minorities, and different gender identities more positions--straight white males have no right to question anything that they may say, or how they choose to say it, or even to say anything themselves that nonwhitemales find hurtful.  A New York Times editor, as the original letter pointed out, had to resign because he approved an op-ed by a US Senator that black staffers said made them feel unsafe.

The reply then runs down and identifies the six examples to which the original letter referred.  With respect to one of them--a professor fired from a research firm because he tweeted a summary of an academic paper arguing that violent protests did not, historically, advance racial justice--they agree tht such a firing would be "indefensible" but claim that it was "anomalous."  With respect to Tom Cotton's op-ed in the Times, they argue that he has enough of a platform already to justify the Times leaving him out--a principle that could have application indeed.  In the other cases, they argue either that members of dominant groups got away with something members of marginalized groups could not, or that they deserved what they got.  They then attack various specific signatories of the letter on specific grounds, and claim that all the signatories have "reinforced the actions and beliefs of its most prominent signatories, some of whom have gone out of their way to harass trans writers or pedantically criticize Black writers."

"The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse," they conclude, "especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations. In fact, they have never faced serious consequences — only momentary discomfort."  Thus, they end by not only marginalizing, but erasing, the large numbers of black and female signatories of the original letter--but also by reaffirming, once again, the critical principle of postmodernism. Individual liberty, the foundation of our institutions--and a concept freely open to all--is meaningless to postmodernism. We are all defined by race, gender, and sexuality, and we cannot escape.  We were--in effect--born without freedom of thought.

These ideas have been mainstream on college campuses for decades, and lie behind the many controversies that have roiled campuses in recent years.  It occurs to me, indeed, that it's probably fortunate for higher education that the current eruption of protest took place when campuses were all closed, since it would have renewed attacks on all sorts of traditional targets.  Now, they apparently dominate the thinking of many of the younger people not only in academia, but in journalism and the arts.  I thank the signatories of the original letter for protesting, and I am glad that I still feel the freedom to do the same.




Saturday, July 04, 2020

On the Fourth of July

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

Today, as we observe the 244th anniversary of the signature of the Declaration of Independence, a substantial body of activist Americans prefers to emphasize the hypocrisy, as they understand it, of these words.  Because their principle author and an actual majority of the signatories of the Declaration owned slaves, they regard them as empty.  Others have raised a parallel objection to the words "all men," since they do not explicitly include women, and one could also demonstrate, I am sure, that they did not recognize a right to same-sex marriage.  At best, therefore, many would argue this is not a document for our age. At worst they would characterize it as an instrument of oppression.

While many of the same people would also criticize the whole enterprise of western civilization as racist and oppressive, I believe on the other hand that their views reflect a particular pitfall of that civilization: a tendency to judge human affairs against a paradise which our brains can imagine.   The story of the Garden of Eden and the fall is based upon this, since Adam and Eve recklessly disobeyed orders and lost earthly paradise forever.  Christianity over the centuries has also inspired many visions of heaven on earth.  And the same tendency dominates many irreligious revolutionary movements, including anarchism and Marxism-Leninism.  It burst forth more than half a century ago on college campuses where students found the world of mid-century America falling well short of their imagination, and it is very influential on campus today. A year ago, at a panel of contemporary campus activists, one young woman concluded her talk by calling on her fellow students to rely upon their imaginations to picture a more just world. For half a century, more and more of us have been encouraged to define ourselves by our demographic, and the temptation to ascribe any personal misfortune or frustration to one's demographic has grown.  Only some new social order, many feel, can redress the balance.

Thus, I would argue, the real historical meaning of the declaration has been lost. That meaning can only emerge from a look at what it meant at the time, relative to what had come before.

The "truths" that Jefferson and his fellow signatories held to be "self-evident" were, in the 18th-century context, revolutionary, a complete departure from the principles not only of European civilization at that time, but of every civilization about which we know much of anything in history.  Nearly every society we know of--and certainly every relatively advanced one, intellectually and economically--was divided into legal orders with strict barriers between them.  People were endowed with such rights as they could claim not be their "creator," but by their status at birth.  Even in an irreligious age, European governments claimed their powers from God, not from "the consent of the governed," and only a few of them regarded their primary task as that of securing their subjects' rights. And none would have agreed with the immediately following words of the Declaration, that the people enjoyed a right to remove and replace a government that persistently abused their rights.  That is why, of course, that right had to be proven out in five more years of armed combat to become a reality.  And that victory became a symbol of what was now possible, first in Europe, and eventually in every continent.

The signatories certainly knew that slaves within the colonies did not enjoy those rights, and that women lacked the same political rights as men.  Some were genuinely troubled by these contradictions, although others probably would have tried to explain them away.  Critically however, they in no way tried to preserve those contradictions within the Declaration itself--or within the founding documents that followed it.  The articles of Confederation, our first national constitution, included a provision giving all citizens of any member state the privileges and immunities of any state to which they migrated.  Delegates from South Carolina proposed to insert the word "white" between "all" and citizens."  That provision was voted down.  In the  same way, the Constitution not only took great care not to mention, and thereby sanction, slavery explicitly within its text, but it did not even use the word "man."  "Person" was the founders' word for the citizens of their new nation.  Slavery, they knew very well, existed within certain states in 1787, but many of them hoped to see it disappear, and most of them did not want explicitly to make it part of the new Republic.  That was why slaves could, and did, sue successfully for their freedom if their masters brought them into free states from 1789 all the way up to the Dred Scott decision in 1857, when Taney overruled all these precedents.  That in turn set off the Civil War four years later, because the North would not accept slavery as a national and permanent feature of the Republic.

No one, of any ethnicity of sex, could claim equal rights under the law until some one had defined the concept and written it into fundamental law.   We would not be better off today had we delayed putting that idea into fundamental law until we were ready to give it equally to every one of us.  As it was, those words have inspired subsequent generations of those originally left out to secure those rights, and they have done so.  Last week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that we erect monuments to men like Washington and Jefferson not to commemorate them personally as human beings, but to thank them for the ideas and institutions they left to us.  I agree.

And thus I return once again, as I have in previous years, to another text from Jefferson, perhaps the very last letter that he ever wrote.  It was the spring of 1826, and he (like John Adams) had only one ambition left: to live to the 50th anniversary of the Declaration.  They received invitations to attend a commemoration in Washington, which Jefferson declined for reasons of health.  This is what he said.

"
The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independence; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

The founders and their immediate descendants also knew very well that avarice and ambition had destroyed Republics in earlier ages, and they counted on a calm, reasoned and virtuous population to maintain ours intact.  They would not have been surprised, I think, to find nearly 250 years later that we have waged a continual battle to establish the precise meaning of their words and to extend many rights in light of cultural change.  We have come as far as we have, I think, because of the foundation which they laid.  Without it, we shall sink into despotism, tribalism, and ignorance.  We have always fallen well short of perfection and we always will--but no other nation has a better foundation on which to build.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Trickle-Down Ecoomy in Crisis

For many decades now we have been hearing about the shift in the American economy from a manufacturing-based one to a service economy, and about the growth of income inequality.   I'm not going to take the time this morning to look up figures, but we all know that these shifts are very real.  Now, the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic is showing us what this means.

A large part of our working population has been earning its living providing personal services to the rest of us.  Restaurant workers have prepared and served millions of meals a day.  Airline and hotel workers moved us around the country and provided places for us to stay, while rental car clerks and cleaners made local transportation available.  The staffs of gyms gave us places to exercise, and massage therapists and acupuncturists helped us feel better.  Hair and nail salons improved our appearance.  Growing numbers of Uber and Lyft drivers moved us around urban areas.  And even health care--one of our very largest industries--provided a steady stream of services that, under the pressure of the pandemic, have turned out to be quite optional.  The same could even be said of much of the staffs of residential colleges and universities.  Their employers, it turns out, can at least make a show of performing their truly critical functions without them.  Because of COVID-19, which encourages us to avoid close contact with strangers--and particularly with strangers who have a lot of close contact with other strangers--millions of these jobs have at least temporarily ceased to exist.  With or without formal restrictions, many of them, I suspect, will be very slow to come back.  People simply will not indulge themselves in luxuries at the risk of a serious or even fatal illness--especially the elderly, who in our society are such a big part of the market for such luxuries.  Stories are already appearing in the press blaming the well-off for the failure of the economy to bounce back, but their failure to spend is not really their fault.  My own bank account has grown in the last few months because I can't spend much money on restaurants, movies, or, most important of all, travel.  Many friends report the same.

All this shows, I think, that we have, in a very real sense, a trickle-down economy.  We need a well-off class of people (and corporations) to finance the restaurants, travel, and so on that keep so many people employed. When the better-off cut back, others suffer.  This would not have been the case in a largely agricultural society, clearly, and even in an industrial one, a cutback in production hurt the ownership and managerial class as well as the workers. 

What is to be done?  In the long run, one might conclude, we need better health care for all, and a much better public health system, to reduce vulnerability to disease and make it possible to respond more quickly and effectively to new epidemics.  This is quite achievable.  The US now has suffered 387 COVID-19 deaths per million people; Germany, which is more urban and therefore more intrinsically vulnerable,  has suffered 108.  Our economy depends on our ability to interact without fear to an extent that we had not realized.  In the short run, we may need drastic measures to allow our suddenly huge unemployed population to live.  It would make sense to me for a substantial portion of my surplus income to go into an emergency tax, thence to be distributed as long-term unemployment benefits while the economy recovers.  Universal Basic Income sounded like a fringe idea just a few months ago; it looks more like a necessity now.

The stock market, meanwhile, has recovered in large part from its initial disastrous fall, despite one of the most spectacular increases in unemployment in US history.  That confirms something I've been thinking for some years now: our financial establishment, the guardians of the largest part of our economy, regards the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath as a triumph.  They have learned how to ope with any grave shock to asset prices, whether caused by trillions of dollars in bad investments (as in the 2000s) or by a sudden, drastic fall in output (now.)  In either case the Fed can simply pump enough trillions of dollars in the markets to keep them up.  Only time will tell whether this is a workable long term strategy, or a new kind of macroeconomic Ponzi scheme that carries new and even greater dangers with it. I don't know.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Turning Point in the Supreme Court?

Last week, as its term draws to a close, The Supreme Court handed down two surprising and critical decisions.  By a 6-3 decision, it brought LGBT Americans within  the protection of the Civil Rights Act with respect to job discrimination, on the grounds that firing a man because he is in a long term relationship with another man (for example) constitutes sex discrimination, since the company would not have fired him had he been a woman.  Then, in a closer 5-4 decision, the Court threw out the Trump Administration's attempt to repeal DACA, the Obama Administration's program that protected US inhabitants who had come to the country illegally at a very early age. Chief Justice Roberts joined the liberal quartet of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor in both cases, and Justice Gorsuch wrote the opinion in the employment discrimination case.  In my opinion, these decisions will turn out to be a turning point, of sorts, in our great political crisis.  As such, they remind me of three forgotten decisions handed down on March 29, 1937, which signaled the end of a very different court's resistance to the New Deal.

During Franklin Roosevelt's first term, an aged Supreme Court, filled with justices who had been shaped by their youth during the Gilded Age, had emerged as the major obstacle to New Deal legislation.  Ranging in age from 77 to 58 when FDR took office in 1933, many of them believed firmly in corporate personhood, which gave corporations the rights of individuals under the 14th amendment, and absolute liberty of contract, which ruled out state or federal regulations of wages or hours.  During Roosevelt's first term they struck down the National Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, another law designed to give farmers mortgage r
rm.  He still had not had a single opportunity to appoint a justice himself.

In November 1936, Roosevelt won re-election and even larger majorities in Congress by one of the greatest margins in American history.  Significant in many ways, that election also gave the Democratic Party--which had now thanks to FDR became the preferred party of black Americans--Congressional majorities that did not depend upon white southerners, and segregationists joined economic conservatives in their alarm over what Roosevelt might now do.  In the wake of his re-election he decided, without consulting the Congress, to propose a new law that would allow him to appoint a new supreme court justice every time a justice failed to retire at the age of 70--which six members of the current court had declined to do,  A storm of controversy erupted, kicking off a six-month legislative battle.  Before it had gotten very far, however, the Supreme Court--led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, a progressive Republican--took the hint.

On March 29, 1937, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld three pieces of legislation.  The first upheld a state minimum wage act, undoing 20 years of precedent.  The second let stand a new law to provide mortgage relief for the nation's distressed farmers, and the third upheld a new law regulating the rights of labor in the critical railroad industry, and foreshadowing a later New Deal victory i the Wagner Act case.  Just two months later, one aged justice retired, and FDR replaced him with Alabama New Dealer Hugo Black, who became one of the greatest and most liberal justices ever to sit on the court.  FDR's court packing plan failed disastrously and his hold over Congress on domestic issues was broken forever, but the court never overruled a significant piece of New Deal legislation again.

Over the last five decades the Supreme Court has become perhaps our most critical political battleground.  Both liberals and conservatives have successively depended on it to establish some of their most cherished policy goals, including school integration, affirmative action, the reapportionment of state legislatures, abortion rights, and gay rights (for Democrats), and expanded Second Amendment rights, an end to restrictions of campaign spending, and a rollback of civil rights protections and abortion rights (for Republicans.)  This development in my opinion has been a disaster for American democracy, since it has put critical decisions in the hands of nine unelected persons rather than in the political branches of our governments.  With the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to join Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas, it seemed possible that the Republicans were in a position to push through their whole agenda on all these fronts.

The 6-3 decision on gay rights, written by Gorsuch and joined in by Roberts, shows that that will not happen.  At some level the court majority has obviously realized that gay rights are here to stay and that that is a good thing, too.  I had expected before this that the court would take a forthcoming opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the abortion issue to the states, but now I am not so sure.  In 1937, a narrow court majority had been marching in lockstep, allied to the minority of Americans who totally rejected government intervention to regulate the economy--and they decided to give way before the clear electoral verdict of the American people the previous fall.  In 2020, for some time, Republican-appointed judges had marched in lockstep to implement a conservative Republican social agenda that majorities of Americans do not support.  This week they refused to continue doing so.  They also imposed in the DACA case a limit on the Trump Administration's capricious uses of executive power.

The gay rights decision tends to confirm what I have predicted here at least since late 2015--that the liberal side will win on social issues in this crisis, while the conservative side consolidates its victories on economic ones.  Where that leaves the country in the long run I do not know, especially as the government's failure effectively to handle multiple crises becomes more and more apparent every day.  But victory on social issues--the ones which the Democratic Party has cared about by far the most--remains important, and it is gratifying that Supreme Court justices, whose power is now at an all-time high, still refuse to have all their opinions dictated by militants within the party of the president who appointed them.





Sunday, June 14, 2020

Where We Are Going

The nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd are bringing a particular era of race relations in the United States to a climax.  The police in America kill near three people a day, or 1000 a  year, year in and year out.  The plurality of them are white, but the percentages of black and Hispanic victims are higher than their percentages in the population.  I did some investigation some months ago of a database the Guardian compiled of all the shootings in 2016, but I think I only made it through about 100 of them.  Three kinds of situations seemed to bring most of them about.  Domestic violence calls--including calls to report a mentally ill person severely acting out--were one.  The second involved some kind of crime in progress, including a traffic violation--more commonly a moving violation such as speeding.  The third involved attempts to serve a warrant.  In all of these cases, the shooting took place after the suspect either threatened the police with some kind of weapon (according to them, anyway) or refused to obey them in some other way, including simply by fleeing.  I came away thinking that police training and tactics seemed to be the biggest problem that needed to be addressed if we wanted to reduce such shootings.  It is interesting and depressing to note that another 50 Americans have been killed by police since George Floyd's death on May 26, according to the database in the Washington Post, but we have heard little or nothing about the vast majority of those cases.  Police budgets are being cut in cities around the country, and many have proposed cutting back the role of the police or even eliminating them altogether.  Those cuts and proposals will cause a great deal of controversy and I certainly can't predict what their ultimate outcome will be.  I hope all this may lead to more attention to other problems in our criminal justice system, such as the way high bail forces defendants to plead guilty.  That is happening in some jurisdictions and it could spread to others.

Two other things not directly related to police behavior, however, are happening.  First, the pressure to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces seems finally to have become overwhelming.  Some have already been forcibly taken down, and many, if not most, of the others soon will be.  This will include some of the statues in the US Capitol, of which each state has provided two for over a century.  It was rather astonishing even in the decades after the Civil War that states such as Mississippi would choose to send statues of men who defied the government of which the Capitol was a key role, but they did.  At least one state, Arkansas, is already replacing its statues, and I hope others do too.  I also think that the military installations named after Confederate generals will be renamed.  That issue has divided President Trump even from his own party, and I think there's a good chance that he will have to abandon his opposition.  These are very welcome developments, finally confirming, 155 years after Appomattox, that the right side won the war.  

Meanwhile, institutions such as media outlets and corporations are adopting a principle that has ruled colleges and universities for some time. That principle holds that much of the injustice of racism consists in the emotional harm it inflicts upon its targets, and that white people must therefore defer to nonwhites when they protest that any policy, symbol, or even published idea strikes them as racist.  An editor at the op-ed page of the New York Times lost his job because black reporters on the paper felt that a column he published by a U.S. Senator, a coming man within the Republican Party, put them at physical risk, because it called for the deployment of troops in American cities. A number of other jobs have been lost because of tweets or remarks deemed insensitive.  HBO Max has dropped Gone From the Wind from is lineup because it includes racial stereotypes and a relatively positive view of slavery.  I have done a number of posts here over the years about the postmodern ideology which such steps represent, and now is not the time to repeat them. The consequences of this development will emerge in months and years to come.

While all this is happening, our most powerful economic institutions such as the big banks and our new super-retailers are gaining even more power relative to their competitors, escaping scot free, so far, from the consequences of one of the most severe economic downturns in American history.  The problem that the whole bottom half of our income distribution faces--regardless of race--will only get worse.  The Republican Party will try to ignore it, while many within the Democratic Party will continue to treat it primarily as a problem of racism--which in my opinion it is not.  

The rapidity with which one issue comes out of nowhere to dominate cable news, only to disappear in favor of another, is one of the characteristics of our time.  In the last six months we have lived through the impeachment crisis, the climax of the Democratic primary campaign, the pandemic, the economic crisis, and now, the crisis over race and police behavior.  We still have no idea how bad our economic crisis is, and it could easily take center stage again before the election. So could the pandemic.  Both the pandemic and the racial crisis have established Donald Trump as an irresponsible outlier even among many in his own party, and the chances of his re-election appear to be dropping.  That is very welcome.  I  hope a new President will be able to find a common purpose in one or more of the crises that we now face.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Graham Allison revisited

Graham Allison, whom I did not know personally at the time, was one of the biggest influences on my graduate education at Harvard and my subsequent career.  Then a graduate student in Government, he belonged to an informal symposium called the May Group, after the historian Ernest May, who became my own dissertation adviser.  Another key figure in the group was the political scientist Richard Neustadt, Allison's adviser, who became a dear friend of mine.  Allison's masterpiece, Essence of Decision, which appeared just as I began graduate school in 1971, tried to summarize what the May group had learned about how governments made policy, both in theory and in fact.  To do so, he drew on what was then known about the Cuban Missile Crisis, with respect to decision making in both Moscow and Washington.

Allison built the book around three different models of governmental behavior.  The first, the rational actor model, was in a sense the most critical, because it represented what most people tended to think about governments, but quickly became, in the context of the book, a straw man.  Borrowing, perhaps, from microeconomics, historians and political scientists tended to assume that government leaders knew what they wanted and found the most efficient way to try to get it.  The actions of governments all traced back to a single plan.  Rational actor models dominated discussions of nuclear strategy in those days, as well as of more general analyses of Communist behavior.  They also dominated the argument over US Cold War strategy, on both the traditional anti-Communist and the newer revisionist sides.

Moving to Soviet and American moves in the missile crisis, Allison showed that a second model--Model II, the organizational process model--did a lot more to explain what the two sides actually did during the crisis. Model II focused on bureaucratic routines, or SOPs, which determined what parts of governments did, and how they did it.  US intelligence had recognized Soviet missile bases in Cuba because they looked exactly like similar bases in Europe.  Confronted with a new threat from Cuba, the Pentagon simply handed the President their existing war plan, combining sustained air strikes with a full scale invasion.  The Navy followed SOPs for blockades after the President ordered a quarantine.  I became convinced that organizational routines hold the key to understanding almost any large institution in the modern world--and I learned that those routines increasingly come to reflect the interests of the organization itself, rather than a broader rational goal which the organization was originally founded to pursue.  That insight has rarely let me down.

Model III, the governmental politics model, fit neatly on top of Model II.  The senior officials in the American government who met daily in the famous ExCom during the missile crisis represented bureaucracies--with the exception of the President and his brother the Attorney General, whose own bureaucracy played no role--but also brought their own views to the table.  Their critical decisions grew out of the interplay of their views and personalities, and who favored a certain course of action became just as important as what the course of action was.  Many years later, Ernest May and Philip Zelikow laid that whole process bare in their remarkable book, The Kennedy Tapes, which published transcripts of almost all the Excom meetings. Allison used Robert Kennedy's memoir 13 Days to show how an alliance of the President, RFK, Robert McNamara, and a few others had managed to avoid war, but he did not know that on the critical Saturday of the crisis, an even smaller group had agreed that Robert Kennedy would assure the Soviet Ambassador that the US would shortly remove its nuclear missiles in Turkey if the Soviets agreed to remove theirs from Cuba. McGeorge Bundy, the National Security adviser, revealed that in the late 1980s in his book, Danger and Survival.

Models II and III provided me with a framework for my dissertation on relations among Germany, Britain, and France on one side, and the new states of Eastern Europe on the other, which became Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the First World War.  Neither then nor in later books such as American Tragedy and No End Save Victory did I ever use Allison's models explicitly, but I always tried to answer the kinds of questions that he had asked.  Meanwhile, from the beginning of my teaching career to the end, I assigned Essence of Decision whenever I could. The students in my freshman seminar on the origins of the First World War read it halfway through the semester and a couple of hundred students read it (or at least, were supposed to) as the reading period assignment in my lecture course on international politics, 1870-1970.  And I know that many of them, like me, never saw the world the same way again.

Surrounded as I was in the 1970s by people who had become familiar with Allison and gotten used to putting his ideas into practice, I thought that they would become a permanent part of the academic landscape.  I was wrong.  By 1990, although he remained at the JFK School of Government as a professor and dean, his book had become just another shooting star that had flashed across the sky.  Political scientists became more dedicated to rational actor models than ever, with rare exceptions.  Actually learning about what bureaucracies did, and why, was too much work.  Historians meanwhile lost interest in the real workings of governments completely.  All this makes me feel very lucky to have been exposed to him when I was.

The other day, one of my former Harvard students asked me on Facebook whether Allison could explain the Trump administration.  I gave it some thought.  Trump has undoubtedly introduced a whole new style of governing into American history, one that Allison did not specifically address. The deviations from Allison's models that he represents, however, still reveal a lot about his administration and its significance.

Trump, as I have said many times, simply cannot be viewed as a rational actor.  He lacks the attention span to absorb enough facts to make an informed decision about anything.  I have in the last few weeks been at work on a very narrowly focused history of the American presidency, and I have been struck, reading the annual messages of Presidents from Washington to (so far) Andrew Jackson, how frequently they specifically refer to the need to keep passion in check, and the critical importance of a well-educated citizenry in a democracy.  Trump on the other hand has literally nothing to offer but strong emotions--love for his followers, hatred of his enemies, and a boundless (but thereby illusory) self-confidence.  He rarely measures what he does against actual results--if has done it, it must be good.

Meanwhile, Trump for more than three years has been either subverting or ignoring the bureaucracies that he inherited.  While some of them have functioned without interference, his appointees have transformed others.  The EPA now tries to promote pollution of many kinds.  The Justice Department under William Barr transforms the guilty into the innocent, and vice versa. Homeland Security and ICE have new missions and new leadership.   Most notably, the whole foreign policy making structure centered on the National Security Council appears to have broken down.  Trump does not even consult it on major foreign policy decisions, and he has delegated enormous authority to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who seems to operate on his own.

Since models I and II (see above) play little role in Trump administration policy-making, model III reigns supreme.  Policy emerges from unequal battles among individuals, in which Trump concentrates on remaining supreme.  He has fired anyone of any independence of mind whom he has appointed and is now almost entirely surrounded by sycophants who will accept his own view of reality.  Drs. Fauci and Birx, tasked with huge responsibilities in the midst of a pandemic, obviously understand that they must try to do their jobs without contradicting him in public.  The Trump presidency has offered an opportunity to men like Mike Pompeo and William Barr, who share his arrogance and hatred and have won their way into positions of enormous power by doing his bidding.  To find an analogy for this kind of system in western history, one would have to go back at least to early modern Europe, when monarchs and noblemen ruled the world without reference to the needs of their peoples.  Even within that context, however, Trump would stand out as a disastrous ruler.

Allison, thus, still allows us to understand how our government is working, even though our government has abandoned the principles and policies of 60 years ago.  How our nation has abandoned them, at least to the extent that he could be elected and reshape the government in his image in the first place, is a subject for another day.  The increasing supremacy of emotion, however--never more on display that in the last two weeks--has in my opinion a great deal to do with it.


Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Thank you, General

Let me begin by reposting something I wrote here on November 3, 2019--that is, exactly seven months ago.  

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.

Now let me post the statement that General Mattis issued today.

In Union There Is Strength

"I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled.
The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of
the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are
rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that
all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a
small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of
thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to
our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.
When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to
support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops
taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to
violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to
provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with
military leadership standing alongside.

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that
our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we
should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare
occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we
witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—
between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground
that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and
the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are
a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders
who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.
James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with
a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more
forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a
hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to
militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common
purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before
the law.

"Instructions given by the military departments to our troops
before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi
slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American
answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to
surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not
try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.
Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of
three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the
consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite
without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.
This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it
to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our
promise; and to our children.

"We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a
renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic
has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the
ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in
hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their
lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their
country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive
authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and
hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our
Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better
angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.
Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to
the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country
admired and respected at home and abroad."

Thank you, General.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The 1960s Return

I feel this weekend that I am reliving painful parts of my youth.  Urban riots, to use the contemporary term, were the first anomalous event to shatter the optimism of the early 1960s, still the most hopeful period that I can remember in American life.  The civil rights movement had unleashed plenty of violence in the South, but that seemed to be the last gasp of a dying old order, and civil rights in the summer of 1964 won the huge victory of the great civil rights act.  Lyndon Johnson was about to consign (or so it seemed) Barry Goldwater's anti-New Deal conservatism to the scrap heap of history.  The escalation of the Vietnam War had not yet begun.  The first great urban riot of the 1960s began on July 16, 1964, in Harlem, and lasted for six days.

It is rather chilling to return to accounts of these events because they sound so familiar. An off-duty NYPD police lieutenant came across an altercation between some black male teen-agers and an apartment house superintendent who was using a hose to try to drive them off a building's steps.  He challenged 15-year old James Lynch, a Bronx youth whom he claimed tried to attack him with a knife, and shot and killed him.  Black groups held demonstrations over the weekend that followed.  They escalated into riots that lasted several days. An estimated 500 persons were injured, 465 were arrested, but only one more died.  Property damage from looting was estimated at between half a million and a million dollars.  A smaller riot occurred in Phladelphia later that summer.

The triumphal mood of the mid-1960s reached its peak in the middle of 1965, as Lyndon Johnson pushed through Medicare and much of the rest of the Great Society program, and the Voting Rights Act followed the Civil Rights Act of the year before.  On August 11, 1965, in the black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, a motorcycle cop pulled a black driver over for reckless driving.  The driver's brother, a passenger, summoned their mother from their house nearby, a crowd gathered, more police arrived, and altercations broke out.  The police arrested the whole family, rumors spread, crowds gathered, and police fought with the crowds all night.  Rioting, arson, and looting lasted for six days and nights.  Governor Pat Brown called out several thousand National Guardsmen, who imposed a curfew along with police, and decided on mass arrests.  Arrests eventually totaled 35,000, and 34 people died, 16 shot by policemen and 7 by national guardsmen.    This time nearly a thousand commercial buildings were burned, looted, or seriously damanged, and property damage was estimated at $40 million.  Together with the disturbances at UC Berkeley that had started in the fall of 1964 and continued for years to come, the riots helped sweep Ronald Reagan to a landslide victory in the gubernatorial race in 1966, which got him on the path to the White House.

Despite some violence in various major cities, nothing comparable to Harlem or Watts occurred during 1966.  1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing, was another matter. On the evening of July 12, two Newark, New Jersey police stopped a black cab driver, and wound up beating him.  A crowd gathered outside the police station and began throwing rocks and bottles at police, and looting began.
Within days, a protest march turned into an orgy of arson and looting, and national guardsmen and state troopers came in to quell it. The death toll reached 27, the injured topped 700, and arrests neared 1500.  Property damage was estimated at $10 million.  In succeeding years the white and black middle class rapidly fled the city, which has never recovered. 

The same script played out on an even larger scale in Detroit from early Sunday morning, July 23, to July 27.  This time the triggering event was a raid on an illegal after-hours bar in a black neighborhood, that brought an angry crowd into the street. Within two days, looting and arson were taking place over a wide area.  Eventually the 82nd Airborne Division joined the state police and National Guard troops, who had proven very trigger happy.  In both Detroit and Newark, detailed studies of the killings during the riots found most of them to be totally innocent bystanders hit by stray bullets.  In one notorious incident, however, three Detroit police officers gunned down three black youths in cold blood in a the Algiers Motel, an incident later chronicled in detail by the novelist John Hershey.  This time the death toll reached 43, with almost 1200 injured and more than seven thousand arrested.  412 buildings were burned or damaged, 2509 buildings reported damage or looting, and 388 families lost their homes to fires.  The riots triggered massive white flight from Detroit, which has never been the same since.   President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to study the causes of these disorders, and it reported in early 1968 that racial discrimination was turning the United States into two nations, separate and unequal.

The last chapter in this story began when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  One major riot generally seemed to be enough to release the anger and tension in any urban ghetto during the 1960s, and neither New York, nor Los Angeles, or Newark or Detroit had a big disturbance that week.  Now it became the turn of Washington, D. C.--where I was spending my spring vacation at the time.  Arson and looting  destroyed 1200 buildings and wiped out huge business districts for decades to come, but police and national guardsmen were under strict orders not to intervene, and there were almost no deaths or injuries.  A multi-day riot in Chicago resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries and 2150 arrests, and $10 million in property damage.  Riots also hit Baltimore, where federal troops were dispatched, 6 people died, 700 were injured, and 5800 arrested, and $12 million in property went up in flames.   Freshman Governor Spiro Agnew made a name for himself and got the attention of GOP front runner Richard Nixon by blasting a meeting of civil rights leaders for failing to stop the outbreak. A few months later Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate. Similar disturbances, albeit on a lesser scale, took place in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Trenton, Wilmington, Delaware, and Louisville. Several of them also had very serious long-term impacts on the neighborhoods in which they occurred.  No major riot, interestingly enough, ever struck a Deep South city in the mid to late 1960s.  Reeling under the twin impacts of the endless Vietnam War and racial turmoil in the cities, the Democratic Party saw its popular vote shrink from 60% in 1964 to about 43% in 1968.  It has never fully recovered.

In the five subsequent decades, urban outbreaks of arson and looting had occurred on numerous occasions, most notably in Los Angeles in 1992, when the riots following the acquittal of the police who arrested and beat Rodney King were larger by some measures than the  Watts riot.  We are now suffering the most widespread series of such outbreaks that we have seen, I believe, since 1968, although we have not as yet seen arson, or deaths, or even looting on a comparable scale.  Now as then, commentators see both a response to a specific event--in this case, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis--and a reaction to decades of discrimination and inequality.  In one critical difference, these disturbances coincide with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, whereas the late 1960s saw the end of a very long economic boom, albeit one that did not completely reach the inner cities.   On the other hand, the riots in the late 1960s took place as a very large and very long crime wave began, whereas serious crimes have been declining now for well over a decade. 

 Floyd's death, like King's, has triggered protests and violence all over the country.  Once again, mayors and governors, most of them Democrats, are torn between the desire to identify with the rioters' grievances and the need to keep public order.  This time, in an interesting development, the protests are so integrated that the movement, if such it is, seems more generational than racial.  White youth also rioted in 1968 and in the next two years in dozens of universities and on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention, but rioting, for the most part, was segregated in those days.  At Kent State in 1970, black student leaders kept black students in their dorms when the National Guard arrived on campus, not wishing to see a repeat of Newark and Detroit.

History, at any rate, does not suggest that the current protests will do much good.  They are yet another illustration of the people's loss of confidence in our institutions, which in different ways affects nearly the whole population.  Many of us are wondering whether Donald Trump, like Reagan in 1966 and Richard Nixon in 1968, will ride resentment of the rioters into an election victory marked, among other things, by Minnesota's passage into the Republican column.  Already, for good or ill, the disturbances are pushing Joe Biden to select a black running mate.  Today's young people, as the rapper Killer Mike stressed yesterday, need to show that they can use their outrage to strategize and mobilize in order to avoid another national catastrophe.



  

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Three strikes and you're out?

The United States faces its third great crisis of the 21st century.  Like the civil war in the 19th century and the Depression and the Second World War in the twentieth, the successive events of 9/11, the financial crisis of 2008, and now, the COVID-19 epidemic and its economic consequences have tested the idea upon which the United States was founded:  that a government by, of, and for the people, acting through elected representatives, can deal effectively with great problems and open the way for a better life.  Nineteen years after 9/11 (and nearly 28 years after the election of Bill Clinton), the same Boom generation remains ultimately in charge.   The outcome of the crises of 2001 and 2008 do not bode well for what will happen in the next year.

A little less than a year before 9/11, the Republican party leadership and its selections on the Supreme court had demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to disregard established procedures in order to secure power.  Rather than settle one of the closest elections in American history by making sure the votes in Florida were counted as accurately as possible, they managed to stop recounts, allowing the Supreme Court to award the election to George W. Bush by a 5-4 vote.  Eventually a private count indicated that Gore had in fact won. By that time, however, 9/11--the Boom generation's big moment in foreign affairs--had taken place.  The neoconservatives that ran the foreign policy of the Bush II administration used it to embark upon a crusade to remove hostile regimes and impose democracy on the Middle East.  That crusade now lies in ruins, as Afghanistan and Iraq both struggle with chaos, and authoritarianism rules most of the Middle East again.  At the same time, that Administration threw away a federal budget surplus with two rounds of tax cuts, creating a permanent deficit.  Yet for the most part, the Obama Administration continued the foreign policies of the Bush administration. It did withdraw from Iraq--only to re-enter a few years later--but it also temporarily expanded the war in Afghanistan, and undertook two more disastrous attempts at regime change, in Libya and in Syria,  The Arab spring led to a reimposition of dictatorship in Egypt.  The Bush II administration also moved away from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and agreed to let Israel retain at least some territory occupied in 1967.  Now the Israeli government is poised to annex much of it.

The financial crisis of 2008 showed the folly of deregulating Wall Street and the banking system and throwing away the restraints that had been imposed in the Great Depression. An insane real estate bubble burst, revealing a highly unstable pyramid of debt and threatening the whole world economy.  The American political process played a relatively small role in getting out of the crisis.  Political leaders, economists, bankers and financial leaders from the Boom generation got together to use the Federal Reserve Board and a Congressional guarantee to provide the private institutions that had destroyed themselves with liquidity to ride out the crisis.  Despite some tepid efforts at reform, this left our financial giants more powerful than ever.  The Obama Administration had to agree to rounds of deficit reduction that further reduced the federal government's role in our lives, and it did not do enough for the average American voter to create anything like a new Democratic majority.  Then the catastrophic presidential election of 2016 showed that neither political establishment could provide a candidate who could defeat a reality tv star with a catastrophic record as an entrepreneur.

In the succeeding three years, virtually the whole Republican Party has lined up behind Donald Trump, despite his obvious incompetence and disrespect for the norms of civilized political behavior and the rule of law.  The Democrats have managed to regain control of the House of Representatives and a few state houses, but the Republicans have gained more and more power over the courts and have become more and more militant within the states they control.  And now comes the COVID-19 epidemic.

It is now clear, I think, that the epidemic has made the state of our politics worse than ever.  As bad luck would have it, it hit first, and by far most seriously, in the nerve center of the national Democratic Party, the northeast.  Because of drastic measures that have crippled our economy, the virus's spread there has now slowed dramatically--but they are still increasing in the heartland, where a big majority of new infections are now taking place.  The red states still have a very long way to go before their cases and deaths per million will reach the levels of New York, New Jersey, and southern New England, but they are increasing.  And now the parties and the regions where they are strongest are splitting on the issue of re-opening the economy.  In my opinion, however, the effects of the epidemic have passed beyond the control of our political leaders.  No matter how quickly the economy officially re-opens, relatively few people will start once again going to restaurants, traveling by air, or training in their local gym.  That means that a great many laid-off people will remain unemployed, creating new mortgage crises in both personal and commercial real estate.  Brick and mortar retailers, already hurt badly by amazon and by private equity takeovers, will fall further faster.  The rich will get even richer and the poor poorer.  I am not optimistic that our deeply divided and increasingly oligarchic nation will be able to come up with either short- or long-term solutions to these problems.  I suspect that within a year, a strong case will emerge for a universal basic income, funded by a wealth tax, but  our economic and political powers that be will probably oppose both.  I feel sure that we will have gotten beyond the medical consequences of the epidemic long before we get over the economic ones.

It is too soon to say whether the November election can turn things around.  Joe Biden, like George H. W. Bush and Al Gore, is a product of the modern political system:  he failed as a presidential candidate on his own, but became a party leader by serving as Vice President.  At a time when the nation clearly needs a capable and decisive executive like Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic Party is fielding a candidate without real executive experience.  Biden is nearly old enough (though not quite) to remember V-J day, and he still wants to restore the relatively decorous political environment that he found in Washington when he became a Senator in 1973.  That era is long over and we need to create something new.  Donald Trump is becoming more and more irresponsible and hysterical as the crisis goes on, and the polls suggest that the country is tired of him.  But Trump is also preparing the way for a new controversy over the validity of the results of the coming election, which may create another great crisis at least as serious as 2000.  This time certain state governments might even find themselves divided over the validity of their results.

The 80-year cycle that has given us the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the era of Franklin Roosevelt has been bound up with the whole experiment of the Enlightenment.  In each crisis, reason helped us solve certain critical problems and thus created a new consensus that lasted until the next one.  Yet the rational solutions that the mid-20th century developed to solve our economic problems seem to have made too many powerful interests unhappy to have lasted.  A new postwar generation also rebelled against the authority and discipline, in virtually every area of life, that had gotten us where we were when they were born.  Last but hardly least, a powerful revolt against the Enlightenment developed where it should have been strongest, in universities.  It has weakened them so much that many of them, too, are unlikely to survive the coming economic crisis.  The epidemic itself poses a tremendous test for our for-profit health care system.  Can our drug companies take the necessary time to develop effective vaccines and/or treatment for COVID-19, rather than yielding to enormous political and economic pressure to declare the problem solved prematurely?  All these questions will be answered, one way or another, in the next few years.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Past and Future of Higher Education

The nationwide closure of institutions of higher learning, which immediately moved all instruction on line, will I feel certain mark a turning point for American higher education.  It was already in crisis.  While the richest institutions still thrive in our winner-take-all economy, poorer ones--particularly liberal arts colleges--are going out of business every year.  Our best public universities are no longer really public, in the sense that their tuition has now increased to much higher levels, and their students have to finance their education with loans.  Now that the colleges and  universities have announced that they can deliver their educational product without providing room and board along with it, a lot of students and their families will want them to go on doing so.  Many faculty will prefer this as well.  The current crisis could be the beginning of the end of higher education as we have known it--but it would not have had that effect, had not a series of disastrous changes already taken place.

What follows will be to some extent impressionistic.  A year or two ago, I discovered in a correspondence with the Harvard archives that I could probably get access to extremely detailed data on the budget of Harvard Univeristy in 1965, when I first entered it--on how much the university took in, and what it spent it on.  Contemporary data would inevitably be much less detailed, but I suspected that enough would be available to make a meaningful comparison.  And that might enable me to answer a question that has bothered me for over a decade: why is it, exactly, that a Harvard education today costs more than three times as much as it did then, even after allowing for inflation, and despite the phenomenal growth of the endowment?  I think we know the answer in broad outline, but I would have enjoyed trying to flesh it out.  I did not however choose to embark on that project and I doubt that I will--but I do wish that some one would.  Meanwhile I will content myself with generalities.

The first, and probably the most important change, has been the growth of administrators, which has been the subject of a number of articles.  Both the number of administrative positions and their staffs have grown so quickly that administrators now outnumber faculty in many major institutions.  The leading ones also draw very impressive salaries.  The Harvard Form 990 for 2018--the equivalent of the institution's tax filing--lists then-President Drew Gilpin Faust (total compensation $1.7 million), provost Alan Barger ($881,000), and ten different vice presidents whose compensation appears to average more than half a million apiece.  Diversity officers at many institutions make $300,000.  No faculty member made the list of Harvard's 13 best-paid employees.  Harvard also pays more than $50 million every year--perhaps much more--to the managers of its endowment.  The Provost and the Vice President for the Harvard Library are the only people on this list who appear to contribute directly to the university's intellectual mission.   Many of them, I am sure, manage Harvard's relationship with society and government, which in turn is based on generating the funds that the university needs to support its mangement in the style to which it has become accustomed.

A second big change is the growth of the faculty.  As I pointed out in A Life in History, in 1965, when I arrived, the Harvard History Department had 30 full-time faculty members and had just graduated about 270 history majors from Harvard and Radcliffe. In 2018 that department showed more than 50 full-time members--and it had just graduated 45 history majors from a student body that was a bit larger.  The same pattern, I am sure, prevails among the other departments in the Humanities.  The average educational contribution of faculty, in short--measured by the number of students they teach--is way down.  That also matches the wishes of most of the faculty, who have been conditioned for generations to regard teaching as a routine activity unworthy of a serious scholar.  (There have always been exceptions, but they survive largely by accident.)  The Harvard government department recently cut its teaching load for tenured faculty from four courses a year to three.  The day of the large lecture course in the humanities or social sciences, the staple of my own education which could put the stamp of a great faculty member on a whole generation of undergraduates, seems to be past.    Small group classes now dominate, partly because students always put pressure on for more of them.  Meanwhile, professors have gotten used to teaching their specialized interests to undergraduates as well as grad students, rather than focusing on the broadest issues within their discipline.  All this, too, makes college more expensive.

Lastly, schools now spend much more money on facilities than they used to.  As late as the 1960s, in the nation's most prestigious university, the administration still seemed to think that young men and women might learn better in  relatively spartan setting.  About ten years ago, when my wife--a graduate of a state university--asked that we reserve a dormitory room in one of the houses when we attended one of my reunions.  The room had not changed in the better part of a century, and she was to say the least disappointed by the amenities.  Now Harvard is remodeling its houses one by one, at considerable expense.  A friend of mine once asked Larry Summers, when he was president, why the school was spending so much money on new eating facilities, when one of the most fun parts of his own Harvard experience had been meeting local people in the many small restaurants and cafes that Cambridge had to offer. "Our customers want it," Summers replied. q.e.d.  His customers also wanted a shorter academic calendar, and under his leadership, Harvard did away with the January reading period and moved exams before Christmas.  I and many of my classmates were astonished to learn how much we could read, and learn, during those 2-3 focused weeks. Today's undergraduates will miss that lesson.

Students have attended leading institutions to better themselves economically for at least 150 years.  In the 1870s, when Henry Adams was teaching history at Harvard, one of his students explained to him that "the degree from Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago."  Yet the reputation of schools depended in large measure not merely on the credentials that they could provide, but also on the particular educational experience that they offered.  Some of the Harvard faculty who taught general education courses at Harvard when I got there had been hired by James Bryant Conant specifically for the purpose of teaching those courses.  Now the number of colleges in the nation that offer a particular undergraduate educational experience could now be counted on the fingers of two hands.

The current crisis could become an opportunity for some liberal arts colleges in particular.  Rather than abandon residential education, they might drastically cut back on their administrative staff, perhaps let go some faculty as well, and insist that faculty spend more time teaching, take it more seriously, and teach the kind of course that every educated citizen ought to take. That in turn would enable them to cut tuition drastically. Within a few years, I think, such a school would have a student body to be very proud of, and its services would be much in demand. Yet it is very unlikely that this will happen, simply because all the power now rests in administrators' hands, and the school exists largely for them.  I feel very lucky to have attended college when I did.