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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two possibilities

Over the on the web site fourthturning.com, a number of very smart and engaged people, ages ranging from teens to seventies, have been debating the present and future of American history for more than a decade. Essentially they have been trying to integrate current events into Strauss and Howe's theories--frequently through the prism of their own views. Those of us who had read those books in the 1990s when they first came out have not been surprised by the nation's descent into Crisis. Some of the longest threads on those forums have attempted to locate the beginning of the Crisis. It is becoming clear that we will only be able to answer the question of when it really began retrospectively, in twenty years or so. If we are then living in Barack Obama's vision of America we shall date the beginning from this year--but if we are living in George W. Bush's America--and I am increasingly convinced that that is quite possible--then we shall go back to dating it from 9/11, or possibly from the events of the fall of 2000 and the second theft of a presidential election in American history. The two Bush Administrations consolidated, and accelerated, critical trends in American government that had begun under Reagan (and which the Clinton years had done either little or nothing to reverse). President Obama, I am convinced, wants to reverse those trends--but his attempts to do so are showing what an enormous task that is going to be, and certainly raise real doubts as to whether he can be successful.

To explain my fears, I shall look at three critical issues in American life: health care reform (of course); corporate power and the workings of our new financial system; and whether our foreign policy will be based upon military supremacy or on the respect for, and promotion of, international law and diplomatic solutions to problems. We shall see that it is far from clear if the President has enough raw material to work with to make the changes he seems to want, and to make them stick, because so many Republican positions have become consensus positions over the last thirty years.

The health care reform effort, about which I have written a great deal, is going forward, but with less than no assurance that any meaningful change will occur. The emergence of Senator Max Baucus and his Finance Committee as the key locus of power is an interesting phenomenon--his was only one of several committees to produce a bill, and the others have produced far more important ones, including a public option. His own bill not only rejects that, but will allow insurance companies to charge premiums according to the age of their customers, and thus continue their practice of offering generous insurance to people who don't need it. Baucus has been a huge recipient of health care industry contributions for years, and they have gotten what they wanted. I am intrigued, though, that he became the focus of attention because he put together the Gang of Six and has gone through the motions of trying to put together a bill that would garner Republican support. That was hopeless, for reasons that his Senatorial colleague Jim DeMint let out of the bag months ago. As in 1993-4, the Republicans are determined to kill any bill to bring down a Democratic President--and their most powerful lobbies stand ready to fund an expensive primary campaign against any Senator who dares cast a pro-Obama vote, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine. (My own former Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee had to deal with such a challenge three years ago.) Baucus's ostensible purpose has failed, but he has meanwhile crafted the bill the health care industry wants. Meanwhile, the Republican media barrage has successfully painted the public option as equivalent to a single-payer government takeover of health care, and the media is painting the single-payer advocates in the House, who want to use Medicare to provide a much cheaper alternative to private insurance, as a fringe group. With President Obama determined above all to pass a bill, the chances are quite high, as Paul Krugman effectively acknowledged yesterday, that it won't be one that makes any real changes.

Regarding Wall Street, this week's news is rather interesting. The rest of the G-12--the world's other industrialized countries--have made up their minds about American capitalism's latest gift to the world, megabanks who pay their employees bonuses based upon short-term gains. That practice puts a premium on arranging deals for their own sake (which in turn involves the creation of new financial instruments of dubious economic value), on leveraging investments to increase profits, and on artificially bidding up the values of commodities and securities, leading, inevitably, to disastrous crashes, of which we have had two in the last decade. Their obvious solution is to put tight restrictions on such bonuses--but the Administration, according to today's New York Times, along with the British government, opposes actual caps on pay. Caps would be difficult to administer. The alternative that saw us through the Second World War and the high-growth twenty years that followed it--90% marginal tax rates that would remove any incentive to pay those bonuses--is, of course, never even mentioned, thanks to thirty years of Republican anti-tax propaganda. The Administration's economic team, in any case, is deeply implicated in the current system, which Larry Summers also defended for the managers of the Harvard Endowment, whose tens of millions (yes) of bonuses during the first half of this decade did not prevent them from losing 1/3 of the endowment's value and leaving the University lacking the case it needed to pay its bills during the last year. Like the Clinton Administration, which continued the trend towards deregulation that has left us in this mess, the Obama Administration does not seem committed to a fundamental reform or a return to the more disciplined world of our parents and grandparents.

Lastly there is foreign policy, where the President has shown the most striking break with the past, accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq slightly, demanding that Israel halt settlement construction, and now, scrapping the plan for ICBM defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. Taking those in reverse order, the latter is a step backward from the Bush foreign/defense policy of trying to assure American military supremacy and invulnerability, partly by undertaking preventive war to keep nations from acquiring weapons we do not think they should have. It was also a very welcome recognition of the essential fact about missile defense which Republicans have been trying to conceal for the past 25 years--that it does not work. (All this was brilliantly handled about ten years ago by Frances Fitzgerald in her book, Way out There in the Blue.) The Bush Administration's denunciation of the ABM treaty--a Republican legacy--was a terrible step backward for the US and the whole word. Sadly, it will be many years, I am sure, before anything similar is attempted again. And indeed, the Administration found it necessary to announce that it was going to work on a different missile defense system instead--although there is enough lead time to back down on that decision should they or their successors find another way out. However, the President has also branded himself an appeaser among Republicans--and his pressure on Israel will play into that as well. Here too Bush and Cheney did their work well. As I have pointed out here many times, President Bush essentially informed the world early in his first term that Israel could keep any land that it had settled in a peace treaty, and the Israelis and their American allies are now arguing that this binds future Administrations as well. It doesn't, but peace has gotten a lot less likely since then, and I'm not confident the President's well-intentioned step will have a good result.

The story of how a new generation of Republicans (very different from the Nixons, Rockefellers and even Goldwaters) managed to reverse the trend of American politics on economic, social and international issues from the 1980s until 2009 is an extraordinary one that should eventually produce some great history. In so doing they created, and relied upon, an active intellectual elite, a strong and growing presence in the media, and an emotional mass movement that now uses the techniques developed by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. For various reasons--which I shall try to take up at another time--the Democrats cannot at the moment deploy comparable forces. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 benefited from another historical accident--he came into office after three-plus years of catastrophic depression which had given him much more freedom of action, and much bigger majorities, than President Obama has. How the next four years, and the next twenty years, will turn out, remains a very open question.


Michael Fortunato said...

The success of the last generation of GOP strategists at framing the debate on their own terms has frightening implications. I am regularly surprised at how timid and constrained the Dems look when the ball is in their court. I look forward to your next post.

ginstonic said...

Love your post. Sorry to say I have not been an informed citizen for most of my 55 years. Your weekly civics/history lessons are making a difference. I would like you to recommend more articles, books for my continuing education.

Anonymous said...

Sir I recently recieved the email you talked about History Unfolding and as always had to question the relevancy of the email. Thank you for setting the record straight this was not by you. If you do not mind I would like to publish your post on my blog at http://www.justanythingnow.com/blog1 so others get the correct information and to inform others to validate information before spreading it around the world as gosple.

Scott V. said...


I don't know where to begin. The email that you didn't write is almost as preposterous as your actual writing.

Missile defense doesn't work? We haven't destroyed missiles in flight test after test?

Deregulation got us into this mess? Good grief. Every time the government involves itself in markets this is what happens. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and their Congressional sponsors precipitated this crisis. I guess a few more all-knowing government bureaucrats and a couple more agencies will solve everything. {Side note: I will never understand how people will kneel down to elected officials or civil servants, who are the product of the same culture and education system, and assume they are capable of making Solomon-esque decisions on their behalf. What’s even more biazarre is those government officials believe they are capable of making the decisions of Solomon}.

Judicial Supremacy? I bet you tell your students the Supreme Court is the Highest Law of the Land. And all this time I thought we had three separate, but equal branches of government and that the Constitution was the Supreme Law of our Nation.

Cousin Elmer said...

This is my 2nd visit and just wanted to thank you for your insightful post. I was led to it by disproving the hitler/obama email. ( my response was, " I read you email and thought to myself that this ranting of a lunatic couldn’t be that of a respected history professor....) I guess I should thank the ranting lunitic too.

Hans Sandbo said...

Just came on because of the "Obama - Hitler" post. It is amazing how I was taken in by what appeared to me a very naive history lesson of how it sounded so right. Since I am to the right of the center it seemed like something I would like to believe, however I am glad I have found your blog. Is there any way to determine who made that post up ?
It is scarry !!!

micaela said...

LOL, I've also arrived here while "checking my sources" after receiving the dread email... and I will return often, I think this may become my new favorite blog!

Please do explain soon why it is that "the Democrats cannot at the moment deploy comparable forces". I've been wondering what the holdup is, I'm not usually one to take on an activist role (too much politics growing up) but I have been much more "public" about my views in the last few months and am ready to take to the streets if necessary. All that "hope" and "change" business was more than a campaign slogan for some of us!

Geri said...

I received the e-mail you speak of, but would not forward it until I checked you out and I am glad I did, cause now I have your blog and can come back. You're quiet interesting. As General MacArthur said, "I shall return!"

Tedd said...

Count me among the email verifiers. As a budding teacher of history, I've learned to check facts. I find your blog interesting from the standpoint of testing what I believe and understanding the POV of the other side. I will continue to read despite our differences.

Michael Power said...

You cited trends that have been in effect from the Reagan administration. What are they and how do compare with the overall trends that have been in effect since the middle to late 60's?

Unknown said...

ScottV, you have bought into the FOX "News" rhetoric. Banking deregulation passed in 1999 by a veto-proof majority of a Republican-dominated Congress is what began to derail the economy.

I once naively thought of Republicans as just a political party; now I see that Republicans are the enemy, padding their own pockets at the expense of everyone else and feeling smug about it. Have you missed the TV special HOUSE OF CARDS? The current situation in the markets, and the "bailout" that was passed in Bush's last days in office were due to years of unregulated financial trading in which the incentives were designed to reward risk. The financial sector has in effect gambled away our nestegg, and then some, while failing to contribute to the overall health of the economy. The Republicans descry "socialism", but that is exactly what happened in the financial sector on Bush's watch.
The "War on Terror" was a ruse to dominate the oil reserves of the Middle East and turn a profit for Halliburton/KBR and to entrench power for the "money changers". Bush and Cheney "ruled" by fear and violated the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions in the clear light of day, but they stirred up enough hatred and fear among a certain segment of the population, post 9/11, that anyone who objected to their agenda was labeled a "traitor". The irony is that now the "Tea Party" crowd compares President Obama to Hitler, a fascist, when it was Bush and Cheney who steered the ship of state into fascist waters, which would have continued, or even escalated (shudder) under a McCain/Palin administration.
State and local governments dominated by Republicans do not favor the public but seek to dominate the economy and leave as little as possible for the workers, while favoring and passing laws to insure the dominance of already wealthy corporations. We are living in an era not unlike the years leading to the Great Depression, with the vast majority of wealth concentrated into the hands of a few "elites". I will never again vote for a Republican in any election, including judges. The Republican Party has all but destroyed our once great country.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser,

Please read www.amazingfacts.org before you do anything else. YOu have it right of course and much more is about to happen than you have postulated--much more than what happened in Germany in the late 1930's. If one were to use just a few Bible verses to sum it all up and explain the road ahead over the next few years and this one were to understand who the kings of the south and north were, he would use Daniel chapter 11 verses 40-42. Daniel chapter 12 verse 1 will then follow. Years in history that go with Dan 11:40 are 1798 and 1989. The French revolution is key to explain what the controversy is about. PresBO is just a pawn on a universal stage. See Revelation chapter 13 to find out about US in prophecy. If you want to know the details you owe it to your self, your family and friends and your readers to go to several web sites: www.amazingfacts.org and speak to Pastor Doug Bachelor and then go to www.whitehorseministry.org and speak to Pastor Stephen Wolberg. These two men are prominent Bible students and authors who have been in the US media over the past several years and have spoken in many important venues world wide, such as the latter speaking to both the Pentagon and US senate prayer breakfasts one or two years ago November about Rev 13. The former was featured on TV in the past 2 or 3 years as one of only two authorities selected to have a role in the aired show in a National Geographic special on the Apocalypse.

Unknown said...

Interesting comments, all of you. What's odd is that I agree with almost everything that was written in the "fraudulent email". I only found one glaring mistake, however. The president named in the email was President Obama. The facts and circumstances would indicate that what was written would apply to George W. Bush instead.