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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Changing Times

I thought I was done posting for the weekend (see yesterday for a more important one), but as often happens, a few stories in this morning's New York Times set me thinking about the evolution of America and the American media. Herewith a few comments.

The Times leads with a big story on the fight for the U.S. Senate, one that illustrates the continuing conflict between older and newer forms of journalism and, indeed, of thought. The story, by Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, includes a map handicapping the Senate races. The map shows the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Alaska as "Leaning Red," that is, Republican. It shows Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania as "toss-ups." It does not explain what those designations are supposed to mean.

Some months ago the Times scored a brilliant coup, in my opinion, when it hired Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com to post his almost daily columns on the times web site. Silver began his career as a baseball analyst for the excellent site Baseball Prospectus, which took the essential insights Bill James developed during the 1980s and pushed them to new levels of sophistication. Their premise--and Silver's--is that numbers do not lie, although they also spend a lot of time developing confidence estimates for the numbers data gives them. Silver uses a number of models, frequently updated, to use all available data to estimate the results of coming races. His measure of the reliability of data is closely tied to how reliable it has been in past elections. If a certain pollster has a tendency to favor one side or the other (as many do), he controls for that within the data. I don't have the data in front of me but as I recall he predicted the electoral votes in the last Presidential election almost exactly.

Now what is interesting is that although Silver now works for the times, the reporters who write for the print newspaper evidently feel no obligation to pay any attention to him, because his numbers tell quite a different story than the ones on page 1 this morning. Rather than rate Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Kentucky as "leaning" to the Republicans, he gives them a 100% or 99% chance in each of those states and in several cases has regarded a Republican victory as a certainty for months. He gives Russ Feingold a 95% chance of losing in Wisconsin which is also described in the story as "leaning." Turning to the "toss-up" states of Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, he gives Republicans Pat Toomey and Sharon Angle chances of 92% and 81% respectively in Pennsylvania and Nevada and Patty Murray an 81% chance in Washington state. He agrees that West Virginia is now pretty firmly leaning Democratic but the only genuinely close races left, in his view, are Colorado and Illinois. Individually the Republicans are more likely to win either one of them, but it is probably more likely that the two races will be split. Exactly why the national reporters and their editors feel entitled to ignore the best data available--published by their own organization--is not clear. I suspect that in two years Silver may actually appear in the print edition, but I'm not sure.

A second, unrelated bell went off in my head when I began Richard Brookhiser's review of Ratification, on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, by the excellent historian Pauline Maier. Maier is a traditional political historian of the American revolutionary period. Having gotten her Ph.D in the mid-1960s, she has managed to have actually had a career at a major university nonetheless, in her case, M. I. T. And like me (I barely know her, by the way), she isn't afraid to write about previously well-covered topics; this book follows another very fine one that changed my understanding of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Brookhiser is something of a political historian himself, but he feels compelled to insert, near the beginning of a very favorable review, the following sentences: "One caveat: To like this book, you have to like politics. 'Ratification' is an ur-text of the Almanac of American Politics. It has process, issues, arguments, local context, major players, minor players--and hoopla." I do not think that sentence would have found its way into a review of a similar book 30-40 years ago, for the simple reason that a Times reviewer would have assumed, in those distant days, that his or her readers were engaged in American politics and its history as a matter of course. But of course in a sense Brookhiser is right: today's history majors can pass through four years at an elite university without learning the details of American politics in any era. Maier was trained by Bernard Bailyn, one of our most eminent historians, who taught colonial America and the revolutionary/constitutional period at Harvard for several decades. Today the Harvard History Department does not include a single scholar who has written detailed work on high-level American politics and government in any era of American history--not one.

It has been many years since I have taken much interest in the National Football League. I was as obsessive a fan you could find through the 1960s and 1970s, but my move to Pittsburgh in 1980 coincided with the Steelers' fall from grace, and the birth of my children forced me to cut some things out of my life, and the NFL turned out to be one of them. Still, Judy Battista's story on the front page of the sports section, on linebacker James Harrison, who was given a heavy fine for a dangerous hit last weekend, caught my eye. Harrison represents a type that has certainly gotten much more common in the last half century, even if it could occasionally be found even then--a fundamentally asocial young man who has never been able to accept authority and who has been in trouble with authorities for much of his life (although he has been arrested only once), challenging coaches to fights and, for a long time, being unable to learn defensive schemes. Yet he has survived a lot of career ups and downs and emerged as a star nonetheless, largely because he tackles so hard. The story actually seems quite sympathetic to his plight--suddenly, the league, in an attempt to prevent the onset of early dementia in so many of its players, has decided not to allow him to tackle in ways dangerous to players' long-term health. And Battista, after quoting a friend that Harrison loves will do anything for children but doesn't seem to care much for adults, actually writes, "That woudl seem like the ideal personality for a football." The players George Plimpton chronicled in two books 40-50 years ago cared about other adults, including both teammates and opponents, and seemed to understand that a certain cooperative ethic was necessary for success. That, of course, is the lesson we now seem to have forgotten at almost every level of our society.

Friday, October 29, 2010

How did we get here?

Last July 4, in what was probably the most important post I've made since Barack Obama took office, I suggested that the great crisis which I had been expecting since reading Strauss and Howe in the 1990s had not begun in 2007 or so, but rather at the time of 9/11, or perhaps, one might suggest, at the time of the stolen election of 2000--a most inauspicious beginning for one of the critical eras in American history. I had reached that conclusion because it seemed quite unlikely by last July that Barack Obama and the Democrats were going to reverse the course of American history and bring back the expanded government responsibilities, the well-regulated financial system, and the desperately needed infrastructure investments that were the hallmark of the New Deal. That sense has been more than vindicated during the past four months, as Democratic prospects for Tuesday's elections got worse and worse. While it now seems very unlikely that the Republicans will control the Senate after Tuesday, they do seem likely to emerge with 48 or 49 seats, and they have a better than four in five chance of taking control of the House of Representatives. Worse, for reasons which I am not going to try to go into today, the demonization of liberalism and all it stands for has if anything accelerated. Democratic candidates are running away from the President's achievements rather than running on them, with many incumbent Congressmen pledging not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker again. Pundits galore are proclaiming that Obama has come to grief because of Democratic radicalism, even though it is not clear that he even attempted one reform of genuine significance. The only fervent New Dealers left seem to be 60-somethings like Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, Robert Reich, and myself, and it is not at all clear where a new generation of such leaders or thinkers would come from.

Where, then, does the United States stand today? What has happened to us?

In the Gilded Age, America was dominated by unregulated bankers like Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and (later) J P. Morgan; by railroad magnates like Vanderbilt and Pullman and Harriman and many more; by heavy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick and, a little later, Henry Ford; and by John D. Rockefeller and the emerging energy industry. My generation was apparently the last one to grow up reading textbooks who painted these men as villains and lionized the trust-busting progressives who at least put a dent into their power, laying the foundation for the New Deal. Of those four power centers, two remain. The financial industry, whose power and wealth were drastically curtailed by New Deal reforms, has now come back stronger than ever since those reforms were largely repealed in the 1990s, and it had more than enough influence in the Obama Administration to prevent even an attempt to bring those reforms back. (It was painful indeed to hear the President tell Jon Stewart that my old antagonist Larry Summers had done "a heckuva job.") The energy industry managed to prevent the Senate from voting on a very weak cap and trade bill. Neither heavy industry nor any transportation mode remains an economic and political power in the United States. Their place has been taken by the health care industry, which protected itself effectively against any drastic changes in the health care reform bill; the food industry, which does enormous damage to the nation's health and quality of life; the national security establishment, which is once again using up an increasing share of our GDP for purposes of very little use to the public; and, I would suggest, our state and local employees--including police, firefighters, prison guards, and teachers, especially--who have enormous claims on both present and future resources. One might also add the higher education establishment, which sells entry permits into several of these sectors.

These are, it seems to me, the growth sectors of our economy--and all of them are to one extent or another parasitic, if not indeed harmful, upon productive sectors. The private entities among them operate in defiance of the antitrust laws, from which health insurers are specifically exempt. The public entities face some threats to their future owing to the poor economy, but they are still holding their own. Among the many societies I have studied at one time or another, I would suggest that Old Regime France presents particularly striking similarities to our current plight. While private power operates unchecked with the help of enormous influence over the government, the average citizen is locked out of decisions, and pays a much higher than average percentage of his or her income in taxes. (Effective rates, it seems to me, are probably highest on people making between $50,000 and $150,000 a year.) Meanwhile, a great many public positions (though not civilian federal civil servants or most teachers) receive not only good salaries and benefits, but handsome pensions, often for more than half of their adult lives.

Two years of the Obama Administration have in my opinion established beyond doubt that one of this changes very much according to who is in power. Obama came in as a reform President and the Democratic Congress went through the motions on health care, for which it may have done a little good but no more, and finance reform. He spoke a new language on foreign policy but there, as in economic policy, he relied on establishment advice, and has made no real changes yet. After next Tuesday he will have no hope of advancing a domestic agenda, even if he still has one, and he may well become more of an activist in foreign affairs. He could still vindicate the Nobel Committee's premature hopes for him, but there is not much sign of it yet.

The long-term economic future of the bottom half of the country remains bleak, but it is not clear that the upper half sees itself in a crisis. With the help of the elderly--another growing and still relatively well-to-do group--the Republican Party is set to regain control of the House and certainly has a decent chance of regaining the White House next year. It is difficult to believe that Obama can win Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada and Colorado again, and meanwhile, the Republicans will gain at least 10 electoral votes thanks to a redistribution of seats. They will not, clearly, be able to help the economy very much, but neither did U.S. Grant. I suspect Karl Rove now hopes his party can regain power based simply on not being Democrats--and he may be right. The real problem, as in the 1868-1901 period, is that the alternation between the two parties does not seem to make much difference. The Citizens' United decision and the proliferation of huge fortunes will continue to ensure that.

If things take another turn for the worse economically, or if the United States sustains more serious terrorist attacks, or if we become involved in another prolonged struggle in the Muslim world, the legitimacy of the government could be seriously threatened again. But I am not sure that it will. The anti-government orthodoxy has grown along with the power of private institutions, and it once again enjoys a powerful bastion in the Supreme Court. We are not on the verge of a new outbreak of totalitarianism in advanced countries; our problem is too little authority and organization, not too much. We do seem destined to fall further behind much of the advanced world in health care and our income distribution will probably become even more unjust. Eventually a real reform impulse will arise again, but I do not see how it can revive--or, more to the point--who is likely to revive it. Like the civil war crisis, the much less costly crisis that we seem to be passing through now has not strengthened institutional authority, and does not seem likely to do so.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why we have a deficit

Deficit spending is the official excuse for the Tea Party revolution and the force that threatens to drive our economic policy for the next few years, just as it is already driving the British government. Our gigantic deficit for fiscal 2010 is now projected at $1.294 trillion dollars, about 10% of our GDP. Just ten years ago, in fiscal 2000--the last year fully within the Clinton Administration--we had a surplus of 2.4% of GDP. This ranks as a financial revolution comparable to what happened from 1933 to 1950, or from 1979 to 1991 or so, and given how heated issues of government finance have become, it behooves us to ask how all this happened. Thanks to the magic of the web, figures are near at hand.

Budgets, of course, are composed of revenues (mostly taxes) and expenditures. Let us begin with taxes. In fiscal 2000, federal taxes brought in 20.6 % of GDP, including 10.2% of GDP from federal personal income taxes, 2.1% from corporate income taxes, and 6.6% from Social Security taxes. This year they are estimated to bring in 14.8% of our GDP, that is, almost 6% less. Judging from figures from the last pre-recession year of fiscal 2007, about half of that 6% is due to the Bush tax cuts and the other half is a result of our economic collapse. The composition of that 14.8% has also changed dramatically: only 6.4% of it comes from personal income taxes, 1.1% from corporate, and 6.0% from Social Security taxes. In 2000 the progressive income tax brought in about 66% more than the regressive social security tax. Now they bring in nearly the same amount of money. In short, restoring the Clinton-era level of taxation would significantly reduce the deficit, in and of itself. Yet I do not know of anyone besides myself who is openly advocating that that be done.

While taxes have gone down, outlays have gone up--way up. Federal spending was 18.2% of GDP in 2000; it is 25.4% of GDP now. We can disaggregate this 33% increase in the budget as a share of GDP. The defense budget took up 2% of GDP in 2000; it now takes up 4%, or twice as much. The entire increase can be chalked up to the war on terror, an undertaking of most dubious utility. Spending on humman resources has gone up more, from 11.4% of GDP to 17.1%, a 6.7% increase. Within that 6.7%, medicare, other health spending and social security have each added about 1% of GDP to the total, and another category, "income security" payments, has added 2% more. I need to research that category, which I suspect is composed mainly of federal pensions. The remaining 1% or so of the increase is divided among veterans' benefits and education.

One astonishing item caught my eye--one that certainly needs more explanation. Thanks to George W. Bush's impact on the budget, the national debt is more than twice what is was in 2000--yet interest payments are actually down as a share of GDP, down an entire point from 2.3% to 1.3%. Thanks to the growth of our economy and above all, I would guess, to the lowest interest rates in history over the last decade, we hardly pay more to service our debt now than we did ten years ago. Meanwhile, stimulus money is already a relatively small entry, presumably under the employment and training category.

The source of our deficit, then, is pretty clear. About 1/4 of it is the responsibility of the Bush tax cuts, and another 1/6 is the fault of the Iran and Iraq War. Yet another 1/6 comes from rising health care costs, and another 1/4 from increased social security payments (which are wisely being capped at the moment) and other government income maintenance. The Obama Administration recognized the need to do something about health costs, but probably failed to do so. It has shown no sign of giving up our adventures in Central Asia, and it only wants a relatively modest increase in taxes, confined to truly wealthy Americans. That, however, is almost certainly going to be impossible after the election, and it will have to choose between a tax hike for everyone--my preferred course--or no tax hike at all.

In Republicanland, however, orthodoxy holds that any tax hike is out of the question, as are, apparently, any cuts in Medicare or Social Security. (The elderly are for the moment a huge part of the Republican base.) The Republicans are saying nothing about the defense budget, or, indeed, about much of anything. In short, if in fact the Tea Party really is serious about anything except expressing their hatred of Barack Obama--which I doubt--they are probably in for a major disappointment. The Presidential commission on the deficit will report after the election and, I suspect, will make some of the same points that I just did. I very much doubt, however, that the new Congress will take appropriate action.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coming to a theater near you. . ..

yesterday my wife and I drove/subwayed to Cambridge to see, orioginally, three movies. We wound up seeing only two, but they were in their way blockbusters, both documentaries: Waiting for Superman and Inside Job.

Waiting for Superman is about the collapse of American education and the charter school movement, towards which it is very favorable--perhaps too favorable. As my son, a charter middle school principal in Brooklyn, will tell you, charters remain an experiment, trying different recipes with different results, although some have indeed had amazing success. The film paid a good deal of attention to Michelle Rhee, the Gen X Superintendent of the Washington, D. C. schools, who tried to get the teachers' union to give up tenure in return for promising to double the salaries of effective teachers. They wouldn't do it. The movie appeared too early to report that Ms. Rhee is now the ex-superintendent as a result of the defeat of the mayor who was her patron. The movie did show, as my son has told me, what a horrible, painful process the lotteries to get into charters are--the vast majority of parents whose kids don't make it feel their kids have lost their only chance at a better life. And they are probably right.

Inside Job is even better and even more depressing, tracing the origins of the financial crisis, and the response to it, in devastating terms. It features long interviews both with ex-high officials, a few investment bankers, a few (almost invariably older) economists who had gotten it for a long time and saw the crash coming, and a lot of totally syncophantic economists. I did not realize, and thank the filmmaker for pointing it out, that the economists in our leading universities have been bought off by consultancies with hedge funds and banks. One of them has to explain, quite unashamedly, how he took $100,000 or so a few years ago to co-author a paper praising the Icelandic banking system. It is clear that everyone in the system is too drunk on money to think that anything could be wrong with it. There is now, of course, a revolving door between the top positions in Washington and the megabanks. Above all, the film shows how utterly naive--ridiculous, really--it was for people like me to think the Obama Administration would do anything meaningful. Re-appointing Bernanke was equivalent to keeping Admiral Kimmel in command of the US Fleet after Pearl Harbor. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner were also, of course, totally, deeply implicated in everything that had gone wrong. I feel fairly sure that within five years we will have another crash. The dreadful effects of allowing huge fortunes to accumulate was never more apparent. There are interviews with a few Europeans, particularly the French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, who really stand out. They are grown-ups. The Americans are not. And the list of people who refused to be interviewed is very long.

In short, we saw two things: the failure of US education to help the poor (and increasingly, the middle class), and the devastation that the most highly educated sectors of our society have wrought. I did not emerge any more optimistic about the future. It is simply not clear where meaningful change could come from anytime soon.

Regular readers note: there was another new post yesterday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bacevich rides again

Andrew Bacevich and I have had oddly parallel lives. He came from the heartland and I from the Washington establishment, but we are just about exactly the same age. Both of us joined the Army late in the Vietnam era, but I was merely an enlisted man in the non-combatant reserves while he began a long career as an officer, reaching the rank of colonel. After retiring in the early 1990s he went into academia, just when I was joining the faculty of the Naval War College. He was originally a Republican and has now become an independent while I have always been a Democrat, but we are equally disgusted with both parties, especially as regards foreign policy. And we are two of the very few members of our generation still daring to question the basis of American foreign policy since the Second World War--the theme of his new book, Washington Rules. I should also add that we count one another as friends.

Washington Rules is a troubling book for anyone who happens to believe that rationality drives the policy-making process in Washington--or even that it could. It surveys the whole period from 1947 or so to the present rather impressionistically, focusing on some key personalities like Curtis LeMay, Allen Dulles, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and going into detail with respect to only a few crises. I do not agree with all its historical judgments, particularly with respect to the 1960s, but I freely concede that I learned a lot about recent history from this book, and that in any case, its overall point is far more important than any disagreements over specific facts. Bacevich argues that a Washington consensus has dominated our thinking and our policy for the last 63 years (if not the last 70), that is, the span of our lifetimes. It is built, he says, around a trinity of ideas: that the United States is uniquely ordained to defend, and extend, the realm of freedom around the world; that that mission requires a network of far-flung bases; and that we must be willing to engage in combat, as necessary, to secure our aims. That consensus, he argues, has survived eleven changes of Administration (Presidents, actually, play relatively minor roles in his narrative, and with good reason), and cataclysmic events ranging from the Vietnam War to the collapse of Communism. Only briefly in the 1970s has it ever been challenged and it has repeatedly come back stronger than ever--and it shows no signs of abating now.

According to Bacevich, his awakening began with the end of the Cold War, when he got to see behind Communist lines in Eastern Europe and discovered that the enemy was far more less formidable than he had been led to believe. My parallel awakening began much earlier, in 1968, after the Tet Offensive made clear that we were not winning the Vietnam War. (It is an interesting fact, one that Bacevich does not mention, that a whole industry subsequently sprung to try to argue, wrongly, that the Tet Offensive did not prove that at all.) Given that we could not win it, I began to ask myself whether it had been necessary to fight it at all, and I had soon decided that it had not. The United States, I concluded--and this was a big change from what I had previously believed--did not have to be desperately interested in the fate of every spot on the globe, even if Communism was involved. Certain areas were far more important than others, and the world was also full of self-regulating mechanisms that would help keep the United States and its allies safe without our active involvement.

Young and innocent, I flattered myself that many of my fellow countrymen had drawn similar conclusions. Some had. Bacevich points out that General David Shoup (of whom I was well aware at the time) and J. William Fulbright, among others, gave the Washington consensus its most serious challenge of the whole postwar period during that time. But by 1974, I was shocked to discover, things were back on track in DC. I was amazed to learn that Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger had decided that the CIA had to support one Marxist faction against another in newly independent Angola, even though the pro-Soviet Marxists had already come to terms with Gulf Oil there, just to show that the United States was not a paper tiger after Vietnam. That was only the first of many pieces of evidence that Vietnam was going to be regarded merely as a blip on the curve, albeit one that had made the Army gunshy and ended the draft. Some years later, in the late 1970s, Theodore Draper pointed out that no one who had had the sense to oppose the Vietnam War from the beginning seemed to have gained additional power and influence as a result, while no one who had advocated it seemed to have suffered any great loss of reputation or clout.

In fact, I noticed during the 1980s that since the time of my birth, the focus of American attention around the world had shifted progressively from the most advanced and important areas, such as Western Europe and Japan, to ever poorer and remote ones, including the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central America, and even the Horn of Africa. The reductio ad absurdum of this process seemed to have arrived in 1979 when we became frightened about Soviet control of Afghanistan. Little did I know that that was only the beginning.

The end of the Cold War did lead to meaningful reductions in military spending during the 1990s--but as Bacevich points out, it did not lead to any major changes in the way Washington approached the world. During that decade, our armed forces--with whom I was now working--were configured to fight one of two wars, a new Korean war or another war in the Gulf. But meanwhile, Bacevich shows effectively, Madeleine Albright, Clinton's second Secretary of State, kept the prevailing view alive in the midst of a new world. Specifically, Albright tried (unsuccessfully) to bring about earlier American military intervention in the Balkans and supported sanctions against Saddam Hussein even while admitting that they might have caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. More generally, she bluntly stated that the United States was sticking to its principles in the midst of a new era.

Neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz had, of course, been arguing since Communism collapsed that American power should now overawe or defeat anyone who stood in its way. Documents released in the last few weeks by the National Security archive show that putting this philosophy into practice by taking down Saddam Hussein (a goal which, to be fair, Bill Clinton had already endorsed as well) was an immediate priority for the Bush Administration, one which 9/11, if anything, delayed. To Bacevich--and I am afraid that he is right--both tyrannies like Saddam's and terrorist attacks are simply excuses from "semiwarriors," as he calls them, like Robert McNamara, Wolfowitz, and Fred and Kimberly Kagan to keep American power moving forward, ever forward, without seriously asking what we are likely to accomplish or how it is going to make America safer. Meanwhile, in some of his most scathing passages, Bacevich shows how successive generations of military officers have stepped forward to meet the needs of particular civilian decisions. When Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz planned painlessly to topple one dictatorship after another (and Tony Blair has now confirmed, by the way, that invasions of Iran and North Korea were supposed to follow the move against Iraq), military thinkers like Admiral Arthur Cebrowski stepped forward with "networkcentric warfare." When the application of such techniques created chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Petraeus--who had actually been waiting for this moment since the 1980s--stepped forward with a revised counterinsurgency doctrine. I am ashamed to admit that I did not realize that Petraeus's new handbook for counterinsurgency, FM 3-24, defined Al Queda as a global strategic threat, requiring "a global strategic response, one that addresses the array of linked resources and conflicts that sustain these movements while tactically addressing the local grievances that feed them." We have essentially embarked upon a world-wide crusade against ignorance, poverty and anarchy, with the Army and Marines in the lead--even though all the evidence, in my opinion, suggests that the presence of US forces if the single thing most likely to encourage Islamic extremism, as well as terrorist attacks committed by Muslims living in the West.

Even more painful are the pages devoted to the Obama Administration. The Democratic Party, Bacevich points out, rode back into power in Congress in 2006 on the back of the Iraq War, but made no attempt to bring it to a conclusion through the power of the purse, instead sitting back while Bush expanded it. Two years later Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in large measure because he had opposed the Iraq war (unlike John Kerry or Hillary Rodham Clinton), and promised in the campaign, to bring it to a conclusion. He also promised, however, to expand the effort in Afghanistan. He showed in many ways from the beginning that he had no intention of challenging the Washington consensus. He presided over a strategy review that never even addressed the question of whether staying in Afghanistan was doing any good at all, but focused on the issue of how many more troops to send. And now he is firmly established as yet another consensus President in foreign affairs, with the situation in Iraq deteriorating once again and things going worse and worse, it would seem, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Clearly, I find my self more in agreement with my friend Andy than not, and equally bemused as to whether anything can cause us to reverse course. Things have changed since he and I were young. Because we no longer have a draft, we must fight our wars on a much smaller scale, and because we now have precision-guided weapons we do not have to wreak the kind of havoc that we did in Vietnam--even though the secondary consequences of the invasion of Iraq were horrific, and Afghans are suffering much as well. Meanwhile, after its rough patch in the 1970s and 1980s, the national security establishment seems to have freed itself from any serious oversight, much less punishment for misdeeds, up to and including torture. And the defense budget, which actually fell in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, is now at an all-time high and its share of GDP is once again increasing. Our obsession with overwhelming military power is one of the biggest reasons, I suspect, that Europe has done so much better at maintaining its infrastructure and its industrial plant than we have--we have given them and the Japanese the chance to focus on more important matters, and they have done so. Bacevich must know that his book, by its very nature, cries out to be dismissed with a shrug and a rolling of the eyes by his targets in Washington, but he is a great comfort to concerned citizens who have watched us frantically seek out new worlds to conquer for decades on end.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Anti-intellectualism again

Some months ago, one of my freshmen year roommates, who remains a friend and regular reader, suggested that I take a look at Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter was the greatest historian of the GI generation, and his death, in his early 50s, in the early 1970s was a great tragedy for our intellectual ilfe. He had a grasp of all of American history--indeed, he had started a general history of the US, a few chapters of which were published after his death--and he was fascinated by the disconnects between political rhetoric and what was actually happening in different areas. This particular book, written in the 1960s, only went up to the 1960s, and I am not going to do it anything like justice this morning, but the latter half of the book, from the civil war until the middle of the last century, seemed to me particularly relevant in light of current events.

Hofstadter suggested that there had always been a wide gap between educated Americans and the average man (or woman) in our culture, but he identified ebbs and flows. Never, he suggested, was the gap wider than in the post-civil war period. The war had united moralistic intellectuals with the common people, and the North had achieved its short-term objectives of restoring the union and the abolition of slavery. But Hofstadter effectively makes the point that to the New England elite, in particular, the war seemed to have brought little if any greater good within 12 years of its completion. Not only had the end of Reconstruction left former slaves in a new form of subjugation, but northern politics was now dominated by corporate corruption and big-city bosses. Civil service reform--the selection of public officials by merit--became the reformers' principal cause, but was violently opposed by politicians exalting the common man over the effeminate bookworm. (Present day historians would have you believe that only Boomers discovered the significance of gender in history, but that is clearly not the case.) Only the murder of President Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker started the country down the path to a professional civil service, and it was a very modest step. The corporate elite that ruled the country seemed to enjoy the idea that the common man knew best, and the first politician to begin to reverse the trend was the Harvard educated amateur historian, Theodore Roosevelt, whose elevation to the Presidency was, of course, pretty much of an accident. By 1900, however the new Missionary generation (born 1863-84) was voting. It was very well educated and believed in the use of the intellect to better society. In 1912 Roosevelt and former college president and historian Woodrow Wilson won a huge majority of the popular between them, and Wilson took office and presided over the first Reform Administration. As I have said before, there is indeed a logic to Glenn Beck's demonization of Progressivism in general and Woodrow Wilson in particular.

The First World War discredited Wilson and Progressivism for a decade, but Herbert Hoover was certainly a representative of this new tradition, and under the New Deal it really came into its own. It aroused violent opposition among many well-to-do Americans, but the mass of the people welcomed FDR's scientific and inspiring approach to the problems the country faced, and the idea of government as problem-solver remained entrenched for nearly half a century--the most remarkable half century, I would argue, in the whole history of American political life. By the 1970s, however, the alliance between academics and government was crumbling. Now it is just about dead, and are very close, in our own way, to where the country was on these issues during the Gilded Age.

From at least the time of Ronald Reagan onward the Republican Party has been frankly and openly anti-intellectual, railing against Washington bureaucrats who think they know what is best for the average American, and particularly against the mainstream media, which they have seen as dominated by an educated elite. An interesting trend began with Reagan: when the educated elite derided his intellectual ability, his supporters turned this into an advantage. No one could have dreamt then, however, how far this trend would go. Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell have given new meaning to the idea that dumber is better. (O'Donnell isn't going to be elected, but Palin's career is far from over.) And one very influential part of the intellectual elite--neoconservatives--have actually jumped on this bandwagon. When I mentioned this to a well-known centrist Republican two years ago, he remarked that neoconservatives clearly preferred candidates of limited vision, such as George W. Bush, so that they could fill in gaps on their blank slates. Bill Kristol met Palin on a necon cruise to Alaska a year or two before the 2008 elections and, apparently, fell in love.

And thus, today, in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Depression, the simplest arithmetical facts make absolutely no impression upon the body politic. Today's papers report that we lost jobs last month because of a big drop in state and local government employment--which up until now had been helped by the Obama stimulus. Stimulus, however, has become a dirty word, and there will be no new one any time soon. As Paul Krugman eloquently pointed out yesterday, Governor Christie of New Jersey--a hero to his fellow Times columnist David Brooks--made one of the stupidest decisions in American history by canceling a plan for a new railroad tunnel under the Hudson, a desperately needed piece of infrastructure that would have put many, many people to work. (Today's paper says that Christie, thank heaven, is trying to find a way to reverse that decision.) When the media attack Tea Party candidates for obvious mistatements--Sharon Angle, who is likely to defeat Harry Reid in Nevada, just said Sharia law now governs Dearborn, Michigan--they retort that the media doesn't want to debate the real issues, like taxes. And for the moment, at least, it seems that all this would work.

Meanwhile, something else has happened: the academy--particularly the Humanities, including history, and the social sciences--lost interest in the use of knowledge to better society and in particular the lot of the average man. It turned inward, creating a species of scholarship as removed from the world as Medieval scholasticism. In so doing it has done much to confirm the anti-intellectualism of the right. To have its ideas respected, the academy will have to attack the problems of the general public.

Krugman said the other day that he could find little reason for hope, and I can't either--not for a long time, anyway. I have been pointing out parallels between the Gilded Age and our own time for some time. If these are accurate, then salvation will only come from a generation as yet unborn, the new Prophet generation that will enter elementary school when our current crisis is definitely over. (And "over" does not mean that things will have gotten better, only that we have effectively given up on any significant changes.) The Missionary generation, the subject of my current research, reshaped the nation and the world in ways that the Gilded Age could never have dreamed of. Boomers have undone their work and it does not seem that there will be any Boomer savior to reverse the trend. History, however, lasts a long time. It is time for me now to quote another passage from Georg Lukacs's The Historical Novel, a passage about Stendhal, who wrote in the Restoration period after the French revolution and the Napoleonic era, a time when reaction seemed to be in the ascendant all over Europe.

"In French literature," Lukacs writes, "Stendhal is the last great representative of the heroic ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His criticism of the present, his picture of the past rest essentially on this critical contrasting of the two great phases of bourgeois society. The implacable nature of this criticism has its roots in the living experience of the past heroic period and in the unshaken belief--despite all skepticism--that the development of history will yet lead to a renewal of this great period."

And so it will again, no matter how many or how few of us live to see it. I would like to think that, somehow, Krugman might see this post.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Knowledge gaps

I don't think I've ever discussed this here before, but my interest in politics goes way, way back, and it always had a particular intensity. In 1952, when I was five, my father was an Assistant Secretary of Labor--that is, a Presidential appointee--and I understood that the contest between Stevenson and Eisenhower would have a major impact on our family's future. I still remember calling up to my old brother, then 9, in the upper bunk, to ask him the morning after the election, who had won, and he replied, "Eisenhower!" It actually took more than two years for the effects of that result to play out, but they culminated in a move to upstate New York. Kennedy's victory led to a move to Africa--and so on and so on. My father had every right to care about the results of elections so much. He had a great talent for diplomacy (which was actually a big part of his job in the Labor Department) and he enjoyed it very much. But he had not been brought up to sound selfish, and up until the end of his life he consistently convinced himself that every election was a great test of good and evil. Our household was foursquare in favor of civil rights and regarded bigots as the scum of the earth, but bigotry against Republicans, with some exceptions, was not only allowed, it was almost obligatory. Meanwhile, starting in second grade, I was learning about earlier eras of American history in Landmark books--a wonderful artifact of Boomer childhoods. And the country, of course, was pretty much united in its belief in American progress and democracy. My elementary school textbooks, I remember, included complicated diagrams showing how bills were passed, and I studied them carefully.

The Vietnam War showed that the older generation could be very, very wrong, regardless of party. The two elections of Nixon showed that the liberal coalition that had made my father's life possible no longer commanded the support of the American people. I have a distinct recollection of watching the midterm elections of 1970--a pivotal year in my life in many ways, actually--and realizing that the old spark was missing--I was interested in the results but understood that life would go on whatever they might be. Some months after that I had a rather sharp exchange with my father after Henry Kissinger's trip to China. I still wasn't fond of Nixon, and I rejoiced at his demise three years later, but I thought he deserved credit for reversing our China policy, and I still do. He didn't want to hear it--Nixon, his exact contemporary, was one Republican who could do no right, all the more so since his election in 1968 had cut my father's diplomatic career short in its prime.

By the time of the Reagan era I was a practicing historian and I was getting more and more detached. A series of elections and deaths, culminating in the 1980 Reagan sweep, had removed most of my liberal political heroes from the scene, and the country was clearly in an entirely different mood. I was busy with my career and young family, too. Michael Dukakis's self-destruction in 1988 was a bit of a shock, and after the Gulf War, I assumed the Republicans would stay in the White House for a long time. My favorite political novel was now Democracy by Henry Adams, a brilliant work even today but not one calculated to inspire idealism, of which Adams had none whatever. In the summer of 1989, after finishing a long book of my own on Europe, I read Adams' entire History of the United States under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, one of the three or four greatest classics of American history (actually I would rank it with Allen Nevins's history of the coming of the Civil War as the best.) Although Adams was emotionally engaged in it, particularly with respect to Jefferson, it was filled with irony and humor and concluded that American progress in that era had very little to do with the state.

The election of Bill Clinton was a welcome surprise in 1992, and Clinton began with the tax increase that helped restore the country to fiscal health. But the Republican takeover of Congress two years later was a rude awakening indeed, and Clinton never pursued, much less achieved, a particularly liberal agenda. Meanwhile American journalism collapsed almost completely, focusing obsessively on imagined or irrelevant scandals. In the midst of the decade I discovered Strauss and Howe, who assured us that our current political doldrums would give way, first, to a great storm, and then to some kind of regeneracy whose shape no one could foretell. I began rethinking a great deal of the history I knew, both of the US and of other countries as well, and decided that the theory reflected reality pretty faithfully. Then came the stolen election of 2000, and 9/11, which seemed to usher in the crisis era that they had predicted.

It was three years after that, in 2004, that I began making these posts. The Republican ascendancy looked pretty secure at that point, but within months, it began to crumble. Bush, I see now, persisted in the role of a Crisis President, doing whatever he thought was right regardless of public opinion. (That does not mean that he achieved any lasting good, even on the issues he cared about most. Today's papers report that Nouri Al Maliki will retain power in Iraq in a coalition with the most anti-American and pro-Iranian politician in the country, Moqtar Al-Sadr--and that the Sunnis will once again be completely excluded from power while the Kurds secure greater independence. But I digress.) But the Democratic Party won back the Congress in 2006 and then the Presidency in 2008, with a historic margin, in the midst of an economic crisis that seemed completely to discredit the economic policies of the last few decades. Another New Deal seemed to be at hand. Obviously, it hasn't worked out that way.

I have discussed the many reasons for this here for many months, but today one in particular stands out. The media and our educational system have combined to reduce the average American--particularly the less well-off American--to an astonishing level of ignorance about our political system, what it can and cannot do, and the roles of the two parties. It is true that the choice between the two parties is much narrower than it was 75 or 40 years ago. The Republicans have become the party of extreme conservatism while the Democrats are if anything the party of moderate, somewhat responsible conservatism--the party that realizes that we need a government and have to think about how to pay for it. In fact, the function of Democratic Administrations now seems to be to do something to clean up Republican messes, only to be driven out of office when the Republicans mount an effective propaganda campaign against what they have done and start over. But the difference between the two is still significant. What has become clear to me this year is that many people, including many of those who elected Barack Obama in 2008, do not believe that.

Last February, not long after Scott Brown had won the Massachusetts Senate election, I went to Switzerland with a Massachusetts ski club, composed entirely of people over 50. One night I was sitting with three of them, all reasonably liberal types, including a long-time resident of Provincetown, and a nurse. All three indicated with pride that they had voted for Brown, largely to "teach the Democrats a lesson". I was appalled but kept my mouth shut for reasons of politeness. Brown's defeat had cost the Democrats their filibuster-proof majority and the chance of pushing forth a liberal agenda. But it is now clear, first of all, that relatively few Obama voters even cared about a liberal agenda in the sense that anachronistic New Dealers like Krugman, Jamie Galbraith, Robert Reich and myself do, and that even the Democratic Congress itself--particularly in the Senate--isn't really interested in one either. Both health care and finance reform were imitation reforms, not real ones--even if in both cases, something was better than nothing.

What is astonishing is the complete failure of the Administration even to try to make political capital out of those reforms. Last week one of the most popular provisions of the health bill went into effect, barring insurance companies from denying coverage to families with children with pre-existing conditions. Had this happened under George W. Bush he would have appeared in the Rose Garden surrounded by a troop of chronically ill, irresistibly cute kids. But the Obama Administration did nothing at all. It seems quite resigned to losing at least the House of Representatives and I even heard one insider speculate that the White House doesn't even have much of a legislative agenda anymore. And they obviously have polling data suggesting that both health reform and financial reform (which is probably inextricably mixed up in voters' minds with TARP) are unpopular among swing voters. Not long after the 2008 election I heard James Carville say, in effect, that he expected the Democrats to win a long string of elections based on demographics alone. He was wrong.

The ignorance of voters--and particularly of Democratic voters--is very much on display in a poll reported this morning by columnist Charles Blow in the New York Times. 42% of black voters, 42% of Hispanic voters, and, most shockingly, just 35% of all voters between 18 and 29 years old even know that the Democrats currently have a majority in the House of Representatives. I heard another version of the same story on NPR yesterday when a correspondent interviewed young black people in New Orleans, who had gone to the polls for Obama but saw no reason to do so to choose between two old guys this year. (One of them didn't even know what a midterm election was.) "According to a Gallup poll released in July," Blow writes, "most Democrats didn't even seem to know what a progressive was, and of those who did, slightly more said that it didn't describe them than said that it did." But Republicans, who are 11% more likely than Democrats to know who controls the House, "know" exactly what a Progressive is: a demon from hell. That's because Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of Fox News explain it to them daily. And that is why they have a 67% chance of taking over the House of Representatives and quite possibly putting an end to modern liberalism once and for all.

A different but equally troubling kind of ignorance emerged in a post by a younger poster on one of my favorite web sites the other day. Referring to his Congressional contest in Wisconsin, which features a Democratic incumbent, he wrote:

"Anecdotal evidence, take it for what its worth:

"I have a friend, a 24 year old Millenial. She returned from a tour of duty in Iraq early this year. She voted for Obama in 2008, and now says she will vote Republican in this election.

"She appears fairly centrist to me, supportive of gay rights, believes in climate change, and has never once parrotted some line about socialism. But she doesn't have any confidence in Obama's leadership.

"Now I think part of this is probably her perception that she gained in the military that Democrats aren't very caring about veterans, and she believes that Republicans care more about veterans. My feeling is that this is a big portion of her reasoning. [Editor's note: I find that hard to believe--I have never heard a military person say that.]

"Point being, I think a lot of people in the center are feeling like the Democrats haven't done a good job, and they're voting for the other party.

"Actually, I'm doing that too. I will also probably vote for Ribble against my current congressman, Kagen, because I really don't like Kagen. I met him recently and had a conversation with him (without knowing it was him. You'd be surprised how different people look when they randomly sit next to you versus when they're on a television screen) and he came off to me as completely unknowledgeable and smarmy. Don't know much about Ribble but I figure I can vote him out with a better Democrat next time.

"From the perspective of the liberal voter, voting for incumbent Democrats doesn't make a whole lot of sense. We got them in. They did very little with their majority.

"To vote them in to do it again doesn't represent much other than continued gridlock. If we want to advance the progressive goal, the only real solution is to let the Republicans win and then kick them out again and replace them with better Democrats.

"If you want something to change, you have to do it differently. The current Democratic Majority isn't doing things the way they should be. To vote them in again will result in the same people being in charge. If we want better representatives, better liberals, we have to let the right wing win this one, and put them back into place with new, less compromising liberals."

Now actually, this last liberal Democratic House for a very long time (probably) has done very well. It passed much stronger health care and finance reform bills than the Senate did, and it passed cap-and-trade and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But because of the kind of fuzzy thinking exemplified above, and because of economic distress, they will be rewarded by the loss of 45-55 seats, and the government will be paralyzed for two years.

At some point I shall have to confront the question of what all this means about Barack Obama himself, but I would not know what to say about that now. He seemed in 2008 to understand the potential of the role he had been called upon to play, but he failed in the most crucial aspect of educating the public about the need for a new course. The Republicans have defined him for more than half of the American people. They have benefited both from the lack of a recovery and from the inability of many older Americans to accept the reality of Barack Obama in the White House, but they have also won by default.

I had hoped to spend this post analyzing the financing behind this year's elections, because I had found that the New York Times election page (not the fivethirtyeight.com page) has data on contributions for every single Senate, Congressional and gubernatorial race. But a second look informed me that most of the data is hopelessly out of date. A great many stories, however, are saying that the Republicans have a big financial advantage overall--even though some well-financed Democrats, like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Harry Reid, are in big trouble all the same. That post, however, will have to wait for better data.