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Monday, January 28, 2013

Where our politics stand

The last two days' New York Times included five articles which, taken together, presented an excellent picture of the state of American national politics, the options before us, and, implicitly, where we are going to wind up. I will take the liberty of calling them all to readers' attention.

The theme yesterday was the enormous power, actual and potential, of moneyed special interests in our policy. (All three articles, which led the paper can conveniently be accessed here. One announced that dozens of lawsuits by religions institutions challenging the health care law requirement that their employees' coverage include contraception are on their way through the federal court system and will inevitably end in the Supreme Court. So successful has the propaganda campaign been regarding this issue that the Times reporter himself represents the plaintiffs as representatives of "religious freedom." They are not: their goal is to impose their religious beliefs on their employees, which is not, I feel certain, what the framers intended the First Amendment to provide. I can't help chuckling at the thought that the Supreme Court that will decide this case is composed entirely of Catholics and Jews, but that certainly isn't going to make their task any easier. This may be, however, just one of many reasons why employer-provided health care is doomed in the long run and will have to be replaced by single-payer.

The second is one of a series of stories the Times has been running about the gun industry and how it tries to defend and increase its market. This story specifically focused on attempts to recruit the younger generation by encouraging firearms training for kids, producing toy assault rifles, and using video games to get them interested in particular models. Like an earlier story that focused on the gun manufacturer-video game alliance, this one makes clear that assault rifles have assumed an increasingly important share of the gun market, and that the industry has promoted this process. The hypocrisy of the NRA leadership, which actually blames video games for mass shootings, is astonishing on this point.

Last but hardly least, the Times detailed how a network of conservative Republican donors have found a new cause: the defeat of Chuck Hagel's confirmation for Secretary of Defense. Taking advantage of Citizens' United and its secrecy provisions, they are running a multi-million dollar ad campaign against him targeting vulnerable Democratic Senators, in particular. The opposition to Hagel is a neoconservative project, and one of the leading figures in it is Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner who kept Newt Gingrich's campaign alive for months, and who is focused on support for Israel and war on Iran. I don't think this campaign can be successful and I am glad Adelson is wasting more of his money on it, but this story, like the other two, testify to the enormous power of special interests in our society and how they stand in the way of any rational approach to various foreign and domestic problems.

My favorite of these five pieces is from today's paper, the "political memo" by John Harwood. The title--"Obama Focuses on Status Quo, Not Left, in Battle With G.O.P."--says it all, and boy, is he ever right. The President, like his political role model Bill Clinton, has taken his stand in front of Great Society-era programs--Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security--which have become part of American life, while forsaking any genuine return to the New Deal, which would include much higher top marginal tax rates, vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws, a real drive to increase workers' rights, and a return to the Glass-Steagall Act. The Republicans are relentlessly promoting the idea that Obama will not move to the center because that is exact where he has been all along. And this point is rammed home by today's Paul Krugman column, which notes that Republicans in at least two states, Louisiana and New Orleans, have taken class warfare to a new level. While cutting or eliminating their state income taxes, they are raising sales taxes instead, and, in Kansas at least, trying to eliminate credits that keep income taxes on poorer earners low. They apparently realize that they can't cut spending to pay for tax cuts on the rich any further, and thus, the poor must pay. This is a huge and neglected aspect of what's happening in the US today: the Republicans enjoy total control of the governments of a number of states and they are using them as a laboratory to implement their agenda, confident that it will move more business into them and create more economic power for themselves. Already they have used that control to gerrymander the House of Representatives effectively and some of them are talking about doing the same for the electoral college.

Stay tuned!

Friday, January 25, 2013

The United States and Europe

Writing about David Brooks, who tries to hide tempered Republican partisanship behind a facade of punditry, usually strikes me as about as exciting as shooting a few fish in a barrel, but he said something so spectacularly wrong last week in response to President Obama's inaugural address that I think I'll spend today's post on it. He was trying to do what I do here--using history to make his point--but since he started with the point, rather than the history, his facts were. . .debatable. Brooks's remarks drew on a favorite Republican idea, "American Exceptionalism," which amounts to saying that the United States is somehow destined to turn its back on western civilization's finest achievements because of our unique heritage. Here is the key passage in his column.

"I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.

"When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.

"America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission."

To begin with, I'm sorry to have to point this out, but what David Brooks knows about European history could apparently fit on the head of a pin. With the exception of England (not Great Britain), no major European nation has had a state church for over a century--and even England allowed different religions to flourish well before the United States became a nation. United Germany never had a state Church, the French government severed its ties with the Catholic Church over 100 years ago, and the Italian state was formed in defiance of the Papacy. What distinguishes the US and Europe today is the vastly greater degree of religious faith in the United States--a faith which openly impinges upon public policy and education in much of the country. If that makes him feel better it's his right under the First Amendment, but I'm not inspired.

But Mr Brooks also needs some help with America history. Our free enterprise system gave us the assembly line automobiles, railroads (far more than we ever needed, actually), and electrical appliances, but unregulated financial markets led us to disaster again and again, most notably in 1929. The whole New Deal was about planning: economic planning, transportation planning, and environmental planning. The TVA brought electric power to hundreds of thousands of customers whom the electric companies did not find it profitable to serve, and the Rural Electrification Administration did the same in other parts of the country. Just a few weeks ago PBS did a documentary about the Dust Bowl showing how federal soil conservation experts taught farmers to restore their land through contour plowing. Boulder/Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and many others stored up the water that allowed us to populate the southwest. And who, Mr. Brooks, gave us the Interstate Highway System? The Eisenhower Administration and a Democratic Congress, that's who. His point about higher education is equally weird: American states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created public universities that were the equal of any on earth, places like Berkeley and Michigan and Wisconsin. Yes, the Republican budget-cutting frenzy of the last thirty years has betrayed the purpose of those universities, which now provide a much inferior product at a much higher cost--but they were giants in their time.

And that leads me to my final, saddest point. The modern welfare state did not begin in Europe: it began right here under Franklin Roosevelt. The only major European country that undertook a broad-based response to the Depression was Nazi Germany, which built roads and housing projects as well as weapons, planned the Volkswagen, and got its people back to work, even though it could never feed them satisfactorily. The British, French and Italians took no major steps against the Depression at all. Franklin Roosevelt already embodied the hopes of the peoples of the world before the United States entered the Second World War for that very reason. And when that war was over, the western Europeans in many ways copied us. Germany picked up the kind of labor-management cooperation that had gotten us through the war and ran with it, Britain had its own New Deal (including national health care) under the Labor Government from 1945 to 1950, and France eventually followed suit under de Gaulle.

The Republican project of which Mr. Brooks is an acolyte is designed to undo modern government. This has already gone more than far enough, and the results are all around us: crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools, and a counterproductive austerity drive in state after state during the worst recession since the 1930s. President Obama in his address stoutly defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but he did not dare propose much more of a role for the government than that. The United States and the major European nations have been experimenting with modernity now for nearly three centuries. We took the lead in promoting democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we developed the democratic welfare state in the twentieth. Now, evidently, it is their turn to keep the hopes of modern society alive. I hope to live to see the day when an American politician can urge us to follow some of their examples, just as they have followed ours.

Friday, January 18, 2013

What is happening to Israel

Support for Israel has grown steadily within the United States over the nearly 65 years of its existence. Although few people in the US or abroad are aware of this, Washington and Tel Aviv had a lukewarm relationship from the time of Israel's founding until the Six Day War in 1967. Israel received very little weaponry from the US in its early years, and in 1957, after the Suez Crisis, President Eisenhower forced the Israelis to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula by threatening to end to tax deduction for charitable contributions to Israel by Americans. The 1967 war was in certain respects an outgrowth of Vietnam. One of the most striking discoveries I made researching American Tragedy was a 1965 memorandum by Robert Komer, then a National Security Council staffer, on how the Johnson Administration's increasing preoccupation with Vietnam was allowing three dangerous situations--the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia, tension between India and Pakistan, and the Middle East--to fester. Komer had no idea how right he was: within three years, each of those situations had exploded into war. Had the US been paying enough attention to the Middle East the 1967 war might well have never broken out.

That war, as political scientist Judith Klinghoffer showed, gave birth to the neoconservative movement in the United States, because prominent Jewish intellectuals became alarmed at Israel's isolation. They not only became more aware of their ethnic and religious heritage, but concluded that the United States had to pursue a strong foreign policy because it was emerging as Israel's only friend. That trend accelerated over the next few decades, and conservative American Jews were reinforced by evangelical Christians, many of whom wanted Israel to be supported as an augury of the Second Coming. But meanwhile, Israel was changing radically, and it is that that I want to discuss today.

Although the Old Testament and ancient Jewish traditions lend Zionism some support, they were not the principal inspiration for it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, Zionism grew out of the more recent western tradition of nationalism, which held that every significant ethnic group deserved its own national state. Zionism initially divided Jews in western nations like Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, because they were to varying degrees accepted by their home nations and, especially in the US, wanted nothing more than to be treated like their fellow citizens. In that sense Jews had become some of the foremost exponents of the impartial principles of the Enlightenment, as embodied in the US Constitution, which makes no distinctions among citizens and treats religion as a private matter. But the bulk of the world's Jews lived in the Russian empire, where they were not treated as citizens, and for them Zionism had a powerful appeal. Then came the two world wars. The small Zionist lobby took advantage of the First World War to make Germany and Britain bid for their support, and the Balfour Declaration was the result. The Second World War and the Holocaust wiped out most of the Jewish population of Europe and seemed to make it impossible for Jews to live there. The United States, still living under highly restrictive immigration laws, was not a potential refuge for most holocaust survivors. The creation of Israel was the result.

The relationship of temple and state has always been complex in Israel, which is probably one reason that it still has no written constitution, but its original leaders were overwhelmingly secular. I recently read that they decided to subsidize orthodox Jewish communities on the assumption that they would die out naturally within a generation anyway. How wrong they were! The original ruling party was socialist, and the kibbutz was the flagship institution of the new state. The Labor Party held power for thirty years, until the late 1970s. Now it has become almost a fringe party, expected to win 17 out of 120 seats in the Knesset in the forthcoming elections. Reading a story about that this morning, I finally decided to look into something I had been hearing about intermittently for some time: the issue of emigration from Israel and its effects.

I an excellent short discussion of this question here. Interestingly enough, the Israeli government does not keep careful statistics about emigrants, perhaps because they are a slap in the face of the state's original purpose as a homeland for Jews. However, it seems clear that there are, at a minimum, about one million Israelis--perhaps 15% of the country, a very high figure for an advanced country--living abroad. The majority live in North America but many live in Europe as well--and a growing number live in Germany, which until 1933 was at least as friendly to Jews as any other European nation. They are a relatively young group, and they explain that they left partly for economic opportunity, partly because of the social and political climate in Israel, and partly because of the poor prospects for peace. And, critically, Israeli law does not allow them to vote in Israeli elections. That in itself is probably enough to account for the effective exclusion of the Israeli left from power in Israel, and it suggests that the trend to the right will continue. At this moment Bibi Netanyahu is more worried about maintaining his strength vis-a-vis the extreme right wing parties in his coalition than he is about the left. Another complication, of course, is that the orthodox Jews in Israel--like the Mormons and Evangelical Christians in the US--have much higher birth rates than their more secular contemporaries.

From the time of the 1967 war onward the Israeli government has based its policies less and less on international law and Enlightenment institutions such as the United Nations--which did, after all, create it--and more and more on scriptural authority. Religion has also become a more powerful factor within Israeli society. I am myself the grandchild of Ukrainian Jews who decided to seek their fortune in the United States, and my existence would have been quite impossible had they made any other choice. For that reason and for many others, the Enlightenment model of equal citizenship is the only one with any appeal for me. I could never have lived in any country that demanded that I list my children's religion on their birth certificates. It seems some Israelis are now deciding that they would just as soon not live in such a country either, and I can understand why.

Religions fundamentalism is gaining both in Israel and in its Muslim neighbors--and that obviously is not a hopeful sign for peace. Jews in western Europe and North America played highly significant roles in the development of western thought and institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and still do. The world Jewish community has never agreed that Israel should become its home, and the statistics on Israeli emigration show that that split now exists within Israel itself. It is a significant part of the continuing struggle between tradition and modernity.

P.S. The Israeli election results suggest I was too pessimistic!
Congratulations to young Israeli voters, who evidently staged a big upset.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The costs of being right

In 1979, the estimable historian Theodore Draper published an article called "Ghosts of Vietnam." That was fourteen years after the American intervention in Vietnam had started in earnest,and we are now eleven years away from 9/11 and the two wars that followed. It was four years after Saigon had fallen (Iraq, I might note, is now an Iranian ally once again on the verge of civil war), and the same year in which a Chinese attack on Vietnam exposed the absurdity of the original justifications for the war. Draper stated the theme of the article on his first page. "One might well assume," he said, "that the present custodians of American foreign policy had been chosen because they were proven right in their judgment of the war. It could come as a surprise that, in order to rise to the top of the post-Vietnam American political system, it was almost necessary to be wrong, hopelessly and certifiably wrong. Yet in some odd way, that is what has happened." Draper's main examples were Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brzezinski's then-staffer, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington. Not only had they all supported the war, but none of them had ever come up with any very good reasons for doing so. Yet they remained pillars of the foreign policy establishment and at that moment they were directing American foreign policy. Meanwhile, by the end of 1980, most of the Senators who had opposed the war from the beginning, including J. William Fulbright, George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, Wayne Morse, and Eugene McCarthy, had lost their seats, retired, or died.

During the next decade those favoring a restrained foreign policy frequently faced accusations of suffering from the "Vietnam syndrome," a serious disease whose victims had a reflexive aversion to deploying force abroad. During the same decade a neoconservative counteroffensive argued violently that liberal opposition had lost the war in Vietnam. In retrospect, however, it is clear that the most important victims of "Vietnam syndrome" were the Pentagon and, as a result, the Reagan Administration. Military leaders who lived through Vietnam as junior or field-grade officers knew that another such disaster would finish the American military as they knew it. Even Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger opposed the use of force except to meet direct threats to the security of the United States. With the sole and almost comic exception of Grenada, the Reagan Administration did not initiate a single foreign war. After more than 250 Marines died in Lebanon, Reagan quickly pulled the rest of them out. He, like Eisenhower, found the winning political formula for the Cold War: talk tough, build nuclear weapons, but stay out of messy fights.

George H. W. Bush, of course, invaded Panama--Grenada on a slightly larger scale--and liberated Kuwait. On the latter occasion, he declared, "we've kicked Vietnam syndrome once and for all." But he hadn't: his design and execution of the war, directed by Vietnam veteran General Colin Powell, carefully avoided occupying Iraq and undertaking long-term responsibilities. That frustrated the chicken hawks like Paul Wolfowitz who had stayed out of Vietnam but now wanted to replay it. They had to wait for a President of their own generation to get their chance.

I am weighing in in place of Theodore Draper this morning because Chuck Hagel's nomination is under strenuous attack from neoconservatives because of his skeptical attitude about American power and the use of force; because he opposed the surged in Iraq (although he voted for the original resolution authorizing the war); because he evidently opposes war with Iran; and because he once referred to a "Jewish lobby." That choice of words was infelicitous, since the vast majority of American Jews are neither lobbyists nor neoconservatives, but conservative Jewish lobbies do exercise enormous power in Washington, power comparable or even greater than that of the NRA, and a taboo has grown up against pointing this out. Neoconservatives are accusing Hagel of being an appeaser and, in one case--Elliot Abrams--of being an anti-Semite with a Jewish problem. It seems only fair to point out that Abrams has a Jewish problem of his own: he argued in a 1997 book, Faith or Fear: How Jews can Survive in a Christian America that Jews should become Republicans. Most of his fellow Jews have declined to follow that path, and many, I'm inclined to think, still believe in an America that is defined by its Constitution, not by any religion, and that they therefore do not need to ally with the most militant Christian factions to "survive" here.

The necons also hate Hagel because he is a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart, whose opinions might carry some weight that theirs do not. (I don't think there's a single prominent neocon who fought in Vietnam and I can't think of one who even served as a non-combatant in that era, as I did myself from 1970 to 1976.) Hagel is an almost exact contemporary of mine and many of us learned important lessons in those years, especially about the United States's ability to build a new client government in a nation in the midst of a civil war. The events in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years have only reaffirmed those lessons, at an enormous new cost to American society. I am proud that I did not allow September 11 to make me forget them, and thus, just weeks after the attack, I wrote and published the following:

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

The neocons' real quarrel is with Barack Obama, who did opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, but who has now chosen his second Secretary of State who at the time supported it. He decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan, just as Richard Nixon initially wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam, but he has now reached the inevitable conclusion that we have done what we could there as well. Meanwhile, the Army and Marines, as I can testify, are as disinclined as they were after Vietnam to become involved in anything similar and will remain so for a long time to come. The neocons, rather than reconsider--something of which they are incapable--now want to compound their disastrous mistakes with yet another one, a war with Iran. But a more interventionist foreign policy, it seems, will not be an outcome of our current political crisis, just as the Civil War was followed by one of the least militaristic periods in the whole history of the US. The Hagels are winning the argument.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Doing things right

My four-decade long career in education is coming to an end shortly--at least in the full-time, college classroom sense--and I've thought a lot about how the concurrent collapse of our higher education system might be contributing to broader threats to society. Education should teach students to work hard (if not necessarily steadily), to assimilate very large quantities of facts, and to reach opinions. It should also teach integrity, which is why cheating, now endemic, deserves to be drastically punished. Last spring an enormous cheating scandal erupted at Harvard over a course on the Congress in the Government Department, a course whose professor admitted that it was pretty much an academic joke and made it as easy as possible for students to collaborate on their exams, which, of course, they did. In the commentary I read I never saw anyone complain that the course existed at all, or that some one who would give such a course had been awarded, and retained, tenure. Students, I have found, will now respond as enthusiastically to really good teaching as they ever did, if not more so, since it is rarer. But for the most part they learn that their education is a matter of jumping through hoops, regurgitating the fashionable academic jargon of the moment, and giving the professor what he or she wants to hear. They carry those habits into their future life, and it shows.

Two stories in yesterday's New York Times, sadly, illustrated the broader effects of these trends. In December 2011--nearly three years too late--the Obama Administration started a program to review foreclosures, identify cases in which financial institutions had taken advantages of customers, and compensate customers as appropriate. Several billion dollars were allocated for this purpose, which obviously involves the restoration of confidence in our financial system. But the program was inadequately staffed, undoubtedly a reflection of the continual cuts in our federal civil service, and much of the work was sub-contracted to consultants. When I read that I was reminded of Grover Norquist's famous interview with Terri Gross, in which he claimed, in defiance of all evidence, that the private sector could do jobs much more cheaply than government. Medicare is the largest insurance program in the country, but it has the lowest administrative costs. Military contractors are much more expensive than soldiers. In this case the results were quite predictable: the consultants pocketed $1 billion in fees but never found a way of identifying genuinely deserving mortgage holders. Now the program is being folded up and the allocated money will be divided evenly among all the candidates--a move which will further discredit government enterprise in general. The Obama Administration's failure seriously to intervene in the mortgage market to set things right in an equitable fashion, or to prosecute any of those most responsible for the frauds that nearly brought down the world economy, is one of its greatest failures, but its personnel apparently lacked both the will and the skill to solve the problem.

A second page one story dealt with a DNA examiner, a woman, who had made dozens of false findings--mostly false negatives--in analyzing DNA samples from victims in rape and other cases, losing easy opportunities to identify the criminal. The technician had been on the job for more than a decade but only recently were questions raised about her work. She also had a habit of mixing samples from different rape kits. Given the significance of this kind of evidence, it's rather frightening that such incompetence could be undetected for so long. But it was. Perhaps some of my readers can furnish comparable stories from other walks of life.

I grew up in a rather chaotic household in which people tried to impose their views on just about everything through the force of their personality. School, I can see now, was a relief, because it had right answers and wrong ones that were independent of one's personality, and one was validated for knowing the right answer. An institution or a society that rewards right answers is a healthy society, and ours has been increasingly sick, in this respect, for a long time. We desperately need to start building institutions, small or large, based upon the value of truth. That is the role the modern western university was at least trying to play until the last third of the last century, when the very idea of truth, in the humanities at least, became unfashionable. The effects are all around us, and I still wish I could have done more about this. As it was, I spent the bulk of my career working for the military, which places a far higher value on getting things right than civilian universities do today.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The most influential President of our time is. . .

[Welcome to new visitors from Naked Capitalism! You may enjoy the piece I did on Hedge funds on October 20, 2011--and many more. Browse the archives!]

This year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the appearance of Generations by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe, which identified an 80-year cycle in American history and predicted a new great crisis within another 15 years or so. They assigned a key role to the Boom generation, which they expected to produce a new "grey champion" parallel to Lincoln and FDR--both, interestingly enough, the subject at this moment of popular movies. Among their acolytes today, a debate has been raging for some time over when the current crisis began, and, by implication, when it will end and what it will accomplish. No one knows what Bill Strauss would be saying today, five years after his untimely death, but Neil Howe is inclined to believe that the crisis started in 2007 and still looks forward to a real "regeneracy" in which we "fix things" some time during the next ten to fifteen years. Should it take that long, it will betray one key aspect of the theory, since Boomers will no longer be holding power then. My view, however, remains different. It was only two and a half years ago that I realized this, but after the events of the past week I am more convinced than ever that the crisis began on 9/11/2001, if not ten months earlier in the disputed election of 2000. George W. Bush did what grey champions do: he took advantage of a situation not of his own making to transform the nation and the world. Certainly he did a wretched job of it and made the nation and the world worse places in which to live, but having studied many countries in which these great crises or "fourth turnings" have turned out badly, I am not too surprised by that outcome.

George W. Bush was determined to reduce the federal government's share of national income, just as his hero Ronald Reagan had tried (but failed) to do before him, and he had already passed his first round of tax cuts when 9/11 took place. He reacted rhetorically to that event in classic Fourth Turning fashion: he declared, in essence, a third world war, frequently comparing the Islamist threat to those posed earlier by Fascism and Communism. Yet he did not do what Lincoln and FDR did and mobilize large, unprecedented resources to meet that threat. It was the paradox of his rule that the Republicans had decided they could have whatever they wanted on the cheap, and rather than raise taxes, like every other long-term war Administration in American history, they cut them again. That created a permanent deficit of several hundred billion dollars a year, and Bush doubled the national debt in eight years of his Presidency. Karl Rove shamelessly used the powers of the federal government in any way possible to reward friends, punish enemies, and cement a new Republican majority, and even though Bush was almost certainly not elected at all in 2000 and was only re-elected thanks to the votes of a single state four years later, Bush did essentially whatever he wanted. The events of the last week seemed to guarantee that the key aspects of his work--the fiscal crippling of the federal government--will survive for some time to come. As I mentioned last week, Barack Obama has now passed up two opportunities to return to the Clinton tax rates--under which the United States enjoyed prosperity that it has not known since--and has agreed to make most of those cuts permanent. The richest among us will pay 3% more; the rest of us will continue at the low rates we have enjoyed for twelve years. The end of the payroll tax cut was in my opinion a good thing, but the federal government does not have enough revenue even to maintain, much less expand, domestic discretionary spending. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, using Rove's take-no-prisoners style of politics, has used its power in state houses to gerrymander the house majority into long-term job security, slash state budgets, and mount the biggest attack upon unions seen in this country in more than a century. It is worth noting, by the way, that Bush did what he did without ever enjoying a super-majority in Congress. Because Democrats believe that government is necessary, they would never have used filibusters to cripple the executive the way the Republicans have for the last four years. I doubt the Democrats will find the courage to do anything about filibusters now.

In another move, Obama this week signed the Defense bill which guarantees that Guantanamo will remain open and attempts to impose unprecedented limits on his own powers. With the single exception of torture, the key aspects of Bush's war on terror, including indefinite detention, targeted killings of suspects, inroads upon civil liberties, and cases against "terrorists" who appear to have been entirely inspired by federal informants, have been either maintained or expanded. The Obama Administration has taken an even harsher attitude towards media leaks than Bush did. In this respect, too, Bush set the tone for the future.

And Bush also bears a heavy responsibility for the developments now taking place in the Middle East. Here we come to a critical difference between this crisis and the last one. Strauss and Howe, like myself, grew up in the shadow of the Depression and the Second World War, events which, we can now see, marked one of the high points of institutional authority in the modern history of mankind. They--and I--therefore expected the coming crisis to increase governmental authority once more. But the whole trend of our times, literally the world over, is against governmental authority, and especially (except in western Europe) against the kind of government based upon reason which the Enlightenment produced. The authoritarian states that grew up in the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s were a mixture of survivals from colonial rule and neo-totalitarian movements under the Ba'th Party. Bush's decision to smash the Iraqi government, we can now see, was the first of a series of blows to those regimes that has unleashed a Shiite-Sunni civil war that killed tens of thousands and displaced four million people in Iraq, and is now doing the same thing in Syria and threatening Bahrain and, eventually, Saudi Arabia. Bush also in 2003 turned down an Iranian offer to discuss all issues between us and curtail Iran's nuclear program--this before Achmedinejad had come into power. Meanwhile, he stated publicly that Israel in any peace settlement could take advantage of "facts on the ground" to keep any land it wanted, and that has been Israeli policy ever since. The new governments in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt have one thing in common: all are more religiously based than their predecessors. I would not argue that none of this would have happened without Bush, but he surely took a critical step that got this particular ball rolling. Just last week Juan Cole reported that Iraqi Sunnis were now staging their own Arab Spring.

Barack Obama is a Nomad like Grant or Eisenhower, not a Prophet like Lincoln or FDR. He never wanted, really, to be a Crisis President; he yearns for normalcy, which is why he is always willing to make a deal with Jacobin Republicans. More importantly, with the exceptions of Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party produced almost no Boomer politicians of note, and seems to be producing even fewer from Gen X. The Republicans have shaped the country and the world, in many critical respects, because they wanted it more.

Many respects--but not all. Social issues and ethnic divisions have cost the Republicans the last two Presidential elections. They are evidently the issues the younger generations care about the most, perhaps because they are the only issues that Boomer academics taught them to care about. Gay marriage, it seems, will be the major enduring left-wing achievement of our era. (Civil rights and women's rights came much earlier.) It is a very real achievement, but you can't eat your race, gender, or sexual orientation. The Republicans won't turn the values clock back half a century, but they have raised inequality to levels unseen for more than 100 years, and nothing suggests that that process is anywhere near stopping any time soon.

Howe's scenario, involving a crisis that lasts 10-16 years and culminates in a better outcome, does have a parallel in the era of the American Revolution. The victory over the British in 1783 was followed by four years of deepening chaos and threatening anarchy, leading to the calling of the constitutional convention in 1787. That convention was dominated by a younger generation of leaders, what Strauss and Howe called the Republican generation, including Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the rest. But whether today's equivalent--the Millennials--can achieve real positions of power within such a short time is a very open question.

Our era, like every other, illustrates certain aspects of human nature. In the interwar period the most popular history teacher at Harvard, Roger Merriman, taught that history featured a fundamental alternation between eras of authority and eras of chaos, while concluding that in the long run, civilization seemed to progress. We can now see that when he gave his last lecture in the spring of 1941--only a few years before the first Boomers were born--an era of authority was reaching its climax. We have been moving in the other direction now for about 45 years. When the history of these times is written decades hence, George W. Bush may well get the attention he deserves.