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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Governments and peoples

The Middle East suffers from an enormous problem: many nations lack any consensus on how they should be governed.  Shi'ia and Sunni factions contend for power in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere.  In Egypt, the military-backed government has just declared the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt's only genuine free election in its entire history, a terrorist organization.  Meanwhile, various states enjoying relative stability, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, are intervening in civil wars elsewhere.  All this reminds me very much of early modern Europe, which I investigated pretty thoroughly back in the 1980s, and it isn't encouraging.  But in the last two days, the Obama Administration has added a new element to the mix.

Sunni extremists, including Al Queda elements, are getting more powerful in much of Iraq, and their bombings are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the majority Shi'ite population.  The Obama Administration wisely decided to get the United States out of Iraq a couple of years ago, and I do not think that a continuing American presence would have helped.  Now, however, the US has decided to come to the aid  What disturbs me deeply is the manner in which we have decided to do so.

A little historical background is in order.  During the 45 years of the Cold War, both sides assumed that conventional war similar to the campaigns of the Second World War might occur at any moment.  They spent billions preparing for it, developed sophisticated weapons, and, crucially, encouraged their regional allies to acquire such weapons as well.  Billions of dollars worth of jet aircraft, tanks, artillery and much more went from the US, the Soviets and other nations to India and Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and elsewhere.  Occassionally this weaponry was used in local wars.

For the time being--and nothing lasts forever--the age of conventional warfare seems to over.  The conflicts that rule the front pages are waged by insurgents of one kind or another against governments or occupiers, and terrorism has become the weapon of choice.  Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist have also made extensive use of rockets.   From time to time, Israel in Lebanon and Gaza and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq have tried to deal with such groups with conventional forces.  They generally score temporary successes, but with the exception of the Israelis in the West Bank, no one has been willing to prolong such an occupation indefinitely.  As a result, they have turned to other strategies.

The most common counter-insurgent strategy pursued by the most advanced nations originated in Israel: the use of aerial surveillance and air to ground missiles to kill individual militants.  I don't believe I ever blogged about the excellent Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, which consists of lengthy interviews with retired heads of Mossad, but they described the development of this stragegy and the problems of applying them.  They generally agreed, moreover, that it did not provide any long-term solution to political problems.  And in one particularly chilling moment, one of them mentioned the Israelis had taught Americans these techniques after 9/11.  "I know," he said, "because I saw them."

Drone strikes have now of course become the centerpiece of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They kill individual militants.  They often kill innocent civilians as well, and from time to time they are based upon faulty intelligence or analysis and kill nothing but innocent civilians.  As in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no evidence that they reduce the supply of militants in the long run. Because they are aimed at militant leadership, they probably make it much harder eventually to negotiate peace.  There is no evidence, in my opinion, that the contribute to building a more peaceful world.

Now it seems that the Cold War precedent is about to be revived in the age of terror.  The United States' response to the resurgent Al Queda and Sunni revolt in Iraq is to supply the Shi'ite government of Nouri Al-Maliki with drones and hellfire missiles.  The Iraqi government will be able to turn them on their own people.  In an atmosphere of long-term religious war, I find it very difficult to believe that they will use better intelligence or more discrimination than the US has, or that this tactic will contribute to peace in Iraq.  And where will this lead?  Will Russia soon be providing similar technology to the Assad regime in Syria? 

Researching my forthcoming book, I found that the leadership of the US government in 1940-1 believed deeply that civilized norms of behavior had to be preserved in international law.  Americans throughout the twentieth century had shared that view, differing only on the degree to which the United States should try to compel observance of the norms in which it believed.  That is why Roosevelt and his Administration designed the UN and other international institutions during the war.  The richest and most domestically peaceful nations still have a responsibility, I think, to try to spread the rule of law.  That is why I think the United States should be leading an international initiative to try to stop a long-term religious war in the Middle East.  It is also why I believe that the United States should not be promoting the use of drones against domestic terrorists as a solution to anyone's domestic political problems. Yet I have not seen one word of protest against the new policy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Should governments help each other?

It now seems clear that the modern state reached the zenith of its power during the middle third of the twentieth century.  Driven by a series of great wars, revolutions, and technological changes, states mobilized unprecedented numbers of men and resources, and enjoyed a remarkable degree of loyalty from their peoples.  The western model of states based upon rational thought--whose offshoots included Communism--spread to nearly every corner of the globe and seemed to be wiping out any fundamental challenges to itself.  Religious authority was in retreat even in most of the Islamic world for the first two thirds of the twentieth century.  During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to strengthen states in all the nations that belonged to their alliances.  States also assumed responsibility for the health of their nation's economies.

The world rejoiced when perhaps the most highly organized state of all, the USSR, declined and then suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s.  Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the end of history and political conflict.  But now, almost a quarter of a century later, the Soviet collapse strikes me as a kind of canary in a global coal mine, a symbol of things to come.  States have weakened, militarily and otherwise, in much of the world over the last two decades.   Conscription survives in only  a few countries with major security threats, such as Israel, the two Koreas, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  Taxation has fallen drastically in most of the world, and global financial giants make governments tremble.  The United States routinely carries out drone strikes that violent the most fundamental sovereignty of foreign govrnments and pay no respect to the lives and property of their citizens.  Globalization has taken national economies out of the control of political authorities.  With the exception of North Korea, even surviving Communist states exert far less control over their people and economy than they used to.   And religious authority has made an astonishing comeback, not only in much of the Muslim world--including Turkey, once a secular bastion--but even here in the United States.

This development is not entirely unwelcome; it has had many good consequences.  The aggressor states of the twentieth century unleashed wars that killed tens of millions of people, and despite China's new round of saber-rattling over maritime rights, no one seems in the least likely to start such a war any time soon.  The casualties in civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria still horrify us, but they do not compare in the least even to those in the opening conflicts of the Second World War, such as the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese war.  We now fear terrorists that can kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, not armies that could kill hundreds of thousands, occupy whole nations, and redraw the map.  Yet our new environment undoubtedly presents dangers of its own--and states are making them worse.

The Second World War was an ideological fight to the death, but when it was over, the United States and the Soviet Union in effect accepted each other as the two leading nations of the world, especially after Stalin's death and the Cuban missile crisis.  They competed for influence around the globe and spied upon each other, but they did very little to undermine one another's societies and governments. The third world was their main battleground.   Today, on the hand weaker states are trying to increase one another's weakness in various ways.  The Chinese hack into our computers; the United States has spied upon world leaders all over the globe.  Russia is continually trying to intervene in the affairs of other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine.  The Middle East has become the site of a wide-ranging religious war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, waged without regard to national sovereignty or traditional rules of diplomacy.  Russia has also given asylum to Edward Snowden, an American who has embarrassed his own country to an extraordinary extent, and who has in so doing become a hero to millions of people around the world who distrust states, including many right here in the United States.  Snowden exemplifies another trend, the use of contractors, rather than lifetime civil servants, to do important government work.   An American Assistant Secretary of State visits Ukraine and meets openly with the leaders of protesters in a political crisis, an unheard of development in earlier eras.  On the other hand, Secretary of State Kerry's recognition that a deal with Syria over chemical weapons made more sense than air strikes was a welcome exception to this trend--it acknowledged the authority of the Syrian state in an attempt to make its civil war less violent.  The same applies, of course, to the potential nuclear agreement with Iran--although here in the United States the pro-Israel lobby is working to make the project fail.

The weakness of states reflects profound intellectual changes as well.  Nationalism is now almost the exclusive province of xenophobic extreme right groups, rather than an encouragement to make one's own country a better place, as it was in Kennedy's America or de Gaulle's France.   Religion has trumped citizenship in large parts of the world, and has threatened to do so in some parts of the United States.  In the western world, at least, the academy has lost interest in the great dramas of citizenship and statehood.  For more than half a century we have taken the remarkable civic achievements of our parents and grandparents for granted.  They have decayed as a result.

Here in the United States last week's news was actually relatively encouraging.  The budget deal signals an enormous power shift within the Republican Party and suggests that its attempt to dismantle the federal government--now finishing its third year--could soon be abandoned.  Yet that will leave us with a status quo in which the federal government, to say nothing of the states, remains a shadow of its former self with respect to its power to promote the general welfare, much less play a major role in planning our economy.  In any case, the trends I have been discussing are far too profound to be reversed merely by a couple of elections or a budget deal.  They represent a turning point in western and world history, and I expect future generations to be dealing with their impact long after we have left the scene.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Is the Constitution the problem?

For about 45 years now, many if not most members of the Boom generation has been convinced that all would be well is they could simply run the world.  Such illusions come naturally from growing up in a remarkably stable society in which parents, convinced that their children would naturally follow in their footsteps, left them alone to form their own opinions.  Their parents' decision to undertake the Vietnam war encouraged Boomer self-confidence.  As I pointed out in one of my very first posts here, no one ever exemplified this aspect of his generation better than George W. Bush.

Jeffrey Toobin, born in 1960, belongs to the very tail end of the Boom generation.  He entered Harvard in 1978 and thus could have been one of the 160 students who took my lecture course during my last two years there, but I do not think that he was.  He is a graduate of Harvard law school whose legal career was brief, and he became a legal journalist instead.  I enjoyed his book on the O. J. Simpson case very much, and most of his work on legal issues is absorbing and very good.  Last week, however, in The New Yorker, he had an article suggesting that what is really wrong with the United States today is--you'll never guess--the U.S. Constitution.  He is not very forthcoming about how exactly he thinks it should be changed, and he has to admit near the end of the article that the Constitution is fiendishly hard to amend, but the article generally gives the feeling that the Constitution strikes him as yet another useless artifact of a bygone era such as dial telephones, cars with fins and V-8 engines, and transistor radio sets.

Toobin begins with an argument that has become fundamental to Boomer academic views of the world.  The worst aspects of the Constitution as adopted in 1787-88, he says, are that it institutionalized "race and gender discrimination."  I am rather fascinated by the popularity of this argument, because anyone who takes the trouble to read the document will realize that it is not true.  Certainly the original Constitution did not outlaw race or gender discrimination, or even slavery, but it did not bless them either.  Slavery at the moment that Constitution was adopted was in retreat.  It was being abolished in the northern states, it had just been banned from the Northwest territories (the future upper midwest), and even many prominent southerners were freeing their slaves upon their death.  The founders took great care not to refer to slavery by name, the reason for the convoluted language that occurs whenever they have to refer to it, such as in the three-fifths clause.  As for gender, the Constitution invariably refers to "persons" or "citizens," not "men," and there was nothing in it to forbid states from granting women the vote, as some of the western ones did in the late nineteenth century.  The abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass argued exactly the contrary before the Civil War--that the Constitution could not be reconciled with slavery--and that was a stronger argument than the reverse.

Toobin then focuses on the undemocratic features of the Senate as a major source of our ills.  Here he has a much stronger case.  The Senate does give hugely disproportionate power to smaller states, and this is much truer now than it was when the Constitution was adopted.   At that time, Virginia, the largest state, had ten Representatives and Rhode Island one, while both had two Senators. Now California has 53 Representatives and Wyoming and five other states have one each, but all of them still have two Senators.  Toobin then adds that the filibuster has made the Senate an even bigger obstacle to democracy.  He is right, of course, but the filibuster, like slavery in 1787, isn't mandated by the Constitution, it is simply allowed by it, since Article I gives each house of Congress the power to make its own rules.  And indeed, it has been convincingly argued that the Constitution in effect does specify a majority vote as all that is necessary to do business in the Senate, since it specifically calls for a two-thirds vote to ratify treaties or convict an executive officer in an impeachment trial.  Under traditional Anglo-American legal doctrine, tying such a requirement to specific cases implies that it is limited to those cases only.  Unfortunately, the courts have been unwilling to hear this argument, but the Senate itself has just shown that the filibuster rule can be amended by a simple majority vote.

Toobin's argument is based, naturally, upon our current political deadlock, but even there he is on somewhat shaky ground.  The key event of the Obama Administration, of course, was the Republcian landslide in the House of Representatives in 2010, which immediately made it impossible for the President to accomplish anything further.  It is true, as he points out, that the Republicans in several medium-size states promptly gave themselves an unbeatable advantage through redistricting, without which it is possible--although in my opinion, not as likely as one might think--that the Democrats would have regained the House in 2012.  In any case, the more democratically chosen House, not the Senate, has been the major obstacle to getting anything done for the last three years.  (In another misstatement of fact, Toobin claims that the Senate blocked the Clinton health care reform in the 1990s.  As a matter of fact it never passed either house.)

Toobin quotes several legal authorities or polemicists (includng the talk show host Mark Levin, who sometimes sits in for Rush Limbaugh) who also believe the Constitution is fatally flawed.  One law professor, however--Akhil Amar of Yale--argues that the Constitution is not the problem--what is wrong is what has happened to the Republican Party.  "One half of one of our two great political parties has gone bonkers," says Amar.  "That's the problem. Not the Constitution."  That is also a typical Boomer statement, defining anyone in fundamental disagreement with one's self as crazy, but I think it's a great deal closer to the truth than the argument that the Constitution is to blame.

The Constitution itself does not pose an insuperable barrier to effective political change in the United States.  The federal government has had an enormous impact upon American life during the Civil War era, the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the era of the Great Society and its aftermath.  In the last three of those eras a broad consensus led large majorities in both houses to pass sweeping legislation and even constitutional amendments.  That consensus, however, has evaporated over the last half century, and whether or not one chooses to define the Tea Party as "bonkers," that is why we are in the mess that we are in today.

To understand where we are it is not enough to point out that California, with 50 times the population of Wyoming or North Dakota, has the same number of Senators; we must also ask why the Senators from the smaller states see the world so differently.  The smaller states are, in all probably, the ones with the highest percentage of white people (although I am pretty certain that that percentage is falling in every state of the union.)  But more importantly, it seems to me, in the last half century the Democratic Party has failed to persuade the inhabitants of those states that it has anything to offer them.  A large percentage of the population of less populated states were farmers in the New Deal era and even in the middle of the last century, and the New Deal and later farm programs saved them from being wiped out. The New Deal also brought electricity and better roads to the countryside.  Many voters appreciated these changes.  Now farm programs chiefly benefit agribusiness.  Many of the smaller states are dominated by energy producers, a trend which fracking seems to be increasing.  Equally importantly, state governments have drastically been weakened in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, allowing the Republicans to gain control of those state governments and pass redistricting plans.   As I ponder all this, it occurs to me that the Republicans may understand better than the Democrats how crucial the fight over the Affordable Care Act is.  If it works it could create a major new Democratic constituency in every state of the union.

Toobin's problem--and Amar's--are characteristic of the eastern elite, particularly in academia.  Because academics live in a politically monolithic environment they have trouble taking opposing ideas seriously.  Nor can they believe, given the pampered lives they lead, that there can be anything seriously wrong with the country.  If some one disagrees with them they must simply be crazy; if their ideas do not pass Congress, institutions must be to blame.  Meanwhile, Democrats have collaborated with Republicans in dismantling all the major pillars of the New Deal and allowing inequality to grow.  They should not be shocked that the average American does not put a high priority on keeping them in office.  One of the interesting things about Toobin's article is his failure to discover anyone actively pushing for changes in the Constitution along lines that he would find more congenial.  The activists he interviews who want new amendments are all ultraconservatives who want to cripple the federal government.  Bill James, the founder of baseball statistics, defined in the 1980s something called the law of competitive balance.  Winners, he argued, naturally adopted conservative strategies that rapidly took away their edge; losers tried harder and became winners.  That has been the story of the last 40 years of American politics.  It is the reason that conservatives can now use the Constitution to block progress.  The Constitution is not primarily at fault.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Obama and FDR

  Let's imagine how the implementation of the health care bill might have gone differently.

  When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, President Obama would have created a temporary agency to implement it, including representatives of the AMA, the health insurance association, associations of hospitals, and patients' rights groups, as well as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of the Treasury, and an official from the Office of Management and Budget.  Everyone selected from the private sector would have taken a leave of absence from their day job and most of them would have served for $1 a year.  The most famous dollar a year man would have been Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, who would have been given the job of supervising the development of healthcare.gov.  He would have brought some of his staff with him and made use of all the techniques they had used to turn amazon into what it is today.  By the time of the roll-out in October 2013, the site would have been running smoothly, and insurance companies would be using it to communicate with their customers as well.  Meanwhile,. the Health Care Authority would be turning out suggestions for making care more efficient and cheaper, as well as more affordable.

   If all this sounds fantastic to you, you might want to brush up your history.  Specifically, you might want to think about purchasing my new book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation Into War, when it appears in April.  Why? Because that is how the United States, facing a far more desperate situation, dealt with the thread of world war in 1940-1.  The rearmament effort began in late May of 1940, while France was collapsing and England was threatened with invasion and defeat.  That was, in essence, the equivalent of 2010 when the ACA was passed.  Four years later, in 1944, the decisive offensives against the Germans and the Japanese began.  The Affordable Care Act will go into effect after four years as well, but its prospects are most uncertain.  Here, by the way, is the cover of my forthcoming book.

Let me fill in some of the blanks.  The New Deal from the beginning was based upon creating new government agencies to solve pressing problems.  The most successful were the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, which saved American agriculture by controlling production; the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put people to work; the SEC; and the National Labor Relations Board, which presided over a massive expansion of the work force.  When in the spring of 1940 it became clear that war threatened the United States, Roosevelt used the same technique. He created a series of agencies to stimulate war production: the National Defense Advisory Commission in the spring of 1940, the Office of Production Management in the following winter, and the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board in August 1941.  All of them had the same key personnel: the Secretaries of War and of the Navy (there was no Secretary of Defense in those days), and leading industrialists and retailers who put their expertise to work.  The Jeff Bezos of those years was William Knudsen of General Motors, an immigrant from Denmark who had worked his way up from the shop floor to be CEO of one of the world's largest corporations.  Knudsen was to automobiles what Bezos was to on-line marketing: he had started  his career setting up assembly lines for Henry Ford.

The most critical problem in 1940, Roosevelt had decided, was to produce huge numbers of military aircraft.  Germany was sweeping all before it in Europe with air superiority and superior tactics, and Roosevelt was determined that the U.S. must build an air force, as well as a navy, second to none.  In typical fashion, he set a goal in 1940 of 50,000 combat aircraft--more than 20 times what was then available, and far more than the War Department had plans for.  The aircraft industry was however in its infancy, and assembly lines were unknown.  Knudsen went right to work, showing the aircraft industry how parts could be mass produced and assembled, and his fellow automakers began turning out aircraft parts in Detroit.  By 1942 FDR's goal had been achieved, and in subsequent years it was exceeded.  Asked in a Congressional hearing why he had given up $150,000 a year plus bonuses to work for nothing, Kundsen replied in January 1941 that the United States had been very good to him and he wanted to give something back.  Another key figure in the new agencies was Donald Nelson, the Vice President for Merchandising of Sears, Roebuck.  He turned out to be critical because he was used to making sure that Sears had the products it needed in stores and warehouses when they needed them--ideal training for preparing an army, navy and air force for war.  After Pearl Harbor he was put in charge of the last supervisory body, the War Production Board.

The Affordable Care Act, it seems to me, is in big trouble because, to begin with, no single person was really in charge of implementation.  Ironically, that charge was also leveled against FDR's agencies before Pearl Harbor.  Knudsen and labor's representative, Sidney Hillman, were co-chairs of the Office of Production Management.  But FDR set things up that way for one simple reason: he wanted to be the ultimate authority, and that is exactly how he functioned, as I discovered, in 1940-1.  President Obama does not seem to have the executive ambition that FDR had, but he could have found some one who did and made the implementation of the act their full-time job.  Ideally that person would have combined political and executive experience.  He or she would have known that success in organizing the new health care system could easily lead to a run for the White House.

The ACA has also suffered, of course, because it does not command the overwhelming support from the American people that the rearmament effort did.  While many Americans opposed entry into the war in Europe in 1940-1, very few indeed denied that the United States had to prepare for survival in a very dangerous world.  As I show, they were willing not only to stand up forces of unprecedented size, but to raise taxes to pay for them.  That is not, of course, the case today.  The sacrifices the ACA demands of the American people are much, much smaller--it's not clear that, if properly implemented, it would entail any sacrifices for most of us at all--but a large portion of the people and one entire political party remain totally opposed to it.  That obstacle might still have been overcome, however, if Obama made the implementation of the act, rather than its passage, the centerpiece of his administration, and recruited the human capital from both the private and public sector that he needed to make it work.  This, clearly, he was not able to do--because he did not attempt to.

We cannot recreate the world of 1940-1, and in many ways we would not want to.   We do not, thankfully, face threats around the world comparable to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.  Yet it is a major theme of my book that we succeeded then because of a real sense of national purpose and common enterprise that FDR had managed to arouse while fighting the Depression, and it is impossible to look at today's world without feeling the absence of exactly that spirit today.   The outcome of the crisis over the ACA is just as uncertain now as the outcome of the world war was in 1941.  Next year, if millions of Americans suddenly enjoy coverage they did not have, it may upset the political balance in the President's favor.  If on the other hand men and women who thought that they had secured insurance on healthcare.gov find at the doctor's office or the hospital that their insurance companies don't recognize them because the "back end" of the system had not been fixed, the effect may be just the reverse.  Obama needed Jeff Bezos to make sure that didn't happen, but he didn't try to recruit him.  He might have failed to do so in any case: I have no idea if Bezos has enough sense of the public good to respond favorably.  Knudsen did, even though he was a Republican with no great affection for the New Deal.  That is one of the many differences between the last crisis in our national life and this one.