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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...

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Great Transatlantic Market

Three weeks ago, as I was boarding a plane home from France, I bought Le Monde diplomatique, a weekly digest of extensive commentaries on world events put out by France's leading newspaper.  Most of the issue, as it turned out, was devoted to something I had never heard of called the Great Transatlantic Market.  I read nearly all of it.  I was stunned, not only by what I read, but by how little I knew about it--essentially, nothing. According to Uncle Google, the New York Times has run only one story about it, and that was a year ago.

The Great Transatlantic Market is a sweeping trade agreement being negotiated among the European Union, the United States, and Canada.  It represents another step forward for neoliberalism, apparently, designed to remove existing barriers to the flow of both goods and capital across the North Atlantic.  Like NAFTA and other similar agreements, it will be embodied in a treaty.  Although many people do not realize it, treaties, duly signed and ratified, trump laws passed by national legislatures. That presumably is why the Founding Fathers demanded that they be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.  This one, if it comes to fruition, will have an impact comparable to the New Deal--but in a reverse direction.

Essentially, it seems, the projected treaty would take away most governmental power to regulate wages, hours, and the operation of financial institutions.  It would make it difficult to ban the importation of products deemed hazardous, or even to impose new environmental regulations.  And indeed, Le Monde informed me, treaties already exist among various countries that allow corporations to claim hundreds of millions of dollars or euros in damages if national regulations can be shown to have cut into their profits.  These claims are settled by arbitrators, not by ordinary courts.  In short, the GTM threatens to impose something like the regime that the US Supreme Court established 120 years ago in the United States, a paradise for free enterprise which no one has any standing to challenge.   It has been endorsed by President Obama, but no one in the United States seems to be paying the slightest attention.  Among other things, it would in effect roll back most of the regulation of the big banks that has been passed since the 2008 crisis. (An English version of one of the key articles can be read here.)

Let's return for a moment to Strauss and Howe, who argued that every eighty years, a generational shift leads to a fundamental change in national and world order.  In our current case, the shift was from the GI Hero generation (Presidents Kennedy through Bush I, although Carter is arguably a *Silent), to Boomers (Bill Clinton, who gave neoliberal international economic policies their first big push, and George W. Bush.)  The creation of our new order has accelerated since 2000, when Bush managed to prevent a recount in Florida and steal the election.  He continued the deregulation of our economy, destroyed the tax base of the federal government, vastly increased our defense and intelligence establishment, and involved us in endless wars in farflung nations.  Barack Obama has done nothing to reverse any of this. Like the decline of the power of the federal government after 1876, it's a bipartisan project, with similar consequences.

This appears to be another huge step in the same direction.  To be sure, in no major country on earth, that I know of, has the political system put up much of a struggle against increasing inequality and the increasing power of financial institutions.  But this treaty, if consummated, will drastically limit the power of national governments for a long time to come and leave the peoples of the world quite defenseless against corporate power.  France, at least, still has a leading newspaper that will devote eight full pages of fine print to these issues. The United States does not.  The general decline of newspapers, the rise of cable news, and the popularity of opinion-based internet sites has reached a point where nearly all Americans are completely ignorant about major political and economic questions.

The American people, polls show, have grown astonishingly skeptical about foreign intervention.  This is not a bad thing.  Events in Iraq, upon which I shall eventually comment, illustrate how hard it is for us to use American power to do anything but harm.  But powerful interests are very attuned to our relations with other economic powers, and how they can be used to shape our economic future.  This began, at the latest, with NAFTA, and this is merely the next step.  It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Tea Party and race

This morning, amidst the news of the spread of religious war in Iraq, the New York Times ran a story about Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who may well lose a run-off against his Tea Party opponent in his bid for Senate re-election.  Like so many southern politicians going back to Mendel Rivers, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms, Cochran has successfully combined mainstream white southern views with a healthy concern for the economic well-being of his constituents, bringing them streams of federal dollars for highways, military bases, and other purposes.  Now however, the Times reports, he is threatened by his success.  His opponent, Chris McDaniel, is attacking Cochran for promoting federal spending on the grounds that it proves he is part of the wicked Washington establishment.  And suddenly, as I read this story, a light bulb went on in my head.

The story of which this is a part goes back to the 1930s and the New Deal.  No region was hit harder by the Depression than the South, and Roosevelt probably saved thousands from starvation.    His relief and agricultural programs, as well as the construction of infrastructure including the Tennessee Valley Authority, benefited millions.  White Southern politicians tried to keep the benefits out of the hands of blacks, but they cold not entirely do so.  Until 1937, FDR's economic help trumped his wife's open sympathy for the civil rights movement. But the 1936 elections threatened the South with a terrifying prospect.  For the first time in about a century, as a I learned writing my last book, the Democratic Party won majorities in Congress that did not depend on southerners.  The Negro vote (as it was then called) already played an important role in northern states, and the southerners feared that FDR's activism might draw on these majorities to overturn their social order.  In 1937 they immediately joined the decimated Republicans to block FDR's court packing plan, and that signaled the end of Roosevelt's legislative juggernaut.  A coalition of southern Democrats and conservative Republicans was strong enough to block effective civil rights legislation for a quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, however, the federal government undertook the massive effort necessary to victory in the Second World War, and, subsequently, the construction of the permanent Cold War military establishment.  Because its warm weather, the South was a preferred territory for military bases, and by the 1950s, the South was a large net gainer from its relationship to the federal government, a situation that persists today.  In response to the Civil Rights movement southern politicians routinely adopted anti-government and anti-spending rhetoric, but this did not prevent them from taking more than their share of federal largesse.  Politicians might rail against welfare queens and wasteful bureaucrats, but they knew how to exploit the system as well as anyone. Jesse Helms, perhaps the last overt racist in the Senate, even interceded with David Stockman to prevent cuts in the Rural Electrification Agency, whose work had been finished decades earlier, in the early Reagan years. Their constituents, who had turned decisively against the federal government when it integrated southern schools, understood this game.

All this seems to have persisted through the George W. Bush years, only to change in 2009, when the Tea Party was founded and began to take over the Republican Party in many Red states.  Why? I can see only one reason: that a black man had been elected President of the United States.

The overwhelming majority of white southerners, as well as many white voters in other parts of the country, had long viewed the federal government as the patron of lazy, dependent, worthless minorities, but they tolerated this situation as long as they felt the government was still in friendly hands.  This may have applied even to Bill Clinton. Yes, Toni Morrison described him as "the first black President," but he hailed from Arkansas, and he did end welfare as we knew it in 1996.  But the election of "community organizer" Barack Obama meant something else.  It meant, to millions of voters, that the federal government had definitely fallen under the control of lazy, dependent, worthless minority voters, and was therefore totally unworthy of respect, support, or taxpayers' money.  Obama represented the coalition of leftist intellectuals and dependent citizens against which Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest had been railing for twenty years.  As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson discovered in their research on the Tea Party, older white folks were convinced that a vicious left-wing conspiracy had found a way to sneak Obama into the White House to do their bidding.  Mitt Romney famously pandered to these sentiments when he spoke of the 47% of the population that paid no taxes (a lie, of course) and therefore was bound to vote for Barack Obama.

In support of my argument, I would note that Eric Cantor's defeat, it has widely been reported, reflected a view among Tea Party activists that any cooperation at all with the Administration on any issue now discredits even the most prominent Republicans.  In the same way, it seems, many white Mississippians view Thad Cochran's willingness to appropriate federal funds, even for themselves, represents giving money to the enemy.  Here are two quotes from Mississippi Republicans from the Times story:

 “Everybody’s got their hand out like these damn people at the food stamp office,” Mr. Harris, 67, said between sips of coffee on Thursday at a local barbecue restaurant. “They’ve got to put an end to all of this spending.”  Others, like Jane Buehl Coln of Olive Branch, suspect that whatever benefits have come to Mississippi have come at a steep price. “There’s no telling what kinds of liberal things he had to vote for to get those kinds of things for Mississippi — what kind of trading he had to do,” she said.

Q. E. D.

The same kind of hatred is being expressed much more openly towards immigrants.  Ann Coulter bluntly argues that the Republican Party must oppose a path to citizenship for illegal aliens because they will vote Democratic.  It's easy to dismiss Coulter, but it's wrong: her endorsement may have won David Brat his victory over Eric Cantor.  Among the tiny minority of Americans who can win a Republican primary for the House-or even for the Senate--she and Limbaugh are powerful names to conjure with.

For the record, I still do not think that any of this would have been much different had Hillary Clinton, rather than Barack Obama, won the White House in 2008.  To conservatives, she simply represents another element of the coalition of communistic intellectuals, licentious feminists, and dependent minorities that have been the enemy at least since the time of Ronald Reagan. Looking ahead, she will clearly face an even dirtier campaign than Obama did in 2016, and I do not think she can rally all of the coalition that elected him.  To be quite honest, I think the Democratic Party would have its best chance not only of winning again, but of governing successfully, if their candidate were a white male.  That's not bigotry on my part, it's the political realism I grew up with.  "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Richard Nixon said to William Safire just before its death. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us."  That's the kind of realism Democrats need--but they have no realistic white male candidate on the horizon.  

Friday, June 13, 2014

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .

I returned from Europe on Sunday, and I thought I'd be blogging this week about some extraordinary negotiations that I read about in a lengthy spread in Le Monde Diplomatique, a French weekly that addresses current affairs with a real sense of history.   These talks between the EU and the governments of the United States and Canada are designed to create something called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which, as several articles explained in great detail, will be an unprecedented free trade zone within which governments lose most of their traditional power to regulate their economies.  But I shall have save that post for later, because today's headlines provide more proof, not that it was needed, that both the United States and the world face a great crisis comparable in scope, thought very different in form, from the one that shook the world from 1929 through 1945.

Abroad, the big news, of course, is the threatened collapse of the Shi'ite dictatorship we helped bring to power in Iraq.  Yes, the Maliki government has one elections, but the Dexter Filkins piece in the New Yorker that I linked here recently showed that its leaders have terrorist backgrounds and are using the same terrorist methods in power that Saddam Hussein did.  The difference is that they have not been able to stand up effective security forces, which are collapsing in the face of a Sunni offensive that began in Syria and is now assuming control over one major city after another.  With Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia watching carefully, anything is possible now, including a regional religious war.  How much of this catastrophe is ultimately the responsibility of George W. Bush is impossible to say, but at the very least, he accelerated the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict that seems likely to dominate the region for decades.  The President, according to one very reliable source, did not even know that there was a Sunni-Shi'ite conflict in Iraq only months before the invasion.  Although the US wars in Vietnam and Iraq were very different in origin, scope, tactics and scale, they are now linked by a bizarre chronological parallel.  The major US involvement in South Vietnam started in 1961, led to heavy fighting four years later, began to de-escalate five years after that in 1971, led to an American withdrawal in 1973, and culminated in the collapse of the South Vietnamese government two years later.  The invasion of Iraq took place in 2003, heavy fighting began about two years later and peaked in 2007-8, followed by an American withdrawal in 2010--and, it seems,. quite possibly, a complete collapse four years later.  Things have moved a bit more quickly in Iraq, but with a similar result.  And amazingly, American commentators and apologists now claim that Nouri al-Maliki had to be more inclusive, that the had to reach out to the Sunnis--the very things which were never going to happen, clearly, among any of Iraqi's three major groups.  Afghanistan and Pakistan are both threatened by more violence as well, and there is no end in sight in Syria.  Worse still, there is no major international effort to bring these conflicts to an end and create some kind of stability in the region.

On the home front, on Tuesday night, when I saw the Daily Kos email in my inbox reporting the defeat of Eric Kantor, I literally could not believe it.  I thought it must be some kind of a joke--but it wasn't. 
Since 2009 I have compared (not equated) the Tea Party and the Nazi Party--their tactics, their goals, and their impact.  The Tea Party has drawn on the same kind of hate-filled propaganda that the Nazis did, albeit with somewhat different targets. Their allies in the media, like Hitler and Goebbels, have pioneered new propaganda techniques using new media, in this case, talk radio and 24-hour news channels.  Like the traditional German conservatives who thought they could make use of Hitler, the Republican establishment has found that it cannot deal with the monster that it encouraged.  And the propaganda of Limbaugh and Fox News--both of whom are crowing over Cantor's defeat--has taken on a life of its own.  Listen for a few minutes.  Any cooperation at all with the Administration, any vote that seems to endorse business as usual in Washington, is now grounds for suspicion and a potential purge.  Congress will get more obstructionist, not less, as a result.  Any move towards immigration reform is dead.  Jeb Bush's potential presidential candidacy has just suffered a heavy blow.

Charles Blow of the New York Times  presented some interesting data on Cantor's defeat today as well.  He lost the election by a margin of about 35,000 votes to 30,000--but in 2012, he won re-election in the general election with 223,000 votes.  The average Republican was too lazy to show up and vote in the primary; the average Tea Partier was not.  This is what is pushing the Republicans relentlessly rightward, despite all the efforts of Karl Rove and company to try to keep them close enough to the center to win a national election.

Yet the critical differences between the Republican right and the Nazis persist.  First of all, the Tea Party has never stood up armed militias marching the streets and beating up political opponents--partly because there is no comparable organized force on the left.  Secondly and more importantly, unlike the Nazis, they have no positive program. They simply want to destroy modern government in the United States.  Yet they may do so, if they can actually get into power.  That is not all that likely.  The demographics are still against them in national elections, and their candidates do not do well even at the state level.  Hillary Clinton was undoubtedly one of the biggest gainers from Tuesday's vote.  But as I have said many times, the rhythms of American politics guarantee that sooner or later the Republicans will come into office again, and there doesn't seem to be much hope of their regaining their sanity before they do.

There's a big reason why extremist Republicans keep gaining ground.  Not only do they dispose of extraordinary profit-making propaganda instruments, but they are the only element in our political life pushing seriously for a vision of a new order.  They are living in a fantasy world and have nothing to offer but disaster, but in times of crisis, simple allegiance to the long-standing status quo is not a very strong political position.  The Democrats have become, above all, the party of the economic status quo, with very little that is new to offer.  That is why they have not been able to mobilize their majority on behalf of a policy agenda. They have however managed to prevent anyone else from doing so.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Civilization--whence it came, where it is going.

Let's talk about the word "civilization" for a moment.  It's not as fashionable  a word as it used to be.  Very few colleges and universities still have courses in western civilization.  Most now teach world history instead--and world history often focuses on the harm the West has supposedly done to the rest of the planet.  Bu tit remains an important word, in my opinion, and I've been wondering lately not only about what it means, but where the definition came from.

Here's one definition from an online Merriam Webster's dictionary:

 " a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically :  the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained"

 We'll come back to that in a minute, but first I want to ask something different: where did the word come from? What is its root?  Wikipedia, quoting a recent academic reference work, states that
"the word civilization comes from the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state,"  And that, it seems to me, is a more relevant angle from which to ask where the world is and where it is going.

I would suggest that this definition is indeed critical to modern western civilization, since it refers, in effect, to the establishment of civil authority capable of mobilizing the resources of society, and specifically to a civic authority as opposed to a religious one  Going back to Merriam Webster, we might add that such a civilized authority relies on the written word for communication and administration, and thus requires a high degree of literacy.  It also usually involves the dedication of substantial resources to the arts, and the now-dead civilizations of which we have the clearest picture left behind buildings, sculptures, and, later, paintings, all of which reflected a substantial diversion of resources to these pursuits.

Putting the artistic and political aspects of the question together for a moment, I would suggest that civilization is characterized by a certain level of devotion to an abstract polity, to law, and to a certain more or less exalted idea of the arts.  Sometimes the primary objects of devotion are political, as in the Roman Empire and Greek city-states; sometimes they are religious, as they were for centuries of human history.  Our modern civilization, which originated in the 17th and 18th centuries, has been characterized by a devotion to science and inquiry for their own sake.  I might add that during the formative centuries of our civilization, my own profession, history, focused largely on the development of civilizations, as reflected in their political and religious behavior.  The existence of a historical profession dedicated to reconstructing the past and putting it in a broader perspective with the help of original documents was itself, I would suggest, an important, and perhaps a critical, element of our civilization, which developed itself and spread in part because people could read about its past.

One might also argue that civilizations develop and persist because their political and religious leadership believes in them, and more or less insists that the rest of their nation does as well.  National histories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries focused on the great achievements of their own nations--although the greatest historians, it has always seemed to me, were frequently most critical of their own nations.  (One can observe this even in one of the very first works of modern history, the Athenian Thucydides's history of the Peloponesian War.)  Religious authority enforces itself through religious observance, which begins in earliest childhood.  Generations of western plutocrats and governments have established and maintained museums and subsidized operas and symphony orchestras.  And crucially, during the last two centuries or more, the act of becoming an educated man or woman required a great deal of effort and concentration on subjects of very marginal relevance to day-to-day life, from the study of Latin and Greek to the mastery of a musical instrument., to the reading of numerous lengthy novels or plays by a single author.  To be sure, every generation included some students who gladly did these things out of love, but they were the minority.  Many did them out of duty--but they did them all the same.

I would argue that a combination of technology and our reverence for the economic market have severely weakened many of these traditions in modern civilization, especially in the United States.  For the last half-century, devotion to a higher purpose has fallen more and more out of favor in most of the political spectrum.  A good deal of our left abandoned traditional politics in the 1960s and 1970s and has never come back.  As I have mentioned many times, the Left's favorite causes now focus on rights for individuals belonging to previously marginalized groups, not to the question of what we as a nation can and should do together.  The right, as I have often had occasion to note, distrusts government in almost any form, and now even denies government one of its most basic powers, the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  We have allowed corporations--including financial institutions--once again to achieve power that rivals, or exceeds, that of governments.  But that is not all.

It seems to me we are threatened nowadays because so few of us take our fundamental political institutions very seriously any more.  How many of us--including politicians and judges--have the same commitment to the Constitution and its values as the Founding Fathers, or Lincoln and the men who fought to preserve the Union, or Franklin Roosevelt, or the Warren Supreme Court?  The answer, I would suggest, is not very many, and fewer every year, because the Boom generation, now passing from power, was the last generation that had to learn much about those subjects in college.  The decline of the historical profession, in my opinion, has done enormous damage to our situation.  Believing, apparently, that their parents' and grandparents' legacy would assure them and their children a stable political life forever, Boomer and now Gen X historians have given up teaching political or diplomatic history, for the most part, and it shows.  Barack Obama, our first Gen X President, rarely if ever makes a serious historical reference in one of his speeches.  The Right has actually created an alternative version of history featuring Founding Fathers who rejected the separation of Church and State and rights to bear arms that never existed--something that would have been much harder, in my judgment, had historians been doing their job.  The same thing has happened in much of the western world, even in countries where institutions still function somewhat better and more of the national budget is spent on the common good.

The written word, that cornerstone of civilization, is surely becoming much less important to daily life.  College students read less and publishers publish shorter books.  Newspapers are threatened with extinction.  Video clips are replacing news stories as the currency of public discussion.  Fewer and fewer Americans are learning foreign languages.  All these things, I think, reflect declines in civilization as we have known it.

And as for the arts, they too are in a parlous state.  New works of serious drama rarely apper, partly because of academic fashion.  Serious fiction rarely engages the kinds of issues it did in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Classical music survives, but fewer and fewer American young people learn to play it. (The arts have been cut out of many school curriculums.)  Television, as often noted, has been something of a bright spot in the last 10-15 years, with truly serious dramas like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad playing a role comparable, perhaps, to novels by Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway.  But films are in their worst era since sound came in nearly 90 years ago.  Even forty years ago, many Hollywood producers or studios used some of the profits from junk to make important films for grown-ups.  Indeed, in the 1970s there was a real mass audience for true art.  Now action, technology, and cartoons rule the field.

Civilization, to recapitulate, requires genuine belief in and devotion to higher political and artistic purpose.  That kind of devotion is not increasing: it is declining.  Intellectual change has always been an extremely potent historical force.  I wonder how much of our civilization is destined to continue over the next half century.