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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, November 28, 2014

Women's rights, economic rights, and human rights

For the past forty  years, as I've often noted, the left has been obsessed with the rights of less well of groups: black Americans, women, gays, and others.  And indeed, in some respects they have made great progress towards achieving full rights for these groups.  Gays in particular can now come out of the closet, form relationships, and even marry in most of the country.  Both women and minorities are far more represented in management and the professions, even though their champions claim that they are still underrepresented.  They also hold more public offices.  The elite of America, in short, is far more integrated by gender and race than it has ever been before.  Yet meanwhile, the elite has become much richer relative to the population, the economically lower half of the population has essentially no wealth, and uneducated people have lost the opportunities for job security and a reasonable life that they enjoyed before the de-industrialization of America.

A number of stories that I have read recently suggest to me that the gains of women, in particular, have been limited to a relatively small portion of the population, precisely because of increasing economic inequality.  The first, oddly enough, is the Ray Rice case, and related stories about the plight of NFL wives that have appeared in its wake.  With rare exceptions, NFL players come from relatively poor backgrounds.  The few college football players who actually make it into the league suddenly enjoy undreamed of wealth,. which makes it easy for them to induce young women of relatively modest backgrounds to live with an marry them.  The women seem to be willing to do so without any kind of prenuptial agreement that would do something to assure their economic future if their relationship goes badly.   (Perhaps some young women would like to do this, and a few may do so, but there is no shortage of those who will not.)  And thus, the economic pressure to remain within an abusive relationship becomes tremendous.  Rice's wife did not want the courts to take more severe legal action against her husband, and she issued a statement regretting that the NFL had become interested in the case.  Rice has raised her well up the economic ladder, and she presumably has no way of getting there on her own.  If professional athletes were compensated at a more modest rate, and good long-term jobs were available to the general population, these situations would not arise so much.  Money simply gives some individuals too much power over others.  (This morning's paper informs me that the NFL's arbitrator--a female judge--has overturned Rice's suspension on the grounds that he could not be punished twice for the same offense.   The lynch mob mentality that now dominates the media and university life still occasionally runs up against the protection of the legal system.

A second story concerned female undergraduates at leading universities.  Burdened by the disgraceful cost of higher education, a number of them are making ends meet, it seems, by finding older, wealthy male protectors on web sites who will pay very handsomely for casual sexual encounters.  I was immediately struck by the 19th-century flavor of these arrangements. Balzac's novels are full of them, even though the kept women he describes simply want to live in luxury, rather than pay for the education that is the price of admission to the elite. Thomas Piketty has shown that we are returning to 19th-century levels of income inequality, and we should therefore not be surprised to see older patterns of behavior re-emerge.   Ironically, while colleges become more and more concerned about sexual assault on campus, their tuition has risen so high that some of their female students apparently find it necessary to sell themselves off campus.  Once again we see that questions of gender equity cannot be separated from economic questions.

For forty years our society has focused on individual self-fulfillment, rather than the good of the larger community, the nation, or often, even the family.  More adults now do without families, probably, than at any moment in recorded history.  Yes, many families in earlier periods were dysfunctional and abusive, and many older gender roles were highly restrictive.  Yet at some point, I feel, things will begin to turn around--because of economic incentives.  With fewer and fewer good jobs, young people may find it worthwhile to marry and pool their resources earlier in life.  Similarly, on a completely different front, news forms of communally available transportation are emerging, and mass transit may be expanded, simply because so many people can no longer afford their own car.  We have created enormous wealth over the past few decades but it is now concentrated to an extent not seen for 100 years.  That will, I think, lead to more pooling of resources, first at the individual level, and later, perhaps, in cities and states, and even in the nation at large.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Emergency powers.

  My latest post is available here.  I encourage you to post comments there.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Putin's speech

On October 24, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, gave a speech at a Russian "discussion club" as part of symposium entitled, "The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules."  The speech is long and repetitive, but it provides Americans with a perspective they need to hear to understand the world we now live in, and how we got here. Putin is now using Russian troops to help ethnic Russian rebels (whose real local strength we will never know) establish new independent Republics in eastern Ukraine.  This is, obviously, a disruption of the postwar international order and the idea of the rule of law.  These were the topics of his speech

The thrust of the speech was simple: that it was the West, and more specifically the United States (although he generally spoke in vague terms), that first changed the rules of the game.  We did so, he argues implicitly, first in 1999, when the Clinton Administration undertook the war against Yugoslavia on behalf of the Kosovars with the support of NATO, but in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution.  He has a point.  George H. W. Bush, who fought in the war that established the UN, did not go to war with Iraq in 1991 before he had secured United Nations support, including the support of the USSR.  Bill Clinton, born the year after that war ended, must have known Russia would not support this new conflict, but he went ahead anyway, believing, in the best Boomer fashion, that he was right.  Fortunately, he was at least successful.

That, however, was a relatively modest initiative compared to the action taken by George W. Bush in 2003, when he decided to overthrow the Iraqi government without the support of the Security Council, world opinion, or most of our allies, with the single major exception of Great Britain.  And that war, as Putin pointed out, has been an immeasurable catastrophe, splitting Iraq effectively into three pieces, one of which is now allied with Iran and one of which is largely under control of the ISIS.  Barack Obama brought the troops out of Iraq (and despite all the criticism he is now taking for having done so, it is not clear that he had any choice in the matter), but his liberal interventionist team escalated the fighting in Afghanistan, encouraged the Arab spring, and arranged the strikes that helped bring down Qadaffi in Libya.  Then, last fall, the government of the United States blessed the street protests in Ukraine that brought down the elected government.  A released phone intercept suggested that the State Department, in the person of Victoria Nuland, the wife of neoconservative Robert Kagan, was indeed trying to take advantage of the situation to install an American client government on Russia's border.  Putin responded by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellions in eastern Ukraine--supported, now by Soviet forces.  He has also been sending Soviet jets across NATO airspace--including the airspace of the United States.

I am not suggesting that Putin is motivated by any but a new form of Russian imperialism, much less that his actions are a just punishment for our own sins.  I am, as a good friend explained to me some years ago, a consequentialist--I judge acts by their results, not by their intentions.  Putin is showing us that two can play the same game.  More importantly, while we are using street demonstrations, air strikes and invasions to bring down governments in faraway countries of which we know little or nothing, he is doing so on his own borders, where we cannot intervene, and where he disposes of formidable military assets, as well as some political ones.   I am extremely concerned, as I wrote some weeks ago, that the next move will be a lightning occupation of one or more of the Baltic states, a real prize, which will strike a blow at the heart of NATO by proving that the Clinton Administration, indeed, decided in the 1990s to extend American influence well beyond its natural limits.

Putin suggests that we need new rules for a true new international order.  I agree with the sentiment, although I'm not sure that he is really sincere.  He does point to the chemical weapons agreement he helped negotiate with the Syrian government and the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program as promising steps.  (Another is this week's China-U.S. climate change agreement, of course.)  I am afraid, however, that he was simply playing to his constituency.. (The speech has been almost ignored in the US.)  The genie is out of the bottle: we are in a new age of anarchy, such as those I wrote about in Politics and War.  Since the new age features precision-guided munitions rather than mass armies, we still may well not see millions of casualties, but the world will take a long time to shake itself into a new and more stable shape.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Democrats and the Election

Although three Senate races remain technically undecided, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the Republicans have won in Alaska and will probably win in the Louisiana run-off, while the Democrats have barely won in Virginia.  That will give the Republicans a 54-46 margin in the Senate.   The final House totals remain more obscure, but it looks to me as if the Republicans will have about 247 seats when all the races are done, leaving 188 for the Democrats--a Republican majority of 29 seats.  The Democratic Party was virtually wiped out among white Southerners and West Virginia has completed its transformation from one of the most Democratic states in the union under the New Deal to one of the most Republican ones now.  While most (though not all) of the new Republican Senators are not affiliated with the Tea Party, many of their new Congressmen are.

It seems to me that this election has largely pulled the rug out from under the demographic-based model upon which the Democrats have been counting to win elections.  In the short run, that will be disastrous for the country, since it means the Republicans will probably control both the legislature and the executive branch in two years.  In the long run, it may be a good thing.

I cannot resist making the connection between the Democratic Party's recent electoral approach and the ethos of contemporary academia.  Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson won elections by appealing to all Americans as citizens.  Jimmy Carter won because he was a white Southerner (check the electoral map from 1976 if you don't believe me), and Bill Clinton was helped by his southern origins as well, although he also drew heavily on the votes of his fellow Boomers.  Barack Obama won his first election handily thanks largely to the incredible unpopularity of the Republicans at that moment.  He won last time by focusing relentlessly on black and Hispanic Americans, women, young people in general, and gays--the only groups which humanities departments now regard as worthy of serious study.  The majority of all those groups voted Democratic, but Hispanics seem to have given more votes to Republicans than last time, and the turnout among young people was pathetically low.  The result was a Democratic debacle worse than that of 2010.  According to the CNN exit polls, a majority of voters seems to have voted for Republican Congressional candidates this year, a sharp contrast from 2012.

Now divisions based upon race, gender, sexual orientation and age are in my opinion a serious threat to our political life, and I have never been comfortable with campaigns that try to exploit them, as the Democrats this year certainly did.  (The Republicans didn't have to do much to exploit them, since the presence of Barack Obama in the White House was, sadly, all they needed.)  But politics is about winning, and I suppose that I wouldn't be complaining so loudly if the strategy had been successful.  But it wasn't.  Those issues weren't big enough to get people to the polls in sufficient numbers, not only in red states but even here in Massachusetts, where Republican Charlie Baker will indeed be our new governor.  Gay rights are making such rapid advances that they won't be much of a rallying cry for much longer, and the anti-abortion movement is increasing its strength in the red states, where Democrats are nearing extinction in any case, without making any inroads in blue ones.  It has just occurred to me that there is also an interesting paradox on the racial front.  Republicans keep coming up with young black candidates, the latest of which, Tim Scott, won election to the Senate in South Carolina.  But Democrats have no obvious successor to Barack Obama, partly because so many of their black office-holders are Congressmen from totally safe districts who have been in Washington for many years. 

The fall-off in the youth movement is both serious and entirely predictable.  Young people tend to turn away from their parents' favorite issues, and today's young people need debt relief and good jobs.  These the Obama Administration has not been able to provide.  For the whole of my adult lifetime the Democratic Party, to say nothing of Democratic media outlets, has been dominated by people who regarded the principles of the New Deal as self-evident truths, even though they did a great deal to help undermine them in practice.  Today's young voters have no memory of the New Deal or Great Society and learned virtually nothing about them in school.  I will always believe that they could have been mobilized behind a real jobs agenda in the first two years of the Obama generation, but that did not happen.  In short, they have no compelling reason to vote Democratic.

The Republicans need only one more election to ratify the supremacy of their economic ideas and turn them into the new national consensus.  That isn't as easy as it sounds, since they will need an acceptable national candidate.  Perhaps this was always likely.  Republican Boomers on campus and elsewhere felt like an embattled minority in the 1960s and 1970s, and they tried harder while their Democratic counterparts forgot about our parents' legacy.  The Republicans, as I noted on Monday (see below), have waged an unrelenting struggle for their ideas on many fronts at least since the 1980s.   This is their latest success.  It may not be their last one.

Monday, November 03, 2014