In lieu of a post this holiday week, here is link to a fascinating interview with the author of a remarkable book about the evolution of patent law and medicine in the United States and its consequences. You can listen or download. The interviewer, Terrence McNally, is a college classmate and friend of mine. I learned a great deal!
Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Friday, December 16, 2022
One of the most interesting people I met at the conference I participated in last spring in Dallas was Rafael Mangual, a lawyer who is now a fellow of the Manhattan Institute specializing in criminal justice issues. He has recently published his book, Criminal [In]Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who it Hurts Most. I have heard interviews he gave about the book to both Coleman Hughes and Glenn Loury and a debate he had with Lara Bazelon that is available on Bari Weiss's podcast. That debate is particularly notable insofar as it matches two very impressive people who are living in different universes on the issue that they care about the most. Both of them expressed appreciation for the opportunity to discuss that issue in a calm and reasonable manner, and we desperately need more people like them on both sides.
That issue, fundamentally, is this: does the United States incarcerate too many people--many of whom have done nothing very serious--and does it need not only to stop incarcerating so many, but also to adopt alternative methods of dealing with crime? The "yes" answer is now mainstream among liberals and in the mainstream media, illustrated this very week by an op-ed in the New York Times. But in his concise and well-argued book, Mangual argues that the correct answers are no and no, while making a number of very important points about the problem of crime in the US. The current push to send fewer people to jail, to abolish cash bail, to cut back on police and policing, and to ignore many offenses, he argues, has already led to significant increases in violent crime that inflict great harm on minority populations. I am going to summarize his argument here, adding a few observations of my own.
To begin with, Mangual suggests, in effect, that we should stop thinking in terms of a national crime problem. We are not one nation with respect to crime, especially violent crime. Most of our communities are extremely safe, but some neighborhoods are extraordinarily dangerous. We all know that crime is much more common in inner cities, but I did not realize how concentrated crime is even within those areas. Thus, Chicago in 2019 saw 492 homicides, nearly 60 percent of the total within the state of Illinois. But in addition, 53 percent of those 492 homicides took place in just 10 Chicago neighborhoods that included just 15.6 percent of the city's population, while there were only 11 homicides--2 percent of the city total--in 28 other neighborhoods with 25.4 percent of the city's population. 13 of those 28 safe neighborhoods had large nonwhite majorities. The situation in New York city and other cities is very similar. Mangual did not attempt to calculate what total percentage of Americans that live in safe neighborhoods, or to provide that data broken down by race, but I got the impression that the majority of every race in America probably lives in pretty safe areas.
That brings me to a related point about race and incarceration. Incarceration rates are indeed highest among black Americans, with Hispanics second, whites third, and Asians almost certainly at the bottom. (They are not included in many tables because their sample is so small.) But what exactly does this mean? A handy table that I found shows that 6.7 percent of black men over 18 are incarcerated, about 3 percent of Hispanic men over 18, and about 1 percent of white men over 18. One could write, based on those figures, that black men are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, which would strike many of us as a very alarming statistic and some of us as clear proof of "systemic racism." But one could also write that while 99 percent of white men over 18 are not in jail, 93.3 percent of black men (and 97 percent of Hispanic men) are not in jail either, and that, to me at least, gives a significantly different idea of the scale of the problem and its impact on various communities. You may be thinking that it might be more useful to know what percentage of this various groups are or have ever been incarcerated, and I agree. I have found a 1997 paper showing that 4.4 percent of white men, 16 percent of Hispanic men, and 28.5 percent of black men--which I agree is an alarmingly high figure--would go to prison at some time or another in their lives, but incarceration rates have fallen significantly in the last 25 years, along with crime rates, and I don't know what the figures are now. We can surely say that the vast majority of men of all races appear to be law-abiding citizens, and although female incarceration rates have been rising they are still much, much lower than male.
The United States does however have a much higher incarceration rate than any other advanced industrial democracy. It has now become conventional wisdom in some sectors of America that this is because so many people--largely minority men--go to prison in the United States for relatively minor drug offenses or other non-violent crimes. (Interestingly enough, Mangual never mentions The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which made this argument most bluntly. When I looked at that book myself I found that it was rather short on systematic data.) Mangual makes a truly overwhelming case that that is not true. As of December 31, 2018, 88 percent of US inmates were in state prisons, and more than 60 percent of them were there for either violent crimes (55.5 percent) or weapons offenses (4.6 percent.) Only 14.1 percent of them were convicted of drug crimes and most of those were convicted of trafficking, not simple possession. Mangual also points out that many of those officially imprisoned for low-level drug offenses were actually arrested for something much worse, and plea-bargained their case down to a simple possession charge. (I would have appreciated a breakdown of the other 26 percent but Mangual didn't give it.) Nor is that all. The median number of prior arrests for most state prisoners was about 8, and the median number of prior convictions was about 4. Not only does a person usually have to do something pretty serious to wind up in prison in the United States, it seems that they usually have to establish a record as an habitual offender. He also presents data to the effect that most inmates--even rapists and murderers--are paroled well before their sentences are over. It occurs to me that I frequently read news stories about prisoners who have been trying to get their parole for decades, but these--however alarming they may be as individual cases--are evidently the exception, not the rule. And sadly, a relatively recent study of prisoners released in 2008, 81.9 percent of them subsequently returned to prison for at least one subsequent offense, and half of them committed violent offenses. The simple reason that Americans find themselves in prison so much more frequently than residents of European nations is that they commit, on the average, far more crimes.
This broad picture of crime and punishment in the United States is the most important thing I drew from this relatively short book, but Mangual makes many other important arguments about individual points as well. He questions the recent movement against cash bail--most notably in the state of New York--on the documented grounds that it has allowed further crimes by repeat offenders while they are awaiting trial. Taking on the popular argument that incarceration breaks up too many families, he cites studies showing that children are better off with a criminal parent in prison than in the home. Regarding police shootings, he makes several simple points. The 1000 police killings (which are evidently a subset of about 3000 police shootings) every year compare to 10 million police arrests every year, which are in turn a fraction of total police contacts with the general population. A detailed study showed that only 3 percent of all those contacts even included a threat of force by the police. Of the approximately 1000 police shootings documented every year (with extraordinary consistency) by the Washington Post, more than 93 percent took the life of an armed suspect. While cases like George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Philandro Castile are horrifying, they are anything but typical. As John McWhorter and others have also pointed out, there are white victims of police shootings who were just as innocent as any of those, too. And while the minority of victims of police shootings who are black [sic] does represent a larger proportion of the black population than the white victims do of the white one, the reason is simple. These shootings usually take place during attempted arrests, and these are more common for black people because police spend much more of their time--as they should--in high crime neighborhoods that tend to be black. And that leads me back to the point that I began with.
It is critical to keep in mind that while "high crime neighborhoods tend to be black," as I just wrote, that does not mean that black neighborhoods tend to be high-crime neighborhoods. I already presented the data on Chicago--one of the most violent cities in the country--showing that most of its black and Hispanic neighborhoods seem to be quite safe. Unfortunately two very different groups of Americans seem to want to miss this point. We have bigots who still want to associate all black people with criminals, but we also have many successful, law-abiding black citizens, led by academics and journalists, who insist that all black people--not just a relatively small but extremely violent minority--are suffering from the injustices of the criminal justice system.
I have avoided perhaps the biggest question of all--why does the United States have so much more violent crime than other advanced nations? Mangual doesn't really try to answer that question either, but he makes one important argument: that there is no correlation between poverty rates and crime. Crime did fall substantially in the United States from about 1995 to 2020, when homicide, in particular, began to rise again. Mangual makes clear that he believes that it fell because of the much-maligned 1994 federal crime bill--which, he points out, was supported at the time by the vast majority of the Congressional black caucus whose constituents were being devastated by the crack epidemic and the violence that accompanied it--and anticrime measures in various states. Now, the 20-year drop has produced calls that we are too hard on crime and pressure to reduce policing and incarceration, leading to the election of "progressive prosecutors" in cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boston. . That, he believes, has already led to a reversal of the positive trend--and to the recall of one of those prosecutors in San Francisco, I might add.
Mangual includes a long discussion of stop, question and frisk procedures--his term for them--that turns in part on his own memories of his youth, when he and his friends, while not dangerous criminals, behaved in ways to suggest to passersby that they might be. Meanwhile, he returns again and again to his basic point. He regards incapacitation, not deterrence or retribution, as the main reason to put people in jail--that is, taking their capacity to commit crimes against the public away. And this is necessary above all, he thinks, to protect the innocent citizens of high-crime neighborhoods. He does ot address the increasingly common activist claims that "noncarceral" conflict resolution or compensatory justice might replace incarceration, even in cases of violent crime.
I do believe that we could do a lot to make prisons more humane. Jimmy Hoffa after his own term in federal prison became an advocate for prison reform, and I saw him on television arguing with typical force that prisoners should be segregated by offense, by race, and by size to reduce their abuse by one another. I also know that there are numbers of completely innocent people in prison and that we would benefit if we could make it impossible to convict an accused person based on the identification of an eyewitness that did not know that person--a form of evidence that has proven worse than useless again and again. The exoneration of the Central Park Five showed how easily police can sometimes induce a false confession. Such evidence convicted Yutico Briley, a client of Lara Bazelon's, whose release she eventually secured. On the other hand, Ms. Bazelon in an interview with Glenn Loury frankly reported not only that Yutico was a drug dealer, but also that his father, who had also been imprisoned, had said at the time of his arrest and conviction that some prison time might do him some good in the long run. That suggests to me that in this case, and probably others as well, both Bazelon and Mangual are right. On the one hand, Utico Briley went to prison with a very long sentence for an armed robbery he didn't commit; on the other hand, had he not, he very likely would have wound up in prison for something else that he did do. On the whole, I put down Mangual's book convinced that we truly do have a serious, if highly localized, crime problem, and that as long as we do we will have to segregate violent criminals from our society to keep the rest of us safe.
Sunday, December 11, 2022
This morning's New York Times features two long articles on the spread of junior ROTC programs in high schools, especially (although not only) in urban high schools. The presentation of the articles testifies to the woke sensibility that dominates the Times, starting with their titles: "Thousands of Teens are Being Pushed into the Military's Junior R.O.T.C.," and "J.R.O.T.C Textbooks Offer an Alternative View of the World." The tone of the articles suggest to me just how difficult it will be to reverse trends in the United States that are tearing the nation apart.
The first and more important of the two articles follows the headline with a two-sentence subhead: "In high schools across the country, students are being placed in military classes without electing them on their own. 'The only word I can think of is ‘indoctrination,’' one parent said." The story reports that these programs, taught by military retirees to students wearing uniforms, have become mandatory in some schools, but quickly qualifies that statement as follows: "A review of J.R.O.T.C. enrollment data collected from more than 200 public records requests showed that dozens of schools have made the program mandatory or steered more than 75 percent of students in a single grade into the classes, including schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Mobile, Ala. A vast majority of the schools with those high enrollment numbers were attended by a large proportion of nonwhite students and those from low-income households, The Times found." That, frankly, makes it sound as though requiring these courses has a nasty "disparate impact" comparable to school suspensions or incarceration.
The military services have tried to expand the program as a recruiting tool, and I know from other sources that they are facing one of their worst recruiting crises ever. The story's three reporters, however, admit that the program might be doing some good. "High school principals who have embraced the program," they write, "say it motivates students who are struggling, teaches self-discipline to disruptive students and provides those who may feel isolated with a sense of camaraderie. It has found a welcome home in rural areas where the military has deep roots but also in urban centers where educators want to divert students away from drugs or violence and toward what for many can be a promising career or a college scholarship. And military officials point to research indicating that J.R.O.T.C. students have better attendance and graduation rates, and fewer discipline problems at school."
"And military officials point to research indicating that J.R.O.T.C. students have better attendance and graduation rates, and fewer discipline problems at school."
The authors make it clear, however, that they believe the costs outweigh the benefits:
"But critics have long contended that the program’s militaristic discipline emphasizes obedience over independence and critical thinking. The program’s textbooks, The Times found, at times falsify or downplay the failings of the U.S. government. And the program’s heavy concentration in schools with low-income and nonwhite students, some opponents said, helps propel such students into the military instead of encouraging other routes to college or jobs in the civilian economy."
I don't think that any reporter who ever had any military experience would slant the story that way. I spent only four months on full-time active duty while fulfilling my six-year Army Reserve obligation late in the Vietnam era, but that was enough to make me admire what the military could do for its recruits. It taught young men from literally every walk of life how to listen, follow directions, and learn to perform tasks of varying complexity. It also brought people together who otherwise would never have met. My Basic Training company was composed of about 50 percent reservists or national guardsmen like myself, with the remaining 50% of draftees or enlisted men divided about equally between urban black kids and poor whites. About half of our sergeants were black, including the First Sergeant, the senior enlisted man. Not all of them liked me and two of them let me know it, but they judged us on performance. The draft was in effect from 1940 until 1973, with perhaps a brief interruption in the late 1940s, and that coincides with the period in which the lower part of the population was making the biggest economic gains. I do not think it is a coincidence that that period came to an end less than a decade after we gave the draft up.
The decision by some school districts--including Chicago, apparently--to make the plan mandatory would in my opinion do more for their students than any other obvious step. Yet the Times quotes a Latino opponent of the Chicago who called it "brainwashing" and complained that it focused on communities of color. Many people, I know, would argue that attempts to teach that population a somewhat set of values is a form of racism. Obviously I disagree.
The second article mined textbooks used in the program for questionable statements--with varying degrees of success. They complain, first, that one cites the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which an American destroyer was attacked in international waters without mentioning that a purported second attack never took place. They complain that one Navy textbook argues that restrictions on the bombing campaign against North Vietnam might have led to the loss of the war--a claim which I also reject. (They didn't mention another factual error in the same reproduced passage, which misdated President Johnson's announcement that he would not seek another term.) They complain that one other textbook does not discuss the real history of the interpretation of the Second Amendment, that another one holds up Robert E. Lee's military bearing at Appomattox, when he surrendered--not the cause he was fighting for--as an example of military leadership, and that a third one doesn't mention how many Indians died on the Trail of Tears. On three other points the authors really strain for effect. One textbook admits that the US Navy's shootdown of a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988 was a mistake, but tries to downplay how big a mistake it was. The Times criticizes another book for saying that "most of our European allies" supported the US bombing of Libya in 1986, but can cite only two European allies that did not. They disapprovingly quote a long passage on hair requirements for men and women and cite some sexist language about the treatmnent of female troops. And they actually criticize an Air Force textbook for including Kurt Kobain in a list of eight famous personalities who died of heroin, because Cobain, who was indeed a heroin addict at the time of his death, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound instead of an overdose.
Last but not least, they complain about this paragraph in an Army textbook about diversity. After praising some aspects of diversity, the text continues:
"Others worry that too much diversity will cause us to lose the common ties that bind us as a nation. They fear that social cohesion will erode if one group is pitted against another. This could also damage our ideas about the common good, as people become more focused on their own self-interests. What obligations do you think you have toward people who have social, religious, or political beliefs with which you disagree? Is there such a thing as too much diversity?"
Count me among those "others." I am glad the book is raising those questions.
I do believe that the mid-twentieth century consensus into which I was born reflected relatively strict ideas of how people should dress, behave, act, and even think. Some reaction against those ideas was inevitable and healthy as soon as the threat of the Second World War and the early Cold War began to fade. Yet now, the woke left that dominates academia and major news outlets such as the Times has signed on to the idea that any attempt to teach common values is oppressive. And despite the havoc that that idea is wreaking in their own institutions, they have refused to admit that no institution or nation can survive without some common values. The growth of Junior R.O.T.C. in schools is the best news I have heard about public schools in some time. I hope it continues.
Sunday, December 04, 2022
Saturday, November 26, 2022
It's been 59 years and it's not surprising that the November 22 anniversary last Tuesday passed unnoticed. I want to commemorate it by offering up this extraordinary 2013 piece from the Boston Globe on the impact of the assassination in New England. The author was very young, but he had real historical/journalistic talent. I can't remember exactly how he found me but I am very proud to have contributed one paragraph. Do make sure to read to the end. It really captures that very different era.
Click the link to open in Google Docs. You probably can't access the proquest link unless you have proquest access.
Friday, November 18, 2022
The World Cup begins on Sunday. It has been the single biggest event in my sporting calendar since I first had the opportunity to watch one in 1974, and although its award to Qatar was a disgrace, I am thrilled that it will fill up my time for what is always the most depressing month of the year for me because of the early New England sunsets. After nearly 18 years of diligent weekly postings I could use a brief vacation from History Unfolding and I may decide to give myself one--we shall see. I promise to be back for the new year. Meanwhile, I have time for some election commentary, and trust me, you are most unlikely to have seen similar commentary anywhere else.
It is now clear that while the Democrats have definitely held on to the Senate and will probably, in my opinion, increase their majority by one next month, the Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives by a majority of between one and five. Previously worried about a red wave, the mainstream media are portraying this as a Republican defeat. It isn't--the Republicans are substantially more powerful with one House under their control and this will almost surely make it impossible for the Democrats to pass any major legislation for the next two years. Moreover, as I have just discovered, the aggregate data suggests that this is the most encouraging election for the Republicans to have taken place in many years. Hold on to your hats while I explain why.
In 2016, while Donald Trump was narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton while losing the popular vote, the Republicans won the popular vote in House elections quite narrowly, by 63.2 million votes to 61.8 million, or 49.1 percent to 48 percent. That was good enough for a substantial 241-194 majority in the House, which suggests that Democrats very validly complained about the impact of Republican gerrymandering in various states--I don't know exactly how to do the math, but I don't think that a 1 percent edge in the overall vote should have produced a 47-seat edge. The turnaround two years into the Trump administration was quite astonishing. This time the Democrats polled 60.6 million votes (53.4 percent) to 50.9 million for the Republicans (44.6 percent.) That gave them a 41-seat gain and a 235-200 majority. That also seems to me a somewhat low majority result for a 6 percent edge in the national popular vote.
Gerrymandering also seems to have played a role in the 2020 elections. While Joe Biden was beating Donald Trump with a seven million popular plurality, 51.3 percent to 46.8 percent, the House Democrats did only slightly worse, winning with 77.5 million votes to 72.8 million, and 50.8 percent of the Congressional vote to 47.7 percent. They nonetheless lost 13 seats, leaving their majority at 222-213, which once again looks a bit harrow to me given their 3 percent edge in the popular vote.
Well, brace yourselves, sports fans. In the last midterms the Democrats had won 60.6 million votes for 53.4 percent of the total. This year the incomplete tally shows them with 49.7 million votes and just 47.3 percent of the total. The Republicans, with 53.4 million votes, took 50.8 percent of the total. This means, to begin with, that so far, with votes still being counted in some areas, the turnout was about 7 million votes lower than in the last midterm election. It means that the Republicans did much better in this national vote than in any of the three previous ones. It also looks to me as if gerrymandering didn't help them at all. A 50.8-47.3 percent majority, I would think, would be expected to give them a significantly higher majority than they now project to have.
Now progressives tend to set the tone of Democratic commentary, perhaps because they now rule the nation's newsrooms. They are not only treating this result as a Democratic victory--instead of a warning of impending disaster next time around--but also crediting enthusiastic young voters for it. Some that I know are also crowing that old Republican voters are dying off. Unless the CNN exit polls were many miles off base, that is a fantasy. According those polls, the 18-29 age group was 12 percent of the vote and 63% of it voted Democratic. That was by far the highest Democratic percentage of any demographic slice, but it amounts to just 8 percent of the total vote, or about 17 percent of the total Democratic vote. The 30-44 age group, only 21 percent of the electorate, voted Democratic by only 51 percent, making 11 percent of the total. After that things get much worse for the Democrats. The 45-64s (mostly Xers) were by far the largest bloc, 39 percent of the vote, and they voted Republican 54-44 percent, a landslide. That still makes the Democratic Gen X vote 17 percent of the electorate, that is, a larger share than either their Gen Zs or Millennials. The 65 and overs (basically Boomers with some Silents) were 28 percent of the electorate and 55 percent of them voted Republican--almost the same proportion as for Gen X.
Now David Shor, a very sensible Democratic analyst, has argued that the Democrats did better than expected because many independents and some Republicans voted Democratic because of the abortion issue and the shadow of Donald Trump. The abortion issue clearly had a remarkable impact in Michigan and Minnesota, where the state legislatures flipped Democratic, and I expect there will be some referendums about it next time around, which might help Democratic turnout. Donald Trump also appears to be a big loser in this election as well, perhaps in part because Republicans haven't woken up to how well they actually did, either. Trump's demise, however, stands to hurt the Democrats a lot. Any apparently reasonable Republican candidate, including Ron DeSantis, looks like a good bet for 2024, all the more so since we have no idea who the Democratic candidate will be if Biden, as seems likely, does not run. If the Republicans simply allow local abortion votes to take their course and abandon Trump, their prospects look fairly bright.
I will try to update this post in a few weeks when final numbers are in.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
To begin with, I always say that if you are really smart, you are never afraid to say "I don't know" or "I was wrong." And I was wrong two weeks ago (along with everyone else) about what was going to happen in the election, and I'm glad that I was. Nate Silver seems to agree with me about this and I'm looking forward to his explanation of why their House forecast was significantly off. Meanwhile, it seems quite possible, though not probable, that the Democrats will even keep control of the House. I would also not rule out the possibility that enough Republicans might defect from their party to swing control to the Democrats, if they initially emerge with a narrow majority and McCarthy is voted down for Speaker by the Trumpers, as seems quite possible. I will defer any election analysis for later.
Meanwhile, over the last few days, I relived what remains the most exciting night of my life: November 8, 1960, when the nation barely elected John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon. Youtube is a wonderful thing, and the entire CBS broadcast of that night is available there in three chunks. I watched the whole last chunk, from about 11:30, when a Kennedy victory seemed certain, to about 5:00 AM, when they signed off having called a majority of electoral votes (including Illinois) for Kennedy. This wasn't exactly reliving that night because I watched Huntley, Brinkley and the rest on NBC then. (A very edited version of their coverage is also available.) I was 13 then and this was the first election that I ever followed closely. My father was working in the campaign and had brought me to the DNC headquarters on a couple of Saturdays, where I actually met Robert Kennedy for the only time. I don't think, though, that I had given any thought to the possibility of his getting an administration job if JFK won, and I was very unpleasantly shocked a few months later when I found out that I would be spending the next two years in West Africa as a result. That, however, is another story.
Walter Cronkite anchored the broadcast, of course, and four correspondents covered the East, the South, the Midwest and the Far West, respectively. The East, beginning with Connecticut--perhaps the only fully automated voting state--broke quickly for Kennedy, with Connecticut and New York joining Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania following suit thanks in part to a very big Catholic vote for him in the Philadelphia area. Northern New England however remained solidly Republican. The South was one of the big stories because Kennedy did so well there. While Mississippi chose an unpledged state of electors as a protest against the pro-civil rights platforms of both major parties and Alabama added a few of those as well, Nixon carried only Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, while Kennedy took Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and above all Texas, his running mate's home state. The broadcast featured a late night interview with Elmo Roper--the second-leading pollster in the country at that time after George Gallup--who claimed that Texas had appeared to be going for Nixon, as it had twice for Eisenhower, until right-wingers roughed up Johnson and Mrs. Johnson at a Dallas campaign event. I had forgotten that incident. Kennedy carried Texas by 46,000 votes, far more than have ever been stolen in any US election that I know of, and far more than the half-dozen Rio Grande Valley counties that gave him margins of 80 percent or more.
The dramatic action took place in the Midwest and to a lesser extent in the Far West. Nixon surprisingly took Ohio, probably because of anti-Catholic prejudice in much of the state, while Kennedy rapidly secured a substantial lead in larger Illinois, of which more later. CBS News had given Kennedy Illinois, and with it a narrow electoral majority, by the time they signed off, although they did not "call" the election. The midwestern cliffhangers that night were Michigan and Minnesota, which no one dared to call until the next morning, when Kennedy turned out to have taken Michigan by 67,000 votes and Minnesota by 22,000. The network gave Kennedy New Jersey and Missouri early in the evening, but rural votes eventually reduced his margins in those states to 10,000 and a mere 4,000. The western states, meanwhile, went almost entirely for Nixon--but California, the big prize with 32 electoral votes (New York then had 45) looked to be Kennedy country for hours after it began reporting in the middle of the night. Kennedy jumped off to a big lead, and the commentators, who had plenty of sophisticated historical data at their command, reported that no Democrat had never lost such a lead in a California election. CBS had not given the state to Kennedy when it signed off. I went to bed around 3:00 AM, and woke up around 7:00, when NBC was signing off after having called California for Kennedy and called the election for him on that basis. Within an hour or so, they had changed their minds. Kennedy remained ahead when all the election day votes were counted, but eventually lost the state to Nixon by a margin of 36,000 votes after all the absentee ballots were counted. Only Nevada and New Mexico, and eventually Hawaii went Democratic among the western states. It was a shock to me to realize yesterday that California had voted for only one Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, in all the presidential elections from 1952 until 1992.
As for Illinois, it has become a Republican myth that Mayor Richard J. Daley stole the 1960 vote for JFK, with the false implication that Nixon would otherwise have won. Kennedy wound up with 303 electoral votes and would have had 276 and a majority without it. Forty years ago, as I pointed out in The Road to Dallas, a political scientist named Kallina effectively debunked that myth with a very careful analysis of the Cook County vote. What I realized watching the broadcast was that the sequence of events during the night did not support that myth either, and indeed suggested that if anyone was manipulating the vote late at night it was downstate Republicans. When CBS signed off around 5:00 AM that night, the count showed JFK ahead by 101,000 votes. As it turned out, Nixon won 55 percent of the 877,000 votes that remained to be counted--most of them downstate--and the margin narrowed to just under 9,000 votes.
The economic, demographic and political decline of the American Northeast and Midwest is perhaps the most striking impression left by watching the broadcast. Pennsylvania that night had 32 electoral votes, tied with California, and Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan had 25, 27, and 20. Florida had 10 and Texas 24. In 2024 New York will have 28, Pennsylvania 19, Ohio 17, Illinois 19, and Michigan 15, while the three largest are California (54), Texas (40), and Florida (30). The broadcast's figures on the Middle West and the West illustrate other changes: Democrats and Republicans are competitive throughout those regions, although most of the South, then as now, is one-party territory. Yet there is also an extraordinary difference in the tone of the coverage. It is resolutely impartial. Again and again Cronkhite points out that either Kennedy or Nixon will be the first president born in the 20th century, and European correspondent David Schoenbrun adds that they will be decades younger than any European leader with whom they will have to deal. The commentators play down the issue of religion in the campaign, noting correctly that it might have helped Kennedy more than it hurt him, but ignoring that it clearly did determine the votes of millions of Americans on both sides. Cronkhite remarks at one point that probably no president has ever been elected at a more dangerous moment in the history of the the nation and the world--a clear reference to the Cold War, then at its height--but he says that calmly, as he does everything else. Nixon and Kennedy belonged to his generation--as do all the correspondents, I believe--and they had fought in or covered the Second World War and seen the nation emerge victorious from it. This election for them and for me at 13 was a critical episode in the great adventure that was the history of the United States. I recommend at least a few minutes of the broadcast to all my readers as an artifact of a lost world.
Friday, November 04, 2022
I began writing this blog eighteen years ago at a rather dark moment in US history. George W. Bush's re-election campaign was in full swing, and the nation was mired in his Iraq War and a mad attempt to police the entire globe to halt international terrorism. And while I have often in subsequent years been quite pessimistic about where the country was going, I know that many posts have been written in the hope that they might improve. Now I am not so sure. Not only are the Republicans almost certain to win control of the House of Representatives next Tuesday, they also have a 50-50 chance of regaining control of the Senate as well. That means another round of budget fights, government shutdowns, and endless Republican investigations of Democratic wrongdoing. And that is not all. Today news reports announce that if the Republicans are successful, Donald Trump will immediately announce his candidacy for a second term. He leads Ron DeSantis, his closest rival for the Republican nomination, by a 2-1 margin. Worse yet, I doubt very much that either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, now the obvious heir apparent, could beat him. I do not think that Trump really embodies the passions and the views of all Republicans, but it seems clear that his presence at the top of the ticket has not been, and probably will not be, enough to disrupt the normal rhythm of modern American politics, in which an unhappy electorate--and the electorate is very unhappy these days--takes out its anger on the party in power. The Democrats have in many ways staked their future on the idea that Trump's re-election would be a catastrophe. They are right, but I am not convinced that that position will ever have enough electoral appeal.
"Every epoch is immediate to God," wrote Leopold von Ranke, the founder of modern history, in the nineteenth century. I am not religious enough to use language like that, but I agree that every epoch manifests certain aspects of human nature. My most important political values--free speech, representative government, the idea that reason can drive policy, and most of all a concept of equal citizenship--have actually held sway for relatively small portions of modern history, in relatively restricted areas. They first emerged in the ancient world, but were overthrown in the late Roman empire by corruption and Christianity, as I discovered reading a remarkable book by Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind. It took about 1000 years for the Renaissance to re-establish the classical values, and that began about four centuries in which they steadily gained ground in Europe and spread elsewhere. Now they are in retreat, above all in the academy, which has abandoned its responsibility to maintain them. Literally anything could happen, I think, in the next fifty years.
My inspiration George Orwell entertained some terrifying visions of the future, most notably in 1984, but he died, very young, in 1950, while civilization still seemed to be advancing. I don't feel that it is now, for many reasons. So the question arises: without a great deal of hope about our future, how do we sustain our interest in life for how long is left us? Both history and literature, I think, offer some answers.
I have actually spent a good deal of my life living in the more or less distant past with the help of primary and secondary sources. I have written about some great human catastrophes, most notably those of the two world wars to which I devoted one section of Politics and War. So far, while history sometimes goes in the wrong direction for a long time, it does eventually take a big turn for the better. I am more and more doubtful that I will live to see the next one--but that doesn't mean that it will not take place. And when it does, to judge from the past, the great human achievements of earlier eras will come to life again--including the first two hundred years of the history of the United States. People may rediscover some of my favorite books. Even my own might survive.
Meanwhile I have been thinking of a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats. Entitled Lapis Lazuli, it was written in the 1930s in the shadow of an impending war, to which the opening stanza explicitly refers. In one respect this poem is a challenge to 21st century readers because it repeatedly uses a three-letter word that has now acquired a new meaning. I am sure there are critics out there now who would argue that Yeats was consciously or unconsciously using the modern meaning, but trust me, he wasn't. In a remarkably short space, Yeats draws on both history and art to express eternal hope while the world teeters on the edge of a catastrophe. The poem also reminds me how much my own favorite works of art, literature, music and history have meant to me throughout my life, including, or especially in difficult times. I will end by reproducing it in full.
Friday, October 28, 2022
This morning fivethirtyeight.com shows the Republicans with an 81 percent chance of winning control of the House of Representatives and a very nearly 50-50 chance of controlling the Senate. They might actually outpoll the Democrats in the national popular vote for the House. Even if they win only the House and not the Senate, Donald Trump will immediately become the favorite for the 2024 presidential election, and gridlock, shutdowns, and investigations of Hunter Biden and various Democratic officials will dominate the next two years. The January 6 investigation will shut down at once. I regret to say that the Democratic Party will bear a lot of responsibility for these results.
They are not, to be sure, solely to blame. A lot of people like to claim nowadays that racism lies at the root of Republican success, but I do not agree. Looking at the last 40 years, it seems to me that Ronald Reagan's insistence that government was the problem, not the solution, has remained part of the fabric of American politics. We have seen this political movie before, twice. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 with a Democratic Congress. He had only one major legislative accomplishment in his first term, his economic plan, whose tax increases allowed him to begin balancing budgets six years later. It passed by a single vote in both the House and the Senate, and it led to a devastating defeat in his first midterm election, in which he lost both Houses of Congress. Barack Obama was elected by a far more decisive margin in 2008 and brought veto-proof majorities in Congress along with him. He too passed just one important piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, without a single Republican vote, and he too suffered a devastating loss in the midterms, in which the Republicans won the House of Representatives. Four years later they added the Senate, and Obama had no more legislative accomplishments to boast of for the rest of his term. Joe Biden got some bipartisan support for a big COVID relief passage, and also for an infrastructure plan, but none for the Build Back Better Act, which some Democratic lunatic--I'd like to know who--disastrously renamed the Inflation Reduction Act. (It had nothing to do with inflation and hasn't reduced it.) Now his house majority appears to be doomed, and with it any hope of future legislative progress. The swing voters in the American electorate appear to react instinctively against any attempt to mobilize economic resources to solve national problems.
Yet the Democrats have their own problems as well. After 2008, strategists like James Carville argued that they had created a new long-term majority of women, black voters, and Hispanic voters--an argument, in effect, that they could rely entirely on identity politics. That view tallied with the feelings of many party activists, who learned postmodern theory in college and had come to believe that greater representation for those groups was in itself a critical political goal. In the long run, however, it has been a political disadvantage in my opinion, because it encourages--and in some cases even requires--Democrats to select candidates from those groups, who may appeal to parts of the Democratic base but whose demographic characteristics will not help them among swing voters. In addition, Hispanic voters in particular have remained far more diverse politically that Carville assumed, and increasing numbers have apparently decided that cultural and economic issues--such as inflation--matter a lot more than solidarity among nonwhites. They are significantly trending Republican.
And this Democratic disease, in a different but related form, may well cost them control of the Senate--which will make it impossible to put any Democrats on the federal bench for two years. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor, suffered a fairly serous stroke just before he defeated Representative Conor Lamb in this year's Senate Democratic primary contest. It turns out that he had had some heart-related problems for years. I have nothing against Fetterman personally, but party leaders should have made clear to him that the party simply could not take the risk of fielding a candidate with serious health issues in this critical election and forced him to step down in favor of Lamb. Ill or disabled people, however, are among the "marginalized groups" that Democrats are now taught to favor, and they did not. Fetterman in his one debate with Mehmet Oz this week showed very clearly that he has not recovered his ability to understand quickly and communicate clearly. These are skills that ordinary voters very reasonably expect their elected officials to have. Yesterday a new poll showed Oz leading Fetterman 48-45.
Educated Democrats tend to believe that voters today owe their votes to Democrats because the Republican Party has become an irresponsible personality cult. Voters however are clinging to the eternal American right to vote against the party in power when they are unhappy. That is the dynamic, as I tried to show a few weeks ago, that has dominated American politics since 1992. And if they do lose Congress, the Democrats will have to overcome another structural failure of theirs--their reliance on vice presidents and family members as presidential candidates. They are already suffering from this right now. No one ever took Joe Biden seriously as presidential timber for his 36 years in the Senate, and his two attempts to win the Democratic nomination went nowhere. When Barack Obama chose him as running mate, however, he got the name recognition and access to key donors that candidates depend on. He yielded the field in 2016 to another candidate who had become a national figure thanks to her marriage, but returned to win the nomination in 2020 with the help of the party establishment. Then he attempted (on frankly identity politics grounds) to bring Kamala Harris into the charmed circle, even though her presidential campaign had not made it to the first primary vote. Neither Biden nor Harris, in my opinion, will be a strong candidate against Trump or Ron DeSantis in the next presidential election. I can't see now who the alternative will be either.
Another disastrous aspect of the new American politics is also on display. The Watergate investigation dealt with terrible political and legal abuses and justly secured Nixon's resignation, but it became a terrible precedent. Investigations have replaced policy initiatives as political weapons ever since. The Democrats tried and failed to use Iran-Contra to bring down Reagan and Bush. The Republicans used Whitewater--a non-issue--and Bill Clinton's sex life to try to bring him down, but impeachment failed. They revived this tactic against Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election and it may have worked then. Now the Democrats seem to be relying on various investigations, rather than policy victories, to remove the threat of Donald Trump from our politics. The Deep State is in fact their main weapon in this battle, as it was when Trump was first elected. It's another symptom of the failure of our democracy.
Sunday, October 23, 2022
I needed a day off yesterday, and I went to see the one performance of the new German film version of All Quiet on the Western Front at one of our three surviving local arthouses. It was 2:00 PM and there were about eight patrons in the audience. I still have the paperback of the original book that I bought in college for $.50 [sic] on my shelf, and I remembered much of it vividly. I have of course seen the earlier film version but I remember it less well. This film recreates the combat of the First World War with reasonable accuracy, but it failed completely, in my opinion, to capture the spirit of the book or the generation to which the author Erich Maria Remarque, himself a veteran, belonged. Warning: I can't write this analysis without a lot of spoilers about both the book and movie.
The Paul Baumer who narrates the book joined, apparently, right of high school, but he seems to have joined quite early in the four-year war, when enthusiasm had swept Germany and grown with big early successes on both the western and eastern fronts. By the time the book begins in 1917 or 1918 he is a seasoned veteran who speaks with the authority of having seen everything, including the deaths of many of his friends. He and his fellow soldiers have become masters of their craft, knowing how to find cover behind a one-foot rise in the ground, to distinguish various different types of shells and to use all their weapons with maximum effectiveness. Their superiors alternate their time in the trenches with more relaxing weeks in the rear area, when they eat, drink, smoke, and one one occasion, arrange an assignation with some French girls--an incident left entirely out of the movie. The movie delays Baumer's enlistment until the last year of the war, and he never seems to lose his innocence, which in the book did not even survive rigorous boot camp. He has the frightened, traumatized look that the Baumer of the book identifies in new, undertrained recruits, most of whom fall in battle almost at once.
The film's writer and director Edward Berger, it turns out, is 52, but I think the change in tone from the book reflects the sensibilities of today's younger generation both in Germany and elsewhere. Very few of them have known war first hand and they probably know little military history. They cannot imagine battle as anything but a traumatizing catastrophe. Don't get me wrong--battle is a traumatizing catastrophe, but soldiers only get through war by finding ways to cope--led by black humor and camaraderie.
The film also attempts to incorporate high-level history, but winds up using it to cheapen the basic plot. It includes scenes of the armistice talks between a civilian-led German delegation and allied Supreme Commander Marshal Foch, and a right-wing German general who appears to be based on Erich Ludendorff, even though he is a battlefield commander whereas Ludendorff had effectively ruled at German Army headquarters and had in fact been dismissed by the Emperor more than two weeks before the end of the war. This anonymous general becomes the cause of hero Paul Baumer's death. In the book, Baumer dies randomly and anonymously like so many of his fellows, with a few weeks left in the war. Berger insists on making him literally the last casualty of the conflict, killed at the exact moment the armistice took effect because the aforementioned general insisted on a last-minute attack to salvage German honor. I have been reading about this war for more than half a century and I have never heard of such a German attack. In a further historical inaccuracy, the film's closing credits inform us that from the time the western front first stabilized in 1914, it hardly moved at all. That was largely though not entirely true until March 1918, but from then until November--roughly the period covered by the movie--the opposite was true. First, Ludendorff's last great offensive brought the Germans nearly in sight of Paris again by July. Then, beginning in early August, an allied counteroffensive made dramatic gains as the German Army began to collapse, leading to the armistice negotiations that began in late September.
It was my own generation--including most, though not all, of my own generation of historians--that decided, in effect, that the past need not be taken seriously, since it was simply a record of the evil follies of the ruling class. It had been taken very seriously in western civilization since the French and American Revolutions because most (including even many Marxists) saw it as a story of human progress. Such a view gave historians the incentive to get it right. Now, as James Sweet wrote some weeks ago as president of the AHA before pressure forced him to recant, history has become the slave of present-day sensibility and present-day politics. Bad politics breed bad history.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Matt Taibbi recently interviewed journalist Christopher Leonard about his new book, The Lords of Easy Money, which tells the story of the Federal Reserve Bank's response to the Great Recession and its consequences. I decided to read it. I am glad that I did.
Let me make one thing clear to potential readers at the outset: while the book tells a very important story makes very convincing arguments about its significance, its execution is a bit erratic. Leonard has to talk about a lot of complex financial instruments and transactions, and I often felt that he failed to explain them adequately to laymen, or even to convince me that he completely understood them himself. "Leveraged loans," which have become very important in corporate America, were an excellent example of this. Yet he often makes up for this by emphasizing a few basic facts and figures, and his account of the impact of Fed policy in the last fifteen years and earlier opened my eyes to various key developments of which I was not aware. I finished the book quite convinced that the foundations of our economy are now very unsound, that some kind of new collapse is almost inevitable, and that our economic powers that be remain in denial about these issues.
Most newspaper readers understand that when the big banks and our whole financial system nearly collapsed because of the subprime crisis of 2007-8, the Fed, led by Ben Bernake, embarked on a program called "quantitative easing." Essentially, it created more than $1 trillion within a few months to purchase worthless assets from the big banks to save them from collapse. Leonard gives the impression that the Fed has the legal power to create as much new wealth as it wants, any time that it wants. If that is true--and it seems to be--I couldn't help wondering when it became true. I had the impression that when the Fed was founded in 1914 or so it was capitalized by existing financial institutions and that the size of its capital put some limit on its ability to make transactions. If that was true, then the law must have changed at some point, and I am very curious as to when it was. There is, however, no dispute about the magnitude of what the Fed did beginning in the last quarter of 2008 when the crisis became dire. The Fed's balance sheet $910 billion at that moment increased to $2.1 trillion in one month. It held fairly steady for about two years, but at that point, with unemployment still peaking, it began to increase fairly steadily and went from $2.31 trillion in November 2010 to $4.5 trillion in 2015, where it remained for about three more years. Meanwhile, the Fed's open-market operations kept interest rates at or near zero, in an attempt to force financial institutions to lend money to stimulate enterprise, instead of keeping it in treasury obligations that would not turn any profit. It is here that I want to leave Leonard's argument behind for a minute and reflect on these developments from my own perspective.
In 1933, faced with an even more serious financial collapse and 25 percent unemployment, the New Deal had consciously attempted to increase the purchasing power of farmers and workers to get the economy moving again and stop the decline of GDP. While those policies didn't cure the Depression until we began mobilizng for the Second World War, they did help, and they did increase economic equality within the United States. This time, however, Bernanke, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and the rest of the policy makers decided to increase the purchasing power and the lending power of our richest class. Leonard does not make this analogy, but it occurred to me that quantitative easing was a new form of supply-side economics. The Reagan tax cuts--the application of supply-side economics--were supposed to unleash a torrent of productive investment and set up a new round of dramatic economic growth. Instead, they began increasing the wealth gap, and although the country slowly came out of the 1980-82 recession, the average American stopped making any serious economic gains. In subsequent years much of corporate wealth and corporate borrowing went into new factories overseas, while high-paying jobs in the US became scarcer.
Quantitative easing, Leonard shows, had a similar effect. The loans it and zero-interest encouraged lenders to make did not create new factories or new infrastructure. They simply increased the price of assets like stocks which rich people can buy. That is why, as many have noticed, the movements of the stock market have become quite disconnected from the state of the economy, so that the Dow and other industries reached new highs during the recession that the pandemic triggered. I would go further and blame the same trends for the explosion of the housing market in major metropolitan areas, where those connected to the financial community and a few other growing sectors like health care have bid up the price of single-family homes until they are out of the reach of young couples.
I strongly suspect that there is another dimension to all this as well, involving the ethos of our financial sector. That sector, which the New Deal reforms like Glass-Steagall and the SEC put under significant control, regained much more freedom under the deregulation of the 1990s, which Bill Clinton, I had discovered, allowed without ever discussing it at any length with the American people. These reforms and fed easy money policies allowed financial interests to accustom themselves to dramatic and continuing increases in their income. That, I believe, is what led them into disastrous financial experiments such as the new derivatives market and subprime mortgages--bubbles that were bound to burst. Quantitative easing ensured that they would not pay the price of having the bubbles burst, and encouraged them to create new ones, and that is what they have been doing ever since. And over the last 30 years at least, Wall Street has become the leading destination of our brightest young men and women, trained in our elite educational institutions. There they become committed to the new model and devote their tremendous ambition, energy, and intelligence to maintaining it and the wealth that it gives them.
Leonard's book relies very heavily on interviews with Thomas Koenig, the one-time chief of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and a long-time member of the Fed's policy-making board. Koenig, who was born in 1946 and thus grew up (as I did) in a very different time, opposed quantitative easing from the beginning because he thought it would create bubbles and, crucially, because he thought that it would be very hard to reverse when the economy became overheated or when financial interests became over-extended again. Events have proven him right. Jerome Powell replaced Bernanke as Fed Chairman in 2018. He too had been somewhat doubtful about quantitative easing, and he initially decided that the time had come to raise interest rates, sell assets, and reduce the Fed's balance sheet. It fell from $4.41 trillion in February 2018 to $3.82 trillion in July 2019. That, however, as Leonard shows in detail, triggered a serious crisis in short-term money markets comparable to what had happened in 2008 and brought down Lehman Brothers. This time Powell reversed course, stepped in, and refunded the short-term money market that many hedge funds depended on on a massive scale. The Fed's balance sheet was already rising again when the pandemic struck in the early spring of 2020. It roes from $3.78 trillion in August 2019 to $7.17 trillion in June 2020--and it has continued to rise up to $8.96 trillion in late April of this year.
Until the last two years, the Fed took comfort from low rates of inflation. Now, a combination of factors including supply chain problems, the Ukraine war and its impact on energy prices, labor shortages in the US, and the huge deficits the federal government ran during the pandemic has returned inflation almost to the levels of the late 1970s, and Powell is rapidly raising interest rates to try to halt it. Orthodox economic authorities seem to agree that we need a new round of unemployment to control inflation. German authorities made a similar calculation in 1930-2, cutting government spending in the midst of a depression--and the result was the electoral advance of Nazis and Communists and the end of the Weimar Republic. The United States stands at a similarly perilous political moment and our establishment really can't afford to alienate the working class, but they don't seem to understand this.
The rise in interest rates has already reversed the steady increase of the stock market. If Leonard's argument is correct, it seems almost certain to trigger some kind of new financial crisis as well, since our whole system has come to depend on easy money. That might lead the Fed to reverse course again as it did in 2019. Thomas Koenig was right: it has become impossible not only to undo quantitative easing (now known under new names) but also to even halt it. The Obama Administration in 2009 missed its chance to revive New Deal principles, and the bill for that decision may now be coming due.
Occasionally a lifelong newspaper reader like myself reads or hears a news item that is so unsettling that he immediately goes into denial. One such moment occurred in the winter of 2008-9 when I read that Barack Obama had appointed Larry Summers as his chief economic adviser. A second occurred a few days ago when I was nearing the end of Leonard's book, and read that Ben Bernanke had been awarded a share of the Nobel Prize. When disastrous policies receive the highest imprimatur that our civilization offers, we are in real trouble.