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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

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...

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Modern Life and its Discontents

 The other day, preparing for an on-line movie group I belong to, I watched Francois Truffaut's first and probably his greatest movie, The 400 Blows.  It may be the best movie ever about childhood, and it has more specific meanings for me as well.  Just two years after the film was released I began two years of my own in a French lycée myself, in newly independent Senegal, when I was exactly the age of Antoine Doinel in the movie,  and I recognize the classroom atmosphere.  I also recognized the Paris of the film, which I experienced in brief visits in 1961 and 1962, when I was struck by how dirty much of it was, with used tickets strewn all over metro stations and bathrooms well below American standards. (All that has changed now.)  And the school scenes set me thinking about broader trends in western civilization.

France was the first thoroughly bureaucratic modern state.  That trend began, as Tocqueville argued in his classic The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in the 17th century, but the revolution and Napoleon's empire accelerated it.  The Emperor's education minister boasted that he knew what every child in the country was studying at every hour of the day.  And to succeed in life, a young man or woman had to conform to the rules of the schools.  I did not realize until 20 years later, thanks to a colleague who had studied  French public education, how the system was sorting out winners and losers from a very early age.  Students had to repeat grades much more frequently than in US public education, and anyone who had was not going to advance beyond the minimum school requirements.  That explains the intense alienation of Antoine Doinel and some of his schoolmates, and of some of mine in Senegal as well.  And the regimented style of French education may also explain the alienation of so many French intellectuals from "the system" during the twentieth century, led by those like Jean-Paul Sartre who had actually performed brilliantly all the way through it.  Meanwhile, however, the country is still run by those who made it to the very top of the pyramid, the "grandes écoles" that train various kinds of French professionals.  Its public services are still outstanding today, but more than 40 percent of the electorate is now alienated from the system and votes for the extreme right.

Something similar has happened in American history, of course.  American life became far more bureaucratized in the twentieth century, including its educational system.  The mid-century crisis created a remarkably uniform population that dressed alike, ate the same food, and watched the same three television networks.  And like generations of French intellectuals, the first American generation to grow up in this world--the Boom--immediately rebelled.  No achievement was more impressive, in retrospect, than the creation of the university of California system, which in the early 1960s was offering every state resident a superb education at virtually no cost.  Yet in the fall of 1964, before the escalation of the Vietnam war, when a political controversy broke out at Berkeley, Mario Savio drew applause from his fellow students when he explicitly compared the oppression of the university bureaucracy to the oppression of white supremacy in Mississippi.  Fueled by the war, that revolt spread around the nation during the next six years, and neither universities nor American life have ever been the same.  The revolt became intellectual as well as political, fueled in part by women, minorities and gays who insisted that traditional western civilization had ignored them.  At the same time, economic interests who resented the share of the resources that the government had taken were beginning to mobilize against the New Deal legacy, and by 1981 they were in charge.  Meanwhile, organized religion emerged once again as an alternative source of values and a counterweight to utilitarianism.

Millennials and Gen Z have carried the revolt against bureaucracy to a new level that exalts the "disruption" of existing institutions.  I cannot predict how far all of this will go  It's a very different kind of challenge than predicting the future of the world in 1938, say, when at least three different kinds of well-organized and bureaucratic states were embarking on a struggle for world domination.  I do think that the world in which I grew up came from particular historical circumstances, and valued certain aspects of human nature far more than others.  Perhaps it is generational change, more than anything else, that ensures that the neglected parts of human nature will always emerge once again.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Milestones

 My draft history of the US based upon presidential addresses is now complete through 1981 and I am doing the research for the Reagan years.  They were, I now see, a turning point comparable and parallel to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.  Like the New Deal, the Reagan years set the country on a different path, and we have been on that path for as long as we remained on FDR's.  And that is why we have seen no federal response whatever to the economic crisis that we now face, and why our elite political system has become so disconnected from the lives of ordinary Americans.

The great change in the role of the government wrought by the New Deal had begun to emerge thirty years earlier, when Theodore Roosevelt began to talk about the need for the government to help make our economic order more just.  Woodrow Wilson built upon that legacy with some modest specific steps, but the momentum towards a new government role died out in the 1920s.  FDR in 1933 came to power in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in our history and made it the government's business to get us out of it.   He was only intermittently successful during the 1930s, but he did put millions of people to work, and he also created the modern American safety net by passing the Social Security Act, while organized labor secured new rights under the Wagner Act.  The government also spent billions on infrastructure.  When inflation emerged as a problem during the Second World War, the government imposed price controls to keep it in check, and they worked quite well until they were lifted.

By the time of Roosevelt's death in 1945, the federal government had a clearly defined role in promoting full employment (codified in the Full Employment Act of 1946) and trying to control inflation.  Presidents from Truman through Carter followed FDR's lead by making broadcast addresses to the American people in response to economic downturns or inflationary surges, trying to explain what was happening and what they planned to do about it.  Congress passed the single biggest federal infrastructure program, the Interstate Highway System, under Eisenhower, and it transformed the country.  Beginning in 1965, however, inflation--fueled in part by the war in Vietnam--and then the energy crisis presented the government with problems that it could not solve.  Nixon, Ford and Carter all vainly struggled with them, and Ford and Carter both lost elections because of them.  That brought Reagan into power.

Reagan stood by--as his predecessors would not have--while Paul Volcker raised interest rates to unheard-of heights, plunging the country into a deep recession that finally slowed inflation to much lower levels.  Meanwhile, he preached, again and again, a new gospel: that government was the source of, not the solution to, our economic problems, and had to leave taxpayers with more money and reduce its size and role.  Reagan's actual success was actually as uneven as Roosevelt's.  Unemployment, which had averaged 7.2 percent in 1980 and risen to 10.8 percent in 1982, had only fallen to 7.3 percent in 1984, and inflation remained at 3.9%.  But Reagan, like FDR, used numerous broadcast addresses to convince the American people that he had gotten the country on a new and better path, and his overwhelming re-election victory in 1984 was comparable to Roosevelt's in 1936.  Organized labor was also losing ground, and economic inequality began to increase.  Those trends have continued to this day.

George H. W. Bush also lost the White House largely because of a severe recession in 1992, but his successor Bill Clinton made only one change in the Reagan recipe--a tax increase, which, added to a previous one under Bush, eventually produced a balanced budget.  But Clinton famously declared in January 1996 that the era of big government was over.  NAFTA, which became law under Clinton, took a great deal of economic activity out of the government's control.  George W. Bush shifted the nation's attention overseas in his first year in office, but meanwhile signed two tax cuts that undid Clinton's work and recreated the permanent federal deficit.

The great crash of 2008 paralleled that of 1929, but Barack Obama never thought seriously about using it to get the country back on the New Deal track.  He and his conservative advisers yielded the initiative to the Fed--as Reagan had done--and allowed it to refinance the bankrupt big banks at very generous terms while doing nothing for the millions of Americans who lost their homes to foreclosures.  That decision helped cost him the control of Congress and the rest of his tenure focused on budget cutting.  Then came Trump and the at least temporary end of the enlightenment experiment in the US.

The pandemic led to another vast infusion of cash into our leading economic institutions, both from the Fed and from the federal government.  That in turn has fueled the first big inflationary surge we have experienced since the Vietnam years, while international crises have once again led to much higher energy prices.  President Biden however has not made any nationwide broadcast addresses either to try to explain what has happened or what we might do about it.  Even Presidents Nixon and Ford imposed some energy price controls on domestic sources in the 1970s, but I have not heard such an idea even mentioned this year, even though the US now produces all the energy that it needs. Biden has for the moment yielded the political initiative within his own party to the House committee investigating January 6.  Whether that will win many voters over in November remains to be seen.

Joe Manchin's refusal to vote for any energy legislation has drawn a lot of comment, but he is also threatening to block critical international promises on corporate taxes.  Secretary of the Treasury Yellen has negotiated a broad agreement to impose minimum corporate taxes around the world, to prevent multinationals from evading taxes by moving their headquarters.  The agreement will fail if Manchin blocks a US minimum tax.  Here we see a direct confrontation between the modern state's claim to control resources for the common good, and our new financial aristocracy which has become more powerful than national governments--as Henry Adams was already noting during the Gilded Age.  And simultaneously, the nation is more divided than ever by bitter, emotional social issues, which stand in the way of consolidating the lower economic half of the population behind a more egalitarian economic program.  We do seem to be in a new era.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Journalistic innumeracy

 Newspapers, of course, thrive on sensationalism, which in turn relies on scare statistics.  A certain form of innumeracy relies very heavily on a false use of the concept of percentages.  An example comes from an article in last Tuesday's Washington Post by columnist Karen Attiah, who attended a gun show in North Texas and wrote a column about women, guns, and pregnancy. It includes the following two sentences about death rates for pregnant women:

"The study, conducted by Tulane University researchers, revealed that the “pregnancy-associated homicide” rate in 2018 and 2019 was 3.62 per 100,000 women — 16 percent higher than homicides of women who are not pregnant or haven’t recently given birth. Homicide beat hemorrhage and pregnancy-related hypertension as the top single cause of death."

Now the killing of a pregnant woman is horrifying, just as any homicide is horrifying, but I want to go a little further into these numbers.  Let's start by figuring out a raw number, based on a single year, 2019.  There were 3,745,540 live births in the US in that year. 3 in 100 of those births were parts of multiple births--that means about 112,000 live births, and thus, about 3,634,000 women had their pregnancies go to full term.  Dividing that number by 100,000 yields a 36.3.  3.62 times 36.3 equals 132.  That is apparently a close approximation of the total number of murdered women who were either pregnant or had just given birth during 2019.  The total number of woman murdered in the US during 2019, according to the FBI, was 2991.  That means that 4 percent of the women murdered in the United States in 1991 were pregnant or had just given birth.  96 percent of them were not.

Ms. Attiah's article, however, claims that a pregnant woman runs a greater statistical risk of homicide than one who is not pregnant--that the risk is "16 per cent" higher.  What that means to her, I think, is that while about 132  pregnant women (or women who had just given birth)  were murdered during 2019, a comparable sample of non-pregnant women--that is, about 3,634,000--would have included 114 homicide victims.  (132 is 16 percent higher than 114).  But the first question that she and her editors should have tried to answer was, is a difference between 114 and 132 out of a sample of  more than 3.6 million statistically significant?  I strongly suspect that it is not, and that it is just as likely to be random.

More important, however, is the misuse here of the concept of percentage.  Percent means "per hundred," and it is computed by dividing a subgroup of a sample by the total size of the sample.  These statistics, however, aren't based on "per hundred," but on dividing per hundred thousand, that is, a thousand times as much.  The percentage, literally, of pregnant women murdered in 2019 was about  .00036 percent.  The percentage of non-pregnant women murdered was about .000031 percent.  That isn't 16 percent higher--it is in fact .00005 percent higher.  16 percent higher, however, seems like a significant difference, while .00005 percent higher obviously is not.  

But that is not all.  The statement that 132 is 16 percent higher than 112 takes 112--the number of women murdered in the non-pregnant sample--as the total sample itself.  That's a basic statistical error, in my opinion, but I see it all the time, particularly in politically sensitive statistics.  

 Two years ago, a New York Times story on school suspensions of black girls noted, "In Iowa, Black girls were nine times more likely to be arrested at school than white girls, according to a state-by-state analysis conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union."  If one clicked the link to the study, one found that Iowa (which has a very small black population) was just one of three states to show a figure that high--states like Virginia and Florid showed only two or three times as many.  Totally absent from the story, however, were any figures on how likely it was, really, for a black or white student to be suspended.  I did some checking and found that about 2 percent of female white students and 10 percent of  female black students were suspended, on average.  The author of that article would have called that "five times as many" black students--but a more accurate way to put it would be that black girls are about 8 percent more likely to be suspended than white ones--and 90 percent of black girls never get suspended.  That, however, does not sound like a national crisis.  The Times and other major newspapers need editors that will ask these questions.

The Karen Attiah column raises another question as well.  It's about the murders of a relatively small group of women--132 our of a total of 2991 murdered women in the US in 2019.  It does not mention that 10,908 men were murdered in 2019--that is, four times as many.  Similarly, the Times ran a story about an "epidemic of femicide" in Central America not long ago, without ever mentioning that the murder of men remains far, far more common.   The reason, once again, that no editor asked Attiah about that is that our major newspapers, like our major universities, now divide the world into the virtuous oppressed on the one hand--women, minorities, and LGBTQ--and privileged oppressors on the other.  Within that narrative, those 10,908 men are unworthy of mention.  Female and minority op-ed columnists now boldly proclaim that their job is to focus on their own demographic.  This is bad journalism and bad citizenship, and we are paying a big price for it.. 

 

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Addiction in American life

 Addiction occurs, I have been taught, when one is obviously spending more time, energy and money on something than is good for one--so much so that it is becoming impossible to function normally in life.  In its classical period, I would argue, western civilization, and particularly American civilization, recognized addictive behaviors as dangerous both to individuals and to society as a whole and attempted to restrict or even ban them, most notably with prohibition, an attempt to stop alcohol and alcoholism.  That failed miserably, of course, but that does not mean that we do not need ways to keep certain behaviors within reasonable bounds.  That is not happening in the United States today.  Leading sectors of our economy are encouraging dangerous addictions, with very serious consequences for our physical and emotional health.

Because so many highly educated Americans in blue states have learned to eat healthily, the newspapers have remarkably little to say about the nation's most dangerous addiction, unhealthy food. Sugar, fat and salt contribute to diabetes, which is epidemic, and heart disease--and they are the key ingredients of the processed food and drink industry.  Soda sizes and packages have been getting bigger, not smaller, as time goes by.  Childhood obesity is at all-time high levels.  An excellent documentary, Food, Inc, went into this in some detail some years ago.  Some municipalities have made some effort to limit soda sizes, for instance, but without much success.  Things do not seem to be getting better on this front.

Drugs have been a major problem in the US for more than half a century, but the last thirty  years witnessed something new.  Big pharma, looking for new products, decided to counter the opioid market with new, more powerful, legal painkillers. Prescription drug overdoses killed about 3000 Americans in 1999 but grew to 12000 in 2006, and have continued to increase to about 15,000 a year since, costing about a quarter of a million lives from 1999 through 2020.  Pharma also prefers to develop long-term treatments for chronic diseases--another form of addiction, really--rather than to try to cure serious infections with new antibiotics.  It is clearly absurd to expect the free market to design the cheapest and most efficient system of health care. We have the opposite.

Legal gambling has grown enormously in the last four decades or so.  State lotteries, which notoriously find their market among the poorest Americans, now take more than $20  billion a year from the pockets of those who can afford them the least.  Casinos, confined to Nevada in my youth, have spread to nearly every state in the union. take in an estimated $53 billion. The Supreme Court has taken down the barrier to legal sports betting, and the baseball, football and basketball leagues are actively encouraging it as well.  Sports betting is now up to $4 billion a year and rising fast, and cable sports stations and talk radio focus on it too. 

Pornography, ironically, does not seem to make anyone a great deal of money any more, so much is available free on the internet.  It is nonetheless addicting a significant number of people--including even a few women--who are so dependent on it that they can no longer have normal sex.  It is only one of several major addictions found on the internet.  Social media is having a dreadful effect on the mental health of young people, especially girls.  Huge numbers of children, adolescents and adults are addicted to their phones.  And social media obviously creates an addiction to outrage and anger, fueled every day by millions of memes.  It leaves more and more people less and less time for serious intellectual pursuits or calm thought.

Behind most of these addictions lies the free market.  The nation has done better when we had the wisdom and the courage to realize that the market can do us serious harm if we do not limit its freedom in certain critical areas.  In the nineteenth century foreign observers like Tocqueville remarked upon the strictness of American morals (except among the southern aristocracy) and the moderaton of American habits.  Those qualities are far less in evidence today.  Now it seems to be impossible to limit the production of any good or the provision of any service that a lot of people want.  The consequences have not been good, and I predict that they will continue to mount.

Sunday, July 03, 2022

A July 4th like no other

Dozens of commentators have awakened to the disastrous state of American politics and society and the apparent impossibility of unity in a common cause.  We can find plenty of milestones down this road in recent history, starting with the election of Donald Trump and continuing with the Supreme Court's revolutionary decisions and the repudiation American traditions on the left, but longer-term causes have made much more difference.  To understand how low we have sunk we need to go back to the beginning.

Some quotes, for me, never get old.  I customarily mark the Fourth of July with Thomas Jefferson's very last letter, written in the spring of 1826, when both he and John Adams were clinging desperately to life in an effort to see the 50th anniversary of the signing of the declaration that they had both helped to draft.  Three signatories then survived, and a committee in Washington invited them to participate in a commemorative ceremony on the Fourth.  Jefferson wrote a reply for the ages.

"MONTICELLO, June 24, 1826.

"Respected Sir —The kind invitation I received from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day, but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us, on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others—for ourselves let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

"I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachment.

"TH: JEFFERSON."

These words, to begin with, rebut the now-fashionable accusation that Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were white supremacists who never dreamed that the rights they proclaimed could extend either to nonwhites or women.  They used universal language in the founding documents because they believed in universal principles, however long it might take for those principles to take effect around the globe.  The black Americans who angrily claim that the Fourth of July has nothing to do with them are wrong, as Frederick Douglas confirmed in his famous address on July 4, 1852, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."  While he told his Rochester, New York audience that he was "not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary," he recognized it as a world-altering event nonetheless, he also railed against the myth (popular once again today) that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. "In that instrument," he said, "I hold there is neither warrant, license or sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document." Jefferson had already told his old friend Lafayette a year or two earlier that he expected the slaves someday to gain freedom.  In this last letter he confidently predicted that the whole world would eventually secure the blessings of liberty as well.

While I do not believe that liberty today is threatened with disappearance around the world, no one can deny that the tide is running against it.  The dream of 1989 is essentially dead and autocracy and oligarchy rule Russia and China.  Authoritarian leaders rule important nations like Turkey and Brazil, and nationalist authoritarian movements have gained strength in Europe and North America.  As I write, the president of Tunisia--the only nation that seemed to have derived genuine political benefit from the Arab Spring--is pushing through constitutional changes that will make him almost all-powerful.  Here in the United States, Jefferson's letter hints at the problems that are crippling our democracy. "The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason, and freedom of opinion. . . . The general spread of the lights of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."  196 years later, the "unbounded exercise of reason" has become less and less fashionable, superseded by tribal and other emotional commitments, or by powerful economic interests who refuse to admit, for instance, that climate change is a serious threat to humanity.  The printed word plays much less of a role in American life today than it did then, and books, while much more numerous, present far lesser intellectual challenges and do much less to develop general knowledge or a sense of our place in the history of the world.  The moving images of television and computer screens do more to excite the senses but much less to instruct the mind.  And our appetite for novelty seems so insatiable that even the war in Ukraine has faded from the front pages and the public consciousness.  

In the twentieth century, the idea of democracy expanded to give the government a critical role in promoting economic prosperity and coping with economic crisis.  The government's economic role dominated public discussion from 1933 until 1981, and presidents accept the role of steward of the economy.  Then Ronald Reagan announced that government was the problem, not the solution, and by 1996 Democrat Bill Clinton was publicly agreeing with him that "the era of big government is over."  In the great crisis of 2008-9 the elected leadership left the heavy lifting to the Federal Reserve Board, which provided trillions in new liquidity to save major financial institutions as millions of Americans lost their homes.  Something similar, it is emerging, happened in the last two years of the pandemic.  And today, a Democratic administration obviously has no idea how to cope with a very big new round of inflation and a threatened recession, because both parties have adopted the idea that the economy will take care of itself.  Unlike FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even Reagan, President Biden has not devoted a single major address to our economic problems and what we might do about them--even though they seem likely to cost him the control of at least one house of Congress.  All over the first world, governments have ceded effective economic power and the political power that goes with it to financial institutions and new economic aristocracies.  Russia and China appear to be exceptions, insofar as their governments sometimes use political power to keep economic oligarchs in line.  That may give them an edge in international competition.

To use reason to solve society's problems, we need faith in reason and training in how to apply it.  From Jefferson's time until our parents, we had that faith, and such training became more and more available.  Now, with universities repudiating their enlightenment heritage in many ways, we are going backwards, just as the late Roman empire did under the influence of Christianity.  Here is these posts, and in occasional Facebook comments, I am now simply trying to keep my head while so many around me are losing theirs.