Saturday, May 19, 2018

I hate to say "I told you so," but. . .

it seems that my speculation a week ago about Israeli and Arab influence upon Trump was right.  See here. 

You saw it here first!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

How the left has gone wrong

Yesterday I caught up with last week's New Yorker on a plane ride.  The issue contained two fascinating articles on left-wing politics, written from entirely different perspectives.  The first, by Jelani Cobb, discussed a North Carolina minister and civil rights activist named William Barber, who wants to build a multiracial coalition of poor blacks and whites in the South.   The second, by Caleb Crain, reviews a new book by the economist Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?  In this piece I will be contrasting Barber's views, as related by Cobb, with Kuttner's, as related by Crain.  The two men are both leftists in the current context and both, it seems to me, are concerned about the same trends and want to see similar changes in our world.  Yet they represent very different traditions.  Kuttner and the earlier thinkers he discusses at length in his book--the early twentieth century economists Karol Polanyi and John Maynard Keynes--are very firmly in the Enlightenment tradition and take a scientific approach to discovering what is wrong and how to fix it.  Barber--a remarkable and admirable man, who has also waged a long struggle with painful and debilitating illness--represents a Christian tradition of activism, leavened with the spirit of the late 1960s and the radicalism of the last years of Dr. Martin Luther King, who died when Barber was only four years old.  Barber's kind of activism and the world view behind it, I would argue, has increasingly dominated the left on campus and among activists over the last half century.  Unfortunately, it has been utterly unable to stop, much less reverse, the economic trends that Kuttner focuses on, which have created a new plutocracy in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

Kuttner's book is evidently about the political impact of free-market global capitalism. He does not seem to aware of Strauss and Howe, sadly, but he has a fine understanding of long-term economic and political trends and he recognizes the parallels between the 1930s and our own time.  There is one huge difference which Crain's review, at least, does not mention.  In the 1930s, the world economy had largely broken down; today it is generally thriving.  In both cases, however, profound economic changes had wreaked havoc among the lower classes of society in various parts of the world, causing significant hardship and anxiety.  And in both cases, many voters reacted by turning to strongmen or, in the 1930s, totalitarian movements.  In a scary reversal, today we have a somewhat anti-democratic strongman in the United States, while western European democracy, while threatened with right wing movements, remains intact. In the 1930s dictators ruled Germany, Italy, and Spain, but Franklin Roosevelt presided over a robust democracy in the United States.

While discussing Kuttner's book, Crain refers to Thomas Piketty, but not to Piketty's most fundamental insight: that the natural tendency of capitalism is to produce inequality, because capital accumulates more rapidly than the economy grows as a whole.  That, we should note, is true regardless of the degree of free trade and globalization at any particular moment.  If globalization increases economic growth overall--and it evidently does--it will increase inequality more rapidly, but capitalism itself, not globalization, causes inequality--unless something is done to reduce it.  That is what happened in the middle decades of the 20th century, as Kuttner obviously understands.

Several things combined to reduce inequality.  First of all, the First World War and the Depression both wiped out a great deal of wealth. The financial crisis of 1929-32 led to very tight regulation of financial markets in the United States, and there were no major panics or banking crises for a full 60 years after the Second World War. The two world wars led to the imposition of extraordinarily high marginal tax rates--91% on the highest incomes in the United States, until 1964.  After the Second World War, western societies compensated their veterans and their families with a whole host of benefits.  The experience of the Depression and the Keynesian revolution in economic thought convinced governments that they could and should take fiscal steps to insure the highest possible employment.  The rights of labor, and unionization, were at an all-time high.  Economic equality increased through the 1960s.

Partly under the economic pressure of the Vietnam War and partly because of oil shocks, the postwar economic system (including fixed exchange rates) broke own in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Inflation soared and the Keynesians had no remedy. As Kuttner points out, conservatives led by Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman saw their chance for a counterattack and pushed a return to the free market.  That led, first, to the return of draconian monetary policy to stop inflation, and then to the beginning of a long series of tax cuts under Reagan.  By the 1990s the Democratic Party had jumped onto the free market bandwagon.  Inequality began to increase, and increased still further after the deregulation of financial markets.  The American and European working classes were hurt, not helped, by globalization.  By the 2010s large numbers of them were voting for extreme right wing parties or candidates--including now-President Donald Trump.  And in the United States, the leadership of both parties was firmly allied with the most powerful new economic interests on Wall Street and in the tech sector.  Kuttner argues, essentially, that political authorities will once again have to intervene in the market to halt and reverse these trends.  I shall return later to how this might happen.

Like Martin Luther King,Jr., William Barber finds the roots of his activism in the Bible.  Even irreligious people like myself can recognize the Christian roots of leftist economic thought, and the very important role that Christian activism of various kinds has played in European and US history over the last few centuries.  Cobb's article suggests, moreover, that Barber's Christian approach allows him to move beyond racial categories. Talking to Cobb, Barber says--as I have many times--that the issue of poverty has become so "racialized" that most people don't realize that the majority of poor people in the United States are white.  Barber has established links to what remains of organized labor, and we wants to bring poor white and black voters together.  But there is, to me, a serious falw in his reasoning.

According to Cobb, the Bible was only one of the formative books of Barber's youth.  Another was that very influential tome---now immortalized in Good Will Hunting--A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.  That book argues that every authentic movement for justice and equality in American history came only from the lower classes--and that such movements were consistently betrayed by the upper classes.  It has sold so many copies because it captured the spirit of campus activism in the 1960s.  It implied that the power structure in the United States has always been oppressive and corrupt, and that only activism outside the system has ever been able to bring about any real change.  Those views animated the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and the other revolutionary spin-offs from 1960s campus activism.  More recently they have been very influential among the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter.  These views rein on campus, where virtue is found only among oppressed groups.   It is no accident, in my opinion, that none of those movements have yielded any tangible long-term benefits.  They are based on a false understanding of how American politics work.

The great achievements of the mid-century era--including the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965--came mainly from building broad electoral coalitions and enlisting the whole nation to solve huge problems, including building a whole new infrastructure from the 1930s through the 1960s and fighting the Second World War.  The NAACP successfully fought a long battle on two fronts, legal and political, to end legal segregation.  Its alliances with organized labor, Jewish groups, and mainline Christian churches played a huge role in its legislative victories.  Beginning in 1960 civil disobedience generated pressure for legislative action, but it was only one of many factors responsible for success.  The Progressive and New Deal eras had created a substantial, bipartisan political class genuinely committed to a better life for all Americans, and the civil rights movement could appeal to them.  Those are the very real lessons that most contemporary activists do not understand.

Working in North Carolina--one of the most closely balanced states in the nation, which voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016--Harris has started a weekly civil disobedience campaign, Moral Mondays, to put pressure on the Republican state legislature.  He is fighting the power of James Arthur Pope, a convenience store magnate who is to North Carolina politics what the Koch brothers are nationwide.  The Democrats managed to regain the governorship of North Carolina in 2016, but the Republican-dominated legislature immediately moved to cut the Governor's power.  The same drama will be played out all around the country this year. Will women's and high school students' marches translate into decisive electoral success? If they do, will that success translate into real legislative progress that will at least halt the trend towards inequality?  These are huge questions.

Few people, I think, could have finished Jelani Cobb's article without feeling great admiration for William Barber.  The tradition he exemplifies reflects the last two years of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., when King decided that both capitalism and militarism were evils against which he had to struggle.  That decision deprived him of much of his support and influence among white Americans, even as younger black activists challenged his non-violent approach.  Certain evils are definitely inherent in capitalism and militarism, including capitalism's tendency towards economic inequality--but we are stuck with them both, in my opinion, because they have roots in human nature.  Capitalism, we found in the last century, can be tamed and regulated for the benefit of all.  Military power, as I taught for more than twenty years, can be reserved  for rare cases in which its use can effectively meet critical threats and lead to a lasting peace.   No antidote for these evils will be perfect, but history tells me that trying to wipe them off the face of the earth will not work.  Future generations, I hope, will develop new forms of activism based upon reality.  Plenty of historical evidence suggests that such activism can work.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Trump and foreign powers

Since Donald Trump took office, and increasingly as more evidence has come to light, we have been wondering whether he is somehow under the influence of the Russian government.  That is a very reasonable suspicion.  Paul Manafort, Ray Flynn,  and Carter Page all held important positions in the Trump campaign or the Trump administration, and all of them have clear ties to Russian and Russian interests.  So does his attorney Michael Cohen.  Jeff Sessions and Flynn both seem to have discussed lifting sanctions with the Russians during the campaign.  And the Trump Administration refused for some time to impose new congresssionally mandated sanctions on Russia, although it eventually did.  The Russians clearly waged information warfare to help elect Trump Yet it is fair to say that the Trump Administration has done relatively little to help the Russians in its 16 months in office--perhaps, of course, because anything more that it did would look so suspicious.

The situation is quite different, however, with respect to two other foreign powers with longstanding influence in Washington.  There appears to be nothing that these foreign governments want that they cannot get out of the Trump Administration.  Both have had a lot of Washington leverage for a long time but both have now gotten things that they could not get from any previous administration.  Those powers are Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the past year, Donald Trump has given Benjamin Netanyahu three things that Netanyahu and his predecessors could not get from other US Presidents.   First, he has officially abandoned US insistence on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.  Secondly, he has agreed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which nine previous presidents had declined to do.  And last week, he backed out of the Iran agreement, allowing Israel to unleash a war against the Iranian presence in Syria, and very possibly paving the way for a much bigger war against Iran itself.  Netanyahu, as an excellent Frontline documentary showed, was very close to dragging the US into that war before the Obama Administration and the rest of the great powers of the world reached the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Now things may start moving in that direction again. 

The Saudis, under the leadership of their dynamic, authoritarian new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman , are also enjoying new signs of Washington's favor.  They have concluded a $23.7 billion arms deal with Washington, which may eventually rise to over $100 billion.  They are getting encouragement, intelligence, and actual assistance from American military personnel in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  The United States government appears to have decided to back Riyadh and the Sunnis against Tehran and the Shiites in the new Thirty Years War that threatens to wreak havoc in the Middle East for many years to come.

Other Administrations--most recently that of George W. Bush--have bent over backwards to curry favor with Jerusalem and Riyadh, but neither went that far.  One channel of influence on Trump appears to be Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and megadonor, whose wife is Israeli and who emerged late in 2016 as a big donor to Trump's campaign.   No evidence has surfaced that Trump is under some financial obligation to either of these powers, or that one or both of them may have damaging information about him.  But Trump certainly left some grounds for suspicion when he turned one of the most complex foreign policy issues the US faces--the Middle East peace process--over to his son-in-law Jared Kushner.  Kushner is apparently bypassing the entire State Department and dealing personally with the Israelis and Saudis.  This understandably caused friction with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has now been replaced by Mike Pompeo.  It seems to me entirely possible that Kushner knows things about his father-in-law's relationships with Israel and/or Saudi Arabia that cannot be shared with professional American diplomats.

Benjamin Netanyahu--who, like Donald Trump, is under great pressure from official investigations within his own country--seems determined to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Trump, perhaps to impose some kind of one-state solution on the Palestinians, and perhaps to wage war against Iran.  Trump seems quite willing to allow him to do this.  We don't know why.  I don't like raising these possibilities in the absence of the kind of evidence we have about Trump and the Russians, but circumstantial evidence is much better evidence than is commonly supposed.  The circumstantial evidence for some kind of secret connection between Trump and the Israeli government--and perhaps the Saudi government--is significant, and a long-tine Washington insider and observer with whom I shared my speculation about Israel agreed with me on this.




Friday, May 04, 2018

James Comey's history of the recent United States

James Comey's memoir, A Higher Loyalty, sits deservedly at the top of the best seller list.  Naturally the press comment on the book has focused on his six-month relationship with President Trump--almost leaving out, among other things, his long account of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of her own email server while Secretary of State.  My readers, I know, count on me for different kinds of perspectives than those they get from their news feeds, and I do not intend to disappoint them.  Born at the very tail end of the Boom generation, in December of 1960, Comey's career put him at the heart of a number of critical developments during the last 30 years.  He worked in the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (then Rudy Giuliani) from 1987 to 1993, served in the office of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of  Virginia from 1996 to 2001 (after a brief stint with a Senate Whitewater Committee), became US Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 2001 and was Deputy Attorney General from 2003 through 2005.  Then he went into the world of private law firms and the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, emerging, according to Wikipedia, with a net worth that has reached $14 million.  (He does not mention this in his autobiography and talks a lot about the strain of raising a large family on a government salary.)  In 2013, Barack Obama surprisingly appointed him as FBI Director, and the rest, as we say, is history.  I may discuss some of the lessons of that experience next week.

Comey dealt intimately with each of our last three Presidents.  He has a lot to say about them all, and about some (though hardly all) of the major achievements and crises of their administrations.  That is where I want to focus, because the book set me thinking, once again, about how we need to think about the last very turbulent 18 years of American history.

Serving as Deputy Attorney General under John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, Comey found himself in the middle of two huge constitutional crises:  the Bush's Administration's attempts to continue an illegal NSA surveillance program instituted in the wake of 9/11, code named Stellar Wind, and the Justice Department's efforts to withdraw its endorsement of the torture of Al Qaeda detainees.  These were issues that the leaders of the Bush Administration cared about very deeply.  Reading Comey's account, I was reminded of their ruthless determination to change US law and US foreign policy, and of how much lasting damage they did to our country.

The people behind both Stellar Wind and "enhanced interrogation" (hereafter "torture," its right name), were Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington--with President Bush, it seems, in their wake.  After 9/11 they convinced themselves that black sites and torture were both necessary and effective tools in the war on terror--overruling the views of the more experienced FBI, CIA, and military intelligence, who knew that while torture might get prisoners to say whatever you wanted them to hear, winning the prisoner's trust was the only way to learn the real truth.  The problem, of course, was that the Bush leadership didn't want the truth--they wanted evidence to back up their post-9/11 world view, which held Saddam Hussein responsible for 9/11 and favored war to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction.  To get the memos they needed from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Council, these men--led by Addington--adopted the view that the Executive Branch was the rightful judge of its own powers.  This view has a long history--Thomas Jefferson, for instance, enunciated it in retirement--and John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel confirmed to me that it informed his and his colleagues' work when I met him years later at an academic conference.  George W. Bush, echoing Richard Nixon, echoed it in a meeting with Comey.  In 2005, after Alberto Gonzales had moved from the White House to the Justice Department, Comey and some of his colleagues tried to convince him to refuse any further authorization for enhanced interrogation. They failed.  Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of torture was unconstitutional.  But when Barack Obama became President, he simply declared that the United States would no longer use these techniques, while taking no action against those who had done so.  That amounted to a statement that the US would use torture on prisoners only under Presidents that wanted to do so--and now a woman who ran a torture site under Bush is poised to become the Director of the CIA.

Comey talks rather guardedly about Stellar Wind, the NSA's surveillance program that was eventually revealed by Edward Snowden.  He indicates quite clearly that in practice, it went further even than had been authorized or than has ever come to light.  Cheney and Addington were behind it as well, and when Comey and his colleagues tried to stop it, Cheney told him that he, Comey, would be responsible for the deaths of thousands.  The White House successfully scared the New York Times out of publishing stories about the program during 2004, ensuring that the American people would not be able to vote on it in the next election. 

I could not read these accounts--including the story of how Comey and a very sick Attorney General Ashcroft headed off Gonzales's attempt to get the AG to approve an extension of Stellar Wind from his hospital bed--without thinking about how the same spirit dominated other aspects of Bush Administration policy, especially abroad. They immediately saw 9/11 as an excuse to change the rules of domestic surveillance and of prisoner interrogation--and also to change the rules of how the United States behaved abroad.  Now we would undertake wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, whether or not the UN and our NATO allies approved of them.  If the facts about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction did not fit their world view, they would impose other fact.  "We're an empire now," a high Bush official--almost certainly Karl Rove--told reporter Ron Susskind in 2004, "and we create our own reality," leaving the "reality-based community" struggling to keep up.  Like so many other Boomers of every political stripe, the men of the Bush Administration sought to remake the world according to their vision of what it should be.  And even though their assumptions were wrong and their policies disastrous--they succeeded.  The wars they began in Afghanistan and Iraq still continue.  The Obama Administration applied the supposed pro-democracy policy of regime change they had tried in Iraq in Libya and tried to do it again in Syria, with disastrous consequences.  Guantanamo is still open for business, and Obama increased drone strikes, another aspect of our new endless war. 

That was not all.  Bush also cut taxes twice while spending $1 trillion on those wars.  That left the government without necessary resources when the economic crisis of 2008 struck.  The appointments of Roberts and Alioto to the Supreme Court led to the Citizens United and Heller decisions, both b 5-4 votes, which have profoundly changed American life.  Cheney's energy task force seems to have put us on the road to fracking and energy independence.  Whether we like it or not, the Bush Administration did what Lincoln and FDR had done before them--used a crisis to work towards a new vision of the United States.  They could not, in fact, create a better world, because their vision was not based upon reality, but they changed the world nonetheless.   And the two Administrations that followed have done remarkably little to undo the changes they made.

One of the more striking features of Comey's book is his great praise of his contemporary Barack Obama (nine months younger than he), whom, he tells us, he never voted for.  Comey has thought a lot about leadership during his career, and he regards Obama as a superb leader because he had a knack for listening and for empathy.  He was intelligent and self-confident enough to get information from subordinates and listen to opposing views.  George W. Bush, Comey makes clear, preferred to bully subordinates into assent, and Donald Trump is of course almost totally impervious to facts.  But Obama simply did not have Bush's determination to change the government and the world.  He wanted to put partisan rancor aside, rather than use it to build a new Democratic coalition and a Democratic agenda.  He decided not to turn the enormous anger over the financial crisis against the big bankers--and allowed the Tea Party to turn it against him.  He thought he could appeal to values shared across the political spectrum--and he could not.  The Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration are busily unraveling what remains of his legacy.

The Trump Administration is busily undoing what is left of the New Deal and Great Society, removing old and new restraints on corporate behavior.  It has also added a war on immigrants at home to an endless war on Islamic extremists all over the world, but that effort, to date, is nowhere near large enough to make a real dent in our illegal population of 11 million or so immigrants.  It seems that we may emerge from this great crisis, as we did from the Civil War and Reconstruction, with a large minority of inhabitants without political rights.  In the late 1800s those people were freed slaves; now they are illegal immigrants.

I saw clues scattered through Comey's book about why Boomer leadership has been such a failure.  Boomer leaders are self-centered, narcissistic, and focused above all on their own political well being.  Such was Rudy Giuliani, Comey's first government boss, of whom it was said among his underlings, "the most dangerous place in New York is between Rudy and a microphone."  Such were the Clintons, and Hillary's reliance upon tribal lawyers and suspicion of outsiders did a great deal to bring her down in the end.  Barack Obama--who is not a Boomer--was different, but he could not overcome the inertia of the Boomer political class.  Focused on individual self-expression in their youth, Boomers have created an individualist paradise in which we can no longer work together across political or tribal lines.  This is not unprecedented--the aftermath of the Civil War was quite similar.   But its effects will last for a long time.  Comey's book helps persuade me, once again, that the new transformation of the United States that Strauss and Howe predicted more than 25 years ago is nearly over.  We are stuck with the world my generation made.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The impact of free markets

In 1965-6 I took Economics 1, as it was then called, at Harvard.  The course probably represented the best education that the GI generation had to offer.  It was taught mainly in sections and I was lucky to have a very good section man, who tried and failed to recruit me into economics after I aced the first hour exam.  The rare lectures were spread around the department and featured some giants in the field, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Otto Eckstein.  The fall term dealt with micro-economics, the spring with macro-economics. The latter was much more interesting, because that generation was so focused on using fiscal policy to ensure the maximum possible employment.  They had learned in the 1930s from John Maynard Keynes that the government had a key role to play in fighting the depression, and the policies they favored had helped prevent anything similar.

In one section, I remember, we spent perhaps 20 minutes discussing a maverick economist from that generation--a certain Milton Friedman, an apostle of the free market.  Dr. Major made clear that he did not take Friedman's ideas very seriously, but, he said, "I think it's good for you to be exposed to this."  We smiled.  Little did we know.  I doubt any other economist that we studied that term has had more influence on the actual shape of the world in which we have spent our adult lives than Milton Friedman.

I am not going to go over the various specific advances that free market ideology has made since the Reagan years or review their economic effects.  Markets have become much freer and we now now what the effects of that are.  Free markets make it easier for rich people and institutions to become much richer. In a globalized economy, they make labor cheaper.  This in turn shifts more political power to the wealthy who can use it to make markets even freer.  One result of free financial markets was the great crash of 2008, but now, with the Republicans back in power, even the mild reforms in the wake of that crisis are being repealed.  In the last few days, however, I have seen two striking stories about the impact of free markets which show their effects on key areas of our lives.

One is housing in our major cities.  In the middle of the century, rent control held down rents in many areas (including Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived under it for six years), saving opportunities for students and the working class. Now it hardly exists anywhere, and it is almost impossible for such people to live within the city.  The student apartments that my friends and I lived in in the 1970s have been condoized, and sell for more than half a million dollars a bedroom, in many cases.  Now comes the latest development: the influence on the market of AirBnB.  Apartment prices are being bid even higher by speculators who want to turn units into short-term rental properties, and a lonely city councilman who wants to do something about it is encountering heavy political pressure.  The same drama is playing out elsewhere.

The second story is much more interesting and much more frightening.  It concerns the impact of markets on health care, and specifically, on drug-makers choices of diseases which they wish to attack.

A note to clients--apparently, pharmaceutical companies--from a Goldman Sachs analyst has been leaked.  A new form of gene therapy has been remarkably successful in curing hepatitis C, a sometimes deadly disease, and in ridding patients of the infection so that they can no longer infect others.  While antibiotics originally cured a great many bacterial infections, this is a chronic viral infection--like HIV--and its potential disappearance should be grounds for rejoicing.  Yet the Goldman Sachs analyst sees it as something to worry about.  The drug maker made a great deal of money in a short time, but the the new therapy is now going to disappear. Curing diseases is not a particularly good model in the long run.  Finding long-term palliative care for a chronic condition is much better--and that is the kind of care big pharma wants to develop.

This was not news to me.  Big pharma has been very slow to develop new antibiotics, which cure people, even when they are desperately needed to deal with resistant bacterial strains.  They like pain relievers and other drugs which people can take for the rest of their lives.  I asked a friend of mine who has run numbers for drug companies whether they prefer working on treatments for long-term illnesses at least a decade ago, and he smiled and replied, "Sure! They have stockholders."  Any corporation wants to  get the public to spend the maximum amount of money on its products.  In no other advanced country is the health care industry as economically powerful as in the US--and we spend about twice as much on health care as other advanced countries. This is anything but accidental.  Drug research should be government-funded and directed towards vaccines and cures for the worst diseases.  The biggest breakthroughs in medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries came from individual scientists working on their own like Pasteur, Ehrlich and Fleming--not from pharmaceutical companies.

Another dysfunctional market probably helped produce the Goldman Sachs letter--the labor market for our smartest young people.  Since the deregulation of our financial markets, our largest financial institutions have been paying the highest salaries.  They have successfully been recruiting the smartest college graduates and PH.d students in almost every field--even fields like civil engineering.  They like people who are smart and competitive, and they educate them to see the world in a certain way. Because that world view has such a terrifying internal consistency, it is easy for people to assimilate into it.

Four years ago, I did four long blogs here about Thomas Piketty's book, Capitalism in the 21st Century.  (Here is the first--the others followed.)  It began with a simple insight, one I think that was also at the foundation of the first Capital, by Karl Marx: capital tends to accumulate faster than the rate of economic growth.  That's another way of saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  And because their whole goal is to get richer, those who make drugs don't want to cure diseases, they want to treat chronic ones.  This is one spectacular instance of how capitalism can work against the public good.  Western Europeans still understand some of these issues, but there, too, capitalism and inequality are gaining ground.  We may be headed for a world of capitalist dynasties.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Is our democracy dying?

This week I have gone through the book, How Democracies Die, by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  I picked it off the new book shelf of my local library and was pleasantly surprised by its scope and quality.  It is a real work of comparative political science, looking at recent and current developments in the US in the context both of what happened in other countries during the last great Atlantic crisis (Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933), and of what has happened much more recently in nations like the Philippines in the 1970s,  Peru in the 1990s, Venezuela in the 2000s, and Hungary, Turkey, and Russia in the last decade.  The comparative method, I decided decades ago, is the best way to make judgments about the behavior of nations and of people, since it places each individual case within a spectrum drawn from reality, not theory.  The method does not let Levitsky and Ziblatt down.

The authors' model is also quite simple.  They identify four tactics common to political leaders trying to seize power within democracies, and then to establish authoritarian rule.  First, such leaders either reject outright, or show a very weak commitment to, the democratic norms of their nation.  Second, they deny the legitimacy of their political opponents.  Thirdly, they tolerate or encourage violence.  Lastly, they show a willingness to curb the civil liberties of their political opponents and of the media.By this time, every reader's sense of the present danger to American democracy will have been heightened, but I want to deal with other aspects of their argument before analyzing exactly how Donald Trump's behavior matches their checklist.

That is because a good deal of the book has a very different focus: the question of how Trump could have become president in the first place.  Here too, I think, their history is quite sound, and their analysis is sophisticated.  For most of the history of the United States, they argue, political parties--largely controlled by career politicians--served as the gatekeepers to the White House and created mechanisms that kept any demagogues or would-be revolutionaries out of the contest for power.  The seeds of our current predicament, they argue effectively, went into the ground in 1968 and afterwards, when the rather undemocratic selection of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic presidential candidate led to the McGovern-Fraser commission and a new set of nomination rules, turning the choice of the nominee over to the voters.  At that time, I remember, there was commentary to the effect that primaries, in which relatively few people voted, were inherently vulnerable to minority success and favored more ideological candidates.  But--and this is the point the authors miss--such was the strength of the postwar consensus even then, and such was respect for our institutions, that those dangers were not immediately realized, even though, as they point out, George Wallace's strong showing in 1972 primaries, before he was shot and crippled, was a straw in the wind.

For better or for worse, primaries on the Democratic side did allow two men from outside their parties' establishments--Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--to win the Democratic nomination and become president, but both of them governed from within the mainstream.  Some Republican insurgents, such as Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes, did surprisingly well in primaries but never got close to nomination.  Barack Obama was not, of course, the favorite of the Democratic establishment in 2008, but his positions were well within the Democratic mainstream and he quickly won them over.  The case of Donald Trump, however--the first successful candidate never to have held elecctive or appointed government office--was an entirely different matter.

Trump, of course, wiped the floor with a host of establishment candidates, as well as a couple of other outsiders (Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.)  Nate Silver, among others, predicted early on that the would be a flash in the pan like Pat Buchanan or Herman Cain, but that did not turn out to be the case.  Here was the point of the book at which some knowledge of the works of Strauss and Howe might have added an important dimension.  For the last 70 years, our political class has been living off the prestige it earned by coping successfully with the Depression, winning the Second World war, and creating a thriving and relatively egalitarian society in the 1950s and 1960s.  But their prestige as eroded as many of those achievements have been reversed and those who remember them have died off.  The elites of both parties have clearly lost touch with the American people, leading the Republicans vulnerable to a celebrity candidate who had become a national figure on television.  Trump won the nomination.  It is the crisis that we are going through, also, that is largely responsible for the polarization we have experienced, which can easily be observed in the era of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the New Deal, as well.

Returning to the comparative framework, the authors identify another key reason why he became President.  While the Republican leadership hated and feared him, they refused to repudiate him in the election.  Most even of those who had spoken frankly about the danger he represented--like Lindsay Graham--eventually made peace with him and endorsed him.  The authors list seven Republican Senators and two sitting governors (including my own) who refused to endorse Trump--but not a single one of them endorsed Hillary Clinton.  She, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, was an establishment candidate, and although she won the popular vote, Trump managed narrowly to defeat her.

To what extent, then, does Trump show the signs of authoritarianism that the authors identified, and has he taken steps similar to those of other elected leaders who did, in fact, become dictators?  These are complex questions.

Referring to the checklist above, we can certainly agree with the authors that Trump has shown a very weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game--but mostly, I would suggest, at the rhetorical level.  He argued repeatedly during the campaign that the election was likely to be rigged against him, and he said afterwards that a fair count, untainted by vote fraud, would have given him the popular vote.  What is rather frightening, however, is that the Republican Party as a whole has been not only attacking, but disregarding, the normal rules of democratic politics now for at least 20 years.  In 2000, the Republican-led government of Florida purged its voter rolls to reduce the Democratic vote, and a Republican-appointed 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush, rather than allow a recount that would have honestly settled the question of who had won. (As it turns out, it was probably Al Gore.)  Another 5-4 Republican majority opened the way to voter suppression by gutting the voting rights act a few years later, and Republican state governments rushed to take advantage of the opening with voter ID laws.  Worst of all, after 2010, Republican state governments in several key states raised gerrymandering to a new scale, allowing them to control the delegations of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to an extent far out of proportion to their total vote.  The authors do show how in recent years the North Carolina Republican Party has twisted election rules and other laws in ways worthy of any banana Republic.  The Republican Party--not Donald Trump--has done a great deal in the last 20 years to deprive our democracy of real meaning.

Moving down the list, Trump has also--in fact, made his name--denying the legitimacy of political opponents.  He led the spurious birther movement against Barack Obama and he argued repeatedly during 2016 that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, not in the White House.  Here, too, he was only climbing on an existing bandwagon, although it is fair to say that no American president has used comparable rhetoric towards his domestic enemies--including Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of civil war.  Many Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of Bill Clinton, which is why they were willing to impeach him because a consensual sexual affair.  Hillary Clinton certainly denied the legitimacy of many of Trump's supporters in 2016 when she called them a "basket of deplorables," and many Democrats today deny Trump any legitimacy even though he was elected according to the rules laid down by our Constitution.  And Trump has not as yet tried to turn the machinery of the federal government--including the criminal justice system--against political opponents.  That the George W. Bush administration did, most notably in Alabama, when it jailed a popular Democratic governor with a case that should never have been brought.  (The attempt to put Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, on trial, may however cross that threshold.)

Moving on, Trump certainly encouraged violence at his rallies during the last campaign, and he tolerated it in response to the Charlottesville incident last year.  Yet the alt-right militias are at least two orders of magnitude smaller than Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's SA, and, somewhat to my own surprise, Charlottesville has remained a unique incident so far.  And while Trump has talked a lot about reining in the media, rewriting libel laws, and doing something about fake news, this assault, too, has remained rhetorical.

Late in their book the authors introduce a second checklist of steps would-be authoritarians take on their way to more or less absolute power.  These are to "capture the referees," usually the other branches of government, such as the judiciary; "sidelining players," that is, intimidating, imprisoning, or killing political opponents; and "changing the rules," which often means rewriting the Constitution.  The biggest long-term impact, quite possibly, of the Trump Administration, is going to be the consummation of the long-term Republican attempt to take over the federal judiciary, from the Supreme Court on down.  This is proceeding rapidly, but I think it will simply return the judiciary to the role which--as the late James MacGregor Burns pointed out in his last book--it played during most of our history, that of a defender of economic power and privilege.  The Trump Administration is trying to break the power of the federal bureaucracy but, except in the McCabe matter, it has not tried to use legal intimidation to do so.  It has made no attempt to revise the Constitution.

How Democracies Die has persuaded me that Donald Trump must be seen in the context of a world-wide trend towards authoritarianism, and I am sad to note that the United States resisted that trend in word and in deed during the 1930s, when it was at least as serious.  I am not yet convinced, however, that Trump seriously wants to destroy our system of government, or that he can do so.  Yet the firing of Robert Rosentsein and Robert Mueller--which I predicted here some time ago--would be a big step in that direction.  That would be an abuse of power designed to save the President himself from legal process.  It would not necessarily signify the opening of a legal campaign against political opponents. But it might.  Meanwhile, the voters will have the opportunity, this year and in 2020, either to slow the process considerably or to bring it to a halt.


Friday, April 13, 2018

The Return of Anti-Intelletualism in American Life

Richard Hofstadter was probably the greatest historian of the GI generation, although his early death from leukemia in 1970, at the age of 54, allowed Arthur Schlesinger to eclipse him in the public eye.  While he believed very deeply in the achievements of the New Deal, whose pragmatism he praised in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Age of Reform, he always had a keen idea for the darker sides of the American character, having begun his career with another very interesting and timely book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915.  At the time of his death he was working on a grand scale history of the United States from colonial times to the present, and his widow published a few early chapters posthumously.  Recently I have returned to his second Pulitzer prize winner, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which appeared in that critical year of 1965.

Near the beginning of his book, Hofstadter distinguished between "intelligence," which Americans always praised, and "intellect," a quality that had come under attack from Republicans in the Eisenhower era--not, as his book aimed to show, for the first time.  "Intellect," he wrote, ". . .is the critical, creative and contemplative side of mind.  Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.  Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole."  Intellectuals, one might conclude, see issues in broad perspective, and not least in broad historical perspective, as Hofstadter constantly did and as I continually try to do here and elsewhere.

Tracing the ups and downs of intellectuals through the history of the American Republic, Hofstadter made many interesting findings.  He traced the roots of American intellectualism to New England Calvinism, whose early American adherents spent their Sundays listening to erudite sermons in church and discussing scripture at home.  He found in the early republic an association between intellectualism and class, and he found a turning point in history in 1828, when the quite anti-intellectual Jacksonians drove John Quincy Adams, one of our most intellectual presidents, out of office.  The Jacksonians, from the president on down, specifically argued that wisdom and virtue resided among the people, not the educated elite, and it is no accident therefore that Jackson is one of Donald Trump's favorite Presidents.  The conflict between intellectuals and "real Americans" became more explicit after the Civil War, when orthodox Republican politicians tried to hold the line against civil service reformers, who wanted to introduce competitive examinations to staff federal, state and local governments.  It was the spirit of civil service reform that triumphed, of course, in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, and that helped create the America of Hofstadter's young adulthood, into which I was born.

Before taking the struggle further, I would like to introduce--or, really, re-introduce--another perspective on these issues into the discussion. It comes from another of my favorite historians, Henry Adams, and I already discussed it here at some length back in 2005.  I quote from that earlier post:

"Specifically, I re-opened the Presidential address which he mailed to the American Historical Association in 1894 from the South Seas, entitled 'The Tendency of History.' . . .Adams referred also to Darwin's influence, and suggested that history in the last 35 years or so had been trying to turn itself into a science. Within fifty years, he speculated, historians would probably attain this goal, and lay out the immutable laws which history was destined to follow--and he could imagine only three conclusions that the new science might reach. 

"First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude 'that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years,' but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove 'that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion,' but in that case, the science would commit suicide.

"Adams's formulation of the problem showed the clear influence of Social Darwinism, since he assumed that one of these three possible conclusions must triumph. That, we can see now, was a mistake. In fact, these three world views--which might be described as the Utopian, the stoic, and the religious--have been at war for the whole of western recorded history. What is emerging now is that the struggle is not over, and the outcomes which we believed to be final can easily be overturned."

Nearly a decade and a half have passed since I wrote those words, and new evidence has accumulated.  We can now, it seems to me, be a little more definite about what has happened in the more than half a century since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

At the time Hofstadter was writing, it seems to me, one version of Adams' socialist, or Utopian, vision, had triumphed.  That is not to say that the United States in 1965 was a socialist nation--it was not--but rather to recognize that there was a consensus around the idea that the health and happiness of individuals could not be separated from that of their fellow citizens, and that our society and government were common enterprises working for the good of us all.  Only such a view would allow for the 91% marginal tax rates that had been levied on very rich Americans for several decades (but which, signally, had just been reduced to about 70% in 1964).  That view also held, critically, that a healthy economy was one in which working class standards of living were rising, and that the maintenance of full employment and strong economic growth was the duty of the federal government.  Those views had spread throughout the advanced West in the wake of the Second World War, and the official views of the Communist world also stressed that individuals only progressed within a social and economic framework--as it happened, a much more constricting one.  The nation's journalists and universities included a few dissenters such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Friedman (whom my Economics 1 section man dismissed in 1966 as a crank), but Goldwater's defeat had shown that the vast majority of the American people felt otherwise.

Now it will have undoubtedly occurred to many reasons that anti-intellectualism is running rampant in the United States once again now, and that it includes a widespread disregard for the idea of objective truth and even for science.  Indeed, one of Adams's alternative views--the religious one--has made a very impressive comeback in our politics since Hofstadter, to the extent that prominent Republicans pay at least lip service to various aspects of it as a matter of course.  I would argue that that anti-intellectualism has grown principally as a reaction to the mid-century triumph of the idea of the common good which I described above, driven by the desire of wealthy people to increase their wealth regardless of the consequences for others.  The biggest problem that they have faced is this: the mid-century economists were right.  A relatively egalitarian economy such as we enjoyed then is better for us all, resting on firmer foundations, providing a broader tax base for public goods, and fueling consumer demand, the most powerful engine of economic growth.  But because wealthy Americans such as the Koch brothers did not want such an economy, they have had to argue the opposite. 

The irony is that with rare exceptions--those who are willing to confess their love for Ayn Rand--the super rich and their publicists and advocates do not like to challenge the mid-century orthodoxy head on and to proclaim pure social Darwinism, and survival of the economic fittest.  That is the source of intellectual deformities like supply side economics, which had to argue (and still does, through the mouth of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin) that tax cuts can pay for themselves through increased economic growth and revenue.  That is why nearly the whole economic profession began to argue that deregulation would increase everyone's wealth and that markets, not the SEC, would rein in speculative excesses.  All these authors were using their intelligence (in Hofstadter's sense, above) to promote the greed of the powerful.  The Koch brothers, as Jane Mayer showed, have also created their own beachheads within George Mason University and other institutions of higher learning, designed to turn out academic products that will support their views.  And this is also the reason for the whole industry of climate denial.

And meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, we have seen an equally strong revolt against mid-century America, one that began, I think, at Berkeley in 1964, when student leader Mario Savio drew applause by arguing that Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying perhaps the best higher education ever provided in the history of the world, free of charge--could be compared to black sharecroppers in Mississippi, among whom he had worked the preceding summer, because they were each, in their own way, cogs in a corrupt machine.  That led to the premise that what really defined mid-century America were racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to the corollary that the feelings of repressed groups, rather than any objective truths, must be the foundation of educational and public policy.  My own profession has tried to rewrite the history of the whole world according to those premises over the last few decades--and that is a new form of anti-intellectualism, one that begins with emotionally based conclusions and tries to make the facts fit them.  I am coming to think, actually, that the roots of these views are in their own way religious, but that must be a subject for another time.

Let me return to my comments on Henry Adams' presidential address, above, and particularly my conclusion.  What he called the socialist, the religious, and the stoic views of history will always be in competition, and any apparent triumph of any one of them will always turn out to be illusory, because they appeal to different aspects of human nature.  So do individualism on the one hand and respect for the common good on the other.  And the last, but hardly the least, critical influence on history is the generational dynamic which impels certain generations to reject the world they grow up in, regardless of how much of an advance it might represent, measured against the scale of human history.  It is our misfortune to live in a time when many things--including intellectual life--are going badly, but we must always remember, as I tried to do at the end of American Tragedy, that every era is only one part of a much larger cycle, and that the same mechanisms that have undone so much good work in the the last 50 years will, in some future time which we cannot imagine, move things back in the other direction once again.


Friday, April 06, 2018

Trump's real German analog, part II

It was very early in the Trump Administration, I believe, that I had occasion to note the similarities between Trump and a famous German leader.  The man in question was not Adolf Hitler, who had a discipline, singleness of purpose, capacity for dissimulation, and, when necessary, patience, that our President entirely lacks.  Instead, it was the Emperor William II, who acceded to his throne in 1888 at the age of 29, and reigned until he was forced to abdicate in November 1918, taking the German Empire with him, and helping to pave the way for Hitler's eventual rise, which he applauded from exile in Holland.  I have in my lap the third volume of the memoirs of Prince von Bülow, a Prussian diplomat who became William's Imperial Chancellor--the equivalent of a Prime Minister--in 1900, and remained at that post for nine years, until William dismissed him.  Published after the First World War, his memoirs created a sensation as a result of his utterly unsparing criticisms of so many of his fellow public men--and above all, of the Emperor himself.  Bülow's dealings with the emperor occupy many pages of this long volume, but I need only dip into it more or less at random to show why I know think the parallel is more appropriate than ever.

The German state of which William had become head in 1890 was not an absolute monarchy, since both Prussia--the leading state within the Empire--and the Empire itself had constitutions and parliaments whom the emperor needed to respect.  But William believed that it should be an absolute monarchy, and although he never mustered the courage to try to do away with those constitutions, he insisted that he and he alone knew what was best for Germany, and that the duty of his ministers was to enforce his will.  He was, meanwhile, a narcissist, convinced that he knew more than anyone else about every important question, distrustful of all his subordinates, and liable to seize upon absurd ideas that came to him from various quarters.  Thus, in 1903, when tensions between Germany and Britain were rising because of William's determination to build a fleet, an historian [!], Theodor Schiemann, convinced William that Germany should challenge Britain to a naval duel, a battle to which they would both dispatch an agreed number of warships."My patience was sorely tried and the nervous energy necessary for serious affairs exhausted," Bülow wrote, "by refuting such suggestions to the Kaiser, who, unfortunately, in such matters displayed a peculiar naivete.  With all the exalted ideas of the dignity and sacredness of his Imperial alling, William II failed to understand that, more than any other, this very calling demanded hard work, concentration, and seriousness."  Today, obviously, Generals Kelly and Mattis are similarly devoted from their real and very serious work by the need to refute the suggestions of various commentators on Fox News.

The horrible tragedy of William's rule, as Bülow saw at the time, was that Germany was already the strongest and richest power in Europe, and that it was growing thanks to international trade and did not need war or a much larger colonial empire to continue on its path to pre-eminence, though not necessarily hegemony in Europe.  Yet William insisted on seeing Germany as threatened by encirclement and spoke constantly of taking preventive action, including war, to stop it.  In a typical letter to Bülow in 1908, he insisted that King Edward VII of Great Britain was trying to encircle Germany and bring about her ruin, but that his policies were unpopular even in Britain itself, while William's own subjects were more than ready to fight the British.  William was just as indiscreet with foreign leaders as he was with his own subjects, and bluntly told the King of Italy, on a visit to Venice, that while the other European states had always tended to ignore what he had to say before he began building his beloved fleet in 1897, now they had changed their tune.  He also exaggerated the force of his own personality and was repeatedly convinced that he could win Tsar Nicholas II of Russia over to an alliance with himself.  I could not help but be reminded, reading about these episodes, of President Trump's rants about how the United States, actually the world's most powerful and (until recently) respected nation), had been "losing" in world affairs for decades, and his certainty that the force of his personality can redress the balance.

William's biggest flaw was a complete lack of tact, both in public and in private.  Again and again, Bülow accompanied him to public appearances all over Germany and heard him utter such inflammatory words that the Chancellor immediately went to the press gallery to beg the reporters, usually successfully, not to report them verbatim, in the interests of the nation and the monarch himself.  Trump;s staff, of course, is helpless, since the President so frequently shares his most unrestrained thoughts on Twitter.  One of the great crises of William's reign occurred when Bülow cleared an interview the monarch had done with the British Daily Telegraph correspondent without reading it.  The Emperor had taken credit, not for the first time, for the campaign plan that had allowed the British to win the Boer War, enraging his own people, who had sympathized with the Boers, as much as the British.  Typically, William could never forgive Bülow for failing to prevent the publication of his own words, and within a year, he had replaced the Chancellor.  Because the Emperor could not take responsibility for anything that went wrong, he replaced his subordinates quite frequently, especially during the First World War.

The real question raised by this parallel, however, is this: is President Trump a danger to world peace?  The answer turns out to be surprisingly complex.

William II endangered the peace of Europe, in the long run, because he was not satisfied with Germany's very strong position in the world and did believe that war might improve it.  His insistence on building his fleet helped drive Britain into an opposing alliance with France.  I concluded many years ago in an article I wrote that his subordinates, civilian and military, were more to blame than he for their course of action in July 1914, when they welcomed a confrontation with Russia, France and possibly Britain, confident that it would produce either a diplomatic or military victory.  William too favored that course, although the experience of previous crises suggests that they could have changed his mind if they had wanted to do so.  Meanwhile, however, there was another side to William, which may also be relevant to our problem today.

Bülow was older than William, and had been barely old enough to participate in the latter phases of the Franco-Prussian War that had established the German Empire as a combat soldier.  For that reason, he--like all the veterans of the Second World War who became Presidents of the US--was essentially satisfied with the position his country had obtained in that war, and did not believe in war to go beyond it.  William, who had been only a child in that war (in which his own father commanded an army), felt very differently.  In many of Bülow's appreciations of him, one hears the contempt of the combat veteran for the man who has never heard guns fired in anger--and nowhere more so than in this passage from the memoirs, which I quoted from the lecture podium many times.

"William II did not want war. He feared it.  His bellicose marginal notes [tweets, essentially, written in the margins of diplomatic papers] prove nothing.  They were meant to ring in the ears of his privy councilors, just as his more bellicose speeches were designed to convince the listener that here was another Frederick the Great or Napoleon.  William II did not want war, if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation.  The moment there was danger, His Majesty became uncomfortably aware that he could never lead an army in the field.  He knew that he was neurasthenic, without real capacity as a general, and still less able, despite his naval hobby, of commanding a squadron or even captaining a ship."

The President of the United States is a bully, and many bullies are cowards. I would not be surprised if the same could be said of him.  Meanwhile, we must not lose sight of the different systems that brought these two kindred spirits to power.  William inherited the throne at the age of 29 and reigned for 26 years before disaster struck.  Incompetent monarchs are obviously an inevitable hazard of hereditary monarchy.  Our founding fathers had studied the classics, and they knew that the Greek and Roman Republics had produced poor or evil leaders too, but they left the responsibility for the selection to the people, and limited the President to terms of four years.  Until the week that he abdicated, William believed that his hold on power was secure by virtue of his birth.  Trump, of course, has no such assurance, and that could make him more dangerous.  Meanwhile, whatever happens, he will live as one of the foremost examples of the pitfalls and perils of democratic government has it has evolved into the 21st century.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

No Way Out?

I do not think that many informed people would disagree that the United States and the whole world are in a deep crisis.  At home we have a President who was probably elected with the help of a foreign power to whom he may have financial obligations, and who seems unable to run his administration competently and to secure and keep competent subordinates.  Our engaged population is divided into two roughly equal factions that agree on almost nothing.  Headlines, meanwhile, proclaim, correctly, the death of the post-1945 international order, and authoritarianism is on the rise in both Asia and Europe (although it has made fewer gains, so far, in the Americas. )  It is extremely difficult, in such times, to keep a clear head and a long-term perspective on events, but that is what I am trying to do. 

It was more than 20 years ago, now, that I first discovered Generations and The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and realized that they had indeed unlocked a key to history.  I knew enough history to evaluate what they had to say in a great many contexts, and it made an astonishing amount of sense.  That is why I have incorporated their insights into several books and why I did what I could in the classroom to spread them further.  My new intellectual interest raised a lot of eyebrows among some friends and colleagues, but I took that in stride.

Bizarrely, many of those eyebrows have not lowered, and those books have not, become more popular in mainstream media or academic circles in the last decade, even as their major prediction--that the United States, if not the world, was going to enter a crisis comparable to 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45, sometime in the first 15 years of the 21st century, has come true.  That is partly because of the death of Bill Strauss in 2007, and Neil Howe's decision to spend most of his time on the managerial and marketing implications of their theory, but it is also, I am convinced, because that kind of long-term perspective gets crowded out during a crisis in which all sides are equally convinced of their own righteousness and equally incapable of putting their own views in broader perspective.  We are now living, once again, in the world Orwell described in his essay "Notes on Nationalism," which was written in the mist of the last crisis, during which he managed to keep his head while all around were losing theirs.  I shall return to him later.

Strauss and Howe grasped that history was dominated by a cycle of birth, maturity, death and rebirth--a cycle that affected both institutions and ideas.  Every 80 years, a great crisis created a new order, and the generations that were young adults and children during that crisis remained committed to it, essentially, for the rest of their lives.  But about 60 years later, when the postwar generation came into power, the old order began to crack, as different factions within the new generation struggled to replace it.  Eventually, one faction triumphed, establishing new institutions and a new consensus, and the cycle began again.

The crisis of 1774-1794 (latter date approximate) overthrew British rule, drove perhaps 200,000 Tories out of the new nation (although quite a few eventually returned), and established the Constitution.  A battle between the Federalists and Republicans immediately arose in the 1790s, but Jefferson managed quite successfully to bring it to a close beginning in 1801, when he declared, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."  His party established a national consensus (climaxed in the near-unanimous election of 1820) around certain principles.  But beginning in 1820, the issue of slavery began to destroy that consensus, and eventually divided the nation even more sharply than it is today.

The Civil War, Lincoln explained at Gettysburg and on many other occasions as well, was being fought to determine whether democracy could preserve itself.  Even abolition, as carried out in the Emancipation Proclamation, was a means to that end, not an end to itself--the confiscation of rebel property, designed to make it easier to break the rebellion. The Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States--in absolute, not relative terms.  It ended with the Union preserved and slavery abolished.  But the nature of the new order that it created took a little longer to establish.  As it turned out, it gave unprecedented economic and political power to an industrial and financial elite, bred a corrupt form of democracy, and re-established white supremacy in the former Confederacy.   By the 1880s, the vast bulk of the nation (there are always a few exceptions) accepted this new order and it faced no major political challenges.

The Progressive Era--coinciding, once again, with the rise of a new, postwar generation--challenged the foundations of that order in the economic sphere, and also witnessed the first direct challenge to white supremacy and segregation.  Yet the old order was still quite intact during the 1920s--until the economic crisis destroyed it.  Then, the Missionary generation (b. 1863-83, in my judgement) seized the opportunity to create new orders both at home and abroad.  The New Deal put very real limits on wealth and its power, gave new rights to labor, and gave the federal government a critical role in planning the nation's future and maintaining its economic health.  In response to the rise of aggressive totalitarian states, FDR made the US a military and naval power second to none, forged alliances, defeated Germany and Japan, and bequeathed the United Nations to the world.  As always, domestic political conflict remained heated for much of a decade after the end of the crisis in 1945, but by the late 1950s, there was, once again, a bipartisan consensus on the shape of the nation at home and its role abroad.   That consensus, and the relatively effective government that went with it, allowed most of the American people to live their lives in peace, in a thriving economy, and to make progress in intellectual pursuits.  It was during that period that I discovered Orwell--particularly his essays.  Some of them had had far fewer readers than these blog posts when they were written in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the calmer atmosphere of the postwar era, they developed a wide following, while 1984 became one of the century's best sellers.  A new round of intellectual and artistic ferment began in the late 1960s, and I was very fortunate to share in it.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for President opposing Social Security,  Medicare, the Tennessee Valley Authority, progressive taxation, the rights of labor, the United Nations, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964--all the major achievements, in short, of his own era.  In the spring of 1963, I discovered recently, he told the Harvard Young Republicans that his generation had gotten the nation into trouble, and that he was counting on their generation to get it out of trouble.  He was prophetic--although it was Ronald Reagan, from his own generation, who began the attack on the New Deal in the 1980s.  Since then, we have seen the steady erosion of the limits on economic activity and profit imposed by the New Deal and in subsequent decades (ending, I would say, in 1970 with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts),   While, as always happens, the Democrats from the Boom generation (such as the Clintons) seemed to assume that the status quo, being just, would continue forever, the Republicans waged a long, coordinated campaign to build a new America.  It featured a coalition of energy barons (the Koch brothers and their friends), Evangelical Christians, and disaffected white Americans.  It stopped Barack Obama from reviving economic liberalism, and it has now taken over most state governments and all three branches of the federal government.  That is serious enough, but that is not where I want to end today.  Instead I would like to turn to the question of our new national consensus.

While some of our previous crises have turned out better than others, it is fair to say that every new national consensus so far as represented some kind of advance.  The revolutionary and constitutional period introduced a new form of government to the entire world, with consequences that endure to this day.  The Civil War abolished slavery.  The 1929-45 period left us with a more just society (and laid the foundation, in many ways, for the success of the Civil Rights movement) and created a relatively stable world order.  The same cannot be said for the impact of many previous crises in other lands--such as Europe after 1815, or the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.  Now, too, it seems to me likely--though not certain--that in 20 years, authoritarian governments will once again be the norm in a good deal of the world.  But in any case, I am convinced by history,  this kind of resolution, leading to a couple of decades of stability ruled by some new broad consensus, is a necessary part of the rhythm of history, one that societies need.  And since I believe (and have argued here many times) that our current crisis began in 2001, it is due to end pretty soon, somehow or other.

What frightens me is this: the end and resolution of every previous crisis has involved the application of a great deal of force and violence.  The first two, the revolution and civil war, were violent by their nature.  The 1929-45 crisis was relatively peaceful at home but involved the greatest war in human history abroad.  The extraordinary demonstration of military might by the US, the USSR and the UK established those three powers, and particular the first two, as the leaders of the new era for decades to come. 

The two questions that trouble me are these: first, do we in fact need some new consensus that will put an end to the chaos of our current political scene, to allow government and society to function? And secondly--particularly since we lack a Lincoln or Roosevelt in the White House, and our political system in general commands to little respect--how can it be brought about?  Must it involve some forcible exercise of governmental authority, at home, abroad, or both--as it has in the past?  Or is it possible, as Bill Strauss used to speculate 15 years or so ago, that the United States is genuinely threatened, as in the 1850s, with a breakup?  I do not know the answers to any of these questions, but I am convinced that, in one way or another, the nation will have to find answers in the next ten years.




Saturday, March 17, 2018

Nixon and Trump

Q.  How much, really, does Donald Trump resemble Richard Nixon?
A.  A lot.

Q.  What has changed in the last 45 years?
A.   The world around them.

In October 1971--long before Watergate, but subsequent to the Pentagon Papers release and the formation of the Plumbers unit--Richard Nixon saw something on the evening news that he did not like.  An INS California regional director named George Rosenberg had ordered a raid on a company owned by Romana Banuelos, whom Nixon had nominated to be Treasurer of the United States, and arrested dozens of illiegal immigrants.  Nixon called Attorney General John Mitchell the next day with specific instructions.

 "The fellow out there in the Immigration Service..is a kike by the name of Rosenberg. He is to be out. He is to be out. Transfer him to some other place out of Los Angeles. I don't give a goddamn what the story is.

There's one thing that I want done and I don't want any argument about it. I want you to direct the most trusted person you have in the Immigration Service that they are to look over all of the activities of the Los Angeles Times — all, underlined. And they are to send their teams in to see whether they are violating the wetback thing.

"Now let me explain, 'cause as a Californian, I know. Everybody in California hires them. There's no law against it, because they are there, because — for menial things and so forth. Otis Chandler — I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he's a wetback. Is that clear?"

Nixon had come to Washington in 1947 (the same year that I did, via a different route), when the Republican Party had been railing for 15 years against the bureaucracies created by FDR's New Deal, and had joined the hue and cry about socialists and Communists within the government.  His view of the bureaucracy was the same as Trump's and Fox News's view of the "Deep State": that it teemed with hostile forces determined to do him in.  He centralized power over foreign policy under Henry Kissinger in the White House, and after his re-election, he planned a significant purge of the bureaucracy--a plan that had to be abandoned because of Watergate.    In this instance, he combined his prejudice against bureaucrats with his prejudice against Jews.  (The whole exchange can be heard in the HBO documentary, Nixon in His Own Words, which reproduced many choice excerpts from the Nixon tapes.)  The media was an even more common target of such outbursts, both in writing and in print, and was every bit as convinced as Trump that the New York Times and the Washington Post were purveyors of "fake news" and deserved retaliation for it.  In retrospect it is not surprising that the Pentagon Papers set him off the way they did, since it involved those two newspapers and a Harvard-educated intellectual bureaucrat of Jewish ancestry named Daniel Ellsberg,.

Nixon was worried that Ellsberg and unknown co-conspirators might release more secrets about his own Administration that might torpedo his Vietnam policy, and that is why the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers Unit (to do things the FBI would not do) and eventually to Watergate.  But the case of George Rosenberg was more typical of what happened after Nixon's outbursts.  Nothing happened to him, as far as is known, because Nixon's subordinates knew better than to take that particular order seriously.  Nor did the public learn anything about Nixon's vendetta towards Rosenberg for many decades.

Like Trump, Nixon was a narcissist who could not accept any opposition to himself personally or to his his policies.  He too felt the need to vent his hatred on almost a daily basis.  But Nixon had grown up in an era in which bright young men understood that they had to make a good impression on their elders, and keep their nastiest feelings to themselves.  In public he almost always maintained an iron self-control, and his aides collaborated in keeping his inner self away from the public.  That is why the American people were so shocked by the language in the tapes that were released in 1973-4, even though they had to wait much longer to hear the most revealing ones.

Trump, on the other hand, grew up while his contemporaries were joyfully tearing down traditional emotional restraints, as well as restrictions on language, clothing styles, and what could be seen and heard in movies and on television.  He built his persona on unrestrained excess, and when he entered politics, he built his appeal around unrestrained hatred, free of any code words.  And Trump, unlike Nixon, communicates directly with the public.  So it was that, at about 1:00 AM last night, Trump broadcast the following tweet, which represents a new low in Presidential conduct.

"
Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!"

McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the FBI, had risen to the position of deputy director of the Bureau under James Comey, and had played key roles in investigations, or projected investigations, into Hillary Clinton's emails, the Clinton foundation, and the Trump campaign's connection to Russia. What seems to have turned him into a prime target of Trump and his administration is that his wife Jill had run for Virginia State Senator (before 2016) as a Democrat and had received six-figure contributions from long-time Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe. (President Trump, with customary fidelity to the facts, claimed in a tweet last July, "Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!" After pressure from the White House, McCabe agreed to retire from the bureau early this year and took a leave of absence. That was not good enough for Trump and Jeff Sessions, and an internal FBI investigation has found him guilty of a lack of candor regarding an investigation of a Wall Street Journal article in October 2016 about the FBI and the Clinton probes. The specific accusations remain secret, and there is no hope that the current Congress will look into this episode. McCabe's firing, which could possibly cost him his pension, is a new building block in the false narrative that Trump needs to fire Robert Mueller and end the investigation of his links with Russia.
Nixon came into office when the prestige of the US government was still
very great, both at home and abroad, and when Presidents were still in some sense answerable to both their own party and to the media and the public at large. That kept him in check, in many ways, for much of his presidency, and eventually brought him down after he had stepped outside the bounds of normal behavior. There are no similar cultural of political checks on Trump, who is now the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party, who is terrorizing his leading subordinates into obedience, and who speaks with the American people directly through Twitter and in other ways. I am pretty certain that we have never--literally never--had a President who publicly talks about political opponents and bureaucrats the way he does, because every previous President recognized that he and his office stood for something bigger and had a dignity that he had to try to preserve. Trump comes from my generation which believed that it was not bound by any previous standards. Little did we know half a century ago, when Mark Rudd was orchestrating the collapse of Columbia University, that another Mark Rudd would some day occupy the White House.