Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When the going gets tough...

...the Republicans trot out the hardly novel idea of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. Even if one supports this, and I certainly do not, it can't be anything but a distraction from the current impasse, as opposed to a step toward resolving it.

Vague 'lessons' from the German model

Steven Rattner's For. Aff. piece "The Secrets of Germany's Success," subtitled "What Europe's Manufacturing Powerhouse Can Teach America," purports to draw lessons for the U.S. from the recent German experience. However, with one exception, the lessons are so general that they don't require an appeal to the German example. Distilled from the end of the essay, the lessons are:

1. Exploit the U.S.'s comparative advantage (e.g. in entertainment, technology, and finance)

2. Improve technical training

3. Encourage new industries (e.g. alternative energy)

4. Foster an export orientation

The only "lesson" that draws with more specificity on Germany is that the U.S. "should work to ameliorate" high unemployment along the lines of what Gerhard Schröder did in 2005 with the Agenda 2010 program whereby the government agreed to cover a portion of the salaries lost when workers' hours were reduced, thus allowing firms to keep workers on rather than fire them. In return, unions agreed to moderate wage increases. In the current U.S. budget climate the idea, though perhaps a good one, is probably not transplantable.

But the piece is informative even if the "lessons" are a bit disappointing.

See also a recent blogpost by Charles Lane at WaPo (link to be added later).

Money talks

George F. Will is passionate about the "right" of wealthy people to use their money to reinforce their privileged position in society. Of course, he doesn't put it quite that way. Applauding the five Supreme Court justices who just struck down Arizona's public financing statute, Will instead argues that money is speech and that any restrictions or burdens on such speech are unconstitutional. (Supreme Court precedent indicates that certain restrictions can be justified by an anti-corruption rationale but Will himself does not appear to agree with that, although he concedes it is the current state of the law.)

There's an old saying that money talks. Will and others who share his view take this literally and contend that writing a check is no different than getting up in a public meeting and moving one's vocal chords in such a way that intelligible words are produced and emitted. Writing a check, they believe, is no different than writing an article. It's all "speech." One might almost suspect Will secretly thinks that wealthy people are so inarticulate, so unable to make a case for the maintenance of their privilege by actually speaking, that depriving them of the ability to pour unlimited amounts of money into campaigns (if not through direct contributions to candidates, then through indirect third-party advertising) would sound the tocsin of a "U.S. Spring."

Monday, June 27, 2011

More on Obama's Afghanistan plan

This positive assessment by J. Goldstein of the president's Afghanistan speech contains much that I agree with, including the statement that the surge was not intended as a permanent occupation force and that the "one more fighting season" rationale for delaying withdrawal is unpersuasive. On the other hand, I'm not certain that the surge was the right way to go in the first place, although hindsight is 20-20 and at the time the surge was announced (Dec. '09) I was somewhat ambivalent about it.

I also would like to agree with the general "tide of war is receding" theme, and certainly there is some evidence to support it. I remain of the view that more U.S. troops should be brought home from overseas bases than the 65,000 which the linked post says have been withdrawn from Europe, Asia and Latin America in the last decade.

As the outgoing Sec. of Defense observed on the NewsHour several days ago, war is an abstraction for all but the minority of Americans who are serving in the military or who have close family or other ties to someone who is. Watching a film like 'Restrepo', which I mentioned earlier, is one way for those at a distance to reduce the sense of abstraction and get some feeling, however partial and attenuated, of what being on the ground in Afghanistan is like, at least from the standpoint of American soldiers. Although the sentiments expressed by the soldiers in the film are somewhat various, no one says they are sorry to leave when the tour is up.

Of course, withdrawing troops does not mean, as Obama made clear, simply abandoning any U.S. interest in or connection with the country. I think there's little prospect of that happening. Despite the numerous shortcomings of the Karzai regime, U.S. assistance in the form of money and civilian expertise (and probably intel support etc.) will continue to flow even as the troop levels are reduced. That's one of several reasons why Gideon Rose's piece in the NYT, harking back to Nixon and Kissinger's tortuous and (to be blunt) criminal process of extrication from Vietnam, is off the mark.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


This piece about the NY Public Library's purchase of Timothy Leary's papers has some interest from the standpoint of cultural history. Also some neat quotes. For example:
After trying Leary’s magical pink pills Arthur Koestler told his host the next day that they were not for him: “I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"A teaching moment for an entire generation"

The phrase is from this report on the Khmer Rouge trials and their effect on education in Cambodia.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What "singular role"?

Addendum/update (added Feb. 2012): This post at the blog U.S. Intellectual History points out that Winthrop's city-on-a-hill metaphor (mentioned below) and Reagan's "shining city on a hill" are both rooted in the same passage in the New Testament, Matt. 5:14-16: "Ye [i.e., Jesus's disciples] are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid."
I'm not going to offer much instant reaction to the president's Afghanistan speech, as I'm supposed to be on a break and there are plenty of other places where you can find instant reaction. However, I would like to take note of one sentence that occurred toward the end of the speech that strikes me as somewhat unfortunate: "Like generations before, we must embrace America's singular role in the course of human events."

Many people may take this simply as boilerplate, but that would only underline how deeply the virus of American exceptionalism has taken root in the body politic. My paperback dictionary, which I just checked, gives the first substantive definition for "singular" as "outstanding, exceptional." But it is not, I think, necessarily true that the notion of the U.S. as exceptional is something that has been embraced without question by overwhelming majorities of Americans for generations, as Obama's line implies. Nor is there, as far as I can recall, much of anything in the country's founding documents that suggests or supports an exceptionalist view. John Winthrop's 'city on a hill' speech, as revived by Ronald Reagan (who added the adjective "shining"), is probably the most obvious of the available precedents, but I don't think the framers of the Constitution were paying much attention to Winthrop, assuming the 'city on a hill' reference even means what Reagan supposed it to mean.

Pres. Obama is a relatively young president, served by, as far as I'm aware, very young speechwriters, and probably not surrounded on a daily basis by many people with a deep knowledge of history. Often this turns out not to matter much, but on other occasions it does.

It once seemed that every so often, at least until 9/11 and its sequelae, a group of scholars would get together and bring out a collection of essays under a title like America as an Ordinary Country. In fact that was the exact title of a collection edited by Richard Rosecrance and published in 1976; its subtitle was "U.S. foreign policy and the future." The argument or implication was presumably that the experience of Vietnam meant that the U.S. could finally shed an exceptionalism that had proved more of a burden than a benefit. I haven't read the book, but I suspect that today's policymakers could do worse than have their aides get a copy for them and spend a couple of hours with it.

P.s. (Afghanistan-related): I saw the documentary film 'Restrepo' recently (on DVD). Worth seeing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Worth interrupting the break for...

...this piece on U.S. income inequality in WaPo today.

A brief excerpt:
In 1975, ...the top 0.1 percent of earners garnered about 2.5 percent of the nation’s income, including capital gains, according to data collected by University of California economist Emmanuel Saez. By 2008, that share had quadrupled and stood at 10.4 percent.

The phenomenon is even more pronounced at even higher levels of income. The share of the income commanded by the top 0.01 percent rose from 0.85 percent to 5.03 percent over that period. For the 15,000 families in that group, average income now stands at $27 million [per family per year, presumably].

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I'll be taking a break from posting for a while.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pentagon Papers 40 years on

Sanford Ungar and Michael Beschloss brought back the memories on the NewsHour tonight in a quite interesting discussion (which I heard on the radio as my TV is not working). Beschloss mentioned in passing that in 1961, ten years before Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the NYT, that paper had acceded to the Kennedy admin's request not to publish material it had acquired about the prospective Bay of Pigs operation. Apparently Kennedy later said, after the Bay of Pigs turned out badly for the U.S., that he wished the NYT had published it.

What really strikes me is the realization that only one short decade separates the Bay of Pigs from the Pentagon Papers. That was one heck of an eventful ten years. I'm not old enough to have many reliable first-hand memories of the U.S. in 1961 (and was only living here briefly then anyway, between my family's overseas domiciles), but I have a sense of what the early '60s were like from photos, movies, some things I've read, etc. The early '70s, of which I definitely do have memories, seem a long way away from the early '60s, which is, partly, a testament to how much happened in between and to how much 'the 60s' changed the tone (for lack of a better word) of American life and politics.

Goldstein on Sudan

A good review of the situation in Sudan which concludes that the independence of South Sudan will occur as scheduled in July and that, despite recent fighting around Abyei, full-scale civil war will not resume. Omitted (probably because not directly relevant to the current situation) is the fact that Omar al-Bashir remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in connection with his government's actions in Darfur. The chief prosecutor of the ICC said a few years ago that the entire Sudanese state apparatus was complicit in the crimes.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pity the poor unprotected U.S. defense budget

Jennifer Rubin, who writes a conservative blog at the Wash. Post -- apparently having Charles Krauthammer and George Will on the op-ed page isn't enough -- is worried that the defense budget will be cut too much as a result of the current budget negotiations. According to Rubin:
1) the primary duty of the federal government (higher than high-speed rail and a new health-care entitlement plan) is national defense; 2) defense spending is not driving the debt (it is skyrocketing domestic spending that has worsened our fiscal position); and 3) unless we want to cede our position as the sole superpower we can’t shatter the military that guarantees the West’s security and defends freedom around the planet.
Re point 2: of course, the one trillion plus spent on the Iraq misadventure has nothing to do with the deficit. Re point 3: we can't "shatter" the military, so let's continue ordering weapons systems that are outdated holdovers from the Cold War and funding layers of bureaucracy that have little real connection to military capability. After all, we can't "cede our position as the sole superpower."

I don't think I've seen someone refer to the U.S. as the "sole superpower" for quite a while. Krauthammer's "unipolar moment" has come and gone. And American policymakers themselves are realizing, as Gates's recent speech on NATO suggests, that trying to cling to the chimerical status of "sole superpower" is a recipe for, among other things, eventual bankruptcy.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Looking for a long novel to read this summer? This might be it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

'Demonstrative compellence' is a bust (again)

Back in Jan. '09 I blogged about an article that discussed the notion of 'demonstrative compellence' (as the author termed it) in connection with the G.W. Bush policy toward Iraq. The argument in a nutshell was that the invasion of Iraq was meant to signal to Iran and N. Korea that if they didn't straighten up and fly right they might be next. The strategy was, in essence, a complete failure, at least with respect to its intended targets. Iran continued its less-than-transparent nuclear program and N. Korea showed, on occasion, some apparent willingness to negotiate but basically continued on its path toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

Why bring this up now? Because some might think, not unreasonably, that one motive for the NATO intervention in Libya was to send a signal to possible emulators of Gaddafi that they had better not contemplate atrocities. The trouble is that the signal, if one was intended, has had little effect: the Assad regime in Syria has killed lots of protesters (though recent events in Syria, with some soldiers perhaps having mutinied and killed other members of the security forces -- it's still not entirely clear what happened -- point to the possibility of a split in the armed forces); the Saleh regime in Yemen killed lots of civilians before Saleh's departure; and the Bahraini regime used violence against protesters before (and after) calling in Saudi troops to shore itself up.

The case for the NATO intervention in Libya thus has to be made mostly on humanitarian grounds and in terms of Libya alone, it would seem, since from the standpoint of demonstrative compellence it's been a washout.

DSK in another context

Looking through Harold James's 2006 book The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire (having taken it out of the library, I was trying to decide whether to actually read it), I ran across a reference to Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a discussion of European identity (pp.132-34):
...Europe can probably most easily be defined by what its makers think it is not. It is not empire and it is not America....

A need to compensate for American mistakes or to resist American policies has in practice often been behind the momentum to create new European institutions. The European Monetary System in 1979 was in large part a response to the mismanagement and weakness of the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s. These were initiatives of policy-making elites frustrated by American high-handedness or incompetence; but the European response ran largely along technocratic lines.

It is only relatively recently that commentators have thought that they observed a more deeply embedded transcontinental assertion of a new identity. European civil society was mobilized by resistance to the 2003 Iraq war. One analysis, initially set out by a former French finance minister, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, spoke of the mass demonstrations against the Iraq war across Europe on Saturday, February 15, 2003, as the sign of the new civic consciousness. "A new nation was born in the street. And that new nation was the European nation."
James's cite is: D. Strauss-Kahn, "Une nation est née," Le Monde, Feb. 26, 2004 [I assume that should be 2003]

James goes on to observe that "[b]y 2005, President Chirac was appealing for a 'yes' vote in the French referendum on the European constitution on the grounds that it offered a defense against America, and that the 'Anglo-Saxons' were trying to frustrate a new Europe." (p.134) But the French and the Dutch defeated the constitution in the 2005 referendums.

The EU then went back to the drawing board and came up with something called the Treaty of Lisbon. Among other things it created a post called High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, popularly if not accurately referred to as the EU Foreign Minister. I'll end this little potted excursion into contemporary history with a question that Herman Cain might ask (assuming that he's heard of the EU Foreign Minister): How's that working out?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An original prescription

Lead-in to Wash.Post story:

"In what advisers billed as a major address, [Pawlenty] calls for tax cuts and smaller government."

Oh yeah.

Especially more tax cuts for the very highest brackets. Definitely. Why should we settle in the U.S. for having the most unequal distribution of income and wealth since the late 1920s? Why shouldn't we aim to have the most unequal distribution in U.S. history? Why shouldn't we try to duplicate the distribution of, say, Honduras in the 1950s? After all, there's no point in doing something unless you do it well.

Iraq note

The most recent wave of violence in Iraq strengthens the case for sticking to the timetable and withdrawing all U.S. soldiers from Iraq by the end of this calendar year. It might be tempting to think that keeping a U.S. military presence in the country in an 'advisory' capacity after Dec. 2011 would have a pacifying effect, but it's more likely to have the opposite. It's somewhat hard to imagine, in any case, Maliki making the explicit request that would be required, given the political realities he's facing.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Does American conservatism have an authenticity problem?

Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire (or is it billionaire?) and former head of Bain Capital, has pledged to make job creation the laser-like focus of his attention should he be elected President. Call me cynical or something, but I find it hard to persuade myself that Romney cares all that deeply about how many of his fellow Americans are employed or unemployed. (This is not a feeling I have exclusively about Romney or other Republican politicians, incidentally, but I will focus on Republicans here.)

My skepticism about the genuineness of Romney's concern for the plight of the unemployed and underemployed may be an instance of what has been called Romney's authenticity problem -- although this phrase, admittedly, has been used more with specific reference to his stance on health care reform. It may also, however, point to a larger issue: an authenticity problem of American conservatism in general.

One could argue that this problem, if it does indeed exist, is more a consequence of historical accidents than of the personal failings of American conservatives as individuals. Conservatism in the U.S. has labored under handicaps compared to the conservatisms of Britain or continental Europe. These handicaps may not have been so evident in recent decades, as the Right everywhere has converged on a mantra of neoliberal worship of 'the market,' but they nonetheless continue to operate, or so one might contend.

Put briefly, American conservatism, unlike (say) British conservatism, cannot appeal to the virtues of hierarchy and expect such an appeal to be heard in the same way that it would be heard in a society with a medieval past. On one level, this is just the well-worn Hartzian argument about American exceptionalism stemming from the absence of feudalism. But it's more than that. As Samuel Huntington wrote more than forty years ago (Political Order in Changing Societies, 1968, p.133):
In America,...[c]onservatism has seldom flourished because it has lacked social institutions to conserve. Society is changing and modern, while government, which the conservative views with suspicion, has been relatively unchanging and antique. With a few exceptions, such as a handful of colleges and churches, the oldest institutions in American society are governmental institutions. The absence of established social institutions, in turn, has made it unnecessary for American liberals to espouse the centralization of power as did European liberals.
From an historical perspective, Huntington's statement that American conservatism "has lacked social institutions to conserve" contains a rather glaring omission: namely, slavery (and, subsequently, Jim Crow). And I have no doubt that historians could come up with an entire list of social institutions that American conservatives have been interested in conserving. Nonetheless, Huntington's observation remains suggestive.

One might add that, where they have focused on defending social institutions, U.S. conservatives have not tended to be hugely successful. For instance, the defense of conventional marriage and the conventional family is a matter of intense concern to a part of the electorate, but it's a minority. Rather, when American conservatives have succeeded electorally in the fairly recent past, it has been as putative defenders of the common man and woman against the alleged depredations of "big government," even though the American welfare state has always been underdeveloped in comparative terms. Hence Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, vowed that he would "get government off the backs" of ordinary, hard-working voters. Romney is trying to tap into this Reaganesque vein. But Romney is no Reagan and with Romney, moreover, the inauthenticity of one candidate is arguably compounded by the authenticity problem of an ideology.

I'm not sure that any of the foregoing helps to explain the less-than-overwhelmingly-impressive field of Republican presidential candidates. (Although Jon Huntsman, for one, has sort of an interesting biography.) There is probably a more mundane explanation for the lackluster field, namely, a reluctance to run against an incumbent president, even in economic hard times.

But even if this mundane explanation is correct, it may be worth thinking about a more basic problem facing any conservative movement in a mass democracy: how to generate popular enthusiasm for an essentially negative ideology. Thanks to Wikipedia's very long article "Conservatism in the United States" which I skimmed through just now, I was reminded of William F. Buckley's statement that conservatives "stand athwart history, yelling Stop". Yelling 'stop' is not a slogan that will win elections. Thus conservatives in the U.S. have transformed it into other slogans: no big government, no socialism, no government-run health care, no tax increases, etcetera. Whether these slogans can still rev up the conservative faithful in the required numbers -- as they did not manage to do in 2008 -- is an open question as the 2012 presidential campaign season begins.

Friday, June 3, 2011

An interesting life

I don't think I'd heard of Hans Keilson before reading this.