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Friday, February 12th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]Leon Wieseltier launched a graceless and rather paranoid ad hominem attack on Andrew Sullivan in the latest issue of The New Republic – accusing him of being an anti-Semite. The New Republic is my favorite magazine – but since reading this piece, I’m considering unsubscribing. It would bother me that any magazine would give itself as a platform for such an article, and is even worse that it is one I feel ownership over (as I have been a regular reader for some 12 years and a subscriber for 5, from the moment I graduated college.) Wieseltier further attacks my religion (Catholicism) as “a regress to polytheistic crudity” and seemingly marks the magazine as meant for Jews rather than Christians – saying that “readers of The New Republic” would clearly see what was wrong with Sullivan’s writings – just as they saw what was wrong with the concept of the Trinity. (Perhaps this was meant lightly. It’s a bit hard to tell as he levels such ridiculous charges.) I don’t consider myself the type of person who would cancel a subscription over offensive content – but it angers that the magazine would run a piece with so few redeeming features and such serious unsubstantiated charges.

Sullivan’s main and heartfelt response to the piece is here. He also points out the context to one of his quotes, including email correspondence with the current editor of The New Republic, Franklin Foer. Other comments and a roundup of outside opinion from Sullivan here, here, here, here, and here. The Atlantic Wire has a more complete roundup.

Let me – as briefly as I can – make one point that I haven’t seen made. Most of Wieseltier’s piece concerns all sorts of damning positions Sullivan has taken: being moved by the Palestinian suffering in the Gaza attack, Sullivan’s anger at the Netanyahu government for refusing any substantial concessions to his government’s main patron, and the fact that Sullivan cites the respected Middle East scholar Stephen Walt “frequently and deferentially” when Walt was one of the authors of The Israel Lobby for which Wieseltier believes he should be shunned. About the only item cited by Wieseltier that could be construed as stereotyping of Jews is a Sullivan response to an article in the very self-consciously Jewish and right-wing Commentary on why Jews don’t like Palin because they’re educated, elitist, socially liberal, etc., but should support Palin because she has what Rubin considers the most important thing right: she opposes “the administration’s effort to put ‘daylight’ between the U.S. and Israel.” Sullivan begins his most anti-Semitic piece by quoting Jonathan Chait (of The New Republic) who puts Rubin’s piece in context elsewhere in his post:

The complaint of the Jewish Republican is a small but hardy feature of our political discourse. The complaint runs as follows: Jews are foolishly ignoring their self-interest by voting for Democrats on the basis of sentimental concerns (secularism, concern for the poor) rather than pursuing their true self interest (maximal hawkishness on the Middle East, low tax rates on the rich) as represented by the GOP.

Sullivan replies to Chait:

I worry about elements of proto-fascism becoming mainstream in the GOP.

But there is something particularly disturbing about the way in which neoconservatives, in their alliance with the Christianist heartland, increasingly argue for a strong and unchecked charismatic leader in the Palin/Bush mold, a disdain for reason in political life and a yearning for what Rubin calls an “instinctual skill set” in a leader…

Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights.) But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing – that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran – is something else.

Something much darker.

Wieseltier’s response entirely ignores the blatant stereotyping that Jennifer Rubin uses as the basis for her article as well as Chait’s easy categorization of “Jewish Republicans” who identify their “true self interest” as “maximal hawkishness on the Middle East.” Wieseltier instead goes after Sullivan:

I was not aware that [Goldfarb and Krauthammer] comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” What sets them apart from their more enlightened brethren is the unacceptability of their politics to Sullivan. That is his criterion for dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.

It is really quite something that the above cite is the closest Wieseltier gets to Sullivan “hating on” Jews. No fair-minded observer could believe that is what is going on. Sullivan posts a quote from DiA today that seems to offer a more reasonable explanation: that Sullivan is “pigeonholing” political actors which DiA acknowledges that “we all do this to some extent,” including Wieseltier himself.

However, I want to take a minute to defend discussing the religion’s effect on politics in exactly the way Wieseltier is accusing Sullivan of, as today, most people’s religious and political identities have become fused. One’s religion – whether it be evangelical Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, Methodist, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever else – is a profound influence on one’s outlook on the world and as such must be a matter for public debate and discussion. Andrew Greeley for example makes this case with reference to Catholicism in The Catholic Myth. He describes the profound effect growing up steeped in any mythology has on how any one sees the world, how it shapes our imagination and how we see how the world works.

Yet Leon Wieseltier either maintains that this type of thinking is out of bounds or that Charles Krauthammer’s specifically aren’t based on his Jewishness:

Moreover, Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas…[T]he grounds of Krauthammer’s opinions are no more to be found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness than the grounds of the contrary opinions–the contentions of dovish Jews who denounce torture, and oppose Israeli abuses in the Gaza war, and insist upon a diplomatic solution to the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability–are to be found in, or reduced to, their Jewishness. All these “wings” are fervent Jews and friends of Israel. There are many “Jewish” answers to these questions. We all want the Torah on our side. And the truth is that the Torah has almost nothing to do with it. [my emphasis]

Parsing the bolded sentence closely, you can see how hedged it really is – how Wieseltier’s actual point seems to be that there are multiple interpretations of Judaism and none should be called Judaism definitively. Which of course Sullivan does not – which Wieseltier acknowledges. But the clear intention of this passage is to claim that Sullivan is stereotyping Jews and reducing their political opinions by connecting them to Judaism. Specifically, he is offended that Krauthammer’s opinions are associated with his “Jewishness” when they are instead based on logical premises.

Yet this Jay Nordlinger profile of Charles Krauthammer in the National Review seems to offer Krauthammer himself refuting precisely these points. [Full access only to subscribers. However, someone posted the whole thing at the rightwingforum.]

Of Israel, Krauthammer has long been a leading student, defender, and explainer. Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.” Krauthammer believes that Israel needs two things to survive: the will to live, and the support of the United States. He believes that Israel has demonstrated a very great will to live, especially in its defeat of the “second intifada.” And he has “great faith in the goodness of America,” a goodness that will not let Israel go to the dogs. Europe could do all sorts of things to bedevil and imperil Israel: impose economic sanctions, prosecute Israeli soldiers, etc. But the key is America. And “if we ever reach a point where we become indifferent to Israel, that will mark a great turn in the soul of our country.”

Many Jews, particularly American ones, are nervous or scornful about the support that American evangelicals have shown for Israel. They say that this support is double-edged, or bad news, or embarrassing. Krauthammer will have none of it. “I embrace their support unequivocally and with gratitude. And when I speak to Jewish groups, whether it’s on the agenda or not, I make a point of scolding them. I say, ‘You may not want to hear this, and you may not have me back, but I’m going to tell you something: It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world. And here we have 50 million Americans who willingly and enthusiastically support us. You’re going to throw them away, for what? Because of your prejudice.’ Oh, I give ’em hell.” [my emhpases]

So, let me be clear: Wieseltier claims that “the ground of Krauthammer’s opinions” shouldn’t be “found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness” because Krauthammer’s views are actually based on his cold and clear rational analysis of the world and that he doesn’t present “feelings as ideas.” To claim otherwise for Wieseltier is evidence of anti-Semitism. Yet a recent profile of Krauthammer attributes to him the rather debatable view that “as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not” as Krauthammer “quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — ‘I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.’ ” Krauthammer then brags that he scolds Jews who disdain people like Palin, saying: “It is disgraceful, un-American, un-Jewish, ungrateful, the way you treat people who are so good to the Jewish people. We are almost alone in the world.” In each instance, Krauthammer explicitly grounds his view of history and of foreign policy and national security in his Jewishness – and appeals to his audience to be properly “Jewish” and be grateful for the support Israel receives. Yet – Wieseltier accuses Sullivan of “demand[ing] Jews behave apologetically in America” and “defends” Krauthammer’s ideas as not being related to his “Jewishness.” Absolutely ridiculous.

Wieseltier owes Andrew Sullivan an apology. And The New Republic owes its readers a retraction.

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Posted in Criticism, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 1 Comment »

The 7 Layers of Opposing Obama’s Response to the Financial Crisis

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Opponents of Obama’s response to the financial crisis have taken a number of approaches their disagreement. As with all political opposition, these approaches begin with a seemingly common-sense question or objection – and use it as a lever to attack their opponents. Governor Bobby Jindal for example used a bit of each of the following approaches to go after Obama – though not quite committing to any of them fully. I’ve paired many of these approaches with the most prominent individuals who have become associated with them – and tried to respond to them. What is common among them all is a desire to tap into the inchoate rage that this crisis is engendering among all Americans – and to try to focus that rage on Barack Obama. What is lacking among these approaches is a compelling or plausible alternative.

I. Do we need to do anything at all? (James K. Glassman)

George Will memorably attacked this point as a strawman on This Week. But it’s not, even if it is unfair to attribute this view to most Republicans. James K. Glassman (hereinafter called “Dow 36,000” after the book he coauthored) wrote a much-talked about piece for Commentary making the argument that nothing need to be done. The article was cited by House Minority Leader John Boehner among others – and was perhaps the first anti-Obama argument to gain traction in the stimulus debate. Mr. Dow 36,000 made the argument that the Austrian business cycle best explained our current mess – and that our best option would be to do nothing and hope things got better, that we trust the market to provide if only we have enough faith in it’s benevolence and restrain our sinful (government) interference.

What Mr. Dow 36,000 failed to account for was that the stability of societies around the world is dependent on economic growth and the opportunity this brings. The opiate of the masses unhappy with their governments is no longer religion – it is the hope that results from economic growth, the miracle and curse of rising expectations.

Mr. Dow 36,000 believes that if our economic heart seems to have stopped beating, the answer is to have faith that our blood will continue to flow. “We don’t need stimulus – we need to calm down,” he says. But the only rational response is to shock the heart back into action, to stimulate it.

II. But do we need to spend all this money?

Yes, if not more. The basic theory of Keynesian stimulus is that when the aggregate market demand for goods and services enters into a decreasing spiral.

Less demand = Lower prices = Less supply = Less jobs = Less demand = Lower Prices = etcetera

When an economy enters this cycle, Keynes believed, the government must step in and increase demand by spending more than it receives in taxes. (If it taxed to make up for it’s increased spending, it would not be adding demand but merely redistributing it.) Projections indicate that the US gross domestic product will fall by $2.1 trillion in the next two years. Which is why some Nobel-prize winning economists were frustrated that Obama’s plan was so small that it will not be able to make up for the drop in demand.

Joe Scarborough pointed out on Meet the Press last Sunday that, as all deficit spending is stimululative, the last eight years of the Bush presidency have been Keynesian stimulus too:

Scarborough uses this point to make out Obama’s stimulus to be more of the same, except with the stimulus directed towards the bottom 95% of Americans instead of the top 2%. He’s not entirely wrong, but to continue the metaphor above – if someone’s lifestyle choices have put enormous pressure on their heart, as they snort cocaine or take speed or otherwise constantly overcharge their heart, the first step to getting them healthy is usually to get them to stop putting so much pressure on their heart. But if their heart beat is dropping rapidly, or their heart has stopped, then the first step is no longer to remove the cocaine from their system but to inject them with someone that will energize their heart. This is a stimulus. And this is the reason Obama’s economic team is increasing our deficit in the short term.

III. What about tax cuts? (Eric Cantor)

The Republicans proposed a $3.1 trillion dollar permanent tax cut as their alternative to Obama’s $780 billion dollar spending/tax cut stimulus. That they continued to criticize Obama for fiscal irresponsibility and accused him of “generational theft” while supporting this bill aptly demonstrates that this was a pure political play. But if nothing else, the sheer size of the Republican alternative stimulus suggests what the reports of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Office concluded: tax cuts work slower and have less stimulative effect than almost any kind of spending measures. This is why more than half of Obama’s bill is spending.

IV. Fine. But even if this works, the deficit will be out of control! (John McCain)

Damn right it will. Hell – after eight years of rapidly decreasing taxes coupled with the largest increase in domestic spending since the War on Poverty and two large and seemingly unending wars, the deficit was already out of control. Even before that, as Bush failed to respect the “lockbox” that Al Gore promised to protect with the extra funds raised by Social Security taxes, we were in trouble. But even if we had saved all of this money paid into the Social Security program which is owed to me and you in a few dozen years (or less) the rapidly escalating cost of health care would leave our government with a deficit of over $60 trillion dollars over the next few decades.

Which is why Obama has been talking about dealing with America’s long-term fiscal problems since he was on the campaign trail – and especially since he was elected. In the weeks before his election, Washington was taken with his idea of a “Grand Bargain.”

But none of this will matter if the economy doesn’t begin growing again. If the first step to recovery is deficit spending to get the economy going again – continuing the above metaphor, using paddles, injections, whatever to get our economic heart functioning again – the next step is to clean up our act and take a fiscally responsible approach to governing and entitlement spending – in other to stop the irresponsible behaviors that helped create the crisis. If our economy is still stagnant, we will need to dismantle a good portion of our federal and state governments. But if the stimulus works, and the economy begins to grow again, adjustments can be made. Another point that Obama and his Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzag have made clear is that the first step to solving America’s long-term fiscal problems is tackling the problem of our rapidly escalating health care costs – which thanks to their rapid growth make up an ungodly percentage of our unmet future commitments. This is why Obama sees health care reform as one of the first steps that needs to be taken – to stop the rapidly escalating costs of health care.

V. Do we really need to help all these losers? (Rick Santelli)

Yes, we do. Obama has described his economic team as a bunch of mechanics who are trying to fix the machine that is our economy. When a mechanic sees that a spring or a lever or a cog isn’t functioning properly – and this piece is preventing the machine from working – the mechanic knows the problem will not be fixed by lecturing the piece or letting it fail for not properly doing it’s job. The correct thing to do is to replace it or glue it or do whatever is necessary to make the piece function as it must. Yes, the bankers whose job it was to properly calculate risk and make money instead spectacularly failed to understand the risks they were taking and lost money; and yes, the liars and idiots who took our mortgages they couldn’t afford should be punished too. But while one bank failing is just, a failure of our banking system could paralyze the economy. And while an idiot who took out a loan he couldn’t afford should get his house foreclosed upon, too many foreclosures will take down a neighborhood. Both of these are part of systemic problems which has resulted in downward spirals.

Obama, in taking this approach, seems to be combining some elements of Hayek’s warnings about the limits of the discipline of economics and the failure of the best-laid plans with Keynes’s fierce urgency of now – a kind of trial-and-error, scientific approach to financial crisis management as opposed to a more ideological, morality-driven approach associated with partisans of the left and right.

VI. Obama’s plan sucks. It isn’t working yet!

The stimulus money hasn’t begun to be spent. And the banking and mortgage fixes have yet to be fully implemented – so  of course it’s not working yet. Obama recently explained that the ups and downs of the stock market are a flawed indicator – just as the ups and downs of campaign polling is often flawed. Obama bet his campaign on a strategy of ignoring the day to day and conceding the daily media wars and never trying to boost his daily poll numbers. Instead, he focused on the fundamentals. And he won. His economic team’s approach to the financial crisis is similar. The falling stock market is merely a symptom of the crisis. It is a waste of time to treat a symptom when the root cause is not being addressed – but if one is able to treat the root cause, the symptom will be cured as well.

Obama has elected to do what needs to be done to fix the economy as a whole – and this means helping people whose decisions were poor, people who were greedy, people who were stupid, and yes, losers too. No matter how distasteful, the situation bankers and mortgagees must be helped in order to fix the economy.

To reiterate, the Obama plan has several steps:

  1. Fixing the mortgage and banking mess.
  2. Arresting the downward economic spiral touched off by these messes with government spending to stimulate demand.
  3. Put our government on a fiscally sane path by tackling the enormous gap between our spending promises and revenue generation in the area of entitlements – and at the same time, reigning in deficit spending as soon as this crisis has passed. (These steps are necessary to prevent those who we currently owe from panicking.)

VII. I hope he fails! Socialist! Communist! Marxist! Terrorist! Black Hitler! The Antichrist! Nobama! (Rush Limbaugh)

In fairness to Rush, he’s only publicly expressed a few of these sentiments. I’m not sure that he’s called Obama a black Hitler yet – but I’m sure he’s joked about it. This approach presumes that Obama has a quasi-secret agenda he is trying to impose on America – and that this agenda is so awful, it would be better to suffer another Great Depression or worse than to capitulate. Rush has described Obama as acting in bad faith, as being deranged, as having a mental illness (which Rush diagnoses as liberalism), and as all manner of awful and un-conservative things. Rush is a true propagandist and ideologue – and he has become the rallying point for movement conservatives.

His critiques now have power as the anticipatory fear of what Obama might do overwhelms the sense of what Obama is doing – and if Obama fails, Rush will be hailed as a visionary and a leader. But if Obama continues to display the conservative temperament and pragmatism that won him the election, then he will be as little remembered as Father Coughlin with his anti-Roosevelt screeds.

Rush – like proponents of failed ideologies everyone – continues to maintain that the conservative movement did not fail, but rather that it never truly had the power to achieve it’s agenda.

(more…)

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Posted in Barack Obama, Economics, Financial Crisis, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 1 Comment »

Stimulus Is What We Need

Friday, February 13th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]It is commonly stated that China’s ruling power has struck a kind of bargain with it’s people – that they will accept the one-party rule and other political restrictions – as long as the government is able to keep the standard of living rising. Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several books on China, gives a typical explanation:

…it would not be excessive to say that everything – economic health, social stability, political reform, environmental modernization, etc. – all depend on China’s economy maintaining at least a 6 percent to 7 percent growth rate. This is something that most market economies cannot do in perpetuity given the nature of cyclical growth cycles.

When this topic is brought up in foreign policy discussions, it is often understood as a uniquely Chinese problem – this bargain between the people and the state that they will accept an authoritarian government in return for a growing economy. But a government’s dependence  on its ability to increase opportunities for its people for its legitimacy is not a uniquely Chinese problem. The Chinese government may only be able to survive as long as it continues to provide economic growth to it’s citizens, but how different is this bargain the Chinese people have made with their government from the bargain the America people have with ours? As long as American citizens have their basic needs met and a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a polarized distribution of wealth, corruption of various sorts, and sundry other injustices. And as long as the Chinese citizens are moving towards having their basic needs met and have a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a single-party state, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and other restrictions.

Any state’s constitutional structure is legitimated by whether it provides for the needs of it’s people. In another age, the state merely provided security against hostile invasions and criminals; later, it provided an identity as well; by the middle of the 20th century, a state was legitimated by the extent to which it could provide for the basic needs of it’s citizens. The Cold War was, to a large degree, a competition between the capitalist states and the Communists states to see which could provide more ably for the needs of it’s citizens. Today, the state is evolving from providing for the needs of it’s citizens to providing opportunities for it’s citizens. The basic problems of sufficient housing, food, clothes, and other necessities are able to be met with our global prosperity.1

This evolution of our state into a market-state can best be seen by looking at the long-term trends in politics, shaping both the left and the right – as politiciains, with their ears constantly attuned to changing expectations, have sensed this evolution before most. Looking from Carter to Clinton to Obama, we can see how each has progressively embraced a different sort of liberalism – each less focused on a government providing services and more focused on government providing opporunity. Carter was a traditional big state Great Society liberal; Clinton favored free trade, ending welfare, and reining in the deficit; Obama’s liberalism accepts a number of libertarian premises and seeks as it’s goal the maximization of opportunity – as his health care reform plan, for example wouldn’t force people to join any particular program while offering a stable base for a necessary service that often causes people to remain in jobs they would not otherwise. A similar evolution can be seen in Nixon to Reagan to Bush – as Nixon favored big government programs; Reagan attacked big government; Bush focused on creating an ownership society among other reforms. Even when misguided – as for example his Social Security proposal – it was focused on offering greater opportunity.

James Glassman speaks for many doctrinaire anti-government conservatives when he suggests we allow our economy to contract – as eventually, it will reach bottom and bounce back. Stimulus – he says – is the wrong metaphor:

“We’re going to have to jump start this economy with my economic recovery plan,” [Obama] said on January 3. According to the image, one can jolt a dormant economy into action just as one can hook up polarized cables to a car battery, clamp a defibrillator to the chest, or breathe into the ear of a reluctant lover. Suddenly, the object of our attention will be back in action, aroused…

In fact, stimulus may be precisely the wrong metaphor. Rather than getting jazzed up, we need to be calmed down and to take the time to learn from the Great Depression, a time when government did too much, not too little.

Putting aside the non-consensus historical take on government action in the Great Depression (discussed here), Glassman misses the point our political leaders do not: our societal order is premised on the idea of continuous growth. A growing economy in a market state is like a beating heart – without it, we cannot survive. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is a business not making a payroll – the company can’t continue if it’s employees don’t get paid. The employees will no longer consent to subject to their employer’s authority – and the company will dissolve. When the nation-states of the early 20th century were not able to legitimate their structure by providing for the basic needs of their citizens, radicalism, revolution, and war ensued as the old order broke down and fascism and Communism took it’s place. Today, if market-states are unable to provide opportunity their citizens, they will not survive going forward. 

Our politicians and the elites sense this – which creates the manic desire to arrest this free fall and start our economy moving forward again – before it’s too late.

  1. Clearly, the problems associated with deficiences in these areas aren’t gone. But technologically, we have solved them. The problems remaining are systematic – how to satisfy the needs of those who don’t have access to the excess prosperity of the developed world. []

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