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Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]At some point it became part of the standard Republican playbook to criticize liberals for engaging in “social engineering.” Liberals – in this telling – see humans as perfectible creatures who just need the guidance of the a centralized state with scientific-minded engineers to become better. With proper planning and direction longstanding human problems could be taken care of and humankind would exist in a socialist utopia. This view was always a caricature – indeed an appropriation of a term created to describe the early efforts at deliberate manipulation of large populations through marketing and propaganda – from the Nazis to American corporations. But Republicans co-opted this term to describe the grand government projects taken on at the apex of mid-20th century liberalism, as in our hubris we sought to “engineer” enormous changes to the benefit of all society.

This story – this narrative framework – was influential because it struck a note of truth. Mid-2oth century American liberalism saw an exceedingly confident America which believed in the nearly limitless potential of American government action. After all, America – led by its government – had defeated a seemingly unstoppable enemy, pulled the nation and world out of a Great Depression, learned how to split atoms and create enormous destructive and productive power, finally begun to deal with the legacy of slavery, begun providing generous benefits to the elderly, and even sent a man to the moon. The declarations of American liberals of this time were bold and utopian. FDR declared that America must ensure that every individual in the world must have “freedom from want,” a sort of economic right. Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty! Richard Nixon (a realist in a liberal era) declared War on Cancer, War on Crime, and War on Drugs! Today this hopefulness seems painfully naive as we learned that every massive government “war” has had massive side-effects while not, as yet, achieving its desired result.

As confidence in government declined in the 1970s, the more thoughtful critics of this liberal tendency saw its core failing as hubris. They suggested a more modest approach in which government would act more as a gardener “cultivat[ing] a growth by providing the appropriate environment” rather than as some craftsman or engineer creating society anew through government coercion and radical changes.

But the Republicans who eventually took power on the wave of disgust, disappointment, resentment, and anger at liberalism’s excesses did not adopt this epistemologically modest approach. Reagan and his ilk replaced liberals’ confidence in the good government could do with the insistence that government was just getting in the way. Their conclusion was simple: Government wasn’t the solution to these problems – it was the problem! Rather than seeing the hubris of liberals as the problem, they thought liberals simply were certain about the wrong things. Their shorthand for this moral lesson was to accuse liberals of attempting “social engineering.” The solution was to cut taxes, to prune government, and to hold out the promise of slashing it eventually (to starve the beast.)

Politics though is about creating and shaping a society that we want to live in. It is less a matter of ideology and policy positions, and more about values. Right wingers saw that the problems they had identified as resulting from liberalism’s excesses did not cease as Republicans cut taxes and regulations and pulled the government back from involvement in the economy. Blaming liberal government action for upsetting the “natural” balance, right wingers yearned to shape society themselves in order to recreate what they had lost. They branded themselves as individualists even as they promoted the tyrannical, collectivist organizations commonly called corporations. From a complex web of ideological positions taken by the Republican Party to build their political coalition came a hodge-podge of goals which (though perhaps not cohering immediately) have solidified into an agenda of right wing social engineering. The Republicans began to use government to encourage the traditional nuclear family of a man, woman and 2 and 1/2 children; to promote and encourage a christianist lifestyle and increase the role and funding of religious institutions; to encouraged a particular brand of “rugged” individualism; and to aid the rise of American corporations at home and abroad.

The logical culmination of this new big government conservatism, this right wing social engineering, was the presidency of George W. Bush, as he increased the size of government mainly by outsourcing work and responsibilities to corporations, as he began 2 wars leading to 2 massive social engineering projects in the Middle East, as he allowed and encouraged government funding of faith-based charities, and most dramatically through his Ownership Society as he sought to transform America into a nation of homeowners with 401Ks and Health Care Savings Accounts instead of Social Security and Medicare and rentals. The right wing’s social engineering agenda extended past Bush though. The main right wing health care alternative adopted in some measure by Milton Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and John McCain seeks to transform American society to make its citizens more individualistic. This alternative begins by eliminating tax credits for employer-sponsored health insurance and the encouragement of Health Savings Accounts and the evisceration of all regulations on the insurance industry (by allowing competition across state lines where most regulations exist thus creating a “race to the bottom” as states attempt to attract the health insurance industry.) It would culminate in the elimination of Medicare and Medicaid. Many on the right have also made clear their goal remains to obstruct any liberal attempt to solve the fiscal problem they have engineered to give them the opportunity to re-write the social contract.

Looking at current Republican agenda – you see a similar hubris to what they decried as liberals’ “social engineering” – as they seek to remake the entire health care sector and the economy.

Meanwhile, it is the Democrats who had adopted an epistemologically modest approach – of tinkering with our current system to try to save it rather than to provoke a crisis to remake society, tearing apart the social bargain between citizen and government.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Criticism, Domestic issues, Health care, History, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 2 Comments »

Kashkari, 2009’s Ideas, Richard Milhouse Obama, Frum!, Chinese-American Trade Imbalance, Obama’s Nobel, and Charborg

Friday, December 11th, 2009

1. The Personal Toll TARP Exacted. Laura Blumenfeld profiled Neel Kashkari for the Washington Post – the Treasury employee and Hank Paulson confidante who presided over TARP and assisted with much of the government’s response to the bailout who is now “detoxing” from Washington by working with his hands in an isolated retreat. The piece focuses not on what happened and the enormous impact, but on the personal toll this crisis exacted on Kashkari and those around him: the heart attack by one of his top aides; the emotional breakdowns; the trouble in his marriage as he didn’t come home for days, sleeping on his office couch and showering in the Treasury’s locker room:

Thoughts tended toward the apocalyptic. During midnight negotiations with congressional leaders, Paulson doubled over with dry heaves. A government economist broke into Kashkari’s office sobbing, “Oh my God! The system’s collapsing!” Kashkari counseled her to focus on things they could control. (Minal: “So you offered her a bag of Doritos.”)

“We were terrified the banking system would fail, but the thing that scared us even more was, what would we do the day after? How would we take over 8,000 banks?”

The piece seems to ask us to feel pity for these men and women who toiled under difficult circumstances, but it seems inappropriate to feel pity for those who assume power because they also feel its heavy weight. But the piece acknowledges that Kashkari himself seeks to get back to Washington again, “Because there’s nowhere else you can have such a large impact — for better and for worse.” Lionize them for their heroic sacrifices if you will, but there is no place for pity. Those who choose to take on the burdens of power should not be pitied because it proves too weighty.

2. New Ideas. The New York Times briefly discusses the Year in Ideas. Some of the more interesting entries:

3. Obama’s Afghanistan Decision. Fareed Zakaria and Peter Beinart both tried to place Obama’s Afghanistan decision into perspective last week in important pieces. Both of them saw in Obama’s clear-eyed understanding of America’s power shades of the foreign policy brilliance that was Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Zakaria:

More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.


Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn’t stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that’s what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he’s making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It’s too soon to know whether Obama’s game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he’s gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.’s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.

Perhaps this accounts for Henry Kissinger’s appreciation for Obama’s foreign policy even as neoconservative intellectuals such as Charles Krathammer deride Obama as “so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a [foreign policy] doctrine“:

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games,” Kissinger said. “But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

4. The Unheeded Wisdom of Frum. It seems that almost every week a blog post by David Frum makes this list. This week, he rages at how the Republican’s “No, no, no” policy is forcing the Democrats to adopt more liberal policies (which Frum believes are worse for the country, but in the case of health care, more popular among voters):

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

5. Fiscal Imbalances. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times identifies the imbalance between America’s deficit spending and China’s surplus policy as the root of our financial imbalances in a piece this week:

What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

While he says both sides have an interest in an orderly unwinding of this arrangement, both also have the ability to resist:

Unfortunately, as we have also long known, two classes of countries are immune to external pressure to change policies that affect global “imbalances”: one is the issuer of the world’s key currency; and the other consists of the surplus countries. Thus, the present stalemate might continue for some time.

Niall Ferguson and Morris Schularack offered a few suggestions in a New York Times op-ed several weeks ago as to how best unwind this. I had written about it some months ago as well, albeit with a pithier take.

6. War & Peace. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an audacious defense of American power and ideals. If you read nothing else on this list, read this.

7. Song of the week: Pinback’s “Charborg.”

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Economics, Financial Crisis, Foreign Policy, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 62 Comments »

Limbaugh claims Obama is a radical leftist because he supports programs Republicans proposed a generation ago.

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer, and other right wingers have begun to converge on a unified theory of Obama – a systematic critique of who he is, what he stands for, and what he is trying to do. Part of this theory – one of the core themes being developed – is that Obama is the most far left American leader ever. Rush Limbaugh expresses this as well as anyone – and I’ve spliced together two clips from his interview this past Sunday with Fox News. (Full interview here.)

Let’s take two of these quotes out for a moment:

We’ve never seen such radical leadership at such a high level of power…

I don’t know of any Republican who would try to take over one sixth of the U.S. economy. I don’t know one Republican who would put forth this…this…irresponsible cap and trade bill. I don’t know one Republican who would actually do that.

To understand why this is such a bizarre thing to say you need to look at some history.  It illustrates what I mean when I call the Republican Party and the right wing – and much of our public debate as it attempts to find the middle ground between the right and left – unhinged. Take a minute to look at the history of the policy proposals regarding the two examples Limbaugh cites – health care and cap and trade.

Health Care

The plans moving through Congress now have an historical precedent in most of their aspects in the two serious Republican attempts to reform health care after LBJ’s introduction of Medicare and Medicaid – Richard Nixon’s health care proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill in 1993. Between the two bills, they contained a technocratic institution to reign in health care spending by looking at medical practices – similar to the IMAC that Sarah Palin called a death panel (Richard Nixon’s proposal); an individual mandate, an extension of Medicaid eligibility (the Dole-Chafee plan); an end to insurance industry abuses – for example, banning people with preexisting conditions, subsidies or vouchers for individuals who couldn’t afford health insurance to purchase it, and the creation of a standard minimum level of benefits for health insurance plans (both plans.)

Those who developed the base model that of health care reform now – used these models as the base onto which they grafted a health insurance exchange and a public option. They combined market forces with decentralized decision-making – the exchange on which private companies would offer health insurance – with a more top-down centralized approach – the public option which would compete with the private companies. Clearly, though the plan is distinctly liberal, it was developed by people who have a deep appreciation for some of the central conservative critiques of government planning and New Deal/Great Society-style liberalism. The plan is also clever politically – as a great majority of the American people, in their wisdom, see great value in having a choice between public option and a private one. Michael F. Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute accidentally justified the rationale behind this popular sentiment:

Any payment system creates perverse incentives…which is why we need competition between different payment systems to temper the excesses of each.

Unlike the Dole-Chafee bill which sought to undermine the current system with the hope that something else would develop, the plans working through Congress now are more conservative as they seek to preserve the status quo while introducing an alternative model that people could opt into if it works.

You wonder how far to the right the Republican Party Rush imagines is if he claims he doesn’t know any Republican who would propose anything like this.

How about Mitt Romney, Bob Dole (who incidentally endorsed a version of the bill currently moving forward), Richard Nixon?

The one thing that makes this plan distinctly liberal is the public option. Yet, if anyone believes that after dropping it, the Republicans would support a health care bill, they haven’t been paying attention.

(For more on the similarities on health care, see this post from yesterday.)

Cap and Trade

On climate change, the story is even more dramatic.

Cap and trade started out as a hair-brained scheme to solve the problem of acid rain thought up by a Reagan administration lawyer, C. Boyden Gray. Environmentalists and liberals hated the idea. They saw it as a license to pollute, a “morally bankrupt” “license to kill,” or more reasonably as a “scheme for polluters to buy their way our of fixing the problem.” They preferred the more “command-and-control” approach of top-down regulation. Regulators resisted the idea – as it forced them to surrender “regulatory power to the marketplace.” Industry opposed it, claiming it “was going to shut the economy down.”

But George H. W. Bush thought that free market principles could realign the incentives to fix this problem – and he wanted to placate the Canadians who were bearing the brunt of the acid rain.

So he pushed through a cap and trade scheme to eliminate acid rain over these strong objections. It beat all expectations. Eventually environmentalists came around and industry continued to thrive. This Republican success on solving a major environmental issue without top-down regulation made cap and trade a popular, bipartisan idea. Eventually, Bill Clinton saw it as a way to tackle global warming. But as a significant minority of Republicans continued to question whether or not global warming was real and whether or not it was man-made (along with every other scientifically moot question that industries raised) any possible deal was postponed. Still, as late as 2008, the Senate had strong bipartisan support for a cap and trade program – with Joe Lieberman and John McCain taking the lead. Now McCain is a major opponent of the cap and trade legislation, complaining about the lack of support for nuclear reactors in the bill as a reason to oppose it. This when as late as a year ago, he reiterated his statements of the past eight years in saying that global warming demanded “urgent attention” – that we must “act quickly” to “dramatically reduce our carbon emissions” with a “cap-and-trade” program.

As I said regarding health care, if anyone thinks that McCain will come around to support this legislation that is so similar to what he supported as essential a year ago if the Democrats just tossed some more money into nuclear energy, then you haven’t been paying attention. McCain will likely start calling it a “power grab” and a “government takeover” of the world, echoing Cheney and Krauthammer by the time the bill is up for a vote.


In both cases, Republicans proposed ideas based on core conservative principles – on a respect for the free market, on avoiding rapid change, on avoiding top-down regulation. And now Democrats led by Barack Obama have taken up these proposals – amending them somewhat to take into account liberal ideas such as a distrust of large corporations and a concern for community goods – hoping to pass bipartisan legislation.

What they are met with instead is screams of “Socialism!” and “Government takeover!” and “Unprecedented!” “Attacks on liberty!” and “Why do you hate America?”

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Posted in Barack Obama, Domestic issues, Energy Independence, Environmental Issues, Green Energy, Health care, Political Philosophy, Politics, Romney, The Opinionsphere, Videos | 8 Comments »

What Would Republican Health Care Reform Look Like?

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Edit: I see a few people have linked to me since Obama’s little debate with the House Republicans in which he backed up the point I’m making here, that his health care plan is:

similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

That’s the point I was making with this post as well. But some people have apparently taken this post as some sort of evidence of Obama’s nefariousness – as proof that he’s selling out. pm317 wrote on Hillaryis44 that people should, “Tell your bluest of blue friends who are still supporting Obama to read this little piece…” I think they should read this piece – but it stinks of partisanship to presume any Republican suggestion is wrong.

This piece points out that Obama has adopted much of the Republican framework for dealing with health care – picking up on the work of liberals such as Jacob Hacker and Peter Orszag. This framework was broadly endorsed by John Edwards, and then Hillary Clinton, and then Barack Obama during the campaign. The plan Obama is pushing attempts to combine the best elements of the conservative Republican plans with the goals and certain important elements of liberal alternatives. As a liberal, I acknowledge that this plan is modest – tinkering even – but this is its strength rather than weakness.


[digg-reddit-me]Yesterday, the Republicans released their health care plan. However, as Ezra Klein points out it isn’t an actual plan to fix health care as much as a plan to get people to stop asking them what their plan is:

The bill is framed in terms of Republican attacks on the Democratic bill, not in terms of its own aims or methods. Which is fine, and to be expected. If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t spend my time crafting a health-care reform plan, either. Republicans don’t have the votes to pass a bill, and they know it.

So what is the Republican approach to health care reform?

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Charles Krauthammer gives a typical response, lecturing Obama:

On health care, the reason he’s had such resistance is because he promised reform, not a radical remaking of the whole system.

Though this is a common claim by right wingers attacking Obama, it clearly isn’t true. Obama’s health reforms take great pains to preserve the current system – and is indeed based largely on two conservative attempts to reform health care in the past. The hope of liberals is that this reform could establish a structure: health insurance market with a public option, that could gradually be opened up to the rest of the population if it was successful. But that isn’t what we’re talking about now.

Given that his criticism of Obama’s health care position is that it is “a radical remaking of the whole system,” you would think Krauthammer would offer a few conservative measures. But if that is what you think, then you have misunderstood the right wing. Krauthammer proposes to entirely tear down the current system: “It is absolutely crazy that in America employees receive health insurance from their employers,” he says, and proposes we gut this system by eliminating the tax break for health insurance and eliminate the prohibition on interstate insurance (which would effectively strip any regulation from insurance companies as the state with the least regulation could attract these companies in a race to the bottom…) By any standard, and whether you agree with them or not, these are radical measures that would completely remake our system of health insurance – and they were also the two cornerstones of the proposal by the McCain campaign.

What Krauthammer either doesn’t know or attempts to elide is that Obama’s health care plan has two prominent historical predecessors: Richard Nixon’s proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill sponsored by the Republicans as an alternative to Bill Clinton’s approach in 1993. If you want to figure out what Republican health care reform might be, this is where to look. One of the key things to realize when looking at these plans is that we currently have a hybrid system: with the elderly, veterans, and the poor receiving government-provided health insurance; many of the employed receiving employer-provided health insurance; and those left out either without health insurance or using the much more expensive and less stable individual health insurance market.

1974: Nixon’s Plan

At the crest of the liberal era, Richard Nixon attempted to reform health care. He called his plan CHIP, or Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan, and its goal was to solidify the hybrid system that existed. He proposed expanding eligibility for Medicaid, expanding Medicare to cover prescription drugs, subsidizing the poor to get insurance, incentivizing employers to provide health insurance, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions.

Specifically, Nixon’s plan included:

One of the great regrets of Ted Kennedy’s life was that he did not take the deal Nixon offered him on health care. It’s also noteworthy that Nixon at this point was insistent on strengthening the employer-provided health insurance system and the government-provided health insurance system. He also pushed the idea of HMOs which Bill Clinton’s plan was later demonized for encouraging as well.

1993: The Dole-Chafee Bill

In 1993, some Republicans believed they needed to come up with an alternative to Bill Clinton’s health care plan (in contrast to the, “Just Say No” approach advocated by Will Kristol at the time, and again today) – with 20 Republican Senators eventually introducing to great fanfare the Dole-Chafee bill. This bill was flawed and politically impossible to get through Congress given the many interests it offended – from labor to the elderly to big corporations. This was because it’s main goal was to undermine the employer-provided health insurance system and to a lesser degree the government-provided health insurance system. The Republicans saw these as distancing individuals from the cost of their health care decisions and thus as two of the main drivers of increasing costs – though they did not acknowledge or attempt to fix any of the problems which made the individual health insurance market untenable for most. This bill included:


Compare the above to the plans now circulating in Congress and backed by Obama.

They have many of the same goals:

They have some similar mechanisms to achieve these goals:

The health care reforms being proposed today are based on the same framework as the two Republican plans of the past with one main exception: they provide a mechanism to allow the individual market to work more effectively. The health care reforms today attempt to preserve the current system – which is deteriorating year by year as more and more people are priced out of health insurance – while alleviating the worst problems and providing a separate and regulated market in which individuals could choose between different health insurance models.

While both the Nixon and Dole-Chafee bills sought to change the health insurance industry through pure government regulation and intervention. The Democratic proposal working its way through Congress now adds two elements – one from the left and one from the right. They propose creating a Health Insurance Exchange – a market for health insurance. On this exchange, one could choose a publicly-run insurance plan.

The model the Democrats are working on now clearly owes a great deal to these two Republican attempts at health care reform. It’s a shame that Republicans have now taken to demonizing Obama’s plan on many of the very grounds that would necessarily be at the core of an actual conservative attempt to tackle health care.

[Image by Civil Rights licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Domestic issues, Health care, McCain, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 1,321 Comments »

Stephen Walt’s Insights

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Due to a website outage for most of the day, none of my posts went up today.

So for your national security/politics/etc fix today, I suggest you look to Stephen Walt – whose blog I just discovered, although I’ve been familiar with his work for some time. Some thought-provoking excerpts from the past week or so in Walt bloggery:

On which president’s foreign policy Obama seems most similar: Nixon…

In short, he’s trying to deal with Bush’s legacy by cutting losses, resolving conflicts, and getting help from our allies, in order to buy time for economic and military recovery. Sounds almost Nixonian (or maybe Kissingerian).

On his favorite topic, Israel:

Some readers may think that Hastings is employing a double-standard, or that he is “singling Israel out” for criticism. They could point out that Israel’s adversaries have often lied or prevaricated too, and that they have done plenty of brutal things themselves. They could also remind us that Israel’s neighbors are hardly models of tolerance or open discourse and that there is a far more open debate about these issues within Israel than there is in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Syria. I agree, and the willingness of some Israelis to confront the past honestly and to question its present policies remains an admirable feature of Israeli society.  

But there is no double-standard at work here, and comparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel’s actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a “special relationship” with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control.  These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own. 

On the most effective imbalance of power:

Unlike Preble, I still think a margin of superiority is a good thing, but I agree that we’ve got a much bigger margin than we need and we often use it in the wrong way. Instead of exploiting our favorable geopolitical position and acting like an offshore balancer, and playing hard-to-get so that other major powers will bear a greater share of the burden, the United States has declared itself to be the “indispensable power” and decided that it’s got to take charge nearly everywhere. The result, as you may have noticed, has not been all the salutary. Instead of stabilizing the key strategic areas of the world — something we used to be pretty good at — in recent years the United States has been an activelydestabilizing force. And instead of spreading U.S. values, we’ve ended up undermining them here at home and discrediting them abroad.

Moreover, as Preble notes, excessive U.S. dominance encourages others to act irresponsibly. To use Barry Posen’s apt terms, states either “free ride” on Uncle Sam (think Japan, or much of Europe), or they engage in “reckless driving” (think Israel, Georgia last summer, or maybe Pakistan), because they are confident we’ll bail them out if they get into trouble.  

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Posted in Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Israel, National Security | 1 Comment »

The Reagan Revolution

Friday, March 13th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]In which I discuss a repeated theme of this blog – the two domestic revolutions of the past 50 years that undermined the ever-evolving “American way of life” and caused profound social, economic, and political anxieties. The Reagan Revolution did for money what the ’60s did for sex – and today we are paying the price. 

The 1960s are remembered today – for better or worse – for the social, cultural, and sexual revolutions which roiled the nation between 1960 and 1972. The iconic images and movements of the later, more radical years of the time period primarily involve forces that undermined American mores and traditions. Flower children, the Summer of Love, LSD, marijuana, rock and roll, SDS, teach-ins, Black Panthers – the cumulative force of these challenges to the American way of life led to a backlash, which Richard Nixon and his counterparts rode to power. By 1968, many Americans felt as if their way of life were under siege from radical forces – oftentimes, a radicalism embraced even by their children. Riots broke out in major American cities; illegal drugs were consumed conspicuously and without shame; sex was given freely and openly; the legitimacy of the military, of the government, and of the academy were all questioned and often attacked – all of this in the name of freedom and in protest against the societal structures and rules that had heretofore defined the American experience. By the end of the 1960s, the “silent majority” felt their way of life under attack by these sixties revolutions, as Richard Nixon explained in a speech connecting major societal problems to the “sixties” experience:

We are reaping the whirlwind for a decade of growing disrespect for law, decency and principle in America.

Aside from Richard Nixon, the most prominent beneficiary of this counter-revolution, this reaction against the sixties revolution, was a second-rate actor turned politician, Ronald Reagan. He ran for governor on a law and order platform – pledging to beat back the forces of chaos and freedom to protect the compromises that were the basis for the American way of life. Reagan made a national name for himself by taking aggressive measures to quash the college demonstrations of the “communist sympathizers, protesters and sex deviants” at the University of California, Berkley campus.

In defending his extreme measures that resulted in the death of a student in the aftermath of a police riot, Reagan drew a line in the sand:

If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.

Reagan’s popularity stemmed in a large measure from how he was able to harness his populist law-and-order stands with a sunny optimism about America. But when Reagan finally took power in 1980, he did not merely attempt to reverse the 1960s revolutions. He unleashed a new revolution, undermining American values and traditions just as radically as the 1960s revolutions had. As Stephen Metcalf explained in Slate:

The ’80s did for money what the ’60s did for sex.

Metcalf goes on:

They told a miraculously tempting lie about the curative powers of disinhibition. It took AIDS, feminism, and sociobiology a while to catch up to our illusions about free love. It has taken cronyism, speculation, and manic overleveraging a while to catch up to our illusions about free money.

Reagan himself revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal but the forces he unleashed were determined to overthrow not just the Great Society programs of the 1960s and the social, cultural, and sexual revolutions of that decade, but the New Deal of the 1930s and the social and economic structure that sprang from the Depression and the government involvement in its aftermath. The Reagan administration unleashed a neoliberal revolution. While Reagan’s support and popularity was to a large degree a result of his stands against the social, cultural, and sexual revolutions of the 1960s against the commonly accepted American values and traditions, his administration unleashed its own revolution which likewise attacked and undermined commonly accepted American values and traditions.

As Stanley Fish recently described neoliberalism in the New York Times:

Whereas in other theories, the achieving of a better life for all requires a measure of state intervention, in the polemics of neoliberalism (elaborated by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek and put into practice by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), state interventions — governmental policies of social engineering — are “presented as the problem rather than the solution” (Chris Harman, “Theorising Neoliberalism,” International Socialism Journal, December 2007).

The free market was seen by these neoliberals as a natural phenomenon that was destroyed by government involvement rather than the government- and society-tended creation that it actually is, as has commonly been understood by Americans from Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Roosevelt. This neoliberal revolution began with much less fanfare and demonstration and less popular support and revolt than the sixties revolutions, but its effects were at least as profound. There were not the same iconic or disturbing images of radicalism and culture war, or catalyzing events like Woodstock, in this second domestic revolution, but the impact on the fabric that bound and organized the nation was just as profound. By explicitly seeking to undermine the “American system” of capitalism and especially the changes to the social contract since the New Deal (which involved the government regulation of businesses, a focus on local and small corporations rather than consolidation, a focus on labor and manufacturing instead of high finance, and a strong, robust middle class that was the focus of a growing economic prosperity) the Reagan revolution accelerated the trends that had begun to appear in the 1970s. Income inequality soared, middle and lower income stagnated while the wealthiest rose, businesses combined and became ever larger, and regulations were relaxed. In what became known as the Great Divergence, the wealth produced by American society stopped being spread out to the middle class and became concentrated in an ever smaller percentage of the population. The very shape of our society changed as a result of Reagan’s revolutions – and American families began to feel squeezed, until the effects of this revolution became more pronounced. By the 2000s, this “silent majority” again felt under seige – though without the same sense of focus as neoliberals actively sought to shift the blame for these economic attacks on the middle class to the 1960s revolutions in a manner that was still resonant for older Americans.

And while the effects of the sixties revolutions have been widely discussed, the effects of the revolution of the 1980s have been largely unspoken. The concentration of wealth in ever smaller percentages of the population, the economic focus on finance over labor, manufacturing, or industry, the slashing of the social safety net, the push for ever bigger corporations, and the relaxation of any type of regulation. 

Thus Reagan, opposing the cultural, social, and sexual revolutions of the 1960s overthrowing conventions that held together American society, unleashed a new economic, financial, and governmental revolution that overthrew the social contract of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the economic and governmental conventions that held American society together.

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis, History, Political Philosophy, Politics | 65 Comments »

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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Posted in China, Economics, Financial Crisis, Political Philosophy | 53 Comments »

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