Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mystifications of the deficit hawks

Notwithstanding that the word economics comes (partly) from the Greek word for house (oikos), the analogy between the economic affairs of a private household and the economic affairs of a country -- an analogy beloved by the so-called deficit hawks -- does not work. A government is not a private household and the principles of household economy have only a marginal relevance to economic policy at the level of a nation-state.

Regrettably, neither Pres. Obama nor his advisers have publicly confronted and rejected this false analogy, and as a result it has largely held sway in public debate. As F. Llewellyn and J. Schwartz write in the current issue of Democratic Left:
The mass media reinforces the dominant conservative ideological view that the government should manage its finances as if it were a private household -- instead of realizing its power to expand long-term growth (and fiscal balance) by engaging in productive public investment.... And as President Obama has refused to take this ideology head-on, he is likely to suffer political losses in 2010 and could lose in 2012.... Even if the Democrats retain control of both chambers of Congress in 2010 and the president is re-elected in 2012, a cross-party alliance of deficit hawks could prevent passage of the real reforms we need.
Llewellyn and Schwartz call attention to a March for Jobs on Oct. 2 in Washington, which "represents the first nationally coordinated grass-roots effort to push back against the right wing, tea party, deficit hawk politics that captivate the mainstream media and the political class."
I'm no longer much of a demonstration goer, but this is one demo I intend to make.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Noted

The Michigan War Studies Review.
(For those interested in military history.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dept. of dogmatic pronouncements

"...philosophy remains the only humanistic discipline that really teaches students to think critically and analytically...."
-- Brian Leiter, in the NYT

This statement is so absurd one wonders how the New York Times could have published it. On second thought, maybe one doesn't.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Carpe diem

When certain sociologists and psychologists find themselves insufficiently occupied, they invent new phases of the life cycle. That's one possible, admittedly somewhat cynical reaction to the piece in the NYT magazine on 20-somethings taking longer to reach 'adulthood' as conventionally defined. My patience for this kind of article tends to be so limited that I doubt I would have read much beyond the first couple of pages in the print version (which comes out Sunday); confronted with the online version, I read even less. However, I read enough to get the gist and enough to furnish an excuse for a post.

My take on this topic is much influenced, not surprisingly, by my personal history. When I was in my 20s, I wish someone had said to me: "Look, you will only be this age once. Don't feel that you need to rush into a career. Take some time to reflect on what you really want to do, perhaps travel, perhaps just mess around. Don't be afraid to take a rather low-paying, low-status job for a while when you need money. Explore, be adventurous." As best as I can recall, no one said this, or anything like this, to me, nor was it, I think, standard advice in that era (what era? well, just to fix a date, I turned 22 in June 1979, in fact on the very day I graduated from college). I went through college in four years without taking any time off (stupidly), and although I did take a one-year break from school between college and law school, I spent most of that year working. I then went straight through law school and on graduating I considered myself lucky to find a job (because graduating with a so-so record from an o.k. but non-elite law school in 1983 was not a recipe for being inundated with job offers). I wish someone had asked me at some point why I was in law school at all, but no one, as best I can recall, did. And, just to take another example, my college roommate's path was even more lockstep than mine: he didn't take any break at all between college and law school, but went straight through, getting his law degree in '82. (True, he went to a more prestigious law school than I did, and he seems to have liked his subsequent career; but I digress.)

The point is that when I see these hand-wringing articles about why young people are taking so long to 'grow up,' I think: 20-somethings should be allowed to take their time to grow up. They shouldn't feel they have to hit certain benchmarks (schooling, career, marriage, children) by a certain point, nor should society at large be concerned by their lack of interest in doing so. I do understand why people are worried about the phenomenon of young people moving back in with their parents, but that's not the central issue here. The main issue is that you're only 25 once. Readers of a certain age may remember that old TV ad (was it for beer? yes) in which the announcer intones: "You only go around once in life." A banality, of course, but it's true: you only go around once. This need not be a prescription for hedonism; rather, a prescription for considering possibilities. Maybe more middle-class kids should even think about (gasp) serving in the military. Or working for a cause, even if the job is difficult and ill paid (though many are doing this already, I admit). But I would say to a young person: whatever the exact course, step off the treadmill for a while; trust me, it will be there waiting for you when you get back.

The Pakistan floods and the media

It has been noted that the flooding in Pakistan has been getting less TV coverage than the Haitian earthquake did. That may be true, but the TV news that I watch (when I watch any), namely the NewsHour, has been covering the flooding quite extensively. Yesterday there was an interview with Holbrooke about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Noted

A new book collects interviews with Irving Howe from the last 15 years of his life, i.e., the mid-'70s to the early '90s.

P.s. (added 8/18): Some months ago I happened to run across a 1948 review by the young Howe of a book by Eric Bentley on Bernard Shaw. Published in the Trotskyist New International, the review contains some things Howe would not have written in later years, but it shows the skills as writer and polemicist that were evident throughout his career.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Canadian casualties apparently increase support for candidates of the governing party

...according to this paper. The results run counter to some findings on the political impact of casualties in the U.S. (though the paper doesn't discuss why Canada is different from the U.S. in this respect, just notes that it is different, or at least seems to be).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The politics of the infantile

By any reasonable measure, some important legislation has been passed since Pres. Obama took the oath of office. The healthcare and financial regulatory reform bills are significant overhauls that, while not perfect by any means, should eventually result in substantial improvements. That the electorate seems in no mood to give the administration credit for these achievements does not negate them. It does, however, perhaps go some way toward explaining what led Robert Gibbs to make his remarks about the 'professional left'.

There is a professional left, of course. There is also a much better-funded professional right: the conservative think tanks, trade associations, and lobbying houses which have wielded considerable influence in Washington for decades. As the American electorate in general has become more polarized, political elites and activists and their 'professional' extensions have also become more polarized, producing an environment in which shrillness and the capacity to take offense have increasingly become substitutes for reasoned discussion.

Anyone who has observed and/or participated in American politics for any length of time should know that the ability of presidents to ignite transformational change from above is limited. Sweeping changes have occurred on fairly rare occasions when social forces and movements outside the formal political arena have pushed those inside that arena to take action (the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s being probably the paradigm case, at least for the second half of the twentieth century). It should never have been supposed, therefore, that Obama's election, in itself, would work some equivalent of a revolution, nor should it have been supposed that Obama in office would prove able to carry out all the promises he made on the campaign trail. Yet some people apparently made these suppositions, and their generally unrealistic expectations not having been met, their reactions have been correspondingly intense.

It should be possible to criticize the administration from the left while simultaneously recognizing its achievements. This kind of criticism would be different from the cries of betrayal that can be found in the progressive blogosphere (and apparently also on cable TV, which I don't watch). The disappointed wail "but you promised," especially when unaccompanied by recognition of the circumstances that may have made the promise hard to keep, is something one expects to hear from a five-year-old, not from adults. To live, as a presidential press secretary presumably has to do to some extent, in an echo chamber of infantilized wailing and insult-hurling -- which is to say, to attend closely to the 24-hour cycle of news and comment as it plays out in various media -- cannot be pleasant. In fact, it must be so unpleasant that I'm surprised Gibbs did not say something stronger than the remarks which caused such an uproar. Perhaps the administration's spokespersons should pay less close attention to every wail of complaint, lest they risk validating and inadvertently strengthening the politics of the infantile. And perhaps progressives should develop ways of indicating their disappointment with the administration's performance that sound more like adult disagreement than childish whining.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Hearts and minds': an historical perspective

B.D. Hopkins's article "The Problem with 'Hearts and Minds' in Afghanistan," published in the Summer 2010 Middle East Report (site here; subscription required), makes several interesting points. The phrase "hearts and minds" was first used in 1891 by Sir Robert Groves Sandeman, agent to the British governor-general in Baluchistan. "What came to be known as the 'Sandeman system,'" Hopkins writes, "was based on the recruitment of local tribesmen into the edifice of imperial governance." In at least a limited sense, the system worked for the British insofar as Baluchistan under the Raj was relatively peaceful and "was considered a quiet backwater of imperial administration."

A traditional colonial power, however, had certain advantages that the U.S. today lacks, Hopkins suggests. A colonial power "is plugged into local information networks and has deep ties of patronage through which it draws on a collaborating elite," whereas an 'imperial' state (as distinct from a colonial one) lacks comparable "roots and interests in local society...." Formal colonialism is extinct (well, virtually extinct), for which Hopkins is (presumably) grateful, yet this makes the task of counterinsurgency more difficult, he argues. There is no equivalent in today's Afghanistan to the British settlers in Kenya or Malaya who helped give "the colonial state...a vested interest in the outcome of counterinsurgency efforts." (Although it must be noted that the British counterinsurgency against the Mau Mau in Kenya was very brutal and hardly something one would wish to duplicate.)

Hopkins concludes by "doubt[ing] the success of any US strategy [in Afghanistan] at this point." Others think it still may be possible to salvage an acceptable outcome, as three authors recently argued in Foreign Affairs. Who is right? I'll leave readers to reach their own judgments.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One-year retrospective on the EU's Eastern Partnership

In May '09 the EU launched its Eastern Partnership Initiative. The idea was to offer Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia closer political and economic links to the EU in exchange for domestic reforms. How has it worked? Judging from a paper (actually I only read the summary) done a few months ago by the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE, the answer would seem to be: Not very well. The link is here.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It seems that no one likes the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba

...which is not too surprising since, as I've noted before, it makes no sense.

[Hat tip: D.R.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Noted

Bacevich riffs on Fukuyama to proclaim "The End of Military History." Find the link here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The world according to Fortune

In a commentary on last night's Nightly Business Report (PBS), Allan Sloan, senior editor at large of Fortune magazine, argued that the "real bailout" was not TARP (the Troubled Assets Recovery Program), but rather such measures as the Federal Reserve's keeping interest rates close to zero. He said, among other things:
"The real bailout is the stuff you don't see and that didn't have a dramatic congressional vote, the way TARP did. The Fed keeping short-term interest rates at almost zero is a huge, huge subsidy to banks and investment houses. It's a major reason they're now making so much money and it's a huge penalty to America's savers and retirees, whose income on money market funds and short-term CDs is almost nothing."
How nice to see that Mr. Sloan is concerned about America's "savers and retirees." But what about America's workers and the economy as a whole? Wouldn't things likely have been worse than they were, and for almost everyone, if the Fed had not kept interest rates close to zero? One hardly needs to be an economist to see that an extraordinarily severe recession prompted this reaction and that the Fed would have been criticized if it had not lowered interest rates in the face of mass unemployment and severe contraction. Now, it's true I don't know how much low interest rates actually helped the economy, and I'm aware of reports that it remains difficult for small businesses to borrow because banks are still wary of lending. But it does seem to me that describing the policy of low interest rates as nothing more than a subsidy to banks and a penalty on savers, without any reference to its intended effect on the economy generally, is not likely to promote (to quote Mr. Sloan again) "understanding" as opposed to "grandstanding."

P.s. On a somewhat related note, see today's Wash Post article about the Democrats' renewed emphasis on the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fisk on Israel, the EU, and NATO

With a sarcasm that may not be entirely unjustified, Robert Fisk blasts Israel's close political-military ties to NATO and the EU. It's no doubt the case, as Fisk writes, that Britain spends millions of pounds annually on weapons licenses for Israel and that NATO conducts military exercises with Israeli soldiers (as indicated by the recent helicopter crash in Romania in which several IDF members were killed).

Let's suppose, however, that NATO and the EU were to hold Israel more at arm's length. Would that affect its military capabilities? Almost certainly not, not as long as the U.S. is committed to $3-billion-plus in annual military aid to Israel aimed at ensuring that Israel maintains what is called in Washington policy circles its "qualitative military edge," or QME. The U.S.-Israel military relationship, and its untouchability in U.S. politics, makes the EU and NATO angles a sideshow. The problem is not so much that the U.S. gives Israel a huge amount of military hardware as that this connection is treated as effectively separate from U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In attempts to put pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction, for instance, the U.S. begins with one hand tied behind its back, since Israel knows that the U.S. would never threaten to cut down assistance or do anything else that would jeopardize Israel's QME. (Occasionally in the past the U.S. has withheld loan guarantees, but this sort of action has been very rare.) If you deprive yourself ab initio of your main source of leverage, you aren't going to be able to exercise much leverage: that's pretty obvious.