Entries in history (6)

Saturday
Feb252012

The Fall of "Fishtown"

A while ago, I picked the January 2012 issue of conservative journal The New Criterion (Volume 30, Number 5) from a local newsstand.  The issue caught my eye because it had a symposium on the question “Is America in decline?”, a topic I find fascinating as a futurist and someone interested in Peak Oil and similar phenomena.

One of the essays on the purported decline of America was “Belmont & Fishtown” by Charles Murray, summarizing Murray’s book Coming Apart, which discusses “The State of White America”.  (Presumably “white America” specifically for rhetorical reasons, given the fate of Murray’s most famous work.)  Murray discusses the richest and poorest of whites, using Belmont and “Fishtown” as emblematic labels for these groups.  Murray’s conclusion is that since the 1960s, “Fishtown” has gone into deep decline in terms of American core values (Murray refers to such as “Founding virtues”).  “Belmont” has avoided such decline, but become isolated (geographically (for more on that topic, see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort) and in terms of tastes and preferences (becoming David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians).

Murray talks about four values in his study:  Marriage (and single vs. married birth and parenting), industriousness (Murray just looks at hours worked and participation in work force), honesty (Murray just looks at crime rates), and religiosity (which Murray posits causes increased civic engagement, but I’d say that it’s just correlated to civic engagement in general; church attendance is just a civic engagement thing religious people do).

Why did this happen?  Murray goes into little detail (at least in the short essay version of his work, I have not read the book).  One reason cited is the sorting effect of elite universities, coupled with financial aid.  This is an unintended consequence of meritocracy, the best and brightest, no matter how poor, are able to escape from troubled “Fishtown” (and, presumably, ensconce themselves in isolated “Belmont”), leaving “Fishtown” with even less social, cultural, human, and financial capital to deal with its escalating problems.  (Affirmative action would presumably bring the same effect to a broader cross-section of de-facto-segregated communities, but Murray doesn’t discuss this because he’s focusing on whites.)  As the problems get worse, the best and brightest of “Fishtown” have fewer opportunities where they grew up and more incentive to leave.

There’s one big thing missing from Murray’s explanation, though, perhaps best explained by a graphic like this:

(Excerpt from a graphic by the New York Times, from this opinion piece, HT Nick Huber.)

I’d say that’s the real power behind the wedge that’s driving “Fishtown” and “Belmont” apart.  I’d guess that the decline in the top marginal tax rate has something to do with that phenomena, though that came too late to be the primary cause.  Once you have the wedge of economic inequality (that is, declining economic opportunity that disproportionatly affects those already worse off (and pretty much anything will disproportionately affect those already worse off)), all sorts of feedback loops start up related to Murray’s metrics:

  1. Marriage: Less economic opportunity means fewer people can find a match who will make them better off. Job-related stresses also take a toll on relationships.
  2. Honesty: Less economic opportunity means more desperate people on the fringes.
  3. Industriousness: Murray asserts that divergence on this metric began when demand for labor was still high, but work that pays less (relative to national standards of living) is still less motivating.
  4. Civic Engagement: Less economic opportunity means less funds for church dues and other activities.  Increased job stress may mean less time/energy for other activities.
  5. Honesty + Marriage: Harder to get married if you’re a criminal.
  6. Honesty + Industriousness: Ditto for finding employment, even if it’s available.
  7. Honesty + Civic Engagement: Why participate in your community if you don’t like/trust your neighbors?
  8. Civic Engagement + Marriage: A good context to meet people, and in terms of child rearing in or out of wedlock, you’re more likely to care about social censure if you’re a member of a social group in the first place.
  9. Civic Engagement + Honesty: Building the sort of trust and norms that discourage crime.
  10. Any one of those four + itself: Norms change, it’s a vicious cycle.  The sorts of capital that keep these metrics high is also driven out when they decline.  Successful people leave, organizations move or cease to exist, webs of trust break down.

The above isn’t an inclusive list, and that’s not all that’s going on.  Technology has a role to play, too, and given my earlier points about the Robot Revolution (related), I expect the trend in the graph above to get worse.

I think both liberals and conservatives are aware of the decline Murray discusses, though I’ve seen rhetoric from both sides accusing the other of being in denial.  The underlying problem is largely untargeted by either side.  Liberals only have the political power to defend stop-gap measures that help the poorest of the poor.  Conservatives deny that a gap between productivity and wage growth is a problem, or suggest that the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only liberals stopped “helping”.  That line misses two things:  First, the “rising tides lift all boats bit” doesn’t really fit with the psychological reality of the situation, which is that people judge how well off they are relative to others in their society, so economic inequality means social breakdown even if standard of living continues to rise.  Second, there seem to be some implicit and very rosy assumptions about the form such bootstrap-pulling would take, especially if the “social safety net” really is removed (or overwhelmed).

(There’s been about Murray going around the blogosphere (especially among alt-righters), some posts to start on include this speculation about Charles Murray and the Future and this review of the book.  I’d be curious to see more left-wing reactions to the book, too, if there are good ones to read.)

Friday
Dec162011

Thoughts on Occupy Versus Police

(This post is way delayed and fairly disorganized, but I’m putting aside further editing in the interest of getting it out the digital door.)

Occupy is interesting, but it’s also interesting to consider the variety of tactics police have used in opposing the movement.  On the one hand, there’s the UC Davis incident, where the message of “if you are in the way, we will hose you down with military grade pepper spray at point-blank range” was communicated by actually doing just that.  That might be legal, even in the liberal 9th circuit, but doesn’t exactly defuse the situation, and it’s unclear whether it will prevent the protesters from achieving (some of) their goals.

On the other hand, there’s the aikido tactics of the St. Louis Police.  As related in this post by Brad Hicks, after a series of fake-out maneuvers, the police acted with a combination of power and restraint:

[…] [The police] didn’t show up in riot gear and helmets, they showed up in shirt sleeves with their faces showing. They not only didn’t show up with SWAT gear, they showed up with no unusual weapons at all, and what weapons they had all securely holstered. They politely woke everybody up. They politely helped everybody who was willing to remove their property from the park to do so. They then asked, out of the 75 to 100 people down there, how many people were volunteering for being-arrested duty? Given 33 hours to think about it, and 10 hours to sweat it over, only 27 volunteered. As the police already knew, those people’s legal advisers had advised them not to even passively resist, so those 27 people lined up to be peacefully arrested, and were escorted away by a handful of cops. The rest were advised to please continue to protest, over there on the sidewalk … and what happened next was the most absolutely brilliant piece of crowd control policing I have heard of in my entire lifetime.

All of the cops who weren’t busy transporting and processing the voluntary arrestees lined up, blocking the stairs down into the plaza. They stood shoulder to shoulder. They kept calm and silent. They positioned the weapons on their belts out of sight. They crossed their hands low in front of them, in exactly the least provocative posture known to man. And they peacefully, silently, respectfully occupied the plaza, using exactly the same non-violent resistance techniques that the protesters themselves had been trained in. […]

By dawn, the protesters were licked.

(Again, read the whole thing.)

The clearing of Occupy Boston used some of the St. Louis tactics, so maybe those are catching on.  More brutal tactics may or may not be self-defeating, but I suppose that depends on exactly how far police are willing to go, as Brad points out, addressed towards police:

In case you haven’t noticed, you are not the only police officers who have been asked to use as much force as necessary, in order to crack down on trivial ordinance violations, as an excuse to shut those citizens up. Your fellow police have been asked to shut down those protests in every country in Latin America, in every country in the Middle East, in every country in North Africa, and in almost every country in Europe. In country after country, one of three things has happened: the cops obeyed orders and the kleptocrats are getting away with imposing austerity, or else the cops obeyed orders but foreign governments stepped in, citing actual or impending police atrocities, and overthrew the kleptocrats, or else they did something that you chose not to do, this last week or two.

In a few countries, the cops saw that they didn’t have the choice of defending the perfectly law abiding, saw that they were being asked to defend criminals, concluded that they could not morally justify obeying the order to shut down the protests, and went home. Few if any of the protesters even asked the police to switch sides and join the protests against kleptocracy. Most of us know that that’s an unreasonable request, we know that most of you feel that you owe it to the uniform you wear, and to the oath you took, and to your fellow officers, not to join the protesters. But in the countries where the police, asked to use force to shut down peaceful protests against kleptocracy, took off their uniforms and went home until it was all over? Not just in the Arab (Spring) world, but in places like Iceland? Freedom is on the march. Nor have those countries slid into poverty because they refused to cover the debts that the thieves owed to the dishonest bankers; those countries are recovering from the global recession faster than we are.

Charles Stross has some interesting thoughts on how the police crackdown fits into the larger economic/political situation:

Public austerity is a great cover for the expropriation of wealth by the rich (by using their accumulated capital to go on acquisition sprees for assets being sold off for cents on the dollar by the near-bankrupt state). But public austerity is a huge brake on economic growth because it undermines demand by impoverishing consumers. Consequently, we’re in for another long depression. […]

Starving poor people with guns and nothing to lose scare the rich; their presence in large numbers is one major component of a pre-revolutionary situation. […] Worse, the poor have smartphones. […]

The oligarchs are therefore pre-empting the pre-revolutionary situation by militarizing the police (as guard labour).

The rest is interesting, too, including the comments.

Sunday
Apr102011

More Than Meats the Eye

There’s more going on here than you might think:

 

That video is from a YouTube show called EpicMealTime, there’s an entire line of such videos.  See also thisiswhyyourefat, the Heart Attack Grill, the ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuud subreddit, etc., etc.

A few thoughts:

1. Competitive feasting has deep historical roots.  It’s hypothesized to be one of the reasons for the transition between hunting-gathering and agriculture.  Starving hunter-gathers presumably would not turn to agriculture, since that means burying grain instead of eating it and staying in a food-poor area instead of moving.  However, moving from gathering to horticulture to agriculture could be a way of turning a current surplus into a future even-bigger surplus at the expense of being tied down and vulnerable to future famine.

2. Robin Hanson is a fan of explaining modern trends in terms of the tendency of high-status industrialists/agriculturalists to live according to forager norms instead of farmer norms.  But he points out a hole in his hypothesis:

I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

I wonder if competitive eaters lean more politically conservative or liberal than seemingly-similar individuals?

3. Is the kind of competitive feasting I highlight hyper-farmer or hyper-forager?  Well, forager modes of competitive feasting tend to allow high-status individuals to accumulate further status without them accumulating further material control or wealth.

Of course, not all the examples above are the same.  In the case of EMT, I suppose it depends on how the social pressures on Harley Morenstein and the other hosts work as they gain more wealth.  If it results in a dramatic increase in their personal income, agriculturalist.  If it results in the show containing ever larger / more expensive / more dramatically produced meals in such a way that it precludes extraordinary accumulation of wealth by the hosts, forager.

On the other hand, the structure of the feast is more agriculturalist (the “big man” is paying to obtain raw materials up front and people are (essentially) paying him for the result). And pretty much all the distribution of funds is going directly to industrial agriculture.  Distribution of actual food isn’t involved.

And no way a forager is going to get their hands on that much bacon per person.

4. Given the low price of many high-calorie food items, excessive food is in many cases very clearly framed as a celebration of “low culture”.  It hardly fits in with the “eats a healthier and well-varied” diet that’s the first item in Hanson’s description of foragers.  On the other hand, the exaggerated or ironic celebration of low culture is very SWPL.

No idea how to fit that into the farmer norms vs. forager norms framing.

5. Getting back to point 3, countering the accumulation of all wealth in the hands of a few high-status individuals is kind of key if you want to have a stable society.  Modern civilization has dealt with this almost entirely by expanding frontiers (or in globalization terms, “developing new markets”).  But we’re running kind of short on frontiers at the moment, and the need for labor is lower than ever due to technology.

Arguably, foreign aid programs are a sort of competitive feasting.  They redistribute wealth to accumulate status, both of which promote stability.  Given the role of food prices in recent revolutions (past and ongoing), that’s not been terribly effective.

Monday
Jan172011

Reading "The Bow of Ulysses"

(Note: I wrote this ages ago but inadvertantly left it on the draft queue instead of marking it as published.  So here it is.)

In the weeks since my last post (before the time in which I was unduly delayed in posting this), one of the things I’ve done is taken Moldbug’s advice and read Froude’s The English in the West Indies: or The Bow of Ulysses.  The book, published in 1888, is a travelogue.  Froude builds on the work of Charles Kingsley (who published At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies in 1871) and Père Labat (who was living in and writing about the West Indies in the eighteenth century).  Much of the book is typical travelogue stuff (if very erudite; the book is scattered throughout with snippets of Greek and some Spanish and French, little of which Froude bothers to translate), and Froude writes a good travelogue; his descriptions are colorful, interesting, and sometimes funny.  The rest is political musings on the state of the British Empire, the (past) emancipation of British-held slaves, and (present and future) efforts to instate democratic, constitutional governments in the British colonies.

Historical Context

In Jamaica in 1865, the Morant Bay rebellion (Froude points out that this was a riot and not really a planned insurrection) was suppressed and George William Gordon was hanged under martial law outside of ordinary due process, since a speech of Gordon’s was a proximate cause of the riot. (Froude thinks that was questionable, since Gordon did not apparently do anything illegal; it’s not clear that Gordon planned or attempted to incite the riot.  Froude, rather, blames democracy, but in particular democracy with a black majority and white minority.)   In 1866, the Jamaican legislature was dissolved, turning Jamaica again into a Crown colony, and in the 1880s, an effort to return Jamaica to self-government was underway (full self-government was not achieved until 1962).

Haiti faced all sorts of political troubles from the 1789 revolution onwards (brutality on both sides during the turmoil of the revolution and massacres of whites in its aftermath), foreign embargo, coerced reparations, rebellions, civil wars, and all sorts of political turmoil.  Froude was writing his book during a brief lull in the storm of Haitian history (1874-1911), but as far as he’s concerned the Haitians have been busy eating babies and worshiping Satan from the moment they got out from under the watchful eye of white-people government.

Of course Froude, as a historian, tries to keep a sense of perspective when evaluating the veracity of such claims:

[…] Sir Spenser St. John, an English official, after residing for twelve years in Port au Prince, had in a published narrative with many details and particulars, declared that the republic of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the idol of all believers in the new gospel of liberty, had, after ninety years of independence, become a land where cannibalism could be practised with impunity. The African Obeah, the worship of serpents and trees and stones, after smouldering in all the West Indies in the form of witchcraft and poisoning, had broken out in Hayti in all its old hideousness. Children were sacrificed as in the old days of Moloch and were devoured with horrid ceremony, salted limbs being preserved and sold for the benefit of those who were unable to attend the full solemnities.

[…] Yet one had to set one incredibility against another. […] I reminded him of the universal conviction through Europe that the Jews were habitually guilty of sacrificing children also. There had been detailed instances. Alleged offenders had been brought before courts of justice at any time for the last six hundred years. Witnesses had been found to swear to facts which had been accepted as conclusive. Wretched creatures in Henry III.’s time had been dragged by dozens at horses’ tails through the streets of London, broken on the wheel, or torn to pieces by infuriated mobs. Even within the last two years, the same accusation had been brought forward in Russia and Germany, and had been established apparently by adequate proof. So far as popular conviction of the guilt of the Jews was an evidence against them, nothing could be stronger; and no charge could be without foundation on ordinary principles of evidence which revived so often and in so many places. And yet many persons, I said, and myself among them, believed that although the accusers were perfectly sincere, the guilt of the Jews was from end to end an hallucination of hatred. I had looked into the particulars of some of the trials. They were like the trials for witchcraft. The belief had created the fact, and accusation was itself evidence. I was prepared to find these stories of child murder in Hayti were bred similarly of anti-negro prejudice.

However, he seems happy to repeat the same claims without this veneer of skepticism later in the book.

Froude on Race

As a lead-in to the former topic, Froude talks about meeting the Chief Justice of Barbados, which leads to a bit of discussion about Froude’s views on race in general:

Before my stay at Barbadoes ended, I had an opportunity of meeting at dinner a negro of pure blood who has risen to eminence by his own talent and character. He has held the office of attorney-general. He is now chief justice of the island.  […]  Having heard the craniological and other objections to the supposed identity of the negro and white races, I came to the opinion […] that whether they are of one race or not there is no original or congenital difference of capacity between them, any more than there is between a black horse and a black dog and a white horse and a white dog. With the same chances and with the same treatment, I believe that distinguished men would be produced equally from both races, and Mr. _____’s well-earned success is an additional evidence of it. But it does not follow that what can be done eventually can be done immediately, and the gulf which divides the colours is no arbitrary prejudice, but has been opened by the centuries of training and discipline which have given us the start in the race. We set it down to slavery. It would be far truer to set it down to freedom. The African blacks have been free enough for thousands, perhaps for tens of thousands of years, and it has been the absence of restraint which has prevented them from becoming civilised. Generation has followed generation, and the children are as like their father as the successive generations of apes. The whites, it is likely enough, succeeded one another with the same similarity for a long series of ages. It is now supposed that the human race has been upon the planet for a hundred thousand years at least, and the first traces of civilisation cannot be thrown back at farthest beyond six thousand. During all those ages mankind went on treading in the same steps, century after century making no more advance than the birds and beasts. In Egypt or in India or one knows not where, accident or natural development quickened into life our moral and intellectual faculties; and these faculties have grown into what we now experience, not in the freedom in which the modern takes delight, but under the sharp rule of the strong over the weak, in of the wise over the unwise. Our own Anglo-Norman race has become capable of self-government only after a thousand years of civil and spiritual authority. European government, European instruction, continued steadily till his natural tendencies are superseded by a higher instinct, may shorten the probation period of the negro. Individual blacks of exceptional quality, like Frederick Douglas in America, or the Chief Justice of Barbadoes, will avail themselves of opportunities to rise, and the freest opportunities ought to be offered them. But it is as certain as any future event can be that if we give the negroes as a body the political powers which we claim for ourselves, they will use them only to their own injury. They will slide back into their old condition, and the chance will be gone of lifting them to the level to which we have no right to say that they are incapable of rising. [emphasis mine]

One thing that surprised me about the book: Despite Moldbug’s recommendation, Froude is not a reactionary.  He’s very clearly a conservative.  That is, he believes in progress, but thinks that progressives, in their rush forwards, will screw things up.  Froude’s views on slavery follow a similar course:

The negroes who were sold to the dealers in the African factories were most of them either slaves already to worse masters or were servi, servants in the old meaning of the word, prisoners of war, or else criminals, servati or reserved from death. They would otherwise have been killed; and since the slave trade has been abolished are again killed in the too celebrated ‘customs.’ The slave trade was a crime when the chiefs made war on each other for the sake of captives whom they could turn into money. In many instances, perhaps in most, it was innocent and even beneficent.  Nature has made us unequal, and Acts of Parliament cannot make us equal. Some must lead and some must follow, and the question is only of degree and kind. For myself, I would rather be the slave of a Shakespeare or a Burghley than the slave of a majority in the House of Commons or the slave of my own folly. Slavery is gone, with all that belonged to it; but it will be an ill day for mankind if no one is to be compelled any more to obey those who are wiser than himself, and each of us is to do only what is right in our own eyes. There may be authority, yet not slavery: a soldier is not a slave, a sailor is not a slave, a child is not a slave, a wife is not a slave; yet they may not live by their own wills or emancipate themselves at their own pleasure from positions in which nature has placed them, or into which they have themselves voluntarily entered. The negroes of the West Indies are children, and not yet disobedient children. They have their dreams, but for the present they are dreams only. If you enforce self-government upon them when they are not asking for it, you may turn the dream into a reality, and wilfully drive them back into the condition of their ancestors, from which the slave trade was the beginning of their emancipation. [emphasis mine again]

 To comment on those highlighted sentences:

  1. Froude’s spectacles seem to be a particularly high-powered shade of rose on that particular issue.
  2. Okay as a hyperbolic rhetorical claim.  But I wouldn’t take him at his word on that one, Froude (like most people) does not seem like he would actually be happy as a slave under any circumstances.
  3. Since his criticism is directed towards white liberals and he (evidently) doesn’t view blacks as having much moral agency at all, it’s tempting for him to mischaracterize pro-democracy movements as being entirely driven by minorities and outsiders.

Tennyson, Gladstone, and Froude

One bit of the book that caught my attention was the story that frames Froude’s departure:

The morning papers were occupied with Lord Tennyson’s new ‘Locksley Hall’ and Mr. Gladstone’s remarks upon it. I had read neither; but from the criticisms it appeared that Lord Tennyson fancied himself to have seen a change pass over England since his boyhood, and a change which was not to his mind. The fruit of the new ideas which were then rising from the ground had ripened, and the taste was disagreeable to him. The day which had followed that ‘august sunrise’ had not been ‘august’ at all; and ‘the beautiful bold brow of Freedom’ had proved to have something of brass upon it. The ‘use and wont’ England, the England out of which had risen the men who had won her great position for her, was losing its old characteristics. Things which in his eager youth Lord Tennyson had despised he saw now that he had been mistaken in despising; and the new notions which were to remake the world were not remaking it in a shape that pleased him. Like Goethe, perhaps he felt that he was stumbling over the roots of the tree which he had helped to plant.

The contrast in Mr. Gladstone’s article was certainly remarkable. Lord Tennyson saw in institutions which were passing away the decay of what in its time had been great and noble, and he saw little rising in the place of them which humanly could be called improvement. To Mr. Gladstone these revolutionary years had been years of the sweeping off of long intolerable abuses, and of awaking to higher and truer perceptions of duty. Never, according to him, in any period of her history had England made more glorious progress, never had stood higher than at the present moment in material power and moral excellence. How could it be otherwise when they were the years of his own ascendency?

Here’s the poem in question (which, of course, follows this poem; if you prefer your poetry in audio form, you can listen to both here).  Gladstone’s essay is here, and his journal article did indeed get attention in the news at the time.

Froude continues:

[…] I will not despond with Lord Tennyson. To take a gloomy view of things will not mend them, and modern enlightenment may have excellent gifts in store for us which will come by-and-by. But I will not say that they have come as yet. I will not say that public life is improved when party spirit has degenerated into an organised civil war, and a civil war which can never end, for it renews its life like the giant of fable at every fresh election. I will not say that men are more honest and more law-abiding when debts are repudiated and law is defied in half the country, and Mr. Gladstone himself applauds or refuses to condemn acts of open dishonesty. […]

[…] The periods where the orator is supreme are marked always by confusion and disintegration. Goethe could say of Luther that he had thrown back for centuries the spiritual cultivation of mankind, by calling the passions of the multitude to judge of matters which should have been left to the thinkers. We ourselves are just now in one of those uneasy periods, and we have decided that orators are the fittest people to rule over us. The constituencies choose their members according to the fluency of their tongues. Can he make a speech? is the one test of competency for a legislator, and the most persuasive of the whole we make prime minister. We admire the man for his gifts, and we accept what he says for the manner in which it is uttered. He may contradict to-day what he asserted yesterday. No matter. He can persuade others wherever he is persuaded himself. And such is the nature of him that he can convince himself of anything which it is his interest to believe. These are the persons who are now regarded as our wisest. It was not always so. It is not so now with nations who are in a sound state of health. The Americans, when they choose a President or a Secretary of State or any functionary from whom they require wise action, do not select these famous speech-makers.  [Not at that point, anyways.]  Such periods do not last, for the condition which they bring about becomes always intolerable. [paragraph break mine]

I do not believe in the degeneracy of our race. I believe the present generation of Englishmen to be capable of all that their fathers were and possibly of more; but we are just now in a moulting state, and are sick while the process is going on. Or to take another metaphor. The bow of Ulysses is unstrung. The worms have not eaten into the horn or the moths injured the string, but the owner of the house is away and the suitors of Penelope Britannia consume her substance, rivals one of another, each caring only for himself, but with a common heart in evil. They cannot string the bow. Only the true lord and master can string it, and in due time he comes, and the cord is stretched once more upon the notch, singing to the touch of the finger with the sharp note of the swallow ; and the arrows fly to their mark in the breasts of the pretenders, while Pallas Athene looks on approving from her coign of vantage. [emphasis, as always, is mine]

Incidentally, that last, I think, is one of the reasons why Moldbug favors this book:  The Bow of Ulysses is not a metaphor for conservatism.  It is a wonderful metaphor for reaction.

Friday
Nov052010

Obama and the FDR Route

I’ve still got a post in the hopper on education and the school system, but I’d like to take the time for a bit of a digression on the 2010 elections.  Mostly because of this interesting comment by Robert Reich:

Some people are going to tell President Obama that Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 because he moved to the center, and Obama should, too. But Clinton was really reelected because by 1996, the economy had come roaring back to life.

[…]

The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996. It’s Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. By 1936, the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.

How? He shifted the debate from his failure to get the economy moving to the irresponsibility of his opponents. Republicans, he said, stood for “business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking.” And Roosevelt made clear his opponents wanted to stop him from helping ordinary Americans. “Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he thundered. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

The lead of that piece quotes Clinton in contrast to the FDR strategy:

 I want us to forge a partnership to produce results for the American people.

Compare that to Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of the election:

I’m not so naïve as to think that everybody will put politics aside until then, but I do hope to make progress on the very serious problems facing us right now. And that’s going to require all of us, including me, to work harder at building consensus.

In part, I agree with Reich.  I don’t think the “double down on consensus building” approach in 2010-2012 will work any better than the same approach 2008-2010.  However, the Roosevelt comparison is equally poor.  Let me count the ways:

The Democrats gained seats in ‘32 and ‘34 (and were on their way to doing well in ‘36).  They had a strong majority in both houses by ‘32.  Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs started in ‘33.  So ‘36 Roosevelt was winning in a way that Obama is currently not.  Easy to take a haters gonna hate line when you’re on top.  You might be able to do it if you were selling yourself as a scrappy (but right) underdog.  But Obama hasn’t been selling himself as a scrappy underdog since the election, and even then he was using “we’re all in this together” rhetoric.

A better comparison would be Roosevelt ‘40.  After all, the Democrats took a big hit in ‘38 because the economy was still weak.  Sounds familiar.  Even more familiar (PDF, via Wikipedia):

When the Gallup poll in 1939 asked, ‘Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?’ the American people responded ‘yes’ by a margin of more than two-to-one. The business community felt even more strongly so.

But even then, Roosevelt had quite a few things  going for him that Obama does not:

  1. He had far better access to the media than his opponent.
  2. The Democrats still had control of both houses, whereas Democrats in 2010 don’t have control of the House and only have enough control of the Senate to not do things.
  3. War was looming, when it came to having an external enemy to convince the American people that changing course on domestic policy is not the relevant issue, you couldn’t do better.  (Heck, the guy is still a favorite political distraction.)
  4. People had a negative sentiment for “big business” that they don’t today.  (They felt that Roosevelt ‘40 was “delaying business recovery”, but that didn’t mean a lot of public sentiment behind deregulation or repealing New Deal programs.)  Today, a lot of the same anger is directed into anti-government sentiment.  Among other fears.
  5. The Democrats of today aren’t credible as an anti-Wall-Street party.  Sure, they’re a bit better in supporting higher taxes on the top income bracket, which would discourage some of the reckless compensation schemes featured prominently in the current crisis.  The Republicans were all over deregulation.  But Clinton passed NAFTA and Gramm–Leach–Bliley and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and reappointed Greenspan, while Obama is all Summers Geithner Bernanke and the best he can get in terms of big liberal reforms is basically the health care plan proposed by Republicans in 1994 and a bit more consumer protection for credit cards.

So Clinton ‘94-96 isn’t the right lesson.  But FDR ‘34-36 (or even ‘38-40) isn’t the right answer either.  And that’s obvious enough that I don’t know why Robert Reich would think so either, except for wishful thinking that Obama will change his strategy completely and start acting like FDR.  Wishful thinking more powered by a positive sentiment about FDR than a reasonable belief that such a strategy would work in this situation.

As for the Republicans, I’ll quote Senator Mitch McConnell:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.  But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.

Sadly, I think Obama’s 2010-2012 strategy will likely be similar to his 2008-2010 strategy, with even more modest results.  And if the 2012 election is a straight-up Obama versus centrist Republican contest, I predict Obama will lose (and that the Republicans will subsequently forget all about ending the bailouts, cutting spending, and shrinking the size and scope of government).  Whether healthcare reform is repealed will depend on how much popularity it has gained by 2012, which I can’t accurately predict.  (If repealed, it will probably not be replaced at all.  If replaced, it will likely be replaced by something rather similar.)

Of course, it’s not at all guaranteed that the 2012 presidential election will be straight-up anything.

Wednesday
Jun022010

#Flotilla

This Monday, Israeli forces boarded and captured the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”, a convoy of ships carrying food and medicine to the besieged territory of Gaza.  Nine activists were killed, many more activists and some Israeli soldiers were injured.

Gaza has been under a near-total blockade since 2007, though Israel formally ended their occupation in 2005 and denies that their near total control of the land, sea, and air borders, complete blockade (save for limited humanitarian aid imports), and complete prohibition of any kind of military development qualifies them for any of the responsibilities of an occupying power.  It’s not clear at all that the blockade is legal under international law.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the flotilla had a stated intention of breaking the Israeli blockade, but they were sailing under the Turkish flag (the lead ship was a Turkish ship, the convoy departed from a Turkish port, though the vessels in the convoy were from a bunch of different countries) and attacked in international waters.  The activists claim that Israeli soldiers fired on them before boarding, Israel claims the soldiers only returned fire after coming under attack (with improvised weapons and their own weapons).

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  Legally, the act was either a crime commited by Israeli soldiers on a Turkish vessel or an act of war by Israel against a Turkish ship.  Israel argues that the flotilla presented a danger to Israel that justified acting in international waters instead of waiting.  Turkey is understandably upset that an ostensibly friendly country expects them to ignore such a provocation, and is threatening to send a naval escort with the next such attempt.  It’s brinkmanship, it’s not clear that the Turkish navy would stand by while Israel attacked a Turkish ship in international waters, not clear that Israel would wait until the ship entered their territory (since that would demonstrate that their decision-making was affected by something as trivial as the Turkish navy), and it’s not clear that an actual naval battle between warships wouldn’t lead to a war.  Which would be an awkward situation for the United States, to say the least, given that Israel and Turkey are both allies.

Brad Hicks, one of my favorite essayists, has an excellent analysis of the incident.

An interesting question is to what extent did the flotilla activists succeed in their goals.  They failed to break the blockade, and the supplies were not delivered because Hamas would rather make political points than accept another shipment of aid.  Then again, the flotilla protesters clearly shared that objective, they didn’t accept Israel’s offer to allow the supplies in through an Israeli port.  Another shipment of supplies won’t end the chronic food and water shortages in Gaza, won’t restore the destroyed economy.  So here’s an idea that’s worth highlighting:

Idea #2: Nonviolent direct action succeeds when it is disruptive politically or economically.  Getting attention isn’t enough.

Was the flotilla disruptive?  It’s certainly caused a lot of noise.  Turkey aside, Ireland is pulling out the diplomatic threats over a lagging Irish vessel following the flotilla.

But brinkmanship and talk are nothing new, actual war or significant sanctions wouldn’t be.  The former is (fortunately) unlikely, the latter… well, the relevant question is what exactly would it take to cool unconditional US support for Israel?  (Note that attacking a US navy ship was not sufficient to cool US-Israel relations.)