Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's wrong with finance in America

I didn't plan to post today, but three things moved me to do so. The first was the amazing New York Times story about Washington Mutual's mortgage lending policies, which is yet another parallel to the stories of Madoff, Enron, and the Harvard endowment. The huge Washington Mutual operation, it turns out, did not even make a pretense of making sound loans to people who could pay them--they simply made as many loans as they possibly could. The whole story is evidence of the extent of the rot within our entire financial system, which, I am beginning to think, may have to rebuilt from the ground up like the city of New Orleans (not, I know, a reassuring analogy.) We are eventually going to discover, I think, that the whole recovery and boom of the second half of the Bush Administration was built entirely on sand.
The second was an article in the current New York Review of Books about how drug companies have managed to corrupt the process of trying out and approving new drugs. It does a great deal to explain why American health care is the most expensive in the world and why the expense does not translate into better health. It doesn't even mention, by the way, one of the biggest abuses of the system: the American decision (unique, I believe, in the industrialized world) to allow the advertisement of prescription drugs on television. But it will make it very difficult for readers to see their doctors the same way the next time that they visit them.
But my second stimulus was personal--I paid a charge bill that I received from one of our leading banks. It's a card that I don't use very often but I've switched to paying the bill online, and every time I do, I notice the same thing. After a (properly) rather complicated logging in procedure, one can click a link that shows the current balance (several hundred dollars in this case), with further links allowing one to either "view statements" or "pay bill." I naturally clicked "view statements" to see if I recognized the charges that added up to (let's say) $540.25, and I did. So I went back a page and clicked "pay bill." The new page came up with place to type in what I owed--but that space had a default amount in it. What was the default amount? Not $540.25--but $15.00, the monthly minimum. Nowhere on that page did my actual balance appear. To find that I had to go back a page again (since I hadn't committed the figure to memory.)And I did.
Now I hardly think that the software code that produced that result was an accident. Obviously the practice of inviting the customer to pay only the minimum indicates the bank's preference. Even now, with bankruptcies soaring all over the country and major banks (including theirs) drowning in bad debts, they want me and their other customers to go further into debt. That, as much as the stories in the Times and the New York Review, tells me how the United States got into the mess that it is in today.
Yesterday's post on the foreign scene appears below. Meanwhile, yesterday, in response to Hamas's decision a couple of weeks ago to halt the cease-fire with Israel, Israel has undertaken a huge military operation that has killed well over 200 people already. The renewed rocketing that followed the Hamas decision had not killed anyone, although a rocket fired yesterday (when Hamas retaliated in greater numbers) did kill one Israeli. The Israeli government has historically been proud of its tradition of disproportionate retaliation, but it seems to me neither moral nor, to date, effective. (And because I'm a consequentialist rather than an intentionalist, the latter point bothers me more than the former.)

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Legacies of error

It's a banner Christmas season for movies again, and for months I've been looking forward to Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise vehicle about the conspiracy to kill Hitler. While Hollywood's capacity to mangle history must never be underestimated, the subject is so extraordinary compelling that I am going to remain optimistic. (I never read reviews of something I want to see until I've seen it: I don't want to know anything in advance.) I couldn't make the film yesterday, but I decided to bone up on the subject matter again, and I walked to my local library (it's only two blocks away) and got out their copy of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

I remember the arrival of that book via the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1961. I don't think my father ever opened it: he was too much a man of action to get into a book of a thousand pages. But I did within a couple of years, and it was one of the first works of serious history that I made my way through. I don't think I had opened it up in more than four decades and I was now amazed at how good it actually was. Shirer had really made an exhaustive study of the Nuremberg records, in particular, and he narrated the anti-Hitler conspiracy in extraordinary detail. Like most GIs, he wrote capably if not musically, and of course his subject provided more than enough drama.

Two things beyond the story itself (and the role of Count von Stauffenberg, whom Cruise is playing) stood out for me. The first was the bizarre nature of the Nazi regime, especially in its later stages when things were going badly. While it was certainly totalitarian in enforcing its views upon the average citizen and stifling dissent, its upper reaches were ruled by anarchy. The Army High Command in particular was never really loyal to Hitler. Dozens of generals were involved in the conspiracy and many more generals and field marshals knew about it and kept their mouths shut even though they refused to participate. The security services, led by Heinrich Himmler, had inevitably gotten some word of what was going on, but Himmler himself by 1943-4 was thinking about eventually making peace with the allies after Hitler's disappearance, and that may have made him less aggressive than he might have been about taking action. (Himmler actually tried to implement that plan in the last days of the war and was shocked to find that the allies were not interested.) Like certain other governments, the Nazi regime ran on the personal favor of the man at the top, and like certain other heads of state, Hitler was too lazy to pay close attention to what was actually happening in many spheres. He had also alienated the military by cashiering literally hundreds of generals (many of which he eventually brought back.)
Although the conspirators were courageous men, their anti-Nazi zeal, it must be said, waxed and waned along with the fortunes of war. They were quite active during the winter of 1939-40, before the attack on France, which they did not expect to succeed, but after France fell they apparently basked in the glow of victory and did not really revive their activities until late 1941, when Soviet Russia had refused to fall and the United States had joined the war. Even then it took more than a year for them to become serious. The conspiracy included quite a few high civil servants and some churchmen (both Protestant and Catholic) and professors, as well as a few former trade union leaders, intelligence officers, and, as noted, Army officers. Many of them were old enough to remember the results of the defeat of 1918--including, eventually, Hitler's rise--and their goal in 1942-3 was a new government that could negotiate peace at least in the West. Some actually hoped to continue fighting the Soviets and many hoped to keep some of Hitler's territorial gains in the East. They decided rather early on that Hitler had to be assassinated but initially discovered that that would be no easy job. Not only was he well guarded, but he never stayed in one place very long and constantly altered his movements. On one occasion a conspirator entered a room with a delayed-action bomb similar to the one Stauffenberg used, only to find that Hitler was only going to be there for a few minutes, not half an hour. He had to abort the plan.
Another aspect of the story caught my eye, however, because of its contemporary relevance. Nearly until the last minute some conspirators feared that the assassination of Hitler, followed by peace on any available terms with the allies (who had made it known through some covert contacts that they were not interested in peace with anyone in Germany), would create another "stab-in-the-back" legend like the one that had grown up after 1918, when a democratic revolutionary government had been forced to make a disastrous peace. As it turned out, various delays prevented the execution of the plot until about seven weeks after the Normandy invasion, when Germany was on the point of being driven out of France and the Soviets were also in the midst of their greatest offensive to date. By then the conspirators realized that their plans for peace were almost certain to fail, but their leaders decided that it didn't matter. The assassination of Hitler had become a matter of German honor.
What struck me about this, not for the first time, was how one single mistake, one terrible, fateful decision, can reverberate through history for many decades. In Germany's case that mistake had occurred in July 1914, when most (not all) of the German leadership had convinced itself that the time was ripe for a trial of strength between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand and Russia, France, and possibly even Britain on the other. The real source of the July crisis was Balkan nationalism--the Serbian desire to destroy Austria-Hungary, which had led to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination--but Berlin's decision to force a confrontation led to the world war. When no quick victory occurred, the German government had to tell itself and its people that the war had been forced upon it. The imperial government chose not to take advantage of President Wilson's attempts to mediate a peace in 1916-7--attempts which, I have found, were more bitterly resented by the British than by the Germans--and instead decided on unrestricted submarine warfare and brought the United States into the war in 1917. It waited until the German Army was collapsing to take up Wilson's offer, and by then it was far too late to get a genuine peace of understanding that would have preserved the authority of the German government. The Versailles Treaty and the economic chaos of the 1920s--hyperinflation, followed by a brief recovery, followed by a depression--became new excuses to blame the leaders of the Weimar Republic and the allies for Germany's problems. The war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty, meanwhile, led the new government to sponsor a whole academic industry designed to prove (falsely) that Germany had not started the war and therefore did not deserve to pay reparations.
Now the Bush Administration's policies in the Middle East have also been catastrophic, as a review in the current New York Review of Books points out. Thanks in large part to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans the United States can still afford such mistakes and survive, but I am afraid that that miscalculation, like the German one in 1914, may poison our politics for a long time. The decisions to invade Iraq, to interrupt the peace process in the Middle East, and to insist on Palestinian elections discredited the US around the world and strengthened our enemies in the region. The decision to remove the government of Afghanistan has contributed to the destablization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Much of the American people, I think, realizes that these decisions--especially the Iraq war--were mistaken. That has not however prevented the Bush Administration, including Secretary Gates (who will continue in office), from laying a basis for a long-term Amerian presence in Iraq, and President Obama is on record favoring a larger effort in Afghanistan. Bad policy, in short, may have been institutionalized already. But even if the new President does reverse course on some of these fronts--as I hope he will--both the Republican Party and a good deal of the foreign policy establishment will call him an appeaser and blame any further problems on a failure to stick with Bush's policies.
Despite the drop in violence in Iraq, much evidence suggests that the situation there will deteriorate again as American troops withdraw. Nothing has happened to indicate any real interest in national reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, and the new round of provincial elections, like those in 2005, are almost certain to harden ethnic lines and re-open conflicts in disputed areas. Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and Pakistan and India are on the brink of war after Mumbai. (In a clever fantasy op-ed a few weeks ago Richard Clarke, the Clinton Administration's terrorism czar, suggested that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack counted on it to renew tensions with India and force the Pakistani Army to move troops from Pakistan's western border to its eastern one. Today's papers report that those movements are now taking place, making it easier for the Taliban (which the Pakistani government has always wanted in power in Afghanistan anyway) to operate freely in the tribal areas. On another front, a New York Times article last week talked about the popularity of militant Islam among the young people of Jordan--until now our most reliable and pro-western ally in the Middle East.
A couple of weeks ago I heard Robert Baer, the former CIA agent whose first book was the basis for the movie Syriana, argue that the United States had to give up the idea of transforming the Muslim world. I could not agree more, but I do not know whether that idea will have much traction even within the new Administration. But I think much depends upon our ability to face this reality. If we continue to go further down that path in an attempt to justify our initial mistake, the consequences could eventually become much more serious, even if they never do quite approach the consequences for Germany of the error of July 1914.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Miscellany

This week I got around to reading Michael Dobbs's book, One Minute to Midnight, on the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Washington Post reporter who had previously written a sensible book on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dodd did some serious archival research--particularly in military records--and interviewed various surviving Soviet and American participants. His portrait of Nikita Khrushchev seemed to me a little more favorable than was justified by the story he had to tell, while his portrait of John F. Kennedy, while it was rather slow getting started, eventually recognized the President's critical contribution to the resolution of the crisis. Like many journalists who write history, he mixed original sources and anecdotes that have appeared in various more or less responsible books more than I would have liked, but without doing any serious damage to history. But his major contributions came from the realm of military history, and showed that the whole situation was far, far more dangerous than we have ever known before.
The Soviet decision to build up in Cuba was evidently made without careful planning, and inevitably encountered tremendous obstacles. Cuba was mountainous, tropical, and possessed of a most primitive road net, making the movement of Soviet heavy equipment--including missiles--a most hazardous proposition. (Two Soviet soldiers died in an accident while moving a nuclear-armed cruise missile at the height of the crisis.) The Soviets were even less prepared from a naval point of view, and the crews of four submarines suffered from almost unbearable heat, lack of water, and high carbon dioxide levels during a cruise to the Caribbean for which they simply had never been designed. Communications between Cuba and the Soviet Union were also poor, enabling a Soviet air defense unit to shoot down an American U-2 on Saturday, October 27--the blackest day of the crisis--without any authorization from Moscow. But despite all that, the Soviet threat during the crisis was much worse than we had believed. A significant number of Soviet medium-range missiles with one-megaton warheads were in fact ready to fire by the end of the week. More importantly, the Soviets, as one of their generals revealed in a conference in the early 1990s, had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. One--a V-1 style cruise missile composed of the fuselage of a Soviet fighter plane with a nuclear bomb inside--was targeted on the Guantanamo naval base and ready to go at the height of the crisis. Others could have struck the US invasion fleet. And at another point late in the crisis, a Soviet submarine captain, ceaselessly harassed by a flotilla of US warships that had located and surrounded him, made ready to fire his nuclear-armed torpedo (shades of that classic Cold War movie, The Bedford Incident at one of his tormentors. At the time he had no idea whether nuclear war might have already broken out.
Khrushchev flirted with disaster by setting this mad enterprise in motion, but he turns out to have been rather more cautious in his handling of the crisis than we ever knew. Dobbs's biggest revelation relates to Wednesday, October 24, the day when, as every American account of the crisis has emphasized, the ExCom (the American leadership) discovered that Soviet ships had turned back rather than face the American "quarantine," or blockade, that we had counted on (wrongly as it turned out) to prevent the Soviet missiles from becoming operational. That was when the ExCom realized the Soviets had "blinked," but Dobbs found conclusive evidence that Khrushchev had in fact made that decision much earlier. The Soviet ships had begun turning back sometime on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after Kennedy announced the quarantine to the world on television on Monday evening. Dobbs couldn't find any Soviet documentation about the actual Soviet decision--Russian archives have never been as open as American ones, and they have been rapidly closing again in the Putin era--and thus he could not date it. But thinking the matter over, it seems to me almost impossible that Khrushchev could have reacted that quickly to Kennedy's speech, which took place early on Tuesday morning in Moscow. The decision to turn back, I suspect, had been made even earlier, in response either to the obvious movement of American ships and troops or to the rumors that were sweeping Washington of an impending strike against Cuba. (My family and I were living in Senegal at that time, and we heard those rumors from another American Ambassador, William Attwood, who was returning to Guinea from Washington on the weekend before the crisis broke.)
The American military, meanwhile, was preparing for war, including general war with the Soviet Union. (Preparation was not confined to the military either. During my research for The Road to Dallas an FBI agent confirmed something Carl Bernstein had discovered writing his biography of his Communist parents: the FBI during the week of the missile crisis was preparing to detain those Americans listed on its "Security Index," a list of subversives thought too dangerous to leave at large in wartime.) General Thomas Power, the commander of hte Stratetic Air Command, did not, as the movie Thirteen Days claimed, go from DEFCON 3 to DEFCON 2--one step short of war--on his own authority, but he did decide to broadcast the decision in an uncoded radio message to make sure the Soviets got it. He also sent B-52s on their way to the Soviet Union late in the week, fully loaded with nuclear weapons. By Saturday, the 27th, the Joint Chiefs had a commitment to begin bombing Cuba on the following Tuesday (they were very angry that the date had not been set for Monday instead), with an invasion to follow a full seven days later. (It would hard to imagine a plan more certain to lead to Soviet retaliation i the world during that week.) It was in the midst of all this that an American U-2 pilot, flying to the North Pole from Alaska to collect data on Soviet nuclear tests in the Arctic, took a wrong turn and found himself over the northeast corner of the Soviet Union with Soviet jets frantically trying to reach and destroy him. He miraculously managed to glide back to Alaska for an emergency landing. Dobbs tells his story for the first time.
After his initial retreat, Khrushchev apparently began thinking about how and when to agree to withdraw Soviet missiles. He was however apparently encouraged on Thursday by a famous Walter Lippmann column suggesting the trade of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the ones in Cuba. (Dobbs never mentions that Kennedy had actually predicted such an outcome several weeks before the crisis began in a high-level meeting.) That led him to up his terms on Saturday, demanding such an American withdrawal as well as an American pledge not to invade Cuba. Kennedy, several jumps ahead of Khrushchev on this point (as he frequently was ahead of all the rest of the best and brightest in their deliberations), argued for such a trade in an all-day Excom meeting on Saturday but did not establish anything like a consensus. The Excom drafted, and then publicly released, a letter to Khrushchev that merely promised to discuss "other armaments" once Khrushchev had agreed to withdraw his missiles and end the crisis. Then, as McGeorge Bundy was first to report,he convened an even smaller meeting of Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, RFK, Sorensen, and one or two others, and decided that Robert Kennedy would offer the trade to Ambassador Dobrynin, provided that it remain covert, in a last desperate try to avert war.
RFK's promise, however, seems to have played a marginal, not a critical, role in the resolution of the crisis. Khrushchev, Dobbs discovered, was already declaring his intention to give in to the Presidium on the afternoon of Sunday, October 28, Moscow time (around the time of dawn in Washington), when Dobrynin's cable recounting the conversation arrived. But only minutes later, another frightening report arrived: that Kennedy would go on television at 9:00 AM Washington time, or 4:00 PM Moscow time--quite possibly to announce the beginning of war. It was at that very moment that a Soviet announcer broadcast Khrushchev's letter agreeing to withdraw the missiles in return for a no-invasion pledge. But the report of Kennedy's speech was false. A Soviet operative in the US had misinterpreted one network's announcement that it was going to rebroadcast Kennedy's Monday evening speech at that time. When Kennedy accepted Khrushchev's offer, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay pronounced the outcome the greatest defeat in American history and called for an attack the next day.
Although Dobbs seldom misses an opportunity to mention Kennedy's medical and sexual problems or to quote him in the earthiest possible language, in the end he acknowledges his critical role. Alone among the senior leaders of his Administration, he realized that no military outcome of the crisis could be a good one for the United States, given the likelihood that the Soviets would retaliate either against Turkey or against helpless West Berlin. And all Dobbs's new military data confirms Kennedy's greatest fear throughout, that the military of either side could easily trigger a war that the political leaders wanted to avoid, and that the war would never develop according to plan. Dobbs does not seem to realize, however, that the Administration had essentially abandoned the no-invasion pledge within a few months. By April 1963, as I showed in The Road to Dallas, they were busily planning Castro's overthrow again, projecting an American invasion as soon as the CIA had figured out how to bring about a coup or civil disturbance big enough to allow the United States to claim that order in Cuba had broken down. (Even Castro's assassination, which the CIA was still trying to arrange, could have served as an adequate pretext.) Only after Kennedy's own assassination did such plans come to an end. (On p. 341, Dobbs states that Kennedy's assassin "had been acive in a left-wing protest group that called itself 'Fair Play for Cuba." Readers of The Road to Dallas know that that is a very misleading characterization. Oswald never met a single actual member of the FPCC, and its New York chairman stopped writing to Oswald after he quickly emerged as a loose cannon who would not conform to committee procedures. The FPCC chairman, like the Communist party leaders to whom Oswald also wrote, sized him up as an agent provocateur, and I concluded, based on a great deal of evidence, that they were right.) We had only one John F. Kennedy as President, but that turned out to be enough. Only once, in 1983, did the two sides ever come anywhere near as close to war again. That crisis, at the time of NATO's Abel-Archer exercise, is known only to a few specialists, and only in outline. Now the Indians and Pakistanis are challenged by the need to escape from a similar nuclear-armed predicament.

Most of the Obama cabinet has now been chosen. It suggests that the new Administration will be more innovative and ambitious at home than abroad. Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and National Security Adviser designate James Jones are establishment choices, and the President himself will have to provide the impetus for any basic shifts in our foreign policy. I still hope that he will. The cabinet marks the breakthrough of Generation X into our national leadership. In addition to the President himself, 7 of the 21 cabinet and high White House officials announced to date were born in 1961 or later, led by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. 7 of them are also women. Veterans Affairs choice Eric Shinseki, an exact contemporary of Joe Biden, represents the Silent generation, and most of the Boomers are from the mid- to late 1940s. Curiously, my own 1947 cohort is well represented by Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and Tom Daschle, but there is no one from 1946, the year that gave us Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. We can all agree, perhaps, that they have had their day. . . .

The Harvard Crimson reported yesterday that the five top officials of Harvard Management, the team that manages the endowment, received salary and (mostly) bonuses amounting to $22 million in the fiscal year that ended last June 30. In the following four months the endowment lost $8 billion in value, as I discussed two weeks ago. I have contacted some classmates about registering a protest once again.

Happy winter solstice to all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Publication of "History Unfolding, 2004-2008"

History Unfolding: Crisis and Rebirth in American Life, 2004-2008 has now been published and is available here. It includes most of the posts of the last four years and I hope it will be widely read and widely linked. It would not have appeared without the encouragement of the many regular readers here. Here are some pre-publication comments. Happy Holidays!

"Whether as truth-teller or truth-seeker, David Kaiser is principled, fierce, and relentless. This collection of his reflections is cause for great celebration."
Andrew J. Bacevich, author, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

"These are profound assessments of our immediate past by a brilliant liberal commentator. Kaiser is a famous historian writing here in the great tradition of the engaged public intellectual. Here is a record of our times, written as ‘history unfolds.’ This is Kaiser at his best, blending perspective and occasion with acute insight, broad perspective, and clear thinking. He reminds us of who, and where, the country is today."
George W. Baer, author, One Hundred Years of Sea Power


History Unfolding is a rare treat. It brings to the discussion of foreign affairs, and domestic politics too, all the virtues we have come to expect from David Kaiser’s splendid books: lucidity, clarity of expression, and a capacious knowledge. But History Unfolding provides something even more vital: a passionate engagement with the affairs of the day that is ever tempered by Kaiser’s thoughtful sensibility, taste for nuance, and his old school respect for—dare I say it—the facts.”
Jonathan Rieder, author, The Word of the Lord is Upon Me

As a new president confronts grave challenges at home and abroad,and pundits proclaim a thousand medicines, thank goodness for the calm, reflective pen of a historian like David Kaiser: able and willing to set the present within the context of the known past. Kaiser is like Alistair Cook: engaged, experienced, enlightened - willing to explore today, what other historians won't dare to say until tomorrow."
Nigel Hamilton, author, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How the village went broke

Many years ago I read a reference to a hypothetical economics problem--a Chinese village in which all the inhabitants made their living by taking in one another's washing. I just did a google search to try to find a complete version of it but came up empty, and therefore must try to work it out for myself. The idea always struck me as a reductio ad absurdum, that is, a logical exercise culminating in an absurdity, and thus refuting the original premise--in this case, that such a thing was possible. The problem, it seemed to me, was that washing was a luxury, not a necessity. If everyone was doing nothing but one another's washing, their per capita income would equal the cost of doing their own washing, and thus they would have no money for food, shelter, or even the original clothing to wash. Such a village, on the assumption that it was a self-contained, autarkic economic unit, would in reality have to grow its own food. The laundry owner, like the blacksmith, the carpenter, and everyone else who did not work the land, would have to buy food; that it turn would give the farmers the money they needed for the services of those tradesmen. And if the village were not totally self-contained, surplus food could be sold elsewhere, allowing everyone, eventually, to get a little richer and afford more services, including perhaps an occasional concert by a traveling pianist or a barnstorming sports team. But it seemed to me then, and it still does, that any sound economic structure had to rest at bottom on the production and sale of life's necessities. No village that did not produce some of them could survive on its own.
Yet it has occurred to me over the years that the American economy has been coming closer and closer to that mythical Chinese village. Laundering is a service, and we increasingly have a service economy. But critically, in the last few decades, we have taken yet another big step down the road to perdition. The purchases of goods and services that make the economy grow have increasingly been financed not (in the first instance) from the production and sale of necessities, much less from the sale of necessities to other villages, that is, in the real world, to other countries. Instead, from the top of the economy to the bottom, they have been financed by ever-expanding debt--by the creation, in effect, of new money. In principle that is nothing new. The expansion of the money supply began in the early modern period when the first banks began issuing new credit instruments which, they believed, the acquisition and sale at profit of new goods (such as products from foreign lands) would enable their borrowers to repay with interest. But as everyone gradually came to understand, that kind of expansion of credit and money had to keep pace with the expansion of actual production. If credit expanded much more rapidly than productive capacity, then eventually large numbers of creditors would be unable to pay their debts, banks would fail, and panic would result. The great panics of 1929-33 led to a sustained effort to regulate both the expansion and contraction of credit and the issuance of securities so as to avoid anything similar ever happening again--and that effort succeeded quite well for as long as men and women old enough to remember 1929-32 still exercised power and responsibility and cast large numbers of votes at the ballot box.
It is a cliche, but nonetheless a true one: the United States, at every level, has been living beyond its means. Sometime in the last ten years, I believe, our national savings rate fell below zero, and that despite the conributions that so many wage-earners make into various forms of IRAs. Hundreds of thousands, perphaps millions, of Americans hold maxed out credit cards. Hundreds of thousands of students have taken out tens of thousands of dollars of loans. All that, however, turns out to be chump change compared to the millions--perhaps trillions--of debt incurred by financial institutions as leveraging money to finance enormous transactions and continually inflate the prices of various kinds of securities. The expansion of debt has driven the expansion of income at the highest level of our society--and that, as we all know, as been where the greatest expansion of income has taken place, especially in the last eight years.
Imagine, in short, a Chinese village composed entirely of laundries that also has a bank. Somehow--perhaps through deals with banks in a neighboring village--that bank borrows money with which it buys futures on the profits of all the laundries from the laundries themselves. The sale of the futures allows the villagers to buy the food and services they need from neighboring countries. And because the whole world is flooded with credit, the local bank in turn can turn those futures into long-term securities and sell them to some one else. That, it seems to me, is how the American economy has been running for some time. We haven't been producing very much that the rest of the world needs to buy from us for quite a while, but as long as ever-flowing credit kept our service economy going and our financial giants profitable, we didn't care. But suddenly this bubble--which I think is certain to turn out to dwarf any bubble in human history--has inevitably burst. Huge financial institutions are failing right and left, university endowments (who have used a lot of leverage themselves) are dramatically eroding (see last week), and at some point, I predict, credit card terms are going to have to get much, much tougher.
I cannot be sure of my next point, but it seems to me that all this may make recovery considerably harder than it was--or than it could have been--during the great depression. Fiscal stimulus created a partial recovery from 1933 to 1936, but unfortunately, fiscal retrenchment led to a severe recession in 1937-8, and only war and vastly expanded production really got us out of the depression. (Paul Krugman, citing an older authority, recently argued that the New Deal actually provided only a very limited fiscal stimulus.) But in the 1930s the United States was awash in productive capacity in both agriculture and industry--and still protected by substantial tariffs. The problem was simply to get income into the hands of consumers who would buy farm and industrial produce. The problem now looks harder to me because we have given up much of that productive capacity (and the Republicans in Congress, apparently, would like to give up even more in Detroit). Money to buy goods has largely gone out of the country, and it has come back to buy American financial instruments that have now lost most, or all, of their value. We may need, literally, a new financial industry run on completely new principles, and I don't know where it's going to come from.
Nor is that the only problem. Economists from the 1930s through the 1970s seemed to grasp that a healthy economy depended on higher incomes for the mass of the people to allow them to increase demand for both goods and services. In the 1980s supply-side economics argued that allowing the rich to keep more money would fuel investment and expand production. Instead, we now know, it fueled irresponsible investment in assets that have turned out in the end to be worthless. American firms, which in the 1950s and 1960s focused on hiring more workers, now try to use as few workers as possible. That has created short-term increases in profit but long-term economic catastrophe.
Getting out of this will require sustained concentration, analysis, courage, and patience--exactly the qualities that, I would argue, have gone out of fashion in the last few decades, not least in my own academic profession. The Obama Administration will need to devise plans and they will take years to work. Barack Obama clearly has the rhetorical skills to sustain public confidence for some time, but it will challenge him to keep it going long enough. For younger generations, however, this is both a very difficult time to reach adulthood, and a time of great practical challenges. The Boomers had the opportunity to raise the nation's consciousness, and they did. The Gen Xers and Millennials must now address serious, concrete problems, and that, for them and for the country, will be just as important and just as satisfying, if they can do it. Tomorrow, if time permits, I will say something about our prospects in foreign affairs.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Financial brilliance?

About five years ago, as I recall, I had an interesting conversation with my friend and Harvard classmate Bill Strauss, who had heard some interesting gossip about our alma mater. It concerned the management of the Harvard endowment. Because the endowment managers--most of them, anyway--were employees of a non-profit, Harvard had to disclose their compensation. Their compensation, like that of most fund managers, was based upon the performance of the part of the multi-billion dollar endowment which they controlled. Putting all that together with the easy money of the first half of this decade had produced striking results. Inidividual managers were receiving bonuses of up to $30 million in a single year. Bill Straus, who sadly died of cancer about a year ago, had an odd mixture of views: he was a social conservative but an economic liberal who believed that the endowment of a university was supposed to benefit the university community, not the men and women who managed it. He was particularly outraged because these bonuses--which, he calculated, would have paid the tuition and fees of an entire Harvard class for one year--were being paid while tuition consistently increased an annual 3-4%. He suggested that we start a protest, and we did. Initially a total of seven classmates joined in: a writer and entertainer (Strauss) two attorneys (both of whom worked thousands of miles from Wall Street), a journalist, a freelance writer who was in the process of becoming a clergyman, and two academics (including myself.) In a series of letters addressed to Harvard President Larry Sumemrs, we made a number of suggestions: that the compensation of any Harvard employee be limited to what the President of the University made (about $750,000); that tuition be frozen and eventually cut back, so that today's students (who were paying more than three times as much for their education, adjusted for inflation, as we did) would not have to begin their careers with a large burden of debt; and that Harvard establish a program of loan forgiveness for students who went into some form of public service. Our campaign immediately attracted significant publicity, and the reaction we received was quite revealing.
President Summers, an economist and former Treasury Secretary, never signed his name to a reply to any of our letters, but he spoke to use directly at our 35th reunion in 2004 and told us that we were "deeply misguided." The performance of the endowment managers had been spectacular, he said, and they deserved every bit of their reward. I heard equally patronizing reactions from every financial professional with whom I discussed the issue over the coming months. "Those guys are oustanding," I remember an investment banker telling me in the gondola at Stowe, "and they should get every penny they want." Michael Lewis, the author of Lia'rs Poker, wrote an extremely patronizing column about us when Summers began to show some signs of taking us seriously, arguing that our dubious moral outrage was having an influence even on those who actually "understand how the money game is played." I heard however that at least one of Summers' associates in the financial world--a veteran of one of New York's leading investment banks--had expressed private agreement with us that the fund managers were being exhorbitantly compensated, and eventually some action was taken. Jack Meyer, the chief endowment manager, and several of his colleagues left the employ of Harvard to start their own hedge funds. They apparently remained the managers of a good deal of the endowment, however, under financial terms which no longer had to be disclosed. Meanwhile, in the last three years (during which Summers also stepped down for a variety of accumulated reasons), some real steps were taken. A new manager was appointed at a much lower salary (but continued to show excellent results through 2007), and Harvard announced a new financial aid policy designed to reduce tuition and fees to a much more reasonable proportion of family income. We were very pleased by that.
All the while, however, I personally had been troubled by another aspect of the situation. While not a financial professional, I had done what I could to study the publicly available financial accounts of Harvard to try to estimate the benefits that the university was reaping from the reported enormous increases in the endowment. Without being able to review the data now, I can report that I could not find commensurate benefits in the figures. The endowment was said to be growing by leaps and bounds, but from what I could tell the proportion of the university budget which income from it was funding was not increasing nearly as much. I tried to get more of an explanation from Harvard financial officers but never succeeded (at one point I received a set of figures that did not seem to be consistent with the official published documents.)
What I was wondering was whether the gains would in the long run turn out to be genuine. As was frequently explained to us, the managers were running the endowment like a hedge fund, leveraging its substantial cash with other people's money to buy some highly speculative assets. The compensation for the managers, moreover, depended on the annual increase in the estimated value of those assets, not, apparently, on the amount of increased income they provided in the short term. That seemed to me to be an invitation to value assets as highly as possible, and to put short-term growth ahead of long-term income--exactly the opposite, one should think, of a strategy more appropriate to a university. I suggested to my co-protesters that we raise these issues as well but I never could persuade them to do so. I did read in the last two years, however, that two of the hedge funds started by former endowment managers had now collapsed.
On Thursday, walking through the Providence airport, I noticed the front page of the Wall Street Journal and saw that the other shoe had dropped. The Harvard endowment had lost at least 22% of its value during the first four months of 2008. That loss amounted to $8 billion, dropping the total to $36.9 bilion. "Harvard," the story continued, "said that the actual loss could be even higher, once it factors in declines in hard-to-value assets such as real estate and private equity--investments that have been increasingly popular colleges. [Harvard's new, aggressive endowment management strategy, the article indicated, had been widely imitated.]" The University anticipated a 30% decline for the fiscal year ending in July 2009. That means that the gains of 2005-7 would be completely wiped out, and I frankly doubt that the hemmorhage will stop there. The story added that Harvard has been trying to sell $1.5 billion in private equity holdings but that it had received bids amounting to only $.50 on the dollar. Eventually even those might look pretty good.
It was in the early 1990s that my contemporary Camille Paglia wrote a brilliant essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academia in the Hour of the Wolf." She used those words as a metaphor, to describe the takeover of university humanities departments by postmodernists selling increasingly popular intellectual snake oil. Now, however, the same title could be applied to what has happened to the financial resources of our greatest universities. Like their counterparts in the academic departments, the (mostly Boomer) managers of the endowment showed extraordinary cleverless, but an utter absence of wisdom. They turn out not to be the financial geniuses that so many people assured me that they were, but rather the modern equivalent of what Keynes called "sound bankers"--not bankers who were never ruined, but bankers who were ruined along with all the others. The increasingly popular financial practices of the last 35 years have now brought down the American economy--and have brought down the financial health of most American universities along with it.
I can't help expressing a little pride in my own very modest contribution to the economic health of my alma mater. I am not referring to contributions--I gave token ones in the past but stopped doing so in response to the current controversy. What I have done is to publish three successful books for the Harvard University Press. They were not the literary equivalent of sub-prime derivatives or private equity funds--those would be the celebirty-authored books that fill the best-seller lists, and which are bought far more often than they are actually read. They were, I like to think, carefully crafted products of some general interest for which I was modestly compensated, and which made modest, real sums of money for the press through sales to people who wanted to read them. It is now the task of the younger generation to put real money into investments like that--and to create new economic insitutions, I suspect, that will make more investments like that possible, and make stocks and bonds issued by productive corporations, rather than mysterious financial instruments, the investments of choice once again.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Have We Dodged A Bullet?

The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are full of post-election coverage trying to explain why Obama won. One of the more interesting pieces is one in the New York Review by Michael Massing, whom I have cited approvingly here on other topics, based upon a trip to Ohio. Massing stopped in three northwestern Ohio towns a few weeks before the election (unfortunately the account of one of the towns, Bowling Green, appears to have been cut out), and he did some important collateral research, listening to Rush Limbaugh and discovering that he has an audience estimated at between ten and fifteen million men. Meanwhile, I watched The Boogie Man, the documentary on Lee Atwater, one of the founders of modern Republicanism, which can now be seen on Frontline after a very brief theatrical release. All this set me thinking about what American politics has been through over the last forty years, and posed a troubling question: have we had a real brush with Fascism? That there are parallels to the events of the 1920s and 1930s (especially on the electoral plain) I am quite sure; but in the end, I think, the answer is no.
“Modern” Republicanism, of one wants to call it that, was an electoral strategy introduced disastrously by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and ridden into the White House by Richard Nixon, narrowly in 1968 and overwhelmingly in 1972. It began with the substantial segment of the Republican Party that had never reconciled itself to the New Deal or stopped calling for a return to small government and unregulated markets—those who read Human Events (Ronald Reagan’s favorite journal) and the National Review. But it proceeded to take advantage of a political sea change that had been brewing for twenty years and that had reached a climax with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: the defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party. Goldwater carried five deep South states in 1964, and between them, Wallace and Nixon carried the entire old Confederacy, less Texas, in 1968. For the next forty years, the only way the Democratic Party could carry any southern states was by running a southerner itself.
To the racial prejudice of centuries, the Republicans added the social reaction of older generations to the Awakening of the 1960s—the fear (progressively) of long hair, feminism, affirmative action, and gay rights, so common among older Americans and much of the white working class. Since those social issues were replacing economic ones as the main concerns of the Democratic Party, they made very easy and productive targets. To this Republicans added the idea that Democrats were soft on national security, although I suspect this was generally only a minor part of their appeal. Beginning with the passage of the Jarvis-Gann referendum in California in the late 1970s, an anti-tax revolt became another plank of the platform. The Atwater documentary made a profound impression upon me because it showed how Atwater and Karl Rove (who had known each other since the early 1970s) had turned these issues into the essence of Republican presidential campaigns beginning in 1980, when Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign at the Philadelphia, Mississippi county fair—just a few miles away from the murders of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman in 1964—with Strom Thurmond by his side. But it also showed, with the help of details from Atwater’s earliest campaigns in his native South Carolina, how another element had been added to the mix: the propagation of complete lies about one’s opponent. (Books about Karl Rove have gone into his use of this tactic in Texas, as well.) And during the last twenty years this contributed not only to the degradation of American politics, but to the collapse of American government.
The turning point, it seemed to me, came with the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988, Atwater’s greatest triumph. First of all, the candidate himself, George H. W. Bush—a traditional eastern moderate at heart—shamelessly accepted the strategies Atwater prescribed, declaring himself a born-again Christian, referring to Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” impugning his patriotism, and most of all, making Willie Horton the centerpiece of his campaign. A commentator in The Boogie Man noted Ronald Reagan had actually signed into law a prison furlough program similar to the Massachusetts one in California. Even The Boogie Man failed to mention that the Massachusetts program itself was the brainchild of Dukakis’s predecessor Francis Sargent, a patrician moderate Republican very similar in style and temperament to George H. W. Bush himself.
That, however, was only part of the story. The second critical shift in 1988—and in the long run, perhaps, the more important one—involved the choice of Bush’s Vice President, Dan Quayle, the first Boomer on a national ticket. That Quayle was manifestly intellectually unqualified to be President—and that his whole life was simply a tribute to the power of a wealthy bloodline—apparently made no difference to Atwater. In fact, looking at the whole history of the last twenty years, I am convinced that it was, to Atwater and other consultants like him, an advantage. Their appeal was, among other things, anti-intellectual, aimed at rousing hatred against Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, Ivy-League educated intellectuals. A candidate with obvious intellectual defects could only increase that appeal, all the more so when the eastern media began pointing them out. And such a candidate—and this was probably critical—would be much easier to keep on message, since he (or she) would not be unduly troubled by his own autonomous, spontaneous thoughts. Not only Republican consultants, but neoconservative intellectuals, have shown a preference for intellectually limited candidates ever since. The line that began with Dan Quayle runs directly to George W. Bush, and thence to Sarah Palin. George W. Bush has shown again and again that he lacks the capacity to think an issue through or even to react to new data. That must have been apparent to those who worked with him when he was still Governor of Texas, but it did not occur to anyone that it might disqualify him from even higher office. Going a step further, Sarah Palin actually anticipated major media attacks upon herself in her carefully drafted acceptance speech. Let us hope that she has provided its reductio ad absurdum
The talk radio empire of which Limbaugh is only the most visible notable was another element of the new Republican machine. Like me, Michael Massing has taken the time to listen to Limbaugh lately, and he was shocked by the depths to which Rush sinks almost every day. I was even more shocked, however, to realize how closely his worst excesses reflected Republican campaign strategy over the last two decades. The Boogie Man included something I had completely forgotten, a statement by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama that he had heard (from a source he could not identify) that during the 1960s Kitty Dukakis had attended an antiwar demonstration at which the American flag had been burned. Just a few weeks earlier I had heard Rush tell his devoted audience about reports of a tape of Michelle Obama ranting about “whitey this and whitey that.” No such tape, needless to say, has ever surfaced. Every day Rush delivered a standard paragraph about Barack Obama, a “sixties radical” and an “angry black man” who was the stealth presidential candidate of Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, and Jeremiah Wright. From time to time Rush also favored the audio equivalent of blackface parodies of gangstas commenting on the campaign, an obvious attempt to rouse the most blatant racial prejudice. (Many of these also targeted Michelle Obama.) Reports have surfaced from time to time that talk show hosts get daily talking points from the Republican Party, and I believe it. This time, however, the tactics did not work well enough.
It is clear in retrospect that the appeal of such tactics peaked in 1988, at least on the national level. (They have grown more and more potent in the old South, however.) One commentator in The Boogie Man speculated that Bill Clinton would never have won in 1992 had Lee Atwater not died of cancer, but I am not so sure. Clinton did however trade potently on his own southern status. In 2000 the Republican recipe was only good enough to make the election close enough to steal. (By then, steps to disenfranchise black voters, one of the things that turned the tables in Florida and gave Bush the election, had been added to the mix.) In 2004, with the help of the aftermath of 9/11, it was enough to win the narrowest re-election victory of any President in history save Woodrow Wilson. (That victory was anomalous in several respects. George W. Bush was both the first man to serve two terms who had won his first term without winning the national popular vote (see John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison), and the first descendant of a President to be elected twice (see J Q Adams and Benjamin Harrison.) )
The other elements of the Republican coalition, in my opinion—those elements less important electorally, but critical from a policy standpoint—have actually brought it down. The combination of ever-lower taxes on the highest brackets, less regulation of the economy, and preventive war abroad have given us an economic and foreign policy nightmare, and educated Americans have noticed. That, however, also illustrates the enormous differences between the Republican Party of the last twenty years and the National Socialist movement in Germany . Both used racial and social resentment to rise to power, but they did so for completely different reasons. The Nazis actually wanted to overturn the economic and social order and eliminate their enemies from the body politic; the Republican leadership simply wanted to win elections to keep cutting taxes and (beginning in 2001) to begin slaying dragons abroad. The Bush Administration’s use of torture and indefinite detention was a frightening harbinger of possible things to come, but there in no evidence that it was designed to be extended to domestic opponents. And crucially, the shock troops of the Republican right did not put on uniforms, march in formation through the streets, or actively terrorize political opponents. Listening to Rush was enough. That’s progress.
Let us not forget, however, the other reason for Republican success (largely decisive in 2004) among poorer and less-educated whites. The current New York Review of Books also includes a long piece by Michael Tomaskly on this issue, arguing that it is poor education, rather than low economic status, which has made such whites vulnerable to Republican appeals. He adopts the line, too, that such people have been voting against their economic interests. But that, as I have argued before, is letting the Democrats off too easily. Only in the broadest possible sense have the laid-off auto workers of the Midwest been voting against their economic interests when they voted for George W. Bush. Yes, those votes meant more money for the wealthy, and they contributed to the catastrophe which all of us now face. But it has been a very long time since those people could actually promote their personal economic interests by voting Democratic. Their problems come from globalization, union-busting, and increasingly regressive taxes, and Democrats have either tolerated or collaborated in those changes. Substantial evidence is accumulating that the Democrats carried states like Ohio, Indiana, and perhaps even Virginia and North Carolina because many of those people stayed home while the Democratic turn-out increased. If Barack Obama wants to win those votes next time he will actually have to make positive changes in their lives possible.
Perhaps he can. The selection of his Cabinet, with an eye on building the broadest possible coalition, and his intense focus on the economic crisis have already proven that we now have a President-elect who cares about a lot more than staying on message and appealing to his base. The country, I think, is more than ready to respond to a President who grapples seriously, both in public and in private. With the complex problems we have to solve. And that, in turn, would prove that our nation was strong enough internally and institutionally to survive a rather frightening period in our history, one that seemed to repudiate many of our finest achievements. If you don’t believe me, go the Frontline website and watch The Booogie Man---but take comfort in the probability that we have hit bottom and that things are now getting better.

p.s. To marcdcase, below--I would love to respond to you but as I have explained before, a commenter who needs a response needs to put in his/her email--it doesn't come up when I'm notified. Thanks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Writing about the Kennedy Assassination

Tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and my publisher the Harvard University Press has placed a series of online ads for my book about it, The Road to Dallas, linking their own web page and, in turn, this blog. That has already generated a few dozen new hits, and the occasion is propitious, in any case, for reflecting upon the experience of writing that book, its reception, and the status of the assassination as an historical question 45 years after the fact.
How I came to write the book is a long story indeed: it began with the event itself, still probably the most traumatic public occurrence I have ever experienced, and I took some interest in the emerging controversy from the beginning. In the 1970s I followed the proceedings of the Church Committee and the House Assassinations Committee with some interest, and I was very intrigued when the latter committee found that there had probably been a conspiracy involving organized crime. But my real introduction to the topic came in 1983, when I had the opportunity to write a piece about it for the Sunday Outlook Section of the Washington Post. That was a calm and balanced piece that attempted to give equal time to three theories: that Oswald was simply a lone assassin, that Castro was behind it, or that it was in fact a mob hit.
On one point I had no doubts, namely, that Oswald was the killer. The controversy about the case escalated through the 1960s and 1970s because the single-bullet theory, holding that one shot had gone through Kennedy and through the back of Governor Connally, seemed so unlikely. Neither Connally’s own testimony nor the Zapruder film could be reconciled with it. But the House Assassinations Committee had successfully resolved those issues to my satisfaction, although it had also—through acoustics evidence—introduced the still-debated possibility that there had been another shooter on the grassy knoll who had missed. Meanwhile, I was hard at work on Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which I had taken over from my friend William Young, an amateur researcher, after his death in 1980. That introduced me to the problems of finding and grappling with the evidence in such a case, and in particular with the need to reconcile conclusions about various different aspects of a case, and to see how findings could mutually reinforce one another. What was lacking to tackle the JFK assassination, however, was a body of new evidence.
The sequence of events that filled that gap in the 1990s was interesting as well. If there was one filmmaker who might have done justice to the assassination, I thought, it was Oliver Stone, but in making JFK he planted himself among the most extreme fringe, arguing that Oswald was innocent and that the killing was the work of an enormous conspiracy involving the highest levels of the government. The movie was gripping but irresponsible, and I still think that a much better one could be made. But it reawakened interest in the case, and led to the passage of a remarkable law, the JFK Assassination Records Act, mandating the release of all available records having anything to do with the assassination. The board that was set up took its mandate very seriously and several million pages were released. I was writing American Tragedy when all that was taking place, but I knew that I wanted a crack at those documents. Eventually, in the last few months of 2001, I got to work.
Over the last few decades extraordinary evidence had surfaced about CIA covert operations, mostly having to do with the assassination of Castro with the help of organized crime, and about the war between Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the one hand and organized crime on the other. The FBI and CIA documents also promised to reveal a great deal more about Cuban exile groups. It took years for me and various research assistants—undergraduates from GW (including my own son) and from the University of Maryland—to go through the most important files and to record them with the help of some innovative use of Microsoft Excel. When I wrote the book I tried to cover the issues of the CIA and Castro’s Cuba, and of the Justice Department and organized crime, as thoroughly as possible. But meanwhile, I had become convinced that organized crime was behind the assassination, and that it was possible to identify the links between organized crime on the one hand, and Oswald and Jack Ruby on the other. The major mobsters involved were Santo Trafficante of Tampa and Havana, whom it turned out Jack Ruby had visited in a detention center while visiting Cuba in 1959; Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, whose organization included a bookmaker named Dutz Muret, Lee Harvey Oswald’s uncle; and probably Sam Giancana of Chicago. This is not the place to try to summarize the findings of The Road to Dallas, but I was also able to identify two critical lower-level figures. One, an American mercenary named Loran Hall, definitely linked Oswald to right-wing and anti-Castro Cuban networks as of early October 1963. The other, a mobster named John Martino who had spent three years in Castro’s prisons before returning in 1959, had told two friends that he had been involved in the assassination before his death in 1975. To my amazement, while I was in the middle of the book, Martino’s son Edward, an almost exact contemporary of mine, came forward to say that his father had told the family that the assassination was going to happen. Contemporary documentation substantiated Martino’s role in the assassination conspiracy and closely related anti-Castro efforts, as well as a post-assassination disinformation campaign designed to link Oswald and Castro.
The book appeared nine months ago in March. Its reception has been both gratifying and, in several respects, educational.
What has been most gratifying has been the response of many intelligent people with no ax to grind who have read it and commented on it, including more than half a dozen reviewers scattered around the country whose opinions can be found at theroadtodallas.com, at amazon.com, or at http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KAIASS.html . The book is chock-full of information and includes a great many names, but that has not prevented many readers from appreciating the strength of the evidence and the scale of the effort involved. I always feel my work is written for the intelligent citizen who wants to understand the world in which he or she lives, and I know I have reached thousands of those with this one. I hope to reach many more.
Meanwhile, I discovered some things about the assassination community, the several dozen serious researchers—many, though not all, of whom, have published work on the case themselves—who know the most about the evidence and have spent the most time thinking about it. They and the amateurs who have also kept the controversy alive for four decades fall with very few exceptions into one of two camps—camps which can fairly be described as two religions. The first, the Church of the Lone Assassin (really the church of two lone assassins), argues that Oswald and Ruby were two pathetic loners who committed the murders that they did out of purely personal reasons. Having reached this conclusion years ago, they assume that any evidence of conspiracy must be false, and are quite satisfied to cite any piece of contrary evidence as sufficient to dismiss it. (Since there are always inconsistencies in a mass of complex evidence, some way of doing this is never lacking.) They also rely largely on a portrayal of Oswald that was not fully developed until more than a decade after his death, and which turns out to be not in the least supported by the original FBI interviews with Marina, which I was able to read. Their counterparts on the other side of the fence are the Church of the Grand Conspiracy, whose adherents hold that Oswald was (or at least very well might have been) innocent, that critical physical and/or medical evidence has been misinterpreted or faked, and that the conspiracy involved significant elements of the federal government. To them any inconsistency in the evidence is grounds for suspicion, if not proof, that the evidence has been tampered with. People on both sides of this divide, I should note, gave me a good deal of help during the writing of the book, mostly on an email list where everyone is always willing to discuss where documentation on this or that point might be found. Not surprisingly, however, many have not been pleased by the results—they can’t be. Their minds were made up long ago. Well, it’s a free country.

Meanwhile, the biggest media outlets seem to be assassinationed out. [ I did make a number of radio appearances when the book came out (links to which can also be found at theroadtodallas.com and the Harvard press site.) The Chronicle of Higher Education printed the introduction. I also got a nice review in Playboy, of all places, and, as mentioned, in a number of newspapers around the country. Most of the most visible media outlets, however, did not review it. In an exchange about JFK about fifteen years ago, I wrote that an unfortunate version of Gresham’s Law seemed to dominate the public discussion of the assassination: the bad conspiracy theories drove out the good. To use the language of communications theory, there is so much accumulated noise on the subject that it is hard for a true signal to get through. [It is now Saturday the 22nd, and the media's lack of interest is confirmed: according to google, only two newspapers in the country--one in Dallas--have run any kind of anniversary piece.]
My goal was to base my account to the maximum extent possible on contemporary documentation and to paint the most consistent picture of all the evidence. Others will make their own judgments but I was more than satisfied with the result. The book involved the accumulation, sorting, and distillation of an extraordinary amount of data, and I don’t think it would have been possible without Microsoft Excel and the presence of some documentation on line. I like to think that it, like my earlier books, are something of a vindication of the idea of history that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: a relatively (though never absolutely) scientific enterprise in a scrupulous practitioner could make the most likely truth emerge from the data. Their reception has been similar: while none has ever become anything like a best-seller, and all have earned some hostile comment, substantial numbers of people, and several reviewers, have always understood and appreciated what I was trying to do. Meanwhile, much of the first four years of History Unfolding will be available in book form in about two weeks; check back here for a further announcemnt. I have also gotten deeply involved in a new research project on a completely different topic—a healthy step for any professional writer after the completion of a big and controversial task.
The death of John Kennedy, I now see, had truly traumatic effects—including, as I argued in American Tragedy, the decision (which he had resisted) to fight in Vietnam—but they were short- and medium- , not long term. Had he served two terms the 1960s would have been less cataclysmic, I think, but after the passage of the Civil Rights Act he would have faced the same political and social problems as Johnson did. The South would have gone Republican, liberalism was rapidly exhausting himself, and it’s quite possible that Ronald Reagan would have been elected President in 1980 anyway. And had there been no war in Vietnam, some subsequent Administration would probably have involved itself in some other third world trouble spot, quite possibly with similar consequences. Kennedy’s calm, usually unhurried, and well-informed approach to government may indeed serve as the model for Barack Obama’s—although if indeed Hillary Clinton becomes Secretary of State, the Obama Administration may turn out to be a bit more freewheeling and multipolar, rather like the Roosevelt one. It will be interesting to find out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Best, and the Worst, of the 1950s

Whether one is playing football, campaigning for President, fighting a battle or commenting on the week’s events, the best ideas tend to be the ones that occur to one on the spur of the moment. My subjects today—which marks the beginning of a new era on History Unfolding, since last week’s post will be the last in a book that will be available within one or two weeks—come from today’s New York Times, where articles in the Week in Review on the one hand and the Book Review on the other provide a fascinating perspective on the last fifty years or so. We are now entering the fourth great crisis of American national life, parallel to those of 1774-1794, 1857-68, and 1929-45, and I suspect that analogies to those periods will become more frequent here in the weeks and years to come, but as we await the advent of the new Administration I shall take a moment to look once again at a different range of issues.
The period 1946-64, in which the 1950s fall squarely in the middle, represented the outcome, the achievement, of the last crisis: two decades of national consensus, steady economic growth, and social conservatism. Economic and social policy focused on the common man, whose taxes and mortgage rates were relatively low and who established new suburban communities all over the country. The Great Depression, even more than the Second World War, was the critical event in the lives of everyone over 35, and public policy put a premium on preventing another one. Fiscal and monetary policy and programs like unemployment insurance and help for depressed areas were designed to keep unemployment relatively low, and government took various steps when (as in 1957-8) a recession took place. Those institutions survived the High and lasted through the Awakening (1965-84), even as the attention of younger Americans turned in new directions. They helped get through a fairly severe recession in the mid-1970s and a very bad one in the early 1980s. But as today’s Week in Review points out, beginning with the Reagan Administration, federal protection against hardship began to erode. Unemployment insurance is much less generous than it used to be, and Bill Clinton drastically cut back welfare. Thanks to our extraordinarily profligate tax and foreign policy over the last eight years, we now face skyrocketing unemployment without much of a safety net, and with an existing deficit that is likely to get close to $1 trillion annually over the next few years—a challenge that is absolutely unprecedented. And the large new Millennial generation, like their GI grandparents, has the worst job prospects since the 1930s. I recently learned that of this year’s Harvard graduates who pursued careers in investment banking, consulting, and related fields, only about 20% got any job interviews. Not jobs—interviews. Things will get worse before they get better because no one under 70 has any real memories of a time when things were this bad.
That was one of the strengths of the 1950s—the thrift, caution, and provision for the common man and the common future that had grown out of the trauma of the Depression. The provision for the common man was being extended to black Americans as the civil rights movement increased in strength, and the climax of that process—the passage of the great laws of 1964-5—marked the end of the High. It did not however extend (except indirectly) to the common woman, who did not begin to assert herself until the Awakening, much less to those with different sexual proclivities. Meanwhile, however, the age suffered from another huge problem—a certain emotional and intellectual sterility, reflected, as the other item in today’s Times suggests, in the 1950s concept of what constituted an educated person.
That item is a review of a new book by Alex Beam, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, about one of the great publishing products of the 1950s, the Great Books of the Western World, jointly sponsored by Robert Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, and the Philosopher Mortimer Adler. Comprising 54 volumes of hundreds to thousands of pages, it purported to put together the best that had been thought and said since ancient Greece. Mass-produced and standardized, printed in double columns, it looks today a bit like a fleet of 1957 Plymouths, more impressive in monstrosity than seductive in beauty—and the double columns and small type made reading any of it a far too intimidating process. My own father knew Adler well, having been a participant in Aspen institute seminars in 1953 and 1954, experiences which gave me my first exposure to the American West. We acquired a set almost at once and I recall my father promising me a new car if I could read it all by the end of high school (I was the bookworm in the family.) I didn’t ever contemplate taking him up on the offer, but I did dip in and out of some of the books for a while. I probably spent more time with the Euclid volume than any of the others and was impressed by its inexorable logic, but I also remember dipping into the Marx and the Freud. Looking back at the list of 51 volumes today, however, I can see why I was not inspired. (The actual collection included 54 volumes but three of those were commentary and index.)
The idea of a canon of great books still appeals to me, and I have discussed many of my own candidates here from time to time, but such a list, to have real impact, must be living, not dead. Adler and Hutchins seem to have regarded our intellectual heritage rather like the Louvre; their selection was extraordinarily biased towards the distant past. They arranged the 51 volumes chronologically, and the first 17 came from the ancient world and from the middle ages. The next 29 came from the Renaissance the Early Modern period, with only 12 coming from the period after the French Revolution, and only two—William James and Freud—touching directly on their own twentieth century. This was surely a collection devoted to the foundations of western civilization, but without much regard for those who had elaborated upon those foundations.
The selection of subject matter was also interesting. Fiction, drama, and poetry accounted for 17 of the volumes, beginning with Homer and concluding with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Second in popularity was philosophy, with 13, followed by science with 7, history with 6, political theory with 4, and economics and psychology 2 each (Adam Smith and Marx/Engels for the former, Williams James and Freud for the latter.) Cultural bias was apparent in a number of ways. The overwhelming majority of the book included were originally written in either Greek, Latin, or English—and yes, there was not a single woman or nonwhite in the list.
The men who put this collection together had gone to college early in the twentieth century, and their teachers had done so late in the nineteenth. That accounts, undoubtedly, for the almost unbelievable prejudice they showed against the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—the aspect of their selection which makes it seem, frankly, so extraordinarily dead. The youngest writers of English fiction that they chose to include were Henry Fielding and Herman Melville—no Dickens, no Jane Austen or George Eliot, no Shaw or Wordsworth or Keats or Lawrence or Yeats. Their neglect of modern French was even more amazing, since they omitted Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Zola and Proust. Educated, folk, evidently, had no need to be acquainted with the modern realist tradition in literature. My own field of history was represented by Herodutus and Thucydides, Plutarch and Tacitus, and Gibbon; even Ranke, Burckhardt, Mommsen, Parkman, Macaulay, Henry Adams and Michelet , among many others, were too young to include. The most astonishing omissions of all, to me, are those two contemporaries from the first half of the nineteenth century, Tocqueville and Clausewitz, whose analyses of the key problems of our age—democracy and war—have never been surpassed.
I can see now that I entered college in 1965 at a particularly promising moment, because American undergraduate education was beginning to fill some of these gaps. I was thoroughly introduced to Tocqueville and to modern French literature during my college years, as well as to twentieth-century poetry, and had some exposure to Clausewitz as a graduate student. Unfortunately, at that very moment, the Vietnam War and the feminist revolution turned the academics of the Silent and Boom generations against the whole enterprise of western civilization and a different kind of decline of the humanities began. One example is Frederick Jameson, from whom I took an extraordinary course on French writers of the left and right between the wars in the spring of 1967. Jameson at that time was expanding the western tradition of eclectic scholarship, drawing on insights from films, for instance, as well as from the French classics, to illuminate people like Céline, Nizan, and Louis Aragon. After being let go by Harvard (as I later was myself) he has achieved greater eminence at Duke, but has lapsed into an essentially sterile combination of Marxism and postmodernism. That in a nutshell is the story of American academia over the last 40 years.
During the last twenty years the Library of America has done an extraordinary job of publishing the great works, fictional and non-fictional, of American civilization. An intrepid reader of that entire collection would, I think, be far better prepared to understand the challenges of the modern world than anyone who took up my father’s challenge, or, for that matter, than a graduate of St. John’s College, which still bases its curriculum on the traditional great books. A college whose humanities departments focused on the truly great achievements of the last three centuries of western civilization would, I think, become the most popular in the United States within five years. (The historian /Alan Kors, who was educated about five years before I was, recently made a similar point.) Alas, the will—and now, the money—for such a project are lacking. I shall be too old to participate when its time comes, but those who undertake it will be fortunate indeed.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Change of Seasons

Barack Obama won the Presidency on Tuesday with plenty to spare. Surpassing my own cautious hopes, he won 364 electoral votes, including every state in which the final polls showed him ahead, and came within an ace of overcoming John McCain in Missouri as well. His 53% majority was the highest for any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. While the Democrats have won only 57 Senate seats rather than the 60 they had hoped for, the Republican minority still includes at least four moderates—Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, Arlen Spector, and Richard Lugar—who would not join a filibuster against a pro-choice nominee, clearing the way for the replacement of John Paul Stevens, who will surely resign at the end of the current term at the latest. (A Minnesota recount may still give that seat to Al Franken and the Alaska count is not yet finished, but the Republicans seem likely to win both.) The Obama campaign out-financed, out-manned and out-organized its Republican rivals. Meanwhile, amidst a collapsing economy and an extraordinarily fluid world situation, Obama takes office at a moment of greater opportunities than those offered to any President since Roosevelt in 1933, or perhaps Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As I pointed out last week, he appears to welcome this opportunity, and he, like FDR (who was 50 when he took office) has the relative youth, energy, and curiosity to take full advantage of it. He will need them all. He faces a moment of death and rebirth both at home and abroad—and he appears to know it.
At home the United States is experiencing once again the consequences of an almost unbridled laissez-faire, market-dominated economy. The financial sector, the main source of our economic growth over the last 30 years, has now collapsed, and the unemployment figures show that it is dragging the retail and manufacturing sectors down with it. This leaves us with a truly staggering challenge. Roosevelt in 1933 had to revive an existing agricultural and industrial economy, something he did with only intermittent success until the coming of the Second World War. Now we apparently need a largely new economy. Obama has such an economy in mind, featuring public works and the development of alternative energy sources, but it has been decades since the United States embarked upon a comparable project. We also are moving towards government-financed re-tooling of the auto industry, and, perhaps, government-run health care. Obama should heed the words of Lyndon Johnson, given to his special counsel Harry McPherson during 1965: with the Congress, one year is all you get. The economic collapse is an unparalleled opportunity, and he has the chance, like Johnson in 1965 or Roosevelt in 1933, to push through three or four pieces of major legislation. All signs suggest that he wants to do just that. If he can transform the lives of a few million Americans during the next four years he, like FDR, will be overwhelmingly re-elected.
The opportunities abroad are potentially even greater, because the world has greeted Obama’s election with such an outpouring of amazement, relief, and hope. People on every continent are convinced that the United States will no longer try to dominate key regions of the world by force, and I believe that they are right. I had been disappointed during the campaign by Obama’s embrace of a number of mainstream foreign policy positions on the Middle East and Georgia, but my ears perked up on election night when he sketched out his plans.
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.[emphasis added.]

No President, in all likelihood, will ever go as far as I did in the draft Presidential speech that I posted on April 14, 2007, but those words had some of the same spirit, and I look forward to finding out how the new President plans to put them into practice. He could potentially take one dramatic step in Europe by backing way from our misguided (and militarily useless) plans for missile defense installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Lost in the excitement of the election was the Russian announcement of Russia’s intention to station missiles of its own in the enclave of Kaliningrad, the formerly German city of Kőnigsberg, now stuck forlornly between Lithuania and Poland. This, like Putin’s earlier denunciation of the conventional forces treaty, is a step towards a return to a cold war in Europe. A new mutual agreement not to station missiles in Europe would be a welcome shift. Meanwhile, in Iraq Obama’s election is already giving a boost to political forces favoring a relatively quick end to the American occupation. That could lead to new talks inside Iraq to formalize some kind of partition of the country, which remains the only possible solution. We are also in a crossroads in Afghanistan, faced with the need to re-examine our attempt to create a strong central government and national army—an attempt that has so far been a failure. Based upon previous statements, Obama can also be expected to propose a new nuclear non-proliferation initiative.
We now obviously have a President who wants to go beyond sound bites, who understands the complexity of issues, and who shows promise of enjoying both the solution and the explanation of our problems. Meanwhile, we also have a new United States.
Barack Obama owes his victory almost entirely to Americans under 45. Those between 30 and 45 (the bulk of Generation X, who are now between 27 and 47) gave him an exit poll margin of 52-46, almost exactly his overall total. Those 18-29 (Millennials are now approximately 6-26) voted for him by a margin of more than two to one, 66 to 32 per cent. Those 45-64—essentially Boomers (who are 48-65)—characteristically split right down the middle, with Obama winning 50-49. Silents and GIs 65 and over gave McCain a 54-45 edge. Those figures should send chills down the spine of every Republican consultant. For the GOP, to paraphrase Mort Sahl, the future, for the moment, lies behind. The Millennials are the new Hero generation, and their support for Obama exactly parallels the behavior of the GI generation in 1932, when they included voters of roughly 21 to 28. (In 1936 an even larger GI generation gave Roosevelt 80% of its vote.) The Millennials, coming of age in a time of economic crisis and possessing, like the GIs, a healthy sense of entitlement, were voting for a better future. If Obama and the Democrats can provide it, a new Democratic era is at hand.
And last but not least, there is the question of race.
The joy of black Americans was everywhere on view on Tuesday night, and most understandably so. After centuries of slavery and discrimination, followed by four decades of long-suppressed bitterness, they had beaten the odds and were now full Americans at last. But I hope no one will be offended it I add that the joy of many white Americans like myself was just as deep. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s believing that equality was the essence of American life, who saw the early civil rights marches and remembered Kennedy’s and Johnson’s civil rights speeches and attended the March on Washington (as I did) and recall the deaths of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, had also carried a heavy burden for the last forty years: our inability to prove that American ideals were not simple hypocrisy and that our parents and we had meant what we said. It was not impossible to argue with black contemporaries who claimed that American would never be anything but racist, but it was not easy. Now that argument has been won by all the black and white Americans who seized the chance to vote for that uniquely American figure, Barack Obama—whose life, like that of so many white Americans like myself, would be both impossible and unimaginable anywhere else on earth. As usual, Obama himself hit the nail on the head at the beginning of his speech Tuesday night.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.
It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.
It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

Now, as in 1933 and 1941, we also need to prove that we can cement that new feeling of hope, solidarity and equality through real achievement.
The extraordinary suddenness of this transformation is reflected in the pressimistic tone of many of the posts I made here during 2004-6. As late as 2005 we seemed on the verge of a long-term Republican ascendancy—just as Southern Democrats seemed on the verge of achieving the domination of the Union in 1857, and the Republican Party had won its most staggering victory ever in 1928. Strauss and Howe always stressed that their 80-year cycle was above all a natural process, governed by the rhythm of life and death. A half-century ago, Boris Pasternak made a similar point at the climax of his classic Dr. Zhivago, when his hero, his own life in tatters, reflected in the wake of the Russian Revolution on the nature of historical change.

"He reflected again that he conceived of history, of what is called the course of history, ot in the accepted way but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man’s wart. But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed, it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in its leafy maze. This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants. The forest does not change it sp place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change. Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless. And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselessly changing history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations."

The calendar tells us we are in autumn, but already we can see the leaves coming out again, with greater profusion and promise than they have shown for many decades.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Last try before they call it

McCain now leads in NC; I don't know what remains to be counted there. I am sure, however, that Obama has won Virginia and Florida (incredible) and just as sure that Colorado is in the bag. I'm only slightly less sure about Missouri, where the exit polls show both women and men narrowly for Obama. (Missouri men for Obama! Who would have believed that?) Indiana looks lost, by somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 votes. But it's an historic landslide, with at least two states of the old confederacy for Obama.

Just heard Pat Buchanan say that Obama carried white college graduates because they are the ones with money who feel threatened by economic collapse. Sorry, Pat. Those are the ones with brains.

Final prediction: Obama with 329.

Nobody's perfect

It looks like McCain will win Indiana by about 2000 votes. The exit polls, however, show Obama as a clear winner in Colorado, and a very probable winner in Missouri, where they allowed me to call the Senate for the Democrats before the networks did two years ago. Florida looks pretty good for Obama; North Carolina is a virtual tie now; and Virginia, I am sure, will go for Obama--most of Fairfax County is not in. All this as of 10:08 EDT.

Landslide

Based on the CNN exit polls, Ohio and Indiana and North Carolina are sure for Obama, with Florida only slightly less so. It's a landslide.

Sorry I didn't warn you, but. .

. . .I'm going to blog tonight on the results as they come in.

The first 2500 votes are in from Kentucky. Mitch McConnell appears to be in trouble--he is running 8 points behind McCain, and if that holds up, based upon the last Presidential poll, he will probably lose.

Stay tuned (6:21 PM).

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Last Campaign Thoughts

I talked a few weeks ago about one of Barack Obama’s few missteps during the campaign—his reference to poorer white voters in places like semi-rural Pennsylvania and Ohio who cling to religion and guns out of bitterness. I said then, and I still believe, that Obama has shown that he understands that that is only half the the problem, the other half being that Democrats have failed to do anything meaningful to make their lives better for so long. His remarkable infomercial made that point beautifully by looking at the real lives of four such American families (even though one family was black, their story was representative of a whole economic group.) Sarah Palin and John McCain have done their best to make what capital they could out of that quote, but they have not been very successful. Indeed, their campaign has made clear to a shocking extent that the Republicans have nothing to offer such people but bitterness and empty dreams.
Essentially the Republican campaign has been telling poorer whites during the entire campaign that whatever their economic condition, they, not the Democrats, have the right values, and they are the true Americans who live in the American parts of America. That is the essential Republican appeal to what the Party calls its “base,” and many of its strategies have forgotten that it is impossible to win on one’s base alone. (In recent days commentators like William Bennett talk as if Tuesday’s election were a Republican primary: as long as McCain/Palin have the base behind them, they have nothing to worry about. Democrats and independents will however also be voting on Monday.) Meanwhile, the Republicans want to flatter the dreams of Thomas Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, that with proper tax policies they can become rich. This aspect of their message was even more obvious in a speech I saw Arnold Schwarznegger give for McCain in Ohio two nights ago. Arnold explained that he had left Europe because of the regulations that stifled opportunity there and had come to the United States to make his fortune. Europe, he said, was now “wising up” and beginning to free its economies, but Obama wanted to go backwards, in the wrong direction. (That of course is silly: in practice every major right-wing party in Europe, like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany, is well to the left of our Democrats.) Vote Republican, he seemed to say, and your children can be like me—not, it seems to me, a very comforting notion based upon the laws of probability. With their constant attacks on the notions of “spreading the wealth around,” the Republicans seem to be embracing the notion of a society divided into an enormously wealth few and a declining mass, flatterring their supporters that with the right values, they can ascend to the top. This appeals to the traditional Calvinism of America, which saw material success as proof of the Lord’s blessing. Indeed, all we need to do to accept the idea of some mild redistribution of the wealth—which in the long run will help our economy more anyway—is to accept that chance plays at least as big a role as grace or ability in determining the extent of our economic success, and that there is no reason not to structure our tax system to acknowledge the role of chance and even it out a bit. In any event, economic justice means justice for the many, or it means nothing at all.
Having taken a last look at electoral-vote.com, I shall hazard my own prediction for Tuesday’s results. On November 1, 2004—the day before the last election—that site showed John Kerry winning with 298 electoral votes, thanks to averaged-out leads of two points in Ohio and one point in Florida. Today Obama has leads of at least ten points in state with 264 electoral votes, 6 shy of a majority, and of six or seven points in four more states: Virginia (14), Ohio (20), Colorado (9), and Nevada (4). He has leads of two or three points in Florida (27) and North Carolina (15). He will win, in my opinion, with between 291 and 353 electoral votes. That looks if anything like a conservative prediction, but the exact result still depends on too many unknowables for me to hazard any further guesses.
The other night, in a remarkable interview, Rachel Maddow asked Obama if he had any second thoughts about becoming President at this moment in history, with so much going wrong, and he turned the question on its head. No, he replied, this was the kind of moment of which people in public service should dream: the kind of era in which they could make a real contribution. Asked at one point to describe the difference between Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, both of whom he had known, the British philosopher Sir Isiah Berlin said that FDR radiated more than anything else a great joy in his life and work, and JFK, a sense that every morning offered a chance to do great things. Obama, it seems to me, is closer to JFK in that regard, but he has something of the FDR touch as well. He has established his lead with a mixture of inspiration, organization, and steadiness of nerves. I feel rather astonished that the United States has managed not only to produce such a man at this moment in history, but to bring him to the threshold of the White House.