Saturday, December 28, 2013

Governments and peoples

The Middle East suffers from an enormous problem: many nations lack any consensus on how they should be governed.  Shi'ia and Sunni factions contend for power in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere.  In Egypt, the military-backed government has just declared the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt's only genuine free election in its entire history, a terrorist organization.  Meanwhile, various states enjoying relative stability, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, are intervening in civil wars elsewhere.  All this reminds me very much of early modern Europe, which I investigated pretty thoroughly back in the 1980s, and it isn't encouraging.  But in the last two days, the Obama Administration has added a new element to the mix.

Sunni extremists, including Al Queda elements, are getting more powerful in much of Iraq, and their bombings are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the majority Shi'ite population.  The Obama Administration wisely decided to get the United States out of Iraq a couple of years ago, and I do not think that a continuing American presence would have helped.  Now, however, the US has decided to come to the aid  What disturbs me deeply is the manner in which we have decided to do so.

A little historical background is in order.  During the 45 years of the Cold War, both sides assumed that conventional war similar to the campaigns of the Second World War might occur at any moment.  They spent billions preparing for it, developed sophisticated weapons, and, crucially, encouraged their regional allies to acquire such weapons as well.  Billions of dollars worth of jet aircraft, tanks, artillery and much more went from the US, the Soviets and other nations to India and Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and elsewhere.  Occassionally this weaponry was used in local wars.

For the time being--and nothing lasts forever--the age of conventional warfare seems to over.  The conflicts that rule the front pages are waged by insurgents of one kind or another against governments or occupiers, and terrorism has become the weapon of choice.  Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist have also made extensive use of rockets.   From time to time, Israel in Lebanon and Gaza and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq have tried to deal with such groups with conventional forces.  They generally score temporary successes, but with the exception of the Israelis in the West Bank, no one has been willing to prolong such an occupation indefinitely.  As a result, they have turned to other strategies.

The most common counter-insurgent strategy pursued by the most advanced nations originated in Israel: the use of aerial surveillance and air to ground missiles to kill individual militants.  I don't believe I ever blogged about the excellent Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, which consists of lengthy interviews with retired heads of Mossad, but they described the development of this stragegy and the problems of applying them.  They generally agreed, moreover, that it did not provide any long-term solution to political problems.  And in one particularly chilling moment, one of them mentioned the Israelis had taught Americans these techniques after 9/11.  "I know," he said, "because I saw them."

Drone strikes have now of course become the centerpiece of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  They kill individual militants.  They often kill innocent civilians as well, and from time to time they are based upon faulty intelligence or analysis and kill nothing but innocent civilians.  As in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no evidence that they reduce the supply of militants in the long run. Because they are aimed at militant leadership, they probably make it much harder eventually to negotiate peace.  There is no evidence, in my opinion, that the contribute to building a more peaceful world.

Now it seems that the Cold War precedent is about to be revived in the age of terror.  The United States' response to the resurgent Al Queda and Sunni revolt in Iraq is to supply the Shi'ite government of Nouri Al-Maliki with drones and hellfire missiles.  The Iraqi government will be able to turn them on their own people.  In an atmosphere of long-term religious war, I find it very difficult to believe that they will use better intelligence or more discrimination than the US has, or that this tactic will contribute to peace in Iraq.  And where will this lead?  Will Russia soon be providing similar technology to the Assad regime in Syria? 

Researching my forthcoming book, I found that the leadership of the US government in 1940-1 believed deeply that civilized norms of behavior had to be preserved in international law.  Americans throughout the twentieth century had shared that view, differing only on the degree to which the United States should try to compel observance of the norms in which it believed.  That is why Roosevelt and his Administration designed the UN and other international institutions during the war.  The richest and most domestically peaceful nations still have a responsibility, I think, to try to spread the rule of law.  That is why I think the United States should be leading an international initiative to try to stop a long-term religious war in the Middle East.  It is also why I believe that the United States should not be promoting the use of drones against domestic terrorists as a solution to anyone's domestic political problems. Yet I have not seen one word of protest against the new policy.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Should governments help each other?

It now seems clear that the modern state reached the zenith of its power during the middle third of the twentieth century.  Driven by a series of great wars, revolutions, and technological changes, states mobilized unprecedented numbers of men and resources, and enjoyed a remarkable degree of loyalty from their peoples.  The western model of states based upon rational thought--whose offshoots included Communism--spread to nearly every corner of the globe and seemed to be wiping out any fundamental challenges to itself.  Religious authority was in retreat even in most of the Islamic world for the first two thirds of the twentieth century.  During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to strengthen states in all the nations that belonged to their alliances.  States also assumed responsibility for the health of their nation's economies.

The world rejoiced when perhaps the most highly organized state of all, the USSR, declined and then suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s.  Francis Fukuyama boldly proclaimed the end of history and political conflict.  But now, almost a quarter of a century later, the Soviet collapse strikes me as a kind of canary in a global coal mine, a symbol of things to come.  States have weakened, militarily and otherwise, in much of the world over the last two decades.   Conscription survives in only  a few countries with major security threats, such as Israel, the two Koreas, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.  Taxation has fallen drastically in most of the world, and global financial giants make governments tremble.  The United States routinely carries out drone strikes that violent the most fundamental sovereignty of foreign govrnments and pay no respect to the lives and property of their citizens.  Globalization has taken national economies out of the control of political authorities.  With the exception of North Korea, even surviving Communist states exert far less control over their people and economy than they used to.   And religious authority has made an astonishing comeback, not only in much of the Muslim world--including Turkey, once a secular bastion--but even here in the United States.

This development is not entirely unwelcome; it has had many good consequences.  The aggressor states of the twentieth century unleashed wars that killed tens of millions of people, and despite China's new round of saber-rattling over maritime rights, no one seems in the least likely to start such a war any time soon.  The casualties in civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria still horrify us, but they do not compare in the least even to those in the opening conflicts of the Second World War, such as the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese war.  We now fear terrorists that can kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, not armies that could kill hundreds of thousands, occupy whole nations, and redraw the map.  Yet our new environment undoubtedly presents dangers of its own--and states are making them worse.

The Second World War was an ideological fight to the death, but when it was over, the United States and the Soviet Union in effect accepted each other as the two leading nations of the world, especially after Stalin's death and the Cuban missile crisis.  They competed for influence around the globe and spied upon each other, but they did very little to undermine one another's societies and governments. The third world was their main battleground.   Today, on the hand weaker states are trying to increase one another's weakness in various ways.  The Chinese hack into our computers; the United States has spied upon world leaders all over the globe.  Russia is continually trying to intervene in the affairs of other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine.  The Middle East has become the site of a wide-ranging religious war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, waged without regard to national sovereignty or traditional rules of diplomacy.  Russia has also given asylum to Edward Snowden, an American who has embarrassed his own country to an extraordinary extent, and who has in so doing become a hero to millions of people around the world who distrust states, including many right here in the United States.  Snowden exemplifies another trend, the use of contractors, rather than lifetime civil servants, to do important government work.   An American Assistant Secretary of State visits Ukraine and meets openly with the leaders of protesters in a political crisis, an unheard of development in earlier eras.  On the other hand, Secretary of State Kerry's recognition that a deal with Syria over chemical weapons made more sense than air strikes was a welcome exception to this trend--it acknowledged the authority of the Syrian state in an attempt to make its civil war less violent.  The same applies, of course, to the potential nuclear agreement with Iran--although here in the United States the pro-Israel lobby is working to make the project fail.

The weakness of states reflects profound intellectual changes as well.  Nationalism is now almost the exclusive province of xenophobic extreme right groups, rather than an encouragement to make one's own country a better place, as it was in Kennedy's America or de Gaulle's France.   Religion has trumped citizenship in large parts of the world, and has threatened to do so in some parts of the United States.  In the western world, at least, the academy has lost interest in the great dramas of citizenship and statehood.  For more than half a century we have taken the remarkable civic achievements of our parents and grandparents for granted.  They have decayed as a result.

Here in the United States last week's news was actually relatively encouraging.  The budget deal signals an enormous power shift within the Republican Party and suggests that its attempt to dismantle the federal government--now finishing its third year--could soon be abandoned.  Yet that will leave us with a status quo in which the federal government, to say nothing of the states, remains a shadow of its former self with respect to its power to promote the general welfare, much less play a major role in planning our economy.  In any case, the trends I have been discussing are far too profound to be reversed merely by a couple of elections or a budget deal.  They represent a turning point in western and world history, and I expect future generations to be dealing with their impact long after we have left the scene.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Is the Constitution the problem?

For about 45 years now, many if not most members of the Boom generation has been convinced that all would be well is they could simply run the world.  Such illusions come naturally from growing up in a remarkably stable society in which parents, convinced that their children would naturally follow in their footsteps, left them alone to form their own opinions.  Their parents' decision to undertake the Vietnam war encouraged Boomer self-confidence.  As I pointed out in one of my very first posts here, no one ever exemplified this aspect of his generation better than George W. Bush.

Jeffrey Toobin, born in 1960, belongs to the very tail end of the Boom generation.  He entered Harvard in 1978 and thus could have been one of the 160 students who took my lecture course during my last two years there, but I do not think that he was.  He is a graduate of Harvard law school whose legal career was brief, and he became a legal journalist instead.  I enjoyed his book on the O. J. Simpson case very much, and most of his work on legal issues is absorbing and very good.  Last week, however, in The New Yorker, he had an article suggesting that what is really wrong with the United States today is--you'll never guess--the U.S. Constitution.  He is not very forthcoming about how exactly he thinks it should be changed, and he has to admit near the end of the article that the Constitution is fiendishly hard to amend, but the article generally gives the feeling that the Constitution strikes him as yet another useless artifact of a bygone era such as dial telephones, cars with fins and V-8 engines, and transistor radio sets.

Toobin begins with an argument that has become fundamental to Boomer academic views of the world.  The worst aspects of the Constitution as adopted in 1787-88, he says, are that it institutionalized "race and gender discrimination."  I am rather fascinated by the popularity of this argument, because anyone who takes the trouble to read the document will realize that it is not true.  Certainly the original Constitution did not outlaw race or gender discrimination, or even slavery, but it did not bless them either.  Slavery at the moment that Constitution was adopted was in retreat.  It was being abolished in the northern states, it had just been banned from the Northwest territories (the future upper midwest), and even many prominent southerners were freeing their slaves upon their death.  The founders took great care not to refer to slavery by name, the reason for the convoluted language that occurs whenever they have to refer to it, such as in the three-fifths clause.  As for gender, the Constitution invariably refers to "persons" or "citizens," not "men," and there was nothing in it to forbid states from granting women the vote, as some of the western ones did in the late nineteenth century.  The abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass argued exactly the contrary before the Civil War--that the Constitution could not be reconciled with slavery--and that was a stronger argument than the reverse.

Toobin then focuses on the undemocratic features of the Senate as a major source of our ills.  Here he has a much stronger case.  The Senate does give hugely disproportionate power to smaller states, and this is much truer now than it was when the Constitution was adopted.   At that time, Virginia, the largest state, had ten Representatives and Rhode Island one, while both had two Senators. Now California has 53 Representatives and Wyoming and five other states have one each, but all of them still have two Senators.  Toobin then adds that the filibuster has made the Senate an even bigger obstacle to democracy.  He is right, of course, but the filibuster, like slavery in 1787, isn't mandated by the Constitution, it is simply allowed by it, since Article I gives each house of Congress the power to make its own rules.  And indeed, it has been convincingly argued that the Constitution in effect does specify a majority vote as all that is necessary to do business in the Senate, since it specifically calls for a two-thirds vote to ratify treaties or convict an executive officer in an impeachment trial.  Under traditional Anglo-American legal doctrine, tying such a requirement to specific cases implies that it is limited to those cases only.  Unfortunately, the courts have been unwilling to hear this argument, but the Senate itself has just shown that the filibuster rule can be amended by a simple majority vote.

Toobin's argument is based, naturally, upon our current political deadlock, but even there he is on somewhat shaky ground.  The key event of the Obama Administration, of course, was the Republcian landslide in the House of Representatives in 2010, which immediately made it impossible for the President to accomplish anything further.  It is true, as he points out, that the Republicans in several medium-size states promptly gave themselves an unbeatable advantage through redistricting, without which it is possible--although in my opinion, not as likely as one might think--that the Democrats would have regained the House in 2012.  In any case, the more democratically chosen House, not the Senate, has been the major obstacle to getting anything done for the last three years.  (In another misstatement of fact, Toobin claims that the Senate blocked the Clinton health care reform in the 1990s.  As a matter of fact it never passed either house.)

Toobin quotes several legal authorities or polemicists (includng the talk show host Mark Levin, who sometimes sits in for Rush Limbaugh) who also believe the Constitution is fatally flawed.  One law professor, however--Akhil Amar of Yale--argues that the Constitution is not the problem--what is wrong is what has happened to the Republican Party.  "One half of one of our two great political parties has gone bonkers," says Amar.  "That's the problem. Not the Constitution."  That is also a typical Boomer statement, defining anyone in fundamental disagreement with one's self as crazy, but I think it's a great deal closer to the truth than the argument that the Constitution is to blame.

The Constitution itself does not pose an insuperable barrier to effective political change in the United States.  The federal government has had an enormous impact upon American life during the Civil War era, the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the era of the Great Society and its aftermath.  In the last three of those eras a broad consensus led large majorities in both houses to pass sweeping legislation and even constitutional amendments.  That consensus, however, has evaporated over the last half century, and whether or not one chooses to define the Tea Party as "bonkers," that is why we are in the mess that we are in today.

To understand where we are it is not enough to point out that California, with 50 times the population of Wyoming or North Dakota, has the same number of Senators; we must also ask why the Senators from the smaller states see the world so differently.  The smaller states are, in all probably, the ones with the highest percentage of white people (although I am pretty certain that that percentage is falling in every state of the union.)  But more importantly, it seems to me, in the last half century the Democratic Party has failed to persuade the inhabitants of those states that it has anything to offer them.  A large percentage of the population of less populated states were farmers in the New Deal era and even in the middle of the last century, and the New Deal and later farm programs saved them from being wiped out. The New Deal also brought electricity and better roads to the countryside.  Many voters appreciated these changes.  Now farm programs chiefly benefit agribusiness.  Many of the smaller states are dominated by energy producers, a trend which fracking seems to be increasing.  Equally importantly, state governments have drastically been weakened in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, allowing the Republicans to gain control of those state governments and pass redistricting plans.   As I ponder all this, it occurs to me that the Republicans may understand better than the Democrats how crucial the fight over the Affordable Care Act is.  If it works it could create a major new Democratic constituency in every state of the union.

Toobin's problem--and Amar's--are characteristic of the eastern elite, particularly in academia.  Because academics live in a politically monolithic environment they have trouble taking opposing ideas seriously.  Nor can they believe, given the pampered lives they lead, that there can be anything seriously wrong with the country.  If some one disagrees with them they must simply be crazy; if their ideas do not pass Congress, institutions must be to blame.  Meanwhile, Democrats have collaborated with Republicans in dismantling all the major pillars of the New Deal and allowing inequality to grow.  They should not be shocked that the average American does not put a high priority on keeping them in office.  One of the interesting things about Toobin's article is his failure to discover anyone actively pushing for changes in the Constitution along lines that he would find more congenial.  The activists he interviews who want new amendments are all ultraconservatives who want to cripple the federal government.  Bill James, the founder of baseball statistics, defined in the 1980s something called the law of competitive balance.  Winners, he argued, naturally adopted conservative strategies that rapidly took away their edge; losers tried harder and became winners.  That has been the story of the last 40 years of American politics.  It is the reason that conservatives can now use the Constitution to block progress.  The Constitution is not primarily at fault.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Obama and FDR

  Let's imagine how the implementation of the health care bill might have gone differently.

  When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, President Obama would have created a temporary agency to implement it, including representatives of the AMA, the health insurance association, associations of hospitals, and patients' rights groups, as well as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of the Treasury, and an official from the Office of Management and Budget.  Everyone selected from the private sector would have taken a leave of absence from their day job and most of them would have served for $1 a year.  The most famous dollar a year man would have been Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, who would have been given the job of supervising the development of healthcare.gov.  He would have brought some of his staff with him and made use of all the techniques they had used to turn amazon into what it is today.  By the time of the roll-out in October 2013, the site would have been running smoothly, and insurance companies would be using it to communicate with their customers as well.  Meanwhile,. the Health Care Authority would be turning out suggestions for making care more efficient and cheaper, as well as more affordable.

   If all this sounds fantastic to you, you might want to brush up your history.  Specifically, you might want to think about purchasing my new book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation Into War, when it appears in April.  Why? Because that is how the United States, facing a far more desperate situation, dealt with the thread of world war in 1940-1.  The rearmament effort began in late May of 1940, while France was collapsing and England was threatened with invasion and defeat.  That was, in essence, the equivalent of 2010 when the ACA was passed.  Four years later, in 1944, the decisive offensives against the Germans and the Japanese began.  The Affordable Care Act will go into effect after four years as well, but its prospects are most uncertain.  Here, by the way, is the cover of my forthcoming book.


Let me fill in some of the blanks.  The New Deal from the beginning was based upon creating new government agencies to solve pressing problems.  The most successful were the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, which saved American agriculture by controlling production; the Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put people to work; the SEC; and the National Labor Relations Board, which presided over a massive expansion of the work force.  When in the spring of 1940 it became clear that war threatened the United States, Roosevelt used the same technique. He created a series of agencies to stimulate war production: the National Defense Advisory Commission in the spring of 1940, the Office of Production Management in the following winter, and the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board in August 1941.  All of them had the same key personnel: the Secretaries of War and of the Navy (there was no Secretary of Defense in those days), and leading industrialists and retailers who put their expertise to work.  The Jeff Bezos of those years was William Knudsen of General Motors, an immigrant from Denmark who had worked his way up from the shop floor to be CEO of one of the world's largest corporations.  Knudsen was to automobiles what Bezos was to on-line marketing: he had started  his career setting up assembly lines for Henry Ford.

The most critical problem in 1940, Roosevelt had decided, was to produce huge numbers of military aircraft.  Germany was sweeping all before it in Europe with air superiority and superior tactics, and Roosevelt was determined that the U.S. must build an air force, as well as a navy, second to none.  In typical fashion, he set a goal in 1940 of 50,000 combat aircraft--more than 20 times what was then available, and far more than the War Department had plans for.  The aircraft industry was however in its infancy, and assembly lines were unknown.  Knudsen went right to work, showing the aircraft industry how parts could be mass produced and assembled, and his fellow automakers began turning out aircraft parts in Detroit.  By 1942 FDR's goal had been achieved, and in subsequent years it was exceeded.  Asked in a Congressional hearing why he had given up $150,000 a year plus bonuses to work for nothing, Kundsen replied in January 1941 that the United States had been very good to him and he wanted to give something back.  Another key figure in the new agencies was Donald Nelson, the Vice President for Merchandising of Sears, Roebuck.  He turned out to be critical because he was used to making sure that Sears had the products it needed in stores and warehouses when they needed them--ideal training for preparing an army, navy and air force for war.  After Pearl Harbor he was put in charge of the last supervisory body, the War Production Board.

The Affordable Care Act, it seems to me, is in big trouble because, to begin with, no single person was really in charge of implementation.  Ironically, that charge was also leveled against FDR's agencies before Pearl Harbor.  Knudsen and labor's representative, Sidney Hillman, were co-chairs of the Office of Production Management.  But FDR set things up that way for one simple reason: he wanted to be the ultimate authority, and that is exactly how he functioned, as I discovered, in 1940-1.  President Obama does not seem to have the executive ambition that FDR had, but he could have found some one who did and made the implementation of the act their full-time job.  Ideally that person would have combined political and executive experience.  He or she would have known that success in organizing the new health care system could easily lead to a run for the White House.

The ACA has also suffered, of course, because it does not command the overwhelming support from the American people that the rearmament effort did.  While many Americans opposed entry into the war in Europe in 1940-1, very few indeed denied that the United States had to prepare for survival in a very dangerous world.  As I show, they were willing not only to stand up forces of unprecedented size, but to raise taxes to pay for them.  That is not, of course, the case today.  The sacrifices the ACA demands of the American people are much, much smaller--it's not clear that, if properly implemented, it would entail any sacrifices for most of us at all--but a large portion of the people and one entire political party remain totally opposed to it.  That obstacle might still have been overcome, however, if Obama made the implementation of the act, rather than its passage, the centerpiece of his administration, and recruited the human capital from both the private and public sector that he needed to make it work.  This, clearly, he was not able to do--because he did not attempt to.

We cannot recreate the world of 1940-1, and in many ways we would not want to.   We do not, thankfully, face threats around the world comparable to Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.  Yet it is a major theme of my book that we succeeded then because of a real sense of national purpose and common enterprise that FDR had managed to arouse while fighting the Depression, and it is impossible to look at today's world without feeling the absence of exactly that spirit today.   The outcome of the crisis over the ACA is just as uncertain now as the outcome of the world war was in 1941.  Next year, if millions of Americans suddenly enjoy coverage they did not have, it may upset the political balance in the President's favor.  If on the other hand men and women who thought that they had secured insurance on healthcare.gov find at the doctor's office or the hospital that their insurance companies don't recognize them because the "back end" of the system had not been fixed, the effect may be just the reverse.  Obama needed Jeff Bezos to make sure that didn't happen, but he didn't try to recruit him.  He might have failed to do so in any case: I have no idea if Bezos has enough sense of the public good to respond favorably.  Knudsen did, even though he was a Republican with no great affection for the New Deal.  That is one of the many differences between the last crisis in our national life and this one.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgivings in Paris

The theme of the different world that we live in now than fifty years ago was theme of my CNN appearance (see below), and the nature of the world we lived in 75 years or so ago, before I was born, and how it differs from the present is a major theme of my forthcoming book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War, which will appear in April.  It's an inexhaustible theme, and it pops up in the most unexpected ways and places--for instance, in newspaper column I read this morning, which reminded me of one published about 60 years ago.

This morning's column, "The Lament of the Expatriate," appears on the op-ed page of the New York Times.  It's written by Pamela Druckerman, a writer who has already written a book on the wisdom of French parenting techniques.   She presumably belongs to Generation X.  Although I didn't especially enjoy the column, I'm going to reproduce it in full for non-commercial use only. (Don't worry--if you don't like this one,. I'm sure you'll like the next one much more.)

An American Neurotic in Paris

PARIS — A few years back I took the ultimate expatriate plunge: I started doing psychotherapy in French. I figured that, as part of the deal, I’d get free one-on-one French lessons. And I hoped that if I revealed my innermost thoughts in French, I might finally feel like an ordinary Parisian — or at least like an ordinary Parisian neurotic.
I soon realized this was a doomed enterprise. Each week I’d manage to vaguely sketch out my feelings and describe the major characters in my life. But it was hard to free associate when I was worried about conjugating verbs correctly. Sometimes I’d just trail off, saying, “Never mind, everything’s fine.”
I’m aware that there are worse things to be than an American in Paris. You could be, for example, a Congolese in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as I spend my 10th Thanksgiving here, permit me a moment of reflection. Because Thanksgiving prompts the question that expatriates everywhere face: Shouldn’t I be going home?
The Americans in Paris tend to fall into three categories. There are the fantasists — people nourished by Hemingway and Sartre, who are enthralled with the idea of living here. The moneyed version of this person lives as close as possible to the Eiffel Tower. The Bohemian version teaches English or tends bar, to finance his true vocation: being in France.
Then there are the denialists — often here for a spouse’s job — who cope with living in Paris by pretending they’re not in Paris. They tap into a parallel universe of Anglophone schools, babysitters and house painters, and get their French news from CNN.
Finally there are people like me, who study France and then describe it to the folks back home. We’re determined to have an “authentic” French experience. And yet, by mining every encounter for its anthropological significance, we keep our distance, too.
No matter how familiar Paris becomes, something always reminds me that I don’t belong. The other evening, as I chastised the lady who had cut in line at the supermarket, I realized she was grinning at me — amused by my accent. During conversations in French, I often have the sensation that someone is hitting my head. When surrounded by Parisians, I feel 40 percent fatter, and half as funny. Even my shrink eventually took pity and offered to do the sessions in English. (It turns out she’s fluent.)
The question of whether to stay is especially resonant for Americans in Paris, because many feel that they live here by accident. Not many foreigners move to Paris for their dream job. Many do it on a romantic whim. Expatriates often say that they came for six months, but ended up staying for 15 years. And no one is quite sure where the time went. It’s as if Paris is a vortex that lulls you with its hot croissants and grand boulevards. One morning, you wake up middle-aged — still speaking mediocre French.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d live here, but I did expect my stay to follow a certain expatriate narrative: You arrive; you struggle to understand the place; you finally crack the codes and are transformed; you triumphantly return home, with a halo of foreign wisdom and your stylish bilingual children in tow.
But 10 years on, I’ve gone way off that script. Those stylish children threaten to mutiny if I even mention the possibility of moving. I’ve got a French mortgage, and I’m on the French equivalent of the P.T.A. It’s like being a stranger in a very familiar land. I haven’t cracked the codes, but I no longer feel entirely out of sync: When the whole country goes into mourning after a beloved singer or actor dies, these days I actually know who the guy was.
Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don’t just know more or less what people are saying, but know exactly what they mean. But I’m no longer fully in sync with America either. Do people there really eat Cronuts, go on juice fasts and work at treadmill desks?
The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television.
But the fact is, those drones are my people. I end up gravitating toward them in Paris, too. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in 10 years is that I’m American to the core. It’s not just my urge to eat turkey in late November. It’s my certainty that I have an authentic self, which must be expressed. It’s being so averse to idleness that I multitask even when I’m having my head shrunk. And it’s my strange confidence that, whether I stay or go, everything will be fine.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” 

This article seems to me to recapitulate a number of the trends of our own time.  It is compulsively self-revealing and totally self-referential.  Ms. Druckerman assumes that the details of her life are critically important, not only to her, but to everyone else. More significantly, the editors of the Times op-ed page agree.  It's not clear what the point of her piece is supposed to be, other than sharing her own very specific feelings about her life and herself with the world.  
Now it so happens that, 61 years ago, a 25-year old American war veteran was living as an expatriate in Paris.  It turned out, four decades later when he published a most revealing autobiography, that he had a very troubled childhood and still had plenty of emotional problems of his own, but as men often did in those days, he found outlets for his problems, at that time, in his work.  He decided that Thanksgiving to write a piece about Americans in France as well, but his reads very differently--in large part because of the nature of his writing, but more than that, it seems to me, because he, after the fashion of his time, linked what he had to say to a broader story, specifically, the early history of the United States.  His name was Art Buchwald, and his column was about the problem of explaining Thanksgiving, a holiday without parallel in France, to the French.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pélerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pélerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on le Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant:

"Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

"I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballi), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et las tristesse).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Où est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance?)
Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

        My apologies to those who never studied any French. . .Happy Thanksgiving to all. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Kaiser on the Air

I spent 90 minutes standing by for CNN last Friday and was interviewed for a total of about 14 minutes. You may view them here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

JFK and me



     My first memory of John F. Kennedy comes from the1956 Democratic convention, which my parents attended in a vain effort to secure the Democratic nomination for President for Averell Harimman, the Governor of New York for whom my father was then working.  At the age of nine, I had already known for four years that my family’s future depended on the whims of the American electorate, and I was already a history buff.  Watching the Democratic convention in Chicago on television, I saw something that I have never seen since and will probably never see again: a nominating contest that went on for more than one ballot. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, had thrown the vice presidential nomination open to the convention, and Kennedy was trying for it. His principle opponent was Senator Estes Kefauver, a liberal from Tennessee (yes, that was possible in those distant days) who had just lost the nomination to Stevenson for the second time in a row.  The contest went into a second ballot and at one point Kennedy seemed certain to win.  I was rooting for Kefauver, because, somehow, I knew that my parents in Chicago wanted him to win.  On the second ballot he did, but Kennedy had established himself as a national figure.  A year or two later, I heard my best friend’s father, a Catholic resident of the Albany suburbs, predict that Kennedy would become President.  “He’s a smart guy,” he said.

In November 1958 virtually every Democratic candidate in the country, including Kennedy, won a smashing victory at the polls—but Harriman was the exception.  My father parlayed his governmental experience into a position at American University in Washington and we returned to Bethesda, the scene of my earliest memories.  When the 1960 campaign began my father firmly supported Hubert Humphrey, and so did I.  After Humphrey crashed in the West Virginia primary we numbered ourselves among the millions of Democrats who hoped that Adlai Stevenson would make a third run.  In early July I went off to music camp in Maine for a month, and when I returned the Democratic convention was over and Kennedy was the nominee.  My father had signed on with Citizens for Kennedy, a “non-partisan” arm of the campaign, thanks to his friend and fellow Rhodes Scholar Byron “Whizzer” White.  For some reason, White, who was a year behind my father at Oxford, had met the Kennedy family while old Joe was Ambassador to the UK, but my father had not.  Still, he was on board, and he impressed Robert Kennedy, the campaign manager, by telling him frankly that Jews (of which he was one) didn’t trust Jack because they regarded his father Joe as an an appeaser and anti-Semite—both of which were true.  What struck me when I reconnected with my family in early August was that all their previous loyalties had gone out the window.  Kennedy was the nominee, and he was their man.  My father’s attitude, I can now see, was the attitude of a professional, one that has been sadly lacking in American politics for a long time.
My family received the Washington Post (which I delivered) and the New York Times every morning in the second half of 1960, and I read every word relating to the campaign—and Time and Newsweek as well. I watched all four debates and participated in a debate of my own at North Bethesda Junior High School in my history class.  I lost—Bethesda, in those distant days, had more Republicans than Democrats.  I also read both The Facts About Nixon, which had been commissioned by the Democratic National Committee, and The Remarkable Kennedys by Joe McCarthy (not  the Joe McCarthy), which filled us all in on the whole Kennedy family.  And I accompanied my father to the Citizens for Kennedy office on a few Saturdays, and on one of them, I actually met Robert Kennedy and about 6 of his kids.  He was quiet and sympathetic.  I never was fated to meet his brother.

The last two weeks of the campaign seemed to herald a Kennedy victory.  Election night in 1960 remains, without question, the most exciting night of my entire life.  Every nerve of my 13 year old body was attuned to the results.  By 8:00 PM JFK was opening up an early lead, carrying Connecticut and New York, and soon he was doing very well in Pennsylvania as well.  His lead in the popular vote grew and grew, and eventually reached almost two million votes.  It was clear that his choice of Lyndon Johnson as his running mate had brought him Texas, and much of the south had remained Democratic as well, even though Virginia, Florida and Tennessee were not..  But Ohio, another big industrial state (and in 1960 the northeastern and Midwestern industrial states had far more electoral votes than they do today), was going for Nixon.  That was the first straw in the wind of what was to come.

My parents were at a party, and I was up well past midnight. By then Kennedy’s lead had begun to slip, and the western states were all going for Nixon.  The early returns from California were close.  By about 2:00 AM, when I must have gone to bed, Kennedy was very close to an electoral majority, but not quite there.  “Alaska will do it,” my father said when my parents finally got home, but he was wrong—Alaska went for Nixon.  When I awoke again after a few hours’ sleep at about 7:20, NBC had just gone off the air, having given Kennedy the election on the basis that California had gone for him.  (They were using computer projections.)  But that, too, turned out to be premature, and within a few minutes they had reversed themselves. By about 10:00 AM Minnesota and Illinois were clearly in Kennedy’s column, and he had won the election. My parents allowed me to skip school, and I saw Kennedy and a very pregnant Jackie come out to accept Nixon’s concession at Hyannis Port. We had won.  I did not know what that was going to mean for me. 

Kennedy had talked a great deal during the campaign about refurbishing America’s image around the world, and he had definite ideas of how to do so.  He turned the job of selecting new Ambassadors over to Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles, and he approached the task differently from any other modern President.  I do not think that a single major Ambassadorship went to a campaign contributor without visible diplomatic qualifications.  Kennedy appointed at least 20 Ambassadors from outside the Foreign Service, but he picked them based on their previous record of public service, their experience abroad, and the sense that they would ably represent him and his generation, especially among the emerging nations of the world.   They included retired General James Gavin, who became Ambassador to France; historian George F. Kennan, whom John Foster Dulles had fired from the State Department in 1953, whom he sent to Yugoslavia; Edwin Reischauer of the Harvard Government Department, who became Ambassador to Japan, his academic specialty; Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who became Ambassador to India; William Attwood, the foreign editor of Look magazine, who went to the African trouble spot of Guinea; and my father, Philip Kaiser, who knew French and had represented the US in the International Labor Organization under Truman, who was chosen to be Ambassador to Senegal.  I had had no idea that we might be going abroad as a result of the election, and to say that I was unhappy would be a gross understatement.  I had already had too much moving in my life.  Yet there was no choice, and I had four months to learn enough French to handle the Lycée in Dakar.  It turned out, though, that I had a sympathetic listener in the White House.

On April 2, 1961, I brought the Washington Post into our Bethesda house and found a remarkable story on page one.  John Kenneth Galbraith, it seemed, had mentioned to the President that one of his children, Peter, was especially unhappy about leaving his friends and his school to move to New Delhi. (My first thought, I must say, was that my own father would never have shared my feelings with the President.)  Kennedy had responded with a personal letter to young Peter, saying that he knew how he felt because his own younger siblings had gone through the same thing more than twenty years earlier when their father was appointed Ambassador to Great Britain.  But he knew, he said, that Peter enjoyed animals, and India was sure to offer many fascinating ones.  But Peter was only one of many children going abroad for the New Frontier, the President continued, and he liked to think of them “as junior Peace Corps,” a reference to the new agency he was then establishing.  “You and your brothers will be helping your parents do a good job for our country and you will be helping yourselves by making many friends,” he said.  “I a little wish I were going too,” he concluded in a handwritten postscript.

That letter meant a lot—and not only to Peter Galbraith.

Like many expatriates, the Kaiser family became news junkies after arriving in Senegal in July 1961, although our news sources were few.  While we could sometimes find the Voice of America on a short wave broadcast, we had no television of any kind, and depended on the American newspapers from Paris (which arrived a day late) and the international editions of Time and Newsweek.  The news was grim during 1961, including the Berlin crisis and the erection of the wall and the Soviet resumption of nuclear tests, culminating in the detonation of a 50-megaton bomb. (I vividly remember a Newsweek cover showing what that bomb would have done had it landed in Battery Park in Manhattan.)  But in 1962 President Kennedy began to hit his stride, and a series of dramatic stories found their way to us.  In the spring he forced the steel companies to roll back an inflationary price increase. “It’s a revolution,” my father remarked, as he handed me the paper with the news.  In September came the battle over the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi.  And then, the next month, one Monday morning, my father called me into my parents’ bedroom to brief me on the President’s announcement that Soviet missiles had been discovered in Cuba.  With events unfolding so rapidly, our lack of news was never more painful than it was then.  We received film of the president’s address and watched it during the week, but it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how close we had come to war.  But my father the following Sunday got word through the Embassy that Khrushchev had agreed to pull the missiles out.  It was another triumph for the President.  The most rueful moment of those two years came a couple of weeks later, the day after the midterm elections, when I, glued to the short wave, heard Richard Nixon’s press secretary read his concession in the California governor’s race.  “Vice President Nixon will not be making a statement himself,” he said, and I turned off the radio and ran to give my parents the news.  As it turned out, of course, Nixon did appear and gave some of the most famous remarks of his career, including, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

I returned to a very different United States on July 5, 1963, from the one I had left.  Americans were orbiting the earth, the economy was booming, and the Administration had introduced a massive civil rights bill and was negotiating a test ban treaty with the Russians.  History, in short, was moving rapidly, and generally in the right direction.  My life was another matter: after a struggle lasting several months, I bowed to my parents’ wishes and agreed to go to boarding school in Connecticut.  They remained at home on leave for most of the fall, and it fell to me, on November 22 at about 2:00 PM EST, to place a collect call and give my mother the terrible news that I had just heard on the radio.  A few minutes later, sitting in the apartment of a teacher at the end of my dormitory corridor, I saw Cronkite read the news of the President’s death.  It was my first and perhaps even now my worst experience of real trauma, and I turned out to be the kind of person who simply shuts down.  For at least an hour I could not speak to anyone.  Our Saturday classes were not cancelled the next morning, and in English I was supposed to write an in-class essay on 1984, one of my favorite books.  I struggled for the whole hour but literally could not write one sentence.  My parents, who had been masters of denial since trauma in their own childhoods, tried to reassure me. “Work, that’s the answer,” my father said.  I came home for Thanksgiving five days later, and on Saturday night my parents had a huge party for all their many Washington friends.  To my shock and amazement, I could not find one single person there who wanted to talk about Kennedy.  All they could think about was Johnson, the great start he was making, and his ambitious plans for the future.
 
One who turned out to be different was William Attwood, another Ambassador, who wrote a moving memorial of Kennedy for Look.   We were close to the Attwoods and a couple of weeks later I received it at school in the form of their Christmas card.  Here is the conclusion of his piece.

The Kennedy administration was an exciting time to be alive, and a good time to be busy. I think the Johnson Administration will be, too, for the new President has the experience and the drive, and the nation now has the momentum. But my thoughts are still turned to the years just past, ratherthan to the years just ahead. All I know, as I end this memoir, is that I shall always be proud to have been involved with the history of this time--the New Frontier period, as the historians will surely call it--and that my children--the two old enough to have worn Kennedy campaign buttons and the one soon to be born--will also remember and be proud of what their father was doing in the early 1960s.  So I have that to thank Jack Kennedy for, too.

            I knew his children well, and it was at that point—for the first time—that I began to cry.

            And now, with Christmas almost upon us, I find myself thinking of last Christmas and the present I brought back to my 11-year-old daughter from the White House. It was a note from the President in answer to a letter she had written him. She had it framed, and it has been on her bedside table ever since. The note is signed, 'Your friend, John F. Kennedy.'

            As I read those words today I still feel a stab of pain and jealousy.  Had I written such a letter I too would have gotten a reply—but I never did.
            She never met the President, but she always thought of him as her friend, and she was crying that terrible weekend because her friend was dead.  This Christmas, I think a lot of Americans, like my daughter, feel they have lost a friend. They have. 

I became a history major in college, which I entered in 1965.  My father was still in the diplomatic service, and his generation and mine began to divide over the war in Vietnam.  By the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be an academic and probably a historian, but I first had to reach an agreement with Uncle Sam over my military obligations—a process which led me into the Army reserves.  In 1971 I returned to Harvard for graduate school in history, but I was studying western Europe, not the US.  My lifelong interest in my own nation had not died out, however, and it seemed to me increasingly, as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, that Kennedy’s death had been a most unfortunate turning point in our history, followed as it was by urban riots and, of course, the disastrous war in Vietnam.  I had also kept abreast of the controversy over his assassination, and particularly with the work of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which had concluded in 1979 that he had probably been assassinated by a conspiracy of organized crime figures.  In 1983—then a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon—I was commissioned to write two of the dozens of articles that appeared on the 20th anniversary of the President’s death.  One, a contribution to a special issue of The New Republic, focused on JFK’s extraordinary political skills and the confidence he had managed to inspire, and it drew a very friendly comment from a reviewer in the Boston Globe.  The second, written for the Outlook section of the Washington Post, summarized the state of our knowledge of the assassination without taking a definite position for or against conspiracy.  Yet I spent the rest of the 1980s writing a very long book about European war.  When that book came out in 1990 I felt it was time to return to my youth.
The State Department in the early 1990s began publishing the basic documentation on U.S. policy in Vietnam, first under Kennedy and then under Johnson.  I was now determined to find out exactly how and why we had become involved in that war, and these releases offered me the chance to do so in my new job at the Naval War College in Newport—coincidentally, another old JFK haunt.  And what I learned was quite astonishing.  While some aspects of his Vietnam policies will always be controversial, one thing emerged with startling clarity.  Again and again during his first year in office in 1961, his entire national security team, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy—to say nothing of the Joint Chiefs—pressed him to go to war in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both.  Repeated proposals to that effect reached him in the oval office. He rejected them all.  He specifically said, in one climactic meeting, that the enemy seemed to have all the military advantages, that our allies around the world would not support us, and that the war would be extremely difficult to explain to the American people. He did approve an increased advisory effort, but the evidence suggests that in 1962, when that immediately became controversial, he told Robert McNamara to wind it up by 1965.  That in any case is what McNamara announced privately and publicly that he was going to do.  

Kennedy did not want war in Southeast Asia largely because he had so many other foreign policy goals: limiting nuclear weapons, easing relations with the Soviets generally, eliminating the Castro regime (a goal he never abandoned), and strengthening America’s image in the Third World.  He had an extraordinary rapport with foreign leaders, similar to George H. W. Bush in that respect, but entirely different from LBJ, George W. Bush, or, sadly, Barack Obama.   Johnson had no real background in foreign affairs and had traveled abroad only briefly.  Within a week of taking office, he had defined Vietnam as the most important problem facing his Administration—exactly what Kennedy had refused to do.  By early 1964 it was clear that the situation in South Vietnam was much worse, and Johnson got the same advice from his inherited foreign policy team that Kennedy had: to use American military force to try to solve it.  Kennedy refused. Johnson, as soon as he was elected himself, said yes—and the era of optimistic consensus that Kennedy had symbolized came crashing down within three years.  It has never returned.

My book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Origins of the Vietnam War appeared in 2000 and was widely reviewed.  But meanwhile an even bigger research opportunity had opened up.  Oliver Stone’s dreadful film JFK had spread the worst kind of disinformation about the Kennedy assassination, but it had moved the Congress to pass a law mandating the release of all relevant records.  I remained interested in the assassination—although totally convinced that Oswald had actually committed the crime—and I was determined to go through those records. From 2001 to 2007, in a series of trips to the Washington area, I did.  They are incomparably the biggest release of FBI and CIA records ever, and they told an incredible story.  I established that although Robert Kennedy thought he had turned off the Mafia assassination plot against Castro that the Eisenhower Administration had set in motion in 1960, it had continued all the same well into 1963.  I found that Kennedy himself had never given up the objective of overthrowing Castro despite the assurances he gave Khrushchev at the time of the missile crisis.  (The White House, it turned out, had not been interested in the efforts of my old friend William Attwood at the UN in the fall of 1963 to arrange some sort of reconciliation with Castro.)  I saw first hand in the FBI files the depth of Robert Kennedy’s hatred for the mob and the extent to which they returned it.  And I was able not only to show that Oswald and Ruby acted as part of a mob-organized conspiracy, but to identify the key players in that conspiracy, including one, John Martino, who told his family that the assassination was going to happen before it did and discussed his role with two friends before his death in 1975.  Santo Trafficante of Florida, Carlos Marcello of New Orleans, and possibly Sam Giancana of Chicago sponsored the assassination with the encouragement of Jimmy Hoffa to stop Robert Kennedy’s war on the mob, and it worked.  I also found that new mob hits in 1975 had protected the secret at a moment when it seemed that it might come out.  For the most part, authors on the assassination remain divided into two faith-based camps: the church of the lone assassin, which insists that all evidence of conspiracy must be false, and the church of the grand conspiracy, which assumes Oswald was framed and that any discrepancy in the evidence shows both a conspiracy and a massive cover-up.   There’s a kind of Gresham’s law in assassination research—the bad theories drive out the good ones—but I feel very strongly that I solved the case.
The Road to Dallas appeared in 2008, drawing somewhat less attention than American Tragedy, and I resolved to stop writing about my own lifetime.  My next book, on U.S. entry into the Second World War, will appear next spring.  A lifetime as a professional historian allows one to find out the truth about the current events of one’s youth, and I have taken full advantage of that opportunity and then some.  I now see, however, that I shall not live into a new era anything like that of the Kennedy years.  The mid-century consensus he embodied grew out of the New Deal and the experience of the Second World War.  It was politically extraordinarily impressive, and its achievements ran from the interstate highway system through Medicare and the landing on the moon and civil rights.  But it was emotionally constricted, and my own Boom generation was certain to rebel.  Had it not been for Vietnam, I shall always believe, that rebellion might have been less destructive and important parts of the postwar consensus might have survived.  Instead, for forty years I have watched my contemporaries tear down most of our political inheritance.  Someday new generations will rebuild it—but that day is a long way off.  I am very glad to have been a small part, and a chronicler, of the Kennedy era.

[p.s. Readers interested in my thoughts about the assassination can find them in this post from five years ago.]




Friday, November 15, 2013

The Crisis Goes On

Seventeen years ago I reviewed William Strauss and Neil Howe's new book, The Fourth Turning, for the Boston Globe.  As most of my readers here are well aware, they had divided American history into 80-year cycles in their earlier book, Generations, and in 1996 they predicted that a great national crisis would develop sometime in the next ten to fifteen years.  In one paragraph, I discussed their tentative speculations about what the crisis might look like, and added another thought of my own.



``The Fourth Turning'' is weakest on the point of greatest practical interest: what, exactly, the new crisis is likely to involve. The authors present a series of scenarios combining, in various ways, a financial crisis, a collapse of federal authority, a racial or regional civil war, or an international crisis perhaps involving terrorism -- but none of them seems completely convincing. Yet here, too, history is on their side. No one in the 1760s would have predicted the American Revolution; almost no one in 1928 would have foreseen either depression or world war. Only in the 1850s was the shape of the coming crisis fairly clear, and even then few if any would have predicted war on such a scale, fought to such a drastic conclusion. We must watch, perhaps, for problems that fashionable solutions can only make worse, since these are the ones most likely to spin out of control."

It seems to me this morning as I read accounts of President Obama's Dunkirk moment over health care that Bill, Neil and myself have all been vindicated.  All three of their proposed crisis events have occurred, beginning, of course, in 2001, when I am more convinced than ever that this great national crisis began.  But my last sentence has been repeatedly vindicated as well, and never more so than in the consequences of the health care roll-out.  And because of the dynamic I identified, Strauss and Howe have turned out to be much too optimistic about our ability to deal with any of these crises.  Because our elite's world view has been fundamentally flawed, we haven't been able to solve any of these problems.  More often than not, we have made them worse.

The first four years of this blog, coinciding with George W. Bush's second term, focused above all on the war in Iraq.  The Bush Administration had decided that it could relatively easily solve the problem of terrorism simply by removing dictatorial regimes and opening the Middle East to democracy.  Instead, they unleashed a wave of anarchy in Iraq that has now engulfed Syria and even Egypt, the leading power in the region.  The Bush Administration was not solely responsible for this development by any means, but it surely accelerated it.  In the same way, our involvement in Afghanistan, which the Obama Administration increased and prolonged, has helped spread anarchy into Pakistan, with consequences we still cannot foresee.

The financial crisis was an opportunity to undo the missteps of the 1990s, such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and put the economy on a sound footing again.  But in part because President Obama's life had taught him to trust the system, he missed that opportunity and left our financial structures essentially in place.  No leading banker suffered any criminal penalties for practices that destroyed the world economy.  And not only has the Dodd-Frank bill still not been implemented, but last week's New Yorker includes an excellent article by Nicholas Lehman showing how the big banks and hedge funds are consistently staying one jump ahead of the federal government by finding new ways to behave irresponsibly.  It is hard to believe that we have seen our last financial panic--something the Boom generation did not experience once from 1943 until 2001.

And meanwhile, the authority of the federal government has been weakening.  As I have documented at length, it has been under ceaseless attack from the Republican Party for the last five years, an attack that has already had enormous consequences.  Barack Obama, meanwhile, used the large majorities with which he entered office to enact exactly one meaningful reform, the Affordable Health Care Act.  That was, I now believe, a terrible mistake.  What he needed to do in 2009 was what FDR did in 1933: to focus upon measures that would immediately alleviate the economic distress of the American people and reassure them that the days of panic were over.  Instead, he spent nearly 18 months on a large, complex, controversial piece of legislation that would not come into effect for an additional four years.  He has never recovered from the electoral disaster of the 2010 Congressional elections that resulted.  Now he faces new problems because of the flawed philosophy that that reform embodied.

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 he did not mince words about the causes of the economic crisis and what it would require.  He focused on the values of American society.  


”Our distress comes from no failure of substance,” he said in his first inaugural.   “Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. . . The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. . .  Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits.” Our society in 2009 suffered from exactly the same ills, but we lacked leadership that would either identify them so frankly or do something about them.  Instead, the Obama Administration has tried to square the circle: to reform both the financial system and health care without substantially diminishing the profits those industries drain from our economy.  But because those profits are the problem, this strategy seems certain to fail.

The Obama Administration wanted to give every American good health insurance, but it decided from the beginning to do so in cooperation with the profit-based health insurance industry.  Karen Ignani, that industry's chief lobbyist (whom I have already discussed once or twice here), played a key role in the design of the health care act.  The act was designed to create private universal health care, in which young and healthy people would be pressured financially to buy policies while less well off Americans went into Medicaid or received subsidies to buy policies in exchanges.  This was among other things a bonanza for the health care industry, which would secure millions of new customers, partly at government expense.  

The would also have offer better policies to many Americans.  This is what is now causing the President disastrous political trouble, because he promised everyone that they could, if they wanted, keep the plan they had--even though the law was going to force the insurance companies to cancel many policies that didn't provide enough coverage.  There is an irony here:  the policies that are being cancelled were probably, for the most part, emotional security blankets that would not have saved their holders from financial catastrophe in the event of serious illness.  That is why they were cheap.  In addition--and I know of such cases personally--the insurance companies would have felt free to cancel the policies, before the new law was passed, if their holders became really sick.  But the policies were, therefore, cheap, and real ones will cost more.  That is what President Obama did not have the courage to tell the American public.

In the last two weeks, the news that millions of policies were being cancelled had threatened to replace the Democratic majorities that passed the law in 2010 with a bipartisan majority in both houses that would vote to repeal key parts of it.  And thus, the President yesterday decreed new regulations that would allow people to keep their old policies, as he had foolishly promised they could do.  And today, Karen Ignani and other health insurance spokesmen have announced that this step will wreck the administration of the law and disrupt the insurance marketplaces, because the companies set their rates based upon the requirement that millions of Americans would have to buy new, more comprehensive and more expensive policies.  It is impossible to say now what the outcome of this imbroglio will be, but it seems fairly clear that the health care law is not going to be implemented as planned.

In dealing with profound changes and crises in our national life, we have two political parties with different philosophies.  The Republicans want the government to abandon any pretense of seeking economic and social justice and allow economic power to rule us without opposition.  The Democrats still believe in greater equality and the provision of basic services, but they cannot make these things come true because they are now determined to do so within the context of our new economic system and its distribution of economic power.  We know, thanks to the experience of other countries, how to provide health insurance: to finance it through taxation, focus on keeping costs down by avoiding unnecessary treatment, and to make it the same for everyone.  Because we allow private companies to profit from what should be a public good, we pay about twice as much per capita as the Europeans do for only marginally better health care.  The attempt to provide universal coverage through the private system is, clearly, not working.  

Another problem has emerged, one that is inevitable if we regard health insurance as an individual, rather than a social, need. Millions of Americans are complaining (or soon will be) that they have to buy policies covering care they will never need.  Women in their 50s (and even men) will have policies covering childbirth, and so on.  But that is the essence of insurance: paying for any contingency that might affect any insured person, in order that the problems you yourself develop will be paid for.  As Judge Ginsburg so wisely noted in her opinion on the health care act, everyone needs health care sooner or later.  That is why we all should be willing to pay for it based on progressive taxation.

The ACA is a critical test of the government's ability to solve problems--a test the government has been failing for some time.  I fear that if it fails or is in effect repealed in the next few years, the Republicans will in effect have won the battle against government for the foreseeable future, whether they can get back into the White House or not.  The failure, however, will be only partially their responsibility.  The plan is in deep trouble because it embodies the fatal contradiction of the modern Democratic party.  Because its solutions are based on false assumptions, they have a tendency to make things worse.   "The fault, dear Brutus, was not in our stars, but in ourselves."