Saturday, October 30, 2010

A kind word for a kind horse

By this point in an election campaign we are all probably ready to think of other things, so a small pause in our journey through this vale of political tears to say a kind word about a being who was mercifully free of worrying about tax policy, tea partiers, Newt Gingrich's presidential ambitions, or Joe Miller's campaign promise to secure our borders the way communist East Germany secured hers. (I have been reminded lately, anyway, of Tom Lehrer's remark from a similar time a while ago — that the friends who kept pressing him to come up with new funny political satires made him feel, under the circumstances, like a resident of Pompeii asked to offer amusing observations about lava.)

The explanations offered by the hewers of prose for the deep hold that animals can have on our affections come mostly in two unsatisfactory varieties, soppy sentimentality (glops about "unconditional love") or reductionist biology (diagrams of oxytocin and hormone receptors). Neither are entirely wrong, but for me these have always seemed to be at the wrong level of explanation: they're not incorrect, they just miss the point.

The melancholy duty of putting down my old horse yesterday reminded me of this again. I don't think I'm being sentimental when I say he was a kind and gentle soul; as he lay in the field yesterday morning, unable to rise to his legs for the first time in his twenty-eight years, he seemed to take it with quiet resignation, nickering softly to me when I came up to him, something he almost never did in his galloping and jumping days.

But it was the feel of his mind, and his quiet and slightly strange presence that somehow radiated through the farm and my life, whose absence now I feel the sharpest. I went hunting this morning for a passage from Leonard Woolf's memoirs that I vaguely remembered; he is the only writer I know of who has ever come even close to capturing the feeling I am trying to describe, and so I will just let him say it for me:

I do not know why I am so fond of animals. They give me the greatest pleasure both emotionally and intellectually. I get deep affection for cats and dogs, and indeed for almost every kind of animal which I have kept. But I also derive very great pleasure from understanding them, their emotions and their minds. They are, too, as I have said, usually amazingly beautiful. I was always condemned by Lytton [Strachey] on this account for being sentimental and many people, particularly intellectuals, would agree with him. I daresay that to some extent they are right. . . .
But I think there is also something more to it. If you really understand an animal so that he gets to trust you completely and, within his limits, understands you, there grows up between you an affection of purity and simplicity which seems to me peculiarly satisfactory. There is also a cosmic strangeness about animals which always fascinates me and gives to my affection for them a mysterious depth or background.

I'll miss Natch's cosmic strangeness. He was a horse without guile or malice; would that man could say as much.

Natch (and his owner) in their energetic youth

Thursday, October 28, 2010

So . . . who's out of touch?

The New York Times's resident conservative columnist David Brooks is usually thoughtful, independent-minded, and original. But every once in a while the transmitter Karl Rove implanted in his brain goes off and he delivers the latest pre-recorded message from GOP Central. This time it was another rendition of the Republicans' generic pseudo-anti-"elitism" shtick I wrote about in a recent post. Brooks's take was to assert that when Democrats point out that the GOP has nominated some first-class flakes this year (Christine O'Donnell, Carl Paladino) or that Republicans have engaged in despicable demagoguery over health care ("death panels," "government take-over"), the Democrats are actually just indulging their psychological need to "feel superior."

So remember: if you nominate flakes or engage in demagoguery, it says more about your opponents than yourself.

Meanwhile, one of the "out of touch" members of the highly educated, East Coast dwelling, intermarying "New Elite" that right-wing think-tanker Charles Murray warned us about in his Washington Post piece has written to the paper one of the gentlest kick-em-in-the nuts replies I have had the pleasure to see in print in ages:

I am one of the brides mentioned in Charles Murray's commentary — the "consultant to the aerospace industry (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MPP)" who married "a director of marketing at a biotech company (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MBA)." But Mr. Murray used a faulty example to characterize his New Elite. 

He failed to recognize the host of ways the populations attending "elite" educational institutions have changed as society has shifted. I grew up as a Muslim in American suburbs, with immigrant parents who worked their way up the corporate ladder and speak of biases they faced because of skin color or accent. I never attended a private American school while growing up, but I did live in Pakistan for two years during high school. In American public schools, I was awarded some money by the Rotary Club and even got elected Key Club secretary. I didn't watch TV. I took no luxurious domestic vacations with my parents. 

I left Harvard to work with Bangladeshi women whose faces have been burned with acid. Having lived and worked with those less fortunate than I and having experienced South Asia, I hardly feel that I am out of touch with humanity. 

I look forward not to the genes that my children will "double" but to the richness of vicarious experiences that they may get when I tell them about my experiences abroad or their grandparents' first days in America. The supposed New Elite isn't a monolith, and it may even be a force for change. 

Samira Khan, Boston

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Species extinctions and question begging

In the "it must be true because I said it myself" department comes a new "study" in Science on the species-extinction crisis authored by 174 conservation biologists who looked at their own list of species they considered to be threatened and concluded from this that many species are threatened.

As I noted in a previous post, the whole science behind the extinction crisis is riddled with circular reasoning, but this is an especially fine example. No new research was involved, no field studies, no nothing that involved actual science as we know it. (The researchers for example concluded that habitat loss is one of the "root causes" of global biodiversity loss; this conclusion was derived from the fact that many of the species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List were presumed to be threatened, and accordingly placed on the list in the first place, because of . . . habitat loss)

The timing of the paper is not coincidental; diplomats are currently meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to discuss new international agreements to protect biodiversity. Several of the co-authors of the Science paper offered the usual perfunctory quotations about the need to curtail human use of the earth's land and the exploitation of the developing countries as a source of food and timber; environmental groups are pressing for a pledge to place a quarter of the earth's land off-limits to human use.

Yet there is the striking fact that many parts of the earth (North America, coastal Brazil) have been heavily exploited for agriculture and logging for centuries with almost no species losses occurring; many species have shown that they can adapt to human-modified environments with aplomb. A priori there is no reason to believe that agriculture and species conservation are of necessity mutually incompatible goals. Other evidence suggests that focusing conservation measures on the relatively small number of "ecological hotspots" where highly endemic species are concentrated is a hugely more effective strategy than blanket, across-the board proscriptions fencing off vast portions of the planet.

And of course, if we really are serious about setting aside land for nature preserves, the most effective steps by far would be to support intensive research on new GM varieties of staple crops with higher yields, more disease and insect resistance, and higher nutrient content so that more people can be fed on fewer acres; discourage land-gobbling organic farming; and above all unequivocally endorse the intensive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which more than any other single technology has spared land from the plow. (But it's far easier to bemoan mankind's "disconnection from the natural world.")


By the way, in my earlier post on extinction alarmism, I made the point that exaggerated warnings of impending doom and politicized science "is already causing a dangerous political backlash that has handed ammunition (exactly as in the case of global warming) to those who want to reject any and all evidence of human impacts on the natural environment," to which one reader complained that I was inventing a "straw man." He obviously has not met the American "tea party" and its evangelical Christian wing in particular, which are inhabited by plenty of flesh and blood examples, such as the West Virginia electrician interviewed by the New York Times who declared that it was impossible for burning of coal to cause any trouble for the earth since God "made this earth for us to utilize," or the founder of an Indiana tea party group who similarly asserted, “Being a strong Christian, I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

George Washington (what an elitist)

If you're looking for elitists in American politics, nobody but nobody beats the Founding Fathers.

The framers of the Constitution feared the people as much as they feared monarchical tyranny. Much of the machinery of the Constitution was engineered not only to ensure stability and order against the passions of the moment, but to protect a distinctly elitist and ranked view of society that most of us find literally incomprehensible today.

To Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and their fellow pro-constitutional Federalists, it was self-evident that there existed a natural social hierarchy — and that within that hierarchy only "gentlemen" possessed the disinterest, wisdom, sense of honor, and virtue to engage in political affairs. "There must be rulers and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor," the historian Gordon Wood quotes a Boston minister in a typical formulation of this view. The challenge that the framers spent a great deal of time worrying over was how to ensure that a government which respected popular sovereignty through the electoral process would elect to high office only members of the proper ruling class. 

Hamilton, who had risen from illegitimate birth and poverty to wealth and power, was as firm a believer in the social hierarchy as any; individuals might move through the ranks through natural ability but the ranks were immutable, and had to be respected in any civilized society. Even as rabid a republican as Jefferson privately spoke of a "natural aristocracy." Some were destined to lead, others to obey.

The electoral college, the indirect election of senators, life appointments for judges, as well as the considerable property requirements maintained by most states for voting, all reinforced the object of restricting office to the "legitimate" ruling class. Adams — who once declared that the distinction between gentlemen and commoners was the "most ancient and universal of all Divisions of People" — conceived of the Senate as a direct parallel to the British House of Lords, maintaining the interests of the gentry as a counterweight to the common people's representatives in the House of Representatives. And as for President Washington, to say he lacked the common-man touch was about like saying Christine O'Donnell is a little bit strange or John McCain owns a few houses: Washington hated to be touched, made his birthday a national holiday in the manner of sitting English kings, would turn a withering imperious stare on anyone who he felt did not show due respect, and thought ordinary people (such "as compose the bulk of an Army," whom he had come to know as commander-in-chief in the Revolution) were by nature incapable of acting in other than selfish private interest.

Behind all of this were several remarkably obnoxiously elitist ideas, from our modern perspective. One was that only men of wealth and leisure could be expected to possess the natural nobility and personal honor to rise above crass self-interest and be fit for public service.

Another was that there existed an identifiable and immutable class of the privileged few, largely defined by birth, family, independent wealth, dress, manners, and established social status, who had a natural right to rule — even in a republic.

The republican backlash that Jefferson rode to the presidency in 1800 understandably rebelled against these "aristocrats" who "fancy themselves to have a right to pre-eminence in everything," as one republican politician put it. To the horror of the Federalists, the legislatures of the post-Revolutionary generation were filled with an influx of "middling" men — small farmers, mechanics, tavern owners, who unabashedly ran for office (rather than affecting an attitude of reluctantly being summoned to public duty), who brashly declared themselves just as good men as those who put on airs of gentility, and who returned in full the contempt of the Federalists toward their supposed inferiors.

So far so good. The idea that ability depended upon birth or class or wealth or airs of gentility was and is obnoxious to American core beliefs.

But the Jeffersonian republicans went much further in their democratic zeal, and at times almost seemed to take the view that ability didn't depend even upon ability — dismissing specialized knowledge such as the law as just another tool of aristocratic domination, dismissing college education as useless "book-learning." As I noted the other day, the republicans exalted popular opinion over formal qualifications or professional competence to the extent that virtually every office in many localities became elective — sheriffs, judges, and militia captains included.

Amid all of this, the republican attitude toward education was distinctly schizophrenic. On the one hand there was a widespread belief that, as one essayist of the time put it, "the throne of tyranny is founded on ignorance," and that if ordinary men were to exercise the privilege of self-government they needed to share in "wisdom and knowledge."

On the other, there was the continuing association of learning, especially university education, as the privilege of the hated elite. And indeed, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the other colleges of the young republic were "supposed to train only gentlemen," as Gordon Wood notes. So even as they called for widespread public education, the Jeffersonian republicans were much given to insisting that, for example, (as Jefferson himself once put it) a ploughman was just as likely as a "professor of moral philosophy" to offer the correct answer on a question of ethics. Not only did one not need to wear lace ruffles, silk stockings, and powdered wigs to hold valid political opinions; one did not even need knowledge: the instinct for virtue was innate in all men.

Fast forward 200 years, and we have the phenomenon of conservatives hurling the epithet "elitist" as a universal term of abuse at their liberal opponents. In a particularly fatuous essay in the Washington Post on Sunday, the conservative think-tanker Charles Murray (famous for his 1994 book on race and IQ, The Bell Curve) defended this favorite accusation of Sarah Palin et al., by explaining that because the better-educated people in the country tend to live in certain places (the East and West Coasts, plus a few colonial outposts such as the Research Triangle of North Carolina), marry each other, send their children in turn to the better universities, watch "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" instead of "Oprah" and "The Price is Right" on television, and read real books rather than Harlequin romances and the "Left Behind" Christian novels, they constitute a "New Elite" that "real Americans" like Sarah Palin are right to disdain for their superior airs and being "out of touch."

Of course the slight flaw in this argument is that unlike the real elitists who founded our nation 200 years ago, today's "New Elitists" do not view political power as the exclusive purview of one social class; do not want to limit voting or office holding to people who dress in a certain way or have a certain level of independent wealth; do not believe in restricting admission to colleges, including the most prestigious, to the sons of "gentlemen" only. In fact the only substantive difference between the "New Elite" and "real Americans" as Murray, Palin, et al. define it is (a) they tend to be more politically liberal (and thus, by the way, actually less interested in telling other people how to live their lives than is the religious right) and (b) they tend to be better educated. (It is even possible that (b) is the proximate cause of (a). And it is no more surprising that people who went to the same colleges or who work in the same line of work tend to marry one another than it is that people who go to the same bars or churches or sports events do.)

Leaving aside the contention that "the real America" is an accurate term for the one-third of the population who live in small towns, work blue collar jobs, and go to church regularly, I'd be the first to acknowledge that there is much that is virtuous and admirable in the values of small communities, the skills and satisfactions of manual work, and in the compassion and decency that is a part of (some) religious practice. I'd also like to be the first to add that there is nothing particularly virtuous about commercial, tawdry, and badly written escapist women's fiction, exploitive television, or ignorance. (Nor, for that matter, in such other characteristics of the "real America" as its higher rates of drug addiction, divorce, spouse and child abuse, obesity, gun violence, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, false disability claims, and illiteracy as compared to the "New Elite.")

Ironically, it is conservatives who are the first to scream at the idea that standards or qualifications are being compromised in the name of affirmative action or "political correctness"; yet when liberals dare to suggest that, frankly, you might ought to know something (or even read a book or two, including one by someone you might disagree with) before you shoot your mouth off about economic policy, immigration reform, or foreign affairs, that is "liberal elitism." I agree with Thomas Jefferson that the ploughman probably is as wise as the professor of moral philosophy when it comes to basic principles of right and wrong. At the same time I am extremely glad that the people charged with making decisions about our financial system know much more about finance (and the gold standard) than Glenn Beck does, that the people in command of our foreign policy and military know much more about foreign policy and military affairs than Sarah Palin does, and that judges before they are given the power to relieve a citizen of his liberty or rule on the constitutionality of acts of the legislature have had to spend three hard years studying the law and many more practicing it.

That's not elitism: that's standards.

And that's why even an unabashed elitist like George Washington could (in his famous Farewell Address) say of all the rest of us in a democracy :
Promote then as an object of primary importance, Institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A man of principles

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) is one many GOP leaders who have been endeavoring to make "stimulus" as dirty a word as "bailout" and "takeover." (Which is interesting itself, since the bailout and takeover of the banks was done at the behest of the George W. Bush administration, before the election, in October 2008, and was supported by 91 Republican representatives and 34 Republican senators including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell — the same Mitch McConnell who had the chutzpah to go on TV recently railing against the bank takeover as a prime example of the "extreme" government that the radical Obama administration has brought to the land of liberty. At least McConnell wasn't as blatant as Rush Limbaugh's revisionism; "chutzpah" doesn't even begin to do justice to Limbaugh's big-lie fabrication that "not one Republican voted for the TARP bailout.")

Sessions was on TV the other day, too, where he went so far as to claim that the 2009 stimulus bill — the $787 billion Recovery and Reinvestment Act — "has created not only unemployment, but the big circumstance with the debt that we’re dealing with." Not that that stopped Sessions himself from soliciting $81 million under the Act for a road and rail project in his district, or from arguing (in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood) that the project "will create jobs" — and, yes, "stimulate the economy."

Asked about this small contradiction in his political philosophy, Sessions explained it as a question of his principled opposition to Democratic policy, apparently redefining the term to mean "opposed to in theory, as distinct from practice." Sessions said:
"What I have not done is allow my strong, principled objection to the bill to prevent me from asking federal agencies for their full consideration of critical infrastructure and competitive grant projects for North Texas when asked to do so by my constituents."

Friday, October 22, 2010

No wonder they lost

(Incidental knowledge picked up while researching a book on the War of 1812.) Actual names of Royal Navy vessels from the Napoleonic and War of 1812 era:

HMS Cherub (sloop of war)
HMS Primrose (brig)
HMS Frolic (brig)
HMS Nymphe (frigate)
HMS Eclair (brig)
HMS Opossum (brig)
HMS Clinker (gun brig)
HMS Catch Up a Little (tender)
HMS Adonis (schooner)
HMS Pickle (schooner)
HMS Fairy (brig)
HMS Biter (gun brig)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I think you meant a thorn branch

Human foibles are universal but there is a particular kind of sanctimonious arrogance that only the truly devout rise to. Virginia Thomas's bizarre phone message to Anita Hill the other day offered a fine specimen of the genre:

Good morning, Anita Hill, it's Ginny Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day.

That was pretty good, but what elevated it to the ranks of the great was Ms. Thomas's subsequent explanation: that she was "extending an olive branch" to Ms. Hill, and "that offer still stands." A small prize will be awarded to anyone who can detect an "offer" anywhere in this message, much less an olive branch.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

But my soul is pure

Carl Paladino, the very angry Republican tea party candidate for governor of New York, managed to go 72 hours last week without making an offensive remark or threatening to take out a reporter, which may be a new record. (Though his fellow tea partier Joe Miller, running for U.S. Senate in Alaska, had his private security guards grab and handcuff for 30 minutes a reporter who tried to question him about his reported misuse of his government office for political activities when he was an Alaska county attorney in 2008. Miller indignantly explained that he had already made clear he would not answer questions about his "personal life.")

Paladino's spate of good behavior was apparently prompted by growing signs of public disaffection with his wild-man persona in general (a new New York Times poll puts him at 24 percent) and his anti-gay remarks in particular, which he delivered a week ago to the brief acclaim of the very anti-gay Yehuda Levin, the kind of Orthodox rabbi who appears to be trying his best to give anti-semitism a good name. After being hailed by Levin for reading a script that Levin himself provided (in which Paladio ominously warned that children are being "brainwashed" into thinking homsexuality is acceptable), Paladino offered the standard "some of my best friends are . . ." and "the press misinterpreted and misstated my views" non-apology apology. That prompted the rabbi (whose metaphors seem a bit out of date) to denounce his erstwhile hero for having "folded like a cheap camera" to the "gay agenda."

Actually, though, Paladino was arguably following a well-worn strategy of calibrated cynicism that has been employed for decades by conservative politicians in their courting of the bigot vote. The formula is to play to popular hatreds with well-recognized code phrases (or not-so-code phrases) but then to turn around and express outrage at the suggestion that one is bigoted oneself. (Paladino in his original speech angrily said it would be "a dastardly lie" to "misquote" him as being in any way antihomosexual.)

Taking it one step further, the practitioners of this art often suggest that it is their critics who are the real bigots. Glenn Beck of course is the master of this, combining the racist appeal and the self-immunization in a single thought, notably when he declared that President Obama has "exposed himself as a guy with a deep-deated hatred for white people." Similarly, conservative columnists and think-tankers regularly offer up the analysis that it is a "liberal myth" that conservatives have ever appealed to the racist vote, and that it is liberals who are "playing the race card" when they try to point out the racial political game conservative politicians are playing. (Similarly, when liberals mention that Republican tax proposals will transfer $700 billion over the next 10 years to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, that is fomenting "class warfare"; and, as I wrote about in my book about the white terrorist violence in the Reconstruction South, whenever progressives decried the assassinations and beatings of African Americans who attempted to exercise their right to vote in the years after the Civil War, that was "waving the bloody shirt.")

The Washington Post ran a recent specimen of this genre by a University of Virginia political scientist who asserted that it was, yes, a liberal myth that the Republican Party ever courted the white racist vote as part of a "Southern Strategy," and that the shift from Democratic to Republican party affiliation among white Southerners in the 1950s and 1960s was purely a phenomenon of growing income and other long-term, slowly evolving cultural and economic factors. Now, I should be clear that I am not in any way arguing that all conservatives are or were bigots. Barry Goldwater's 1964 candidacy perfectly encapsulated the postwar GOP coalition of traditional pro-business Republicans, anti-communist foreign-policy conservatives (who would come to include the disaffected neocons), and social conservatives. But there is no denying that the last group was a powerful force in the South, that race was at the forefront of Southern white social conservatism, and that Goldwater and other Republican leaders unabashedly appealed to the white conservative racist vote after seeing an opportunity created by Lyndon Johnson's historic support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

This is shown vividly by the votes in the presidential elections during these years. The swing from overwhelmingly Democratic in 1956 to overhwlemingly Republican in 1964 in the Southern states was breathtakingly abrupt. And to those who would try to argue it was not about race, it is instructive to also consider 1968, when George Wallace's unabashedly racist-tinged third-party campaign garnered as vast a chunk of the deep-South vote as did Goldwater four years earlier — so much for long-term demographic shifts toward the Republican economic agenda:

Wallace is an interesting study himself on this point. He began politics as a New Deal Democrat and largely retained his progressive economic views throughout his career, championing the "underdog" and programs for the poor. But after his first unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 1958 — when he was called the worst thing a politician could be called in those years in the South, namely a "moderate" on racial issues — Wallace knew that the only path to political success was by appealing to the white racist vote. His opponent, John Patterson, had run an openly racist campaign in which he declared his steadfast opposition to any "mixing" of the races and earned the backing of Ku Klux Klan. When it was over Wallace said to his campaign aide Seymore Trammell, "Seymore, do you know why I lost? I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again."

Running for president in 1968, Wallace became adept at playing both sides of the street in the classic manner, throwing red meat to white Southern racists while cloaking it enough deniability to soften his appeal elsewhere; thus like Strom Thurmond (who carried four deep-South states in 1948 as the candidate of the segregationist "States Rights Democratic Party" and who switched to the GOP in 1963), he would couch his opposition to school integration as a stand against communism or big government or for "states rights."

Liberals have subtly enabled the politics of coded racial appeal by making racism and other bigotry into a personal moral issue — a question of the content of one's soul. You could make a respectable argument in fact that neither Goldwater nor even Wallace or Thurmond were racists in their hearts. But they shamelessly played racial politics, and they and their political heirs rode to considerable electoral success on that cynical strategy of appealing to the worst in the hearts of others. I have mentioned before the essay by my state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Linwood Holton, who lamented the fact that when faced in the 1960s with the chance to take the high road — and put together what Holton argued in fact could have been an unstoppable coalition of pro-business voters, moderates, and African Americans — the GOP instead took the low road by, as Goldwater himself notoriously put it, appealing to the disaffected conservative racist vote in the South on the theory that "you go hunting where the ducks are."

The GOP is still shamelessly playing this game, though now the ducks include right-wing hatreds for gays and Muslims in addition to the more traditional racial enmities.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Card-carrying experts

There has been a lively discussion on the H-WAR list over the past few days about whether journalists "ruin" military history.

H-WAR is one of 100 or so interactive discussion lists on the H-NET website devoted to various disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and it's downright lousy with academics — members of that professional guild that as a rule guards its turf more assiduously than a moose in mating season. True to form, a few of the card-carrying certified PhD authorized expert historians who weighed in offered the standard supercilious assessment of mere writers who attempt to venture into their rarefied precincts:

far too often journalists produce shoddy, sloppy work. . . The real danger is that too often journalists create a narrative of the event that gets seared into public memory, usually an inaccurate, simplistic narrative. This then becomes the dominant narrative that historians struggle to overcome and reverse, rarely with much success.

But it was striking that this view was very much in the minority; much more typical was what another PhD military historian, one who teaches at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, had to say:
Journalists who venture to write history, or more specifically military history, have — on the whole — done the reading public a huge favor. Their biggest assets are their rather finely honed investigative techniques and instincts along with a real ability to communicate in writing. . . . I for one am glad to have journalists involved — they not only provide the framework for further analysis but they are often the larger reading public's conduit into military history. 
This actually follows very closely a rule that I have observed for some time. I have written as a journalist about a wide range of topics over the years, and almost without fail, the more technical, difficult, specialized, recondite the field, the more its practitioners welcome "outsider" non-specialists writing about it. Within the sciences and social sciences, the subatomic physicists, engineers, and linguists have been unfailingly encouraging and polite and generous and full of praise for the result; the cell biologists and geneticists somewhere in the middle; the ecologists and psychologists hands down the worst.

Likewise, in my forays into writing history, the professional historians who dealt with more technical matters like intelligence, codebreaking, and to an only slightly lesser extent military history have uniformly treated me like a colleague from the start. (Dick Hallion, the U.S. Air Force's chief historian — a PhD historian and author of many well-regarded books on aviation and military history — went out of his way to pooh-pooh the very idea that there was anything terribly hard about his field; he airily assured me it would take me "six months" to get up to speed on the literature. He also could not have been more kind, helpful, and supportive to somebody who basically just showed up on his doorstep naively announcing he planned to write a book covering the entire history of a subject that Hallion himself had devoted his entire professional life to studying.)

The Tudor historians I ran into while writing my book on Sir Francis Walsingham were a distinctly mixed crowd, some being warily helpful and others unmistakably hostile; the most clannish and condescending (and in some cases downright insulting) by far were the American and Southern historians.

Some of this of course is that practitioners of obscure disciplines are just so happy anyone notices their existence at all that they are thrilled with the attention and the company. But much more I suspect is simple protectionism: the nuclear physicists know that a popularizer is no threat to their livelihood. The more a field is open to anyone who can read and write plain English, the more its professional occupiers take refuge in credentialism and mystification to hold their fort.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Different kinds of capital

My friend Matt Ridley has an interesting discussion on his Rational Optimist blog about whether we owe modern prosperity to the accumulation and amassing of capital over generations or to the bursts of innovation that allow each successive generation to produce more at lower cost. The "innovators" appear to win the debate hands down over the "accumulators," which I think is another reinforcement of the point I made the other day about inherited wealth. A rational and prosperous society is one that encourages and rewards the accumulation and bequest of wisdom, not cash, from each generation to the next.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and other fellow travelers

If there was one thing the Revolutionary generation agreed on — and those guys who dress up like them at Tea Party conventions most definitely do not — it was the incompatibility of democracy and inherited wealth.

With Thomas Jefferson taking the lead in the Virginia legislature in 1777, every Revolutionary state government abolished the laws of primogeniture and entail that had served to perpetuate the concentration of inherited property. Jefferson cited Adam Smith, the hero of free market capitalists everywhere, as the source of his conviction that (as Smith wrote, and Jefferson closely echoed in his own words), "A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural." Smith said: "There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death."

The states left no doubt that in taking this step they were giving expression to a basic and widely shared philosophical belief that equality of citizenship was impossible in a nation where inequality of wealth remained the rule. North Carolina's 1784 statute explained that by keeping large estates together for succeeding generations, the old system had served "only to raise the wealth and importance of particular families and individuals, giving them an unequal and undue influence in a republic" and promoting "contention and injustice." Abolishing aristocratic forms of inheritance would by contrast "tend to promote that equality of property which is of the spirit and principle of a genuine republic."

Others wanted to go much further; Thomas Paine, like Smith and Jefferson, made much of the idea that landed property itself was an affront to the natural right of each generation to the usufruct of the earth, and proposed a "ground rent" — in fact an inheritance tax — on property at the time it is conveyed at death, with the money so collected to be distributed to all citizens at age 21, "as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property."

Even stalwart members of the latter-day Republican Party, the representatives of business and inherited wealth, often emphatically embraced these tenets of economic equality in a democracy. I've mentioned Herbert Hoover's disdain for the "idle rich" and his strong support for breaking up large fortunes. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first president to propose a steeply graduated tax on inheritances, was another: he declared that the transmission of large wealth to young men "does not do them any real service and is of great and genuine detriment to the community at large.''

In her debate in Delaware yesterday, the Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell asserted that the estate tax is a "tenet of Marxism." I'm not sure how much Marx she has read, but she might want to read the works of his fellow travelers Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt before her next debate.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I'm being oppressed

Ever since I can remember, companies that disliked having to obey environmental, safety, and truth in advertising laws, and wealthy individuals who disliked paying taxes on their inheritances and unearned incomes, have found it helpful to express their dislikes as courageous stands for liberty and individual rights against the tyrannical oppression of the state. Washington think tanks supported by corporations and rich guys, such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have been working for decades to give this traditional agenda of corporations and rich guys an intellectual gloss of libertarian philosophy.

But it's always been just about money. When pressed for specific examples of government oppressiveness that is interfering with liberty, prosperity, and entrepreneurial innovation, they either start mumbling about "excess paperwork requirements" or retreat into Reaganesque panegyrics to free enterprise.

Even people who should know better have bought into the portrait of Ronald Reagan as a latter-day Tom Paine who struck a blow for liberty by unleashing American competitiveness and innovation from the oppressions of burdensome government restrictions. But in fact all Reagan really did to the political economy was to accelerate the massive transfer of income from labor to capital and from the middle class to the wealthy that has marked the last three decades, and to institutionalize the Republican Party's intellectual disconnect between rhetoric and reality on balanced budgets. And as for American private prosperity as a whole, the Bill Clinton years (which gave us a budget surplus along with higher taxes that — had they not been promptly dismantled by W. — would have placed us on a course to pay off the entire Federal debt and also place Social Security on a sound footing) were marked by a faster and more sustained growth in U.S. GDP than any other period in modern history, including the Reagan era; for the record here is a chart (click to enlarge) using the official data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis:

Real U.S. GDP (billions of 2005 dollars)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More entries in the Herbert Hoover look-alike contest

We tend to forget that Herbert Hoover was once unremitting in his scorn for the "idle rich," thought inherited wealth was practically sinful, favored steeply graduated income taxes and estate taxes "for the deliberate purpose of disintegrating large fortunes," and frequently decried the unfair distribution of income between capital and labor.

What we remember him for is his unfeeling disregard for the suffering of those who lost jobs, homes, and farms in the Depression. So did the voters, who did not again elect a Republican to the White House for another 20 years, and who gave the GOP a majority in the House only twice in the following 60 years.

Today's Republicans have done a remarkable job of trying to sound like the heartless Herbert Hoover. It can't be because it's good politics; it must be because they can't help themselves. A whole line of GOP candidates have been insisting this year, for example, that unemployment is the product of lazy workers. Rep. Steve King of Iowa explained that he was against extending unemployment benefits because "we shouldn't turn the 'safety net' into a hammock." Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, said that "continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work." And Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota denounced aid to the states to prevent hundreds of thousands of teachers from being laid off as a "bailout," as did the House minority leader and Speaker apparent John Boehner.

All of those statements are remarkably close in substance to actual Herbert Hoover quotes from 1931 and 1932. But where the Republicans manage to quote Hoover almost (and in several cases literally) word for word is in the line "we can't squander ourselves into prosperity." Last week Boehner again reprised this bit of Hooveresque wisdom, declaring “the greatest threat to job creation in our country is the flawed idea that we can tax, spend and borrow our way to prosperity.’’

The alternative, as the Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell explained, is to cut taxes on the rich — "the people who’ve been hit hardest by this recession and who we need to create the jobs that will get us out of it." This, of course, is a reprise of the Reagan-era "supply-side" fantasy that economic growth is determined by how much stuff we can make, and not by the trivial question of whether anyone is willing and able to buy it. An interesting measure of the validity of this concept was just provided by a report that with interest rates hovering near zero percent, companies have been borrowing huge amounts — some $1.6 trillion — and sitting on the money (after all, it might come in handy . . .). What the private sector is not doing with its ready access to cash and credit is to build plants, buy goods and services, and hire workers.

The concept of the government stepping in to borrow and actually spend money in such a situation of economic stagnation is not complicated. As Abraham Lincoln remarked (okay, perhaps apocryphally) of his do-nothing general of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, during the Civil War, "If General McClellan is not using his army, I should like to borrow it for some time."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bad cases, bad law

It is both a strength and a weakness of the American political system that so much energy is expended on matters of principle. Other nations tend to find this admirable, humorous, inspiring, irritating, or all of the above. During the negotiations following the end of World War I, the French premier Georges Clemenceau was repeatedly driven to distraction by Woodrow Wilson and his high-minded notions on how to refashion the world for good; Clemenceau remarked that he could deal with Woodrow's aide Colonel House, who was a practical man and who seemed to understand how to cut a deal, but that talking to Wilson was "like talking to Jesus Christ."

Part of the appeal of invoking great principles in politics, of course, is that it invests a dirty or mundane business with lofty purpose and high drama; it doubtless feels better to declare that one is fighting to uphold liberty and great constitutional principles than to admit that one just wants to retain one's slaves, pay less taxes, or wrest away various colonial possessions from Spain (to cite a few examples from American history). The ever-reliable Ambrose Bierce defined politics as "A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

But it was actually a definition a few lines down in The Devil's Dictionary that I found myself contemplating in connection with the American tendency to invest political battles with great consequence:

     Positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one's voice.

On issues as diverse as animal rights, gun control, user fees for national forests, and local zoning ordinances, I've seen people who did not really differ very much on practical grounds, and who might  well have reached a pragmatic compromise on substance, engage in take-no-prisoners battles royal over their competing underlying ideologies. The more an issue becomes a proxy for a contest of fundamental belief, the more each party digs in its heels — and the louder each becomes.

Contests over principle in fact tend to be fought over trivial or grotesque matters at the farthest frontier precisely because they are seen as establishing bulwarks against encroachment at the core; thus the NRA insists that there will be no gun rights at all if guns are banned in bars and schools; thus the ACLU defends the free expression of Nazis and pornographers to safeguard the free speech rights of sane and decent people.

The case heard last week by the Supreme Court in which members of the fringe (that's the polite term) Westboro Baptist Church invoked their First Amendment right to tell the families of dead soldiers how happy they are that God killed their sons as punishment for the military's supposed tolerance for homosexuality ("God hates fags" explains one of their frequently seen picket-line signs) is a perfect illustration. The New York Times and other journalistic organizations filed a friend of the court brief arguing  that as "lamentable" as the church's utterances are, "it is in the interests of the nation" (as the Times editorialized) that political speech be protected, and warning of the "chilling consequences" if a monetary damage awarded against the church to the family of one soldier were upheld.

But a refusal to acknowledge reasonable exceptions to a principle can be damaging to the principle too. I've often found my fellow journalists to be doctrinaire to the point of pomposity — and to the point of endangering the very principles they claim to be defending — on matters of press freedom. One of the worst recent instances was the fall-on-their swords defense of confidential sources in the Valerie Plame matter. It would have been one thing if the confidential source had been a courageous whistle-blower exposing wrongdoing at the peril of his job; but instead it was a government hack issuing Roveian spin and using anonymity as mere political deniability. The only effect of all of the high-minded words about the role of the press in a free society that were spilled in the course of the affair was to make reporters look like a bunch of patsies.

By the same token, I am deeply skeptical that it does much to bolster freedom of speech to invoke that principle in the case of the deliberately confrontational picketing of soldiers' funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church. Those actions fall much more in the category of a common breach of the peace than anything deserving of the sweeping legal protection of a blanket immunity. As the father who sued the church said, “If the law can’t help us and the courts won’t do something, someone is going to take this into his own hands.”

Accepting exceptions and even occasional inconsistencies in the application of principles is a sign not only of maturity and wisdom but arguably philosophical necessity. Our instinctive commitment as rational beings is to the idea that we can develop perfectly consistent and logical systems of rules in law, mathematics, and other supposedly rational endeavors, and we have almost a horror of inconsistency as a betrayal not only of principle but of rationality itself. But a few years ago I read a fascinating book by the philosopher Robert Fogelin, Walking the Tightrope of Reason, which explored among other things Ludwig Wittgenstein's work on games with inconsistent and incomplete rules; one of the striking conclusions is that in both formal systems and everyday life, we routinely get along just fine with logical systems that lack complete and consistent rules for dealing with the extreme and rare cases. Moreover, trying to build a system that can cover every conceivable case turns out to be literally impossible.

We'd be better off sometimes if we temper our passion for rigid principle with humility about life's complexity and even absurdity; or if we remember the wisdom of that great philosopher Lord Peter Wimsey, who observed, "The first thing a principle does — if it really is a principle — is to kill somebody."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sex, drugs, and deficit spending

A number of commentators have recently been marveling over the way New York's very angry tea party candidate for governor, Carl Paladino, has been able to walk away from scandals and outrageous behavior that would have left any mortal candidate for public office scattered in unrecognizable little bits across a several-block-wide area.

But in fact conservative politicians have long mastered the art of how to get a pass on immoral conduct. One approach is to package it as proof of their regular-guyness. Paladino's own campaign manager offered a fine specimen of this in explaining why he failed to pay $53,000 in taxes and had an IRS lien filed against him: "Most people I know have had problems paying their taxes. I am just like everyone else. . . . You introduce me to somebody who is pristine and clean. I would be happy to meet them. But I have never met anybody like that."

(Of course this also invites comparisons to the Monty Python bit where Graham Chapman asserts, "I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn't set fire to some great public building. I know I have." And, for the record, the IRS estimates that voluntary tax compliance is 84 percent.*)

But the other more important part of this art, long understood by preachers caught with their hands in the till or their pants around their ankles, is the recognition that sanctimony always trumps facts. In one sense this is the big lie, the same way Republicans keep repeating the mantra that they are the party of fiscal responsibility, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.**

But I think it's actually more subtle than that and goes deep into human cognition, the sociology of tribalism, and the peculiar role of repentance in evangelical Christianity. Thus when liberals are caught using drugs or engaging in unmarried sex, this is seen as confirmation of an immoral and permissive ideology; when conservatives are caught doing the same or worse (think of Rush Limbaugh's drug arrests, David Vitter's visits to the "DC madam," Sarah Palin's pregnant unwed teenage daughter) it is seen as a human foible to be forgiven, since their hearts are obviously in the right place. And that indeed explains why what strikes the rest of us as breathtaking hypocrisy — Limbaugh's rabid insistence on jail terms for drug users, for example, or various rent-boy-employing evangelical preachers' hellfire and brimstone condemnations of homosexuality — is to their followers only further affirmation that they are true believers who have merely sinned and repented.


* See p.8 of this IRS study (pdf), "Reducing the Federal Tax Gap"
** I was still agog enough at the claims made in the GOPs "Pledge to America" that I went and retrieved all the recent year-by-year data on Federal spending, provided here for your continuing hypocrisy-viewing pleasure:

Federal spending as a percentage of GDP

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

People's court

A recent study by New York University Law School reports that $200 million has been spent in the last decade in campaigns to elect state judges, and this year appears to be heading for a new record.

It is a continual source of astonishment to the rest of the civilized world that most judges in the United States have to stand for election; 39 of the 50 states have some kind of election procedure. The only other countries in the world to do so are Switzerland, where some of the smaller cantons elect their judges, and Japan, where Supreme Court justices face retention elections (though in practice those are never anything but a formality). In most countries of Europe whose legal system derives from Roman civil law, judges are career professionals who graduate from specialized schools and are chosen by a rigorous competitive examination (in some years only 5 percent of candidates pass France's notorious grueling four-day-long exam); in the common-law countries judges are either selected by independent commissions or appointed by the government.

Half of the U.S. state judges surveyed by NYU researchers acknowledged that campaign contributions affect decisions, and other studies have found that judges invariably start imposing stiffer sentences in the months just prior to facing the voters — apparently knowing that tales of convicts who get out of prison and commit another crime are a staple of attack TV ads by candidates challenging incumbent judges.

The worst recent example of this phenomenon occurred in Wisconsin in 2008, when a small-town Republican trial judge successfully unseated a sitting state Supreme Court justice after running TV ads falsely accusing the justice, who is black, of helping to free a convicted rapist, who is also black.

(In fact, the only connection between the two was that the justice, as a public defender 20 years earlier, had represented the man on an appeal, citing an error in his trial; though the state Supreme Court agreed that an error had occurred, it ruled that it was not consequential enough to reverse the conviction, and he went on to serve his full original sentence. The TV ads juxtaposed images of the two men while the narrator intoned: "Louis Butler worked to put criminals on the street. Like Reuben Lee Mitchell, who raped an 11-year-old girl with learning disabilities. Butler found a loophole. Mitchell went on to molest another child. Can Wisconsin families feel safe with Louis Butler on the Supreme Court?")

This year's judicial elections have been marked by a spate of single-issue campaigns by well-funded conservative and business groups aimed at throwing out judges who ruled the wrong way on same-sex marriage, abortion, or liability limits. In Iowa, three state Supreme Court justices — who were part of the unanimous 7–0 ruling in April 2009 that upheld same-sex marriage in the state — are facing retention elections and have been targeted in a TV ad campaign as "liberal out of control judges."

The American system for choosing judges becomes all the weirder when contrasted with all the time and energy the U.S. State Department devotes to hectoring developing nations on the importance of an independent judiciary in safeguarding democracy, establishing the rule of law, and promoting the necessary conditions for economic investment by assuring that private property rights and contracts will be enforced without favoritism or corruption. It was exactly the fear of judges being swayed by political pressure that prompted the framers of the U.S. Constitution to seek to insulate the Federal judiciary with lifetime appointments. And Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and other stanch Federalists unmistakably intended the Federal courts to eventually supplant the state courts altogether; they (and Madison, too, despite his later anti-Federalist leanings) had been appalled by the amateurism, favoritism, corruption, and confusion of the state courts as radical republicans in many state legislatures attacked the common law as an aristocratic English importation, rushed through new statutes abrogating contracts and favoring special interests, and impeached judges for nothing more than opposing "the will of the people."

The Federalist defenders of judicial independence argued, and even many moderate republicans agreed, that the common law and an independent judiciary was itself a bulwark of liberty that (among other important things) protected America's growing economic prosperity by guaranteeing private property rights against the passions of public sentiment.

Adams's judiciary act, which greatly expanded the Federal courts and declared that the common law of crimes was part of their jurisdiction (meaning that the Federal courts could in effect usurp at will most of the functions of the state courts) was however quickly overturned by the Jeffersonian republicans who followed him. And the push to make judges accountable to the "will of the people" was part and parcel of a larger radical republican ideology that disparaged professional credentials and insisted that in a true democracy the "common man" was as capable of filling high office as a member of the university-educated elite (sounds familiar . . .). Thus the states of the United States today have the distinction not only of electing law judges but — similarly unheard of in any other democracy — their attorneys general, local prosecutors, sheriffs, county treasurers, clerks of the court, recorders of deeds, probate judges, school boards, and other posts where professional competence might be thought to be a more important criterion than popularity.

At least the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian republicans made no bones about the obvious fact that they were politicizing these offices by putting them up to popular vote. This year's campaigns targeting sitting judges have for the most part adopted the Orwellian tactic of declaring that it is the defenders of an independent judiciary who are "partisan." Iowa for Freedom, the group trying to oust the state's three "liberal" Supreme Court judges (among Iowa for Freedom's supporters, by the way, to the tune of $57,000, is a Mississippi group that organizes boycotts of companies that "promote the spread of homosexuality"), also wants to dismantle the state's current merit selection system altogether — claiming that it is "too political."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The tax fairy

The more preposterous an idea is, the more certain are its proponents of its unchallengeable veracity. Some of this is psychological self-defense, but much is calculation: as any self-respecting con man knows, the only way to put over a whopper is with a 100% show of confidence.

Thus a parade of Republican politicians of late have been insisting, with no ifs and or buts, that cutting taxes always increases revenues. "You don't need to pay for tax cuts. They pay for themselves," asserted the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in California, Carly Fiorina, one among many peddling this line.

Thanks to the enduring power of arithmetic, one can calculate how large the stimulative effect of a tax cut would have to be to offset the reduction in revenue. The most optimistic possible assumption is that all of the increased GDP that results from reducing taxes is taxable at the current top 35% rate; at that rate, a dollar in tax cuts would have to generate $2.86 (that's $1.00/.35) in increased GDP to pay for itself.

Here's what Moody's Analytics calculated was the bang for the buck (pdf) of various fiscal stimulus alternatives — in other words, the increase in GDP that results from each dollar of Federal tax cuts or spending increases (click to enlarge):