Category Archives: Social Science

Conservative Columnists and the New Republican Strategy

The Republican recriminations have begun.  Among those in Republican editorial opinion, the worst conclusions reached from the 2012 Elections were so crude in their analysis as to leave Republicans more resentful and confused about their electoral problems, as when so many FOX News editorialists wrote-off single women as loose and wanting free birth control.  The implication was supposed to be that married women were more-grounded and voted on “real” economic issues–as if most single adult women really had any reason to believe a Mitt Romney Presidency would leave them remotely better-off.  (You’ve got to hand it to FOX: Its leading luminaries may be shameless, but at least they’re visibly lacking in dignity.)

For more-sophisticated fare, there is the Conservative intelligentsia at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and–here I am reaching a bit–the National Review.

In 2008 William F. Buckley Jr. died and all but took the National Review with him.  Even as a Liberal I always found Buckley a pleasure to read, humbling in his knowledge and range of experience and exemplary in his erudition; I knew damn well that he was a Conservative and if anything this made me more eager to know what he thought.  Today the National Review is a depository of many hackish opinions that often appear composed to reassure the right that they should avoid even the physical proximity of Liberals where practical.  The extent of its insulation, its surprising philistinism (considering how Buckley possessed cultural literacy in abundance) and its tendency to treat the validity of reliably-Conservative positions on almost every issue (excluding national drug policy, where Buckley moved his branch of Conservative opinion towards ending the Drug War in the early 1990s) as self-evident gives a Liberal little cause to read the rag now.

Thomas Sowell, who seems to enjoy dabbling in history once a month when he has a few minutes to spare, comes up with a bizarre argument that the Republicans’ problem in 2012 was failure to communicate Conservative ideas.  In what has to be 1 of the most-stock lines of Conservative argument available, he holds every (moderate, it is presumed) failed Republican candidate since the 1980s to the Reagan standard–as if economic change, large demographic shifts and the ensuing cultural changes really have nothing to do with Republicans’ major electoral reversals in 2008 and 2012.  The 2012 Election, in Sowell’s view, was lost on rhetoric.  He takes as a settled fact that President Obama utters “things that will sound both plausible and inspiring to uninformed people, even when they sound ridiculous to people who know the facts. Apparently (President Obama) believes the former outnumber the latter, and the election results suggest that he may be right.”  So: The President and other Democrats are as a rule either intellectual flakes or liars, and yours truly and anyone else persuaded by Obama’s propositions over Governor Romney’s are ignorant.  That’s a counterintuitive thesis, considering the exit polls show President Obama won 55% of college postgraduates.  I am not oversimplifying his argument, something that should routinely be established when paraphrasing Thomas Sowell.  And no, I am not particularly offended by Sowell’s insinuations against my intelligence for being an Obama supporter; I am offended by the poor quality of his thought.  Moving on…

Victor Davis Hanson, a longtime National Review contributor, presents what I see as a conventional argument for the magazine.  Essentially, it comes down to a restatement of Governor Romney’s sad “47%” comments–that is, the Democrats have supposedly got a critical mass of the US population right where they want them, in dependency, and now the “gimme constituencies” will vote themselves benefits on the backs of those who work:

“…We have never quite had the present perfect storm of nearly half not paying federal income taxes, nearly 50 million on food stamps, and almost half the population on some sort of federal largess — and a sophistic elite that promotes it and at the same time finds ways to be exempt from its social and cultural consequences. For an Obama, Biden, Kerry, Pelosi, or Feinstein, the psychological cost for living like 18th-century French royalty is the promotion of the welfare state for millions of others who for now will be kept far away, in places like Bakersfield or Mendota.

“The solution, I fear, may be near-insolvency along the Wisconsin model, and self-correction after some dark Greek-like years, or, in contrast, in extremis blue politicians having to deal with the consequences of their own policies. In the manner that an Obama can vastly expand drones and renditions without a whimper of liberal angst, so too someone like him will have to deal with bounced Medicare reimbursements or free cell phones that can’t be replaced when they break, or long lines in federal health clinics emptied of doctors who have gone elsewhere. The laws of physics ultimately prevail.”

So, Hanson’s analysis of Republicans’ poor overall performance in the 2012 Elections is that people living off of government benefits just voted themselves more government benefits.  Republicans ostensibly cannot do much to stop this, but it is implied they can wait serenely for the country to go bankrupt (as a certain Conservative orthodoxy insists it must) like the free-market eschatology in Atlas Shrugged.  Then, Republicans get to build their electoral majority, apparently having won the argument in the long-term by default.

All I have to offer in response to Victor Davis Hanson (and other Republicans currently telling themselves this comforting narrative) are the words of a paleoconservative who’s out of his league–from Richard Weaver’s introduction to Ideas Have Consequences:

“…It is here the assumption that the world is intelligible and that man is free and that those consequences we are now expiating are the product not of biological or other necessity but of unintelligent choice.  Second, I go so far as to propound, if not a whole solution, at least the beginning of one, in the belief that man should not follow a scientific analysis with a plea of moral impotence.” (emphasis added)

Writing in the New York TimesRoss Douthat (a good column addition on the right, I’ve always thought) warns that the Republican Party will have to take a more-holistic approach to broadening their base than simple appeals to women and minorities:

“…Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides.  The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today.  Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks.  Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation.  Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate.  Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone.”  In Douthat’s view, the Republican Party’s Conservative ideology, as it stands, is simply irrelevant to Americans’ contemporary concerns.  He warns against Republican strategists simply trying to play identity politics, acknowledging there is a real risk of such a superficial effort “because playing identity politics seems far less painful than overhauling the Republican economic message.”

David Brooks, the senior Conservative voice at the New York Timesmade the same argument, but from the demographic angle:

“The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values.  Two findings jump out.  First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work.  By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

“Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government.  In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

“Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government.  It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise.  It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil.  It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable.  It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

“For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant…”

Neoconservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer declined to be so reflective when he penned this strategy for Republicans after Election Day:

“The only part of (the demographics argument) that is even partially true regards Hispanics. They should be a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example).

“The principal reason they go Democratic is the issue of illegal immigrants. In securing the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney made the strategic error of (unnecessarily) going to the right of Rick Perry. Romney could never successfully tack back.

“For the party in general, however, the problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement.”

Oh, wow.  I hope Republicans embrace this argument, partly because I want the millions of undocumented immigrants living in America to be able to come out of the shadows, and partly because I’m more-than-fine with the electoral defeat Republicans would likely face in 2016 if they concluded that the only policy change they need to contend with to command a majority is immigration reform!

Krauthammer is right when he says from a strategic standpoint when he says that “The country doesn’t need two liberal parties,” and “Yes, Republicans need to weed out candidates who talk like morons about rape.  But this doesn’t mean the country needs two pro-choice parties either.”  Some exultant Liberals have insisted that the Republican Party will simply have to give up on limited government Conservatism or social Conservatism–whichever one they don’t like–in order to win elections from now on; I tend to think this is wishful thinking on their part rather than a conclusion from a clear assessment of the Republican Party’s structural disadvantage.  But contrary to Krauthammer’s crude prescription, the Republican Party does have a real structural disadvantage now, and single-issue pandering to Hispanics–however far-reaching the issue–won’t leave them bound to vote Republican with so many bread-and-butter issues confronting them.

Actually, it has been the Liberal argument for quite some time–an argument I find quite convincing after the tenor and demographic cast of the 2008, 2010, and 2012 national elections–that were it not for an unexamined belief that government taxed whites at high rates to pay for Federal benefits enjoyed primarily by minorities, far more of the white middle class would vote Democratic.  There is still the risk that Republicans don’t recognize their peril, toying with longtime Federal benefits enjoyed by the white middle and working class, such as Social Security, Medicare, the mortgage interest tax deduction, and Federal highway spending among other things.  Many professed small-government Conservatives simply take these extensive Federal benefits for granted.  Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of The National Review, understands this.  Of all the post-election ruminations I saw in The National Review, his was the most-sober and most comprehensively-countenancing by far.  It also addresses the scope of Republicans’ electoral weakness in a way that underscores the limitations of Krauthammer’s analysis.

“Romney was not a drag on the Republican party.  The Republican party was a drag on him.  Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.  In some cases Romney did a lot better.  (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)

“None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did.  It didn’t help them win more votes.  The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.”

Ponnuru continues with a pretty-unsparing account of the electoral weakness of the Republican Party–which he alleges has never been a national majority party since 1930.  He argues that Republicans have made real inroads against Democrats in national elections since 1968 when they have captured issues of particular concern to the middle class:

“The absence of a middle-class message was the biggest failure of the Romney campaign, and it was not its failure alone. Down-ticket Republican candidates weren’t offering anything more — not the established Republicans, not the tea-partiers, not the social conservatives. Conservative activists weren’t demanding that Romney or any of these other Republicans do anything more. Some of them were complaining that Romney wasn’t ‘taking the fight to Obama’; few of them were urging him to outline a health-care plan that would reassure voters that replacing Obamacare wouldn’t mean taking health insurance away from millions of people.

“Romney’s infamous ’47 percent’ gaffe — by which he characterized voters who do not pay income taxes as freeloaders and sure Democratic voters, which they aren’t — made for a week of bad media coverage and some devastatingly effective Democratic ads. It was not, however, a line of thinking unique to Romney. It was an exaggerated version of a claim that had become party orthodoxy.”

The fact that Republicans are Governors of 30 States, and hold a majority of State Legislatures, he sees as irrelevant: The Republicans tend to hold the Governors’ mansions and State Legislatures in the smaller States, making their accomplishment look more far-reaching than it actually is.  Ponnuru doesn’t offer substantive policy prescriptions (It’s still the month of the Election, after all, and that’s not his job), but he warns Republicans that their policies must focus on the middle class, not the heroic “job creators” most people know very well they aren’t.

To his credit, Fred Bauer wrote a shorter if less-powerful version of this argument.

Now, this is how you respond when you are disappointed by an election: Michael Gerson, another Conservative Washington Post op-ed columnist, reaches completely sober conclusions.  He acknowledges that President Obama’s win is significant because it was achieved with a message of Liberalism in a Presidential Election that was about ideas; the President ran and won on his appeal to Democratic base constituencies.  Governor Romney ran ahead with independents and senior citizens but still polled behind almost constantly–and lost the Election unambiguously.

Gerson proudly and prudently rejects the petty condemnation of the electorate we’ve heard from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, but he doesn’t abandon Conservatism or deny the political importance of the Republican Party’s base constituencies. He acknowledges that his party lost this election in part over its hostility towards illegal immigrants, in part over evidence that Republicans wanted to gut funding for public education and emergency assistance for the poor, in part over its lack of an economic plan for the old industrial core, and in part because of so many candidates’ callousness towards involuntary pregnancies due to rape or incest. While he doesn’t attribute the party’s current electoral troubles to this, he seems to believe Conservatives are now in retreat on their opposition to gay marriage.

Though he is not exactly rooting for them, the Liberal Ironist nonetheless salutes those initial few Republicans who have said “The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves,” and offered serious suggestions for how their party can win elections now that the contemporary Democratic base is larger than their own.  There’s no dearth of elite opinion that wants to help the cause; now we’ll see if the base is eager to grow–or if, again in the words of Richard Weaver, “we are in effect asking for a confession of guilt and an acceptance of sterner obligation; we are making demands in the name of an ideal or the suprapersonal, and…cannot expect a more cordial welcome than disturbers of complacency have in any other age…”

(The Intellectual Bankruptcy of) the Conservative Take on 2008

It should’ve been clear to us that the Tea Party movement had a very different interpretation of what happened on Wall Street than most of us did.  In principle their rallying cry is President Reagan’s old refrain, implausibly-applied: “Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem.”  Reflecting a cognitive interpretation of the same sentiment, Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mitt Romney said in August that “Career politicians got us into this mess”–meaning the 2008 Financial Crash and the Great Recession–“and they simply don’t know how to get us out.”

A Conservative friend recently posted a von Mises Institute opinion piece calling the animus of the left-wing “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement misplaced.  In Axel Kaiser’s view, it is Federal regulations that caused banks to invest and borrow perversely, not the freedom and agency of investment banks and hedge funds that expanded the credit market into a customer base with little collateral and uncertain prospects, offering them borrowed money.  This is a typical Conservative explanation for the Financial Crash, though it telling took the right a long time to get this story straight.  Those whom are interested should read Mr. Kaiser’s account–not because it is correct, but because we should not be insensible to or ambivalent about the organized group of radicals in our midst.  They blame generations-old institutions for the spectacular collapse of a barely-regulated Wall Street.  They uphold the problem–a mentality conducive to anarchy in our large and fast-moving financial sector–as the solution.  I want to challenge this argument at length; while it is expressed discreetly and eloquently, it is still a dangerous canard.  The history of our financial markets in the past decade is too important to be re-written by apologists.

Mr. Kaiser seems to be well-read and reasonable about a great many subjects; however, I didn’t feel that way about his economic theory or his moral philosophy.  Attacking what he considers a philosophical premise of contemporary Liberalism, he says that “the idea that the common good or the general interest is something different from the sum of all individual interests, and that government is a separate entity that through coercion can elevate society to a higher degree of moral perfection and happiness” is a falsehood.  I promptly begin to doubt his judgment.  Government is “a separate entity that through coercion leads society to a higher degree of moral perfection and happiness.”  This is not a position that necessarily enjoins socialism; it is the justification for a government’s possession of military and police force.  Does anyone deny that absolute defense of reason through coercive capacity which Thomas Hobbes describes in Leviathan?

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Having the same rationale in mind, the sociologist Max Weber later described the state as “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”

The government which exercises military and police power in order to protect people’s lives and property is itself never “the sum of all individual interests,” and it is not and cannot be sanctioned in all its resource-consuming actions by unanimous consent of those over whom it wields power.  Again, the fact that the state’s sovereign capacity for violence elevates the general morality in deed and even thought is not an argument that enjoins socialism—though I will admit that I find the arguments distinguishing the right of the state to protect people from the harm of intentional criminality or from unintentional market or environmental effects to be circular and unconvincing precisely because I acknowledge that this is exactly what government does.

Kaiser has a much stronger argument than the one that rules-out government’s right to regulate our economic activity, and that is skepticism of the government’s capacity to regulate this activity efficiently and justly—that is, his invocation of “the diverse and irreducibly complex world of individual interests.”  But while this is a stronger argument it is also a more-flexible one; episodes of waste in resource-allocation by government or long periods of crude handling of an economic activity by government regulators may constitute an argument for cutting this program or reforming this regulation (or a parable about the limits of what regulations can achieve) but it neither de-legitimizes nor repudiates government regulation as such.

The article is at its analytical weakest in assessing the origins of the 2008 Financial Crash—which is, of course, its objective.  Fannie Mae was created back in 1938 as part of the New Deal, in order to promote and finance homeownership; Freddie Mac was created in 1970, essentially as an extension of Fannie Mae’s mortgage-financing operations.  “(W)elfare programs to make true the progressive “homeownership-society” dream in the United States created the structural conditions”—or so Kaiser argues.  This is a weak hypothesis; an argument that a 70-year-old government program is the sufficient culprit for a financial crisis which simply ignores the fact that the spiral of toxic debt played out in investment banks and hedge funds that had become far more-complex in their asset management, more risk-prone in their investments and more deeply-indebted than any government anywhere in just the decade preceding the crash fails on its own terms.

Former Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson wrote probingly about this phenomenon of the conceit of Wall Street’s reigning specialists in his book The Quants.  (I reviewed this book–which I love–1 year ago on this blog.)  Wall Street’s hedge funds and investment banks had become dominated by computerized fast trades based on highly-abstract statistics and modeling.  They did this based not upon knowledge of actual market conditions or long-term investment in a company but on inductive bets that shares of certain companies were over- or underpriced.  These transactions were essentially unregulated, and they directed trillions of dollars of assets.  Malinvestment, yes, but are we sure this anomic crash is about interest rates?

Mr. Kaiser reveals a disinclination even to distinguish between the subcomponents of government power he finds to be illegitimate—namely, its capacity to create entitlements and its power to regulate the economy.  From what is intended as his climactic red meat: “…Because people do not understand that the source of the crisis was government, as Bastiat predicted, they now go on the streets demanding even more of what caused the problem in the first place: government. That is the paradox of the outraged.”  (One could argue that he is referring to those “Occupy Wall Street” protesters who have demanded maintenance or expansion of the welfare state and not to those who have called for tougher scrutiny of the financial sector, but if so I would still level the same charge of obtuseness in thinking on him for targeting for critique a movement without a coherent message and never bothering to define it.)

Mr. Kaiser doesn’t do much better when he claims that “The dramatic rise in the price of raw materials and agricultural commodities since 2008 is basically the result of the inflation created by central banks.”  I don’t know how many serious economists would sustain this argument.  In spite of 2 rounds of “quantitative easing”—Dollar-creation by the Federal Reserve to promote currency flow through the economy—inflation is low by historic standards.  The rate of inflation has been much lower under Ben Bernanke than under any other Chairman of the Federal Reserve for over 30 years.  That’s a weirdly-basic fact for Kaiser to overlook when he seeks to attribute a cause for price increases in commodities.  That increased consumption by large developing nations such as China and India and political volatility in countries producing such commodities (such as the states of the Persian Gulf or the tragically-misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo) could be the reason for the price increase actually seems not to have occurred to him.  While we’re speaking about ideologically-misplaced outrage, Mr. Kaiser is also circumspect about whether the price of commodities such as precious metals has been driven up by Monetarist Conservatives such as presidential candidate Ron Paul, who essentially exhort their followers to hoard gold, resulting in the obvious overpricing of those strategic metals.  The latest also-rans to join this Monetarist survivalism are probably going to lose money on account of their reactionary opinion-sources.

Mr. Kaiser’s criticism of the Federal Reserve’s role as “lender of last resort,” including its power to bail-out insolvent but strategic American banks, skirts the central question: If the Federal Government should allow insolvent banks of any size to go into bankruptcy “like any other enterprise in the real economy,” what happens to the cash assets of those who deposited money in that bank?  The Federal  Deposit Insurance Corporation currently insures the first $250,000 you deposit in a bank; if a bank is allowed to declare bankruptcy, should the FDIC simply pay-out as much as its rules permit for all depositors?  Where does that money come from?  Wasn’t the 2008 Wall Street bailout actually a more-just outcome than this would have been?  Or in the absence of the Federal Reserve—which predated it by 20 years—shall we dispose of the FDIC as well?  Should you as a depositor be every bit as responsible as the bank to which you entrust your cash if your assets are lost in a series of ill-conceived and unredeemable loans?  Kaiser seems to consider such questions beyond the scope of his article; considering his many strong claims, they are not.

Immediately following his objection to the Federal Reserve’s role as “lender of last resort” he adds that “In addition to this perverse incentive, banks work under a fractional-reserve system, which allows them to operate with very low capital reserves, so that their owners have little to lose if the bank goes broke.”  As a free-marketer, Mr. Kaiser presumably would overlook the regulatory response to this problem that I would consider most-intuitive—simply limit the amount of deposited or invested cash that the bank can lend-out again—and insist that banks be told they’re on their own.  Surely this would make them more-prudent investors of their depositors’ money!  The problem with this narrow fixation on the “perverse incentive” of the Federal Government’s protection of banks’ assets is that it is based on a strained but ultimately-unfalsifiable assumption: Protections against a worst-case scenario provided by the Federal Government make bank executives indifferent to the collapse of their lending schemes.  The strange claim that the loss of billions of dollars shouldn’t be sufficient incentive to lend depositors’ money prudently but the belief that they will at least remain in business suddenly makes them heedless to risk aside, the fact remains that the Federal Government didn’t save Lehman Brothers, which went very-much bankrupt.  Around the same time Merrill Lynch was bought-up by Bank of America at 61% less per-share than its value in September 2007, a year before the Crash; the previous March Bear Stearns had been bought-up by JP Morgan Chase, for just 7% of its per-share value from 2 days before, when the Federal Reserve pledged a $25 billion bailout.  How can all these Conservative opponents of the Federal Reserve seriously argue that all these bank executives and hedge fund managers were operating in a risk-free environment?  1st of all, this would have been a totally-speculative conceit on the part of bank managers—one strangely absent from both exposition and criticism of our supposedly rock-solid financial sector before the massive Federal bailouts of 2008.  2nd, the Federal Reserve couldn’t save Bear Stearns, and apparently didn’t think to save Lehman Brothers or Merrill Lynch.  If the regulators were so slow to bail-out Wall Street that some of its major financial institutions collapsed as crucial weeks slipped by, this strongly-suggests that the extent of collusion charged by Fed-skeptics is a fantasy.

Bear Stearns used money borrowed from a variety of sources and backed its investments with credit-default swaps—essentially paid insurance policies for other investors to cover their loans to subprime borrowers—resulting in a leverage-to-assets ratio of 35.5:1.  If the Federal Reserve Bank (95 years old in 2008) and the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac complex (70 years old) were the primary catalyst of the events of 2007 and 2008, there is no explanation why the Crash shouldn’t have happened much sooner, pertaining to financing of some other sector of the economy.  But the size of hedge funds, their connection to investment banks, and the extremes of borrowing by banks both from vast foreign capital markets and through sophisticated “financial engineering” had only become dominant in the financial sector throughout the decade prior to the 2008 Financial Crash.  None of this can be blamed on government.

Mr. Kaiser’s moral sense is at low ebb when he subversively argues that income inequality is only a moral issue when the human actions that cause it are demonstrable:

“It has been argued that inflation and the lack of economic liberty are central causes of poverty and inequality. (Left-wing French public intellectual Stéphane) Hessel does not acknowledge this fact, declaring himself outraged by inequality in general. He says it is outrageous that in poor countries people live on less than two dollars a day. Two things have to be said in response to such claims. In the first place, there is a reason to be outraged only when inequality is the result of arbitrary confiscation, fraud of any sort, or bad economic policy. But when inequality is the result of freedom, there is no reason to be outraged at all, especially when everyone has enough. Only envious people can be outraged by the wealth some have legitimately gained…”

No, it is not the case that one must be envious to be outraged by extremes of wealth; it is enough to believe that poverty does graver harm to a given society than taxes.  Mr. Kaiser sidesteps the real issue: It is not that some people are very rich, but that some people are very poor.  That the true cause of the outrage Mr. Hessel expresses could elude him is remarkable; Kaiser even cites him objecting to poverty without mentioning wealth!  Dispossession due to arbitrary confiscation and bad economic policy are indeed ruinous and outrageous (though I can’t recall the last time I heard a Conservative speak out in favor of native claims settlement—a blind spot perhaps enabled by John Locke’s implication in his Second Treatise of Government that American Indians had no right to lands they hadn’t cleared for agriculture).  But fraud is equally-outrageous.  What is Kaiser’s opinion of Goldman Sachs’ $550 million fraud settlement?  Goldman Sachs settled a case in which they were charged with helping a hedge fund profit off of credit-default swaps for subprime mortgages that they expected to default, thus prompting the credit-default swap to be called-in.  Goldman Sachs designed these credit-default swaps which they expected (intended?) to be insolvent and sold them to investors; at the same time they were selling subprime mortgages to working-class people they had just made a bet would default on their loans!  The Federal Government had nothing to do with this; when trying the fit of the old Fed—Wall Street collusion yarn, note that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had staked their assets on the opposite “bet.”

Furthermore, what about poverty?  Kaiser writes as though his argument that circumstances of commission that create poverty are an outrage while circumstances of omission that impoverish people are not is self-evident; in actuality it is ideological and highly-contentious.  It is based on a primitive bias in our thinking—the “do no harm” fallacy.  This fallacy argues that bad results of human intervention or agency are more serious than those which are foreseeable but which only occur when humans fail to act.  This is an intuitive distinction; it is also sometimes a very callous and even an impractical one.  At its essence it amounts to arguing that a mugger who beats his mark badly and runs off with her money has committed an outrageous act while a passerby who witnesses the incident and does nothing to help the incapacitated victim afterwards or to report the incident has not “committed” an outrage because he is not obligated to help.  Kaiser makes the bizarre jump from Hessel’s professed outrage at poverty to the suggestion that such anger must be motivated by envy at the luxury of the rich.  From the time I was 1st aware of it I never begrudged the rich their wealth—but when I encountered poverty, which is thick on the American landscape, I concluded that viable measures to reduce it had their own legitimacy and should always be a subject of political debate.  I’ve seen people who would probably die without government assistance; the idea that such government assistance is illegitimate because of abstract concepts is more morally-odious to me than envy.

What is most-unfortunate about this article is simply what it indicates about many Conservatives (in contrast to the simultaneously more-identifiable and more-diffuse term “Republican”): They have not taken the 2008 Financial Crash as an opportunity to learn anything.  This is tragic.  The issue isn’t that they are still Conservatives—say, that they haven’t embraced President Obama’s 2009 or proposed 2011 Stimuli or his 2010 Health Care Reform, or that they are not a party to the current Wall Street-bashing or even their increasingly-vocal contempt for the new Dodd-Frank financial regulations.  It’s that so many of them embrace the bizarre idea that their intellectual integrity requires them to believe, post-September 2008, only what they believed pre-September 2008.  If the goal really was intellectual stasis, then mission accomplished: Having believed that a government program to promote homeownership was illegitimate, they now find that it is responsible for the worst financial crash since the Great Depression!  Believing that a then-95-year-old institution that can influence the value of the US Dollar by fiat is somehow alien and unnatural, they find that its imposition of low interest rates must be the enabler of the malinvestments that led to an outbreak of foreclosures around our country and jeopardized the nation’s banks.  The fact that hedge funds controlled trillions of dollars in cash, were virtually unregulated, able to borrow billions of dollars worth of foreign currency from any other country in the World—whatever the local interest rates might be—and to (theoretically, at least) insure each others’ loans through credit-default swaps (thus making underwriting subprime borrowers’ debt very profitable in the short-term), are all unworthy of mention, in the author’s view.

I immediately want to acknowledge that the author maintains an even tone and even some level of sympathy for his political opposites; being able to attest to his emotional grounding, however, I find myself surprised and frustrated by his failure to elaborate on his charges about the importance of New Deal-era “structural conditions” to relatively-recent events.  In his fixation on an obviously-saturated and undisciplined “Occupy Wall Street” social movement rather than any actual arguments, whether lay or academic, that blame market finance for the Financial Crash and the Great Recession the author has failed to address the dominant narrative that would validate his claim that the protestors’ anger is misplaced.  Applying an ideological assumption to a new and surprising development—which, like the rest of us, none of their ilk had predicted in advance—is not thinking.  Whatever one’s commitments may be, ideology must become unfixed and permitted to drift with the absorption of new and incongruous phenomena for any thinking to be done.  Rote ideology-application falls somewhere between recitation of a speech or the application of a mnemonic device.

I have changed my mind about a few matters since 2008.  From an ideological perspective, I no longer think that promoting homeownership is a sound goal for the Federal Government—though I still believe it was historically.  I will frankly admit that I was no more aware of the instability of our financial system than most people before 2008; I prefer stricter regulation and oversight of Wall Street now because of the extreme intellectual conceits and risk acceptance of our supposedly-brilliant “financial engineers.”  The deficits we were running before fiscal year 2009 didn’t bother me; the deficits we are running now do.  The wealth inequality in our country before 2009 didn’t disturb me greatly; its abrupt increase since the Financial Crash has—enough so that I am a recent convert to the idea of raising taxes on the rich.

So: While we may be skeptical of the ramshackle “Occupy Wall Street” movement for blaming corporations for all our problems, rashly personalizing Wall Street’s errors and improprieties, for calling for cuts in military spending (Who is going to enforce the most-urgent UN mandates? China?), or for simply having no agenda at all, this doesn’t mean we should let rehearsed but unreflective Conservative activists change the subject.  While it has turned a massive profit over the past generation, the past 4 years or so have revealed that the “financial engineers” are not the masters of our complex and interdependent World but a volatile compound in it, both useful and combustible.  Conservatives elide the difference between anecdotes of bad government regulation and the very legitimacy of government regulation itself.  Lacking the inclination to consider compound solutions for the complex problems of interdependence, they imagine that “good” consumers, businessmen and investors can protect themselves from shocks caused by “bad” ones.

But in today’s politics it is not Conservatism that is philosophically-underdeveloped but Liberalism.  What we need now is not a renewed commitment to freedom”—the Tea Partiers and Congressman Ron Paul will gladly squeeze all the water out of that stone for us—but a compelling intellectual defense of the social safety net for an age of inflating benefits and diminished fiscal resources.  We also need a clearer concept of a properly-restrained financial sector.  On that note I’d like to quote Kaiser’s own closing:

“…If people get outraged for the wrong reasons, they will inevitably demand the wrong solutions, making the problem worse. It is especially irresponsible, in these times of social upheaval, to call for outrage and resistance without first a clear examination of what is wrong and how the problem should be approached. This is the role of intellectuals and opinion leaders…”

We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself–Because Fear Means Under-investment, and Then Our Economy Stagnates

The Liberal Ironist would like to indulge in some intense pessimism: Our economic recovery is off-track, and there are several factors that could derail it outright.  None of these issues–as they stand–are sufficient to make the failure of the recovery inevitable, but each exposes us to risk of overproduction, rising interest rates, or significant inflation.

I should first aver that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke actually expressed optimism about the economic outlook for the rest of 2011, saying that our fundamental economic indicators look strong and that the late-spring reversal of our economic recovery–the slight-but-depressing uptick in unemployment included–should be temporary.  The Federal Reserve Chairman is better-equipped to offer such a forecast than I, by virtue of his academic knowledge of the economy, his command of the facts (those being the facts that he considers normally in-point to issuing a half-year’s economic forecast) and his privileged access to confidential opinion by relevant policymakers in both business and government.

ARTICLE OF FAITH: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke thinks our current economic slowdown should be temporary, a confluence of human-made disasters in the Middle East and a natural one in Japan. But in a social science, even a distinguished academic can't always see what's coming--especially if he isn't looking directly at it. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America.

That said, Economics is a positivistic academic discipline, and the appointed chairman of a major institution speaks with discretion.  Knowing how reactionary investors can be–for no reason other than that they have to beat the overreaction they suspect others might be prone to–the Federal Reserve Chairman isn’t likely to say “Granted, there are a few really big ‘kill switches’ wired to the recovery right now, and someone is just bound to trip over 1–or several.”  So, here is a confluence of trends which risk dragging on the recovery:

President Obama’s stimulus wasn’t big-enough, and we won’t be getting any more.  The Liberal Ironist has long-agreed with Paul Krugman that the chief problem with President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus was that it wasn’t big-enough.  But even in light of the massive Republican wave election in 2010, it would have been nice if current levels of Federal domestic discretionary spending–including some grants to the States to balance their budgets–could have been maintained.  The reason this would have been nice is simple: Our well-capitalized private sector, for whatever reason, has not seen fit to invest in more domestic production capacity while unemployment hovers in the 9% range.  Here House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion, uttering one of the least-explicable bits of economic dogmatism I have ever heard: “You’ve heard me say time and time again that we’ve got to cut spending if we’re serious about creating an environment for job creators in America to do what they do best–and that’s to create jobs.”  The Liberal Ironist has never heard anyone explain how cutting government spending–in many cases necessitating the termination of Federal or contractor employees, or compelling State or municipal governments that lose grants to terminate more workers–helps private companies create jobs.  It’s true that budget deficits can become a problem if a government has no long-term means to pay them, and that problem can only be addressed by budget cuts or through tax increases that could stifle business development, but no part of that reality explains how cutting government spending–especially with a large magic number of sorts in mind–could plausibly encourage private-sector job creation in the short- or intermediate-term.  But the massive shift of voter support and thus political initiative (intermittently reflected in recent nationwide opinion surveys) in favor of the Republicans has made President Obama’s achievement of his remaining priorities–mixing spending cuts with elimination of certain tax breaks and the end of the Bush income tax cut for the wealthy, along with increased spending on transportation infrastructure, research and development, and education–much harder if not impossible.  The idea of encouraging economic growth during a period of sustained economic downturn by steeply cutting government spending even defies common sense–and Congressional Republicans can’t bring our yearly Federal deficits under control without including tax increases in a budget plan, which Republicans have ruled-out as unacceptable.  In effect Congressional Republicans propose sacrificing our economic turnaround to strike a blow against big government.

OBAMA AND KEYNES: PERFECT TOGETHA. President Obama promoted a large economic stimulus plan in early 2009 which headed-off a depression but didn't justify the level of productive activity needed to put millions of Americans back to work. Rather than conclude that the stimulus was insufficient or that more-targeted Federal spending is in order, Congressional Republicans have embraced the curious view that a recession is a good time to drastically-cut Federal spending. Lord Keynes is spinning in his grave--which makes him about as productive as the US economy is going to be if too many relied-upon Federal programs wind up getting the ax. Photo is a composite: Salon/Reuters/AP, credit

The domestic housing market is cooling-off again.  Maybe I should rephrase that: “The housing market is retreating from anemic back to comatose.”  The real estate situation is grim even in comparison to the jobs situation.  Janet Yellen, Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve, yesterday admitted that she “can envision no quick or easy solutions for the problems still afflicting the housing market” and that “recovery in the housing market likely will be a long, drawn-out process.”  She added that there were about 2 million vacant homes in the United States in the 1st quarter of 2011–many of them foreclosures, many of them pre-built models in surplus subdivisions that no one has ever lived in, and many of them simply abandoned.  This is bad news for recent homebuyers who made a bet that they could trade-up in what has already been a multiyear down housing market, bad news for homeowners who leveraged their mortgages to pay for major investments such as college for the kids, bad news for the construction industry, and obviously bad news for land developers and real estate agents.  It’s bad news for banks that continue to accept large numbers of foreclosed homes while market values are already depressed and there are few buyers, forcing the banks to pay taxes on properties they have no use for.  (Yes, this rolling mass of foreclosures victimizes banks as well.)  It’s bad news for municipal governments, whether townships, cities, or counties–as well as public school, police, and fire districts–as they are often supported by somewhat-regressive but usually fairly-stable property taxes.  A February article in the Washington Examiner portended hard times when it noted a tumble in commercial real estate values in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria in Virginia, affluent suburbs of Washington, DC inside the Capital Beltway.  (That the real estate market in our nation’s capital experienced such a shock ahead of the current Federal budget cuts suggests either truly pervasive stagnation in real estate or profound pessimism within the business community.)  The Bloomberg news article on this story further reported that 20 American cities currently have median home prices at their lowest level since 2003, and that economist Robert Schiller warns we should be prepared for further declines in home prices of 10%-25% over the next 5 years. advised that “if employment creation remains low, risks of a double dip in housing naturally increase” in an article dated October 6, 2010.  At that time, the official US unemployment rate was 9.6%; in May it up-ticked slightly from the recent low to 9.1% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This is a good time to buy a house if you won’t need to sell it and you don’t need the equity; however, a year or 2 from now might be an even better time to buy.

Ouch--and this was the forecast over a year ago. Map courtesy of The Real Deal Online.

There is this slight but growing chance that…the United States Government will default on its debt.  This would be bad.  The astonishing part is that, unlike the rest of the current risk factors for a return to recession, a Federal Government default on its debt service would be the sole result of unintelligent choice, a self-inflicted wound.  The traditional opposition sermonizing about a lack of leadership aside, nothing aside from Congressional Republicans’ current Tea Party-driven aversion to authorizing an increase in the Federal debt limit even makes this an issue; the United States Government has never defaulted on its debt before.  There had certainly already been grumblings about raising the Federal debt limit by Tea Partiers, but I think the trouble officially got started when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, now a Presidential candidate, wrote in a January op-ed in the Washington Post that the vote to increase the Federal debt limit would be a golden opportunity to force President Obama to accept drastic reductions in Federal entitlement spending.  A few months later, freshman Senator Patrick Toomey (R-PA) gave us assurances–based on the same hypothetical as Pawlenty’s op-ed–that even if Congress ran-out the clock on raising the Federal debt limit, Congress could still direct the Secretary of the Treasury to pay the interest on the Federal debt 1st, and proceed to fund or cut other needs 2nd.  Dana Milbank helpfully pointed out that if Congress failed to raise the Federal debt limit and Treasury prioritized Federal debt service in austerity budgeting, “even if we shut down the military and stopped writing Social Security checks, the government would still come up about $200 billion short.”  A default on Federal debt would plunge our economy right back into recession-easily.  Interest rates would rise substantially for everyone, as creditors would both be wary of debtors’ viability in general after the failure of the largest and most-reliable debtor, and would look to shore-up their capital through high-interest lending.  Meanwhile, holders of US currency reserves might abandon the US Dollar in droves if the government that prints them defaulted, thus making the currency drastically lose value.  Thus, during a prolonged period of economic stagnation, we would also face high inflation.


THERE'S A LOT RIDING ON THIS GAME, GUYS: President Obama has invited Speaker Boehner for a round of golf, at which time the 2 will try to work-out common ground on a long-term deficit-reduction plan so that the increase in the Federal debt limit can pass. No, I'm not making this up. Composite photo: Carolyn Kaster (AP)/Douglas Graham (Roll Call).

The Initial Eurozone bailout of Greece didn’t work–and again, political preferences leave no clear path to restore confidence in the Euro.  One bright spot in this story is that the Federal Democratic Republic of Germany has consented to a 2nd bailout for Greece.  (As a Liberal ironist, I generally try to avoid referring to countries as if they were monolithic entities; I don’t like to talk about “America” as an agent because, unlike the United States Government proper, America is a continent-wide expanse of hundreds of millions of people who generally live and let live but whom have very different agendas and some profound differences in their moral beliefs.  Also as a Liberal ironist, however, my principles provide for exceptions, and as it is unfortunately far from clear who wasn’t complicit in government corruption and waste there I am left to say: “The Federal Democratic Republic of Germany has bailed-out Greece.”)  Note that the REUTERS article I have linked to indicates only that the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are the managing entities in Greece’s 2nd bailout; on the other hand the German government (as both the European Union’s largest economy and the current carrier of Europe’s hopes for an economic recovery) was apparently both the decisive agent of consent and the on-point information-broker for Greece’s new bailout and fiscal-restructuring deal.  This paternalism of the smaller European Union economies by the largest is the problem with the Eurozone as currently-conceived: Integrating most of Western Europe’s national economies with a single currency without standardizing those governments’ fiscal and economic policies led to corruptingly-low interest rates in Greece and Ireland and, according to Paul Krugman, a local inflation trap in Spain.  (For lack of a better word, “corruptingly” is now a word.)  So, falling interest rates encouraged peripheral governments to vastly over-leverage during the mid-Aughts boom; rising (Euro-driven) inflation in Spain, according to Krugman, led to a large international trade deficit that left both the public and the private sectors with a lot of debt once the international financial system crashed.  This divorce of organization-wide monetary from state fiscal and economic policy both facilitated perverse behaviors by some state actors, then punished both perverse and responsible state actors.  To operate without such hazards, the Eurozone should probably impose stricter control over the fiscal and economic policies of member states; frustratingly, however, these reforms are probably untenable at present precisely because of the inevitable growth of Euroskepticism in response to the costly bad behavior of Greek and Irish governments and financial institutions.  According to the Washington Post, Germany’s relatively-strong economic recovery also seems to have slowed, in part perhaps because of concern about Germany’s level of liability for damaged peripheral Eurozone economies but also, the article suggests, because of so many European governments’ reliance on mid-downturn austerity measures.

As goes the price of oil, so goes the price of pretty-much everything else in the World.  Consider the vicious cycle we’ve witnessed: The price of oil increases, which causes the price of food to increase because of mass agriculture’s reliance on the efficiency of oil-based synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  The unavailability of food provokes riots in the Middle East, which topples some governments, destabilizes and divides others, and sends a panic through all of them.  Naturally, this causes the price of oil to rise.  (Incidentally, Libya produced only about 2% of worldwide oil for the open market last year, but it happens to produce a relatively-clean grade of oil very close to Europe.  The result is that many of Europe’s older oil refineries are disproportionately-reliant on access to Libyan-grade oil, which must now be substituted with oil from more-reliable but also more-distant sources.  As a result, the Libyan Civil War has had a disproportionate effect on the price of oil–not just due to media amplification, but because it has generated a logistical problem.)  In any case, higher oil prices definitely make despotic middle-income countries that don’t have a lot of oil far less-stable.  Considering the interspersion of oil-poor countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain around the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, OPEC’s mostly-despotic member states might find it prudent to (somehow) lighten the load for everyone else.

For all our sakes, watch where you're shooting, Reds. REUTERS file photo.

Remember the March 11th Tōhoku Earthquake and Sendai Tsunami, and the triple full-core meltdown at Fukushima I nuclear power plant?  The news cycle has moved on from Japan’s great disaster (as, to his shame, has the Liberal Ironist–a neglect of a massive story which I hope to rectify soon), but it takes a while to reaally take stock of a natural disaster that will likely cost around $235 billion for repairs and which probably cost the lives of over 23,000 Japanese.  (This is part of why I didn’t say more about it earlier.)  As the Federal Reserve Chairman acknowledged in his recent address, this enormous disaster significantly undermined the economic recovery, though the rebuilding might prove beneficial to the Japanese economy.  After all, there will now be significant public- and private-sector investment in rebuilding and improving damaged infrastructure–investment that might otherwise go abroad–and this redevelopment will put people to work at a difficult time–though they might otherwise have been employed to manufacture goods or provide services for Japan’s major trading partners.

You didn't expect an event of this magnitude to harm our economic recovery? Where did you think these containers were being shipped? Photograph by Itsuo Inouye, Associated Press.

China’s economic growth might prove Icarian.  This is a big one, and the Chinese Communist Party has been on the watch for hyperinflation for a long time; however, neither the generality of the theory which suggests that a widespread improvement in the standard of living can lead to a politically-volatile increase in the cost of basic goods and services nor the motivation of the fully-consolidated Chinese Communist Party necessarily means that the People’s Republic of China will take the right course of action to prevent inflation from wreaking economic and then political chaos.  In fact, it isn’t even certain that China’s government has the power to stop inflation from hitting its fast-growing economy hard at some point in the near-future.

…Of course, maybe the Liberal Ironist is wrong and the Federal Reserve Chairman is right, and later this year the US economy will overcome this May sickness and our well-capitalized corporations will start employing new workers, increasing production and offering new services to renewed foreign and domestic consumer markets.  Until that point, however, our economy will be tailed by several prospective assailants (one of which is Congressional Republicans), several of which could strike.

I just hope the other sectors of our economy don’t have to wait on the housing market.

Time for the President to Get Ahead of This Curve

You Can Turn Your Back on a Person, But Don’t You Ever Turn Your Back on Tens of Millions of Politically-Disenfranchised People with a National Identity

The Wall Street Journal has been considerate-enough to provide us with a helpful map and chart siting the recent democracy protest-incidents spreading throughout the Arab world and Iran.  I have ranked 13 Middle Eastern anti-government campaigns below as I understand them by relative intensity:

Government overturned: Tunisia (protests began December 17th, succeeded January 14th), Egypt (protests began January 25th, succeeded February 11th)

Civil War: Libya (protests started Feb. 16th; Benghazi mutiny Feb. 20th)

Large-scale, continuous unrest: Bahrain (protests started Feb. 14th), Yemen (protests started Jan. 22nd, re-started Feb. 11th)

Chronic but subliminal protests: Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan

Government apparently waited-out protests: Morocco

Protests repressed or discouraged (for now): Sudan, Djibouti

“No-shows”: Syria

Incidentally, the Journal map and chart currently overlooks Syria (where protests were planned, but in a country cowed by past violence almost no one turned out), Sudan (where the first day of demonstrations met with brute-force repression and Omar Hassan al-Bashir claimed he would step down at the end of his term), Djibouti (a small Somali state where unrest resulted in repression last Friday), Kuwait (where descendants of the country’s nomadic peoples demand citizenship), Iraq (where the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya and the mostly-Shi’a Arab city of Basra have seen anti-corruption protests) and Morocco (where a recent Post article on Libya acknowledges that the first protests throughout the country only number in the thousands and where the basis of popular grievance so far is less-obvious).  Each of the countries the Journal has left off its map, however, have been much quieter than the ones on the map (and in the news).

Besides Tunisia and Egypt, there are 3 countries where the protesters seem to be winning (at present).  King Hamad of Bahrain may be compelled to grant protesters (largely Shi’a in this majority-Shi’a country with a Sunni monarchy) the parliamentary monarchy they have called for.  (King Hamad might find this an agreeable outcome compared to the sudden and total deposition of Ben Ali from Tunisia or Mubarak from Egypt.)  In Yemen, president-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh has gradually expanded his talk of concessions and seems to have a genuinely-ambivalent attitude about the protesters, though some have already been killed in clashes with police.  In violence-wracked Libya, Colonel Gaddafi may not survive the weekend if he doesn’t flee.

Again, Prudence Becomes Imprudent as Circumstances Change

These remarkable developments seem to beg a question: Where is President Obama?  It might seem that the President should tread softly, but this argument is slowly losing plausibility.  The Liberal Ironist first thought the President should have spoken more-loudly because the demonstrations gathered so much strength so quickly.  It may be that the President’s tack during the Egyptian protests (essentially calling for non-violence and expressing sympathy for all peoples’ desire for self-determination) was strategically smart because of the large investment and ensuing foreign policy and national security benefits of that relationship–though in the past this had involved our government in charges of visible hypocrisy and abettance of Mubarak’s human rights abuses.  Far from being weak or clueless President Obama’s equable stance, while not politically-compromising for the United States, indicated to the Mubarak regime, the protesters and the decisive Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council that Mubarak had sacrificed his credibility when he started organizing teams of thugs to beat and massacre protesters.  Maybe this indirect, principles-focused approach was the wisest.  While it was passively-moralistic, it was also coherent and not fraught with political risk.  It slowly removed the maneuvering room for Mubarak while not constituting a betrayal of a US ally.  It also meant the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt did all the work themselves, meaningfully transforming Arab publics’ self-perception and (though perhaps not quickly-enough) their governments’ perceptions of them.

But the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 11th opened an opportunity for President Obama to take a stand on these protests in 2 ways.  1st, the much-hyped concern for a democratic Egyptian government that would renounce its landmark peace treaty with Israel, break off cooperation with the United States in counter-terrorist operations, and end its policing of its border with the Hamas-occupied Gaza Strip.  (In the light of the expressions of sympathy for blockaded Gaza by the democratically-elected moderate-Islamist government of Turkey, this last concern is the most-plausible.)  2nd, Egypt, with a population of about 80 million, is by far the most-populous Arab country, and has the greatest capacity to set an exemplary trend for other democracy movements.  Of course, protests had started in several countries before the January 25th anti-police demonstrations began in Egypt, but Egypt has traditionally been the cultural and commercial hub of the Arab world (though this role has long been diminished by Persian Gulf oil money and Hosni Mubarak’s fossilization of Egyptian politics).  Preceding imitators aside, I think the Egyptian revolution that made regime change from below the central topic of debate and an exemplary cause for the countries of the region.  This also likely means that some of the biggest potential pratfalls from the spreading Middle Eastern revolutions have passed: Witness the instant dismissal of the Gaddafi regime’s claims–which reached the point of absurdity twice this week–that foreigners were behind the uprising in Libya.

…But Don’t Speak Too Loudly

I’m not saying President Obama should engage in his predecessor’s broad-brush good-vs.-evil talk, which can alienate non-democratic allies without securing democratic revolutions in the long run.  The fall 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the fall 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine–cheered on by President George W. Bush–and spring 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan–facilitated in part by State Department grants to promote independent newspapers–resulted in a revisionist foreign policy by Russian President Vladimir Putin which continued for the rest of the Bush presidency.  The revisionism resulted in non-democratic retrenchment in Kyrgyzstan and even Ukraine, and catalyzed Russia’s victorious war against Georgia in August 2008.  But President Obama has already achieved a “reset” in relations with Russia, and what we are seeing in the Middle East is a series of protests by example and affinity.

The President can credibly argue that the only way out for the Middle East’s surviving autocracies is through–that in order to survive at all, these governments should democratize.  Certainly there would be an element of mythology to taking such an aggregate and deterministic approach to the dozen Middle Eastern countries that have seen these bare-dawn revolutions; some will not succeed, and some collapsing autocracies may yet leave in their wake (though I hate resort to historical analogy) another Jacobin Terror or another Somalia.  But many Arab states today enjoy a high-enough standard of living for people to notice corruption and to object to it, many currently face economic reversal which has angered a politically-voiceless middle class and its many children, and yes, not just Facebook and Twitter but al-Jazeera TV news have produced new tactical tools available to sometimes-atomized but ever-stalwart dissidents.  Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years, Mubarak ruled Egypt for about 30 years, and Gaddafi will have ruled Libya for almost 42 years by the likely-immanent violent end of his tyranny.  None of these governments appeared vulnerable last Christmas; now they look like they are a part of a regional process–but one where, as Mark Zuckerberg says about Facebook in The Social Network, “We don’t even know what it is yet!”

Even if in hindsight he gets some important details about this moment of revolutionary freedom wrong, the Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama should say something about what “all this” is.  He should do this to offer encouragement and appreciation to Arab dissidents taking great risks to make a government for themselves, to put the rest of the Arab autocrats on notice the only way an ally can, and to dispel the bad information, often-bigoted fears, and general lack of perspective we may have at home about the suddenness and scope of this movement of the long-voiceless.

He could also use this speech as occasion to explain why the United States is intervening in Libya to end Gaddafi’s bloodshed, but now I guess I’m asking for too much tough talk.

Tunisia and Egypt: What We *Thought* We Knew *Did* Hurt Us

1 month ago, Eric Goldstein wrote a fine retrospective on Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution on  It hadn’t been 1 week since kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after just under 1 month of mounting riots in what had probably been the quietest Arab state since 1960.  Ben Ali’s regime had been a poster-child for “durable autocracy,” the broad theory that an autocratic government could employ certain combinations of mobilizing ideology, redistribution of benefits and spectacles of repression to stave-off popular sovereignty essentially forever.  Ben Ali’s regime wasn’t ideological, but it had been keen to advertise Tunisia’s supposedly exemplary economic development.  Indeed, of all Arab states Tunisia is probably the most-middle class.  (While several oil-drilling “petrostates” on the Persian Gulf have higher overall levels of wealth, several political scientists and economists such as Paul Collier and Michael Ross have convincingly argued that oil-dependence profoundly stunts economic and social–and thus political–development.)  And Ben Ali’s police force had mastered repressive spectacle, sometimes making arbitrary gestures of their impunity just to warn people not to stand out too much.

Then, apparently without giving any indication of discontent beforehand, Tunisia’s government collapsed completely over the course of 1 month.  This revolution was largely the work of 20-somethings who’d had no prior opportunity to develop political experience.  Crucially, when Ben Ali asked the Tunisian Army to fire on protesters in the capital, they abandoned him in disgust.  That was probably not a response most outside observers, inclined by historical anecdote to conceive of the armed forces as an aggregate, pro-incumbency actor, would ever have expected.  Tunisia’s reigning kleptocrat had to flee the country that day.

What I particularly like about Goldstein’s article, aside from some insightful (though admittedly retrospective) observations about Tunisia’s tinderbox status, is his foregrounding of the fact that we were all blindsided by the speed and thoroughness with which the Ben Ali regime fell apart–including the continuation of protests until most of his old cabinet appointees resigned from the interim government.  Following the end of Ben Ali’s 23 years of rule in Tunisia in about 28 days of protests and the much more-dramatic demise Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year “presidency” in  Egypt after just 18 days of peaceful (but violently-attacked) protest, demonstrations have emerged in Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and even comparatively-democratic Iraq in response to poor service provision and apparently serious corruption by the Governor of Basra.  The violent repression of demonstrators in Bahrain and Libya follows the same old playbook of post-colonial dictators–but so far those demonstrations just keep spreading…and growing.

Whatever happens as these other bids for revolution metastasize, what has already happened in the Middle East should give us pause.  Twice in the past 2 months, selfish and callous despots who created an outward impression of a normalized society for over a generation were overthrown with little to no anticipation in a series of demonstrations that took less than a month apiece.  It has turned out, as dramatically at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of Eastern Europe, that we didn’t know what we thought we knew at all.  Not only for those of us in academic fields such as political science, political theory or sociology, but for laypersons interested in this busy World as well, the events unfolding in the Middle East should fill us not just with humility but with gratitude.  What we have seen is not all that is, and while the disappointments of the past will never cease to influence the present, they don’t determine what’s possible in the future.  We owe this powerful reminder of both our capacity for agency and the brilliant appeal of Liberalism to the various Arab peoples–a series of nations about whom we have generally thought very uncharitable thoughts over the past decade when we have thought of them at all.  Now we can smirk at our naiveté, and wish that the Arab democrats find the wind at their backs.

If you have a few minutes, a wise friend of mine who specializes in Arab politics was actually in Cairo during some of the grim early days of the revolution, and has blogged much more-eloquently about this, contrasting the banality of official corruption to the unexpected courage and enthusiasm of Egypt’s protesters.  He wrote this entry on February 9th, 2 days before Mubarak’s departure and 2 days before he could let himself believe that all this enthusiasm could prevail.  If you can spare a few minutes, his reflections on the eve of the Egyptian revolution’s success are the fitting last word; he has seen first-hand what the Arab lay revolutionaries are up against.

Just a Point of Perspective About 2012 for All You Political Junkies Out There…

The Gallup Organization polled President Obama’s overall approval rating at 49% on February 10th.  That may not sound great, but it actually puts the President on good footing to be re-elected.  Gallup also offers a comparison with past Gallup Polls of Presidential approval ratings for the February following their first midterm election.  George W. Bush, just over a month from starting the war that would ultimately consume his Presidency, had a 59% approval rating, but something interesting comes to light in comparisons with the preceding Presidents.

Bill Clinton’s February 1995 approval rating was 46%, and he won re-election easily and ultimately became immensely popular.  The 1-termer George H. W. Bush had a February 1991 approval rating of 83%.  Ronald Reagan had a 40% approval rating in February 1983 and was re-elected in a landslide in 1984; Jimmy Carter also had a 40% approval rating back in February 1979 but famously lost his re-election bid in a landslide.

Richard Nixon had a 49% approval rating in February 1971, and won re-election in what is probably the biggest Democratic Presidential campaign embarrassment of the past century.

There are different ways to look at these comparisons.  First, one could say that Presidential approval ratings aren’t indicative of anything; I don’t buy that.  Second, one could say the dynamics of Presidential politics depend heavily on heavily on contingencies, and so a President’s re-election prospects can’t be forecast the moment he faces his 2nd Congress; in broad strokes this must be true, but I still say it profits us political junkies to try to understand what sorts of factors upset a presidency.  Only 3 sitting Presidents since World War II have failed to win re-election if they sought it–Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush Sr.  All 3 confronted abysmal economic conditions and failed to deal with them.

That’s one way of looking at it–and while it’s unoriginal to the point of banality, maybe the question is why we political junkies seem to shy away from the economic indicators.  Our country’s economic fundamentals are strong; if President Obama can bring unemployment down (or if it simply falls, for whatever reason), and housing prices pick up after the stagnation of 2007, collapse of 2008-09, and stagnation thereafter, he will likely be impervious to attack.  But if we fail to find a solution for the lagging economic variables–especially unemployment–then we find ourselves in Jimmy Carter/George Bush Sr. political territory.  You can be a moral exemplar for your people and you can win a major war with remarkable speed and ease, but Americans will not abide pervasive high unemployment.  Our economists were by and large unpleasantly-surprised by the Financial Crash; now that they have given portents of a jobless recovery it is the President’s full-time job to see that they are pleasantly-surprised.

Harff’s Genocide Typology, Along with Some Explanation

I’m back, and I’m going to putting up a lot of academically-themed posts along with some of the usual news.  Today I’m raising, re-interpreting, and offering a slight critique of a typology of genocide that was offered a generation ago, as an early effort by a political scientist at a general theory of genocide.

Back in 1989, Barbara Harff–a researcher at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis who innovated a few crucial theoretical premises in the contemporary understanding of genocide–and Ted Robert Gurr co-authored “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides,” a preliminary typology of genocidal episodes, in the political science journal International Studies Quarterly.  This typology was based on the motivations of the state in question:

“…(Our) definitions are not victim-centered.  Although the intrinsic characteristics of the victims are important, what is crucial are the characteristics and purposes of the state.  Of course the definitions reflect one of our basic theoretical assumptions: Whether an episode of mass killing is a genocide or a politicide depends on the combination of a state’s objectives, the motives of its ruling elite, the prevailing ideology, and the power relations within its authority structure.”

I make the same assumption about genocides, as is typical of current-generation theoretical work on the subject.  I make a few distinctions over the meaning of genocide is among different strategic contexts perceived by the state that will perpetrate it.  The basic point I want to make now (and which will be reasoned later) is that genocides are radical actions taken by nation states either to secure its territory in its state-building phase, or to prevent its loss.

“By our definition, genocides and politicides are the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group.”  This definition of genocide is stricter than the Genocide Convention standard, which includes both conditions imposed to create mental anguish upon group members and conditions that make cultural continuity impossible; those qualifying conditions under international law are relevant from a moral as well as a legal standpoint, but undermine the conceptual coherence of the term, as I argued earlier.  However, this definition is still looser than Manus Midlarsky’s, which labels only those cases in which the state commits to policies designed to kill most or all members of a group as genocide, thus removing cases in which large numbers of an ethnic minority group are killed in ways which may qualify as crimes against humanity but which are still incidental to war or civil war.

They further elaborate that genocides are “victimized groups…defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion, or nationality,” whereas “In politicides the victim groups are defined primarily in terms of their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups.”

This is where this research note gets complicated—and offers distinct theoretical contributions on this subject.  Harff and Gurr specify 2 types of genocide and 4 types of politicide:


“Hegemonial genocides: mass murders which occur when distinct ethnic, religious, or national groups are being forced to submit to central authority, for example during the consolidation of power by a new state or in the course of a national expansion.

“Xenophobic genocides: mass murders of ethnically, religiously, or nationally distinct groups in the service of doctrines of national protection or social purification which define the victims as alien or threatening.

“Retributive politicides: mass murders which are targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses.

“Repressive politicides: mass murders targeted at political parties, factions, and movements because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.

“Revolutionary politicides: mass murders of class or political enemies in the service of new revolutionary ideologies.

“Repressive/hegemonial politicides: mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.”


This conceptual breakdown of genocide is so illuminating that I will adopt it without reservations or modifications.  In practice, genocides have always occurred in the context of attempts at either state-building or state-preservation; either rapid growth or rapid contraction of the state creates the favorable conditions for genocide.  This is the properly-understood context of the event.

Harff and Gurr’s typology of politicides, however, is both needlessly-complex and slightly misleading.  For one, I propose collapsing the category of “retributive politicides” into either repressive or revolutionary politicides, as in practice this quality of retribution, “targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses” occurs either in the context of fear of opposition (as is the case with repressive politicides) or in the case of perceived hindrance of an ideological program (as is the case with revolutionary politicides).  Furthermore, so-called “repressive/hegemonial politicides,” defined as “mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity,” are a better fit for Stathis Kalyvas’ (2006) concept of “civil war violence,” which is the sum total of what is often reciprocal mass killing of civilians by both the state and insurgent groups aiming at separatism or social revolution.  Civil war violence is different from these other types of mass killing because it may be one-sided or two-sided, and in any case it may occur over the course of a long war rather than episodically as is typical with these other types, and it is geographically-contingent upon shifting zones of control in the war theater rather than the top-down, nationwide explosion of violence typical of genocides or politicides.

In acknowledgment of Kanchan Chandra’s recent (2008) definition of ethnicity as socially-contingent but inherited properties, I would modify Harff and Gurr’s general definitions as follows:

Genocide: The imposition by a state of conditions designed to destroy an impersonal hereditary group by the killing of most or all of its members.

Politicide: The mass killing by the state of the members of a voluntary association such as a political party, professional group or class of property-holders.