Sunday, July 31, 2011

Great Moments in the History of Political Deal-Making

The Nightmare of A World Without Taxpayers

I note the reappearance of the story that half of all Americans pay no taxes--what Kevin Drum calls "the zombie lie."  It is clearly, to put it most charitably, a falsehood, in the respect that even the most abjectly poor will get nailed for the occasional sales tax, while lots of the slightly less poor will find themselves paying a bit of property tax.  And then there's all that stuff about Social Security: you may think of it as an "investment," but just try not paying and you will learn the full meaning of "tax."

It is, of course, true that something around half of Americans pay no Federal income tax, and Donald Marron provides a useful analytical account of who does not pay.  Saving you the strain of a link, just believe that it's not a pretty sight.  Does it follow that we should pile on those poor wretches whose overstretched lives would be made more overstretched if we added an income tax to their burden?  It does not follow, and I'm agin' it.  But here is a corollary that most commentators appear to have overloooked this time around: paying tax can be an advantage insofar as it gives you leverage over the government. Just ask Charles I--no, no point in askikng him becaue he lost his head at the climax of a long, sanguinary brawl with Parliament over who would cough up what to sustain his comfortable lifestyle.  Or ask the Saudis who can do just about anything they please with "their people" because the Saudis have the money and don't even have to answer the people's phone calls.

In short, a world where everybody has to share in the tax burden is likely to be a steadier, more durable, surely more democratic place.  Of course, a necessary predicate of such a world is that  a person without an MBA have a decent shot at a day's pay for a day's work, giving them the means and the incentive to howl bloody murder about how the government spends their money.

Where the Chickens Are

We had the curious fortune to find ourselves looking for a meal this (Sunday) midafternoon in Madera, California, one of the most unpromising venues in the whole vast swath that is the San Joaquin Valley.  Following Tyler's rule that you find good food in grungy places, we passed up the superabundance of chain offerings and betook ourself to a mom-and-popish (perhaps better a momish) little Mexican outlet, holding forth in the ruins of what I suspect was once a more pretentious operation.

At first blush, you might say that Tyler's principle was disconfirmed: this was lunch at its most elementary, down real close to "gimme a pound of food."  The chicken quesadilla was exactly that: a bit of shredded chicken breast on a bit of melted cheese inside a tortilla. The chicken tacos were a smidgen more upscale: a bit of chicken and iceberg lettuce inside a soft taco shell, with three half lemons to squeeze out for flavor.

But here's the thing: the chicken was actually pretty good.  Which is more than you're going to say about the chicken in virtually any chain restaurant, even the most formidable. Consider: mass-produced chicken almost always runs to soft and watery.  Too many chain places will fob you off with commercial-grade product: "government inspected," an old Army buddy of mine once said, "didn't say whether it passed or not."

But this stuff was none of that: it was a bit on the tough and stringy side, but it delivered an extraordinary quantum of actual flavor.  The words "free range" waddled through my mind; I wondered if, at the very least, I was dining ut of the proprietor's back yard.    So, not a five-star, not even by counter-culture standards. But so much better than what you would have got at the chains, it made the day worthwhile.

Geography as Destiny, or Maybe Not

Scrounging for something to read in another person's house, I came across an old Everyman Library edition of John Lothrop Motley's mostly-unread classic, The Rise of the Dutch Republic.  Motley certainly takes the concept of "rise" seriously; he begins with not, say, the Beeldenstorm of 1556, but with the semi-savages who tried to scratch a life for themselves in the fens and eddies of the great river deltas during the time of Jullius Caesar.

It's an unfailingly edifying story: man against nature yada yada, heroic collective enterprise yada yada, made not the less wonderful because it is largely true. Inevitably, it leads one to compare the other great episode in the long history of  land reclamation--Venice, where another gaggle of desperate strivers fashioned their own version of small-r republican mythology. Which inevitably moved me to venture off in search of other parallels.  St. Petersburg, for example--but of course not, St. Petersburg has no place in the chronicle of freedom because it was so dramatically and violently a top-down enterprise.

But then, what about New Orleans?  We always think of New Orleans as "special" somehow, when we think of it at all, as, for example, after a major meteorological disaster.  But special in what way?  Correct, music, and the story of New Orleans and its distinctive musical tradition appears to be a fascinating one, about which I know laughably little.  But politics in and around New Orleans remain as slovenly and slapdash as those of any  city in the country.  Why isn't there a proud, independent, republic of New Orleans, as there once was in Venice, maybe still is in rhe Netherlands.  Why is New Orleans different?

Mrs. Buce suggested the curse of oil, which is tempting, but oil didn't become a big factor in New Orleans politics until the last century until its character was already fixed. Could it be that at the end of the day, georgraphy just isn't that important after all?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Obama: Some Company for his Misery

Now that the whole world seems to be piling on against our once-beloved President, allow me to pour on a small dollop of  cold comfort: he's not alone.  Insofar as he is failing (more of that in a moment), he is failing in exactly the same way as we might have expected from any of a number of other Democratic "leaders" most of whom differ from Obama only in the respect that they had the good fortune never to get elected.

Look at the record.  Our disappointment with Obama is rooted in large measure in his utter failure to connect with the American people: to inspire confidence, to resonate, to make us believe he is really on our side, to (I hate the phrase but still) control the narrative.

Then look at the long list of also-rans who preceded him: Al Gore. John Kerry.   Michael Dukakis.  Gary Hart.  Bill Bradley. And hell, sure, Adlai Stevenson.  All worthies in one way or another, all with their advocates who will say even today, "gee, if only..."  All had, to one degree or another, the technical chops for the job (ironically Obama, the part-term senator, perhaps least).  All were clean, looked nice in a suit, did not  scratch themselves or throw up on their vest.  But every one of them left you with a sense of emotional remoteness which was bound to generate paranoia and, under stress, make us think they thought the worst of us which, of course, made us think the worst of them.

I suppose I could throw in Jimmy Carter, too, except that he shared with Obama this misfortune of having his ill-suitedness exposed to the harsh light of day.  And of course I would contrast the two great modern exceptions: Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton--each an accidental president in some sense, but each able to do exactly what the others on the list cannot: to reassure us, to help us understand.  And while I am reaching back, I suppose I should extend the list of exceptions to include Harry Truman, who triumphed over all expectations of mediocrity, precisely because of his comfortable-in-his-own-skin easy assurance.

I don't mean to say that any on this long list are, or would have been, awful presidents: I've always thought Jimmy Carter was a (somewhat) better President than he got credit for being, and I haven't given up on Obama--not yet (well, certainly not as long as the alternative is the clown show formerly known as the Grand Old Party).  But I'm still haunted by the person I knew in the 80s who said that Jimmy Carter wasn't a bad President, he just wasn't a great leader. What a spectacular instance of point-missing that was. It is the job of a President to lead, and all the earnest wonkery in the world cannot trump inadequacies of leadership.

Why is it, exactly, that Democrats keep falling into the same punji trap, like women who persist in dating ex-cons and them being surprised when they come home black and blue?  I've been putting off writing this post for a bit while I tried to come up with a plausible answer to that question; I haven't come up with one yet, and I guess I am giving up the search.  I suppose it must have something to do with the agendas of the folks who control the nominating process: people whose vision of "good government" hearkens back to Cicero and turns away in horror from the image of (the first) Mayor Daley.  Ironic how it was the Republicans who gave us Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover.  These days it is the Democrats who keep trying to profit by their example.

Final note of perspective: the other thing to tell Obama, were I his friend (in a sense, I am his friend) is that "this, too, shall pass;" that (in the immortal words of Harold Macmillan) a week is a long time in politics--and 15 months, even longer.  I've no doubt that Obama believes, as virtually all presidents (perhaps excepting Gerald Ford) believe, that he is the indispensable man, that we must reelect him or face certain disaster.  Fine.  Believe it if you will--presumably you have to believe it just to keep chugging.  And you never know what will happen between now and next year.  Poor guy, he might just get his way.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Wealth Transfer and the Public Pension Crisis

I think I'd mentioned before that in all our caterwauling about the public-employee pension crisis, we might as well start from the recognition that a good deal of this money will never be paid: not funded now, and not going to be funded by voters with tar buckets and pitchforks.

My friend Taxmom adds another filllip, addressing the issue of what happens to that money after it goes out of the public trough to fatten the retiree.  She points out that a fair amount of it just keeps right on moving until it lands in the pockets of the pensioners' dependent adult children.  In this sense, at least, public pension money is beginning to look like a more general form of off-the-books welfare.

Aunt Selma and Sir Max

I have sometimes where my Aunt Selma got inspiration for her stories about her cavortings with the motorcycle gang.  Aunt Selma was no dummy, of course: as cultured and accomplished a lady as ever crossed the commencement platform at the the Straw School.  But all great artists work on a pallet of the past.  Now, I think I may have found a clue.  Here is Zuleika Dobsonthe loveliest woman ever to venture a winsome toe into the  secretive purlieus of an  Oxford college,  as introduced by her creator,Sir Max Beeerbohm:
Already, indeed, she was rich. She was living at the most exorbitant hotel in all Mayfair. She had innumerable gowns and no necessity to buy jewels; and she also had, which pleased her most, the fine cheval-glass I have described. At the close of the Season, Paris claimed her for a month's engagement. Paris saw her and was prostrate. Boldini did a portrait of her. Jules Bloch wrote a song about her; and this, for a whole month, was howled up and down the cobbled alleys of Montmartre. And all the little dandies were mad for "la Zuleika." The jewellers of the Rue de la Paix soon had nothing left to put in their windows—everything had been bought for "la Zuleika." For a whole month, baccarat was not played at the Jockey Club— every member had succumbed to a nobler passion. For a whole month, the whole demi-monde was forgotten for one English virgin. Never, even in Paris, had a woman triumphed so. When the day came for her departure, the city wore such an air of sullen mourning as it had not worn since the Prussians marched to its Elysee. Zuleika, quite untouched, would not linger in the conquered city. Agents had come to her from every capital in Europe, and, for a year, she ranged, in triumphal nomady, from one capital to another. In Berlin, every night, the students escorted her home with torches. Prince Vierfiinfsechs-Siebenachtneun offered her his hand, and was condemned by the Kaiser to six months' confinement in his little castle. In Yildiz Kiosk, the tyrant who still throve there conferred on her the Order of Chastity, and offered her the central couch in his seraglio. She gave her performance in the Quirinal, and, from the Vatican, the Pope launched against her a Bull which fell utterly flat. In Petersburg, the Grand Duke Salamander Salamandrovitch fell enamoured of her. Of every article in the apparatus of her conjuringtricks he caused a replica to be made in finest gold. These treasures he presented to her in that great malachite casket which now stood on the little table in her room; and thenceforth it was with these that she performed her wonders. They did not mark the limit of the Grand Duke's generosity. He was for bestowing on Zuleika the half of his immensurable estates. The Grand Duchess appealed to the Tzar. Zuleika was conducted across the frontier, by an escort of lovesick Cossacks. On the Sunday before she left Madrid, a great bull-fight was held in her honour. Fifteen bulls received the coup-de-grdce, and Alvarez, the matador of matadors, died in the arena with her name on his lips. He had tried to kill the last bull without taking his eyes off la divina sehorita. A prettier compliment had never been paid her, and she was immensely pleased with it. For that matter, she was immensely pleased with everything. She moved proudly to the incessant music of a psan, aye! of a plan that was always crescendo.
Surely the funniest novel ever written about a mass suicide. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

God, for a Man that Solicits Insurance

Authors and actors and artists and such
Never know nothing, and never know much.
Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney
Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.
Playwrights and poets and such horses' necks
Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
Diarists, critics, and similar roe
Never say nothing, and never say no.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man that solicits insurance!
I see the anointed chairman-to-be at the megalawfirm of O'Melveny & Myers is a graduate of Fordham--Fordham, frevvins sakes, the strivers' and strugglers' school, so not one of those Yalies or Harvards on whom the stars are supposed to fall.

I have absolutely no dog in this fight and I must say he has an impressive looking resume but there must be Ivy admissions officers gnashing their teeth and saying, "how could we have missed this guy?"    Soreheads will say: oh, it's because he is a white guy, and all the Ivies want are affirmative action hires.  I think it is more complicated than that. My suspicion is that the new man's problem in the admissions sweepstakes was that he just wasn't interesting.  I see from his O'Melveny spread that he came from Wisconsin (okay so far)that that he had an undergraduate business degree (uh oh) and worse that he specifies a concentration in "risk and insurance"* Just as a guess, I'd say there isn't anything more likely to turn off an Ivy admissions committee than a professed interest in "insurance."  Talk about your service as a sled dog at the South Pole with Scott; your career as an Olympic hot-air balloonist--talk about almost anything except your enthusiasm for--and at the age of 21, yet--for (snarf, zzzz).

"Interesting," then, may be what the law school wants, but just as another guess, I'd say it may not be what the client wants.  I suspect the client is rather more interested in the person who can become a total bore--who can drill so deeply into the client's  problem that he thinks and (worse) talks about nothing else, 24/7.   I don't know about the rest of you but I'm not all that delighted when the pilot asks me what novel I'm reading, or when the cardiologist wants to tell me about his string quartet.  Sounds like Fordham knew exactly what it was doing, and it paid off.
*Note an interesting sort of double game here: "risk and insurance" remains on his web page today, now, a generation on.  Surely not an oversight, yes? 

Why Not Niebuhr?

The Economist offers an appreciation of the late John Diggins' newly-completed book on Reinhold Niebuhr--even more appreciative of Niebuhr himself.  All very well, except I think they work a bit too hard to make Niebuhr out as an offend-both-sides kind of centrist: "Conservatives brandished him in support of hard-nosed anticommunism," says the E--"After the attacks on the twin towers, liberals dusted off his ideas on a measured foreign policy as an antidote to the Bush administration’s use of 'preventative war'." That's all true in a narrow sense but I think it misses the degree to which Niebuhr stands out as a foil to almost everything that passes for truism in mainstream Christianity today: his distrust of dogma; his wry skepticism; his self-deprecation; his (the word is in the title of his most accessible book) irony.

Inevitably, parts of Niebuhr date: his harping on the self-evident virtues "liberalism" are bound to ring a false note in the ears of those who have lived beyond Niebuhr's time and situation (see Jonathan Zasloff's perceptive review).  But it is worth using one's sense of history to recall that in context, Niebuhr's clarity of vision took a particular kind of persistence, and of courage.  Caught in in the cross-torrents between Communism and anti-Communism, it took stamina  not to be swept into the vortex.  Indeed, I think this insight may lead us to the ultimate irony. Specifically, I'd venture that it is precisely the Niebuhrian posture of principled skepticism that drives evangelicals so wild about what we used to call "mainstream" Christianity: his skepticism comes across as a lack of faith or a lack of moral certainty.  Seen rightly, I doubt that there have been many more certain than Niebuhr as to where he should stand, should try to stand.  And to see himself thus as the progenitor of the new Christian triumphalism--I suspect that Niebuhr would be not at all indifferent to what I think he would regard as a major calamity for his faith.  At the same time, I suspect he might be able to understand it as a good (if bitter) joke.

Anyway, a good occasion to quote the one bit of Niebuhr that the incurious are most likely to recognize and remember:

Grant us grace our Father, to do our work this day as workmen who need not be ashamed. Give us the spirit of diligence and honest enquiry in our quest for the truth, the spirit of charity in all our dealings with our fellows, and the spirit of gaiety, courage and a quiet mind in facing all tasks and responsibilities.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Enchanted April Elizabeth Van Arnim is the ultimate chick novel.  Not that that's a bad thing. Parts of it are hilarious.

I see that it has been a movie twice, a stage play and a musical. But my guess is that it is one of those items that works best in print.  Too much of the good stuff takes place in the minds of the characters, not easy to replicate visually.

Balanced Budgets: The Culprit?

I can see good reasons why a nation might not want a high debt-to-GDP ratio, though it is not obvious to me that Japan (say) is that much worse off than Libya.  But to jump from this premise to an obsession with balancing the budget--as in, say, a "balanced budget amended"--has always seemed to me crack-brained.  Balance what, exactly?    Does it mean we can't (say) buy a pickup trick for cash (don't these guys understand depreciation?).  Or do we balance cash flows?  Terrific, let's not pay our bills, and watch the cash pile up.   Anyway, balance over what time period?  Balanced budget advocates usually talk about the "year," but what's so sacred about a year?  Here it is nearly noon--the mail just came and there's no check: uh oh, can't spend any more until tomorrow.  Or--isn't it true (I can't seem to find a link) that Portugal once issued a 3,000-year bond?

How did we get locked into this mysterious trope, I have wondered.  And just this morning, it came to me--it's Dickens.  Well: I don't suppose the average Congressman is up on his David Copperfield, although I'd speculate that  a few might have seen the movie with WC Fields.  But I bet more than one has heard of the feckless Mr.. Micawber, who said:
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
Link. Right, the very thing, We're going to structure the sovereign fisc around the insisght of the dumbest money manager in human history.

The Herodotus of the South American Republics

Following up on yesterday's post about Bagehot and Gibbon, I found myself distracted by Bagehot on Shakespeare.  The thing about Shakespeare, Bagehot argues, is his what you might call (my words) his empiricism, his facticity, his openness to, well, his openness to everything (it's more or less what Bagehot admires in Gibbon too, I think, and for what it's worth, in a different way it is the defining quality of Bagehot himself).
The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few people that can write know anything. In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum. The mental habits of Robert Southey, which about a year ago were so extensively praised in the public journals, are the type of literary existence, just as the praise bestowed on them shows the admiration excited by them among literary people. He wrote poetry (as if anybody could) before breakfast; he read during breakfast. He wrote history until dinner; he corrected proof-sheets between dinner and tea; he wrote an essay for the Quarterly afterwards; and after supper, by way of relaxation, composed the " Doctor "—a lengthy and elaborate jest. Now, what can any one think of such a life—except how clearly it shows that the habits best fitted for communicating information, formed with the best care, and daily regulated by the best motives, are exactly the habits which are likely to afford a man the least information to communicate. Southey had no events, no experiences. His wife kept house and allowed him pocket-money, just as if he had been a German professor devoted to accents, tobacco, and the dates of Horace's amours. And it is pitiable to think that so meritorious a life was only made endurable by a painful delusion. He thought that day by day, and hour by hour, he was accumulating stores for the instruction and entertainment of a long posterity. His epics were to be in the hands of all men, and his history of Brazil, the "Herodotus of the South American Republics." As if his epics were not already dead, and as if the people who now cheat at Valparaiso care a real who it was that cheated those before them. Yet it was only by a conviction like this that an industrious and caligraphic man (for such was Robert Southey), who might have earned money as a clerk, worked all his days for half a clerk's wages, at occupation much duller and more laborious. The critic in The Vicar of Wakefield lays down that you should always say that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains; but in the case of the practised literary man, you should often enough say that the writings would have been much better if the writer had taken less pains. He says he has devoted his life to the subject—the reply is: "Then you have taken the best way to prevent your making anything of it." Instead of reading studiously what Burgersdicius and Enoesidemus said men were, you should have gone out yourself, and seen (if you can see) what they are."
I actually read a bit of Southey once--no, not the history of Brazil, but his little biography of Nelson, once, I surmise, immensely popular.  It's actually quite remarkable as a period piece, an artifact of its time.  But at the end of the day, well yes, it's pretty boring. In the end, maybe the best thing about Southey is Lewis Carroll's parody of Southey:


Headline Says it All

RIP Robert Ettinger, founder of cryonics, 1918 – ?

H/T BoingBoing. I guess we can imagine where science would be without him, but where would SciFi be?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

If Mohammed were Alive Today,
He'd Roll Over in his Grave

Pakistan today is really the centre of Muslim lack of cohesion...

Mani Shankar Aiyar, first-ever Indian consul general in Pakistan

Simon Kumin Explains the Collapse of the Soviet Union

For a reader (that would be me) whose knowledge of soccer-- football, fútbol, fußball, футбол--is just about zilch, almost everything in Simon Kuper's Football Against the Enemy comes as a revelation, perhaps none more intriguing than this: Commie bosses don't like the game.  Okay, that is overgerneralized, but consider Kuper's account of his conversation with Helmut Klopfleisch, a "a large, blond, moon-faced man" so devoted to the gme that his enthusiasm got him hounded out of Soviet East Germany.   Kuper reportd:
  It is a minor irony of history that the only match between the two Germanies was won by the GDR: at the World Cup of 1974, they beat the West 1–0. (Jürgen Sparwasser, scorer of the goal, later defected to the West.) Klopfleisch looked away when I mentioned the game. ‘I just can’t understand it," he said, "it was a day of mourning in our house. There were big celebrations in East Berlin, even though it was just a lucky win. The worst of it all was the 300 Party bosses in the stands, waving their little flags with the East German sign, clapping at all the wrong moments because they knew nothing about football.’ 
--Kuper, Simon (2011). Football Against The Enemy
(Kindle Locations 477-478). Orion. Kindle Edition.
Okay, this might just be an East German thing.  The juice of the story is that after the wall came down, Klopfleisch (and Kuper) got to see Klopfleisch's Stasi file.  It's clear that they pursued him with a patient curiosity that makes J. Edgar Hoover look like a kid under the expressway with a can of spray paint.  Work that hard at collating the data, and you probably don't have time to brush your teeth, much less to hang out at the ballpark.

Or could this be a cross-cultural bureaucrat kinda thing?  Could it be that in any culture it is the 97-pound weaklings who wind up on swivel stools next to the file cabinet, while the guy who kicks sand in his face is out there yelling "KILL HIM!" from the bleachers.  Kuper's point is not that football is larger than life, nor even that it is like; rather that football drives in powerful if sometimes unexpected ways.  If Kuper is right, then what does that say about the relative staying power of the pencil-pusher and the thug?

And you are?

The real occupation of [Edward] Gibbon ... was his reading; and this was of a peculiar sort.  There are many kinds of readers, and each has a sort of perusal suitable to his kind. There is the voracious reader, like Dr. Johnson, who extracts with grasping appetite the large features, the mere essence of a trembling publication, and rejects the rest with contempt and disregard. There is the subtle reader, who pursues with fine attention the most imperceptible and delicate ramifications of an interesting topic, marks slight traits, notes changing manners, has a keen eye for the character of his author, is minutely attentive to every prejudice and awake to every passion, watches syllables and waits on words, is alive to the light air of nice associations which float about every subject—the motes in the bright sunbeam—the delicate gradations of the passing shadows. There is the stupid reader, who prefers dull books—is generally to be known by his disregard of small books and English books, btit likes masses in modern Latin,Grœvius de torpore mirabili; Horrificus de gravitate sapientiœ. But Gibbon was not of any of these classes. He was what common people would call a matter-offact, and philosophers now-a-days a positive reader. No disciple of M. Cómte could attend more strictly to precise and provable phenomena. His favourite points are those which can be weighed and measured. Like the dull reader, he had perhaps a preference for huge books in unknown tongues; but, on the other hand, he wished those books to contain real and accurate information. He liked the firm earth of positive knowledge. His fancy was not flexible enough for exquisite refinement, his imagination too slow for light and wandering literature; but be felt no love of dullness in itself, and had a prompt acumen for serious eloquence. This was his kind of reflection.
--Walter  Bagehot, "Edward Gibbon," in Literary Studies (1879) at 25 (Google books).

H/T Richard Sale, via Turcopilier.  .

Monday, July 25, 2011

Turchin on Asabiyyah, and Precontractual Presuppositions

Another thing I could have added to last night's patchy survey of literature on the disintegration of government: Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War, subtitled, "The Rise and Fall of Empires," more accurately understood as his quirky-but-elegant exploration of Asabiyyah, "social solidarity," as Wiki puts it "with an emphasis on unity, group consciousness, and social cohesion." The term is, perhaps obviously, Arabic.  I ran across it for the first time just a couple of years ago when I discovered Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, an account of history through the eyes of a 14th-Century Muslim scholar trying to understand the human wave that had swept over so much of the known world in the aftermath of Mohammed. Turchin also loves stories of mass action, but also its opposite, social decay. It's big-picture history in from a perspective scarcely anybody dares touch any more.

I must say I touch it only gingerly. Growing up in the aftermath of Naziism and in the shadow of the Cold War, I developed an instinctive horror of mass action, sufficiently sensitive as to distrust social action of any sort. Yet I concede that any functioning society, however decentralized, however "libertarian" must operate on some set of shared presuppositions--even if they be no more than the presuppositions of decentralization. It was the irony that Durkheim was asserting (with, I suspect, conscious mischief) that "in a contract, not everything is contractual."  "Contract" exists, as modern sociologist would say, only "embedded" in a pattern of presuppositions, without which the system would never get into gear.

How could we so completely miss such a point?  I suppose there are a lot of suspects, but I'd point a finger at the "public choice" crowd--the "theorists" (if they deserve the name) who have refashioned Jevonian economics into an acccount, both descriptive and normative, of public life (and, not incidentally, conquered and colonized the political science faculties).  Once again, I'm ambivalent: I've read Buchanan&Tullock, Mancur Olson and the lot; there were times when I read little else.  There is still so much here that is compelling; yet what a cramped and distorted a vision it is, not least because it fails to grasp that it is a vision, and that it works, if at all, only in an aggregate that shares its vision with all (or most) of its contradictions and its blind fair.

I haven't the least notion of where sets of shared presuppositions come from, how they come into being--who could have anticipated Islam?  I'm reasonably certain that you can't simply impose them top-down--and that the utter failure of Leninism in our (parents') time has done much to discredit the idea that there are any sets of shared presuppositions at all.  Pity.  It leaves us with a theory of society which, however plausible, seems so often to walk the earth like a zombie with all the sap squeezed out.

Afterthought:  For a curiously hostile view of asabiyyah from a Muslim source (in Raleigh, NC) go here. See also:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
--William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, sc. 3

Welcome, ThinkProgess Readers

Welcome, ThinkProgress readers. My, there are a lot of you. Be cool, the extra porta privies should be here shortly.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Disintegration of the State: a Tentative and Partial Survey of the Literature

For no purpose except my own entertainment, I've been drawing together a list of stuff that addresses what you might call "sovereignty," or better, "the disintegration of sovereignty." I suppose I'm prompted by my discussion of Janine Wedel's Shadow Elite which I discussed here yesterday--flawed but suggestive enough to get me thinking about its possible companions.

I can think of two in particular: Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands about the havens, tax and otherwise that serve to insulate the toffs from the rest of us.  The other is Ian Bremmer's The End of Free Markets  about sovereign wealth funds.  Particularly with Bremmer, I'd want to compare a couple of recent books on the role of government in managing the economy--Milhaupt and Pistor's Law and Capitalism, and Walter, Fraser and Howie, Red Capitalism .  The former is a set of case studies about government intervention in corporate activity; the latter, a dense and fairly technical account of the Looking-Glass world of Chinese finance.  For comparison/contrast, you could throw in Asgeir Jonsson's Why Iceland?  about a country that thought it was driving the bus and found itself sweeping up behind the elephant.    

Reaching beyond standard models of market behavior, I'm tempted to throw in Misha Glenny's McMafia, a somewhat uneven survey of world-wide organized crime--also Kaplan and Dubro's Yakuza, about one nation where organized crime appears to function as part of the bureaucratized state.  So as not to be accused of insularity, I could also include Denton and Morris' The Money and  the Power, an overheated and perhaps too-readable account of the mob and Las Vegas (interesting how the title is almost the same as the title of William D. Cohan's new history of Goldman Sachs.

Virtually everything on this list is point-with-alarm critical.  For a more positive view, you might want to add Ashraf Ghani's  Fixing Failed States.  This is about the only book on the list that gives serious consideration to the question of what we want a state to do--though even here, the discussion is more reportorial (what we've come to expect) than in any way theoretical.   Matching Ghani,  perhaps I should include David A. Moss superb When All Else Fails (Government as the Ultimate Risk Manager).  Moss is certainly hospitable to the government as a guarantor of security although he indulges in at least a few moments of skepticism on the issue how much risk we can actually manage (Compare: Singapore as Disneyland with the death penalty.  Perhaps compare: Did Charles De Gaulle truly say "How do you govern a nation which has 246 kinds of cheese?"?).   And just to top off the package, I suppose I should throw in David Rothkopf's   Superclass, insofar as it continues an elite that transcends sovereignty so much that it begin to take on the character of a sovereignty all its own.  Oh, and one another--I'm haven't finished it yet, but I'd say that if you want to get insight into the current state of communal loyalty and identity, you could do a lot worse than read Simon Kuper's Football against the Enemy.

None of these is, as I suggest, really satisfactory as theory, but that in itself may be an important in its own way.  They've virtually all in their different ways masters of the "inconvenient fact."  And the very grittiness of the empiricism may help to  explain the absence of generalization: one way or another, the authors are confessing that the topic is just too damn big for them.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Janine Wedel Makes My Head Rattle and Hiss

I think I'm in a state of near head-explosion from reading Janine Wedel's Shadow Elite, such is the mix of shrewd insight, salty anecdote and intolerable internal contradiction that she seems to have thrown together.

Start with the title which seems (like so many titles these days) a mismatch.  Okay granted, it is about "elites" and they are in "shadows," but this is not a general sketch of such elites (for that, you might better turn to David Rothkopf's Superclass.  It is rather better described as a about the dissolution of government and the kidnapping of government powers and responsibilities by private persons for the private purposes.

I think she is definitely onto something here and some parts of her book serve admirably to understand the nature and progress of this dissolution.  The trouble is, she gets tangled up in half a dozen stories which, even if they overlap, do not match each other and in some ways do not serve her purpose at all.

Perhaps the best part of the book is her study of the rise of contracting-out, and the attendant "revolving door"--but really not so much a revolving door as a system of apprenticeship whereby the aspirant learns his trade on the government dime and then takes his accumulated skill and knowledge off to greener pastures. If you have read this far into this note, you are probably the kind of person who thinks you know a good bit about this process (and perhaps you have participated).  But I'd say Wedel does a commendable job of showing just how pervasive the process has become--not just in the defense department, but around virtually every service the government purports to provide.   And Wedel does an excellent job of some of the important ways in which (whatever its virtues) this process of conracting-out can do harn.  A diffusion of responsibility for one--nobody knows quite who is in charge of what.  And perhaps most important, the privatization of information--perhaps the one resource that a responsible government in a market economy can help to provide.

So far so good, but none of the rest of her main stories fit nearly so well into her framework.  Perhaps her favorite, for example,  is the story of what one might-call think-tank government, and in particular, the spectacular chronicle of the neocons, running back to their birth in the manger outside the office of Senator Henry Jackson.  She tells the story well although not obviously better than it has been told before.  But I think it may prove just the opposite of what she wants to prove.  Here we have a crowd who, after all, very far from wanting to privatize government power are seeking to take it over for a highly specific public agenda.  They may use think tanks and such for r&r, but their highly explicit goal is to take over the White House, thankyouverymuch, and rule the world.

I think the problem here may be that Wedel hasn't made up her own mind what a proper government should look like. The giveaway is an early chapter where she offers up as personal narrative that I suppose is intended to show us how she came to understand the world as she does.  The story is an account of her time as a young person in Poland Before the Fall, in the company of two women, mother and daughter.  who had to make lives from themselves under constraints that were at best highly inhospitable.  It's a wonderful yarn about people who had long since come to understand that the Government was Not Their Friend; rather it was an obstacle to be got round, and get round it they do, with energy and imagination and wit and guile.

On its own terms it's a great read but it is not all clear what Wedel wants us to learn from it--or, indeed, what she learns from it herself.  With  background like this, what would we expect people like her hostesses to do when freedom broke out--start acting like Danes?  Not likely; civic virtue is one of those achievements like an English garden,where you have to start hundreds of years ago.  To run an effective modern state on the basis of citizens like this will take prodigies of statesmanship and massive doses of good luck.

But the point is--who can blame them?  I'm remembering Bertholt Brecht again--if the government has lost the confidence of the people, why doesn't the government just elect a new people and start over?

It is this background that helps to illuminate the the third and I think most ambiguous of her major stories--her account of the shock-therapy privatization of Russia, administered by a gang of true-believer technocrats under the auspices of Harvard University.  Once again, her account is dynamic and readable; once again it is not exactly news.   And on any account, the privatizers have a lot to answer for--not least because of a couple of the principals entangled themselves in a massively bone-headed scheme of self-dealing.  Surely anybody looking back form the resource/gangsterism of the Putinocracy will have to ask?  Wasn't there a better way?

In the imagination, sure there was a better way--in the imagination there  is always a better way.  But let's remember this is the old Soviet Union we are talking about here--as massive and repressive as (almost) any state in recent memory, in all of history.  Almost any self-regarding private person is going to know that he damn well wants to work for its collapse.  The chief, perhaps the only, irony, is in the end, how easy it was--how the Soviet Union, when it was good and ready, lurched and groaned and fell down in a heap.  "Privatization" in this perspective is not a dirty word.

None of this is to say that Wedel is exactly wrong about anything she says, big or small.  Her individual stories are well told; her general point is inarguable.  What it does mean is that we've got a whole lot more work to do in thinking through the question of just what is the proper role of government in the post-apocalyptic era,  and how (not at all less important) we can persuade ourselves and each other that we have--or can--build a structure worth serving.  Will we bring it off?  Probably not. The complications are great enough that the best of intentions won't be sufficient to save us.  Meanwhile Wedel offers a bit of a flashlight into the dark, but if we are going to go further, we will need a lot more illumination.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Banana Belt

By many measures, Palookaville is not a garden spot.  Median family income is somewhere around 40k, and summertime temperatures can easily hit three digits.  Mr. and Mrs. Buce actually like it here in spite of all that but here's a curiosity--in this summer of swelter we seem to be one more place that has simply escaped the heat.

Actually, the charts indicate we did have a few super-hot days back in June--maybe we were out of town.  Since then, we've had some highly uncharacteristic rain.  And at least until the last day or so, we've been disporting ourselves in an unexampled extended spring.

My friend Allison asks: God loves Palookaville?  Maybe.  I suppose a more obvious answer is that global warming--better global climate instability--does weird things all over the place.  Just a few years back, we spent some days on the edge of the Gobi Desert.  Once again, it might as well have been Paris in the spring--instability again?  On the other hand, the first Mrs. Buce used to quote her German grandfather: "Wenn Engel reisen, lacht der Himmel"--when angeles travel, the sky laughs--true dat, and sometimes it laughs even when they stay home. My final guess is that God and the angels are just ticked at Rick Perry for daring to presume he should be President. Meanwhile, they've forgotten we're here.

Borders, We Hardly Knew Ye

I didn't make it to the great Borders blowout this morning--we're 90  miles away and, sentimentalist though I may be, I simply felt no strong notion to join the party.  But I certainly remember my first outing.  I had actually never heard of Borders before I went to Philadelphia in the fall of 1993 for a visiting gig at Penn.  They found me an apartment right at Rittenhouse Square (pleasant and cheap).  The first evening, I strolled idly up Walnut Street; I knew vaguely that there was a worth-a-sidetrip used bookstore on Walnut at about 20th (I've forgotten the details and it doesn't seem to be there any longer).  But as I came around the corner at  18th and Walnut--whups, there it was, one giant store just suppurating books, surely the most fully stocked bookshop I'd seen outside of Charing Cross Road, excepting only Cody's in Berkeley.  And a chain at that.  I'm pretty sure I can remember my first purchase, although it doesn't seem to be in the house any more: a commentary on Marcus Aurelius, and I marvelled that you could find anything for such a niche audience in mainstream shop. Waldenbooks this was not.

But of course what attracted me even more was the coffee shop.  UB groupies will recognize that I am the ultimate public-space reader, and the idea of a coffee shop inside a bookstore--and just around the corner--meant I really didn't have to spend many evenings at home.  The only problem was that the place was so crowded:  all I could infer was that Philly must be painfully short of singles bars, at least for the lib-arts set, because you had to claw your way for a table at Borders just about any time of the day or the week.

I won't bore you with too many more details which are, in the end, not so much different from so many other readers'.   I probably logged my most Borders' time down at Davis, near campus, a favorite study hall for Asian technoid brain trust.  In New York, I enjoyed the privilege of the massive space at the base of the World Trade Center.  Two of my favorites were (are?) in and around DC--the one at 18th and L, and the one out by the Pentagon: both seemed to go heavy on the sort of wonkery you'd expect in those neighborhoods.  And once, back when the GPS was still a novelty, I asked my rental car to point me to a Borders near Cleveland; it pointed me to Raleigh, NC; I guess the device hadn't caught on yet.

Meanwhile, of course, I was getting sucked into the digital vortex.  And here's the thing: just as my first Borders presented itself a feast of almost unimaginable plenitude, compared to the online catalog it came to look shabby and cramped.  Some will say this was bad management, a company run by a bunch of suits who knew nothing of the book biz.  Maybe, I'm not sure-I've often suspected that loving books might be a hazard in the book biz; much better just to have a strong back  Still, over and over I found myself looking at the Borders wall and saying--um, gee, is that all?

I guess that is all, and I can't say I'm merrily indifferent.  Still, Palookaville has a selection of fine coffeeshops.  It also has one excellent used bookstore and meanwhile, would you like to see what I've just downloaded from Amazon to my Iphone?

What's Updock? Oh, I Don't Know, What's Up with You?

Did you know that
--Russia ranks 6th in the world for the most rail passengers.
--Macau has the world's 5th-most crowded road networks.
--Bolivia is he world's 8th-largest producer of lead.
You knew?  Then welcome to the club.  Or welcome me to the club; either way, the chances are that you got this stuff the same place I did--from "World In Figures" The Economist's downloadable Iphone app which spouts a more or less endless river of equally diverting trivia.  I guess you could say it is a handheldified version of the The Economist screensaver which adorned my desktop for several years, keeping me up to date on pig production in Western China and suchlike.  Call it the world's greatest Asperger's enabler ever. Anyway, you can keep your RhinoBall and your Aero Guitar.   I'll be back just as soon as I find out who is the leading producer of Updock.

Disclaimer: nobody briibed, me to say this.  The 99 cents came out of my own pocket.  In pennies.

Update:  Ooh, I love this thing.  Defense spending as percent of GDP: US, 4.9%; Pakistan, 3%.

Just as Long as You Call Me for Dinner

I'm not quite sure what Angry Bear is telling me here, but I'm enjoying the attention.

Greatest Headline Ever?

This one?

Afterthought: perhaps surpassed by

Woman from Decatur
Attends Theatre

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Political Education

I'm still mulling over Kenneth Waltz' big book on international relations--specifically, his sophistication about international relations and his seeming (um, incuriosity?) about life at home.  Okay, I should be fair--he wasn't writing about home life.  Still, I'm sticking to my point that I can't imagine anybody talking about "states" or "the state" with so little nuance today.

My first thought was that I'm observing an anachronism--a book written fifty-odd years ago.  My second thought is that Waltz is almost conemporaneous with the great modern classic on the inner workings of govesrnment--Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power, which taught the Kennedy generation of Americans that the first thing to know about Presidential power is that he doesn't have all  that much.

Amazing to think back to a time when we didn't know that.  By now, I think we all recognize that look of stoic horror that you see on the face of every new president six-eight weeks into his term, from which we learn that for all the hoopla, there really isn't much he can do with his great office.  We had heard--I think we had heard--Harry S. Truman, famously saying: of the Chief Executive, "he'll sit here and he'll say "Do this!  Do that!"  And nothing will happen!"  But it took Neustadt to explain to us just exactly how this is true. WikiSummary quotes Neustadt on the sources of Presidential power:

[F]irst are the bargaining advantages inherent in his job with which to persuade other men that what he wants of them is what their own responsibilities require them to do. Second are the expectations of those other men regarding his ability and will to use the various advantages they think he has. Third are those men's estimates of how his public views him and of how their publics may view them if they do what he wants.
I think the companion piece to Neustadt may be another eye-opener published just about the same time--Theodore White's Making of the President 1960.    I can't think of anything like White before White; I don't think anyone but the cognoscenti had the slightest notion what the inner workings of a campaign looked like until White showed them.  In particular, consider White's insight that no political candidate arises ex nihilo: he comes from a "candidate ecology" that supports him and sometimes even creates him.  Barry Goldwater is perhaps the supreme example (see Rick Perlstein's superb account), but White showed how Jack Kennedy made no sense apart from Massachusetts and Humbert Humphrey,  none apart from Minnesota.

Of course we've had a torrent of campaign accounts imitating White (including those by White himself (link, link)--whether anybody has ever succeeded in equaling the master is left as an exercise to the reader.  Worthy successors to Neustadt are harder to come by.  Would Graham Allison qualify? Maybe, but my own favorite candidates come from television--most obviously Yes, Minister, which I think I've argued before is the best textbook on organizational behavior I ever encountered. It's perhaps a personal choice but I'd add my personal favorite classic of bureaucratic slash-and-grab, Sandbaggers.   And in America--well, it took more than a generation, but at last we got West Wing.  What's interesting about West Wing is not just that we enjoyed it but that we understood it--something I can't imagine we could have done without Neustadt.

Following the Money through the British Empire

Tyler Cowen has caught up with the story about how the Brits took over Newfoundland in a financial collapse in 1933. A great story it is, but is it really all that different from how the Brits took over Egypt in 1875, plucked from the ashes of Ismail Pasha's Suez Canal schemes?  Or, come to that, the Act of Union of 1706, which thrust Scotland into the arms of England after the collapse of the Scottish Darien Folly?   Indeed how much of the development of the British Empire in India can be traced through the ledger-books of improvident petty princes?  There must be hundreds more examples.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Waltz on IR

I took a flutter on Kenneth Waltz's Man, the State and War  because it pops up on so many lists as a seminal text in international relations.  I guess you'd have to say I profited from the experience, but I guess my main notion is how dated it all seems.  For a book just a half-century old (and whose author is still active in the arena of ideas), it's remarkable how much he seems to be addressing himself to people and issues of a time gone by--in particular, to a strain of "behavioral science" whose naive optimism seems almost quaint today (cf., the examples in my earlier post).  I asked my friend Cindy  (who understands this stuff much better than I) what it was that made him so important--what's the takeaway point, the soundbyte?  Cindy answered:
The take away of MSW is pretty simple: any explanation of foreign policy decisions must always start with an assessment of the international environment (i.e., the balance of power among sovereign states). The international environment sets the opportunities and constraints of action or its "permissive cause."  The "proximate" causes for action stem from other factors, either as the result of the preferences of individuals in positions of authority or from peculiarities of particular state actors (their politics, their political cultures, etc.).
Yes, okay, I get that--and I can see how it needed (re)stating in the context of the times, even if, perhaps,it was in part a restatement of Machiavelli (or even better, Rousseau).  States function in an environment of anarchy.  We cannot "just get along;" our problems will not just go away if we understand each other better.  States do use power--but not least to insure their own survival,   The kind of power they use (the way they use it) is in large measure a function of their situation in the anarchic scramble.

This is perhaps not as anodyne as it may sound--important statements rarely are--although I suspect that not many people would quarrel with it today.  What is perhaps more  interesting from the standpoint of history is the centrality it gives to the notion of the "state."   Granted, I don't suppose we have a better building block today, but from what little I know, I gather the dominant theme of so much of international relations over the past generation or so has been the erosion of the estate and its replacement by--oh, boy; by NGOs, by Nonprofits, by international organizations, by international bankers, by mafias, by who-knows-what competitor to the traditional sovereign.

This can't be a fatal criticism, of course.  Any serious thinker is answering his own questions, not ours, and any serious political thinker is writing about his politics, not ours-I like the way Waltz situates Machiavelli in the particular circumstances of the Italy of his time.  If it is true for Machiavelli--or Thucydides, or Hobbes--then there is no reason to suppose it is any less true of Waltz.  Must have been an interesting experience, to write a masterpiece at the beginning of a career, and to watch it mature into a truism, and then to become old hat.

Nick Davies on the Death of a Friend

Fascinating piece about the death of a News of the World reporter, made not less interesting by the fact that the author of the piece is the man who more than anyone else exposed the corruption at the News of the World.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Google eReader App: Not Ready for Prime Time?

Okay, so I downloaded the Google ebook app onto my Iphone.  Looks pretty (much like Amazon) but it won't rotate sideways--not good, I like sideways.  My first download, a sample: they sampled the wrong book.  Did it a second time to make sure it wasn't just my mistake, same result.

Tiny complaints I admit, but in this fluid, competitive enterprise, you just don't want to stumble coming out of the box, not so?

Idle afterthought:
as Borders gurgles hideously down the drain, is there any afterlife for the Kobo?

Update re Kobo: Kobo would answer "yes, there is" (trans: Borders? Oh, yes, I guess we've heard of them). I love that line about how Kobo "offers their support to the Borders’ community of employees, families and friends." Terrific, send check.

More Inside Baseball on Anna Nicole

Caution: bankruptcy/Supreme-Court wonkery.  I've been prepping up the Supreme Court's opinion in Stern v. Marshall (aka "the Anna Nicole Smith case") for teaching in my bankruptcy class next spring.  Supermarket tab readers will remember that one as the saga of the young blonde, the (perhaps) besotted old husband and the outraged heir (doesn't narrow things down very much, does it?).  I had remarked before on how much the decision seemed to me a precision strike, designed to take the money  away from the (estate of) the young blond and secure  it to the outraged heir.

Why such close cutting?  On second read, it occurred to me that when judges engaged in such precision, it's usually for one very good reason: they are trying to save their majority.  This was, after all, yet another of those 5-4 opinions that do so much to define the Supreme Court.  If "we're not saying" this and "we're not saying" that, then there is a strong inference that we are not saying a lot of things that would lose us that fifth vote--in this case, presumably, the Supreme swinger, Anthony Kennedy, who seems to have come to revel in his position as the man in the middle, whose opinion can never quite be predicted (or, come to that, understood).

I tried this idea out on my friend Ignoto, much younger and much closer to the crack of bodies than I. Ignoto demurs:

My take is different, somewhat. I don't think he cares about sex and octogenarian billionaires. I think he, and Kennedy, think that  bankruptcy courts are getting all the good cases, leaving prisoner  habeas, immigration and social security appeals to "real" judges.   Think about all the press on the vanishing trials. Not a problem bankruptcy.

To me, the language that most sounds like it comes from the heart is the language about preserving the integrity of Article III judges' hold over the judicial power. Note that this opinion comes after a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to get Congress to raise judge's pay. In that effort, Article IIIs pled high workload, but someone looked at bankruptcy courts and said: Gee, they do they same thing you do, do more of it, and do it for less. Note that Roberts goes out of his way to say the counterclaim was within what Congress said in 157, but that 157 was unconstitutional. It could be viewed as a shot back.

Afterthought: I can claim a weird sort of godfatherhood to the Anna Nicole case. The judge who started it all, Sam Bufford in Los Angeles, was my successor--the guy who took over my docket after I left back in 1984. Nobody doubts that Sam is a serious guy, although I think there is room for reasonable people to differ over whether he was right in the first place. One possible solution would have been to abstain--to say "I don't know whether I have jurisdiction or not but this a matter best settled in courts of Texas, so go fight it out there. And report back to me when you are done." But then, as they say in the novel-writing trade, there would have been no story.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sure, Take All You Want!

First this, from Retail Info Systems News, July 14:
Borders Faces Liquidation After Deal Collapses

Bankrupt Borders is on the brink of liquidation after the collapse of a deal with the Najafi investment firm aimed at saving the bankrupt company. Earlier this month Borders designated Najafi as the opening bidder in a looming bankruptcy court action, but according to published reports, the deal fell through because of objections by publishers and landlords.

The Najafi group offered $215 million for Borders and an assumption of $220 million in liabilities, but a creditors committee said an offer of $252 million from a liquidators' group amounted to a better deal. The book chain has since appointed the liquidators as the opening bidders in the auction set for Tuesday.

Borders President Mike Edwards confirmed that Najafi had withdrawn its bid and liquidators were circling, while expressing hope that other bidders would emerge to save the company.

Borders will likely have to close its remaining 399 stores, lay off approximately 11,000 people and go out of business. Borders shut down 200 locations since it filed for bankruptcy in February.
Now this, from tonight's Email...

H/T Anupam.

Update:  This morning, it looks like it's all over.

Grand Bargains Galore

Seems like everybody is getting into the grand bargain game--trying to come up with a tax-spend solution that will get us out of the ditch.  Here's Turcopilier:
A solution to the deficit problem is clearly available:

1- Return income tax rates to what they were when that paragon of presidential virtue, Bill C. was in office. (irony alert) I hear people "going on" about the stultifying effect of income tax rate increases on small businesses. I don't get it. The US economy was booming under those tax rates. "People are afraid because the S Corporations will be hurt by higher taxes." "S corporations," "mumble, mumble," "double taxation," "mumble, mumble," "class warfare," "mumble, mumble." I used to be one of the owners of an S Corporation. The principal benefit of such a corporation is that distributions (not salary) to the owners IS NOT taxed as corporate income. The same thing is true of partnerships. So, basically, the truth is that well off people just don't want their taxes raised. They succeeded in having their Republican friends lower their taxes in the Bush years and they are fighting to keep them low using their ability to "bribe" members of Congress with campaign fund money.

2- Get rid of the Part D medicare pharmacy benefit. It is welfare for big pharma and it is not funded in any realistic way. You want a pharmacy benefit? Go around the world and ask people who have such benefits how they do it. Start by asking the French.

3 - Abandon the "Wars of Revolution" philosophy that now dominates our foreign policy. Let there be no more large commitments of ground and air assets to campaigns intended to change the civilizations of others. Think sneaky, not oafishly big. COIN is a bad joke. It always was... Michael Brenner wrote to tell me a new version of the light bulb joke. "How many COINistas does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is five, one to hold the bulb and the other four to rotate the table the first is standing on." Think small, THINK!
 And here's the Steve Parente (restated by Don Taylor ):
End the tax preference of employer paid insurance.

Transition Medicare to defined contribution program for those under age 54.

Block grant Medicaid.

Adjust several aspects of the ACA (lessen subsidy triggers, end taxes imposed on device makers, etc.).
I'm with Turc on getting rid of Part D--rather, replacing it with a more coherent drug plan designed to serve somebody other than the drug companies. I'm with him on Wars of Revolution and I like the lightbulb joke. Re corporate taxation I hear him on Subchapter S, but I'd go further: do away with the corporate income tax altogether and tax dividends at the ordinary income rate.  While we're at it, let's skip down to Steve's list and get rid of the tax preference for employer sponsored health plans--and while we're at that, let's go ahead and get rid of the home mortgage interest deduction (we'll tend to the charitable deduction next year).   And while we're there, let's take a swipe at the carried interest deduction that leaves the hedge fund manager's secretary paying tax at a higher rate than her financial overlord.  And you want to talk about means--testing social security?  I'm listening.   Probably a few other, ahem, simplifications I'll think of later.

As to the rest of the health care list, I'm on the fence which probably means I don't understand health care well enough to have a coherent opinion.  I do believe, as I guess  I have said before, that we have two rather different health care problems.  One is "who pays."  The other is the ingrained perception that health care just costs too damn much.    As to "who pays"--I'll certainly sign on to the view that society (=us, including me) owes a duty to assist its least fortunate.  As to "too damn  much"--well, I already mentioned Part D.   I've wondered aloud before how the world could change if I could use my Medicare overseas.    Meanwhile, I think I've watched my own internist's income go down over the 20-odd years I've known her, even as the specialists and the insurance companies seem to rake in the big bucks. There must be something wrong with this picture.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Michael Kazin Dreams of a Past that Never Happened

Reviewing Richard White's new book about the history of the railroads, Michael Kazin longs for an Edenic yesterday before Hayek and Schumpeter and the equivocal blessings of creative destruction:
At the end of his powerful book, ... White floats a counterfactual balloon: what if the steel lines that spanned the continent had been “built as demand required” instead of as part of a competitive dash that caused as much waste and hardship as progress? Slower, more rational development would have lessened the damage to the environment, given Native Americans a chance to adapt to conquest and perhaps saved thousands of lives. White advises, “We need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically.”

Such an alternative past would probably require a different country. The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age.
Kazin longs for "lower, more rational development  ... instead of as part of a competitive dash that caused as much waste and hardship as progress."  He calls this vision "a counterfactual."  But in fact, we achieved just exactly the kind of rationalization that Kazin so admires from the greatest of all American central planners, J. P. Morgan, starting no later than July 20, 1885 (126 years ago Wednesday) when Morgan hauled the president of the New York Central and the vice-president of the Pennsylvania aboard his yacht and bullied them into an end to their competitive warfare. Ron Chernow explains:
The basic weakness  with America's railroad system was overbuilding, which forced the roads into endless rounds of rate cuts and wage cuts to service debt.  At the same time, the massive power of their largest consumers--notably Rockefeller in oil and Carnegie in steel--forced them to grant preferential rebates to big shippers, enraging small western farmers and businessmen and stimulating calls for government regulation. For Pierpont, the leading symbol of railway monopoly, pure competition was never an option.
So Chernow in The House of Morgan at 55-6.  The "Corsair Compact," as the papers called it, can be understood as the episode that made Morgan Morgan.  By the next decade,  he had become a substantive--"Morganization."  Chernow again:
Oppressed by debt and overbuilding, more than a third of the country's railway trackage fell into receivership, and English investors exhorted Pierpont to bring order to the industry.  Thwarted by gentleman's agreements, Pierpont now tried another approach to forming railway cartels: he could reorganize bankrupt roads and traansfer control to himself. Then he wouldn't be at the whim of government or feuding railway chiefs.  ... Virtually every bankrupt road east of the Mississippi eventually passed through such reorganization ... . Some thirty-three thousand miles of railroad-one-sixth of the country's trackage--was morganized.  The companies' combined revenues approached an amount equal to half the U.S. government's annual receipts.
So Chernow, 67. The railroad barons," then, may indeed have "wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age."  But not so much as the financier Morgan.  Kazin may--I suspect he does--have reservations about this concentration of power.  And there are empirical questions here that are not easily answered in the library.  Was "destructive competition" more damaging in the long run to a free economy than Morgan-style consolidation?  Possibly; without a reliable counter-example it is hard to know.  Meanwhile as Kazin quotes White, "we need to think about what did not happen."  And what did not happen was certainly not free competition.