Monday, September 24, 2012

Homer Simpson casts his vote in 2012



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Todd Gitlin in 2000 – It makes a lot of difference who gets elected President

I know that some of you have well-considered reasons for believing that it makes more sense to vote for Mitt Romney than for Barack Obama in the rapidly approaching presidential election.  Obviously, I disagree strongly with that conclusion, but it's a free country.  This post is not directed primarily at you, though you may find it of interest.

=> On the other hand, I also know people who are not at all enamored of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Congressional Republicans ... but who feel so upset or disappointed with Obama, for various reasons, that they're not sure it would really make a big difference who wins in November. So why bother?  Well, if you're one of those people, you're wrong, and you should get a grip on yourself.

Anyone who feels the slightest temptation to sit out the 2012 presidential election because they can't bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama should carefully read this piece that Todd Gitlin wrote in 2000, when many people who thought of themselves as "progressives" convinced themselves that it wouldn't make much difference whether Bush or Gore won the election. (And in Florida enough of those people voted for Ralph Nader to eliminate what would have been a clear Gore majority and thus allowed the Republicans, with some help from the Supreme Court, to steal the election—yes, that's strong language, but I'm not using it lightly—and deliver the presidency to Bush.)

Unsafe in any state

Read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:
[....] I was the third president of Students for a Democratic Society, active in New Left politics thereafter, frequently critical of Clinton-Gore politics from the left. I think the drug war is a disaster, the Colombia intervention wrongheaded, insurance companies and HMOs cruel and unnecessary punishment, big-money giveaways to media tycoons indefensible, free trade oversold, labor underprotected. Oh yes: Along the way, I stayed out of the 1968 vote — and therefore, in the light of unforgiving history, did my tiny bit to help Nixon win, and all for the best of reasons, namely, emotions in revolt, disgust for Humphrey’s pro-war position, and willful blindness about the left’s marginality and the political payoff that could be expected for going it alone. Here we go again. [....]

We hear, first of all, the notion that Gore and Bush, or Democrats and Republicans, are essentially the same — two names for the same Republicrats. Yet how a thoughtful person can think the differences are negligible boggles the mind.

• Global warming? Gore knows it’s happening, Bush isn’t sure. Gore wanted a tax on fossil-fuel energy — a tax that was blocked by Republicans and always will be — while Bush governs over the worst air in the country and justifies it on the grounds of industrial growth. Gore knows the arguments against oil drilling; Bush looks at Alaska and sees barrels. Gore’s an environmentalist who makes political deals; Bush is half of an all-oil-company team. No difference?

• The Supreme Court? Bush’s favorite justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. He owes the Christian right bigger than big-time. The Bush court, one-third of whose membership he might get to appoint, might not repeal Roe vs. Wade, not quite, not yet, but would surely tilt mightily toward states’ rights and corporate power, against labor, against gun control, against affirmative action.

• The nitty-gritty government that shapes public life in a thousand ways outside public attention? The National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Civil Rights Commission and hundreds of other boards that make crucial decisions, most of them outside the glare of sound-bite-besotted media, affecting every aspect of everyday life. See above. Bush will owe the fundamentalists, the union-busters, the South Carolina Confederate flag-fliers.

• Labor? Gore owes the AFL-CIO for its early support; Bush doesn’t owe a thing — to the contrary. Gore’s party has pushed up the minimum wage (not nearly high enough), Bush’s couldn’t care less. Despite the NAFTA loss, labor has started to regain strength because the Labor Relations Board has been more hospitable to organizers. Now? The Republican Party — who might well end up controlling both houses of Congress as well as the White House — have negative interest in organized labor. They’ll rig what they can for the bosses. That’s what Republicans do.

• Poverty? Inequality? The Republicans practice class warfare from above. The Democrats are divided, but despite inconsistencies, President Clinton is responsible for an earned income tax credit, and finally, belatedly, the appalling inequality between rich and poor is shrinking, unemployment is low (and for African-Americans and Latinos, unprecedentedly so).

• Nuclear weapons? Bush is for abrogating the anti-ballistic-missile treaty. He loves Star Wars. His party crushed the nuclear test ban. Gore has been flabby, alas, on these issues, but he is budgeable. Bush lacks even Reagan’s nutty antinuclear utopianism.

I have not even mentioned the limited (but scarcely unimportant) issues the candidates talk about: the Social Security hoax Bush wants to perpetrate; the Bush tax cut that Puts Billionaires First; affirmative action, which Bush wants to end, not mend; campaign corruption (sorry, “finance”), the auctioning off of access and bias at which W. is so spectacular that he did not even need the Lincoln Bedroom — he could offer an entire government.[....]
A lot of that sounds eerily up-to-the-minute, even in details. But even where the details have changed, the general point is obvious (at least, to me). Bush II at least claimed to be a "compassionate conservative". This time around, the Republican presidential candidates competed all through the primaries to show who was most callous, hard-hearted, xenophobic, and plutocratic ... and although Romney was not the worst in those respects, and sometimes tried to hint that his outlook is really more decent and inclusive than his campaign rhetoric, he gave the game away with his selection of Paul Ryan as his running-mate and his recent remarks calling for class warfare against the (imaginary) 47% of Americans who are allegedly parasites with no moral character. (Did Romney fully believe that, or was he simply repeating standard right-wing talking-points to pander to his audience of arrogant but resentful plutocrats? In practical terms, it almost doesn't matter.)
In limited and belated recognition that there are real costs to a Green vote, some now propose “strategic voting” and urge people who live in states where Gore-Bush poll margins are great to cast their ballots for Nader believing that they will not thereby be spoiling Gore’s electoral vote. This is supposed to be a free vote, but there is no such thing as a free vote. That calculated vote is both morally problematic and politically short-sighted. Letting the polls make up your mind for you conditions a moral choice on the presupposition that polls are reliable (when in fact they are swinging all over the place), and amounts, moreover, to a sudden burst of pragmatism from people who ordinarily despise the pragmatism of Gore support.[....]

There’s worse. The so-called strategic vote, by lowering Gore’s popular vote, helps undermine his popular mandate if he does win, thus dashing the prospects for progressive hopes — as Clinton’s 43 percent victory in 1992 weakened his own popular base for egalitarian policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Like Bush, Nader supporters choose to forget that many of Clinton’s stronger initiatives — even his small, earnest “stimulus package” of 1993 — banged up against a Republican wall in Congress. Had Clinton been bolstered by an electoral majority — not to mention a better Congress, many of whose Democrats were barely that — he could have made better use of the bully pulpit. (He should have tried anyway.) [....]

Of course the parties are corrupt fundraising machines. Of course corporate lobbies run amok. Of course the Democrats need pressure. The question is, Whom do we want to put in a position to press? The choice of who will write the agenda, appoint the judges, negotiate (or tear up) the treaties, starting Jan. 20, 2001, is not between Al Gore and Jesus Christ, or, in fact, between Al Gore or Ralph Nader. In America, we’re not going to get a president better than Gore. We may well get a lot worse: a country-club airhead whose occasional rhetoric of compassion obscures the fact that his deepest, most abiding, most consistent compassion is for untrammeled business. We could slam a lot of doors. Consider the choice uninspiring, but there it is, and will not be wished away — not by fulminating against corporations, not by imagining a mass movement, not by assuming that one shirks responsibility for bad consequences because others have a monopoly on evil while we, we noble ones, we happy new, are pure, as George W. Bush would say, of heart.[....]
And, of course, in 2012 the Republican Party is even more extremist and more monolithically committed to a rule-or-ruin strategy than it was in 2000. Draw your own conclusions.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The 2012 presidential election and the problem of counterfactuals (continued)

My immediate impetus for writing this post was an intriguing passage in a recent National Journal piece by Ronald Brownstein with the attention-grabbing title "Heartland Monitor Poll: Obama Leads 50 Percent to 43 Percent".  But before I get to Brownstein's piece, to help explain why I found some parts of his analysis especially interesting, I'll have to provide a little background (and some of it will draw on things I've written before).  So please bear with me.

=> As I have noted in some previous postings (including this one), one of the more important factors shaping the outcome of this year's presidential  election is how voters deal with what analytical philosophers call the problem of "counterfactuals".  That is, in assessing situations, policies, and outcomes and making choices about them, we have to judge them not only in themselves but also, explicitly or implicitly, in comparison with what we think are the realistically available alternatives—including things that didn't happen (i.e., "counterfactual" outcomes) but that plausibly would or could have happened if some alternative course of action had been followed.

(If that sounds abstract, here's a concrete illustration from a non-political context:  Let's say a doctor tells you that, unless you have a painful and costly operation, there is a good chance you will lose a limb, or die, or experience some other unpleasant outcome.  Supposing you have the operation, and you don't die, but in the process you do spend a lot of money, experience a lot of pain, and take a while to recover.  If you want to decide whether or not the operation was worth it, it would be silly to focus exclusively on the empirically observable facts like the expense incurred and the pain of the operation.  Any sensible judgment also has to take into account the likely, but now counterfactual, outcome if you hadn't undergone the operation.  And it would also be silly to dismiss that factor by saying that we don't really know what the outcome would have been, minus the operation, since it didn't happen.  In the real world, a lot depends on whether or not you trust the doctor's diagnosis—which, in turn, depends on how much you trust the medical science the doctor is drawing on and his judgment in applying it to your case.  Can you ever be 100% sure which counterfactual is most accurate and appropriate, or which doctor you should place the most trust in?  Alas, no.  Does that mean you can or should simply ignore potential or retrospective counterfactuals in making decisions or assessing their consequences?  Only if you're determined to act stupidly and/or thoughtlessly.)

Getting back to this year's presidential election, it is generally acknowledged that Obama's chances for getting re-elected have been hurt by the fact that the economic situation is lousy, unemployment remains painfully and unacceptably high, the pace of recovery from the big crash of 2008 has been slow, etc.  So it's natural that a lot of Americans are disgruntled.  But how their unhappiness gets translated into voting depends, at least in part, on how they answer two interrelated questions.  First, who do they think deserves most of the blame for the situation?  And second, whether or not they are entirely happy with how well Obama and his administration have dealt with the country's economic problems, do they think that another (realistically available) president, pursuing different policies, would have produced better results so far and would produce better results in the future?

=>  The significance of that second question (or set of questions) has been highlighted especially sharply by public reaction to the 2009 economic "stimulus" (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). Ever since it was passed, against almost monolithic Republican opposition, Republican politicians and the right-wing propaganda machine have been relentlessly pushing the line that the Obama "stimulus" failed, produced no useful results, didn't save or generate any jobs, was just a waste of money, etc.  And public opinion surveys, as well as a lot of other evidence, indicate that a great many people believe them.

That conclusion may seem plausible, given that unemployment has remained stubbornly high, the economic recovery  has been disappointingly slow (due in no small degree to Republican sabotage and obstructionism, but that's a separate issue), and so on. But that conclusion, or impression, happens to be wrong, no matter how many people believe it.

Yes, it does seem clear in retrospect that the 2009 "stimulus" was  too small—especially since the economic crash of 2007-2009 turns out to have been more severe than most analysts recognized at the time—and in various ways it could have been better designed. And yes, the economic situation is still lousy for most people.  But the real question has to be posed a little differently:  What would have been the likely consequences if (counterfactually) no serious stimulus had been passed at all, and passed quickly? The answer, almost certainly, is that the results would have been disastrous.The self-reinforcing downward spiral of the economy would almost certainly have gone into free fall, official unemployment might well be closer to 15% than 9%, and instead of our current Great Recession we would probably have something more like another Great Depression. Instead, within a few months of the passage of the ARRA the economy stabilized and then gradually began to recover.

In this connection we can quote Mark Zandi, who is not a left-liberal neo-Keynesian but a quintessential mainstream economist who was an economic adviser for John McCain in 2008.
[W]e would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great recession ended [i.e., the economy stopped contracting] at precisely the same time that the stimulus, and in this case when I say stimulus I am talking about the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] … was providing its maximum economic benefit.
 This graph captures one key aspect story. It shows the month-by-month record of net job gains and losses in the private sector from January 2008 through November 2011. Notice any difference between the first three months of 2009 (the first three blue lines) and the period since then?



In short, the 2009 economic "stimulus" worked—probably not as well as it could have, but definitely a lot better than the alternative option of not passing it at all, which is the appropriate criterion. In my (possibly fallible) opinion, the only people who try to pretend otherwise are either economic illiterates, or sincere but misguided economic cranks theologically committed to pre-Keynesian economic dogmas (who get showcased or channeled by propaganda outlets like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal), or cynical partisan propagandists who don't really care about the facts one way or another.  (For some further elaboration, see here.) 

=> On the other hand, the Democrats, including Obama, have been remarkably ineffective in telling their side of this story.  And even when they have tried to make their case, a large proportion of the public hasn't found it plausible or convincing.

In some remarks that Barney Frank made at a Congressional hearing in July 2009 (reported by the Washington Post), he tried to capture some of the reasons why making this sort of case is difficult:
REP BARNEY FRANK: Not for the first time, as a -- a -- an elected official, I envy economists. Economists have available to them, in an analytical approach, the counterfactual. Economists can explain that a given decision was the best one that could be made, because they can show what would have happened in the counterfactual situation. They can contrast what happened to what would have happened.

No one has ever gotten reelected where the bumper sticker said, "It would have been worse without me." You probably can get tenure with that. But you can't win office. [....]
=>  Maybe, maybe not. There's clearly a lot of wisdom in Barney Frank's remarks. But some intriguing results from a few recent surveys may suggest that his formulation might have been a bit too pessimistic. (All those qualifiers are deliberate.)

Consider, for example, that recent piece by Ronald Brownstein in the National Journal with a title that Republicans should find a bit ominous: "Heartland Monitor Poll: Obama Leads 50 Percent to 43 Percent". (Brownstein is analyzing results from "the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll"; but, as he notes, these results "are in line with most other national surveys in recent days showing Obama establishing a measurable lead, including this week’s new Pew Research Center and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls." The whole piece is worth reading, but one passage has an especially direct bearing on the question of how voters are approaching the analysis of counterfactuals:
The survey also shows why it may be difficult for Republicans to center the election on the famous Ronald Reagan question to voters that the party highlighted at its national convention last month: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

That question divides likely voters almost exactly in thirds: in the poll, 31 percent say they are better off than four years ago, while 34 percent say they are worse off and 34 percent say they are about the same. Romney, predictably, wins more than four-fifths of voters who say they are worse off; the president, equally unsurprisingly, attracts almost nine in 10 of those who consider themselves better off.
Let me just interject that these dramatically high correlations are not as obviously predictable or self-explanatory as Brownstein seems to imply. For example, since the early months of Obama's presidency the stock market has rebounded dramatically, corporate profits are rising, and a lot of Wall Street financiers and corporate executives have been making out like bandits (I mean that mostly in a figurative sense, though not entirely). Yet all the available evidence suggests that many of them have turned sharply against Obama.

Actually, I suspect that in many cases the answers to those survey questions were influenced, at least partly, by a reverse logic. That is, if respondents favored Obama, they would be more likely to say they were better off, and vice-versa for people who would like to see Obama defeated. (I wouldn't describe all the people in the second category as Romney supporters, since it's unclear how many people positively favor Romney, as opposed to disliking Obama so much they are willing to vote for any Republican candidate who might defeat him.)  This is all speculative, of course, and it underlines the fact that one always has to approach survey results with caution. But be that as it may ...

... here are the most intriguing results.
Crucially, though, Obama holds a commanding 57 percent to 34 percent advantage among those who say their finances are unchanged. One reason for that critical tilt in his direction: Voters who say their finances are unchanged also say, by a resounding 53 percent to 33 percent margin, that they believe the country has been better off over these past four years because Obama, rather than another candidate, won in 2008.

Overall, 48 percent say they believe the country is better off because Obama won in 2008, while 41 percent say the nation would be in a stronger position today if another candidate had won.

In a related finding, 47 percent of likely voters said they believed Obama’s economic policies helped “avoid an even worse economic crisis and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery.” By contrast, 45 percent said that his agenda has “run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement and well within the survey’s margin of error — but it represents only the second time since the Heartland Monitor began asking that question in September 2009 that a plurality has attributed positive effects to Obama’s agenda.
Along with most serious economists, I happen to believe that the conclusion eventually reached by 47% of these respondents—i.e., that Obama's economic policies helped "avoid an even worse economic crisis"—is almost certainly correct. So this result might be interpreted, optimistically, as evidence that you can't fool all the people all of the time. (Only 45% of them.)

At all events, it would appear that at least part of the electorate can be convinced, as least part of the time, by the argument that "It would have been worse without me." (Of course, voters may be more receptive to that argument when a sizable chunk of the electorate has concluded that the actually available alternatives are definitely unacceptable.)  If so, that's good,  because this kind of argument often should be taken seriously in politics ... up to a point.

=> That's one interesting piece of the puzzle, but of course the final outcome remains to be seen. At the moment, the odds that Romney & Ryan will win the election do seem to be dropping like a stone. As Brownstein sums up the latest evidence:
Taken together, all of these small movements toward Obama have produced, at least for now, a tangible advantage for the president over Romney as the race hurtles toward its final weeks.
However, even if we overlook the uncertainties involved in interpreting polling data, there's still more than a month left before the election, and all sorts of things can happen, in the US and abroad, that could alter the situation in unpredictable ways. Also, a huge amount of money will get spent between now and November 6, and in some states the outcome may turn on the success of Republican efforts to discourage, intimidate, or simply disenfranchise potential Democratic voters—a factor which is, again, unpredictable. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hojatoleslam Ali Beheshti insults one woman too many

And he seems to have pushed this one past her breaking point. According to Beheshti's account, he encountered a woman with a "bad hijab" and told her to "cover herself up." She responded that he could just close his eyes. When he wouldn't stop bothering her, she knocked him down, beat him up, and put him in the hospital.

As Mark Kleiman noted, this story sounds "almost too good to be true" ... but it appears to be authentic, and it's not inherently implausible. (According to the state-run Mehr news agency in Iran, which issued the original report of this incident, other flare-ups of this sort are not unknown, though they rarely happen outside the big cities.)

Everything I've read about Iranian society and history suggests that ambivalent or even anti-clerical feelings about mullahs have long had a place in everyday Iranian culture, even among pious religious believers. (There are well-known parallels in the history of a lot of Catholic societies.) And the experience of more than three decades of a theocratic political regime has only intensified the exasperation of many Iranians with this sort of bullying, restriction, and harassment. (On the other hand, without having any knowledge at all about how this particular woman was actually dressed, I suspect it's a safe bet that other Iranians would have agreed with Beheshti that she was dressed indecently and deserved to be reprimanded.).

But is violence the answer? Well, not always or in every context. But with respect to this case (at least in the way it's been reported) I sympathise completely with Mark's reaction: "Whenever I see a poster that says 'Violence is not the answer', I always wonder 'What was the question?'"

— Jeff Weintraub

P.S. It should go without saying, but to avoid distractions and pseudo-controversies, let's recognize it explicitly:  The intolerant and oppressive harassment of women based on dress codes that claim religious inspiration and/or sanction is not restricted to Iran, or to Muslims more generally.  (I can't help being reminded of an especially disgraceful incident involving ultra-orthodox bigots in Israel in 2011—though we know about that particular incident, which was hardly unique, precisely because it caused a scandal and generated widespread condemnation.)  And the unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of countries in the world where women have it worse than in Iran, often in ways that go well beyond dress codes.  One of the things that's most interesting about Iran, actually, is that many Iranian women no longer seem to be willing to put up with it.

==============================
Bloomberg.com
September 19, 2012
Iran Cleric Pummeled by 'Badly Covered' Woman After Warning
By Ladane Nasseri (in Dubai)

An Iranian cleric said he was beaten by a woman in the northern province of Semnan after giving her a warning for being “badly covered,” the state-run Mehr news agency reported.

Hojatoleslam Ali Beheshti said he encountered the woman in the street while on his way to the mosque in the town of Shahmirzad, and asked her to cover herself up, to which she replied “you, cover your eyes,” according to Mehr. The cleric repeated his warning, which he said prompted her to insult and push him.

“I fell on my back on the floor,” Beheshti said in the report. “I don’t know what happened after that, all I could feel was the kicks of this woman who was insulting me and attacking me.”

Since the 1979 revolution that brought Shiite Muslim religious leaders to power, women in Iran have been required to cover their hair and body curves in public with head-scarves and loose-fitting coats, to protect religious values and “preserve society’s morals and security.”

The government condemns short, tight and colorful coats and loosely tied head-scarves, and routinely organizes police patrols to enforce the Islamic dress code. Public surveillance increases in summer when some women opt for flimsier clothing.

Beheshti said he was hospitalized for three days. The Iranian cleric said it was his religious duty to apply the principle of “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” and that he would continue to do so even after living through what he called “the worst day of my life.”

It isn’t the first time that clerics in Iran have been beaten up after delivering warnings, Mehr said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Dubai at lnasseri@bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hypocrisy and manipulated outrage in and about the Middle East – A quick overview by John Stewart

Here are two clips from the Daily Show episode on September 17, which had the overall theme of "Actual Democalypse 2012".  Both are on-target.

No, neither sketch delivers the full story about the phenomenon it's satirizing, but in both cases they cut through a lot of distracting bullshit in useful and illuminating ways.  And taking them in combination could help provoke some useful reflection, too ... along lines suggested in these remarks by Stewart, which I think use mock consternation and apparently superficial witticisms to convey some sly wisdom:
Let me get this straight. All of this destruction and bloodshed was over this dumb Internet video made by some asshole, and promoted by the Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones? [....]  It’s almost as if certain leaders in that part of the world are deliberately exploiting whatever they can get their hands on to rile up the populace for their own political gain.... Hey, wait a minute! They really are getting the hang on this democracy thing.
—Jeff Weintraub





Wednesday, September 05, 2012

"Hard truths" & shared sacrifice from Chris Christie

Another interesting highlight of the recent Republican convention in Tampa was Chris Christie's keynote address.

A number of commentators have already pointed out that the speech focused a lot more on Chris Christie himself, and his achievements (real and alleged) as Governor of New Jersey, than on the Republican Party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. And some of the things that Christie did say about Romney might almost be taken as subtly sarcastic, if one had a suspicious disposition. For example:
Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on the path to growth [....] Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt [....] Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear [....]
As Josh Barro noted, wickedly but acutely, "Christie’s use of the future tense" may be significant here. "Christie promises Romney 'will tell us the hard truths'. It would be hard to contend that he has done so in the past." But be that as it may ...

 => The twin themes of Christie's speech were the need for "hard truths" and for shared sacrifice. In that light, one passage in the speech was especially startling—to me and, as I later discovered, to some other people who heard it as well:
Tonight, our duty is to tell the American people the truth. Our problems are big and the solutions will not be painless. We all must share in the sacrifice. Any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth.
"We must all share in the sacrifice"? Whose convention did Christie think he was speaking at? In the real world, one of the central defining principles of today's Republican Party is the absolute, non-negotiable refusal to ask for ANY sacrifice from the wealthiest Americans. Not only is it out of the question even to consider returning the top federal tax rates to the levels that prevailed during the Clinton administration (a period of dramatic economic decline, technological stagnation, high unemployment, and exploding deficits, remember?). In addition, they propose to lavish even more tax cuts on the rich. At the same time, they claim to be desperately concerned about reducing the long-term federal deficit (which, by the way, is largely a Republican creation, to which decades of Republican tax cuts have contributed significantly). When anyone points out that there is a bit of a contradiction there, or at least a tension, they respond with "supply side" fairy tales about how reducing taxes on the wealthy (aka the "job creators") will automatically boost economic growth so much that these tax cuts will magically pay for themselves. (In other words, there is such a thing as a free lunch—at least, for the top 1%.)

It seems unlikely that Christie intended his speech to be be understood as a devastating indictment of the Republican Party and its nominee. And I would hate to think that Christie was being dishonest or deliberately misleading. (What would his mother have said?) So the most generous way to make sense of these statements is to assume that Christie knew he was describing an imaginary Republican Party that exists only in his dreams.

=> Concerning the real Republican Party (the one whose presidential nominee did not mention the word "sacrifice" even once in his acceptance speech), here are some "hard truths" that David Leonhardt offered back in September 2010:
[W]hen politicians tell you that they are opposed to tax increases, Medicare cuts, Social Security cuts and military cuts, they’re really saying that they are in favor of crippling deficits.
To quote the current Governor of New Jersey, "any leader that tells us differently is simply not telling the truth." No doubt Chris Christie's Sicilian mother would have agreed.

—Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Brad DeLong – "Hopeless Unemployment" in the 1930s & today

As Jonathan Chait and others have have correctly insisted, one of the most important questions to ask about current American politics and political economy is why Washington accepts mass unemployment—or, at the very least, has conspicuously failed to treat persistent high unemployment as an urgent and compelling priority.  Here's how Chait put in on August 3:
In the years since the collapse of 2008, the existence of mass unemployment has stopped being something the economic powers that be even pretend to regard as a crisis. To those directly impacted, the economic crisis is an emergency, a life-altering disaster the damage from which will endure for years. But most of those in a position to address it simply have not seen it in such terms. History will record that the economic elite has viewed the economic crisis from a perspective of detached complacency.

Two events from the last week have underscored this disturbing reality. The most widely covered was the Federal Reserve’s announcement that, despite a weakening economy, it still would not take steps to stimulate growth. The Fed may not like mass unemployment, but it dislikes inflation even more, and in its calculus, the hypothetical prospect of the latter outweighs the immediate reality of the former. [....]

There are signs we’ve hit bottom [paraphrasing a line from a Washington Post editorial]. Nothing to worry about here. Why risk the possibility of a small outlay merely to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of desperate people? This is such a perfect statement of the way the American elite has approached the economic crisis. They concede that it is a problem. But there are other problems, you know.

It’s important to respond to arguments on intellectual terms and not merely to analyze their motives. Yet it is impossible to understand these positions without putting them in socioeconomic context. Here are a few salient facts: The political scientist Larry Bartels has found (and measured) that members of Congress respond much more strongly to the preferences of their affluent constituents than their poor ones. And for affluent people, there is essentially no recession. Unemployment for workers with a bachelors degree is 4 percent — boom times. Unemployment is also unusually low in the Washington, D.C., area, owing to our economy’s reliance on federal spending, which has not had to impose the punishing austerity of so many state and local governments.

I live in a Washington neighborhood almost entirely filled with college-educated professionals, and it occurred to me not long ago that, when my children grow up, they’ll have no personal memory of having lived through the greatest economic crisis in eighty years. It is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.
When Chait speaks of "the economic elite" in the first paragraph above, the formulation is a bit misleading, since what he has primarily in mind are the political elites and public institutions responsible for economic policy (though, of course, their priorities are influenced by the fact that the "economic elite" in a more precise sense has also been largely unconcerned about the unemployed).  And it is certainly true that they have treated the problem of mass unemployment with a remarkable degree of complacency.  This assessment would have to include not only the Federal Reserve but the dominant tendencies in the US Congress and in both major political parties, as well as the main body of conventional wisdom in the punditry and the commentariat.  Instead, most discussion has tended to focus obsessively on controlling the federal deficit, which is a real but long-term problem, while downplaying or simply ignoring the more urgent short-term problems of stimulating recovery from the Great Recession and reducing persistently high levels of unemployment.

A similar charge can be leveled, with slightly more qualifications, against the Obama White House.  In 2009 the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats did take actions that successfully prevented the Great Recession from plunging over the edge into another Great Depression, and in the process prevented unemployment from spiking even higher than it has.  But in 2010 the Obama administration also let itself get distracted into a premature focus on the deficit, and in 2010 & 2011 deficit-related polemics tended to drown out everything else in Washington. In a September 2011 address to a joint session of Congress, Obama did propose a serious, though insufficiently ambitious, set of measures to promote economic recovery and reduce unemployment (the American Jobs Act).  But his plan faced predictable and monolithic Republican opposition and went nowhere; and now everyone (not only Republican presidential candidates) seems to be trying to pretend that he never offered a jobs plan at all.

Of course, in their campaign rhetoric Republicans do bemoan the continuing high levels of unemployment as part of their indictment of the Obama administration, and at the just-completed Republican convention the human costs of unemployment figured in a number of speeches.  But these crocodile tears about unemployment have to rank as some of the most blatantly hypocritical features of a generally hypocritical and dishonest propaganda exercise.  In practice, since the beginning of 2009 the Republicans have consistently blocked measures that would have promoted economic recovery and reduced unemployment, and in fact have actively pushed contractionary fiscal and monetary policies, while doing everything they could to grandstand about the federal deficit (and imaginary threats of inflation) and to shift attention away from the more urgent problem of unemployment.  And they've been remarkably successful in helping to move the focus of political conversation in that direction.  But the Democrats and the commentariat share some of the blame.

=>  For several years now, Brad DeLong has been one of the people trying to figure out the explanation for this astounding degree of complacency and inaction in the face of persistently high levels of long-term unemployment (for a quick sketch of some possible contributing factors, see here).  But however one explains these distorted priorities, and the intellectual and political failures underlying them, the crucial point is that the failure to seriously address the problem of unemployment has been and remains dramatically unwise, harmful, and reprehensible.

Not long ago DeLong explained some of the reasons why in a compact but illuminating piece (below) comparing the phenomenon of "hopeless unemployment" in the Great Depression of the 1930s and today's Great Recession.  I would say there are four key lessons to take away from this piece.  First, long-term mass unemployment has dramatic human, social, and economic costs, so that trying to reduce it should be treated as an urgent priority.  Second, if we take seriously the lessons learned since the 1930s, it should be clear that there are tools available for a country like the US to address the problem of mass unemployment effectively, if the political will is there.  Third, to a remarkable extent, many of those hard-won lessons seem to have been forgotten (for some elaboration, see here), and the political will to address the problem is not there.  Fourth, if that situation doesn't change soon, then this failure will have long-term consequences that we will all come to regret.

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Project Syndicate
July 31, 2012
Hopeless Unemployment
by J. Bradford DeLong

BERKELEY – However bad you think the global economy is today in terms of the business cycle, that is only one lens through which to view the world. In terms of global life expectancy, total world wealth, the overall level of technology, growth prospects in emerging economies, and global income distribution, things look rather good, while on still other dimensions – say, global warming or domestic income inequality and its effects on countries’ social solidarity – they look bad.

Even on the business-cycle dimension, conditions have been far worse in the past than they are today. Consider the Great Depression and the implications of market economies’ inability back then to recover on their own, owing to the burden of long-term unemployment.

But, while we are not at that point today, the Great Depression is no less relevant for us, because it is increasingly likely that long-term unemployment will become a similar impediment to recovery within the next two years.

At its nadir in the winter of 1933, the Great Depression was a form of collective insanity. Workers were idle because firms would not hire them; firms would not hire them because they saw no market for their output; and there was no market for output because workers had no incomes to spend.

By that point, a great deal of unemployment had become long-term unemployment, which had two consequences. First, the burden of economic dislocation was borne unequally. Because consumer prices fell faster than wages, the welfare of those who remained employed rose in the Great Depression. Overwhelmingly, those who became and remained unemployed suffered the most.

Second, reintegrating the unemployed even into a smoothly functioning market economy would prove to be very difficult. After all, how many employers would not prefer a fresh entrant into the labor force to someone who has been out of work for years? The simple fact that an economy had recently undergone a period of mass unemployment made it difficult to recover levels of growth and employment that are often attained as a matter of course.

Devalued exchange rates, moderate government budget deficits, and the passage of time all appeared to be equally ineffective remedies. Highly centralized and unionized labor markets, like Australia’s, did as poorly as decentralized and laissez-faire labor markets, like that of the United States, in dealing with long-term unemployment. Fascist solutions were equally unsuccessful, as in Italy, unless accompanied by rapid rearmament, as in Germany.

In the end, in the US, it was the approach of World War II and the associated demand for military goods that led private-sector employers to hire the long-term unemployed at wages they would accept. But, even today, economists can provide no clear explanation of why the private sector could not find ways to employ the long-term unemployed in the near-decade from the winter of 1933 to full war mobilization. The extent of persistent unemployment, despite different labor-market structures and national institutions, suggests that theories that pinpoint one key failure should be taken with a grain of salt.

At first, the long-term unemployed in the Great Depression searched eagerly and diligently for alternative sources of work. But, after six months or so passed without successful reemployment, they tended to become discouraged and distraught. After 12 months of continuous unemployment, the typical unemployed worker still searched for a job, but in a desultory fashion, without much hope. And, after two years of unemployment, the worker, accurately expecting to be at the end of every hiring queue, had lost hope and, for all practical purposes, left the labor market.

This was the pattern of the long-term unemployed in the Great Depression. It was also the pattern of the long-term unemployed in Western Europe at the end of the 1980s. And, in a year or two, it will be the pattern again for the long-term unemployed in the North Atlantic region.

I have been arguing for four years that our business-cycle problems call for more aggressively expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, and that our biggest problems would quickly melt away were such policies to be adopted. That is still true. But, over the next two years, barring a sudden and unexpected interruption of current trends, it will become less true.

The current balance of probabilities is that two years from now, the North Atlantic’s principal labor-market failures will not be demand-side market failures that could be easily remedied by more aggressive policies to boost economic activity and employment. Rather, they will be structural market failures of participation that are not amenable to any straightforward and easily implemented cure.

Monday, September 03, 2012

What do Republicans want?

During an e-mail exchange a few months ago, someone I know who doesn't consider himself either a partisan Democrat or a partisan Republican, but instead a centrist moderate and a supporter American traditions of constitutional government, raised the following question in genuine perplexity:
Much of the Republican rhetoric seems quite populist and unappealing to me. I wonder what they really want, and I see no way of finding out--except waiting for the campaign to proceed. The political aims seem to swallow the policy agenda. [....]
Well, there are long answers and short answers to that question.  For a cogent and illuminating short answer, it is hard to improve on this pithy formulation by Mark Kleiman (quoted here by Jonathan Zasloff, a fellow-blogger at "The Reality-Based Community"):
As Mark has noted, the current GOP is a coalition between those who want to repeal the New Deal and those who want to repeal the Enlightenment.  Both impulses seek to send this country back a long, long way.
Of course, that doesn't apply, or apply in full, to every individual Republican ( I happen to know a few Republicans myself who wouldn't fit this description); and one could even name some Republican political figures to whom it applies only with qualifications. American political parties are sprawling, complicated entities with lots of different tendencies and internal tensions.

However, Kleiman's formulation does cut to the heart of the matter, since it nicely captures the central driving agendas which, in combination, now overwhelmingly dominate the national Republican coalition. Other tendencies do exist in the Republican Party, and I wish them well, but at present they're marginalized or inconsequential (or cosmetic).

We have to hope that this situation, which represents the culmination of three decades of fairly steady right-wing radicalization in one of our two major parties, proves to be a transitory condition.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. For some elaboration, see here & here & here.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Revisiting "The untold story of the actual Obama record" (Andrew Sullivan, Mark Zandi, and some relevant facts)

(With some analytically pertinent remarks by Barney Frank about the problem of counterfactuals.)

[Note: I posted this back in October 2011, but now that the Republican convention has just finished and the the Democratic convention is imminent, this may be a good time to reiterate what Chris Christie might call a few "hard truths."  And as a quick antidote to some of the economic claptrap we've been hearing from the Republicans, check out the graph below.]

Andrew Sullivan and one of his readers (quoted below) get it basically right. One could quibble about some points, and overall my assessment of the Obama administration's record is more mixed than theirs—mostly because I think that in some critical ways Obama and his administration really have been too timid, too willing to cave in to the Republicans, and at times too close to Republican thinking themselves. But Sullivan and his reader accurately sum up a very important part of the overall picture ... which, as they correctly point out, is strangely missing from a lot of public discourse nowadays. And the right-wing counter-narrative about Obama's record is, of course, ludicrous.

=> For example, it's clear that the 2009 economic "stimulus" (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) was too small—especially since the economic crash of 2007-2009 turns out to have been more severe than most analysts recognized at the time—and in various ways it could have been better designed. But if no serious stimulus had been passed at all, and passed quickly, the results would have been disastrous. The self-reinforcing downward spiral of the economy would almost certainly have gone into free fall, official unemployment might well be closer to 15% than 9%, and instead of our current Great Recession we would probably have something more like another Great Depression. Instead, within a few months of the passage of the ARRA the economy stabilized and then gradually began to recover. Let's just quote Mark Zandi, who is not a left-liberal neo-Keynesian but a quintessential mainstream economist who was an economic adviser for John McCain in 2008.

[W]e would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the great recession ended [i.e., the economy stopped contracting] at precisely the same time that the stimulus, and in this case when I say stimulus I am talking about the [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] … was providing its maximum economic benefit.
Here's a handy graphic illustration that captures one dimension of this story. It shows the month-by-month record of net job gains and losses in the private sector from January 2008 through November 2011. Notice any difference between the first three months of 2009 (the first three blue lines) and the period since then?



In short, the 2009 economic "stimulus" worked—probably not as well as it could have, but definitely a lot better than the alternative option of not passing it at all. The only people who try to pretend otherwise are economic illiterates, a few sincere but misguided economic cranks theologically committed to pre-Keynesian economic dogmas, and/or cynical partisan propagandists who don't really care about the facts one way or another. On the other hand, the Democrats, including Obama, have been remarkably ineffective in telling their side of this story. They need to do a lot better.

It should not be forgotten that the ARRA, which played a crucial and indispensable role in saving the economy from disaster, was passed against monolithic, almost unanimous opposition by the Congressional Republicans. It did not receive a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives, and the Republicans proposed no serious alternative (obviously, the adjective "serious" is key here, since they did come up with various inadequate and mostly irrelevant flimflam proposals). Then the only way to get the ARRA through the Senate, in the face of a Republican filibuster, was for the Democrats to obtain the cooperation of what were then the last three "moderate" Republican Senators, the two Senators from Maine and now-former-Senator Arlen Spector. And in order to do that, they had to agree to a series of extremely unwise modifications that rendered the ARRA even less effective than its House version (which was already too watered-down). Except for those three, the other Senate Republicans voted monolithically against the ARRA. If it had been up to the Republicans, the economy would almost certainly have gone over the edge in 2009.

=> So while Obama's record so far is definitely subject to a lot of valid criticisms, in my opinion, it's also true that critics need to keep a sense of perspective. Policies and outcomes always have to be judged, not only in light of the ideal or the most desirable, but also in light of the range of realistically available alternatives (which, admittedly, are usually not easy to specify precisely).

The deepest and most illuminating analyses of the resulting dilemmas, for both political judgment and historical explanation, are probably those of Max Weber. But in 2009 the well-known social philosopher Barney Frank offered an interesting reflection of his own on this larger analytical point. What follows is a quotation that I have been saving for a paper I plan to write (eventually) on the subject of what analytical philosophers call "counterfactuals". But why wait?

From a Congressional hearing reported by the Washington Post (7/21/2009):

REP BARNEY FRANK: Not for the first time, as a -- a -- an elected official, I envy economists. Economists have available to them, in an analytical approach, the counterfactual. Economists can explain that a given decision was the best one that could be made, because they can show what would have happened in the counterfactual situation. They can contrast what happened to what would have happened.

No one has ever gotten reelected where the bumper sticker said, "It would have been worse without me." You probably can get tenure with that. But you can't win office. [....]
Probably true. But it's the kind of argument that often should be taken seriously in politics ... up to a point.

—Jeff Weintraub
==============================
Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish)
October 20, 2011
The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record

[....]

I can't put it better than this longtime Dish reader:
Personally, I am praying that Obama's messaging improves drastically. (It has failed on multiple occasions - not the least of which was during August/September of 2008.)

The truth is that this President has done a good job in what has been one of the most difficult periods of modern history. He saved the economy from ruin (until the Tea Party took over Congress) with a stimulus that was as large as possible given the political realities, presided over a stock market that fairly quickly recouped many of its losses, presided over almost consecutive monthly increases in private sector job growth (unfortunately balanced by monthly decreases in public sector jobs which I attribute to the GOP further starving government), enacted the only meaningful healthcare reform ever in our history [JW: obviously a bit of an overstatement, probably written carelessly and in haste], passed financial reform (no matter what the Left says, he did this), saved the auto industry (which Romney is on record opposing), fired the first salvo of the Arab Spring with his address in Cairo no less, drawn down our footprint in Iraq in a responsible way (and headed toward almost total withdrawal), stopped numerous terrorist attacks in this country, stopped torture as policy, repealed DADT, joined the international community in a measured and responsible way to bring down an odious tyrant in Qaddafi, and killed a whole generation of al Qaeda leaders. And taking out Osama bin Laden the way he did will go down as one of the bravest military actions in American history.

I know this President is not popular, and it is very unpopular to defend him in such a way. I don't care. For this country to dump him for anyone on the other side would be a terrible thing. Progress is slow and painful, but we are doing it. Is that fashionable to say? No. Again, I don't care.
Amen. And the way in which the ADD media simply jumps to the next cycle of spinmanship only furthers the amnesia. But the Obama administration also shares some of the blame.

Many of them have been too focused on governing to explain what the fuck they're doing. There's a technocratic arrogance to them at times that is too blind to winning and sustaining arguments and narratives. And this is kinda mind-blowing because the record is so remarkable in retrospect.

If you'd told me in January 2009 that the banks would pay us back the entire bailout and then some, that the auto companies would actually turn around with government help and be a major engine of recovery, that there would be continuous job growth since 2009, however insufficient, after the worst demand collapse since the 1930s, that bin Laden would be dead, Egypt transitioning to democracy, al Qaeda all but decimated as a global threat, and civil rights for gays expanding more rapidly than at any time in history ... well I would be expecting a triumphant re-election campaign.

But we are where we are - and the economic pain is real and the president must take his lumps. The good news for those of us who still back Obama and hope for his re-election is that even with all this positive record essentially dismissed and little of it capitalized on politically, Obama is still neck and neck with any likely opponent. And he is his own best messager.

At some point, he needs to shuck off the restraint, and tell the actual story of the last three years - against the fantastic and self-serving lies and delusions we keep hearing in Republican debates and Beltway chatter. If he does it with panache, he won't need a jumpsuit onto an aircraft carrier. And many of his missions may even be accomplished.

Campaign 2012 – Adjust Expectations

(From the latest Economist.) The rallying cry for 2012 may not be catchy or easy to chant, but it actually makes good sense.  However, it should read:  "We did as well as could be expected considering the historically precarious economic circumstances, unprecedented and unrelenting Republican obstructionism, and the pathologically dysfunctional condition of our political system!!"   —Jeff Weintraub


Saturday, September 01, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson bids "Goodbye, Middle East"

A friend drew my attention to a column by Victor Davis Hanson in today's New York Post titled "Goodbye, Middle East: America doesn't need the grief".  Its argument is that "The United States is backing off from the Middle East — and the Middle East from the United States."  And although Hanson doesn't quite come out and say so explicitly or unequivocally, the dominant tone of the piece—not to mention the subhead that was presumably written by the Post editors—strongly implies that US disengagement from the Middle East would probably be a good thing.

Victor Davis Hanson certainly can't be regarded as a serious analyst of the Middle East or of US international relations. And although his work as a classical historian deserves respect, his ventures into popular right-wing punditry over the past decad or so have often tended to range from superficial and unconvincing to offensive, pernicious, and even unhinged. Some of the points underlying his argument in this column, including the suggestion that North American self-sufficiency in energy supplies will soon allow the US to ignore Middle East oil and its geopolitical implications, strike me as implausible. And I'm not sure whether the central argument will turn out to be correct.

Nevertheless, I think this column deserves a few moments of attention, if only for its symptomatic interest. It captures a widespread mood of irritation, frustration, exasperation, and disillusionment with the whole region that really does run through a good deal of US public opinion right now, including many former supporters of the Bush II administration, the 2003 Iraq war, and the so-called Bush Doctrine of promoting democracy in the Middle East. A lot of these people, waking up with a hangover, now have the feeling that the region and its people are simply hopeless, so to hell with them.

(Some of these themes come through, for example, in the increasingly common calls by Republican figures like Newt Gingrich for accelerated US withdrawal from Afghanistan—the basic message is that place is hopeless, the people are just tribal savages anyway, and in fact we should "reassess the whole region". So it may not be accidental that the word "Afghanistan" almost never came up at the just-completed Republican convention, except when Clint Eastwood blamed the invisible Obama for American intervention there. Of course, many alleged "progressives" and so-called "realists" say pretty much the same things, in slightly different ways.)

So when someone like Hanson makes points like the following, and they appear in a Murdoch newspaper, it might be sensible to take them as straws in the wind:
Let’s get this all straight. America has been damned for its Machiavellian shenanigans in supporting authoritarian governments; for its naive idealism in using force to implant democracies; for its ambivalence in not using force to protect democratic protestors; and for its recent isolationism in ignoring ongoing Arab violence. [JW: That sums it up pretty nicely.] Why, then, bother?

The subtext of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is that the region, if given a chance, will embrace its own brand of freedom But that doesn’t appear to be happening in Egypt. And democracy doesn’t seem to be the common glue that holds together various Syrians fighting to overthrow the odious Assad dictatorship. [....]

Staggering US debt also explains the impending divorce. [....] Perhaps soon the problem will be that we simply will not have enough power to use it for much of anything — and would have to ask the UN for permission if we did.

Usually nothing good comes from American isolationism, especially given our key support for a vulnerable democratic Israel. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, our Humpty-Dumpty policy of Middle East engagement is now shattered. [....]
I see this as one more sign that there is very little appetite in American public opinion, including its Republican precincts, for any new adventures anywhere in the Muslim world. Low-cost and largely indirect operations like the one in Libya may be tolerated, but even that one wasn't very popular. Any serious intervention requiring sustained commitment and the possibility of significant costs in money and casualties would be extremely unpopular. Politicians aren't likely to ignore that.

The rather unusual period of US foreign policy after World War II often misleads people into forgetting that the dominant underlying thrust of public opinion in the US—and that emphatically includes most sectors of right-wing public opinion—has always been, and remains, more or less isolationist. For many if not most Americans, part of the very meaning of America is that America is the world. Ideally, to adapt a wonderfully illuminating phrase from the historian J.G.A. Pocock, America is and ought to be a "closed geopolitical utopia". The rest of the world is there mostly to visit on occasion and to watch very intermittently on TV—unless specific actors out there are threatening to bomb us or, more rarely, when ties of ethnic or family solidarity provoke feelings of sympathy for specific groups or countries elsewhere.

It usually takes very special circumstances, like the perceived Soviet threat during the Cold War or the mood of panic and outrage following the 9/11 attacks on the US, to shake the American public out of its default isolationism and to induce it to defer to the more internationalist orientations that have predominated in political and foreign-policy elites. That mood of exception may be fading again.

In the last two contests for the Republican presidential nomination, Ron Paul was an outlier among the major candidates (not that he was the only pernicious and reactionary political troglodyte among the top candidates, but the specific flavor of his reactionary politics was distinctive). However, the viewpoint he represents, including his unreconstructed 19th-century isolationism, strikes a genuine chord with an awful lot of American voters both inside and outside the GOP ... and it's quite possible that Republican politicians will have to take that constituency into account. A few speeches at this week's Republican convention did include some talk about the need for active "world leadership" by the US, but those themes were relatively peripheral, even in the form of sloganeering bluster; and in most cases (Condoleezza Rice and John McCain were the main exceptions) the rhetorical nods in this direction sounded more ritualistic than serious.

(Obviously, there are plenty of ways to engage with other countries that don't involve bombing or invading them. But among many American voters, non-military forms of international engagement are even less popular than military ones—e.g., Ron Paul's proposals to quit the UN, end foreign aid, seal US borders against immigration, and so on are big applause lines. So I think it would be unwise to assume that a resurgence of neo-isolationist impulses in the electorate would nudge Republican politics toward more reasonable and constructive foreign-policy positions.)

Or, on the other hand, countervailing tendencies may prove to be more politically significant in the end. (And the world is full of surprises and unexpected events, as we know from recent history, which could change the whole situation.) I hope that wiser and more constructive options prevail, because if the US body politic succumbs to any significant degree to these temptations for generalized disengagement from the Middle East and beyond, then the consequences are likely to be very unpleasant all around.  But as I said, this little cri de coeur from Victor Davis Hanson may be worth a few moments of reflection.

—Jeff Weintraub

===================================
New York Post
September 1, 2012 [Posted August 31, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.]
Goodbye, Middle East
America doesn't need the grief

By Victor Davis Hanson
headshot The United States is backing off from the Middle East — and the Middle East from the United States.

America is in the midst of the greatest domestic gas and oil revolution since the early 20th century. If even guarded predictions about new North American reserves are accurate, over the next decade the entire continent may become energy-independent, with little need of petroleum imports from the Middle East.

This coincides with mounting Chinese dependency on Middle Eastern oil and gas. So as the Persian Gulf becomes less important to us, it grows even more critical to the oil-hungry, cash-laden — and opportunistic — Chinese.

After two wars in the Middle East, Americans are as tired of our forces being sent over there as Middle Easterners are of having us there.

The usual Arab complaint against the United States during the Cold War was that it supported anti-communist authoritarians in the oil-rich Gulf and ignored democratic reform. After the 1991 Gulf War, the next charge was that America fought Saddam Hussein only to free an oil-rich, pro-American monarchy in Kuwait, without any interest in helping reformists in either Kuwait or Iraq.

After the Gulf War of 2003, there was widespread new anger about the use of American arms to force-feed democracy down the throat of Iraq. Finally, during the 2011 Arab Spring, the Arab world charged that the United States was too tardy in offering political support for insurgents in Egypt and Tunisia, and again late in “leading from behind” in helping European nations remove Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy. Now the Arab world is hectoring America to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Let’s get this all straight. America has been damned for its Machiavellian shenanigans in supporting authoritarian governments; for its naive idealism in using force to implant democracies; for its ambivalence in not using force to protect democratic protestors; and for its recent isolationism in ignoring ongoing Arab violence. Why, then, bother?

The subtext of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is that the region, if given a chance, will embrace its own brand of freedom But that doesn’t appear to be happening in Egypt. And democracy doesn’t seem to be the common glue that holds together various Syrians fighting to overthrow the odious Assad dictatorship.

New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood attended college and later taught classes in California. Apparently Morsi once came here to enjoy American freedom and for his family to be protected by our tolerance and security. Is that why he is crushing liberal opponents and the Egyptian media — to ensure that they never enjoy the protections and opportunities that were offered to him while a guest in the United States?

Note that anti-Americanism was often attributed to the unique unpopularity of Texan George W. Bush, who invaded two Middle Eastern countries, tried to foster democracies and institutionalized a number of tough antiterrorism security policies. In turn, Barack Obama was supposed to be the antidote — a Muslim family on his father’s side, his middle name Hussein, early schooling in Muslim Indonesia, a number of pro-Islamic speeches and interviews, apologies abroad and a post-racial personal story.

Yet recent polls show that Obama is even less popular in the Middle East than was Bush.

Staggering US debt also explains the impending divorce. With $5 trillion in new American borrowing in just the last four years, and talk of slashing $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, America’s options abroad may be narrowing. President Obama also envisions a more multilateral world in which former US responsibilities in the Middle East are outsourced to collective interests like the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.

Perhaps soon the problem will be that we simply will not have enough power to use it for much of anything — and would have to ask the UN for permission if we did.

Usually nothing good comes from American isolationism, especially given our key support for a vulnerable democratic Israel. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, our Humpty-Dumpty policy of Middle East engagement is now shattered.

And no one knows how to — or whether we even should — put it together again.

author@victorhanson.com