Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Progress and the Pendulum

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

I'm watching the snow through an airport window, thinking about the posts I've meant to get to in the last hectic week or so, and about the things I have to do and the places I have to fly over the next ten days. But for today, it'll have to be a short one, and mostly a metaphor.

We're at the end, more or less, of a decades-long rightward swing of America's political pendulum swing in this country. We'd gotten to the point where lots of sensible proposals seem like wild-eyed leftism, and where many of the conversations at the right end of the spectrum have come untethered from practical policy and basic reality. Essentially, the conservative movement has driven the country off the road, and now we're beginning a long, slow leftward hitchhike to the middle. The end of the swing was deeply frustrating for most progressives, including me, and the 2008 national election seemed to mark the beginning of that return to sanity. But it's been frustrating for lots of progressives (again, including me) that momentum of the last year hasn't been greater. Lots of people were hoping Obama would turn the country around and start to gain some enormous ground, very very fast. All I can say to my fellow liberals, progressives, and lefties, is this:

Look at a pendulum sometime. If you don't have one handy, and grandfather clocks aren't part of your decorating scheme, look at a kid on a swing. Notice that when the pendulum reaches the far end of its swing, it slows down. Then, for a very brief period, it actually stops. (This is easier to see if you're watching some 8-year-old girls who can really fly on the swings. Look at that moment where they're essentially stopped in midair.) After the stop, it picks up momentum again, this time in the opposite direction. It starts moving pack to the mid-point slowly, then faster, and as it passes through the middle of its arc it's going at its maximum speed. That's the momentum that carries it back the other way, until it reaches the other end of its swing, runs out of energy, and pauses before returning.

I would suggest that we've just has a thirty-year pendulum swing end. The motion back in the direction lefties prefer isn't terribly fast right now, and isn't as fast as it's going to get. Gradually, as with real pendulums, we will reach the middle of the political spectrum at blazing speed and keep moving, moving along further and further until, in a couple of decades perhaps, we've swung too far out past the concerns of the avergae voter and the pendulum will start falling back toward the center. I don't know when that will be. But the pendulum always starts the return with a little hesitation. That doesn't mean it's not going to pick up speed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Obama Won the Nobel, Part II

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

When Obama's Nobel Prize was first announced, I tried to explain why the Nobel Committee might have chosen him. Today, as he accepts the Prize, seems like a good time to finish that attempted explanation. But first, two quick things I need to say to frame the discussion.

First, I myself would not have given Obama the Prize, and certainly not yet. Given the decision, I would not have chosen him (although I don't have any particular other candidate in mind). My goal is to understand the Committee's decision and try to grasp its underlying logic, not to endorse it. (Indeed, the Committee themselves might be having second thoughts today, after Obama endorsed the Augustinian principle of “just war” during his acceptance speech.) If you prefer to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee had no reasons, and are simply irrational people from Pluto, then this post is not so much for you.

Second, while many people seem genuinely angry at the decision to give the Prize to Obama, and couch that anger in moral terms, I neither endorse the anger nor the framework of moral reasoning behind it. The idea that the Peace Prize might go to someone who does not deserve it, or that it justly belongs to some other, more worthy candidate, does not upset me. More to the point, I believe a focus on the justice or injustice of the award itself is misplaced. If one thinks of the Prize as something primarily meant to recognize deserving moral figures for their labors and suffering, as an honor accorded to saints, then of course Obama’s prize seems like an outrage. But the question of individual desert is morally trivial compared to the Peace Prize’s goal, which is to help end war and violence. The Peace Prize is a tool toward a political and moral end. It needs to be bestowed in the way that has the best chance of ending or preventing bloodshed. I find that goal morally compelling in a way that a quest to honor the “most deserving” individual could never be.

If you feel committed to the idea that the Peace Prize should be about rewarding the saintly, because political sainthood needs to have an earthly reward, I would suggest that the Prize is a sorry substitute for the genuine rewards such people seek. The proper reward for the just is to do justice. The proper reward for the saint is good works. I do not see it as a terrible shame, for example, that Mahatma Gandhi never won the Prize. The goals of non-violent revolution and Indian independence were his prize, and he would not have traded them for money, or public honor, or a trip to Oslo. He would see those things as spiritual stumbling blocks, or as tools to be turned toward other goals.

The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is to end war: to lend its credibility and prestige and disburse its cash award to people who will use those things toward the ends of peace. The moral question is how to allocate the Prize most effectively. That question is both utilitarian, because it aims to achieve the maximum good for the maximum number, and necessarily speculative, because no one to whom it can be given can be assured of success. If the prize is given only for completed accomplishments, for battles already ended, much of its value is lost. It is more useful when given where it might turn a tide, or help someone achieve something that might not otherwise be achieved. That requires the Prize Committee to make their best guess about where the Prize will do the most good.

When giving the Prize to American Presidents, the Nobel Committee has traditionally erred by giving it too late in their political careers, rather than too early. Roosevelt and Wilson got the Prize near the ends of their second terms, when they were effectively lame ducks. Had they “earned” the Prize by that point? Sure. But they were also about to relinquish their political power and their role on the world stage. Those awards, as I argue in my earlier post, helped build the prestige of the Nobel Prize itself, but otherwise they achieved nothing. Giving Jimmy Carter the Nobel as a retired President makes a lot of sense as a recognition of secular sainthood, but it’s increased his effectiveness at doing good works only marginally, if at all. Giving it to him during his first term might (no one can say “would”) have led to more good being achieved. I too think Obama is getting the Prize too early, but too early is not nearly as big a problem as too late.

Obama’s Prize reflects a calculation on the Prize Committee’s part that Obama has a window for achieving peace on several fronts, and that it was important to back him during that window. In fact, they may see that window as very narrow, and quick to close. They wanted to make sure to back him while it mattered, because they’re afraid that if they waited another year the opportunity might be lost. And the Prize also reflects their calculation that Obama is, during that window, the most important potential vehicle for promoting peace, so much that even giving him marginal assistance is likely to be more effective than backing any other potential winner. Various obscure nominees might have had their effectiveness increased tenfold by winning the Prize, but the Committee seems to think that making Obama even a little bit more effective at this moment will do more practical good than making some other nominees exponentially more effective. If all they do is strengthen Obama’s hand a little bit, the apparent reasoning goes, and allow him to achieve a little bit more than he would otherwise, that could make a huge difference. They know he hasn’t achieved much yet. And they’re not at all confident that he will. That’s why they gave him the Prize: because they’re not sure he’ll make it, and because they think he could use the help.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Having an FDR Christmas

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

Exactly three weeks before Christmas, my bank failed.

Everything's fine, at least for humble depositors like me. The FDIC seized my bank and sold it to another, presumably more stable and reliable, bank. My deposits were very, very comfortably under the $250,000 insurance limit. My checks and ATM card still work, and I don't even need to change them for new ones with the new bank's name. The new, out-of-town bank is keeping the old bank's name and running it as a division of the new bank. I can still buy groceries. I had to find out about the bank failure reading Atrios.

Things aren't so good for my local economy of course, or for my city. That my bank failed is both a symptom of how hard times are for Cleveland, and a sign that they'll get better very slowly. The new bank is going to be prudent making loans on its new turf, I'm sure, and the local bank's failure doesn't make us look like the best place to bet. And there shouldn't be much doubt that the whole country is still in a very large recession, or to drop the euphemisms, a depression. I know, the 1930s were much worse. That's why the 1930s are called The Depression and this is just a depression. But believe me, this town is depressed. My local bank went down with five others last Friday, making that 130 bank failures in the U.S. so far this year. Even if no more banks fail for the rest of the year, that's two and a half bank failures a week. Forget what's going on with the too-big-to-fail leviathans; while we were watching them beach themselves and thrash, the rest of the fish that make up the ecosystem were dying.

Still, despite the grim news, I can pay my rent, bake cookies for my students, and do some Christmas shopping. I can fly for the holidays, and for the major annual conference in my field, which takes place at the end of December. When I get to town for that conference, I can pay for my hotel and my meals. And then I can celebrate the first of the year by paying my rent again. So I'm doing pretty well for a guy who had his savings in a bank that just went under. But there's no question that my Christmas comes benefit of the FDIC. If it weren't for the New Deal I'd be enjoying a really old-fashioned holiday, the kind Bob Cratchit and John Boy Walton used to have. And by "enjoy" here, I mean "not even remotely enjoy."

When you hear conservatives talking about the evils of liberalism, government regulation and imminent socialism, this is what they're talking about: the kind of basic common-sense protections and regulations that the New Deal instituted seventy-five years ago. Even during this economic crisis, when it should be clear to everyone that the financial sector long ago abdicated any sense of responsibility or reality, it's still fashionable to talk about the New Deal as old-fashioned excess, the kind of forgivable error that our silly old grandparents made because they had not yet learned better, as we have. Of course, such creaky old socialist programs don't really work, and they impede the magically efficient forces of the market.

The next time you hear someone talk like that, just remember: they're drunk.

If it weren't for the New Deal and its stifling, market-inhibiting FDIC insurance, this is the Christmas I would have. My savings (and my checking account) would have disappeared Friday evening, taking my most recent paycheck with it. (I get paid twice a month; my bank failed on the fourth of the month, only a couple of days after my last direct deposit.) I wouldn't be paid again until the fifteenth.

My checks would have bounced, including my rent check if the landlord hadn't cashed it yet (again, the bank failed just after the beginning of the month), or if it hadn't cleared. Since it usually takes a day or two to clear a check, let's say that my rent would certainly have bounced. My phone bill, student loan payment and credit card bill would almost certainly have resulted in more bounced checks. I would have only the money in my wallet, which I would be hoarding very carefully, until my next paycheck. And when the fifteenth rolled around, I'd have to find a new bank, deposit my money, wait for my deposit to clear, and wait for the new bank to issue me checks and an ATM card. That would pretty much keep me from having any money I could use until nearly the end of the month. (There is, ahem, a national holiday in there somewhere, when the banks are closed.) Otherwise, I could get my checks cashed at the usurious check-cashing rates, and pay the premiums for money orders to pay bills. In any case, I'd be starting in the hole. Credit cards would not be an option; I would certainly have missed payments, not only stalling the credit line but earning myself some fees and penalties. If they were an option, they'd be a horrible one, since I'd be faced with the task of building back some savings to replace my lost money. Christmas presents would be out of the question. So would airplanes, let alone professional travel with its hotel expenses.

That would all stink for me, but it wouldn't be a big help for the rest of the economy either. The thrift forced upon me by the loss of my savings would take money out of the rest of the economy: the Christmas shopping I didn't do, the groceries I didn't buy at my local supermarket, the gas I didn't buy and the hotel reservation I didn't keep and the airport sandwich I couldn't afford. My landlord would be out rent, at least until I managed to scrape the arrears together. How's that for market efficiency? Now multiply it by every depositor my bank had, and then consider the customers of the other five banks that failed last Friday. The New Year starts to look pretty grim for whole communities.

That is what a deregulated, laissez-faire economy looks like. An economy free to lay itself waste every so often, in irrational spasms. And if it doesn't remind you of the smooth rational graphs in Econ 101 textbooks, that's because it doesn't resemble them. Market efficiency is no more natural than a navel orange is. It results from grafting and gardening.

So let me say a few kind words for old-fashioned 1930s liberalism, the parts that have yet to be dismantled or "modernized" away. Those vestiges of our big-government past are what's keeping the wheels on the wagon today. Without them, we'd be much deeper in the mud, and further from the shovel. And I don't see how many of the modern, what's the phrase?, "innovations" of the past thirty years have helped much. So while our leaders in Washington debate timid half-measures in timid tones, afraid that half of half a loaf might be going too far, they would do well to remember who got us out of the last mess like this, and how. We need to face a basic reality: this Christmas has been brought to you by the Ghost of Liberalism Past, FDR.

God bless us, every one. We're going to need it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Mister Hope Is Secretly Mister Reliable

crossposted at http://dagblog.com

The day before President Obama announced his Afghanistan strategy, Politico published John F. Harris's very important and newsy thumbsucker about the peril that "anti-Obama storylines" pose to Obama's Presidency. The first sentence of the article is, no kidding, "Presidential politics is about storytelling."

Storytelling. Huh. And here I thought it was about the economy and the two wars.

The Obama Presidency could easily founder. But failure is more likely to come from the Afghan highlands or the malarial swamps of Wall Street than from catchy Beltway meta-narratives. I know the media is always telling us how appearance is reality. But actually it only looks like it.

Narratives aren't primarily ways to understand a politician or a campaign. They are ways to misunderstand it. Indeed, that is what Harris is pushing: seven largely inaccurate perceptions that could lead to Obama failing even if he does the right things for the country. It's a strange thing to find such a topic cool or interesting, but Harris's admiring connoisseurship shines through the piece. He feels a bit like those kids who spend their free time crafting the nastiest computer viruses they can: all the pleasure lies in the craftmanship and destructive power of the meme.

For what it's worth, one of the narratives into which the press will inevitably conscript Obama is Icarus Falls to Earth, in which the shining idealist Obama is grounded by hard reality. In fact, they started writing this story the night he won the Iowa primaries. But it won't be true, because that pleasingly formed but misleading narrative is grounded upon the pleasingly formed but misleading narratives fostered by Obama's own campaign: the notion that he was Mr. Hope and Captain Change, the candidate of revolutionary optimism.

Barack Obama is, whatever else you make of him, an incredibly unlikely youth leader. And while he was clearly popular with the young and had a fabulous ground organization, he wasn't the leader of anything like a youth movement per se. He is not, like most youth movement leaders, a firebrand. He's more like your studious buddy that your parents liked, because he was a safe driver and might be a good influence on you. He's the motorcycle-less boyfriend your parents hoped you would marry: Mr. Reliable. Least of all is Obama anything approaching a revolutionary. And that was extremely evident during the election. He did campaign on Hope and Change, as campaign themes, but his promises were about sane, pragmatic policy adjustments, optimistic but very much grounded in reality. The real Barack Obama isn't going to fall to earth because he's always been standing on it. If he fails, it will be from an excess of caution.

Will this shock the voters? Not really. I suspect that the truth we haven't told, the story hiding behind the story of Mister Hope, is that Obama won in large part because he is so satisfyingly boring and calm, so capably reassuring. Even his soaring rhetoric isn't flashy or "exciting." It's resolutely reasonable and calm: a triumph of oratorical serenity. Voters know this, and feel this. The election was conducted at a time of national emergency, and Barack Obama is essentially the guy you trust to make medical decisions for your parents. He never seems rattled; he's able to take in complicated information under pressure, and then ask the necessary questions and make the necessary decisions. John McCain, who works very hard to project a youthful, devil-may-care attitude, is a great candidate for a bored and jaded electorate, but a bad match for an anxious one. Obama, on the other hand, can be downright soothing.

If the Republicans want to beat him, this is what they have to remember. They have to do more than beat Obama up. They have to provide an alternative, and that alternative has to feel safe. If the Obama Presidency fails, it almost certainly means that the country will sink deeper into crisis. And while voters would want to punish Obama for that, what they would want most of all is someone to fix things. That person needs to feel reliable, capable, and calm, to be someone voters trust instinctively. The Republicans will need their own Obama, but first they need to figure out who Obama is.