The subject came up at lunch recently, apropos of a writer for Mondoweiss who is apparently the son of people some of our guests knew. The young fellow spent some time in Gaza and has become a professional pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (not necessarily the same thing) activist. There was much clucking around the table about the shame, until someone asked the question: well, would it be better or worse to have a son who became an extreme left-wing anti-Zionist—versus having a son who became a right-wing settler?
I would not describe the people around the table as right-wing in general, nor right-wing within the specific spectrum of Jewish opinion about the “situation” in the territories. In the American context, these were liberal Democrats; in the Israeli context, these were probably Yesh Atid types with no love for Netanyahu. But the immediate answer of the bulk of the group was: the settler would be obviously preferable. He would, after all, still be “family” in some sense, even if wayward.
But the mere fact that the question could be asked suggests that, on some level, the group understood that the settlement project as a whole occupies extreme ground. That a “settler son” was the appropriate hypothetical to compare to the “traitor son.” And how do we really decide when, and in defense of what, or whom, extremism actually is a vice? And what are we supposed to do then, when the extremist is “in the family?”
This is an abstraction for most of us, because most of us aren’t in situations where extremism presents as a realistic option. If my son, when grown, decides to become a settler in the West Bank, or decides to become a pro-Palestinian agitator, either decision would require a conscious distancing from the life he was actually living, in America. If you are closer, physically, to an intense conflict where extremism naturally finds fertile soil, you will inevitably wind up with extremists “in the family.” And, probably, “traitors” as well, at least in the eyes of extremists.
Of course, the whole point of abstractions like “nationalism” is to create an emotional affinity that substitutes for actual proximity—to make us “feel with” people we don’t know, and see them as virtually family. Ditto with abstractions like “the proletariat” or “the victims of imperialism/colonialism”—the “traitor” has, in a sense, chosen not so much to affiliate with the “enemy” as to affiliate with an alternative imagined community, with its own rules for inclusion and exclusion, and its own extremists and traitors.
It’s probably possible to understand all of our substantive commitments as choices of who our families—literal or figurative—are.
So, returning to the question around the table: I think the settlement enterprise as a whole has been a catastrophe for the State of Israel. It’s obvious, to me, that a nice Jewish boy digging in somewhere in the West Bank is a far bigger problem for the State of Israel than a nice Jewish boy blogging about how Zionism was a historic crime and Hamas is part of the proletarian vanguard (or whatever). But, conceptually, “flipping” the valence on the two hypotheticals—calling the settler the “traitor” and the Mondoweiss-nik an “extremist”—doesn’t really work. Or, if it does, what it really amounts to is changing one’s own allegiances—from an allegiance to the Jewish nation to an allegiance to the “international left” or some similar abstraction.
There is always the alternative of simply writing off anyone who stays off the yellow line in the middle of the road. But inevitably this implies a thinning of all of one’s allegiances. Until you don’t really have a family, literal or figurative, left.
Far more difficult to say: no, these fellows are both, in some sense, family. But the harder path makes for more interesting discussions around the table.
The term comes from this paper from 2005, which argues, in so many words, that America’s apparent massive net-debtor status is an accounting illusion caused by not marking our assets to market.
Here’s the argument, somewhat simplified.
The United States has been running trade deficits since, basically, forever. What that means is that America purchases more stuff abroad than we sell. A trade deficit implies a capital surplus – the “extra” money we send abroad must be “recycled” by investment back in the United States. What that looks like, on the surface, is that Americans are buying stuff abroad, and financing their purchases by mortgaging our country. And, in the traditional green-eyeshade mode of looking at this, one day it’ll all come crashing down when our foreign creditors call in their debts and we have to sell Alaska or Apple Computer or whatever to the Chinese to pay back the loans we took out to buy all that cool stuff.
The “Dark Matter” theory says that this is incorrect because it assumes that the net capital surplus (equal to the net trade deficit) is the only number that matters. What should matter, rather, is the relative value of national assets and liabilities. And that requires looking at foreign investment in the U.S., and U.S. investment abroad, separately, and to look not only at the annual investment numbers but the change in value of those portfolios over time.
We don’t have mark-to-market numbers for these investment portfolios, but we do have values on the earnings from those portfolios. We know how much we pay to service our debt (public and private) owned by foreign entities, and we know how much we receive on the assets we’ve accumulated abroad. And it turns out that the net income number is positive, relatively stable, and has been rising over a long period of time. What the paper concludes from this information is that the real value of America’s investments abroad has risen faster than our liabilities have accumulated, and that the apparently massive accumulated trade deficit is just an accounting fiction. It’s not that we mortgaged Alaska to buy a Lexus or a Mercedes. It’s that we mortgaged Alaska to buy Eurodisney, with a little money left over to buy a Lexus or a Mercedes; and Eurodisney has proved so profitable that if we sold it we could easily pay off the Alaskan mortgage.
That’s a really interesting argument! The obvious question to ask is how such a thing could be – why should America earn so much more on its investments abroad than foreigners earn on their investments in America. Hausmann and Sturzenegger (the authors of the paper) make the argument that the primary driver of America’s higher returns on its investments abroad relative to foreign investments in America is America’s greater knowledge advantage. We’re applying intellectual property and expertise (brands, technology, management skill) to foreign assets, causing them to yield more than could be achieved by another investor; by contrast, foreign investors in the U.S. overwhelmingly are buying government bonds, and so are not leveraging any intellectual property or expertise of their own to increase the value of their investment. But they acknowledge other possibilities – for example, that the immaturity of the Chinese financial markets creates a large preference for safe American securities, so that (in effect) the Chinese are using the American financial system as an intermediary, investing in American bonds to indirectly finance American companies’ investments in (among other places) China, and in effect we’re earning profits (as a nation) simply by virtue of being middlemen. I’d also argue that the dollar’s status as the premier global reserve currency plays a big role here – it’s a lot easier to make profits on your international investments when you pay a lower interest rate on the money you borrow than your competitors because of the currency you’re borrowing in.
If the theory is true, it goes a long way to discounting fears that we’re “turning into Greece” because we’re living beyond our national means. With proper accounting, we see that we’re not a net-debtor at all; we’re a net creditor. And the only thing that would change that picture materially would be a sharp drop in returns on our investments abroad, something that has never been observed in recent years (possibly because, in recent years, we haven’t seen any major global economies go Communist – the easiest way to imagine a sudden and precipitous drop in the value of our foreign investments is to assume that they are simply seized by foreign governments). But the Greek scenario has never been particularly applicable to America; countries that borrow exclusively in their own currency can have lots of financial problems, but literally replicating the Greek experience isn’t one of them.
On the other hand, I’m not sure how much it should reassure anyone concerned about the effects of global imbalances like these on America’s social structure. After all, if I understand the argument correctly, America is borrowing more money abroad than we’re investing abroad, and earning sufficient return on the investment that we can easily pay the interest on what we borrow. But a great deal is hidden in that “we.” The entity doing the net borrowing is overwhelmingly the Federal government. The entities doing the investing abroad are overwhelmingly American corporations. And the distributional consequences of rising Federal debt and rising corporate returns are not identical. America may be behaving like a successful giant hedge fund but we’re not all investors in the hedge fund – some of us are just creditors to it. And the political consequences that flow from such an arrangement would tend to cement it in place.
Instead, it should reassure folks who are concerned about those distributional consequences that there’s plenty of return sloshing around to redress them. After all, if there’s so much return from Eurodisney that we can afford to borrow more than we need to pay for that investment, and spend the excess on a Lexus or a Mercedes, maybe we could think about better ways to deploy that “excess” borrowing for something other than current consumption. Something that would upgrade America’s physical and human capital, say.
What is Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, “The Shining” about? That is to say, where does the horror come from?
Is it about writer’s block? (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”) Alcoholism? (We know Jack had a drinking problem before they get to the hotel, and he shows all the brittle signs of a dry drunk.) Autism? (Danny is certainly a special child, and that can take a toll.) The claustrophobia of the Oedipal triangle? (What finally sets Jack permanently on a demonic path is when Wendy believes he caused the bruises on Danny’s neck, and runs from him carrying her boy, screaming, “you son-of-a-bitch – how could you?”) The anomie of modern existence? (All Danny seems to do up there in that hotel is ride in circles and watch television.)
Or does the horror come from the hotel, from echoes of the things that happened there before that were “not all good” – like the grisly murder of two twin girls by their father, Delbert Grady? (Grady is the one who ultimately seduces Jack to murder.) Or from horrors that date before the hotel’s construction – such as the Indian burial ground that, we are told, lies beneath the hotel’s foundations? (Native American motifs abound in the hotel, from the stained-glass windows to the pictures on the walls to the cans of Calumet baking powder in the storage room.) Or from the infernal regions themselves? (The bartender, Lloyd, first appears when Jack offers to sell his soul for a drink; when he tries to pay for it, he says Jack’s money isn’t good, that the drink is courtesy of “management” and that Jack, who wants to know who’s buying the drinks, needn’t concern himself with that question – at this point.)
Or is it just cabin fever?
The answer would appear to be, “yes,” which is to say, “no.” Coleridge referred to Iago’s “motiveless malignity” but this is deduced from the fact that Iago supplies us with too many motives for his actions – his injured pride at being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio; his contempt for Othello’s own undeserved reputation; his conviction that Othello – and Cassio as well – have been carrying on with his wife, Emilia. Precisely because so many motives are readily supplied, we see that we are to distrust them all, and stop looking for a proper motive.
The same is true of the source of the horror in “The Shining.” If we look for it, we find it with alarming ease – indeed, we find a plethora of plausible sources. Which makes us doubt that any of them can be it. After all, if Jack’s alcoholism is to blame, then why tell us about the Indian burial ground? And, as with Iago in Othello, this should lead us to conclude that this movie isn’t playing by horror rules; that the search for a cause of the horror is to miss the point. It is the cause.
“The Shining” is a very cold film, rarely putting us “with” the victim or creating the pulse-quickening suspense of seeing the knife as it approaches the victim from behind (there is one such shot, and it’s a notable exception). Shots tend to be long and symmetric; geometry predominates over anything organic. The hedge maze is the emblem of the film.
But it’s not a puzzle to be solved, and its unsolvability is what engenders the intellectual horror. The films contains numerous perplexing gaps of continuity. Some might be written off as errors – the chair that disappears between one shot and the next, for example. The characters who enter one pantry and emerge from another. And if the hotel has an impossible geography, well, that’s the movies for you – a set is not a real place. But why should a typewriter change color? And some discontinuities are in dialogue. Why should Jack, at one moment, tell Lloyd he’s been dry for five dreadful months, and then tell him at another point that the injury to his son happened three years ago, when we know that he gave up drink after he hurt Danny one drunken night?
You don’t notice these discontinuities when you watch the film, but the cumulative effect is for the hotel to become a dreamlike environment. We don’t ask why that’s what it is – because we are experiencing being in that nightmare state, which is how the horror is brought home to us. In much the same way, Othello puts us in the psychological position of falling under Iago’s spell, as Othello does, in part by having Iago spin a literally impossible tale – if you timeline the play, there was literally no opportunity for the supposed affair between Cassio and Desdemona to happen, and yet nobody in the play seems to notice this.
All of which is to say that Kubrick, in his intellectual way, is offering us the experience of the mind breaking down, rather than telling a story about a mental breakdown. As such, if we are to keep our heads we have to surrender to the experience, for a time, but remember that, like Dick Halloran says to Danny about the nightmare visions he has, it’s just pictures. It isn’t real.
But not everybody can keep their heads.
I saw “The Shining” again recently at a midnight showing at IFC, pursuant to seeing a new documentary about crackpot theories of the “real” meaning behind the movie, called “Room 237” (a reference to the room that appears to be the epicenter of horror in the hotel, for reasons that – again – are not explained). Some of these theories are making category errors about elements that really are in the film. So yes, there are a bunch of Native American motifs and references, but no, “The Shining” is not an allegory of the genocide of the American Indians; the whole Indian burial ground under the hotel is a horror cliche, which is why it’s in the film, but “The Shining” would be a far more conventional horror movie if it were simply a story of Native American ghosts exacting revenge. And yes, the use of the hedge maze should recall the legend of the minotaur, but that’s what we call an allusion, not a secret, esoteric meaning.
But then there are the theories that make more than a category error. Like the fellow who thinks “The Shining” is a secret confession of Stanley Kubrick’s involvement in faking the moon landing. (Though, as he takes pains to make clear, he isn’t saying that the moon landing itself was faked; he’s saying that the footage of the moon landing was faked.)
Cranks, of course, will be cranks. But what would induce someone to make a movie like this? To step through the film frame by frame, play it backwards, put all these crank theories out there as serious efforts to grapple with a work of art? Even if it’s true that Kubrick liked to put allusions in the corners and backgrounds of the frame; even if it’s true that he liked to pepper his films with the visual equivalent of Joycean puns, that doesn’t mean there’s a “secret message” in the film. Why would there be?
The resort to esoteric, secret meanings behind reality is a psychological comfort when the capriciousness of that reality is too threatening. When we badly need reality to make sense – to be sending us a message – secret codes and vast conspiracy theories provide that sense.
So in a way, the existence of “Room 237″ is a testament to the success of “The Shining” in capturing the unassimilable horror of reality. If it weren’t so terrifying, nobody would see the need to tame it by explaining what it’s really about.
As part of research for a script I’m writing (well, at this point outlining), I recently watched “Holy Rollers,” the 2010 film with Jesse Eisenberg about chasidic Jews operating a drug smuggling operation (principally MDMA) between Amsterdam and New York in the 1990s. (Based, it’s probably needless to say, on a true story.)
The film itself has its strong points and its weaknesses, but one thing I was struck by over and over was the way in which the movie got the chasidic milieu wrong – but wrong in a novel way. These deeply religious people weren’t condescended to – in fact, the film bought in pretty thoroughly to the notion that their way of living was righteous, and the outside world fraught with moral peril. But there was an accumulation of details that were interestingly off. For example:
- Where was the Talmud? The midrash? There are a couple of scenes in which the rabbi of their synagogue explicates text, but in each case it is a famous “story” from the Hebrew scriptures, rather than an obscure passage or, even more likely, a piece of traditional practice that is interpreted. And he doesn’t make use of traditional rabbinic interpretive materials, with source citations.
- Where are the extended families? There’s the tight nuclear family in which the protagonist is the eldest son, and there are the neighbors. But where are the grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc? The complex web of kin ties felt notably absent.
- Where is the OCD? We don’t get the sense of the sheer density of rules in this world. For example, neither Jesse Eisenberg nor his more pious companion wonders, on their first trip to Amsterdam, before they know they will be smuggling drugs, whether they’ll be able to get food with an adequate hechsher.
And there were other things – an accumulation of small details, really. Again, I want to be clear: it wasn’t that the film got the culture distinctly more wrong than I would have expected; it’s that the film got the culture differently wrong. It felt like the filmmakers had transposed assumptions from another religious culture onto hasidic Judaism in a well-intentioned effort at understanding.
So I looked into who the filmmakers were, and lo and behold the writer, Antonio Macia, is an active member of the LDS church. And everything that I noticed fell into place.
I’m interested in this question because a spec script I wrote a couple of years ago revolves around a Methodist church in central Texas – a world with which I have no personal familiarity. I used this setting for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons was that I found it easier to write my way into themes relevant to my own world by approaching them from a distance in this way, transposing them. But precisely because I am not intimately familiar with that world, there’s a big element of “faking it” involved in the transposition, and I never know whether I’ve faked it well enough.
As a consequence, among other things, of meditating on how this played out in the earlier script, the most recent spec script I’ve completed turned out to be concerned, among other things, with precisely this process, of getting at “what you know” in an emotional sense by approaching it through a world you really don’t know. It’s a process that, to me, feels very close to the heart of how creative writing works.
I’m curious whether anyone out there agrees?
I met Mark Sanford only once, at a fundraiser that somebody asked me to go to, back when I was more right-leaning. I liked him at the time. I remember being struck by how much shorter he was than I thought he would be, and how much tanner – alarmingly so; he was almost orange.
The speech he gave was unsurprisingly anodyne and moderate – these were the Bush years, not the roaring ’90s or the raging ’10s, and he was talking to a bunch of New Yorkers – and full of references to the likes of Tom Friedman. But that is, authentically, part of what Sanford was always about – he’s more Bill Weld than Jim DeMint.
I liked him, but I wasn’t distinctly impressed with him. And then he went hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
After that, I liked him better.
Your typical philandering politician is pretty much just a colossal jerk, someone with an absurdly swollen sense of entitlement. Or they are coldly calculating, trading up from the women who saw them through the early years of their career to a more attractive model – physically or politically and financially – as their careers mature. It’s difficult to be sympathetic to either model, but voters have shown themselves to be quite adroit at forgiving these kinds of sins when their political allegiance demands it.
Sanford’s affair didn’t fit either model. His wife was an heiress and a genuine political talent; he wasn’t looking to trade up. And this wasn’t a casual dalliance. This was, in some fashion or other, a genuine love affair. And a crazy one to indulge in if he really cared about his career.
I say “in some fashion or other” because, of course, it’s hard not to assume that part of what was going on was a desire to sabotage his own political career – but it’s nonetheless significant that the way he chose to sabotage it was to fall deeply in love with somebody. At a minimum, that tells me something about his capacity for feeling that emotion.
And that, I think, was his gravest crime, politically speaking. We are willing to forgive our politicians for a multitude of private sins, because really what we care about is that we come first. They can treat their spouses and children abominably if we know that at the end of the day all they really care about is winning. Because to win they have to do what we want. Or at least convince us that they have.
But a man who might throw it all away because he’s convinced he’s finally found his soul mate? That doesn’t sound like an alpha dog people are going to want to follow slavishly. Nor does it sound like somebody ruthlessly determined to stay on the right side of his constituents. It sounds like somebody who can be overcome by emotion. It sounds almost . . . human.
Sanford Mark II seems like his got his fair share of politician’s myopia about what constitute normal human relations - asking his ex-wife to run his comeback campaign? Really? And I have moved considerably to the left since the days when I could plausibly have been found at a Sanford fundraiser. But at the end of the day, I would rather be governed by humans than by some other species. And so I still have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Appalachian Trail.
I’ve been thinking of the best way to answer Ross Douthat’s column calling for “magnanimity in victory” from the liberal side of the same-sex marriage debate.
Douthat’s point, basically, is that the marriage norm has continued to erode, across the West, even as the movement for same-sex marriage has burgeoned. Hence, one might plausibly argue that the movement for same-sex marriage, which, in his words, “press[ed] the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation” was a contributor to that trend away from a marital norm, or at least had a common cause with whatever forces were driving that trend. As such, he calls for liberals to be magnanimous, recognize trade-offs, and say that this trade-off was worth it.
I’m all in favor of recognizing trade-offs, and that all good things don’t go together, but I think to do it right you need to look deeper, and not pick one (still somewhat) controversial proposition and highlight it for that kind of analysis. The deep causes of the decline of the marriage norm are the rise of the equality of women and the yawning wage gap between the working classes and the profession and upper-middle classes. Marriage has become aspirational rather than normative because men are less-desireable than they used to be, both because women need them less and because men can offer less than they used to. It is certainly true that the best way to fall off the path to bourgeois stability, for yourself and your children, is to have those children before marrying, but everyone plays the odds, as best they can, consciously or unconsciously, and if falling off the path looks less-horrible (because one will not starve) and staying on the path looks less-probable (because the men look more like burdens than supports and bourgeois stability looks like a very distant aspiration), then it takes considerably more strength of will to stay on the path. And once a bunch of people fall off the path more or less voluntarily, cultural norms change. They take time to change, but eventually they reach a tipping point where they can no longer be called norms.
So the trade-off is not “was gay marriage worth the cost to the marriage norm” but “was giving women the vote worth the eventual cost to the marriage norm.”
And that’s a question that’s almost impossible to grapple with, because it’s impossible for us to look at the question in other than historical terms. As Matt Yglesias points out, the counter-factual with respect to gay marriage is not “what if this movement had never happened” but “what if the balance of power had tipped the other way for longer.” I suspect he is correct that what that would mean is that liberal enclaves would do more and more to undermine the marriage norm by “thickening” alternatives to marriage – domestic partnerships and the like – and that these, in turn, would become preferable to marriage for the rising generation of young urbanites – again, assuming that these liberal enclaves continued to exist, and exhibit high tolerance for homosexuality. That being the case, the question – as Andrew Sullivan posed it repeatedly to David Frum over the years, Frum being well-aware of these alternative approaches to the marriage “problem” and their potential normative costs – is: what, in your worldview, are you offering to gay people, if not marriage? And there was never a good answer to that. And, there being no good answer – good in the sense of being something that would be readily accepted as an answer – the marriage movement grew, and burgeoned.
I understand the anti-same-sex-marriage argument. I used to adhere to one version of it, though I abandoned it within a couple of years of my articulation. It is rooted in a conviction that men and women are fundamentally different and that the law needs to be deeply cognizant of that difference. That last part is essential to the argument, and is the part that is hard to defend in a liberal democracy.
It’s not so hard to defend in a context where liberal democracy has no formal purchase, such as a religious institution (though a religion whose sacred text includes Galatians 3:28 stands on tricky ground to defend the fundamentality of male-female complementarity). So Daniel McCarthy’s conclusion is correct: the question for those who hold to the fundamentality of distinctions between men and women is how to defend it within their own social spheres. Without articulating the argument in full (that will have to wait until another time), I think the preferable grounds is not individual liberty but collective autonomy. That is to say: the question should not be my individual negative freedom to believe and practice as I wish, free of social constraint, but the positive value to society as a whole of incubating social entities that, as a matter of collective constitution, do not conform to the social norms of the wider society. Those are the terms under which my people needed to justify their sometimes radical dissent from the norms of the societies in which they resided, whether Hellenistic or Roman or Zoroastrian or Christian or Muslim, and notwithstanding periodic and horrific ructions the Jewish story as a whole is filled more with triumph than with tragedy. There might be something to learn from it.
Regardless, the first point for conservatives to recognize is that an argument cannot be unmade. History has no endpoint, but it does proceed dialectically, at least within a society: one argument, whether articulated intellectually or embodied in social “forces,” is resolved, and thereby engenders another. And you cannot proceed in reverse; time’s arrow points in one direction only. The Counter-Reformation Church was necessarily a different thing from the pre-Reformation Church, and one must even ask, by way of counterfactuals, how the hegemonic Church was changed not merely by the challenge posed by the Cathars, but by the Church’s determination to meet that challenge by obliterating them. The challenge of the modern understanding of homosexuality, and political the self-consciousness of gay men and lesbians, is a reality. It can’t be wished away. It can only be responded to, and any response, whether accommodative or repressive, will have consequences, for both sides.
I wish I had something useful to say. In the absence of one, I encourage you to read John B. Judis who, unlike myself, was wise enough to see the criminal folly of the Iraq War beforehand and not only after the fact.
What’s striking about the piece, though, is the disconnect between where he begins and where he ends.
In the six months before the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the six weeks after the invasion (culminating in George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech), I often compared my situation in Washington to that of Jeannette Rankin, the Montana congresswoman and pacifist who voted against entry into both World War I and II. Not that I would have voted against declaring war in 1941; the comparison was to her isolation, not with her isolationism.
There were, of course, people who opposed invading Iraq—Illinois State Senator Barack Obama among them—but within political Washington, it was difficult to find like-minded foes.
But it turns out not to be the case that there were no dissenters – in fact, dissent was rampant. It just wasn’t heard:
I found fellow dissenters to the war in two curious places: the CIA and the military intelligentsia. That fall, I got an invitation to participate in a seminar at the Central Intelligence Agency on what the world would be like in fifteen or twenty years. I went out of curiosity—I don’t like this kind of speculation—but as it turned out, much of the discussion was about the pending invasion of Iraq. Except for me and the chairman, who was a thinktank person, the participants were professors of international relations. And almost all of them were opposed to invading Iraq. . . .
I had a similar experience when I talked to Jon Sumida, a historian at the University of Maryland, who specializes in naval history and frequently lectures at the military’s colleges. Sumida told me that most of the military people he talked to—and he had wide contacts—were opposed to an invasion. I confirmed what Sumida told me a year or so later when I was invited to give a talk on the Iraq war at a conference on U.S. foreign policy at Maryland. A professor from the Naval War College was to comment on my presentation. I feared a stinging rebuttal to my argument that the United States had erred in invading Iraq, but to my astonishment, the professor rebuked me for not being tough enough on the Bush administration. . . .
The people who had the most familiarity with the Middle East and with the perils of war were dead set against the invasion. That includes not only the CIA analysts and the military professors, but also the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which rejected the administration’s claims that Iraq was about to acquire nuclear weapons.
And yet he concludes:
My own experience after Powell’s speech [of wavering in his opposition to the war] bears out the tremendous power that an administration, bent on deception, can have over public opinion, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And when the dissenters in the CIA, military, and State Department are silenced, the public—not to mention, journalists—has little recourse in deciding whether to support what the administration wants to do. Those months before the Iraq war testify to the importance of letting the public have full access to information before making decisions about war and peace. And that lesson should be heeded before we rush into still another war in the Middle East.
But the dissenters weren’t “silenced” so much as ignored – and not only by the Administration. They were ignored when they testified before Congress. They were ignored by the press. They were ignored by ordinary people – like myself – in personal conversation. I remember vividly having an argument with an intelligent, non-ideological friend who opposed the war simply because he saw that the case for it was absurdly threadbare. When I couldn’t actually refute his arguments, I changed them in my own mind to easier-to-defeat straw men, the better to preserve my already-settled opinion. Yes, we were deceived about any number of matters – but we, official Washingtonians and ignorant college students, wanted to be deceived. Because we wanted to go to war.
I remember ten years ago, watching video of the first missile attacks on Iraq on the televisions over our trading floor. A friend and colleague from Brussels was visiting the office that day, and he observed the traders whooping and cheering each explosion. And his face turned gray, as he muttered something about the “Nazi mentality” on display, and I remember taking silent offense at his outrageous comparison. But nobody on that trading floor was thinking of the nobility of our cause in Iraq. They were just glad to see us taking it to the bad guys, and hard. That, most fundamentally, is why we went to war – and WMD, democracy promotion, access to oil, all the various articulated justifications were so much back-filling to an already decided course of action.
The lesson of Iraq isn’t that the public should have “full access to information” before making decisions about war and peace. The public had access to dissenting opinion and information, if it wanted to hear, as did the press that could have broadcast such views more widely, just as today the press and public have plenty of access to dissenting views on the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear program and the likely costs and consequences of military action. Access to information isn’t enough – you have to want to hear it.
No, the lesson of Iraq is that war is hell, and that unleashing hell is not just another policy option. If we haven’t learned that lesson, we haven’t really learned anything.
I ended my post on Cyprus by talking in veiled terms about the need for institutional reform to make Europe “work.” At the risk of repeating things I’ve said many times before, let me explain what I mean.
I’ll use this Matt Yglesias post as a jumping-off point. Yglesias provides two very useful graphs illustrating the success of German monetary policy (as executed by the European Central Bank), and the failure of monetary policy in much of the rest of the Euro-zone (as executed by the same monetary authority). The graphs are so good that I’m going to steal them:
As you can see, Germany’s nominal GDP has returned to the pre-crisis trend, while the rest of Europe has been limping along with virtually no nominal growth. Yglesias’s conclusion is that the ECB is basically making monetary policy with regard only for economic conditions in Germany, and without regard for policy elsewhere in Europe. And that this is both unworkable and unfair.
Unworkable it may be – but it’s exactly what the ECB was created to do. Germany’s agreement to the formation of the Euro was predicated on the assumption that the ECB would be run like the old Bundesbank. For the Euro to work, in other words, everybody would have to learn to get along with German monetary policy. A Euro that behaved like an agglomeration of the Deutschmark, the French Franc, the Italian Lira, etc. would never have been acceptable to the Germans, and everybody knew it at the time.
Not only did everybody know this, it was a major selling point for the Euro to the Southern European nations. Countries like Italy with a history of devaluation had to pay more interest on their debt than countries with more conservative monetary policy. By adopting the Euro, Italy could reduce the interest expense on its debt, precisely because the Euro would be more Deutschmark-like than Lira-like. The lower interest expense would make it less-painful for Italy to go through the structural adjustments necessary to make its economy “work” with German monetary policy, and no longer depend on periodic devaluation to maintain nominal growth. That’s why they entered into monetary union in the first place.
In effect, the Euro was never really a “currency union” but rather was a scheme by which much of Europe would adopt the Deutschmark. There are plenty of examples of countries outsourcing their monetary policy to another country with a more disciplined central bank. Ecuador currently uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, as do El Salvador and Panama and several small island nations. The Federal Reserve does not consider economic conditions in these countries when it makes monetary policy. Nor did it consider economic conditions in Argentina when it pegged its currency to the U.S. dollar in the 1990s via a currency board. No one expects the monetary authorities in Frankfurt to consider African economic conditions in setting monetary policy for the Euro, even though much of Western and Central Africa uses the CFA Franc, which is pegged to the Euro (as it was pegged to the French Franc before).
Naturally, we don’t generally talk about Italy’s participation in the Euro as being comparable to Ecuador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar, but that’s political reticence. A cold-eyed description of the transaction that created the Euro would show more similarities than differences.
Now, of course, this is all falling apart, as these things often do – the CFA Franc devalued sharply in 1994, and Argentina dropped its peg in 2002 – but it’s not falling apart because the ECB isn’t doing its job, or because Germany isn’t showing enough solidarity with Southern Europe. Such solidarity would have to be codified in political institutions, otherwise it would amount to Germany basically writing a blank check. A true fiscal union would put Germany formally on the hook for the troubles of Southern Europe – but would also give Germany more formal control over the structural adjustment process in those countries. In the absence of such, we’re seeing a series of ad-hoc negotiations between debtor and creditor nations, in which the creditor naturally holds more of the cards.
And I expect we’ll continue to do so, because the only major European nation to have expressed any enthusiasm, historically, for true political union is Germany. France in particular has always opposed any suggestion of European federalism. In big-picture terms, what Germany has been saying, pretty consistently, is: if you Southern European nations want to retain a high degree of national sovereignty, then learn to live with German monetary policy. If you want a say in German monetary policy, then you must give Germany a say in Europe-wide fiscal policy.
That sounds like a very sensible political posture to me. But I wouldn’t expect it to appeal to angry Greeks, Cypriots, Portuguese, Italians, or citizens of any other European state suffering under existing arrangements – nor would I expect the leaders of those countries to seek to enlighten them.
I’m not an expert on what’s going in Cyprus by any means, but let me just jot down a few points.
Cyprus allowed its banking system to grow to eight times the size of the economy, meaning that there was no possibility of making good on FDIC-style insurance if the entire banking system failed using domestic resources only; they would require foreign aid. Once you say that, you recognize that “insured” depositors were really beggars. And beggars can’t be choosers.
Cyprus’s banking system got so big in part due to a very large influx of foreign deposits, particularly from Russia. Iceland got into a similar fix in 2008 with an influx of money from Britain and the Netherlands, which Icelandic banks invested in risky securities. The Icelandic banks failed, and the Icelandic government pointedly refused to honor insurance of foreign-owned accounts. In other words, they discriminated dramatically in favor of Icelandic citizens. Cyprus declined to do this.
Why did Cyprus decline to follow Iceland’s example, and choose to punish both domestic and foreign investors? The likely reason is that Cyprus was trying to preserve its status as a banking haven, and discriminating dramatically against foreign depositors would pretty much shut that business down. So Cypriot savers are being taxed in order to preserve Cyprus’s banks ability to continue to market their services to foreign depositors.
Why might Brussels also have preferred Cypriots to take a big share of the pain, rather than focusing on foreign depositors? Well, think of the precedent that the alternative would have set within the Euro zone. Do the Germans really want to suggest that the right way to deal with a financial crisis is to maximize the pain born by foreign investors? In general, a more nationalistic approach is much more workable when you control your own currency, which you can devalue as necessary to cushion the pain of default, and which you can even limit the convertibility of to prevent capital flight (as Malaysia did during the Southeast Asian crises of 1997).
The Cyprus bailout is an ugly deal that in many ways privileges “undeserving” parties. Greek depositors pay nothing while Cypriot depositors take a haircut; uninsured Russian depositors get a haircut instead of being wiped out before insured depositors get hit; investors in Cyprus’s sovereign debt don’t get hit even though properly a foreign bailout of a national banking system is indistinguishable from a bailout of the sovereign (since, if the sovereign bailed out the banking system, it would need a bailout itself to remain solvent – see, e.g., Ireland, which did exactly that). Most notably, the terms appear to be designed to preserve the viability of a banking industry primarily oriented towards “hot” foreign money, which is probably not in the long-term interests of most Cypriots. But ugly deals are what you’d expect to get when powerful creditors get into a room with weak debtors, and when the debtors’ representatives have a degree of conflict of interest.
The only solution to the series of ad-hoc solutions to financial crises within the Euro-zone is institutional reform: not only a central European regulatory authority but a central fiscal authority. But such institutional reform would probably also make Cyprus’s oversized banking system impossible, and would further limit Cyprus’s sovereignty, subordinating it more comprehensively to Brussels. I would be surprised if recent events make Cypriots, or the citizens of other peripheral countries, more amenable to such reforms than they were before.
Daniel McCarthy’s cover story on how the Iraq War has become the GOP’s Vietnam is very much worth reading, but I fear that after finishing it I remained unconvinced. Here are three reasons why.
First, I’m unconvinced that Vietnam is the key reason why the Democrats lost their status as the majority party. Rather, I believe it was overwhelmingly domestic policy considerations – and particularly the nexus of race and crime – that overwhelmingly drove the “Silent Majority” into the arms of Richard Nixon, and, subsequently, motivated the Democrats of Macomb County, Michigan, to pull the lever for Ronald Reagan.
That doesn’t mean Vietnam was irrelevant, but in the absence of the currents of domestic social change, I suspect the Vietnam debacle would have looked more like, say, the Korean War, the memory of which did contribute to the Democrats’ losses in 1952 and 1956, but did not lead to a long-term realignment. There is a tendency to attribute those social changes to the disillusion caused by the Vietnam War, but I suspect this is also a mistake – the Generation of ’68 was a global phenomenon.
Second, there’s an asymmetry between the two cases in that the GOP has, certainly since 1980 and arguably since 1972, consistently been perceived as the more hawkish of the two parties. Whereas there was a distinctive “left-Jeffersonian” wing of the Democratic Party from the post-Watergate Congress onward, a comparable “right-Jeffersonian” wing does not really exist within the GOP, apart from Ron Paul. (It remains to be seen what his son is aiming at; I suspect it is something rather different.) The predominant GOP response to the foreign policy disasters of the Bush Administration has been to double down.
Logically, you would think this would be disastrous politics, but I’m not convinced that it is. Losing wars may make people more risk-averse, but it more-reliably makes them more nationalistic. The GOP brand is deeply nationalist, and so in foreign policy it is more logical for the GOP to position itself as the party more certain to “keep Americans safe” or to advance American power, than to position itself as the party more likely to “keep America out of war.” Moreover, the perverse consequence of the GOP’s doubling down is that the entire foreign policy conversation has been pulled in a decidedly aggressive direction, which in turn validates the GOP’s existing brand.
Finally, the data doesn’t support Daniel McCarthy’s conclusions. Take a look at the polling data that Daniel Larison presents in this post. According to Gallup, while every age cohort thinks the Iraq War was a mistake, the most supportive cohort is 18-29 year olds. The second most supportive is 30-49 year olds. The least supportive are the over-65 contingent. The data is similar with respect to Afghanistan (30-49 year olds are somewhat more supportive than 18-29 year olds of that conflict), and also with respect to Vietnam, a war those two youngest cohorts cannot remember. Indeed, a majority of 18-29 year olds think the Vietnam War was not a mistake, while the overwhelming majority of the over-65 cohort, who actually remember that war, do consider it to have been a mistake.
But which cohort is trending toward the GOP, and which is trending away?
The data is a little old (June 2012), but what it shows is that the age cohort most opposed (in retrospect) to the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and (way back when) Vietnam is the only cohort that has trended strongly towards the GOP since 2008, while the cohort that has moved most strongly away from the GOP – the Millennials – is also the cohort that is the least averse to foreign intervention, as represented by their attitudes towards America’s three largest and longest wars of recent memory.
Data like that require interpretation, of course. My inclination is to say that this younger contingent is more likely than the older generation to have internalized the assumptions of permanent war, because these were part of the general atmosphere in which they came of age. That doesn’t mean that an ultra-hawkish pitch is the way to their hearts, but it makes it harder to claim that such a pitch is a sure way of losing their votes.
Even if my interpretation is wrong, the data still point away from McCarthy’s conclusions. If the cohort that claims the largest share of support for the Iraq War is also the least-supportive of the GOP, and the cohort that claims the smallest share of support is the most-supportive, then it’s hard to argue that foreign policy generally, and attitudes towards the Iraq War specifically, are what is driving the collapse of the GOP brand among the young, and among the country at large.
A well-deserved reputation for incompetence is hardly an electoral asset, of course. So I would like to believe that Daniel McCarthy is right, because it suggests that what would be good for the country would also be good politics. But I’m not convinced that exorcizing a reputation for “resentment, recession, and insecurity” requires repudiating the Bush Administration’s disastrous foreign policy.
After all, the last Republican candidate to do a halfway decent job of making over the GOP’s reputation in an upbeat and forward-looking direction was . . . George W. Bush.