Saturday, December 27, 2014

One More Comment on Right Wing Populism

A quick recap.  I had previously stated that typical populists call themselves the voice of the people and both punch up and kick down.  I defined left wing populism as a populism that predominantly punches up rather than kicking down and "pure" left wing populism that solely punches up.  I further defined right wing populism as populism that predominantly kicks down and commented that I did not know of any "pure" right wing populism that kicked down only without punching up.  As an afterword, I commented that I did not know how to classify a populism that scapegoats a wealthy but politically powerless ethnic or religious minority.  Is that punching up or kicking down?

I later modified my definition of right wing populism by taking into account not only whether it predominantly punches up or kicks down, but who it punches up at.  If it punches up in a manner consistent with Jonathan Haidt's conservative values, it might be right wing.  In other words, to punch up against an outside elite infringing our in-group's autonomy and sovereignty, or against a new-fangled or secular elite that lacks respect for tradition or offends our concept of the sacred, that is consistent with right wing populism.  Left wing populist punching up, by contrast, will mostly be anger at the wealthy and belief that they are exploiting us.

Then I thought about the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan.  Its main goal was to maintain the traditional racial hierarchy and keep the newly freed slaves in the place.  In other words, it was right wing because it focused on kicking down.  And, unlike other Southern populist movements, either before or after the war, it was in no way hostile to the South's traditional planter elite.  Had I finally stumbled across that elusive creature, a populism that kicks down only and does not punch up? The answer had to be no.  The Klan did not punch up at the South's traditional elite, but it did punch up at a new, non-traditional elite.  It punched up at the Federal Government, at Yankee carpetbaggers, and at southern Republicans (Scalawags).

And then another though occurred to me.  Contrary to what some old Dunning School histories of the Reconstruction might suggest, the Yankee carpetbagger was nothing new.  Long before the Civil War, many of the South's merchants, traders, bankers, businessmen, steamboat companies, insurance industry, peddlers, and many school masters and skilled craftsmen, had been northern.   Southerners considered farming as the noblest profession and all these urban activities as degrading.  These northern businessmen had long been resented and suspecting of exploiting honest but naive farmers. Complaints about the evil carpetbaggers in the Reconstruction were just the same, now amplified in that these Yankees were now associated the Federal Government and racial equality, two things Southerns despised.

And, after all, the Yankee carpetbagger (before or after the war) simply played the same role in the South as Jews in Europe, Arabs in East Africa, Indians in West Africa, and Chinese in Southeast Asia.  In short, punching up that spares local and traditional elites, but targets a wealthy but politically powerless outside group is part and parcel of right wing populism, at least when combined with kicking down.  (Left to be seen: How much does punching out at wealthy outsiders correlate with kicking down and punching up at local and traditional elites correlate with not kicking down).

Central Banks and Philosopher Kings

Let me put in another comment about the difficulty of democracy in dealing with economic crises.  It comes down to one basic thing: Counter cyclical is counter intuitive.  Contrary to what many people believe, democracy is good as calling for sacrifices, so long as those sacrifices are intuitively satisfying.  What it is not good at is violating people's intuitions about what should be done.

An oligarchy is even worse.  Elite and popular intuitions about how to deal with an economic crisis are the same.  The difference is that if the situation gets bad enough, the public becomes willing to do anything, even violate its intuitions, for an improvement.  Elites, feeling the pain less and the need to be right more, seem to have an unlimited appetite for other people's pain in defense of their intuitions.

So it can be very tempting to look for a philosopher king, or at least an economist king, to take over in times of economic crisis to trample on people's intuitions and revive the economy and then turn power over to usual democratic process when the crisis is over.  Of course, the big question is where to find those philosopher kings, how to make them do the right thing, and how to get rid of them once the crisis is over.

The first one is the easiest to answer.  The accepted candidate for philosopher king is the central bank.  Now what?  Europe's economic crisis, besides undermining my faith in democracy and in "enlightened" elites, has not given me a lot of confidence in central banker philosopher kings either.  Of course, I never had much confidence in central banker philosopher kings to begin with. Watching the IMF in action can do that to you.  But in the latest crisis, the IMF gives evidence of having actually learned something.  The Federal Reserve has done reasonable job, at least compared with everyone else in this country.  The Bank of Japan is working on it.  And (if Krugman is to be believed) even the European Central Bank is starting to show some common sense except for its German members.

So, if we are going to look to central banks to be our philosopher kings, how will we get them to take the role, and to relinquish it?  The most promising answer I find there is with Scott Sumner and his proposal for nominal GDP targeting.  Basically, in Sumner's view, we should keep our central banker philosopher kings permanently, but theirs should be strictly a limited monarchy.  They should keep our nominal GDP growing at a certain rate per year and leave everything else to the normal democratic process.  In this, it should be noted, he comes into conflict with a slightly trollish commenter who insists that central banks should act as a sort of domestic IMF from the bad old days, deciding what our policy should be and enforcing it by the threat to blow up the economy.  Sumner disagrees.  Central banks should keep nominal GDP growing at a steady rate and let the public decide what to do with it.

This approach, if it can be made to work, has some huge advantages.  The most obvious one, and the one that makes central banks the usual candidate for philosopher kings, is that central banks operate somewhat outside of the public eye, and most people do not understand monetary policy or even think much about it.  Central banks are not trampling so much on people's intuitions if people do not have intuitions about central banking to begin with.

It also resolves Paul Krugman's primary problem with monetary policy.  Monetary policy, he warns, can work at the zero lower bound, but only if central bankers solemnly pledge to raise inflation rates.  But calling for higher inflation goes against most people's intuition, especially when they are feeling a squeeze, because most people think of inflation solely in terms of increased prices and not increased wages.*  And furthermore, increasing inflation goes very much against central bankers' intuitions, since they traditionally see their job as taking away the punch bowl before the party gets out of hand. But calling it nominal GDP targeting allows central bankers to pledge to deliver higher inflation without coming right out and calling it higher inflation.  The question, of course, is whether they can be convincing while using euphemisms.

And it allows central bankers to work their way around another intuition that had gotten in the way of fighting the economic crisis -- the idea that policies should reflect universal and timeless truths and therefore never change.  The idea that what is a good policy in good times is not a good policy in bad times, or when we hit the zero lower bound, the old rules no longer apply, is simply not one that a lot of people can grasp.  But nominal GDP targeting gives bankers a convenient out.  They are not changing policy, they are always applying the same one -- seeking a fixed nominal GDP growth.

And, as discussed above, it limits the role of our philosopher kings to keeping a steady growth rate while the rest of us can continue democratic politics as usual about everything else.

And, although not one of the advantages of nominal GDP targeting, it at least helps me understand why certain libertarians, especially Austrian and Austrian-esque types hate central bankers so much. They fear central bankers as potential philosopher kings.

As for the drawbacks of having nominal GDP-targeting central bankers as our limited philosopher monarchs, the drawback is obvious -- will it work in the real world.  Or, as Brad DeLong puts it:
I believe in nominal GDP targeting–especially if coupled with some version of “social credit” at or near the zero lower bound. But a look back at the history of ideas about a proper “neutral” monetary policy–Newton’s fixed price of gold, Hayek’s fixed nominal GDP level, Fisher’s fixed price-level commodity basket, Friedman’s stable M2 growth rate, the NAIRU targeting of the 1970s, Bernanke’s inflation-targeting—leads immediately to the conclusion that anybody who claims to have uncovered the Philosopher’s Stone here is a madman. How can you reassure me that I (and you) are not mad?
*Nor is this intuition altogether wrong.  Inflation is used as relatively painless way to reduce real wages by having prices rise faster than wages.

Police/Community Relations: Killing is the Tip of the Iceberg

Let us start with some statistics.  We are told that the number of police killed on the job in 2013 was at an all-time low of 27.  Closer investigation makes that look like a statistical blip.  From 1991 to 2012, the overall number has ranged from around 40 to around 70, with, at most, a minimal downward trend.  The year 2013 was an outlier, no more.  Number killings by the police found to be justifiable in 2013 were 416.  Here there has been a modest general increase since 1999.  So overall the ratio of killings by the police to killings of the police is somewhere between 5:1 and 10:1.  In a country of 300 million people, neither can be said to happen very often.

Thus when critics of the police see how uncommon it is for cops to be killed on the job, they dismiss police complaints about the dangers of the job.  And when supporters of the police see that most police killings some sort of crime or act of defiance, they dismiss community complaints about the police and say you can easily stay out of trouble.  I see a certain parallel here.  Killing is an extreme and rare measure, but to focus entirely on killing is to miss overall effect of countless smaller incidents.

Police are rarely killed on the job.  But they do face regular lesser assaults, threats, insults, expressions of resentment and so forth, to say nothing of the general exhaustion that comes with dealing day in and day out with criminals.  So too, members of the black community can avoid being killed by police with the exercise of basic common sense, but still face smaller indignities such as "being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping."  These smaller indignities hurt.  They hurt whether you are a cop or a member of the black community.  And the effect accumulates over time.

And note that this gets pointed out by both sides and fall on deaf ears.  When the latest police shooting turns out that it could have been avoided if the victim had been more compliant, champions of the black community say that regardless of this particular shooting, the overall atmosphere of harassment is the same.  When police talk about the fear and danger of their jobs, it is pointless to the low numbers of officers killed on the job; the fear and danger refer to countless smaller things as well.

And I suppose that has to be my answer to Jonah Goldberg and other like-minded libertarians as well, To Goldberg, the state is simply about violence so we should have as little of it as possible, and any law will end up with people being killed in enforcing it, so we should have as few of them as possible.  I assume that many libertarians are small business people or friends with many small business people and well acquainted with the hassles that go with extensive regulations, the red tape, the bureaucratic obstacles, the countless petty annoyances.  But these simply are not in the same category as the real fear and anger that are daily companions (on both sides) where the government's monopoly on force is really at work.

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Quick Personal Update on Obamacare and the Supreme Court

A personal note on this matter.  When the Supreme Court first accepted the challenge, I vowed to join up with some group bringing political pressure to save the subsidies.  Well, I have since given my name to Health Action New Mexico.  I spent one Saturday with them passing out brochures and urging people to sign up or get friends or family members signed up.  Although one man generally let it be known that he regarded the individual mandate as an outrage against freedom, most were friendly, even one who had signed up and then found out his coverage was dropped.  He was nowhere near as angry as he had the right to be.  (Being friends with the guy he was talking to no doubt helped).  They do not actually sign people up, but steer them to experts in navigating the system who can.

As for political action, right now they are mostly focused on extending coverage to dental care.  I said that extending coverage to dental care was all fine and good, but top priority really out to go to keeping the whole system from being overturned.  Their answer was that they are awaiting guidance from Families USA, their national organization, that will give them directions on what to do.  It was apparently Families USA that guided them in mobilizing support to persuade New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (a Republican) to accept the Medicaid expansion.  And she did, though with some hesitation.  Looking at the Families USA website, it still seems focused on how best to use the system as it is now and not the danger that the Supreme Court will unravel it.  It is frustrating.

But the infrastructure is (presumably) there, anyhow.  And the local leaders say they expect to start getting guidance on what to do about the Supreme Court in January.  So we will see.

A Quick Update on Obamacare and George Will

George Will has issued a recent column applauding Republican state Attorney Generals* for a wide range of lawsuits seeking to roll back various federal statutes and regulations, including the lawsuit preventing people who buy health insurance on a state exchange from receiving subsidies.  The overall tone of the column is a general endorsement of federalism and denunciation of federal overreaching.  Tucked away, however, is this little gem on what happens if Republicans prevail in their anti-Obamacare suit:
If the court holds that the ACA means what it plainly says, then billions of dollars have been disbursed through federal exchanges contrary to the law. The ACA will be crippled until Barack Obama negotiates help from a Republican-controlled Congress.
The key word here is "until."  Will appears to acknowledge that stripping millions of their healthcare subsidies is a surefire political loser (especially if you demand that they refund all payments).  Republicans, he seems to acknowledge, will have no choice but to correct this little error in the law.  The only question will be how large a ransom they can extort in exchange.

The future is hard to predict, but this should be reassuring to people like me.  It means that stripping people their health insurance is politically unviable, and that even Republicans will be forced to mend Obamacare.  This, in turn, means that Obamacare is here to stay, and that even if they win their Supreme Court lawsuit, Republicans will have their noses painfully rubbed in that fact.

Will tries to salvage a silver lining.  At least Republicans will be able to extort some kind of ransom in exchange.  Maybe.  But I stand by my previous statements. Seizing hostages for ransom is unpopular.  Trying to extort unpopular policies for ransom is also unpopular.  These two things tend to go together because anyone wanting to pass a popular measure has no need to take hostages to get it through.

Look, my ideal preference would be some sort of deal to fix this glitch before the Supreme Court gets the chance to rule on it.  It is my opinion that this should be doable if enough pressure is brought to bear.  The nearer the threat of people losing health insurance, the greater the pressure.  That undoubtedly means that the right time is from March (when the Supreme Court hears argument) to June (when it makes up its mind).  But Will is probably right -- if the Supreme Court actually decides to strip millions of their subsidies, the pressure will skyrocket and probably become irresistible.  I would still rather make the change before the Supreme Court makes up its  mind, though, because if the change is made after, there will be an indeterminate gap in which millions of people (some presumably with medical problems that make health insurance essential) will either go uninsured or in terror of losing their insurance and having to refund any subsidies they have paid.  This is an outcome I would prefer to avoid.

As for a deal, I have no objection to giving Republicans something in exchange for fixing this mess. That is how the game of politics is played.  Something like repeal of the employer mandate of the medical devices tax is reasonable.  For the most part, I think Republicans have the best chance for a good deal if they act before the pressure massively ratchets up as loss of insurance goes from abstract threat to immediate reality to millions.  Certainly, if they try to use millions losing their health insurance to extort something substantively unpopular, it will look very much like hostage taking. And any deal that allows the subsidies to be saved will be unacceptable to the Tea Party wing.

But Republicans do have one card up their sleeve that can do Democrats and Obamacare immense harm.  Agree to fix this glitch and allow millions to keep their subsidies -- for now.  But in exchange, demand repeal of the individual mandate.  Save Obamacare for now, in exchange for inducing the death spiral that will destroy it in the long run.  Since this provision is substantively unpopular, if President Obama makes clear that he will veto any such deal, he will look like the one taking hostages.  If they play their cards right, the Republicans can bring pressure to bear on Democrats to agree to a measure that will destroy Obamacare in the long run in exchange for saving it in the short run.  That, I think, is what we should fear most.**

*And don't tell me it should be Attorneys General.  Technically your are right, but I don't care.
**And what we should hope for is a replay of a familiar script -- the Tea Party faction refuses to pass any provision that could save Obamacare, even if millions lose their health insurance.  Republicans are therefore forced to pass the measure with the strong support of Democrats and have to make something acceptable to Democrats.  Although many moderate Democrats would probably agree to restore subsidies in exchange for repealing the individual mandate.  Thing could get rough.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Belated Post on the Budget

I know it is a little late to be posting on Congress's budget deal, but what the heck.  Once again, I can understand if Republicans see this as another episode of Lame Ducks Behaving Badly.  Congress has passed a budget that will keep the government except the Department of Homeland Security from shutting down until next December or so.  What no one has addressed is whether the debt ceiling is part of the deal. At least part of the Republicans' problem during the last debt ceiling showdown was that it occurred at the same time as a government shutdown, so naturally most people were unable to distinguish between the two.  Republicans are on better ground if they have a showdown over the debt ceiling only.  So tell me, all of you out there, was the debt ceiling part of the deal?

Also, although the rest of the government will stay open until the end of next year, the Department of Homeland Security will run out of funds next spring.  Republicans hope to use a Homeland Security shutdown as leverage for concessions on immigration.  Unlike a total government shutdown, this might work reasonably well for them.

There are three reasons government shutdowns and debt ceiling showdowns have gone badly for Republicans.  First, government shutdowns cause inconvenience.  People don't like being inconvenienced.  The claim that shutdowns are only inconvenient because Obama is making them so and that really there should be no inconvenience at all are just not convincing.  Second, both government shutdowns and debt ceiling showdowns look like hostage taking, and hostage taking is unpopular.  And finally, and I think most importantly, most of what the Republicans have tried to achieve by shutdowns and showdowns has been substantively unpopular.  This should not come as a surprise.  People don't usually have to threaten anything as drastic as to shut down the government or blow up the economy to pass popular programs, after all.  And, of course, these three reasons are closely related.

But they won't apply, or will apply much less, in a showdown over immigration and Homeland Security.  Shutting down the Department of Homeland Security will no doubt inconvenience some people.  But many fewer than a general shutdown.  I confess to not knowing all that a shutdown of Homeland Security will entail, but presumably essential personnel whose work really does implicate public safety will continue to stay on the job without pay.  Shutting down so small a part of government is a much less drastic measure than a complete shutdown or default and will presumably look a lot less like taking hostage.  But above all else, what Republicans are pushing for is much less substantively unpopular than what they have demanded in the past.

This does not necessarily mean that such a showdown will go well for Republicans.  It may, for instance, bring out a nasty nativism that will repel most people.  But I do not believe it will end in anything like the humiliating defeat that result from the last two debt ceiling showdowns.

PS:  Well, here is the answer.  The debt ceiling expires March 15, 2015.  The Treasury Department can probably keep us going for a few months with "extraordinary" measures afterward, but then there will be a new debt ceiling showdown, presumably not accompanies by a government shutdown.  My guess, as before, is that how the Republicans do will depend on how substantively unpopular they measures they are trying to get by are.  If what they intend is repealing Obamacare, they will be trying to strip millions of their health insurance and that will be unpopular.  If it is to repeal the individual mandate . . . .

A Quick Snark

So, what about those 500 Ebola cases we were supposed to have by Christmas?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Southern Populists, New England Non-Populists

Here is a column by Jonathan Chait that I disagree with.  His basic hypothesis, not very controversial, is that the basic alignment of US politics has not changed much over our history.  There is a southern-centered tradition that is deeply distrustful of the federal government (and, to a lesser degree, of government in general), that is rural, white supremacist, and pro-military.  There is also a New England-centered tradition that favors a strong federal government and public investment, champions racial minorities (sometimes rather paternalistically), and is skeptical of aggressive foreign policy unless there is a good reason for it.  The party linked with each tradition has switched sides, but the two overall traditions remain.

There is some over simplification there, but yeah, basically.  But then Chait identifies the Southern, rural, states rights viewpoint with conservative or "right wing" and the New England, pro-government, anti-racist viewpoint as liberal or "left wing."  This is a serious over simplification. Other people have seen things in the opposite view, identifying the party of the left and the racist party together at least until WWII.  Chait himself mentions Arthur Schlesinger's Age of Jackson, which salutes Jackson as the great democrat and champion of the common man and does its best to avoid talking about his white supremacism and Indian hating.  Twenty years later the book Prelude to Civil War comments how often political figures who were "liberal" on economic policy were "conservative" on slavery -- and vice versa.  And Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with deep grief about how some of the South's strongest supporters of the New Deal and railroad unions were also its most vicious racists.

To my mind, the answer once again is not to think in terms of left and right or liberal and conservative, but populist and non-populist.  And populism fits poorly on a right-left spectrum.  It leans left economically and right socially, both punches up and kicks down.  Look at Andrew Jackson.  He punched up at banks, corporations and speculators and kicked down at slaves and Indians.*  Much the same can be said about the New Deal racists.  They were economically liberal, supporters of the New Deal and the railroad unions, and socially conservative, meaning Protestant fundamentalist and opposed to liquor as well as upholding the racial hierarchy.  The punched up against both local elites and national plutocrats.  And they kicked down against black people.

Clearly there is a certain Southern populist strain that runs from Andrew Jackson down through the New Deal coalition and to the Tea Party today.  Its opponents are centered in Greater New England and find such display vulgar.  And there is no doubt that it has led to some very strange coalitions, particularly in the 1920's and '30's when the Democrats were both the party urban social liberals marked (in those days) as Catholic, pro-immigrant, and pro-alcohol (or anti-prohibition) with the South, the most Protestant, nativist, anti-alcohol region in the country.  And although racial equality was having only its earliest stirrings, and only on the radical fringe, nonetheless, the mainstream groups most likely to be sympathetic and the ones most hostile were joined in the same party.  The coalition couldn't hold for long.

So please, looking back at our past let us not try to divide the country into right and left, liberal and conservative and (above all) into good guys and bad guys.  Accept that, for all their continuities, alliances are not always the same as they are now.  But looking at the 19th Century in particular, instead of right and left, think populist and non-populist.  And remember that, although populist is often used as a pejorative, it ultimately means holding one's self out as a champion on the common people.  It can play to people's aspirations or to their resentments; it can either follow democratic rules of fair play, or champion outright mob rule.  I firmly believe that a whole lot of political alignments are better understood when seen in those terms.

*Chait is right, however, that Jackson anticipated a weird right wing extreme libertarian pro-capitalist, hard money, anti-banking tradition that embodies the Austrian School of economics, the Mises Institute, Ron Paul, and so forth.  I don't understand that tradition at all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Goldberg, Libertarians, and Law Enforcement

Jonah Goldberg has written a column on the death of Eric Garner that gives me some insight into the libertarian mindset.  He writes to defend Rand Paul's comment on the subject:
I think there’s something bigger than the individual circumstances. . . . I think it’s also important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes, so that’s driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police to say, ‘Hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ . . . For someone to die over breaking that law, there really is no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.
The choice of words is poor, Goldberg acknowledges, but the point is sound.  Because to Goldberg as a libertarian, police killing law breakers is the end point of the law -- any law.  That is why we should have as few laws as possible.  "The state is about violence. You can talk all day about how 'government is just another word for those things we do together,' but what makes government work is force, not hugs."

Thus to a libertarian like Goldberg, police-community relations, or deep hostility between police and black communities, or excessive force,or even people being killed by police are not in and of themselves important issues.  They are simply inevitable side effects of having a police force at all. This is not to suggest that Goldberg is an anarchist or wants to do away with police forces.  He simply considers it inevitable that when they enforce, they will use force, and that when they use force, sometimes it will be excessive, sometimes people will even be killed.  The best way to avoid it, from the viewpoint of a libertarian like Goldberg, is to keep our number of laws to the bare minimum necessary so that police will have as few opportunities to use excessive force as possible.

I can see some problems in that viewpoint.  For instance, even a libertarian like Goldberg presumably sees a ban on shoplifting (as was the case in Ferguson) as legitimate.  Which would mean that when the Ferguson police shot and killed a shoplifter, a libertarian could only greet it with a shrug.  Officer Wilson was upholding a legitimate law against theft.  A few incidents like this are simply the price we pay to maintain law and order.

Well, speaking as a liberal, I disagree.  It is possible to enforce the law without resort to excessive force.  The amount of force appropriate is and should be proportionate to the crime in question.  Why, earlier today, a deranged man in New York (apparently black) invaded a synagogue, stabbed a student, charged the policeman called to the scene with a knife, and was fatally shot.  I have no complaint there.  The man attempted murder and was posing a serious threat to people around him. The use of deadly force was entirely appropriate.  It is an altogether different matter from killing a shoplifter or a cigarette peddler.  And, yes, the poor state of relations between the police department and many black communities is a serious issue, whether one considers any particular regulation legitimate or not.

It does offer me some insight, though, into why libertarians like Goldberg see the most important issue of freedom and government as confining government within the narrowest possible scope, rather than properly controlling its use of force.  They have simply dismissed properly controlling its use of force as a lost cause and therefore confine themselves to minimizing such instances.

Cross posted at Enlightened Layperson.

Torture Report

Amazing.  The Senate's torture report is out and, despite my one-time obsession with the subject, I feel no urge to post about it.  One thing should be kept in mind.  Horrifying as this report is, it is only the tip of the iceberg.  It addresses torture in secret sites by the CIA.  It does not address far more widespread, though probably more amateurish, use of torture by the military (see Abu Graib).

Maybe if I have a strong stomach, I can get to it later.  But 500 pages (to say nothing of 6000!) is formidable.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Victorious General and Failures of Democracy

So, having taken at least a look at how the Roman Republic started to come unglued, it is time to consider another factor I did not take into account when I reached my preliminary hypothoses on how democracies fail -- the role of the victorious general.  I did not consider the victorious general because, so far as I can tell, the victorious general has not been particularly dangerous in modern times.  Certainly, there have been no shortage of military dictatorships, but so far as I can tell, the charismatic victorious general using his popularity (either with the troops or with the general public) to steamroll accepted procedures has not been all that common.  Far more dangerous has been military defeat and brooding resentments over it.

It is clear, though, that victorious generals could be very dangerous in classical antiquity.  I confess, I have now begun Fortune's Favorites, which makes clear that one military dictatorship sets a very bad precedent.  As soon as one victorious general marches on Rome and seizes power by force, all the others are tempted to do the same.  It was such generals who were the undoing of the Roman Republic.  In Greece, victorious generals seizing power took place much earlier on.  Aristotle, writing well after such dictatorships had ended, speculated on why dictatorships had become so much less common in his day, attributed it to a separation of civil and military authority:
Of old, the demagogue was also a general, and then democracies changed into tyrannies. Most of the ancient tyrants were originally demagogues. They are not so now, but they were then; and the reason is that they were generals and not orators, for oratory had not yet come into fashion. Whereas in our day, when the art of rhetoric has made such progress, the orators lead the people, but their ignorance of military matters prevents them from usurping power; at any rate instances to the contrary are few and slight.
This history was well known by the Founding Fathers when they started this country.  Contrary to what I learned in school, they were not in the least bit worried about the U.S. turning into a European-style hereditary monarchy.  What they were worried about was a military dictatorship, which they considered worse than a hereditary monarchy.  The record of victorious generals in ancient Greece and Rome was not reassuring.  Events in France would soon prove that such fears were not idle.  At the same time, the Founders knew that victorious generals were not necessarily dangerous.  Before the time of Marius and Sulla, Rome had many victorious generals who held high office and respected the Republic.  And they had before their own eyes a shining example in the person of George Washington, whose respect for civilian control of the military was beyond dispute.  Certainly, in school we learned about Washington's popularity and prestige.  Not emphasized was that his popularity and prestige were no different than any other victorious general's. What made him stand out was his refusal to use that popularity and prestige to usurp unconstitutional powers.  So, what made George Washington different from Napoleon Bonaparte?  Was it simply greater restraint on the part of Washington, or are victorious generals only dangerous under certain conditions?

Suffice it to say that when Andrew Jackson became President, he had several traits that made people nervous.  His populist style was alarming to people who saw populist politicians as the undoing of the Roman Republic.  His emphasis on executive power and the President and embodiment of the will of the people smacked of a charismatic dictator.  And his war hero status reminded a lot of people more of Bonaparte than Washington.  Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, rather cynically commented:
The Americans have no neighbors, and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or inroads, or conquest to dread; they require neither great taxes, nor great armies, nor great generals; and they have nothing to fear from a scourge which is more formidable to republics than all these evils combined, namely, military glory. It is impossible to deny the inconceivable influence which military glory exercises upon the spirit of a nation. General Jackson, whom the Americans have twice elected to the head of their Government, is a man of a violent temper and mediocre talents; no one circumstance in the whole course of his career ever proved that he is qualified to govern a free people, and indeed the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always been opposed to him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained in that lofty station, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained twenty years ago under the walls of New Orleans, a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement, and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people which is thus carried away by the illusions of glory is unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary (if I may use the expression), and the most prosaic of all the peoples of the earth.
At the same time, Tocqueville was well aware that there was no danger whatever of Jackson becoming a military dictator:
It has been imagined that General Jackson is bent on establishing a dictatorship in America, on introducing a military spirit, and on giving a degree of influence to the central authority which cannot but be dangerous to provincial liberties. But in America the time for similar undertakings, and the age for men of this kind, is not yet come: if General Jackson had he entertained a hope of exercising his authority in this manner, he would infallibly have forfeited his political station, and compromised his life; accordingly he has not been so imprudent as to make any such attempt.
 He goes on to say that the real danger that Jackson poses is the degree to which he undermined federal authority.

Following Jackson the U.S. had many other victorious general Presidents.  William Henry Harrison (defeated Tecumseh), Zachary Taylor (Mexican American War), and Franklin Pierce (Mexican American War) all ran as victorious generals, as was Pierce's electoral opponent, Winfield Scott.  And, of course, there were Ulysses S. Grant* (McClellan ran against Lincoln; Sherman could have been elected, but refused), Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Our democracy is none the worse for these.  Eisenhower appears to have been our last victorious general President, and our democracy is none the better for it.**

So clearly there is nothing inherently dangerous about victorious generals; the danger lies in larger body politic.  Furthermore, many modern democracies have fallen victim to military coups or dictatorships without any victorious general to lead them.  Same point.

And I really ought to put in a word about Paul von Hindenburg.  Hindenburg as (at least purportedly) a victorious general and became a popular hero on that account.  He made no secret of the fact that he was a monarchist and did not favor the Republic.  But he also respected the rule of law and pledged to take no action against the Republic unless he could persuade it by lawful means to restore the monarchy.  He kept his word.  That he ended up becoming a sort of semi-dictator had more to do with the economic crisis than any ambition on his part.  That he ended up offering the chancellorship to Hitler was more the result of bad policies, bad advisers, and bad judgment than actual evil intent. Ludendorf, of course, was a different matter altogether.

So why were victorious generals so dangerous in classical times and even as late as the French Revolution, but just not much of a factor in the 20th Century?  Of have they been more dangerous than I realize in modern times?  Another thing I hope to learn more about.

Cross-posted at Enlightened Layperson
*Grant deserves special attention because he was not only a victorious general in a civil war, but also the President who most aggressively enforced the Reconstruction, expanding federal power at the expense of the states and even going so far as to declare martial law in parts of South Carolina.  Yet even when the Reconstruction was regarded as the epitome of oppression, Grant escaped most of the blame for it and was not regarded as a real or potential military dictator.  On the contrary, he was seen as a "military imbecile" in over his head and being manipulated by the real villains like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner.
**On the other hand, we have had other generals like MacArthur, Patton, or LeMay who I would not trust anywhere near the Presidency.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What Can I Say For Liberals?

I have posted before on what I think it is to be liberal.  At the time, I said it was to place (or aspire to place) universal justice over in-group loyalty.  Another way to put it would be that there is a trade-off between breadth and depth of our social ties and (generally speaking) a liberal is one who favors breadth and a conservative is one who favors depth.  Or, most simply put. a liberal is one who seeks to broaden social ties, or to broaden the circle of people we are willing to take into account.  To be conservative (I suppose) would be to seek deeper and tighter social ties, among a more narrow circle. And to be anti-liberal is to resent liberal for seeking draw the circle too widely.

All of this came to mind after reading these recent posts mocking liberals for their concern about the Eric Garner killing.  The basic criticism of white liberals who are offended by police killing black men is (perhaps predictably) that they are phony, shallow, superficial, and inauthentic.  After all, you are professing empathy and solidarity with people you don't really know or understand.  It comes across as smug, superior and patronizing.  It is an attempt by people living in comfort and safety to appropriate for themselves someone else's trauma in order to have more excitement in their lives and to show moral superiority to the blue collar cops, or to people who don't care.

And, yes, I think there is some truth to these accusations.  Some of it is just an attempt to be trendy like boycotting GMO and keeping up with the latest food fashions.  Empathy for people you do not know, who are outside your experience is bound to be more superficial than for people you really do know and understand.  Such attempts do often mean projecting one's own interests and desires onto other people and, as such, comes across as offensively patronizing.  Worse, it can mean trying to force the purported targets of one's sympathy to meet one's own preconceived notions, a thing that can be more intrusive and offensive than simple, outright hostility, let long simple indifference.

So, as a liberal, what do I say in our defense?  I suppose that I would say that the liberal approach for all its flaws, is still better than the alternative.  The alternative, after all, is to say, why should I care, it doesn't affect me or anyone I know.  And I will grant, such a response is genuine.  It is sincere.  It is authentic.  But all that proves in the end is that genuineness and sincerity and authenticity don't count for much, in an of themselves.

Cross-posted at Enlightened Layperson

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Grass Crown: What Sulla Really Wants

Driven from Rome by a deranged Marius, Sulla resorts to a truly drastic action -- he marches his army against Rome, drives Marius and his followers out, and seizes power by force.  To describe this as shocking is a considerable understatement.  Nothing of the kind had ever happened before in centuries of Roman history.  It seems safe to say that it was probably as shocking to Sulla's contemporaries as such an event would be in the US today.  Plutarch shows a distinct ambivalence toward Sulla's actions; McCullough does as well.  One can readily understand why.  The whole episode does credit to no one.  Sulla is, after all, the lawfully elected consul and proper commander of the army in the field.  Marius is aligning himself with a gangster and thug and seems to be motivated solely by ego and a desire for power.  Plutarch also says that at this point Marius began his reign of terror (albeit on a smaller scale than it would later reach), executing Sulla's followers, i.e., the followers of the lawful consul and commander-in-chief.  (McCullough omits this detail).  So his overall behavior is appalling.

But so is the behavior of Sulla, who then marches an army against his own city, an unheard-of thing. Nor does he shine once he arrives.  Plutarch reports that he threatened to burn houses down. McCullough actually downplays this, treating it as a bluff and says that he warned his soldiers not to commit any outrage against the Roman population, even executing one for looting.  And he reasons with the people, pointing out that Sulpicius' measure expelling most of the Senate for debt is hardly compatible with any sort of debt relief and that Marius, though a great man (he takes care to express only praise for Marius) is in failing health and simply not up to the responsibilities of a command.

He then enacts major political changes that certainly appear to be historical, but that Plutarch does not so much as mention.  Remember the post on Roman political institutions?  Sulla made major changes that are revealing, both as to his social vision, and as to why enacting major changes to institutions is difficult -- because they have entrenched power and the capacity to defend themselves.  McCullough reports (probably accurately) that Sulla phased in his changes strategically, starting with the least objectionable to disguise the full impact of what he was doing.  First he suspended the usual requirement of an interval between when a measure was proposed and when it was enacted. Excusable, for a military commander in a hurry to go off and win his war.  Next he repealed all Sulpicius' measures, again perhaps understandable in that they were enacted by violence.  And he enlarged the Senate to make it functional again, a perfectly reasonable measure.  But then his then he begins to move in a more alarming direction.  First, he modifies the Centuriate Assembly (remember, the one divided into classes) to give nearly half of all power to the first class (the richest class).  Next, he limits the tribal assemblies' legislative power to voting up or down on measures passed by the Senate.  No longer can consuls or tribunes propose legislature to the assemblies without the Senate's permission, nor can they modify any proposal.  Finally, he ends the tribal assemblies' authority to legislate at all and vests it solely in the Centuriate Assembly.  In other words, he gets the tribal assemblies to vote away their own legislative power and vest it solely in an assembly controlled by Rome's richest class.  It seems a safe assumption that they would not have done such a thing except in the presence of an army fingering its swords, with no threat openly made, but one clearly implied.

Consider, then what Sulla's new governmental institutions look like.  The Senate, in addition to its old powers, has the sole power to initiate (though not to pass) legislation.  Legislation will be voted up or down in the Centuriate Assembly, where only the richest class has any real power.  This oligarchic assembly will also elect consuls, praetors, and censors, the only executive officials with real policy-making power.  The Assembly of the Whole will be limited to electing tertiary executive officials whose powers are mostly administrative.  The Plebeian Assembly will be limited to electing tribunes.  Tribunes can no longer initiate legislation, but will still have the veto power.  In short, what Sulla is making looks a lot like the narrow and tight oligarchy at the beginning of the Republic.  And this is revealing as to his ultimate vision.  It would suggest that what Sulla really wanted in the long run was not a dictatorship, but a narrow and tight oligarchy of a kind that had not existed in centuries. And Plutarch does not so much as mention any of these measures, although they must certainly have contributed to Sulla's unpopularity.

Finally, Sulla proclaimed a sentence of outlawry on a number of his opponents, including Marius and Sulpicius.  They must flee or be killed.  Sulla lets most of them escape, especially Marius who is too popular to kill, but he puts Sulpicius' head on a spike.  Then he returns to the wars.

Naturally, all these measures make Sulla deeply unpopular.  After the next election, all ten tribunes are opponents.  Of the two consuls, Gnaeus Octavius is a supporter and Lucius Cornelius Cinna an opponent.  Naturally, rivalry between these two consuls escalates and threatens to tear Rome asunder. Here Plutarch is hopelessly biased against Cinna and McCullough hopelessly biased against Octavius, so it is hard to tell exactly what happened.  It appears that Cinna sought to reverse Sulla's measures and Octavius to maintain them.  Both appear to have resorted to force.  It seems most likely the Cinna resorted to force first, since, like the tribal assemblies before, the first class in the Centuriate Assembly would presumably not give up their lock on power voluntarily.  McCullough has him attempt bribery instead -- offer to cancel debts if the Centuriate Assembly will reverse Sulla's measures.  But given that they benefited from these measures, no matter how illegitimate and unconstitutional their enactment, it seems unlikely that Cinna could have hoped to get his way except by force.

Plutarch, on the other hand, describes Octavius as "a most excellent man [who] wished to rule in the justest way" and Cinna as "making war on the established constitution," a charge that would carry more force if Sulla had not just "established" the constitution at sword's point.  Plutarch neglects to mention that Octavius sent armed followers against Cinna, who killed large numbers of citizens, or that he unconstitutionally deposed Cinna and the tribunes of Cinna's faction and sent them into exile. Once again, the whole episode resounds to no one's credit.

In exile, Marius and Cinna raise their own armies and lead them against Rome.  All-out civil war ensues.  Both sides offer citizenship to any non-citizen Italians who will support them.  The Italians respond with a will.  Marius trades on his popularity, but by now he has completely lost his mind and is surrounded by equally deranged ex-slaves who engage in wanton slaughter.  Cinna, commanding a separate army from Marius, refuses to accept the warning from one of Marius' oldest friends (who is also a cousin) and from his own son that Marius is unstable and should not be trusted.  (Does that seem likely?  You would think that if a man's closest friends and his own son tell a distant acquaintance not to trust him, the distant acquaintance would take the warning seriously).  Marius and his bodyguard seize Rome and launch a campaign of wanton slaughter until Marius has a stroke and dies.  McCullough takes care to acquit Cinna of any complicity in the slaughter and portray him as a decent guy.  Plutarch's description suggests that there may be some truth to the belief that Marius was deranged, at least during his final illness.  But he does not dismiss the mad slaughter as simply the work of one deranged man; he full implicates Cinna and Marius' son in it as well.  McCullough believes that the reign of terror ended when Marius died and his bodyguard was killed off.  Plutarch says that it continued.

Clearly in the final chapters, things go from bad to worse quite quickly, as appears to be the case in real life.  Just before his fatal stroke, Marius names the young Caesar flamens dialis, or high priest of Jupiter, nominally a great honor, practically, the end of any political or military career for him.

Unlike First Man in Rome, which ends with a sense of completion and seeming peace, The Grass Crown ends with things very much in the air.  The Mithriditic War is still raging, and Sulla will not calmly accept what his enemies have done.  We are left hanging.

The Grass Crown: Marius Succumbs to the Dark Side

I have compared First Man in Rome to The Phantom Menace for a reason.  Both are the first installment in a saga about how the Republic fell and the Empire took its place.  Both tell how the Republic faced a seeming danger, defeated it, and reached a seeming happy ending, only to discover that this as a mere prelude -- a phantom menace while the real danger continued to lurk.  And both offer a hero you are invited to root for even though you know (at least if you know anything about Roman history) that he will ultimately succumb to the Dark Side.  In the sequel, he does.

At the end of the Italian War Sulla, now a war hero to equal Marius, is elected consul.  But his inauguration is ruined when Marius shows up and gets more cheers than Sulla.  The author does not explore why in too much detail.  Presumably Marius is so popular because he is a war hero.  But Sulla is now a war hero to equal him, and a more recent one, too. Possibly Marius is more popular because he is remote enough to be an elder statesman and not someone the Romans have to deal with in the here and now.  But the author seems to imply that Marius upstages Sulla because he is the more charismatic.  An important qualification is in order here. Charisma is not the same as beauty.  Sulla is by far the more handsome.  He also has a whole lot more sex appeal.  But he is also more cool and standoff-ish.  And (the author seems to imply) Marius simply has the common touch in a way that Sulla never had.  Although Marius means no harm, Sulla bitterly resents being upstaged by him.  And yet the author cannot conceal that, although their falling out did credit to neither of them, Marius was the more to blame in starting it .

Sulla begins his consulship quite reasonably.  War has
devastated Italy.  The economy is in ruins.  Debts are unpayable. Between the expense of the war and Drusus' currency debasement, there has been major inflation and interest rates have skyrocketed. There is widespread outcry to cancel debts.  An earlier politician tried to outlaw interest and was torn asunder by outraged bankers (or at least a mob hired by outraged bankers).  Sulla makes a reasonable compromise.  He recognizes that to cancel debts or abolish interest will wreck Rome's credit system, and that to insist in payment in full will cause universal bankruptcy.  So he allows only simple interest and only at the original rate, a significant concession given the inflation that has taken place.  Although in most lawsuits the parties are required to post bond equal to the amount in dispute, he authorizes the judge to waive bond in suits for debt.  No one is very happy with the compromise, but all recognize it as necessary.  He says that he opposes extending citizenship to the Italians, but will respect the law and allow all citizenship extended to stand.  It is hard to find anything to criticize there.

Then Mithridates of Pontus, taking advantage of Rome's weakened condition, seizes large amounts of the eastern empire and massacres every Roman and Italian in the territory he has captured.  Rome has a war on its hands that it is in no condition either to fight or to finances.  Sulla desperately scrambles to get resources together and grapples with the very real problem of how to finance the war.  Marius, showing increasing signs of derangement since his stroke, demands to be given command and is overruled due to his age and ill health.  He also dismisses practical concerns about how to finance operations.

And then there is Sulpicius.  He is introduced as a conservative tribune, so conservative that he vetoes the sensible suggest to recall everyone banished for proposing such citizenship.  He had zealously fought in the civil war and been implicated in its worst atrocities.  When Pompey the Cross-Eyed Butcher celebrated his triumph but did not have a foreign king to parade through the streets, Sulpicius rounded up Italian children orphaned by Pompey's wars, marched them through the streets in the parade, and then threw them out of the city and left them to their fate.  But Mithridates' massacres change his viewpoint.  If foreigners make no distinction between Roman and Italian, he concludes that his whole perspective was wrong.  Suddenly he assumes the role of a demagogue, railing against Rome's ruling class.

Is this justified?  On the one hand, Rome's ruling class had resisted admitting the Italians to citizenship, leading to a ruinous civil war that left Italy in ruins and culminated in the Italians becoming citizens anyhow.  Then a hostile foreign leader took advantage of Rome being weakened by civil war to seize many Roman possessions and massacre all Romans and Italians in his power.  So on one hand yes, Rome's rulers have clearly let the people down, and the people have legitimate reason to be angry with them.  On the other hand, in refusing Italian citizenship and setting off this ghastly chain of events, Rome's leaders were doing exactly what public opinion wanted them to, so really the people of Rome had no one to blame but themselves.

Sulpicius undertakes several measures.  One is to recall everyone exiled for supporting Italian citizenship, which is certainly reasonable.  One distributes Italians and freedman among all the Roman tribes.  This is popular among the Italians, who are seeing their power made proportionate to their numbers.  It is popular with Rome's urban residents because many of Italians and freedmen are urban dwellers who will increase the city's strength.  But it is unpopular among the rural tribes who see their voting strength diluted.  It is controversial but defensible.  But he also proposes to expel from the Senate anyone with debts over quite a modest sum.  The practical upshot is that the Senate will not be able to muster a quorum.  Remember the important functions of the Senate -- authorizing expenditures, appointing provincial governors, foreign and imperial affairs.  To destroy such an important part of the government without finding anything to replace it is not just radical, it is completely crazy.

A shrewd observer of the scene contrasts Sulpicius with Saturninus, the chief demagogue in the last crisis.  Saturninus rose to power in a time of food shortages.  His primary constituency were the poorest Romans because they were most effected.  His goal was his own power.  Sulpicius, by contrast, can to power at a time of excess debt.  Since the poor have little debt (and most of it in the informal sector), his primary constituency is the middle class.  His goal is not to advance his own power, but to overturn the power of Rome's current rulers.

Unable to seize power on his own, Sulpicius seeks Marius' support.  Marius, who didn't hesitate to crush Saturninus in the last book, agrees on one condition -- that he be given command of the army in the East.  Sulpicius agrees and ads this to his measures. When the measures meet with resistance, Sulpicius sends armed me in to the forum and violence breaks out.  Sulla's co-consul and the co-consul's son are killed.  Sulla goes to Marius' house to try to reason with him and finds Marius in no mood to talk.  There is no doubt left -- Marius has become deranged and cares for nothing but his own command, regardless of who he harms in the process.  Sulla leaves, but prepares to exercise Second Amendment solutions.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Grass Crown: The Growing Antagonism

The main subject of The Grass Crown is Marius and Sulla's growing antagonism and its (at least temporary) destruction of the Roman Republic.  When the story opens, Marius' career seems to be in decline, while Sulla's has not taken off yet.  Marius is popular as a war hero, but but his  popularity, at least with the Senate, grows in proportion to his apparent decline.  They love him at a safe distance only.  Both men on separate occasions confront Mithridates of Pontus, an eastern despot seeking to expand his power and behaving like an eastern despot, i.e., regularly and arbitrarily killing anyone from his closest and most loyal advisers to his family members and making the general point that Rome, for all its faults, is a high trust society by comparison.  Both men are able to intimidate Mithridates and keep him from growing so big as to be a threat to Rome.  Plutarch, by the way, accuses Marius of deliberately seeking to stir up war with Mithridates to revive his lagging career.  McCullough does not appear to take that accusation seriously.

Sulla also reminds us that he is the villain by poisoning Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, a conservative politician who was Marius' arch-enemy and went into exile rather than take an oath to uphold Marius' distribution of land to his soldiers.*  There is no historical evidence of this whatever, although there were rumors that Numidicus was poisoned by Quintus Varius.  However, Sulla's poisoning of Numidicus serves more purposes than just to remind us that he is evil.  For one thing, it allows the author to contrast the devotion of Numidicus' son,Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius to the treachery of Mithridates and his family and remind us the advantages of Rome.  It also points up the changes in Sulla.  Both Metelli are seen mostly from the viewpoint of Marius and Sulla.  Numidicus, as Marius' chief rival, is shown in most unflattering terms.  Marius extends this hostility to Pius as well, and initially Sulla does as well.  But the innocent and unsuspecting Pius believes that Sulla was reconciled to his father and befriends him as the last witness to his father's life.  Sulla is at first amused, but later comes to think of Pius as a "dear friend" and is even genuinely and unironically indignant at some wrongs done to  his father (quite forgetting that he personally poisoned the man!). Pius is portrayed as a decent fellow, even though he remains devoted to Sulla after sensing what sort of man he is.

McCullough portrays Marius and Sulla as friends and allies, both supporting Drusus' efforts to extend citizenship to the Italians and desperately seeking to head off the civil war they know will follow if the Italians are denied. Plutarch, for what it is worth, makes no mention of either man championing the Italians and says that they had a growing rivalry over who would get credit for defeating Jugurtha of Numidia, that was prevented from boiling over only by the outbreak of the Social War, i.e., the revolt of the Italian allies (Socii) after Drusus was killed.

Plutarch portrays Marius as rather indifferent commander in the Social War, presumably due to increasing age and declining health and says that he worked hard to get back into shape afterward. McCullough portrays Marius as not being in any way malicious toward Sulla, but appallingly insensitive.  While Sulla does us utmost to impress Marius with his ability as a general, Marius is dismissive and assures Sulla that while, yes, he is a good general, Marius is an inspired general. When Sulla asks what if anything happens to Marius, Marius says that will depend on whether Rome can get by with a good general.  Sulla quite understandably wants to punch him in the gut.  Shortly afterward, Marius suffers a stroke and is carried home, paralyzed on one side.  Sulla proves himself an inspired general and wins the grass crown (hence the title), Rome's highest military honor given only to a commander who saves a legion or raises the siege from a city.  Not even Marius had ever won the grass crown.  And while he acknowledges that he was wrong and that Sulla was in inspired general after all, he does not acknowledge that Sulla is a better general than he was, so Sulla remains resentful.  The author also strongly hints that Marius' stroke has caused disturbing personality changes.  It is at this point that she shows him hiring a hitman.  McCullough also gives an appalling and presumably accurate portrait of the atrocities committed on both sides during the war and the hardship it caused.

In the end, Rome extended citizenship to all Italian allies not in revolt.  In the novel, at least, this utterly disgusts Sulla, who sees that it is merely the prelude to extending citizenship to all Italians. And, indeed, each member of Rome's ruling class who is not a Roman of the Romans sees the opportunity for clients if the people of his region are admitted and pushes for their admission.  (Drusus did his cause serious harm by claiming all newly enfranchised Italians as clients.  If he had pointed out all the prospects for clients, he would have gotten a sizeable constituency to support him). Sulla, as war hero, is elected consul.  The rivalry between him and Marius will soon break out into the open.

*McCullough really should have included a section on poisons in her glossary.  She is a neuroscientist who took care to describe the symptoms of each poison in enough detail to make clear that she had a specific one in mind.  Sulla poisons Numidicus with "a nasty brew decocted from peach seeds," i.e. cyanide.  The symptoms of cyanide poisoning are very similar to acute respiratory failure -- dizziness, choking, and gasping for air.  The main difference is that in acute respiratory failure, the blood cannot become oxygenated, so the victim turns blue.  In cyanide poisoning, the cells cannot get oxygen out of the blood, so the victim turns red.  One of the attending doctors shows the strange mixture of incompetence and competence of the time and proceeds to bleed Numidicus and is surprised that the blood comes out of his vein bright red.  This leads him to suspect poison, though not to name a particular suspect.  That is a bit problematic.  The trouble with cyanide (from the perspective of the poisoner) is that it is so fast-acting that once poison is suspected, there is usually not much room for doubt whodunnit.  Who could have poisoned Numidicus?  Probably the guy he was drinking with all afternoon before he got sick.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Grass Crown: Roman Governing Institutions

During First Man in Rome and well into The Grass Crown, it was possible to ignore the fine points of Roman governing institutions.  McCullough might write about voting in the Centuriate Assembly or the Tribal Assemblies, but the exact nature of these assemblies was less important  than the outcome of the vote.  Votes in the Senate also carried a lot of drama and were presumed to have the force of law.  There was a section in the glossary explaining all these institutions, but it was easy to skip over because the precise nature of these institutions was not the focus of the story.  The institution that received the most focus was the Roman army and the changes Marius made to it.  The institutions of the Roman (civil) government do become important later on in The Grass Crown because the changes Sulla makes to them are critical to the story and highly revealing as to what his ultimate vision was.

My high school level familiarity with the Roman Republic had two basic narratives.  One narrative is one of progress.  The Republic began as a narrow and tight Patrician oligarchy.  The common people were allowed power in only one way -- through the Tribune of the Plebs, who could veto any action that infringed too far on the people's rights.  This office turned out to be a great deal more powerful than the oligarchy anticipated and gradually pried the system open, striking down patrician privileges and raising plebeians to near or total equality.   The other is a story of regression.  While Rome began as a land of independent freeholding family farmers, land became increasingly concentrated into vast slave plantations -- the latifundia.  Rome's farmers were squeezed out and ended up as an unemployed urban rabble.  So far as I can tell, both narratives are true.  What I am not clear on is whether they took place consecutively or simultaneously.  In other words, was the division between rich and poor growing even as the division between  patrician and plebeian was diminishing, or was the difference based on birth broken down and the difference based on wealth arise only later?  Or, put differently, was there a Golden Age of the Republic when dominance of the patricians has been undermined, but dominance of the rich had not yet taken its place?  I do not know, and McCullough does not address the issue.

One thing is clear.  By the time McCullough addresses, most of the advantages of being a patrician were gone.  Most of the old patrician families had seen their wealth diminish, and the richest Romans were mostly plebeians.  If a Plebeian achieved consular rank, his descendants would be considered nobility, just not quite as high nobility as a Patrician.  Patrician woman were allowed less independence than plebeian women, so patrician men had some advantages in domination over their women.  A handful of offices were restricted to patricians.  Most important was Princeps Senatus (First Man of the Senate).  While censors held their office for five years and other magistrates for one, there was no limit on how long the Princeps Senatus could hold his office, which made him a very powerful official.  But it also limited any individual patrician's chance of ever reaching that office.  The Senate was divided into groups of ten, with each one led by a patrician, so one senator in ten had to be a patrician.  And a handful of other offices were restricted to patricians, but most were priesthoods with no real power.  Weighed against this were powers restricted to plebeians that we shall address shortly.

Roman governmental institutions changed over time, but McCullough addresses the institutions as they existed before Sulla's revolt.

The Senate.  Senators held their office for life.  Anyone elected as magistrate above a certain rank was automatically admitted to the Senate.  Other senators were chosen by the censors, who could also remove a senator for misconduct.  The Senate was a powerful body.  It alone authorized expenditures, appointed provincial governors, and and was in charge of administering the provinces.  It also took the lead in foreign affairs and could declare emergencies in which the other branches of government were suspended.  It was not, however, a legislature in the modern sense.  While it is often shown voting on legislation, in the end, its vote was only advisory.  Only the popular assemblies could pass binding legislation.  This not only means that legislation the Senate voted for would not become law unless passed by the Senate, it also means that a popular assembly could pass legislation that the Senate had advised against or without consulting the Senate at all, although to do so was considered the mark of a demagogue.  It is a mark of Drusus' resolve to work within the system that he vows never to bring a measure to the Plebeian Assembly without first consulting the Senate.  After getting Senate approval for his Gracchi-like program, it is an easy matter to have it approved by the Assembly.  But when the Senate rejects Italian citizenship, he resolves to take it to the Assembly anyhow. This is what leads to his assassination.*

The popular assemblies.  There were three of these, the Centuriate Assembly, the Assembly of the Whole, and the Plebeian Assembly.  The latter two were called the Tribal Assemblies.  Legislation only had to pass one of these assemblies to become binding law.  All three assemblies practiced the direct democracy of the people legislating by themselves rather than through representatives. However, none operated on the basis of one-man-one-vote in the manner of the Athenian Assembly, a New England town meeting, or a modern initiative or referendum.  Rather, the people assembled were broken into sub-groups. Each sub-group voted, and the decision was made by how the majority of sub-groups voted.  Since all assemblies were too large and cumbersome to be able to draft legislation, the appropriate official would call the assembly into session and introduce proposed legislation for its consideration.  It is not clear to me whether the assembly could debate or amend the legislation or simply vote it up or down.  McCullough implies, however, that it could debate and amend.  There were also differences between the assemblies.

The Centuriate Assembly.  This assembly was divided into five classes, based on property holding. A vote of the majority of classes prevailed.  The very poorest Romans, who had no property, were not allowed to vote in the Centuriate Assembly.  The Centuriate Assembly elected Rome's most important executive officials, the consuls, praetors, and censors.  Consuls were Rome's chief executives, two at once, elected to one-year terms.  Consuls were supreme military commanders and also the top civil official.  If one consul was in the field, the other administered Rome.  Praetors were secondary executive officials, serving as judges and handling much of the day-to-day government.  When both consuls were in the field, the urban praetor became chief civil executive.  The censors, uniquely among elective officials, served five-year terms.  They conducted the census, chose or deposed Senators, and oversaw public morals. They lacked the power to impose criminal penalties, but could impose political penalties (i.e., removal from office, being barred from office, or disenfranchisement).  The Centuriate Assembly could try major cases or pass legislation, but as a practical matter it was too cumbersome to do so.**

The Assembly of the Whole.  This assembly was divided into "tribes."  "Tribes" were not ethnic or familial groupings (as that term is used today), but (at least originally) geographic groupings.  There were thirty-five tribes.  A vote by 18 of the 35 tribes prevailed.  The Assembly of the Whole passed legislation and elected a variety of lesser executive officials who did much of the day-to-day management of government, but whose jobs were mostly administrative with little or no policy-making authority.  The consuls presided over the Assembly of the Whole, called it into session, and proposed legislation to it.

A few comments are in order about the tribal nature of the Assembly.  McCullough emphasizes that because urban Rome had only four tribes, it could always be outvoted by the 31 rural tribes, unfairly giving excessive weight to rural interests.  It should be noted that the Athenian Assembly, operating on the basis of one-man-one-vote had the opposite problem.  Because traveling to Athens to attend the Assembly was a burden on rural residents (rich or poor), the Assembly was unfairly weighted towards urban interests.  Although McCullough does not emphasize this, presumably in the "tribes" farther from Rome, only the richer and more eminent citizens could afford to make the journey.  This would not necessarily be unwelcome to ordinary residents. Presumably Romans defined their interests vertically (by geography) as well as horizontally (by class) and in many areas locally important issues would unite all citizens, rich and poor.  Ordinary citizens would presumably be happy to see their wealthier neighbors go to Rome to uphold their interests, guaranteed weight above the number of people attending by the tribal system.  This could serve as a sort of primitive  form of representation,  But it was a system of representation suffused with rotten boroughs, i.e., districts with weight far in excess of their population.

Citizens too poor to vote in the Centuriate Assembly did vote in the tribal assemblies.  However, poorer rural residents could not afford to go to Rome, while poor urbanites were all lumped into one of the four urban tribes that were outnumbered by the 31 rural tribes.  On the other hand, when a Roman moved from one area to another, his tribe did not change.  Presumably this allowed many urban residents to vote with their rural tribes.  Given the added advantage that attending the Assembly was easier for urban than rural dwellers, this would have destroyed any sort of coherence for tribes as political units, but also lessened the unfair domination of rural interests. Counterbalancing this, all freedmen were made members of one of the four urban tribes.

Plebeian Assembly.  The Plebeian Assembly was divided into the same tribes as the Assembly of the Whole, so all comments on tribes apply equally to the Plebeian Assembly.  It differed from the Assembly of the Whole in that Patricians were not allowed to attend, or even to be present when it was in session.  The Plebeian Assembly had the same powers of legislation as the other Assemblies. It elected ten Tribunes of the Plebs.  Any one Tribune could call the Plebeian Assembly into session, preside over it, or propose legislation to it, with or without consulting the Senate, although failure to consult with the Senate was considered the mark of a demagogue.  Tribunes had no executive powers.  What they famously did have was the veto, not only over legislation, but over any aspect of government.  And there were ten of them, each with the same veto!  Thus any advantages in being a patrician had to be weighed against the disadvantages -- ineligibility to participate in the Plebeian Assembly which had the power to pass binding legislation (indeed, it ultimately became Rome's primary legislature), and ineligibility to be elected Tribune. A patrician was cut off from two important sources of political power.

This lesson in Roman civics will become important when Sulla comes to power and makes major changes in these institutions.
*Caesar will later do the same thing.
**Wikipedia has a much more complex description, emphasizing the Centuriate Assembly's military and oligarchic features.


PS:  The fact that I made the last two posts about Marcus Livius Drusus seeking to extend citizenship to the Italians on the same night that President Obama gave a speech about limiting deportation of illegal immigrants is purely a coincidence.  Really it is.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Grass Crown: My Problem with Drusus' Arguments

Obviously, McCullough is bound in large part by the actual, historical Marcus Livius Drusus and what he did.  Nonetheless, I assume she exercises a considerable degree of creativity as well, and I find the arguments she gives him for extending citizenship to Italians to be unconvincing.

Admittedly, Drusus arguing for Italian citizenship and McCullough portraying his arguments have a serious problem.  Persuading people to extend their rights and privileges to people below them is hard.  It has the effect, after all, of diluting their power.  Why would people want their power diluted? So what argument is convincing?  It is very hard to tell, but the argument McCullough has Drusus rely on would definitely not be it.

Consider.  At one point in the story, Drusus' Italian friend warns him of a plot to assassinate the consuls.  Drusus, whose championship of the Italians emphatically does not extend to condoning terrorism,  duly reports the plot to the more sympathetic consul.  The consul's immediate impulse is to avoid the planned ambush.  Drusus urges him, instead, to walk into it, but with a secret armed guard so the plot can be defeated and the plotters executed.  But why does he want to see the plot attempted and thwarted rather than quietly avoided?  To warn the Italians that the Romans mean business and that violence will get them nowhere?  No, to warn the Romans that the Italians mean business and will resort to violence if not given citizenship.  If I were a Roman, this would not make me want to extend citizenship to the Italians.  It would make me want to take a hard line against them.  Drusus constantly warns that to deny the Italians citizenship will lead to war.  He turns out to be right.  But again, this is a terrible argument to make.

Some points of comparison are in order.  Although Drusus implemented something very much like the program of the Gracchi, McCullough portrays him as a conservative reformer along the lines of Bismark or Disraeli -- the kind who reform the system to preserve it because they know that there is nothing conservative about letting the system tear itself apart.  The difference is not so much in the program as in how one sells it.


At the end of First Man in Rome, and several years before the events of The Grass Crown, there was a serious grain shortage.  Rome's poorest citizens were facing the real prospect of starvation, and less-poor citizens were facing a serious squeeze.  The demagogue Saturninus took advantage of the situation and made a lot of promises about cheap grain that he could not keep because there simply was no grain to be found.  Soon, Rome was facing the prospect of revolt.  The revolt was put down and the day was saved by the last-minute arrival of new grain shipments, but not until Rome's ruling class got a good scare.  For Drusus to argue a few years later that this showed that Rome really needed a better system of famine relief would be eminently reasonable.  To argue that the government should always guarantee a price of grain only slightly above wholesale in good times, that it should have a regular fund dedicated to this purpose, that the system should be up and running and everyone should know about it and be convinced that it would work before the next grain shortage can be a perfectly sensible, even conservative argument.*  Drusus could point out that if such a system is in place by the next grain shortage, it will keep a demagogue like Saturninus from taking advantage of the situation and allow Rome to get through it with scarcely a ripple.  Rome's conservative politicians might very well be convinced.  It would be another thing altogether to make this argument in the midst of a food shortage, with Saturninus and his crowd rioting in the Forum. Aside from the problems of setting up such a system in the midst of a crisis, to do so would look very much like caving in to blackmail, and that prospect would make most people want to resist.

Or consider the matter of Marius' veterans.  They were drawn form Rome's poorest citizens, who many doubted would be up to the job.  But the time of The Grass Crown, he had proven their effectiveness as soldiers and been retired with grants of land a nice, safe distance from Italy.  It would be eminently reasonable, even conservative for Drusus to point out that, while Rome would no doubt have to rely on such men in the future, not to make provisions for their retirement would be to unleash on Rome a bunch of men with minimal civilian employment history, no property, no future and no hope, but lots of military experience and training, and if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, think it over some more.**  It would be rather different, though, if such soldiers were about to demobilize, or already had demobilized and were stirring up trouble.  Once again, it would look like submitting to blackmail, and nobody wants to submit to blackmail.

The same applies to Drusus' arguments that if we don't extend citizenship to the Italians, they will wage war on us.  That is, quite simply, a threat, and no one likes being threatened.  Besides, do we actually want to extend citizenship to people preparing to go to war with us?  That sounds like a terrible idea to me.  It makes Drusus sound like a coward urging surrender and submission in the face of threats.  That is terrible politics!

*That leaves open the question of how to actually have grain available if there is none to be had.  Presumably the government would buy it up in good times and store it for sale in bad times, but Drusus never actually says so.  He talks more about the funding mechanism and how to get the actual grain itself.  
**Once again, in McCullough's book, Drusus appears to endorse regularly using poor men as soldiers and retiring them with grants of land a nice, safe distance away.  But he does not introduce actual legislation to that effect.  Whether the real Drusus weighed in on the issue I do not know.

The Grass Crown: Drusus, the Non-Protagonist Hero

wondered what to call Marcus Livius Drusus, who is the most heroic and admirable character in The Grass Crown, but not the  main character.  When the main character is not heroic or admirable, he is called the protagonist or the anti-hero or, if you want to be long-winded, the non-hero protagonist.  So the best designation I can come up with for Drusus is the non-protagonist hero.

His role in First Man in Rome was ambiguous.  We first see him as a young lawyer championing an Italian who does not have Roman citizenship, and it makes us admire him.  We do not admire him when he quite brutally forces his sister to marry the despised Quintus Servilius Caepio.  (He marries Caepio's sister).  But when he goes off to war and the army is wiped out because of his snobbish father-in-law's insubordinate conduct (he refuses to obey his military superior because he considers him a social inferior), Drusus begins the question the old order.  That he is wounded and his father-in-law and brother-in-law run away while an Italian comes to his assistance opens up a breach with his in-laws and a friendship for the Italian.  And when he realizes that the Italian allies didn't even know that what appeared to be incompetent generaling was actually rank insubordination, he becomes a supporter of Marius and a full-on champion of the Italians.

In The Grass Crown, Drusus emerges as the clear hero of Book II and Book IV and the non-protagonist hero of the novel as a whole.  He makes up for forcing his sister to marry Caepio by leaping to her defense when her husband starts to beat her and drives his brother-in-law from his house.  After his sister and her second husband die, he brings up her five children, along with his adopted son.  The four middle children are not that important, but Servilia, the oldest, will become Caesar's long-term mistress and Cato, the youngest, will become Caesar's arch-enemy.  And this is one that can't be blamed on an over-imaginative novelist; it actually happened in real history.

Drusus' father was a prominent conservative politician and the arch-foe of Gaius Gracchus.  His tactic was to undermine Gracchus by outbidding him with measures that were not meant to pass, but only to obstruct.  Thus when Gracchus proposed offering land to the poor on generous terms, the senior Drusus offered more generous terms.  Incidentally, the second novel also seems to indicate that I may have been mistaken in my assessment of the Gracchi.  The impression I had of Rome's popular party in general, from the Gracchi to Marius down through Caesar was that they could be described as pure left-wing populists.  They championed Rome's lower classes, sought to weaken the Senate and strengthen power centers outside the Senate, and to widen citizenship.  They punched up but did not kick down, and damaged their own popularity as a result.  (Kicking down is popular).  But this appears to be an oversimplification.  The Gracchi really were, to some degree, principled against kicking down.  They could easily have distributed land to Rome's poor simply by taking it from the Italians.  Their unwillingness to do so appears to have been the main reason they championed Italian citizenship.  Yet at the same time, the Gracchi were not immune to the temptations of kicking down. Gaius Gracchus funded his reforms by squeezing the provinces and was as hated there as he was loved in Rome.

But Drusus was the ultimate proof that things just aren't so simple.  Unlike his father, he seriously proposed a program that sounded very much like the Gracchi -- distribution of individual-sized parcels of land,* cheap subsidized grain, expansion of the Senate, citizenship for all Italians.  He differed from the Gracchi in that he sought to enhance the Senate's instead of weaken it and was scrupulously careful to respect Senators and not offend them.  But he was the son of a prominent conservative politician and gained the support of many other conservative politicians, with the result that the popular party turned against him, even though he was enacting much of what they supported! McCullough accurately identifies his main opponents as Lucius Marcius Phillipus and Quintus Varius, and she paints both men in the most unfavorable light, but she neglects to mention that they were both leaders of the popular party.**  Maybe right wing populism was more of a factor in Roman politics than I realized.

Drusus is portrayed in a most sympathetic and heroic light.  Aside from protecting his sister from her abusive husband and being devoted to his wife and devastated when she dies, his championship of the Italians gets (almost) everything right.  When his Italian friend proposes to illegally sign Italians up as citizens, Drusus indignantly refuses and thinks that he talks him out of it.  When he finds out that the Italians are, nonetheless, illegally signing up, he splits the difference -- denounces the action, but quietly urges anyone illegally signed up to flee and escape the roving commission coming to punish them.  When Marius comments that what is needed is a tribune willing to put his life on the line for the Italians, Drusus fearlessly says that he will be that tribune.  As tribune fighting for the rights of the Italians, he always scrupulously follows the rules, respects the Senate, prevents violent outbreaks at his meetings, and so forth.  He also plays a dangerous double game.  When he visits his Italian friends, he knows they are plotting rebellion if he fails.  As a patriotic Roman, he must denounce any such plans he knows of as treason, while as a loyal friend he does not want to betray them.  So he visits the Italians knowing that they are plotting treason, but lets them conceal any details from him so that he does not actually have anything to reveal.  He successfully passes most of the program the Gracchi fought so hard and died for.  Then Phillipus scours the Italian peninsula and finds every time a misfortune occurs on the day Drusus introduced his legislation and convinces the Senate that this is a very bad omen.  Drusus argues that this is really a warning about what will happen if he fails, but Philippus prevails and gets all of Drusus' legislation repealed.  And although as Tribune, Drusus could veto this action, but with true statesmanship, he declines to do so.  (This is historically accurate).

Drusus is not altogether without his flaws, most notably a desire for power and overconfidence.  (He is also a bit manipulative, but then, he is a politician).  When all the Italians swear to be his clients if admitted to citizenship, he lusts for the power this would give him.  He does not desire power for its own sake, but only for what he can accomplish with it.  Nonetheless, as he passes more and more legislation, he becomes intoxicated with it and has growing trouble recognizing the limits to what he can do.  At the same time, he gets so caught up in his work that he forgets about the oath and, when confronted with it, he keels over, thinking that all is lost.  His mother tells him that so long as he is fighting for justice, whether his motive are pure matters only to his personal vanity, and injustices are usually defeated by people who stand to gain politically as a result.  Drusus seizes upon this and argues that all the Italians agreeing to be his clients is a good thing -- it ensures that they will be led by a true Roman of the Romans.  He wins more and more people over to his viewpoint and is poised just on the verge of passing this crowning achievement, when he is assassinated by political opponents, in the sight of his sister's children.   His last words (which McCullough gives in English and Latin, suggesting that they may be authentic) are "Who will succor Rome in my place?"

The Wikipedia describes the assassination of Drusus as "one of the main turning points in the entire series."  Thinking it over, I am inclined to agree.  If Drusus had lived, he would have been successful in extending citizenship to the Italians.  If he had extended citizenship to the Italians, the ghastly civil war that followed could have been avoided.  If Rome had not been weakened by civil war, the eastern despot Mithridates of Pontus would never have dared massacre every Roman and Italian in his domain, so there would have been no urgency in going to war with him.  And if the Mithriditic War had been avoided, Marius and Sulla might have avoided their falling-out and civil war that toppled the Roman Republic.

 *He did, however, differ in offering individual-sized parcels of land first to Rome's upper classes and only later to the poor, which meant that many poor men would not benefit at all.  Sigh!
**Drusus' brother-in-law, Quintus Servilius Caepio was also one of his main opponents.  Given his father's extraordinary snobbery about  pedigree, it seems unlikely that Caepio was of the popular party.