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