Saturday, March 31, 2007

Centrist Globalization

TNR's Jonathan Cohn posted yesterday a mostly excellent analogy between the rationale for the New Deal, and for protections against the dislocations of globalization.

He writes:

"If you want a rough analogy, think back to the conversations about capitalism in the 1930s, as the Great Depression set in. Critics said the programs of the New Deal amounted to socialism. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Programs like Social Security created a level of basic economic protection -- so that people were willing to put up with the risks of a market economy.

The social welfare state didn't kill capitalism. It saved it. The same can be true today."

The thought of the great progressive reformers at the time (back to Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, actually) was just that: to save capitalism from itself. They were successful. Cohn is wrong when he says "nothing could be farther from the truth," that the New Deal involved socialism, however. A more accurate read is to say America borrowed minimally from socialism, and ended up mainly with its best points in its social safety net. It allowed much of the market economy to remain intact.

The larger point is that most political movements and ideas contain at least some truth, and no idea solves every problem. American pragmatism, when functioning at its apex, takes the best ideas from multiple points of view and ends up with something better than any one of them could provide alone.

Free trade is the most efficient and productive way to trade, but it has undeniable downsides for those hit by its economic destruction. A strong social contract and national unity would strongly argue for free trade plus programs to minimize social disruption. Protectionism should be our last resort.

Friday, March 30, 2007

What Next?

We got another glimpse from the firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys of the Bush administration's focus purely on ideology first and facts second. But the author of this post gets it right when he asks, "what are we not seeing?"

I'm no ideologue or Bush-hater. I fully expect, though, to read story after story of mismanagement and disregard for reason and science for years after this administration leaves office.

Is Hillary Clinton a Hawk?

That is the convincing case made by the New Republic's Michael Crowley in his lengthy article posted Monday. With extensive evidence, he writes that the reasons Mrs. Clinton won't repudiate her vote authorizing an Iraq war is because she's much more comfortable with the use of military power than her husband, and the realities of being in the White House only strengthened her belief in the use of the military to spread democracy. Her beliefs and rhetoric indicate she was not posturing in her vote to go to war, but in fact held much the same rationale as Bush and his team. It would seem the Bush's poor execution of the conflict and reconstruction efforts are their main areas of difference.

Her single-payer health care plan perhaps aside, Hillary is simply not a flaming liberal. It's not her policy positions I take issue with, for the most part. It's her temperament.

In many ways, she has all the intellectual brilliance of her husband, but without the public political talent (I'll give her credit for behind-the-scenes talent). She also has Bill's paranoia, being extraordinarily secretive and convinced of too many conspiracies against the two of them. A hyperactive enforcement of personal loyalty to Mrs. Clinton means that anyone on her campaign fears mentioning even the most mundane details of its structure or operation. Does that last sound familiar?

We have a president now whose personal failings we glossed over twice, and for somewhat different reasons each time. Bush was elected primarily as an antidote to Bill Clinton, and in many ways that's what we got, both for good and bad. While Hillary would be an upgrade at president over what we have now, we can do better.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

T.R. Republicans, Table for 4...

Foreign Policy's Mike Boyer is right on in his blog analysis, titled seductively (for me anyway), "Calling All Centrist, Internationalist Republicans." It uses a recent Pew Research poll tracking American voters' party identification, and stances on policy and social issues.

Republicans must take notice. Both parties hold only partial keys to the new center that has formed under their noses, and one of them stands to become a long-term majority by adapting its philosophy to it.

The new center has accepted the primacy and effectiveness of markets, but doesn't fear regulation and government intervention if it's done intelligently and efficiently. They're proud to be Americans, but don't want us to be arrogant overseas. They're practical environmentalists. They embrace giving people choices over their own lives, both in the private and public spheres, and don't approve of pushing morality on people from either the left or right. They don't want to get rid of the welfare state, but they want it smaller and more effective. And like most Americans of every generation, they're not ideologues. They want competence, and for things to work.

America is in the midst of a realignment. Will anyone running for president in 2008 be able to articulate the changes going on, and what government needs to do to meet the new challenges involved?

Your Mr. Thompson.

It's not exactly new stuff, but it's sounding like former two-term senator and actor Fred Thompson is seriously thinking about running for president. When his name was just mentioned last week, he immediately generated significant support and daydreams from conservatives.

The latter seem desperate for an alternative to McCain, Giuliani, and Romney. Too many conservatives I think just don't like McCain personally, and his attempt to woo them unfortunately hasn't much worked, and has left him campaigning as someone he's not. They really like Giuliani, but not a lot of his positions. And Romney just isn't making the connection, through a combination of bad campaigning and a past that's easy to distrust.

Thompson has a lot of advantages. He's independent but generally conservative, likely could raise a lot of money, is well-known outside politics, and has perhaps a perfect personality to run for president. He looks like one. Finally, he's been out of office for all the unpopular parts of the Iraq war, having left the Senate in January of 2003.

The book is not all positive, though. He's thought to be a bit lazy, which doesn't jibe with a job that requires huge ambition and energy. He also had a deserved roving bachelor reputation in Washington, which may keep some conservatives away as well. And his ballyhooed investigation of the China-Clinton influence scandal in the mid-'90s yielded nothing concrete amid plenty of smoke.

Despite his flaws, he'd probably be a formidable candidate for the nomination (he's already listed in 3rd place), and could be a nightmare for Democrats in 2008.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Accentuating Weakness

There is something terribly (in the original sense of the word) instructive in Robert Novak's column today about how alone President Bush is. The gist is that Republicans in Congress and Bush have abandoned each other, and those in the House and Senate view the president and his administration as incompetent.

Bush's management style has gotten much press since he took office, but as usual, nuance doesn't have much place. Detractors see him as stubborn beyond reason, arrogant, and more interested in loyalty than merit. Supporters (there used to be a lot more) talk of resolve, decisiveness, and underlying moral grounding.

What most of us hate to consider is that all of these things are true, and that what we want changes. After 9/11 we wanted resolve and even a small degree of arrogance, if that translated as moral clarity in the face of international bureaucratic instinct.

But with any person, you get the bad with the good, even if the bad isn't recognized until later. The problem with a person like Bill Clinton was that (partially because of his knowledge and intellect) he could be indecisive and unclear in his beliefs. America reacted in part to this and elected someone who they believed knew who he was and where he stood.

That kind of person is great to have when he's right, because you know he'll stick to his guns. But he can be a disaster when he's wrong.

Adding to the mess in Bush's case is that his belief system seems an odd combination of born-again Christian faith mixed with intense interpersonal relationships, manifesting most commonly in expectation of fierce personal loyalty above all.

Note that neither of these demand a lot by way of hard facts. Bush has been described in State of Denial and other places as managing by painting a big picture and then expecting his loyal underlings and advisors to take care of the details. As my friend James March has mentioned, having a grand strategy involves, well, strategy (and tactics and details), and for Bush, the vacuum he's left has left those details to have been filled in by Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, his advisors who have been most aggressive in their views.

Traits like stubbornness and arrogance can be acceptable in politicians. Most every great historical figure had glaring personal weaknesses, and we shouldn't expect perfection. What we should expect is for the opinions affected by such traits to be mined from fact, and trained by the unfolding reality of events, as much as possible. That's something we don't have now.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Big Hillary

My goodness. We have here another example of the growing power of the individual, and the decreasing power of political candidates, not to mention corporations, governmental organizations, and group authority generally.

It's an ad apparently created by an Obama supporter on his/her own that uses the famous Mac/1984 ad (aired once during the '84 Super Bowl), placing Hillary in the position of Big Brother preaching to the vacuous dystopic drones. The screen on which she speaks is destroyed by a lone runner, in this case representing Obama.

Candidates can't say things like this, but someone with video editing software on their Mac can. It may help Obama in this case, because I believe a lot of Hillary's supporters wonder underneath if this vision of her isn't just the slightest bit true. But the 'Net is quite the Pandora's Box, and it can just as easily help as hurt a candidate.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Death of Neoliberalism?

In his March 11 column, David Brooks of the New York Times declared neo-liberalism essentially dead after a run of...well, 25 or more years at least. He wrote:

"[Washington Monthly blogger] Kevin Drum, who is actually older than most bloggers, says the difference is generational. Klein’s mind-set, he says, was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, but “like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late ’90s.” Drum says he’s reacting to Ken Starr, the Florida ballot fight, the Bush tax cuts, the K Street Project and the war in Iraq."

"Drum and his cohort don’t want a neoliberal movement that moderates and reforms. They want a Democratic Party that fights. Their tone is much more confrontational. They want to read articles that affirm their anger. They are also further to the left, driven there by Iraq on foreign policy matters and by wage stagnation on economic matters."

This is depressing on several levels. There are many people in political movements that are largely based on anger, and it's a lousy foundation for making policy decisions. Passion is fine, but only when it's backing approaches that have first been reasonably thought out. For too many who start seriously following politics out of anger, the first principle tends to be that the other side is evil, and whatever other learning about history is done is warped to support that view.

Second is that confrontation and ideological politics (which, ironically are rarely consistent in their ideas) is feeding this cycle of interparty warfare that represents the views of relatively few in the electorate. It's hopeful to see so many centrists on both sides in the presidential field at the moment, but will they get by the bases and be able to remain centrist? Outside of the creation of a major third party, either the Democrats or Republicans need to realign themselves to become a new majority party. I had thought Democrats might finally see where to go after the last election, but so far the Pelosis and older-style liberal committee chairs have had the upper hand.

Finally, the idea that centrism has failed are specious at best. There has been strong public support for centrist issues like welfare reform, educational standards, tougher environmental regulation, immigration reform, and so many others. That some of those have been stalled in Congress at impasse because of extremists on either end, or because other passed reforms were not implemented well is hardly a repudiation of the approach.

But that last especially is too big an issue for today.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hello World

20 GOTO 10
30 END

I guess the output of that 4th grade program (complete with superfluous "END" statement) would be an infinite sum, and also fulfill my unwritten obligation to introduce this blog. Truthfully, the whole "infinite sum" thing was chosen because the other names I wanted were taken, and I just liked the sound of it.

Consilience is another matter. It is a word reintroduced by an intellectual hero of mine, E. O. Wilson, a few years back in a book of the same name. It refers in this case to the unity of knowledge.

It's darned hard these days to be a polymath. Humans are victims of their own intellectual success, as fields are so full of knowledge that we increasingly need to specialize. This is terribly useful to society, but part of its price is the difficulty for a person to see the forest for the mixed deciduous. How many people know enough of physical science, social science, the humanities, current events, etc. to be able to make a coherent worldview out of it? To be able to appreciate how it all fits together?

I'm going to try my best to see things as a whole here. I'm interested in connections, reason, consistency and humor. Our long-term intellectual consensus is fragmented and incomplete, and our current political consensus (America's and the world's) wanting and in need of realignment. Without knowing exactly how just yet, this is what I hope to focus on.

I love reasoned debate, and welcome your thoughts and criticism. I have no time whatever for irrationality or maliciousness. We'll leave it there for now.