Tag Archives: David Brooks

Hey Kids, Tyler Cowen Wrote A Book!

Tyler Cowen’s new book, “The Great Stagnation”

Tyler Cowen:

That’s the title and it’s by me, the Amazon link is here, Barnes&Noble here.  That’s an eBook only, about 15,000 words, and it costs $4.00.  If you wish, think of it as a “Kindle single.”

Your copy will arrive on January 25 and loyal MR readers are receiving the very first chance to buy it.  Very little of the content has already appeared on MR.

Many of you have read my article “The Inequality that Matters,” but there I hardly touched on median income growth.  That is because I was writing this eBook.

Has median household income really stagnated in the United States?  If so, why?  Are the causes political or something deeper?  What are the important biases in how we are measuring national income and productivity and why do they matter for economic policy?  Are we getting enough value for all the extra money we are spending on the health care and education sectors?  What do some major right-wing and left-wing thinkers miss about this phenomenon?

How does all this relate to our recent financial crisis?

I dedicated this book to Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel, two major influences on some of the arguments.

Why did big government arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what is its future, and why is science so important for macroeconomics?  How can we fix the current mess we are in?

Read (and buy) the whole thing.

Scott Sumner:

How great was Tyler Cowen’s marketing coup?  Well he forced a technophobe like me to actually learn how to use Kindle.  I wasn’t too happy about that, which makes me inclined to write a very negative review.  But that’s kind of hard to do credibly when I agree with the central proposition of the book; that technological progress (at least as traditionally measured) has slowed dramatically, and will continue to be disappointing for the foreseeable future.

In an earlier post I argued that my grandma’s generation (1890-1969) saw the biggest increase in living standards; most notably a longer lifespan (due to diet/sanitation/health care), indoor plumbing and electric lights.  Less important inventions included home appliances, cars and airplanes, and TVs.  From the horse and buggy era to the moon landing in one life.  And all I’ve seen is the home computer revolution.  Not much consolation for a technophobe like me.  I’m probably even more pessimistic than Tyler.

The parts of the book I liked best were those that discussed governance.  I had noticed that there was a correlation between cultures that are good at governance, and cultures that are good at running big corporations.    But Tyler added an interesting perspective, arguing that the technologies that facilitated the growth of big corporations also facilitated the growth of big government.  I don’t recall if he made this point, but I couldn’t help thinking that the neoliberal revolution, which led to some shrinkage in government size, was also associated with a move away from the big corporate conglomerates of the 1960s, towards smaller and more nimble businesses.

Tyler has a long list of complaints about the wasteful nature of our government/education/health care sectors, which he hinted is really just one big sector.  While reading this section I kept wondering when he was going to mention Singapore, which has constructed a fiscal regime ideally suited for the Great Stagnation.  When he finally did, on “Page” 830-37, he did so in an unexpected context, as an example of a society that reveres scientists and engineers.  He had just suggested that the most important thing we could do to overcome the stagnation was:

Raise the social status of scientists.

My initial reaction was skepticism.  First, how realistic is it to expect something like this to happen?  I suppose the counterargument is that every new idea seems unrealistic, until it actually occurs.  But even if it did, would it really speed up the rate of scientific progress?  My hunch is that if we doubled the number of people going into science, there would be very little acceleration in scientific progress.  First, because the best scientists (think Einstein) are already in science, driven by a love of the subject.  Second, with a reasonably comprehensive research regime, progress in finding a cure for cancer may require a certain set of interconnected discoveries in biochemistry that simply can’t be rushed by throwing more money and people at the problem.  Similarly, progress in info tech may play out at a pace dictated by Moore’s law.  Given Moore’s law, no amount of research could have produced a Kindle in 1983.  Could more scientists speed up Moore’s law?  Perhaps, I’m not qualified to say.  But that’s certainly not the impression I get from reading others talk about information technology.

Here’s another exhortation that caught my eye:

Be tolerant, and realize there are some pretty deep-seated reasons for all the political strife and all the hard feelings and all the polarization.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, the two brightest stars of the economic blogosphere.  If only one of those two are able to have this sort of dispassionate take on policy strife, how likely are the rest of us mere mortals to be able keep a clear head and remain above the fray?  Still, it’s great advice.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Mr Cowen’s book can be very briefly (too briefly) summarised as follows. The rich world faces two problems. The first is that a decline in innovation has reduced the growth rate of output and median incomes, making it hard for rich countries to meat obligations accepted when expectations were higher. The second is that a lot of recent innovation is occuring in places like the internet, where new products are cheap or free and create very few jobs.

Mr Sumner’s response is a good one. What Mr Cowen is essentially saying, he suggests, is that the actual price level is tumbling. Technology has created a lot of great things that are available for free, and so the price of a typical basket of household consumption is dropping like a rock. People used to spend a lot of money going to movies, buying books and records, making expensive long-distance phone calls, paying for word processing software, and so on. Now, a lot of that can be done at almost no cost. Prices are falling.

That has a couple of implications. It suggests that real incomes are actually rising, at least for those consuming the bulk of the free online content. And perhaps real incomes are too high, in some cases, for labour markets to clear. Given broader disinflation (understated because non-purchased goods aren’t included in price indexes) both prices and wages may need to adjust, but if they’re sticky, then they won’t. What’s needed is reinflation.

To a certain extent, Mr Cowen is concerned about society’s ability to pay off old obligations, and one reason society might struggle to do this is that new innovations deliver value through non-monetary transactions. But the value is still there, and that’s what should really matter for the paying-off of obligations. When you borrow, you’re offering to compensate the lender with more utility tomorrow for less utility today. Thanks to the internet, utility today is cheap, and that’s only a problem because the obligations we acquired yesterday were denominated in dollars. But we can print enough money to meet yesterday’s obligations. Indeed, we should, in order to offset the deflationary pressures from the cheap innovations.

Imagine a world in which technology has advanced to the point that robots can build robots that operate at basically no cost at basically no cost, such that people can have anything that want anytime for free; the only constraint on consumption is the time available. That would be a cashless economy, and as a result, debtors would be totally unable to pay creditors. But does that matter?

Paul Krugman:

Tyler Cowen argues that technological change since the early 1960s hasn’t been as transformative for ordinary peoples’ lives as the change that went before.

I agree. I wrote about that a long time ago, using the example of kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Now, you can overstate this case; medical innovations, in particular, have made a huge difference to some peoples’ lives, mine included (I have a form of arthritis that would have crippled me in the 1950s, and in fact almost did 20 years ago until it was properly diagnosed, but barely affects my life now thanks to modern anti-inflammatories.) But the general sense that the future isn’t what it used to be seems right.

David Leonhardt interviews Cowen at NYT

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Tyler Cowen’s celebrated Kindle publication “The Great Stagnation” has received a lot of attention from the Web community. The New York Times David Leonhardt gets the author to sit for an e-interview on his e-book and asks a good first question: If our innovation motor is broken, what should we do know?

Cowen responds that we should double down on science…

The N.I.H. has done a very good job in promoting medical innovation and this is in large part because it allocates funds on a relatively meritocratic basis; Congress doesn’t control particular grants and on many important fronts the N.I.H. has autonomy. It is one reason why the United States is the world leader in medical research and development and I would expand its funding, provided it retains this autonomy. Basic research is often what economists call a “public good” and it offers economic and health returns for many years to come.

… and get realistic about clean energy.

“Clean energy” is a very important issue, for reasons of climate change, but it won’t be a job creator in a useful sense. In terms of energy production, fossil fuels are quite powerful. With green energy, at this point, we are simply looking to break even, namely to receive some of our current power but without the negative environmental consequences which accrue from carbon. That’s a worthy goal, but we shouldn’t start thinking about green energy as speeding up economic growth or creating jobs. It’s more like a necessary burden we will have to bear and the fact that these costs lie in front of us – from both the climate change and from the technological adjustments — is a sobering thought.

These are smart thoughts from a very smart guy. But let’s think about NIH funding from a jobs perspective. If the government increases science funding and this results in more pharmaceutical drugs coming online, that’s a great thing for the pharmaceutical industry. But new drugs, like any new technology, can be disruptive. For example, a drug to ease the side-effects of end-of-life diseases might replace the need for home health aides, which are projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the country for low-skilled workers. That’s not a reason not to develop a totally useful rug! But it throws a wrench into a claim (one that I’ve often made, too) that innovations in biosciences are pure job-creators.

Ezra Klein:

Cowen’s characterization of plumbing, fossil fuels, public education systems, penicillin and so forth as “low-hanging fruit” bugs me a bit. It took human beings quite a while to figure all that out. But Cowen is right to say that once discovered, those innovations produced extremely high returns. From the economy’s perspective, the difference between having cars and not having cars is a lot larger than the difference between having cars and having slightly better cars. A 1992 Honda Accord and a 2010 Honda Accord aren’t the same, but they’re pretty close.

The obvious rejoinder to this is, “What about the internet?” The problem, as Cowen points out, is that the Internet is not yet employing many people or creating much growth. We needed a lot of people to build cars. We don’t need many people to program Facebook. It’s possible, Cowen thinks, that the Internet is just a different type of innovation, at least so far as its ripples in the labor market are concerned. “We have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy,” he writes. “When it comes to the web, those assumptions are turning out to be wrong or misleading. The revenue-intensive sector of our economy have been slowing down and the beg technological gains are coming in revenue-deficient sectors.”

Maybe the Internet just needs some time to come into its growth-accelerating own. Or maybe the Internet is going to be an odd innovation in that its gains to human knowledge and enjoyment and well-being will serve to demonstrate that GDP and even median wage growth are insufficient proxies for living standards. Either way, we’re still left with a problem: Stagnant wages are a bad thing even if Wikipedia is a big deal.

And it’s not just the Internet. Even when we’re growing, things look bad. The sectors that are expanding fastest are dysfunctional. We spend a lot of money on education and health care, but seem to be getting less and less back. The public sector is getting bigger, but it’s not at all clear it’s getting better. For much of the last few decades, the financial sector was was generating amazing returns — but that turned out to be a particularly damaging scam. And economic malaise is polarizing our politics, leaving us less able to respond to these problems in an effective or intelligent way.

Kevin Drum:

Tyler makes a bunch of other arguments in “The Great Stagnation” too, some more persuasive than others. Like some other critics, I’m not sure why he uses median wage growth as a proxy for economic growth. It’s important, but it’s just not the same thing. Besides, median wage growth in the United States slowed very suddenly in 1973, and it’s really not plausible that our supply of low hanging fruit just suddenly dropped by half over the space of a few years. I also had a lot of problems with his arguments about whether GDP generated by government, education, and healthcare is as “real” as other GDP. For example, he suggests that as government grows, its consumption is less efficient, but that’s as true of the private sector as it is of the public sector. A dollar of GDP spent on an apple is surely more “real” than a dollar spent on a pet rock, but there’s simply no way to judge that. So we just call a dollar a dollar, and figure that people are able to decide for themselves whether they’re getting the same utility from one dollar as they do from the next.

The healthcare front is harder to judge. I agree with Tyler that we waste a lot of money on healthcare, but at the same time, I think a lot of people seriously underrate the value of modern improvements in healthcare. It’s not just vaccines, antibiotics, sterilization and anesthesia. Hip replacements really, truly improve your life quality, far more than a better car does. Ditto for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, cancer treatments, arthritis medication, and much more. The fact that we waste lots of money on useless end-of-life treatments doesn’t make this other stuff any less real.

To summarize, then: I agree that the pace of fundamental technological improvements has slowed, and I agree with Tyler’s basic point that this is likely to usher in an era of slower economic growth in advanced countries. At the same time, improvements in managerial and organizational efficiency thanks to computerization shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the fact that other countries still have quantum leaps in education to make, and that’s going to help us, not just the countries trying to catch up to us. After all, an invention is an invention, no matter where it comes from. And finally, try to keep an even keel about healthcare. It’s easy to point out its inefficiencies, but it’s also easy to miss its advances if they happen to be in areas that don’t affect you personally.

David Brooks at NYT

Cowen and Matthew Yglesias on Bloggingheads

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Economics

The Mommy Wars Go International

Amy Chua at Wall Street Journal:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise. I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties.

All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments 30 minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

Maureen O’Connor at Gawker:

This weekend, I came across “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” by Amy Chua. Since I have a Chinese mother, I assembled my face into a self-righteous smirk and began to read. But—woe is me!—my Chinese mother’s a fraud.For Amy Chua revealed that my Chinese mother (maiden name: Lily Chua) failed her ethnicity by failing to slave-drive me with the “screaming, hair-tearing explosions” necessary for raising a superior child. Consequently, I am not a math genius who performs open heart surgery and violin concertos simultaneously, but a blogger who spends her days contemplating Katy Perry’s breasts. I learned arithmetic not by “every day drilling,” but the way every red-blooded American does, by typing equations into my TI-86 during marathon sessions of Drugwars. (Maybe I got the “sneaky Chinaman” gene instead of the “obedient Chinese daughter” one?) And my mother and I never had showdowns like this:

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. […] When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

“The Little White Donkey,” just like Amy Chua’s husband, a stupid caucasian ass named Jed who lacks her superior Asian childrearing skills:

“Everyone is special in their special own way,” I mimicked sarcastically. “Even losers are special in their own special way. Well don’t worry, you don’t have to lift a finger. I’m willing to put in as long as it takes, and I’m happy to be the one hated.”

Reading Amy Chua’s article, I am sad as a broken fortune cookie. If only my Chinese mother had humiliated me in newspaper articles that would plague my dating life forever—maybe I, too, could have performed piano solos in Carnegie Hall, like Amy Chua’s daughter did, according to Amy Chua. How unlucky I am: I have never hated my mother.

My only solace: that Irish-American father’s inferior academic genes came packaged with superior genes for drinking.

That said, Amy Chua appears to have absorbed a few American parenting skills, like the incessant upper-class need to one-up every other upper-class parent in the tri-state area. Mommy bragging: The virtue that unites us all.

Ann Hulbert at Slate:

Chua’s mindset and methods—bolstered by faith in Chinese family tradition—pose a useful challenge for an era haunted by a helicoptering ethos as hard to shake as it is to like. Here is an alternative to the queasy hypocrisy of typical hyperparents, buffeted by shifting expertise that leaves them anxious about overpressuring even as they push. Chua breaks through all that. She is a crusader invigorated by practicing what she preaches: the arduous work she believes necessary to do anything well, child-rearing included. Her exacting program is incredibly time-consuming and burdensome, for her as much as her kids, and is bound to look outlandish to others. (While teaching, writing her second book, and traveling constantly, Chua types up elaborate practice instructions, which freak out one of her law students when he stumbles on them—and which are to be found on pages 163-165.) But precisely because Chua slaves away as hard as her girls do, one thing her program is not is guilt-inducing. In the end, her ordeal with Lulu teaches Chua humility and proves her daughter’s very healthy autonomy—and inspires next to no regrets.

Let’s hope a furor over the book doesn’t change all that. Boris Sidis lived to regret his boastful diatribe, or at least his wife did, lamenting poor Billy’s interlude in the spotlight, which complicated an already rocky transition to adulthood that ended in a lonely retreat. “Educators, psychologists, editorial writers and newspaper readers were furious” with her husband, Sarah Sidis wrote. “And their fury was a factor in Billy’s life upon which we had not counted.” Norbert Wiener, who battled depression to become the future founder of the field of cybernetics, was devastated as a teenager when, browsing in a magazine, he learned that his father, Leo, had claimed his son’s successes as his own, while blaming failures on the boy. Proselytizing and prodigy-raising are a fraught mix.

In a coda to her book, Chua loosens up, describing how she gave her daughters the manuscript and welcomed them as collaborators. The wise girls are wary about getting roped in. “I’m sure it’s all about you anyway,” Lulu says. As they hunker down to criticize, and make her revise, revise, revise, Sophia, now 17, issues a warning well worth keeping in mind if, or when, the mommy wars erupt over Chua’s provocative portrait. “It’s not possible for you to tell the complete truth,” Sophia tells her mother. “You’ve left out so many facts. But that means no one can really understand.” Let’s not forget that it’s only how the girls themselves understand their mother’s methods that really counts in the end.

Blake Eskin at New Yorker:

It did not escape my attention that “Jewish” was not on Chua’s list, and furthermore that her softie foil in the essay was her husband, who is identified as Jed—and is presumably why their daughters can be intimidated with threats of withheld Hanukkah presents. (Minimal Internet research reveals that Jed is, like his wife, a Yale Law School professor and a published author; his last name is Rubenfeld.) Most American Jews are comfortably assimilated, although Chua could probably forge a Sino-Soviet alliance with a few Russian-speaking recent arrivals. But even in the early twentieth century, when Jews were known for toughness (see Siegel, Bugsy; Rosenbloom, Slapsie Maxie) the stereotypical Jewish mother used what Joseph Nye would call soft power, wrapping specific and restrictive ideas about her children’s future in a nurturing bosom. This blend of stubborn guidance and smothering affection has produced successful doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It has also inspired characters from Sophie Portnoy to Estelle Costanza (who, though technically not Jewish, qualifies, too), envisioned by creative children scarred by their childhoods.

Some children, Chinese and otherwise, may respond well to “Chinese mothering,” and I hope for their sake that Chua’s two daughters are among them. But it’s simply not possible that every child becomes “the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” And not every child is well served by forcing them to try. Some children will fail with tragic consequences, others, if we are more fortunate, with literary ones, finding humor and meaning in stories of suffering. In a perfectly plotted world, one of Chua’s girls will, according to plan, become the concertmistress of a world-class orchestra, and the other will avenge herself by novel or memoir—and sell more books than her mother and father combined.

Julianne Hing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place:

Chua’s tone is arrogant but filled just the same with bullseye observations, and I spent a long time trying to untangle the sincere from the deadpan. So much of the piece is an accurate reflection of a specific brand of hard-ass Asian parenting. But would other people be able to sense the gleeful embellishments in her piece, the way she seems to relish insulting and threatening her kids to get them to perform? And then I doubled back: was I being too charitable to read it as exaggeration?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Internet, one of my aunties sent the piece around to other women in my family last night. “Thought you might enjoy this,” my auntie wrote to other mothers. “Were you raised by a Chinese mother … or are you perhaps one yourself?”

My mother was horrified at the piece, called it embarrassing and terrible and outrageous, said that she resented the fact that Chua used the term “Chinese mother,” even with the disclaimers at the opening that not all Chinese mothers deserve the title, and some non-Chinese mothers could be admitted to the club of harsh, ultra-strict parenting.

Like Chua, my parents sacrificed a great deal to raise me and my siblings–they make for great stories now that we’re all adults. My mom would hand us math workbooks to occupy us during car rides the way other parents hand their kids Pop Tarts or carrot sticks. She, like Chua, packed our violins in the trunk of the minivan so we could practice even while we were on vacation and forbade sleepovers and weeknight television well into my high school years. I struggled mightily with math and science and my mother would wake me up at 6 am on weekends so we could go over math drills together for hours. Letting me fail was not an option to her, though I occasionally wished she would have. Thanks to her, I didn’t.

All of this I recognize as love.

Tom Scocca at Slate:

There are many, many bizarre and debatable notions in the memoir extract that Yale law professor Amy Chua published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, in which she argued that screaming at one’s children to do drill work and depriving them of entertainment or social contact with their peers are the secrets to why Chinese people raise smarter and more successful children than regular decadent Americans do. A working-class Jamaican-immigrant mother, for instance—who would be an honorary “Chinese mother,” according to Chua—might be surprised to learn that good, hard parenting means spending a week at the piano, going “right through dinner into the night,” threatening and yelling at a seven-year-old girl to force her to learn a difficult piano part. Not everybody’s boss gives out flex time as readily as Yale Law does.

But mostly, as with so many child-rearing success stories, the biggest question Chua raises is: what makes you so sure you’ve succeeded? God bless Chua’s daughters, but according to some simple arithmetic and the pictures accompanying the Journal piece, they’re considerably younger than, say, 60. Or 40. Or even 25. There’s plenty of time yet to find out what fruit all those years of rigorous “Chinese” alpha parenting—no sleepovers with friends, Chua brags, no personally chosen extracurriculars, no musical instruments other than piano and violin (sorry, Yo-Yo Ma; your parents weren’t Chinese enough)—will really bear. Marv Marinovich wouldn’t let his son eat Big Macs, either. Discipline and high standards, all the way. “I don’t know if you can be a great success without being a fanatic,” was how he put it

Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic

Kate Zernike at The New York Times:

In the week since The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of the new book by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, under the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Ms. Chua has received death threats, she says, and “hundreds, hundreds” of e-mails. The excerpt generated more than 5,000 comments on the newspaper’s Web site, and countless blog entries referring in shorthand to “that Tiger Mother.” Some argued that the parents of all those Asians among Harvard’s chosen few must be doing something right; many called Ms. Chua a “monster” or “nuts” — and a very savvy provocateur.

A law blog suggested a “Mommie Dearest” element to her tale (“No. Wire. Hangers! Ever!!”). Another post was titled “Parents like Amy Chua are the reason Asian-Americans like me are in therapy.” A Taiwanese video circulating on YouTube (subtitled in English) concluded that Ms. Chua would not mind if her children grew up disturbed and rebellious, as long as she sold more books.

“It’s been a little surprising, and a little bit intense, definitely,” Ms. Chua said in a phone interview on Thursday, between what she called a “24/7” effort to “clarify some misunderstandings.” Her narration, she said, was meant to be ironic and self-mocking — “I find it very funny, almost obtuse.”

But reading the book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” it can be hard to tell when she is kidding.

“In retrospect, these coaching suggestions seem a bit extreme,” she writes in the book after describing how she once threatened to burn her daughter’s stuffed animals if she did not play a piano composition perfectly. “On the other hand, they were highly effective.”

In interviews, she comes off as unresolved. “I think I pulled back at the right time,” she said. “I do not think there was anything abusive in my house.” Yet, she added, “I stand by a lot of my critiques of Western parenting. I think there’s a lot of questions about how you instill true self-esteem.”

David Brooks at the New York Times:

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Yet mastering these arduous skills is at the very essence of achievement. Most people work in groups. We do this because groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals (swimmers are often motivated to have their best times as part of relay teams, not in individual events). Moreover, the performance of a group does not correlate well with the average I.Q. of the group or even with the I.Q.’s of the smartest members.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon have found that groups have a high collective intelligence when members of a group are good at reading each others’ emotions — when they take turns speaking, when the inputs from each member are managed fluidly, when they detect each others’ inclinations and strengths.

Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

Laura Donovan at The Daily Caller:

In a letter to the New York Post, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld responded to the critics of her mother’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which details the numerous restrictions Chua imposed upon her two daughters during their childhood. Among many other things, Chua has been blasted for forbidding her daughters from attending sleepovers and calling one of her girls lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic for playing a piano piece incorrectly.

In “Why I Love My Strict Chinese Mom,” Chua-Rubenfeld says outsiders don’t know what her family is actually like.

“[Outsiders] don’t hear us cracking up over each other’s jokes,” Chua-Rubenfeld wrote. “They don’t see us eating our hamburgers with fried rice. They don’t know how much fun we have when the six of us — dogs included — squeeze into one bed and argue about what movies to download from Netflix.”

Though it was “no tea party” growing up under all Tiger Mother’s rules, Chua-Rubenfeld claims to be more independent as a result of her rigid upbringing.

“I pretty much do my own thing these days — like building greenhouses downtown, blasting Daft Punk in the car with Lulu and forcing my boyfriend to watch ‘Lord of the Rings’ with me over and over — as long as I get my piano done first,” Chua-Rubenfeld wrote.

Chua-Rubenfeld may have thicker skin than her mother’s critics think. Chua has received lots of flak for rejecting the “not good enough” birthday cards her daughters made, but Sophia writes that she wasn’t all that offended.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, China, Families

The Passion Of The Gibson

Radar Online:

WARNING: This audio may not be reproduced or republished.

It is the audio tape that could destroy Mel Gibson.

The Hollywood star is accused by Oksana Grigorieva of hitting her and their infant daughter in an explosive argument recorded on tape, obtained and released exclusively by RadarOnline.com.

“You hit me, and you hit her (Lucia) while she was in my hands! Mel, you’re losing your mind. You need medication,” Oksana tells him on the newly released tape.

And Mel, raging at Oksana, is caught on audio telling her: “I want my child, and no one will believe you.”

PHOTOS: Celebrity Racist Rants

It may be the most damaging tape against Mel yet. RadarOnline.com has released five other audio portions with Mel spewing vile, racist rants, threatening Oksana and telling her she “f*cking deserved it” after she complained that he hit her.

But this, the sixth excerpt released exclusively by RadarOnline.com, may have the most serious consequences for Gibson, as a criminal investigation has been launched against him while he and Oksana battle in court for custody of their eight-month-old daughter Lucia. An investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services is also ongoing.

PHOTOS: Oksana Through The Years

In the crucial part of the newly released tape, Oksana refers to January 6, the night she alleges Mel punched her in the face and damaged her two upper front teeth.

RadarOnline.com was first to report that Oksana told law enforcement authorities she was holding Lucia, who was two months old, when Mel punched her. And RadarOnline.com broke the news on Thursday that Oksana says she has a photograph of the baby with a bruise on her face after the incident.

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: See The First Photos of Mel and Oksana In a Passionate Embrace On The Beach

In this new tape, Oksana refers to that incident and tells Mel that there is something wrong with him and he needs medication. This is the recorded dialogue after she says that:

Oksana: You cannot raise the child with these symptoms.

Mel: What?

Oksana: You’re acting as a crazy man right now and you have been for many, many months. And you hit me, and you hit her (Lucia) while she was in my hands! Mel, you’re losing your mind. You need medication.”

Mel: You need a f*cking kick up the a** for being a b*tch, c*nt, gold digging whore! With a p*ssy son! And I want my child, and no one will believe you! So f*ck you!”

PHOTOS: Celebrity Death Threats

While there is cross talk as Oksana and Mel argue, Oksana’s team views it as an admission that Mel hit the baby when he punched Oksana and damaged her front teeth, the source close to the situation told RadarOnline.com exclusively.

Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon:

When RadarOnline began releasing the violent, racist, horrifying audio clips, purportedly of Mel Gibson raging at estranged girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, it was a harrowing glimpse into an apparently deeply disturbed mind. And as the shocking clips just kept coming, it also became a field day for jokesters.

On Monday, comic Michael Ian Black took to Craig Ferguson’s couch to pitch himself, “now that Mel has imploded,” as the world’s new favorite Australian. Letterman, meanwhile, offered Gibson’s “Top Ten Excuses.” “Number one: Wanted to show the Jews I’m an equal opportunity offender.” There was the inevitable YouTube “phone fight” pitting rage-a-holic Mel against anger poster-child Christian Bale, along with the so of-the-moment-it-hurts mashup featuring that seriously emo double rainbow guy.  And in a stroke of twisted genius, Buzzfeed went for the win with a choice collection of Gibson’s most colorful quotes set in Hallmark card doodly fonts and accompanied by photos of adorable wide-eyed kittens. Why? Because “mentally deprived idiot” just doesn’t seem so bad coming from a baby animal in a meadow. In my own home, Gibson’s furious “You make me wanna smoke!” has quickly replaced BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back” as my new favorite expression of exasperation.

David Brooks in NYT:

The story line seems to be pretty simple. Gibson was the great Hollywood celebrity who left his wife to link with the beautiful young acolyte. Her beauty would not only reflect well on his virility, but he would also work to mold her, Pygmalion-like, into a pop star.

After a time, she apparently grew tired of being a supporting actor in the drama of his self-magnification and tried to go her own way. This act of separation was perceived as an assault on his status and thus a venal betrayal of the true faith.

It is fruitless to analyze her end of the phone conversations because she knows she is taping them. But the voice on the other end is primal and searing.

That man is like a boxer unleashing one verbal barrage after another. His breathing is heavy. His vocal muscles are clenched. His guttural sounds burst out like hammer blows.

He pummels her honor, her intelligence, her womanhood, her maternal skills and everything else. Imagine every crude and derogatory word you’ve ever heard. They come out in waves. He’s not really arguing with her, just trying to pulverize her into nothingness, like some corruption that has intertwined itself into his being and now must be expunged.

It is striking how morally righteous he is, without ever bothering to explain what exactly she has done wrong. It is striking how quickly he reverts to the vocabulary of purity and disgust. It is striking how much he believes he deserves. It is striking how much he seems to derive satisfaction from his own righteous indignation.

Rage was the original subject of Western literature. It was the opening theme of Homer’s “Iliad.” Back then, anger was perceived as a source of pleasure. “Sweeter wrath is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetener,” Homer declared. And the man on the other end of Grigorieva’s phone seems to derive some vengeful satisfaction from asserting his power and from purging his frustration — from the sheer act of domination.

And the sad fact is that Gibson is not alone. There can’t be many people at once who live in a celebrity environment so perfectly designed to inflate self-love. Even so, a surprising number of people share the trait. A study conducted at the National Institutes of Health suggested that 6.2 percent of Americans had suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, along with 9.4 percent of people in their 20s.

In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.

That doesn’t make them narcissists in the Gibson mold, but it does suggest that we’ve entered an era where self-branding is on the ascent and the culture of self-effacement is on the decline.

Every week brings a new assignment in our study of self-love. And at the top of the heap, the Valentino of all self-lovers, there is the former Braveheart. If he really were that great, he’d have figured out that the lady probably owns a tape recorder.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

For starters, I think it’s all unseemly. I don’t think this is the kind of thing that should be spilled out for the public no matter who it is. I think Gibson is clearly troubled and despite his well-documented paranoia, there are many long knives out with his name on them. I think it is grotesque for his wife to release tapes like this (assuming she is the culprit).

Hypocrisy sleuths will note that I took a similar position on Alec Baldwin, of all people.

But I’m much less inclined to buy this conventional wisdom that he’s a mainstream conservative of some kind. I know he’s a committed old school Catholic, or so he says. I know he made a film about Jesus that was very warmly received by many conservatives and criticized by many others. But I’ve seen interviews with him where he could be a commenter on Daily Kos.  The most recent movie I saw him in, Edge of Darkness,  hinged on an absolutely asinine attack on the U.S. government in general and the Bush administration in particular.

My point isn’t to say he’s no conservative because he’s so clearly troubled. Conservatives are, like all other kinds of humans, perfectly capable of mental breakdowns and other tragic maladies. I guess what I object to is the idea that somehow anyone should treat this situation differently because of the man’s  political allegiances, real or alleged. This is a sad situation made all the sadder because there’s such a huge market for it.

Julian Sanchez on Goldberg:

Can we review? The manifestation of Mel Gibson’s “tragic malady” in this instance is that he repeatedly roared threats to kill his estranged ex and burn down her house. And these aren’t exactly idle threats, because in what I can only assume was a terrifying exchange, he alludes to having earlier hit her hard enough to break several of her teeth—something he claims she “deserved.”  I suppose it’s accurate, in a sense, to say he’s “troubled”—there’s obviously something very badly wrong with the guy—though also unusually fortunate in that he’d have ample resources to discreetly seek counseling.

But this is, shall we say, not the usual emphasis of conservatives when discussing people who commit violent crimes. Some unemployable inner city junkie who resorts to theft can expect a lecture on personal responsibility—not sympathy for how “unseemly” it is for his crime to be publicly exposed.  But a multi-millionaire who beats up women and then threatens murder?  He sounds an awful lot like a Victim of Society in Goldberg’s account.

Andrew Sullivan:

I agree that much of this is unseemly to be aired in public, but grotesque? When the woman involved is clearly fearful for her safety? Gibson, in the passage above, is clearly threatening violence against his girlfriend and admits in this passage to a previous brutal assault, saying that a woman “fucking deserved” to have her face punched in and teeth broken. When you listen to the audio, his voice operates as a kind of lethal weapon, a vocal expression of brute violence. It’s terrifying. Jonah Goldberg, perhaps sensing vulnerability as an editor at a magazine that championed Gibson as a religious genius and a, yes, feminist, pivots:

I’m much less inclined to buy this conventional wisdom that [Gibson]’s a mainstream conservative of some kind. I know he’s a committed old school Catholic, or so he says. I know he made a film about Jesus that was very warmly received by many conservatives and criticized by many others. But I’ve seen interviews with him where he could be a commenter on Daily Kos.

Yes, the man who viewed John Paul II as too liberal is actually a lefty. But what we see in this dialogue is deeply revealing, it seems to me, about Gibson’s mindset and the fundamentalist psyche that is undergirding politics and culture the world over.

He is a deeply disturbed man whose “spirituality” is wrapped up in extreme violence and fascist imagery. What motivates him is clearly power – heterosexual white male power – imposed on others by raw violence or the threat of violence. He is a fascist in temperament – which is why racism and anti-Semitism and murderous hatred of gay people come naturally to him. And this is how he sees himself as a Christian.

Will we read any revisions to the encomiums to his disgusting attack on the Christianity of the Gospels in “The Passion”, his depiction of Jesus as a human being killed dozens of times by hook-nosed Jews as a literal expiation for the sins of humanity? Will the right wing now revisit its elevation of this deranged thug as a Christian exemplar? Will Lopez actually revise her view of a man who wishes that the mother of his child be “raped by a pack of niggers”, who uses the c-word liberally, who punches a woman in the face … as a feminist worth revering along with that protector of thousands of child-rapists, John Paul II? Or will we read more posts, like Goldberg’s, suggesting that Gibson is actually a creature of the hard left?

Or will, at some point, the cognitive dissonance actually break? What, one wonders, would it take? What event, what fact, what data could ever undermine the mad certainty of these perverse fanatics?

Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Every time Mel Gibson unburdens himself of a tirade against Jews or “n______s” or uncooperative females, there are commentators on hand to create a mystery where none exists. When he produced The Passion of the Christ, which lovingly and in detail recycled the bloody myth that all Jews are historically and collectively responsible for the murder of Jesus, it was argued by many mainstream Christians that his zeal for the faith might be a touch lurid but that the film itself was mainly devotional. When he was arrested on the Malibu freeway and screamed abuse at a police officer to the effect that Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world, pundits convened on page and screen to speculate whether our Mel had too much to drink that evening. Not long ago, I watched him go completely bug-eyed on television at a Jewish interviewer who asked him about the latter incident. “You’ve got a dog in this fight, haven’t you?” he hissed. And now, in the wake of a Niagara of cloacal abuse directed at the mother of his youngest child, in which we were spared nothing by way of obscenity and menace and nothing by way of paranoid and sexualized racism, there have been those who diagnose Gibson’s problem as a lack of anger management skills, combined perhaps with a touch of narcissistic personality disorder.

This is extraordinary. We live in a culture where the terms fascist and racist are thrown about, if anything, too easily and too frequently. Yet here is a man whose every word and deed is easily explicable once you know the single essential thing about him: He is a member of a fascist splinter group that believes it is the salvation of the Catholic Church.

[…]

It would be highly surprising if a person marinated in the doctrines of this ideology did not display all sorts of symptoms that were also sexually distraught. Racism very often clusters with sexual revulsion, and Gibson’s rants are horribly larded with this element. His obsessive loathing of homosexuality—so seldom a healthy sign—is also well-known. Less well-remembered, perhaps, is the interview in which he announced that his wife of many years and the mother of his children would not, alas, be able to join him in paradise. It was not a matter of her moral character. It was simply that she had not seen fit to join the one true church. Her condemnation, then, was “a pronouncement from the chair.”

Gibson has now traded in this long-suffering lady—hopelessly rupturing his sacred marriage vows—for another, younger one, who, to phrase it delicately, was almost certainly not picked for her salient Catholic virtues. In doing this, he must have had a consciousness, however dim, of having endangered his immortal soul. Not only that, but also of having parted with a sensational quantity of worldly goods by way of a divorce settlement. And after all that, the new girl won’t do as he says; won’t defer; won’t assume the desired position at a single snap of his fingers. A true gauleiter feels entitled to a bit more by way of luxurious subservience. No wonder, then, that Gibson walks around with neon lights behind his staring eyes, flashing the slogan “Contents Under Pressure.”

Yet I still saw a report the other day about a fan site where the members were just beginning to ask, “What’s with him?” Why is there this reluctance to call something by its right name? It’s not as if Gibson was issuing a cry for help. On the contrary, what he is issuing is the distilled violence, cruelty, and bigotry—and sexual hypocrisy—that stretches from the Crusades through the Inquisition to the “concordats” between the church and Hitler and Mussolini. Yet he’s still reporting for work. When will Hollywood, and the wider society, finally decide to shun and spurn him utterly, both for what he is and for what he represents?

E.D. Kain at The League:

Perhaps this stems from my admiration of Mel Gibson the filmmaker or perhaps it is simply because I hate to see a piling-on when someone is so obviously in such a dire straits, but I feel compelled to come to Gibson’s defense. Obviously, the things Gibson said to his girlfriend were horrible, and if he did hit her then that is even more indefensible. But I think it is also quite obvious at this point that Gibson has a serious addiction problem and quite likely serious mental problems as well. If he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, this may account for quite a few of his demons, including his inability to stay on the wagon or to his faith. It may also account, to some degree, for his creative brilliance.

I suppose Gibson is at his best when navigating the straight and narrow of his Catholic teaching (and that he belongs to a traditionalist catholic church is, as far as I can tell, immaterial here). When he falls off that wagon he falls off all the rest. He has admitted that his divorce was his fault, plain and simple. He is now likely at the very bottom of whatever pit he has dug for himself. Guilt over his failed marriage, his drinking problem – it is all converging. And standing at the center of this convergence is the woman he wrecked his marriage upon, like some hideous reminder of all his failings.

Furthermore, these sorts of people – at once rich and creative and hugely vulnerable to bad influences – are like flames to the worst sort of moths. At their worst they are manipulated and taken advantage of and used up. I suspect Oksana Grigorieva is one of these moths – perhaps if Gibson had taped her without her knowledge a broader picture of their relationship would have emerged. I suspect there is much more to the story.

This certainly doesn’t make the things Gibson said any less awful. Then again anger, mental illness, alcoholism, despair – these are powerful and poisonous and anyone has been through any of this – through addiction, despair, divorce, etc. knows that we all say things we don’t mean. (Even those who haven’t had addiction problems or marriage problems have likely been to these dark places inside themselves.) We lash out. We suddenly use the language of our fathers – of a past we thought we’d buried deep. Certainly Gibson was not raised in a home that looked favorably upon minorities. One doesn’t need to be a racist to have that impulse rise up like bile in moments of despair.

I’ve certainly said things I’ve regretted in darker times in my own life. I’m certainly not without my own grave errors, my own hateful words. I can’t imagine being taped during such a painful time as this, in the middle of a hideous fight at the end of a crumbling relationship.

In the end, we have only a few details, only a scrap or shred of the truth, and yet we all rush as quickly as we can to judgment. That’s a wagon we can all easily stay upon and never fall off.

Rufus F. at The League on Kain:

Certainly, me and my wife have had what she calls “kitchen sink fights” before. And couples must fight, as the man said. And, absolutely, the pain of a collapsing romantic relationship can lead people to say terrible things. I’d never want my private life in the depths of its worst moments to be made public that way, and especially not recordings of those kitchen sink fights.

But, here’s the thing: I don’t fight that way. And I’d imagine you don’t either. What disturbs me about those tapes isn’t the language; it’s the level of misogyny. Me and my wife fight about all sorts of things, most of which are fairly stupid. But the way she dresses doesn’t “hurt” me. It doesn’t “humiliate me” if other men find her attractive. Because, ultimately, on some level, I realize that it’s none of my damn business. Whether or not other people find her attractive isn’t something I expect her to control for my sake or me to control for her sake. This isn’t Saudi Arabia, and her autonomy isn’t something she’s done to me. It’s a fact- and a good one.

I think I hear something different than you do in those Gibson tapes. I hear men from my family who try to control the women in their lives. I hear the possessive, always wounded, always manipulative and controlling, insecure creeps whose wives come to my wife for therapy. I hear someone who’s entitled to sex, entitled to tell his partner how to dress and behave, and who ultimately relates all of the choices she makes in her own life to his personal happiness. I hear the man I might have been, if I hadn’t had the extreme good fortune to be sexually attracted, from a young age, to the sort of smart, independent women who wouldn’t take my crap. Acting like that was simply not an option. And it’s totally freeing to accept that your loved ones will think, act, dress, and be whatever way they want to in their own lives without it hurting you or feeling you need to control them.*

Nevertheless, celebrities are not known for surrounding themselves with people who won’t take their crap. And men, or women, who behave this way are often excused because “everyone gets jealous” or “it’s none of our business”. And, of course, none of us can do anything to change how someone else acts in their own personal relationship. But for society to say in a forthright way that men, or women, who treat their loved ones this way need to stop doing so- that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. Since this is a site that’s leaning libertarian as of late, I think it’s also very healthy to reflect on the ways that bullying individuals can limit the autonomy of others in their private lives, and how often this impacts women. In terms of casting stones, it’s worth remembering that the specific context of Christ’s comment was a city stoning a woman to death out of rage at her sexual choices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movies

David, Go To Your Corner… Paul, Go To Your Corner… Matt, Go To Your Corner… Noah, Go To Your Corner

David Brooks at NYT:

Many economists say we need another stimulus bill. They debate about whether the stimulus should take the form of tax cuts or spending increases, but the ones in your party are committed to spending increases. They trot out a plausible theory with computer models to go with it. If the federal government borrows X amount of dollars and pumps it into the economy, that would produce Y amount of growth and Z amount of jobs. In a $14 trillion economy, you’d probably have to borrow hundreds of billions more to have any noticeable effect, but at least you’d be doing something to help the jobless.

These Demand Side theorists are giving you a plan of action. But you’re not a theorist. You’re a practical executive, and you have some concerns.

These Demand Siders have very high I.Q.’s, but they seem to be strangers to doubt and modesty. They have total faith in their models. But all schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years. Are you really willing to risk national insolvency on the basis of a model?

Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years. There is no way to know for sure how well the last stimulus worked because we don’t know what would have happened without it. But it is certainly true that the fiscal spigots have been wide open. The U.S. and most other countries have run up huge, historic deficits. And while this has helped save public-sector jobs, we certainly haven’t seen much private-sector job growth. It could be that government spending is a weak lever to counter economic cycles. Maybe monetary policy is the only strong tool we have.

The theorists have high I.Q.’s but don’t seem to know much psychology. Lord Keynes, though a lesser mathematician, wrote that the state of confidence “is a matter to which practical men pay the closest and most anxious attention.”

Paul Krugman responds:

A quick note on David Brooks’s column today. I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says,

The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years

Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.

But there’s something else in David’s column, which I see a lot: the argument that because a lot of important people believe something, it must make sense:

Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?

Yes, I am. It’s called looking at the evidence. I’ve looked hard at the arguments the Pain Caucus is making, the evidence that supposedly supports their case — and there’s no there there.

And you just have to wonder how it’s possible to have lived through the last ten years and still imagine that because a lot of Serious People believe something, you should believe it too. Iraq? Housing bubble? Inflation? (It’s worth remembering that Trichet actually raised rates in June 2008, because he believed that inflation — not the financial crisis — was the big threat facing Europe.)

The moral I’ve taken from recent years isn’t Be Humble — it’s Question Authority. And you should too.

Scarecrow at Firedoglake:

Note Brook’s cowardice is not naming Krugman, DeLong, Baker, et al, or for that matter, traditional Republican economic advisers like Bruce Bartlett and Mark Zandi, who recently called for more stimulus now and strongly warned Congress against cutting spending before the economy has more fully recovered.

Brook’s intellectual sleight of hand is to say, “well, all economists have been wrong, so why pay attention to Krugman and friends?” That’s just dishonest, because not all economists have been wrong, and it’s important to know which have been right and which have been catastrophically wrong.

Over the last 30 years, a particular group of economists has been proved dead wrong, and their belief system nearly destroyed the economy. It’s the school of economists who claimed markets are self correcting, that financial markets don’t need much oversight, and the government shouldn’t use fiscal policy to help a depressed economy recover even when monetary policy (lowering Fed interest rates) becomes ineffective. When Alan Greenspan in a moment of candor admitted his surprise and shock that his entire economic philosophy had failed, he was speaking for that school, which Krugman et al have vilified for forgetting essential lessons from the Great Depression. It is Greenspan’s school, not Krugman and friends, that has been arrogant in rejecting well deserved criticism. But Brooks seems completely ignorant of this distinction.

Ezra Klein:

At first glance, David Brooks and Paul Krugman have released precisely opposite columns over the past few days. Krugman’s Sunday effort blasted the Senate for failing to pass further stimulus in the form of unemployment benefits. “We’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused,” he lamented. Brooks’s column is an effort to punch holes in the case for stimulus. “Debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence,” he writes. “It destroys it.”

But if you actually look at their prescriptions, they are, in this case, similar. Krugman wants to see unemployment benefits extended. So, it turns out, does Brooks. “Extend unemployment insurance,” he recommends. “That’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing.” He goes on to argue for a program that would “mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending” by tying state and local aid to the passage of state budgets that make long-term sense — but notice that he’s recommending state and local aid.

Now it may be that a retrenchment to state and local aid and unemployment insurance represents a tremendous defeat for those of us who believe the economy needs further government help to get back on its feet. But getting passage of both — and quickly — would also mean it gets some of the most necessary, and quickly-usable, help that government can provide. If you can’t do much more on stimulus, you can at least mitigate some of the pain and prevent some of the most predictable sources of economic contraction.

Brad DeLong on Brooks:

David Brooks advises Obama:

David Brooks: You are practical…. Too much debt could lead to national catastrophe. Too much austerity could lead to stagnation. Well, there’s a few short-term things you can do. First, extend unemployment insurance; that’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing. Second, you need to mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending. You need a program modeled on Race to the Top. You will provide federal money now to states that pass responsible long-term budget plans…

And David Brooks advises Obama:

David Brooks: A Little Economic Realism: These Demand Siders have very high I.Q.’s, but they seem to be strangers to doubt and modesty. They have total faith in their models. But all schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years. Are you really willing to risk national insolvency on the basis of a model?… [M]any prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus…. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong? The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years…. The theorists have high I.Q.’s but don’t seem to know much psychology… debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence. It destroys it. Only 6 percent of Americans believe the last stimulus created jobs…. Consumers are recovering from a debt-fueled bubble and have a moral aversion to more debt. You can’t read models, but you do talk to entrepreneurs in Racine and Yakima. Higher deficits will make them more insecure and more risk-averse…. They’re afraid of a fiscal crisis. They’re afraid of future tax increases. They don’t believe government-stimulated growth is real and lasting… they are the ones who invest and hire, not the theorists. The Demand Siders are brilliant, but they write as if changing fiscal policy were as easy as adjusting the knob on your stove. In fact, it’s very hard to get money out the door and impossible to do it quickly. It’s hard to find worthwhile programs to pour money into. Once programs exist, it’s nearly impossible to kill them. Spending now creates debt forever and ever…

Did he have a long dark night of the soul that led to a complete ideological conversion? Was important new information about the structure of the economy brought to his attention? Did word come down from the Conintern demanding that he cease his line wobble?

Did his doctor change his meds–drastically?

Nope. None of the above.

The first quote starts four lines after the second ends.

Dean Baker at CEPR on Brooks:

There also is a basic question of logic that Mr. Brooks neglects. If the country really did start to face insolvency (i.e. no one would buy its debt), why would the Fed not simply step in and buy up government debt itself, as it has been doing to some extent over the last year and a half? This could cause inflation, which could be a serious problem, but then the issue would be inflation, not insolvency.

Of course, as practical matter, it is more than a little far-fetched to believe that we will have to worry about inflation any time soon. All the measures of inflation are in the 1-2 percent range and headed downward. With the unemployment rate still near double-digit levels and huge excess capacity in nearly every sector of the economy, it would take some real magic to spark inflation. (Since Brooks is anxious to argue that central banks and international financial institutions, who all missed the housing bubble btw, agree that insolvency is a real concern, it is probably worth mentioning that Olivier Blanchard, the chief economist of the IMF, believes that the economy would benefit from a somewhat higher rate of inflation.)

After inventing a crisis of national insolvency to concern the president (should President Obama also worry about invading Martians?), Mr. Brooks tells readers that:

“The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years.”

Hmmm, is that right? Seems to me that we have a very simple theory to explain the past two years. There was a huge bubble in housing that burst beginning in 2006. This led to a plunge in residential construction that cost the economy more than $500 billion in annual demand. In addition, the loss of $6 trillion in housing wealth, coupled with the loss of around $7 trillion in stock wealth, has cost the economy more than $500 billion in annual consumption demand. This is the result of the wealth effect on consumption, a phenomenon that economists have been writing about for close to a century. In addition, there was a bubble in non-residential real estate that collapsed about a year after the collapse of the housing bubble. This cost the economy about another $150 billion in demand. That gives a total loss in annual demand of around $1.2 trillion. All of this was completely predictable and predicted by at least some demand siders.

It was also easy to see that the stimulus approved by Congress was inadequate. Demand siders rely on something called “arithmetic” to reach this assessment. After pulling out the $80 billion fix to the alternative minimum tax, which had nothing to do with stimulus, and the $100 billion or so designated for later years, the stimulus provided for roughly $600 billion in spending and tax cuts over the years 2009 and 2010. This comes to $300 billion a year. Roughly half of the federal stimulus was offset by cutbacks and tax increases at the state and local level, leaving a net stimulus from the government sector of roughly $150 billion a year.

Demand siders did not believe that $150 billion in annual stimulus from the government could offset the contractionary impact of a reduction in annual spending by the private scctor of $1.2 trillion ($1.2 trillion > $150 billion). That is how demand siders explained the failure of the stimulus to have much impact in reducing the unemployment rate. Perhaps this explanation is too complicated for Mr. Brooks (he repeatedly complains about the high IQs of the demand siders), but it actually seems fairly straightforward. If he wants to be honest, he could at least say that he doesn’t understand the demand siders’ explanation, rather than asserting that demand siders do not have an explanation.

Matthew Yglesias:

David Brooks, writing skeptically about the case for more fiscal stimulus, says:

But the overall message is: Don’t be arrogant. This year, don’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do.

So leaving aside the fact that it’s a bit difficult to know exactly which programs enhance productivity and which don’t (arrogant, even), obviously “do more productivity-enhancing stuff” is never terrible advice. But it just can’t be emphasized enough that even though the American economy is in fact sub-optimal on the supply side in many ways, this is also true of every other economy on earth at every other time on earth. When nations fall into a macroeconomic funk, it’s natural—and in some ways even a bit healthy—for people to start focusing on structural problems that they didn’t care about so much a few years ago in fatter times. But it can also get morbid.

[…]

Over the long-run, boosting our productivity growth rate will help us become more prosperous. But over the short-run, our potential to produce goods and services simply isn’t the issue. The issue is that because of demand shortfalls, that potential isn’t being used.

Having said all that, the really odd thing about Brooks’ column is that after bashing stimulus proponents for many grafs, he turns out to basically agree with stimulus proponents:

First, extend unemployment insurance; that’s a foolish place to begin budget-balancing. Second, you need to mitigate the pain caused by the state governments that are slashing spending.

Exactly. But if that’s what Brooks thinks, he should be complaining about conservative senators who don’t want to do those things, not about Paul Krugman.

Noah Millman at The American Scene:

Question for Matt Yglesias:

Your answer to our economic situation is that we need to ramp up government spending to stimulate consumer demand to increase employment. It’s not important to be efficient in how we deploy our stimulus money; it’s much more important just to get people buying stuff and making stuff for people to buy.

Your answer to the problem of climate change is that we need to substantially increase the price of carbon so that consumption patterns change and we all buy less stuff that is very carbon-intensive and either spend more of our income on non-carbon-intensive goods and services or simply live lives of greater overall leisure without so much emphasis on getting and spending. The government should do what it can to ease the economic pain of the transition, but some short-term economic pain is a reasonable price to pay for saving the planet.

I think the tension between these two positions should be obvious. I think Matt would reconcile that tension by saying that, no, he doesn’t really think that ramping up government spending on just anything is a good idea – he thinks we should ramp up spending on things that would help make the transition to a greener economy, even if this means sacrificing a bit of stimulus.

In other words, he thinks we should be planning for the long term when we spend in the short term, and now more than ever since this “spend lots of money now” window isn’t going to stay open forever.

In other words, if David Brooks had said “[D]on’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that entrench the existing carbon-based economy. Spend more on those that help foster a green transition” instead of talking generically about productivity and investing for the long term, Matt would have applauded instead of sniping.

Right?

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics, Mainstream, The Crisis

Like A Rolling Stone

Michael Hastings at Rolling Stone:

How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?” demands Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It’s a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He’s in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.

“The dinner comes with the position, sir,” says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn.

McChrystal turns sharply in his chair.

“Hey, Charlie,” he asks, “does this come with the position?”

McChrystal gives him the middle finger.

On the ground with the Runaway General: Photos of Stanley McChrystal at work.

The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling staff of 10 has converted into a full-scale operations center. The tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables crisscross the hotel’s thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to provide encrypted phone and e-mail communications. Dressed in off-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks – McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his advisers says, is the “most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine.” The general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the tables as too “Gucci.” He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to Bordeaux,

Talladega Nights

(his favorite movie) to Jean-Luc Godard. Besides, the public eye has never been a place where McChrystal felt comfortable: Before President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the Pentagon’s most secretive black ops.

The Spill, The Scandal and the President: How Obama let BP get away with murder.

“What’s the update on the Kandahar bombing?” McChrystal asks Flynn. The city has been rocked by two massive car bombs in the past day alone, calling into question the general’s assurances that he can wrest it from the Taliban.

“We have two KIAs, but that hasn’t been confirmed,” Flynn says.

McChrystal takes a final look around the suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, not unlike an older version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.

Looting Main Street: Matt Taibbi on how the nation’s biggest banks are ripping off American cities.

“I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.

He pauses a beat.

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”

With that, he’s out the door.

“Who’s he going to dinner with?” I ask one of his aides.

“Some French minister,” the aide tells me. “It’s fucking gay.”

Get more Rolling Stone political coverage.

The next morning, McChrystal and his team gather to prepare for a speech he is giving at the École Militaire, a French military academy. The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he immediately set out to deliver on his most important campaign promise on foreign policy: to refocus the war in Afghanistan on what led us to invade in the first place. “I want the American people to understand,” he announced in March 2009. “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001. Taking the advice of both the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also fired Gen. David McKiernan – then the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan – and replaced him with a man he didn’t know and had met only briefly: Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years, since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

Eric Zimmermann on The Hill:

On Tuesday morning, Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates suggested that the magazine gathered even more devastating information that could not be published.

“They said a lot of stuff to us off the record that’s not in the story, so we respected all those boundaries,” Bates told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Bates said the magazine has gotten zero pushback from McChrystal’s people.

“No. No, I haven’t heard that,” Bates said when asked whether McChrystal has claimed the magazine misquoted him. “Didn’t hear that during the course of the story. I didn’t hear that in his apology.”

Byron York at The Washington Examiner:

I just got off the phone with a retired military man, with more than 25 years experience, who has worked with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Pentagon.  His reaction to McChrystal’s performance in the new Rolling Stone profile?  No surprise at all.

“Those of us who knew him would unanimously tell you that this was just a matter of time,” the man says.  “He talks this way all the time.  I’m surprised it took this long for it to rear its ugly head.”

“He had great disdain for anyone, as he said, ‘in a suit,’” the former military man continues.  “I was shocked one day in a small group of people when he took [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to task in front of all of us.”

“The other thing about him is that he is probably one of the more arrogant, cocksure military guys I have run across.  That in itself is not necessarily a character flaw, but when you couple it with his great disdain for civilians, it’s a very volatile combination.”

The former military man is under no illusions about the general nature of relations between the military and the civilian leadership.  “I don’t consider this an anomaly,” he says.  “You can find examples of this going back to the founding of the republic.  Nevertheless, it is very disturbing that he would have such disdain for the civilian leadership.”

Andrew Exum:

I have been struck by the degree to which a lot of smart friends are in disagreement about what should be done about l’Affair Rolling Stan. In some ways, the argument about whether or not you dismiss Gen. McChrystal for comments made by the commander and his staff in this Rolling Stone article breaks down into unhappily familiar lines. Critics of the current strategy in Afghanistan unsurprisingly think McChrystal should be fired. Supporters of the strategy think that while the comments made to Rolling Stone were out of line, McChrystal should be retained in the greater interest of the war effort. Neither side, that I have yet seen, has acknowledged that either course of action would carry risk. The purpose of this post is to outline the risks of dismissing Gen. McChrystal as the commander of ISAF in response to the affair. This is an uncomfortable post to write. I very much admire Stan McChrystal and have looked up to him since my time in the Rangers when I fought in Afghanistan under his command. I know the man personally and worked with him last summer in an effort to analyze the war in Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF operations there. And so there may be a limit to how objective I can really be, but I’m a defense policy analyst, so I’m going to try and soberly analyze these risks without letting my admiration for McChrystal get in the way.

James Fallows:

If the facts are as they appear — McChrystal and his associates freely mocking their commander in chief and his possible successor (ie, Biden) and the relevant State Department officials (Holbrooke and Eikenberry) — with no contention that the quotes were invented or misconstrued, then Obama owes it to past and future presidents to draw the line and say: this is not tolerable. You must go. McChrystal’s team was inexplicably reckless in talking before a reporter this way, but that’s a separate question. The fact is — or appears to be — that they did it

The second step is what this means for US strategy in Afghanistan, the future of COIN, etc. But the first is for the civilian Commander in Chief to act in accordance with Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution and demonstrate that there are consequences for showing open disrespect for the chain of command.

And, yes, I would say the same thing in opposite political circumstances — if, for instance, a commander of Iraq operations had been quoted openly mocking George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Resign in protest: yes, a course of honor. But protest and mock while in uniform, no.

Jon Soltz at VetVoice:

I know something about this. In 2006, I worked with two Generals, appearing in national television ads critical of President Bush and his strategy in Iraq. Or, should I say, retired Generals. Major Generals Paul D. Eaton and John Batiste each made the painful decision to leave the military they loved, so they could speak out. To that point, they had held their tongues.

Why?

Because the order and efficacy of our Armed Forces falls apart without respect for the chain of command. Whether it’s a grunt respecting his company commander, or a General respecting the Commander in Chief, every single thing is predicated on the integrity of the chain of command. As soon as someone – especially someone as high up as General McChrystal – violates that respect, every single person under him begins to not only question the orders they’ve been given from above, but is given the signal that it’s OK to openly disagree or mock his or her superior.

And, violate that respect General McChystal and his subordinates have. Among other things, the Rolling Stone story reports first-hand that:

* McChrystal was disappointed with his first meeting with the President, and that he feels the President is uncomfortable and intimidated with military brass.

* McChrystal’s aid calls National Security Advisor James Jones a “clown.”

* Another aide says of envoy Richard Holbrooke, “The Boss [McChrystal] says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

* Bolstering that, McChrystal himself, receiving an email from Holbrooke says, “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to read it.”

* On Vice President Biden, who disagreed with the General’s strategy in Afghanistan, McChrystal says while laughing, “Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?”

* An aide, mirroring his boss, adds, “Biden? Did you say Bite me?”

Anyone of lower rank would be immediately dismissed if he or she said of their superiors what General McChrystal said, or what he allowed members of his team to say.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that the General has been in trouble. Following a very public campaign for his preferred strategy in Afghanistan, which included a 60 Minutes interview that challenged the President, McChrystal landed in some hot water with the President, and was told to cool it. Frankly, McChrystal got off easy.

When General Eric Shinseki testified to Congress about his opinion on the force levels needed to invade Iraq, countering the strategy laid out by President Bush and Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was forced into retirement. Shinseki, unlike McChrystal, was asked his opinion, under oath, in front of Congress. There’s a difference between that professional conversation, and personal attacks on your superiors. Shinseki didn’t lead a public campaign to air his views, either. At any rate, McChrystal was given a second shot, where Shinseki was not.

Whether he continued his insubordination purposely, or stupidly and unintentionally, isn’t an issue. The issue, here, is that it happened. Again.

Thomas Donnelly and William Kristol in The Weekly Standard:

If Stan McChrystal has to go—and he probably does—it will be a sad end to a career of great distinction and a low moment in a lifetime devoted to duty, honor, and country. But the good of the mission and the prospects for victory in Afghanistan may well now demand a new commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

While there are obvious issues of civil-military relations exposed by the general’s cringe-inducing quotes in the “Runaway General” article in Rolling Stone—and while his staff appear to be off the leash entirely, a command climate for which McChrystal is responsible—the original source of the problem is above the general’s pay grade.

So McChrystal should not be the only one to go.  Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and “AfPak” czar Richard Holbrooke should likewise either submit their resignations or be fired by President Obama.  Vice President Biden and his surrogates should be told to sit down and be quiet, to stop fighting policy battles in the press.  The administration’s “team of rivals” approach is producing only rivalry.

Max Boot at Commentary:

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

Spencer Ackerman:

You can read Gen. McChrystal’s apology in full here at the Washington Independent. No “clarification” that I expected last night after seeing the AP writeup of McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview disrespecting the Obama administration. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal emailed reporters instead. “Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.” You think?

McChrystal gets called to the White House on Wednesday to direct the monthly Afghanistan/Pakistan briefing — oh, and to explain himself and see if he can keep his job. As I wrote for the Washington Independent, firing him carries its risks. There’s only a year to go before the July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan security responsibility and the Kandahar tide is starting to rise. It’ll be hard to fire McChrystal without ripping the entire Afghanistan strategy up, and I’ve gotten no indication from the White House that it’s interested in doing that. On the other hand, if senior administration officials are and I just haven’t picked up on it, McChrystal just gave them their biggest opportunity.

And what an opportunity. You can read the Rolling Stone profile through Politico. The amazing thing about it is there’s no complaints from McChrystal or his staff about the administration on any substantive ground. After all, McChrystal and his allies won the argument within the White House. All the criticisms — of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden — are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal’s crew calls itself) finds them. This is not mission-first, to say the least.

In fact, you have to go deep in the piece to find soldiers and officers offering actual critiques — and what they offer is criticism of McChrystal for being insufficiently brutal. Everyone of them quoted here is a mini-Ralph Peters, upset because McChrystal won’t let them “get our fucking gun on,” as one puts it. I have a lot of respect for Michael Hastings, the author of the profile, but there are many greyer shades of on-the-ground military perspective than that, and I’ve seen them up close. But Hastings does a good and insightful job of showing that McChrystal is stepping into a diplomatic vacuum and acting as an advocate for Hamid Karzai despite Karzai’s performance in office.

We’ll have to wait for Wednesday to see if McChrystal keeps his command. My guess is he’ll stay, because now the White House knows that a chastened McChrystal isn’t going to say anything else outside of his lane to any reporter. McChrystal’s apology, emailed to me and other reporters well before the Rolling Stone story dropped, suggests that he wasn’t trying to walk away from his command in a blaze of arrogance. But it’s on him to repair his relationship with his colleagues and his bosses.

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

My bet is that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be gone within a week or so. Defense Secretary Gates canned Admiral Fallon as Central Command chief in the spring of 2007 for less pointed remarks, so he will look like a hypocrite if he does less here in response to McChrystal dissing Obama, Biden, and the White House in a new  article in Rolling Stone.

At any rate, it may be time for a whole new team in Afghanistan. My nomination is for Petraeus to step down an echelon and take the Afghanistan command. You could leave him nominally the Centcom chief but let his deputy, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen, oversee Iraq, the war planning for Iran, and dealing with Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. But more likely is that Petraeus will ask for another Marine general, James Mattis, who is just finishing up at Jiffycom, and who had planned to retire later this year and head home to Walla Walla, Washington. Petraeus and Mattis long have admired each other. The irony is that Mattis has a reputation — unfairly, I think — for speaking a little too bluntly in public about things like killing people. I think Mattis is a terrific, thoughtful leader.

I do wonder if this mess is the result of leaving McChrystal out there too long-he has been going non-stop for several years, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. At any rate, his comments reflect a startling lack of discipline. He would expect more of one of his captains. We should expect more of him. I know, I’ve said worse about Biden. But part of my job is to comment on these things, even flippantly sometimes. Part of his job is not to.

CNN:

[Updated at 4:41 p.m.] Gen. Stanley McChrystal has submitted his resignation, Time magazine’s Joe Klein told CNN, citing an unnamed source. CNN is working to confirm Klein’s information.

UPDATE: Andy McCarthy at The Corner

UPDATE #2: Allah Pundit

Jim Pinkerton at Ricochet

Spencer Ackerman

Doug Mataconis

UPDATE #3: David Brooks in NYT

Dylan Stableford at The Wrap

The Week Magazine

Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone

UPDATE #4: Conor Friedersdorf and Matt Lewis at Bloggingheads

UPDATE #5: Max Read at Gawker

Glenn Greenwald

3 Comments

Filed under Af/Pak, Military Issues, Political Figures

Zelig With A Scotch And Perrier

Christopher Hitchens memoir, Hitch-22

Alex Eichler at The Atlantic with the round-up

Michael Totten at Instapundit’s place:

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ new book Hitch-22: A Memoir wasn’t supposed to be released until June, but my copy from Amazon.com arrived today. He sent me an uncorrected advance reader copy a few weeks ago, and it’s terrific.

Excerpt in Vanity Fair

Excerpt from Hitchens in Slate:

The fictions and cartoons of Nigel Molesworth, of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and numberless other chapters of English literary folklore have somehow made all this mania and ritual appear “normal,” even praiseworthy. Did we suspect our schoolmasters—​not to mention their weirdly etiolated female companions or “wives,” when they had any—​of being in any way “odd,” not to say queer? We had scarcely the equipment with which to express the idea, and anyway what would this awful thought make of our parents, who were paying—​as we were so often reminded—​a princely sum for our privileged existences? The word “privilege” was indeed employed without stint. Yes, I think that must have been it. If we had not been certain that we were better off than the oafs and jerks who lived on housing estates and went to state-run day schools, we might have asked more questions about being robbed of all privacy, encouraged to inform on one another, taught how to fawn upon authority and turn upon the vulnerable outsider, and subjected at all times to rules which it was not always possible to understand, let alone to obey.

I think it was that last point which impressed itself upon me most, and which made me shudder with recognition when I read Auden’s otherwise overwrought comparison of the English boarding school to a totalitarian regime. The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is “systematic.” The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not. (The only rule of thumb was: whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.) Thus, the ruled can always be found to be in the wrong. The ability to run such a “system” is among the greatest pleasures of arbitrary authority, and I count myself lucky, if that’s the word, to have worked this out by the time I was ten. Later in life I came up with the term “micro-megalomaniac” to describe those who are content to maintain absolute domination of a small sphere. I know what the germ of the idea was, all right. “Hitchens, take that look off your face!” Near-instant panic. I hadn’t realized I was wearing a “look.” (Face-crime!) “Hitchens, report yourself at once to the study!” “Report myself for what, sir?” “Don’t make it worse for yourself, Hitchens, you know perfectly well.” But I didn’t. And then: “Hitchens, it’s not just that you have let the whole school down. You have let yourself down.” To myself I was frantically muttering: Now what? It turned out to be some dormitory sex-game from which—​though the fools in charge didn’t know it—​I had in fact been excluded. But a protestation of my innocence would have been, as in any inquisition, an additional proof of guilt.

There were other manifestations, too. There was nowhere to hide. The lavatory doors sometimes had no bolts. One was always subject to invigilation, waking and sleeping. Collective punishment was something I learned about swiftly: “Until the offender confesses in public,” a giant voice would intone, “all your ‘privileges’ will be withdrawn.” There were curfews, where we were kept at our desks or in our dormitories under a cloud of threats while officialdom prowled the corridors in search of unspecified crimes and criminals. Again I stress the matter of sheer scale: the teachers were enormous compared to us and this lent a Brobdingnagian aspect to the scene. In seeming contrast, but in fact as reinforcement, there would be long and “jolly” periods where masters and boys would join in scenes of compulsory enthusiasm—​usually over the achievements of a sports team—​and would celebrate great moments of victory over lesser and smaller schools. I remember years later reading about Stalin that the intimates of his inner circle were always at their most nervous when he was in a “good” mood, and understanding instantly what was meant by that.

Diana McLellan at WaPo:

Hitch-22” (ghastly title) is a fat and juicy memoir of a fat and juicy life, topping 400 pages. As you plunge in for your Zelig-like wallow in the past century’s zeitgeist, you begin to shiver: My God, didn’t this guy leave anything out? Here’s the terrible and tragic 1973 suicide of his beloved Mummy, via pills, in an Athens hotel room with her dreary defrocked-vicar lover, violently dead by his own hand. Here’s a cuddle with a beau at boarding school. Here’s a dab of introspection on what some call his “bromance” with Amis. (Of course, he began to hate Martin’s father, the great author Kingsley Amis, when Kingsley got old and boring. Good thing that won’t happen to him!) Here’s his charmless admission that he prefers American girls to English ones because they put out without a lot of upfront argle-bargle. Here are the sophomoric word games played with his very highest-brow cronies, such as substituting the f-word for “love” in song titles.

His artless self-revelations convey a certain careless elan: “I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin [Amis] carnally. (My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.)”

But the truth is, for the memoir of a Trotskyite George Orwell worshiper, “Hitch-22” (ugh) has a humongous memory hole. Where’s his wife of eight years, Eleni Meleagrou? He dumped her in 1989, when she was pregnant with their second child, for the elegant Carol Blue, whom he’d met at an airport. Where’s his old Washington soulmate, former New Yorker writer and Clinton confidante “Cousin” Sidney Blumenthal, whom he accused of lying during the Clinton impeachment trial?

It’s been said by unkind people that an honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought. So is an honest journalist one who, once bamboozled, stays bamboozled? Call me naive — please! — but I’m floored that the great dirt-digger still clings to the certainty, peddled by Paul Wolfowitz and Ahmed Chalabi and long since discredited, that the late Saddam Hussein was unseated for his tyranny and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Tyranny? Has Hitchens seen what we’re still sucking up to? Most tyrants, of course, aren’t squatting atop a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves. Even Alan Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir that it was “politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq war is largely about oil.”

Maybe now that Hitchens is 60-something and says he drinks “relatively carefully,” he’ll run this one through his little gray cells one more time. By the way, “relatively carefully” to him is terribly spartan: just a Scotch and Perrier at lunchtime, followed by half a bottle of wine, and then the same again every evening.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious,” he observes. It does. Pour yourself a stiff one, fasten your seat belt and enjoy this bumpy but never boring ride.

Andrew Sullivan at The Times:

In fact, the blunt Brit is now almost a stock figure. Last week saw the final American Idol featuring Simon Cowell as a judge. Cowell is better known in America than, say, the Supreme Court’s chief justice or three-quarters of Barack Obama’s cabinet. At some point in a distant Wildean past, a British musical judge might be expected to be wittier than his peers. Cowell is witless, inexpert, inarticulate and touchy. He just possesses a series of ugly prejudices and crude hunches and the ability to tell someone to their face that they’re rubbish. In Britain, who really cares? In America he’s a legend.

Or contrast Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant reality show in America with the British version. In the US, he’s far ruder and the recipients of his bile much less socially prepared for it. And so the Brits have found a niche in fostering embarrassment among Americans by saying things Americans in general are far too polite to bring up.

Christopher Hitchens cannot be reduced to this. His first common identity in America was leftism, just as mine was conservatism. He seems to have read everything and met everyone, as his addictive new memoir, Hitch-22, proves. His prose is almost as enjoyable as his company. But he only reached his apotheosis in American culture by attacking the one thing Americans have historically shied from attacking: God. Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana were not enough. He needed the Big One to become the Loved One.

The best in this genre occurs when the sentiment is genuine. Hitch really does believe that religion poisons everything. It’s not an act. His visceral, furious response to 9/11, like my own, had not a scintilla of inauthenticity about it. What he has, apart from real skill and extraordinary discipline (drink only makes him work harder), is the courage of his own curiosity.

The Economist:

The nostalgia is sometimes fetid. On his favourite high horse, Mr Hitchens might dismiss another writer’s coy tales of long- ago gay flings at Oxford with future Conservative cabinet ministers as “kiss and hint” writing. The boozy Friday lunches in London with his clever friends, and their shared fondness for puerile, obscene word games, will leave most readers bored and mystified. Mr Hitchens admits that it was funnier at the time (and probably funnier still for those robbed of their critical faculties by copious amounts of alcohol).

But amid the dregs are shards of brilliant, piercing writing. The account of his uncovered Jewish ancestry (concealed by his lively, miserable mother, who killed herself in a hotel room in Athens, with her lover) is more than poignant. His willingness to go to the barricades to defend his friend Salman Rushdie after the fatwa in 1989, and his beloved America after September 11th 2001, is unaffected and appealing. Having lambasted bourgeois values such as freedom and tolerance, Hitch now (a bit late in the day, some might think) understands why they matter.

The ardour is not always matched by insight. In particular, the smoke of incinerated straw men obscures any serious discussion of religion (superstition practised by hypocrites, in his view). And for what is meant to be a no-holds-barred memoir, the author goes lightly on some of his failings. Broken ideals get plenty of self-satisfied scrutiny; broken hearts and marriages rate barely a mention. The impression left is of a writer frozen in a precocious teenagery, whose ability to tease and provoke the grown-ups is entertaining but ultimately tiresome. If Mr Hitchens can stay off the booze and do some serious thinking, his real autobiography, in 20 years’ time or so, should be a corker.

Allen Barra at Salon:

In place of revelation, there is lots and lots of gossip. Hitchens, to take him by his own accounts, is the Zelig of modern Anglo-American letters; he seems to have been everywhere, talked to everyone and made friends in every corner of the world, whether or not anyone else was there to record the conversation.

People seem to want to tell Christopher Hitchens their secrets; like Nick Carraway, he is “privy to the secret of wild, unknown men.” Also some that are very well known: Gore Vidal, we learn, would take “rugged young men recruited from the Via Veneto … from the rear” where they were then taken into the next room where “Tom [Driberg, the journalist] would suck them dry.” (We are not told whether this occurred while Hitchens was still in his Oxford phase.)

Name-dropping, which has become a distressing trait in Hitchens’ work in recent years, is now approaching critical mass. Long stretches of “Hitch-22” read like literary bouquets to Hitch gathered by himself. He names and quotes the usual suspects — Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, long ago identified by Hitchens as partisans. Joining their ranks are “my Argentine anti-fascist friend, Jacobo Timerman,” “my Kurdish friends,” Susan Sontag’s son “my dear friend David,” “my dear friend and colleague Jeff Goldberg [who] said to my face over a table at La Tomate …,” “my friend and ally Richard Dawkins,” “my beloved friend James Fenton,” and “my then friend Noam Chomsky” (even former friends with well-known names make Hitch’s cut). Regrettably, the late great Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James didn’t quite make the list; he passed shortly after Hitchens arrived at his deathbed.

When he isn’t writing about his friends in “Hitch-22,” he is usually writing about how proud he is to have such friends. He was “proud” to be mentioned several times in Martin Amis’ memoir and “absurdly proud” to have a poem by James Fenton dedicated to him. He is, however, “offended” at the idea that he might have been Tom Wolfe’s model for the English journalist in “Bonfire of the Vanities” — in which case he shouldn’t have mentioned it or I would never have known there was such a rumor.

Willa Paskin at New York Magazine:

Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens have been close friends since the seventies, but their relationship is having a moment, thanks to both simultaneously publishing work celebrating the other. Amis’s novel The Pregnant Widow contains a big-brother character modeled on Hitchens; the Hitch’s memoir, Hitch-22, contains a chapter about Amis. This long-term bromance has been fruitful for both men, emotionally and intellectually — but not, perhaps, comedically! Both books refer to a game Amis and Hitch play “that involves substituting phrases like ‘hysterical sex’ for ‘love’ in the titles of movies, songs, and novels.” Some of the results of this word game include “Stop in the Name of Hysterical Sex,” Hysterical Sex Story, and A Fool for Hysterical Sex — exactly the type of not-very-funny pun that might make you laugh hard, but only if “you’d been there.” Amis and Hitchens, hugely accomplished authors, but, also, just like us!

David Frum and Hitchens do a podcast at FrumForum

UPDATE: Hitchens announces that he has cancer at Vanity Fair

Allah Pundit

UPDATE #2: David Brooks in NYT

Andrew Sullivan

UPDATE #3: Hugh Hewitt

Ross Douthat

2 Comments

Filed under Books

There’s A Blond Wondering Around Georgetown

Phillip Blond in Prospect Magazine:

We live in a time of crisis. In such times humans retreat to safety, and build bulwarks against the future. The financial emergency is having this effect on Britain’s governing class. Labour has withdrawn to the safety of the sheltering state, and the comforts of its first income tax rise since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the Conservatives appear to be proposing a repeat of Thatcherite austerity in the face of economic catastrophe. But this crisis is more than an ordinary recession. It represents a disintegration of the idea of the “market state” and makes obsolete the political consensus of the last 30 years. A fresh analysis of the ruling ideological orthodoxy is required. Certainly, this new thinking isn’t going to come from the left. New Labour is intellectually dead, while Gordon Brown promises an indebted return to a now-defunct status quo. But, in truth, Brown’s reconversion from post-socialist free marketeer to state interventionist is only plausible because the Conservatives have failed to develop an alternative political economy that explains the crisis, and charts a different future free of the now bankrupt orthodoxies. Until this is achieved, Brown’s claim that the Conservatives are the “do nothing” party has real traction, and makes the result of the next election far from assured.

On a deeper level, the present moment is a challenge to conservatism itself. The Conservatives are still viewed as the party of the free market, an idea that has collapsed into monopoly finance, big business and deregulated global capitalism. Tory social thinking has genuinely evolved, but the party’s economic thinking is still poised between repetition and renewal. As late as August 2008 David Cameron said: “I’m going to be as radical a social reformer as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer,” and that “radical social reform is what this country needs right now.” He is right about society, but against the backdrop of collapsing markets and without a macro-economic alternative, Thatcherite economics has been wrongfooted by events.

Thankfully, conservatism is a rich and varied tradition, and re-examinating its history can provide the answers Cameron needs. These ideas are grounded in a conservatism with deeper roots than 1979, and whose branches extend into the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism—or red Toryism. This is more radical than anything emerging from today’s left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

To date, neither political party has offered a plausible analysis of the origins of the meltdown. Brown denies all responsibility while George Osborne and Cameron hold him wholly and uniquely culpable. Given that no reasonable person can think either position is tenable, both parties have surrendered the intellectual high ground. But the financial crash does provide an opportunity to think through a renewed “one nation” conservatism. Cameron says that Disraeli is his favourite Tory. Disraeli attempted to ameliorate a society destroyed by the rampant industrialisation of 19th-century capitalism, whereas Cameron’s chief target (until now, at least) has been a 20th-century creation: a disempowering, dysfunctional state. Nineteenth-century Tories criticised liberal capitalism, while 20th-century conservatives condemned the illiberal consequences of statism. But 21st-century Tories, especially against the backdrop of the current crisis, must inveigh against both in favour of the very thing that suffers most at the hands of the unrestrained market and the unlimited state: society itself. And conservatism, so imagined, could reject the politics of class—of “our people”—and the interests of the already wealthy in favour of a national politics that serves the needs of all.

It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” This is the true spirit of Cameroonian conservatism and, taken seriously, it represents a break with the monopoly logic of the market state. But to recognise this innovation for what it is we have to contrast the potential of Cameron’s civic communitarian conservatism with what it aims to transcend: the corrupt and rotten postwar settlement of British politics.

Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative:

“Red Tory” Philip Blond is giving a talk this evening at Georgetown University, hosted by the invaluable Tocqueville Forum. Well worth attending if you’re in the D.C. area. And tomorrow Tocqueville is hosting two panel discussions on Blond’s ideas, the first featuring Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, and yours truly, the second with John Millbank, Andrew Abela, and Charles Mathewes. Details are here.

Blond’s Red Toryism is not welfare statism — he’s for breaking up and devolving much of the British welfare system, and he prefers a morality-infused market to further government regulation. But how would that work? His talk will give some ideas. (As does his upcoming book, Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it.)

Patrick Deneen in WaPo:

Contemporary party arrangements have tended to understand one or the other outcome of this settlement as the root of contemporary problems. For conservatives in the Thatcher/Reagan mold, the State threatens the liberty and independence of the individual (particularly the economic freedom of autonomous individual actors in free markets, itself premised upon the atomized and individualistic liberal anthropology of Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith). Liberals have seen the market as the threat, and have argued on behalf of the need for a centralized State to trim its excesses. What Blond perceives – echoing the discerning analysis of Distributist thinkers such as Chesterton or Hillaire Belloc in his penetrating work The Servile State or Robert Nisbet in his classic work The Quest for Community, or even the more recent work of the agrarian writer Wendell Berry – is that the centralized modern State and the concentrations of wealth and power deriving from modern “free” markets are mutually reinforcing entities.

What both of these entities mutually seek to eviscerate are the “mediating” institutions of society, those allegiances to more “partial” associations that stand in the path of the simultaneous realization of the atomized individual and the centralized State. Partial associations – whether in the form of more local forms of governance, civic associations, strong bonds of community, religious devotions, and family – are simultaneous obstructions to both radical individualism and encompassing State power. They are the traditional bulwarks against both aspects of the liberal settlement, and as such, have been mutually the object of attack by both the State and the Market. “Conservatives” and “Liberals” alike have (with different emphases) contributed mutually to the destruction of the “Associational State.”

The recent economic crisis – fueled simultaneously by the depredations of radical free agents in the market (buying and selling abstractions of financial instruments that at some point had some actual relationship to homes, that most basic building block of human associational life) and the State system that ended up supporting this economic and social arrangement – lifted the veil on this deeper symbiosis. The crisis exposed the fact that what had been sold to the American and British public for some 50 years – that one had to choose between the State and the Market – was in fact a grand illusion, and that the Left hand was as intent in making the citizenry the subjects of the Servile State as surely as the Right hand was. While inchoate in its anger and inadequately schooled in the causes of the modern crisis, the tea party movement – in its anger toward both parties – reflects this growing understanding that the purported political alternatives of our time represent no real choice at all.

Blond arrives in the U.S. to lecture at Georgetown University on Thursday evening, March 18, and to participate in panel discussions with various journalists and academics on the afternoon of Friday, March 19 (among the participants are the “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank). From D.C., Blond will travel to Philadelphia, where he will lecture on Monday, March 22 at Villanova University. For more information on all of these events, see this announcement.

Rod Dreher:

Greetings from Georgetown, where we heard tonight the English public intellectual Philip Blond introduce Red Toryism to an American audience. Blond is an engaging speaker and and real optimist about the possibility of positive political change (at dinner tonight after the speech, it was encouraging for a pessimist like me to hear him speak so vigorously about how world-changing ideas can start small). He’s just received a huge launch in this country, courtesy of David Brooks’ Friday column.

That David Brooks column (obviously, in NYT):

But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond.

He grew up in working-class Liverpool. “I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated,” he told The New Statesman. “It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed.” Industry died. Political power was centralized in London.

Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.

Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.

The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.

The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, “Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry.” In a separate essay, he added, “The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures.”

David Blackburn at The Spectator:

Blond’s premise is unanswerable – the twin revolutions of left (prescriptive rights) and right (free market liberalism) have, perversely, centralised power. Everything is highly contestable.

First, Blond has an advanced case of David Miliband Syndrome: he expresses himself exclusively with meaningless abstractions:

In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity…We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity.’

Markets are Blond’s schtick. From what I can gather he’s agin ‘em. He fixates on what he perceives as the ‘unprecedented reduction of market diversity and plurality’. The Luddites would object to the idea this is ‘unprecedented’, and the prosperity of all that followed them undermines the assertion that a ‘reduction of diversity’ entrenches poverty. But Blond is unperturbed. He argues that local shops should be protected from larger competitors through co-ops, mutualism and state intervention when necessary.

It’s deeply conflicted thinking. Consumers are at their most powerful in a genuinely competitive and well policed market. Blond’s ideas don’t address competition; they simply replace corporatism with mutualism. Rooted in an Enid Blyton historical fantasy of cottage industries, Blond would manipulate and skew markets. He’s attracted reams of criticism. Iain Martin’s and Alex Massie’s critiques are essential reading. Perhaps Blond’s sojourn in the States reflects his growing isolation in conservative circles.

Alex Massie’s critique, from November 2009:

I think Blond is bemoaning a certain homogenisation of urban life and, sure, there’s something to that. But the fact remains that, for instance, it can never have been cheaper (in terms of a percentage of average wages) to feed your family and you’ve never had as great a choice of provisions with which to do so. I bet Blond disapproves of supermarkets (fair enough) but poor people like supermarkets. And they’re not stupid to like Tesco or Aldi or whatever.

Similarly, the horrors of the modern economy have brought us to a situation in which the average person spends much less time at work each year than did their grand-parents or great-grandparents. I think it’s about 800 fewer hours per annum in Britain. This too does not seem a negligable gain.

For that matter, one financial crisis, no matter how serious, does not prove the “failure” of markets. Apart from anything else, they’ve not been tried* for decades in areas as trivial as secondary education (except for the rich) and health (ditto).

Sometimes, if I understand him correctly (not as simple a task as it ought to be), it seems as if Blond wants to take us back to the 1930s – at home and at work. I think he’d like everyone to live in small towns or, preferably, villages too. Now there was much that was good about the 1930s but time, and society, moves on and it’s futile to suppose that the clock can be wound back. Equally, for all that progress or, if your prefer, time, causes some valuable things to be lost, it also brings valuable improvements. In the end, Blond comes across, perhaps unwittingly, as a nostalgist. And, I’d hazard, it’s but one hop from nostalgia to full-blown reactionary status.

Because, of course, even when the state was smaller, that hardly meant an absence of coercion (especially, one might note, for women). Social mores can be just as stifling as the state even if they also have overwhelming local support and play a significant, even important, role in fostering social cohesion. Look at the Western Isles for instance, or pockets of Bradford today. Which is also why it’s important that there be a means of escape and that the individual, no matter how much Blond dislikes such folk, be, to use a think tank word, “empowered”.

That doesn’t mean that more mutalisation, an emphasis on local and voluntary associations and trying to expand and widen opportunity are bad things. They’re not. But whether Red Toryism is more than a few good (and less than earth-shattering) ideas buried benath a mass of bewildering and sometimes contradictory assumptions is something that, for now, remains a matter of some confusion.  Certainly, it’s apparent belief that you can have everything and it’s apparent belief that trade-offs are extinct suggests that more work needs to be done. Time will, I guess, tell.

*Yes, yes, yes. Just like “true” Communism, “proper” or “authentic” libertarianism can never fail because it will never be tried…

Zach Dundas:

I’m way too much of a Big Government nerd to go all the way with Red Toryism, or any kind of Toryism at all—I’m in the middle of two books, one about Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant national-forests land grab, one about the Great Society, and between them, I’m geeking out so hard on the benevolent state that I might end up with pin-ups of Gifford Pinchot and Lyndon Johnson in my locker. And, anyway, until my theoretical Middle Earth Liberation Front arises, there’s no electoral outlet for the radical decentralism that Blond articulates.

On the other hand, I like a nice cup of tea or a pint of real ale, and can’t help but feel some sympathy for a tradition which, in a broader manifestation, produced “If Pooh Were President.” I think it would be awesome if the American right would drop the crazy act and go after Wal-Mart or something Red Tory-ish. Get down with your bad selves, boys. (Q: Have there been any Tory females since Thatcher? Reply confidentially.)

Will at The League:

Despite my nasty libertarian streak, I found a lot to like in Blond’s talk, particularly in his enthusiasm for decentralization and local competition. My only quibble is that while Blond’s diagnoses are often compelling, his proposed solutions are sometimes less so. When talking about the importance of political subsidiarity, for example, Blond spoke of “giving democracy back to the streets,” which sounds more like a Students for a Democratic Society slogan than a concrete political program. “Driving capital to the periphery” and decentralizing our financial system sound great in theory, but I’m still left to wonder how economic subsidiarity works in practice. One important caveat: I’m new to Blond and was late to the lecture, so my first impressions may not do justice to the Red Tories’ program.

Blond’s philosophy also seems better suited to cultural renewal than, say, political or economic reform. His most compelling examples of Red Toryism in action – A Birmingham neighborhood taking back the streets from pimps and drug dealers; the persistence of Northern Italy’s artisan economy – struck me as the result of cultural factors that aren’t easily replicated or recreated through state action. When we do transmogrify a cultural agenda into a political one, the results are sometimes messier than anticipated, which may have been what Ross Douthat was getting at when he asked Blond about the parallels between his philosophy and Bush’s compassionate conservatism at the end of the presentation.

One last observation: Blond spoke movingly of the plight of poor and working class citizens stuck in low-wage service jobs with no prospects for social mobility. His economic vision stresses the importance of creating stakeholders – skilled artisans, small businesspeople, and so on –  who feel more invested in their communities. This reminded me of the American experience after World War II, when millions of returning GIs received free college educations and federally-backed homeownership loans helped create the American middle class. But while these programs were largeky  successful, they’re not exactly models of decentralized governance. Is Blond willing to compromise or moderate his small government sympathies to create new economic stakeholders? I ask because state efforts to create or impart social capital – from public schools to the Federal Housing Administration to Bush’s compassionate conservatism – are rarely characterized by decentralization or subsidiarity.

Exit question: Is liberal society, as Blond suggests, fundamentally dependent on older traditions, cultural practices, and civic institutions? Does radical individualism undermine these institutions? I know Blond isn’t the first to make this argument, but his prognosis was both unusually grim and surprisingly persuasive. I’d be curious to hear what the League’s commenters and contributors have to say on the subject.

UPDATE: Chris Dierkes at The League

E.D. Kain at The League

Rod Dreher

UPDATE #2: Jason Kuznicki at The League

Patrick Deenen at Front Porch Republic

More Kain at The League

UPDATE #3: Shawn Summers at FrumForum

UPDATE #4: Daniel McCarthy at TAC

E.D. Kain at The League

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #5: Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic

Daniel Larison

More Kain

Ross Douthat

UPDATE #6: Deenen at Cato

3 Comments

Filed under Go Meta, UK