Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cassandra calling.

In 1945 the US commanded forty percent of the world's wealth. By 1987 it had declined to half that.  More decline has occurred since.  While the US is wealthier in absolute terms, relatively it is not. This relative decline is inexorable, and it will continue.

The slide is aggravated by several other factors.  Our military spending briefly went down after 1945, but soon shot up again; it now stands at record levels.  The Golem of automation is destroying jobs throughout the industrial world.  Many of the jobs that remained have fled to Asia.

All this means that we as a nation cannot long continue to live in the profligate way we have been.

I am not an economist.  Yet these facts are readily available to any thinking person.

Obama has no concept of how to deal with the debt; he just wants to kick the can down the road and continue to pay off his client constituencies.  Romney has his clients too, the big money guys.  To pay them off will be even more costly, so that Romney, if he takes office, will take us faster and farther down the road to insolvency.

In short things will get worse before they get better--if indeed they ever do get better.

NOTE.  The debt problem is very real.  Here is a friend's summary.  "The revised Congressional Budget Office (CBO) federal budget deficit projection for FY 2012 stands at $1.1 trillion (a staggering 7.3% deficit-to-GDP ratio). If Congress fails to resolve the impending “fiscal cliff” by January 1, 2013, and the series of tax-increases and spending cuts come into effect (which is expected to reduce the fiscal deficit to $641 billion or 4% of GDP), the CBO expects a 0.5% contraction in 2013 (RGE believes the resulting cliff will lower Q4/Q4 GDP by about 3% in 2013), also pushing the unemployment rate up to 9%. Under an alternative fiscal scenario where tax measures are extended indefinitely and automatic spending cuts are not imposed, the CBO expects 1.7% growth between Q4 2012 and Q4 2013. Although we have factored the concerns on the fiscal drag into our growth forecast of 1.7% for 2013, even our well-below-consensus forecast might prove to be too high amid rapidly slowing growth."

Some of you have, I am sure, felt puzzlement and dismay regarding my skepticism about the New York Times. After all, I read it every day, and sometimes it provides material for one of my blog postings. Shouldn’t I be more grateful for the profuse bounty of information I am receiving?

I was somewhat surprised to see my concerns echoed this morning in a piece by Arthur Brisbane, the Public Editor (i. e. ombudsperson) at the Times. To be sure, his critique is cautiously expressed, and “balanced” by words of praise. After all he is writing pro domo.

Here are the relevant excerpts:

“Two years ago, when I wrote my “why on earth” column, I suggested that the pace of change [at the paper] called for a re-emphasis on “transparency, accountability, humility.” Looking back now, I think The Times could do better with these.

“The Times is hardly transparent. A reader still has to work very hard to find any Times policies online (though some are tucked away there), and there is still no place where Times editors speak on the issues. As for humility, well, The Times is Lake Wobegon on steroids (everybody’s way above average). I don’t remember many autopsies in which, as we assembled over the body, anyone conceded that maybe this could have been done differently. , , ,

“I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

“When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times. . . .

“Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.

“It’s a huge success story — it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation — but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?”


The Times as the mirror opposite of Fox News? No, that cannot be good. The existence of a vast claque known as Times Nation virtually guarantees the prevalence of confirmation bias, a loop in which the paper caters to the proclivities of its fans, who in turn shower uncritical support.

In my youth, aeons ago, daily newspapers were careful to maintain a fire wall between the editorial page and the news pages. The biases and concerns of the first sphere were not allowed to seep over into the second. Yet this seepage--what Brisbane calls “bleeding through the fabric”--has been going on for years at the New York Times, affecting both the stories that are chosen for inclusion and the spin that is given to the information provided therein. Sometimes these articles are labeled “New Analysis,” warning the reader that the article is not just the facts, but facts-cum-interpretation. All too often, however, these hybrid pieces come with no warning label. Collectively, they reflect the pervasiveness of the "culture of like minds."

Friday, August 24, 2012

It is no secret that the relentless advance of automation in advanced industrial countries will throw more and more people out of work. (See

Unlike most members of the underclass, these individuals are perfectly employable, but there just will not be enough jobs for them.  Thus we are moving to a two-nation situation, in which some will work and some not.  Many people will have nothing to look forward to but a life on the dole. Morally and psychologically, the prospects are ominous.

Now come Robert Skidelsky, a brilliant historian of economics, and his son Edward who have written a book with various proposals for dealing with the problem.  Basically, it seems to come down to this: those who have jobs should work fewer hours so as to make way for others.  In theory this solution sounds good, but how is it to be implemented?  At all events, here is a review:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

David Stockman, the Reagan budget director who jumped ship in 1985, has a brilliant op-ed in today's NY Times. He rightly perceives that one cannot just anathematize Ryan and get back to the big spending, which in my candid opinion is all that Obama has to offer. Instead the matter of the budget and the debt must be addressed holistically. Yes, entitlements need to be capped, but the absurdly bloated expense of the military must also be drastically reduced, which Ryan refuses even to consider because it is a Republican sacred cow and foreign interventions have become their obsession. Stockman also sees the need for very serious scrutiny of the Federal Reserve and banks, including restoration of Glass-Stegall. He only falls down on the need for tax increases, claiming that means testing of entitlements (a very bad idea) will solve the problem.

He is right about the main thing, though: we cannot just keep wildly spending money and fideistically assume that everything will turn out right.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

I have released a number of my writings on a wonderful Archive on the Internet, headed by my friend Dr. Erwin Haeberle in Berlin. For the latest piece, see 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gore Vidal.

I am notorious for not adhering to the taboo on saying critical things about the recently deceased.  Announced this morning, the death of Gore Vidal is no exception.

Vidal’s life work is problematic in a number of ways.  But two issues stand out.

1) He claimed to be open and honest about his sexuality, but he was really confused and duplicitous.

Two recent incidents show that, even towards the end of his life, he had made little progress in grappling with this central issue.

Gore never abandoned his admiration for  the late Timothy McVeigh, the "noble boy" with whom he exchanged an avid correspondence while the terrorist languished on death row. McVeigh had blown up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. Vidal chose to downplay the huge loss of life in this act of mass murder.  “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims.

Vidal’s infatuation inspired a satirical play by Edmund White, "Terre Haute," yielding the following outburst from Vidal. “That play implies I am madly in love with McVeigh. I looked at [White's] writing and all he writes about is being a fag and how it’s the greatest thing on Earth. He thinks I’m another queen and I’m not. I’m more interested in the Constitution and McVeigh than the loving tryst he saw. It was vulgar fag-ism.”

These words reveals more than a touch of self-contempt. Of course Vidal long adhered to his special version of the Kinsey doctrine that there are homosexual acts and no homosexual persons. At least he is not one of those, thank goodness! Still, he has boasted that he had sex with 1,000 men by the time he was 25. And how many women? Very few, I suspect. Of course anyone has the right to be bisexual.  Yet Vidal was a one-sex guy. After all these years, the great Truth Teller was never been willing to be honest about the most important thing: himself.

In an interview that appeared in The Atlantic in 2009, he was asked to comment on the Polanski case. “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?"

When it came to sexual matters Gore Vidal was decidedly not a reliable narrator.

2)  Vidal claimed to be a kind of tribune of the people, defending their interests against the depredations of the powerful elites.  Yet he came from the elite himself, and never allowed his followers to forget it.  In fact he despised the common people, who were too stupid to vote in their own interest. They were distracted by a cloud of rhetoric.  By contrast, with their superior breeding and education Vidal and his friends were easily able to cut through these distractions,

Even though it was never explicitly stated, the conclusion is obvious: the country must be governed by a special body of privileged  Platonic guardians, with Vidal himself of course in the vanguard.  With their peerless, faultless judgment these superior folks would assume the burden of deciding what is best for the rest of us.

UPDATE (August 3, 2012),   A version of the above text triggered, as I expected, some lively ripostes on Facebook.  In these the defenders of Vidal gave some ground.  His position about homosexuality was ambivalent, his novels worthy but not exceptional, and his essays full of gossip.

One thing remains, it seems; Vidal’s critique of imperialism.  Imperialism is a little like sin in the Calvin Coolidge story, for everyone is against it.  And so am I.  But the nature of imperialism has changed over the decades. When Vidal was born in 1925 it was largely a matter of controlling territory (the “colonies”) and extracting labor and resources therefrom.  This is the view that he retained throughout his life, as seen not long ago in his unlikely speculation that the reason we were in Afghanistan was to build an oil pipeline across the country.

After 1945, the old-style empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal were gradually dissolved.  What we have now is something different, something sometimes termed superimperialism, in which a number of powerful countries, or international business firms which essentially have no country, form consortia for domination.  In this quest they are as likely to use soft power as well as the hard power of direct physical control. 

A valiant, though in my view not entirely successful effort to understand his transformation has been made in the big  2000 book “Empire,” by Hardt and Negri.  For his part, though, Vidal made little attempt to modernize himself, clinging to a dated and inadequate concept of imperialism.  Unlike such diverse figures as V.S. Naipaul, Jimmy Carter, and Edward Said he never traveled much in non-European countries.  In consequence his rhetorical sallies against “the Empire” don’t amount to much.

UPDATE NO. 2.  Citing Picasso, a friend asks if it is not appropriate simply to judge Gore Vidal as a creative figure, regardless of the content.  My response is as follows.  The case of Ezra Pound comes to mind. Few of Pound’s admirers, even the most fervent ones, would embrace his anti-Semitism and adulation of Mussolini. Yet he won the Bollingen prize for the quality of his poetry alone. While Vidal uttered some good epigrams, some even worthy of Oscar Wilde, not many would say that aesthetics were his main driving point. Vidal claimed to be a political analyst and historian, whose often biting comments were intended to wake us up to the need to repair the body politic. That is how he should be evaluated--and how he would have wished to be evaluated.

One who has drunk the Vidal Koolade full strength is Justin Raimondo, who runs the Antiwar website. Over the years this site has published some important pieces. Yet Mr. Raimondo’s unbounded enthusiasm for Gore Vidal, the “last Jeffersonian,” has, for me at least, the opposite effect than the one intended. See