McChrystal: He’ll Always Have Paris.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, June 27, 2010 after watching selections from “PBS NewsHour, “The Charlie Rose Show,” “The Chris Matthews Show” and ”This Week.”

Salit: I want to talk to you about the McChrystal story, about General McChrystal being relieved of his command in Afghanistan. But, I want to stay on some combination of a speculative and maybe even a dramaturgical level. I know you don’t know the players and you weren’t in the room when the Rolling Stone interviews were being done. But that said, I’m looking to talk to you in the category of imaginings. So, there’s a reporter from a national publication, embedded, as they say, with General McChrystal and his staff in Paris and they’re there for days on end, because they were stranded after the Iceland volcano cloud grounded flights all across Europe. And, within hours of the Rolling Stone reporter’s arrival, they’re talking about their criticisms of the civilian leadership, the Vice President, the State Department, with respect to the war. At least a few commentators describe the trash talk as “egregious.” So, here is the speculation and imaginings question. What are these guys looking to do here? They know this is on the record, they know the tape recorder is going, etc. What’s going through their minds in this scene in the hotel room in Paris?

Newman: My imaginings?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: They’re looking to come home. They’re looking to get fired.

Salit: OK.

Newman: And maybe they had too much to drink? But, you have to figure that they knew what would happen. As you said, they knew this wasn’t off the record. Apparently, that was very plain.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So, they wanted out. And I would presume they wanted out because, among other things, Afghanistan looks like a loser.

Salit: It looks like a loser for the U.S.

Newman: Perhaps to McChrystal. And to some others as well, including unfortunately, the Taliban.

Salit: So, in our speculative imaginings, presumably they’ve tried to make that case through “official channels”? If this were a play, is there an earlier scene where McChrystal’s team goes to meet with the president or the Secretary of Defense, and says Hey man, we can’t pull this thing off. But nobody listens?

Newman: I have no way of knowing that, obviously. At the level of imaginings, I would imagine they made some effort to do that and they were unsuccessful.

Salit: And, what’s the case that they make, do you think? Before they get on the “trash talk to Rolling Stone” road. What does that conversation look like?

Newman: Hard to say. President Obama, at least publicly, says that he’s very open to differences of opinion. Maybe that’s not the case. Or, it might just be that he’s not open to differing opinions on things that he’s already done, namely selecting the particular people who are part of the civilian team. He just might not want to hear negative things about them from the military.

Salit: And, maybe I’m just asking you now to summarize things that have been said by others, but what’s the basic case that says a fundamental strategy of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan can’t win, can’t be successful?

Newman: I’m not a military person, nor am I an advocate for our war in Afghanistan. But, I hear from the experts that it’s very hard to conduct an effective counter-insurgency because the Taliban is too integrated with the civilian population. There are very clear restrictions placed on what the military is allowed to do.

Salit: On the rules of engagement.

Newman: On the rules of engagement, yes. Specifically with respect to actions that produce collateral harm to the civilian population. And moreover, there’s a long history of Afghanistan resisting invasions and/or takeovers by foreign powers.

Salit: Alright, so they tried to make that case. And I guess the case is some version of Either you have to change the rules of engagement so that we can more directly engage the enemy which is going to result in greater civilian casualties, and maybe even greater U.S. casualties, because of the extent to which the Taliban is so embedded in or part of the population – or we have to get out. In my imaginings, at least, that’s the case that they made. In other words, you can’t fight this on middle ground. Let us go in or let us get out, that kind of thing. And so, in Act I, Scene 3, they make their case but they don’t impact. And then they’re in Paris and they’re hanging out in the hotel room and this is the U.S. military high command, so they’re not staying at some fleabag hotel on the way to the airport. They’re at the Westminster, in a suite, it’s nice and elegant, and they’re ordering room service, you know, café au lait and brioches and beer at 30 Euros a pop. So, I’m really asking you to imagine – is there a scene where they’re sitting around the hotel, they’ve had a couple of drinks, they know the Rolling Stone reporter is coming and they say Let’s make the play. We’re going to go on the record and this thing is going to work its way back up the food chain and disrupt the civilian leadership. Or something like that.

Newman: That seems like one possible scene. And, from what I gather, McChrystal runs a more renegade-style ship than General Petraeus, so that’s also probably indicative of the kind of culture that McChrystal creates.

Salit: OK.

Newman: So, it might not even be that unusual to trash talk or vent or whatever. What is unusual is that they’re doing it despite the fact that there’s some degree of recognition that they will get called on the carpet for it.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Put another way, it wasn’t going to gather very much moss.

Salit: True enough. That kind of talk was going to produce a rapid succession of events.

Newman: Then, there’s the idea that the high command of our armed forces are generally less sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans. So, was that a factor? Well, it probably was on some level. I don’t know that it was self-conscious. But it was probably operative.

Salit: Yes. They seemed to want to test Obama’s resolve. Not surprisingly, the post-removal discussion includes observations that this is about more than Afghanistan. It’s about first principles of the United States Constitution, civilian control of the military.

Newman: That’s for sure.

Salit: And that Obama had no choice but to do this. Do you think that’s true?

Newman: I guess. That’s the formally correct opinion, and it’s formally correct for me also. I have no way of knowing whether he could have safely said, Don’t ever do it again. The formally right thing to do is what he did.

Salit: This is really a side question, but in the Charlie Rose discussion with his panel of experts, one guy says ‘He had no choice but to do this,’ referring to Obama, and then in the next sentence, he says, ‘It was a courageous thing to do.’ I was struck by that, and I wanted to ask you, if you are doing something, this or any other kind of thing, if you are doing something because you have to do it, can it also be courageous to do it?

Newman: I guess you can do it courageously. Namely, decisively and quickly. That question that you’re asking seems semantical to some extent though it’s a fair question. But, in some ways, it seems like a setup because the whole thing seems a little bit academic.

Salit: In what sense?

Newman: Everyone did what they did knowing that it would probably have these consequences. And it did have these consequences. So, it’s sort of an exercise in utter predictability.

Salit: I appreciate that because this whole affair does have that quality to it. On one hand, it’s presented as this great drama, and it is. In American history, it is dramatic when a president relieves a general of a command in the middle of a war. It doesn’t happen that often. But when it happens, it is a dramatic event. And, at the same time, as you say, this one does have a quality of everything that happened along the way seeming to be very predictable. I feel like someone’s already writing a script for a Hollywood movie called “McChrystal” and they’ve already cast it. Maybe Bruce Willis is going to play McChrystal.

Newman: Well, it might seem like a movie because it’s about the military. Military movies are very popular for a reason.

Salit: Which is?

Newman: It’s all about doing the right thing.

Salit: OK, you can still imagine – but I’ll also ask you to put on your political hat. Here’s the standard question. How does this impact on Obama? What’s the political weight of this for Obama, which always means in politics – does it hurt him, does it help him? Does it increase his prospects for re-election, does it do anything?

Newman: I don’t know. But putting Petraeus in to run U.S. operations in Afghanistan seems a plus for Obama since what he’s playing overall is centrist politics. And Petraeus is a good choice to bring in. McChrystal seems like someone you might hang out with in Paris. But Petraeus might be better at running a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean, since I don’t have much of an idea of what it means to run a counterinsurgency, including what kind of cooperation you need from your team. That’s what’s being said and I accept it.

Salit: Yes. Obama’s playing the centrist game.

Newman: Doesn’t it seem that way to you?

Salit: I suppose it does. McChrystal was a somewhat riskier choice to begin with.

Newman: So, now Obama is tacking back to the center and Petraeus is very much accepted as a good solid general, and it’s a slight concession that Bush’s military choices may have been better choices than his own. But I don’t think that represents a serious concession, because I think every red-blooded American presumes that Republicans are, in this respect, better at this than a supposedly left-wing, though actually centrist, Democrat. But, the big issue ultimately is what’s going to happen in Afghanistan, as everybody is pointing out.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Can they pull it off in Afghanistan? If they do, they will get a lot of kudos, since no one has done that in several thousand years, which probably has to do with all kinds of things, including with what Afghanistan itself is like. It’s a very hard thing to do.

Salit: That’s why nobody’s done it since Genghis Khan.

Newman: And nobody wants to put that much energy into it ultimately. So ultimately, the invaders go away.

Salit: Based on the cost-benefit analysis, to use a business term. Do you think Obama thinks, as part of his overall strategic perspective of wanting to reframe American foreign policy and reposition America in the world, that he has to finish out these wars that he’s inherited? Do you think that’s how he thinks about it? The fight against Al Qaeda, which is a major strategic concern for us, is much more based in Pakistan now.

Newman: Well, the fight isn’t based in Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s based in Pakistan.

Salit: That’s what I mean, Al Qaeda’s based in Pakistan.

Newman: But, the U.S. can’t easily engage Al Qaeda there. Pakistan is not only an ally, it’s a much higher
ranking ally than either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Salit: True. This isn’t a simple question, but how do you think he thinks about the Afghanistan question in the context of an overall interest in recalibrating, reorienting American foreign policy?

Newman: I think he’s accepted the overall posture of the Bush administration and of the American people to some extent, namely, that we had to go to war in response to the 9/11 attacks. I’ve talked to you at length about my feeling that it does not benefit the U.S. to have identified those attacks as acts of war, as opposed to heinous criminal acts, because now that we’re at war, it makes the circumstances and challenges that much more difficult for us. I think the evidence, perhaps from Korea on down, but certainly from Vietnam on down, is that counter-insurgencies are very difficult, some would say impossible, for the U.S. military. But, Obama is carrying that on. Why? Well, in some ways, he ran for the presidency on the basis of changing everything about the Bush administration, but he never could really mean quite everything because I think he does have a recognition that part of the deal is that there has to be continuity. In some respects, the easiest thing to continue is the war, in some strange way. Obviously he was opposed to our invasion of Iraq, but he’s stuck with it. So, he goes to West Point and says ‘We’re going to get Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we’re going to have a surge, but we’re going to do it in this determinative amount of time.’ In some ways, that’s exactly how not to conduct a guerilla war. But he does, and he has to because he wants to come up with a centrist balance. I’m sure some people advised him not to do that. Had I been there, I would have advised him not to do that. But, nonetheless, it seems a reasonable thing to do.

The course that Obama set for himself is to be an intelligent and compromising left winger. I think that’s a very hard position. If you’re going to be a left winger, you’re going to take all the heat for it anyway, whether you compromise or not. But, I see he doesn’t quite agree with that. Sometimes, it might seem like he agrees with that. But, then he tacks in the other direction. And, it might turn out to be successful overall. We don’t know. If the economy turns around and if we somehow or another, deplete the ranks of the Taliban so they throw up their hands, and if the outcomes are such that Obama can justifiably say We’ve won on all these things, people might say Hooray, fantastic, we’ve effected change, then he will have turned out to be right. We don’t know. Certainly we’re not going to even come close to knowing anything about the success of his strategy relative to domestic politics until we see the results of the midterm elections. The early primaries we’ve seen are all ambiguous situations with a set of local particulars.

Salit: Absolutely.

Newman: I don’t know that they have that much meaning. But, in November we’ll know the overall results on who controls Congress and the Senate. Will the partisan pundits and the parties try to spin those events to their advantage no matter what happens? Of course they will. It was a little easier when Bush was the president. His political profile was more definitive. And Obama still has a huge social popularity that lives outside of the more narrow political battles.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: The only people for whom this situation really makes life easier are the hardcore racists because all their racism comes out, but it’s under cover of these complicated issues and situations. For everybody else, it’s a hard situation to read.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

Difficulties In The Pursuit Of Happiness.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, June 6, 2010 after watching selections from “PBS NewsHour, “The Chris Matthews Show” and ”This Week.”

Salit: What did you think of the discussion, the interview with Derek and Sissela Bok about happiness? They’ve both written books about happiness.*

Newman: I thought it was interesting. Obviously, the centerpiece of the discussion was that no matter that in the history of Western civilization happiness is treated as the object towards which everything moves, as Aristotle observed, there is still little money, little effort, and few resources given to the achievement of happiness in our culture. It’s interesting to speculate as to why that would be so.

Salit: As to why it’s elusive?

Newman: No, as to why, in a society founded on the pursuit of happiness, so little is done to pursue happiness. Or, perhaps more precisely, you could make out a case that in the United States, the population often chooses to pursue happiness in ways that create obstacles to happiness.

Salit: How do we do that?

Newman: We eat too much bad food. Obviously, eating that food is done in the pursuit of happiness. But it makes people sick when they’re older. We spend too much money and get into debt. However, take “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you take a look at those terms carefully, they’re at least two and probably three different kinds of terms. There’s a logical difference among the three terms, meaning the logic of what the terms mean. First, you’re either alive or dead. That’s clear. You can make out a case that you’re either free or not free, although that’s a little more ambiguous. But the pursuit of happiness goes all over the map. You can be happy one minute and then not so happy from what you did that last minute. I don’t intuitively have a sense of what the measure would be of how well you pursued happiness, but I take it that’s what the Boks are looking at.

Salit: I guess they ask people if they’re happy. That’s one thing that they do. They do surveys.

Newman: I guess. But the answers would depend a whole lot on when it was that you asked them.

Salit: I guess so.

Newman: How do you deal with that variable? You don’t have to ask people whether they’re dead or alive. You pretty much know the answer before you ask.

Salit: There was something almost delightfully weird about part of it.

Newman: Part of what?

Salit: The discussion with the Boks. It seemed, in some strange way, so disconnected, in a materialistic sense, except that it isn’t. Maybe it was that contradiction that was part of what was appealing about the story. Derek Bok says, and here he’s being very concrete, that studies have shown that there are three health issues that Americans are most distressed over. You lose a leg, you have heart trouble. Serious things. People get over them. But chronic depression, chronic pain and chronic sleeplessness, he says, are the three things that more Americans say deprive them of happiness. So, he says, what if the government took initiatives to help the American people with those problems. That would make the country a happier place. And Jeffrey Brown, the interviewer, asked in a somewhat incredulous voice, ‘Would you really want to do that in the context of there being a whole fight over health care and how much the government should be involved?’ Derek Bok says, ‘Oh, yeah, I think it would be a good idea.’

Newman: What are you saying about that?

Salit: I couldn’t tell whether his answer was terribly sophisticated, terribly naïve or some combination of the two. He seemed delightfully unconcerned with the politics of the thing.

Newman: In a way, Bok is saying that if you’re just going to keep people happy, they’ll like their government.

Salit: It would seem to follow from that, wouldn’t it? That if the government did those kinds of things that people would like the government more.

Newman: Well, but there’s a slippery slope there, I think. What about fascism? Presumably, there are arguments and some empirical evidence to show that many Germans were elated by Hitler.

Salit: That’s a downer to put it mildly, since we’re talking about happiness, but you do have a point, Fred. Let me switch topics here to the confrontation between the Israelis and the flotilla bound for Gaza. Right after it happened, I read a quote from a U.S. government official who said that what the U.S. had to do is to figure out a way to help Israel “come back” from this. An uncharacteristic remark in the context of the official statements by the president being very measured. But, I was struck by that remark because…how do they come back? It does seem to underscore a deeper level of Israeli isolation, which I find upsetting.

Newman: Israel’s been an isolated country for a very long time. Is it different with this incident? You might be right.

Salit: To me it has a somewhat different quality to it, maybe more out of my sense of romanticism and tragic irony than anything else. I am a Jew, a progressive Jew. So are you. And, there is the history of boats of Jewish refugees from Europe trying to get to Israel and having to break a British blockade to do so. And so, it is especially painful. But you’re right, of course. Israel has been isolated for a long time.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: Maybe what I’m saying here is really just an expression of the idealistic notion that, even given the level of hatred on both sides and the complex security issues on both sides, I still want to think that everybody’s going to come to the table at some point. And, as we all know, there have been endless efforts to do that, some in good faith, some in not so good faith.

Newman: And people have come to the table.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And people have left the table.

Salit: Right. But, here we are. And maybe there won’t be a resolution, because there isn’t one to be had. Maybe this is what it means to be hard-line.

Newman: What do you mean by that?

Salit: Well, for starters, the Israelis are taking a hard-line position in exercising control over Gaza. That’s their justification for boarding the flotilla. And the justification is that they’re deciding what is and isn’t allowed into Gaza. They’re going to be the arbiters of that. Period. The flotilla tactic was both a humanitarian effort and a tactic, presumably to either force the Israelis to back down or to expose how hard-line they are. I don’t know exactly what you get off of that exposé. I’m not criticizing the tactic, but I’m literally saying I don’t know what you get off of that. Maybe this goes back to the question you asked about whether this is different, because Israel’s been isolated for a long time? Does it heighten the perception of isolation or the fact of the isolation? I don’t know.

Newman: Look, the Israelis, with some justification, feel that no other sovereign power in the world gets related to as the Israelis do by a significant portion of the world, namely as not having a right to exist. Their point is that it puts them in a very unusual circumstance. And so the techniques that they have used to maintain their sovereignty are going to seem out of line with the rest of the world, but that’s because their situation is out of line with the rest of the world. I don’t find that argument absurd. And the situation is so intertwined, both ideologically and historically, with the issue of anti-semitism. There might be no apparent way out of it.

Salit: No chance for happiness here, I guess. Thanks, Fred.

* “Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science” by Sissela Bok and “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being” by Derek Bok

Determinism Run Amok.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, May 30, 2010 after watching selections from “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “PBS NewsHour,” “This Week” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: Let’s talk about David Axelrod’s conversation with Chris Matthews about the oil disaster in the Gulf.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: There’s been a massive oil spill. There’s been a mobilization by BP and private industry and the scientific community under the auspices of the government to try to stop the leak. And, it seems to me the nub of the exchange between Axelrod and Matthews was this. Chris asked whether BP “can be trusted” to carry out this recovery effort, a question that comes complete with a whole set of negative political positions about the oil industry. They go back and forth. Finally, Axelrod says to him, ‘What would BP’s motivation be for not trying to solve this problem? They do not have a motivation for that.’ Chris doesn’t really have an answer. What he does say is ‘Well, what they had was a profit motive to go beyond their safety capability, to drill down 13,000 feet because their profit motive is the motive here. But they didn’t have the capacity to deal with what might go wrong.’ So Chris’ point is BP created a problem that they couldn’t handle and that’s what’s wrong with this situation. I guess the axiom that follows from that is We should never create problems that we can’t handle.

Newman: And what if we do?

Salit: Well, that’s where we are, because we did.

Newman: It’s a very important lesson for the world to learn because I think there’s probably good reason to believe that it’s not the only instance in which we did that.

Salit: That seems characteristic of a lot of things.

Newman: What do you mean?

Salit: Well, things I’d put in that category are the Middle East situation. And intractable poverty and underdevelopment. There is literally not enough money in the world to address them.

Newman: So, what’s the point?

Salit: The point is if you’re getting into territory where that’s going to be the case or that’s potentially the case, don’t go there.

Newman: Well, that’s preposterous.

Salit: The Don’t go there?

Newman: What if you accepted for a long time that the sun is the center of the universe?

Salit: OK.

Newman: And then someone discovers that it’s not. What do you say? Don’t let the sun stop being the center of the universe!? There are empirical facts, new discoveries, and there’s no way to refute them because they’re true. So, you have to figure out what to do given that you were wrong.

Salit: You do.

Newman: That’s life.

Salit: Here’s what Axelrod is saying. Axelrod is in the unfortunate position of being the representative of the president, i.e. the White House, i.e. the place that is supposed to be able to produce the answer.

Newman: Well, I’m not critical of you because you’re trying to get to the bottom of this. But, there is no bottom of this. What Matthews is trying to say is What’s the answer to this? And the answer is, There is no answer. I don’t think it’s Axelrod’s problem. It’s a profound and systemic problem of our entire culture. We live in a broad international culture where people can’t accept that there is no answer. They have to have an answer for everything.

Salit: True.

Newman: But there is no answer. Now, this goes on all the time, with mothers raising children who have to find answers to what they’re dealing with in raising kids. Sometimes, there isn’t any answer. Mothers deal with it every day of the week.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: But, this situation is very exposing, it seems to me. I thought some of the reporters who discussed this crisis were crazed.

Salit: Yes, they were.

Newman: I don’t even agree with you that it’s Axelrod who is in the unfortunate position. I think they’re in the unfortunate position.

Salit: Because?

Newman: Because they have to somehow or another convey that there is no answer, to a world which doesn’t want to have that conveyed to them. That can make you crazy. Axelrod is saying the plausible thing. ‘We’re doing everything we can do.’

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Well, what happens if you can’t do it?

Salit: Then, it can’t be done.

Newman: One possibility is it won’t be done. And we’ll just have a lot less oil.

Salit: And a lot of dirty and contaminated places. That could be what happens here.

Newman: That could be the world that we’re living in from now on because this thing happened.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Even the sports world has picked up this piece of madness. Sports commentators, nowadays, have a favorite thing. If someone misses a shot in some kind of crucial situation, they’ve taken to saying – it’s really a fascinating cultural sub-phenomenon – they’ve taken to saying, You can’t miss that shot.

Salit: But…

Newman: …the person just did. I know they’re using it metaphorically. But it derives from this other piece of philo-pathology, if you will.

Salit: The philo-pathology is a craving for certainty?

Newman: No, they’re saying You can’t miss that shot and what they’re trying to suggest is that’s the kind of shot that must be made. But it’s not absolutely certain that it must be made, because in point of fact, the occasion on which that expression is used is when the person hasn’t made it.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Once again, the point being that there’s a pathological bind. People find it hard to accept that there are things that don’t happen. Things don’t happen, even though everything tells you that they should happen. It would be very good if they did happen. It seems almost inconceivable that they wouldn’t happen.

Salit: There’s a lot of this kind of talk in connection with global warming, isn’t there?

Newman: And some people are saying, well, that’s all an exaggeration. Well, what is an exaggeration? An exaggeration is when something happens which is so unexpected that you call it an exaggeration.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: That’s now how the world is and there’s a deep-rooted philosophical issue here that has a popular manifestation.

Salit: – This thing we’re talking about now, you’re identifying it among other things as a philosophical issue – is
about how the modern era, also known maybe as the 20th century – the Age of Enlightenment…

Newman: They used to call it the 19th…

Salit: OK, 19th and 20th centuries, the ascendance of Reason and Science, suggests there is a way to handle everything.

Newman: That’s a different issue.

Salit: It is?

Newman: I think so. You still have to handle things, no matter what.

Salit: OK. “Handling” isn’t equivalent to “solving.”

Newman: This is Determinism. What I’m describing is Determinism run amok.

Salit: OK.

Newman: It is people being willing to say Everything that has happened, has to have happened.

Salit: Right.

Newman: So, in the broader sense, that would mean that nothing could happen which is fundamentally
unexpected. But unexpected things are as much a part of life, and always have been, it seems to me, for a very long time.

Salit: So if you drill down 13,000 feet below the ocean floor, and you’re drawing oil out through these pipes,
and something goes wrong with that system of extraction…

Newman: Which could mean something like one person forgot to make one turn on one screw that might be what you’re talking about.

Salit: So this thing happens, some combination of mechanical failure and human error, even of the most simple kind that you just described, and it produces this cataclysmic event, and on one hand, that’s enormously distressing – I mean people were killed in this explosion and now, this accident has pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf…

Newman: I’m not condoning it.

Salit: I know. These terrible things happen. Everybody’s very upset about this. And Axelrod says ‘We’re
working on a solution. We’ve mobilized all the great scientists from everywhere in the world.’

Newman: That’s at least a lie, but surely an exaggeration.

Salit: OK, at a minimum, we’ve mobilized some Nobel scientists. And, he says, ‘We’re working on this and we haven’t gotten to the solution yet.’

Newman: Right. And Matthews, in his typical provocative and sometimes dumb way says: ‘What happens if you don’t find one?’

Salit: And the answer is?

Newman: Then, we’ll fail.

Salit: We’ll fail, yes.

Newman: People have failed before.

Salit: Right.

Newman: What happens if the ship doesn’t make it across the Atlantic?

Salit: America won’t be discovered by the Europeans. Not at that time, anyway. I think this is what we’re trying to talk about here. Matthew’s is not just saying Well, that would be a bad thing. He’s saying something more than that.

Newman: Right.

Salit: He’s saying That can’t be.

Newman: Right. But he’s wrong. It can be.

Salit: So, what’s going on with that? I’m trying to understand the point you’re making about the culture of the whole society. I mean, people know that things fail. Is it the size of this thing? The size of this thing, quantitatively speaking, is enormous.

Newman: I don’t think it’s just the size of it.

Salit: OK.

Newman: I think it’s the fundamentality of it.

Salit: OK.

Newman: The world has come to a point where all kinds of things will happen that are very complex. Science and technology have created miracles. And, we’ve come to a mindset in popular culture when people say, some things are so disruptive that we’re going to look at them as impossible, as unable to happen. But they’re not. Because human disruption is not the criteria by which the things that happen in the world happen.

Salit: I guess this is another version of “If there’s a God.” “If there is a God, how could he let this child die?” That is a very anguished question that people have asked for millennia. If there is a God, how can these terrible things happen?

Newman: Well, there’s an answer to those people within a religious framework.

Salit: Which is?

Newman: Namely, Who are you to think that you could know the thinking of God? And there’s also a non-
religious answer. Which is, Nothing can happen that we don’t know what to do about. That’s what Chris Matthews was sort of saying.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And if so and so doesn’t know what to do, like BP, then get the person who does know how to fix it, damn it! But what if nobody knows how to do it?

Salit: OK.

Newman: In fact, what if there’s nothing to be done? Well, we’ll go on. The world will go forward. As big as this is. Well, where are we going to get our oil from? There was a time when there was no oil extraction, remember?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: I mean, remember before oil was discovered? Now, if you want practical answers, we shouldn’t be having this discussion. But this discussion is not an unimportant discussion because there is a mindset, a way of looking at the world, which has become so ingrained as to make these kinds of questions almost unspeakable. But the crisis is so extreme that these questions have now made it to popular culture, to the talk shows. These questions are special kinds of questions. They’re unique to our species. I don’t imagine there was an actual scene where one dinosaur said to another, You know, I bet we don’t exist in 50 years.

Salit: I’m sure you’re right.

Newman: Because they didn’t do that kind of thing. We reflect in that kind of way. Humans have certain characteristics, our species does, which are not better than, but are distinct from animal species, including dinosaurs. We’re so used to this being an all-knowing culture that we find it hard to even accept the answer, we don’t know.

Salit: But, we say, we have to find out. The oil spill is going to cover the east coast of the United States!

Newman: No, we don’t have to find out.

Salit: And that’s what you’re calling Determinism Run Amok.

Newman: Culturally speaking. “We have to know.” No, we don’t have to know. We don’t even have to know the answers to the very small riddles that we, human beings, have created. Is it possible that we’re creating more riddles than we have ways of solving? Yes. I would venture, it’s not only possible, it’s not only probable, it’s not only likely, it’s the case.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And why shouldn’t it be the case? Bob Dylan writes this song and one of the lines goes something like this. What you’re powerful enough to get today, you might not be able to hold tomorrow. Right on, Robert.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

American as Apple Pie.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, May 16, 2010 after watching selections from “The Charlie Rose Show,” “PBS NewsHour” and NY1’s “Inside City Hall.”

Salit: There’s so much interest – isn’t there – in the outcome of the British elections.

Newman: More than usual? Maybe you’re right.

Salit: The thing that has sparked the greatest interest is that under the British system, given that the Tories didn’t win enough seats to set up a Tory government, a coalition government had to be created. That meant the Conservatives (popularly known as the Tories) had to make a deal with the much smaller Liberal Democrats – the Lib-Dems as they’re called. The Lib-Dems apparently considered the very strong overtures from the Labor Party, which lost power in this election. But, ultimately the Lib-Dems rejected those in favor of going with the Tories. What seems tantalizing about this is that a small, somewhat marginal player in the English political system became the kingmaker. That’s what grabs the attention.

Newman: I don’t think what’s significant is its smallness or its somewhat liberalness. It’s the newness of the situation.

Salit: The newness, meaning the Lib-Dems have been around for a long time, but they’ve never been in the driver’s seat.

Newman: Right. So, it’s the newness of there being a relatively powerful third option.

Salit: And what is also very fascinating is that the Lib-Dems’ key issue is electoral political reform and they wanted a guarantee of support for that. They see a disconnect in the current design of the British parliamentary system, where the popular vote doesn’t fully translate into representation in Parliament. That’s the basic issue that they’re raising. They’re saying that the country needs to reform the system to address that disconnect.

Newman: Right.

Salit: Fascinating stuff. In ideological terms, as was pointed out in the commentary, it seemed more sensible for the Lib-Dems to partner with Labor, since they agree on almost all the social and economic policy issues. But they chose not to, even though Labor was prepared to give them concessions on the electoral reform front.

Newman: But, the Tories would have been in a position to block it in Parliament. So, the Lib-Dems needed a deal with the Tories to secure the electoral reform they wanted. That’s the really significant thing.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: They made their choice, not on an ideological basis, but on a political basis. Which is fine, which is good. And Nick Clegg, the head of the Lib-Dems, is now the deputy prime minister. That ain’t bad.

Salit: Not bad. It would be like you being Deputy Mayor of New York City.

Newman: Or you.

Salit: Because the Independence Party was the small partner that made Mike Bloomberg mayor.

Newman: Right.

Salit: And our core issue is also electoral reform. Since we’re talking about New York City, we watched coverage of the completion of the first round of hearings by the Charter Revision Commission (CRC).

Newman: Starring Harry Kresky.

Salit: Harry Kresky, MP. Or more to the point, Harry Kresky, NP. Non-partisan.

Newman: Right.

Salit: After hearing testimony in every borough, the CRC decided that nonpartisan elections should be on the agenda for the next round of public hearings. Interestingly, of the five issues that they’re going to concentrate on in round two, two are political reform. Two of the five.

Newman: Why do you say two?

Salit: Term limits and abolishing party primaries.

Newman: What about the others? I know “Land Use” isn’t, strictly speaking, a political reform issue, but the others?

Salit: Well, that’s a good point. A third issue on the CRC list is a balance of power issue between the mayor and the City Council, so I guess that is also a political reform issue.

Newman: Exactly, yes. And we understand we’re not going to get at any land issues until the revolution.

Salit: I’m sure you’re right about that. Alright, the Supreme Court, the nomination of Elena Kagan.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: The left is disappointed, not that they’re not going to support Kagan, but the left is disappointed because they really want a “full-throated left liberal” justice on the Court to be a counter-balance to Scalia. And Kagan is not that.

Newman: Well, put another way, the left is disappointed because the massive turnout that made Obama the president is not left-wing.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: It’s center-left. And they’re going to pout as long as that’s the case, but Obama’s appointments will reflect that. That’s who he is. Is he a leftist? Yes. Is he pro-socialist? Yes. Does he have the same history and ideological hard drive as the American far left? No. At least not the part that’s most vocal. So, they’re unhappy about that. What can I tell you. They’re unhappy.

Salit: Yup. I’ll make a note of that. Meanwhile, you know, when they get into these confirmation things on the Supreme Court, they’re desperately trying to interpret the “meaning” of actions taken by the nominee. Apparently when Kagan was the Dean of the Law School at Harvard she barred military recruiters from the campus. I don’t know what the circumstances were, but now there’s a whole discussion about whether that means she’s anti-military or something like that. I don’t know, Fred. When I was in high school and I took Home Ec, I had an argument with the girl sitting next to me about how to make the crust for apple pie and then we were separated and we weren’t allowed to sit together after that.

Newman: OK.

Salit: So, I often think that if I were ever nominated to the Supreme Court, that would come up and it would be discussed on CNN and Fox News, as to whether it showed a lack of female solidarity, or whether I was too radical on the apple pie question, and whether that reflected my views on America, or something.

Newman: Particularly if Ginsburg was that other girl!

Salit: Do you have any thoughts about Elena Kagan?

Newman: She seems to me to be the kind of choice that Obama would make and I support Obama, so I support that choice.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: She makes three women justices on the Supreme Court. I think that’s a virtue.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: She seems liberal-minded, which I take to be a virtue. And she’s short, which I don’t take to be a negative.

Salit: She went to my high school, you know.

Newman: What high school did you go to?

Salit: Hunter. But she was seven years behind me, I think.

Newman: Well, she’s much more than that now.

Salit: Maybe. But she probably behaved herself in Home Ec! Thanks, Fred.

Horseradish and Capitalism.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, May 2, 2010 after watching selections from “The Charlie Rose Show” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”

Salit: Fred, here’s something that struck me in Charlie Rose’s discussion about the battle over financial regulation. Charlie Rose asks his guests: ‘What’s the deal here? What’s going on?’ Evan Thomas says: ‘This is an ancient story in American political life. It’s the story of the anger of the outsiders at the privileges of the insiders. This happened in the 1890s and it happened in such and such time, etc. It’s happening again and this is part of the ongoing cycle of American history.’ The thing that struck me about the entire discussion about regulatory reform is that it was a discussion among insiders. You have financial journalists. You have the Wall Street guys. You have the government officials. And they all talk about the derivatives, the subprime mortgages and all that. They’re putting the whole conversation on TV, because they put everything on TV now, about what Goldman Sachs did. So, the context, if you want to use that term, is the outsiders’ anger at the insiders. But the outsider/insider tension isn’t being addressed by the discussion about reform. You just have the insiders working on trying to fix up the system that belongs to them. I’m sure they’ll come up with some approaches that will, for some time, mute the extreme excesses of investment banking. But it’s not as if you have any sense that the outsider/insider caste system is being called into question.

Newman: I agree with you. What are you saying about it?

Salit: Maybe since everyone is giving their commentary on financial regulatory reform now, we’ll give ours which amounts to this: On the heels of a very, very dangerous financial collapse – dangerous because of the systemic risk involved – you have a group of insiders tinkering with the system. It’s a repair job by the people who are running the system. It has little or nothing to do with the outsiders.

Newman: I take it that the response to your point would be that you’re leaving out the many different competing elements that are insiders, never mind the competing elements among the outsiders. It’s not as if there’s one person who is the insider and one person who is the outsider. There are lots of insiders – this is what they would say – and these multiple insiders are having a debate. By way of agreeing with you, the thing that will come out of this, hopefully, is that the good insiders will gain some advantage over the bad insiders.

Salit: Right.

Newman: That’s American politics in a nutshell. Not everyone is an insider and not every insider is the same. That’s essentially what you’re saying, which is true. I think that’s accurate. This is more exposed than ever before because it’s on national TV. So one insider says, You’re a crooked insider. The other insider says, No, I’m not. In fact, you’re a crooked insider. And a third insider says, No, you’re both crooked insiders. Then someone says, Maybe everybody is crooked. Part of that game is that some insiders are going to try to discredit other insiders, but then that could get out of hand. Maybe they’ll get together to find a way to regulate how they look, more than what they do. They’ll likely come up with a system to make them look less like they’re taking advantage of being the insiders.

Salit: That’s what you get for being an insider.

Newman: Yes. I don’t know what they call you if you’re an insider who doesn’t take advantage of that position. Probably they call you “crazy” or something like that. That’s why some people call this a dog and pony show. Who is there to give anything resembling an objective characterization of all this? The only people who are hip enough to what’s going on are the players themselves. How do you get out of that bind?

Salit: Maybe this is the bind you’re describing. They’ve had endless stories over the last week about what Goldman Sachs did. They sold one set of products that were the subprime mortgages, the derivatives thereof, and then they sold another set of products that were essentially bets that the subprime mortgage market would fail. So they had two sets of products, one of which makes money on one scenario and the other of which makes money on another scenario. And they’re competing scenarios, arguably. So there’s all this talk: Oh my God. Look what Goldman Sachs did. And the SEC has filed a complaint and so forth. Maybe they did something illegal and maybe they didn’t. I presume that the appropriate bodies will review that and a million lawyer hours will be spent defending this. But then I think, didn’t they just do what you do when you’re an investment bank?

Newman: Which is?

Salit: Create products and take them to market.

Newman: Yes and no. So, for example, let’s take a look at a dominant industry in the country today, the computer industry. The industry sells millions of computers and they continue to sell them even while their research department is developing the next line of computers, which are improved models which make the old computers, which they’re making a fortune by selling…

Salit: …obsolete.

Newman: …obsolete. And they know all this information at the same time. Once upon a time the market was purer in the sense that the people who were making horseradish didn’t simultaneously create a substitute for horseradish. The argument can be reduced to the idea that the old fashioned way was a more honest way. That’s what these clowns in Washington are, in a basic sense, discovering. That capitalism has found a way to make, not only the kind of money it used to make 100 years ago, but it’s discovered marketing techniques, together with the technology for implementing them, for doing this other kind of thing. And now they’re raising questions about whether that’s illegal or not. Arguably, the more accurate name for it might not be “illegal,” but “progressive.” It’s a way of making more money. I’m just trying to introduce the notion that some people are still where they were 100 years ago. They’re still pounding away on the grapes and producing a bottle of wine. That’s how they make their money. But the mechanics of global capitalism have changed dramatically. And these people are questioning the morality of that. I don’t know what to say about that. If the game is making money, what’s the problem? That’s the nature of the system.

Salit: Is there a difference between creating products and taking to market such products, as horseradish, and horseradish substitute, and a computer, and its next generation – on the one side – and the kinds of products that Goldman Sachs is selling which aren’t real things in the sense that you can’t put them on your gefilte fish? You can’t send an email on them. They’re fictitious instruments that are complex financial ownership formulas, or investment formulas, or bets that are many, many, many, many, many steps removed from “things.” Maybe it’s the case that in our society, in 2010, given the nature of globalism, capitalism, technology, etc. that they are no less “things” than horseradish. They’re a kind of thing that exists and can be marketed and sold.

Newman: That’s true. They’re commodities.

Salit: They’re commodities like any other commodity. But there seems to be in the dialogue – and we’re going back to the finger-pointing thing – at least an element of the argument that says, Not only did Goldman Sachs sell the thing and its opposite, but the thing isn’t even really a thing. It’s a derivative. It’s doesn’t represent any real value. Supposedly that makes the “crime,” whether it’s a legal crime or an ethical crime, all the more heinous.

Newman: I don’t quite understand it that way. I think they’re saying something different.

Salit: What do you think they’re saying?

Newman: I think they’re saying that the “crime” lies in the fact that you’re selling A to somebody and trying to make as much money as possible – I’m going back to my computer model – but you have something in the garage which is an inch away from replacing A and you don’t tell that person who you sold the original thing to…which, if you were giving full information…

Salit: …might cause the person not to buy the first thing and wait for the second thing.

Newman: Yes. And so you shouldn’t use the profit you gain from selling A to complete your work on its replacement. I think that’s what they’re suggesting is criminal, more than all that stuff about commodities. Maybe they are raising that, but that seems to me to be too generic to be raised.

Salit: This analogy that you’re suggesting about the old style computer and the newer style computer is really a fascinating way of looking at this scandal. If Goldman were smart, they would introduce that as part of their defense. They’d say: Look. We invested in the subprime mortgage derivatives. We sold them heavily. And some of our people said, “You know what’s going to come next? The bubble’s going to burst and the value on those derivatives is going to drop very significantly.” So here’s a next product which comes down the line which is better than the old product because it says that all this investment in subprime mortgages is faulty. That market is not going to sustain itself indefinitely for all the reasons that it won’t. Here’s a new product. We wouldn’t have thought of this product before…

Newman: Except – now I’m switching, in a way, to the other side. The potential problems with B, the new product, happen in part because of the way we’re dealing with the sale of A. Those who buy product A may be getting screwed. But I don’t even find that so unusual. It seems to me that an honest capitalist would say in response to me pointing that out: Well, buy it if you want it. If you don’t want it, don’t buy it. We’re out to screw you. But that goes without saying. If you think that that’s not morally right, or legally right, then why don’t you go back to basics and discuss the moral value or worth of profit altogether? Profit is the reward because some people take the risk. So, yes, in the old days when you sold the horseradish, your risk was limited, presumably. And so was your profit. You’re always trying to compensate for the potential risk – the capitalist is – by having a situation that is as controlled as possible. All they’re really saying here is that Wall Street went a little beyond the pale.

Salit: There’s part of me that thinks, going back to this insider/outsider thing we were talking about at the top, if we could organize all the American people to have a say in this process, what the American people would say is: All right, look, you guys go work all this out. Here’s what we want. We want to have 30% of all of the profits that you guys make off of these transactions, however you decide to regulate this thing, to go into free quality education for everyone in America through college and a guarantee that every home has clean water and every family has enough food to eat. Whatever you guys want to do, you should do. You want to make selling derivatives illegal between 6 pm and 8 pm on the West coast? It’s your industry. You know the ins and outs. You go do it. But here’s what we need.

Newman: And the Tea Party will shout: That’s socialism. And they’d be right. Why should the people who are better at making money – they would say – contribute more money for the public need? Why shouldn’t everybody pay something proportional to how much they use publicly-funded facilities? I agree with what you are saying, but then again, I’m a socialist. But I think there are arguments against it. If you’re motivating people to make the most money, because that’s what pushes the GNP up and that’s good for the country, then why would you create disincentives? What’s the morality behind that? As long as you have a capitalist system which urges people to make as much money as possible, why would there be, in some sense, a penalty for doing that?

Salit: Well, it turns on the relative value you place on social good.

Newman: But, there is a basic moral confusion built into the whole system around that and yet, the system, it is argued, is the most productive, most innovative, in the history of the world. The argument that aggressive Wall Street derivatives trading crosses the line into illegality has to answer to the counter argument that what you’re going to do is stop American growth. Presumably, there is a proper amount of profit, if you could ever identify it mathematically, that would be optimal for economic growth.

Salit: That’s socialism. It’s called a planned economy.

Newman: That’s socialism, because that’s not letting the market do its work. In fact, the closest approximation that we have for establishing that point is the market. Anytime you interfere with the market, it’s not clear that what you’re introducing would properly substitute for the market.

This is how I try to understand these things, in the midst of all the additional bullshit that’s going on. For me, for my simple-minded head, this is a basic way of understanding what these guys are talking about, and what’s going on. I’m not convinced that it’s resolvable within the framework in which it’s being discussed. That said, will they resolve it? Yes, probably. They’ll make some relatively arbitrary compromises that will resolve it and we’ll go on. Meanwhile, there’s all the politicking that’s done, which is where the real differences lie. But those differences won’t be discussed in a language which is comprehensible to everybody.

Salit: Not this time around. Thanks, Fred.

LuLa, Hugo and the New Latin America.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, April 18, 2010 after watching selections from “The Charlie Rose Show.”

Salit: We watched a roundtable on Charlie Rose about Latin America and the political and economic changes going on there. Parts of the discussion were interesting.

Newman: Though, in some ways, it seemed like every discussion I’ve heard since the third grade.

Salit: About Latin America?

Newman: Yes.

Salit: I think I know what you mean. They all have the U.S. as the center of the universe, but that’s what’s changing. Charlie Rose interviewed four analysts from different points on the political spectrum, but they all told a similar story. And the story, with different specifics for different countries, is that there’s now a greater political distance between Latin America and the United States than there has been for many decades. The separation, the greater distance politically, comes about because Latin America is demanding it. They want a peer relationship with the U.S, not a subordinate relationship. And there are two sources of the new Latin American power. One is the economic growth that’s taken place, particularly in Brazil, now recognized as a global economic powerhouse; to some extent in Chile, and other parts of the continent, too. With that greater economic strength comes the ability to make greater demands on the United States. The other is the change in the political trends which have put Latin America at what the experts called “the center-center-left.” Nation after nation has some form of either socialist or social democratic government that was elected by the people. So, those two things taken together, empower Latin America to be able to assert a greater independence.

This is not a new topic. We’ve talked about the emerging analysis of a “World without the West,” a world where the United States is not the “be all and end all” single superpower. Though it is obviously enormously powerful, the U.S. is no longer the only game in town. I’m wondering if this discussion about Latin America, however much it’s like discussions from 60 years ago, fills out the changing picture of where the U.S. is internationally.

Newman: I guess what I really meant by saying it’s the same kind of discussion that I’ve heard since the third grade (which was a long time ago) is what you were pointing to, namely something almost genetic. It seems almost impossible for Americans (and/or people who have spent a lot of time in America, even if they’re Europeans) to look at Latin America in any way other than in its relationship to Washington. It almost feels like nobody can do it. That was true then and, even though the American position has changed dramatically, I think that’s still the case. These discussions are so unworldly.

Salit: Meaning one-sided.

Newman: And that’s the paradigm. You would think there would be more of a focus on the influence of Europe on Latin America, since that’s transparently accelerated over the last period of time and is a force in the movement towards social democracy. Not to mention that the Bush policies – which alienated much of Europe – no doubt encouraged the Europeans to extend their influence in the Southern Hemisphere. There was no mention of Cuba’s influence, which is huge. The Rose panelists did eventually make mention of China, but it’s a much bigger issue than they made of it. The basic history here is that there has been more than a half century of peoples’ struggles across Latin America and they’ve been interconnected. What always unified them – and there are different countries with different historical situations – was and remains an anti-Americanism. Now these countries have become sufficiently powerful so that their anti-Americanism can be channeled to get whatever benefits they can out of their relationship with Washington. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is a pervasive anti-Americanism.

Where does that come from? The strategy of Washington was to politically and economically control Latin America, arguably dating back to the Monroe Doctrine. But it failed. As we well know, there are fewer things more difficult for Washington to do than to admit defeat. When I was a youngster, the “panelists” in those days didn’t quite let on that the U.S. was in the midst of a long term effort to fully control Latin America. Today’s Charlie Rose panel is fundamentally the same. They’re all focused mainly on Washington/Latin America relationships. But they fail to point out that things have not gone according to Washington’s original plan.

Salit: I think that’s worth elaborating. One of the panelists mentioned that during the 1960s there were nine right wing coups that overthrew democratically elected, progressive governments. All of these coups were supported by the United States. The U.S. was instrumental, more directly than it often has been in other parts of the world, in bringing the right to power. And, not just right leaning governments but full blown right wing fascistic dictatorships. Over the last 10 years, the right has been removed from power across Latin America, by a wave of democratically elected left candidates, now governments. One of the Charlie Rose panelists pointed out, a big difference today is that the U.S. isn’t persecuting the left in the way that it once did. The whole history of the U.S. strategy of supporting anti-democratic, right-wing, pro-Washington governments didn’t hold. Many people suffered terribly as a result of that policy. But, nonetheless, that whole 50-year history has been repudiated.

Newman: I agree, but even in that formulation, I hear it as failing to fully articulate the key point of that hugely important historic occurrence, namely the fundamental weakening of Washington. When they use a sentence like “the United States is not persecuting the left as much as it used to,” they don’t point out that Washington is in no position to persecute the left. To me, there’s a profound bias in their formulation as a result.

Salit: I appreciate that.

Newman: Latin America is as good an example of the decline of power of the United States worldwide as anything that’s happening in the world.

Salit: Maybe I’m trying to rescue some insights from the panel here, but nonetheless, I thought the discussion about Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the two most formidable governmental and, as it happens, left leaders on the continent…

Newman: “As it happens” is inaccurate. It happens because the entire situation in Latin America and internationally has played a substantial role in that happening.

Salit: Point taken. One of the more cynical panelists called it the “good cop/bad cop” routine between Lula and Chavez. Lula himself holds together a complex coalition government. His own party is not the majority party in Brazil, the Workers Party is a minority party. But, specifically, they were referring to Lula’s ability to gain certain advantages for Brazil in dealing with the U.S. because the U.S. is essentially afraid that if it goes negative on Lula – I don’t just mean in the newspapers, but in terms of trade deals, etc. – that Lula will turn more directly to Chavez, who’s considered a more hostile antagonist to the U.S. From Washington’s point of view, Chavez is less conciliatory than Lula is. The point was that this is something that the two of them are doing together, that Chavez and Lula do this together, and that it’s tactically effective for them. Put another way, one of the things that has helped Brazil to become a major global power is Venezuela – their ability to play that against the United States, or to play the United States off in that situation.

Newman: I agree with you. I’m certainly no expert on Latin American relationships, but my impression has always been that though there’s a strong impulse for most, if not all, of the Latin American countries to work with each other, it was made difficult by Washington. Washington worked overtime to make sure they didn’t. So, as Washington’s position weakens, their quite natural inclination to play together increases, which is exactly what Washington has always been afraid of.

Salit: Yes. Lula and Chavez have turned the old paradigm on its head, politically speaking. I’d like to know your thoughts about the comments made by Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Vice President of Costa Rica, who said: ‘Oh yes, Latin America has turned to the left. But it’s a vegetarian left.’ That was his term. It’s a “soft-speaking” left. On the one hand, I know what he’s saying. The left that is in power today in Latin America did not achieve power through armed struggle, through the traditional 1960s style insurgencies. Obviously many of these democracy movements have historical connections to those struggles, not to mention to Cuba, which did make a social revolution through an armed insurrection. But, I would say that Casas-Zamora thinks there’s now a form of socialism that is more tolerable to the U.S.

Newman: And where does that exist?

Salit: The form of socialism that’s more tolerable to the U.S.? Presumably he means Brazil, Chile, etc.

Newman: Well, I presume, in terms of the big picture, he’s also referencing China. I guess China is more tolerable to the U.S.

Salit: China is somewhere between tolerable and a necessity.

Newman: That’s what I’m raising. The issue of whether there is a form of communism, or socialism, or whatever, that’s more “tolerable” to the U.S. doesn’t mean anything. That suggests that different forms of socialism pass by Washington for their “credibility check.” The U.S., like everybody else, is more and more obliged to respond to what is, the history that is. It’s not that it’s more tolerable or less tolerable.

Salit: It’s what is.

Newman: That’s what is and you have to respond to what is. You could say, relatively speaking, that the Latin American left is more vegetarian than it used to be. Well, everybody is more vegetarian than they used to be. The whole world is more vegetarian. It didn’t just happen in Latin America. But, Latin America is also the home of the West’s only armed struggle that installed a socialist government and lasted.

Salit: Cuba.

Newman: Cuba, which has had a disproportionate influence on Latin America.

Salit: Disproportionate to its physical size and the size of its economy.

Newman: Exactly. Cuba’s had a tremendous influence on Latin American politics, it seems to me. So, that vegetarian characterization actually seems Washington-centric. Now, you could say that’s OK, because that’s how the world has been. But we now have an understanding, not only of where the world has been, but of the direction in which it seems to be moving. So one would have to work to alter those kinds of characterizations, but I don’t think this panel did that. They no more wanted to talk about the degree of control that Washington had over Latin America when I was growing up 60 years ago than they now want to talk about the fact that they’ve lost a great degree of control.

Salit: That it’s significantly diminished.

Newman: Interestingly enough, the way that manifests itself in terms of the form is exactly the same. Again, I’m not speaking as an expert on Latin America. I have a little more expertise on how people talk about the United States. I’ve been listening to that for 75 years now. I think it’s no small part of why the United States has had so many misunderstandings of what’s going on in the world. I’ve finally become somewhat wiser on that issue. I no longer find it as tolerable as I once did.

Salit: With regards to China, we also watched a Charlie Rose discussion on the nuclear summit. The focus was on Obama’s efforts to influence China to join him in the sanctions on Iran. Obama and President Hu met this week to talk about that. In any event, we saw an exchange between Rose and Joshua Cooper Ramo, a China expert. Charlie Rose asked him ‘How do the Chinese view this? We know how Washington sees this. We know what Obama is trying to do here, but how do the Chinese see this?’ Cooper Ramo emphasized that China has a different nuclear strategy than we do, which is that they don’t believe they need a lot of nuclear weapons in order to use nuclear weaponry as a deterrent. All they need to have is a bunch of them that work. And, he points out, the Chinese nuclear doctrine is “no first strike.” They will not use nuclear weapons in a first strike. They have what they need to use them defensively, if that should become necessary. So Cooper Ramo says that in terms of China’s attitude towards Iran, the Chinese feel that the Iranians see these things more along the lines of the way China does than the way the U.S. does. So China’s presupposition is that Iran will take a “no first strike” policy, that they want to develop nuclear weapons for defensive purposes. It’s the sine qua non of national defense in the 21st century. You have a couple of nuclear weapons and then you can basically guarantee that pretty much no one is going to screw with you in a major league military kind of way, because you have them.

Newman: But Cooper Ramo didn’t mention one very important difference. Iran has close relationships with every terrorist organization in the world. That’s who Washington is most afraid of.

Salit: Yes, and justifiably.

Newman: What I object to in Cooper Ramo’s analysis is I don’t think it’s exactly the same as the situation with China.

Salit: Because of the difference in China’s relationship to terrorism and Iran’s relationship to terrorism?

Newman: Exactly. I think his is an incomplete analysis. He’s a little China-centric.

Salit: As we know. Thanks, Fred.

How Should Black Leaders Relate to a Black President? A Controversy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, April 4, 2010 after watching selections from “Fox News,” “CNN,” CSPAN’s coverage of “We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Fred, over the last month or so, there’s been a more edgy public debate within black political circles. Let me give you my characterization of that debate. Barack Obama is President of the United States. What should that mean for black people? And how should black leaders position themselves in relation to Obama?

The discussion begins with criticism of remarks made by Rev. Al Sharpton that the president doesn’t need to embrace a “black agenda,” but needs to embrace an American agenda. Some black leaders said that’s not a healthy position for a black leader to take or for the black community to take. They said that if you take that position, it means you’re telling Black America to be quiet, and Black America has many needs and concerns and we want those addressed. So, Tavis Smiley hosted a national leadership round table on the Black Agenda to promote a discussion and a debate about tactics relative to Obama and the Obama administration. It’s also a debate about Black America’s larger political strategy. Those things are related, obviously. Would you characterize the debate in the terms I just did?

Newman: I respect your characterization. I have no objections to that.

Salit: OK.

Newman: I do have a response to what you’re sharing with me this morning. Within the logic of their formulation, I’m not sure why the debate which you showed me on TV with Tavis Smiley doesn’t include white people. That’s the only confusion I have.

Salit: I’m assuming that Smiley and other people who are participants in the debate would say, Well, that’s because this is fundamentally a “black issue” – this idea is often repeated in black politics – the black community has to get its perspective and viewpoint together before it can interact with, exchange views with, consider issues with others.

Newman: What if the others are, could be, want to be, have a contribution to make to, that process?

Salit: Some black leaders argue that black people have the power to move things forward themselves. They simply have to exercise it. For example, Minister Farrakhan was part of this round-table discussion. He concluded his remarks by talking about the history of the demand for jobs and justice going back to A. Phillip Randolph through Dr. King through Jesse Jackson through to today, where the demand is still jobs and justice. And then he said to the audience, when are we going to stop asking others for things that we can get by ourselves, on our own, through our own independent action? In other words, his answer to your question might be Well it’s not helpful to the process. Historically, it hasn’t been helpful to the process.

Newman: Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to reduce this discussion to statistics, but, for example, certainly unionized black workers do a whole lot better than non-unionized black workers.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And that probably has something to do with the fact that within the union movement, black folks get the benefit of strategizing and exercising power with others. One might argue, that those in the unions – black and white – who benefited from this did so at the expense of poorer blacks and whites, but that doesn’t negate what I’m arguing, or add to what they’re arguing. It seems to me that it’s undeniable that there have been great improvements in the black community from working with others. Especially on the issues of jobs and justice.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: What substantial improvements there have been for the black community, have come through blacks and others, particularly whites, working together. So, if these issues are being raised from the point of view of whether the entire problem of inequality has been solved by the continued use of an integrated strategy, what you’re really saying, in my opinion, is that the entire problem isn’t solved, period.

Salit: Fair enough.

Newman: And I agree with that, certainly. Poverty and misery are still very present for Black America. But, insofar as there have been improvements, that’s by and large where they’ve come from. So, the strategy, or whatever you wish to call it, of working separately has had no significant success that I can see. And the strategy of working in an appropriately integrated manner, as over the last 100 years, has produced the most progressive changes that we know of.

Salit: Then let me frame their discussion in a slightly different direction. In 1972 the National Black Political Convention chose a political strategy for empowerment.

Newman: In Gary, Indiana.

Salit: Yes. In Gary, Indiana.

Newman: OK.

Salit: They debated a number of things, but specifically they debated whether to pursue a political strategy inside the Democratic Party or to create a multiracial black-led independent political party. They chose the Democratic Party strategy. So, the orientation was to get the maximum numbers of African Americans elected to office. As Ron Walters said at the Tavis Smiley round table, the paradigm is the aggregation of black votes that you cash in for jobs and services for the community. So that has been the primary strategy for black empowerment since 1972. And by now, pretty much every district in every legislative body in the country that’s majority black or Latino is represented by either a black or Latino elected official. And then, in 2008, in a cross-racial coalition, a black person gets elected President of the United States. So, in effect, the black leadership is now saying, Well, what’s the cash value of the Obama presidency for Black America?

Newman: Yes.

Salit: But some in the black community are saying, ‘That’s not the right way to frame the question.’ Sharpton is one of the people saying that. And, that has caused some controversy. The response is ‘Wait a second, we always framed it that way, and we’re not going to stop now just because there’s a black president.’

Newman: Well, in all fairness to them, they’re also saying that whatever the increase in the number of black elected officials at the local levels achieved, it was not everything for black people.

Salit: Right.

Newman: They’ve had some success in achieving more things for black people. So presumably Obama will achieve more things for Black America. But, he won’t achieve everything for Black America, which is the underlying separatist view of some of the people on that panel.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And they have a right to that perspective, but to justify it by the interpretation of history that many of them are offering, is a misread of history. That’s what I’m saying.

Salit: The interpretation being when black people act alone on behalf of black people…

Newman: …they accomplish more than when they work with other people, selected other people.

Salit: Another part of the discussion was ‘We shouldn’t protect Barack Obama. We elected Barack Obama. We shouldn’t protect him.’

Newman: I agree.

Salit: But that still leaves open the question of what basis he should be pressured on.

Newman: Because he’s black? No. Because he’s left open the possibility of his taking a more class-wide perspective and the black community is an important part of the working class community? Yes. Black leaders should be pressuring him, but I would argue, they best do that in the way that is how they’ve most succeeded, namely from a class vantage point, not from a separatist vantage point. Some participants in the panel said that, if not directly, at least implicitly.

Salit: Cornell West and Jesse Jackson in particular. Tavis Smiley asked everyone to define the Black Agenda: what does the Black Agenda mean today and how do we strive for it? And, Cornell and Jesse both linked the Black Agenda to the history of the struggle for democracy in America. Cornell made the point that the black agenda is not just good for black people, it’s the best agenda for America. How is it the best agenda? He focused on its emancipatory characteristics. It emancipated democracy, to use his term.

Newman: Right. And Cornell West is a socialist.

Salit: And Jesse Jackson said ‘What did we do? We – black people – have had to democratize democracy. That’s what we’ve been doing all this time.’ Very true. Then after saying that, Jackson made the point ‘Ours is not a left agenda.’ He’s anticipating or responding to a nationalist critique of class politics. So he says, ‘Ours is not a left agenda. Ours is the moral center.’ He’s playing with words here obviously, but the moral center is the force that’s always fought for democracy, for a level playing field. For the fairness of the rules. If the rules are fair, Black America will do fine, Jackson argued.

Newman: Jesse Jackson is a revolutionary. Not a socialist, but a revolutionary, and not surprisingly, he’s an American revolutionary. And, Jesse’s position has always been the centerpiece of American democracy, so he’s right, it is the moral center. What’s the relationship between that and socialism? Well, that depends on how you read Karl Marx and how you read American history. But they’re close. They’ve always been close. The Republican minority leader John Boehner seems to have recently discovered there is a connection.

Salit: And he’s pretty worked up about it, I might add.

Newman: But that’s always been true. There is more in Marx about democracy than even people who have read Marx know, because they haven’t read him fully. And there is more socialism in American democracy than is often discussed, because it lost. Capitalism won. But the connection didn’t just start with Barack Obama. They have an historical connection to one another.

Salit: Tell me your thoughts about the politics of this event. This conference was preceded by some public disagreements between Tavis Smiley and Al Sharpton, some of which occurred on the air. Differences over a posture towards Obama. Let me add something else here. Minister Farrakhan opened a section of his remarks talking about the David Dinkins experience in New York. (David Dinkins was elected the first black mayor of New York City in 1989.) Farrakhan said he believed that what black people in New York wanted was a black mayor, and he wanted to support the black community in having that, so consequently, he didn’t defend himself when Dinkins attacked him.

Newman: I think Farrakhan is a great speaker. But, with all due respect, that’s a silly remark. Black people want to shop at Macys. The evidence of that is overwhelming. I don’t see him withholding his rhetoric about buying from black businesses.

Salit: His point, I thought, was to send a message to Obama: Barack Obama, if the black leadership in this country decided to take you down, we could. That’s why I thought he told that story. It was kind of a political parable.

Newman: I don’t know if that story makes sense. And I don’t know if it’s anything resembling true. But with regard to your question about the politics of all this, I don’t live inside of Al Sharpton’s head, but I know Al pretty well. He’s a bright guy. My bet is that he stayed away from the Tavis Smiley conference because he thinks it would be silly to be there. You can’t not pay attention to white people within our culture. It’s a dominantly white culture.

Salit: And certainly, of all of them, Sharpton is the person who is closest to Obama.

Newman: I guess. That’s what he says and I have no reason not to believe him.

Salit: Closest as in most influential. I’m saying that in a positive sense.

Newman: Yes, although I think that this particular debate, as framed, was more about who was closest to Sharpton, not who was closest to Obama.

Salit: Interesting.

Newman: Which is another remarkable accomplishment for Al Sharpton. I think that’s what he was trying to accentuate by not being there.

Salit: How do you think Obama thinks about his obligation to Black America?

Newman: Oh, I don’t know that he thinks about it at all.

Salit: OK.

Newman: Nor do I think he feels any obligation to be a socialist. He’s a left Democrat, and while some left Democrats have been socialists, I don’t think all left Democrats are. Obama feels as if he has as much of a right to be a left Democrat without being a socialist as any white American.

Salit: Fair enough.

Newman: That seems fair, yes.

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

God, Dodd and Reform.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, March 21, 2010 after watching selections from “The Charlie Rose Show,” “PBS NewsHour” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Salit: Healthcare, insurance companies, Wall Street…

Newman: Do you know what I was thankful for?

Salit: What?

Newman: That God gave us only 26 letters in the alphabet.

Salit: There’s a lot of “wordage” out there, certainly, and it’s all about regulatory reform. But there’s no talk about why it is that we have so many things that need to be regulated.

Newman: There is a reason.

Salit: And it is?

Newman: The best thing I’ve ever read on this was by Robert Reich, the economist, who pointed out that we have an entirely legalistic lawyer-controlled political culture where no sooner do they pass a law to regulate something, than every company’s board of directors races out of the room, hires a team of lawyers, and comes up with a way to get around those regulations. It takes them about 10 minutes. That’s the world we’re living in. Where business gets reined in for some kind of unscrupulous practice, and in short order they have a counter to it.

Salit: We sure saw that in Senator Chris Dodd’s presentation this week about the Senate Banking Committee’s proposed financial regulatory reform. It’s so interesting. The whole push was that we have to have some kind of independent body that’s going to protect consumers from manipulative and usurious lending practices by the banks. But that falls by the wayside…

Newman: …in about a second…

Salit: …in a second, exactly.

Newman: Actually, here’s what happens. The reformers bring in their proposal. Then everyone in the room laughs hysterically. And they don’t even bother to take a vote. Let’s move on now.

Salit: Let’s move on to which branch of the government, which bureaucracy, which interest group is going to get control of this thing because it is all about who’s going to control the oversight. They want to make sure the “overseeing” doesn’t get out of hand.

Newman: And they have a clerk who keeps a list of who got the last oversight control.

Salit: So they know whose turn it is.

Newman: Exactly.

Salit: Michael Lewis, who wrote “The Big Short,” said in an interview with Charlie Rose ‘Wall Street provides a financial service. It’s supposed to allocate capital. It’s not supposed to destroy wealth or misallocate capital. But, in this situation, they destroyed wealth and they misallocated capital and they’re still being paid huge amounts of money.’

Newman: I agree with that only to this extent: I don’t know why the formulation is “and they’re still.” Why wouldn’t they be “still?” That’s exactly what they’re paid to do.

Salit: He was saying that what they should be paid to do is to allocate capital properly.

Newman: I got you. But properly and improperly are virtually indistinguishable. That’s the explanation of why they got huge bonuses even though they didn’t do their job, according to Lewis. It’s not as if they didn’t allocate capital. They did. It’s not like being a plumber, where if you don’t get the toilet to flush, you don’t get paid. The whole system as it exists is too big to regulate.

Salit: Never mind too big to fail.

Newman: Exactly. It’s too big to regulate. It’s just too big and too complex so that, no matter what happens, they get their bucks. And, the economy is still stumbling along.

Salit: Things are happening. Presumably the stimulus money is getting places and the banking system was stabilized and the job loss has been stemmed. It’s not clear though what the relationship would be between that happening and a new kind of regulatory framework. Everybody’s saying that we can’t set up regulations that prevent some kind of disaster from happening.

Newman: That’s the big lie.

Salit: Because?

Newman: In the most pragmatic sense of the word, they can set up such regulations. They have set them up. It’s what we’re doing now. This is the worst disaster since…

Salit: …the Great Depression…

Newman: …since the times of Cleopatra, or whatever era you might fill in there. And they are dealing with it. So what’s the problem? It might be boring. It might be tedious. It might be incomprehensible. It might be all kinds of things. But that’s how the system works. You have the same old people creating regulations which are, roughly speaking, if you look at the totality of them, equivalent to the regulations that existed last time.

Salit: Hence the Consumer Protection Agency is housed at the Federal Reserve.

Newman: Right, because now it’s their turn.

Salit: So nothing new is happening up there, so to speak.

Newman: That’s my view. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Because the left abstractions, the Marxist abstractions which amount to, It’s always the same under capitalism, and to which people always respond by saying, Oh, you cynics. It’s more complex than that, are actually accurate. It’s not more complex. It is the same old, same old…all the time. Apparently you just have to pay your dues and go through 10 cycles of this before you’re allowed to say that.

Salit: What follows from that?

Newman: Look, from our vantage point, no one’s going to go out and make a revolution in the traditional 19th century sense of that word. But if you have the circumstances, like in the last presidential election where an interesting, although probably unpredictable, conjuncture of things occurred – some highly unusual, explosive, upending things can happen. Some people saw that conjuncture and took advantage of that. That made it possible to elect an African American president. Forget what his views are. Just that he’s African American is something of a revolution. But once that revolution is done, he goes to Washington to produce relatively modest changes, and the Republican Party has a sufficiently strong base – like half the country – so that it can muck things up.

What’s the probability of some consecutive circumstances of the kind which allowed the masses of people to actually participate in something in a mildly radical way? Probability? Zero. What’s the probability of one such conjuncture being sufficiently radical to produce changes large enough to, in turn, produce other changes? Don’t know. That’s what you’re gambling on by investing in the independent political movement. That’s what we’re gambling on. Those are the odds of our bet. Well, I’m content with that. I’m still here. You’re content with it. You’re still here. Are we doing some good stuff along the way? Yes. And that’s good, too, because the likelihood is that’s what we’ll, in fact, accomplish. Does that contribute to these other, larger shifts? Impossible to tell. Is it worth doing in its own right? Yes.

What does this all add up to? I’d say postmodernism is right. This is what it looks like. This is the very stuff we’re trying to figure out a way to talk about because there is no obvious way to talk about it. What do you do with that? Some people turn to God. Some people become super nasty. But everything loses meaning. Then, what do you do with a meaningless world? I don’t know. I like what we’re doing in a meaningless world. We’re trying to do something worthwhile to help people who always get the short end of the stick. That seems like a worthwhile thing to do. And we’re doing it well.

Salit: Have you seen this guy Francis Collins before? He’s the well-known and respected scientist who Charlie Rose interviewed, the author of “The Language of God,” who writes about his belief in God. He says, basically, that science can’t answer the question: Why is there something instead of nothing?

Newman: What’s that supposed to mean?

Salit: It could mean that science hasn’t answered that yet, but that’s the argument for God.

Newman: And that’s supposed to be profound?

Salit: I don’t think it’s supposed to be profound. It’s supposed to be a trump card.

Newman: I don’t know about that. How about pointing out that there is something and there is nothing. There’s something when there’s something and there’s nothing when there’s nothing. So the question, by any standard as far as I’m concerned, is profoundly ill-formed. Where did he go to school, this guy?

Salit: Yale.

Newman: Is that right?

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Well, it’s a theological school.

Salit: Even if he didn’t go to the Divinity School.

Newman: I assure you they’re not asking that question at Stanford, nor at Harvard. The real question is: Why are we taking a question effectively constructed by the Yale Divinity School as the least bit serious?

Salit: I went to Sarah Lawrence so I can’t answer that question.

Newman: I would say that you dropped out of Sarah Lawrence, so you have to!

Salit: Exactly. That’s how I answered the question. I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence.

Newman: There you go. I think that’s a good answer to that!

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

Healthcare: The Final Act.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, March 14, 2010 after watching selections from “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “The Charlie Rose Show,” “PBS NewsHour,” “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: Maybe we could unpackage some of the endgame discussions about the healthcare drama which is coming to the “final act.”

Newman: It seems to me it’s the final act of a play where all the scenes are the same.

Salit: Are they?

Newman: I don’t really see any differentiation between the scenes in this act. But maybe you do, so you can tell me about it.

Salit: Well, if you take what Doug Schoen said on Fox News, in a kind of dramaturgical forecast of what happens after the final act, maybe this is where it gets different, because it’s about the political fallout. There’s going to be a vote and something’s going to happen and it’s either going to pass or it’s not going to pass.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: So now the plot of the play shifts to what happens if it passes and what happens if it doesn’t pass.

Newman: Didn’t everybody know that all along?

Salit: They did. But presumbably there’s a difference between knowing it all along and it now being the moment when it’s going to happen.

Newman: Didn’t everybody know that all along, too?

Salit: Yes. Now, Obama and the Democrats seem confident that even with all the ups and downs, even with the continued ambivalence on the part of the American public about healthcare reform, that they’re going to A) get something done and B) that it’s going to be a net-positive at the political level for them. Obviously, they think it’s a net-positive at the policy level. We saw Nancy Pelosi giving that speech to Charlie Rose about how good policy is good politics. But, at the political level, they think they can make this thing work for them.

Newman: No matter what happens in Congress? I don’t think so. What they’re saying, in effect, is if it passes we can make it work for us and if it fails, we can’t. So back to my question. Didn’t they know that all along?

Salit: They did.

Newman: That’s why I keep asking myself, what’s the big deal? It’s time to vote. Either Obama is going to win or he’s going to lose.

Salit: If I had to answer your question, I would say the vote is about more than whether healthcare is going to be reformed, and even more than whether the Democrats are going to maintain their majority control in the midterm elections.

Newman: It’s about whether the president, who seems to be something of a leftist, who controlled both the House and the Senate, could pass what is, by any reasonable account, a center-left bill.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: And that’s a big political issue. Because he should be able to. But it’s questionable whether he will be able to.

Salit: How much of the uncertainty is about the narrative and whether Obama has had a good narrative? Or is it really just about the numbers?

Newman: I don’t know. But at this point, it’s all about the numbers. The two are connected, that’s obvious. But, comprehensive healthcare reform hasn’t had a great narrative in the American political history.

Salit: That’s true. FDR avoided it like the plague. And it almost killed the Clinton presidency.

Newman: But, Obama’s really invested in it. It’s kind of the classical centerpiece of the Democrats’ left-center narrative, and Obama, for a variety of reasons, chose to try to go there first.

Salit: To further establish his Democratic Party credentials.

Newman: And he’s having, roughly speaking, the same kind of problem the Democrats have always had in getting that narrative through.

Salit: There was no bipartisan consensus here.

Newman: Well, you could say Obama had to change his overall strategic plan midstream because he thought he could win it with bipartisan support.

Salit: But he couldn’t.

Newman: No, and ultimately it turned into the bare knuckles politics that are customary in DC. Ironically, the best thing he has going for him now is that a loss on this bill is going to have an impact on all Congressional Democrats in November. So because of that, they’re going to be more inclined to give him the votes he needs.

Salit: That certainly is an added incentive. Survival at the polls always is.

Newman: That could be enough to get him over the top given that the bipartisan effort failed.

Salit: Since the Republicans decided that a strategy of obstructionism was better for them politically than cooperation.

Newman: They sort of had to, because of how badly the Republican Party is doing. Did Obama know that and decide to play it this way anyhow? Could be. He’s bright enough to have thought it through that far. Is it also possible that he’s just naïve? It’s possible. Psychology is a speculative sport, after all.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: Of the pundits I see regularly, David Brooks is the one I feel closest to attitudinally, and he says ‘You’d like to think that the Obama people thought this through and decided to go this route.’ That’s what you’d like to think, namely that they have numbers which indicate that they can win at this point. I can’t imagine that those are strong numbers, though.

Salit: Well, my guess is that from this point on, the news coverage is going to resemble what happens at a sporting event. Play by play, and that sort of thing.

Newman: If I was a media person, I’d stop covering this. I’d protest and not cover it anymore, and just say, Decide something already, you’re the Congress. When you decide something, we’ll come back and cover you. Until then, no coverage. That would be principled, I think.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: So what do you think?

Salit: I’d like to think that the Obama people A) did this for his standing with the Democratic Party; B) somewhere it ran off the rails of what they were expecting, but they have it back in hand and C) they want to get it done so they can move on to other things – like the economy. I think they ended up getting more bogged down in it than they thought they would. But, it was what it was, and now they’re trying to finish the job and move on in time to recover from whatever it is they need to recover from in time for the midterm elections. Once it’s done, they can press the case against the Republicans around job creation and economic recovery. I’m presuming they think that they can put the Republicans on the defensive about that, whereas they’ve been on the defensive on the healthcare issue for months.

Newman: Well, the problem now is that it is actually harder to put the Republicans on the defensive, given what’s happened with healthcare.

Salit: And how does that work, do you think?

Newman: Well, the Republicans will say We have the pulse of the people. We proved this with the healthcare thing. And we’re closer to where the American people are at on the economy, too.

Salit: Well, that will be the next round of political theatre, Fred. Thanks.

Broken Government / Unscientific Psychology.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Every week CUIP’s president Jacqueline Salit and strategist/philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogues compiled on Sunday, February 21, 2010 after watching selections from “PBS NewsHour,” CNN’s “Campbell Brown,” “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” “Morning Joe and ABC’s “This Week.”

Salit: There was something strangely similar for me about the political discussions that we watched on Hardball, Morning Joe and CNN’s Campbell Brown and the PBS NewsHour discussion about mental illness and the DSM-V. DSM stands for the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the diagnostic guide of the American Psychiatric Association. DSM-V is the proposed update of DSM-IV. I’m trying to think how to characterize the similarity. One word comes to mind…

Newman: Try “mythology.”

Salit: Mythology. OK. I was going to say “closed system.” A closed system which fosters mythology or something along those lines.

Newman: I’m inclined more towards the words “open system.”

Salit: Open system, oh. How do you see that?

Newman: Anything goes. There’s no standard. There are no empirics. There’s no science. There’s no careful reasoning. These days in both politics and in psychiatry/psychology, you can make up whatever you like and self-fulfill it.

Salit: Self-fulfill it.

Newman: Because the “real story” in mental illness is whatever the DSM-IV or V says it is. When you actually look at the book, either IV or, I presume, V – I haven’t seen it yet – it’s just the preferred ordinary language of these particular people – who happen to be psychiatrists – in talking about mental states, emotional attitudes, postures, and feelings. I suggest that’s not much better, or more valid, than what anybody else is talking about. That might be a little extreme, so let me put it differently. The psychiatrists have only a slightly more technical definition of the blues than does Louis Armstrong.

Salit: That’s so interesting because at the beginning of the discussion Judy Woodruff reasonably asks, ‘Why do we have a DSM anything? What’s the premise, medically and scientifically, for having classifications of mental disorders?’

Newman: She might just as well have asked why do we have psychology or psychiatry?

Salit: Well, yes.

Newman: A classificatory component is a part of virtually any true science. Judy Woodruff is correctly asking why we have this. She might well have asked – it would have been more direct – Why would you consider these things to be true science?

Salit: These particular classifications?

Newman: No, this particular approach to human emotion.

Salit: But she didn’t ask that.

Newman: No, but I’m saying she asked something that was effectively equivalent.

Salit: Then Dr. Alan Schatzberg, the head of the American Psychiatric Association, said – he doesn’t quite use these words, but his tone is What I’m about to say goes without saying – he said that having classifications of mental disorders and distress allows the profession to treat them more effectively.

Newman: Right, which is true. What he didn’t say, interestingly enough, was the reason we have a classificatory system is that it’s an attempt to make psychology a science. A necessary component of any true science is to have a classificatory system associated with it.

Salit: Correct.

Newman: But, he didn’t say that. Even Dr. Schatzberg feels squeamish about declaring that.

Salit: Squeamish because?

Newman: Because it isn’t a science. If you’re perpetrating a fraud, even if you don’t quite think of it that way…if you’re sitting on the Stanford campus and that university pays you hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, you feel some restrictions on undercutting the presumed value of your so-called science.

Salit: The purpose of the DSM-V is to make the arena of emotionality less emotional and more scientific.

Newman: If you study true sciences, the ones that most people would agree are sciences – like physics, like chemistry – they’re based on creating a new discovery. Chemistry is not just another way of talking about chemicals. There were some discoveries made, actual discoveries in the real world with real instruments, that produces a science. And out of that came theories. That’s not the historical process by which mental health has tried to turn itself into a “science.”

Salit: OK.

Newman: I’m not the only one who’s saying this. The whole construct is suspect. After all, even Dr. Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who put together the last DSM is now somewhat suspicious of it.

Salit: Of the whole classificatory system.

Newman: From DSM to DSM.

Salit: Exactly. That’s what I was going to ask you next. Dr. Frances is a psychiatrist. He’s the former chief of psychiatry at Duke and he headed up the DSM-IV process, the one that concluded the last guide. In the interview with Judy Woodruff, he shared a set of unintended consequences that occurred as a result of his work on refining and updating the classificatory system. He said that the changes triggered “false epidemics.” Then he named three areas where false epidemics were triggered, including Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), autistic disorder and the childhood diagnosis of bipolar disorder. On his account, what happened was that they created these new classifications and – I almost hate to go political on this because I feel like it’s getting away from…

Newman: Feel free.

Salit: …the scientific point that you’re making.

Newman: No, I’m making a political scientific point.

Salit: Going political, he essentially says we created these new categories and some combination of the drug companies and the psychiatric profession rushed in and, suddenly could diagnose and treat people in these categories and, that it’s become hugely profitable.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: So, at a very minimum, while he might not be questioning the methodology of scientific classifications…

Newman: Well, I hope he is now, when he’s off camera.

Salit: But even on camera, he is saying that here’s something extremely negative that happened as a result of doing this activity called classification.

Newman: Right.

Salit: At one point, he referenced the situation with ADD. He calls it a huge over-diagnosis. It became a growth industry.

Newman: And remains one.

Salit: And it remains one, exactly. I know we’re discussing an issue that you’ve spent a lifetime working on here.

Newman: Or at least an hour and a half yesterday.

Salit: OK. Can you talk a little bit about what is being discussed in the field now, about the negative impact of diagnosis?

Newman: I’m not so much a part of the field that I can really speak all that intelligently to that. I speak to a small circle of radical anti-psychology people who are themselves training others. In the spirit of answering the question, I think people in the field are conflicted. Ordinary social workers who do therapy or counseling, not only feel a personal need for some classificatory system, but it’s economically useful to them, because it’s the standard used for insurance reimbursement. So it’s not going to be given up. On the other hand, I think there is a skeptical and wary tone in the air and there’s been enough talk about that, enough movement within the field of psychology, which includes the supposition that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this DSM thing. I wouldn’t be shocked if many practitioners use the official classificatory system, whether it’s V or IV, but simultaneously in their first session they say to their patients, You’ve probably read about DSM-V in the newspapers. All of this diagnosis is imprecise and clearly not helpful. We have to do this for the purpose of satisfying the bureaucratic needs of the insurance companies. Now let’s keep it at the size that we want. We’re not going to use it practically. I think that’s a posture for some in the field right now.

Salit: Then to thread the needle back to the political conversations and your comment that you can make anything up and call it science…

Newman: I don’t think you can make anything up. But you can come up with something and then paint it in such a way as to give it a resemblance to science. Then that turns out to be of economic benefit, because the money goes to science. I’m not at all questioning that it should. But it should go to real science.

Salit: On the political side, there continues to be, for obvious reasons, a discussion about the movement for social conservatism and whether it can power the Republican Party to victory. Leaving aside the issue of whether it can, it’s certainly trying. I don’t even know whether it makes sense to talk about whether it can.

Newman: That’s a trick, of course. What you’re describing is a trick very much in the way that DSM-IV and DSM-V are tricks.

Salit: How is that?

Newman: It’s a way of covering over that the Republicans lost.

Salit: Yes.

Newman: They would like to keep talking about whether the conservatives can drive the GOP to a win until Election Day. And the Democrats are in something of a bind. It’s a good chess play.

Salit: The Democrats are in a bind because?

Newman: Because if they respond directly, if they say, You know, we won by a huge margin, then the Republican response to that chess play is I don’t know why you’re saying that so loud. If you actually won, why do you have to say anything?

Salit: Yes. Just execute off of that.

Newman: Exactly. But they can’t.

Salit: They can’t, OK. This conflict was the subject of the discussion we watched between Chris Matthews, Al Sharpton, and NAACP President Ben Jealous. The jumping off point was that Jealous, Sharpton and Marc Morial of the Urban League met with President Obama. It was billed as a meeting of the major leaders of the national civil rights movement with the president. So, Sharpton talks to Chris Matthews about how the Republicans are being obstructionist. They’re obstructing everything. He makes the point that this isn’t just equivalent to what happened with the Dixiecrats when they obstructed civil rights legislation designed to enfranchise African Americans. What the Republicans are now obstructing is jobs programs and health care programs that would help all Americans, including their own constituents. They’re so intent upon their political play, says Sharpton, that they’re willing to hurt the people that they’re supposed to represent, for political gain. Then Chris Matthews says, ‘Here’s something I don’t understand. Why aren’t they, meaning the Republicans, afraid of blowback from moderate Republicans and independents?’

Newman: They are.

Salit: OK, you say they are. Sharpton says they’re fearless. And, the reason that they’re fearless is that there hasn’t been pushback from the civil rights and labor movements. To me there was an interesting disconnect between the question and the answer, because Sharpton didn’t address independents. In essence, Matthews says, ‘Well, the independents are out there. They’re out there and the Republicans could lose them if they play too far to the right. Why aren’t they afraid of that?’ Then Sharpton says, ‘Well, they’re not afraid because the civil rights movement and the labor movement aren’t fighting back strongly enough. That’s what our meeting with Obama was about. And now we’re doing that.’ But, you said the Republicans are afraid of blowback from the moderates and independents, yet they’re pursuing this obstructionist strategy. I guess Matthews’ question and my question is: How do those two things fit together?

Newman: Timing. They’re not going to prematurely respond to blowback until blowback occurs. And the moderates and independents will blow back as it gets closer to election time because that’s when you determine the net gains and net losses in Washington.

Salit: So then Sharpton says, ‘Why are we running from the people who lost the election?’ This goes to your point about the chess game. Sharpton says, ‘We won the election. We are the majority. We elected the president. We control Congress. Why are we so worried about these people? We should stop being so worried about them and go about our business of taking care of creating jobs and all these things we need to do. What’s the problem?’ And Matthews says, ‘That’s a good question. What is the problem?’

Newman: The answer is blowing in the wind. The Democrats are not doing that because the Republicans have used their minority position – as minorities are often capable of doing in certain circumstances – to paint a bleak picture of the president and to use whatever techniques are available under the law, in the Senate or in the House, to defeat enough legislation to make him seem, justifiably so, less than effective. That’s why.

Salit: Sharpton seems to be saying that we shouldn’t worry about all of that. But he’s not an elected official and he’s also not the president.

Newman: Yes. Though, at some level, he’s also an unelected representative of the poor. That’s where he’s come from. That’s who he is. That’s what he remains. And he’s a good one. I’m very proud of him.

Salit: Then we watched a discussion on CNN about the Conservative Political Action Committee meetings. They’re doing their thing. There’s a parade of presidential wannabes and leading lights, including Dick Cheney. John Avlon, CNN commentator and author who is an independent, said that the conservatives and the Republican Party need to be careful here. They can build a bridge to independents on fiscal conservatism and, insofar as that’s their rhetoric, they will connect with independents. But if they go beyond that, in his words, ‘If they go to making this a battle with socialism, independents won’t buy that.’ That will be a bridge too far in terms of trying to coalesce with independents.

Newman: I was telling you about Pat Choate’s new book “Saving Capitalism”* where he says that insofar as the central ideological battle between conservatives and liberals is framed as a battle between capitalism and socialism, the fight is badly framed. Because it’s not really a fight between capitalism and socialism. It’s a fight, as he says – and I think he’s fundamentally correct about this – between state capitalism and free market capitalism. But I don’t think it’s seen that way, by and large.

Salit: What do you think about the argument from some Republicans who are disputing all of this talk about the system being broken? They say the system is not broken. The system’s working fine. The stimulus bill was passed. The bailout bill was passed. Periodically, you hit bumps in the road. They’re laying the blame for any dysfunction on the doorstep of the Democrats because they’re not compromising enough.

Newman: And we all know that. It’s just a case of these particular Republicans intentionally refusing to understand a mixed metaphor. The system’s not broken, in a literal sense. It’s not broken the way when the sink is broken, you call a plumber.

Salit: As in, when the water is stopped up.

Newman: People know what “It’s broken” means. It means that some things look like they might not be fully fixable. That’s what it means. But it’s more rhetorically effective to say “This system is broken!”

Salit: Thanks, Fred.

Newman: You are welcome.

* Pat Choate was Ross Perot’s running mate in 1996 and a major figure in the Reform Party from 1996 to 2000.