The Rodney King Era

The February 2012 issue of The American Conservative includes several pieces that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the presidential campaign currently underway in the USA, and a couple that have a broader interest.

The American Conservative started in 2002 as a forum for right-wingers who did not want the US to invade Iraq.  It continues to give voice to conservative anti-militarism.  Several items in this issue further develop right-wing arguments against warfare, among them: Doug Bandow’s “Attack of the Pork Hawks” (subtitle: “Loving the Pentagon turns conservatives into big-spending liberals”); William S. Lind’s “Clearing the Air Force,” which argues that the only useful functions of the United States Air Force are those that support operations led by the Army and Navy, and therefore that those functions should be transferred to those services while the independent Air Force is dissolved; and Kelly Beaucar Vlahos’ “Gitmo’s Prying Eyes,” about the Defense Department’s attempt to erase attorney-client privilege for the “unlawful combatants” it holds at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.  Noah Millman’s review of Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel identifies Mr Gorenberg not by his usual sobriquet of “left-wing Zionist,” but as a “Jewish nationalist” who accepts a deeply conservative conception of nationhood as the maturity of a people, and who opposes Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories because that occupation reduces Israel from achieved nation-state to insurgent revolutionary movement.

The cover story, Scott McConnell’s “Ron Paul and his Enemies,” notes that Dr Paul’s campaign has inspired levels of alarm and anger from various elite groups in official Washington far out of proportion to the modest levels of support the good doctor has attracted.  Mr McConnell’s explanation of this is that those bêtes-noires of The American Conservative, the “neocons,” fear that Dr Paul will trigger a movement that will threaten the prestige they enjoy in policy-making circles in the American government.  The neocons are the neo-conservatives, adherents of an intellectual movement that traces its origins to the anti-Stalinist Left of the 1930s and 1940s and its rise to political salience in the work of a group of activists, academics, and functionaries who attached themselves to the Senator Henry M. Jackson in the 1960s and 1970s.  Like the late Senator Jackson, the neo-conservatives are generally sanguine about the ability of the US government to do good by means of large scale programs intervening in the domestic affairs of both of the United States itself and of other countries.  The group around The American Conservative consists of old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians who are deeply skeptical of Washington’s potential as a doer of good in any sphere.  Mr McConnell’s argument, summed up in his piece’s subtitle– “An effective antiwar candidate is what the neocons fear most”– is that, even though neoconservatives now hold such a stranglehold on respectability in foreign policy discussions in official Washington that the manifest failure of their signature project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, could not weaken it, they know that it is in fact very tenuous.  The mobilization of a powerful antiwar constituency within the Republican Party could send the neocons to the sidelines very quickly, he believes.  Therefore, they must move quickly to silence Dr Paul, lest the 29% of Republicans who tell pollsters that they share his antiwar views should crystallize into a force that could shift the national discussion away from the presuppositions of militarism.

One stick with which neoconservative spokesmen and others have beaten Dr Paul is a series of racially charged columns that appeared in newsletters he edited in the early 1990s.  Mr McConnell discusses the controversy over these columns thus:

Here the reprise of the story of the newsletters published under Ron Paul’s name 20 years ago proved critical. The New Republic had made a national story of them early in the 2008 campaign. James Kirchick reported that numerous issues of the “Ron Paul Political Report” and the “Ron Paul Survival Report” contained passages that could be fairly characterized as race-baiting or paranoid conspiracy-mongering. (Few in Texas had cared very much when one of Paul’s congressional opponents tried to make an issue of the newsletters in 1996.). With Paul rising in the polls, the Weekly Standard essentially republished Kirchick’s 2008 piece.

I’ve seen no serious challenge to the reporting done four years ago by David Weigel and Julian Sanchez for Reason: the newsletters were the project of the late Murray Rothbard and Paul’s longtime aide Lew Rockwell, who has denied authorship.* Rothbard, who died in 1995, was a brilliant libertarian author and activist, William F. Buckley’s tutor for the economics passages of Up From Liberalism, and a man who pursued a lifelong mission to spread libertarian ideas beyond a quirky quadrant of the intelligentsia. He had led libertarian overtures to the New Left in the 1960s. In 1990, he argued for outreach to the redneck right, and the Ron Paul newsletters became the chosen vehicle. For his part, Rockwell has moved on from this kind of thing.

Intellectual honesty requires acknowledging that much of the racism in the newsletters would have appeared less over the top in mainstream conservative circles at the time than it does now. No one at the New York Post editorial page (where I worked) would have been offended by the newsletters’ use of welfare stereotypes to mock the Los Angeles rioters, or by their taking note that a gang of black teenagers were sticking white women with needles or pins in the streets of Manhattan. (Contrary to the fears of the time, the pins used in these assaults were not HIV-infected.) But racial tensions and fissures in the early 1990s were far more raw than today. The Rockwell-Rothbard team were, in effect, trying to play Lee Atwater for the libertarians. A generation later, their efforts look pretty ugly.

The resurfacing of the newsletter story in December froze Paul’s upward movement in the polls. For the critical week before the Iowa caucuses, no Ron Paul national TV interview was complete without newsletter questions, deemed more important than the candidate’s opposition to indefinite detention, the Fed, or a new war in Iran. On stage in the New Hampshire debate, Paul forcefully disavowed writing the newsletters or agreeing with their sentiments, as he had on dozens of prior occasions, and changed the subject to a spirited denunciation of the drug laws for their implicit racism. This of course did not explain the newsletters, but the response rang true on an emotional level, if only because no one who had observed Ron Paul in public life over the past 15 years could perceive him as any kind of racist.

If the Weekly Standard editors hoped the flap would stir an anti-Paul storm in the black community, they were sorely disappointed. In one telling Bloggingheads.tv dialogue, two important black intellectuals, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, showed far more interest in Paul’s foreign-policy ideas, and the attempts to stamp them out, than they did in the old documents. Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates likened Paul to Louis Farrakhan. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but the portrait fell well short of total scorn. It was difficult to ignore that the main promoters of the newsletters story, The New Republic and the Weekly Standard, had historically devoted exponentially more energy to promoting neoconservative policies in the Middle East than they had to chastising politicians for racism.

In 2008, Mr McConnell, then The American Conservative‘s editor, had responded to Mr Kirchick’s original piece with stern reproof for Dr Paul.  The magazine then endorsed Dr Paul for president anyway, though Mr McConnell himself would later express his preference for Barack Obama. In the paragraphs above, Mr McConnell seems to be rather straining to downplay the newsletter matter.  For one thing, while Glenn Loury and John McWhorter are by anyone’s standards “important black intellectuals,” each of them is rather conservative and neither of them could be accused of having a low tolerance for white-guy B.S.- rather the opposite, in fact.  It is true that the early 1990s were a time of unusually raw tension between whites and African Americans; indeed, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an extremely strange period in American history, as Dr Paul’s 1988 appearance on The Morton Downey, Jr Show should suffice to demonstrate.  But this does not excuse Dr Paul’s pandering to the racialist right in those years.  Rather, it makes it all the more culpable.  In 1991, many parts of the USA, from Crown Heights in New York City to South Central Los Angeles, were teetering on the brink of race riots.  In that year, a majority of white voters in Louisiana pulled the lever in support of the gubernatorial campaign of Neo-Nazi David Duke.   To peddle racially charged rhetoric at that time was, if anything, more irresponsible, because more dangerous, than it would be today.

An editorial in the same issue discusses Dr Paul from a slightly different perspective.  In a single page, it dismisses the newsletters twice, once as “artifacts of a time- the Andrew Dice Clay era in American politics, when the populist right reacted to political correctness– then a new phenomenon– by sinning in the opposite direction”; then with this line: “The Rodney King era is a distant memory; the wars and economic outrages of our bipartisan establishment are still very much with us.”  If these dismissals leave you unsatisfied, there is still a refuge for you on The American Conservative’s webpage, where blogger Rod Dreher has repeatedly expressed his objections to Dr Paul’s newsletters in very strong terms (see here for one of the strongest of these objections.)

No discussion of “the Rodney King era” would be complete without a reference to The Bell Curve, in which psychologist Richard Herrnstein and historian Charles Murray argued that American society was becoming more stratified by cognitive ability, that cognitive ability is largely inherited, and therefore that America’s class system will likely become more unequal and less fluid as the highly intelligent pull ever further away from the rest of us.  Four chapters of the book dealt with race, analyzing the average IQ scores of various ethnic groups and concluding that African Americans as a group are likely to be among the hardest hit by the adverse consequences of this trend.  Professor Herrnstein and Mr Murray offered chillingly few suggestions as to how this grim scenario could be prevented or ameliorated; Mr Murray’s right-of-center libertarianism led him always to emphasize out the ways in which social programs intended to broaden opportunity sometimes redound to the disadvantage of their intended beneficiaries, an emphasis which, in conjunction with the book’s overall argument, seemed to suggest that there is no escape from the most dystopian version of its predictions.  Published in 1994, The Bell Curve rose to the top of the bestseller lists and garnered enormous attention; today, it would be difficult to imagine a major publisher agreeing to release it.  The nativist theory of IQ which is at its heart, and particularly the explicit development of that theory’s implications in the four chapters on race, makes it such an easy target for anti-racist spokesmen that a publisher who released it nowadays would be risking public infamy.  Yet in those days, The Bell Curve hardly represented the far edge even of acceptable public discourse.  So the far more aggressively anti-black Paved With Good Intentions, by Jared Taylor (a self-styled “white nationalist”,) found a major publisher and considerable sales when it was published in 1992; his recent followups to that book have been self-published.

Mr Murray has returned to the scene with a new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  By focusing exclusively on whites, Mr Murray need not dwell explicitly on racial differences in average IQ score or any theory as to what causes these differences; by setting 2010 as an ending date, he need not dwell on its grimmest implications for the future.  Reviewer Steve Sailer, himself a tireless advocate of the nativist theory of IQ, reviews this new book and finds some interesting nuggets in it.  For example, Mr Sailer refers to figures, evidently included in the book, which indicate that while 40 percent of affluent American whites are now unaffiliated with any religion (as compared with 27% of their counterparts in the early 1970s,) 59% of less well-off whites are now religiously unaffiliated (as compared with 35% of the same group in the earlier period.)  That leads me to wonder if the very conservative, rather militant forms of Evangelical Christianity that are so popular among the white working class, as well as the right-wing political views that so often accompany that form of Christianity, are a sign that the individuals who profess them identify themselves as cadet members of the  professional classes.  Their militancy, even when presented as a challenge to some relatively liberal subset of the upper middle class such as elite academics or Democratic Party politicians or leaders of mainline Protestant churches, advertises to all that they are church-goers, and thus strivers, not to be confused with the defeated mass who have lost interest in such institutions and faith in the promises they represent.

Timothy Stanley’s “Buchanan’s Revolution” looks back at the last antiwar rightist to make a splash as a US presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan.  Mr Buchanan was one of the founders of The American Conservative, and the magazine still runs his column (including a recent one lauding Ron Paul.)  So it is no surprise that the treatment of him here is respectful.  However, in light of what was going on with race relations in the USA in 1992, it is sobering to see these passages:

Of all Pat’s buddies, the one most excited by his campaigns was columnist Samuel Francis, who had worked for North Carolina senator John East before landing a job with the Washington Times. Physically, he was a fearsome toad. The journalist John Judis observed that “he was so fat he had trouble getting through doors.” He ate and drank the wrong things and the only sport he indulged in was chess. The mercurial, funny, curious Francis was an unlikely populist. But he was ahead of the curve when it came to Pat’s insurgency.

Back in the 1980s, Francis had predicted an uprising against the liberal elite that governed America. The only people who would break their stranglehold were the ordinary folks who made up the ranks of the “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. Mr. MARs was Mr. Average. He was either from the South or a European ethnic family in the Midwest, earned an unsatisfactory salary doing skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar work, and probably hadn’t been to college. He was neither wealthy nor poor, living on the thin line between comfort and poverty. All it took to ruin him was a broken limb or an IRS audit.

But Francis argued that the Middle American Radicals were defined less by income than by attitude. They saw “the government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously… MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective, it is reflected in a statement … The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”

Preferring self-reliance to welfare feudalism, the MARs felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960s. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician that could appeal to that social force could remake politics.

Two things made the MARs different from mainstream conservatives (and libertarians). First, not being rich, they were skeptical of wealthy lobbies. They hated big business as much as they hated big government. They opposed bailing out firms like Chrysler, or letting multinational companies export jobs overseas. They were especially critical of businesses that profited from smut, gambling, and alcohol. Although free market in instinct, they did appreciate government intervention on their behalf. They would never turn down benefits like Social Security or Medicare.

Second, the MARs were more revolutionary than previous generations of conservatives. Conservatives ordinarily try to defend power that they already control. But the MARs were out of power, so they had to seize it back. This was why conservatives like Buchanan behaved like Bolsheviks. “We must understand,” wrote Francis,

that the dominant authorities in… the major foundations, the media, the schools, the universities, and most of the system of organized culture, including the arts and entertainment—not only do nothing to conserve what most of us regard as our traditional way of life, but actually seek its destruction or are indifferent to its survival. If our culture is going to be conserved, then we need to dethrone the dominant authorities that threaten it.

Buchanan agreed. He wrote, reflecting on Francis’s words, “We traditionalists who love the culture and country we grew up in are going to have to deal with this question: Do we simply conserve the remnant, or do we try to take the culture back? Are we conservatives, or must we also become counter-revolutionaries and overthrow the dominant culture?”

The populist counter-revolution that Francis proposed was not explicitly racial. In theory, Hispanic or black industrial workers were just as threatened by economic change and high taxes as their white co-workers. And the cultural values of Hispanic Catholics and black Pentecostals were just as challenged by liberalism as those of their white brethren. But in Francis’s view, these ethnic groups had become clients of the liberal state. Only political correctness—argued Francis_prevented whites from admitting this and organizing themselves into their own ethnic interest group. In this worldview, the Democrats gave handouts to African-Americans in exchange for votes. Hispanics were brought in from Mexico to lower wages and break unions, providing cheap domestic labor for the ruling class and maximizing corporate profits. The only people without friends in high places were the middle-class white majority.

Buchanan and Francis disagreed over this point. Pat was concerned about the decline of Western civilization. But he never saw Western society in explicitly racial terms. He opposed both welfare and mass immigration, but he thought they hurt blacks and Hispanics as much as whites. Francis believed that human characteristics—including intelligence—were shaped by race.

And:

During the primary, (economist Harry) Veryser arranged a meeting between himself, Pat, Francis, and (scholar Russell) Kirk. Buchanan and Francis behaved as if no one else was there, and Pat sat in rapt silence listening to his friend expand upon the coming revolution. It was an intellectual romance, said Veryser. Harry was embarrassed, Kirk was furious that he wasn’t paid the attention he deserved. Both concluded that Buchanan was in love with Francis’s mind, that he truly believed that the two men could remake the world. Francis was a true believer, and his zeal infected Pat. He gave to Buchanan’s peculiar rebellion the theoretical structure of a popular revolution.

I used to read Samuel T. Francis’ column in Chronicles magazine.  It was a microcosm of Chronicles itself; full of one fascinating bit after another, often making the most interesting sort of points, and then, by the way, dropped in the middle someplace, a bizarre remark that could only be attributed to racism.  In one of the last to appear before his death in 2005, he was going on about the things that American children ought to, but don’t, learn in public schools.  He was developing a powerful vision of public education as a vehicle for cultural continuity and the formation of a common national heritage.  It was thrilling stuff, if not entirely convincing, until the middle of the fifth or sixth paragraph when he listed among the things that all Americans should learn in school “why slavery was right, and why the South was right to maintain it as long as it did.”  Then he went back to being interesting, but really, it was hard to focus after that.  And really, all of his columns were like that, brilliant, fascinating, and marred beyond saving by such outlandish remarks.  When The American Conservative started in 2002, Dr Francis wasan occasional contributor, writing three articles for the magazine (one each in 2002, 2003, and 2004.)  The editorial team there evidently took more of an interest than did their counterparts at Chronicles in toning the racialist content of his columns to a minimum, so that there were no true lightning bolts of lunacy.

Dr Francis, to the embarrassment of his more respectable friends, called himself a white nationalist and socialized with David Duke.  In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Francis was a figure of some influence.  The “job with the Washington Times” that Mr Stanley mentions was that of editorial page director.  That a man of his views could attain such a position is another marker of how raw the racial resentments of whites were in the Rodney King era. In his obituary of Dr Francis for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell wrote that at Dr Francis’ funeral he found himself talking with none other than Jared Taylor.  Mr Taylor said that the cab driver who took him from the airport to the funeral had asked who Dr Francis was.  In response, Mr Taylor proclaimed “He stood up for white people!”  The cab driver, a white workingman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was visibly shocked and uncomfortable.  I very much doubt that many like him would have been upset by such a remark 14 years before.

One of Ron Paul’s rivals for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Willard Milton Romney (known familiarly as “Mitt,”) is mentioned by name in a review of economist Bruce Bartlett’s book, The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It, and What It will TakeMr Bartlett was a staffer for Dr Paul in the 1970s, but has not been associated with him in recent years.  Reviewer Tom Pauken quotes Bartlett as saying that the USA’s corporate income tax exempts money spent on interest payments, but does not give such favorable treatment to money returned to shareholders in dividends.  It is unsurprising, then, that US businesses raise vastly more money by borrowing than by selling equity.  Mr Pauken says that this situation “has been great for private-equity moguls and leveraged buy-out operators like Mitt Romney and Stephen Schwarzman, who have made fortunes gaming the system.   But it has been destructive to the long-term health of many US companies and to American workers who have lost jobs as a consequence of tax incentives that encourage companies to pile up debt.”  Mr Bartlett calls for the repeal of the corporate income tax and of several other taxes, and their replacement by a border-adjusted value added tax.  I’ve endorsed similar proposals here, often under Mr Bartlett’s influence, and am glad to see that he is still working the old stand.  As for the connection to Mr Romney, I would mention a link I posted on our tumblr page to a recent column by Paul Rosenberg called “Mitt Romney, ‘Welfare Queen.'”  The caption I gave that link was “In the USA, corporations can write interest payments off their income taxes, while they have to pay taxes on dividends they pay shareholders.  So, shareholders collect almost nothing in dividends, while banks and private equity firms collect trillions of dollars in interest payments.  Those interest payments are an alternative form of taxation, and people like Willard M. Romney are tax recipients, not taxpayers.”  I think is a reasonably fair summary of Mr Rosenberg’s argument, though Mr Bartlett’s views are somewhat more complex.   

A few months ago, I noted here a column about the Revised Common Lectionary that Philip Jenkins had contributed to Chronicles magazine.  Professor Jenkins argued that the committees that produced that selection of Bible readings had left out all of the passages in which God is shown commanding or praising violence, thus creating a false impression of the scriptures.  Professor Jenkins has presented that argument at book length, in a volume called Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.  Patrick Allitt’s review of Professor Jenkins’ book in this issue draws out some interesting points.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges, which include many of the Bible’s most bloodthirsty passages, describe events that supposedly occurred in the late Bronze Age, but in fact were written at least 600 years after that period.  That not only means that the massacres they celebrate are not only unlikely to have taken place (archaeologists have found no residue of such conflicts,) but also that they were written at about the same time as, and very likely as part of a dialogue with the authors of, the passages about social justice and universal benevolence that warm the hearts of those who read the books of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah.  The thorny passages in Deuteronomy also date from this relatively late period.  So to suppress the Mr Angry Guy passages from the Heptateuch is to misrepresent the Mr Nice Guy passages from the prophets.  I should mention that elsewhere on the magazine’s website, blogger Noah Millman appends a nifty bit of rabbinical logic to the review.

Intellectuals in the traditionalist right often mention the name of philosopher Eric Voegelin.  The late Professor Voegelin’s works are too deep for the likes of me, but an essay by Gene Callahan about his ideas in this issue of the magazine had me thinking of making another attempt at reading one of Professor Voegelin’s book, most likely The New Science of Politics (simply because it’s the one I’ve made the most progress with in my previous attempts.)  Of the many extremely interesting bits in Professor Callahan’s essay, the most interesting to me was his summary of a notion Professor Voegelin labeled the “hieroglyph.”  By this word, Professor Voegelin evidently meant “superficial invocations of a preexisting concept that failed to embody its essence because those  invoking it had not experienced the reality behind the original concept.  As hieroglyphs, the terms were adopted because of the perceived authority they embodied.  But as they were being employed without the context from which their original authority arose, none of these efforts created a genuine basis for a stable and humane order.”

I think this notion might explain a great deal.  Take for example a term like “national security.”  In such a place as the USA in the early nineteenth century, a poor country with a tiny population, a vast border, a radically decentralized political system, and every empire of Europe occupying territory in the immediate neighborhood, a patriot might very well advocate an aggressive program of territorial expansion, political consolidation, and a military buildup.  Such steps might well have been necessary for the infant USA to maintain its independence.  Today, however, such policies only weaken the United States.  Our international commitments empower our enemies, our national government threatens our liberties, our military expenditures divert capital from productive uses and weigh heavily on the economy as a whole.  To secure the blessings that make the United States of America worth living in and dying for, we must be prepared to revise or discontinue all of the policies customarily justified under the rubric of “national security.”

Likewise with the term “free market.”  As someone like Mr Bartlett has done so much to demonstrate, our current financial and corporate elites by no means owe their preeminence to success in unfettered competition.  Rather, they are the figures who have been most successful at manipulating a system that is defined and sustained by the continual involvement of government in every phase of economic life.  And yet even those among the rich who are most blatantly tax-recipients find defenders who speak of them as if they were so many Robinson Crusoes, in possession of nothing but that which they themselves had wrested single-handed from nature.  Virtually all conservatives and most libertarians are guilty of this form of hieroglyphic use of the term “free market” and its accompanying imagery at least occasionally.  Some libertarians, like the aforementioned Murray Rothbard, acknowledge the fact that the existing economic system is not a free market in any meaningful sense, and so speak not of a “free market” that is to be defended, but of a “freed market” that is to be created when our currently existing economic system is abolished.  The late Professor Rothbard and his followers frankly call the existing system, the one which they find unacceptable, “capitalism.”  For my part, I am perfectly willing to accept and defend the system Rothbardians call capitalism, though I would also call for a recognition that where there is subsidy, there must also be regulation.  And of course I would hope that we would have a lively democratic political culture that would guide our regime of subsidy and regulation to aim at socially desirable ends, rather than simply functioning as a means by which the power elite can entrench its position at the top of the economic and political order.

*I don’t actually agree with Mr McConnell that Llewellyn Rockwell is the likeliest author of the articles in question.  The most obnoxious piece, which in fact contains all of the tropes that drew fire in the other pieces, appeared under the byline “James B. Powell.”  A man by that name did in fact write for the Ron Paul newsletters, and is today a member of the board of directors of the Forbes Corporation.

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Will visits to the doctor go the way of visits from the doctor?

In the last few days, television audiences in the USA have been hearing a great deal about IBM’s “Watson” computer system.  The occasion of this publicity is Watson’s appearance as a contestant on the popular quiz show Jeopardy.  IBM has emphasized Watson’s potential in the medical field:

Throughout this material, IBM’s spokespeople keep inviting us to imagine a near future in which Watson or systems like it will be found “in every doctor’s office.”  What this phrasing suggests to me is a situation in which there are about as many doctors as there are now, those doctors are distributed in offices as they are now, and in those offices they examine patients who come to them as they do now.  The state of affairs that this phrasing suggests is that these future offices will differ from their present-day counterparts in that Watson-like natural language processors will be installed to provide the patient with an “instant second opinion.”

A moment’s reflection will reveal that there is essentially no likelihood of such a scenario being realized, at least not in the USA.  As soon as a machine is invented that is capable of giving a medical opinion that is of any value whatsoever, flesh-and-blood doctors will vanish from the lives of low-income patients forever.  Once the machine is so improved that it can be trusted to give a sound diagnosis most of the time, with none but the trickiest cases requiring review by human doctors and none but a small percentage of those requiring active intervention to overrule the machine, the only patients who will ever meet their doctors will be the very wealthy and the scientifically interesting.

The parallel I would draw is with the institution of the “house call.”  As recently as 40 years ago, it was so common for doctors to call on their patients at home that when people occasionally had to go to the doctor’s office to receive care, it was considered grounds for a radical overhaul of the healthcare system.  Now, when a doctor does make house calls, it’s national news.  I predict that 40 years from now, it will be as rare for a patient to visit a doctor for examination as it is today for a doctor to visit a patient at home.

What will the consequences of this change be for public policy?  The central dilemma in technology policy is always the same, that there is little or no interval between the time when it is too soon to say what the effects of a development will be and the time when it is too late to do anything about that development.  One thing we can say is that demand for medical doctors will drop dramatically, probably to 1% or less of the current per capita demand by 2050.  Whether that means we will have only 1% as many doctors then as we do now, or that some larger number will share 1% of the income that doctors now collect, of course depends on a wide range of factors.  Whichever way it goes, certainly no prudent investor would be interested in funding a new medical school at this time.

The cost of health care is a focus of much discussion in the USA, where it represents at least 1/7 of GDP.  Eliminating doctors would change the way this spending breaks down, but would neither reduce demand for health care nor increase its supply.  Moreover, many have argued that the reason health care costs so much more in the USA than in similar countries is that Americans do not really have a market for health care.  Rather, employers pay for health insurance in order to avoid paying the corporate income tax.  Since employers pay insurance companies money that would otherwise go to the taxman, they have little incentive to negotiate lower premiums; since insurers raise premiums when providers charge them more, they have no incentive at all to negotiate for lower prices.  As long as the corporate income tax and its health-insurance deduction remain in place, US health care costs will continue to rise no matter how little money goes to doctors.  Perhaps if the USA were to abolish the corporate income tax and replace it with a consumer-driven revenue source like the Value Added Tax, a consumer-driven health care system might emerge, but until then, technology cannot solve our problems.

Of course, unemployment is also a public policy problem.  What happens to all the M.D.s whose degrees will become worthless in the years ahead?  And what happens to public opinion when the appearance of a horde of jobless doctors makes it clear that education is no guarantee of employment?  Marxism may be dead, but will it stay buried in a world where the owners of capital are the only economic group who lead lives secure enough to plan for their futures?

Border Adjusted Value Added Tax

Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina ran for president in 1984

Former US Senator Ernest Hollings wants the United States to replace its corporate income tax with a border adjusted value added tax.  He writes that he wants to see “the President and the Congress beginning to solve the deficit, debt, jobs, economy, and health cost problems by replacing the corporate tax with a 5% VAT- NOW!”  He may be onto something, but I think he’s also missing something.  Surely, a 5% border adjusted value added tax would send more revenue to Washington than the corporate income tax now does.  However, the reason the corporate income tax does not raise more revenue is that American corporations shelter their income by taking advantage of deductions.  End the tax, and you end those shelters.  Since employer-provided health insurance is one of those shelters, a 5% VAT would probably not “solve” the problem of access to health care in the USA.

The American Conservative, April 2010

Pluto, no other label needed

My favorite read from the antiwar Right has undergone quite a few changes since it began in 2002.  Founding editors Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos are long gone from The American Conservative, and the hard line those men have taken against immigration from poor countries to rich ones is no longer the magazine’s editorial policy.  Last year, the magazine scaled its publication schedule back from biweekly to monthly.  This issue suggests that some further changes are underway. 

For one thing, the editors seem to want short pieces to end with pungent epigrams.  So Stuart Reid’s column about Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother praises him for the the fine satires he directed at self-important British Conservatives in the 1970s (Reid ruefully admits that he himself met Peter Hitchens’ brother’s sardonic descriptions perfectly at the time) and praises him also for a 1986 piece arguing that the word “terrorism” should be discarded as worse than useless.  Reid laments that Peter Hitchens’ brother has now become an angry voice calling for endless war and jeering at advocates of peace.  The pungent epigram at the end is this:

Some people say that Hitchens himself is now a conservative.  That is absurd.  But he might one day make a great police chief.

Eve Tushnet’s column about the contrast between “Washington the dateline,” where the US government is headquartered, and “DC the hometown,” where she grew up and lives today, also ends with a pungent epigram: “Official Washington can disappoint you, but only home can break your heart.” 

Not only is the magazine’s style changing; there are signs of further shifts on poitical issues.  A review of a new book by former Texas Republican Party leader Tom Pauken notes Pauken’s case for replacing many federal taxes with a border-adjusted Value Added Tax, a proposal that the magazine has looked on warmly in many pieces in previous issues.  This time around, the response is much cooler, even dismissive: “Would the harm to consumers be offset by the benefits to producers?  Even if so, it’s hard to imagine the consuming many making that sacrifice on behalf of the producing few.”  Perhaps it is hard to imagine, but I would join Pauken in saying that something like it must happen if the “producing few” are not to go on becoming fewer and fewer.   

Not everything about the magazine has changed, however.  Bill Kauffman’s column closes with his characteristic assertion that “small really is beautiful.”  The smallness he discusses is that of the planet Pluto and the resources available to its discoverer, the unlettered 24 year old farm boy Clyde Tombaugh.  Tombaugh’s formal education had ended, apparently forever, when he graduated from high school; there was no money to send him on to college.  Toiling in his family’s pasture, he built his own telescope and spent nights drawing freehand sketches of Mars and Jupiter.  On a whim, Tombaugh sent these sketches to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The observatory operated on a shoestring budget; when its director saw Tombaugh’s sketches, he seized the opportunity to hire someone who might be capable of the drudgery involved in searching for a hypothetical “Planet X” beyond the orbit of Neptune.  After Tombaugh spotted Pluto on a series of photographic plates, he was awarded a scholrship to the University of Kansas, and began a distinguished academic career.   Kauffman points out that in a properly funded observatory today, “a 21st century Clyde Tombaugh would be wearing a hairnet and ladling mac and cheese in the cafeteria.”   I suspect that a 21st century Tombaugh would likely have qualified for a scholarship to the University of Kansas without having to discover a planet first, but Kauffman does have a point.  The bureaucratization of science, like bureaucratization generally, may be the road to efficiency, but there’s something to be said for the independent, uncredentialled researcher. 

I can’t resist mentioning that the Believer (aka Mrs Acilius) takes a keen personal interest in Pluto.  I read this piece to her; when I got to the bit where Kauffman says that the officials of the International Astronomical Union who in 2008 decided to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet were a group of “costive bastards,” she let out a war whoop that would have done her Cherokee forebears proud.  She was not satisfied with Kauffman’s conclusion that the label “dwarf planet” might “be okay” because “small really is beautiful,” however.  She wants it back on the list of full-fledged planets. 

The theme that “small is beautiful” comes up in another piece, Patrick Dineen’s “Counterfeiting Conservatism.”  Dineen traces many evils back to the introduction of primary elections in the USA in the early decades of the 2oth century.  While primaries were supposed to break the grip of political elites on the nominating process, in fact they merely replaced the old elite of local party bosses with a new elite of political professionals who operate on  a national scale.  This development has in turn led to the nationalization of elections, the rise of partisan ideology, and a new concept of patriotism.  Where a 19th century American might have thought of patriotism in terms of loyalty to a particular state and reverence for particular historical figures, the nationalized politics of the 2oth century pushed Americans to identify patriotism with enthusiasm for the nation-state and its expansion. 

I should also note a report on current US politics.  There’s an antiwar candidate running for US Senator from Indiana.  That isn’t the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Brad Ellsworth of Evansville, but his predecessor in the US House, Republican John Hostettler.  Hostettler opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and even wrote an antiwar book.  If Hostettler wins his party’s nomination, Indiana will see a conservative, prowar Democrat squaring off against an even more conservative, antiwar Republican in November.  I wonder how the Indiana contingent of Thunderlads will react to that choice.

Should the USA adopt a value-added tax?

Most countries in the world collect a border-adjusted value added tax; the USA does not.  In this document, posted on his blog, former US Senator Ernest F Hollings succinctly points out a problem this creates for American manufacturers: 

Our tax laws force off-shoring. You can manufacture a computer in Chicago, which requires an average corporate income tax of 27%. Exporting that computer to China, when it reaches Hong Kong, China adds another 17% value added tax. But if you manufacture a computer in China, the 17% VAT is rebated or cancelled as it leaves Hong Kong for Chicago. And when it reaches Chicago, there is no 27% add-on, making for a 44% penalty to produce in Chicago. Imagine a country where you can’t produce for a profit. Well, that’s Obama’s United States today.

Hollings is the last person you would expect to find online, but his blog is terrific.

The American Conservative, November 2009

american conservative november 2009In this issue, former FBI employee Sibel Edmonds names some prominent US officials whom she believes to have accepted bribes from foreign governments.   

Eve Tushnet visits a Washington, DC locale known to the federal government as Meridian Hill Park, though she has “only seen its maiden name in two places: District government plaques and local girl Florence King’s autobiography, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady.”  Everyone else calls it Malcolm X Park.  Tushnet compares the design of the place to a ziggurat, a Sicilian village, a complex borad game, and the world’s largest Slinky.  I can see why; there are also some views which remind me of M. C. Escher.  Whatever the park’s designers were thinking, they don’t seem to have been thinking of crime prevention.  “It’s an array of alcoves linked by narrow paths and staircases… The high walls and ample foliage make it a haven for people whose professions or hobbies require a talent for lurking.”  No one seems to be committing any crimes during Tushnet’s visit, though she does have her suspicions about a man who introduces himself as a podiatrist.  

A humor piece is written as if it were a diary entry by classicist-cum-neoconservative madman Victor Davis Hanson.  The locution “No American wishes to contemplate the idea of war, but” occurs three times, the locution “No Namibian mercenary wishes to contemplate the idea of war, but” occurs once.  A truly Hansonian piece, I’d say.   

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Looking back, and further back

nostalgiaThe June and July issues of Chronicles, the rightwardmost of my regular reads, include a couple of pieces that seem to acknowledge that the basis of conservatism is nostalgia.  That isn’t so bad, I suppose; everyone feels nostalgia, and people who are nostalgic for the same things can share a bond, and can sometimes nurture a gentleness together. 

June: Roger McGrath reminisces about his childhood in a thinly populated, mostly rural California.  He makes it sound like paradise, or like a place a rambunctious boy might have preferred to paradise.   

Thomas Fleming builds a scholarly argument to the effect that early Christians were not pacifists.  I often suspect that Fleming has a grudge against Quakerism.  I’m not sure where he would have picked up such a grudge- he grew up in a family of atheists, so it isn’t rebellion against his parents.  But this article seems like a detailed response to some or other Quaker tract.  And he frequently denounces many practices that are associated with Friends, such as silent worship.     

In a piece lamenting the rapid decline of global birthrates over the last 20 years, Philip Jenkins makes an interesting suggestion.  Most demographers claim that when religious beliefs lose their social power, people choose to have smaller families.  Jenkins suggests that the arrow of causality should point in the opposite direction.  Perhaps it is the fact that people have fewer children that disinclines them from taking religion seriously.  “Without a sense of the importance of continuity, whether of the family or of the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective.”  He quotes the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski.  Safranski claims that a drop in birthrate

results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives… For childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance.  Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last, and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain. 

George McCartney praises Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road as a biting satire of self-styled “nonconformists” who congratulate themselves on their superiority to others while they are in fact utterly conventional.  McCartney condemns the recent film of the same title as an example of the sort of thing Yates was ridiculing.  He praises Eran Riklis’ film The Lemon Tree, the story of a Palestinian woman who insists on taking care of the lemon grove she inherited from her father even after an Israeli cabinet minister appropriates the land in which it grows for his own private use.  Her refusal to give up her ancestral claim is the sort of thing that warms the reactionary hearts of the Chronicles crowd, and I suppose it reflects the kind of nostalgia that a person really could build a humane politics around. 

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The Nation, 20 April 2009

nation-20-april

Businessman Leo Hindery and former US Senator Donald Riegle write a proposal for “The Jobs Solution” to our country’s current economic woes.  Point 3 reads:

Concrete efforts to restore the essential tax-policy link between productivity growth and wage gains, which will almost surely mean adopting a value-added tax of the sort nearly every other developed country already has.

The Value Added Tax seems to be showing up everywhere these days; I’m starting to lean prettily heavily in favor of the idea of abolishing the corporate income tax and payroll taxes and replacing them with an American version of VAT. 

Stuart Klawans reviews a movie that our own LeFalcon and VThunderlad seem to find infinitely fascinating, Watchmen.   To be precise, the headline of his column lists Watchmen as one of the movies he will review, but what he actually does is open with a few paragraphs satirizing the disillusioned tough-guy prose style that apparently characterizes the Watchmen franchise, then tell a story about how he was shown the wrong movie at the critics’ preview.  The high point of this story comes when he claims that he thought he was seeing one of the most discussed visuals from Watchmen, that is, the long blue penis of a character who is naked throughout the movie, only to realize that his eyes were playing tricks on him:

The movie starts. Immediately, I see the blue penis, and the special effects are staggering. It walks on its own. It speaks. I suddenly realize it is Clive Owen, clean-shaven for a change, striding up to inspect Julia Roberts’s cleavage at a garden party. This is not Watchmen. It is Duplicity.

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Chronicles, April 2009

George McCartney’s review of the movie The Reader begins with a description of a comedy sketch in which Kate Winslet said that making a movie about the Holocaust is a sure way to win an Oscar.  That part starts at 3:13 in the clip below.

McCartney argues that the movie misses the moral point of Bernhard Schlink’s novel.  Movie and novel both dramatize a sexual relationship in the late 1950s between Hanna, a former Nazi concentration camp guard, and Michael, at the time a 15 year old boy.  The two see each other again years later, when Hanna and other war criminals are on trial and Michael is a law student observing the process.  For McCartney, the key scene in the novel comes at this trial:

In the novel, Schlink’s point is that Hanna is being personally scapegoated for crimes that many others participated in, whether actively or passively.  To prosecute her without admitting this is to perpetuate the nation’s guilt and ramify its bitter consequences.  The novel fully dramatizes the wholly unwarranted self-righteousness of the other young German law students as they observe the trial.  They take it as an occasion to despise the older generation, including their parents, for their complicity in the policies of the Third Reich.  Michael would undoubtedly be with them but for his relationship with Hanna.  As it is, he’s left with the impossible burden of coming to terms with her culpability in the midst of his lingering feelings for her. 

Questioned at this trial about mass murders in which she participated, Hanna asks the judge in a state of true bewilderment, “What would you have done?” 

Of course, with the moral clarity available after events, it’s all too obvious what she should have done.  Schlink’s larger point is that it’s also obvious what the Germans should have done about their Nazi rulers.  But as Hitler rose to power and the Nazis took command of state institutions, barraging the populace with ceaseless propoaganda complemented by a relentless program of civilian surveillance, what course was safely open to the ordinary individual?  It’s easy, Schlink implies, for those who enjoy freedom today to say their elders should have resisted.  Of course they should have.  So should the Russians have resisted the rise of the Bolsheviks and Stalin’s police state.  So should all Americans have denounced George W. Bush’s criminal policies.  Schlink argues that these should haves are only helpful in the present if applied by those who realize that they themselves may not have had the moral heroism necessary to stand up to those in power.   

The novel “does a fair job of examining” the “deformation of a soul” like Hanna’s, a deformation which made it possible for her to commit acts of immense violence while seeing herself only as a victim.  The movie, by contrast, dwells on the actors’ physical nakedness, offering little insight into the psychological terrain in which the characters made their decisions.   “We need to see more than the actors’ breasts, buttocks, and genitalia to understand them.  We need principally to understand what happened to Hanna to make her the way she is.  On screen, we never do.” 

McCartney also objects to the fact that the sex scenes are played out between an 18 year old man playing a 15 year old boy and a 33 year old woman.  “In a film that means to expose the ongoing effects of abuse, we’re edified by the spectacle of a boy actually being abused by his director and his costar.  What else can we call what happens to David Kross in this movie?… [I]s 18 the age whhen, for professional reasons, a boy can disregard the sexual appeal of a nude 33 year old actress pressing against his naked body?  Who’s kidding whom?” 

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