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Monday, September 29, 2008

Rosh Hashanah (Happy 5769, Everybody!)

It was a beautiful afternoon and evening today here in Wichita. A strong breeze was blowing, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying the late September warmth as I rode my bike home from work, watching the sun turn slightly orange as it approached the horizon. And then, when I got home, the smell of challah bread, fresh from the oven.

Four years and a couple of weeks ago, I wrote my first Rosh Hashanah post. At the time, we were living in northeastern Arkansas. Now we're living in south-central Kansas. Neither, as you might guess, are major centers of America's Jewish population. So while I have Jewish friends, we haven't ever had Jewish neighbors (at least, not so far as we've ever known) during our sojourn through the American South and Midwest. Hence, we've never been able to get caught up in, or even just catch a small glimpse of, this holiday in its full civic aspect. So why write about it, especially seeing as how I'm not Jewish and won't be attending synagogue tomorrow? Well, because it's a new beginning, and I'm nuts for beginnings...especially those that I can tie into the calendar, and to however small a degree, make into something about where we are, and where we're going. To paraphrase some of I wrote back in 2004:

Melissa and I incorporate just about any holiday we can plausibly conceive of a connection to into our family life. Traditional Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas, of course, but also various religious festivals connected to cultures and places with which we have some affinity: St. Andrew’s Day and St. Lucia's Day during the holiday season, for example. Then there are outright national, civic holidays: Independence Day, of course, but also German Reunification Day (seeing as how our lifestyle gets in the way of celebrating Oktoberfest to its fullest) and the Korean Thanksgiving, Ch'usok. And we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We don’t doing anything special--talk to the kids a little bit about the history and experience of the Jews, and eat some of Melissa's excellent challah bread for an evening meal after sundown--and I won’t pretend that we’re somehow plugging into something deeply authentic by putting it on our own personal (Mormon, American) calendars....But I'm glad we do it anyway, and not just because it gives me the ability to take a nice early morning walk and, justifiably or not, lend the beginning of the day a certain (admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but nonetheless meaningful) significance.

Holidays are a way of putting ourselves in time, marking ourselves in relation to things that came before and things yet to come, people long dead and people yet to be born. Much communitarian thinking may, perhaps, be rightfully derided for being more a matter of philosophical anthropology than political theory, for failing to give any concreteness to the socially and morally necessary imperative to belong, but reflecting on holidays is one such area of inquiry where that accusation is, I think, clearly unwarranted. The calendric sense of recognition and orientation (not to mention the opportunity for association and celebration) afforded by holidays represents an affective binding at least as important, if not more so, than that associated with more explicitly shared beliefs, boundaries, or civic habits....True, few Americans today live a sufficiently pious or agricultural life for liturgical or seasonal holidays to much normative force; believe me, we've packed up the kids and gone to see a movie on Christmas, just like the rest of you. But the eclipse of a holiday’s traditional restrictive authority doesn't mean its ability to help us "authorize" a particular moment, or turn, or feeling, or resolution in our lives has been lost. On the contrary, it's still there. All we need to do is invest the effort to get into its rhythm, rather than letting the commodification and banalization which so many holidays have fallen victim to (President's Day, anyone?) excuse us from examining their significance.

I'm not Jewish. But I know that for millions of people, carrying with them a history of thousands of years, tonight at sundown a New Year began. The mere fact that for many of those millions that history doesn't matter much may be worth pondering...but it isn't, I think, an argument that the holiday can no longer be meaningful, in however small and simple a way, to anyone at all.

Life continues on: it's one damn thing after another, it's daily. More debt. More crises. More charges on the credit card. More bad times--but also, more good ones too. We get all the tomatoes out of garden, and now it's time to transplant the blackberry bushes. I get paid. Melissa gets a book review done. We have some friends over for dinner. The girls are getting older. We carry on. It's nice, in the midst of this, to pause, to mark an ending...and then, after we eat, to know that it's beginning all over again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Just to Make My Position Clear...

I sincerely doubt that there's anyone who checks on this blog with the intention of finding out the latest news, but still, as part of a probably vain attempt to make my take from yesterday current with the still-developing struggle over the bailout in Washington, three relatively quick points:

1. I don't like the bailout, perhaps mostly because I don't like being told by elite economic opinion-makers that if we don't "trust the Treasury [Department] to find a way out of this crisis," then "[f]inancial institutions would fail, part of your savings would be wiped out, jobs would be lost and a lot of economic activity would grind to a halt." It sounds too much like exactly the same sort of panic talk that always drives establishment pundit opinion whenever their ox is potentially being gored: "save us, for if we go down, we take the nation with us!" Daniel Larison's call for us all to slow down and consider the consequences is worth heeding.

2. And yet, I'm not sure how we--meaning you and me, dear reader--can avoid hoping for some sort of bailout (and preferably sooner rather than later) given the way our financial system has been jury-rigged by our own consumptive habits (a house! a bigger house! a bigger refinanced house!), our own toleration of speculative investments (did my retirement fund grow this year? what, only by 5%? off with the boards' heads!), and our glorification of credit and debit and outsized growth (too may examples to even pretend to list). We are not economic sovereigns in our own places, as we ought to be; we are hooked up to and made dependent upon and are expected to anticipate and exploit the mostly-just-on-paper growth which Wall Street is supposed to magically provide us with, whenever we pay for college or buy a home or make a savings plan. Since we are not sovereigns over our own economic affairs, why should we be astonished when we ultimately have no say--when our voices seem tinny and besides the point when we try to have a say, as the opportunist John McCain and the petulant House Republicans have been doing over the past 18 hours--over the economic crises which befall us? Is this game really playing out any differently than did the S&L crisis, or the fall of Enron? The only difference is the size of the final bill.

3. So what do I want? I want to live--I want us all to live--in small(er), more self-sufficient, interdependent but not thoroughly globalized, socially democratic states (preferably with parliamentary governments), where the financial resources of my community is not in hock, by definition, to markets and schemes that have next to nothing to do with actual production and everything to do with the interests of elite snake-oil salesmen who manage to make most of us look away most of the time by showing us an ever-expanding bottom line. In other words, I want small-scale socialism, I want to live where the habits of the people and the provisions of the state make populism possible. Sweden? Maybe. But then, I also want to live in America, with all its bigness, because I love my country. As long as there's a way to muddle through without completely selling off our sovereign soul, I'll take the bailouts and compromises as best I can.

More later.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

This Country Deserves a Better Class of Socialist

As per Rod's command, here I am. I've been working on, and then deleting, incomplete posts for a week or two now, never quite able to catch up with events and say the things I think I'd like to say before my whole reason for saying them becomes either irrelevant or exhausted. The same will probably go for this post, but hey, at least I'm getting it up.

As I write this, the $700 billion (we think!) bail-out of Wall Street appears to be heading towards Bush's desk for his signature; meanwhile, Senators Obama and McCain are on their way to Washington where, no doubt, they will say exactly as little or exactly as much as necessary to placate their bases and get back to the campaigns they want to run: ones in which, like most presidential campaigns in my lifetime, the prospect of substantive, challenging, serious, transformative, and/or participatory debates are exchanged for elite, media-centered (and media-manipulating) arguments about this comment or that insult or this mistake, because that kind of culture-and-appearance obsessed mud fight over which candidate can make themselves into a better synecdoche for some arbitrary slice of the American populace seems to be, unfortunately, a moderately effective way to woo and/or alienate enough random voters so as to pull off a 51-49 win in the end. Can you tell I'm a little frustrated with the process right now? And the thing is, I'm not your usual burn-both-their-houses-down!-style contrarian; while I'm more than happy to treat my vote expressively, and support whichever minor party candidates I think best represent (or at least approximate) whatever mix of issues which I believe deserve greater attention, I'm not opposed to trying to make the existing system work as best as it may, and that includes hoping for the best when the presidential show comes to town. So what's the problem? The problem is that the present crisis is so obviosuly one with roots that dig down into some of this country's most basic assumptions and behaviors, that to hear a discussion of saving investor confidence and stopping the bleeding and all the rest without so much as a gesture at the unreality and irresponsibility of a national economy built upon, and whole corporate cultures practically premised upon, consumption and speculation and debt is simply maddening.

In particular, what's most maddening about it--to me, anyway--is the fact that this enormously expensive bail-out will involve the embrace of a host of economic particulars that one can speak sensibly about, if we were willing to call them for what they are, and open ourselves up to what they entail. What am I talking about? I'm talking about what Irwin Seltzer called, with great reluctance and through gritted teeth, the "New Capitalism."

Henceforth, government will undertake previously unheard-of intrusions into the paneled boardrooms of corporate America, controlling the methods by which executive salaries are set. Board members, especially those serving on compensation committees, should no longer be friends of, or dependent on the good will of, the executives whose salaries they determine: They must be independent. And independent as judged by regulators. Auditors cannot build lifelong, cozy relationships with the executives and directors whose bookkeeping they are charged with reviewing; they must make way for other independent auditors after a number of years. Executive compensation must be transparent and somehow related to performance....[W]e are about to see equity given greater weight relative to efficiency as New Capitalists recast the tax structure erected in the last days of the Old Capitalism. Old Capitalists worry that if the marginal tax rate on the highest earners is raised from 35 to 40 percent, the wealthy will be less inclined to invest and take risks. New Capitalists, who would distribute those funds to the middle class, think it is worth sacrificing a small bit of efficiency to gain a great deal of fairness. This is the one area in which the Old Capitalists have not capitulated, and are mounting a last-ditch effort to preserve the Bush tax cuts. They will lose, whether to a President Obama or to a Democratic Congress that will drive an only apparently reluctant President McCain back to the position that he took when first confronted with the Bush cuts: They just don't seem fair.

As someone with egalitarian preferences like myself, that's all well and good...except, in fact, I hope that Irwin is, at best, just half-right. Because, of course, he isn't actually talking about a new capitalist regime at all; he's talking about social democracy, about the recognition that social accountability and ownership and equality--in other words, the basic elements of democratic fairness--are a necessary component of maintaining justice and legitimacy along with human flourishing in the complicated, interdependent world we have--for good and for ill--built for ourselves. And if one is going to recognize that some form of socialism is what is being called for here, then one at least ought to use the terminology appropriate to it, rather than grumpily insisting upon the capitalist jargon of growth and efficiency. (That's part of what got us into this mess, remember?) At the very least, continuing along with an unreconstructed globalist free-market mindset--from which I really do not expect either the Democratic or Republican parties to deviate anytime soon--will set us up for failing to appreciate how the socialism we are traipsing into could be much improved. (Which it certainly could be...E.J. Dionne is absolutely correct in calling the original bail-out proposals "socialism for the rich only.")

Those who assume, as an article of faith, that the U.S. is and must remain a fundamentally liberal and individualistic society will, of course, mount their usual libertarian complaint about this kind of transformation. But there are other cautionary voices which are not so grounded in a warped (though unfortunately common) misreading and metastasizing of Locke's defense of property rights; Daniel Larison reminds us that a hostility to a "collusion between financial interests and the government" was a central part of the old Country tradition, parts of which shaped Jefferson's own democratic-republican/communitarian-agrarianism. More relevantly, James Ledbetter in the piece I linked to above makes the obvious point that "state socialism is intrinsically unstable" and that "the Soviet Union collapsed for a reason"; he also pointedly observes, however, that "you don't see the Spanish [a nice Western European social democratic country, if you haven't heard] having to take over their own banking sector." So obviously, the question that ought to be asked--if we could be politically honest with ourselves--is not merely how to keep the "moneyed interest" from either taking over or becoming tools of the state, but more importantly, how to have a state for which the socialism that our present-day global economy seems to make unavoidable (at least for much of the world) will not pose either a threat or a temptation to democratic politics.

Noah Millman wants to make a distinction between this massive bail-out and the slightly less (or slightly more--it depends on who does your accounting) expensive, and more upfront in its implication, government intervention into Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae two weeks back: "I mind it less if Uncle Sam is my landlord than I do if he’s my banker." Either way, however, is going to mean the government buying up assets and absorbing losses that otherwise would have brought private financial institutions--and the retirement funds and investments and mortgages that they'd tossed back and forth in the meantime--down with a crash. So let's talk about the buyer. As it happens, Sweden found itself, about 15 years ago, in the position of having to become such a one.

Sweden's financial crisis in the early 1990s stemmed from a 1985 deregulation of credit markets, which set the stage for overexpansion and bubbles in the real estate and finance markets. When those bubbles burst in the early 1990s, Sweden's currency crumbled and interest rates spiked to 500% overnight. Of the country's seven biggest banks, five needed either government bailouts or big injections of money from shareholders. The value of the country's real estate market plunged 50-60% in 18 months....The government tried several stop-gap measures to no effect and in late 1992 opted for a complete re-booting of Sweden's financial system....The government issued blanket insurance for a period of four years to creditors in all the country's 114 banks. It established an agency to oversee all banks that needed recapitalization and told them to immediately write down their losses. Most importantly, the government stipulated that in order to become eligible for government funding, banks would have to give up something--namely equity--in return. In the case of one leading bank, the mere prospect of the government taking a stake was enough to persuade shareholders to dig deeper and raise money on their own. For the rest, the government was able, once the markets rebounded, to sell off the stakes it had acquired, making a profit that was effectively returned to taxpayers' coffers. At one point the government controlled more than 20% of the entire banking system.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? The key point, though, was the one which, thanks to Congressional insistence, the administration appears to have come around on: an "equity position" for taxpayers in the bailout. (Interestingly, it may be exactly that vague and unspecified promise of equity that will make the bailout plan even more unappealing to House Republicans.) I'll be curious to see exactly how much government negotiators come through with in their discussions over the taxpayers becoming, through the federal government, the owners and controllers of many of these assets; as much as the Bush administration has spoken about the "ownership society," it has reliably resisted the kind of redistribution of resources and opportunities that would make it possible for citizens to truly participate in--to exercise some authority over--that which is their own (as opposed to, say, being "enabled" to buy at or buy into this or that Major Corporate Institution, as if the range of crap for sale on the shelves and stocks in the portfolio to invest in were really the sum total of liberty and ownership). Maybe the enormous cost of this bailout will be enough to wake them up to the imperative of real, significant ownership...but I'm doubtful.

The other key point is, of course, a matter of culture and connection; as the same article above put it, "Swedish experts caution that the Swedish financial system is relatively small compared to the U.S....in 1992 most leading government officials knew the bank chiefs on a first name basis." That's the sort of intimacy and involvement which breeds both trust and an awareness of the limited resources (and all resources are limited) one must share if one is going to be committed to the sort of social priorities which the economics of today expose as in desperate need of recognition and protection. Such small-scale connections and cultural assumptions are, I think, for the most part a deeply admirable thing...though for those trying to get America's financial system into a defensible, coherent, more secure shape, that realization may be a rather tragic thing. Because the truth is that the United States is probably too large, too powerful, too globalized, too involved in the structures of our consumption-and-liberation-driven world, for this kind of trust and sense of limits to be operative, or at least operative enough to make the socialism that our own financial practices have made incumbent upon us work as well as it ought. But let's not ignore what it means to see real, small-scale, sensibly conceived, social democratic practices to work.

I've talked about Sweden's social democracy a couple of times before. I don't want to use that country as an example of exactly the sort of social democratic model which we all ought to or could follow; rather I just want us to keep the "possibility" of Sweden in mind:

Sweden is not a place for mad, brilliant, disruptive entrepreneurs--but it is a place for working citizens and families, most of whom would (as, I think, most every human being would, if the options were put plainly before them) prefer to exercise a little control over the vicissitudes of existence, and preserve a place for a reliable and secure everyday world. Few people would describe Sweden as a conservative country, and it's possible (perhaps even likely) that their particular approach to choosing what to put into a socio-economic enclosure has had political and cultural consequences that make different types of conservation impossible. Yet there is a sense that, compared with the U.S., they "conserve" far better than we. In their analysis of their own situation (and in the analysis of many other social democratic countries) you can see, if you look for it, the evidence that socialists and egalitarians of many (if not all) different stripes share an intellectual pre-occupation with agrarians and others: the conservative concern with tending to what one has, and a willingness to structure life so that one's tending isn't made moot by realities that ought to be subject to the will of the people.

Patrick Deneen recently highlighted the prediction which Matt Simmons (banker, oilman, and Republican) has recently made about our nation's needs for the long-term economic future: "We should basically be going back to creating a village economy, so that we really reduce the energy intensity of how we live....We need bigtime conservation, not feel-good conservation. Make things where they're used. You'll end long-distance commuting, and we have the tools to do that now with webcams. Grow food locally. Grow food in your backyard. If they're not commuting, people will have time to do that." I couldn't agree more. And moreover, as Patrick himself has acknowledged, I would note the example of social democratic countries in Western Europe (like Sweden!) suggests that this kind of localism is achievable...so long as one acknowledges--rather than rebelling against--the sort of environmental and civic and economic regulations which allow ordinary people to sitaute themselves against the runaway forces of corporate speculation and capital accumulation and consumer consumption, and truly take ownership of their social and economic worlds (which, nowadays, unfortunately includes an awful lot of credit and debt). This isn't to say that all our fears and worries and complaints about this massive socialist--but don't say it out loud!--bailout of Wall Street would disappear if, say, it was all being run by a homegrown Christian Democratic Union party rather than by the Bush administration's Treasury Department. The problems--and the habits which support them--run deeper than mere questions of administration, running all the way down to the uncomfortable reality of America's size and strength and position in the world. But, for the moment anyway, if either McCain or Obama would suggest that they could at least acknowledge some of that, I'd certainly feel much better about it all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Subprime Mortgage Crisis, Explained

Despite being "back," I'm obviously still not on top of things enough to do any proper blogging. Hopefully, next week. In the meantime, how can I fail to pass along this? From what I can tell, this includes pretty much everything you need to know to understand what's going on with Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, and all the rest. Enjoy! (Warning: bad--but unfortunately, probably not at all inaccurate--language.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Missing the Shitstorm

Apologies for the language, but I can't think of any other descriptive term that would work as well.

So anyway, I had a few things in mind to blog about. Since I last checked in, back in mid-August, some interesting discussions came about dealing with changes in the Democratic party's platform language regarding abortion, and whether those changes were meaningful, and if so in which way. As someone intrigued by Obama and very uncomfortable with abortion rights, I had a few things I thought I might say about that.

And then, there was the matter of the American Political Science Association convention which I just returned from, and some arguments which some bloggers and scholars I admire had gotten caught up in involving APSA's decision to hold next year's convention in Toronto. There were some interesting ideas being brought up, and I thought I might pile on to that as well.

And then, of course, there was Senator McCain's selection of Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate on the Republican ticket. Definitely some things worth saying there.

But I returned from APSA late on Saturday, and Sunday was Sunday, and Monday was a holiday which we spent hanging around the house, playing with the kids. And then it was Tuesday, and I had a lot of work to catch up on. Sure, all along, I was catching snippets of news on the radio and from the daily paper's headlines and from a cursory scan of my usual blogs, and I knew that there were some rather provocative things being thrown around regarding Palin and her family and her candidacy. But, well, par for the course, is all I thought.

Then finally, I get really plugged back into things yesterday, and let float a few general thoughts amongst some friends. And I get schooled. A couple of them let me know, in no uncertain terms, all about just what Andrew Sullivan (and, excuse me, but, well, damn--do people really still read that obsessive goofball? I suspect I haven't clicked on his blog in two years or more) and the New York Times and Maureen Dowd and US magazine and Diane Rehm and Jim Lehrer, etc., etc., have all been saying about her. The rumors. The photographs. The questions. The jokes. The contempt. All of which, I assure you, doesn't surprise me. I think--and have said more than a few times before--that the Republican party hacks and Thomas Franks of the world have (with very different aims in mind, but mostly similar strategies) twisted the alienation and resentment many white, rural and exurban, working and middle-class, Protestant voters feel from today's economic and cultural elites in all sorts of crazy ways, but that doesn't mean such alienation is groundless. There really is contempt out there. So, again, it doesn't surprise me that a fair amount of it would be directed at a female Alaskan governor with five kids. I just had kind of...well, missed it.

So I guess I'll just have to quote Ross Douthat here, and make my confession:

[A] number of readers seem to be under the impression that what we've been witnessing in the media and online over the past couple days is a very serious, nuanced and thoughtful exploration of Sarah Palin's record....If that's what you seriously, seriously think has been going on lately, then you should probably look elsewhere for analysis of the media's Palin coverage, because you and I are living on very different planets.

I'm pretty certain Ross and I are on the same planet. So I suppose the only explanation is...well, I don't read Daily Kos, or Huffington Post, or hang out around Free Republic or NRO or any other place which keeps track of their every post. I usually only take the time to read beyond the headlines at major newspapers and news websites when someone I trust and like refers to an article therein. I don't often read through the lengthy comment threads on even my favorite blogs. We don't get either network or cable television reception in our home (and don't miss it), so I'm not watching CNN, or FOX, or anything else. And I definitely, definitely, don't read Sullivan. So basically, when shitstorms like this happen, I'm pretty much useless. Lengthy ruminations on political-theoretical-cultural-moral issues I can handle, but if any of you are coming here for immediate commentary and outrage, please consider my pundit license to have long since been turned in.

More later. Good to be back.