Archive for the History Category

Morton Keller

My day job as an historian of contemporary affairs obliges me to keep up with op-eds, those snippits of opinion unburdened by the perspective of time or the weight of information. True, they do not pretend to be more than snapshots of the passing scene. But they also have a larger revelatory value, as vivid displays of the impressive ability of experts to get things wrong.

A few caveats:

My examples come from the mainstream media, and thus reflect a liberal rather than a conservative bent. I’m ready to believe that comparable instances of opinion gone haywire can be found on the other side of the ideological divide.

To select the worst examples of the op-ed genre is no easy matter. These are my standards: (1) The author must be highly regarded–or at least highly regard himself–as an informed commentator on his topic. (2) The author must have gotten an important thing wrong in a spectacular way. (3) There must be no glimmer of awareness, either in the offending piece or in the author’s follow-up response, that modification or qualification might be called for.

I should point out that my examples date from 2009-2010. This is not because these were exceptional–so to speak, vintage–years for opinion gone off the tracks. I certainly do not mean to imply that there were fewer execrable op-eds before then, or since, or are likely to be in years to come. This is, as I say, merely a preliminary ranking. I will be delighted to cede pre-eminence to those who come up with even more noxious specimens.

So: the envelopes, please.

First, in chronological order, is Roger Cohen’s February 23, 2009 New York Timesitem, “What Iran’s Jews Say.” As Abraham Lincoln observed of Roger [another Roger!] Taney’sDred Scott decision, this is an “astonisher.”

Cohen visited with the Jews of the Iranian city of Esfahan and found that they (and other Iranian Jews) live, work, and worship “in relative tranquility.” Of course their number has dwindled a bit over the years: from about 100,000 in 1948 to “perhaps 25,000” (or perhaps less) in 2009. He finds this to be a tribute to tolerance, compared to the near-complete disappearance of the 800,000 Jews who once lived in Arab countries.

Cohen has “a bias toward facts over words,” and the operative fact, he finds, is “Iranian civility toward Jews.” Admittedly there are deviations: the regime’s stated readiness to rid the world of Israel and its not inconsiderable Jewish population, or the 1999 “trumped-up” charges that a group of Iranian Jews spied for Israel, or the fact that no Muslim can vote for a Jew.

But countering these unpleasant “facts” is his belief that “one way to look at Iran’s scurrilous anti-Israel tirades is as a provocation to focus people on Israel’s bomb, its 41-year occupation of the West Bank, its Hamas denial, its repetitive use of overwhelming force.” In short: to understand all is to forgive all. In shorter short: Lenin’s “useful idiot” is alive and well in the hallowed hallways of the New York Times.

Fareed Zakaria offered another insight into the Iran scene on May 23, 2009, when he informed his Newsweek readers that “They May Not Want the Bomb.” While “the regime wants to be a nuclear power,” he concludes that it “could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program.” The evidence? Senior officials have “repeatedly asserted that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons.” Even more, president Ahmadinejad cites Ayatollah Khomeini, he of blessed memory, to the effect that nuclear weapons are “un-Islamic.” And Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Khamenei is reported to hold that they are “immoral.”

Besides, many of the regime’s leaders have bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland: not the behavior of fanatics hell-bent on nuclear war. And while Iran ”is certainly not a democracy,” neither is it “a monolithic dictatorship.” So: not to worry. All that is needed is that uranium enrichment in Iran proceed “under the control of an international consortium.” Voice-of-reason Zakaria concludes: “Why not try this before launching the next Mideast war?”

Two-plus years later, even the International Atomic Energy Agency has abandoned its previously robust doubts as to the Iranians’ nuclear weapon intentions. Zakaria would be well-advised to thoroughly Windex his crystal ball.

Finally, there is Paul Krugman’s “Learning from Europe,” from the Times of January 11, 2010. Here the noblest Nobelist of them all sets right benighted conservatives who fear that we are on the road to European-style social democracy. Their “wailing and rending of garments” is, he assures us, unsupported by reality. And what is that reality? “Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works.”

As with Zakaria’s Iranian nuclear fantasy, Krugman’s European social democracy fantasy has not gained credibility with the passage of time. There is an international consensus on the Iranians’ nuclear intentions, and the lyrics of ”Kumbaya” do not quite convey what that is. Nor would Europe’s leaders, or its people, share Krugman’s content with their social democracy-economic mix. The Greater West European Co-Prosperity Sphere is creaking at most of its joints.

Op-eds (including this one) should be taken with a grain of salt. My profession has taught me that writing about the past is, in historian Charles Beard’s words, like dragging a cat across a Brussels carpet. Figuring out the present, as these instances richly demonstrate, is not a bit easier. As for the future: fuggedaboutit.

 

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Russ Roberts

In this recent post, I suggested that Wallison and Pinto were wrong in their relentless arguing that Fannie and Freddie caused the financial crisis because of government requirements that F and F buy loans made to low-income borrowers. For one, Wallison and Pinto ignore the role of the investment banks in generating subprime loans and bundling them into mortgage-backed securities. I also pointed out the possibility that Fannie and Freddie seemed to be a lot like the investment banks–maybe they bought up risky loans simply to make money:

One more point–the SEC suit doesn’t really fit the “government made Fannie and Freddie buy up lousy loans” story.  The whole point of the suit is that these were secret behaviors by Fannie and Freddie. They were buying a lot of loans that were a lot like subprime–loans with high default risk. But were these to satisfy ever more demanding affordable housing requirements imposed by the government? Who knows? I suspect they were just trying to make money like the other players. They just stayed in too long.

William Black, in this lengthy essay, makes the same point but also provides some evidence rather than just speculating as I did. He takes down Wallison and Pinto as well as critiquing some of those such as Joe Nocera who have dismissed Wallison and Pinto entirely.

Continue reading Russ Roberts…

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Victor Davis Hanson

Fallujah in the News

An account from Agence France-Presse about demonstrations in Fallujah by Sunnis celebrating the American withdrawal from Iraq included this strange passage about the battles of Fallujah:

That year, the U.S. military launched two massive offensives against Fallujah, signs of which are still visible today in collapsed buildings and bullet holes in walls. The first offensive in April aimed to quell the burgeoning Sunni insurgency but was a failure — Fallujah became a fiefdom of Al-Qaeda and its allies, who essentially controlled the city. In November, a second campaign was launched, just months before legislative elections in January 2005. Around 2,000 civilians and 140 Americans died, and the battle is considered one of the fiercest for the U.S. since the Vietnam war.

“But was a failure” is not a good description of the first siege. The Marines were on the verge of taking the city until the Iraqi Governing Council petitioned Paul Bremer to call off the assault, making it more a tragedy than a failure, in that too many courageous Marines died on the verge of victory.

Continue reading Victor Davis Hanson…

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Russ Roberts

Lehman

I hope I find the time to comment more fully on this recent column in the WaPo by Robert Samuelson defending the Fed. But for now, let me pull out one paragraph:

After Lehman Brothers’ failure in September 2008, American credit markets began shutting down. Banks wouldn’t lend to banks. Investors balked at buying commercial paper — a type of short-term loan — and many “securitized” bonds. Fearing they’d lose credit, businesses dramatically cut spending. Layoffs exploded: 6.3 million jobs vanished between that September and June 2009. Firms canceled investment projects in plants and equipment. In the first quarter of 2009, business investment spending fell at a 31 percent annual rate.

This is a common view–that Lehman’s collapse and the failure of the policymakers to rescue Lehman precipitated the crisis. It could be true but the evidence is quite cloudy. The claim also ignores the possibility that it once the Fed had rescued the creditors of Bear Stearns in March of 2008, lenders to Lehman (such as Reserve Primary–a money market fund!) figured they were safe. It was the unexpectedness of the government actually letting creditors lose money that caused the dislocations, not the failure of Lehman, per se.

Continue reading Russ Roberts…

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Tod Lindberg

Gingrich Lost and Found

[This originally appeared in the Policy Review in April 1999.]

It wasn’t merely the political career of House Speaker Newt Gingrich that came to an abrupt end after the Republican Party’s surprising losses in the November 1998 congressional elections. It was also a theory of history that died.

One might call it the world according to Gingrich, for he was surely its chief proponent and its public face. But to describe it as such runs the risk of making it seem somehow idiosyncratic, something uniquely or chiefly Gingrich’s. It was anything but. What made Gingrich a leader was first and foremost his abundance of followers — lots of them, and not just in Congress or in the organized Republican Party, but including just about all those who had taken personal pleasure in the election results four years before, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years. This was his doctrine and theirs, a view of progressive Republicanism, a new, ideological Republicanism on the march. True, by 1998, many of Gingrich’s followers (inside and outside Congress) had turned on him. And not for quite a while has it been possible for Republicans and conservatives to hear the words “Republican Revolution” without cringing in embarrassment. But the truth is that not so many years ago, the phrase quite accurately captured their frame of mind, their own sense of who they were and what they were up to. The 1994 GOP electoral triumph, which they felt as their own, they recognized also as his. Those who knew Gingrich personally knew all about his personal eccentricities, his vanities, his intellectual conceits. But those things didn’t matter so much next to the bigger things Gingrich represented and the political achievement he had just brought off. Gingrich was no less than the chief theorist, lead strategist and tactician, and principal spokesman of the activist Republican Party, manifesting itself in 1994 as Republican Revolution.

Continue reading Tod Lindberg…

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David Henderson

Keynes a la Mode

One result of the financial crisis and the ensuing global economic slowdown has been a revival of interest in the thinking of John Maynard Keynes. Much of what is being written about Keynes is an attempt to make him relevant to today’s problems and to persuade a modern audience that Keynes was right about a lot of things. Along these lines, economists Roger E. Backhouse and Bradley Bateman have recently authored, Capitalist Revolutionary: John Maynard Keynes.1 Backhouse is a professor of history and the philosophy of economics at the University of Birmingham in Britain and Bateman is a professor of economics at Denison University

Backhouse and Bateman argue, as the book’s title implies, that although Keynes wanted a substantial amount of government intervention, he did believe in preserving large elements of capitalism. This part of the book is somewhat persuasive, although their discussion of Keynes’s famous “socialization of investment” advocacy was not completely convincing. But the authors also have another important theme: They argue against the classical liberal view that government should basically keep its hands off the economy. Their attempt fails. They get some basic and important facts wrong, have trouble accounting for the stagflation of the early 1970s that persuaded many economists to abandon the Keynesian model, often misstate the views of Keynes’s critics, and occasionally use subtle shifts in language and even ad hominem attacks to undercut the views of free-market economists, most notably Milton Friedman.

Continue reading David Henderson…

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Fouad Ajami

Egypt and the Fruits of the Pharaohs

Egyptian history plays tricks with its interpreters. This ancient society is known for the stability given it by the Nile, a well-mannered and orderly river, and by a pharaonic culture where the rulers were deities. But this timeless image is largely false. Egypt’s peasant society has been prone to violent upheavals. Order has often hung by a thread, as a proud people alternate between submission and rebellion.

We are now in the midst of one of these alternations. On Feb. 11, Egypt’s last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, bent to the will of his people and relinquished power. What we are witnessing in Egypt today is not the consequence of democracy but rather a half-century of authoritarianism. The chaos and the lawlessness issue out of the lawlessness of the former regime. As crony capitalism had its way with the economy, the military elite, the officer corps, had to be given its share of the loot. Having turned away from war and military adventures abroad, they were rewarded with economic enterprises and privileges of their own—exclusive clubs, vacation homes, land grants, you name it.

Continue reading Fouad Ajami…

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Paul Gregory

Madison on Class Warfare

James Madison was the Father of the U.S. Constitution. Madison, more than any other of the Constitutional framers, insisted on limited government. Madison argued that the Constitution’s task was to limit the powers of government:  “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Few today know that Madison’s greatest fear was of an “overbearing majority” that would act against minorities. Madison and the other founding fathers used the separation of powers and the protection of private property (the Fifth Amendment) to rein in out-of-control majorities. In Madison’s words: “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

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Victor Davis Hanson

What America Does Best

We are in a fresh round of declinism — understandably, after borrowing nearly $5 trillion in less than three years and having very little to show for it. Pundit strives with op-ed writer to find the latest angle on America’s descent: We are broke; we are poorly educated; we are uncompetitive; we have gone soft; our political institutions are broken; and on and on. The Obama administration does its part, with sloganeering like “reset,” “lead from behind,” “post-American world,” and America as exceptional only to the degree that all nations feel exceptional.

This is not new. In the late 1930s, the New Germany and its autobahns were supposed to show Depression-plagued America how national will could unite a people to do great things. After all, they had Triumph of the Will Nuremberg rallies; we still had Hoovervilles. They flew sleek Me-109s; we flew lumbering cloth-covered Brewster Buffaloes. We, the victors of a world war, were determined never to repeat it; they, the losers, were eager to try it again.

Continue reading Victor Davis Hanson…

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