Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: New Republic blog (10-1-08)
It is hard for me to imagine that the view from that grim point would support a continuation of the anti-government, anti-regulation regime that has benefited so many wealthy and powerful people, while stagnating or impoverishing so many others--and leading us into the catastrophe that appears to be unfolding now.
I am a historian of, among other things, the New Deal, and in my lifetime I have seen nothing that resembles the 1930s more than the present moment. We have protections today that we did not have in 1929: federal insurance of bank deposits, which has prevented runs on consumer banks; a much more complex and international economy that will provide areas of resilience, even as many key areas of the economy decline; and the low likelihood of the Federal Reserve Bank's responding to this crisis as counter-productively as the Fed did in the early 1930s. But these seem frail defenses against the financial meltdown that could soon occur.
What is also striking is how much of the New Deal regime has been dismantled in the last 25 years, and how much of that dismantling has occurred in the last eight years. It seems clear to me that the next president, whoever it is, will have almost no choice but to rebuild some of the regulatory powers that have been scuttled along the way, and perhaps also to build some additional supports for ordinary citizens whose livelihoods may be gravely damaged by this crisis. The New Deal probably is not a model for recovery. Too much has changed to use it as a template. But the spirit of the New Deal--the rejection of ideology, the commitment to "persistent experimentation," and the belief that the government has a responsibility to help individuals in times of crisis--does have some relevance to our time.
Is this the end of the "end of big government?" Will the right fade into obscurity to be replaced by the long-awaited revival of liberalism or progressivism? I doubt that we will see such a fundamental shift in the polity. But I think it is realistic to hope that the highly ideological politics that have driven our public life now for several decades will give way to a somewhat more pragmatic and realistic approach to our problems.
For now, though, we face the daunting prospect of trying to find a solution to this crisis in what could be the worst imaginable political circumstances: a repudiated president unable to influence his own party; a Secretary of the Treasury and a Fed Chief with relatively little experience or stature; a Congress with weak leadership of its own facing re-election while being asked to pass an unpopular bill; two presidential candidates jockeying for position without having any authority. No wonder the markets are in chaos.
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 01:11
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Ed (10-1-08)
The first presidential debates occurred 48 years ago, in 1960. The first vice presidential debate didn’t take place until debates resumed in 1976, 16 years later. How come?
The answer is that three very significant things happened to the vice presidency during those 16 years.
1. Half of the six vice presidents in this period went on to become president: Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded to the office when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 and 1972, and Gerald R. Ford succeeded to the office when Nixon resigned in 1974. Half is higher than the historical average, which for all other periods has been less than one in three.
2. The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1967. It’s often referred to as the presidential disability amendment but it’s first and foremost an amendment about the vice presidency. Section 1 makes explicit what the original Constitution only halfway implied, namely, that when the president dies, resigns, or is impeached and removed, the vice president is to become president for the remainder of the four-year term. Section 2 provides a method for filling vacancies in the vice presidency, 16 of which had occurred during the nation’s first 36 presidencies. Tellingly, the premise of this provision is that we need a vice president at all times, something that previous generations obviously had doubted. Finally, Section 3 makes the vice president the crucial figure when questions about presidential disability arise, both in determining whether a disability exists if the president cannot or will not do so and in serving as acting president during a time of disability.
3. By 1976 the vice presidency had gained some of the institutional resources that made it possible for the vice president who was elected that year, Walter F. Mondale, and his successors to play an influential role in government. Johnson gained for the office an impressive suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House (previously the vice president’s only office was in the Capitol), and Spiro T. Agnew won a line item for the vice presidency in the executive budget. Between the two of them they freed vice presidents from their previous dependence on Congress for office space and operating funds....
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 01:03
SOURCE: CNN (10-1-08)
Almost everything about the legislative process is rough and ugly, the thinking goes. Legislators compromise, take contradictory stands, strike deals with their adversaries and form unholy alliances. When the life of a sitting senator is exposed on the campaign trail, it doesn't usually look very good.
The last sitting senator to win an election was John F. Kennedy in 1960, and before him it was Warren Harding in 1920. James Garfield was a member of the House when he was elected in 1880. These were the only sitting legislators who have been elected.
In short, we have simply not had many success stories of sitting legislators running for office. Legislators can win, like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, but they usually need some time outside Capitol Hill before voters will elect them.
Although the Senate has been called the "presidential pre-school," it has been better for candidates to have graduated from first or second grade before they actually run for the White House. That way, candidates can point to another report card when boasting to voters and have some distance from their legislative past.
Governors have done much better in recent decades. This year will be different. Barring any dramatic event, we will have a sitting senator win the presidential election. This year, we are learning some of the virtues of having legislators in the contest. The convergence of the financial crisis last week and Wednesday night's Senate vote -- with both Obama and McCain present -- demonstrates why this kind of candidacy can be beneficial.
Simply put, legislators have to vote for things. Unlike a governor or a former legislator, sitting members have to make decisions as events unfold.
Because of their job, on critical issues they are forced to take a stand -- particularly as a real crisis unfolds in an election season -- on national issues, and this gives voters a better way to evaluate them. Sitting governors sometimes have to deal with these issues as well, but primarily at the state and local level.
From John McCain, we have learned a lot because of his vote and the events leading up to it. In terms of public policy, McCain has proved himself to be a conservative, like George W. Bush and many others, who is willing to use the federal government to achieve certain objectives.
After Wednesday night's vote, it will be difficult for him to make staunch anti-government arguments and expect that audiences will forget his vote for government intervention. In terms of his political style, we have learned that McCain can be brash and rash, use surprise and unpredictability as political tools, and put himself front and center when trying to work out a deal....
Posted on: Friday, October 3, 2008 - 00:29
SOURCE: MadmanofChu (blog) (10-1-08)
The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama over foreign policy toward Pakistan has generated much press coverage of late. It was revisited in last week's debates, and has received new vitality this week from video showing Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, agreeing with Obama that U.S. forces should wage attacks against Islamist militants across the Pakistani frontier. McCain's campaign has trumpeted this dispute as exemplary of Obama's inexperience and naïveté, but it is more indicative of McCain's own tone-deafness on and ahistorical sense of foreign policy.
The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is failing because it is caught in one of the oldest strategic traps in military history. When an insurgent force can exploit the frontier zone between two jurisdictional authorities as a safe haven, it achieves massive leverage over its counterinsurgent opponents. Any student of Chinese history is aware that this pattern played itself out repeatedly through successive eras. A rebel force would lodge itself at the frontier between two or more provinces and nimbly jump back and forth across that boundary. When authorities in one province were mobilized to fight the rebels it would withdraw to the periphery of a neighboring province to replenish and recuperate. Because coordination between provincial authorities was poor, and the peripheral areas of provinces were generally sparsely penetrated by official personnel, rebel groups could survive this way for decades. This strategy was exploited effectively by the Nien (1851-1868) rebels in the late Qing dynasty and again by Communist guerillas against the KMT in the first half of the 20th century, to name just two instances.
It is ironic that John McCain would not recognize this pattern in present-day Afghanistan, because another classic example of the use of this strategy to defeat a counterinsurgency was the war that so shaped McCain's own character and outlook, the Vietnam War. Viet Cong and NVA opponents of the Republic of South Vietnam were free to operate back and forth across the frontiers of Cambodia and North Vietnam, placing U.S. and ARVN counterinsurgent forces at a crippling disadvantage. McCain is fond of repeating U.S. soldiers' pleas to"let us win" in Iraq, making the explicit comparison to Vietnam. He insists, however, that he would tie the hands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in precisely the manner that insured defeat in Vietnam.
I am not suggesting that the war in Vietnam could have been won had the U.S. adopted a more"hands free" strategy. Such a strategy could not be pursued in Vietnam without risking a global conflict with China and the USSR, which is why the Vietnam War was an intractable strategic task from the outset and should never have been undertaken. Nor is the pursuit of a cross-border strategy along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier without risk. Trespassing upon Pakistani territory by U.S. forces could incite massive hostility from the Pakistani people, and could, in the most extreme scenario, lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state and the onset of a state of anarchy in that large and nuclear-armed nation.
These risks must be weighed against the single stark contrast between the conflict in Afghanistan and those in both Vietnam and Iraq, however. Unlike the latter conflicts, that in Afghanistan is of vital urgency to the security of the U.S. The forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 were lodged in Afghanistan and are currently fighting among the insurgents there. The U.S. can no more relinquish this counterinsurgency than it could refrain from retaliating for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Given that the safety and security of the nation is at stake, the U.S. must pursue all necessary means to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan. It therefore has no choice but to treat Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single operational theater. If Pakistani territory is treated as"off limits" in the prosecution of the counterinsurgency, then the conflict in Afghanistan will end in the same manner as the war in Vietnam. If John McCain does not realize this fact, he is a poor student of history and a poor judge of foreign policy.
The challenge of operating within the Afghan-Pakistani theater are acutely complex. Every tool in the strategic arsenal of the U.S., military, diplomatic, and economic, must be used simultaneously in careful coordination with one-another. The tactical and political consequences of each action must be weighed cautiously. U.S. political and military leaders will have to walk a virtual razor's edge: discovering how they may operate within Pakistani territory without either broadening the conflict or precipitating the collapse of the government in Islamabad. All of these tasks will require the total focus and full resources of the U.S. government, a fact that argues in favor of a leader who understands that the invasion of Iraq was a distraction, and that it must be wound down in order to shift focus to Afghanistan.
Posted on: Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 20:04
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Ed (10-17-08)
As a historian who works on the 19th century, I have been reading my newspaper with a considerable sense of dread. While many commentators on the recent mortgage and banking crisis have drawn parallels to the Great Depression of 1929, that comparison is not particularly apt. Two years ago, I began research on the Panic of 1873, an event of some interest to my colleagues in American business and labor history but probably unknown to everyone else. But as I turn the crank on the microfilm reader, I have been hearing weird echoes of recent events.
When commentators invoke 1929, I am dubious. According to most historians and economists, that depression had more to do with overlarge factory inventories, a stock-market crash, and Germany's inability to pay back war debts, which then led to continuing strain on British gold reserves. None of those factors is really an issue now. Contemporary industries have very sensitive controls for trimming production as consumption declines; our current stock-market dip followed bank problems that emerged more than a year ago; and there are no serious international problems with gold reserves, simply because banks no longer peg their lending to them.
In fact, the current economic woes look a lot like what my 96-year-old grandmother still calls "the real Great Depression." She pinched pennies in the 1930s, but she says that times were not nearly so bad as the depression her grandparents went through. That crash came in 1873 and lasted more than four years. It looks much more like our current crisis.
The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.
But the economic fundamentals were shaky. Wheat exporters from Russia and Central Europe faced a new international competitor who drastically undersold them. The 19th-century version of containers manufactured in China and bound for Wal-Mart consisted of produce from farmers in the American Midwest. They used grain elevators, conveyer belts, and massive steam ships to export trainloads of wheat to abroad. Britain, the biggest importer of wheat, shifted to the cheap stuff quite suddenly around 1871. By 1872 kerosene and manufactured food were rocketing out of America's heartland, undermining rapeseed, flour, and beef prices. The crash came in Central Europe in May 1873, as it became clear that the region's assumptions about continual economic growth were too optimistic. Europeans faced what they came to call the American Commercial Invasion. A new industrial superpower had arrived, one whose low costs threatened European trade and a European way of life.
As continental banks tumbled, British banks held back their capital, unsure of which institutions were most involved in the mortgage crisis. The cost to borrow money from another bank — the interbank lending rate — reached impossibly high rates. This banking crisis hit the United States in the fall of 1873. Railroad companies tumbled first. They had crafted complex financial instruments that promised a fixed return, though few understood the underlying object that was guaranteed to investors in case of default. (Answer: nothing). The bonds had sold well at first, but they had tumbled after 1871 as investors began to doubt their value, prices weakened, and many railroads took on short-term bank loans to continue laying track. Then, as short-term lending rates skyrocketed across the Atlantic in 1873, the railroads were in trouble. When the railroad financier Jay Cooke proved unable to pay off his debts, the stock market crashed in September, closing hundreds of banks over the next three years. The panic continued for more than four years in the United States and for nearly six years in Europe....
Posted on: Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 14:44
SOURCE: NYT (9-30-08)
THE milk was marketed as pure and wholesome, and it looked fine to the naked eye. How were the mothers to know they were poisoning their babies? They had paid good money for it on the open market. It would take thousands of sick children before lawmakers did anything to stop it.
China in 2008? No, New York City in 1858. Missing from the coverage of the current Chinese baby formula poisoning, in which more than 53,000 babies have been sickened and at least four have died, is how often it has happened before.
The disaster unfolding now in China — and spreading inevitably to its trading partners — is eerily similar to the “swill milk” scandal that rumbled on in New York for several decades of the 19th century.
In a city growing fast, but lacking refrigeration, it was hard to provide sufficient milk. Fresh milk was brought in from Westchester and Orange Counties, but not enough to meet demand. In 1853, it was found that 90,000 or so quarts of cow’s milk entered the city each day, but that number mysteriously increased to 120,000 quarts at the point of delivery.
Some of the increase was due to New York dairymen padding their milk with water, and then restoring its richness with flour — just like their latter-day Chinese counterparts, who increased the protein levels in watered-down milk by adding the noxious chemical melamine. But the greater part was swill milk, a filthy, bluish substance milked from cows tied up in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This too was doctored — with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness, starch and eggs to thicken it and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of honest Orange County milk. This newspaper attributed the deaths of up to 8,000 children a year to this vile fluid.
In China, journalists have known of the poison milk for months, but weren’t allowed to spread the news because of the Olympics. Even worse, it has been only four years since China’s last baby formula scandal, when fraudsters in Anhui Province manufactured fake formula from sugar and starch, killing at least 13 babies. In the case of swill milk, the New York dairymen had been informed for decades that their milk was unsafe....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 00:11