Political first principles

Okay, so I got into a discussion on-line yesterday. Yes, I know, my New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop arguing politics on the internet, but this discussion was at least reasonably cordial, considering that one of the people arguing was a Tea Party conservative, and another of them was me. Anyway, my friend asked me what, in my mind, the true principles of politics were. His argument is that there exists absolute truth in all arenas–religion, science, psychology, politics–and that it’s our job to figure it out. The corollary, I suspect, is that God knows what that absolute truth is, and will reveal it to us (or has revealed it to us), if we search for it in the right places. And another corollary, I suspect, is that the absolute truth in politics is found in that divinely inspired document, the US Constitution.

I don’t think that way. I’m generally suspicious of truth claims. I think basic human subjectivity leads us inevitably to confirmation bias. I love Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. He speaks of the most contentious political issue in American history, slavery:

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves . . . localized in the south. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Preceding this famous passage came perhaps the most powerful four words in the history of Presidential speech-making: “and the war came.” And 600, 000 young men died. Because of a political dispute, growing out of a theological dispute, built on the foundation of a cultural clash.

So that’s my first principle. That, that war that came, that dispute blowing up into violence and death, that’s the worst case scenario. That’s what can happen when politics fails. That can’t be allowed to happen again. People say our politics today, in 2015, is broken. It’s not. Damaged, certainly; frustrating, unquestionably; insane, at times, sure. Comical, absolutely. But not broken. When politics is broken, soldiers die. And children suffer.

Second principle: policy is more important than politics. Politics is about power, the acquisition of power, the wielding of power. In a democratic republic, politics is about winning elections. Policy is about what we do with power, once we’ve attained it. Bad policy is policy that hurts people, that makes people’s lives worse; good policy is policy that helps people, makes their lives better. But we never quite know, do we? What policies will achieve, what unintended consequences can result. And we’re all biased, all subjective. We look at evidence, at statistics, and we draw differing conclusions. It’s rare for all the evidence to be on any side of any dispute. And we’re human beings; we love anecdotal evidence. We don’t actually do very well with abstractions and objectivity; we want to hear a good story, and we want to feel something.

One great example is food stamps. I’m a liberal, and I think food stamps are a perfect example of a federal program that works. I think it’s a spectacular success. I think there’s strong evidence that it’s a program largely free from waste and corruption, and that it does a terrific job of feeding poor people. But then came Jason Greenslate, an able-bodied surfer dude, living on food stamps in California, and uninterested, apparently, in getting a job. Fox News ran with it, and suddenly food stamp fraud had a poster boy. And let’s face it; both sides do this. How many internet memes feature some conservative legislator somewhere who said something comically sexist, racist, or just plain stupid? Or misrepresent something Sarah Palin just said? We humans love to extrapolate general principles from single examples. And outrage is a particularly easy emotion to provoke.

We all want policy to be even-handedly administered, fair, effective, cost controlled and free from corruption. Policy really does matter, and solid, reasonably objective evidence, for or against some policy initiative, really does exist. It’s just hard to find. And no policy uniformly benefits everyone, and never once harms anyone. We’re weighing harm against benefits, every policy, all the time. Heck, every government program, at every level, costs some money, and that requires taxes, and that means money out of someone’s pocket. That’s always true.

Third principle: both conservatives and liberals are necessary. Both sides are essential, both perspectives have to be listened to, and all policies require the cooperation and some measure of compromise between both (or multiple) sides.

I know this is simplistic, but really, isn’t the heart of liberalism something like this: ‘here’s a social problem, and it needs to be fixed, people are suffering. So here’s a program that can, and probably will fix the problem.’ And the heart of conservatism is something like this: ‘hold on there. Maybe this problem isn’t as bad as you think. We’ve put up with it so far pretty well, haven’t we? How much will fixing it cost? What unintended negative consequences might result? Let’s not just jump in there. Let’s study it out, and see if there’s another solution that won’t require the resource of government, which are, after all, finite.’

You’ll see lists from time to time of a whole bunch of really effective and popular federal programs–Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the federal highway system, universal education, the GI Bill, rural electification, civil rights legislation, and so on. And then someone will say ‘every one of these program was proposed by a liberal, and opposed by a conservative.’ But that’s what liberals do; propose government programs to fix problems. And that’s what conservatives do; ask how much it’s going to cost, ask if there’s not a better solution. I think it’s true that every popular government program probably was proposed by a liberal and opposed by conservatives. But it’s likewise true that every disastrous, expensive, bureaucratically unwieldy, inflexible, screwed up government program was likewise proposed by a liberal, and opposed by conservatives. We need both impulses. We need both approaches, both points of view.

Where both sides can come together is over reform efforts. It’s in the best interests of liberals to have government work effectively (and it certainly can, and does, a lot). So when a program gets bureaucratically ossified or ineffective or unnecessary, liberals and conservatives can and should work together to fix it. Problem is, mostly, they don’t, for reasons having to do with politics. It’s easier to score political points by pointing out the failures of the other side than it is to work constructively with political opponents to actually get stuff done. That’s kind of where we are right now, nationally, and shame on everyone for it.

If you do that too much, both conservatism and liberalism can devolve into ideologies. Again: confirmation bias; it’s very easy for people (especially zealously inclined people) to think that they’re completely right and that the other guys are just being obstinate or stupid.  I think both sides can spin-off extremists. Of course, as a liberal, I tend to think that ‘movement conservatism,’ or ‘Tea Party conservatism,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a terribly dangerous and wrong-headed movement. It’s one thing to say ‘we need to keep an eye on government,’ quite another to say ‘all government is always bad always.’ But politically correct liberalism (especially identity politics) can be just as risibly wrong-headed.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a conversation we should be having. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? What policies work, and what policies might work if reformed sensibly? Because we have a great big country. Great and big. It’d be nice to keep it that way.



RFRAs and Indiana

A Pennsylvania traffic law requires slow moving vehicles, including Amish buggies, to carry bright orange fluorescent warning signs. The Amish protest, saying that those signs equal technology forbidden by their religious beliefs. Some Indian tribes use peyote sacramentally, although peyote is a controlled substance, its use prohibited by federal law. A Moslem inmate in a state or federal penitentiary asks that a copy of the Quran be made available to him in the prison library, in addition to copies of Bible. A Sikh teenager wears his hair long and grows his beard, violating his American high school’s dress code.

These are all real-life examples of governmental infringements of religious liberty, exactly the sorts of things that a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, is intended to correct. It’s precisely to cover these sorts of issues that President Clinton signed the federal RFRA into law in 1993. It’s reasonable for the Amish buggie to use a lamp instead of a fluorescent sign, for an Indian holy man to dispense peyote, for a Moslem inmate to read his own scriptures and for a Sikh teen to follow the dictates of his faith. We might wonder if the First Amendment doesn’t provide sufficient protections for these sorts of religious practices. But no constitutional rights are absolute, and in 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the peyote case, SCOTUS ruled against the plaintiffs, but urged Congress to clarify the circumstances where a religious exception could be made to otherwise compelling government interests. That led to the federal RFRA. Then, in 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, SCOTUS limited the scope of the federal RFRA to federal cases, and urged states to craft their own RFRAs. Many have done so, though haphazardly and piecemeal. The point is this: RFRAs are not automatically sinister. As Vox.com recently pointed out, most of the cases in which RFRAs have been invoked have been ‘pretty vanilla.’  They serve a valuable, if minor, function, clarifying those few cases in which religious freedom and government interests collide.

Context matters, though. Boy, does it ever. As court after court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, some conservative legal scholars have begun to see RFRAs as a possible response to what they perceive as ‘the problem with gay marriage.’ The fear is that Christians who oppose homosexual conduct might be forced to, in some way, participate in gay weddings. A Christian baker might be forced to bake a wedding cake, a Christian photographer might be forced to take pictures, an anti-gay florist might be forced to provide flowers. It’s in that context that the Indiana legislature passed its RFRA, and Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed it into law last week. And . . . kerblooie.

On the one hand, I’m not sure I’d want a wedding cake baked by someone who I think might hate me. On the other hand, I’m not sure how a bakery stays in business turning down gigs. One would think that there’s some kind of national epidemic of intolerant bakers, florists and photographers. There isn’t; to the degree that the Indiana RFRA is actually meant to promote intolerance, it strikes me as comically ineffectual. In fact, my guess is that most folks in the wedding industry welcome gay marriage. Social change that expands my customer base? Bring it on!

Anyway, Pence has emerged as the villain of this piece. It turns out that he’s been saying nasty anti-gay things since he first ran for office in 2000.  He’s also really really bad on-camera. Anyway, Pence insists that the purpose of the Indiana RFRA was never to allow private businesses or individuals to discriminate. That claim seems disingenuous. It’s not unusual for governors to invite supporters of any legislation to be there when it’s signed into law. The people at the signing of the Indiana bill included Eric Miller Executive Director of Advance America, who urged the Indiana Senate to sign the bill to protect ‘Christian individuals and Christian businesses’ from punishment if they chose to ‘follow their Biblical beliefs. Also at the signing, Micah Clark, executive director of the Indiana chapter of the American Family Association, who explained that any anti-discrimination language in the bill would ‘completely destroy’ it. It’s pretty clear how they all saw it: as a bill that would allow Christians to discriminate against LGBT people. This is anti-gay marriage backlash. And what we’re seeing in response is anti-backlash backlash.

And so, the good name of the State of Indiana (the state where I was raised, where I finished my PhD, a state I love as a second home), has become synonymous with bigotry. Business leaders across the state have condemned it. So did George Takei, who is now urging folks to boycott Indiana. (Gonna be tricky for me; I’m heading out there in a few weeks!). Pence hasn’t helped. He appeared on the ABC news show This Week With George Stephanopoulos. It did not go well.

Worst of all, the Indiana Pacers, of the NBA, have strongly condemned the bill. The finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are scheduled this week in Indianapolis; the NCAA is seeking other venues. In other words, Pence, and the Indiana legislature have lost basketball. In Indiana. They’ve lost basketball.

No wonder the front page headline in this mornings Indianapolis Star was just three words long. Fix. This. Now.




Imagining a progressive Mormonism

I attended a terrific lecture last night. It was the Eugene England annual lecture, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies at UVU. The speaker was Robert Rees, who teaches religious studies at Berkeley. I’ve admired his writing for years, and we became acquainted at Sunstone recently. Anyway, his talk will surely be available on-line soon, and I’ll link to it when it appears. Meanwhile, I don’t want to paraphrase, and did not, in any event, take notes.

To briefly summarize, though, he spoke of Latter-day Saints imagining a future in which our culture and our community is more open to progressive ideas, and he suggested a few ways in which that could happen. Mormons, for example, join other Christian communities in our belief that we humans have an important stewardship over the earth. Politically, climate change is a divisive issue, a partisan issue. But if we discuss the issue in terms of stewardship and not ‘environmentalism’ (a dirty word in some quarters), perhaps we can find common ground, especially as the frightening reality of climate change becomes increasingly apparent. It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which Latter-day Saints unite around stewardship and conservation efforts, and join with both political and Christian evangelical environmentalists in seeking solutions. When we read in the 10th Article of Faith that ‘We believe . . . that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory,’ it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s something we’re supposed to make happen, not just something we wait for.

I found myself moved and inspired by Rees’ great lecture and his vision. Again, I don’t particularly want to paraphrase his remarks. But I do want to join him in imagining, to the extent that we can imagine it, a future progressive Mormonism.

I imagine a world in which we stop paying lip service to female equality, and actually take concrete steps to make it happen. I imagine a world in which we reject, as unworthy, a vestigial sexual double standard. I imagine a world in which we embrace a non-judgmental model for modesty, one related to self-respect and self-confidence, and not shame or finger-pointing. I imagine a world in which our language about gender no longer reflects unreflective patriarchy. I imagine a world in which we embrace Mormonism’s unique theological stance with both genders represented as Deities.

I imagine a world in which our LGBT brothers and sisters are genuinely embraced, in Christian fellowship, and in which the standard of sexual morality required of straight Latter-day Saints applies equally to our gay family members.

I imagine a world in which income inequality is decried from the pulpit as unworthy the Body of Christ. I imagine a world in which all Latter-day Saints lift each other, in which poverty is seen as the human tragedy it genuinely is all over the world. I imagine a world in which no child goes to bed hungry. I imagine a world in which all children are safe from violence, despair, squalor and hatred, and in which all children, and all adults, have access to state-of-the-art health care.

I imagine a world in which the artificial construct we call racial difference no longer divides us, no longer holds some of us back, no longer turns our discourse harsh and ugly and violent.

I imagine a world full of laughter. I imagine a world in which teasing is allowed. I imagine a world which embraces the preposterous absurdity of human ambition, human pretension, human arrogance and human self-absorption, and finds joy in our unique apprehension of foolishness.

I imagine a world in which we Latter-day Saints continue to confront, honestly and openly, the most troubling aspects of our history, in a spirit of forgiveness and Christian charity. I imagine a world in which our fondest hope for those of our faith who leave us is that they find peace and acceptance within some other faith community, while we continue to offer them fellowship and love, kindly and without judgment.

I imagine a world in which we are, all of us, free. Free to reason, to search for truth, to , to disagree civilly, to discover and grow and learn. I imagine a world in which knowledge and truth and reason replace prejudice and acrimony.

And I don’t imagine a world in which lions lie down with lambs of their own accord, in which peace reigns only because Jesus has returned, in which cataclysm leads to spectacle, leading to millennium. I imagine a world in which we make peace happen. I imagine a world in which we forgive and love and care and rejoice together because we decided to embrace that paradisiacal future, together, willingly and joyfully.

That’s the world I imagine. I don’t expect I’ll live to see it. I won’t mind, if I can see the rawest beginnings of it starting to take shape.

We look around us and we see progressive accomplishment and regressive backlash, over and over, in a pattern described in the Book of Mormon. That tale ended tragically. Ours doesn’t need to. Let’s embrace a better future, together, as brothers and sisters should. Let’s make it happen. Let’s build our own cities of Enoch, in our homes, in our wards, in our communities.

Let the great work commence.



Debt and deficit

I have lots of friends on Facebook, and politically they range from socialist to liberal to conservative to Tea Party. Makes for some fun conversations. Some of my conservative friends insist that President Obama is hopelessly and incomparably bad at being President, that he has visited incalculable harm on the United States during his time in office, that his Presidency is one from which our nation may never recover. And when you ask what events, what policies, what actions have led them to this preposterous conclusion, they will point out, accurately enough, that the deficit has never been higher, and go on to assert that the debt incurred during the Obama Presidency will cripple our economy.

I get that, I really do. If you point out that the deficit isn’t as high as conservatives think it is, that it’s falling rapidly, and that it’s not actually damaging the US economy, you will be accused of ‘drinking the Kool-aid.’ Which is to say, of blindly and thoughtlessly following Obama, of being swayed by this President’s charisma to believe in absurd and untrue things. Oh, and of complete ignorance of economics. The debt is huge, the deficit massive, and the only way out is via huge cuts in federal spending, especially cutting Medicare, Social Security, welfare, food stamps, and all other federal strands of the social safety net.

So the question is this: how sincere are the concerns of Tea Party politicians, of House Republicans and other fiscal conservatives? Is Paul Krugman right, when he argues that the debt and deficit are being used cynically by right wing ideologues to further their ‘small government’ political agenda? Or are the concerns about the debt and deficit genuine? Is US indebtedness an actual, for reals, honest-to-Pete national emergency? Or is it all a big bluff?

From the point of view of actual Tea Party folks, voters, of course their concerns are genuine. They see this issue in personal terms. If they had family members who were racking up huge amounts of credit card debt, they’d be terribly concerned, and they’d do whatever they had to do to fix it. That’s how they see this, through the lens of personal finance. They are terrified of burdening their grandchildren with debt. The fact that the federal government can do things, and is required to do things that no family would or could ever do is immaterial. It’s all about the grandkids.

(But only up to a point. In fact, the US is doing something right now that is quite absurd. We’re saying to young people ‘you should go to college. It’s the key to your financial future. But the reality of college nowadays will require you to incur debt equal to a home mortgage in order to get that education.’ That’s a rotten deal for young people, and they know it. Especially when they know perfectly well that, in Europe, college is free.  Ask the Tea Party folks if they support free college education, and I can predict the response. ‘We can’t afford it.’ Meaning the US. Can’t afford to educate our 18-22 year-olds. Uh, the richest country in the history of the world).

But back to the debt and deficit, because it’s much more comforting to worry about potential problems fifty years from now than actual-factual problems right now. Let’s suppose that the Tea Party is right, and that the national debt is a huge problem, crippling the US economy going forward, and the deficit adds to the debt annually and is dangerously fiscally irresponsible. To go back to the ‘family finance’ model, let’s suppose that your family has incurred a debt. Let’s suppose that you’re living beyond your means, spending more every month than you bring in. There are two things you can do (and you may have to do both). You can increase your income (perhaps by having someone work more hours, or take a second job), or you can cut family spending. So if the deficit is really a big problem, you need to do both things; increase revenues and decrease expenditures.

So lately, to be obnoxious, I’ve been conducting a little thought experiment with my Tea Party friends. Let’s suppose that you’re right. Let’s suppose that the debt really is destructive, that continuing deficit spending really does need to end. Let’s suppose that we’re facing a national emergency if we don’t do something about it.

All right then, what is the current budget deficit? Tea Partiers will usually say ‘it’s a trillion dollars.’ It isn’t. The deficit was $483 billion in fiscal 2014. But fine, we also need to pay down the debt, so let’s go with their figure; let’s say we need to reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars.

Now, this is a national emergency, right? This has to be done. And cutting discretionary domestic spending won’t get us there. We need to look at both sides of the ledger, at cutting spending, and raising revenue, right? As you would do with your family. So we ask two questions: what is the most bloated, irresponsible part of the federal budget? And what sector of the population is most conspicuously undertaxed?

The answers are clear enough; the US spends more on defense than the next seventeen highest countries in the world combined. Is it a national emergency if we shut down the six golf courses the Navy operates in Guam? No. Let’s cut $400 billion from the defense budget. We’d still be the highest spending country in defense in the world, by a wide margin. And the super-rich, the top 1% have seen their taxes decline for years. Let’s raise the top marginal tax rate to 1970 rates. And we just made another $400 billion. Add increases in capital gains taxes and estate taxes, and we’d come pretty close to reaching our goal. One trillion dollars.

Then I ask this: if in fact the national debt is a national emergency and eliminating the deficit our top national priority, would you support the budget I just proposed. Would you support cuts in defense spending, and raising taxes on the richest folks in the country? If you’re saying, we must do this, we have to do this, we are bankrupting the future of our grandchildren if we don’t eliminate the deficit immediately, all right then. I have a concrete proposal that would accomplish it. Granted, perhaps, cutting defense and raising taxes wouldn’t be your first choice. But would you support it? In an emergency? Which you insist we have right now.

There have been two usual responses. Here’s one: ‘look, squirrel!’ In other words, a very rapid change of subject. The second is anger: obviously, I don’t understand foreign policy or economics. Cutting defense spending would leave us open to terrorist attacks. (Not true; we’d still have plenty of resources to fight terrorism). Taxing rich people would destroy our economy. (That’s never been true historically; in fact, the economy has never grown faster than during times when the highest marginal tax rate was 91%).

But the Up response, the ‘look, squirrel’ one has been the response of the national Republican party. Right now, in fact, the Republican dominated House and Senate have both proposed budgets, exercises in fantasy really, because there’s no chance at all of President Obama signing either of them into law. And both those budgets include increases in defense spending.

Which suggests to this Hoosier boy one thing: conservatives are not serious about the deficit. They’re using it as a pretext to cut domestic spending. It’s not about fiscal responsibility, it’s about conservative small-government ideology. Sorry to be cynical, folks, but it’s so. The Republican party is, and remains, the party of the rich, of big business, of Wall Street excesses. The Democratic party, in instructive contrast, is only mostly the party of rich business interests. Meanwhile, kids really are getting screwed, but not in the nebulous future, by debt and deficits, but right now, by the student loans that make college, which is a good thing, possible. Some day soon they’re going to get fed up, and kick all the old rich white people out. Can’t happen too soon either, says this rich old white guy.

Emperor and Galilean

Last Friday, I was invited to Hillcrest High School, in Draper, to see the North American premiere of Ben Power’s translation/version of Henrik Ibsen’s play Emperor and Galilean. I had a terrific time, and thought the production was imaginatively staged and beautifully realized.

Emperor and Galilean is surely the most obscure and seldom staged of Ibsen’s plays, even more infrequently performed even than his early Viking melodramas, like The Warrior’s Barrow or The Vikings at Helgeland, which are fun enough that Norwegian theatres still produce them from time to time. As it happens, though, I have seen a previous production of E and G, at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo, in 1989. That production was nine and a half hours long (not seven and a half, as I may have told people mistakenly), which points to the main reason that the play isn’t done very often–it’s very very long–ten acts altogether. Actually, it’s two five-act plays; Julian the Apostate, and The Emperor Julian, but I can’t imagine anyone doing either play alone. They tell one continuous story, and neither play would be thematically or narratively satisfying separately.

E and G tells the story of Flavius Claudius Julianus, Emperor of Rome for just two years, otherwise known as Julian the Apostate, because of his attempt to reject Christianity as the state religion, and return Roman worship to neo-Platonist paganism. In a battle against the Persian empire at Samara, Julian was killed; according to one source, by a Christian soldier in his own army. Ibsen has him killed by Agathon, Julian’s best friend from his early years as a Christian.

I had to read the play in grad school, and ended up falling in love with it. The usual reading of the play is that Ibsen, following Nietzsche, was arguing for a synthesis between the sensuousness of paganism and the spirituality of Christianity. If that’s indeed the point of the play, I have to say that that synthesis certainly doesn’t work very well–Julian’s attempt to create it lead to civil war, and to his own destruction. Plus, there’s no evidence that Ibsen even read, let alone cared about Nietzsche. Plus, I couldn’t possibly care less about a synthesis between pagan sensuousness and Christian spirituality. If those are indeed the main philosophical concerns of the play, then I wouldn’t be alone in considering it a play that has well deserved its obscurity.

I don’t think that’s what it’s about, though, and I don’t think those themes were given much expression in production. As the play continuously reminds us, it’s a play about the choice between Emperor and Galilean, about balancing the needs of the state and the demands of leading a Christ-like life. And it’s a play that shows, unmistakably, how state power corrupts and corrodes religion. As one parent said at the talk-back session following the play, ‘it’s a play about the First Amendment. It’s showing how badly we need it.’ Amen, brother.

When we see the play today, in 2015, we see a fanatical megomaniac who causes untold destruction by his vicious insistence on his own personal ideology. We’ve had our fill of those characters in my lifetime, have we not? I see the imposition of a state religion, any state religion, Christian or pagan, leading to war and violence and death. I see a huge, unnecessary, religious war fought in southern Iraq, by an army also intent of destroying the religious center of Persia/Iran. We see a play about issues that still resonate. We see, in Julian, a figure that we know all too well, and we see how damaging his charismatic fanaticism can become.

Ibsen builds the play around Julian and his three best friends–Agathon, Peter and Gregory, plus his pagan mystic guru Maximus. As the play begins, Agathon is proud of the fact that he has managed to lead a pogrom against local pagans, killing a whole lot of them. His fanaticism remains unabated, and eventually, he kills his apostate friend. Peter’s Christianity finds expression in fellowship and loyalty–he’s the one friend to stick with Julian no matter what, even after he grows appalled by Julian’s excesses. Gregory leaves Constantinople and founds his own religious community, which is eventually destroyed by Julian’s men. Gregory is really the one genuine Christian we meet in the play, and he is martyred for his devotion. Maximus, meanwhile, is about four/fifths a flattering fraud, but he does seem to have real visions, and those visions have consequences. Julian is told that he will complete the work of two great World Spirits; men who changed the world, advancing civilization. The first two are Cain and Judas Iscariot. I’m not sure that’s a parade I want to head up, but Julian eats it up. And that vision devours everyone else, in time.

Ibsen loved guys like Maximus; he loved creating fatuous blustering pompous jerks–Torvald, in A Doll House, Manders in Ghosts. We often take Ibsen too seriously–there’s a savage satirical wit in Ibsen that it can be easy to miss, especially in British English translations of his works. I wonder if anyone has ever thought to play Maximus as comic relief. It would certainly fit nicely with the rest of the Ibsen oeuvre.

Anyway, Hillcrest’s production was imaginative, energetic, lively and theatrically spectacular, with lots of smoke effects and projections and timely-falling set pieces. David Chamberlain was terrific in the huge role of Julian, and I also loved Carter Walker, Steven Hooley and Russell Carpenter as Gregory, Agathon and Peter, respectively. Of all the other supporting characters, I was particularly taken with Skyler Harmon, who played the conniving Ursulus, the Emperor Constantius’ fixer and right hand woman.

Above all, kudos of Joshua Long, the director of the production. Long has clearly created a tremendous high school drama program there at Hillcrest, with massive parental support. Watching the show, I estimated a cast size of around 90, but counting the names in the program, there were closer to 120. That’s a lot of costumes to build; how many moms were enlisted in that effort? Refreshments were sold during the show’s two intermissions, and again I saw supportive parents working for the success of the show. Long told me afterwards that he had tremendous support as well from his principal and administration; good for everyone involved. Those kids, in that cast, will never forget this experience as long as they live. They were involved in a fantastic undertaking, a very much neglected masterpiece given new life on stage. I can’t imagine anything cooler.


The Utah Legislature, education, and testing

The Utah legislature meets annually, for a limited time: 60 days. This wasn’t a bad session for education, with 515 million in new ed spending, always welcome news. The leg also had discussions about SAGE, the Utah year-end assessment test that all students have to take, which in part determines school funding priorities. A bill was proposed that would have phased SAGE out. That bill did not pass, unfortunately. But at least they’re having a conversation about it.

Because of that, I can’t help but think that, even with all the new funding, this was an inconsequential session in regards to education. They could have made a genuine difference; they could have actually improved the way kids are educated in the state. But education professionals and education reformers won again, armed with their two great buzz words: ‘accountability’ and ‘assessment.’ And so testing will continue. What a shame.

Here’s why I hate testing so much. I am a teacher, the son of two teachers, grandson of another. I have three sisters-in-law who are teachers. My brother was a teacher. My son is training to become a teaching. Teaching is in my blood. And when I teach, my loyalty, first and foremost, is to my students. Nothing else, no other considerations, can be allowed to get in the way. Teachers focus on kids, those kids, in that classroom, their needs and difficulties and strengths and weaknesses. Of course there’s a subject matter that needs to be taught, and lesson plans that need to be developed, and we do have to come up with some way to figure out how much the kids are learning. But it’s always kid-oriented, directed for and about students. And sure, testing can be a valuable tool, when subject-matter and classroom limited. (Though I never once in my entire career gave a multiple-guess or true/false kind of test. Never once.)

This is just fundamental. Teaching has to be about students. We learn as much as we appropriately can about them. And the point isn’t just to get them to superficially understand certain facts or concepts. The point is empowerment. We want our kids to learn new skills, develop new ways of understanding the world, while always, always respecting their independence, their autonomy. We don’t teach math because there’s anything inherently valuable about figuring out an algebraic equation, but because there’s a kind of mental discipline that working out algebra problems helps develop.

Now, of course, the whole time we’re focusing all our attention on the students, we also are getting paid by the school system. We do owe our employees a certain loyalty. But teaching works best when we’re able to forget that, and lose ourselves in a kind of illusion of selflessness. And honestly, it’s not that much of an illusion. Teachers aren’t paid all that well, and the hours we spend outside the classroom, and the dollars we spend of our own money for classroom supplies all do suggest that teaching really is more a calling than a profession.

And think back to the genuinely great teachers who made a difference in your life. I think, for example, of my old high school drama teacher, Mary Forester, who routinely put in 80 hour weeks to give the school’s outcasts and misfits a place where we belonged. I think of Kenny Mann, my high school English teacher, who told me that short stories I wrote were genuinely engaging, and encouraged me to keep writing. (And I remember how painfully I took the news of his premature death from AIDS). I think of Marvin Carlson, my grad school advisor, who made a point of greeting me every time he saw me in his own bad Norwegian, because he never forgot that I had some fluency in the language.

Bad teaching, though, is what happens when the teacher has some other agenda than caring for students. I remember, for example, a grade school teacher of my oldest son’s. Her own son was in her classroom, and was the school bully, and when we would talk to her about it, it was clear that her primary agenda was to stand up for her kid, and not protect mine. Understandable, perhaps, but immensely damaging, until we were able to transfer Kai to a different school.

Conservatives sometimes complain about higher education having a liberal bias, suggesting not only that some college professors have an ideological bias, but that indoctrinating students ideologically is more important to them than just teaching. I think that does happen, and that it’s wrong. Overly tendentious political correctness is genuinely damaging to academic discourse. At the same time, feminist or Marxist or post-colonial literary theory are important lenses through which we can and often should view texts. The best teachers are those who can teach such theories, without insisting on the ideology. Good teaching is an effort to genuinely engage students in the world of ideas. All ideas, at least initially.

Ultimately, though, good teaching isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s personal, it’s respectful, it’s deeply and powerfully empathetic. And the best classroom moments are those when you sense that this classroom needs something other than the lesson you’ve prepared, and toss your entire plan out the window.

So what happens if institutional imperatives clash with the personal attention you have to give your students? I taught at BYU, I got a paycheck from BYU, and BYU has an Honor Code. I taught playwriting, and some student plays were frankly confessional. What if a student, in a play, admitted to having violated the Honor Code? Would I feel some kind of divided loyalty? Honestly, I never did. It never even occurred to me. I never turned a student in, and can’t imagine ever doing so. I was a teacher. Confessions made in class were, to me, privileged communications.

But once you introduce a state-required standardized test, and tell teachers that their raises and the funding of their schools requires that students do well on it, you’ve fundamentally changed the entire teacher/student dynamic. Suddenly, the worst possible kind of education process–forced rote memorization of worthless facts–becomes the way you have to teach. (Of course teachers teach to the test; the stake are too for them high not to). Suddenly the illusion of selflessness disappears. Your loyalty isn’t to your students anymore; it’s to the dictates of the state, or the principal of your school, or the school board, or whoever else in power needs your kids to do well on the SAGE.

It’s destructive, and it’s unnecessary. Education professionals insist on the necessity of ‘assessment,’ and when you protest, they respond with the other ‘a’ word: accountability. Suddenly, if you protest, you’re a freeloader, a cheat, someone who wants to be paid to do a job but opposes being held accountable for how good you are at it.

But teachers are already accountable. You’re accountable every time you look over a classroom of students. You feel that responsibility; you want them to do well, you care about them, you want them to excel.

When a student wrote a paper for one of my classes, I read it, I marked it up with comments, I gave it a grade. I always gave students the opportunity to re-write. Did their re-writes improve the paper? Yes, without exception, they did. How did I know? How could I prove it? By what assessment metrics could I demonstrate that improvement? I didn’t have any. The paper was better. I have read how many student papers in my lifetime? Several thousand? I know a good paper when I see one, and I also can tell when a paper improves. Trust me. I know what I’m doing.

Assessment and accountability. Those have become the two most destructive and damaging words in contemporary American education. They have become the false gods our education establishment worships. And both find their perfect expression in standardized, state-required tests.

The way teachers survive, I think, is through a kind of practiced mendacity. Teachers pay lip service to the A-words, while preserving as much of their own integrity as they can. Some teachers, of course, take it a step farther, by falsifying their student results. That’s understandable, and, in a sense, laudable, as acts of civil disobedience are often laudable as a response to tyranny. But what really needs to happen is for parents to get involved. Make a fuss. Insist that states end testing. End it now, end it everywhere. And meanwhile, when your kids take the SAGE test (or whatever malevolent equivalent your state’s cooked up), tell them to flunk on purpose. If everyone did that.. . . .




The Senate weighs in on Iran

Freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) is not a stupid person, at least if we assume that dummies don’t graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law. Nor should we really question the man’s patriotism; he served in the military, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like a lot of young politicians (he’s 37), he’s ambitious; he wants to make his mark. He’s off to a rousing start. He authored, and got 47 senators to sign, a letter to Iran, carefully explaining our Constitutional form of government. And also why any deal their government negotiates with President Obama isn’t worth doodly-squat.

The ‘Cotton letter’ really is something to behold. Here’s how it starts: “It has come to our attention . . . that you may not understand our constitutional system of government.” That’s the tone; condescending and imperial. Insulting? I think so. It’s an open letter to “The Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and it’s about Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration. Which suggests that it’s intended, first of all, to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif.

So who is Zarif, this Islamist fanatic, this provincial Persian, this ignorant non-entity? Well, Zarif has two Master’s Degrees in International Relations, one from San Francisco State University, and one from the University of Denver, and a PhD from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, also in Denver. I’ve learned all kinds of stuff about Zarif; took me three minutes to find his his Wikipedia article. (I assume Cotton has, at least, a staffer who could have shown him how to find Wikipedia). Zarif’s an expert on nuclear disarmament. He has two kids, both born in the US (and thus eligible for American citizenship). He probably speaks better English than Cotton does.  So, yeah, I think we can safely assume that Zarif is reasonably familiar with the US constitution.

All across the country, newspapers are condemning the Cotton letter. One of them is the highly conservative Deseret News, which called it ‘ill-timed,’ which is about as far as they dared go in criticizing a Tea Party darling. What at least some of these op-ed pieces have pointed out is not just the questionable judgment (even patriotism) of a bunch of senators criticizing an on-going negotiation. The Senate’s constitutional ‘advise and consent’ role is, actually, limited to formal treaties. The Senate has no constitutional role in on-going negotiations. The President is charged with conducting foreign policy. Which this President happens to be particularly good at. Sorry, but it’s so.

The Cotton letter reminds the Iranians that President Obama will be out of office in 2017, and that it’s quite possible that the new President will not share his foreign policy objectives and tactics. That’s certainly true, as far as it goes. But what the President and Secretary Kerry is currently negotiating is not a formal treaty between the US and Iran. It’s a complicated multi-national agreement involving Britain, France, China, Germany and Russian, in addition to other nations. Are 47 Senators really intent on binding the hands of the incoming President like this? Let’s suppose that the Republicans win in 2017 (the letter seems to take that as a given). Will the first act of President Republican Guy’s new administration be an open slap in the face to our closest allies, as well as a de facto declaration of war against Iran? Seriously?

The last paragraph of Cotton’s letter states that ‘any agreement . . . that is not approved by Congress’ is nothing more than ‘an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khameini.’ It would therefore be easily revokable. That’s factually inaccurate; it would be an agreement involving many other nations. And it’s also ignorant of Iran’s complex governmental structure. As the Deseret News editorial pointed out, Khameini is not a dictator. He certainly has a lot of power in Iran, but it’s delicately balanced between the elected government, the Council of Mullahs, and other entities. It’s certainly true, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week (in his equally ill-advised speech) that Khameini has made appallingly anti-Semitic statements in the past. Those statements have, however, been repudiated by, among others, Zarif.

I’m not quite sure that it’s fair to call Cotton ‘Sarah Palin with a Harvard degree’ as Salon.com did recently. Nor is it fair to call his dumb letter an act of treason. That’s a strong accusation, and overstated in this case. It was just stupid. That’s all, and that’s enough. Basically it sends a message internationally that a lot of people in the American Congress are dimwitted. And that some of them are running for President.

As, for example, Marco Rubio, who seriously asked Secretary Kerry, earlier this week, if the reason we haven’t sent more troops into Iraq, or launch more air strikes, to fight against ISIS is because we didn’t want to offend Iran. Secretary Kerry’s rather starchy reply “the facts completely contradict that.” Among those facts would be the presence of Iranian troops liberating Tikrit. Or the 2700 air strikes the US has already launched against ISIS.

At least for now, it appears as though the Republicans have their foreign policy issue heading into 2016. It’s going to be Iran. The Obama administration is soft on Iran, apparently, and also soft on ISIS. Because John Kerry is willing to sit in a room together with Mohammed Zarif.

I do think that the Cotton letter accomplished one thing. It persuaded Zarif that the US Senate doesn’t need to be taken seriously on foreign policy. And now negotiations can continue. And when she takes office, President Clinton may even have a functioning majority in the Senate again. I can think of 47 guys who are going to be vulnerable.


Netanyahu speech fail

The big news Tuesday, of course, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. Post-speech analysis described it as an extraordinary piece of political theatre, which it certainly was. It was also essentially unprecedented. To have the head of state of an American ally address Congress to attack the foreign policy of a sitting President, at the invitation of Congress really does seem to be something brand new. And as a card-carrying liberal, I guess my reaction is supposed to be offended outrage. I’m supposed to describe the invitation as ‘disloyal’ or, depending on how partisan I feel, ‘treasonous.’I think I’ll pass.

I watched the speech, then later read it on-line, and the main thing I remember about it was the ovation Congress gave Netanyahu. It lasted forever. It was a huge standing ovation. It was Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium fervid. And, like those early Beatles performances, the noise of the wildly over-the-top ovation tended to overwhelm the music and the performance.

Basically, Netanyahu hates the idea of negotiating with Iran. The preliminary deal with Iran that the President announced in November 2013 was described by Netanyahu in apocalyptic terms. Here’s the key passage:

We must always remember — I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen.

But that, my friends, is exactly what could happen, if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.

And the US Congress went nuts applauding.

I don’t know how it played in Israel. Netanyahu is in a tough election, and Likud (his party) is very slightly behind in the polls. It’s possible that this speech, made in America, might turn the corner in a close Israeli election. It’s more likely that it won’t make much of a difference. It’s not like he said anything new. That kind of apocalyptic rhetoric has resonance with some of his voters, but certainly not all of them. A poll taken right after the speech showed Likud getting a slight bounce, but not enough to win the election. It’s still basically tied.

So, okay, negotiations with Iran continue, and have been fruitful.  What’s Netanyahu’s counter-proposal? To continue with economic sanctions. Those sanctions were originally designed to damage Iran’s economy, thus encouraging Iran to discontinue it’s nuclear program. The fear is that Iran, if not stopped (or pressured to stop themselves) will build and deploy nukes, and launch an attack on Israel.

But they won’t. Vox.com’s Max Fisher carefully explained why this is not a realistic possibility. As Fisher points out, Israel has a second-strike capability that would wipe Iran off the planet, and Iran knows it. So we’re to assume that Iran’s leaders are suicidal loons capable of destroying their own nation if they can take Israel with them? Then why on earth would economic sanctions have any effect? That’s really the essence of Netanyahu’s speech: Iran is run by completely insane anti-Semites intent on Israel’s destruction no matter what the cost to themselves, but who are nonetheless rational enough to be deterred by some short-term economic pain. Really?

That kind of rhetoric, though well received by Republicans, isn’t anything new. Netanyahu’s been giving speeches in the US warning everyone of the dangers of a nuclear Iran since 1996. His rhetoric was apocalyptic then too. A nuclear Iran was immanent then, too. They were ‘on the brink’ of nuclear capability then too. And, as President Obama noted, Netanyahu made very specific predictions in 2013 about the bad things that would follow the deal when it was made, none of which have come true. The speech may have done Netanyahu’s electoral chances some minimal good. But it was a deeply illogical and dangerous speech.

I don’t think, though, that that’s what Congress heard. I think what the Tea Party wing of the Republican party heard was nothing more complicated than a foreign politician (from Israel, no less, the one foreign country loved most by religious conservatives), stand up to that Kenyan Commie in the White House.

But the speech, and the invitation to give the speech, is very likely to backfire. There’s a bill before Congress that would impose new sanctions on Iran in June if no final, comprehensive disarmament agreement is reached before then. President Obama has criticized that bill pretty strongly, saying that diplomacy is on-going, and Congressional interference would endanger complex and important negotiations. Despite the President’s opposition that bill looked like it had strong bi-partisan support, and was likely to pass the Senate, in addition to the House. Remember, there are a lot of Democrats who strongly support Israel. And you can count pro-Iranian Senators on the toes of one hand. Or the fingers on one foot. (They don’t exist, in other words).

But that bill is now dead in the water. Maybe it gets revived. But for now, the spectacle of Republicans insulting the sitting President of the United States over a question of foreign policy (constitutionally, the exclusive purview of the executive branch) has completely soured Democratic support for that bill in the Senate. Rhetoric has consequences. And applause, in this case, may have been emotionally satisfying, but it was a rhetorical blunder of the first order.

Meanwhile, one of the largest cities in Iraq, Tikrit, presently under the control of ISIS, is under attack from Iraqi forces trying to take the city back. I say Iraqi, but it’s more accurate to call it a joint military operation by Iran and Iraq. In fact, two thirds of the troops engaged in combat against Isis are Iranian. And I can’t imagine the courage of those soldiers. If they’re captured by ISIS, there will be no prisoner exchange or humanitarian treatment of wounds. Shi’a troops, captured by ISIS, are summarily executed.

In his speech, Netanyahu compared Iran’s government to ISIS:

Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

And it’s not difficult to find evidence to support that contention in the speeches of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Ahmedinejad is out of office, and Hassan Rouhani is in. And Iran’s fighting alongside Iraq in the battlefield even as we speak. And what’s the reaction of General Dempsey, in charge of the American portion of the fight against ISIS? Awesome.

So Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress. He spoke eloquently and his remarks were well received. His speech was also extreme, illogical and almost certain to backfire. Well done, sir.


Iran and Obama

The National Review recently published an article called “Five Middle East Blunders,” by someone named Victor Davis Hanson. I don’t usually respond to articles in the National Review. It’s just another hyper-partisan, ‘blame Obama for everything’ publication, not worth any sensible person’s time or attention. But this particular article was fairly well-written at least, and I thought I might respond, to at least the first of Mr. Hanson’s charges, regarding this President’s policy towards Iran. (Which, of course, in NR‘s mind, is horrible. Bad. Wrong). Please, as always, bear in mind that Mr. Hanson has credentials here that I probably can’t match. He’s, like, a Fellow at some conservative think tank. (I could look it up, but that would require that I care). Me, I’m not a Fellow, I’m just a guy. I’m a playwright with wi-fi. That’s all.

It is the policy of the Obama administration, stated many many times without equivocation, that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. I agree that it would generally be better for the world if Iran did not have nukes. But just for grins and giggles, let’s go through what we might regard as the worst kind of nuclear-armed-nation-nightmare. What would define a country that really, seriously, shouldn’t have nukes? Let’s see: a nation without democratic traditions, in which military forces are not really under the control of civilian authorities. A poor country, a country without much of an economy, or a middle-class, a country with an easily radicalized population. A nation with a recent history of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorists. A country that has no particular love for the US, or much connection to the West. And a country with a nearby neighbor with a majority religion hostile to its majority religion. That sound about right? Does that sound like a country that honest-to-Pete should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Because I just described Pakistan. And Pakistan is a nuclear power. Yikes.

Why on earth does Pakistan even want nuclear weapons? Well, one answer is as a deterrent to India, its neighbor, which is likewise a moderately terrifying nuclear power. But there’s another answer. Having a nuclear capacity puts you in the major leagues, nation-wise. It’s popular with the population, because it signifies something; it means, by golly, that we’re a country that gets up every morning and puts on its big boy pants. That’s why pathetic, awful North Korea wants them. It feeds a kind of national insecurity. To me, it’s like why cities want professional sports franchises. It’s why otherwise sensible municipalities ruin their local economies, spend massive amounts that otherwise would pay teachers and cops and firemen so they can build stadia for their local (privately owned, rich-as-heck) teams. It’s about ‘civic pride.’ It’s a matter of national/local pride.

I’m not saying that the President shouldn’t pursue, as a high-priority foreign policy initiative, the goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capacity. I am saying that it may not be the end of the world if Iran got them. I would add that this is not actually a matter we get to decide. Iran is a sovereign nation, capable of managing its own affairs. We are not the boss of them. The US does not actually get to have a veto over which other countries get nukes. And Iran is far more stable, more prosperous, and more Western-friendly than Pakistan, or, for that matter, India.

There’s also not a lot we can do. There are two ways we could proceed; a carrot approach and a stick approach. The ‘stick’ involves international sanctions aimed at preventing other nations from trading with Iran. The ‘carrot’ involves making diplomatic overtures reducing tensions and working to include Iran in the fellowship of nations. I like carrots, honestly. Respect the richness of Persian culture, admit that we were wrong to assassinate Mohammed Mossadeq back in ’53, apologize for the Shah’s excesses and our propping up that vicious creepy thug for so long. Which we were, you know, honestly, wrong for killing Mossadeq, wrong for the Shah.

The fact is, though, decisions about things like their nuclear build-up are made by the ruling Iranian mullahs, and especially the Ayatollah Khameini. He’s Supreme Leader, and has been since 1989. And he’s not really someone we can pressure effectively; he’s essentially immune from electoral pressures, and even internally, his power base is the Iranian military. And remember, the nuclear build-up is popular in Iran. It’s in his interest to keep up with it, because the general population is not really all that supportive of some of the religious restrictions that have been imposed. Iran leads the world in satellite dishes, remember, and an Iranian friend of mine points out that their favorite program is re-runs of Baywatch. Part of what keeps the people tractable is their ‘big boy pants’ national pride in their nukes.

Up to recently, the ‘stick’ was what we mostly tried. Economic sanctions against Iran were imposed, and did some damage to Iran’s economy. We were able to make that work because Iran’s President, until recently, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He became the public face of Shi’ite extremism. He was, frankly, kind of a nut. And so it wasn’t difficult for our allies internationally to support sanctions aimed at any regime (titularly) headed by him.

But things have changed. First, of course, for our allies, those sanctions were not really in their own nations’ interest. Iran can supply something for which there is huge international demand. Black gold, Texas tea. Oil.

And there are other factors. Ahmadinejad is out. Hassan Rouhani is the new President, and he’s much more Western-oriented, much more democratic. He’s a much more favorable candidate, in other words, for a ‘carrot’ approach. It would have been massively irresponsible for any American President to engage with Ahmadinejad, but equally irresponsible not to engage with the new guy. Most of the ‘thawing’ in US-Iranian relations are past overdue anyway, and with Rouhani in control, much easier to implement.

And there’s also Isis. And Isis is a specifically Sunni group of murderous thugs. Their main attacks have been against Shi’a communities. In fact, check this out. An article from the Times of India, about the literally life-or-death questions Isis asks captured prisoners. Sunni are released, Shi’a summarily executed. So why wouldn’t the US want to invite the largest Shi’ite power in the region to work with us in the war against Isis? We do, in fact, need allies there. And in fact, Iran has been helpful.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that the economic sanctions we once imposed on Iran have been relaxed, as part of a larger diplomatic engagement. Those sanctions weren’t viable anyway, internationally, once Ahmadinejad left office. And yes, it’s true that Khameini can accurately be described as rabidly anti-Semitic, or at least, anti-Zionist. Israel is very concerned about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. They have reason for their concern. We should too; Israel is our loyal ally, and will remain so.

It’s also true that American conservatives have been rabid in their opposition to the current Iranian regime, and that many in the neo-conservative press have called for the US to bomb and then, eventually, to invade Iran, if sanctions didn’t succeed in disarming them. And that among the voices calling for precisely that option, was Victor Davis Hanson. So: he’s another nut.

Ali Khameini is 75 years old, and in poor health. Iran is under new leadership, one we can actually engage with diplomatically. It’s time for a new course. This President, wisely and sensibly, is pursuing that course. An apoplectic National Review is welcome to weigh in. And the rest of us, equally welcome to ignore their particular brand of reflexive anti-Obama hysteria.


Austerity: Book Review

Every dollar spent by government is a dollar not available for job creation and investment. Our first national priority must be eliminating the federal budget deficit, and paying down the national debt. It is immoral to pass on all that debt to our grandchildren. Europe’s problems are of its own creation: too generous a welfare state, too high taxes. What’s needed is belt-tightening, cuts in spending. Recessions are simply normal parts of a business cycle. Ride them out, and normal and natural rates of unemployment will return. The biggest problem in a recession is for a government to spend; it just prolongs the misery. The Great Depression would have ended years earlier were it not for Roosevelt’s foolish reliance on Keynesian stimulus efforts. What we need is to improve business confidence, achieved by cutting government spending. Or, heard more faintly, out on the fringes, this: what we need is to get rid of the federal reserve, and go back to the gold standard. What’s needed, above all, is austerity.

You have probably heard most, if not all of the ideas expressed in that first paragraph. Sometimes they’re uttered by politicians, sometimes by commentators, often by businessmen, occasionally even from economists, though only from that small (but sadly influential) minority of economists from the Austrian school of neo-liberal or libertarian thinkers. You’ve probably heard them at family gatherings, from your elderly great-uncle Horace, or on-line from that old high school friend now working as a computer programmer. But here’s what’s really important: everything in that first paragraph is false. All of it; every sentence. Demonstrably false. Provably false. Factually false. Or, to put it more colorfully (and here I quote Mark Blythe), “absolute horse***t.”

May I recommend an excellent book making that case: Blythe’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. And no, his language isn’t generally that colorful. But it’s a passionate book, a fiery polemic, as well as a first-rate economic history. I loved it, and found it almost compulsively readable, but I should warn you; it’s a book about economics by an economist. It’s intelligibly written, intended for a general readership, but there are still paragraphs it may take you some time to unpack.

Blythe is professor of economics at Brown University, holds an endowed chair, published scholar with a lengthy resume. But, of course, economists disagree with each other all the time, and the main rival schools of thought hold views that are unreconcilable. So don’t just believe him because he’s a smart guy with advanced degrees in the field and an impressive publishing history. Read the book. Follow his logic and reasoning and evidence. Then let’s talk.

Because, let’s face it; austerity has a certain grim appeal. The United Kingdom, and France, and Spain, and many other countries in Europe have generous welfare states, high unemployment, and massive budget deficits. All that debt is crippling their ability to budget responsibly, especially when paying interest on debt already accrued becomes a major budget line. So what’s needed is good old fashioned thrift and industry. It’s common sense, we think, because that’s what we would do in our families. If we had a situation, in our families, where someone was out of work and our income shrank, we’d immediately cut down on our spending. We’d see if we could cut our food budget, we’d clip coupons, we’d forgo that new purchase, we’d scrimp and save and make do. Even if our income didn’t shrink, even if we did find ourselves in relative prosperity, we still look for ways to be frugal. Frugality is a virtue; profligacy a vice. How much TV advertising is based on that premise? You can save $___ if you use our insurance company, or wireless service, or buy that car from our dealership.

The problem is, if everyone practices frugality and austerity, the economy grinds to a halt. If everyone does it, it doesn’t work. Companies go broke, factories are shuttered. And a government is the very definition of ‘everyone.’

So when governments spend, more money is put into circulation, demand grows, and supply grows to meet demand. When governments contract, less money circulates, unemployment increases, and, paradoxically, budget deficits increase. Over and over again, Blythe makes this point: austerity doesn’t work. It has never worked. It’s been tried repeatedly, in countries all over the world, and has essentially a one hundred percent fail rate historically. What does tend to happen in austerity situations is that rich people get richer (because they’re insulated from the effects of it), and poor people, obviously, get a good deal poorer. And there are always neo-liberal economists who will insist that the only thing that’s needed is more patience. That it will work eventually.

Economically, there’s no reason to believe that austerity will ever work. Politically, of course, it’s a complete failure. As Blythe points out repeatedly, you can’t have a gold standard in a democracy. Gold standards constrict economic growth, and voters eventually get fed up. That’s exactly why the anti-austerity party, Syriza, just won an election in Greece, for example.

Blythe does not suggest, BTW, that governments should spend irresponsibly, or that deficits don’t matter at all, ever. Of course, too much government debt is a bad thing. But he does suggest several policy initiatives that are more likely to be successful. Looking at the debt held by the US government, for example, one obvious solution is to raise taxes on the super-rich. The greatest periods of economic growth in US history coincided with very high taxes on the top brackets.

He also believes that there exists, internationally, a tax collection crisis. That’s certainly true in Greece, where wealthy scofflaw tax cheats held, at one time, nearly every seat in their parliament. The fact is, most rich people don’t like paying taxes, and have the resources to avoid paying them. Governments need relentless imagination and cunning to see to it that that doesn’t happen.

I’m a bit skeptical about a country like the US mustering the political will to actually raise taxes, or let banks fail–another policy notion Blythe recommends. But the book is a treat. Give it a read. Plow through. You’ll be well-rewarded.