The Nazis Burned Books, Too

book burningNo Good Comes From This

Unfortunately there is a long history of humans believing they can destroy ideas by burning the books that contain those ideas. The practice hardly began with a crackpot preacher in Florida, but dates back to the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the “New World” and even ancient China.

In May of 1933, in the town where Martin Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, pro-Nazi students burned 25,000 books deemed “un-German.” Included were works by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, a guy named Hemingway and, of course, works by Karl Marx, Socialists and Jews. The pictures and what they foretold are haunting and should tell us something.

Two things about the story out of Florida are worth noting it seems to me. The first is the enormous media attention lavished on Rev. Terry Jones. Not bad for a guy, as Gail Collins pointed out, who has built a thriving congregation of “about 50 people.” In a matter of hours, Jones’ plan to burn the Quran went viral sparking protests in Afghanistan, worry about the impact on our soldiers in the field, comments from every politician in the nation, etc. More important, perhaps, the Aljazerra website has been all over the story.

Additionally, I’m struck by the fact – as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – how far we have come, in the wrong direction, in building a worldwide consensus to oppose the radical forces that operate in the shadow of Islam.

I remember George W. Bush – megaphone in hand, standing on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center – and the profound sense that the United States, at that huge moment in time, had the moral force to lead a worldwide effort to confront extremism. For a brief moment, the world was with us, but…well, apparently we blew it and here we are nine years later.

Now I fear the message sent by Rev, Jones, and folks like Newt Gingrich fulminating against a Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, paints America as unfaithful to our own professed and cherished traditions of religious freedom and tolerance. A perception of hypocrisy doesn’t play well in any culture.

Books – even books we would never read or whose content we abhor – are important things. They are symbols, as well as repositories of history, culture and, at a very important level, tolerance.

I’m not a big fan of Sidney Shelton or Barbara Cartland. In fact, I’ve never cracked a cover of either of those best selling authors, but they have huge followings and you have to respect that. I don’t read the Quran, either, but 22% of the people on the planet do and their numbers are growing at a rate faster than the world’s population.

Sending a billion and a half people regular telegrams from America with a message that we hate them doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

It also doesn’t seem like America.

 

Is 2010 Really 1938?

Getting an Economic Consensus

There are no perfect historical parallels. Nothing is ever precisely like it was in another time. At best, history can help illuminate the present and should, if we’re paying attention, help us avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Take 1938, for example.

But, alas we are Americans. We can’t get agreement on how to crown a national college football champion, how can we possibly get consensus on what to do with the economy?

President Obama went to Cleveland this week to roll out a plan for more stimulus spending on infrastructure and small buisness tax cuts as a way to get people back to work. He was greeted by reactions ranging from ridicule to yawning. Meanwhile, House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner, developing economic policy while he measures the drapes, started dropping hints about what a Republican Congress would do with spending (cut it, including unspent stimulus dollars), the economy (grow it) and taxes (leave the Bush cuts in place). All the while leaving room for a few well placed subpoenas.

These two versions of economic policy couldn’t be more at odds. It does sound a good deal like 1937 and 1938.

As Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats faced the mid-terms in his sixth year in office, the Great Depression was in its eighth year. Wall Street was restive. Labor unions were sitting down on the job. Democrats were frantic and the president’s counselors were divided. Should FDR double down on spending and fiscal policy aimed at reducing unemployment or should the administration send a message to the markets and business that it was determined to get a ballooning budget under control?

Confronted with what historian David Kennedy has described as, “repeated budget deficits, escalating regulatory burdens, threats of higher taxes, mounting labor costs, and, most important, persistent anxiety about what further provocations to business the New Deal had in store,” business confidence was sapped. “Capital,” Kennedy said, “was hibernating.” Sounds familiar, eh?

At a pivotal Cabinet meeting late in 1937, FDR fumed about his advisers constantly telling him about the sorry state of the economy, but “nobody suggests what I should do.” His economic and political advisers eventually won the debate. The president’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, a balanced budget advocate, put it succinctly.

“What business wants to know is: Are we headed toward state Socialism or are we going to continue on a capitalistic basis?”

FDR’s chief political lieutenant, Jim Farley, chimed in. “That’s what they want to know,” that the administration would reduce spending and balance the budget to reassure business and the markets.

“All right, Jim; I will turn on the old record,” Roosevelt responded. A new fiscal policy aimed at reducing spending and balancing the budget was ordered.

The New York Times’ Paul Krugman argues that FDR’s decision brought on the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1938, caused unemployment to top out at 20% and contributed to stunning Democratic losses – six Senate seats and 71 seats in the House – in the 1938 mid-terms. What’s more, Krugman asserts – and he’s critical of Obama from the left for being too timid with his stimulus efforts – the public in the late 1930’s took exactly the wrong lesson from FDR’s shift in policy. Americans became convinced that stimulus spending and job creation efforts hadn’t worked and wouldn’t work. That debate, check the morning paper, still rages.

I keep thinking there must be some middle ground somewhere in the current debate, but I’ve been wrong before. Couldn’t we get something approaching national consensus around two or three major issues?

One, Wall Street and investment banking excesses must be brought under control. Does anyone really think that what happened in the run up to the financial collapse shouldn’t be avoided in the future if at all possible? Regulating greed and excess is not a partisan issue.

Two, spending on well-conceived public works (OK, infrastructure) is both a good long-term investment and good short-term job stabilizer and, one hopes, job creator. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said recently that the stimulus has – big surprise – increased the deficit and reduced unemployment.

And, three, the deficit needs to come down, but maybe in a planned, systematic way. Maybe the timing on the expiration of those Bush-era tax cuts is really not very conducive to getting capital out of hibernation. Perhaps a compromise is in order?

Someone, the president or John Boehner or the ghost of Henry Morgenthau needs to find a way to knit all the pieces together into a 2010 whole cloth of economic growth, job creation and fiscal sanity. Not holding your breath? I understand.

There is a poem entitled “Nineteen-Thirty-Eight” by Andrea Hollander Budy. It’s about a young woman who lies about not graduating from high school in 1938:

yanked out
when her father lost his job.

Now it was her turn
to make herself useful, he told her.

Nineteen-Thirty-Eight was not a particularly good year and not one to repeat. That much history tells us very clearly.

Ralph Smeed

smeedOne of the Characters

My dad loved to say that every town had a “town character,” but that in his hometown the characters had a town. If the same can be said of a state, then Ralph Smeed, the crusty, 88 year old libertarian who died yesterday, was one of Idaho’s true characters.

I don’t remember when I first met Ralph, but I do remember it was at the other end of a telephone line. I had just finished what I am sure was another fairly routine half-hour on Idaho Public Television interviewing a panel of guests on some political or economic subject. The phone rang and Smeed boomed down the line: “Johnson, your idea of a good show is getting two liberals to disagree…”

Hello, Ralph Smeed.

Over time the phone calls became more frequent and I came to know Smeed for his unflinching brand of libertarian politics and his political quips delivered almost always with a smile and genuine humor. He was the bane of all liberals, the mostly cheerful opponent of “government TV” – his term for PBS – a champion of Adam Smith, fierce opponent of “statism,” and one of those guys who if not always right, was never in doubt. I have no idea about Ralph’s religious views, but God rest him. I suspect, if he gets a chance, he’ll be engaging St. Peter over the unfairness of the inheritance tax.

Ralph Smeed is one of those characters who can’t help but enrich our political system. As a learning journalist, much younger and, I’m certain, much more sure of myself than I had any right to be, Smeed taught me a lesson. He would argue that his brand of libertarian, unfettered free market politics rarely, if every, received the time that news organizations routinely devoted to more conventional conservative vs. liberal debate. He was right then, of course, but that pendelum has swung.

I would argue back in the early 1980’s that when Smeed’s essential views gained a larger following they would be featured more prominently. He would respond that it would be hard for the libertarian point of view to gain a greater following if the so called “main stream media” didn’t interview their spokesmen. Touche. I think we both had a point.

I like to think I became more open as a result of this running dialogue and I did have the pleasure of reminding Ralph a time or two that he had to watch “government TV” in order to hear Milton Friedman or William F. Buckley.

Ralph may have warmed a little when I had the chance to interview Buckley, an encounter he helped to arrange, while the then-host of the PBS program “Firing Line” made a visit to Caldwell. It was one of the better, more interesting interviews I ever did and I happily came away with an autographed copy of Buckley’s then-latest book, ironically not about politics, but sailing.

You have to like a guy who stood for his beliefs. Not always right, in my view, but never in doubt and someone who could – and would – good naturedly debate his views with anyone. In a way, I envy a guy like Ralph who could be so completely confident in his world view. I don’t think life – or politics – is ever quite so black and white, but as I said, we need the Ralph Smeed’s to enrich the great debate.

College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi summed up Smeedism in a comment to the Idaho Press-Tribune: “Smeed has been very vocal. No one has ever questioned where he stood. If anything, from where he started, (Canyon) county and I guess the state are closer to his ideology.”

Whether you believe that is good or bad, it is a true statement.

The Importance of Being Borah

borahA Senator Worth Remembering

I’ll be speaking on Wednesday night at the Main Boise Library on the life and career of Idaho’s longest serving U.S. Senator, William E. Borah. That’s him, third from the right, in a photo taken in Sandpoint. I’m going to guess is was in the middle-1920’s.

The Borah talk is one I have put together as part of the Idaho Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. I’ll talk about Borah’s career and lasting importance, but also about his view of the Senate in our form of government. Borah was a progressive Republican, somewhat in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, but he was also fiercely independent and more than willing to buck his own party.

I’ve been reading and writing about Borah for a long time. In fact, I began his journey into blogland more than a year ago with a piece on his approach to Supreme Court appointments. I continue to find him a fascinating character. And, of course, there is that business with Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

The Library event is a 7:00 pm in the Main Auditorium. Staff at the Boise Library have also created a great Borah bibliography of books, articles and writings about the man known as “the Lion of Idaho.”

 

Putting the Labor in Labor Day

laborUnions Decline, China Rises…the Great Shrinking of American Manufacturing

David Letterman quips that Americans celebrate Labor Day by going out and buying stuff made in China. That would be funny if it weren’t so obviously true. A little weekend shopping – a new ice bucket (still can’t fathom what happened to the old one), a salad bowl and some tea candles – resulted in a handful of purchases all made in China or somewhere else. Not even one American-made product in the shopping bag.

Can America remain a global power without a manufacturing economy? I guess we’ll find out.

As the president rolls out a new plan to create jobs and address American infrastructure needs, the icy facts about the decline of the nation’s ability to plan, design and build things is hard to ignore, even as most in policy positions do just that.

Once upon a time Labor Day was about celebrating the American Labor movement. From Boston to Butte, from the IWW to the IBEW, unions fought, scrapped, lost and won battles that shaped the American economy. Not so much in the 21st Century. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne connects the lack of American prosperity today to the great shrinking labor movement. A third of American workers belonged to a union in the prosperous 1950’s. The number is just over 12 percent today. I’ll leave it to the labor economists to connect the dots, if they can be connected – organized labor’s demise = decline in American manufacturing = a struggling U.S. economy = increasing separation among the very wealthy and the rest of our society.

As the American Prospect noted late last year, the U.S. lost 5.5 million – 32 percent – of all its manufacturing jobs from October 2000 to October 2009. More people are unemployed in the United States today than are employed in manufacturing. Since 2001, more than 42,000 American factories have gone the way of the dodo bird. Not resting, but dead. Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing economy is cited as a reason for a bump last week in the Asia stock markets.

Twenty-five years ago, Idahoans – in the legislature and at the ballot box – pulled the teeth of organized labor in Idaho. It was the nastiest, toughest, most consequential political fight in my time in the state. Conservatives won and the number of Idahoans who are members of labor unions declined by 50 percent. With those declines went the once not inconsiderable clout of organized labor to field political foot soldiers and contribute campaign cash. You can mark the steady decline of Idaho’s Democratic Party over the last 25 years to the passage of Right to Work in 1986, even as Cecil Andrus, an opponent of Right to Work and a favorite in the union halls, was returned to the governorship that year.

You can still get a debate going by asking whether Right to Work has been good – or not – for Idaho. Conservatives argue that job growth over those years proves that Idaho is a great place to do business. Others suggest that Idaho’s declining standing in wages, as compared to the rest of the country, proves that the law has been bad for workers. That debate will never be settled.

Writing in the Post, Harold Meyerson contends that the Great Recession has harmed American workers far more than their counterparts in Europe where organized labor remains strong and a substantial political force. The clout of American labor will continue to decline unless and until leaders of the movement quit doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.

Before I get typecast as nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of shift changes, suds at the union hall and Labor Day picnics, I’ll offer the thought that union leaders must shoulder a good deal of the responsibility for the decline they so readily lament. They have often been tone deaf, cranky and unreasonable and restoring anything approaching their historic standing will require a new generation with new attitudes and tactics. We’ll see.

Still, on this Labor Day this much is true: for whatever reason(s), the American – and Idaho – economy is a lot different than it was a quarter century ago. Lots of “blue collar” jobs in traditional industries are gone forever. Chinese exports flood the U.S. market. Politicians make Labor Day speeches about rebuilding the nation’s economy, but you have to wonder, as another holiday designed to honor labor comes and goes, whether we can rebuild without building things – all kinds of things – again.


Goodbye to the Center

SenateThe Last Moderate Can Turn Out the Lights

The media’s favorite academic pundit, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, has slightly jumped the gun on the traditional Labor Day start of the fall campaign by flatly predicting that the GOP will capture control of the House of Representatives in November. Sabato says Republicans have an increasingly good chance of taking control of the Senate, too.

If Sabato is right, and his predictions are supported by lots of recent state-by-state polling, as well as the instincts of lots of political operatives, then – brace yourselves – the next Congress could be even more sharply split than the current one. The reason is simple: both parties, in a frantic race to secure the support of their most ideological supporters, have abandoned any notion that the center of the political universe is worth trying to capture.

Republicans, supported by the Tea Party movement, have dumped incumbent U.S. Senators in Utah and Alaska for extremely conservative alternatives. Bob Bennett in Utah and Lisa Murkowski in Alaska were deemed “too liberal” for the party base. By the same token, three incumbent Senate Democrats faced primary challenges from the left. Blanche Lincoln and Michael Bennet, alleged to be “too moderate” survived in Arkansas and Colorado. Arlen Specter, the party-switcher, didn’t make it in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: in the reddest of the red states and the bluest of the blue states, the greatest threat to incumbency has now become the threat that an office holder will get “primaried.” Republican “moderates” are attacked from the right. Democrats get it from the left. Being called a moderate is about as helpful to one’s political future as being called a Taliban sympathizer.

This politics of the extreme left and extreme right has seen, for example, the career efforts of Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson – no serious person’s idea of anything other than a responsible conservative – being condemned by his own party’s convention. Simpson’s sin – laboring for ten years to collaboratively resolve the wilderness dispute in central Idaho. Resolving disputes is what legislators are supposed to do and it involves, in the best sense, compromise and, yes, moderation.

On the left, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs lashed out recently at liberal critics of the president suggesting that they “ought to be drug tested.” Gibbs said the “professional left” is just as out of touch with reality as some of the far out voices on the “professional right.” More evidence of the near complete polarization of our politics.

If Republicans do succeed in capturing the House, and maybe the Senate, in November they will find that the purge of the moderates will, in all likelihood, make getting anything of substance done in the next Congress virtually impossible. There are already predictions that the fault lines within the GOP will split the Tea Party crowd from the more traditional wing. Right now the party is united in opposition to Barack Obama and not united on how it might actually try to govern if given the chance.

If you think Congress is dysfunctional now, and under Democratic control it has been, then stay tuned. We my not have seen anything, yet.