Politics


Rick Perry needs help! His ramblings about the possibility, no matter how unlikely, of Texas’ secession seem Yeltsinesque (you know, the hegemonic state claiming to be oppressed by the imperial system it created).

Of course, how could I, a sympathetic regionalist, complain of Perry’s threats? Although each state encompasses different resources and populations, the governmental uniformity of the US is boring. And the possibility of redrawing the American map plays into fun role-playing games from high school. And the whole rhetoric of the “Lone Star State” is an effective rallying cry to motivate the population.

Perry’s threat, though, is lame. The notion that Texas’ integration into the Union was both negotiated and conditional holds little water, and was easily debunked by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Statehood occurs nationally and constitutionally. Territories and populations aspiring to statehood must meet the conditions set by Congress (conditions that delayed statehood for Louisiana and New Mexico). States do not have special relations to the Union, as for example Alsace to France, Andorra to France and Spain, or Hong Kong to China. Other nations may have come together in a heterogeneous fashion. The United States, a late comer influence by the Enlightenment, is more Cartesian in its constitution. Even the original states surrendered what made them unique upon ratifying the constitution, and conformed themselves to national standards. Of course, some Americanist will raise issues about the Civil War and changing meanings of integration in both culture and law that will further weaken Perry’s case. Ultimately, neither Perry nor the Texas legislature can unilaterally declare their sovereignty from the United States. It’s like a big bowl at a party: guests must leave their keys behind in order to drink, and can’t get them back without the hosts ok. (And you might have to drive home someone you don’t like, too.)

Now, just because it’s not constitutional, we can’t dismiss secession out of hand. Perry could appeal to the global community on the basis on indigenism: the native peoples of Texas were not adequately represented in the decision to join the Union, or joining the Union deprived native peoples of their autonomy. Yes, bring it back to the original Texans. Though that might empower those who would not want to leave the United States. (Like I’ve said, Tejas por los Tejanos!)

Whatever the merits of Perry’s argument, he’s simply overplayed his hand. Few “divorces” are as easy and successful as the fracturing of Czechoslovakia (they were effectively two states being administered side by side). The list of bloody and unsuccessful secessions is much longer. Even in the realm of polite politics, separation is expensive, something the Quebecoises have learned. It might even require renegotiation with Mexico. (Not to mention that Perry would secede over matters of degree rather than real policy differences.)

I doubt that Perry wants Texas to leave the Union; he’d rather make use of secessionist rhetoric in order to gain political capital. But he may already have lost by appearing among those calling for independence rather than representing Texans (which would include those who doubt the future of the Union). In European regionalism, the more politicians appeared with separatists, the more their lost support of the general population. (ETA: Indeed, it seems Texans aren’t really behind this, according to some numbers from Rasmussen.) They were more successful first denying separatism as a solution, but giving voice to the complaints of the separatists. Catholic Democrats in Alsace were thereby able to delay the full integration of French law indefinitely, and in the Rhine Province they were able to gain autonomy with the Prussian state that they might not have been afforded had it become a Land.

So, Mr. Perry: don’t be a secessionist–use the secessionists! Those are people with real complaints who need a voice! (And maybe–just maybe–secession will happen anyway.)

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I’ve seen this quote a couple hundred times too many:

We are spending more money than we have ever spent before, and it does not work. After eight years we have just as much unemployment as when we started, and an enormous debt to boot.

It comes from Harry Morgenthau, FDR’s secretary of the treasury, via Burton Fulsom’s flawed history. It’s a darling of conservative pundits who want to say that government spending cannot reverse an economic downturn. Indeed, their whole case against government spending seems to hinge on this one moment, a supposed moment of clarity from Morgenthau.

Government spending would not in itself be the problem.  It increased dramatically through the 1940s.  But as easy as it is to argue in its favor, I’ve yet to read some dissection of Morgenthau’s statement … something that puts it in context to show that it is a less powerful assesment that conservatives would think.  Indeed, the passage lacks any depth, and reads more like exasperation rather than reflection, and given that Morgenthau often disagreed with Roosevelt on spending (though not necessarily on its application), there is plenty of room for a historian to debunk the conservative interpretation.

Morgenthau, at the very least, represented the concerns of American businessmen that the goals of the New Deal were not clearly defined, and the consequential costs were excessive.  Were they temporary or permanent?  According to HW Brands, Morgenthau confronted Roosevelt with this issue, claiming that recent declines in productivity reflected businessmen’s frustration with Roosevelt’s opacity.  FDR relished his caginess, refusing to choose between temporality and permanence, and preferring to keep that information from those whom he felt opposed his policies.  Eventually, Roosevelt would associate economic security with stable democracy.

This is only a small bit of context.  Beyond this moment, there is little evidence of Morgenthau’s sustained opposition to the New Deal, or that his proclamation was a blanket judgement of New Deal policies.  But the bigger problem is that this is one quote, one full of ambiguities (what else was said at the same Congressional committee hearing?).  Ultimatley, there are more fruitful ways to use history of the Great Depression to bolster their arguments.  This isn’t it.

Economist Dambisa Moyo has received some attention from conservative bloggers, many I assume are looking for other fronts to fight the war against Keynesian economics.  Her interviews reveal that she is not quite the ally they would prefer.  Beneath the ridicule  of the pretensions a help from the Bonos of the world, there is a critique of how aid has been used, rather than of aid in itself.  Raising the issue of Cold War strategy and calling on the interested in contributing to microfinance rather than charity, Moyo calls attention to the fact that aid has largely been mislabeled as economic (when it really kept governments in line) and that it could be more precisely tragetted at economic development.  A grosser argument could follow: aid ought to be specifically economic, not political.  On the other hand, her comparison of Africa to China doesn’t seem to find sufficient depth.  Yes, China did better without financial assistance, but it did so by rewriting the rules of capitalism, displacing its association with democratic institutions.  Do the Glen Reynolds want to turn Africa into a mini-China?  Time will tell.

The Great Depression is far from my area of expertise, though I know enough about the questionable aspects of Burton Folsom’s history (particularly the skewed employment numbers and the light treatment of political volatility).  What I find interesting is that this debate about the effectiveness of New Deal policies seems to have found distant shores. Australia’s PM, Kevin Rudd, not only referenced the New Deal in justifying state intervention in financial markets and aggressive economic stimulus, but Australian columnists have taken up the arguments of American conservatives in opposing Rudd’s proposals.  Referencing Fulsom, Michael Costa wrote:

What is not in dispute is that the US Federal Reserve made the Depression worse by mismanaging monetary policy. At the onset of the Depression, the Federal Reserve adopted a deflationary monetary policy that added to its severity. The money supply contracted by nearly one third in the Depression’s first four years. That’s why present Fed chairman Ben Bernanke moved quickly to increase liquidity.

Without discussing the merits of Folsom’s arguments, I wonder how Costa came to the conclusion that this is “not in dispute”, considering Fulsom’s arguments fly in the face of many American histories of the Depression, and that Fulsom has gained currency mostly among politicians, almost all conservative.  (Perhaps a better critique would come from Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform: Roosevelt and Morgenthau found that  state intervention brought stability, but limited potential growth.  Consequently, Rudd’s plan to reinvent capitalism under state guidance might not provide as much bang in the long term.)

On a similar note, German Social Democrat Erhard Eppler has been arguing hard for not just state intervention, but reinvestment in the state itself (see “The State is an Achievement Itself” and “Nicht-Staaten sind gefaerlich“).

What a strange coincidence that Crooked Timber would have a symposium on the science fiction of Charles Stross days after I completed reading his first novel, Singularity Sky. (HT: Ralph Luker)  I had picked up the novel years ago, but it languished in the pile of books-I’ll-get-to-someday.  Reviewers had described it as a novel of ‘big ideas’ about the clash of civilizations, appropriately reflected in its publication date, 2003.

Among the contributions are fine analyses from Paul Krugman and Henry Farrell.  Curiously, the authors don’t deal extensively with Singularity Sky, nor do they touch upon one of the novel’s most relevant themes: asymmetrical warfare.  At best, the novel serves to illustrate singularity, which a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.

Singularity Sky is set in an era in which humanity has been forcibly dispersed by a near-omnipotent Eschaton, an entity that jealously guards the past to prevent threats to its power.  The politics of Earth have been decentralized to the individual, nationality is meaningless, and citizenship (if one can call it that) emerges from a complex web of overlapping allegiances and alliances.  Conversely, the New Republic has regressed back to the strong post-Westphalian state, as represented by such nineteenth century powers as Prussia and Russia.  Anti-intellectual and anti-technology, advancement serves only to strengthen the  state’s ability to project violence.

In Massie-like fashion, the state invests in heavy space-faring battleships to protect its empire.  When the mysterious Festival drops technology over one of its colonies, inciting violence and revolution, the fleet launches in order to confront the threat to its sovereignty.  However, the political thinking that produces this type of war machine fails to comprehend, and thus respond, to the threat.  Instead of engaging in a high-tech, though traditional, gun battle, the ships are consumed by nanites.  The fleet is catastrophically defeated.  (Oh, there is also something about the Eschaton preventing interference in the timeline.)

According to the protagonists, the New Republic was bound for disaster.   The New Republic was organizationally mismatched against the Festival, the the former’s command hierarchy being incapable of confronting the decentralized system of the latter.  Unfortunately, we don’t see this, it must be told to us (as with much science fiction) by the protagonists.  Stross never describes how the Festival operates, and what we do see of its military strategy (if you could call it that) does not preclude a centralized command structure.

In the end, the technological differences (rather than organizational) carry the day.  The pesky nanites are  too small, too numerous to confront with large-scale weapons.  The strategic advantages aren’t clear, and we are left with a narrative that gives superiority to the civilization with the better technology.  Tropes of western imperialism could fit easily into this narrative.  Indeed, I could not help but think of the Africans who believed that German bullets would turn to water and would not harm them.  (I’ll grant that Stross’ description of what happens to societies inundated with techonology is compelling and frightening.)

This aspect of the novel offers insight into what had been a poorly explored aspect of the “War on Terror”: the tendency to associate terrorism with the politics of state rather than understanding the mentality and organization of terrorists.  How much Stross wants readers to equate the New Republic’s fights against the Festival with the War on Terror is debatable (nor should we force congruence between them).  Yet Stross has vocally denounced the United States’ targeting of nation-states as exporters of terrorism.  Instead, the fight requires broader, more cordial engagement with the societies from which terrorism rises:

Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it’s a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz’s famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples’ hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate — by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security — is insane.

Given Stross’ interest in the War on Terror, it’s fair to ask how useful his novel is at illuminating asymmetrical warfare.

Part II tomorrow.

What’s foreign in America, using the the Cokie Roberts test?

Tropical beaches and palm trees: Hawai’i, California (say it like Ah-nuld), and Florida?

Frenchies: Louisiana and Vermont?

The northern Mexico desert: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona?

(Let’s eliminate New Mexico just ’cause of the name.  Most people think you need a passport to go there, anyway.)

Too close to India: Indiana?

Foreign-born governors: Michigan, California (second strike)?

This little jab at John McCain (who visited Iowa against the recommendation of the governor) addresses something that really bugs me: the tendency to equate federal spending with excessive government spending. Earkmarks offer the opportunity for congressmen to pay back allies for local support and fund projects that have no rationale, but they also are the best substitute for a fundamental weakness of the federal system of administration: there is no bureaucracy or infrastructure to direct federal spending at the district level. There is no discretionary budget for congressional districts to help them deal with problems that cannot be covered by local revenue. There is also no decision-making or consultation taking place at the district level on how to best use earmarks. Equating earmarks and pork, McCain depletes whatever resources districts might have to seek improvements (especially important given the shortfalls of revenue in the face of declining property values). A better use of his time would be arguing for symmetry between the funds available to members of congress and the needs of the people they represent.

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