Evan Bayh says that a constitutional amendment may be necessary

in order to correct the corrosive effect of private money upon political campaigns.


I also have to agree with Thomas Friedman in his column of today, although I am not generally an admirer of his.

“Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag….While it would certainly help if the president voiced a more compelling narrative, I am under no illusion that this alone would solve all his problems and ours. It comes back to us: We have to demand the truth from our politicians and be ready to accept it ourselves. We simply do not have another presidency to waste. There are no more fat years to eat through. If Obama fails, we all fail.”


Leon Wieseltier v Andrew Sullivan, a Jewish layman’s reaction

I have been introduced to a public row between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan by a conversation between Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Loury on bloggingheadstv:


The venomous article directed at Sullivan by Wieseltier is here:


Here is my reaction to the article, which I have also posted in the bloggingheadstv online forums, in a very slightly different version.

I guess there are two substantive claims in it that strike me as odd. The first is that there is no such thing as Jewish fundamentalism. Maybe Wieseltier is right about this, I certainly don’t know, but he could only be right if what he means is that there is such a thing as Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, and we know what they are, and Jewish claims to the Holy Land based upon biblical mandates are categorically different from these things. But since he does not bother to define what he means by fundamentalism, how are we supposed to judge the merits of his distinction? To me, and I will confess complete ignorance about what he’s referring to, it sounds like he’s dancing on the head of a pin. But then, that’s what Talmudists do, so I’m told. What this part of the piece reads like to me is simply an injunction: the goyim had better stay out of this dispute, unless they know as much about Judaism as I do. But the problem is, that’s impossible, because what the goy has to know is the internalized suffering of the post-Shoah Jew. Even Sullivan’s knowledge of minority status, via his homosexuality, is insufficient to convey the requisite understanding. Speaking as a Jew, I find it difficult to believe that Wieseltier can make good on his distinction between fundamentalism and the radical faith of certain Jewish settlers, but, as I say, I don’t even really know what he’s talking about. This whole part of the piece reminds me awfully much of Christopher Hitchens in his worst moments.

The second claim Wieseltier makes that strikes me as particularly weak is that Israel’s existence and subsequent occupation of the territories have little to do with Islamic jihadism. I don’t know how he would prove this, but it seems to me that the best, and perhaps only way to find out if he is right is to reach political accommodation between Palestinians and Israelis. Both Sullivan and I would concede, apparently, that jihadism will not vanish upon the establishment of such an accommodation. It might even get worse. I still don’t see how that dire possibility proves much, one way or the other, as regards the effect of the festering sore that is the territories on the overall mental health of Islam.

I happened to read, because of bhtv, Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog recently, and Leiter takes a swipe at Wieseltier. Leiter’s gripe with Wieseltier is that Wieseltier went to Oxford to study philosophy and claims to have been disenchanted with the state of the discipline as he found it at Oxford. Leiter’s take is that analytic philosophy was too difficult and rigorous for Wieseltier. From my point of view, I think there are good reasons to reject the analytic approach in its institutionalized form, although one has to confess that not everyone is cut out to be a pure logician, in the tradition of Frege and Principia Mathematica. But then most analytic philosophy bears only a distant relation to that tradition. I would agree with the proposition that a philosopher should know something about Frege and the Principia, or Peano, even if he is incapable of writing at all originally in that field.

I like Wieseltier’s “look.” Maybe he is a poseur, maybe not. This particular piece is all too reminiscent of the row between Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn.

I also thought this was a good diavlog, and I did not know that Matthew Yglesias is Jewish until now. I’m a bit confused about what Loury’s quandary is regarding the “juxtaposition” between Jewish and Afro-American politics in America. Here is the big difference. The Jews give a lot of money to candidates and to PACS. The Jews receive almost no money that I am aware of from government, at least not qua Jews. There are privately funded Jewish charities that tend to Jews in America. There is very little legislation devoted to the treatment of the Jewish minority. In short, the Jews in America are very well assimilated now, and extraordinarily successful financially. So I don’t see any big mystery here. And please, everyone, I am speaking here descriptively, I’m not casting aspersions on anyone, although I do think, as does Yglesias, apparently, that the role of the organized Jewish community in influencing US policy towards Israel has been far from constructive. And one of the reasons for this is the bullying and hectoring one gets from people like Wieseltier.

More on the ungovernability of the USA

This front-page article in yesterday’s NYT is highly relevant:


The reason I think the American political system is broken is its failure to deal with the fundamental fiscal and economic problems facing the nation. That’s the symptom. So what are the causes?

Health care costs are a big part of the problem. This has been known for at least thirty years. I gave an oral report to a business school class about a long essay by Peter Peterson having to do with long-term deficits in Social Security and Medicare in 1982 or so. Now we also have global warming to deal with, as well as large and growing imbalances in the distribution of wealth and income and stagnating wages, and all of this quite apart from the acute financial crisis.

One way of looking at things is that the electorate wants a free lunch and thinks that it is available. So the electorate makes things impossible for elected officials. Another way of looking at things is to say that in a republic things should not work that way, that the elected officials are supposed to be an elite that should look out for the nation and educate the electorate, if it needs educating (and there can be no doubt whatever that it does).

I don’t think one needs much more evidence than the existence of Sarah Palin to prove that the republic is deeply sick. That some people who pretend to be serious (e.g. William Kristol) defend her only serves to make the point more starkly. The only thing worse than the attempt by elitists to plan society rationally is to leave things to the irrational crowd and utter morons like Palin, in the incredibly stupid hope or expectation that no government is better than ill conceived government. The only place where there is a wondrous self-regulating organism of human beings is on Fantasy Island.

Jonathan Chait – the US is ungovernable

…And this from TNR’s Jonathan Chait, on the ungovernability of the United States of America.  This guy Chait is starting to grow on me.


What are Obama’s core economic beliefs?

This just in from John Judis at “The New Republic,” Obama’s sympathies are really with Wall Street, not with Main Street. But I object to Judis’s own gloss on the old chestnut of comparing very high compensation in the business world with the very high compensation of athletes and entertainers. Judis makes the wrong argument. His argument is that banking is not analogous to professional sports for various reasons. This might in principle be a reasonable argument, but I don’t think that it is. The better argument is to say that the very high salaries are not justified anywhere, not in business, not in professional sports, not in entertainment. That is my position. One has to rebut the whole presumption of payment according to product that undergirds the free-market ideology. “The market” makes all kinds of crazy distributive decisions. The people who happen to benefit most tend to benefit from particular regulatory constraints and barriers to entry that are the opposite of a free market.

I just heard Woody Allen say to Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” that he never understood why entertainers are paid so much compared to teachers, but he confesses that he has never protested about this fact, since he has profited greatly from it. In any event, one has to distinguish two claims from one another: (i) market prices are just; (ii) market prices are efficient, or Pareto-optimal, meaning that any change in market-determined prices would produce a lower GDP. A lot of people seem to believe (ii), without believing (i). Obama may be such a person. I believe neither (i) nor (ii). If we cut the after-tax income of the highest paid people in America, say anyone with over $1,000,000 in annual wage and salary income, by 50%, the people themselves would not suffer much, and the economy as a whole might benefit. It’s not as though people would stop working extremely hard to become movie stars, professional athletes, CEO’s, and investment bankers, if the compensation at the top of the competitive pyramid in these fields were cut in half. I don’t think it would affect the pool of people interested in these professions, except perhaps very marginally, and I don’t think it would affect the effort expended by the pool.

Judis’s article does raise a very troubling doubt about Obama’s principles, however, and I am certainly coming to call into question my enthusiasm for the man.


Great column on Mideast peace by Roger Cohen

I agree with everything said in this column, written by a somewhat unlikely source, because I think of Cohen as being very slightly left of center.  He is a British Jew.

The American Jewish community must come to its senses, but it shows every sign of not doing so, year after year.  The reason is obvious.  Just as Western guilt for its complicity in the Holocaust allowed Israel to be created, guilt of the American Jewish community for leading its own successful and largely soft and secular life in America while the Israelis tough it out in the desert with their mandatory draft have led the American Jewish community to bankroll Israel in a big way and to bankroll America’s Mideast policy and to dictate its terms.   What this demonstrates to me is the superficiality of the American Jewish community, the vacuousness at its core.  I don’t have many good things to say about this “culture” in which I sort of grew up, except that it produced some good fiction writers, although these belong to an earlier generation, the generation of my parents.  If only Jewish kids were actually taught something in Sunday school.  I am myself so ignorant of Jewish theology, traditions, and history that I am embarrassed.

Here is what I believe.  Two-state  solution.   The Palestinian state cannot be cantonized, it must be mostly contiguous territory.  It would be demilitarized, with international oversight.  Jerusalem would have divided sovereignty.  There would be either no right of Palestinian return, or the cases in which such a right exerts itself would be very limited.  There would be some form of financial compensation for people who were demonstrably expropriated, possibly with international sponsorship.

But bravo Roger Cohen.  You have said what virtually no Jewish person with claims to having a voice in the centrist establishment of the American Jewish Community dares to say, or even wants to say.  But what you have said is morally correct.  No other position is possible for a responsible person.


Brooks calls for debate on constitutional reform

Wow, I am astounded and gratified.  Shortly after I suggested that America needs constitutional reform regarding two things, the disproportionate power of the Senate and the inability of our system to limit spending on political campaigns, David Brooks chimes in to say that the system might be broken and that there should be a debate about constitutional reform.  I trust he’s not talking about abortion, but since he does not even indicate what he has in mind, there is no way of knowing.  I would probably be willing to throw abortion back to the states if it meant limiting the power of the Senate significantly.


Most of Brooks’s column is an argument to the effect that Obama’s new New Deal is dead, that he will have to trim his sails and offer competence and hard talk about the tough fiscal choices ahead.  Maybe, maybe not.  Obama should try to get health care reform legislation passed somehow and then do a better job of trying to educate the public about the big reform issues, energy policy, financial regulation, education, and global warming (in no particular order).  What Brooks says about the public’s mood is not implausible, though.  But Obama should also do a better job of blaming Republican ideology for the country’s problems, even if Clinton spearheaded the financial deregulation which produced the most recent financial meltdown.  It should never be forgotten that the financial meltdown happened on Bush’s watch and that his whole administration was asleep at the financial wheel.

On the assumption that Brooks is implying that the senate is granted too much power under the constitution, given present political and demographic conditions, this is a startling admission for him to make.  And I must say that I agree entirely with Brooks that there has to be some tough talk with the supposedly wise American people to the effect that there is no free lunch.

Krugman points out today that the Republicans would apparently push again for privatization of Social Security if they regained the presidency.  This really strains credulity.  I would have thought that that would be a total nonstarter now, in light of the financial meltdown.


Doug Henwood Speaks for Me

in his introductory editorial for the edition of January 21, 2010. Those not familiar with Henwood should check him out. A leftist with a brain, who began adulthood as a graduate student of comparative literature at Yale. I don’t share his taste for punk rock, but his book about Wall Street is quite good. He is usually well worth listening to.


Bob Herbert – The US Economy on the brink

I like Bob Herbert.  He mostly speaks for me in this column about America’s sinking economic fortunes.  I’m not too sure what would be so awful if America were to be like Germany – I guess Herbert means that America would be consigned to lower average growth in GDP.  Herbert says that America’s economic problems have been made worse by trade agreements, but does not specify what he means.  But Herbert’s tone of urgency and concern strike me as apt, and the long list of major problems awaiting solution seems equally apt.


A propos of nothing, I much prefer the earnestness of Herbert to the monotonous light-heartedness of Gail Collins, who nevertheless must be quite smart and who has just published a book about the changed place of women in American society since 1960 that sounds like it is well worth reading.  But I find the tone of her columns insufferable.  If she wrote in that tone 1/3 of the time, I could abide it.

Back to Herbert and my hobby-horse of the moment, America’s outdated constitution, it occurs to me that if there were a major movement of complaint about the excessive powers of the senate and the overrepresentation of a small part of the US population that the senate represents, then senators might be moved to behave differently, even if the constitution cannot be changed.  Civics textbooks should be rewritten in such a way as to make it clear that the powers of the unrepresentative senate are unusual in a contemporary democratic state.

Healthcare reform, a question

I have heard that Obamacare would be the most redistributionist federal program since…since what, I’m not too sure.  But one does not hear, not very often, that opposition to the plan, from whatever quarter, is based upon opposition to economic redistribution.  One could say that this motive is implicit in much of what one does hear.  The insured are generally happy and outnumber the uninsured.  There is therefore no great political impetus for reform at the popular level.  I would nevertheless have thought that there would be more discussion of the redistributionist aspect of health-care reform and of the extent to which unhappiness about income redistribution motivates opposition to reform.