Talkin' bout the Tenth ...

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

The new Atlantic monthly contains an essay by Clive Crook, formerly of The Economist, who does what Nicholas Kristof of the Times would not do: which is at least engage with those economists who dare to doubt the free trade nostrums he holds so dear.

Kristof has been beating this drum for a while, most recently beating up Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, here ($), for trying to "drag this country backward" with "cowboy diplomacy," in the face of George W. Bush, who "has been steadfast on trade." Trade, the pundit explains, "is a particularly useful prism through which to look at politicians, for it offers a litmus test of political courage and economic leadership. That's because there are no political benefits to a candidate who supports free trade, but considerable benefits to the country." Kristof did not bother to address himself to counter-arguments, nor mention to his readers that many respected and admired economists -- including such former free trade stalwarts as Alan Blinder, Lawrence Summers, George A. Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, and even former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- are in the process of questioning the relevance of the economic orthodoxy he is asserting. Nor did he note that many important economists, including the late Frank Taussig, Dani Rodrik, David Card, Dean Baker, and others associated with Washington's Economic Policy Institute, had already created a significant body of work calling into question many of the claims of the free-traders and laying the groundwork for an alternative path. (Indeed, Mr. Kristof's own newspaper had covered this debate thoroughly just two weeks earlier, in an article headlined, "In Economics Departments, a Growing Will to Debate Fundamental Assumptions" here ($).) Instead, he terms it a "litmus test of political courage and economic leadership" to defy the specific demands of the people who elected you; for if there was a single issue that united the Democratic victors in 2006 and separated them from their Republican opponents -- many of whom also questioned the wisdom and competence of George W. Bush's military policies, it was the insistence that they would take a tougher line on trade -- with China having been identified as the primary culprit. And yet to Kristof, all of these people are merely "stak[ing] out myopic positions for political calculations," whose arguments, like those of Ross Perot, "appealed to Know-Nothing nativists."

Now look at this piece by Clive Crook ($), who is no less devoted to free trade than Kristof. In fact, he calls David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage "the greatest gift that economic wisdom ever bestowed on humankind" -- but who demonstrates considerably more respect for his readers:

"When the facts change, I change my mind," said John Maynard Keynes. "What do you do, sir?" Theory aside, the past decade has supplied a lot of new facts -- not least, rising inequality and a protracted stagnation of middle-class earnings. It seems natural to blame the quickening pace of globalization for this. Again, however, no careful examination of the new facts on earnings shows trade or offshoring to be more than minor culprits. When you look closely, the shifts in earnings and the shifts in trade fail to marry up: The periods when imports have risen most rapidly are not the periods when wage pressures have been most intense. Studies suggest that labor-saving technology is a much more powerful force. No empirical work even comes close to supporting the claim that globalization is failing to benefit America in the aggregate. Countless studies have shown, and continue to show, the benefits of trade. Yes, some industries have shrunk or disappeared because of trade, and their workers have suffered the consequences; the pace of this change has probably quickened lately; better policies to insure and compensate the victims are surely called for. But to say this is very different from supposing that open markets hurt the United States as a whole. "

I disagree with the above, and indeed, most of Crook's article. But it's an honest engagement with the issue as opposed to the contempt Kristof showered on these economists (and voters). In a way that Paul Samuelson did not envisage, the doubts that he and others have expressed threaten to make that idea trivial after all -- dismissed as nothing more than an arresting curiosity, apt to be oversimplified by blinkered pro-trade types, with no real policy content and no claim on politicians' attention. What a tragedy that would be. And not just because economics would no longer have an answer to Stanislaw Ulam's question.

Also in The Atlantic, Charlie Savage -- whose terrific reporting is virtually alone in ensuring that Americans were aware that George W. Bush reserves the right to simply ignore the laws that Congress passes when he doesn't like them and so engages in the process of constitutional subterfuge via "signing statements" -- has a piece on the future of presidential power here ($) and another in The Nation; these are, I'm guessing, Charlie's way of asking you to buy his new book on the topic, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, which is here.

Finally in the new Atlantic: a positively dreadful review by Christopher Hitchens of the new Philip Roth/Nathan Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost, here. Hitchens clearly doesn't "get" Roth and for this he blames Roth rather than himself. (He also seems unfamiliar with the story of the author Henry Roth, who obviously inspired Roth's decision to give E.I. Lonoff the "secret" upon which much of the plot turns. It's not even clear that Hitchens has read Ghost Writer or the rest of the Zuckerman oeuvre, without which one can read and enjoy this book, but not review it intelligently.) I hate to pyschoanalyze people on the basis of their work, but I would guess that what really peeves Christopher here are the passionate and eloquent attacks on those who, like him, supported Bush in 2004, who believe that anything other than greed or insanity can be an explanation for supporting him today. This Roth does brilliantly, and I don't blame Hitchens for taking it personally, but I do blame him for taking it out on a fine novel.

I'm pretty certain of the Henry Roth inspiration in Exit Ghost. I also noticed some similarities in one of its plotlines and main characters to Brian Morton's Rothian and Bellowesque novel, Breakable You. Of course, Roth didn't need any help to come up with the character of a crazed, young Jewish literary novelist looking to make a score, but he might have got some. If you understand and appreciate Philip better than Christopher can, I'd strongly recommend Brian's novel as well.

Another book I got all excited about recently was a private eye novel by a pseudonymous writer calling himself "Raymond Miller." The Scent of Blood is about a gumshoe with an office on 94th and Broadway who wanted to be a poet or professor before becoming a P.I., and who describes himself as a "pro-choice, anti-prayer-in-the-public-schools, free-speech-loving Jew." His heroes are Ghandi and King. And yet nothing about the book takes itself too seriously or violates the canons of the genre. Instead, it stretches them as it pays tribute. I lent my copy to a brain surgeon in Bellagio who did stem cell transplants just like the meanie, murdered doctor around whom this plot revolves, but as I recall, one of the blurbs on the book says something like, "If Irving Howe had written a PI novel ..." well, you get the point.

And while I'm recommending books, don't forget The Last Novel by David Markson, here, which I would describe as "a novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel" -- which is also a typical paragraph of this beguilling book, that can be read in almost any direction or from any page at once and remain no more or less understandable.

Also: the MSM explained in one Doonesbury.

An American hero.

From Tomdispatch:

Tom Engelhardt discusses today the launching of what he calls "Brand Petraeus." He begins with a description of how the Bush administration ran its "surge" PR campaign in Washington and Baghdad this summer based on former White House chief of staff Andrew Card's classic Iraqism (made back in 2002): "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August." The corollary, which Card didn't mention, is: Do your market research and testing in the dog-bites-man news months of the summer. And that's just what the administration has done -- including giving its celebrity surge commander, General David Petraeus, the necessary cherry-picked upbeat stats from Iraq to toss around.

He wonders:

"Why anyone in the media or Congress takes this situation seriously as 'news,' or even something to argue about, is hard to tell. Think of it this way: The most political general in recent memory has been asked to assess his own work (as has our ambassador in Iraq), and then present 'recommendations' to the White House in a 'report' that is actually being written in the White House. You couldn't call it a political version of 'the honor system'; but perhaps the dishonor system would do."

What follows is the third of Engelhardt's Tomdispatch.com "numbers" -- the most indicative stats on the Iraqi situation to be found. They range from the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in January 2007 (130,000) and the number of troops expected to be in Iraq, if the Petraeus drawdown plan is followed, in September 2008 (130,000) to the price of making an IED ("about the cost of a pizza") and the number of Iraqi refugees let into the United States in August ("nearly 530, more than all those admitted in the previous 11 months"), not to speak of civilian casualties, Army suicides, numbers of Iraqi junveniles held in American prisons in Iraq, and the percentages of the West Point classes of 2000 and 2001 who chose to leave the service last year.

When you consider these and the rest of the numbers he cites, there is no way on Earth to imagine that the situation in Iraq is anything but grim and deteriorating: First for the Iraqi people; then for the overstretched U.S. military; and finally, for the rest of the region and us.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Joe Raskin
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

Dr. Alterman:

A question on a sore point for both of us:

If the Mets clinch first place and the Yankees clinch the wild card on the same day (could happen.....), which will get the greater play in the local media?

Name: Larry Howe
Hometown: Oak Park, IL

Eric:

I'd like to thank Charlie Pierce for reminding Altercators about the foolishness of expecting faith-based voters to embrace progressive politics. I was denounced by a couple of correspondents for suggesting the same thing about a year ago on Altercation. Let's see if anyone decides to cross rhetorical swords with Charlie on this one. I'll be his second.

Name: Jim Hassinger
Hometown: Glendale

It's an interesting mind game to wonder what the generals of the past would have thought of Iraq, but Stephen Carver is, I'm afraid, guilty of wishful thinking.

Patton would undoubtedly have led a masterful drive to Baghdad, and then settled down in the Saddam palace and ruminated on Christendom and the eastern hordes, just as he seems to have thought we allied ourselves with the Reds when we should have chosen the Nazis.

Eisenhower turned down a draft by the Democrats and chose to run for the Republicans, and he allowed George Marshall to be slandered as a communist by the despicable McCarthy while Ike was on the podium, and he said not a word.

I think the general of the past to have watched was Marshall, who would, I think, have spoken the truth and resigned in 2003.

Name: Don
Hometown: Riverdale, NY

For those Altercators who take issue with Lt. Col. Bob Bateman's description of a military that won't say "No," I would like to pose this question: Would they be happy with a military that did say "No"?

Such a military would then be on an equal or superior level to the constitutionally mandated civilian authority. And such a military would be on the precipice of entering into the decision-making arena of civilian authorities. By doing so, it would become part of the political process. Do you want a politicized military?

Think again!

Name: Terry
Hometown: Alexandria, Va.

Lt. Col. Bob Bateman's point Friday that Gen. Petraeus can be expected to tell Congress that the splurge, I prefer that word, is working because the Army has a culture that just can't say no -- in the sense that it is strictly a can-do bunch of warriors. Way back in my day as an enlisted man, we certainly knew this ditty: Mine is not to reason why, mine is but to do and die. Implied in that is the fact that officers are expected to keep us from useless, wasteful and certain harm.

In recent years, a number of generals seem to have retired because they determined that is the situation in Iraq and they wanted no part of it. That was their way of saying NO. More than that, some, such as Gen. Eric Shinseki, were pushed out or so marginalized that they simply left for having spoken truth to power.

Shinseki said before the invasion that we would have to occupy Iraq with several hundred thousand troops to have any chance of stemming the sectarian violence that surely would ensue as soon as Saddam was toppled. Duh.

Shinseki also was a proponent of a new kind of warfare in such situations, with quick-hit, special-ops initatives at strategic targets while offering carrots everywhere else. Instead, we rolled into Iraq like it was WWII and Gen. Patton doing tank battle with Gen. Rommel. Duh.

President Bush has played this like a poker game in which he is the only player who can keep asking for more cards 'till he gets the hand he wants. Sure, he listens to the military leaders on the ground. But he kept changing them 'till he got one who says what he wants. Duh.

By the way, what's the war czar up to?

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