29 April 2010

Could David Cameron Save the American Republican Party?

I watched the final debate between Britain’s current and two contending Prime Ministers this evening. They represented the Conservative Party, Liberal Democrats, and Labour Party. The contrast between the three was not half as stark as the contrast between British and American conservatives.

Let’s hope that American conservatives are paying attention to David Cameron of Britain’s Conservative Party. The Republican Party has been hijacked by policy makers who have decided that the clearest way to distinguish themselves from reasonable and practical policies is to offer unreasonable and ideological polices. Cameron’s campaign will hopefully remind Republicans that it is possible to distinguish yourself from reasonable policies by offering other reasons rather than just blindly opposing the other side.

For instance, Republicans in this country – the party that supposedly represents conservatives here – are mindlessly opposed to financial reform. Without reform, we will again find ourselves in the position of either bailing out bankers or letting them take down our economy. (And of course, no one wants to admit that even with great reforms we’re likely to find ourselves in this situation, the only difference being the probability and severity of the hostage situation.) Republicans simply don’t want to be seen cooperating with Obama – no matter how obvious or sensible his policies seem to be.

David Cameron, by contrast, rather sensibly wants to change things within London’s banking community in the wake of the Great Recession. He wants more regulation and more consequences for banks that pursue reckless policy. This position has the advantage of making sense whether one’s analysis is sophisticated or simply based in a common sense reaction to the last financial crisis. Cameron even mentioned that his plan for financial reform was very much like Obama’s.

In Britain, policies of liberals and conservatives sometimes align and sometimes clash. There does not appear to be a requirement to oppose everything the opposition party proposes. This used to be true in the US as well. Modern Republicans, as near as I can tell, seem to define themselves less by what they think will work than by opposing what Obama seems to think will work.

The curious thing about this is that Republicans are becoming more insistent on blind ideology in a time when the countries whose economies are performing best defy easy categorization: China is nominally communist but often more aggressively capitalist than the G-7 countries; Peru and Brazil’s economies have performed splendidly with some odd hybrid of socialist and free market policies that generally favor the poor. Anymore, the fastest growing economy is as likely to espouse adherence to free markets as socialism (and all the while adopting pragmatic policies). It seems as though the real solution to economic growth is ideological flexibility, not ideological rigidity. And yet Republicans, bucking the trend of conservatives and socialists alike around the world, are becoming more ideological. But if successful policy is pragmatic rather than ideological, having such an ideologically intent party means that we’re robbed of a practically conservative option in this country. No matter what your ideological orientation, you should find this troubling. We can’t steer right in this country because the party trying to pull the wheel in that direction does not want to pull into the other lane so much as go off-roading through the oleander.

I do believe that the Republican Party will look back at this period as the time of their great hijacking, a time when their only answer to any question was lower taxes and when they let themselves get defined on everything else by their automatic opposition to Democrats. As long as ideologues own the party, the country will either suffer from their rule (as under Bush) or conservatives will suffer from Republicans’ inability to win control in DC (as under McCain). As I said, one can only hope that American conservatives are paying attention to Cameron – and humble enough to learn from Cameron and even – on occasion – agree with Obama.

27 April 2010

Fun Facts About John Paul Stevens

For some reason I find this little tidbit fascinating: if Supreme Court John Paul Stevens is replaced by someone who is not a Protestant, for the first time in our history our Supreme Court will be completely made up of non-Protestants.

Currently, we have 6 Catholics, 2 Jews, and 1 Protestant serving on the Supreme Court.

I also find it interesting that although John Paul Jones was born more than a quarter century AFTER John Paul Stevens, Jones retired from Led Zeppelin in 1980, more than a quarter century BEFORE John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court. I'm sure that this says something profound about the lifestyles of rock stars and Supreme Court justices.

24 April 2010

The Slow Mitigation of Madness

Curiously, very little seems to have been made of Obama's recent attempts to secure and reduce the number of nuclear weapons. As with so much in life, this baffles me. This seems to me his most important accomplishment. Nuclear weapons are predicated on the curious notion that a state's existence should somehow outlast the existence of its people. It's hard to imagine any sane future two or three centuries hence that doesn't look back at nuclear weaponry as the most curious evidence of institutionalized madness.

Perhaps the oddest news story I've read in the last couple of years has to do with LBJ, Castro, Nukes and the Kennedy assassination. Apparently, LBJ had evidence suggesting that Castro, weary of the Kennedy brothers' multiple attempts to assassinate him, arranged JFK's assassination. The evidence for this was not conclusive but was suggestive. When LBJ learned about this, he sat on the investigation. His reasoning? The American people would be so outraged at this that they'd demand retaliation and given Cuba was a satellite state for the USSR, Johnson could see things escalating into nuclear war. LBJ decided that retaliation wasn't worth such a risk.

It might be true that nuclear weapons made war so costly that simply having them made states more hesitant to engage in even conventional warfare, much less retaliation for assassination of its leaders. But the fact that we had no nuclear wars does not mean that they were impossible. The simple question is whether it is better to lower the probability of, say, 100,000 casualties from conventional war by 50% if it meant raising the probability of 100 million casualties by 5%.

The eruption of volcano [insert unintelligible Icelandic name here] recently is a reminder of how rapidly surrounding areas could be impacted by something like nuclear war. As my friend Norman pointed out the other day, even a couple of nuclear bombs lobbed back and forth between India and Pakistan would - in addition to devastating populations in those countries - likely radiate out to impact the regions around them. Imagine radioactive volcanic dust and try to project a situation like this month's volcano lasting for years. Madness indeed.

Nuclear materials are unaccounted for. Worse, the states now threatened by them were the ones to produce those materials as part of a national security program.

Most people realize that it would be awful if Iran got nuclear weapons. Because we've had generations to acclimate to the idea, we've lost the realization that it is awful that any state has nuclear weapons. Give credit to Clinton, the younger Bush, and Obama for having the sense to realize that national security and nuclear weapons don't really belong in the same sentence and working to reduce decades of build up.

Recessions come and go, as do tax cuts, health care insurance programs, and attempts to reform education. No other policy has the potential to so negatively, and perhaps irreversibly, impact humanity as nuclear weapon policy. If we're lucky, Obama's successor will continue the escalation of nuclear arms reduction and future generations won't have the strange possibility of nuclear winter to live with.

01 April 2010

The Difficulty of Predicting History

Apparently it is as hard to predict history as it is to predict the future. History is a story we tell about the past to make sense of it to our own lives.

Westminster Abbey is a burial place for some of the greats of England, and some who are by now, completely inconsequential. I was struck by how arbitrary is the inclusion and exclusion of certain figures of history. As near as I can tell, Jethro Tull is not there - the man whose agricultural inventions helped fight hunger and increase wealth. Yet mere servants to royalty are included there - people whose only contribution to history was to please or befriend the most powerful person in England at the time. But most curiously, Westminster Abbey captures history in real time, revealing how little we understand how lives today will be made important or rendered trivial by subsequent events.

Part of this is a matter of popularity. It seems probable that Vint Cerf will be considered more important to history than, say, Mussolini, and Robert Beyster will be more important to business history than Larry Ellison or Jack Welch, but of course Cerf and Beyster are far less known than the others. Current popularity matters.

But the bigger problem may be the problem of knowing what immediate history will make things different tomorrow. We know that GM was laying off lots of people in the late 1990s but were unaware that Brin and Page were starting Google. Sometimes years later – sometimes decades later – we finally realize the importance of certain events. History is as hard to predict as the future in part because history depends on a prediction of the future.