Sunday, June 08, 2014

ICYRMI: Six online classics of 21st century history

"ICYMI" generally refers to something written a day or a week ago.  In recent days, I've had recourse several times to Michael Hastings' deeply reported 2012 reconstruction of Bowe Bendahl's upbringing, inner life and military career -- as well as of the negotiations for his release. It would be a mistake to suggest that everything most of us are learning now about Bendahl is in that story, but my sense is that 80 percent of it is.

That set me thinking this morning about other articles, written years ago but still online, that made a strong impression on me and that still resonate. Here's a short "in case your really missed it" list.

America's Sicilian Expedition: in the runup to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, pundits and scholars analogized the impending war to every conflict in American history, with the possible exception of the War of 1812. Some went further afield. One that struck me as a bit outlandish at the time was historian Simon Schama's essay raising the specter of ancient Athens' disastrous exercise in imperial overreach:

The tragic climax of Thucydides's "History of the Peloponnesian War" — the catastrophic Athenian expedition to Sicily — is just such a cautionary chronicle of hubris-laden comeuppance...

Democracies, Thucydides says, are no better armed against panic in the face of adversity, nor are they necessarily more virtuous and discriminating when they exercise their power against it. During the debates over the prudence of the Sicilian expedition, the most withering contempt is reserved for the belligerence of armchair hawks whose enthusiasm for the campaign is in inverse proportion to their personal experience of combat. The warnings of the seasoned veteran, Nicias, against running "new dangers when the state of our own city hangeth unsettled" are allowed their full, cautionary eloquence. Nonetheless, the historian complains, "everyone alike fell in love with the enterprise: the old men upon hope to subdue the place they went to or that at least so great a power could not miscarry; and the young men upon desire to see a foreign country and to gaze, making little doubt but to return with safety."

In the carnage that follows it is Nicias himself who is left to watch the annihilation of the Athenian army and navy. Never suppose, implies Thucydides, wagging his finger, that any empire is invincible. Survival depends, above all, on an understanding of the economy of force.
Schama's essay dissolved into rather vague warnings about America becoming re-acquainted with the world's "ancient woes and misfortunes." He didn't draw tight parallels between the destruction of the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily (and Athens' subsequent decline) and the likely fallout from the Iraq adventure.  But the loose analogy no longer seems outlandish to me. I often wonder whether the Clinton presidency may prove to have been the high-water mark of U.S. prosperity and influence. Perhaps nostalgia for that time will prove a subliminal force propelling Hillary's candidacy.

Countdown to a meltdown: In 2005, James Fallows took a little trip into the future, imagining a U.S. economic meltdown followed by election of the country's first black president. The details were not were not quite as prophetic as those two startling hits might suggest, but the forces underlying his imagined crisis are very much with us:
The evaporation of personal savings was marveled at by all economists but explained by few. Americans saved about eight percent of their disposable income through the 1950s and 1960s, slightly more in the 1970s and 1980s, slightly less and then a lot less in the 1990s. At the beginning of this century they were saving, on average, just about nothing.10 
The possible reasons for this failure to save—credit-card debt? a false sense of wealth thanks to the real-estate bubble?11 stagnant real earnings for much of the population?—mattered less than the results. The country needed money to run its government, and Americans themselves weren't about to provide it.
Fallows' chief worry was the structural deficit triggered by the Bush tax cuts. He got the mechanism of economic meltdown wrong -- an oil shock leading to a withdrawal of Chinese credit -- and he did not foresee the draconian spending cuts (voluntary, that is -- he did imagine cuts forced by a run on the dollar and state budget collapses) or the slowdown in healthcare inflation that together have eased medium-term fiscal pressure. But his fear that the nation would remain under-taxed and so fail to make the investments that secure sustainable prosperity remains very much alive.

Obama the healer: In late 2007, Andrew Sullivan dreamed a beautiful dream about Obama: that he could heal America's divisions and restore its standing in the world. Rather bizarrely, he suggested that the policy differences between the two parties were not great (I demurred) but that sixties-era cultural battles were driving polarization. He posited that as a post-boomer professing a non-fundamentalist Christian belief, Obama could bypass them. And as a half-African with a Muslim middle name, he would change America's image in the Muslim world:

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can. 
These dreams of healing turned out to be mainly unfulfilled -- though worldwide opinion does vastly prefer Obama to Bush, and America's standing in most of the world is much higher than in the Bush era.. To the extent that Obama was the right choice in 2008, it's his analytical approach to policy and determination not to get sucked into more wars that have served the country well. His "face" has won the U.S. no friends in the Arab world, and in the U.S. it's exacerbated rather than healed domestic cultural divisions. But Sullivan's cover essay turbo-charged the metapolitical case for Obama that originated in Obama's own rhetoric of national unity and overcome bigotry embodied in his biography.

The ACA's thousand flowers of cost containment: In December 2009 Atul Gawande, noting that the bill that became the Affordable Care Act three months later had no "master plan" to control healthcare costs, expressed the hope that the law's myriad cost-control experiments and pilot programs would bear fruit. He drew an extended analogy with American agricultural policy in the early twentieth century, which leveraged demonstration programs and incremental change to transform America's farms and increase productivity by orders of magnitude:
The United States did not seek a grand solution. Private farms remained, along with the considerable advantages of individual initiative. Still, government was enlisted to help millions of farmers change the way they worked. The approach succeeded almost shockingly well. The resulting abundance of goods in our grocery stores and the leaps in our standard of living became the greatest argument for America around the world. And, as the agricultural historian Roy V. Scott recounted, four decades ago, in his remarkable study “The Reluctant Farmer,” it all started with a pilot program...

What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history...

Pick up the Senate health-care bill—yes, all 2,074 pages—and leaf through it. Almost half of it is devoted to programs that would test various ways to curb costs and increase quality. The bill is a hodgepodge. And it should be..

Which of these programs will work? We can’t know. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office doesn’t credit any of them with substantial savings. The package relies on taxes and short-term payment cuts to providers in order to pay for subsidies. But, in the end, it contains a test of almost every approach that leading health-care experts have suggested. 
I don't know about other readers, but I've never forgotten this article, and I cling to the hopes it raises. Of course, continued experimentation and the possibility of capitalizing on the programs initiated to date depends in part on Congress's currently hamstrung capacity to pass constructive legislation, both to fix flaws in the ACA and to extend experiments that do prove promising. 

The argument that saved the ACA:  In May 2012, legal scholar Jack Balkin compressed into an Atlantic op-ed the legal argument he had put forward as co-author of  an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, defending the constitutionality of the ACA's individual mandate.The argument was simple at its core, and captured in the headline: "The Health-care Mandate is Clearly a Tax -- and Therefore Constitutional." Don't take my word for it that the argument is simple -- take Balkin's:
In sum, the constitutional argument for the mandate as a tax is pretty straightforward: The mandate raises revenue, it serves the general welfare, it does not violate fundamental rights, it is not a direct tax, and it is not a criminal penalty in disguise. In some ways the argument is much simpler than the commerce clause analysis.  
"Straightforward" though it may be, Balkin's argument captures the nub of the matter as Chief Justice John Roberts, the swing vote in this case, later saw it. Here's Balkin:
There are two other limits to the taxing power. First, a tax can't violate individual rights. In 1994 the Court struck down a Montana tax that was a thinly veiled attempt to get around the Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause. Second, a valid tax cannot be a criminal penalty in disguise. In 1922 the Court struck down a tax that assessed 10 percent of a year's profits on any company that employed a single underage worker for a single day. The Court held that this was a criminal penalty in disguise because it was completely disproportionate. That can't be said of the mandate. The tax is pegged to the average annual insurance premium. And Congress also made sure that the mandate can't be enforced by criminal penalties or tax liens. In fact, the only way the IRS can enforce the mandate is by reducing a taxpayer's refund. 
What saved the mandate for Roberts is the fact that it's enforced by a mere tax, not "by criminal penalties," as his June 29, 2012 decision spells out:
although the breadth of Congress’s power to tax is greater than its power to regulate commerce, the  taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior. Once we recognize that Congress may regulate a particular decision under the Commerce Clause, the Federal Government can bring its full weight to bear. Congress may simply command individuals to do as it directs. An individual who disobeys may be subjected to criminal sanctions. Those sanctions can include not only fines and imprisonment, but all the attendant consequences of being branded a criminal: deprivation of otherwise protected civil rights, such as the right to bear arms or vote in elections; loss of employment opportunities; social stigma; and severe disabilities in other controversies, such as custody or immigration disputes.

By contrast, Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the severe burden that taxation—especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose—can impose. But of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice (p. 43).
For the Republicans, Bowe Bendahl was always going to be Willie Horton: As I noted a few days ago, Hastings had the goods on this political brutality two years before the prisoner swap went down:
Officially, Bowe remains a soldier in good standing in the United States Army. He has continued to receive promotions over the past three years, based on his time in uniform, and he now holds the rank of sergeant. Unofficially, however, his status within the military is sharply contested. According to officials familiar with the internal debate, there are those in both Congress and the Pentagon who view Bowe as a deserter, and perhaps even a traitor. As with everything in Washington these days, the sharp political discord has complicated efforts to secure his release.

"The Hill is giving State and the White House shit," says one senior administration source. "The political consequences­ are being used as leverage in the policy debate." According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president's opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. "They keep telling me it's going to be Obama's Willie Horton moment," Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president's political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-­like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign. In response, a White House official advised Grossman that he should ignore the politics of the swap and concentrate solely on the policy.

"Frankly, we don't give a shit why he left," says one White House official. "He's an American soldier. We want to bring him home."
There's some great access reporting, from a reporter not known for currying favor in exchange for access. RIP, Michael Hastings.

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