Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ancient wisdom for today

Here is a quote, 2400 years old, that makes me think of John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and similar fools today.

“To think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward;
any idea of moderation was just another attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character;
ability to understand the question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action; fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man. … .
Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.”

Thucydides, writing of the day in 415 B.C. when Athens sent its fleet off to destruction in Sicily.

The Great Recession and Inequality

I have often downloaded and saved articles that I thought particularly good. One example is a review from the New York Review of Books called What Krugman & Stiglitz Can Tell Us by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in September 2012. It reviewed End This Depression Now!
by Paul Krugman and The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz. I find the discussion still very pertinent today after the intervening period of stasis in this country.

What Krugman & Stiglitz Can Tell Us

Incidentally, The reviewers’ own book, Winner-Take-All Politics, is the best one I have seen on how politics has magnified the natural tendency of economic factors to tend to inequality in a free market system.

I know that many may feel that I am overly concerned with he inequality topic. That’s because I believe it is one of the two most critical problems facing us today. The other, of course, is climate change.


More from Pfaff

For the last month  William Pfaff has written a series of columns on the Ukraine situation that I find very helpful. The latest notes our tendency to treat the matter by analogy to the cold war.  He does not find that a useful approach.

We are all familiar with the old saw that he who ignores history is likely to repeat it. However an excessive preoccupation with the avoidance of old mistakes can lead to new ones. In this category I would place the infamous British and French cave-in to Hitler over Czechoslovakia with the Munich Agreement of 1938.  Surely this has been the most significant experience underlying thinking on foreign affairs in the West in the last 75 years.  It’s not clear that this has always been benign. It certainly was a major factor in inducing the US to intervene  in Vietnam.

More on Piketty’s new book

A friend called my attention to a review in the New Yorker of Thomas Piketty’s new book, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” John Cassidy rates it’s importance very much as Paul Krugman has.

Branko Milanovic, a former senior economist at the World Bank, called it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking.” The Economist said that it could change the way we think about the past two centuries of economic history. Certainly, no economics book in recent years has received this sort of attention.

Taxing the rich was the American Way.

Here’s a quote taken from Paul Krugman’s blog today:

.” . . .  one point Piketty makes is that the modern notion that redistribution and “penalizing success” is un- and anti-American is completely at odds with our country’s actual history. One subsection in Piketty’s book is titled “Confiscatory Taxation of Excess Incomes: An American Invention”; he shows that America actually pioneered very high taxes on the rich:

‘When we look at the history of progressive taxation in the twentieth century, it is striking to see how far out in front Britain and the United States were, especially the latter, which invented the confiscatory tax on “excessive” incomes and fortunes.’

“Why was this the case? Piketty points to the American egalitarian ideal, which went along with fear of creating a hereditary aristocracy. High taxes, especially on estates, were motivated in part by “fear of coming to resemble Old Europe.”

Me on the Ukraine

A good friend, who is an emeritus professor of Political Science, prepared a fine list of questions about the Ukraine for a discussion group. I decided to puy my responses on my blog. My answers to the questions are in italics.


1.      Is there merit to the argument that our policies and those of our allies in the wake of the Cold War, in some way “drove” Putin to take the actions he did in Georgia and in Ukraine?  To what extent was the expansion of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe, the Baltics, etc., perceived as a threat by Russia?

  The proposal to give the Ukraine NATO membership was probably the stick that poked the sleeping bear. It was an asinine thing to propose and representative of the neo-conservative wing of the establishment (both R and D) in the US. The same applies to our screwing around to bring “democracy” to the Ukraine.
  Putin doubtless has had his eye on the Crimea and Ukraine for a long time but this was a direct slap at him and that’s how he saw it.

2.     What role does Russian nationalistic fervor play in all this?  For instance, what about the argument that Ukraine and certainly the Crimean peninsula has historically always been part of Russia and should be part of Russia?

It’s all about nationalism and Putin’s personal popularity. I don’t think of it in terms of should but instead of could. The US was as much as any nation responsible for the principle that very strong large powers consider it their prerogative to interfere in and even annex nearby weaker territories.

3.     What about the counter argument, that a lot of the explanation for the Russian move in Ukraine is far too nuanced and laced with social-psychological mumbo jumbo.  This was a blatant aggressive act by a leader with obvious authoritarian traits.  It was a pure power move as part of a long-range plan to re-establish what were the parameters of the old Soviet empire.

Probably. So what? Do we really care?

4.     Was (or more properly is) the response by the United States along with its European allies appropriate?  To weak?  To strong? What options did we have?

   Once you start this kind of thing there are no good moves. Remember all politics is local. Obama has done too much to be able to back down on the Crimea but the Republicans are going to goad him on further and we have a critical election in 7 months.. The American people will agree, as the current hysteria by the establishment shows.
  To stabilize the situation there has to be a way for Putin to save face at home It’s difficult to see how that can happen with him backing down on the Crimea. Or for Obama to agree to its annexation.
  It’s ironic that this is happening in 2014, the hundredth anniversary of a similar fiasco that led to a world war no one wanted.

5.     If over time it becomes obvious that Russia has absolutely no intention of negotiating some sort of withdrawal from the Crimean peninsula, how long should the west maintain economic sanctions?  In perpetuity like we have in the case of Cuba?

No good answers, so it will probably be long term, although that will be bad economically for all. 

6.     Is there an inevitability about the worsening relationship with Russia?  Do the policies of both sides reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy?

No.  We don’t have to try to run the world.  The Hitler example is what is driving a lot of the hysteria. But we have no evidence that Putin’s aims go beyond Russia’s conventional sphere of influence. The problem isn’t policies on both sides, it’s politics.

7.     If we are heading for a new Cold War and one of the manifestations of that phenomenon is continued Russian policy to regain “lost territories” from the old Soviet empire, what should U.S. policy be?  Is our reduction in defense spending and Obama “light footprint” foreign policy appropriate?

   Whatever we do, don’t do anything that would keep us from letting it go at that. This may be un-win able without military action. That’s a leap into the unknown.
This is a gift to the Mil-Ind Complex.

8.     What role do you think China might play in all this?

They’re probably laughing, pleased that our “turn to Asia” will be soon forgotten, and probably keeping their eye on their border with Russia.