HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 3, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


What We're In Store For
February 26, 2008

I see that Time Magazine's Mark Halperin has listed a series of tactics John McCain can use to beat Barack Obama, tactics that Hillary Clinton is barred from using. I don't know if this constitutes serving as an unpaid advisor to McCain, but it comes pretty close.

One of the reasons that Senator Clinton can't use these maneuvers is that several of them are filthy. They include allowing supporters to make racist appeals, incessantly repeating Obama's middle name in order to imply that there's something un-American about him, and attacking his wife for being unpatriotic.

The notion that Obama would not activate the Republican attack machine as vigorously as Senator Clinton would is in the process of being revealed as a naive myth, and Halperin's nastiness is just one of the early examples of how the Republican campaign will work.

McCain will pretend to be above all such vile attacks while his campaign will do everything in its power to keep them in the news. This has been the Republican stock-in-trade for quite a while now. It has served them pretty well up till now so there's no reason to think they will abandon it in 2008.

An indication of how well it's working will be the number of times McCain professes to respect his Democratic opponent. The more often he makes that statement the more you can be assured that the Republican slime machine is in good working order.


An Explanation
February 27, 2008

Fairly often now I encounter people who profess not to be able to understand why the Bush administration has treated the nation as it has. "How could they have done this?" the question goes.

There's no call for confusion. The answer is simple.

In every nation since nations got underway, there have been people who are resentful, aggressive, greedy and xenophobic. Naturally, they form themselves into political alliances. Most of the time, they claim to be more patriotic, more realistic and more hard-nosed than other people are. Those are euphemisms for their actual characteristics -- resentment, aggression, greed and dislike of anyone different from themselves.

In America over the past half century that alliance has been the Republican Party.

Individual Republicans may have other characteristics which are positive. They may be loyal family members, steady workers, reliable as to showing up on time, avid sports fans. They may well be the sort of people you could enjoy working around. But these habits don't create political groupings. Resentment, aggression, greed and hatred of foreigners do.

I doubt we can blame Republicans for being who they are. They probably can't help it. But we should do all we can to keep them out of political power because the results are what we've seen. Let them manage hotels, and supermarkets, and Wal Mart stores. But don't let them manage the nation's government. When they do, Wall Street runs amok and military power is brandished, and often used, when there's no call for it.

Republicans would doubtless say that Democrats are also certain sorts of people -- naive, romantically idealistic, willing to have the government interfere too much in private life, understanding of enemies' points of view, picky over things that don't really matter, like preserving little fish that nobody cares about.

I'd like to make a deal with them. I'll accept their tags if they'll take mine. It would be a real bargain for them because, after all, my tags are accurate.


Knowledge Needed to Vote Intelligently
February 27, 2008

I'm not troubled to admit I need to know more about the mechanisms and policies of international trade. Trade -- like many other topics -- is too complicated for me to master it completely.

On the other hand, I'm not willing to say there is no way for a person with incomplete knowledge to take sensible positions on issues of trade. One of the purposes of this page is to argue that ordinary citizens can make reasonable decisions about public policy issues without devoting their entire lives to the study of political questions.

With respect to trade, I do know this: most of the major international agreements negotiated over the past two decades have been heavily influenced by the theories of neo-liberalism. And this ideology, often shading off into neo-conservatism, is not good for most of the population. It serves the interests of the rich at the expense of moderate to low income people.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was a neo-liberal endeavor,  is now so fiercely under attack that both the Democratic candidates are beginning to back away from it. They say they don't reject NAFTA but that it needs to be modified. That's the least we ought to expect from them. What would be healthier is a demand that the theories on which NAFTA is based be thoroughly discussed during the campaign and pledges be made that neo-liberal economic schemes are not the policy of the government of the United States.

Governments do have a role to play in protecting the economic well-being of their citizens. Markets alone are not sufficient to insure that economic justice will prevail. The notion that freedom is, primarily, the ability of wealthy people to use their money in whatever way will enrich them further, is one of the most vicious ideas ever to be perpetrated on the general public. It has been pushed to insane lengths by the Bush administration and it is the source of most of the economic distress we are now experiencing in America.

What we need to know about future trade negotiations is that competent, unbiased people have carefully examined the complete effects of proposed treaties, taking into account how they would bear on the entire population and not just whether rich Americans can get richer from them. And we need politicians who will explain these treaties in language most people can understand.

There is no trade law from which all people benefit equally. Some get more, some get less, and some get hurt. NAFTA has probably hurt more people than it has helped and therefore it needs not only to be modified but to be seen as a lesson in how selfish policies have been allowed to influence, and often to dominate, our political system.


Incarceration Fever
February 29, 2008

We have known for a long time that the land of the free throws more people in jail than any other country in the world. This is truth for both total numbers and percentage of the population. Now a new study by the Pew Center on the States reminds us of just how bad conditions are. One out of every hundred adults in the United States is locked up.

The most interesting thing about this report, however, is not what it reveals but that it's actually getting attention in the media. In the past, horrendous figures about the rate of imprisonment in America would barely be mentioned on TV or in the major newspapers. What has changed?

I think two things account for the increased attention. Republican power is waning and as it does, the mindset Republicans have sought to impress on the country weakens also. Since Republicans generally like the idea of tossing people into prison, particularly those whose skin in darker than a Scandinavian hue, the GOP has worked to create the impression that there's nothing untoward about imprisoning as many people as we do. They have also wanted to stifle knowledge about the conditions in prisons, but that's another matter, though related. But now it's beginning to dawn on quite a few Americans that issues the Republicans have painted as not discussible really do need our scrutiny.

The second thing is that prison-happy lame brains in the state legislatures are learning that prisons cost a lot of money. For example, over the past two decades the increase in money spent on prisons by the states has been six times the increase devoted to higher education. The total has surged from $11 billion to $49 billion.  For states that can't keep their roads safe or their bridges in working order, this begins to be a problem.

Money gets more attention in America than the scorn of sensible people all around the world. So maybe our inability to pay for some things will turn out to be a blessing. Imprisonment has been one of our biggest growth industries. If it starts having to watch its pennies we'll all benefit and maybe some people will actually be set free.


Human Brightness
March 2, 2008

I doubt that Charlotte Allen will win many plaudits for writing in the Washington Post that women are dumber than men. I have never discovered much sense in commenting on the intelligence, or lack of it, of groups, though I will admit that the behavior of any group, regardless of how you choose it, is likely to be quite stupid.

Just because you can find examples of foolish people in a group, or even when you demonstrate that most of the members of a group are quite dim, it doesn't say anything about how that group stacks up against another. Ms. Allen's evidence about women appears to be based mainly on women's liking Gray's Anatomy and their fainting at Obama rallies. These may well be grievous faults but they scarcely clinch the case in a comparison with men. Consider the contents of the average "men's" magazine and even fondness for a sex-laced medical show can lose much of its evidentiary power.

The issue here is where intelligence resides. And it's pretty clear it does not reside in collective thought. Beyond doubt, the dumbest groups I have ever observed have been college faculty members at faculty meetings, even though many of the individual members of those groups were quite bright. Something happens when people form themselves into groups, and particularly when they began to shout in unison. If we began to ask ourselves, seriously, what group experience does to the brain, we might be onto something.

As for the comparative political wisdom of men and women, I think it's an issue best ignored. I don't suppose there's any way to stop pollsters from reporting on how the sexes cast their ballots, and I'll even admit there may be some useful information in the practice. But since most votes, whether they come from men or women, are cast for less than compelling reasons, we may as well give up trying to judge whether one group or the other votes more intelligently.


Phones Calls
March 2, 2008

I have to go on record and say I don't much care what happens at the White House when somebody calls the president in the middle of the night. I'm much more concerned with what happens when the president meets with advisors in broad daylight. The idea that serving well as president involves making instantaneous decisions when confronted with a surprise event is so childishly melodramatic it's laughable.

The notion that crisis management is all the president does pulls attention away from what the president actually ought to be doing, which is shaping policies and managing the government in ways to benefit most of the people in the country.

The Clinton campaign was foolish to have run the commercial showing a phone ringing at three A.M. It would be interesting to know where within the campaign that tactic came from. Up till now I have tended to discount the charges that Senator Clinton's campaign is disjointed. But any more blunders this bad will have me wondering who's in charge, and what his, or her, thinking is.


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