Monday, November 30, 2009

20 Years Ago 14: Pax Sovietica

When the Roman Empire controlled many of the areas that were on or near the Mediterranean Sea, one of the benefits Rome provided, in exchange for those regions giving up their political independence, was the Pax Romana. That's Latin for "Roman peace".

The website summarizes conditions from about 27 BCE to 180 CE as follows:

The Legions patrolled the borders with success, and though there were still many foreign wars, the internal empire was free from major invasion, piracy or social disorder on any grand scale.

The Empire went into decline thereafter, and eventually fell, but, at its height, Rome for the most part enforced peace in the areas it controlled.

As was the case with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 20th century, the Roman Empire combined many cultures and religions into one political entity. Those disparate peoples may well have engaged in frequent warfare, had the iron hand from above not held them in place.

That concept is sometimes applied to the USSR and its satellite nations. Moscow is said to have enforced a Pax Sovietica, that was similar to the Pax Romana.

As the Soviet Union's power waned, and eventually disintegrated, fault lines in its empire began to show. Christian Armenia fought against Muslim Azerbaijan. Minority peoples within Russia itself, such as the Muslims of Chechnya, fought for autonomy. The potential for such violence had always been there, but the iron hand from Moscow had kept those groups in check for many decades.

The Pax Sovietica also extended to the satellite countries of eastern Europe. Minority ethnic groups in many of those countries nursed grudges against their perceived oppressors.

Yugoslavia was not controlled by the USSR, after its Communist dictator Josep Broz (a.k.a. Tito) broke with Moscow in 1948. But there was a "Peace of Tito" (not being fluent in Latin, I can't translate that) that was a smaller-scale version of the Soviet Peace. Tito held together the different cultures within Yugoslavia, continuing to rule until his death in 1980.

The combination of Tito's absence, and the general air of revolution in the region, doomed the Yugoslav state, by the early 1990s. As I said here, I'm not going to go into detail but, as you undoubtedly know, the result was extremely violent in most of the territory that had constituted Yugoslavia.

Religious differences, which can paint The Other as a demonic force that needs to be dealt with accordingly, accentuated the violence.

The Communists did not eliminate nationalism within the territory they controlled. They kept a lid in place for several decades that was tight enough to prevent those pressures from exploding.

Was the eventual explosion worse than it would have been, had that lid not been held in place? That's one of those what-ifs of history that can't be definitively resolved. But the poverty and the suppression of civil society that were produced by totalitarian rule probably made things worse.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

California Governor: The Republican Primary

I've written about next year's Democratic nomination for governor of California, in this and other posts. But there is a more spirited contest on the Republican side, where three major candidates are contending for that party's nomination. To be scrupulously fair, they are, in alphabetical order:

Tom Campbell, 57, was elected to the U.S. House in 1988. His service in the House was interrupted, when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that was won by Barbara Boxer in 1992. Campbell returned to the House in 1995, but again gave up his seat for an unsuccessful Senate candidacy. In 2000, he won the Republican nomination to run against Dianne Feinstein, but lost to her in a landslide in the general election. Trained as an economist and a lawyer, he has held college faculty positions during periods out of elective office.

Steve Poizner, 52, is California's insurance commissioner, an elected official in that state. Before he was elected to that position in 2006, Poizner was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Meg Whitman, 53, is making her first run for public office. She is a businesswoman, whose career also took her to Silicon Valley. She was CEO of eBay from 1998 to 2008. Last year, Whitman was associated with the presidential campaigns of, first, Mitt Romney, and then, John McCain.

George Will has written favorably about Campbell and Poizner. As far as I know, he hasn't said much, one way or the other, about Whitman. I'm not sure if that means he just hasn't gotten around to doing a column about her, or he opposes her candidacy.

According to Real Clear Politics, Whitman leads Campbell by an average of 9.2 percentage points in polls that have been taken since August. Poizner is far behind in third place.

The primary election will be held on June 8, 2010.

20 Years Ago 13: Nations

In this series about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and related events, I don't plan to go into much detail about the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But I do want to address how nationalism has affected events in many parts of the ex-Marxist-Leninist countries of Europe.

The end-game of Communism in some of the places that had been part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was much more violent than in other places such as Czechoslovakia, home of the Velvet Revolution.

The violence took place between different nations that had been thrown together in the same state.

I'm not a lawyer, let alone an international lawyer, but I'm using the terms "state" and "nation" according to what I understand to be their technical legal meanings, which are different than the way we use those words in American political conversation.

"State" means an independent country. But since, of course, we apply that word to political subdivisions of our country, we tend to call an independent country a "nation". But the international meaning of "nation" is a people with a common culture, which may or may not have a state of their own.

So, for example, there is a Japanese nation and a Japanese state. However, there is a Kurdish nation, but no Kurdish state. And to illustrate one more variation on the theme, Belgium, for example, is a state with two nations (Flemings and Walloons).

The USSR and Yugoslavia consisted of multiple nations crammed into a single state. The USSR created that situation by conquest, while Yugoslavia was somewhat of an artificial creation, as part of the Versailles peace settlement after World War I.

There is a story about the creation of Yugoslavia that gets repeated so often, I assume it must be apocryphal. But, whether it happened or not, it makes a good story, especially for a Republican to tell. Supposedly, President Woodrow Wilson, representing the U.S. at the Versailles peace conference in 1919, micromanaged the creation of Yugoslavia to such a degree that, at one point, he was down on his knees, drawing boundaries on a map that was placed on the floor. In a PBS interview in 1999, journalist Harold Evans describes:

... when Wilson went to Versailles to make the world safe for democracy and was on his knees drawing a map of Yugoslavia on the principle of self-determination ...

Serbians, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians were combined into Yugoslavia, the land of the South Slavs. The boundaries needed to be redrawn because those areas had been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was broken up when it ended up on the losing side in World War I.

The notion that Yugoslavia was totally dreamed up in Wilson's idealistic head is at least an exaggeration. Srdja Trifkovic, writing under the auspices of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, describes unification efforts by some of the people in those nations, that predated Wilson.

But regardless of who gets the credit or blame for its creation, the fact remains that multiple nations with disparate cultures were combined in one state. Among other differences, Yugoslavia threw together Catholic and Orthodox Christians, as well as Muslims.

Next: What held the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia together, temporarily?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Circular Reasoning

Adam Liptak writes in The New York Times about points of agreement between some on the left and some on the right of the spectrum, regarding criminal justice issues.

This is an excellent example of something I wrote about here, which is that the political spectrum can be represented graphically by a circle, rather than a line.

Liptak quotes one interested party who sees it that way:

“It’s a remarkable phenomenon,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “The left and the right have bent to the point where they are now in agreement on many issues. In the area of criminal justice, the whole idea of less government, less intrusion, less regulation has taken hold.”

Criminal justice issues seem particularly conducive to producing that bending-around effect. More purely economic issues lend themselves more to the traditional linear view of the spectrum. No model ever exactly fits reality.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Let The Debate Begin

On Saturday, Senate Democrats held their 60-member caucus together, and were therefore successful on a cloture vote to allow consideration of health care legislation. The wavering Democrats whom I described here, all fell into line by that afternoon.

But it's nowhere near a done deal yet. Senate proceedings are expected to last at least through the month of December. And it seems unlikely that key votes on the legislation will repeat the absolute party-line nature of Saturday's procedural vote.

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a member of the Democratic caucus, who was reelected as an independent candidate, opposes the creation of "a government-run health insurance company — the so-called public option", according to a press release on his website.

Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska, who was one of the last three from his party to agree to go along with the procedural vote, issued a statement reading in part:

In my first reading, I support parts of the bill and oppose others I will work to fix. If that's not possible, I will oppose the second cloture motion—needing 60 votes—to end debate, and oppose the final bill.

Another Democratic senator, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, the absolute last holdout over the weekend, says that she will "not help move the bill past the next stage if a government-run public option remains part of the legislation."

On the other side, Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, was the only member of her party to vote in the Finance Committee for the Baucus bill, which would provide for a sort of public-option-lite, which Time magazine described as follows:

$6 billion in federal funding to states or groups of states to set up nonprofit, consumer-owned and -operated health-insurance cooperatives. These cooperatives would be unaffiliated with any government entity and would be self-insured — meaning cooperatives would collect premiums from members and pay out claims from those funds.

On Saturday, Snowe voted with her Republican colleagues against consideration of the bill sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

I expect most Republicans to vote against Reid's bill, regardless of how it might be amended. But Snowe, and her Republican colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, are mentioned as Republicans who might be convinced to support some version of the legislation.

Unless Reid is able to twist some Democratic arms very strongly, it seems as though the full-fledged public option is dead. But it could perhaps survive in some watered-down form.

Friday, November 20, 2009

You're no George Washington

The American Constitution is often held up as the perfect governmental structure. The checks and balances bring things back into line, when any person or institution oversteps. And the amendment procedure is flexible enough to allow the document to change with the times, but rigid enough to give it staying power. That has allowed significant flaws in the 1787 Constitution, especially its tolerance of slavery, to be corrected.

But many other countries have constitutions that look good on paper. Not all of them have had the political success that the U.S. has had.

I would argue that the stamp that George Washington put on the institution of the presidency was also a major factor.

The framers of the Constitution are said to have had Washington in mind when they designed that office. He had sufficient stature to assert authority as a strong executive. That stature derived from his inherent personal qualities, as well as his military leadership during the Revolution.

The precedents that Washington set, ensured that presidents would be more than mere administrators. On the other hand, they would not be monarchs, especially in light of Washington's precedent of retiring after eight years on the job.

The European Union (EU) just completed the process of adopting a new constitution, which I described here and here when that process was almost over. I see similarities between the EU's action, and America's strengthening of its federal structure, when it replaced its original constitution, the Articles of Confederation. I hope to explore that topic further, when I have the time.

The new EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, creates two new offices, president of the Council, and high representative. Those are informally called, respectively, president of Europe and the European foreign minister.

Filling EU offices always involves considerations of nationality and one's place on the political spectrum. It had been clear for some time that the two new offices would be balanced between left and right, and between the larger countries and the smaller ones.

But, in this case, there was also the stature issue. Backers of the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke in terms of his ability to stop traffic in Beijing. In other words, the issue was whether the EU wanted internationally recognized Big Names in the new positions.

In the end, the EU answered "no" to that question.

Their choice for president is Belgian Prime Minister Herman Von Rompuy, who has been in that office for less than 11 months. Van Rompuy, 62, trained as an economist, has been a bureaucrat in various positions in his home country. Perhaps the traffic would stop for him in Brussels, but probably not anywhere else. His party is that of the center-right Christian Democrats.

For some time, the expectation had been that, if Blair didn't get the top job, Britain would get the consolation prize of the foreign minister position. That turned out to be the case but, again, that choice was underwhelming.

Two Big Names had been mentioned for that office: Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, both of whom, along with Blair, belong to the Labor Party. They both backed out of the race.

Catherine Ashton, a.k.a. Baroness Ashton of Upholland, will be the high representative, if confirmed by the European Parliament. Ashton, 53, was appointed to Britain's House of Lords in 1999, and has been the EU's trade commissioner since October of 2008.

This article from the London Times sums up what seems to be the prevailing opinion about the Baroness:

The appointment as a little-known peer to become Europe's first "foreign minister" stunned and dismayed many in Westminster [the district of London where Parliament meets] ...

The votes seem to reflect an aversion on the part of European leaders to have anyone atop the EU structure who might overshadow the national leaders of the member states. That's a signal that the EU will not move closer to being, in Winston Churchill's famous phrase, the United States of Europe. After all, how could you have a United States without a George Washington?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Medicare: The Sequel

Nicholas Kristof, in The New York Times, cites similarities between the arguments that are currently being made against the Obama/Pelosi/Reid health care plans, and objections that were raised when the Social Security and Medicare programs were first enacted. He argues that those objections proved to be wrong in relation to those programs, and so should be considered invalid arguments in the current debate.

I disagree.

One of the arguments was about "deteriorating service", which Kristof contends did not happen with Medicare. Now, I'm still just a bit too young to have experienced Medicare, but I know that under any managed care plan I've been under, the quality of the service diminishes in proportion to the amount by which costs have been shaved down. The physician is always in a hurry, and unable to devote sufficient time to each patient. You get what you pay for. Or, looked at another way, a physician needs to schedule more patients during any given period of time, if he or she is being paid less for each of the patients.

I have heard that the same phenomenon occurs for Medicare patients, which would make sense, given the cost constraints involved. And there's every reason to think that that would happen with a new program.

Regarding the bigger picture, the financing of Social Security and Medicare is clearly unsustainable. As is the case with lucky participants in every Ponzi scheme, early beneficiaries have received benefits. But expanding life spans and declining birth rates have combined to decrease the ratio of workers to retirees. If benefit levels are to remain at anything near their current level, payroll tax rates will need to go up and up and up.

Kristof blithely states that payroll taxes do not "add to Americans’ tax burden so as to kill jobs". But a good case has been made that the imposition of payroll taxes during the depression was one factor that kept unemployment high for a longer period of time in the 1930s, than had been the case with similarly severe downturns before that.

And much has been said about jobless recoveries from recent recessions. That has always been an issue to a certain extent, given that unemployment is a lagging indicator. That's economist jargon for the pattern that, after GDP begins to grow again after a recession, it takes some further time before the unemployment rate starts to decrease.

Supposedly that lag between recovery and employment has been getting longer for recent recessions. If that's the case, then the higher payroll taxes in recent years are probably a factor.

Businesses always have a choice between what economists call labor inputs and capital inputs. Capital inputs are plant and equipment. They represent what the unions have traditionally dreaded as "automation". If payroll taxes continue to rise, employers will have an incentive to turn more toward capital inputs, and recoveries will become more and more jobless.

Kristof contends that those of us who oppose his point of view are "on the wrong side of history". That Marxist language, which was used to justify the policies of, for example, the Soviet Union, was turned on its head two decades ago, when history was shown to instead be on Ronald Reagan's side.

Now Franklin Roosevelt (whom Reagan inexplicably continued to admire throughout his career) is the one who is being shown to be on the wrong side of history. Much as I like to see Roosevelt's ideas exposed as paskan (that's a Finnish noun for something brown and malodorous that I'm euphemistically inserting here), I'm concerned about dealing with the huge problems ahead with the current programs. In light of that, it's certainly irresponsible to create more entitlements (as George W. Bush did with Medicare). In other words, let's not veer further toward the wrong side of history.

Take two aspirin, read the Constitution, and call me in the morning

George Will analyzes constitutional implications of the health care bills under consideration in Congress.

He makes some plausible arguments about provisions of those bills being unconstitutional. But there doesn't seem to be any obvious cut-and-dried case for unconstitutionality.

If the legislation is enacted, and a challenge comes to the Supreme Court, it will, as a practical matter, probably come down to whether 1) the "swing justice", Anthony Kennedy, goes along with the challenge; or 2) President Obama is able to replace any members of the Court's "conservative wing".

But, surprises do happen. If a good case can be made against any or all of a new health care structure, some from the "liberal wing" might be compelled to call it unconstitutional.

The Democrats would do well to consider what chaos would ensue, if they implement a plan, only to have it disallowed by the Supreme Court a couple of years or so down the line.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I wrote here about a possible filibuster that would stop the Senate health care debate before it starts.

But there has been much talk about the Senate's Democratic majority doing an end run around the filibuster rules. One vehicle for such a maneuver is the budget reconciliation process.

That process was part of the new budget rules that the Congress adopted in 1974, in the wake of budget battles that it had fought against Richard Nixon.

If Democrats use that procedure in this case, it seems as though they would be turning its purpose upside down. Reconciliation was intended to make policy changes to bring spending in line with the totals mandated by the annual budget resolution. Its purpose was to restrain federal spending, not to greatly add to it.

One procedural rule for the reconciliation process is that it can't be filibustered in the Senate. Therefore, health care legislation passed via that process would require only 51 affirmative votes rather than the 60 votes that are usually needed to prevent a filibuster.

If the Democratic leadership does that, the Republicans could respond by procedural moves that could greatly slow down the workings of the Senate.

The Senate often speeds up its proceedings, by obtaining unanimous consent to bypass certain cumbersome rules. If one or more Republicans were to object to those unanimous consent requests, they could really gum up the works.

One example is unanimous consent to not require that the full text of a bill be read to the Senate. According to this NPR report, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is considering objecting to that routine procedure as regards the lengthy health-care bill.

What goes around comes around. When Republicans controlled the Senate during most of George W. Bush's presidency, Democrats were talking about using similar tactics, if the Republicans had bypassed filibusters against some of Bush's judicial nominees.

I very much want to prevent enactment of socialist health care. And Republican guerrilla tactics might be necessary to accomplish that. But it would be better if the Democrats were to realize that they will be back in the minority some day, and they therefore ought to be careful about weakening the filibuster option.

The other public option is to filibuster

As the Senate leadership tries to get floor debate going on a health care bill, an early cloture vote looms.

This New York Times article describes the situation facing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who needs all 60 of his troops to stay in line, to prevent a filibuster that would keep the bill off the Senate floor.

It looks as though the Republicans have party-line discipline. Senator Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, who voted in the Finance Committee in favor of a bill sponsored by that panel's chairman, Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, will support a filibuster against Reid's more aggressive version of the bill.

Here's a home-state report on one of the wavering Democrats, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, that indicates that Nelson is expected eventually to fall into line behind Reid.

Health Care: A Modest Proposal

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, makes an interesting counterproposal to the Democrats' health care plans, on his blog Marginal Revolution.

It seems to achieve most of the goals I set out here and here, in my description of an ideal health care policy. Cowen suggests ways to take care of those who can't afford to pay the full cost of their health care, while allowing markets to function.

I'm skeptical of his suggestions to have government micromanage issues such as medical records. For one thing, I doubt that that's a big factor in the cost equation.

Ideally, market forces would take care of that. But would they? Will someone buy services from one physician rather than another, because one of them is better at handling medical records?

My primary care physician writes prescriptions with pen and paper, while a specialist that I see periodically, prints them out from a laptop computer. Would I leave the primary care physician I've been with for 18 years, if I found another one who is more tech-savvy? That's the type of thing that would need to happen, if market forces were going to improve that situation.

But, regardless of all that, I'm still skeptical about the federal government mandating standards regarding that issue.

20 Years Ago 12: Laggards

Some of the East-Central European countries that had had Marxist-Leninist regimes were slower than others, in voting those regimes out of power.

In Poland, even though the 1989 election had been rigged to produce a Communist victory, the Solidarity union-cum-party was able to elect a prime minister from its own ranks.

East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary followed in short order, early in 1990.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had been a political prisoner, was elected president on December 29, 1989. The country then voted in a free parliamentary election on June 8, 1990. The Civic Forum, a broad anti-Communist coalition, won a majority.

Then, in May 1990, Hungary elected a parliament, resulting in a coalition government headed by the center-right MDF party.

Poland eventually threw off the last vestiges of its Marxist-Leninist past. Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, was elected president in December 1990. A fully free parliamentary election followed on October 27, 1991, putting a center-right coalition into office. However, in Poland, as in many of these countries, center-left parties with roots in the Communist past, have held power at various subsequent times, but they haven't significantly strayed from the democratic market-oriented path that was set in 1989.

As I noted here, Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu did not go gently into that good night, as some of his counterparts did. He had to be shot out of office. After that, the National Salvation Front (FSN), which largely consisted of lower-level Communist functionaries from the Ceausescu regime, held on to power for years. It took until 1996 for an opposition party to be elected. But Romania has progressed at its own pace, and is now a member of NATO and the EU.

On June 10, 1990, Bulgaria held a multi-party election in which the Socialists (a reformed version of the Communist Party) won a majority. Another election, on October 13, 1991, produced a coalition government led by the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces. Sources on the Web describe the 1991 election as Bulgaria's first fully democratic one. But I could not find any description of the ways in which the 1990 election fell short. Any comments on that would be appreciated.

Albania was odd man out, among the European Marxist-Leninist countries. It was the only one that maintained closer ties to China than to the Soviet Union, after the rift opened up between Moscow and Beijing, circa 1960. Albania maintained a Stalinist approach to government, which alienated it from Stalin's successors in Moscow and, later, to Mao Zedong's successors in Beijing. Those policies left it as perhaps the worst economic basket-case on its continent. In 1992, the Communists were voted out of power in Albania.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

30 Years Ago

I've been writing about the events of 1989, 20 years ago.

Events of 30 years ago, during the winter of 1979-80, were also significant. But they were less fun. The Iranian terrorists' unique interpretation of diplomatic immunity, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, are less enjoyable to write about than the fall of Berlin Wall and related events.

So, exercising my prerogatives as a blogger (able to write whatever I want, subject to the libel laws), I'll instead describe what I (somewhat subjectively) consider to be the best hockey season ever. (Wait until February, at which time geopolitics will enter back into the story.)

30 years ago today, the Philadelphia Flyers played to a 3-3 tie (back when there were such things in the National Hockey League) in St. Louis against the Blues. That brought their season record to 13-1-2. Their unbeaten streak had extended to 14 games. How long can it continue, and how will it end? (Heavy foreshadowing intended, especially regarding the latter.)

Deep in the Heart of Washington

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, who is a candidate in her party's 2010 gubernatorial primary, will stay in the Senate, at least until after that March primary.

Hutchison had planned an earlier resignation from the Senate, perhaps as early as this fall. But with the two parties' numbers in the Senate being so close to the dividing line between filibuster and cloture, she doesn't want to make that move just yet.

Of course, one implication of that schedule is that, if she loses the primary, she can hold on to her Senate seat, and seek reelection in 2012. Polls show her trailing her primary opponent, incumbent Governor Rick Perry, by a significant margin.

If Hutchison makes a comeback and defeats Perry, the timing of a special election for her Senate seat would depend on the timing of her resignation. As Josh Kraushaar explains in Politico, that could mean either a May or November special election.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Trial and Error

This New York Times editorial about health care legislation points up some fundamental differences between the statist point of view, which advocates big government, and the libertarian concept, which would limit government to its essential functions.

The editors' main point is that:

The fundamental fix — reshaping how care is delivered and how doctors are paid in a wasteful, dysfunctional system — is likely to be achieved only through trial and error and incremental gains.

The godfather of American statists, Franklin Roosevelt, famously advocated the trial-and-error approach, with the following words:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

But that method ignores the Law of Unintended Consequences.

When government acts with the intent of doing some good thing, other things tend to flow from that action, and they often have effects that are contradictory to that good intent.

For example, President Richard Nixon implemented price controls on gasoline in the early 1970s, with the intent of making it easier for people to buy gasoline, by keeping it affordable. But, when the market price rose above the level of the government-imposed maximum, the laws of supply and demand imposed gasoline shortages, and we started waiting in line at gas stations. The controls that were supposed to make it easier to buy gasoline instead made it more difficult.

When government follows Roosevelt's admonition to "above all, try something", that something often does more harm than good. And when the federal government tries it, the harm is perpetrated on a large scale.

That's why I disagree with the Times on the advisability of experimenting on the American health care system.

Also, when big government initiatives cause problems in that way, the statists often propose further big government programs that they think will alleviate those problems.

I explained here how government policy, first wartime price controls, and then tax policy, created incentives for employers to pay for their employees' health care, in place of cash compensation to those employees, who could then spend their own money.

The "wasteful, dysfunctional system" that the Times decries was largely created by consumers spending other people's money (or at least it seems that way to them). The Times wants to correct the problems that government has produced, by giving us more of the same. I fail to see the logic in that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Public employee unions

Here is a Philadelphia Inquirer article about efforts by Republicans in Pennsylvania's state legislature to outlaw strikes by public mass transit employees.

I'm surprised by the description of other states' laws on this subject. I was under the impression that, since the initial growth of public employee unions in the 1960s and '70s, as described in the article, they had established their right to strike everywhere. But, apparently, the People's Republic of Pennsylvania is rare in allowing that.

I hope that right-minded folks in Harrisburg are successful in returning some sanity to that situation.

Later rather than sooner?

Here in the U.S., there's always quite a bit for those of us in the chattering classes to chatter about, during the runup to a presidential or congressional election.

The same is true of a British parliamentary general election. But, in light of the fact that the U.K. has no set time interval between general elections, as I explained here, they have one additional issue about which to chatter: the timing of the election.

The drop-dead deadline is in June 2010. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown can set the date any time before then, and his decision will be rubber-stamped by Queen Elizabeth.

Political reporter Nick Robinson, in his blog on the BBC website, discusses speculation that Brown might try to wrong-foot his rivals by setting the date earlier in the new year. Robinson concludes that the timing of the budget process will prevent that.

It seems as though Brown will do the same thing his predecessors have done when they find their party trailing in the polls, as Brown's Labor Party currently is, which is to wait until the last possible moment, hoping for some unexpected event, such as a surprise uptick in the economy, to save the day.

20 Years Ago 11: Aftermath

In 1990, the former Soviet-bloc countries began to hold free elections. The general trend, which went in fits and starts in some places, was to definitively oust the Communist parties. However, remnants of those parties were voted into power in some places, later on, in the form of center-left social democratic parties.

I recall being skeptical at the time, as future election dates were announced in those countries. Knowing that the outgoing regimes could be trusted about as far as one could throw a hammer and sickle, I was suspicious that the Communists would try to finagle their way out of those commitments. But, for the most part, the game was well and truly over, and they realized that there was nothing for them to do but step aside.

East Germany had a different situation than the others did. In all of the Soviet-bloc countries, there was no longer a raison d’ĂȘtre for the Marxist-Leninist regimes. But that had an additional implication in East Germany, where there was therefore no longer a raison d’ĂȘtre for it as a separate state.

As World War II was ending, the allies carved Germany up into four occupation zones, one each for the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and France. The plan was to reunite Germany as soon as order could be reestablished, and free elections set up.

That plan fell apart as soon as Harry Truman realized that the trust that his predecessor's administration had placed in Joseph Stalin was naive. The Cold War began, and the wartime allies were cooperating as little as possible, regarding Germany.

By 1949, no longer willing to wait for a reunification agreement, the Soviet Union set up the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, and the others established the German Federal Republic in West Germany. At that time, it was unclear when, if ever, Germany would be unified.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, and that distant goal started to seem imminent. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev toured West Germany, he received a tumultuous welcome. The Economist noted at the time that Gorbymania had turned into Gorbasm. That was largely based on the view (which turned out to be correct) that he wouldn't move to prevent German reunification.

Not all Europeans were so ecstatic, however.

Western European leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, were wary of the consequences of changing the existing European order.

When the Soviet Union expressed security concerns about Germany, which had caused huge suffering when it attacked the USSR in 1941, the Economist dismissed those fears, pointing out that the only time a German army had invaded another country post-1945, was in 1968, when the East German army participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Although Gorbachev knew that his country could not continue to dominate any part of Germany, his hope was probably that a neutral East Germany could be maintained as a buffer against the eastward expansion of NATO. That remains a concern for post-Soviet Russia, and was a factor in its war with Georgia in 2008.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany overcame such opposition by strongly pushing for reunification. His victory was probably largely based on the fact that the further economic deterioration of East Germany left the world with no other choice. The form of the unification was not a merger, but rather a matter of the East German Laender joining the Federal Republic. The eastern Laender fell like rotten apples into the Bonn basket.

As a result of all that, the East Germans voted twice in 1990. March 18 saw the only democratic election in the history of the German Democratic Republic. They elected a parliament whose main task was to prepare the east for unification. That event, for which the principals had originally penciled in a later date, was moved up to October 3, in light of the increasingly precarious state of the eastern economy.

The democratic all-German election that was supposed to take place after a brief postwar interim, finally happened on December 2, 1990, a mere 45 years late. The coalition government that was led by Kohl's Christian Democrats was reelected, with strong support in both east and west.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Ben Pershing, in The Washington Post, asks whether, as a nation, we're depressed.

Is it time for another Malaise Speech? The first one worked so well.

20 Years Ago 10: Putting it all together

Earlier this week, world leaders gathered in Berlin to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The November 9 anniversary of that event will seemingly always mark the end of the Cold War in most people's minds.

But, as I discussed in previous posts in this series, that incident happened rather late in a string of events that unfolded all through the year of 1989.

We could endlessly debate which of those events was the most important. I think that the fall of the Wall had the highest symbolic importance, because the Wall had been such an icon of the Cold War. Before November 9, it didn't completely feel as though the Cold War had been won.

During 1989, two bulwarks of Communist power were broken down: 1) restricted emigration; and 2) suppression of power centers that could compete against Communist parties.

As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the command economy system under the Marxist-Leninist regimes doomed their subjects to a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by people living in places where market forces were allowed to operate. If emigration had been freely allowed, the most productive workers would have skedaddled. As it was, some risked their lives attempting to do so, such as those who were shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and those who left places such as Vietnam and Cuba in unsafe boats.

As long as those people were kept within borders that were, in effect, prison walls, the command economies could maintain some semblance of economic activity. Once those walls began to be breached, first along the border between Austria and Hungary, the command economies were doomed.

Regarding the other issue, that of competing power centers, Poland led the way. In 1980, an independent labor union was formed, that temporarily received government approval.

Communists' claims of having created a workers' paradise were always belied by the opposition to them on the part of such union organizations as the AFL-CIO. While some on the American left were sympathetic with the Marxist-Leninist regimes, the AFL-CIO was strongly anti-Communist, largely because of those regimes' unwillingness to allow independent unions. Such unions would have been a competing center of power, and the Communist parties were unable to face up to such competition.

The Marxist-Leninist regimes suppressed the churches, which were also potential competitors for power. That was relatively easy with the Orthodox Christian churches that were prevalent in much of the Soviet bloc. They are organized at the national level, and are therefore easier for national governments to co-opt. For example, Stalin loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox church during World War II, in order to foment Russian patriotic fervor.

Churches were more of a problem in a place such as Poland, where the Roman Catholic Church is the predominant religion. That church is organized internationally. When, in 1978, cardinals from all over the world elected as pope Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, the Polish regime could do nothing to stop it. They could, in theory, have stopped him from returning to his native land for pastoral visits but, as a practical matter, that would not have been sustainable. Therefore Pope John Paul II became, in effect, the leader of the opposition.

When the Polish government tried to implement limited competition by opposition political parties, they had strayed too far from the principle of a Communist monopoly on power, and they were soon ousted. They probably knew that, but figured they would try the semi-free election of 1989 as a desperate last-ditch tactic.

From our 20-years-later perspective, it's obvious that only those Communist regimes that have been ruthless in their suppression of competing power-centers, such as China and North Korea, have survived.

However, China's regime has been a trying a rather delicate high-wire act of its own, introducing a capitalist economy, while maintaining its dictatorship. Private wealth is a competing source of power that, so far, the government has kept under control.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wait 'Til Next Year

By now, all but the most partisan Democrats are asking, not whether Republicans will make gains in next year's congressional elections, but how large those gains will be.

Josh Kraushaar, in Politico, analyzes the Republicans' prospects. He reports that "the most optimistic Republicans believe there is a real chance that the party can win back the House, a prospect that no one would have imagined just a few months ago."

I wouldn't bet the rent money on it, but it's not impossible.

The last time a young, new Democratic president was trying to push a national health plan through Congress, there were 176 Republicans in the House. Then, the GOP gained 54 seats in 1994, and put Newt Gingrich into the speaker's chair, the first of his party to occupy that seat since 1954 (coincidentally the last year when Brooklyn Dodger fans had to chant the phrase that's the title of this post).

There are currently 177 Republicans in the House, so their uphill climb is ever-so-slightly easier than it was 16 years ago.

Of course, all of this is subject to the disclaimer that, if, as the late British politician Harold Wilson put it, "a week is a long time in politics", then a year is eternity.

20 Years Ago 9: Dominoes

I recently heard, for the umpteenth time, someone from academia smugly denying the validity of the domino theory. That was the argument made during the 1960s by proponents of American military involvement in Vietnam, that, if we allowed a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, other non-Communist governments in Asia would proceed to fall like a line of dominoes.

When we allowed just that, in 1975, much of Asia was spared. But anyone completely dismissing the domino theory has a couple million Cambodian souls to answer to.

Whatever one thinks about that argument, it's clear that, in 1989, the domino theory worked in reverse.

Once the Marxist-Leninist regimes of Poland, Hungary and East Germany fell, what little legitimacy the other such governments had, completely disappeared. Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia fell in line, shortly after the opening of the Berlin Wall.

As of November of 1989, the end of European Communism had come about with remarkably little violence. In fact, the process in Czechoslovakia was so peaceful, it was called the "Velvet Revolution".

Romania was a tougher situation. Nicolae Ceausescu had been one of the most corrupt and hard-line of the dictators. He held out longer than his counterparts in the other Soviet satellite countries. By December of 1989, the situation had grown violent, as Ceausescu tried to use his security apparatus to maintain his power, in the face of a growing popular revolt. His effort ended on Christmas Day, when he and his wife Elena were executed.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Here is Chris Cillizza's take on a few declared and prospective candidates in the 2010 and 2012 elections, in today's Washington Post. Some reactions:

I have already made clear that my early favorite for the 2012 presidential election is Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican from my native state of Minnesota.

Cillizza pounces on two recent statements by Pawlenty that the writer characterizes as missteps.

Regarding the New York special election, I suppose that those, such as Pawlenty and Sarah Palin, who endorsed Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman, would have benefited from a Hoffman victory. But it probably plays well with the Republican primary electorate that they made a valiant attempt to elect a right-thinking (in more than one sense of that word) congressman.

Any fuss over Pawlenty's statements about the health-care vote by Maine's Republican Senator Olympia Snowe strike me as something that has more resonance inside the Beltway than it does in the places where the voters live.

Having said all that, I can concede that Pawlenty might have some work to do in improving his presentation.

In the distant past, before cable news and the World Wide Web, someone spending a suspicious amount of time in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, would, at this stage in the process, not have had the national spotlight shining on him yet. Most of the coverage would have been by local TV and newspapers.

These days, perhaps there is less opportunity for a presidential hopeful to play previews out of town before hitting Broadway. But still, we're at a point in the process when, for the most part, it is only we political junkies who are paying much attention.

Cillizza also mentions a very interesting name in relation to the Democratic primary for governor of California. When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom withdrew from that contest, it seemingly left former Governor Jerry Brown with a clear path to the general election. Now, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who formerly held Newsom's current office, is reportedly reconsidering her earlier decision to stay out of the gubernatorial campaign.

In the past, going from governor to senator was a common career path. But lately it seems that the new trend is to go in the other direction. In 1990, Republican Pete Wilson gave up a Senate seat (which is now Feinstein's) to successfully run for governor of California. And Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, is a candidate in next year's gubernatorial election in that state.

It's understandable that the governorship of a large state such as California or Texas would be a big enough challenge to entice a U.S. senator back to his or her home state. But what about Frank Murkowski, who left the Senate in 2002 to run for governor of Alaska? It seems as though his motive was, in part at least, to set up a dynastic succession, as he appointed his daughter Lisa to succeed him in Washington. He failed to secure reelection, losing the governorship to a certain hockey mom who did not serve her full term.

UPDATE: Paul Mirengoff, on Power Line, agrees with my assessment of Cillizza's comments about Pawlenty, and goes into some further detail on that subject.

20 Years Ago 8: Eleven Nine

To quote The Beatles, "it was 20 years ago today."

Earlier in 1989, East Germans had become more free to emigrate to the West, and to hold public anti-government demonstrations. But it was still a surprise when, on November 9 of that year, the Berlin Wall fell. (The fall was originally figurative, but the more extended process of felling the wall physically also began on that day.)

Many East Germans had been escaping to West Germany, via Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In a desperate attempt to control that emigration, the East German Communist regime decided to try a limited liberalization of travel directly from East to West Germany. Under that plan, emigrants would still need the regime's permission to cross the border.

But a party spokesman bungled the announcement on TV. East Germans who had been led to believe that emigration had become totally free, thronged to border crossing points.

Border guards, unable to get clear orders from the disintegrating government hierarchy, were faced with a dilemma. They had to either use force against those trying to cross the border, thereby escalating the violence that had taken place at the Wall since it was built in 1961, or allow free emigration. Under the circumstances, they had more to lose if they used force, than if (as was the case) they stood by and watched the exodus.

After 44 years of cold war centered on Berlin, one of the most important events in the West's victory happened accidentally. (See this recent Time report, for some revisionist history on that.) But, that's not to say that, if the government's announcement had been made more clearly, the Berlin Wall would still be standing today. The way the events played out that day is proof of how weak the East German regime had become. It could not have lasted much beyond November 9, in any case.

A few days later, the government made the anti-climactic announcement that multi-party elections would be held in 1990.

And the title of this post? Tom Friedman, in his book The World is Flat, notes how appropriate it is, that the date of the Berlin Wall opening is the opposite of the date of Al Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington. On 11/9, the world was further opened up to globalization, and an attempt to shut globalization down happened on 9/11.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

20 Years Ago 7: Hungary

In October 1989, the Communist regime in Hungary followed Poland's lead and agreed to multi-party elections. Setting a trend that would be followed in other former Soviet bloc countries, the Communist Party (Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party) turned itself into a social democratic party, planning to contest the election, in May 1990, against opposition parties.

Communist reformers, led by Karoly Grosz, had taken power in 1988. That led to such liberalizations as the border opening with Austria that I described here.

But attempting to reform the existing system was a half-way course that didn't work in any of the countries in which it was tried, including the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. (Unlike the Chinese leaders described in this post, they hadn't read their Machiavelli.)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

20 Years Ago 6: Wir sind das Volk!

Translation: we are the people!

1989 was the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the so-called German Democratic Republic in the Soviet occupation zone, in eastern Germany. During those 40 years, public displays of dissatisfaction with the Communist regime had been brutally suppressed.

In the wake of Josef Stalin's death in 1953, East Germans tested the limits of their freedom, and found that those limits had not been significantly expanded in the dictator's absence.

Construction workers went on strike in East Berlin. Demonstrations followed, there and in other cities. Soviet troops used military force to end the revolt.

The 1953 East German uprising is often cited along with the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, as an occasion when the Soviet Union considered it most necessary to use force to preserve its hold on Eastern Europe. (Since Soviet troops occupied East Germany pursuant to the Yalta Agreement, they did not need to invade, that time.)

Then, after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, people who tried to cross that barrier into West Berlin were routinely shot.

But, by October 1989, things had obviously changed. Events earlier that year, such as the Austro-Hungarian border opening and the Polish election that voted out the Communist regime, had not elicited a negative response from the Soviet Union. Unlike earlier successors to Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the Soviet Communist leader in 1985, did not use force to prevent those types of things from happening.

The debate about Gorbachev's motives will probably go on forever. Did a moral compass, that was missing from his predecessors, cause him to promote freedom for those long-oppressed countries? Or did he simply feel powerless in the face of strong opposition from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul? I lean toward the latter.

As I noted above, the 1953 demonstrators are generally thought to have been testing their limits amid the power vacuum that followed Stalin's death. In 1989, East German dissidents had much more concrete reasons to believe that they could push their cause publicly.

As autumn of 1989 approached, anti-government demonstrations began. In Leipzig, these grew out of Monday evening prayer meetings at a Lutheran church. They spread to other cities, and continued to be held on Monday nights. By October, demonstrators' numbers swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

One of their chants was, "Wir sind das Volk!", which I translated at the top of this post.

Desperate to save their crumbling regime, the East German Communists fired their general secretary, Erich Honecker, on October 18. However, his successor, Egon Krenz, was not in power very long.

Friday, November 6, 2009

20 Years Ago 5: Poland Votes

During the negotiations I described here, in early 1989, the Polish government agreed to hold an election which, while not being totally free, allowed the first element of multi-party competition in that country, since the establishment of its Marxist-Leninist regime in the wake of World War II.

Election day was set for June 4. The unicameral parliament had been made bicameral, with the addition of a Senate. 35% of the seats in the lower house, and 100% of the Senate seats, could be contested by all parties.

Solidarity, the trade union that had emerged from the Gdansk shipyard strike of 1980, turned itself into a political party, and contested as many seats as were allowed to it. They won their maximum possible total of 35% of the lower-house seats, and 99 of 100 Senate seats.

While the reservation of 65% of the lower-house seats to the Communists was intended to safeguard their power, it didn't work out that way.

The Communist power structure in Poland had been a one-party system in effect, but not in form. Some small parties had been allowed to exist, as long as they did not challenge the Communists' monopoly on power.

The sheer force of 1989's overwhelming anti-Communist vote forced Poland's rulers to allow a coalition government to be formed between Solidarity and those other parties. As a face-saving gesture the Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski was given the title of president. But Solidarity's Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister.

As I wrote here, the opening up of the physical Iron Curtain was arguably the straw that broke Marx's back, but the precedent that was set in Poland, that Communists could be voted out of power in a Soviet bloc country, was also very important.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

20 Years Ago 4: Austria and Hungary

Many countries have border problems. For some, the problem is keeping people out. Others have difficulty keeping people in. While I believe in liberal immigration policies, I'm glad that I live in one of the keeping-people-out countries.

Marxist-Leninist regimes have always had the opposite problem. Amid all their talk about the happiness of the New Soviet Man (in a more sexist era) and great increases in tractor production under the latest five-year plan, their emigration policies always belied their propaganda.

During 1989, on the border between Austria and Hungary, two formerly united countries that, after World War II, found themselves on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, the system of emigration control broke down. I consider this to be one of the most significant events of that eventful year, the importance of which is underappreciated.

On May 2, Hungary began dismantling the fences on its border with Austria. That made it relatively easy for people to cross the border illegally. The impact of that move went beyond the issue of keeping Hungarians at home.

Communist governments had allowed their people relatively free movement between Soviet bloc countries. While they all maintained the same border controls, there was relatively little danger of their people using that opportunity to defect.

East Germans, who had traveled to Hungary, began to cross into Austria, from which they could easily enter West Germany. That increased the pressure on East Germany and similar countries, to either crack down on liberalization (as the Chinese regime did, around that time), or give up and become free-market democracies.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where have you gone, Ronald Reagan?

5,000 people who have been employed running public transit in Philadelphia have decided that they no longer want to work at the levels of compensation that are being offered to them.

As of last February, it was estimated that there were 75,000 people looking for work in Philadelphia. That's the most recent number I found, and I doubt that it has gotten any better in the meantime.

Politicians such as Mayor Michael Nutter and Governor Ed Rendell are derelict in their duties, in that they have not started hiring from among that pool of idle workers, to replace those who are no longer doing those jobs.

Of course, I have the highest respect for the integrity of those leaders, so I wouldn't think of suggesting that they are corruptly derelict, as a result of their having accepted money from the unions.

When faced with a similar situation in 1981, then-President Ronald Reagan fired striking public employees.

The private sector has a way of dealing with unions' tendency to price themselves out of a labor market. The operations in question move to other places, where they can hire workers at market wage levels. That's why there is a rust belt.

The only way of dealing with this situation in relation to public sector unions is for political leaders to lead, as Reagan did.

A Good Day for Republicans

Democrats lost two governorships to the Republicans yesterday, which is the best electoral news for the GOP in five years. However, a Democrat in New York State won a congressional seat that had been held by the Republicans, in an area that, generally, through several redistrictings, had been won by Republicans forever.

Bob McDonnell's victory in Virginia is significant in ending a Democratic winning streak in that state. Last year, Barack Obama was the first Democratic nominee in 44 years to win Virginia's electoral votes. As of 2007, there were two Democratic U.S. senators for the first time in 34 years. And the state had elected Democratic governors in 2001 and 2005.

But, in one sense, Chris Christie's New Jersey win is even more important. Winning only in states such as Virginia would reinforce the impression that the Republican Party is becoming the last thing anyone 50 years ago or so would have thought it would become: a southeastern regional party.

Democrat Bill Owens's victory in the special election in New York's 23rd congressional district, complicates the picture somewhat. Even though runner-up Doug Hoffman was not the Republican nominee, many Republicans supported him, so his defeat needs to be acknowledged as a GOP loss. That will intensify the debate about whether the party should be more ideologically diverse, as it was back in the days when it dominated politics in the northeastern states.

Last night, the White House proudly proclaimed that President Obama was not watching the election returns. If he wants to stay in his current residence after 2013, he might want to reconsider his position on paying attention to what the voters are saying.

Still Defending Marriage!

I'm truly sorry that heterosexual marriage is doing as badly as it seems to be, in that yet another state's voters think it needs defending. But Bill Clinton must be proud of the Maine electorate, for defending marriage in the same way he did, when he signed the bill whose title states that it does just that, in 1996.

I still don't understand how one defends marriage by applying it to some couples' relationships and not others. But I'm sure that's just my intellectual deficiency.

Yesterday, the state of Maine voted by a 53% to 47% margin, to repeal a law that was passed by their legislature and signed by their governor, which would have allowed same-sex marriage in that state.

Perhaps Clinton should get together with his fellow stalwart defenders of marriage, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and celebrate Maine's decision. But they'll need to be careful not to invite Barney Frank. He's just the type they're trying to defend against!

20 Years Ago 3: Tiananmen

Supposedly, two journalists from Brooklyn once agreed that they would write down the names of the three worst villains of the 20th century, and then compare the lists. As the story goes, they had both written: Hitler, Stalin and O'Malley. (Walter O'Malley, who then owned the Dodgers, had moved that baseball team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, in 1958.)

Whatever one may think of O'Malley, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mao Zedong, who ruled China as Communist Party chief from 1949 until his death in 1976, was a worse villain than either Hitler or Stalin. During the period of Mao's erratic rule, tens of millions died, either killed in the fight to subdue China and Tibet, or starved to death in the famines that resulted from the regime's lunatic economic policies.

Two years after Mao's death, China's new leaders began to reverse those economic restrictions. That started the economic boom that still continues today.

Mao repressed political rights as completely as he denied his people economic rights. Therefore, in the post-Mao era, the obvious question arose: would his successors liberalize Chinese politics, as they liberalized its economy?

For the most part, the answer has been "no".

None of China's leaders were particularly enthusiastic democrats, but Hu Yaobang, who headed the Communist Party from 1981 to 1987, pushed the envelope a bit in that direction. Hu's death, on April 15, 1989, provoked protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

At first, the regime was somewhat tolerant of the protests. A fascinated world watched, with giddy speculation as to whether there would be political liberalization, civil war, or ...

Deng Xiaoping, who ran China at that time, even though he did not hold any particularly high title, eventually decided that the unrest needed to be put down by military means. Perhaps he had been reading Machiavelli:

A Prince should therefore disregard the reproach of being thought cruel where it enables him to keep his subjects united and obedient. For he who quells disorder by a very few signal examples will in the end be more merciful than he who from too great leniency permits things to take their course and so to result in rapine and bloodshed; for these hurt the whole State, whereas the severities of the Prince injure individuals only.

Leaders of several other Marxist-Leninist regimes proved to be less Machiavellian than Deng, and their rule came to an end, soon thereafter.

Speculation that factions of the Chinese military might rebel against orders to shoot civilian protesters proved utterly unfounded. On June 4, an unknown number of people, possibly numbering in the thousands, were killed in a brutal crackdown on the protests.

Political dissent in China was utterly silenced. During the intervening 20 years, there has been nothing remotely approaching the scope of the 1989 protests.

China's current leaders have made a tacit deal with their people, trading off an ever-increasing standard of living for the abandonment of democratic hopes. The world recession of 2007-9 could have left the government unable to hold up its part of the bargain. But China's economy has proved remarkably resilient, so that scenario will apparently not play out.

I think it's unlikely that the Chinese government will be able to forever keep the lid on, but they've been successful so far.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


When someone in my native state of Minnesota refers to "Sid", no one has to ask "Sid who?" In that sense, he's like Cher or Napoleon. He only needs one name.

But, for you outsiders, I'll identify him as Sid Hartman, sports writer for the Star Tribune, a Minneapolis newspaper, and sports commentator on WCCO, a CBS radio station in that city.

A recent post on another blog linked to this Minnesota Public Radio report from last spring, on the occasion of Sid's 89th birthday. The milestone this week was his 65th anniversary as a newspaper writer.

So, my question is: does anyone know of any other journalist, anywhere, on any beat, in any medium, who has been working continuously since 1944?

UPDATE: Shortly after I published this post, one name came to mind. Who has been working as a journalist longer than Sid? Helen Thomas, who started working for UPI in 1943.


Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about the question on every political junkie's mind: do today's off-year elections constitute a referendum on the first year of Barack Obama's presidency?

Milbank, with a tongue-in-cheek tone, describes how pundits on both sides are giving the question a spin that is intended to benefit their side.

But he avoids the obvious question: what was each side saying eight years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot? In 2001, there was a new Republican president, and Republicans had won the 1997 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey (although New Jersey had a Democratic acting governor during the runup to the 2001 election, because Christie Whitman had resigned to join the Bush Administration).

I googled "2001 mark warner governor referendum on bush", and, lo and behold, I found this New York Times article, in which Terry McAuliffe, then the Democratic national chairman, said of that election cycle: "''I view it as a referendum on the Republican Party and their stale ideas.''

McAuliffe, who would be the one trying to uphold Obama's honor in Virginia this year, if he hadn't lost his party's gubernatorial primary, predicted in 2001 that the victories of Mark Warner and Jim McGreevey would give the Democrats enough momentum to retake control of Congress in 2002.

As it turned out, Republicans made small gains in the 2002 congressional elections, enough to give them a narrow majority in the Senate. However, Democrats did, of course, win majorities in both houses four years later.

That 2001 Times report also describes the situation in 1993, which was the same as this year's scenario. The more things change ....

20 Years Ago 2: Knights of the Round Table

To start off the series I introduced in this post, I will describe the Round Table Talks that took place in Poland from February 6 to April 4, 1989. Those negotiations led to a semi-free parliamentary election later that year, that ended Communist rule in that country.

While there had been unrest in Poland before 1980, most notably the 1970 food riots that toppled longtime party chief Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Solidarity shipyard strike of 1980 was arguably the most significant challenge to date, against any of the Soviet bloc regimes.

I would argue that the 1980 strike was a larger factor in the demise of the Soviet bloc than the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, in part because of the public spiritual support, and covert political support, of the new Polish pope, John Paul II.

Looking back from our current vantage point, it's easy to see that, once John Paul had paid his first papal visit to Poland, in June 1979, the jig was up. It would be much more difficult for the Soviet Union to keep that force under control, than it was to suppress the earlier reformist regimes in Budapest and Prague.

In August 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk, led by electrician Lech Walesa, went on strike, and founded an independent trade union called Solidarity. The Polish government temporarily surrendered, recognizing the validity of Walesa's union.

However, in December 1981, they reneged on that arrangement, imposed martial law on the country, outlawed the union, and imprisoned Walesa and other leaders. Walesa was freed in November 1982.

While the Communist regime did not reverse its 1981 actions, its ability to suppress opposition weakened as the decade went on.

By 1988, the regime, then headed by Wojciech Jaruzelski, realized that it needed to negotiate with Walesa and other opposition leaders. That led to the Round Table Talks. On April 4, 1989, an agreement was reached to again legalize the union, and to allow it to contest some of the parliamentary seats in a general election to be held in June of that year. More on that, later.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Can I Marry My Maine Man?

Purely hypothetical. I don't have a Maine man. Or a Pennsylvania man for that matter.

But, on May 6, 2009, Maine Governor John Baldacci signed a bill that had been passed by that state's legislature, which would allow a Maine man to marry a Maine man, and a Maine woman to marry a Maine woman.

Maine's constitution allows initiative and referendum. The referendum process allows citizens to propose by petition that an act of the legislature be repealed. That process is popularly known in Maine as a "people's veto". If a majority of voters concur on election day, the law in question is repealed.

Opponents of the same-sex marriage law successfully petitioned for a referendum on that legislation, which will be held tomorrow. The constitution provides that the implementation of such a law be suspended, pending the referendum.

Nate Silver, in the 538 blog, cites contradictory poll results, but, after doing his usual slicing and dicing of the numbers, concludes that the "no" position (somewhat confusingly, the pro-same-sex-marriage side) seems likely to prevail in a close vote.

Last week, Abby Goodnough explained, in The New York Times, the importance both sides place on the question of whether support for changing the marriage laws is limited to political elites, such as judges and legislators, or is shared by the electorate at large.

One of the judiciary's functions is to protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of the majority. Therefore, it is legitimate for courts, such as those of Massachusetts, to direct a legislature to put an end to unconstitutional discrimination.

Judges, when acting properly in such cases, are likely to ignite controversies. They should be prepared to withstand attacks, and the system should ensure that their decisions are implemented. But, if they get too far out of step with public opinion, the judiciary might lose its legitimacy. Also, the political branches have methods at their disposal to reverse court decisions, as I described here, here, here and here.

For that reason, it would be an important victory for those of us who support same-sex marriage rights, to show that they can be adopted through the political process, as would be the case in Maine, where the legislature acted of its own volition, rather than in reaction to a judicial mandate, and with the additional legitimacy that comes from confirmation by the voters.

20 Years Ago

Next week, Germany and the rest of the world will observe the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Many events took place earlier that year, that led up to the opening between East and West Berlin on November 9, 1989. In that sense, it was not a total shock to see the sledgehammers applied to the graffiti-marked concrete.

But, as we went through the 1980s, who would have foreseen those events coming to pass in such a near future? Not too many people other than Ronald Reagan.

Addressing the British Parliament in 1982, Reagan declared that "the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."

Meanwhile, those who saw Reagan as a crazy warmonger were certain that the Soviet bloc was here to stay. According to that point of view, the priority should have been on learning to live in peaceful coexistence, rather than making weird statements about ash heaps.

Marxism-Leninism now survives only in such sorry countries as Cuba and North Korea, and in name only in China and Vietnam.

During 1989, it was clear that a lot was happening, mostly for the good, but it was not totally clear what kind of forest those trees constituted. From our current perspective, we can see a fairly orderly march toward the situation that existed at the end of that year, when the Soviet Union was still around, but without its bloc, and with a precarious hold on its constituent republics.

In an upcoming series of posts, I will attempt to connect events in such places as Beijing, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and, of course, Berlin, into a narrative of how those great changes came about.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Internecine warfare among Republicans has ended in the New York special election for Congress, that I described here. Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava has suspended her candidacy, after heavy support has emerged for the Conservative Party's candidate, Douglas Hoffman.

That should allow Newt Gingrich to save face. He has been the most prominent Scozzafava supporter among potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates. Many on the right have seen Gingrich as being on the wrong side of history in this case, but he won't need to go all the way down in flames with her doomed candidacy.

One should not count one's chickens 48 hours before election day, but it now seems likely that Hoffman will win the 23rd district House seat.

And that will be a victory for those who see the maintenance of a clear right-wing agenda as being the GOP's route back to power in upcoming election years. John Hinderaker certainly sees it that way, on the Power Line blog.

UPDATE: The latest twist is that Scozzafava has endorsed Democrat Bill Owens. The New York Times says that this has "intensified the intra-party fighting that has characterized the bitter contest". I disagree. Yes, Republicans are now to an even greater degree criticizing Scozzafava, who is still nominally Republican. But there is no longer a split among Republicans (other than Dede) regarding Hoffman (and, in that sense, the "civil war" is over). There are hints in the Times report that Scozzafava might switch parties.

Old Brown, Not Newsom

Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco has withdrawn from the race for the 2010 Democratic nomination for governor of California. He was unable to translate his popularity in his city to a base for a statewide candidacy. Newsom found himself short of those two interrelated commodities that are necessary for such an effort: poll numbers and money.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown is now considered to be the likely Democratic nominee, even though he has not formally declared his candidacy. Yes, that Jerry Brown.

Brown was the boy wonder of both California and national politics, when he was elected governor in 1974, at the age of 36, succeeding Ronald Reagan. Then, in 1976, he ran a credible campaign for president in the Democratic primaries, but was unable to overcome the early lead that Jimmy Carter had established. Brown's subsequent presidential candidacies were less serious.

Brown was reelected governor in 1978. In 1982, he lost the general election for the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Pete Wilson, who was then mayor of San Diego, went on to hold for eight years, before Wilson was elected governor.

Brown returned to electoral politics some years later, and served as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007. In 2006, he was elected to his current office, that of state attorney general.

If he is elected governor next year, there will have been a 28-year gap between his second and third terms in that job. He will be 72, which would make Brown the oldest governor in California's history.

Brown might not like the comparison, but I am reminded of the case of Donald Rumsfeld, who was both the youngest and the oldest secretary of defense. He was 43, when Gerald Ford appointed him to that job in 1975; Rumsfeld stayed on until the end of Ford's presidency, in 1977. Then, in 2001, at the age of 68, Rumsfeld was returned to that position by George W. Bush. But even Rumsfeld's 24-year absence from the Pentagon is shorter than Brown's sabbatical from the governorship would be.

It's not certain that Brown will continue to have the Democratic field to himself. There is some speculation that, in the wake of Newsom's withdrawal, another mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, might make the race, which he has considered, but, so far, has ruled out.