Friday, July 27, 2007

Is George Bush a conservative?

Well, he calls himself one. He calls himself a compassionate conservative, which is a fine thing to be and not at all impossible, whatever our left-of-center friends would have us believe. I just question whether George Bush really is a conservative. (I’m going to suspend judgment about the compassion thing.) I used to wonder that about Richard Nixon as well—how a man who imposed wage and price controls and presided over unprecedented growth in the welfare state qualified as a conservative was a little baffling. (Maybe all you have to do to qualify as a conservative is to wave the flag a lot, which is disappointing for several reasons, since the flag is supposed to represent us all.) As for Bush, I’m not just talking about the Medicare Drug Benefit and No Child Left Behind and the spiraling budgets. I’m talking about his response to 9/11, and I’m talking about Iraq.
Now first let me say that September 11, 2001 would have dealt a tough hand to anyone who happened to be president on that day. President Al Gore would have faced the same hideous choices George Bush faced, and maybe he would have handled them better, and maybe he wouldn’t have. 9/11 was a supreme crisis for American government policy, a test by fire and a reputation maker or breaker. And some of the things Bush did were good and had to be done, and some of them I have my doubts about.
The first thing that made me wonder was his creation of a huge new government bureaucracy charged with what was called homeland security. (I’m not sure what was wrong with the word “defense”.) I don’t think that was a conservative response. A conservative response would have been to look at the institutional failures that led to 9/11 and fix the institutions and the dysfunctional relations between them that led to the problem. Creating a whole new institution, and an expensive one at that, is not a conservative response.
Then there’s Iraq, and I’m not talking about the invasion. What really made me wonder how George W. Bush could be called a conservative was the decision to disband the Iraqi army, dismantle the civil service and start all over from scratch. That’s not how conservatives operate.
The best book I know of about why some people are conservatives and some people are whatever the opposite is (I’m not going to use the word liberal because of its ambiguity) is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Sowell traces the origins of our political views to what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions of human potential. The unconstrained vision holds that reason is supreme and humanity is amenable to the Big Makeover. Its proponents admire intellectuals and love big plans. Proponents of this vision are drawn to the various manifestations of utopianism, from mild socialism to communism and fascism. That generally corresponds with the political left (fascism is placed on the right because of its ethnic/nationalistic component, but remember that Mussolini was an admirer of Lenin and Hitler’s party was the National Socialists.)
On the other hand, the constrained vision sees humans as too messy and intractable to be malleable and prefers merely to get the incentive structure right so that productive activity will be encouraged and damage will be limited. Its proponents believe that knowledge is too widely disseminated to permit planning of something so complex as an economy, no matter how smart the people at the top may be. People who hold the constrained vision tend to be drawn to free enterprise and the evolved wisdom of long-standing institutions. They are conservatives. As Sowell puts it, “To those with the constrained vision, it is axiomatic that no individual or council can master [the complexity of social processes], so that systemic processes—market economies, social traditions, constitutional law—are relied on instead.”
Now, if there ever was a utopian project that ignored systemic processes and aimed at the Big Makeover, it was the attempt to raze all Iraqi social institutions and rebuild them from scratch. I’m not going to get into whether this project could have been accomplished if only it had been undertaken more competently. My point is that it was not a conservative project, that Rumsfeld and Bremer and Bush up there at the top undertook something in Iraq which should have made any true conservative’s hair stand on end.
Maybe they didn’t go into Iraq intending to do that—maybe they were overtaken by events and went lurching from crisis to crisis, improvising wildly. I’m more inclined to believe that than I am to think that the destruction of Iraqi society was cynically planned. But I don’t think a true conservative would have gotten himself into that position. A true conservative might have undertaken the invasion, if he believed Iraq posed an imminent threat (he might equally have looked at Iraq and decided that conservative principles ruled out such a high-stakes gamble.) But a conservative would have made damn sure to maintain order after the invasion. He would have defeated the Iraqi army but kept it intact with generous surrender terms, purged the officer corps and set up a reliable strong man. He would have tossed the top Ba’athists in jail but kept the Ba’ath-dominated civil service functioning. He would not have tried to re-make Iraqi society from the ground up. That is the very last thing a conservative would try.
So if George Bush isn’t a conservative, what is he? Who knows? I don’t think he does. He is a product of our political system, which rewards money and inertia rather than philosophical depth. He wound up as president because with his connections and his name he was a safe compromise choice for a messy and not entirely coherent coalition, which is what both our major parties are. Our party system doesn’t promote independent thinking or ideological focus. It promotes salesmanship, mediagenicity and political acumen (as opposed to policy acumen). And that goes for both sides of the aisle.
Most people’s views are too complex to be reduced to a label like “conservative” or “liberal”, and arguing about the meanings of words is usually a waste of time. But when you try to use a word as a claim to legitimacy, you’d better make sure you have a legitimate claim to it. Conversely, if you try to use a word as a bludgeon to destroy someone’s legitimacy, you’d better make sure you’re using it accurately.
So the next time someone tells you George Bush is a conservative, ask what the evidence for that is.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Stock of Bonds

So what about Barry Bonds? What are we supposed to make of this if we care about baseball? Does he deserve our respect, if not our adulation? Or should we boycott the celebrations, hold our noses, turn our backs?
There are lots of ways of looking at it. Imagine this: imagine that Barry Bonds, instead of being famously surly, conceited and arrogant, had the sunny disposition of a Mays or a Sosa. Would we care about the steroids?
Not nearly as much, is my guess. If Barry Bonds were not so personally repellent, we’d be finding ways of excusing the drugs. If he were media-friendly, congenial to fans and popular with his teammates, we’d be rooting for him. We’d be pointing out that baseball had no policy on steroids at the time he was allegedly taking them and that the pitchers were furiously bulking up at the same time. We’d be sheepishly groping for reasons to overlook the cheating because we love heroes. But heroes can’t be jerks, at least not in public. Bonds’s toxic personality has hurt his case immensely.
Here’s another way to look at it: no matter how strong you are, you still have to hit the ball. Baseball history is full of muscled-up sluggers who could hit the ball a mile but couldn’t hit it often enough. If sheer strength were the only factor in hitting home runs, Frank Howard or Dave Kingman would be the home run king. The fact is that Barry Bonds was, even before the steroids and the hormones, one of the best there ever was at making contact with a pitched baseball. Throughout his career he has displayed all the virtues you try to teach: pitch selection, patience, taking what the pitcher gives you. He is a smart and disciplined hitter and should be remembered for that even if his late-career power totals are discounted as the product of cheating.
What produced that extraordinary run of power hitting in the latter half of his career was not just the steroids, either: it was a confluence of factors including diluted expansion-era pitching and smaller retro-style ballparks. Bonds benefited from these along with everyone else. Homer totals for everyone went up in the nineties, and I don’t think they were all doing steroids.
Factors other than innate skill have always affected baseball numbers. How many homers did Willie Mays lose to the treacherous Candlestick winds? How many of Hank Greenberg’s homers were due to stolen signals flashed from the coach in the stands? Because any individual event in baseball is hostage to so many factors, we require large sample sizes to make judgments. And even those judgments have to be taken with a grain of salt. All of them.
So how much difference did the steroids make? Some, for sure. That conclusion is unavoidable. If you’re already a good hitter, extra strength is going to turn warning-track outs into extra homers. It’s impossible to deny that Bonds (and the others who have been caught cheating) saw their homer totals inflated by the drugs they took to add muscle that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Enough to disqualify him from the record books? That way madness lies. Records are just an accounting of what happened on the field. And monkeying with the accounting doesn’t change what went down. Everyone saw it. You can’t go back and change the records and make home runs vanish. If you don’t want Barry Bonds to show 756 homers in the record book because you don’t think he deserves it, you have to find a way to keep him off the field. You have to suspend him for cheating. If you’re that concerned about it, you have to ban him for life. If you don’t have the courage to do that, you have to record what he does between the lines along with what everyone else does. If you couldn’t muster the authority to put in place a policy on steroids, you have to accept what happened on the field.
So we have to give Bonds his place in the record book. Do we have to applaud him? That’s a matter of taste. We’re not obliged to like everyone who breaks a record. Ty Cobb was another famous jerk. Pete Rose wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We don’t have to like them, but we have to recognize what they did.
Barry Bonds may be a scoundrel, but all those home runs really went out of the ball park. People saw them. If you really can’t stand the idea of Barry Bonds as home run king, the only thing to do is wait until Rodriguez or Griffey or somebody more to your liking comes along and eclipses him. And it will happen—that we can be sure of. Like everything else, time will take care of Barry Bonds.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Vote

The war in Iraq is a very polarizing topic. It’s hard to stake out a nuanced position. For some people, if you concede any merit at all to the idea of the invasion, you are a hopeless warmonger, and for others, if you have any doubts at all about the way the war is being conducted, you are a spineless defeatist.
So sue me. Here’s what I think:
Every Iraqi I knew in 2003 supported the invasion. They sure as hell have their regrets now, however. This means something.
The fact that you can make a list of specific errors we’ve made in Iraq (failure to keep order, disbanding the army, etc.) means, logically, that it is possible to envisage a scenario in which we did not make those mistakes. Would things be better if we hadn’t? Almost certainly. Crucially though, what was the likelihood of our not making those mistakes? If you’re going to say, “Not great, with this bunch of cowboys in power,” I’m going to be hard pressed to come up with a response.
To me, all this means that while the invasion in and of itself wasn’t necessarily a mistake, it was a high-risk play. And you don’t bet immense stakes on a high-risk play unless you really have to. In March 2003 a friend asked me if I thought the invasion was a good idea. I said, “Ask me in five years.” So I’ve still got until next March, but I have to say, it’s starting to look as if the invasion of Iraq was a grave strategic mistake.
However, we’re there. What are our options now? Somebody said that in Vietnam we should have declared victory and withdrawn early on. That has a certain amount of appeal in Iraq. We did win— we toppled Saddam. We can bring the troops home and have a parade. Or can we? I don’t think anybody really knows what will happen if we just withdraw. Those who can’t imagine that things could get worse than they are now are merely deficient in imagination. On the other hand, a U.S. withdrawal might concentrate minds wonderfully. And at this point, American troops may be simply drawing fire that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t there. Nobody knows. The situation is complex and rapidly evolving.
I have some sympathy with those that say the surge should be given a chance to succeed, but what happens if it doesn’t? How many more surges do we commit to? How long are we willing to stay in Iraq? Benchmarks are a great idea until the Iraqis fail to meet them. Then what?
I don’t think our commitment to Iraq can be open-ended. We can’t afford it. Vietnam showed us what a protracted unpopular war does to the military and to society at large. I think we need to set our own benchmarks and leave when we meet them. Number of Iraqi troops trained, for example. Get the battalions up and running, wish them luck and start pulling out. We will have botched the occupation but made an effort to repair the damage. We cannot assume responsibility ad infinitem for Iraqi civil strife. We can declare a tie at the end of overtime and withdraw.
The situation in the Middle East will continue to be volatile whether or not we have troops in Iraq. They can have a war with or without us. I vote for without.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Two cheers for democracy

It’s too early to call for a post-mortem on Iraq; while the country may be in intensive care, it’s not dead yet. There is still a chance that a stable and independent Iraq might someday emerge. But one thing that ought to be declared dead as of today is the idea that anybody, sole superpower or not, can simply install, proclaim, ship in prefabricated or impose democracy.

I’d go further and say maybe we should take a hard look at whether democracy ought to be our priority in the first place.

Heresy, I know. But Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, claims that the world may actually have suffered from the spread of democracy in the last decade. Making a crucial distinction between democracy and freedom, he points to countries such as Russia as examples of places where premature democratization has failed to produce a free society. So in the light of our experience in Iraq, let’s ask: should the installation of political democracy in countries in crisis be our principal aim?

It’s facile to assume that democracy, in the sense of holding free and fair elections, ought to be the supreme political value. A simple commitment to majority rule cannot be made the highest value. If fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, must we simply shrug and say, “Hey, that’s democracy for you”? If you bang the drum too loudly for democracy, you may be embarrassed when the Palestinians vote Hamas into power.

I’d say the highest political value is good government. That means government that polices abuses, maintains conditions that promote reasonable prosperity, and otherwise lets people go about their business. Democracy is not irrelevant to good government, but the two are most certainly not equivalent.

So what’s the relationship between democracy and good government? It’s mainly negative. Democracy certainly doesn’t guarantee prosperity. The backlash against democracy which has appeared in Russia and Latin America is due in large measure to bitter disappointment that it has not brought more material benefits. But democracy promises material benefits only indirectly; it promises at best a restraint on destructive governments. The best democracy can do is to remove a government that destroys prosperity. Democracy is a brake, not an accelerator.

In a functioning democracy, politicians are limited in their folly by one prime consideration: sooner or later, they have to stand for election. Presuming the elections are reasonably fair, the need to take it to the voters means that a politician has at least to pretend concern for the public good. He may, of course, cater dishonestly, disingenuously or manipulatively to public opinion. Ultimately, however, if he commits too great a blunder or crime, he will be punished by being dis-elected. That’s democracy’s hole card: you screw up too badly, you go home. It is a blunt but effective weapon.

If we’re looking for a principle to guide us in our dealings with failed states (or those we have destroyed by invasion) I’d suggest that the highest value has to be security. A reasonable assumption that you will live till sundown is the prerequisite for just about any human activity. If you have to invade a country, make sure you get the security situation under control and provide a semblance of good government (by benevolent military despotism if nothing else) first. Then you can worry about creating the conditions for democracy.

But what are those conditions? A well-considered constitution is generally considered to be important, but even that is not determinate: Egypt has a written constitution; Britain does not. Take your pick. The truth is that democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it’s a culture. The set of institutional arrangements we call political democracy must rest on a solid cultural foundation that promotes rational discussion, protects free expression of ideas, and tolerates dissent. These are characteristics that cannot be legislated, and they are not universal. In too many countries, the ad hominem argument and the conspiracy theory are the primary forms of political debate. Meanwhile, personality cults exalt the ruler above the institutions of the nation. These may appear grotesque to the Western observer, but in some places they rest on a long tradition of deference to power. The rule of law cannot prevail unless there is a cultural consensus in its favor.

The good news is that cultures can change, and sometimes rapidly. Examples are plentiful of rapid cultural change, for better or worse. And this is where anyone hoping to promote democracy where it has never existed must begin. Positive cultural changes cannot be imposed, but they can be encouraged. Simply removing constraints is a good first step: dismantling the machinery of censorship, removing barriers to the importation of ideas. The next step is to nurture free discussion, to establish the principle that refutation is a better response to pernicious ideas than repression. And sometimes you do have to exercise power: those voicing unpopular opinions may need to be protected from others intent on silencing them by violence.

Finally, of course, all human institutions are fallible and require maintenance. Installing a democracy is only the beginning. Good institutions require constant supervision, vigilance, tinkering, criticism and adjustment.

That’s the real battle in Iraq, and everywhere else.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Family Secrets

Mob-watchers are enthralled with the so-called “Family Secrets” trial going on now in Chicago. On trial are a handful of broken-down old men who twenty or thirty years ago were among the most feared gangsters in Chicago history. They include Frank Calabrese, Sr. who is suffering the special indignity of hearing his brother and his son testify against him. Now that’s an unhappy family. If you have any illusions left about the glamor of organized crime after The Godfather and The Sopranos, this trial ought to take care of them.

The Outfit ain’t what it used to be, its power much reduced by RICO, Greylord and ongoing federal pressure. Nowadays, a Chicago organized crime expert told me, “Outfit guys want their sons to become investment bankers, because that’s where the money is.”

There, and in drugs. The big money these days flows to the black and Hispanic gangs who control the drug trade.

History repeats itself. Prohibition spurred gang warfare, made Al Capone a millionaire and entrenched his successors in the Chicago power structure. Now the G.D.’s and the Vice Lords shoot it out over drug markets on our streets and a handful of Colombian thugs have become world-class tycoons. We looked at what Prohibition did, coughed to cover our embarrassment and ended it, but so far the penny hasn’t dropped with regard to our current drug laws.

Here’s a conjecture for you: organized crime feeds off vice laws. Not the activities themselves—rather, the fact of their being illegal. That illegality is the lifeblood of organized crime. Now, it should be clear that there have always been thugs and always will be. Absent prohibition, it’s unlikely that Al Capone and Sam Giancana would have opened a bookshop or gone to med school. They would have remained what they were—thieves and predators. But it is also unlikely that they and their associates would have attained the wealth and power that they did. It was Prohibition—which made the trade in alcohol suddenly much more lucrative and insured that it would be controlled by the most ruthless elements in society—that made Capone wealthy and made Chicago a synonym for gang violence. And it was the criminalization of the hitherto non-criminal (and not essentially violent) business of selling people alcohol that undermined the rule of law and fatally corrupted Chicago’s institutions.

Vice is always in demand. It may not be good for us, but we can’t seem to do without it. Most of us can indulge the occasional guilty urge without crippling our lives; some of us can’t. The casualties make the prospect of eliminating vice seem attractive. It’s not easy to watch a life blighted by alcoholism or see a man destroy his marriage by dalliance with prostitutes. So we pass laws to criminalize vice, under the delusion that banned objects and activities magically disappear. What happens? Vice laws put criminals in control of the traffic. They insure high profit; they put the trade squarely in the hands of precisely those elements that care the least about the law. Vice laws make thugs rich.

And what is the effect on the institutions that are there to enforce the law? Overworked cops decide that policing other people’s private needs is not worth the trouble. They note that there is no coercion involved in a transaction between a dealer and his customers and wonder why they should bother to disrupt it. The temptation to accept a gratuity for allowing consensual transactions to proceed becomes significant. Corruption spreads. The prestige of the law suffers.

We should have no illusions: legalization is no panacea. Drugs and prostitution, like alcohol, can destroy lives. But they are not themselves essentially violent activities. (Yes, coercion is a key element of prostitution sometimes. But is a woman more or less likely to appeal to the law for relief if the activity in which she is engaged is considered criminal in and of itself?) The business of providing drugs and prostitutes is made violent by being criminalized.

Wouldn’t it be worth a try to treat these as public health problems, like alcohol, instead of as criminal problems? Prohibition created the Outfit. Are we going to let the modern version subvert our institutions in the same way?

There are principled arguments and people I respect on both sides of this question. Let me know what you think.

Sam Reaves

Saturday, July 7, 2007

OK, I stole the title. I confess. But I stole it in tribute to a great thinker. Full credit: Conjectures and Refutations is the the title of a collection of essays by Karl Popper, the great philosopher of the open society (and critic of its many and persistent enemies). Why slap this highfalutin’ title on a modest genre writer’s blog? Because I think Popper was one of the great heroes of modern thought, and because conjectures and refutations are pretty much what I hope to lay out there on this blog. My conjectures, your refutations, my refutations of your conjectures—hey, we can all have fun with this. And we may learn something in the process. Popper taught us that that’s how knowledge advances—I throw up a theory, and you try to knock it down. It’s an approach that demands intellectual humility, something in short supply in most talking shops.

Not that I set this up to do a whole lot of philosophizing. I’m a novelist, to be more precise a genre novelist. I write crime novels, under two pseudonyms. As Sam Reaves I’ve published six novels set in Chicago, that quintessential American city, boisterous and corrupt and endlessly dynamic. As Dominic Martell I’ve published three suspense novels set in Europe, exploring other cities that have intrigued me, particularly Barcelona, my favorite city on the face of the earth. By birth I’m a middle American with my feet planted solidly in the corn, but by choice I was an expatriate for several years. Two poles orienting my life, two pen names and two very different kinds of novels. Why crime fiction? Partly because that’s what I grew up reading and partly because novelists need drama and crime has built-in drama. I’m not going to get involved in arguments about the merit of genre vs. serious fiction. Of course there’s a distinction, and of course the borders are fuzzy. And if genre fiction is a lesser art than serious fiction, it can at least display all the literary virtues.

So this page isn’t for philosophy, certainly not in the academic sense. I’m just borrowing Popper’s approach to learning. All I hope to do on this page is talk about things that interest me and see if anyone has anything interesting to say in response. A novelist has to be a generalist. I’m not an expert in anything, but I know a little about a lot of different things. I’ll be talking about books, politics, culture, history, sports (OK, I’ll try to keep that to a minimum), pretty much anything that comes down the pike. I’ll run my conjectures up the flagpole and see who salutes. Maybe I’ll learn something. Or maybe you will. Anyway, I hope we’ll have a good time.

Sam Reaves