Debating the War on Terror: Bacevich vs. Beinart

Tuesday night at 7 p.m., Dr. Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, is coming to the University of Richmond (details here) to give a talk on the relationship between the military and American democracy.

It promises to be a very interesting event: Bacevich is a Vietnam veteran and a cultural conservative who has developed a far-reaching and powerful critique of the ways civilian leaders have come to rely on military power in the past 15 years.

Bacevich also is a stern critic of one of the RTD’s “liberal” syndicated columnists, Peter Beinart. Beinart has made a name for himself arguing that liberals can fight the war on terror better and smarter than the right. Bacevich argues that both the liberal and conservative versions of the war on terror are far too confident of the ability of military power to actually change the world in ways to our liking.

For the fuller argument, see this sharp review of Beinart’s book by Bacevich–or come out tomorrow night.

Published in: on January 29, 2007 at 4:42 pm  Comments (5)  

“Let’s Not Worry About Who Killed Who…”

 . . . so famously spoke Homer Simpson in an anxious attempt to deflect too much scrutiny into his culpability in the death of next-door neighbor Maude Flanders.

The RTD has a similar message in branding Jim Webb’s pointing out that he was against the war in Iraq all along as not “constructive.” The RTD seems to be implying that Webb was simply trying to get in a partisan knock on the president.

This is exactly wrong, for two central reasons. First, pointing out that the Bush team had poor judgment and ignored the many expert warnings against the dangers of invasion and occupation is entirely fair, because we cannot divorce our judgments about the latest “surge” plan from our judgments about this administration’s competence and ability to make wise decisions.

The fact that the Bush team royally screwed up Iraq, and that many people who were not listened to in 2003 predicted such an outcome, has real bearing on whom the public should be more inclined to trust in discussing what to do about Iraq in 2007. That’s an entirely constructive point for Senator Webb to put before the public.

Second, at some point this country is going to have to have a thorough inquisition into not only the Bush Administration’s actions in creating this quagmire, but also the overall political and media culture which enabled the invasion to proceed so rashly, with so little foresight and planning for what would come next, and so little serious debate and discussion in either the halls of power or our mainstream media outlets. If Americans as a people want to avoid being pulled into future Iraqs, we have to ask the question of why smart, experienced people with military experience or with first-hand knowledge of Iraq had so much less influence in the military run-up than a handful of neocon intellectuals who thought re-shaping the Middle East would be as easy as shifting pieces around a chess board.

Yes, that’s a question with a critical tone, but it absolutely serves a constructive purpose, and indeed, a constructive purpose of the highest importance.

Implicit also in the RTD’s critique of Webb is that those who opposed the Iraq invasion had no “constructive” alternative for dealing with Iraq or prosecuting the war on terror. This too is false: typically, opponents of the invasion favored continued containment and monitoring of the Saddam regime, while concentrating American effort and resources on 1) going after Al-Qaeda directly and 2) continued diplomatic efforts to isolate Al-Qaeda and other terrorists from the mainstream of Arab opinion, such that they remained a fringe group.

That serious voices on behalf of this strategy were so little heard in mainstream media outlets speaks only to the broader failure of our political system (the media very much included) in preventing this disaster.

Published in: on January 25, 2007 at 2:23 pm  Comments (3)  

Jim Webb Just Kicked Butt on National TV

Has the Democratic Party finally found a backbone?

Judging by Jim Webb’s direct, stark rebuttal to the State of the Union address Tuesday night, maybe so.

Not settling for mealy-mouthed truisms, Webb spoke directly about two issues–the economy and Iraq–and managed to aptly quote a small handful of legendary presidents (Jackson, T. Roosevelt, Eisenhower) in the process.

Most strikingly, Webb called Bush’s initiation of the Iraq war “reckless,” and strongly implied that Bush had failed in his moral responsibility to the troops he deployed.

It’ll be interesting to see what the national media makes of Webb’s performance. The view here is that the freshman senator presented a welcome clarity of purpose and sincerity of conviction which has too often been missing from the Democratic Party.

Published in: on January 24, 2007 at 3:35 am  Comments (1)  

Is That a Change of Tone We Detect?

The first day of Todd Culbertson’s oversight of the RTD editorial pages arrived Thursday with no marked fanfare, just a change of names in the newspaper masthead . . . and also, it seems, a change of tone in the paper’s unsigned editorials.

Today the RTD doesn’t just criticize Frank Hargrove’s “get over it” barb; it also notes that Jews and people of color (“those who have endured history’s persistent discrimination and abuse”)  are most often the targets of contemporary smears, and argues that the “refusal of ancient sentiments to die emphasizes the need for public vigiliance.”

In other items, the RTD also calls the notion that Christmas is under attack “pathetic”; notes that it is finally now “possible to question progress in Iraq without being soft, faint of heart, or even anti-American”; and provides an informative preview of Gov. Kaine’s upcoming trip to India. It even includes an item gently mocking the obsession of some neocons with the notion that the U.S. and China are destined for military conflict sometime later this century.

To be sure, the RTD takes a shot at an old familiar whipping boy, liberal Hollywood, but even here the substantive point made is quite fair: that the the moral authority of the film industry to comment on environmental issues would be enhanced if the industry took a greater leadership role in minimizing its own environmental impact.

Obviously, we can’t leap to conclusions after just one day, but today’s batch of editorials provide reasons to be hopeful that the RTD’s editorials might just move in a more moderate direction, with respect to both content and tone,  in the months ahead. Stay tuned.

Published in: on January 18, 2007 at 3:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Sad Legacy of Fear, Prejudice, and Homophobia

Today marks the last day of Ross Mackenzie’s reign as editorial pages editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


In a post last week, we tried as hard as we could to find some point of connection with Mackenzie and his cultivated persona as the fearless crusader “crying in the wind” of a world run amok.


This week we turn to a less pleasant topic: the impact of Mackenzie’s words over the years on gays and lesbians. A regular reader of this site, Kristen Tilley, has spent some time in the past month researching and compiling a variety of statements Mackenzie has made about homosexuality and AIDS in the pages of the RTD dating back to the mid-1980s; what follows are some of her findings.


A caveat is in order here: we are well aware that not everyone at the RTD or even everyone within the editorial staff shares Mackenzie’s views. Barton Hinkle in particular took a welcome stand against anti-gay bigotry in this November column, and in December the paper printed a moving syndicated column by Leonard Pitts about homophobia. Mackenzie’s views are his own, though it is completely fair to argue that they also reflect poorly on the RTD as a whole.

On September 24, 1985, Mackenzie wrote this about AIDS victims: “Shouldn’t we weep the most for those victims who contract this lethal pestilence [AIDS] through no conscious act of their own?

“Surely, those blameless few are far more pitiable than the many (estimated at more than 90 per cent) who contract it as a consequence of (a) illegal intravenous drug use of (b) deviant sexual behavior – specifically homosexuality. For by and large, AIDS is a behavioral disease resulting from acts of volition.”


Translation: it’s too bad those folks died from AIDS, but they brought it on themselves. 


On June 2, 1987, Mackenzie wrote, “Many in the AIDS-connected community demand nothing less than acceptance of homosexuality as normal — for only with such acceptance will homosexuals receive the public sympathy, and the consequent federal protection as a minority, they relentlessly seek. . . .

Yet homosexual anal intercourse is by far the primary means of AIDS transmission in the United States. And homosexuality is emphatically not normal: It is a deviant sexual practice now responsible for the deaths of thousands, soon to become millions — an ever-increasing number of them heterosexuals. Will the public grant sympathy and protection to . . . this?

The only appropriate public sentiments are indignation and self-preservational fear.”

As Tilley reports, there’s more:

In 1992, Mackenzie attacked the idea of inclusion of “uncloseted practitioners of aberrant behavior” in the nation’s military, and in 1993 added, “the ranks of the nation’s fighting forces are no place for the toleration of abnormal behavior” and continuously reminded his readers, “Homosexuality is not normal; it is deviant, aberrant behavior.” 

Also in 1993, Mackenzie took residence in terminology referring to gays and lesbians as a “behavioral minority group” and in specific regard to the 1993 March on Washington, noted his difficulty in taking serious what he viewed as the prime purpose of the march: “acceptance… of deviant sexual practices and practitioners as normal.” Mackenzie ridicules the group for asking too much of mainstream society, “No other group demands legitimization of strange acquired behavior… [or] seeks sympathy for its disproportionate suffering of a fatal disease (AIDS) because of practice (sodomy) in which it willfully engages.”


Do words such as these have consequences?

Yes, they do. First, they help constitute a cultural climate of hostility towards gays and lesbians, a climate that far too often leads to literal violence.

Second, they show a stunning lack of compassion and concern for gay victims of AIDS, and helped constitute a political culture which refused for far too long to recognize  AIDS as a front burner, urgent issue. Indeed, Mackenzie has repeatedly argued that funding for AIDS research is too high compared to funding for research on other diseases.


Third, words such as these undermine not only solidarity with gays and lesbians but the concept of solidarity itself, the idea that we are all in it together. The contrary idea, expressed repeatedly by Mackenzie in his tenure as editor, is that some people are normal and some people aren’t, and it’s okay to deny basic public respect to people who aren’t.


Extreme statements such as Mackenzie’s have become less acceptable over the years and gays and lesbians undeniably have attained gains in public acceptance and public respect. In Mackenzie’s view, those gains have put the future of Western civilization in doubt. Consider these not-too-long-ago comments from a November 2003 column:


“[Every lasting society has had legal strictures based on moral views of right and wrong. Homosexuality has always existed but never been normal. To institutionalize it through marriage would undermine, perhaps destroy, the most stabilizing force in Western Civilization – all in the name of Do your own thing.

. . . But then again, if in the beginning it actually had been Adam and Bruce, through the subsequent ages there never would have been all those little girls dreaming of growing up and falling in love with a guy and getting married to continue the Family of Man.”

In short, even now, Mackenzie is fundamentally opposed to the idea that society should fully acknowledge the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and the worthiness of the lives they lead.

There’s little evidence that Mackenzie has ever really engaged the enormous scientific evidence indicating that homosexuality is not a “choice” and is not a psychological defect of some kind. (Mackenzie also repeatedly has argued that it would be simply impossible for the military to function well if gays were permitted to serve openly, without engaging the growing evidence–from Australia, Canada, Israel, and over 20 other nations–to the contrary.)


But what’s worse is the lack of respect and concern shown over the years by Mackenzie towards the many thousands of gay men who have succumbed to AIDS, the persons who loved them, and (especially) the persons who advocated for them. Telling fellow human beings dying of an incurable disease that, in effect, “you got yourself into this; don’t ask us to help” reflects a scornful, miserly attitude which has no constructive place in our public life.


One of Mackenzie’s favorite topics is religion and the future of Christianity. Perhaps in his future theological musings he’ll find time for some reflection on the impact of his own words over the years on the excluded and marginalized—the very people Jesus embraced—in light of this admonition:


“Whatever you did to the least of these, you did unto me.”

Published in: on January 17, 2007 at 4:54 pm  Comments (2)  

Hemings-Jefferson: Telling One Side of the Story

A conversation with a friend Monday revealed that I wasn’t the only one puzzled by the RTD’s decision on Sunday to run not one but two commentary pieces regarding whether Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children with his slave Sally Hemings.

What was curious about the pieces is that they both made similar arguments: one piece attempted to cast doubt on scientific evidence seeming to point to a Jefferson-Hemings relationship; the second piece went further and actively argued that there probably was no such paternity (or sexual relationship).

Personally, I have no detailed knowledge about this historical question. Nor do I have any particularly deep investment in what the occluded truth may be. But apparently the same can’t be said for the RTD itself.

Why else run two pieces making the same argument? Why not instead get one of the historians who has concluded that Jefferson and Hemings did have one or more children together to make that argument, so that readers get to hear both sides of this disputed question?

If the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is important enough to devote a full page of the Sunday paper to, it’s also important enough to be sure the RTD’s readers hear from both sides. It surely wouldn’t have been that hard to track down one of the four Ph.D. historians who contributed to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s 2000 report concluding that Jefferson did most likely father at least one child with Sally Hemings.

Better yet, the RTD could have asked an academic historian with some knowledge of the controversy to review Cythia Burton’s book “Jefferson Vindicated” and provide an assessment of its evidence and argumentation. (By the way, one of two 5-star reviews of this book now on Amazon was written by Steven T. Corneliussen–the author of the second piece on Hemings-Jefferson printed by the RTD on Sunday.)

It’s entirely possible Burton has indeed produced the goods to “vindicate” Jefferson. Her  book hasn’t been reviewed yet (as far as I can tell) by any academic journal, however, and professional historians are unlikely to be impressed by Burton’s commitment to the idea that the “moral foundation of a Founding Father’s political principles” is at stake in this debate.

If you start from the premise that the men who produced the timeless ideas on which this country was founded were ipso facto morally upright in their personal lives and incapable of lying, then it’s hardly surprising that you reach the conclusion that Jefferson and Hemings really didn’t have a sexual relationship.

Published in: on January 16, 2007 at 3:24 pm  Comments (4)  

You Can Tell George W. Bush’s War is in Big Trouble…

…when the best spin the Richmond Times-Dispatch can put on Wednesday’s speech and the Bush escalation plan is this rather lukewarm offering from the editorial page on Friday.

It’s an odd piece. The RTD demonstrates more resignation than conviction in talking about the Bush plan, and doesn’t claim that the “surge” is going to work.

It’s as if the editorial writers realize Iraq has been a total failure, but can’t lift themselves out of the rhetorical frame Bush has provided for the last four years, and can’t bring themselves to admit that this was wrong all along.

Indeed, the editorial clings to the notion that Bush offered “just” reasons for the initial invasion. That’s an odd claim, because as I recall “justice” had little to do with it back in winter 2003–the invasion was supposed to be about disarming an immediate threat. The discourse about justice and democracy and building freedom in the Middle East was (at the level of public explanation) a post facto attempt to justify the war after the whole WMD thing turned out to be wrong. (Barton Hinkle of the RTD has deftly pointed out the shift in this posting on his blog.)

More importantly, the RTD’s claim that Bush had the right idea but executed it poorly–though clearly a significant advance over some previous statements, especially Ross Mackenzie’s intransigent refusal until late last year to entertain any criticism of the war at all–cannot stand close scrutiny.

Why not? Because when it comes to war, evaluation of the likely success of a plan must itself be part of any moral evaluation of the justice of a proposed war (especially a pre-emptive war of this kind).  You don’t get credit for nice tries or almost meeting your goals in war. You have to win and do so decisively if you are to achieve your stated goals; otherwise the entire enterprise is pointless, even on its own terms. (This was the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine, which somehow got thrown out the window on the road to Bagdhad.)

Therefore, it’s not good enough to say “that sounds like a good reason to have a war, let’s do it.” You also have to ask, “can we really pull that off”, or more pointedly “Can we really pull that off given the resources we are willing to devote to this and the sacrifices that the American people are going to be wililng to bear for this cause?” And you have to ask, “Does the cast of characters in charge of carrying out this proposed war have the competence to do what they say they are going to do? Can this administration be trusted to follow through on its promises and carry out the war in the most conscientious possible manner?”

Those are all questions very few people asked in the run-up to the war, even though having persuasive, positive answers to those questions should have been an absolute prerequisite of undertaking this enterprise. Very few mainstream political actors can escape blame for that failure.

On the one hand, the Bush Administration actively discouraged such questioning, either by the public or even (and this is what is most shocking) internally; to ask such questions was to betray a lack of toughness or conviction in the need to fight evil or the goodness of the United States.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Democrats in Congress failed the public trust placed in them by refusing to ask the hard questions at the right time. They, too, bear some of the blame for what has been allowed to happen. So too, of course, does the mainstream media.

In any case, it is striking that Bush can no longer count on even conservative editorial writers to back wholeheartedly his prosecution of this war.

As for the escalation plan itself, the most serious analysis of its likely military and strategic effects can be found in this New York Times piece today by an analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which provides a highly informative annotated commentary on Bush’s speech.

Published in: on January 12, 2007 at 8:35 pm  Comments (2)  

Introducing the RTD Op-Ed Counter

The Richmond Times-Dispatch is widely perceived as a very conservative newspaper, but defenders of the paper argue that there is significant diversity, including ideological diversity, to be found within the paper’s pages.

The claim that there is some diversity within the RTD is irrefutable. But how much?

That’s a question that lends itself to empirical investigation. As such, this site is going to be keeping a running tab of the op-eds published in the paper Monday-Saturday and all op-ed type pieces in the Sunday commentary section, over at least the next month. Staff editorials are not going to be tracked or included in this “study.”

What we are going to chart with this counter are:

1. The names of the op-ed writers

2. The topic they wrote about

3. The general ideological thrust of their argument: liberal, conservative, or non-partisan. (If there ever is a genuinely radical op-ed, we’ll happily add another category.)

Note carefully here: this categorization depends on the argument being made, not the identity of the author. So I’ve categorized a piece by Charles Krauthammer, a hardline conservative, about the Saddam execution last week as “nonpartisan,” because in my judgment his argument was simply analytical and didn’t have significant partisan content or overtones. Obviously, these categorizations are a matter of judgment and some will be tough calls; that’s why I’m making the data available, so that if anyone feels compelled to question or re-do how I’ve categorized different pieces, they can do so.

4. Whether the piece was essentially analytical, essentially advocacy, or a combination (A&A). Sometimes pieces may fall into other categories, such a commentaries about a single person (i.e. recent pieces on John Edwards and James Brown).

5. The sex and race of the author

6. Whether the author is syndicated, an RTD staffer, or a guest columnist (and if so, their identity or affiliation)

All this is being recorded in an a database file, which will be continuously updated on posted on-line (in Word format) every couple of weeks. Here’s the file recording the first batch of op-eds from 2007, covering from January 2 to January 10.

Some summary statistics so far: of the 35 opinion pieces to appear over that time period, 25 were from syndicated columnists, 5 from RTD staffers, and 5 were from guest columnists. 32 of the contributors were white and 3 African-American; 26 were male and 9 were female.

15 of the 35 pieces advanced or clearly reflected a conservative ideological position; 5 advanced or reflected a liberal position; and 15 were non-partisan in character.

We’ll save the question of whether this constitutes sufficient diversity for another day; this is still a pretty small sample, and it makes sense to collect data for a while longer before attempting any broader assessments.

Published in: on January 10, 2007 at 2:12 pm  Comments (3)  

Richmond’s Spaceman

Since the new year this space has had a rather serious and perhaps slightly dry tone, so here’s an effort to lighten up (a little).

RTD readers have been treated to a veritable Ross Mackenzie love-fest in the last couple of days. Sunday’s Commentary section devoted two full pages to a personal interview with the retiring editor, as well as a batch of Mackenzie’s favorite literary quotes. This was followed up by one of his patented, touch-on-as-many-things-as-possible-in-brief columns on Monday.

All this time with Ross has generated some insights. Readers have learned that MacKenzie has never had another job other than that of editorial writer; that he’s lived in Goochland for all of his 41 years in the Richmond area; that he feels comfortable referring to himself in the third-person; and that he thinks of himself as both a “diaskeuast” and a “feuilletonist.” (First prize to anyone who can accurately define both those terms; no googling or dictionary-consulting allowed.)

We also learn that Mackenzie believes that working women are one cause of declining newspaper readership, that (like some of the characters in the interesting new flick “Little Children”) he favors castration for sexual offenders, and that he might be the only editorialist in the nation who is perfectly cool with how the Saddam execution went down.

We’re not even going to attempt making any kind of comprehensive assessment of Mackenzie’s impact on Richmond in this space, though a comment on one particularly unpleasant part of his legacy is in the works for next week.

For now though, we’ll try hard to stay positive and find some points of connection with Mr. Mackenzie. It was interesting to read that Mackenzie is disturbed by excessive CEO pay and “the ridiculous degree to which we are becoming little more than products” and that he recognizes that the city-county jurisdictional divide in greater Richmond isn’t working too well. (Mackenzie suggests that Richmond give up its city charter and merge with an adjacent county; that might not be the worst possible solution, but what county would have us?) I’m also not totally opposed to his proposal for a year of mandatory national service.

The most interesting part of Mackenzie’s most recent comments, however, is his evident appreciation of science fiction and his passionate belief in human space exploration. I’m not exactly a science fiction buff, but I read my share of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury as a kid, and have been a lifelong fan of the British TV series “Doctor Who,” so Mackenzie’s interest in sci-fi at least provides some basis for trying to connect with and make sense of this guy.

It also raises all kinds of interesting questions about the depth of Mackenzie’s interest. Does Mackenzie read women sci-fi and fantasy writers, like Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood? Does he attend sci-fi literary conventions, and if so how does he fit in with the other participants? What are Mackzenzie’s views on the vital question of whether we should create a race of robots to serve us? And if humans were to encounter and be enslaved by an alien race, or the Earth were to be destroyed by a random meteor, what theological conclusions would Mackenzie draw from those events?

I don’t expect answers to those intriguing questions anytime soon, but it’s clear there’s a connection between Mackenzie’s interest in science fiction—and his willingness to quote sci-fi writers as authorities on the human condition—and his belief in manned space exploration. (Probably one or two readers of this blog would be happy to have Mackzenie lead the way himself on humanity’s next jaunt to outer space.)

What justifies Mackenzie’s belief that we should make space exploration a major national priority? A belief that it’s human destiny.

That’s kind of cool. It’s great to see someone so excited about the possibilities of the unknown. And frankly, I’d rather have Mackenzie and kindred spirits exercise their appetites for “manifest destiny” in the bloodless cold of outer space rather than in more hot wars on the other side of the world.

Nor do I disagree with the project of pursuing human space exploration—not because of any particular view about human destiny, but because I’d like there to be a backup plan for the species on the off-chance that we burn up or blow up the planet at some point.

I do, however, wonder whether Mackenzie actually regards a quasi-theological conception of human destiny as a firm, generalizable basis for public policy making. And I wonder why (to echo the old cliché) Mackenzie regards a massive effort to enter space, but not a massive effort to end global extreme poverty and prevent the thousands of preventable, needless deaths that take place every day, as a better expression of the human spirit.

Nonetheless, I’d be happy to read more of Mackenzie’s musings about space and human destiny in the future. As far as I can tell, it’s about the only topic he can write about without betraying any trace of meanness, condescension, or contempt. When the topic of space comes up, it’s as if a transformation comes over Mackenzie, allowing this most un-Zenlike of writers to let go of his anger towards the world, in favor of a Zen-like tranquility and a sense of sheer wonder and humility.

It’s kind of cool to see.


Published in: on January 9, 2007 at 3:08 pm  Comments (7)  

Is There a “Capitalist System”? Part II

In part one of our response to the RTD’s claim that there is no “capitalist system,” we pointed to the fact that the institution of the market itself is a political creation, and to the power those who control capital have over the lives of workers.


We also observed that at present America’s version of capitalism distributes ownership of the means of production to a very narrow group of people. In 2004, the richest 1% of the population owned nearly 37% of all stock market holdings; the richest 10% together owned nearly 79% of such holdings. Before rushing to declare that the existing system simply reflects the natural order of things, perhaps we might consider whether it might be possible to have a market system which distributed control of capital and jobs a bit more widely.

The third point to make in response to the RTD, however, points to a different feature of our political economy. The corporations which dominate most if not all sectors of the American economy have more than just economic power; they also have political clout, and the ability to bend or alter rules in ways that favor their interests.

The enormously disproportionate voice corporate interests have in American politics and in the funding of our electoral system is well-documented; a quick summary statistic is that the pharmacetuical and insurance industries alone spent nearly $1.7 billion on lobbying activity between 1998 and 2005, compared to just $235 million for all of organized labor. (See here for more data along these lines.)

But corporations have a different kind of clout, too: because they control where and when they invest, their decisions directly impact the lives of localities. Because job creation and economic development is a top priority—very often, the top priority—in most localities, corporations have leverage over communities and local public officials seeking to attract or retain new investment.

As a result, corporate investment in the United States is now routinely subsidized by taxpayers, in the form of tax forgiveness, loans, grants, infrastructure assistance, and other subsidies. Moreover, some types of corporations are better positioned than others to receive this kind of assistance. Stacy Mitchell has provided superb documentation of how this works in the case of Wal-Mart, which has obtained countless subsidies from misguided local communities. The result, all too often, is shuttered down local businesses and dying downtowns.

Recognizing this point helps illustrate why it’s meaningful to speak of a capitalist “system.” Markets and the rules governing them (such as the laws which charter limited liability corporations and establish patent rights) are constructed politically; these rules in turn allow certain actors to flourish and secure disproportionate economic power and control over investment; that power, in turn, enhances the political capacity of those same actors to alter the rules still further, or at least to fend off challenges to their own power. In short, politics and economics are intertwined.

But that’s not all. Our fourth and final observation is that for this system to work, it has to be managed, and it has to continually grow. The economy is not simply the sum of individual, autonomous market actors. Rather, the actual economy is managed and steered by public officials—including not just the Congress which sets fiscal policy, but also the Federal Reserve which oversees the flow of money within the economy and sets interest rates. To be sure, policymakers are imperfect in these efforts, and often cannot control the underlying dynamics.

But the U.S. government, at least, has devised ways to tame those dynamics and prevent downturns from turning into depressions. Relevant tools include automatic “stabilizers” such as Social Security and unemployment insurance; the use of countercyclical fiscal policy; federal insurance of bank deposits; restricting or opening the money supply.

This is important because left on its own, unrestrained capitalism tends to be wildly volatile, oscillating between boom and bust, highly depression-prone.

It’s also important because for our system to continue to work—to continue to provide employment and income to a large number of people—it must continually grow. Standing in place—or simply saying, “don’t we have enough stuff?”—are not options.

That fact in turn has all kinds of consequences—for the environment and for the structure of our daily lives.

“So what?” you may wonder. Why take all this trouble to try to argue that there is a “capitalist system”?

Precisely because the logic of the system does shape our lives and our politics, creating some possibilities while closing off others. Moreover, the possibilities we have as individuals for making our own lives within this system depends greatly on the resources and effective power at our disposal.

Recognizing these points is important, whether one is a defender or a critic of capitalism.

Smart defenders of capitalism recognize that the system produces costs and benefits, and argue that the creative energies the system generates outweigh the costs, while looking to public policy to try to protect those most vulnerable to capitalism’s dynamics.

Smart critics of capitalism argue that mounting environmental and social costs should force a more fundamental reassessment of the system, and insist that growing corporate power and political influence and gaping economic inequalities are fundamentally at odds with democratic norms.

These are important and provocative questions that democratic publics need to debate. Even the most ardent capitalist enthusiast needs at some point to think critically about his or her views and hear the criticisms if he or she is to have more than a blind faith in the system.

Published in: on January 8, 2007 at 4:43 pm  Comments (4)