Sunday, September 30, 2007

How Cool Is This?

OK, as a brief pause in my reportage of woeful tidings from the world, on the forefront of my mind today are events taking place in two nearby cities: the Mets against the Florida Marlins at Shea Stadium, and the Philadelphia Phillies against the Washington Nationals in Philadelphia. Going into the final game of the regular season, the Mets and the Phillies are tied for first place in the National League East. If both win or both lose, a one game playoff between the two teams will need to be played. If both teams win and San Diego loses (which at the moment has a one game lead in the race for the wild card spot in the National League), the loser of the Mets-Phillies playoff would have to play another one-game playoff against the Padres to determine the last playoff spot. And if the Colorado Rockies win, there would be a three team playoff for the wild card spot. Not since 1978, when the Yanks played the Red Sox (and Bucky Dent re-broke the oft-broken hearts in Red Sox Nation) has the last day of the season meant so much.

Much of modern sports is despicable: as with our overall culture, we produce too much money and too much of it leads to unbridled greed and corruption. I can't watch college football anymore, fully cognizant that the players are often barely literate and that universities regularly permit fraud and corruption to take place in the hopes a football program can produce victories (see Margaret Soltan's website, University Diaries, for a daily drumbeat of scandal). College basketball is barely better, perhaps appearing slightly less corrupt because of the smaller scale of the operation. These major "college" sports - corrupted especially by the role of television, a medium that exists to peddle products that are almost always not very good for us - have thoroughly lost their connection to their original purpose of affording the opportunity of the integration of athletics and academics. They are minor league farm systems financed by media conglomerates and a beer-and-circus public and enabled by Universities that have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing, a satanic combination that corrupts the University system but from which it can hardly be imagined they can extricate themselves.

Indeed (ok, I can't write a post without being somewhat gloomy), the enabler of the vast quantities of wealth generated by sport, and its attendant corruption, is the petroleum wealth of the United States of the past 50 years. One can trace the same rise of sports wealth with the rise of the suburbs and industrial farming and the trucking industry and the airline industry: cheap and plentiful oil allowed what were once sleepy regional leisure activities to become international dollar-generating bonanzas. Baseball was an East Coast urban escape, providing a small patch of green in brown and grey cities to which grey men in grey suits and grey fedoras could slip out of work for a few hours to enjoy some yellow midsummer sunshine and a golden cup of locally-produced beer. Hockey was the sport they played in Canada and Maine because there was nothing else to do. Football was a sport played in Northeast colleges because young men do stupid things. But, with the coming of the oil age in the latter half of the twentieth century, baseball moved to California and hockey ever more southward, as planes replaced rickety buses and humans used fossil fuel energy to create ice anywhere they damn well pleased. Television forced stadiums to install lights, and fans became audiences. A potentially positive consequence of our energy constrained future is a return to local and regional forms of sport, including, possibly, teams consisting of players who actually could give a damn about the places where they play or college teams consisting of student-athletes, not unpaid mercenaries.

And yet, in spite of it all, sports can't fail sometimes to produce great moments, and today may be one. I grew up almost equidistant between New York City and Boston (in the wonderful small town of Windsor Connecticut, one of those towns Tocqueville was describing as a result of his visit to New England, and undoubtedly the source of my communitarian leanings), with a father who was a Yankees fan and a mother who leaned toward the Red Sox. And so naturally I did the rational thing: became a Mets fan. Circumstance has arranged that my adopted team, the Nats, could knock out the Phillies (or at least force a one-game playoff), so it's all the sweeter to be rooting for two division rivals (the Mets and the Nats) who both have a place in my heart. Go Mets, go Nats, and let us be grateful for these moments of autumnal magic.

Addendum, 7 p.m.: Sigh. Well, the eternal cry applies - wait til next year... Good luck to the Phillies. They took advantage of the Mets' collapse, and deserve to be in the postseason. We get that wild-card playoff after all. And, who knows, the Red Sox and Yankees could meet again in the AL championship - speaking of regional rivalries...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

That Was Quick

As reported in this past Tuesday's "Hoya" newspaper, the Dean of the Georgetown Law Center has reversed his decision, reached earlier this year, to ban Law Center funding for summer internships at organizations that advance causes antithetical to Catholic teaching, and in particular, pro-choice organizations. I discussed this decision previously here, and the decision was expectedly widely publicized, discussed, decried, and protested against by students and faculty in the Law Center.

The Hoya reports that the Law Center will no longer consider "the mission of each organization when determining grants provided by a student-run organization to students for summer internships." In other words, the Law Center is going to treat each organization "neutrally," without inquiring into its mission and whether it is in keeping with the Jesuit and Catholic character of Georgetown.

This outcome was almost inevitable: the policy of weighing against certain organizations was going to be challenging from the outset. It would have required the Law Center to be discriminating, and to develop a set of standards and criteria by which to adjudge whether certain organizations' missions were in keeping with Catholic doctrine. It would have required an articulation of which portions of the doctrine required firmer enforcement than others, and whether certain iterations of potentially disapproved organizations might be more acceptable in certain situations than others. In short, it would have required the thing that modern Law (ironically) rejects: judgment, or phronesis. Such judgment is rejected by the Lockeian, Kantian, Rawlsian universalism of our current jurisprudence and political philosophy, and places like the Law Center are the most vociferous purveyors of this universalist philosophy. The statue of blindfolded Justice is no longer a symbol of disinterest, but a portrayal of literal blindness to particularity and rejection of the need for judgment. This is ironic, of course, because justice (as Aristotle and Aquinas tell us) cannot be blind to particularlity: a universally applied decision is in practice always unjust, because human beings and history always demand attention to particulars.

Judgment succumbs to those forces that Tocqueville rightly diagnosed as being at the heart of modern democracies: the rejection of distinctions and forms, the revulsion against discrimination and boundaries, the abolition of mediation and the eschewal of divisions. What can begin as the righteous opposition to unjust discrimination easily becomes indignation of all forms of distinction. Thus, the rightful rejection of laws against miscegenation becomes the rejection of laws that defend marriage of one man and one woman. The justified fight against racial discrimination becomes the crusade against any judgments that threaten our self-esteem, leading to a culture in which every child receives a trophy after the season and grade inflation is rampant (and these are hardly the most pernicious forms that this impulse takes). Tocqueville rightly predicted history would become the story of forces, rejecting the idea that history was made by great men and women; poetry would become populated by ordinary people, not heroes or models, an anticipation of the poetry of Whitman; and religion would become pantheistic, collapsing the divide between heaven and earth so that the sacred and the profane became one. He also told us that all political problems would become judicial problems, in the main because we would reject the messy realm of politics for the winner-take-all universalism of the courts.

The Law Center would have had to engage in the now-discredited but noble practice of casuistry in order to maintain this policy. Casuistry - a word that today bears almost total negative connotations - is the effort to apply judgment to specific cases in light of the background presupposition that there are general moral and natural laws. The application of those universal moral laws must take into consideration the specificity of human circumstance and individual contingency, and thus leads to a certain variability of judgment that inevitably reflects the varying character of circumstance and the inexactness of moral and ethical judgment. It was the very variousness of casuist outcomes that led to its eventual discrediting in the eyes of modern universalism. Nevertheless, undertaken with reflection, seriousness, and prudence, casuistry is exactly what the Law Center needed to embrace in order to seriously attempt to enforce the ban against immoral internships (let's call them what they are). And, in the end, the Dean of the Law Center realized that he was not up to the task - as modern lawyers generally, as a rule, are not. So, he succumbed, as it could easily be predicted, to the ease and laziness of "universalist neutrality." While it cannot said that this outcome is surprising, it might be wondered why, in the first place, he went down a path which he might have realized would have made extraordinary demands upon his faculties of judgment and fortitude to make discriminations. I am tempted to conclude that his reversal does more damage to future prospects for the reinvigoration of ancient forms of judgment than if he hadn't stepped into those waters without the prudence he so clearly lacked.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

None of the Above?

Joe Knippenberg beat me in commenting on Michael Gerson's column in today's WaPo. Gerson writes about the serious religiousness of Hillary Clinton, and raises the question whether religious believers will find her credible enough to support. A central question is whether they will be able to overlook her strong and consistent pro-choice stance. I was struck by, and will quote, the same lines cited in Joe's post:

How are religious voters likely to respond to a religious believer who is also a social liberal? Roman Catholics, with their strong commitment to the poor, should be open to a Democratic message of economic justice. A majority of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, support the goals of broader health coverage and increased humanitarian aid abroad. But the most intensely religious Americans of both traditions also tend to be the most conservative on moral issues such as abortion. And it is hard to imagine that these voters will be successfully courted by the most comprehensively pro-choice presidential candidate in American history.

That might change under one circumstance: if Rudy Giuliani were the Republican nominee. Whatever Giuliani promised concerning the appointment of conservative judges, a pro-choice Republican nominee would blur the contrast between the parties on abortion. And between two pro-choice options, a larger number of religious voters might support the one with a stronger emphasis on poverty -- because, after all, Jesus did have a lot to say about how we treat the poor.


This assessment only confirms that religious voters in general, and Catholics in particular, will have a difficult time settling in with either of the current frontrunners. After thirty years of throwing in their hat with the Republicans - and seeing a continual disintegration of the moral fabric and the economic soundness of our nation, in sum, the wholesale loss of self-governance - a Hillary-Guiliani ticket (oops, I forget, they would be in opposite parties) will be the nail in the corpse of the Frankenstein-like Christian-libertarian Republican coalition. A Guiliani candidacy, in particular, will bear out the accuracy of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? thesis, that religious conservatives have been taken for a ride by the Republican party in order to ensure electoral victory and favorable policy for business elites but never any actual policy that will shore up forms of actual self-governance. And, with all due apologies to my judicially-minded conservative friends, a few Supreme Court nominations won't cut it: there is room for disagreement on this front, but the Court seems quite often to trail the culture rather than to lead it. Sound constitutional interpretation is desirable, but the overturning of Roe won't alter the easy-going non-judgmental libertarianism that defines much of modern America. I'm all for overturning Roe, but the outcome will be a lot of states that continue the business as usual. The day after Roe is overturned, not much will change. Except that decades of intricately crafted judicial arguments and the efforts of the Federalist society will have to give way to the hard reality of changing culture. A libertarian President - Republican or Democrat - won't make that task any easier.

Gerson speculates that a Guiliani candidacy will be sufficient to alienate religious voters from the Republican party. I think that's right, but I don't think that a Democratic emphasis on poverty will be sufficient to persuade these voters that their religious views are being adequately reflected by Hillary. Catholics, in particular, if at times only residually hold a belief in subsidiarity, and will not accept the default argument of contemporary Democrats that all solutions to all problems lie with the Federal government. The grounds for the phenomenon of Reagan Democrats hasn't fundamentally gone away - the absence of a Republican who can appeal to religious believers does not translate into a default support for a liberal of Hillary's stripes. This does not mean that Catholics or even Christians are anti-government. It's high time that a candidate appear who understands that Federal government can be a partner in helping localities to better face problems that often arise from far outside local borders, recognizing that such localities - if subject to non-local forces - nevertheless remain best positioned to treat the particularities of those local problems. Unfunded mandates and Federal uniformity ("No Child Left Behind") are not the way to go; the willingness to support State efforts to strengthen conservation, fashion education appropriate to those localities, and to shore up local business in the face of "globalizing" and often rapacious business entities, is far better.

Let me speculate: if we have a Giullary/Hilliani Presidential race, there will almost surely be a third party candidate (and, I'm NOT talking about Bloomberg), and it will be someone who will attempt to appeal to the broad swath of religious traditionalists who will be alienated by these candidates and whose votes will be up for grabs. Odds are that this third party candidate will throw the election to Hillary (which is why Giuliani will almost certainly name someone like Huckabee as VP, though I don't think that will be enough). I don't know who this candidate might be, but as in times past, such a candidacy would have the potential of being the catalyst for a realignment. Perhaps not in this election but maybe in 2012, watch for the creation of a new party of Bryan (now Republican?) to combat the ascent of the libertarians.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Go East, Young Man

An op-ed in Saturday's New York Times argues that agriculture will have to move back East - back to its original places, like the long lost and delicious potatoes of Maine - in order to replace decreasing agricultural production out West due to depletion of water aquifers and declining levels of rainfall. There can be little doubt that this is right: not only will farming have to move back East, but it seems ever more evident that the patterns of population settlement of the 1970s-2000's will eventually have to be reversed. Life in areas of the nation that seemed cheap and attractive due to a blowout party of peak oil production - the Arizona's and Nevada's in the West, Florida's and Texas's in the South and Southwest - will actually become more expensive to maintain than life in those Eastern regions that were abandoned in droves. Cheap energy of the 1980s especially made these regions, with abundant unsettled land, remarkably cheap: pumping in water and running the air conditioners full time still didn't detract from the inexpensiveness and apparent liberty of life in the desert or the swamp. Creating vast desert cities of pumped in water and artificially created cool air was like a big middle finger to Mother Nature - Up Yours! We can build anywhere we Damn Well Please.

However, with oil prices now 20% away from $100 a barrel and geologists, analysts and the head of the International Energy Agency predicting a future of constrained supplies, the future of these regions is dubious. People won't abandon these areas with alacrity: they've invested too much in the illusion of a future in these unsustainable regions. However, as prices continue to rise and people begin to feel poorer and poorer, they will look at the depressed housing costs and lower cost of living in some of the regions of the East and will make the logical decision of a consumer - move back. (At a political science conference I attended last Spring in Las Vegas, the cab driver who drove me to the airport told me that life was getting too expensive and he was considering a move to ... North Carolina). Those who get out early may have some hope of selling their houses to the last fool. Those who wait will find that it's too late: their towns will have begun to look like the old Western mining towns, tumbleweeds and all. It may be that buying a foreclosed house or two in the Rust Belt could be a very good investment (consult your financial advisor!).

The article bothers me, however, and points to the problem of viewing our future of limits through the lens of a specialist. The authors - professors of Atmospheric Science - assure us that agriculture in the East makes sense because its products can be used to replace the parched crops of the West and additionally provide sources for bio-fuels. In short, we can continue to do business as usual. What they don't note is that a world of declining overall resources - especially petroleum - will translate into a world of declining and more expensive food stores (anyone bought milk or wheat products lately?). It's likely we will face a hard decision - do we eat or do we drive - and I'm betting that it will be the former. The authors also seem to assume that we can do the same kind of farming in the East that's done in the West. Now, I'm no farmer, but I'm willing to bet that one of the reasons that farming moved to the West in the first place was because it's easier to undertake industrial farming using large machinery on the flatter and broader land of the desert. Eastern land is rolling, hilly, broken by ravines, gulleys, streams and valleys, and hemmed in by higher densities of population. Farming is presumably less efficient - more needs to be done by hand or with smaller machines. So, it seems to me a matter of wishful thinking to assume that we can just replace whatever we lose by moving back East.

But, in the end we won't have a choice: a move away from our temporary Western fantasy will be necessitated by the need for more plentiful water and the sustainable land. We won't produce as much as easily, and more of us will necessarily be engaged in the business of producing our food. I think this is ultimately a good thing, but not for the reasons that the authors of this article suppose.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Europe in Dallas

Rod Dreher, of "crunchy con" fame, read my reflections about my recent visit to Europe and, in addition to kindly recommending them to his vast readership, passed them along to his editor at the Dallas Morning News. This morning, a revised version of my comments are news in Dallas. I'm grateful to Rod for finding them worthy of being more widely considered. You can read the essay here.

For the purpose of a newspaper publication, I trimmed the piece a bit and made a more pointed political point at its conclusion. Here's what I wrote:

In America, it is our liberals who praise the liberties of Europe while overlooking the conservative impulse of its self-restraint. Meanwhile, our conservatives condemn the statism of Europe without understanding that efforts to conserve – to be conservative – require the active support and laws of government in order to combat the tendencies of markets to produce waste and undermine thrift.

Americans of both the left and right have lost the ability to perceive a form of liberty that is achieved through restraint. Both see something in Europe to praise or to blame, but both fundamentally overlook a Europe that may present a challenge to their presuppositions. Both ignore – perhaps at their peril – another and truer alternative for America to consider.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

That Which Must Not Be Spoken

Larry Summers has been disinvited from speaking at the University of California at Davis, having offended the sensibilities of that faculty who don't want to provide a forum for someone who has said something Unspeakable. A leader of the petition drive to disinvite Summers, Professor Maureen Stanton, is quoted to say "I was appalled that someone articulating that point of view would be invited by the regents. This is a symbolic invitation and a symbolic measure that I believe sends the wrong message about the University of California and its cultural principles."

Eric Rauchway believes that it is the disinvitation itself that sends the wrong message. He frets that banning Summers makes it just that much more difficult to promote the free exploration of ideas on our campuses. He writes, "Casting someone as utterly outside the university's conversation is the severest penalty we as scholars can impose--appropriate perhaps to Holocaust deniers and such ilk as exhibit a chronic impenetrability to reason."

I beg to differ. It's pretty evident that Summers stated the one unspeakable thing; it's evidently more acceptable on today's campuses to raise questions about the Holocaust than over the equality of the genders. If only Summers had denied the Holocaust, chances are he might at least be invited to speak at Columbia University. After all, that's where Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be speaking on Monday. Columbia's President, Lee Bollinger, defends the decision on the following grounds: "Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious. We trust our community, including our students, to be fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the powers of dialogue and reason.... It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas." Why didn't anyone defend Larry Summer's presence at UC Davis on these same grounds? Didn't the Regents "trust their community" to be "fully capable of dealing with these occasions, through the power of dialogue and reason"?

Lee Bollinger will introduce the Iranian President and then has said he will ask him a series of questions, expressing his skepticism about Ahmadinejad's views (I'm sure the President of Iran is quaking in his boots). Why didn't any of UC Davis's faculty suggest asking Summers some "tough questions" rather than calling for his outright ban from campus? Doesn't Ahmadinejad's presence constitute "a symbolic invitation and a symbolic measure" that sends the "wrong message" about Columbia University's "cultural principles"?

Where is the petition by the Columbia faculty protesting the appearance of a man who has repeatedly stated what Rauchway regards as "unspeakable"? Denying the Holocaust and calling for the extinction of Israel is one thing; calling for research on why fewer women are in the sciences is another. Thank goodness our Universities today know where to draw the line between those subjects which are permitted to be "discussed" and those which are unspeakable. It seems to me that it's many of our own faculty who exhibit a "chronic impenetrability to reason," and maybe they should be the ones to be barred from campus. Anyone want to start a petition?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Complicit

James Howard Kunstler is one angry and profane man, but, boy can he write, and man can he put together a wicked Jeremiad. Here's one passage from a previously quoted screed that's been on my mind as I listen to various critics of the war in Iraq (NPR, CSPAN, the blawgosphere, you name it), all furious that the troops have not been withdrawn as our democratic voices would demand. What Kunstler hammers home is that we are all complicit in the basic reason we are there - to ensure a steady flow of oil to fuel the American way of life, a way of life that Left critics enjoy more than most, and which they expect to continue ceaselessly all the while entertaining the fantasy that it can be fueled on good intentions and happy thoughts. True, many Right defenses of the war are not much better, since they attribute our presence in Iraq to any variety of reasons (WMD, 9/11, "democracy" in the Middle East) while going through contortions to avoid acknowledging the real reason (at least I think they have the perverse virtue of lying to us, and not to themselves). This is why Crazy Al Greenspan's frank acknowledgment that we're there for the black stuff is refreshing: he writes in his book The Age of Turbulence that "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." Until we face facts, we can't have a serious discussion about how we could begin to extricate ourselves not just from Iraq, but from our dependency upon what that region provides to us and why under the Carter Doctrine the region is considered to be a part of America's Vital Interest.

Kunstler should be required reading of these war critics, and its supporters would benefit too:

Now, as to the shock of Al's [Greenspan's] revelation that the Iraq war is about oil -- the media and the public have got this all wrong, too. The logic here seems to be that because the Iraq war is about oil it is therefore unnecessary, optional, a mistake, an indulgence, something we should not dirty our hands in. In fact, the Iraq war is not about oil, per se, so much as it is about America's behavior here at home, about the choices we make for how we live on this continent. None of those who complain most loudly about our military presence in Iraq have advanced any proposals for reforming how we live here -- and hence for our enslavement to oil, much of the world's remaining supply of which happens to be in the neighborhood of Iraq. When these complainers start complaining about the ubiquitous acceptance of suburban sprawl and abject car-dependency -- and this includes the environmental boy scouts out there who want to get merit badges for buying hybrid cars -- then they will deserve to be taken seriously. Until then, the American people have got exactly the grinding war that they deserve. Let them whine about it all the way to the Nascar tracks, and let them console themselves with giant plastic bottles of Pepsi Cola and buckets of chicken raised on corn grown with oil byproducts.


Kunstler typically goes too far, scoring a point but then going out of bounds. First, it's pretty clear that our complainers aren't really among the NASCAR and Kentucky Fried Chicken set, but they do enjoy Starbucks and Restoration Hardware and all the carbon we burn being global cosmopolitans (you can be sure many of them are accustomed to using the term "flyover country" with unselfconscious ease). Where do they think all those wonderful hydrocarbons comes from? Umm... gas stations?

And, Kunstler is wrong to say that "the American people" have got "exactly the grinding war" we deserve: we don't have a war so much as a very small segment of our population. Our war critics and supporters alike are almost wholly unaffected by this war. Our republic does business as usual while our soldiers do the hard and deadly work of enforcing the non-negotiability of the American way of life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Good News?

The high finance boys whooped it up today on Wall Street after the Fed cut rates by a full half percent (OK, don't taunt me for predicting a 25 point cut; from what I read of the Fed's statement afterwards, there seemed to be a caution that the financial market shouldn't expect anymore, so maybe the Fed decided to do the opposite of ripping the band-aid off - they ripped it on). But, I was right about the immediate reaction in the commodity markets: oil shot up close to an all time high of over $82 a barrel (note, in a complete absence of bad news in the oil producing world), gold now costs over $730 an ounce, and the dollar fell to an all time low against the Euro. No doubt some people made alot of money today in the market (I'll bet Cheney's Old Europe bonds did fabulously), but all that money is going to buy us less. You might want to top off the gas tanks and stock up on imports, a.k.a. everything. The next bubble: stuff.

New York Times Hearts the Vatican - What Gives?

The Vatican generally gets a predictably bad rap from the MSM for its insistence on restrictive moral codes that would limit individual liberty. Much of the current coverage of the Pope has settled into the comfortable reportage mode that BXVI increasingly seems to be revealing his true colors as the conservative that he is. His first encyclical, on love, left the MSM a bit confused - love's good, right? - and his recent vigorous defense of traditional Church teachings on sexual morality, male-only priests and clerical celibacy has resulted in an almost audible sigh of relief from our liberal media. They know how to report on that news.

Imagine, then, a favorable story about the Vatican on no less than the front page of the New York Times. In yesterday's edition the Times carried a story about the Vatican's efforts to go carbon neutral, effectively producing zero carbon emissions by means of an offset elsewhere. In this case, a company in Hungary - seeking a bit of free publicity, and succeeding - has offered to plant a 37 acre forest on a currently denuded section of the Tisza river in eastern Hungary. The paper quotes Cardinal Paul Poupard, leader of the Pontifical Council for Culture, to say: “As the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, recently stated, the international community needs to respect and encourage a ‘green culture....’ The Book of Genesis tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful.”

The mechanism by which the Vatican proposes to be a guardian over the earth is to rely on the new Hungarian forest to absorb an equal quantity of carbon that the Vatican itself produces. While in this instance the forest is being donated by a company called "Klimafa," this firm will seek to find paying corporate clients looking to offset their own carbon production by the further planting of forests in Hungary and in other parts of the east.

What we should notice about this arrangement is that it demands no change in behavior on the part of the Vatican, in this instance, or by extension corporations (and their consumers). The wealthy producers of carbon in the West will use part of their wealth to pay off poorer economies in the eastern Europe or Africa or the Far East to plant trees or to reduce their carbon output. The arrangement is effectively a payoff by polluters to poorer nations not to pollute, that is, to remain for the most part poor (except for those few companies who will pocket the winnings for planting trees). What is most egregious about this - and I think the Vatican could do much better, though the article does acknowledge that they have installed solar panels - is that this mechanism of purchasing carbon offsets has been embraced by elite Western entities to allow users in the West to avoid changing our behavior. The Vatican is usually lambasted by the MSM precisely for its efforts to encourage sinful humans to change their behavior, but in this instance - where culture is at issue, just as much as in matters of sexuality - the Vatican has failed to call for a change in behavior and a reduction of our use of the planet's resources. We should be little surprised that, in this instance, the New York Times finds the Vatican's actions to be praiseworthy.

The article concludes by quoting Msgr. Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Council for Culture at the Vatican. Msgr. Alameda is quoted to say, “one can emit less CO2 by not using heating and not driving a car, or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees.” The problem with this statement should be obvious: not all forms of penance are the same. Feeling sorry is different than the recitation hundreds of Hail Mary's and a promise to sin no more. "Offsetting" avoids the moral imperative to change our behavior, and effectively asks someone else to pay our penance. If the Vatican can't be moralistic, then we're surely in a bad place. Not to mention a positive story in the New York Times. Let's hope they'll do penance for that.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Amen

"The leading religion in America is not evangelical Christianity, it is the worship of unearned riches, and its golden rule is the belief that is is possible to get something for nothing. Its holy shrines are Las Vegas and Wall Street."

--James Howard Kunstler, "Shocked, Shocked"

In a freshman seminar I am teaching, for the first time ever I had a student state that he dreamed of becoming Fed Chairman. Dreams of being a baseball player, an astronaut, a soldier, even President of the United States have been replaced by dreams of being in charge of overnight bank lending rates. Our young have an uncluttered idea of the most direct path to power, and growing up during the Alan Greenspan years provided a clear lesson on who really mattered in Washington.

I'll bet the one person who certainly doesn't want to be Fed Chairman right now is Ben Bernanke. With oil at an all time high today, the dollar hitting new lows against the Euro and gold inching up to $725 an ounce, cutting rates will really get inflation cooking. Greenspan argues in his book that we are about to reach the end of the "benefits" of globalization - namely, cheap labor whose everyday low prices we import - and that in the future the Fed will have to keep normal rates up in the double-digits. I wonder if Bernanke is finished digesting those nuggets as he gears up to cut rates tomorrow.

However, he knows better than anyone that not cutting rates tomorrow will plunge the financial sector back into the freefall that we experienced in August. Here's something many of you probably never thought you'd see in our lifetime: there have been runs on banks in California and now in England. People are losing confidence in the system, but to restore trust by cutting rates will be to further accelerate the worthlessness of our cash. Everything is getting more "expensive" - another way of saying, there's less of it. We may worship at the altar of St. Something-for-Nothing, but she's a good bookkeeper, and the bill has come due. I'm betting that tomorrow Bernanke will lower interest rates by a quarter percent, and no one will be happy, not the high finance boys who want at least a half-percent, and not the inflation hawks who don't want to subsidize moral hazards. Black Tuesday, here we come.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Good Stuff

We're putting on a good program with the Tocqueville Forum this year, our fledgling counter-revolution in serious political thought at Georgetown. Some names: Lukacs, Mansfield, Elshtain, Lawler, McPherson, Delsol, Neuhaus, Hauerwas. Some events: Tocqueville lecture series, Constitutionalism and Natural Law, Pope Benedict's Regensburg Address, Lincoln on his birthday, Public Theology. A gathering for students to hear about the purpose and end of a core curriculum. A student journal, to be published in October, with a lead article by Justice Antonin Scalia on Civic Education which was an address delivered at the Forum's first event in October, 2006. A student-planned conference in the Spring. Just when I start getting depressed that our best students only seek a degree as an entry into the meritocratic business sweepstakes, faith is renewed. Any readers in the D.C. area, or those wanting to find an excuse to visit, come by. Don't mention the "blawg" - I'll deny I have anything to do with it. Must be those damn hackers.

Check out our schedule here. And don't hesitate to tell anyone who might be able to help us. We can't pull it all off for free, and we're not exactly getting help from the brass.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mad Money

Channel-flipping the other night, I happened to catch a bit of Jim Cramer's manic show, "Mad Money." In the show Cramer advises "investors" where to move their money next as market conditions change from minute to minute. To follow Cramer's recommendations, you would have to change your investment portfolio daily if not hourly. Hence, the reason why I put the word "investor" in quotes.

During the segment I watched, Cramer bemoaned the Fed's adamancy on not yet lowering rates, and plaintively foretold baleful consequences for those poor people without portfolios. A true man of the people, he lamented the hardships now being faced by the indigent folks who had taken loans that they could not afford, and who are now having their houses foreclosed. All along we thought he was worried about the Hampton houses of the high finance boys, but his summertime rants have been actually motivated by Christlike sympathy with the poorest among us. The fact that he expressed no concern for the poor folks when they were being peddled these gimmicky loans should not dissuade us of the genuineness of his charity.

I have good news for Cramer: there are several economists who have thought up a nifty policy that would prevent foreclosures on the impoverished while avoiding the moral hazard of bailing out the predatory lenders who are now looking for a guvment handout. It's an "own-to-rent" idea, in which strapped sup-prime borrowers would begin paying market rate rent on their houses while the lenders would have to keep the loans and be forced to become landlords. They made the loans - make them live with the consequences of their chicanery. I'm not betting that Cramer is going to float this idea on his next airing of "Mad Money": now that's a show with an appropriate name, for once.

However, I'm beginning to warm to the idea of a Federal Reserve rate cut. Yes, it will help the Hampton boys, and could potentially reinflate the bubble for a few more months or years. The "downside" of this strategy is now being seen in the respective price of gold (which closed yesterday at $720 an ounce) and the fall of the dollar against the world's currencies (the dollar fell to an all time low against the Euro this morning). The rest of the world knows that the cheap money option will make U.S. bonds increasingly worthless, and foreign investors will begin dumping them faster than they already have. We'll inflate the economy at the real cost of making our currency increasingly worthless. No more everyday low prices. Unless you've already stashed some gold. Natch.

The upside of an inflationary scenario is that, in the long term, an increasingly worthless dollar will require the United States to stop living beyond its means: as there are fewer purchasers of guvment debt, we'll have to start paying as we go. Inflating the dollar may also reverse the outsourcing of production and force us to begin to making things of value here at home once again. The hard truth of our inflationary future is that the Treasury printing presses will effectively make everything we buy more expensive (oil closed yesterday at an all time high). Our incomes, stock prices and housing prices will make us feel wealthy, but we'll really start to feel the pinch of rising oil, food and commodity prices. With a falling dollar we'll find that all our wealth in fact only results in our inability to afford those everyday low prices what we once took for granted. It'll actually start to be more expensive to buy a product from China than a product from the town next door. To begin to be able to afford things of value, we'll have to start making them at home again. We won't be able to buy as much, but we will buy from each other and re-create an economy of more local and regional interconnection. So, thinking about it further, maybe Cramer isn't just thinking about a guvment bailout for the high finance boys - he's really a localist at heart. Whatta guy...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Upside of the Downside

All signs point to a moderate to severe "correction" across the board, with housing as the latest bubble to pop. As our purported wealth evaporates we will undergo a collective belt-tightening with the accompanying slowdown in spending and consumption. Given how much recent economic activity - what our economists regard as signs of economic health - has been the result of debt and leverage, the deflation of the main driver of this activity - housing - will reverberate widely and painfully. One can already discern the self-reinforcing trajectory of the decline - one that reverses the self-reinforcing upward climb of the past decade - in which foreclosures will depress housing prices and in which depressed prices will in turn induce foreclosures, etc. etc. More broadly, one makes out with increasing clarity how the reduction in disposable income will reduce consumption, which will in turn lead to loss of jobs (Countrywide Mortgage's 12,000 are only the beginning), which in turn will lead to further reduction in income... etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Where we will finally land is hard to predict, but it may very well not be particularly soft.

It's beginning to sink in that the housing deflation is here to stay. Even with Fed intervention and efforts by Bush & Co. to lessen the pain felt by subprime "home"owners, it's unlikely that we're going to see a return to the days of the bubble anytime soon. There simply won't be the same level of speculative buying after all the "playas" have felt the burn - no flippers and no mortgage gimmicks, for starters. The example of the high-tech bubble is instructive: while we largely think that we came out of the popping of the Nasdaq in 2000 fairly well, the Nasdaq to this day still remains about 50% lower than its all time closing high of 5132 (on Friday it closed at 2565). If the popping of the housing bubble turns out to be in any way comparable, a whole lot of people are going to be sitting on some hefty levels of negative equity - and highly leveraged negative equity at that (if housing were stocks, many could be expecting margin calls any day now...).

Across the board people are pretty downbeat about this possibility. Like people watching their stock portfolios, they still crave to value their property at peak price, and not at the price that Mr. Market is telling them their McMansions are worth. We have neighbors down the street who have had their house on the market for two years, having put it for sale at the high end of "comps" during the housing boom and having refused to lower it since that time. We regard their "For Sale" sign as a particularly dreadful but permanent piece of lawn decoration.

There is a real upside to the downside, however. A generation of people came to regard their houses as investments, not as homes. They moved from place to place, always looking to make the next killing and move on to the next "investment" opportunity. It was hard to avoid this mentality when every cocktail party conversation revolved around the hourly jump in housing prices, gossiped over with the same level of excitement that we used to talk about how far we got in the backseat with, well, "you know who."

Our negative equity is going to force a lot more people to stay put. This fact may have a profoundly salutary effect on the way we view our domiciles, our neighborhoods and our place in the world. We may begin to regard our houses as homes - all the claptrap from the real estate industry about "home ownership" notwithstanding - giving to our children a sense of belonging and permanence that is often lacking in our highly mobile society. We may begin to renovate homes - when we do so at all - more with a view to increasing their intrinsic worth as a place to be lived in, rather solely than their superficial resale value. With a longer-term view of home ownership, we can begin to make investments that will pay back over longer periods of time, either in the form of more expensive but longer lasting materials or upgrades whose return of investment will only pay back after a decade or more (such as solar heating or solar electricity). Along with the return of some reality to the word "home" we might also see a return of real meaning to the word "investment," an activity that involves a long-term commitment to long term returns, at once requiring patience and care. (If you read the newspaper, you will see the word "investor" used to describe the behavior of speculators, or hit-and-run profit hounds). We can begin making other sorts of investments on the presumption that we will be staying for a long time - caring for our neighborhoods, forming lasting bonds with our neighbors, building communities of permanence and human value. We might be more inclined to resist rapacious economic activity that seeks only to extract maximum profit from our communities without intention of giving back. As we exit our transient and temporary flirtation with a liberated "lifestyle" without permanence and memory, we will - by necessity - rediscover certain virtues that come with a confrontation with limits. These will be painful, without doubt - and most painful for the poorest among us, though we can hope the high finance boys get whacked pretty hard - but from the ashes of our decades-long individualistic fantasy of "post-materialism" we can begin anew to connect with a real material world that benefits from human sustenance, and from which in turn we might be sustained.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Scarcity at Staples

While the (financial) world has been watching for cracks in the global credit market, a few developments have gone relatively unnoticed: first, oil prices have been creeping up ever-closer to all time highs (today they are around $76.50 a barrel, a gain of 7.7% in the past two weeks alone), and gold prices today topped $700 an ounce. Both these indicators reflect most clearly a loss of confidence in the dollar, though the rise of oil prices is also due to "surprisingly" constrained supplies. Worth noting is that the rise of oil prices is happening in the absence of any real significant events impacting on oil production, but rather based upon the merest rumor of the remote possibility of the tiniest inkling that something may happen to impact supply - such as a low pressure weather system off the coast of Bermuda! Meanwhile, Mr. Market may be pricing in the likelihood of a Fed cut in a few days' time - which might please the high finance boys, but won't be happy news for the dollar and anyone who uses them to buy actual stuff. Gold at $700 suggests that people are dumping dollars for something of substance. Indeed, high commodity prices may dissuade the Fed from cutting rates, which would likely have the effect of (momentarily) deflating some of those prices, but would also roil the credit markets and send the economy into a severe recession (we'd also have the treat of watching Jim Cramer descend into an incoherent apoplectic rage - again!). In either scenario, stagflation looks to be making a return appearance - and the Fed's only real option is whether there will be more stag- or more -flation.

The prices of oil and gold are both ominous signs amid growing evidence of an increasingly severe downturn in the housing market. At the moment when worldwide oil supplies are self-evidently becoming scarcer, the dollar will buy less of all those goods we now produce overseas, while our sole source of "wealth" over the past decade - housing - may be about to bite the dust. The following example is wholly anecdotal, but some neighbors have postponed renovating their house out of concern with the state of the housing market and fear that they'll end up with negative equity. Multiply their decision times thousands upon thousands of similar decisions, and we can see the makings of a serious decline in "consumer spending" - calculated to account for 2/3ds of the U.S. economy. Without our houses as ATM machines, many are discovering that what they really own is debt.

I was thinking today about how we will handle real hardship, should it come to pass - as it well may. Today I was at "Staples" (TM) looking for three subject notebooks for my son at the start of a new school year. Apparently, so was the rest of Northern Virginia, and when a manager brought out the last box from the storage room in the back, there was a mad scramble to grab as many of these precious notebooks as hands could grasp. What would happen if it were the last box of food, or the last gallon of gas? Could we survive a week without our fleet of ships and trucks providing us with all the products produced overseas, or the products of industrial farming that depend entirely upon petroleum? Two days? An hour? How quickly we would learn that money doesn't create food, and that food doesn't come from supermarkets.

One reads in biology books about the behavior of animals which, from time to time lacking a natural predator, overpopulate an area until they consume all the nourishment. They then turn upon each other in a ferocious contest for the remaining scraps, and equilibrium between supply and demand is only restored after a significant portion of the creatures die off. As I wrestled with other suburban parents for a few precious notebooks, I had visions of scavenging, hoarding and violence over products that are actually necessary for life. I shook my head, paid for the prized notebooks with my increasingly worthless dollars, and burned some more oil on my return to my comfortable, if tenuous, suburban house.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Living in "The Now"

Sometimes it is said that Americans, or modern peoples generally, are more future-oriented and forward-looking than any other people at any other time. Looking at much of the evidence of how we live, I think it could be argued that we are the most "presentist" humans ever to have existed. We justify actions that might otherwise have seemed to other people to be the height of irresponsibility, but because we don't think about the future much at all, we reflect very little on the consequences. Whether speaking of global warming, peak oil, soil erosion, water depletion, mountains of solid waste, massive levels of indebtedness, financial chicanery modeled on Ponzi schemes, neglect of the content of higher education - you name it, we love living in "the Now." We mistake a faith in future ingenuity, in technology, or a touching and fantastical belief that the laws of nature will be suspended, with a disposition that is "future-oriented." An unfounded belief in a better future (which is, in fact, a neglect of really thinking about the actual future) is used to justify all sorts of current misbehavior, whether in the form of Hegel's "slaughterbench of history" or driving Hummers because they're safer. To be truly future-oriented one would also have to embrace the full spectrum of temporality, past, present and future. Memory would replace nostalgia and hope would replace optimism, as Christopher Lasch argued. Above all, responsibility, prudence and stewardship would have to govern our present.

These thoughts occur as I go through some articles that I clipped during my recent trip to Europe. One - an IHT article on new technologies being planned to "capture" CO2 emissions from coal-fired electrical plants - in particular caught my eye. Much activity and money is now being invested in this technology as a way of at once allowing us to replace dwindling amounts of natural gas with coal for electric generation, and of avoiding the denser quantities of CO2 emissions that would increase the rate of global warming. In spite of these benefits, the article explains that there is considerable resistance to carbon burial in places where the C02 might someday escape (that is, NIMBY). This resistance is understandable, given that carbon dioxide is heavier than air, and hence could be the cause of a major catastrophe if it collects in low-lying areas where it would displace oxygen and cause mass asphyixiation. In fact, the article relates that nearly 2,000 people died in Cameroon when CO2 from a nearby volcano pooled in a village.

I was struck by the response of one of this technology's CEOs to this concern: "If CO2 ever does get to the surface, it's not going to be in our lifetimes or much of our near-descendants' lifetimes," said [Jeff] Chapman of Carbon Capture & Storage Association. Translation: don't worry about suffocation - you won't be alive when it escapes. Your children might be alive, but they'll be pretty old by that time. And don't spare a thought for your grandchildren - you'll be dead!

Or, maybe the translation is, don't worry - we'll figure out a new technology to solve the problem of leaking buried C02. Which was the solution for the problem of global warming. And the problem of peak oil. Which was ... ok, you get it.

I'll bet there were a lot of eyes that simply glazed over that quotation and continued on with the article. So, while "adults" around the country are getting worked up about the cruel exploitation of 40 well-fed American kiddies on the CBS "reality" show "Kid's Nation," we blithely go about ignoring actual reality, well-content in our ignorance that our actions won't adversely impact our "near-descendants' lifetimes." One is tempted to conclude that Bread and Circuses never went out of style.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Whither Bryan's People?

As promised, my comments at the APSA roundtable devoted to discussing Michael Kazin's biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero. An appropriate posting on this Labor Day, 2007.

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A Human Hero:
On Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero

Patrick J. Deneen
Georgetown University


I want to talk today not about Michael Kazin as an historian – I don’t think anyone can heap enough encomiums to do his historical craft justice – but as a political architect. Because – make no bones about it – this marvelous biography of William Jennings Bryan is a blueprint for the future success of the Democratic Party. It is, as a plan of attack, quite brilliant, and not a few pundits, consultants and candidates have appeared to adopt it in one way or another. A few Democrats already seem to have benefited from its message, including Senators Jim Webb and Jon Tester, and we begin to hear rumblings of a form of renewed Bryanism from Presidential candidates in both parties, from John Edwards to Mike Huckabee. But I want to raise a few questions over whether Michael’s plan – one intended fundamentally for the Democratic Party – is finally altogether faithful to the political and theological views of Bryan himself.

One of the great virtues of Michael’s book is that it chides the condescension of many contemporary liberals toward what Michael refers to as “Bryan’s People.” Ordinary folks who are relatively less well-lettered, who would be most often characterized as blue collar, who live in rural, not urban areas (now called “Red States,” also derisively known on the East and West coasts as “flyover country”), who eschew a cosmopolitan and often rootless lifestyle, and, above all, who hold a firm and abiding religious faith, are held in disdain by many East coast liberals. Michael writes in his introduction that “I wrote this book, in part, to gain a measure of respect for Bryan and his people. I would like to help ‘rescue’ them from what E. P. Thompson … called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’” (xviii).

A specter haunts this book, and it is perhaps above all the ghost of Richard Hofstadter – and maybe no less, the condescension Bryan received from the likes of contemporaries such as leftist John Reed and the trenchant elitist, H. L. Menken – and those intellectual heirs of these progressive liberals who preside over a particular Whiggish history of American political development. According to this story, America is a liberal nation without a feudal past or any of the traditionalisms of an older age (Hartz’s thesis looms large), and in those areas where pockets of recidivism might still persist, one can expect the slow but steady and relentless unfolding of liberal Geist which will bring peasants up to the moment. Bryan, and Bryan’s People, are relegated to the slaughterbench, or at least the dustbin, of history.

Michael, I believe, is also seeking to disabuse liberal elites from the suspicion that the heirs of Bryan’s people act in the throes of a kind of false consciousness. Michael’s book contains an implicit critique of Thomas Frank’s thesis advanced in What’s the Matter With Kansas, namely, that rural people – often evangelical Protestants – do not actually know their own interest. Michael notes that contemporary liberals cannot make much sense of the whole of Bryan’s life, and particularly how such a staunch believer in the role of State expansion aimed at improving the lives of its citizens – a basic platform plank of modern liberalism – should have become, by the end of his life, such a backward and superstitious religious hack who even denied the truth of liberalism’s patron saint, Charles Darwin! The belief that we can separate a good, young Bryan from an old, conservative Bryan (much like what is done in Plato scholarship, actually) at its core forms the basis of the Frank thesis – namely, that religious belief is epiphenomenal, a distraction from the true beliefs of working stiffs, or to put a Marxist spin on the thesis, that religion is the opiate of the masses and will dissipate in the wake of enlightenment, leaving behind only belief in the salvific powers of the State.

Michael seeks to show how Bryan’s belief in the need for a larger role for the federal government – a departure from Jefferson’s mistrust of centralization and his endorsement of a nation of yeoman farmers – in fact comports with his religious belief. Both reflect a rejection of the rapacity of “inhumane, aggressive power” (264), whether in the form of the Social Darwinism of capitalism or the Social Darwinism of evolutionary theory. In both instances, restraints on capitalism and restraints on evolutionary theory are justified in the name of the little guy. True enough.

By distancing himself from the very Whiggish elitists who dominate Michael’s profession (indeed, what academic historians write big and admiring biographies like this one nowadays?), Michael dons the denim overalls and straw hat of a populist, letting us know that he is a friend of the people. This garb is the blueprint for a resurgence of the Democratic Party, a more populist sympathy for the whole cloth of ordinary citizens, an embrace of the people as they are, not as liberal elites would wish them to be.

But I think we should notice that there’s a wee bit of a three piece suit peeking out beneath the overalls (or maybe it’s a black mock turtleneck), and it’s to be found in Michael’s unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that Bryan’s People aren’t Democrats these days, and really, haven’t been since the Scopes trial. Michael supposes, if we can inject religion into the Democratic Party platform, that Bryan’s People will come back to the Party, but doesn’t acknowledge that they haven’t exactly signed onto the Democratic Party platform since Bryan’s last electoral defeat in 1908. Most noteworthy is that it is Bryan's people - purportedly those same people who would see the lineage of Bryan to FDR to LBJ to HRC - who today decry the growth of the nanny state government. Not only has Bryan’s party left the people, but the people have left Bryan’s party. More importantly, these two things happened in a more simultaneous fashion than Michael appears willing to acknowledge. No, Bryan’s people did not immediately join the voting ranks of the Republican Party – such changes of election booth lever pulling habits are hard, jarring, and take time – but Bryan’s people withdrew from politics for a long time before voting for the other side. Writing on the occasion of Jerry Falwell’s death earlier this year, Ralph Reed wrote in the National Review that it took Falwell’s efforts to awaken the slumbering evangelical beast “that was in the mid-throes of a half-century of withdrawal from American civic life, a self-imposed exile that had begun with the Scopes Trial of 1925.” Bryan’s people stayed home for 50 years, and when they came back, they were Republicans.

On Michael’s telling, there is a seamless continuity between the populist activism of Bryan, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and the potential liberal activism of a President Hillary Clinton. He writes in the introduction that “Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government…. He did more than any other man – between the fall of Grover Cleveland and the election of Woodrow Wilson – to transform his party from a bulwark of laissez-faire into the citadel of liberalism we identify with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological descendants” (xviii). But this account does not altogether, or even most fundamentally, comport with what we know to be the case: Bryan’s people don’t sign onto the New Deal – at least not many of his most fervent supporters. They withdraw, wounded by the liberal reception of the pyrrhic victory of the Scopes Trial, and when they emerge fifty years later, they form the core support of the resurgence of the modern Republican Party. Michael supposes that, if we can be less condescending – especially if we can invoke the faith a bit more – that Bryan’s people will see that today’s Democratic Party is the same as Bryan’s Democratic Party. But Bryan’s People never seemed to have believed that after Bryan left, and withheld their fervent support for subsequent politicians of any party until their reemergence as Republicans in the 1970s. This change of allegiance may finally have more to do with very different conceptions of the role of government that distinguish Bryan and Roosevelt (and Roosevelt’s heirs) than Michael allows, and the return of Bryan’s People to the Democratic fold may require more than a simple reinstitution of religious rhetoric in the Democratic party platform.

Bryan and Roosevelt shared an entwined political history on a common stage for many years - Bryan at the end of his political career, Roosevelt at the beginning of his – and rarely if ever did they agree. Roosevelt consistently demonstrated disapproval for Bryan throughout his career, beginning with his support for McKinley over Bryan in the 1900 Presidential election. Roosevelt supported Hoover for the 1920 Democratic nomination, writing that there would be “none better” for President. After Hoover failed to gain the nomination, Roosevelt agreed to be James Cox’s running mate – a candidate for whom Bryan could only muster tepid support, at best, and a ticket that was buried in a Republican landslide, clearly not drawing the denizens of Bryan supporters from past elections. Roosevelt supported Al Smith in the 1920, 1924 and 1928 conventions, a candidate whom Bryan consistently criticized as a puppet of the Tammany political machine and Wall Street – and a wet, to boot. In 1924 Roosevelt warmly supported the election of John W. Davis, a candidate initially opposed by Bryan until the selection of Bryan’s brother, Charles, for the Vice-Presidential slot – a selection made to prevent Bryan’s people from deserting Davis for the independent candidacy of Robert La Follette. In 1924 Roosevelt proposed a “unity meeting” of the Democratic Party, and initially opposed the inclusion of the Bryan brothers in favor of the inclusion of Bryan’s Party nemeses, Cox and Davis (it’s always easier to achieve unity when you exclude those who disagree). Shortly thereafter, in 1925, the Bryan brothers announced their opposition to the meeting and declared that they did not anticipate Eastern Democrats to play a large role in the future of the party.

And what of Bryan’s People’s reception of President Franklin Roosevelt after Bryan’s death? We can point to a few telling details: a number of the most prominent of Bryan’s supporters opposed the New Deal. James T. Patterson relates in his book Congressional Conservatives and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933-1939, that some of the strongest opposition to the New Deal came not from Republicans, but from Bryan Democrats, such as George Huddleston of Alabama. Patterson writes that these New Deal opponents were more often than not “essentially Jeffersonian Democrats” who “sought to recreate Jefferson’s vision of America: a rural nation of independent yeomen, a small government which left people alone.” Another Bryan Democrat, Burton Wheeler, opposed various Roosevelt proposals and was forthwith accused of having abandoned liberalism. These Bryan Democrats could support Bryan’s proposals for an expanded Federal government, but opposed the centralization of Federal power as it took place under Roosevelt.

Michael would appear to have flipped Thomas Frank’s theory of false consciousness: if only the Democratic Party could demonstrate that they take religion seriously, then Bryan’s people – staunch Republicans for some 30 years – will divest themselves of their epiphenomenal animus against Washington D.C. and their rhetoric in favor of devolution of power to the States and localities. The religion is real; their anti-government stance is not. Having their religious beliefs validated by the Democratic Party, the remnants of Bryan’s People would become proponents of “permanently expanding the power of the federal government” (xviii). Michael’s Bryan comes a bit more into focus, then: he is the Bryan of a refurbished contemporary Democratic Party, a Bryan who can fit well within the arguments of Jim Wallis and E.J. Dionne and Amy Sullivan, a socially liberal Bryan for our time interested in advancing social justice in religious garb. The seamless garment of liberalism can march forward, bringing progress and prosperity in its wake.

But political reality suggests otherwise. What Bryan in fact represents is a rupture in our current preconceived political dichotomy that liberalism stands for expansive big government that solves social problems and conservatism defends limited government in order to promote individual initiative. Michael attempts to tell a story in which there is a fundamental continuity from Jefferson to Bryan to Roosevelt to HRC, all under the defining rubric of The Democratic Party. But the evidence Michael himself musters militates against this conclusion. Much of Michael’s biography of Bryan documents Bryan’s own strenuous battles not (only) against the Republicans, but much more fiercely and significantly, against his fellow Democrats, including pronounced differences with the only sitting Democratic Presidents during Bryan’s adult lifetime, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson (For that reason, Michael’s narratives of Bryan’s participation in Democratic Presidential Conventions is always more interesting and entertaining than the summaries of the general elections). Michael does not entertain the possibility that the data suggests: that the continuity to be traced runs from Jefferson to Bryan to Reagan and George W. Bush, at least until 9/11/2001. This continuity lacks the easy back-tracing by means of party affiliation, and moreover, involves the added complication of how to account for Bryan’s People’s support for Bryan’s vision for a more active government and their opposition to Roosevelt’s implementation of the same – an opposition which eventually results in their reappearance a half century later as Republicans. Yet, in this instance, the evidence suggests that Occam’s razor is not always true: a more complicated explanation is sometimes needed.

What becomes evident is that Bryan’s People supported Bryan not because of his call for greater Federal intervention, but in some senses in spite of it. They supported the ends that he articulated and accepted a more active Federal government as the necessary means. By contrast, in Roosevelt (as well as Woodrow Wilson and candidates Cox and Davis) they perceived agents of the plutocracy – agents who saw the government as more of a partner to big business than did the laissez-faire Republicans, but who in large measure shared with the Republicans an agreement over ends and a disagreement over means. Gore Vidal has articulated this Bryan-esque mistrust, writing that “with Franklin Roosevelt, the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ were reversed. Because, during the short-term New Deal, he made some liberal reforms (Social Security), he was thought to be a liberal, but at heart he was a traditional Eastern conservative with a love of foreign wars.” Roosevelt was never considered to be, nor ever considered himself as, one of Bryan’s People.

By comparison, Bryan’s emphasis was upon defense of a way of life in localities, a defense particularly of agrarianism, of local self-governance and regional autonomy. Bryan did not seek to promote industrialism and the growth of capitalist uniformity; rather, his emphasis was upon the preservation of life on the land and all that implies, as one sees in a quote from a speech cited by Michael, in which Bryan declares “that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Farms are more fundamental, more real, than the “progress” represented by city-life. Bryan opposed the wholesale transformation of the nation in the name of growth, productivity and efficiency, whether it was done by the means of laissez-faire capitalism – as was believed to be the case by Republicans – or the Galbraithian construction of “The New Industrial State,” a course pursued by Wilson and Roosevelt.

Michael, then, would concentrate on the differences of the means between today's Democratic and Republican parties, and not the similarity of the ends - and for that reason, misses the vital distinctiveness of Bryan on the American political landscape. Bryan’s support of a more activist government is not pursued on behalf of advancing the purported benefits of an industrializing nation, but in an effort to slow it down if not stop it altogether, to use the power of government to preserve localism and to combat uniformity. One sees this, ironically enough, in Bryan’s continued involvement in the creation and implementation of the Federal Reserve (yes, that Federal Reserve!). Upon shepherding the creation of the Federal Reserve – an institution now devoted to one objective: economic “growth” (that favorite word of John Dewey) – Bryan proposed that its board include a farmer, a wage earner and a small business owner. With the inclusion of these figures one perceives the essence of Bryan’s resistance to the liberal vision of societal transformation in the name of efficiency and progress. These are the folks who we now know are “made redundant” by unmitigated economic growth, discarded by industrial farming, “downsized” by outsourcing, and driven out by “everyday low prices” – in short, who have suffered under the current reign of our Federal Reserve. Bryan affords a singular voice of opposition to the broader liberal goal of wholesale transformation of society in the name of Progress. This resistance is deeply reflected in his embrace of the powers of government – of common weal – to resist the encroachments of brutal efficiency and narrow financial calculus, of short term profit-making and the transformation of every material and human feature into a resource; one sees this resistance behind his stance against imperialism as the burden of the superior nations to “improve” the backward races; and one sees it again in his efforts to obstruct the introduction of Darwinian winner-take-all competition into the school curriculum, a curriculum Michael shows had the aim of “improving” the races through eugenics. And, in all these instances, this resistance is born of Bryan’s anti-progressive theology, his acceptance of the doctrine of original sin and his rejection of the idea that any human institution can create – in the words of both John Dewey and Walter Rauschenbusch – “the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”

Michael is at times promiscuous with his use of the word “progressive,” applying it equally to Bryan as well as to Wilson, Roosevelt and later Democrats. However, what distinguishes Bryan from those later Democrats who prove to be of little appeal to Bryan’s People is that Bryan resists the idea of Progress. He is an ameliorist, yes, but not a proponent of Progress. He rejects the millennial visions of the likes of Dewey and Croly and their New Republic operators Wilson and Roosevelt, in holding that the life of simple farm labor is a good life deserving of defense, and that the world should not be given over to a purported course of Progress that will remake nature and mankind alike toward the end of purportedly achieving political redemption. Bryan defends diversity – and hence, eschews the monistic idea of single form of political perfection – based upon the different forms and courses of human life and local folkways and the variety of God’s manifold gifts to humanity. He thus assumes the mantle of a fierce prophet against efforts to “improve the race,” to make all of mankind akin to Gods. Bryan could not be a defender of a permanently expanded government which sought to heal the wounds of humankind, because such expansion without limit would eventually devour everything in its maw, would seek to blot out God Himself (or, more likely, become “the God that Failed” surrounded by its piled corpses), and surely destroy humankind in its wake.

More can and should finally be said about whether Bryan’s People have been correct to see in the contemporary Republican party’s defense of localism and its condemnations of an all-encompassing government the rightful inheritance of Bryan’s mantle. Without suggesting that they are subjects of false consciousness, we can all too easily perceive the devil’s bargain that has been struck by Bryan’s People with the very plutocrats against whom Bryan railed, a political bargain nearly as Satanic as that forged by Bryan with racists of the Deep South. But, we do wrong if we don’t see in that alliance a longing for another America, the America of Bryan’s imagining, the America that is not and perhaps never was and may never be, but which remains a fervent wish for the true believers who still number themselves among Bryan’s People.