Месечни архиви: юли 2016

Making Clinton Real

Hillary Clinton addresses delegates on the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2016
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesHillary Clinton on the last night of the Democratic convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2016

The Democrats had two main goals at their party convention in Philadelphia: to knit the party back together following Bernie Sanders’s protracted challenge to Hillary Clinton and to portray their nominee in a more favorable light. Throughout the week, the momentousness of the history being made competed with the Clinton campaign’s quite evident strategic goals and was almost lost in them; but then, when the first woman presidential candidate appeared on the stage to claim the nomination, the importance of that moment was impossible to dismiss. A third goal was, of course, to undermine the legitimacy of Donald Trump as a possible president—an effort for which last week’s Republican Party convention had furnished with highly useful material.

Past candidates have had their weak points, but it is the very unusual situation of Hillary Clinton that just as she has reached the pinnacle of her political career she’s also at her most unpopular. Still, in the huge convention hall the excitement of her officially becoming the nominee displaced that reality for all but a small clutch of the convention-goers. The convention had built toward that moment and for a while one could suspend the nagging worries about her and see her fresh. One had to wonder what it would have been like had those nagging worries not been there in the first place.

Clinton had taken quite a beating for having maintained the private email server and for not being truthful about it. And the Clintons’ assiduous seeking of great wealth had blurred if not blotted out her idealism. Surrounded by a retinue wherever she went and so obviously intent for so many years on winning the ultimate prize, she’d become the inaccessible Hillary. Compare her, for example, to Joe Biden; though Biden is vice president and has been living in a grand mansion he has remained accessible; people still think they know him and that he’s not out of reach. Even Bill Clinton, though also complicated, has maintained enough of the common touch, of his capacity for empathy, to not be a stranger to us. Clinton needed not a makeover but a stripping away of the layers of self-protectiveness and caution—and a slight excess of self-pity—for people to feel that they know her again. So she used her acceptance speech to remind the world that she’d spent most of her adult life wanting to improve the lives of those who need help, that she understands the uses of power. As the result of four nights of speeches and her own display of command of government programs—and the striking lack of that in her opponent—the woman who stood in her white pants suit on the large stage in the vast arena suddenly became a plausible president of the United States.

It’s hard to see how Clinton could have made a wiser selection for her running mate. Like Clinton, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine is serious about governing, and though he has the healthy ego of a successful politician he manages to keep it in check. He’s one of the most liked and respected members of the Senate, and of Congress as a whole. His likeability is of a different order from that of Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence. Pence is the good old boy who gets along with the guys; Kaine is held in high esteem by his Senate colleagues. When Kaine was named, I sent a note to Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island, an unimpeachable progressive, asking what he thought of him. Whitehouse replied in an email: “LOVE Tim Kaine….If you graphed most progressive against best liked in the Senate, he’d be the outward mark.” Around the same time, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake tweeted: “Trying to count the ways I hate @timkaine. Drawing a blank. Congrats to a good man and a good friend.” (“Good man” being a phrase not loosely sprinkled about in the Senate.)

Having served on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, Kaine comes with broader policy experience than any of the other finalists, though Clinton selected him as much for his persona as for his credentials. From her experience during her husband’s presidency she was well aware of the need for compatibility between president and vice president. As Whitehouse pointed out to me, with the unflashy, unusually well-liked Kaine in the second slot, “she will never have to watch her back.” Kaine had a major part in obtaining, over White House objections, Congressional review of the Iran nuclear deal; and then in winning Senate approval of it. For the past few years he’s been leading an effort to get the Senate to enact authorization of the continued US fighting in Iraq and in Syria. This would give legitimacy to—and limit—US military involvement: the authorization would have to be renewed each year, and would bar the introduction of ground troops.

Sanders supporters, unrealistically hoping for someone on the far left of the party to be chosen by Clinton and apparently unaware of Kaine’s bona fides as a progressive, immediately raised objections to him. They used whatever they could get their hands on, in particular Kaine’s earlier support for “fast track” consideration of Obama’s trans-Pacific trade agreement (TPP). Clinton, who had initially backed the TPP, changed her position on it early in the campaign, and before the convention, Kaine, like a good vice-presidential running mate, said that he’d now oppose it. But this was of no difference to the Bernieites, many of whom carried signs with a red line through the letters TPP. (Opponents of the trade deal, who now include most of the Senate Democrats, suspect that it will be brought up in the lame duck session of Congress after the election in order to give Obama another victory.) Free trade just isn’t the totem it used to be: too many members of Congress now represent areas where previous agreements had cost—or were seen to have cost—jobs. Kaine got caught in the transition and Clinton almost did.

A Jesuit-trained social activist, Kaine had settled in Virginia, his wife’s home state, following Harvard Law School, and gone into civil rights law rather than seek to make a lot of money. In Virginia of all places he specialized in housing discrimination, where glory is rarely awarded. (That Hillary Rodham also went into social activism after law school is one thing that drew them together.) Kaine has a life apart from the Senate chamber; he’s a serious reader, a churchgoer, and a harmonica player (he keeps four of them in his briefcase) who frequently drops in on blue grass concerts in the hills of Virginia. Though gentle in demeanor he’s a politician to the core—he’s been governor, DNC chairman, and of course senator—and is fond of pointing out that he’s never lost a race.

Kaine knows how to appeal to a broad audience and did so in his acceptance address Wednesday night. He began somewhat uncertainly, but he got going with his folksy thing (“Hey, didja hear about…”) and interspersed his speech with Spanish (which he learned as a volunteer in a Jesuit mission in Honduras). Kaine was one of the major speakers who did a shout-out to the Sanders followers in the hall. His imitation of Trump—saying “Believe me” before outrageous claims—entertained the crowd and if few knew who Kaine was when he was picked, by the end of his speech he’d won most of them over. The hope is that he will also appeal to white middle-class workers, or unemployed ones, in the rust-belt states that Trump and Clinton are struggling over—and where the election could be decided. Trump’s been doing well enough in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and is eyeing Wisconsin and Michigan, to alarm the Clinton camp. Clinton and Kaine are to follow the convention by taking a bus trip through the hotly contested (as of now) industrial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania—Bill Clinton and Al Gore did a similar trip following the 1992 convention.

Mending the deep rift between Sanders and Clinton supporters proved more difficult than most people expected. Sanders’s behavior during his long primary campaign for the nomination, which went on well past its plausibility, signaled that he and his supporters weren’t of an inclination to concede defeat graciously. That Sanders supporters, in their recalcitrance, might conceivably throw the election to Trump didn’t seem to perturb many of them. Though in his speech Monday night Sanders made the required endorsement of Clinton, something in Sanders couldn’t be utterly generous. His strong showing—though significantly weaker than Clinton’s against Obama in 2008—and his devoted following were heady stuff.  Even when it came to the roll call vote for the nomination Sanders held back. In 2008, Clinton came to the floor, interrupted the roll call and moved that the convention name the nominee by acclamation. Sanders didn’t do that. First, his side demanded a complete roll call, and then, in order to preserve on the record the number of delegates he had won—1,894 to Clinton’s 2,807—he moved at the end simply to have Clinton be named the nominee. He could well be keeping some distance in preparation for starting a protest movement after the election. He told reporters later that he’d return to Washington as an independent, not as a Democrat, even though he’d run for the party’s nomination. Sanders clearly has plans. 

The Clinton campaign’s determination to concede as much as possible to Sanders in the party platform meant that she yielded on providing free tuition in public colleges to families earning up to $125,000, the goal of a $15 minimum wage, and offering a public option as part of Obamacare—policies that liberated her from the innate cautiousness earlier in the campaign that had left so many Democrats dispirited. But many Sanders supporters, young and new to politics, didn’t accept that attaining their goals requires compromises, and so they sought to have their way long after it should have been clear that they couldn’t. This was Sanders’s fault as much as their own, and it led to a ragged opening of the convention.

The Sanders crowd—especially in the California delegation—heckled speakers and showed their resentment for Clinton for passing over Elizabeth Warren as her running mate. Frankly, it never made sense that Clinton would pick Warren, whose strength is being outspoken in her outrage over corporate ripping-off of consumers. Vice presidents have to subsume their egos and cannot have an agenda separate from the president’s. Also the president needs their help in dealing with Congress, and, unlike Kaine, Warren is far from universally liked on Capitol Hill. It took an exasperated Sarah Silverman, a true Bernieite, on the first night of the convention, to at last tell off hardcore Sanders supporters from the podium. “You’re being ridiculous.”

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, Annandale, Virginia, July 14, 2016
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty ImagesHillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, Annandale, Virginia, July 14, 2016

The fraught situation wasn’t helped by the release, on the Friday before the convention, of nearly 20,000 emails hacked this spring from the DNC email server; even the forced resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t mollify Sanders’s followers. Though all good Democrats had to profess shock that the DNC staff favored Clinton, more experienced political participants and observers weren’t surprised. Of course it was unattractive for one DNC staff person to suggest the planting of questions about Sanders’s apparent lack of practice of his Jewish faith, but it’s not at all clear that this ever happened. (More interesting than the fact of the emails’ existence was the source of their exposure: WikiLeaks, headed by Julian Assange, who had made clear his personal animosity to Clinton and timed the release to cause maximum damage to her convention strategy of trying to heal things with Sanders’s people.)

The involvement of Russia in the hacking of the DNC, confirmed by several security experts, created a new wrinkle: Putin didn’t have to be running Trump—which no one seriously claimed—for Russia’s meddling in our politics to be a very worrisome matter. (Though some Trump followers thought that focus on this was a deliberate distraction from the substance of the emails, which of course they found shocking.) Trump’s clumsy suggestion in a press conference on Wednesday that Russia try to get the 33,000 emails Clinton said had been deleted from her personal server showed the dangers of someone who doesn’t know much of anything about foreign policy being in the presidency.

By Monday night, after Michelle Obama’s extremely well-received speech, most of the Sanders faction appeared to calm down. (A group of them were still booing during Clinton’s acceptance speech, but they were essentially drowned out in all the excitement.) The enthusiastic reception of Michelle Obama had a lot to do with the intensity and polish with which she spoke—this was a woman who eight years before had barely disguised her contempt for politics. She and her husband were also given great credit for having raised two poised and mature young women during what could have been difficult years to live in the White House. Like her husband, a graduate of Harvard Law School, Michelle had given up a career to be a successful First Lady, throwing herself into unexceptionable causes—such as nutrition and exercise.

In her speech, Michelle Obama initiated one of the major convention themes: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you this country isn’t great.” Reflecting on how to deal with Trump, her reciting of the Obamas’ family motto, “When they go low, we go high,” received strong applause. Her startling line about waking up every morning in a house that was built by slaves got the audience’s attention. Michelle Obama still has an edge—she’s the descendant of slaves—but one that doesn’t cause unease. (Bill O’Reilly was moved to state later that the slaves who built the White House were well clothed and well fed, a variation on an old southern myth.) Though Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton had never been close, she gave Clinton strong backing. The thing is, her husband needs Clinton to win, partly as vindication, partly because his legacy is at stake, and partly because he abhors the idea of Donald Trump in the White House.

The Democrats happen to be blessed at this time with unusually gifted speakers, including the two men who are probably the best in politics right now—the current and previous Democratic presidents. Bill Clinton did a brilliant thing on the stage on Tuesday night, painting his wife as “the best darn change agent I ever saw”—a mantle the Republicans had put on Trump. In fact the Democratic convention did quite a bit of mantle-snatching this past week. Having been given the opening by Trump, Democratic speakers portrayed their party as the optimistic one—Reaganesque—and they even absconded with patriotism: now it was the Democrats who were chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A”—a cheer first heard at the Republican convention in 1984, following American victories in the Olympics in the United States.

Aiming to make his wife more likeable, Bill Clinton told story after story about her determination to help people (“always making things better”)—as he chipped away at the Goldman Sachs crust she’d acquired after leaving the State Department. The stories have validity: Hillary Rodham Clinton was the idealist her husband portrayed her as being; there’s a through-line from her early post-law school days to her championing of the causes of women and children in the White House, the Senate, and even the State Department. Clinton described a Hillary few people know, especially younger women (whose support she’s having trouble attracting); through his stories he showed how her mind worked to solve problems for everyday Americans, whether it’s providing health care for children or legal aid for the poor. Bill Clinton may have slowed a bit but he still can hold a hall rapt.

Like other speakers Bill Clinton sought to put some meaning in the Clinton campaign’s eventual choice of a slogan, “Stronger Together,” bland though it seemed at first blush, and by the end of the convention it actually seemed to mean something. Trump had done Hillary Clinton a favor by claiming, “I alone can fix it”—whatever the problem was.

The all-star cast of Wednesday night—Biden, Kaine, and Obama—was like an oratorical show. Each one stepped up and gave it his best shot. The surprise was Mike Bloomberg, the authentic billionaire (wealthier than Trump), an independent, who was in a position to make withering comments about Trump. Bloomberg’s line—“I’m a New Yorker and I know a con when I see one”—not only buoyed the audience but was a balm for those troubled by Trump’s lack of authenticity. Finally someone who was in a position to was calling out his vaunted business record as a sham. Bloomberg made a pitch to Republicans and independents to back Clinton. His ad-libbed line that brought down the house (and set Bill Clinton, seated in his own box, into peals of laughter), “Let’s elect a sane, competent person,” released the audience to indulge for a moment in open acknowledgment of one of the big questions that float above Trump: Is he crazy?

I was particularly struck by the difference in the speeches by the president and vice president. In one sense each was sticking to his own style; in another, they were speaking to different audiences. Biden makes a big thing of his blue-collar childhood (after his once-prosperous father lost his money in the Depression), of his birthplace being Scranton, Pennsylvania, a rust-belt town badly suffering from the changed economy. (Trump spoke to a packed audience in Scranton on Wednesday.) Biden, who has complained openly that the Democrats don’t know how to talk to blue-collar people, did just that. Referring to Trump, he said: “He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Biden’s testimonial to Hillary Clinton was strong but not without its poignancy. The world knows that Biden would have liked to run for president this time but finally decided against it after the death from cancer of his beloved son Beau. This was likely one of Biden’s last major appearances, though he’s dropped hints that he’ll stay around in public service—perhaps on his anti-cancer “Moonshot” initiative.  

But it was Barack Obama who picked up the flame of America’s greatness and ran with it. Annoyed with Trump’s dark portrait of the country, Obama’d been longing to give such a speech, but had to wait for the right moment in the campaign. He said, “I’m more optimistic about the future of America than ever before,” and he rattled off a list of positive statistics about the state of the economy. Noting, as other speakers had, that the convention arena was near Independence Hall, he did a long riff on the meaning of our democracy—which ordinarily wouldn’t have been required, but Trump had made it so. In an allusion to Trump’s authoritarian streak, the president said, “America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together, through the hard and slow and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.” Obama spoke with an urgency about this election. He said, “It’s not just a choice between parties or policies, the usual debates between left and right. This is a more fundamental choice about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government.”

The president mocked Trump, saying, “You know, the Donald is not really a plans guy. He’s not really a facts guy, either.” Trump’s evident lack of preparedness to govern—and his evident lack of interest in learning some of what he needs to know—was a major theme of the convention, especially when set off against Clinton’s long record of government service and preparation. Obama also followed up Biden’s questioning of Trump’s bona fides as the champion of the middle class: “Does anyone really believe that a guy who’s spent his seventy years on this Earth showing no regard for working people is suddenly going to be your champion? Your voice?” (In his acceptance speech, Trump had claimed to be the voice of his followers.) And Obama continued the string of attacks on Trump’s business practices—strip him of his business and there’s nothing left for him to claim: “He calls himself a business guy, which is true, but I have to say, I know plenty of businessmen and women who’ve achieved remarkable success without leaving a trail of lawsuits and unpaid workers and people feeling like they got cheated.”

Obama made Clinton’s long pursuit of the presidency into an asset: “I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman, not me, not Bill, nobody more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.” It was hard to recall the two of them as bitter rivals eight years ago.

Yet Obama’s speech, technically brilliant as it was, left me wondering how much good it would do in the fall. He didn’t seem to speak to the audience the Democrats most need to reach, and the optimistic America he described was a different place and irrelevant to those still looking for jobs or for better pay. He gave only glancing mention to the idea that there’s more work to be done. Obama and Clinton’s long hug at the end was moving to the audience at hand though the Republicans, who portray Obama as hopeless failure, say that it gave them excellent material.

The emotional build­up to Clinton’s acceptance speech reached its apex when a Muslim man, standing at the podium with his wife, both immigrants whose son had died in Afghanistan protecting his fellow US troops, pulled out his copy of the Constitution, asking Trump if he’d ever read it, and charging, “You have sacrificed nothing, and no one.” This seemed to take the convention’s collective breath away.

Following an introduction by daughter Chelsea (a parallel to Ivanka Trump’s introducing her father at the Republican convention), Hillary Clinton couldn’t have been under more pressure when she gave her acceptance speech. As she admits, she’s no great orator; her speeches are prosaic, though she tries to make up for that with seriousness of purpose and command of policy. Her few clever lines came across as goodies dropped into her remarks by speech writers; they had little consistency with the tone of the overall speech. The story we were told for the umpteenth time about how her mother made her go back to the street and confront a neighborhood bully—perhaps a message to Congress—could be retired, and her insistence that she’s been knocked down but has gotten back up is becoming a bit tedious.

In her speech, Clinton attempted to accomplished several things. One of those was to turn Sanders possibly into an ally, by offering extensive gratitude for making her a better candidate—which he had. (Sanders, in the audience, sat there stone-faced.) She showed that she could command the hall for a lengthy presentation: it was hard to equate this polished speaker with the halting one at Roosevelt Island, site of the restart of her campaign last year. And she made it clear that she has actual plans; as opposed to Trump, she offered a large vision for addressing the economic situation.

Like other presidents since FDR, she had her own hundred-day plan: to work with the Republicans (assuming they’re willing) to make a large investment in the creation of new jobs, including a major new infrastructure program. She also cited a sweeping number of items she’d propose–increased minimum wage, debt-free college tuition, broadened health care, expanded Social Security, a curbing of corporate profits and taxes on companies who relocate overseas, tax increases on the wealthy, paid family leave. This was a liberal program but intended not to be so encompassing that it would put off independents or even some Republicans, whom convention speakers had tried to lure. But it was a far more progressive approach to governing than what her husband had proposed; it was a new day and a new Democratic party. Seeking to offset Trump’s claims, Clinton pronounced, “Democrats, we are the party of working people,” and, echoing  Biden, she said, “We haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through.”

The Democrats had put on a successful convention.  Amid the inevitable balloon drop and the knowledge that we’d witnessed history, the euphoric delegates could be removed from reality for a brief time. It’s easy to get caught up in a convention’s joyous mood (if it has one, which the Republicans’ didn’t) and forget for a moment that there will follow—especially this year—a very rough contest for the presidency.

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Why Growth Will Fall

Gustave Caillebotte: The Floor Planers, 1875
Musée d’Orsay, ParisGustave Caillebotte: The Floor Planers, 1875

Robert Gordon has written a magnificent book on the economic history of the United States over the last one and a half centuries. His study focuses on what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970—in which living standards increased more rapidly than at any time before or after. The book is without peer in providing a statistical analysis of the uneven pace of growth and technological change, in describing the technologies that led to the remarkable progress during the special century, and in concluding with a provocative hypothesis that the future is unlikely to bring anything approaching the economic gains of the earlier period.

The message of Rise and Fall is this. For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. According to the economic historian Bradford DeLong, from the first rock tools used by humanoids three million years ago, to the earliest cities ten thousand years ago, through the Middle Ages, to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800, living standards doubled (with a growth of 0.00002 percent per year). Another doubling took place over the subsequent period to 1870. Then, according to standard calculations, the world economy took off.

Gordon focuses on growth in the United States. Living standards, as measured by GDP per capita or real wages, accelerated after 1870. The growth rate looks like an inverted U. Productivity growth rose from the late nineteenth century and peaked in the 1950s, but has slowed to a crawl since 1970. In designating 1870–1970 as the special century, Gordon emphasizes that the period since 1970 has been less special. He argues that the pace of innovation has slowed since 1970 (a point that will surprise many people), and furthermore that the gains from technological improvement have been shared less broadly (a point that is widely appreciated and true).

A central aspect of Gordon’s thesis is that the conventional measures of economic growth omit some of the largest gains in living standards and therefore underestimate economic progress. A point that is little appreciated is that the standard measures of economic progress do not include gains in health and life expectancy. Nor do they include the impact of revolutionary technological improvements such as the introduction of electricity or telephones or automobiles. Most of the book is devoted to describing many of history’s crucial technological revolutions, which in Gordon’s view took place in the special century. Moreover, he argues that the innovations of today are much narrower and contribute much less to improvements in living standards than did the innovations of the special century.

Rise and Fall represents the results of a lifetime of research by one of America’s leading macroeconomists. Gordon absorbed the current thinking on economic growth as a graduate student at MIT from 1964 to 1967 (where we were classmates), studying the cutting-edge theories and empirical work of such brilliant economists as Paul Samuelson, Robert Solow, Dale Jorgenson, and Zvi Griliches. He soon settled in at Northwestern University, where his research increasingly focused on long-term growth trends and problems of measuring real income and output.

Gordon’s book is both physically and intellectually weighty. While handsomely produced, at nearly eight hundred pages it weighs as much as a small dog. I found the Kindle version more convenient. Here is a guide to the principal points.

The first chapter summarizes the major arguments succinctly and should be studied carefully. Here is the basic thesis:

The century of revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor, household drudgery, darkness, isolation, and early death. Only one hundred years later, daily life had changed beyond recognition. Manual outdoor jobs were replaced by work in air-conditioned environments, housework was increasingly performed by electric appliances, darkness was replaced by light, and isolation was replaced not just by travel, but also by color television images bringing the world into the living room…. The economic revolution of 1870 to 1970 was unique in human history, unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once.

The series of “only once” economic revolutions behind this short summary makes up the next fourteen chapters of the book. Most of the innovations are familiar, but Gordon tells their histories vividly. More important, in many cases, he explains quantitatively the way these economic revolutions boosted the living standards of the statistically average American. Among the most illuminating chapters are those on housing, transportation, health, and computers.

The last two chapters are about the fall in Rise and Fall. This book differs from the Spenglerian “decline of the West” genre in an important respect. As the mathematicians might say, Gordon moves up a derivative. In other words, he is not predicting that living standards in the US will decline; rather he views it as likely that the growth rate of living standards will decline from its very rapid pace in the special century.

Gordon sees two sources for his pessimistic outlook. The first is that the long list of “only once” social and economic changes cannot be repeated. A second source is what he calls “headwinds.” These are structural changes in the economy that reduce actual output below the country’s technological potential and provide another reason for slow growth in living standards in the decades ahead.

The central subject in Rise and Fall is the rapid growth of output in the 1870–1970 period, followed by a period of slower growth. We must clarify that “growth” in Gordon’s view involves intensive rather than extensive expansion. Intensive growth is that of output per unit of input, also called productivity, while extensive growth refers to total output. A standard productivity measure that encompasses all inputs is called “total factor productivity” or TFP.1

What are the underlying trends? Figure 1 on this page shows the growth in total factor productivity by decade since 1890. I show two estimates to provide an idea of how robust Gordon’s conclusions are. The one labeled “Gordon” is from his Figure 16.5. The alternative measure, which I have constructed for this review, combines other sources, with private GDP for the first half of the period covered and business output for the second half.2 (The data were provided by Gordon. A shortcoming of his book is the absence of an online appendix, and in this respect it is behind best practice.)


The main result of both measures is to confirm that there was a marked slowdown in productivity growth when we compare the earlier period (1890–1970) to the latest period (1970–2014). Both series give a slowdown of 0.6 percentage points per year in productivity growth. The alternative estimate is that the growth in productivity slowed from 1.7 percent per year in the earlier period to 1.0 percent per year in the second period.

The alternative series shows a smoother increase from the 1890–1920 period to the 1920–1970 period, and then a sharp drop after 1970. Gordon makes much of the robust productivity growth during the Great Depression and World War II, but this is not apparent in the alternative series.

Productivity growth slowed sharply after 1970, with little variability from decade to decade. The slowdown has been puzzling scholars for four decades. My own view is that it is a decline from one thousand cuts. Important ones are rising energy prices, growing regulatory burdens, a structural shift from high- to low-productivity growth sectors (such as from manufacturing to services), as well as the source that Gordon emphasizes, the decline of fundamentally important inventions.

So Gordon’s basic hypothesis looks rock solid: there has been a substantial slowdown in productivity growth since the end of the special century in 1970.

It is commonplace to complain that gross domestic product does a poor job of representing true economic welfare because it omits harmful elements such as pollutionn.3 This is true. However, most readers will be surprised to learn that the major shortcoming of conventional measures is that they underestimate growth. Moreover, according to Gordon, the understatement was arguably much larger in the special century than before or after.

Why do conventional measures understate actual improvements in living standards? Gordon gives two principal reasons. First, the growth of real income is systematically understated because of flawed price indexes. The price indexes used to convert current dollars of output into inflation-corrected or “real” output overestimate price increases and consequently understate real output growth. Second, GDP omits many aspects of economic activity that are not captured in market transactions. The common omissions are environmental degradation, leisure time, nonmarket work, and improvements in health.

We can begin with the price-index problem. For this, I take an example familiar to most people, lighting. If you were to examine the US economic accounts, you would not find a component that measures the price of lighting or the real output of lighting. Instead, you would find elements such as the price of fuel (whale oil or electricity) and the price of lighting devices (oil lamps or lightbulbs). For each of these prices, we today have carefully designed techniques for collecting prices and spending. So, you might think, by combining correctly the prices of the lighting devices and the fuels (the input prices), we might accurately track the price of producing a certain amount of light (the output price).

Or so we thought until the actual estimates were made. It turns out for lighting that the output price fell much more sharply than the input prices. We can take the example of standard incandescent lightbulbs and LED bulbs to illustrate. Assume that we need 800 lumens to light a space (a candle produces about thirteen lumens). Suppose that we light the space for 50,000 hours. This would require about 50 incandescent bulbs and 60 watts x 50,000 hours or 3,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity. At the current US average electricity price of ten cents per kwh, the cost of incandescent lighting over the period would be about $350 ($50 for the bulbs and $300 for the electricity). Now assume that a new technology, LED bulbs, becomes available. You can get the same illumination with one $5 six-watt LED bulb lasting 50,000 hours. When you calculate the life-cycle costs, the 800 lumens x 50,000 hours cost only $35 ($5 for the bulb + $30 for the electricity).

So the price of lighting declined by 90 percent. And—the critical point for Gordon’s story—with the introduction of LED bulbs, every $100 of expenditures on lighting produced ten times the real output. This is not an isolated example. This same quantum jump came with each improvement in lighting technologies: from oil lamps, to kerosene lamps, to incandescent, to compact fluorescent, to LED lighting. A more detailed look at the history of lighting indicates indeed that conventional measures have understated the growth in the output of lighting by a huge margin.

How do conventional measures of prices or real output treat this major change in prices and real output? They simply ignore it. More precisely, the LED bulb is “linked” to price and output indexes when it is introduced. This means that the amount or efficiency of lighting per dollar is assumed to be unchanged.

Gordon emphasizes that this tiny but revealing story about lighting is told time and again during the special century. The major inventions that revolutionized American living standards were seldom captured in the standard indexes. Examples include running water, toilets, telephones, air travel, phonographs, television, air conditioning, central heating, antibiotics, automobiles, financial instruments, and better working conditions. These tectonic shifts in technology and living standards would generally go unrecorded in “real GDP” growth and in the growth of “real wages.”

The second source of mismeasurement concerns activities that are outside the purview of standard output measures. On close examination, many of these have little effect on the growth of real output when included. For example, if you included a correction for carbon dioxide emissions, it would reduce the level of output, but such a correction would not reduce real output growth at all over the last decade.

However, one specific measurement of error makes an enormous difference—the omission of improvements in health status. Gordon has a fascinating chapter on the sharp “only once” improvements in health and life expectancy. While some of his views on the sources of improvements in health are not persuasive, his final conclusion on the importance for living standards seems justified:

A consistent theme of this book is that the major inventions and their subsequent complementary innovations increased the quality of life far more than their contributions to market-produced GDP…. But no improvement matches the welfare benefits of the decline in mortality and increase in life expectancy….

His statement refers to a strange aspect of output measurement. Suppose we lived on average fifty years, and the average consumption of housing, food, etc. rose by 10 percent. Then our measures of living standards (real GDP or real income) would rise by 10 percent. However, assume that we had the same consumption every year, but had less illness because of antibiotics, or less pain because of anesthetics, or lived twenty years longer. Then there would be no measured gain in living standards. This seems strange, but that is the way our methods for measuring output and income are designed.

There have been several studies attempting to incorporate the benefits of improved health into measures of living standards.4 These show two important points. First, including health status increases sharply the improvement in living standards over the last century. And second, this health-status bonus was larger during the special century than before or after.

In recent years, trends in average living standards interacted with rising income inequality to produce stagnant wages in the lower and middle income groups. Table 1 shows the basic trends over recent decades. The first row shows the results of the last part of the special century. The last two rows show the period of slower growth.

The column labeled “average” shows the growth in per capita, inflation-corrected, post-tax income. This shows an income slowdown that parallels the productivity slowdown, with a decline of 1.4 percentage points from the first to the third subperiod. The slowdown in the growth of real income was largely due to the slowdown in productivity growth from the special century to the more recent period.

The last three columns show how the growth was divided between the bottom fifth, the middle fifth, and the top 1 percent of the income distribution. The first subperiod was one of shared prosperity; indeed, the bottom groups fared slightly better than the top. However, in the most recent years, particularly since 2000, the decline in average income growth was further exacerbated for the lowest income groups by a declining share of the total. So, for the bottom fifth, the growth in real income declined from 3 percent at the end of the special century to essentially zero in the last fifteen years. Of this catastrophic decline, about half was due to the slower overall growth, while half was due to rising inequality. Gordon has an extensive review of the sources of rising inequality, but his emphasis on the role of declining productivity growth is an important and durable part of the story of stagnant incomes.

The last chapter of the book suggests that the US faces major “headwinds” that will continue to drag down living standards relative to underlying productivity growth. In Gordon’s account, these headwinds are rising inequality, poor-quality education, the aging population, and rising government debt. Gordon forecasts that average growth in real income per person over the next quarter-century will be 0.7 percent per year—even lower than the 1.3 percent per year in the 2000–2015 period. If inequality continues to grow, this might lead to declining incomes of the bottom part of the distribution—and therefore to true Spenglerian decline. I emphasize that these forecasts are highly speculative and contingent on many economic, fiscal, and demographic forces.

What of the future of economic growth? Here Gordon is a leading proponent of the view emphasizing the likelihood of “secular stagnation.” There are actually two variants of the stagnation. The first, emphasized by Lawrence Summers, is “demand-side”: a global savings glut along with low inflation is leading to weak aggregate demand in the high-income regions. This syndrome is consistent with zero or negative interest rates in Europe and Japan.

Gordon’s view of stagnation is “supply-side”—referring to a slackening in the growth of productivity rather than persistent weakness caused by the business cycle and high unemployment. His pessimism does not involve the neo-Malthusianism of groups like the Club of Rome, which foretold resource exhaustion, or concerns of those like Nicholas Stern, who sees future climate-driven catastrophes. Rather, Gordon’s concept of stagnation comes from his view about the slow future pace of technological change. He recognizes the perils of forecasting technological futures. But in the end he sees the slow growth of decades since 1970 shown in Figure 1—not those of the special century—as the norm for the years to come. He does not argue that returning to rapid growth is impossible. Instead, he thinks that we have exhausted the major society-changing “only once” inventions, and he sees no prospect that we will find a similar set of inventions of such breadth and depth in the near future.

In discussing the future, Gordon dissects the arguments of the technological optimists who see a growing part in the economy for robots and artificial intelligence. An extreme pole of technological futurism is a theory called “the Singularity.” As computer scientists look into their crystal ball, they foresee artificial intelligence moving toward superintelligence, which denotes intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including not just games like Go but also scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills. At the point where computers have achieved superintelligence, we have reached the Singularity, where humans become economically superfluous. Superintelligent computers are the last human invention, as imagined by the mathematician Irving Good:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Gordon has no sympathy for these futuristic views. Moreover, the economic data (such as those shown in the figure and table) show no trace of a coming Singularity. If anything, growth has slowed even more since the financial crisis of 2008. But as we observe that games like chess or Go are won by a computer, it seems prudent to keep an eye on the evolution of superintelligence.

To summarize, Rise and Fall is a magnificent book on American economic history of the last century and a half. This review can touch only the major themes and has necessarily skimmed over many of the fascinating discussions of individual sectors and historical episodes. If you want to understand our history and the economic dilemmas faced by the nation today, you can spend many a fruitful hour reading Gordon’s landmark study.

  1. 1

    Productivity comes in several varieties. The simplest to measure is labor productivity, or output per hour worked. However, this does not account for improvements in education, or for changes in the access of the average worker to a larger stock of more productive capital. Total factor productivity (TFP) is a more complicated concept to measure than labor productivity because it involves measuring the contribution of capital and education, as well as determining how to weigh the different inputs, but today these are standard procedures.

    A final detail is whether productivity relates to business output, to private output, or to total GDP (the latter also includes government output). Accurate measures are usually confined to business output because government output in such areas as education and military forces is difficult to measure and therefore these areas customarily are measured as inputs (teachers) rather than outputs (learning). Gordon generally uses the more comprehensive GDP because it is available for longer periods. It must be reemphasized that all productivity figures refer to measured output and omit the unmeasured contributions of important new and improved products discussed in Gordon’s main text. 

  2. 2

    The alternative is a splicing of the following sources: data for the early part is total factor productivity for the private economy (private GDP), 1890–1950, from Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition (Cambridge University Press, Vol. 3, Series Cg270, Cg278). The data are based on an early study by John Kendrick in Productivity Trends in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1967). These data are used for the TFP growth rates for 1890–1900 to 1940–1950. For the period 1948–2014, I use total factor productivity for the US private business sector from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. These are available at www.bls.gov/mfp/#tables, “Historical multifactor productivity measures (SIC 1948–1987 linked to NAICS 1987–2014).” These data are used for the TFP growth rates for 1950–1960 to 2000–2014. Note that for the two periods of overlap (1950–1960 and 1960–1970), the early (Kendrick) series and the BLS series are virtually identical. From 1948 to 1970, the private GDP TFP growth rate averaged 2.13 percent per year while the BLS series averaged 2.03 percent per year.  

  3. 3

    Economic statisticians have developed techniques for incorporating external effects like pollution into the measurement of national output. The method is straightforward. You would begin with a measure of the physical emissions, such as annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or sulfur dioxide emissions. These would be parallel to the production of new houses, currently included in the accounts. You then multiply the quantity by a “shadow price,” which would measure the social cost of the emissions. Again, the parallel here would be multiplying the quantity of new houses by the price of the houses. Since the emissions price is a damage, or negative price, the price times quantity of emissions would be subtracted from total output.

    As an example, total CO2 emissions for the United States in 2015 were 5,270 million tons. The US government estimates that the social cost of emissions is $37 per ton (all in 2009 dollars). So the total subtraction is $37 x 5,270 = $195 billion. This would be a debit from the $16,200 billion of total output in that year, or slightly more than 1 percent of output. (These data are from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Energy Information Administration.)

    Note, however, that CO2 emissions declined over the decade from 2005 to 2015, from 5,993 billion to 5,270 billion tons per year. So the subtraction from GDP to correct for CO2 emissions was smaller in 2015 than in 2005. Growth of corrected GDP was therefore a tiny bit higher after correcting for CO2 emissions than before the correction. To be precise, after correction, the real growth rates over the 2005–2015 period would be 1.394 percent per year using the corrected figures instead of 1.385 per year using the official figures.So correcting for CO2 emissions would lower the estimate of output, but would raise by a tiny amount the estimate of growth. 

  4. 4

    Studies on the impact of adding health to the national economic accounts include an early example from William Nordhaus, “The Health of Nations,” in Measuring the Gains from Medical Research: An Economic Approach, edited by Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel (University of Chicago Press, 2010).  

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The Consolations of Strangeness

Jana Prikryl, Hudson Valley, New York, January 2016
Patrick KelleyJana Prikryl, Hudson Valley, New York, January 2016

There has been so much poetry written in the United States in the last thirty years that it has become difficult for even its most passionate readers, among whom I count myself, to pretend to have a broad, comprehensive view of the thousands of poems that have been published in books and literary magazines over that time. That was not always the case.

In the 1950s, American poetry was a small pond with a few big fish in it and others of various sizes swimming around them, so it was easy to see who was imitating whose moves, whose progeny were multiplying and whose were looking sickly. Of course, there were others too, sulking on the murky bottom of the pond and keeping their own counsel, but they were by and large invisible.

The Beat poets changed all that. They made such a splash that even high school kids were reading Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Thanks to their popularity, bars and coffee shops started having poetry readings, with colleges and universities following soon after, inviting other kinds of poets to read as well and offering them jobs to teach creative writing. Today, with thousands of graduates of writing programs publishing collections and still more graduating every year, it’s hard to believe that a book of poems can be completely original, but despite the great odds, it still happens.

Poetry is like an old clock that stops ticking from time to time and needs to be violently shaken to get it running again, and if that doesn’t do the trick, opened up and disassembled, its wheels cleaned, lubricated, and its intricate moving parts made to run again. Unlike watchmakers, poets repair their poems by leaving parts behind that after centuries of use have turned out to be unnecessary to their workings. Hard as it is to believe, lyric poets are still tinkering with a contraption thousands of years old, mending it and reinventing it with no desire to call it quits. As they do that, poetry keeps changing while remaining the same.

If that weren’t so, how could we still understand and enjoy the old Greek, Roman, and Chinese poems and recognize ourselves in them while knowing next to nothing about the world those poets lived in? Reading Jana Prikryl’s book, it crossed my mind that neither William Blake nor Emily Dickinson would have had much trouble making sense of this poem of hers:


“New research suggests that butterflies and moths come with mental baggage…left over from their lives as larvae.”


He’d like to be at one with his new self
but memories sit in him like eyes.

Sometimes scent implies an unheard-of
idea and he’s off
but it’s just another of the given forms.

You’d think flight would be decent redress,
the power to sift himself through air
and leave each thought in its old place,
where hard feelings also could be left.

He shrugs and the wings
quiver with great precision,
nature will have to live with what it’s done,
he cannot manage even resignation
without a show of grace.

The work of a poet is a confluence of influences, either skillfully concealed, as Keats is in Stevens’s early poems, or plain to see, as Laforgue and some of his French contemporaries are in those written by Eliot in the first decades of the twentieth cenury. “The Moth” may remind us of other poems (I thought of Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”), but not in any obvious derivative way. Where does originality in poetry come from then? It comes from tinkering with some older poetic model. It comes from seeing its weaknesses along with its attractions. It comes from sober deliberation or from groping blindly in the dark. It comes from god-knows-what and only-the-devil knows. Some degree of irreverence is always involved. Kneeling before a masterpiece, as I once saw a man do before El Greco’s Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors in the Louvre, is not the way to go.

Jana Prikryl was born in Communist Czechoslovakia in the bleak industrial town of Ostrava, a few miles from the border of Poland. She was five years old when her parents feigned a semi-annual camping trip to the Dalmatian Coast, knowing that others had somehow fled through Yugoslavia. Instead they detoured to Zagreb, where they discovered they could get a four-day tourist visa to Austria and cross the border “legally,” though their passports were valid solely for travel to Yugoslavia, and they could be caught and sent home where her parents would be thrown in jail. They managed to slip through and eventually ended up in Canada. She received a BA from the University of Toronto and lived in Dublin before moving to New York, where she earned an MA in cultural criticism from New York University.

With so much travel in her life, it’s no wonder that the locations in her poems keep changing from country to country and that people we encounter in them often appear to be stateless. Though parents, siblings, husbands, and lovers are mentioned or alluded to, we often in fact have no idea who they are. Prikryl tells us little about them and their reasons for being where they are.

Reading some of her poems is like walking into a movie theater in the middle of a film one knows nothing about, trying to figure out what is happening on the screen, irked at first that the answer is not forthcoming, and gradually growing more and more entranced by the mystery of every face and every action, detached as they are from any context. Unlike poets who are eager to give their readers lengthy and detailed accounts of their private lives, she is discreet. She remains faithful to the ambiguity of our existence, that condition of being aware of the multiple meanings of everything we do or is done to us, and she’s wary of settling for one at the expense of the others and leaving the poetry that went along with them behind.

I first came across her name reading her essays on film and photography in The New York Review and The Nation and subsequently her poems in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and other prestigious publications. The After Party is her first book of poems. It’s divided into two parts, the first made up of thirty-two poems, some with intriguing and forbidding titles like “The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams,” “Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele,” and “It Doesn’t Work Out as I Read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida.” Here’s a poem with a simpler title, but with an intriguing plot:



The dwarf maple caught my attention
in an ominous way, its purple,
its deep purple leaves shredded gloves
that gesture “Don’t worry, don’t worry,”
among floating albino basketballs of hydrangea
among other things the people landscaped
like fake lashes round the top of the eye
that then all summer takes in clouds
and anything else passing over, including
one has to assume
the neutral look
on a passenger’s face glancing down from a window seat.


Halfway there he squeezed between the shoulders of the seats
to join his wife and me in back. I need hardly tell you
what a stretch it was, wedging my arm between the driver’s seat and door
to steer with the tips of my fingers,
sidewalks in those parts just wide enough for a car.
Why he wanted me to take the wheel
I was too busy not getting us killed
to unravel; there was the traffic, a thing
coming at us with its mouth wide open, and in back
the two of them
whispered in their corner,
taking up very little space,
less than was right,
and then less and less, gasping at the joke he’d set in motion.

Giorgio de Chirico: The Pink Tower, 1916
DeA Picture Library/GrangerGiorgio de Chirico: The Pink Tower, 1916

Poetry is as visual an art as are painting and the cinema. One reads poetry for the same reason one goes out for a drive, to see fresh sights. Images are bait, they trap our minds, revive some memory of our own, and get our imaginations working. Note how “the dwarf maple” the unidentified speaker notices in the first line of the poem is followed by a series of images, one more startling and disturbing than the last, from the purple leaves being shredded gloves and gesturing “Don’t worry,” to hydrangea flowers floating like albino basketballs, all unfolding in slow motion, culminating in plants landscaped like fake eyelashes around the top of the eye, and the disinterested look on a passenger’s face glancing down from a window seat—the kinds of things one may recall seeing in the moments before a car crash.

The second stanza complicates the plot. There appear to be three people in the car, two women in the back and the man who is driving (or are they stopped in traffic?) when he joins his wife in the back, leaving the narrator to get hold of the wheel and steer the car as best she can with the tips of her fingers while the other two squeeze into the corner beside her, whispering and making out, gasping at this farce the man has set in motion, while the traffic charges at them “with its mouth wide open.” By leaving out so many details, Prikryl invites her readers (as I did) to deduce the rest, because she wants to convey the feeling of everything occurring at once in a moment of panic, as it would to this woman struggling to keep the car on the road and not get herself and her passengers killed.

As for the “Gothic” in the title, it evokes, of course, the atmosphere of suspense and horror that permeates the stories in that genre. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that the situation in the poem is not just hair-raising but also side-splitting. The woman wedging her upper arm between the driver’s seat and door to steer the car with the tips of her fingers while her passengers are busy necking could have come out of one of Buster Keaton’s silent two-reelers.

What makes Prikryl’s poems different is the way she subverts conventions by shuffling or leaving out entirely the chronology of events, blurring identities, cutting abruptly from one scene to another without explanation, and relying on the reader’s imagination to bridge these gaps. At first this may seem like a challenge one is not prepared to undertake in a poem, but after reading her for a while one gets the hang of it. Here’s another delightful poem of hers about a man scribbling notes to a woman at a funeral and making plans to meet her afterward.


Outside the funeral of the politician who died young
I waited for you. Rolled in my hand like a baton

  were tissues from the mourners inside
that I was meant to throw away,

  a few with your scribbled notes to me.
How they’d found me in that crowd I couldn’t say,

  or if the bottle blond was your wife
or whether I had a husband.

We sat near enough to barter
knives and forks—the scraps of dinner theater

The blond was climbing into your lap,
Playing with the buttons on your jacket.

Then all of us rose and circulated, more like a whirlpool
than musical chairs. You on the far side of the banquet.

That’s when you wrote me those notes, one by one,
congealing into typescript in my hand.

At times I glanced toward your place
and we locked eyes like opponents in chess.

Your hair was still so thick and dark
I didn’t worry if I looked older.

When I waited for you outside, clutching the tissues
and pulling up tufts of grass, your friend’s shoulder

presented itself. He said you lived in this town
and couldn’t be seen leaving with me.

I nodded, ducking back into the paneled saloon
where he’d blacked out and was sprawled across linoleum.

He agreed to drive me to the film festival.
You’d be there in the dark with strange women and men,

absorbed in pictures more honest than these
if I ever found you again.

Reviewing books by and about Pauline Kael in The New York Review, Prikryl describes the film critic as being “drawn to comedy because it always finds shortcuts to the awful truth.” I think she believes that too. If “Ontario Gothic” verges on being a farce, this is a more subtle kind of humor, more about a hypothetical romantic entanglement than the possibility of a real car crash, more about an attempt to arrange an assignation between a man and woman at the funeral of a politician that has gone awry. Prikryl has an eye for satire. She watches people closely. This poem is like good gossip, full of delicious visual details. It has a tongue-in-cheek quality that reminds me of Dorothy Parker, the funny lady who once told someone: “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.”

Besides their mix of epochs, countries, and civilizations, the poems in The After Party differ widely from one another in the way they are written. If I were to list some of the finest poems in the book—“The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams,” “Siblings and Half Siblings,” “Inverted Poem for the Fluoride Ladies of Pleasant Valley School,” “The Tempest,” “Stanley Cavell Pauses on the Aventine,” “To Tell of Bodies Changed,” “New York New York,” and “Crackers”—I’d find it difficult to put my finger on what they have in common, except for a quality of attention, a presence of a probing intellect alert to the strangeness of our lives as well as our own estrangement from ourselves, and an eye “susceptible to the consolations/of analogy,” as she says in another poem. Here’s a sonnet that is as much about a pillow the poet sleeps on as it is about the statelessness they both share:


How solitary
and resolute you look in the morning.
A stoic in your cotton sleeve.
Do you dream of walking out

rain or shine
a truffle balanced on your sternum
and passing me on the sidewalk?
Or is that a smile

because you interpret nothing
and statelessness is where you live?
How calmly you indulge my moods.

See you tonight, by the sovereign chartreuse
ceramics at the Met.
Let’s hear what you’d do differently.

The loosely linked, short, untitled poems in the second part of The After Party have the shared title “Thirty Thousand Islands.” The name refers to thousands of islands in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron in Ontario, a well-known vacation spot in Canada, where these poems are set, an amazing place, as one discovers taking a tour of them on YouTube. As she says:

Here in the land Romanticism neglected
the Enlightenment passed by and planted
a shrub, a flag to flap and fling
the moon’s weather, should you
wish it confirmed.

These poems do not make up a true sequence, since except for one enigmatic figure—a foreigner with a taste for Parisian shirts and an interest in geology, who compulsively translates from one language to another, circles phrases in newspapers, lives on a houseboat, and whom the poet calls Mr. Dialect—there are no others. He appears in some of the poems making witty remarks on the landscape and the people, but disappears for long stretches from the sequence. For Prikryl, as for Fernando Pessoa, there is more than one poet inside her. Indeed, these poems are so different from the other ones in the first part of her book that it took me a while to get used to them and begin to relish their brevity and their laid-back quality. Here is what they are like:

The sky now kindling
for him alone at five
in the morning,
Mr. Dialect will rise
let’s say most days
(there are no others)
with an air of dressing
to breakfast beside
a caramel brunette,
her taste in shoes
unswervingly superb.
It’s not among
the things he learns
to tire of such blessings


At lunch he dives.
By way of aperitif he dives.
He dives for breakfast.

When you dive
the world pours up around you

a ribbon of motion
defying end in
a tone that borders on arrogance.

Sounds and colors deepen
on their way to achieving
darkness and silence,
which keep receding.

A different situation however if
the entire time the thing
he was diving to reach
were diving just behind him.

This is occasional poetry at its best, relaxed, amusing, conveying the pleasure the poet took in each scene, while lounging in the shade of a big old tree (one imagines), jotting a few lines now and then in a small notebook, then perhaps dozing off and resuming writing the poem in bed late that night when everyone else was asleep. Goethe claimed this is the best kind of poem there is, reputedly using the naked back of the woman he slept with to scribble his verses on a sheet of paper. The old Japanese wrote brief, occasional poems, and so did the other ancients. “Do not ridicule the small./Little things can charm us all./Cupid was not big at all,” some unknown Greek said.

I’m sure these poems presented Prikryl with a huge problem in trying to figure out how to incorporate them into this book. Not that there are no short poems in the first part, but they are so different in tone and so unlike these little odes of idleness and beauty in “Thirty Thousand Islands.” “All the girls are lovely by the seaside” one of them begins, for example, quoting an old dance-hall tune. Interspersing these nostalgic poems about a lost paradise among the other ones in the book would not have worked.

Here’s the last poem in the sequence, as marvelous as so many others in this fine book:

The pines absorb the night, its themes and fabrics,
a lowering of blinds within blinds and glances perceiving glances,

till nothing of night remains in the air and the sky begins to demonstrate
again its essential property of flaring from all quarters

and all morning the pines sparely with a kind of jealous, pointed
attention unleash their reserves, granting each hour

before noon its cool underpinning and each pine
the work of expressing its individual silence

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China: The People’s Fury

Chinese protesters outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong, following an international court ruling against China's claims to the South China Sea, Hong Kong, China, July 14, 2016
Bobby Yip/ReutersChinese protesters outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong, following an international court ruling against China’s claims to the South China Sea, Hong Kong, China, July 14, 2016

It has long been routine to find in both China’s official news organizations and its social media a barrage of anti-American comment, but rarely has it reached quite the intensity and fury of the last few days. There have been calls from citizens on the country’s social media platforms to boycott KFC, Starbucks, and the iPhone 7, accusations against the US of waging a new “war” against China, and threats that the Philippines, a close US ally, will be turned into a Chinese province. All of this is in response to the July 12 ruling against China by the Law of the Sea Tribunal in the Hague, which found Beijing to be engaging in a host of illegal actions and violations of international law as it has pressed its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The five-member panel, set up as part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, had been asked by the Philippines to arbitrate its dispute with China. The tribunal declared that China’s exclusion of Filipino fisherman from the area, its building of half a dozen artificial islands, and the damage it has done to coral reefs and endangered species are violations of the law. 

Immediately after the decision, some one hundred of China’s most famous actors, musicians, television personalities, and other celebrities furiously denounced the tribunal on social media, reproducing a map of the disputed area and declaring, “China’s territorial sovereignty is not a matter for arbitration.” An image of a poster made its way around the Chinese web, showing one of the artificial islands and airstrips that China has built on disputed territory with the legend: “South China Sea: Our Beautiful Motherland; We won’t let go an inch.” Much of the comment about the tribunal’s decision has been explicitly, angrily, even frighteningly anti-American. The United States and the Philippines, the state-run Xinhua news agency said, “have conspired for a long time to blackmail China,” and they are doing that now “through a tribunal that tramples on international justice.”

In view of China’s one-party state, top-down control, and pervasive efforts to control the Internet, it is tempting to regard the popular response as a nationalist storm stirred up by the government. But do the country’s leaders control the intense nationalist feeling of ordinary Chinese, or are they controlled by it? The South China Sea case suggests the answer may a little bit of both. 

Of course the Chinese government has had a prominent part in the reaction. Hours after the tribunal issued its decision, the headline on the official Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily, was: “U.S.-led conspiracy behind the farce.” Last week, China’s ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, accused Washington of trying to “humiliate China diplomatically, to damage China’s image, and also to give [the US] a legal basis with which to challenge China.” More generally, the Chinese reaction has been to deny the tribunal’s jurisdiction, to dismiss its ruling as not just incorrect but, as the nationalist paper Global Times put it, “radical and shameful.” The tribunal’s ruling is “nothing but a scrap of paper,” vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin said, and therefore China is justified in ignoring it.  

Heavy-handed, intensely aggrieved responses to perceived Western slights have a long tradition in Communist China, where recent history is presented largely as a chronicle of the depredations of foreign powers in the late imperial era—known as the “century of humiliation”—followed by the heroic achievement of the Chinese Communist Party of breaking free from such meddling. To many Chinese, to be patriotic is to support the Party, which has been extremely successful in portraying itself as the force ensuring that China will never be humiliated again. 

And what could be more humiliating to a country that suffered the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century, the foreign concessions, the imperialist wars fought on its territory, and the eight-year Japanese occupation in World War II, than to cede territorial sovereignty, once it has declared any territory, including disputed territory, to be part of “the motherland”? People’s Daily clearly evoked that sentiment in its comment on the UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling, declaring: “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up any patch that is ours.” 

A couple of days ago, the nightly television news reported that the American navy was making aggressive moves in the South China Sea, part of a longer range strategy to “encircle” China. The broadcast showed stock footage of American ships presumably cruising in the disputed area, while again resolutely declaring China’s readiness to defend every inch of its territory. A group of Chinese with whom I watched the broadcast were emphatic in their anger at the United States and support of their government. Among the arguments I heard: The United States has no business maintaining large-scale naval forces in waters so close to China. By goading the Philippines into bringing its case, the United States has worsened bilateral relations and made the Chinese people angry. And in any case, the tribunal—which consisted of judges from Ghana, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sri Lanka—was clearly bought off by the United States and decided the case on political rather than legal grounds. For many Chinese, this last assumption is less surprising than it may seem, in view of the absence in China of an independent judiciary. It is simply hard for people here to imagine that any judges anywhere can act free of political control.

In fact the government has felt it necessary to keep some of the populist anger from getting out of hand. China’s Internet censors, as Foreign Policy magazine’s Tea Leaf Nation website has reported, have removed some of the most extreme social media posts, those calling for outright war against the United States or the Philippines. China and the United States late last year carried out joint military exercises in the western Pacific, aimed at preventing an accidental confrontation at sea. China does not want war. This week, Chinese Central TV has been broadcasting a prime-time dramatic series on the late Premier Zhou Enlai, showing him, old and sick, using his every last ounce of strength to bring about the diplomatic breakthrough of 1972 that led to reestablished relations between his country and the United States—the message of this perhaps that, as Chinese commentators have said in the past, the two countries can resolve their differences, if only each recognizes the other’s “core interests”—and China several years ago gave that status to almost the entire South China Sea.  

Still, it is clear that neither China’s leadership nor the censorship apparatus have shown much interest in allowing an honest accounting of the South China Sea case. There hasn’t been and very likely won’t be any public argument being made here that, like it or not, the UNCLOS tribunal’s decision is legally binding on China. No one will make the case that the five tribunal judges are internationally recognized and respected experts on the Law of the Sea with nothing to indicate that they have ever been subject to political pressure or bribes. It is highly unlikely that Chinese journalists will publish reports detailing the tribunal’s finding that China caused irreparable environmental damage in the disputed areas.

It’s hard, of course, to measure the entirety of public opinion on this or any other sensitive matter in China. Perhaps there are substantial numbers of people who believe China’s claims on the South China Sea are spurious, or at least doubtful, and that the country has gotten what it deserved from the international tribunal. If such sentiments are held—beyond a few isolated dissidents—I can find no indication of them. There simply doesn’t appear to be much appetite in China for that kind of discourse.

But having opened the gates for a wave of popular chauvinism in response to the tribunal’s decision, the government may have left itself little room for maneuver on the ongoing disputes. “The Chinese government can’t give Scarborough Shoal to the Philippines even if it wanted to because of the laobaixing,” one person here told me—laobaixing being the term for the common people. The same can surely be said about China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku chain (diaoyutai in Chinese). 

One option open to China, as some experts have been saying, would be to quietly observe the tribunal’s decision, refraining from building any more artificial islands, for example, and ceasing to block Filipino fishermen from their fishing areas. But the intensity of feeling on the South China Sea—as on other matters like Taiwan, Tibet, and criticism of China on human rights grounds—China may be too locked into a nationalism of grievance and its cult of national humiliation to allow for any public compromise, and this would make any settlement of the disputes that bedevil the country’s relations with its neighbors and with the United States all the more difficult.

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‘Blooming’ Neurosurgery

In response to:

Neuroscience and the Law: Don’t Rush In from the May 12, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

In his very timely essay “Neuroscience and the Law: Don’t Rush In” [NYR, May 12], Judge Jed S. Rakoff states that “most nations banned lobotomies altogether; but they are still legal in the US in limited circumstances.” I am not aware that this procedure is still practiced anywhere in the world. It has been replaced by various modalities of “deep brain stimulation” (DBS), a much less invasive treatment, which interrupts temporarily and in a reversible way nervous circuits that were found to be impaired in many neurological and psychiatric conditions. The field of “functional neurosurgery” is blooming due to better understanding of the function of the neural systems, more precise image techniques, and better definitions of the appropriate targets. One should also add that parallel to the development of the field of “Neurolaw,” “Neuroethics” has become a most relevant area in bioethics.

J. Lobo Antunes
University of Lisbon
Lisbon, Portugal

Jed S. Rakoff replies:

Although lobotomies remain legal in the US, Dr. Antunes is correct that they are no longer performed here in the crude “ice-pick” way they were performed in the mid-twentieth century. But they still exist, in modified and more sophisticated form, in controversial procedures called “lobectomies,” which disconnect the two hemispheres of the brain to treat epilepsy, and “limbic leukotomies,” which disconnect certain brain pathways to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder. In many such cases, “personality changes” have been reported after surgery.

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The NRA Didn’t Help

In response to:

Transforming Our View of the Law from the June 23, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

I have only now become aware of a stunningly misleading sentence in Jeremy Waldron’s review of David Cole’s excellent book Engines of Liberty [NYR, June 23], regarding Cole’s explanation for the triumph of the “individualist” interpretation of the Second Amendment in the US Supreme Court. “The NRA may have supported some academic writing,” Waldron writes, “by constitutional scholars like Stephen Halbrook and Sanford Levinson.”

It is certainly true that Professor Cole selects out a 1989 essay that I published in The Yale Law Journal for special comment and describes it, rightly or wrongly, as the single most important scholarly essay on the topic. But he does not suggest, because it would have been totally and utterly false, that it was in any way “supported” by the NRA in any sense other than the fact that after publication the NRA was pleased to publicize, without any encouragement from me, a wholly independent article published by a liberal law professor in one of the major law journals in the United States.

The gestation of the essay had literally nothing to do with the NRA; instead, I was invited to participate in a symposium at Williams College on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. I wrote on the Second Amendment because I was truly curious as to what it was doing in the Constitution at all. I came to the thoroughly honest—though some people believe it to be mistaken—conclusion that it had almost literally nothing to do with classic “self-defense” and everything to do with a civic republican argument that “the people” as a collectivity were entitled to keep and bear arms for potential use in armed insurrection against a tyrannical government.

That had, of course, been the experience of many American patriots in 1775–1781. As a matter of fact, I have been publicly critical of Justice Scalia’s majority argument in the Heller case precisely because, like most lawyers, whether conservative or liberal, he preferred to ignore the “insurrectionist” origins of the amendment in favor of a tendentious and I think insupportable rewriting of American legal history turning the amendment, as understood in 1791, into the protection of an individual right to defend oneself against criminals trying to break into one’s home.

In any event, I would hope that my friend Jeremy Waldron will agree that any failings I may have as a scholar of the Second Amendment do not include being subsidized or otherwise influenced by any “ support” from the NRA or, for that matter, any other of the manifold organizations so ably described by Professor Cole in his delineation of the debate over guns as an issue of both public policy and American constitutional law.

Sanford Levinson
W. St. John Harwood and W. St. John Harwood Jr. Centennial Chair in Law Professor
Department of Government
University of Texas at Austin Law School
Austin, Texas

Jeremy Waldron replies:

I am happy to accept Professor Levinson’s correction and his statement that his work on the Second Amendment was not supported by the National Rifle Association. David Cole’s book makes it clear that any “support” went in the other direction:

Perhaps the most valuable independent support, however, came in 1989, when Levinson, a well-respected liberal law professor at University of Texas, published “The Embarrassing Second Amendment” in the Yale Law Journal. What was embarrassing, according to Levinson, was the fact that the historical evidence for an individual right to bear arms was much stronger than most legal scholars had thought….

I apologize for the misleading characterization in my review of Engines of Liberty.

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The French Anti-Stalinists

In response to:

A Different ‘Darkness at Noon’ from the April 7, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Scammell notes that the French translation of Darkness At Noon sold four hundred thousand copies in immediate postwar France [NYR, April 7]. He declares that the book was widely credited with contributing to the defeat of an attempt by the French Communist Party to amend the constitution in 1946. The influence of the Koestler text is undeniable. However, France had a deeply rooted anti-Stalinist culture of the left and authors like Victor Serge and Boris Souveraine, with their firsthand descriptions of the deformations of the Soviet Revolution, were widely read. Additionally, the large French Socialist Party was firm in its adherence to democratic socialism and a socially critical segment of French Catholicism with a distinctive approach to Marxism was very influential. Koestler’s book was but one factor in the failure of the French Communist Party to achieve the intellectual hegemony it sought.

Norman Birnbaum
Professor Emeritus
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, D.C.

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Black Lives and the Police

Diamond Reynolds, in a still from her live-streamed cell-phone footage of the moments immediately after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, July 6, 2016
Lavish Reynolds/FacebookDiamond Reynolds, in a still from her live-streamed cell-phone footage of the moments immediately after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, July 6, 2016

Black people in America have been under surveillance ever since the seventeenth century, when enslaved Africans were forced to labor in the tobacco and rice fields of the South. Colonial law quickly made a distinction between indentured servants and slaves, and in so doing invented whiteness in America. It may have been possible for a free African or mixed-race person to own slaves, but it was not possible for a European to be taken into slavery. The distinction helped to keep blacks and poor whites from seeking common cause.

The slave patrols that originated in the seventeenth century would be largely made up of poor whites—paterollers, the members of the patrols were called. To stop, harass, whip, injure, or kill black people was both their duty and their reward, their understanding of themselves as white people, something they shared with their social betters. Of course their real purpose was to monitor and suppress the capacity for slave rebellion. While the militias dealt with the Indians, the paterollers rode black people.

Police forces in the North may have been modeled on Sir Robert Peel’s plans for London, but as jobs connected to city politics, the policemen themselves, from Boston to Chicago, were Irish, people who had been despised when they first came to America. That they lived next to or with black people told them how close to the bottom of American society they were. In every city the Irish did battle with their nearest neighbors, black people, in order to become American and to keep blacks in their place, below them. North and South, the police were relied upon to maintain the status quo, to control a dark labor force that was feared.

White southerners during Reconstruction resented black police officers and their power to arrest a white man. Redemption, the triumph of white supremacy, pretty much eliminated black police officers. In W. Marvin Dulaney’s Black Police in America (1996), the story of blacks on American police forces until the 1970s is one of tokenism and distrust by white colleagues.

Meanwhile, police forces and their relation to black people in general is a long tale about the enforcement of whiteness and blackness. When in 1967 Carl Stokes, the newly elected black mayor of Cleveland who had won due to a coalition of black and white voters, assigned black police officers only, no white ones, to black districts of the city that had experienced riots, white police officials were indignant. What had the mayor taken from them?

In the 1960s, the nation was told every summer to brace itself for a season of urban unrest, much of it, as remembered in essays in Police Brutality (2000), edited by Jill Nelson, ignited by confrontations between police officers and black people. There are the names of past victims of police killings that we have forgotten and there are names chilling to invoke: Eleanor Bumpurs, shot by police fifty-four times in New York City in 1984 because she was large and held a butter knife. But starting with Twitter keeping vigil over the body of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014, and last summer, and already this summer, there is no more denying or forgetting. Social media have removed the filters that used to protect white America from what it didn’t want to see, thereby protecting the police as well. Instead of calling 911, black America now pulls out its smartphones, in order to document the actions of the death squads that dialing 911 can summon.

The camera has made all the difference. A camera can mean that there is no ambiguity about what happened. Feidin Santana just happened to be where he was with his cell phone when Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina, on April 4, 2015. We see Scott on the police car dash cam video getting out of that black Mercedes with the supposedly broken brake light and running. Then we see, on Santana’s video, Michael Slager firing eight shots into Scott’s back. We don’t see Scott trying to grab Slager’s taser, as Slager alleged.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5 of this year, two cell phones captured two white policemen pinning Alton Sterling on the ground by a parked car in front of a convenience store. Footage from one cell phone is interrupted as one of the policemen yells “Gun” and several shots are heard. The woman filming from a nearby car has dropped down in her seat and she can be heard screaming. But the other cell phone, used by the owner of the convenience store, doesn’t blink. It records an officer removing something from Sterling’s pocket after he is dead. One of the things that will have to be determined is where his gun was before he was shot.

Brendon Jenkins, or “Jinx,” a cool-voiced black anchorman for the online news service Complex News, reported that in possessing a weapon, Sterling was in violation of his probation, given his record—and he offered this information, Jinx added, in the spirit of a transparency that he hoped the Baton Rouge police department would also show. The store owner, whose CCTV footage had been confiscated by the police, said that Sterling armed himself because street sellers of CDs, as he was, had been robbed recently in the neighborhood. Jinx also said that the two white police officers, Blane Salamoni, with four years on the force, and Howie Lake, with three years on the force, both put on paid administrative leave, were supposed to have said that they felt justified in the shooting. The officers said that the body cameras they were wearing fell off or were knocked out of order during the struggle.

On July 6, Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds went on Facebook moments after her fiancé, Philando Castile, was shot four or five times in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, outside St. Paul, and, with her four-year-old daughter in the back seat ready to console her, she became like a broadcast station from the car:

He was trying to get his ID out of his pocket, and he let the officer know that he was, he had a firearm, and was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm…. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him….

Philando Castile would turn out to have been pulled over by police fifty-two times in the past fourteen years, so he knew how to respond to a police stop. He also had over $6,000 outstanding in fines—the pressures of municipal revenue generation.

The Castile family was demanding that the police vehicle dash cam footage be released, as well as the name of the police officer—Jeronimo Yanez—(“Chinese,” Reynolds called him) who has been on the St. Anthony, Minnesota, police force for about four years. (Why does CNN correspondent Chris Cuomo address in public members of the Castile family older than he is by their first names? Young white people don’t always consider how disrespectful rather than friendly that can seem to older black people in his audience.)

In Reynolds’s broadcast on her Facebook page, the panic and unpreparedness are evident in the shrieking of Officer Yanez that can be overheard. He is still pointing his gun in the driver’s window as Castile, a popular school cafeteria supervisor, lies dying. He blames his victim. Reynolds knew instinctively what authority demanded and she repeatedly addressed the white man who had just ruined her life as “sir.” “You shot four bullets into him, sir.” After Reynolds has been taken from the car in handcuffs, her phone on the ground, Yanez can be heard shouting “Fuck!” Many of the killings in the past three years seem to have at their core the fury of these police officers that they have been defied by black men, that they have been challenged, not been obeyed.

A police officer in downtown Dallas after the shootings that killed five of her fellow officers during the Black Lives Matter march, July 8, 2016
L.M. Otero/AP ImagesA police officer in downtown Dallas after the shootings that killed five of her fellow officers during the Black Lives Matter march, July 8, 2016

Most police officers don’t want anything to go wrong, a retired New York City detective, a black officer, a former marine, explained to me last year on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri. The first thing that happens, he said, is that they get taken off the streets, put on leave or put behind desks, and can’t make any overtime. Moreover, your colleagues don’t want to work with you because you’ve become a problem. Most officers do not in their entire careers use their weapons in the line of duty. When they do, what happens is not a matter of the training that was often some years ago and even then only for a few weeks. It is a matter of the individual officer’s character, what he or she is like in an emergency.

Until recently, grand juries were reluctant to indict police officers for shootings and when they did, trial juries tended to return dutiful not-guilty verdicts. Some black activists had hoped that white policemen going to jail for killing unarmed black men would act as a deterrent. In 2014, Officer Jason Blackwelder was convicted of manslaughter in the Conroe, Texas, death of Russell Rios, nineteen. Blackwelder was dismissed from the police force, because a felon can’t serve, but he was not imprisoned. He received a sentence of five years’ probation. There was no video of the crime he was tried for, but the forensic evidence—Rios had been shot in the back of his head—contradicted the policeman’s story.

Black Baltimore rioted following the death on April 19, 2015, of Freddie Gray, from spinal injuries sustained while in custody in a police van. Three of the six officers charged were white; three were black. One was acquitted of assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct; a mistrial was declared in the manslaughter trial of another officer. Four are awaiting trial. In the video of his violent arrest, Gray is screaming and the man filming yells at the police for “tasering him like that.”

Officer Lisa Mearkle’s camera on her taser recorded the shooting death in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, in 2015 of David Kassick, a white man, while he was down in the snow. Not every officer involved in police violence is male. She was acquitted.

In Chicago in 2014, the killing of Laquan McDonald, seventeen, captured on a squad car dash cam was so horrible that a court ordered the police to release the footage. The shooter is offscreen, but you can see puffs of smoke from some of the sixteen bullets striking McDonald and the street around him where he lies. After sixteen seconds, Officer Jason Van Dyke enters the frame and kicks away what is probably the knife that had been in McDonald’s hand. The case has been turned over to a special prosecutor. It is ironic that after so many years of hostility to the notion that we are under constant watch, not only do we accept cameras, we are in favor of the democratization of surveillance.

The police can be charged, yet the murder of black men, armed and unarmed, at police hands hasn’t stopped. Just as creepy people who want to mess with children try to get jobs that give them access to and authority over children, so, too, losers who want to throw their weight around and intimidate others with impunity are often drawn to a job like that of being a policeman. “The best way to deal with police misconduct is to prevent it by effective methods of personnel screening, training, and supervision,” the president’s Crime Commission Report recommended—in 1968.

Jurisdictions like Ferguson, Missouri, know who their trouble officers are. They accumulate histories of racial incident. They arrive as known quantities. It’s time to make it harder to become a police officer. The ones ill-suited for the job are burdens for the ones who are good at it. The videos of police killings also help explain those doubtful cases for which there are no accidental witnesses. The footage shows not only blood lust, state-sanctioned racism, or the culture of the lone gunman in many a police head, but also incompetence.

Nakia Jones, a mother and policewoman in Warrensville Heights, outside Cleveland, says in a moving Facebook post, “I wear blue,” telling other officers that if they are afraid of where they work, if they have a god complex, then they have no business trying to be the police in such neighborhoods. They need to take off the uniform:

If you’re white and you’re working in a black community and you’re racist, you need to be ashamed of yourself. You stood up there and took an oath. If this is not where you want to work at you need to take your behind somewhere else.

Officer Jones’s passion recalls Fannie Lou Hamer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. Jones also asked black men to put down their guns, to stop killing one another, and mentor young black males.

The camera has accelerated the decriminalization of the black image in American culture. The black men about to lose their lives in these videos don’t seem like threats or members of a criminal class; and we have been looking at and listening to President Obama every day. The Willie Horton ad isn’t coming back and those who try to use the old racist slanders as political weapons only make themselves into caricatures. The racist is an unattractive figure in American culture, which is why people go to such lengths to achieve racist goals by stealth.

Then, too, just as black identity is found to contain layers, so the majority of young whites might be embarrassed by a racial identity that bestows privileges the protection of which has become harmful to the general welfare. They want a fluid identity as well, a new kind of being white. To intimidate and imprison an urban black male population is unacceptable to them as the task of our police forces. Before Black Lives Matter, there was Occupy Wall Street, which, in Zucotti Park in downtown Manhattan, had a significant black presence, because of union participation alongside the integrated camps of students. The great demonstrations against the Iraq War had had no effect, and many went home, discouraged, for years. But the Occupy movement reopened the street as the platform from which marginal issues could be launched into mainstream consciousness.

The Washington Post reported in June 2015 that 385 people had been killed by the police in the first five months of that year, mostly armed men, a number of them mentally ill. The Post further reported that two thirds of the black and Hispanic victims were unarmed. A website, Mapping Police Violence, displays the photographs, stories, and legal disposition of the 102 cases during that five-month period in which the murdered were unarmed black people. Another site, The Counted, maintained by The Guardian, allows you to catch up by calendar day on the 569 people killed by police so far in 2016, and who they were.

Moreover, some urgent books in recent years have had considerable influence—works on racial profiling, stop and frisk, discriminatory sentencing practices, the disproportionately high black prison population, the profitability of the prison industry, the hallucinatory disaster of the war on drugs, and the double standard when it comes to race and class and the law. A quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in the US. Reform of the criminal justice system is a mainstream issue.

Political rhetoric of a certain kind—the absurd notion that protests against the police will lead somehow to higher crime rates—is predictably primitive and maybe some of the backlash we are hearing comes from frustration, the cry of a dying order. On the other hand, recent Pew Center research suggests that a wide discrepancy between black and white respondents is still there when it comes to support of police. Work slowdowns, the displays of tribal solidarity at police funerals—the police can come off as bullies who really mind being criticized, except that they have lethal weapons, the right to use deadly force. Police killings ought to be examined as part of the larger social menace of having too many guns around and far too many people who like guns.

Police practice has led to the violation of the Fourth Amendment and First Amendment rights of black people, but for black people a Second Amendment literalism invites persecution. In 1966, the sight of black men with rifles on the steps of the California capitol incited the state police and the FBI, and the destruction of the Black Panthers was assured. The black men in Dallas who came to the Black Lives Matter march on July 7 in camouflage uniforms, with their long guns, were risking their lives and maybe the lives of those around them. You think you’re a symbol, but you’re a target. When the shooting started, they ran like everyone else, and sightings of various black men with guns at first led the police to think that there was more than one gunman and that they were being fired upon from a tall building, not from inside a garage.

Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were not the white police officers who killed Alton Sterling or Philando Castile; but the killer of these five white policemen, Micah Johnson, a black man, assumed that they could have been, they and the seven other officers he wounded at that Black Lives Matter march in Dallas on July 7. Or he decided that they had to pay for the deaths anyway. He is the disgraced ex-soldier with a grievance, the suicidal opportunist. It is distasteful to reduce deaths to the level of strategy, but Micah Johnson gave some right-wing opponents of Black Lives Matter the chance to pretend that parity exists between black men and white policemen as potential victims of racial violence.

The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, a black man, the father of a son who killed a policeman and was killed in the ensuing shootout with police, explained at a press conference that Johnson had said he wanted to kill white officers. In fact some white officers protected black marchers from him.

Some young black people say they can understand being fed up enough to pick up a gun. In “16 Shots,” his response to the police killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the rapper Vic Mensa warns:

Ain’t no fun when the rabbit got the gun
When I cock back police better run….

But we do not need agents of violent retribution.

The protests go on, without interruption. The response of Black Lives Matter to the Dallas killings was crucial and heartbreaking: “This is a tragedy—both for those who have been impacted by yesterday’s attack and for our democracy.” Dignity, not death.

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The Trump-Putin Fallacy

Donald Trump, Fresno, California, May 27, 2016
Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesDonald Trump, Fresno, California, May 27, 2016

In the earlier months of the Donald Trump campaign, many people I knew asked me to comment on the similarities between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently I have been asked to comment on direct connections between Trump and Putin. And now, with the release of nearly 20,000 emails apparently stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s email server by Russian hackers, has come the suggestion that Putin may actually be interfering in the US election to help get Trump elected. These ideas—that Trump is like Putin and that he is Putin’s agent—are deeply flawed.

Imagine that your teenage child has built a bomb and has just set it off in your house. The house is falling down all around you—and you are blaming the neighbor’s kid, who threw a pebble at your window. That’s what the recent Putin fixation is like—a way to evade the fact that Trump is a thoroughly American creation that poses an existential threat to American democracy.

Though no direct connection to Putin, let alone Trump, has yet been shown, the hacked DNC emails have played into a growing theory in the American media that Trump is an instrument of Putin. In recent days and weeks there has been a series of articles that seek to link Trump to the Russian leader. In Slate, Franklin Foer described Trump as Putin’s “plan for destroying the West” and listed all available evidence of Trump’s ties to Russia: he has pursued a series of aborted construction projects there; he has attracted dirty Russian money; and two of his operatives, campaign manager Paul Manafort and adviser Carter Page, have connections to Russia (Page has business interests there and Manafort has worked for the ousted pro-Moscow Ukrainian president). Foer did not claim to show that Putin actually has a hand in Trump’s campaign: he was merely listing the connections that align with Putin’s evident interest in seeing Trump become president. But if one looks at these connections within the overall activities of Trump and his advisers, activities that would include all of Trump’s other unsavory partners and Manafort’s other unsavory clients, it would look like a mere subsection of a tycoon’s checkered international business career.

In The Washington Post, first Josh Rogin and then Anne Applebaum wrote about the Manafort and Page connections and noted that Trump’s people have apparently been indifferent to the party platform but focused on exactly one point: blocking an amendment that would pledge weapons to Ukraine. Arguing that the issue was of supreme importance to the Kremlin, Applebaum called Trump a “Manchurian candidate.” But this theory ignores the fact that the same passage in the platform contains the following sentence: “We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored.” That just happens to be the plank that Russians had hoped to see gone. In fact, earlier this month Page was in Moscow giving a lecture that was publicized by Putin’s press secretary and attended by journalists who asked Page to promise to advise Trump to lift sanctions; in what was clearly a rehearsed performance, Page in response pulled out a Putin quote and read it in broken Russian: it said that countries should not interfere in one another’s affairs. With this in mind, the incident with the blocked amendment begins to look like Page’s attempt to curry favor with his business partners in Moscow by giving them what he can, which isn’t what they asked for.

In The New York Times, Paul Krugman called Trump the “Siberian candidate” and, rehearsing all the known connections, wondered if Trump was more than just a sincere admirer of Putin: if there is “some specific channel of influence.” Finally, Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo, weighed in with a piece called “Trump & Putin. Yes, It’s Really a Thing.” To the usual list, Marshall added that Trump’s

most conspicuous foreign policy statements track not only with Putin’s positions but those in which Putin is most intensely interested. Aside from Ukraine, Trump’s suggestion that the US and thus NATO might not come to the defense of NATO member states in the Baltics in the case of a Russian invasion is a case in point.

This is precisely what makes the Trump-as-Putin’s-agent line of reasoning so unhelpful. Trump’s foreign policy statements are perfectly consistent with his character and thinking. The man is uninterested in anything he doesn’t understand. He is incapable of strategic planning, and he has a particular distaste for paying debts. Of course he doesn’t see any reason for the United States to fulfill its obligations to other countries and organizations—just as Trump personally wouldn’t fulfill his obligations to other people, or to organizations. Yes, that happens to be exactly what Putin would want him to say. But the idea that Putin is somehow making or even encouraging him to say these things is a work-around for the inability to imagine that the Republican Party’s nominee is saying them of his own accord.

Trump is not a foreign agent. This gets me to the second common trope: that Trump is like Putin. Yes, he is. As Timothy Snyder has pointed out, Trump seems to want to be Putin: “Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.” That may well flatter Putin. More to the point, Putin is on record as hating Hillary Clinton and blaming her for much of what ails Russia, so there is little reason to doubt that he would prefer to see Trump win the election. But that tells us nothing about his actual ability to influence the election or Trump himself. Trump is also like Mussolini and Hitler. All of them are fascist demagogues who emerged from their own cultures and catered to them. In fact, Trump is less like Putin, whose charisma is largely a function of the post to which he was accidentally appointed, than he is Mussolini or Hitler.

In the middle of the last century, a number of thinkers whose imaginations had been trained in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany tried to tell Americans that it can happen here. In such different books as Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, Theodor Adorno and his group’s The Authoritarian Personality, and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, the great European exiles warned that modern capitalist society creates the preconditions for the rise of fascism. America doesn’t need Putin for that.

Not that there are no lessons to be learned from Putin’s reign: there are, and these lessons concern the imagination. I have spent a good third of my professional life working to convince the readers—and often editors—of both Russian and American publications that Vladimir Putin is a threat to the world as we know it. I was not alone in this, of course: the task was taken up first by a few journalists and academics, then by a few more. Making the case was easy: in his speeches, decrees, and, most of all, in his actions, Putin provided ample and easily obtained evidence. And yet for years—while Putin started two wars, took over the media, canceled elections, seized and appropriated assets, amassed a fortune, sent his most prominent critic to jail, and had at least one person killed (and this was just the uncontested evidence against him)—many readers found this case unconvincing. To get from evidence to conclusion and understanding, one needs more than logic: one needs imagination. Both Russians and Westerners simply could not imagine that Putin was as bad as all that. He had to prove it over and over again.

Lack of imagination is one of our greatest handicaps as humans and as citizens. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in the world, could not imagine that Putin would put him in jail, and this was one of the reasons he ignored repeated warnings and stayed in Russia. Then he spent ten years in a Russian prison. David Cameron could not imagine that his fellow citizens would vote to secede from the European Union, so he called for a referendum. Soon after the vote last month, pundits in both the UK and the US regrouped and started reassuring themselves and their audiences that the UK will not really leave the EU—because they can’t imagine it. I have spent much of this year arguing with my American friends about Donald Trump. Even after Trump had won enough delegates to lock up the Republican nomination, reasonable, well-informed people insisted that some Republican savior would swoop in and reclaim that party. There was little, if any, evidence in favor of that kind of outcome, but for a brief moment many Americans seemed to believe in the unlikely rather than the obvious. Why?

“I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.

Now that Trump has become the Republican nominee—and has pulled even or even slightly ahead of Clinton in the most recent polls—it is time to force ourselves to imagine the unimaginable. Forget Putin. Let us try to imagine Donald Trump being elected president of the United States.

The day after the election, the stock market will crash. Then, there will be a lull. For one thing, Trump will not have taken office yet. But life will seem conspicuously unchanged. The stock market will recover some. On inauguration day, there will be large anti-Trump protests in some American cities. But in some others, including Washington, there will be large celebrations that will make your skin crawl. On the other hand, they will not be wearing black shirts, and that will make what has happened seem a little less real. In some cities, there will be clashes. The police will do their jobs, and this will be reassuring.

After all, you will think, the American presidency is a strangely limited institution. It doesn’t give Trump that many ways to radically alter the everyday lives of Americans. But that is exactly the problem. President Trump will have to begin destroying the institutions of American democracy—not because they get in the way of anything specific he wants to do, like build the wall (though he will probably have moved on to something else by that point), but because they are an obstacle to the way he wants to do them. A fascist leader needs mobilization. The slow and deliberative passage of even the most heinous legislation is unlikely to supply that. Wars do, and there will be wars. These wars will occur both abroad and at home. They will make us wish that Trump really were Putin’s agent: at least then there would be no threat of nuclear war.

There is no way to tell who will be targeted by the wars at home. Muslims and immigrants are, of course, prime candidates, but any group of people will do—including a group that is not currently constituted as a group. Notwithstanding the awkward outreach in Trump’s convention speech last week, my money is actually on the LGBT community because its acceptance is the most clear and drastic social change in America of the last decade, so an antigay campaign would capture the desire to return to a time in which Trump’s constituency felt comfortable. But there are also Jews, bicyclists, people who studied a foreign language in college—the possibilities are limitless.

Trump will pose an impossible dilemma for the institutions of democracy: because they are too slow and complicated for him, he will seek to bypass them. Still, there are many limits the American system imposes on executive power: Congress, regulatory agencies, the Supreme Court. And don’t forget the national news media. But imagine what will happen to it. First, Trump will ban The Washington Post from the White House pool. That will be ridiculous and even invigorating at first, but in a little while, once he has kicked out every media outlet that he perceives as critical, we will learn that there is no good way to cover a presidency that is a black box.

Still, it is unlikely (or I simply cannot imagine) that Trump will do enough damage to democracy in the course of four years to secure a second term. After he is defeated, institutions will begin to recover. Culture, however, will sustain much more lasting damage. Our failure to understand this—and our effort to find foreign explanations for Trump’s rise—may be blinding us to the real threat he poses.

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Which Europe Now?

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, House of Lords shadow leader Angela Evans Smith, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial service for Labour MP Jo Cox, St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, London, June 2016
James Veysey/Camera Press/ReduxUK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, House of Lords shadow leader Angela Evans Smith, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at a memorial service for Labour MP Jo Cox, St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, London, June 2016

Political drama on television is finished. No fictional version could match the vicious infighting in both main political parties in Britain that followed the vote on June 23 by the British people to leave the European Union.

What the vote revealed—and the winning margin was larger than in three of the past four US presidential elections—is a growing and dangerous divide between the political class, often a metropolitan elite, and a large number of people who feel left out of the economic prosperity centered on London and disenfranchised by “political correctness.” Among the latter, insecurity has been growing for years, the result in part of the impact of globalization on real wages and of high levels of immigration.1 It is a problem afflicting many industrialized countries.

Yet the political class, still in a state of shock and disbelief, shows few signs of recognizing the cause of its undoing. The campaign was not a reasoned discussion of the case for the two options but a propaganda war, the likes of which I cannot recall before in Britain, with both sides calling each other, and with some justification, liars.2 And both sides continue to believe passionately that the other was the worse sinner.

Nor was the press any better. Even those newspapers that like to think of themselves as more authoritative and informed than their tabloid cousins allowed their editorial positions to infect their reporting of the campaign. No doubt their own commercial interests played a part.

It was and is simply false to claim that exit from the EU will result in Britain becoming either a land of milk and honey, on the one hand, or a land of plagues and locusts on the other. In truth, the economic arguments are much more evenly balanced. My own guess—and it can be little more than that—is that the effect of EU membership on the level and growth rate of national income in the long run will be much less than either camp would like to claim. But we cannot know today.

Two questions that should have been at the forefront were largely absent from the campaign. First, what will the EU look like in the future? Second, what is the place of Britain in Europe? It is helpful to distinguish three distinct entities: Europe, the EU, and the eurozone.

No referendum can alter the fact that Britain is and will continue to be in Europe. Not even politicians can change geography, even if they rewrite history. Cheap travel has meant that opportunities formerly available only to the privileged few who embarked on the Grand Tour are now open to all of us—young and old, left and right. We experience the pleasure and privilege of discovering the many countries of Europe and revel in their differences, their cultures and cuisines, their languages and landscapes. We are lucky indeed to live in Europe where so much variety can be experienced within such short travel times. So the referendum was not about whether Britain is in Europe. It is and always will be, and we take pride in that fact.

The same cannot be said of the eurozone. The monetary union is now facing serious problems. As I explain in my book The End of Alchemy, the failure of some member countries to maintain competitiveness during the first decade or so of its existence means that the eurozone is now confronted with the choice of pursuing one, or some combination, of four ways forward. First, continue with high unemployment in the periphery countries in the south until wages and prices have fallen by enough to restore the loss in competitiveness. Second, create a period of high inflation in Germany and other surplus countries, while restraining wages and prices in the periphery. Third, accept the need indefinitely for explicit transfers from the north to the south to finance the trade deficits that would emerge if those latter countries returned to full employment. Fourth, break up the eurozone.

When confronted with such unpalatable choices, the leaders of Europe react by saying, “We don’t like any of them.” So they have adopted a strategy of muddling through and hoping that something will turn up to resolve the problem. But so far it hasn’t. Greece became the first major European country to experience a depression even worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s. Policies dictated by Brussels and Frankfurt, and supported by policymakers in Washington, have imposed enormous costs on citizens throughout Europe. New political parties, untainted by the failed policies of the elite, are springing up across Europe and winning votes.

Putting the cart before the horse—setting up a monetary union before a political union—has led the European Central Bank to become more and more vocal about the need to “complete the architecture” of monetary union by proceeding quickly to create a Treasury and finance minister for the entire eurozone. The ability of such a new ministry to make transfers between member countries of the monetary union would reduce pressure on the European Central Bank to find new ways of holding the monetary union together. But there is no democratic mandate for a new ministry to create such transfers or to have political union—voters do not want either.

A forced political union will make the Continent less, not more, stable. Consider just one example. Germany made an extraordinary sacrifice when it allowed monetary union to proceed. It sacrificed the most successful achievement of a new and democratic postwar Germany—the Deutschmark—in the belief that binding itself to Europe through a monetary union would remove fears of an excessively powerful German state. The result has been the opposite. Antagonism toward Germany in countries such as Greece and Italy is now greater than at any point since the end of World War II.

The crisis of European monetary union will drag on, and it cannot be resolved without confronting either the supranational ambitions of the EU or the democratic nature of sovereign national governments. One or the other will have to give way. Eventually the choice between, on the one hand, a return to national currencies and democratic control or, on the other, a clear and abrupt transfer of political sovereignty to a European government will be difficult to avoid. It is clear, therefore, why there is no political support in Britain for abandoning sterling and joining the euro project.

In Europe but not in the eurozone—what does this condition mean for Britain and Europe? The EU faces two existential challenges. First, the failure to create a sustainable economic basis for the single currency. Second, the magnitude of migration, whether refugees or economic migrants, across the borders of the EU. The first threatens to undermine the monetary union. And the second threatens to undermine the commitment to the free movement of people across the EU and the Schengen border-free zone of countries within it. The Schengen Agreement was a laudable objective in earlier times but one almost impossible to sustain when confronted by an influx of millions trying to enter Europe.

What then is the place of the United Kingdom in a Europe facing such existential challenges? Britain’s historical goals have been to develop trade and other links around the world and prevent the emergence of a dominant power on the Continent. As Henry Kissinger wrote sixty-five years ago, “The traditional role of an island power towards a land-mass [is] to prevent the consolidation of that continent under a single rule.” Yet successive UK governments have gone along with the attempt by a political and bureaucratic elite to consolidate control of Europe into a single administrative structure, justified by the goal of “ever closer union.” They chose not to be part of such a process, but did little to prevent it. As a result, it is naive to believe that the UK can provide leadership in helping to resolve the two existential challenges facing Europe today. For all our shared history, culture, and values, it would be impertinent for a country that has chosen to join neither the euro nor the Schengen areas to tell our European partners what they should do.

All the other large members of the EU belong to both the euro and the Schengen areas. Britain does not wish to be a member of such a club. Why would you want to be a member of a tennis club if you do not play tennis and indeed actively dislike the game, simply in order to play a game of bridge once a month? That is the fundamental problem in Britain’s relationship with the other members of the EU.

In or out of the EU, Britain faces difficult choices. Can it really be in its long-run interest to acquiesce in the creation of political union in Europe, contrary to the traditional role of an island power? Is it sensible to leave the opposition to this project to extreme political parties across the Continent and possibly in future at home? As things stand, the long march toward political union desired by the elite governing the EU is not likely to reach a democratic destination. Those who decry nationalism should realize that the attempt by an elite to impose political union and free movement of people on unwilling electorates is today the main driving force of the extreme nationalist sentiments that they abhor. Whatever our grandchildren and their descendants decide to do in Europe, it must be based on a democratically legitimate process if it is to avoid recreating the very divisions that the original conception of the architects of postwar Europe so rightly strove to achieve.

Americans need to wake up from their cozy assumption that the apparatus of a supranational state is the only way to ensure a peaceful and cooperative European partner. Across Europe the younger generation wants to go beyond the nation-state to break down barriers and find new ways to resolve problems that extend beyond national boundaries. They will find ways to do this that do not require the outdated trappings of a supranational entity with its own anthem, flag, parliament, and now even steps toward an army.

Our political class would do well to recall the words of Confucius:

Three things are necessary for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler cannot hold on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand.

Not just in Britain, but around the industrialized world, the divide between the political class and a large number of disillusioned and disaffected voters threatens trust. At times it seems that the governing class has lost faith in the people and that the people have lost faith in the government. And the two sides seem incapable of understanding each other, as we see today in the United States. But the continent on which the challenge is greatest is Europe. If any good comes out of the British referendum, it will be a renewed determination, not just in Britain but around Europe, to eliminate that divide.

  1. 1

    Foreign citizens account for over 10 percent of total employment in the UK and foreign-born people for not far short of 20 percent.  

  2. 2

    For example, the Remain camp threatened an Emergency Budget to raise taxes and cut spending in the event of a vote for Brexit (despite the same people arguing that Brexit would mean a recession), a threat that was abandoned immediately after the referendum. The Leave side brazenly exaggerated the size of the contribution of the UK to the EU budget. 

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