Bobo has outdone himself. In “The Problem With Pragmatism” he gurgles that our dominant political mind-set (pragmatism) tends dangerously toward rationalism uninformed by moral emotion. In the comments “Stu Freeman” from Brooklyn, NY has this to say: “Gosh, when David Brooks goes for a “think piece” as opposed to an obvious screed on the virtues of conservative politics he comes across as even more inane than usual.” Mr. Cohen, in “Iran, the Thinkable Ally,” says Obama’s war against ISIS makes war with Iran even more unthinkable, and that a nuclear deal is imperative. Prof. Krugman considers “Depression Denial Syndrome” and says the fall of Bill Gross at Pimco is an example of how decision-makers refuse to acknowledge that the rules are different in a persistently depressed economy. Here’s Bobo:
During the 20th century, political thinkers were defined less by their attachment to political parties and more by their attachment to magazines. Arthur Schlesinger was associated with The New Republic. Lionel Trilling was associated with the Partisan Review. Each magazine had its own personality, its own community of writers and readers and defined its own spot on the intellectual landscape.
Today, the Internet has made magazine communities less cohesive. Most of those magazines still exist, but people surf through them fluidly and click on individual articles. Writers are identified more as individuals and less as members of a circle.
Something important has been lost in this transition. For example, The New Republic, which turns 100 this year, made a series of superficially contradictory demands on its readers. To be a well-rounded person, the magazine implied, it is necessary to be both practical and philosophical, both politically engaged and artistically cultivated. The magazine offered, and still offers, short practical articles on politics and policy in the front of the book and long literary essays on philosophy and culture in the back.
In 1940, the magazine published a stunning critique of those who refuse to embrace both kinds of knowledge. The essay, called “The Corruption of Liberalism,” was written by the unjustly forgotten writer Lewis Mumford. It’s been revived by the magazine’s current editor, Franklin Foer, in “Insurrections of the Mind,” a collection of essays from the magazine’s first century.
Mumford’s nominal subject was his fellow liberals’ tendency, in 1940, to hang back in the central conflict of the age, the fight against totalitarianism. “Liberalism has been on the side of passivism in the face of danger,” he wrote. “Liberalism has been on the side of ‘isolation’ when confronted with the imminent threat of a worldwide upsurge in barbarism.” Liberals, he continued, “no longer dare to act.”
But, as Mumford goes along, he penetrates deeper into the pragmatist mind-set itself, the mind-set of people who try to govern without philosophic or literary depth. And, in this way, his essay is perceptive about the mind-set that is dominant in political circles today. Washington is now awash in big data analysts, policy wonks and social scientists. Today’s foreign policy debate is conducted along realist lines, by both liberals and conservatives.
A core problem with pragmatists, Mumford argues, is that they attach themselves so closely to science and social science that they have forgotten the modes of insight offered by theology and literature. This leads to a shallow, amputated worldview.
“This pragmatic liberalism,” Mumford writes, “was vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And, accordingly, it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.”
Because of these blinders, pragmatists can’t understand nonpragmatists: “It is not unfair to say that the pragmatic liberal has taken the world of personality, the world of values, feelings, emotions, wishes, purposes, for granted. He assumed either that this world did not exist or that it was relatively unimportant; at all events if it did exist it could be safely left to itself, without cultivation. For him men were essentially good and only the faulty economic and political institutions — defects purely in the mechanism of society — kept them from becoming better.”
Pragmatists often fail because they try to apply economic remedies to noneconomic actors. Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. Economic sanctions won’t work. “One might as well offer the carcass of a dead deer in a butcher store to a hunter who seeks the animal as prey. …”
Pragmatists also have trouble rousing themselves to action. They try to get rid of emotions when making decisions because emotions might lead them astray. But, in making themselves passionless, they always make themselves tepid and anesthetized. That leads to passivity. Everything is too little too late.
Mumford concludes that only people with an aroused moral sense will be properly mobilized to stand up for humanity. “Life is not worth fighting for: bare life is worthless. Justice is worth fighting for, order is worth fighting for, culture … .is worth fighting for: These universal principles and values give purpose and direction to human life.”
Today, lofty political idealism is out of favor. Even a president initially elected as an idealist has been reduced into a more technocratic role. But Mumford makes the case for leaders who understand evil down to its depths, who have literary sensibilities and who react with a heart brimming with moral emotion.
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
Breakfast last week in New York with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was a cordial affair, bereft of the fireworks of his predecessor, whose antics made headlines and not much more. Rouhani, flanked by his twinkly-eyed foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was composed, lucid and, on the whole, conciliatory. He said a nuclear accord was doable by the deadline of Nov. 24 “if there is good will and seriousness.” He revealed that he had spoken last year with President Obama about “a number” of possible areas of collaboration in the event of an accord. He did not underplay the difficulties, or the implacability of a deal’s opponents in Iran and the United States, but suggested the “short-lived dustbowl” thrown up by any resolution would dissipate as win-win awareness grew. He even alluded to the aroma of roses. It was a polished performance full of the subtleties intrinsic to the Iranian mind. The question, as always with Iran, is what precisely it meant.
The interim agreement with Iran, reached in November 2013, has had many merits. Iran has respected its commitments, including a reduction of its stockpiles of enriched uranium and a curbing of production. The deal has brought a thaw in relations between the United States and Tehran; once impossible meetings between senior officials are now near routine.
The rapid spread over the past year of the Sunni jihadist movement that calls itself Islamic State has underscored the importance of these nascent bilateral relations: ISIS is a barbarous, shared enemy whose rollback becomes immeasurably more challenging in the absence of American-Iranian understanding. Allies need not be friends, as the Soviet role in defeating Hitler demonstrated. President Obama’s war against ISIS makes war with Iran more unthinkable than ever. Absent a “comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful,” in the words of last year’s accord, the drumbeat for such a war would almost certainly resume. From Jerusalem to Washington countless drummers are ready.
It is critical that this doable deal get done, the naysayers be frustrated, and a rancorous American-Iranian bust-up not be added to the ambient mayhem in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic, 35 years after the revolution, is — like it or not — a serious and stable power in an unstable region. Its highly educated population is pro-Western. Its actions and interests are often opposed to the United States and America’s allies, and its human rights record is appalling, but then that is true of several countries with which Washington does business.
An important recent report from The Iran Project — whose distinguished signatories include Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Thomas Pickering, Ryan Crocker, John Limbert (the former U.S. hostage in Tehran), Joseph Nye and William Luers — put the U.S. strategic interest in a deal well: “There is a strong link between settling the nuclear standoff and America’s ability to play a role in a rapidly changing Middle East.” A nuclear agreement, the report said, “will help unlock the door to new options.” From Syria to Afghanistan by way of Iraq, those options are urgently needed.
For them to be opened up, a workable narrative has to be found, one that satisfies Congress that Iran’s road to a bomb has been sealed off through curtailment and rigorous inspection of the nuclear program, and satisfies Iran’s hard-liners that the country’s ability to develop nuclear power for peaceful use has not been permanently infringed or its rights as a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons irrevocably curtailed. That is a tall order. But subtlety and ingenuity are no strangers at this table. Both sides have an enormous amount to lose if talks fail.
Obama has put his personal prestige behind this effort. Collapse would amount to another Middle Eastern failure for him. He knows that the sanctions drive against Iran would likely unravel in the event of failure, as cooperation with Europe, Russia and China frays. He would be pushed once again toward military action against Iran. (Of course, he would also prefer to concentrate visible progress in the talks between Nov. 4 and Nov. 24, so that Republicans cannot brandish “softness” on Iran against the Democrats in the midterm elections.)
The difficulties are considerable. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me, “Those we talk to can’t deliver and those who can deliver can’t talk to us.” Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who does not do New York breakfasts, is a hard-liner. On issues from the number of centrifuges Iran is permitted to the duration of any deal, the two sides differ. Sadjadpour believes “managed irresolution” is the best that can be hoped for, a failure that preserves some gains. I think failure would be unmitigated: Renewed estrangement, war drift. A deal can and must be done for the simple reason it is far better — for Iran, the United States, Europe and Israel — than any of the alternatives.
And now we come to Prof. Krugman:
Last week, Bill Gross, the so-called bond king, abruptly left Pimco, the investment firm he had managed for decades. People who follow the financial industry were shocked but not exactly surprised; tales of internal troubles at Pimco had been all over the papers. But why should you care?
The answer is that Mr. Gross’s fall is a symptom of a malady that continues to afflict major decision-makers, public and private. Call it depression denial syndrome: the refusal to acknowledge that the rules are different in a persistently depressed economy.
Mr. Gross is, by all accounts, a man with a towering ego and very difficult to work with. That description, however, fits a lot of financial players, and even the most lurid personality conflicts wouldn’t have mattered if Pimco had continued to do well. But it didn’t, largely thanks to a spectacularly bad call Mr. Gross made in 2011, which continues to haunt the firm. And here’s the thing: Lots of other influential people made the same bad call — and are still making it, over and over again.
The story here really starts years earlier, when an immense housing bubble popped. Spending on new houses collapsed, and broader consumer spending also took a hit, as families that had borrowed heavily to buy houses saw the value of those homes plunge. Businesses cut back, too. Why add capacity in the face of weak consumer demand?
The result was an economy in which everyone wanted to save more and invest less. Since everyone can’t do that at the same time, something else had to give — and, in fact, two things gave. First, the economy went into a slump, from which it has not yet fully emerged. Second, the government began running a deficit, as the economic downturn caused a sharp fall in revenue and a surge in some kinds of spending, like food stamps and unemployment benefits.
Now, we normally think of deficits as a bad thing — government borrowing competes with private borrowing, driving up interest rates, hurting investment, and possibly setting the stage for higher inflation. But, since 2008, we have, to use the economics jargon, been stuck in a liquidity trap, which is basically a situation in which the economy is awash in desired saving with no place to go. In this situation, government borrowing doesn’t compete with private demand because the private sector doesn’t want to spend. And because they aren’t competing with the private sector, deficits needn’t cause interest rates to rise.
All this may sound strange and counterintuitive, but it’s what basic macroeconomic analysis tells you. And that’s not 20/20 hindsight either. In 2008-9, a number of economists — yes, myself included — tried to explain the special circumstances of a depressed economy, in which deficits wouldn’t cause soaring rates and the Federal Reserve’s policy of “printing money” (not really what it was doing, but never mind) wouldn’t cause inflation. It wasn’t just theory, either; we had the experience of the 1930s and Japan since the 1990s to draw on. But many, perhaps most, influential people in the alleged real world refused to believe us.
Which brings me back to Mr. Gross.
For a time, Pimco — where Paul McCulley, a managing director at the time, was one of the leading voices explaining the logic of the liquidity trap — seemed admirably calm about deficits, and did very well as a result. In late 2009, many Wall Street analysts warned of a looming surge in U.S. borrowing costs; Morgan Stanley predicted that the interest rate on 10-year bonds would soar to 5.5 percent in 2010. But Pimco bet, correctly, that rates would stay low.
Then something changed. Mr. McCulley left Pimco at the end of 2010 (he recently returned as chief economist), and Mr. Gross joined the deficit hysterics, declaring that low interest rates were “robbing” investors and selling off all his holdings of U.S. debt. In particular, he predicted a spike in interest rates when the Fed ended a program of debt purchases in June 2011. He was completely wrong, and neither he nor Pimco ever recovered.
So is this an edifying tale in which bad ideas were proved wrong by experience, people’s eyes were opened, and truth prevailed? Sorry, no. In fact, it’s very hard to find any examples of people who have changed their minds. People who were predicting soaring inflation and interest rates five years ago are still predicting soaring inflation and interest rates today, vigorously rejecting any suggestion that they should reconsider their views in light of experience.
And that’s what makes the Bill Gross story interesting. He’s pretty much the only major deficit hysteric to pay a price for getting it wrong (even though he remains, of course, immensely rich). Pimco has taken a hit, but everywhere else the reign of error continues undisturbed.