In “Florence and the Drones” Bobo thinks that as we debate the ethics of using drones, it might be surprisingly useful to take a page out of Machiavelli’s tough-minded view of human nature. I think Mr. Cohen has filched one of MoDo’s pieces. In “A ‘Son of Hell,’ Reconsidered” he yowls that we need our villains in all their scheming iniquity, and that Richard III is unsuited to rehabilitation. He’s obviously never heard of Titulus Regius… Prof. Krugman, in “Kick That Can,” says given the state we’re in, now is not the time for spending cuts. Again, the voice crying in the wilderness… Here’s Bobo:
This winter I’m taking part in a great course at Yale called Grand Strategy. We’re reading strategic thought from Sun Tzu and Pericles straight through to Churchill and George F. Kennan. This week we read Machiavelli.
Machiavelli is a tonic because he counteracts the sentiments of our age. We’re awash in TV news segments celebrating the human spirit, but Machiavelli had a lower estimation of our worth. “For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain,” he writes in “The Prince.”
“It needs to be taken for granted that all men are wicked and that they will always give vent to the malignity that is in their minds when opportunity offers,” he adds in “The Discourses.”
The conventional view is that Machiavelli believed that since people are brutes then everything is permitted. Leaders should do anything they can to hold power. The ends justify the means.
In fact, Machiavelli was a moralistic thinker. He wrote movingly of his love for his city, Florence. His vision of a great and unified Italy was romantic and idealistic. He barely goes a page without some appeal to honor and virtue.
He just had a different concept of political virtue. It would be nice, he writes, if a political leader could practice the Christian virtues like charity, mercy and gentleness and still provide for his people. But, in the real world, that’s usually not possible. In the real world, a great leader is called upon to create a civilized order for the city he serves. To create that order, to defeat the forces of anarchy and savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take, as it were, the sins of the situation upon himself.
The leader who does good things cannot always be good himself. Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes. Sometimes a leader has to love his country more than his soul.
Since a leader is forced by circumstances to do morally suspect things, Machiavelli at least wants him to do them effectively. Machiavelli is full of advice. If you have to do something cruel, do it fast; if you get to do something generous, do it slowly. If you lead a country, you have more to fear from the scheming elites than the masses, so you should try to form an alliance with the people against the aristocracy.
When you read Machiavelli, you realize how lucky we are. Unlike 16th-century Florence, we have a good Constitution that channels conflict. We have manners, respect for law and social trust that softens behavior, at least a bit. Even in the realm of foreign affairs, we’ve inherited an international order that restrains conflict. Our ancestors behaved savagely to build our world, so we don’t have to.
But it’s still not possible to rule with perfectly clean hands. There are still terrorists out there, hiding in the shadows and plotting to kill Americans. So even today’s leaders face the Machiavellian choice: Do I have to be brutal to protect the people I serve? Do I have to use drones, which sometimes kill innocent children, in order to thwart terror and save the lives of my own?
When Barack Obama was a senator, he wasn’t compelled to confront the brutal logic of leadership. Now in office, he’s thrown into the Machiavellian world. He’s decided, correctly, that we are in a long war against Al Qaeda; that drone strikes do effectively kill terrorists; that, in fact, they inflict fewer civilian deaths than bombing campaigns, boots on the ground or any practical alternative; that, in fact, civilian death rates are dropping sharply as the C.I.A. gets better at this. Acting brutally abroad saves lives at home.
Still, there’s another aspect of Machiavellian thought relevant to the drone debate. This is a core weakness in his thought. He puts too much faith in the self-restraint of his leaders. Machiavelli tells us that men are venal self-deceivers, but then he gives his Prince permission to do all these monstrous things, trusting him not to get carried away or turn into a monster himself.
Our founders were more careful. Our founders understood that leaders are as venal and untrustworthy as anybody else. They abhorred concentrated power, and they set up checks and balances to disperse it.
Our drone policy should take account of our founders’ superior realism. Drone strikes are so easy, hidden and abstract. There should be some independent judicial panel to review the kill lists. There should be an independent panel of former military and intelligence officers issuing reports on the program’s efficacy.
If you take Machiavelli’s tough-minded view of human nature, you have to be brutal to your enemies — but you also have to set up skeptical checks on the people you empower to destroy them.
I wonder if this is really the first time Bobo’s read “The Prince.” We read it in the 12th grade… Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
So the last — and worst — of the Plantagenets is back after a long sojourn beneath a Leicester parking lot, here to give the lie to that Tudor propagandist, William Shakespeare. At school, influenced by the bard’s devastating portrait, we knew him as Dick the Bad. But no, King Richard III is simpatico.
I say “is” not “was” for Richard lives, almost 528 years after his death in 1485 at Bosworth Field, debated on page after page of the British press as he awaits reburial in Leicester Cathedral (if rival claims and an e-petition from York are rebuffed). His identity proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” through DNA analysis, Shakespeare’s “troubler of the poor world’s peace” bestrides the stage once more.
Einstein observed that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” We have moved beyond time.
No “bunch-backed toad,” no “slave of nature and the son of hell,” no “bottled spider,” the exhumed Richard is enjoying a remake as a physically challenged fellow with spinal curvature who might have starred in last year’s London Paralympics if given the chance.
Alas he got clobbered several times with a halberd (presumably wielded by a halberdier ignoring late 15th century safety regulations), and may have suffered the ignominy of being sodomized with an unlicensed dagger while being carried naked on horseback to Leicester. There inglorious burial awaited him after just two years on the throne. The Plantagenet dynasty, which had ruled England since 1154, was no more.
“I’ve spoken to scoliosis experts and they say acute scoliosis like that was painful,” Philippa Langley, a Richard III enthusiast, told The Guardian. “So we know that he was working through the pain barrier every day just to do his job.”
Right. Langley, a leading member of the Richard III Society (founded in 1924 as the Fellowship of the White Boar to clean up the king’s Tudor-besmirched image), suggested the deformed schemer of Shakespeare’s play had been misunderstood: “He had an incredibly powerful, strong work ethic. This man never stopped. He was on a horse every day, fighting skirmishes, doing everything they had to do.”
Such duties for a workaholic English monarch during this era of violent feuds included plotting dynastic murder on a substantial scale. But of course this, like most things, is now up for debate. Granted, history is written by the victors: The Tudors, in search of legitimacy, were hard on Richard, commissioning eminent scribblers to pen hatchet jobs. The king, his would-be rehabilitators say, passed some good laws and cared for the common people (living, like himself, without painkillers or disability welfare.)
Still, too much smoke swirls around Richard III for there to be no fire. And besides, don’t we need our villains in all their ugly, scheming iniquity to give shape to our moral universe? Spare me Leonardo DiCaprio as this unquiet king. Give me a snarling Javier Bardem!
Richard III has been implicated in the killing of his brother, Clarence, and may well have dispatched Edward, Prince of Wales, in cold blood after the battle of Tewkesbury before wedding the prince’s widow within a year (“Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep” — Shakespeare allows his villain a voluptuary’s charm). Did he not kill Henry VI and, most damning of all, have his nephews, aged 9 and 12, murdered in the Tower of London after getting them declared illegitimate by an act of Parliament? Dick was very bad.
The remains of the princes in the Tower (where you can push a button to register the most likely suspects in their murder — Richard III leads comfortably), are now in Westminster Abbey, contained in an urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren. A movement is afoot to do DNA testing on these little vestiges in order to date them and help settle the matter of the princes’ killer. The idea has been resisted on the grounds it may lead to “sensational speculation,” in the words of a former dean of the abbey, and a cascade of further exhumations. Besides, what would be done with the bones if they all prove bogus?
These arguments smack of ageism: The kids deserve their day with the scientific-archaeological team, too. I see no reason why equal opportunity should not be extended to bones. With luck many wrongs will get righted. There will be grounds for a deluge of retrospective apologies from tearful, lip-biting folk stretching all the way back to the case of Cain.
I happen to work near Buckingham Palace, and strolling in the twilight the other day I noticed a hunch-backed fellow of murderous mien clutching the wrought-iron railings. Something in his malevolent gaze troubled me. “Because I cannot flatter and speak fair, do not hold me a rancorous enemy,” he said. “Can you direct me to a parking lot where I might find some peace?”
“Head up Pall Mall, sir, and take the first left — but you’ll need to text your credit card number to the authorities.”
The horror on his twisted face was terrifying. “A hearse!” he wailed. “A hearse! My kingdom for a hearse!”
Typical MoDo crap, Mr. Cohen. You should be ashamed. Last but not least here’s Prof. Krugman:
John Boehner, the speaker of the House, claims to be exasperated. “At some point, Washington has to deal with its spending problem,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve watched them kick this can down the road for 22 years since I’ve been here. I’ve had enough of it. It’s time to act.”
Actually, Mr. Boehner needs to refresh his memory. During the first decade of his time in Congress, the U.S. government was doing just fine on the fiscal front. In particular, the ratio of federal debt to G.D.P. was a third lower when Bill Clinton left office than it was when he came in. It was only when George W. Bush arrived and squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and unfunded wars that the budget outlook began deteriorating again.
But that’s a secondary issue. The key point is this: While it’s true that we will eventually need some combination of revenue increases and spending cuts to rein in the growth of U.S. government debt, now is very much not the time to act. Given the state we’re in, it would be irresponsible and destructive not to kick that can down the road.
Start with a basic point: Slashing government spending destroys jobs and causes the economy to shrink.
This really isn’t a debatable proposition at this point. The contractionary effects of fiscal austerity have been demonstrated by study after study and overwhelmingly confirmed by recent experience — for example, by the severe and continuing slump in Ireland, which was for a while touted as a shining example of responsible policy, or by the way the Cameron government’s turn to austerity derailed recovery in Britain.
Even Republicans admit, albeit selectively, that spending cuts hurt employment. Thus John McCain warned earlier this week that the defense cuts scheduled to happen under the budget sequester would cause the loss of a million jobs. It’s true that Republicans often seem to believe in “weaponized Keynesianism,” a doctrine under which military spending, and only military spending, creates jobs. But that is, of course, nonsense. By talking about job losses from defense cuts, the G.O.P. has already conceded the principle of the thing.
Still, won’t spending cuts (or tax increases) cost jobs whenever they take place, so we might as well bite the bullet now? The answer is no — given the state of our economy, this is a uniquely bad time for austerity.
One way to see this is to compare today’s economic situation with the environment prevailing during an earlier round of defense cuts: the big winding down of military spending in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the end of the cold war. Those spending cuts destroyed jobs, too, with especially severe consequences in places like southern California that relied heavily on defense contracts. At the national level, however, the effects were softened by monetary policy: the Federal Reserve cut interest rates more or less in tandem with the spending cuts, helping to boost private spending and minimize the overall adverse effect.
Today, by contrast, we’re still living in the aftermath of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the Fed, in its effort to fight the slump, has already cut interest rates as far as it can — basically to zero. So the Fed can’t blunt the job-destroying effects of spending cuts, which would hit with full force.
The point, again, is that now is very much not the time to act; fiscal austerity should wait until the economy has recovered, and the Fed can once again cushion the impact.
But aren’t we facing a fiscal crisis? No, not at all. The federal government can borrow more cheaply than at almost any point in history, and medium-term forecasts, like the 10-year projections released Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office, are distinctly not alarming. Yes, there’s a long-term fiscal problem, but it’s not urgent that we resolve that long-term problem right now. The alleged fiscal crisis exists only in the minds of Beltway insiders.
Still, even if we should put off spending cuts for now, wouldn’t it be a good thing if our politicians could simultaneously agree on a long-term fiscal plan? Indeed, it would. It would also be a good thing if we had peace on earth and universal marital fidelity. In the real world, Republican senators are saying that the situation is desperate — but not desperate enough to justify even a penny in additional taxes. Do these sound like men ready and willing to reach a grand fiscal bargain?
Realistically, we’re not going to resolve our long-run fiscal issues any time soon, which is O.K. — not ideal, but nothing terrible will happen if we don’t fix everything this year. Meanwhile, we face the imminent threat of severe economic damage from short-term spending cuts.
So we should avoid that damage by kicking the can down the road. It’s the responsible thing to do.