Sunday, May 31, 2009

Next: 1968

I've started reading Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills. I'd seen a reference to it somewhere as one of the best works on Nixon but could never find it in libraries. A few weeks ago I found it at the Goodwill Store in SE Portland, they have an excellent book section for those in the area.

It also has some relevance to the Bacevich work, in that one of the catalysts for militarism in America is the counter-reaction to the cultural changes of the 60's. The sections I've read so far cover 1968, and it's eye-opening to someone who wouldn't exist for a few years. Wills describes an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and paranoia dominating society. Violence- be it racial, political, and everything else- was a constant expectation and it was frequently met (much more frequently then today's boogieman, terrorism). At first glance I'd say it's inaccurate to see Bacevich's militarists as countering the spirit of the 60's, their seige mentality seems more like a continuation of it. Everyone was afraid or angry about something, conflict was the norm. Some people moved on, others stayed in their bunkers. The latter are today's militarists.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Book Review: The New American Militarism

I finished reading The New American Militarism on the plane yesterday, great book and heartily recommended. Bacevich describes himself as a conservative critic of the Iraq invasion, which he sees as resulting from the institutionalization of militarism within American society. The book pointedly avoids blaming Bush or administration officials, instead looking at a series of broad cultural dynamics, both civilian and military. These include briefly,
  • Conservative christians, who adopted a seige mentality in the wake of the cultural changes in the 60's.
  • The idolization of the military in the 80's and 90's, in a generational reaction against perceived injustices in the 70's.
  • The development of smart weapons and the broader seperation of military and civilian society, which made "clean" war seem like a possibility.
This resolves a problem I had with an earlier work, American Empire. There he argued for a fundamental continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations, which I didn't buy. The discussion here implies a continuity of circumstance more then in the actions and initiatives of the presidents, and Bacevich states explicitly in the preface that
What is most striking about the most powerful man in the world is not the power that he wields. It is how constrained he and his lieutenants are by forces that lie beyond their grasp and perhaps their understanding. Rather then bending history to their will, presidents and those around them are much more likely to dance to history's tune.
Bacevich at the end offers a surprising reinterpretation of the last 30 years, where he adopts the neocon lingo of World War IV with a twist: instead of radical Islam waging war against a sleepy Western world he sees America fighting for political dominance of the broader Middle East, in a continuation of the western tradition going back to Alexander the Great. This idea is offered as a sketch, and I'd like to see him use another book to flesh it out.

This is good stuff with continuing relevance, particularly for those confused by why so little has changed under Obama.

UPDATE: I added this to the book review site with an addendum here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Book Notes: Greenspan's Bubbles

I read Bill Fleckenstein's GREENSPAN'S BUBBLES: THE AGE OF IGNORANCE AT THE FEDERAL RESERVE. I started reading Fleck about 10 years ago, back then he had a pretty good column that just ripped the dot-com stocks and bubble. Greenspan was a constant villain, always acting to save the bubble from itself. This book is Fleck's revenge.

As analysis it's lacking, most of the book is diatribe and assertion. To it's credit the book contains numerous quotes from the FOMC meetings back in the day, they give some insight into why Greenspan was so ineffectual.

First he subscribed to a species of market fundamentalism, a belief that the masses could never be wrong (or at least not second guessed) even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A bubble then could never be diagnosed in the present, it could only be seen in the past after the market turned and it deflated. This belief by itself wouldn't have hurt Greenspan that much, in effect it says the Fed should ignore the stock market. Unfortunately Greenspan extended this logic by assuming that if the market is always right, and people want to be happy, then the market should always be happy. If it's not, ie if there are significant declines across indices it implies an externality and Greenspan saw it as his duty to counteract it. In short, he completely misunderstood or ignored the necessity of creative destruction, that creating losers is as critical a market function as creating winners.

I'd recommend the book for those nostalgic for the dot-com days.


I haven't posted anything in the last few months because of time constraints. I also started using Facebook for posting, I'm not sure I'm as satisfied with the results. Point being, I expect to post here more often.