Podcast • May 25, 2012

Vanessa Williamson: How the Tea Party Could Win it All

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vanessa Williamson (32 min, 15 meg) Vanessa Williamson could persuade you that the wily elders in the Tea Party have much more to show for their anger and agitation than the passionate youth of the “Occupy” protest. She ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Vanessa Williamson (32 min, 15 meg)

Vanessa Williamson could persuade you that the wily elders in the Tea Party have much more to show for their anger and agitation than the passionate youth of the “Occupy” protest. She pictures us 2012 Americans in rather a desperate generational family fight: conservative Rotarian uncles and aunties in the Tea Party cracking down on the “moocher” mentality even among their own jobless kids and grandkids. It’s the Tea Party people who’ve captured a major political party and are now just one November election away from capturing the presidency and maybe Congress at the same time.

Vanessa Williamson has the voice of an uncommonly earnest, open searcher. She had a formative five-year job lobbying Congress for body armor, then college tuitions for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now she’s a Ph.D. student in government at Harvard who’s spent most of two years listening to the Tea Party grass-roots. With her mentor Theda Skocpol she’s made a compelling tale of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Convervatism. By now it’s a three-ring circus. She’s untangling with us the web of (1) worried Tea Party locals who’d remind you of your crotchety but dear old conservative Aunt Olive; (2) the predatory plutocrats who swooped on the “rhetorical gold,” the mailing lists and church connections of the Tea Party and paid its candidates’ campaign bills; and (3) Fox News and the right-wing radio hosts who know the entertainment value of social fury, none better than Glenn Beck who brands himself “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” All three “rings” in the circus are intact and somehow in synch after the demolition derby of Republican debates and primaries. Note well that the Tea Party made the right strategic choice to be not a protest movement or a third-party campaign. From the start, Ms. Williamson argues, Tea Partiers came from the experienced pragmatic Republican wing of the Republican party, and they’re in full control of the machinery now.

They have a candidate finally who’s nobody’s dream but he’s a tall, dark and handsome guy with great-looking teeth, hair and family, and a face that fits with the presidents on our greenbacks. He can act out almost any script with plausibility, but in fact he’s solid on the Tea Party basics: tough on immigrants, tough on students, fed-up with taxes, financial regulation and all the fretting about climate change. He’s a poster hero of our culture’s holy zeal for money without introspection or shared benefits. He stands, of course, at the far pole from the Tony Judt ideal we’ve been mulling — of “social democracy” and “collective action for collective good.” His boldness contrasts, too, with the pretty feeble embrace of fairness or any very spirited rebalancing reform agenda on the other side of the ballot.

And still I’m asking Vanessa Williamson why our attention fixes so hard on the exotic variety of symptoms, slogans and proxy labels for our distress, so little on the common disease. The Tea Party looks to me more like the “sorrows of empire” breaking out among these older yeoman Republicans. And some part of me wants to credit them for waking up and recoiling from the evidence: We’re in the grip now of permanent war in the back of beyond, without debate or the Congressional declaration required in the beloved Constitution. We feel the proud industrial base of the country slipping away — not just the factory production but the schools and skills that sustained it, the jobs, profits and tax revenues that came with it. And for all the age-old warnings about borrowers and lenders, we know we’re sinking in a fathomless ocean of war debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, national debt, China debt — a trillion dollar debt on just the backs of students coming out of college into unemployment. What’s not to panic about? Tea Partiers, too, are feeling the “need to act,” as Tony Judt put it in Ill Fares the Land “upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe.”

Podcast • May 21, 2012

James K. Galbraith: How Our Inequality Happened

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Galbraith (32 min, 15 meg) James K. Galbraith — out on the uneven playing field of American wealth and power — is pointing out the 30-year drift of tax policy and political power, all of it made ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Galbraith (32 min, 15 meg)

James K. Galbraith — out on the uneven playing field of American wealth and power — is pointing out the 30-year drift of tax policy and political power, all of it made possible by the decontrol of campaign spending and the big-money capture of both major parties. Galbraith is an economic eminence in his own right by now at the University of Texas and on the left wing of the Democratic party, and the author most recently of Inequality and Instability.

Jamie Galbraith is also of course the son of the late Sun God of mid-century liberalism, the witty scourge of “private affluence and public squalor” as of innocent old 1958! Papa John Kenneth Galbraith‘s evergreen warning about The Affluent Society arrived in the post-Sputnik moment of the long postwar expansion not just of the US economy but of public investments in education, science and space. But even then Galbraith Sr. was worried about a widening gap between rich and poor as a risk to American stability — imagine it! — in what we remember as the rock-solid Eisenhower years.

I’m asking Jamie Galbraith to account for the split of the 1 percent and the 99 today. Shorter Galbraith: these things don’t develop by accident.

From the second World War up to the early 1980s we had a fairly balanced economic expansion in the United States. It had a very strong component of wage-led growth. After the 1980s all of that was gone, and we’ve basically expanded only on the strength of our credit markets — the strength of bank lending and the strength of stock market bubbles. And this has been wave after wave, which have now come to grief….

Let’s go back to the 1980s when we sharply reduced tax rates on upper-income people. Even in 1986 a tax reform that had some progressive aspects to it continued this process. What happened then? I think two things happened. One is that there was a very strong tax incentive to put your money in housing because mortgage interest remained deductible and no other form of interest did. So people who wanted to take out loans did so through housing; and people who got windfalls from the tax cuts also invested in mansion building, and there’s been a great deal of that ever since. A second thing is that when you reduce the tax rates on personal incomes, people who controlled corporations and controlled their own compensation as executives had a strong incentive that wasn’t there before to transfer income from the company to themselves; and so you had the executive compensation boom…

In the 1960s when we were young and into the early ’70s we had a strong momentum for building stronger, more egalitarian, more progressive social institutions. In the 1980s the initiative passed to the other side and for the last 25 or 30 years progressives have been very much on the defensive. Not that we have nothing to defend… As soon as this election is over, no matter who wins it, we are going to start hearing of a need for a bi-partisan compromise to cut Social Security benefits. This is as sure as anything I can tell you. And it will be presented as some kind of modest proposal to protect the fiscal solvency and so forth of the Social Security program. It’s utter nonsense. The purpose and effect of the cuts that are coming will be to reduce the living standard of the future elderly by very substantial amounts over time. If we allow this to happen, and in particular if we allow the Democratic Party to concede the necessity oif it happening, we’ll be committing a crime, really, against the future. We’ll be returning tomorrow’s elderly to a state of distress that they have to a very substantial extent been able to avoid…

What has happened is that our political structure is now entirely dependent upon small numbers of people with large amounts of money. That’s true of both parties. And the kinds of “countervailing forces,” to use one of my father’s phrases, are no longer nearly as strong as they were — trade unions and other kinds of civic organizations. That is a consequence of allowing inequality of wealth and power, in this case, to get out of hand. It should be at the top of any civic agenda.

James Galbraith with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 2012

Coming next: Vanessa Williamson‘s close encounter with the Tea Party grass roots. “Think of them as your Aunt Olive at Thanksgiving dinner,” she begins, prompting me to wonder: shouldn’t we see the Occupy mobs as the angry kids, literally, of those furious old tax rebels. Different wardrobes, in short, one breakdown?

Podcast • May 11, 2012

Dan Ariely on the “Irrationality” of American inequality

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dan Ariely (44 min, 19 meg) Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Dan Ariely (44 min, 19 meg)

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) would prefer to be living in Sweden. Which is to say: Mitt Romney’s scariest nightmare, “a European-style welfare state,” may be just the briar patch that most of us Bre’r Rabbits long for.

Dan Ariely is the Israeli-American psychologist, now at Duke, who has made a big name and career in the Dan Kahneman school of “behavioral economics.” The special Ariely gift is for surveys and social experiments that probe the gap between what we want and what we choose when we buy a house, pick a mate or vote for president. I’m bringing to the conversation my own probe for symptoms and causes behind Tony Judt‘s dying diagnosis, in Ill Fares the Land, that “something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today… We cannot go on living like this.”

Main roots of Judt’s and our own unease seem to pop right out of Dan Ariely’s experimental surveys — typically clever in their simplicity. First, when he asks his thousands of respondents to estimate the real division of wealth in the US, and then to propose an ideal distribution, we Americans confirm our sentimental attachment to a polite tilt of privilege. We cherish our mythic legacy of quasi-egalitarian social democracy, with no extreme concentrations of wealth or poverty. But what our answers really confirm is our delusion about the economy we live in now. The top 20 percent of the people in fact own 84 percent of the goods, and the bottom 40 percent of us, barely floating on a sea of debt, own less than half of one percent of the wealth of the nation. We live across roughly double the rich-poor gap measured in Germany, Japan and Denmark. By the standard “Gini coefficient” of wealth inequality, the US ranks with Turkestan and Tunisia, just a tad more equal than Chad and Sri Lanka.

The second key question in Ariely’s survey is even simpler; the answer is a slam dunk. Respondents were shown two pie charts — one with the actual American shares of wealth, in which 60 percent of the population nearly disappears with less than 5 percent ownership altogether; in the alternative, modeled on Sweden, the top 20 percent owns 36 percent of the wealth (almost double its claim by sheer numbers) and the bottom 20 percent owns 11 percent (about half its numerical share). In Dan Ariely’s study (with Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School), 92 percent of us Americans want to live Swedish-style instead. Women (93 percent in favor of the Swedish model) are a ever so slightly more egalitarian than men (90 percent for Sweden). But the results come out very nearly the same — Republicans and Democrats, richer and poorer, NPR listeners and readers of Forbes Magazine.

What we hear eternally in political chatter is Joe the Plumber’s dread of “spread the wealth” government, and Newt Gingrich’s alarm about “European Socialism.” And now the screech from Mitt Romney’s ex-Bain partner Edward Conard in the Times Magazine that we need bigger payoffs and “twice as many people” in the high-end investor class — in short, that we need a lot more inequality. But Dan Ariely’s evidence is that in the most steeply skewed social order in the industrialized world, we’re miserable about being skewered on the contradictions in a proud democracy that’s eroding fast at the foundations.

Dan Ariely brings, yes, the social-democratic biases of the Israeli left. He is imprinted unmistakably — body and soul — with the scars of severe burns he suffered as a teenager in a freak explosion: his face and most of his skin were remade over three excruciating years in hospital, all of the immeasurable expense covered by Israel’s socialized healthcare. Without it, as he told me, his family would have been bankrupted, his care might well have been curtailed.

The hope in Dan Ariely’s forecast for American politics and culture is for people who can hold out a while. How much do we need to change? I asked him:

A lot. I’m not a Biblical scholar, but after Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people of Israel celebrating the Golden Calf, God basically punished them by getting them to walk in the desert for 40 years, so that a generation would die. It might take a generation. That might be a reasonable time scale. The current generation that is running things might not be the right one. It might be that the generation that went to college during the financial crisis is the right generation — even if a lot of them are out of work. They’re thinking about what to do. They don’t have the Princeton-to-Wall Street path. They’re thinking of other things they might do with their lives, and because they don’t necessarily have jobs they are open to following their passions. My understanding is that volunteering is up. People are trying all kinds of things. There’s an increasing interest in graduate degrees — education is always counter-cyclical to the economy. This is a generation that saw the breakage of some ideologies of perfect capitalism, ready to revise their thinking. And they might be the right people to envision a new approach. The protests are a good signal. They’re a step in the right direction.

Dan Ariely with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 2012

Podcast • April 30, 2012

Siddhartha Mukherjee: have we an innovator in the race?

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Siddhartha Mukherjee (40 min, 18 meg) Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Siddhartha Mukherjee (40 min, 18 meg)

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, which Judt called “social democracy.”

Dr. Mukherjee wrote the enthralling “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which won the Pulitzer for non-fiction last year. So he is a big-picture diagnostician who looks first to the history of a disease and its treatment to frame his understanding. I think of him first as Tony Judt’s alter-ego in the oncology lab.

But then it turns up in a footnote that Siddhartha Mukherjee knew Tony Judt well for most of 20 years. Indian-born, American trained and twenty years younger than Judt, he was a Judt favorite in a running series of seminars on the full spectrum of medical, social and cultural maladies. They became close friends. “Benign skepticism” in the face of received wisdom was their common working principle. One of their shared methods was a process of sifting through wrong ideas of the problem. They had some persistent differences, too.

You see, Tony is a great eliminator. He arrives at his theory by the process of eliminating nonsense. He finds, as you know, that the answer already exists. You need to reset the clock. The answer existed in our past,” which for Tony Judt embraced the free education and robust public services he grew up on in 1960′s and ’70′s London. Tony’s thought was we could find those mechanisms again. “I thought Tony was spot-on about the malaise in our society, about a collapse in the public conversation… I differ in the sense that I believe less in elimination, more in innovation. I think that the answer does not exist… and in fact the solution is to innovate our way into the answer. Unfortunately I believe that if the country is facing perhaps a moral crisis in the political realm, I think we’re facing an innovation crisis in the scientific realm. And by that I mean that we don’t even know how to train minds — or we’re beginning to forget how to train minds to solve our way out of the problem. That’s what worries me.

So my question is: How would Siddhartha Mukherjee apply his “innovative, oppositionist, disruptive” repairs to the confusion and fear that shadow the public stage in 2012?

We have to innovate our way out of that, too. A good example of this is what I think of as a kind of ‘psychic innovation.’ Take, for instance, the immigration crisis. I think that is a reminder of the need for psychic innovation of that crisis. This is — historically — a nation founded on immigration. The fact that in 2012 that founding force is a crisis in Arizona, say, is a peculiar twist of human history. There must be an innovative way, an entrepreneurial way, to think about immigration and restore the kind of spirit that made it such a positive force in the 18th and 19th Centuries… There must be a political solution that allows this force of young minds desperately trying to get into this country and to convert that torpor that you and I are talking about. It’s an innovation problem. I came here as an outsider, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of social innovation. This country made society plastic. You know, elastic. Why is it that we’re now having a debate about whether we’re suffering from some kind of torpor, when in history you took society and molded it in a different image?

He leaves me with a different puzzle: what would a real innovator sound like in presidential politics? “Everything else is largely irrelevant,” Mukherjee declares. “There are many problems and the solution is to have an incredible engine of innovation. How do we silence all the distractions, and put all our energy into social innovation around health care, around debt, around the economy, so that the conversations become real?”

April 29, 2012

Mary Fonseca’s “Letter from Lisbon” : portents of plague

A friend writes from Lisbon, … as those “Talk of the Town” pieces used to begin in the dear old New Yorker. The friend in this case is my ever-watchful sister Mary Lydon Fonseca, observing the worsening symptoms of the plague-like “crise” in Europe. Forty ...

A friend writes from Lisbon, … as those “Talk of the Town” pieces used to begin in the dear old New Yorker. The friend in this case is my ever-watchful sister Mary Lydon Fonseca, observing the worsening symptoms of the plague-like “crise” in Europe. Forty years ago Mary and her Brazilian husband, the journalist Wilton Fonseca, settled in Lisbon, where they raised their two kids and Mary has been teaching and writing ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a closet somewhere you’ve heard of our Hard Times. Times are truly, truly hard for many people in Portugal, and they are getting harder as the austerity that follows the meltdown of the euro and the euro zone takes hold.

But they are also Interesting Times, as in the Chinese maxim. Change is accelerating, which seems to make us more alert. Little shocks sharpen our brains — or at least our powers of observation. We see signs and portents in daily life: little gold shops have sprung up like mushrooms and are eager to buy any gold we might have lying around the house – for cash! A new-fangled pawn-shop — one of a chain called “Cash Converters,” Australian apparently — has replaced the old charcutaria where we used to buy good cheeses. Several national holidays will be eliminated after negotiation with the Church which agreed to drop the Feast of the Assumption (August 15) and Corpus Christi (June) if the State would drop secular holidays like the Restoration of Sovereignty in 1640 after 60 years of Spanish domination (December 1) and the Declaration of the Republic (October 5). These are relics of the Old Portugal.

The government is selling off state assets like the national railroad and the national electric company, which will now be partially owned by the Chinese of the Three Gorges dam authority. Why are the Chinese interested, we wonder?

We watch TV for a hint of the next austerity measure and read the newspapers, Portuguese and British for interpretation. We are watching, wondering, talking, and not at all sure what to make of the big picture — let alone the future.

Analyses of how and why everything started to fall apart vary greatly, which is not surprising considering that a small amount of high finance is more than most people can deal with. In Portugal the most popular story is that the previous government borrowed too much and overspent on grandiose projects that we didn’t need, like 4-lane highways in the ‘provincia’ and the TGV (bullet train) to Madrid, to which huge amounts of money were committed but which is now suspended.

More recently, people who know a bit more about Europe as a whole have pointed out that before the crise hit, the Germans were only too eager to buy the bonds that countries of Southern Europe put on the market, thus showering us with the money we needed to import the Mercedes and BMWs they wanted us to enjoy. Besides, our banks were indulging in the sexy new financial operations they learned about from Wall Street and the City of London.

It is still puzzling that all these countries, starting with the PIIG’s (Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, Greece) crashed at the same time for quite disparate reasons. Mark Blyth, a Scottish economist at Brown, says that blaming sovereign debt lets everyone forget that this is primarily a worldwide crisis of the banks. Eric Toussaint, a French expert on Third World debt, agrees with him. But since everyone knows about the personalities of the nations involved, it’s natural to finger the spendthrift Latins and Greeks of southern Europe, together with the feckless Irish, as culprit.

Portugal is laid low and struggling, probably fruitlessly, to redeem its sins through austerity. Spain is sinking fast, and Italy and France have been downgraded. The Greeks have been circling the drain endlessly and may gurgle down any time now. Everything is taking a long, long, long, long time – or so it seems. Mark Blyth thinks that if Germany would take up the burden of being rich and become a “hegemon” it could bail everyone out, but how likely is this when it is entirely against the philosophy of the EU? The bail-out would be lovely, but could anyone stomach leadership by Germany, much as we sympathize with Angela?

Portugal is humbler and more circumspect than Greece. Long ago when the crisis began, people used to refer to the Greeks as “coitados” (“poor things!”) But the shouting crowds got tiresome. We have not been revolting in the streets and are still earnestly following the instructions of the technocrats who come to us from the “Troika,” the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Union, and who have laid down the rules. The Troika chiefs, who are not very visible as individuals, come back every couple of months to check up on the government and supervise the fine-combing of bank ledgers by the scores of local accountants they hired. They seem to be mostly tall, sandy-haired number-crunchers who (it is said) stay at the Ritz across the street from our house but for breakfast prefer a greasy spoon nearby.

The goal now is to turn over every stone and scrape up every last centimo that could put us back on the right track. The Swedish chief has said salaries in Portugal are too high, a rather startling remark, because pay here has always been very low by the standards of the developed world. Alas, he is right in the sense that we don’t produce enough and have no cheerful prospects in the globalized world. Nothing much is going on here that promises a new dawn around the corner. Tourism is the biggest industry, and we may be fated to become “the Florida of Europe” since the climate is a huge asset (far nicer than Florida’s) and we have antiquity to boot. Newspaper columnists lament that we let the Spanish beat us out in the fishing industry and the Asians in manufacturing shoes and textiles. Farming is precarious and we import most of our food.

Meanwhile the government is raising fees of all sorts, such as the amount a citizen pays for being seen at a public hospital emergency room. On January 1st this fee went up from about $4 (which was clearly too low) to 20 Euros (about $27). A young ophthalmologist, who is my student, says that on the morning of the first day of the new price, the number of patients in the waiting room of the eye clinic was down to 8, from the usual 50 to 60. He thinks the missing 42 or so would have gone to a pharmacy and made a stab at getting an appropriate inexpensive med.

An economist friend tells us the public health system has been incredibly wasteful, and clearly it should have managed to incorporate some kind of means test, as was obvious when I had an operation to remove a malignant melanoma and realized the various charges had added up to about $6. Still, an American knows about the horrors of a wholly private system. And the high quality of Portuguese medicine has been proven over and over in international statistics, including the spectacular drop in infant mortality that was achieved in little more than 30 years since the Revolution of 1974.

As each painful new measure is introduced, our Prime Minister promises more. In his Christmas speech he said he was aware of the “indignation, despair, depression and anger” in the air, but he warned us there is worse to come and that 2012 will be a year of privation and suffering to make 2011 look rosy in retrospect.

Wilton and I and most of our friends are very, very, very lucky, simply because we are oldish and more or less retired. We have paid off our sunny flat in the center of Lisbon and our little farm, educated our children, accumulated some savings and stuck to our fairly simple tastes. We’re eating out less, not because the price of food has gone up so far, but because the VAT paid on a restaurant meal has nearly tripled. All salaries in the public sector and all pensions have been cut. The state pension, which is the only one that most older people get, comes after a working life of fairly steep deductions and is much closer to a retiree’s final salary than American Social Security. It has been cut by two months a year. This was done by declaring that no one will receive the 13th and 14th month bonuses paid at Christmas and at the August holiday. These two extra months, which came in after the Revolution in 1974, helped people catch up financially, so losing them is disastrous for most people.

Thousands of shops, factories and restaurants have already gone to the wall all over the country, which makes for boarded-up facades and grass growing between the cobblestones. At the moment any clothing shop that has survived thus far is advertising on-going sales with discounts of 70 or 80%. It’s hard to tell if they are doing this simply to compete, or just to get rid of as much stock as possible before closing for good. Shops of the famous brand name “Zara” (stylish but inexpensive clothes, worn at times by the Duchess of Cambridge!) are practically giving away their stuff, but since Zara has become an international brand it won’t close altogether, we hope, but just reduce the number of outlets.

On our street huge red “for sale” signs are plastered on many floors of the large former apartment buildings (when we moved here in ’76, a friend of mine called it “an old fascist neighborhood”) that were turned into offices during the seventies and later. On floors across the street where we used to see people working into the night (to save the firm?) the windows are now dark. We figure that when the posh shops (Stivali, Escada, Max Mara, etc) on the ground floors go dark, our block will become slightly spooky at night.

For the first time in the forty years we’ve been here, there are people, mostly young guys, riding bicycles in Lisbon. No one thought this would ever happen, because the city is built on seven hills and car traffic was fierce and dangerous. It’s possible some of these kids have done the “Erasmus” exchange year and spent time in university in some other part of the EU where bikes were standard. In any case, car traffic is growing sparser by the day, so now the whizzing bicycles look fairly safe.

Being semi-immune can make one feel grateful to be spared and then very guilty when we compare ourselves to the unemployed, especially in factory towns where the one employer has closed down, so various members of a family may lose their jobs on the same day.

The plight of the young of all social classes is deeply disturbing. No matter how enterprising, neither university graduates nor Joe Six-Packs can find jobs. They’re being advised by their parents (and by our new Prime Minister in an unguarded moment) to emigrate. But emigrate where — when the rest of Europe is going under? The Prime Minister mentioned Angola and Brazil (Portuguese-speaking former colonies) as plausible for the thousands of newly-graduated teachers for whom there are no jobs. Brazil replied at once: ‘Don’t look at us,’ and Angola doesn’t want the Portuguese back again, although thousands have gone there anyway. The Brazilian consulate, according to a friend, has a backlog of 50,000 applications for working papers at the moment, and everyone knows a few kids who have just “parachuted in,” hoping to get legalized later on. A full-page ad for Vespa says, “If you decide not to emigrate, buy a fuel-efficient way to get around.”

By now I have read hundreds of articles about the Euro crisis, the mismanaged banks, the hare-brained and/or corrupt politicians who averted their eyes from encroaching disaster, the ravages of globalization. One article of faith among the people who speak with authority (and who would be Republicans in the USA) is that the European “social state” is totally obsolete and unaffordable. The “social state” (which the Portuguese adopted after the Revolution in 1974 when they cast off the last surviving semi-fascist regime in Europe) presumes that a humane society includes a virtually free national health service, a state-financed school system, state financed universities, and some provision for the poor, neglected, and handicapped. The European Union is built on this model, and although adopting a one-size-fits-all currency (the Euro) may have been premature or otherwise mistaken, the EU itself, as our daughter Ana says, is one of the noblest experiments in human history: 550 million people spread across a continent, signing up to enlightened policies about health, education, employment and the environment.

But when the crise began and the financial rating agencies (Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, Fitch) were clearly exercising more clout than elected governments, the dismantling the “Estado Social” began in earnest. Our new prime minister is a pleasant enough young man, but he is a “liberal” who wants a market economy at all costs. (“Liberal” in this part of Europe has a diametrically opposite meaning from “liberal” in the USA. Liberal ideas here mean favoring laissez-faire economics, and rule by the markets, with a minimum of protection for the weak.) When the Troika came up with proposals for removing rent controls and “liberalizing” the housing market, which meant abolishing measures that traditionally protected the elderly, poverty-stricken, or handicapped from rent rises, a young woman government minister blurted out that they were talking as if no human beings were involved. (This was reminiscent of an Italian minister, also a woman, who burst into tears when announcing cuts in old-age pensions.) Lazy and/or villainous people (“malandros”) have exploited the social state, of course, but on the whole the Portuguese are more apt to consider that malandros are outnumbered by “coitados.” The ratings agencies with their sudden swoops — “Portugal is “lixo” (‘junk’) now!” said the headlines when Portugal was down-graded yet again — are bogey-men, too disembodied to be attacked.

People are convinced (without much statistical support so far) that we are in the grip of a new crime wave. The crimes that get TV coverage are less violent and more entertaining than in places like the US: bank cash machines in suburbs or provincial towns being wrenched from their niches by men driving back-hoes in the middle of the night. Or rural crimes, like an item about country people who wake up in the morning to find that someone has raided their woods and stolen pine cones so as to extract the pine-nuts, which are a cash crop if you can get your hands on enough 20 kilo sacks of them. Copper wire is being stolen at such a rate that 400,000 subscribers have lost their phone service.

“Solidarity” is a watch-word, though most of it probably takes place within families. Now middle- aged parents are providing for their grown children. The “Banco Alimentar” gathers large amounts of food from supermarket customers for distribution to needy families. During school vacations like Christmas, the public schools continue to open and to serve breakfast, lunch and a late afternoon snack to children whose families clearly cannot feed them. Lots of the unemployed probably survive by working in the very large “parallel economy” which exists wherever services like hairdressers and cafes can get away without giving receipts.

Years ago we began to read articles and see television news segments about deserted villages in the “interior,” where the last inhabitant has just died at 101. As farming declined and the population gravitated towards the coast and to big towns, the birth-rate has fallen steadily. Now Portugal has a birth-rate of 1.5 children per woman, which is low even in shrinking Europe. A recent article presented touching interviews with youngish women who say that having a second child is now completely out of the question for financial reasons, no matter how much they long for one. The health service has closed several maternity hospitals for lack of activity.

Wilton and I go once or twice a week to concerts at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which has a superb music program. The audiences seem not to have dwindled so far, but they are strikingly elderly (a sea of white heads!) which makes us wonder who will be around fifty years from now. Will there by anyone of purely Portuguese origin? Some of the Ukranian, Moldavian and Polish immigrants have gone home, leaving behind Brazilians, Africans, and a growing number of Chinese — also Rumanian gypsies, who must still see Portugal as a fairly tolerant place to be a professional beggar. Lisbon neighborhoods and all decent-sized provincial towns have Chinese shops which sell junky clothes and household stuff. Suddenly some of the Chinese shopkeepers have shifted to fruit, another mystery. Either the market for plastic junk is saturated or they figure that no matter how poor people are, they still have to eat.

Real estate prices are falling… and falling… and falling. If you hanker to buy a breathtaking apartment in Lisbon, possibly carved out of an 18th century palace, or perhaps a stately home surrounded by vineyards in the north of Portugal, or a long, low farmhouse with a few cows grazing on gently rolling golden fields in the Alentejo, this is your moment.

Dr. Johnson said that “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life.” He was doubtless thinking of intellectual stimulation, not physical beauty and definitely not kindly sun and intensely blue skies, so it’s hard to know what he would have said about Lisbon. But I think no one tires of it as they might tire of, say, Los Angeles. Over my nearly 40 years here, I have come to love the city with a deep affection I’ve never felt for another (even Boston or New York!) The light is matchlessly beautiful as the afternoon shades into evening. The old neighborhoods are a mixture of shabbiness and charming restoration that has brought back the old colors: ochre, salmon, pale pink and green. Everything feels human-sized, safe, cozy. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. It’s true the Portuguese are often said to be subdued and melancholy (listen to some Fado!). And compared with the Greeks they must be: we are not Mediterranean, after all, but Atlantic. By now, I find this ambiance not only restful but entirely normal. (When Ana is home from London or Brussels and we catch a glimpse of Americans on TV (on “Oprah” or “Dr. Oz”) their manic enthusiasm looks forced and we laugh at “those happy, clappy Americans” as the Brits say.

There’s a lovely song by Stephen Foster, “Hard times, hard times come again no more.” I don’t know of one that corresponds in Portuguese, although the language has lots of expressions about hard times: years are either ones of “vacas gordas” or “vacas magras” (fat cows or thin cows) or “Quem nấo tem cấo, caҫa com gato” (“Who has no dog must hunt with his cat.”) Maybe the resignation of rural folk will have to do, for a while.

Podcast • April 27, 2012

Daron Acemoglu on “Extractive” Politics and Us

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg) Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like Why Nations Fail, Professor Acemoglu is large-size and learned, young ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg)

Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like Why Nations Fail, Professor Acemoglu is large-size and learned, young in spirit, digressive, reader-friendly and not at all shy about the after-argument around the epic account of economic inequality he wrote with political scientist James Robinson at Harvard.

The book is a theory of “development” wound through 500 years of mostly predatory colonial history. The argument can be made simple enough: that the mal-distribution of money and happiness in our polarized world is rooted not, for example, in the geography of foodstuffs (the Jared Diamond account in Guns, Germs and Steel), and not in the burdens of climate, bad soil and disease (a main line in Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty). No, no no… Acemoglu and Robinson affirm what feels intuitive anyway. The big difference in the world is between political arrangements designed and built to serve the many — or the few. It’s between state structures (usually resembling their dominant industries) that are purposefully maintained as “inclusive,” in the interest of pluralism, innovation and the common good; or “extractive,” for the benefit of an economic and power elite.

It’s the after-argument around Why Nations Fail that becomes the core of our conversation. I’m asking: isn’t a main warning in Why Nations Fail directed at the United States? Aren’t the scariest symptoms of “extractive” politics on our home turf, where the financial elite is throwing billions this year at both parties to block economic reform and taxes on itself? And shouldn’t we see a striking fit here with historian Tony Judt’s last judgment in Ill Fares the Land that an American “way of life” is on a cliff edge, desperately in need of a new public conversation?

On the broad questions Daron Acemoglu is both gravely worried and tentatively optimistic. What “really worries” him about the United States is that we’ve “already started the slide toward extractive institutions.” It’s not just the wealth inequality “that has soared over the last three or four decades.” It’s the eclipse of the myth and often the reality that Average Joes rule our politics. “That you cannot say today. Today the political system, I believe, is largely just listening to the very rich. The SuperPacs are the icing on the cake. It’s lobbying and campaign contributions — just the fact that whenever politicians want to get advice they turn to the very wealthy.” Citizens United and SuperPacs made a bad situation worse. “That’s where the slide becomes very serious,” he said.

And still, Acemoglu is optimistic because “we’ve been here before.” At the end of the 19th Century and the Gilded Age, when economic inequality was even higher than today, American politics was open enough to let Populist and Progressive movements take root in both parties, to enlist Teddy Roosevelt in the war against monopolists and “malefactors of great wealth,” to sustain a long reform era that delivered antitrust laws, direct election of Senators and voting rights for women. “That sort of thing was possible 100 years ago. The question is: is it possible today?”

The sharpest rejoinder is from Acemoglu’s close friend and MIT colleague Simon Johnson of Thirteen Bankers fame, the onetime IMF economist who described our problem as “state capture” by the financial industry, meaning we’re a banana republic owned by big money. “The Acemoglu-Robinson book is ultimately upbeat about the United States. We have built strong economic and political institutions, and these will prevail. I’m not so sanguine,” Johnson wrote in the New York Times recently. “I’m surveying the political landscape closely for anyone who can play the role of Teddy Roosevelt, using legal tools to break monopoly “trusts” and shifting the mainstream consensus decisively toward imposing constraints on the abuse of power by powerful individuals. So far, I see no one truly in the Roosevelt tradition with a realistic chance of election, while the rich become more powerful and the powerful become even richer.”

Professor Acemoglu concurred heartily with the Johnson diagnosis, then tossed the question back at us — that is, at all of us. “Is the system open enough to finally rally around somebody to stop the slide?”

Podcast • April 24, 2012

Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (46 min, 21 meg) Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Andrew Bacevich (46 min, 21 meg)

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.

Podcast • April 13, 2012

Jay Rosen on our Media Malaise: Who Will Tell the People?

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn't believe -- it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call "media" has been transformed by the digital revolution.

 

Jay Rosen – NYU journalism professor, social-media rock star and most thoughtful of press watchers – thinks the critical news stories of our time have grown “Too Big to Tell.”

We’re pulling on a thread — “what are we going through?” essentially — that began with the late Tony Judt‘s last book of sermons Ill Fares the Land and continued with Timothy Snyder and Thinking the Twentieth Century. It’s a wide-open inquiry that needs your nudges. Listen and comment, please!

Here’s Jay Rosen on the media piece:

It’s impossible to register in our public conversation an America in decline, a loss of confidence. We also haven’t dealt with the huge crisis of accountability. Nobody’s accountable for anything in this country. Who’s accountable for a phony case for war, put forward in 2002 and 2003? Nobody! Who’s accountable for a financial crash and corrupt financial practices that went on for years and made lots of people rich? Nobody! Who’s responsible for failing to detect a phony case for war — in the press? Nobody. Just to take an example: David Gregory [of NBC] to this day maintains that he and his colleagues reporting on the White House and the Bush Administration did a great job in the run-up to the war. He says this today. His reward for that is not to be laughed out of the profession but to get Tim Russert’s chair on Meet the Press. He’s bigger than ever! To me just that little story tells the tale of accountability in the United States. And it’s that group of people that still has a hold on the political conversation, even though fewer people believe them or pay attention or rely on them. And so the alternative to a reality-based politics, which we do not have, is just a huge increase in cynicism.

That idea of stories too big to tell, lies too big to take back, an audience hooked on placebos it doesn’t believe — it all makes sense about a malaise that the late Tony Judt was trying to pierce. Jay Rosen is putting his finger on one of the biggest mysteries in this troubled American moment. On one hand: what we call “media” has been transformed by the digital revolution. The tools of publishing and broadcasting have all been distributed, which is to say: democratized. Critically independent websites like Politico, TPM, Daily Kos and TruthDig have taken root, and vast horizontal networks like Facebook thrive. Yet, on the other hand, in some strange way “the conversation” has not moved. If anything, Jay Rosen says, the grip of reality has been weakened. As Joan Didion remarked in 1988 about the specialized and professionalized “process” around a presidential campaign: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.” I am asking Jay Rosen: are we looking at the end of something, or the beginning of something else?

I would say ‘the end’ in this sense: the only real program for change we have now is: Collapse! Because we have these institutions that don’t work. They are in many ways constructed on illusions or lies. They go… go… go… go… go… until the day that they don’t. Like the whole mortgage-fueled financial system, right? It worked… it worked… it worked… it worked… and then one day it collapsed, with a lot of destruction and almost a kind of violence. We’re now in a period where we can’t reform, so we’re waiting for various forms of collapse. Now in the aftermath, yeah, sometimes that can be the start of something. But I don’t see right now any alternative. The institutions that are supposed to be able to take account of reality — name it, frame it, allow for a contest of ideas, permit a choice of large directions to be made and therefore allow us to find some sort of imperfect remedy — just don’t work. And so the alternative is: Collapse. But in the collapse there are new tools, there are new ideas, there’s another generation. Certainly it’s not going to be you and me! And so there’s where the case for optimism is. We still need people like Tony Judt. We need writers just trying to make sense of their own experience, who can name and frame what they see. But the tools for ignoring those people roar. They are powerful, too.

Jay Rosen with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 5, 2012

This all calls to mind our last conversation with the late Anthony Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his people-first coverage of the war in Iraq. What the most honored of reporters on the Middle East wanted to get off his chest with me two years ago was that “I find it almost painful to come home to the States…” He was in grave distress wondering if anyone had read his stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times, about the war at the level of Iraqi villages and families. “I think it’s just spectacular that we don’t appreciate the devastation that has been wrought in Iraq over the past 7 or 8 years. It’s just spectacular. There was an incredible amount of arrogance that went into this entire experience on the part of journalists, on the part of policy makers and the military. There wasn’t even a desire to learn. It does give you pause.”

April 13, 2012

George Scialabba: Media Malaise and this American Condition

George Scialabba flatters and provokes with a comment on Jay Rosen‘s view of dysfunctional media and the Tony Judt thread of Open Source conversations. George is an independent essayist — erudite but not academic, as his friend John Summers has noted, critical but not rancorous. ...


George Scialabba
flatters and provokes with a comment on Jay Rosen‘s view of dysfunctional media and the Tony Judt thread of Open Source conversations. George is an independent essayist — erudite but not academic, as his friend John Summers has noted, critical but not rancorous.

We posted a general gab with George Scialabba three years ago on the occasion of his collection What are Intellectuals Good For? You can read his own strong essay on Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land on George’s website.

About Jay Rosen’s view that the American misadventure in 2012 is a story “too big to tell,” George writes:

I think the problem with the media, and public discourse generally, is the concentration of ownership. Clear Channel has wiped out radio as a democratic medium. Conglomerates own broadcast TV, and large investors press furiously on cable networks to meet profit targets. Murdoch is a journalistic pestilence, and Sam Zell, who ruined the LA Times and/or Chicago Tribune, is likewise, in his different way. Publishing is a wasteland of corporate rationalization, hopelessly profit-driven and plagued by marketing departments horning in on editorial decisions.

The problem is fundamental and systemic, not contingent. As long as information and access to audiences are treated as commodities rather than as public utilities, there will be a race to the bottom, with the inevitable degradation of quality/individuality and then wholesale abandonment, exactly as happens with other industries. The only way to halt and then reverse the hollowing out of the culture or the economy, the public or the private sphere, is robust democracy: the determined and persistent self-assertion of the populace against the many-tentacled corporate hydra, which now wholly owns government. But of course this is the worst possible time to look for such self-assertion: no unions, one in six working-age people un- or under-employed, the rest mainly dependent on employers for health-care and retirement security. Of course the populace is insecure and overstressed – not the frame of mind in which to create a vast grassroots movement, even if we weren’t continually bombarded by right-wing propaganda.

I haven’t used the word “capitalism” because I don’t think it’s necessary to decide on the exact shape of a new society before addressing the obvious malfunctions of the present one. And although I think the only lasting solutions are radical ones, that doesn’t mean that I think one must begin by seizing the state, or even running a candidate for president. I think efforts like Ralph Nader’s public service groups – ongoing, low-cost, outside the electoral racket – are useful. The Z media network here in Boston is useful. There are lots of little magazines, small publishers, independent documentaries, seat-of-the-pants websites, and of course conscientious academics like Jay Rosen. It’s not really a problem of ideas – the people and outlets I’ve just mentioned have lots of great ideas. It’s a problem of resources. In this society, as in any (forgive me) capitalist society, the people with the resources are likely to have little concern for the public good, and the people with the most concern for the public good are likely to have the fewest resources. But that’s life before democracy.

Other resources for listeners: Chomsky and Herman’s great Manufacturing Consent; Glenn Greenwald’s invaluable column in Salon; the independent community TV channel in Cambridge, which shows many superb documentaries that you’ll never see elsewhere; Ralph Nader’s underappreciated book Only the Rich Can Save Us; and of course, Radio Open Source.

Inviting further comments — please! and of course. Thank you.

Podcast • April 11, 2012

Tim Snyder and Tony Judt: another narrative for Campaign 2012

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Tim Snyder (63 min, 29 meg) Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.” I’m ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Tim Snyder (63 min, 29 meg)

Timothy Snyder, a rising-star historian at Yale (most recently of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin), is turning up the heat on his friend Tony Judt’s parting sermons about “social democracy.”

I’m taking Tony Judt’s last books as “a catalog of the malaise” in the land, and as a catalyst of an Open Source quest for an alternative narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign. Grab a line, please!

Tim Snyder drew almost literally the last words out of Tony Judt as he succumbed two years ago to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Thinking the Twentieth Century is their “talking book,” which they spoke and edited together. It’s Judt’s intellectual autobiography and a shared reflection on history at a dicey moment in the Western world.

Tony Judt’s hope was in the “social democratic” compromises that keep alive dreams of equality, inclusion and fairness on a capitalist playing field. Tim Snyder adds his own high notes of urgency. What’s ruinous today, he’s saying, is not the cost of “social democracy” in education, public health, and modern transport, which can be shown to pay for themselves. Rather it’s inequality and social isolation that exact a price in many measures of health and happiness — in crime, mental illness, life expectancy and social stability. The problem in Europe, Snyder says, is typified by Greece, which “like the United States has lots of wealth inequality and lots of rich people who avoid paying taxes.”

This is another lesson of history: you can tell states are about to fall when the wealthy people who have been their bulwark are no longer contributing. They’re making bets elsewhere, and the state isn’t strong enough to make them pay taxes. And that’s kind of where we are now, which is why I worry. Not only do we have very rich people who don’t pay very many taxes, but we have this idea that it’s bad to make them pay taxes. And Mitt Romney incorporates that argument.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

I hear a piercing cri de coeur in Tony Judt’s last several books, touching something much hotter and heavier than the campaign rancor so far, clearer and deeper than anything the Tea Party or Occupy have articulated, but not so distant from the general panic attack that many millions among us are facing:

We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach…

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. p. 217.

Tim Snyder is speaking also of something gone drastically wrong in the public conversation. We now have a 24-hour news cycle, as he puts it, and an ever narrower discourse. It annoyed Tony Judt, he says, that we call ourselves a nation of non-conformism and free speech, when in truth “our intellectual life is impoverished compared with many democracies in the world or with the U. S. 50 years ago.” Here’s the Tony Judt version in print:

We cannot hope to reconstruct our dilapidated public conversation — no less than our crumbling infrastructure — unless we become sufficiently angry at our present condition. No democratic state should be able to make illegal war on the basis of a deliberate lie and get away with it. The silence surrounding the contemptibly inadequate response of the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina bespeaks a depressing cynicism toward the responsibilities and capacities of the state: we expect Washington to under-perform… Most people don’t feel as though they are part of any conversation of significance. They are told what to think and how to think it. They are made to feel inadequate as soon as issues of detail are engaged; and as for general objectives, they are encouraged to believe that these have long since been determined.

Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin 2010. pp. 161, 172…

Tony Judt acted out a rare conviction in the power of the word — and of his own words to the last breath. He believed it was the intellectuals’ job not only to broaden the public conversation but to change it. “If we do not talk differently,” he wrote , “we shall not think differently.” So a central part of this Tony Judt challenge we’re pursuing has to do with the mainstream American discourse we call “media” — how it works and what we make of it. Our next conversation in this thread is with the ever provocative champion of “civic media,” and now a star of “social media,” Jay Rosen of the dauntless and durable PressThink website, who chanced also to be Tony Judt’s colleague at New York University.

By way of reintroducing Tony Judt, consider his passion for trains, and train stations — those “cathedrals of modern life,” collective projects for individual and common benefit, as he wrote. In Mumbai and Milan, Paris and New York, trains and their stations remain both “perennially contemporary” and “aesthetically appealing” — quite unlike airports. And they work! — much as they were designed to work from the beginning. Tim Snyder makes trains a sort of lesson that Tony Judt learned in scholarship, in life, in politics — that “we don’t become individuals all by ourselves. We can’t become responsible, we can’t become interesting, we can’t become individuals of any sort without some sort of collectivity. And I think trains were all about that…”

When you’re on a train, you can be all alone — reading your book, you don’t have to be paying attention to anyone else. But you are with other people, even if the only thing you have in common with the others is that you’re going to the same place, in the same direction. But the process of being on the train is one of looking around and noticing differences, right? So you can be alone together. Which is different from, on the one hand, the American practice of commuting in your car by yourself, staying up late playing a video game, where you’re alone alone. It’s also different from the kind of radical socialist or communist dream of being together together, where we’re all part of the same working class and we’re going to get rid of all those other people who aren’t… It’s somewhere right in the middle. It’s alone together. Together alone. Trains give us that, and in some sense I think that’s what modern society has to be like. The alone-alone is kind of a nightmare. The together-together is kind of a nightmare. It’s the alone-together, you know, which is tenable and which we can make if we want to make it.

Timothy Snyder with Chris Lydon in the historians’ lounge at Yale, April 9, 2012

Comments, please! Or email to chris@radioopensource.org. And thanks!