Podcast • November 4, 2010

Reading Obama’s Mind: Pragmatism and Its Perils

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kloppenberg (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3) If there is a problem with Barack Obama’s thinking, his “intellectual biographer” James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama’s ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with James Kloppenberg (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

If there is a problem with Barack Obama’s thinking, his “intellectual biographer” James Kloppenberg is saying on the morning after Obama’s mid-term “humbling,” it’s not what he thinks, deep in the Democratic mainstream. Neither is Obama over-thinking his confoundingly broad assignment. Rather it may be the way he thinks, never so meticulously delineated as in Prof. Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition.

The teachers that critically shaped Barack Obama’s habits of mind — especially in the cauldron of social theory 20 years ago when Obama was editing the Harvard Law Review — come typically out of philosophical Pragmatism, the tradition of the American master mind, Williams James (1842 – 1910). Of James it’s been said that his first impulse on spotting an unlabeled fluid in a chem-lab beaker was to taste it — and see what happened! Pragmatism at this level is not deal-making opportunism. It is James’ spirit of experimentalism and his insistence on judging ideas, good and bad, by their results — by fruits, not roots. It is the spirit that William James’ friend in the Metaphysical Club, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brought to the immortal line: “The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience.”

The leading figures in James Kloppenberg’s catalog of Obama’s mentors all share in that heritage of Pragmatism: notably his devoted law professor Laurence Tribe who preaches the Constitution not as fixed revelation but as an organic document — “a conversation,” as Barack Obama used to say in law school. The real source of that view, Kloppenberg observes, was James Madison who came out of the Constitutional Convention saying, in effect: nobody got the Constitution he wanted; what happened was that we all learned to think differently as a result of the process of having to confront each others’ ideas. “I think,” Kloppenberg says, “that is how Barack Obama sees the democratic process.” John Rawls was another huge influence in the near background of Obama’s Harvard education — as Rawls’ masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, evolved into an understanding that a pluralist democracy is built not on unchanging principles but on “an overlapping consensus” around conflicting doctrines. In a different dimension but not far removed, Obama’s Chicago pastor, now eclipsed, Rev. Jeremiah Wright showed Obama a non-dogmatic Christianity: a transcendent God and a zeal for this-worldly activism, but not a direct answer to every political question.

Dominant threads in the skein of Obama’s thinking, in the Kloppenberg reading, are experimentalism, the rejection of dogma and ideology, Christian humility ahead of Christian militancy, skepticism and the embrace of philosophical uncertainty. It seems fair to ask if Jim Kloppenberg is describing the ideal attributes of a judicial mind but not of a political captain in howling storm. Has Barack Obama become Robert Frost’s caricature liberal, “too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”? Jim Kloppenberg would turn it into questions about us citizens: can American politics deal with more than a short litany of selected slogans out of our past? Are we capable of embracing a modern man with a modern mind?

Humility is not a virtue we associate that much with the Christians who call themselves Christian most loudly in 21st century America. So I think we have difficulty understanding him because he doesn’t have the same confidence that he’s got the answer that many Americans expect their politicians to voice, perhaps even to believe. And it seems to me a mark of his maturity — his self-consciousness, his sophistication as a thinker — to know that these are issues about which reasonable people may disagree. Now, that may not serve him very well in the era of Fox News, when what the people who attract attention like to do is simply shout louder than the other person and declaim, with ever more self-rightousness, that they are the only ones who have the answers…

When people treat Obama’s discourses on the importance of equality as somehow un-American or socialist, they’re betraying what I see as a really frightening ignorance of what was striking to contemporaries in the late 18th century about American politics. When European observers came to the United States, what struck them more than anything else was that outside the slave South, there was very little difference between the most prosperous and the least prosperous Americans. Compared to European nations, this was the nation of economic equality. When Thomas Jefferson goes back to Virginia after writing the Declaration of Independence, the first thing he does is to file legislation in the Virginia House of Burgesses ending primogeniture and entail, which were the tools by which European aristocrats kept intact their fortunes, so that they passed down to the first born son. Jefferson, Adams and Madison understood that, unless there were rough economic equality in the United States, a democratic form of government would not survive…

Harvard History Chairman James Kloppenberg with Chris Lydon, November 3, 2010

Podcast • September 27, 2010

Robert Reich: Soak the rich for their own good

Robert Reich is the point man in economics of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean used to say. That is, he’s been the burr under the saddle of the Wall Street ...

Robert Reich is the point man in economics of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Howard Dean used to say. That is, he’s been the burr under the saddle of the Wall Street wing that chased Reich, as Secretary of Labor, out of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet after the first term. Robert Rubin, imported from Goldman Sachs to reshape Clinton’s thinking and de-regulate finance, used to threaten to quit if Secretary Reich kept railing about “corporate welfare.” But it was Reich who left, and Rubin who stayed in the saddle, burr or no — who became Treasury Secretary and sponsored Larry Summers as his successor; the same Rubin who made Summers president of Harvard and then, after the meltdown, put his own and Wall Street’s stamp on the Obama era, too.

Reich’s new tract Aftershock, neatly coincidental with Larry Summer’s retirement from the White House, is a polite populist’s effort to seize a teachable moment in this season of anger. The disease in the economy and the public mood, he’s arguing, is not debt; it’s not even that we’re living beyond our means. It’s the 30-year trend to an obscene concentration of wealth — one percent of the population reaping more than 20 percent of the income — that has so diminished the means, so drained the purchasing power of the average American. Few politicians and policy wonks are as clear as Reich about the remedy to rebalance and build the whole economy: boost all incomes under $50,000 with direct supplements; and restore real taxes on the biggest earners with a marginal rate of, say, 55 percent. Today’s pattern of concentration, speculation, bust and stagnation recapitulates the crisis of the Great Depression, he’s saying. And it calls again for a Great Teacher:

What Obama needs to do is connect the dots. Americans don’t see the big picture. They don’t see the narrative. They don’t hear the story. They don’t understand that we’ve had three decades of flat wages, that almost a quarter of all income is now going to the top one percent. They don’t understand the connections between all of these issues and problems. They don’t see that there is a large tapestry here. A leader needs to weave that tapestry, show how one thing is related to another. We’ve not had a president who did that since Ronald Reagan. The tapestry he wove was the wrong tapestry; it bore no relation to reality. But at least he explained. He showed how “a” relates to “b” relates to “c”. He did connect the dots…

Robert Reich with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, September 24, 2010

Podcast • June 23, 2010

Bromwich’s Edmund Burke: “America is out of itself”

David Bromwich is channeling the lost conservative voice of Edmund Burke, the missing wisdom on our mad Afghanistan misadventure. This is what Yale’s Sterling Professors of Literature are for, now and then: to recalibrate commentary ...

David Bromwich is channeling the lost conservative voice of Edmund Burke, the missing wisdom on our mad Afghanistan misadventure. This is what Yale’s Sterling Professors of Literature are for, now and then: to recalibrate commentary to the cadences of immortality.

In my long-ago Yale time, Burke was the voice of God for aspiring right-wingers in the school of Bill Buckley and the National Review; he was Buckley’s model of judgment, custom, continuity, restraint, “the wisdom of our ancestors” and the notion that “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

In his own Parliamentary time (1765-1794), Burke had preached conciliation, not war, with the rebel colonies in America. He wrote the book on France “out of itself” in the Jacobin riot of revolution. More instructive for us, Burke was the conscience of the British Empire who drove the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the abusive, plundering chief of the East India Company, for “the great disgrace of the British character in India.”

Our Burke bumper-sticker today is that he “loved liberty and hated violence.” As Jedediah Purdy read Burke in his admirable post-911 reflection, Being America, “Enough violence always destroys liberty; mutual respect is the best stay against violence. Moreover, the two appeal to opposite parts of human nature: violence to self-righteousness and the taste for domination, liberty to forbearance and a love of everyday life.” For Professor Bromwich, a modern man of classic letters, Burke remains “the greatest political writer in the English language.”

Burke stands, in Bromwich’s estimate, for the exemplary role of government “in showing the self-government of the powerful themselves, which means the self-restraint of the powerful, which means the resort to violence only as a last resort, and the responsibility of those who rule not to try to break the human personality or character or texture of any of the societies they come into contact with.”

I am asking David Bromwich as he finishes an intellectual biography of Burke for an American version of the great man. Closest approximations: the late Reinhold Niebuhr, Andrew Bacevich of The Limits of Power or Chalmers Johnson of The Sorrows of Empire. I am pestering David Bromwich for a Burkean view of the American predator drone strikes on Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example. He is observing that President Obama, who grew up with a global perspective, has fallen short not least as a teacher in office. He dubs Barack Obama “the Establishment President” in the London Review of Books this spring. In our conversation he muses that Obama…

…is a kind of academic character that I feel I’m familiar with. The strongest, most formative environment that he grew up in was academic and professional. He’s been around vaguely left-liberal but also corporate moneyed types, people like his Chicago crowd in Hyde Park, but also like Michael Froman, Jason Furman, Geithner, Summers, etc. He’s been around people like this for much of his life. And somebody like that thinks that the good people, the thinking people have hold of a lot of power already, and the plan of good sense should just be to make them rule in the right way, and to begin by speaking in a moderate tone… His sense of power being in roughly the right hands—it needs calibration and adjustment but not too much change, and it needs a push with the right attitudes more than force or distinction of policy—that seems to me who he is from my academic acquaintance with people like that. Now, the great exception to this would seem to be what he’s done with health care, but I think the way he did it tells more about him than the actual contents of what he has done. Health care was the mainstream left-liberal Democratic Party domestic policy that people wanted to see something done with for the last 50 years, and he decided to make his mark with that at some risk. It was a very peculiar decision, but in one sense the decision of a very conventional mind…

[Barack Obama] is a very fatherly parent in charge of a family that he doesn’t come home to that often. He thinks that his word goes, but he doesn’t watch too closely what follows when he says, “This is what I demand.” So, for example, on the closing of Guantanamo, he made that the first big pitch of his administration. It was very important, but there was apparently no follow-up pushed by him within his administration. Time was given for his political opponents, which includes the whole Republican Party, to rally against him, and now here we are almost a year and a half later: Guantanamo is not only still open, but there is no sign of it being near closing. He spoke with a tone of command, but the command was not followed, and he himself didn’t back his command with action.

If you pursue that again and again and again in one policy after another, you gradually become a leader who talks rather than acts, and you are known for that.

David Bromwich in conversation with Chris Lydon at Yale University, June 10, 2010.


Podcast • May 4, 2010

David Remnick: The "Race" Route over Obama’s "Bridge"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Remnick. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3) David Remnick is hanging out and indulging me here, late on a book-tour evening, in a little polite rattling of the ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with David Remnick. (27 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

David Remnick is hanging out and indulging me here, late on a book-tour evening, in a little polite rattling of the racial premise of his Obama story, The Bridge.

Race is Remnick’s theme — through young Obama’s assembling of an identity; in the local black politics of Chicago that first roughed him up; in the discontents around the Obama presidency in mid-2010. To me, contrarily, the tell-tale theme of the Obama story is Empire and the sorrows thereof, going back to family tales of colonial Kenya and Obama’s renunciation of “dumb wars” like Iraq.

I’ve been second-guessing Remnick’s emphasis since his remarkable New Yorker piece on “The Joshua Generation” in the issue of November 14, 2008. I wrote him at the time that I thought he’d misheard Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s famous “God damn America” speech. Wright’s “jeremiads,” Remnick wrote, “were meant to rouse, to accuse, to shake off dejection.” They were “part of a tradition well known to millions of church-going African Americans…” But I presumed to point out they weren’t standard rants at all. That “God damn America” line, I noted, “was first spoken in 1903 by the greatest of all American public intellectuals, William James, about the invasion, mutilation and occupation of the Philippines.

“It applies precisely today,” I emailed Remnick. “Reverend Wright’s outburst reflected not especially the sound of the black church but rather the popular intuition, now happily ratified by a national election, that the war in Iraq and nearly eight years of the Bush Doctrine are a damnable violation of our constitutional values and our place in the global, nay universal, scheme of things. The vote on November 4 was as much about Empire as it was about Race, or McCain or Bush, or the Meltdown.”

Remnick tracks the anxiety in the country today, the Age of Obama blues, to the “radical change” of complexion in the White House. I track it rather to the disorientations of extended empire — for example: the Golden State of California, at the brink of bankruptcy, issuing scrip, while Obama surges in Afghanistan, using drones against pre-modern tribesmen and American soldiers each costing $1-million a year. That’s a taste of the tension in our fast gab about a ripping good read in biographical journalism.

CL: Suddenly it dawns on me that we’re looking at David Remnick, who is one of the great writers on post-Soviet Russia. There’s a connection with a picture I can’t get out of my mind. An Italian legal scholar visiting Brown, stood up in the middle of a conference and said: “Don’t you realize, Obama is your Gorbachev… Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said in so many words, “the other pillar of the Cold War is shaking. You’ve come up with a good man in a desperate situation — in debt, in disrepute around the world; China is growing and will come out of the recession in a better way than the US will. There are all sorts of strains on the empire, and the real question for Obama, maybe the only question, is: can he hold this thing together?”  So: tear and compare, David: Gorby and Barack.

DR: Look, I in many ways am an admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, and I certainly think he was the most important political figure in the post-war world in the 20th Century. But a lot of what he did was sensibly and humanely manage the utter dissolution of the last empire on earth – and you will disagree with me on the world “last,” I know. A lot of of what Gorbachev did was with a very different intent. Gorbachev’s initial intent and even his intent all the way through was to have an outcome of a more humane, socialist communist party led Soviet Union. He did not intend for the Soviet Union to dissolve, he only dissolved the Communist Party regretfully after the August coup of 1991. Poetically are there parallels? Maybe. But in terms of practical politics? No. 

I think your analysis of China is, with respect, blind to the fact that the Chinese themselves have far, far, far deeper economic disparities and problems than we normally talk about. When we focus on China we tend to look at the booming Shanghai and the booming Beijing, and forget that there are hundreds of millions of incredibly poor people in a country with no democratic norms whatsoever.

To me, I would pose the question differently. To me, the ideological challenge of the 21st Century to some degree is posed by Russia and it is posed by China. Russia and China, each in their bravado, deeply question the Western presumption that free markets — however regulated, however not, depending on your politics — free markets and democratic norms go hand-in-hand. The Chinese and the Russians are saying “Baloney! We are developing faster than we ever have economically, and we do not cede the notion of democratic norms.”

That to me is the über picture that I see, more than I see a great parallel between Obama and Gorbachev.

David Remnick in conversation about The Bridge with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 29, 2010.

Podcast • August 24, 2008

Cass Sunstein: for the Homer Simpson in all of us

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Cass Sunstein (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3) Cass Sunstein of the gentle Nudge Cass Sunstein gives us the half-hour short course here on “the most exciting intellectual movement ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Cass Sunstein (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Cass Sunstein of the gentle Nudge

Cass Sunstein gives us the half-hour short course here on “the most exciting intellectual movement of the last thirty years” — behavioral economics, that is, of which we had a taste recently with George Lakoff and Dan Ariely.

Behavioral economics is the demonstration (by clinical psychology, affirmed by neuroscience) that the “rational man” of neo-classical economics is in fact, in Dan Ariely’s book title, Predictably Irrational — that we are eternally kidding ourselves in our choice of credit cards, or of diets and desserts; that we tend to lurch without much reflection from over-optimism to over-anxiety about terrorist threats, war risks, and environmental melt-downs. Cass Sunstein is himself a demonstration of the spread of the new thinking from psychology and economics to law and politics. From the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught alongside Barack Obama for a dozen years, he has just moved permanently to Harvard, where he and Obama seem still to be channeling each other. Sunstein’s new book Nudge, with the economist Richard Thaler, is an introduction to a variety of not-quite-coercive strategies for helping people get what they really want: 401k savings plans, for example, that would be automatic for all workers who didn’t choose to set some of their wages aside. The general trick, Sunstein says, is recognizing that there’s less Immanuel Kant, more Homer Simpson, in each and all us than we’ve been taught.

This started with psychology. Two Israelis Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did a bunch of amazing experiments in the 1970’s where they said people use some mental shortcuts in trying to think about risk. If a recent event, for example, is in your head, say it involves a crime or a misfortune or something wonderful happening, then you will think it’s really probable that the crime or the misfortune or the wonderful thing will happen. This way of thinking migrated first into economics. There has really been a revolution in economic thinking because economists are trying to do their work with a realistic rather than artificial sense of what human beings are like. The idea is that we can do economics with Homer Simpson as our types rather than doing economics with computers as our types. People just aren’t computers. When Homer, in one episode, went to buy a gun, the gun owner told him that him that there is a three day waiting period. And Homer responded: “What? Three Days? I’m angry now!” So that captures people’s passion and focus on the short term, and it also captures how law and policy can help a lot.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 21, 2008.