January 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Voodoo economics, the KGB on Fleet Street, the case for charter schools, and other observations

With a salute (for borrowing his catch-phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

WHICH WOULD BE MORE EFFECTIVE IN STIMULATING THE U.S. ECONOMY: PUBLIC SPENDING OR TAX CUTS? The sad truth is that America’s leading economists can’t agree on an answer. This confusion raises the question: does economic theory fall in the category of science (albeit social science), or should it more properly be categorized along with softer disciplines like music, art, and literature?

Take something basic: the multiplier effect. There’s not even agreement among economists about the relative impact on the nation’s GDP by the two approaches. Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw has suggested that tax cuts might stimulate the economy through the multiplier effect more significantly than government expenditures in a recent New York Times piece (“Is Government Spending Too Easy an Answer?”)

Mankiw explained that economist Valerie A. Ramey has estimated that “each dollar of government spending increases the G.D.P. by only 1.4 dollars.” Mankiw added:

A recent study by Christina D. Romer and David H. Romer, then economists at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that a dollar of tax cuts raises the G.D.P. by about $3. According to the Romers, the multiplier for tax cuts is more than twice what Professor Ramey finds for spending increases.

Princeton’s Paul Krugman, perhaps the leading exponent of massive federal spending among economists, disagrees with Mankiw, and made this claim in his New York Times column:

Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

So what are we to believe about the multiplier effect? Do tax cuts generate three times the benefit of public spending? Is the dismal science a science? If Ivy League economists can’t agree on the facts, it’s no wonder that policy makers look to split the difference (which explains why the stimulus package has both tax cuts and spending). Voodoo economics, anyone?

AND WHILE WE’RE SPLURGING, WHY NOT A REVIVED SPACE PROGRAM? A very strong argument can be made that the space race of the 1960s—and the corresponding perfection of the microchip and other innovative technologies—sparked the American economy in the decades that followed.

So why not a revival of NASA? I’d wager that innovations in battery storage and power, a key to moving towards green electric cars, will come faster from aerospace engineers than from the automakers.

DID ADVOCATES OF GLOBALISM EVER IMAGINE A FORMER KGB AGENT OWNING A LONDON NEWSPAPER? Born-again capitalist and Russian oligarch Aleksandr Y. Lebedev is buying a majority stake in The Evening Standard. Lebedev served as a KGB agent in London during the Cold War and, a self-professed Anglophile, claims to love James Bond, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell, and Margaret Thatcher. File under: stranger than fiction.

WILL THE UNITED STATES BECOME THE 21ST CENTURY MODEL FOR A MULTI-RACIAL SOCIETY? It’s not just the election of Barack Obama, a biracial man of African and European background, to the presidency, that suggests we are moving closer to that reality. The fact that an African-American rock singer, Darius Rucker (best known as the leader singer for Hootie and the Blowfish), has been so quickly and warmly embraced by country music fans, who are predominately white, reflects the tectonic shifts in race relations underway. Rucker is the first African-American artist in 25 years (since the trailblazer Charley Pride) with a No. 1 hit on the country charts.

THE CASE FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS BECOMES MORE COMPELLING AS STUDIES OF their performance in troubled urban school districts become available. As columnist Scot Lehigh of the Boston Globe notes about results from the public schools in Boston: “Compared with students in traditional schools, charter school students are doing significantly better in math and English, according to the analysis by researchers from Harvard and MIT.”

Will President Obama and new Education Secretary Arne Duncan heed the calls for support of charter schools from educators and community activists like Joel I. Klein and Al Sharpton and education reformers like Knowledge Is Power Program’s Mike Feinberg and David Levin. Will Obama follow through on his campaign pledge to double federal funding for charters? Or will they fold under pressure from teachers unions, which oppose the expansion of charters, because these schools often dispense with union rules?

FOR THOSE WHO APPRECIATE THE ARTISTIC ASPECTS OF BASKETBALL, RAY ALLEN OF THE BOSTON CELTICS NEVER DISAPPOINTS. Allen’s graceful team play and long-range shooting touch make him an obvious choice for the NBA All Star team. His approach to the game isn’t flashy, just incredibly effective.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUTHOR AND POET RUDYARD KIPLING (1865-1936): “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

Both American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, named Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when asked recently by journalists to cite their favorite novel. McCain has said that during his captivity in North Vietnam as a POW he recited portions of the book to himself.

It’s intriguing that both McCain and Obama chose a novel set not in the United States, but in Spain during its fratricidal Civil War in the late 1930s. The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is an American, however, Robert Jordan, a leftist college professor and International Brigades volunteer who embarks on a dangerous mission to blow up a strategic bridge in the Iberian hill country. At least one conservative writer, Michael Knox Beran, has tartly suggested that McCain should find a different favorite, one that isn’t “a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.”

There is some irony in Beran’s critique of the politics of Hemingway’s novel, because the hard Left in the United States, including some of the American Communists who served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (part of the International Brigades), ferociously attacked the book (and its author) after its publication in 1940. These critics, among them former Lincoln commander Milton Wolff, objected to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Soviet motives and tactics in Spain and to his unsparing and harsh portraits of political commissar André Marty (known as the “Butcher of Albacete” for his purge of non-Communists in the International Brigades) and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, the Leftist icon also known as La Passionara. (Hemingway, never one to duck a fight, responded directly and profanely to those he called the “ideology boys.”)

Hemingway made a distinction between supporting the Loyalist cause, as did his fictional character Robert Jordan, and endorsing the Soviet strategy of deception and manipulation in dealing with the Republican government. Such an approach was anathema to the hardliners. There’s an amusing anecdote (recounted in Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War) involving the actor Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s choice to play Robert Jordan in the film of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alvah Bessie, a Lincoln veteran and screenwriter. During the filming, Bessie lectured Cooper about how the Spanish conflict hadn’t been a civil war, as Cooper believed, but instead was a German and Italian invasion designed to overthrow the legal government of Spain. Cooper’s laconic, and classic, response: “That so? That’s what so great about this country…a guy like you can fight in a war that’s none of his business.”

Art and the “Good Fight”

It’s not hard to see why the “Good Fight” (as the Spanish struggle was dubbed) inspired artists, poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers from the start. The conflict was rich with dramatic, and tragic, elements. Writers have been drawn by the idealism of many of the defenders of the Republic, and by the idea that the Spanish hostilities represented a dress rehearsal for World War II. Some of the best works about the conflict, such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s novel, have explored the tensions within the ranks of the Loyalists. This artistic and literary fascination with the “Good Fight” has continued into the 21st century as evidenced by a continuing stream of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, including English author C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a best-seller in Britain.

Sansom has set his fictional story in 1940 Madrid, a year after General Francisco Franco’s victory over the Loyalists, and Winter in Madrid shines brightest in its evocative portrayal of the grim life in Spain’s capital city: the compromises, and sacrifices, required for survival. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Brett, a veteran of Dunkirk, is recruited by British Intelligence to spy on a former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in shady business dealings with the Spanish government. Brett’s mission exposes him to the corruption and venality of the Nationalist victors, and to the growing rivalry between the Royalist and Falange wings of Franco’s regime.

Sansom’s characters reflect the range of British attitudes toward the Spanish conflict. Harry Brett is a self-described liberal Tory (“As far as I am concerned, Spain before the Civil War was rotten with chaos, and the Fascists and Communists both took advantage”). The crypto-Fascist Forsyth is balanced by a British Communist, Bernie Piper, an internationalist who embraces the Republican cause as part of a broader struggle against Fascism. And there is an English Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, an idealistic, but fragile, fellow traveler who becomes romantically involved with both Piper and Forsyth. The three men—Brett, Piper and Forsyth—have all attended Rookwood, a traditional British public school, and Sansom intersperses flashbacks of their school days throughout the pages of Winter in Madrid, linking past and present friendships and rivalries. That’s a lot of baggage for any novel to carry, and Sansom struggles to pull off the dual narratives.

He also misses the mark in his characterization of Forsyth, a straight-from-Central-Casting sadist, exactly the sort of predictable Fascist bad guy found in innumerable World War II thrillers. Franco’s Spanish supporters are also uniformly portrayed by Sansom as grasping, or evil, or both. Yet, it is possible for a novelist to write about the complex human dimensions of those loyal to a twisted ideology. For example, Alan Furst has created a number of fully-rounded characters drawn to totalitarian creeds in novels like The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, and Dark Star, and David Downing’s Zoo Station and Silesian Station give us flesh-and-blood Germans struggling to retain their decency in Nazi Germany. Winter in Madrid would have been better served by grays instead of black-and-white, and it would have been a much better novel if Sansom had risked more by creating less predictable, and less cliched, villains.

To his credit, Sansom gets his history right. There’s no whitewashing of Comintern treachery during the Civil War, and also no shying away from the post-war reality of Nationalist brutality. At one level, Winter in Madrid can be read as an indictment of Britain’s accomodationist policy toward Franco and the Spanish Right in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet Sansom acknowledges that by the time of the Battle of Britain, Whitehall’s options had narrowed. No matter how distasteful the Franco regime might be, keeping Spain out of an alliance with the Germans had to shape British policy.

Sansom’s imaginative leap in setting Winter in Madrid after the end of the civil war deserves praise as well. We see Spain confronting not only the human costs of its ideological death struggle—the shattered veterans, the orphans, the despairing widows—but also the grim prospects of life under a dictatorship. It is a fascinating, and haunting, story and Winter in Madrid tells it well.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The week (February 16th, 2007)

As Jimmy Cannon, columnist extraordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

NEW YORK CITY MAY BE LOSING SOME GROUND TO LONDON as a center for financial markets, but the Big Apple will remain the world’s capital of media, publishing, fashion, art, and pop culture whether or not some investments move from Wall Street to The City. The longer-term threat to New York’s reputation as the Center of the Universe will come not from London, but from Shanghai, another port city with economic vitality, ambitious people, and a long tradition of cosmopolitanism.

YOU CAN GAUGE AL GORE’S HUNGER FOR THE PRESIDENCY by checking out the size of his waistline. If he’s eager to be drafted as a compromise candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination looking as bloated as he did at the Grammy Awards—presenting the “Best Album” award to the Red Hot Chili Peppers along with co-presenter Queen Latifah (a bizarre grouping that could occur only in America)—doesn’t send the appropriately telegenic message that he’s fit, trim and ready to run.

Steve Kornacki of the New York Observer (itself recently trimmed into tabloid format) reports that Gore continues to weigh a 2008 run, but is delaying a decision until September, hoping to remain above the fray, and “…use the time to hit the gym and sweat off some of the weight he piled on the months after he conceded the 2000 race to President Bush.”

Before I face accusations of weightism, I’ll confess that I empathize with Gore on this (weighty) issue—it’s very hard to cut out enough carbs to get the bathroom scale needle headed in the right (and healthier) direction.

Gore will definitely stay in the public eye over the next few months. There is his likely Best Documentary Oscar win for “An Inconvenient Truth” on Feb. 25, and his “Live Earth ” climate change concert (Gore just announced the musical lineup this week) that will be a huge summer event. Meanwhile, long-time Gore backers assemble a draft campaign, and the former Vice President’s Gallup poll numbers swing up. Could it happen? Never say never.

As to the upcoming presidential race, when I recently suggested to a savvy Democratic pollster I know that the Electoral College map looked promising for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s ’08 presidential run, he demurred, arguing that Clinton could run into trouble in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania. He was sandbagging, in my view. With a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the Senate and a congressional delegation tilting blue, the tide is running Mrs. Clinton’s way.

The reality: it’s difficult to imagine Sen. Clinton losing any of the blue states carried by John Kerry in 2004, even if she is facing Rudy Guiliani or John McCain. If she carries Ohio (where the polls show her leading) , or Florida (where her husband is a decided plus in the black and Jewish communities), then Hillary Clinton becomes the first female president of the United States.

SUPPORT AMONG COUNTRY MUSIC ARTISTS FOR THE BUSH ADMINSTRATION’S IRAQ POLICY is waning, a development noted by the Boston Globe editorial board in its commentary “Speak up and sing.”

The Globe points out that the Dixie Chicks, outspoken in their dislike of President Bush, just won five Grammy Awards and that the music of other country singers, like Merle Haggard, Darryl Worley and Trace Adkins is reflecting a growing disillusionment with the Iraq war.

What the Globe editorial obscures, however, is that singers like Toby Keith, with his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgotten?”) wrote tough songs in response to the 9/11 attacks. Keith for one, says he opposed the Iraq war.

Country music singers are patriots, not partisans; many are blue-collar Democrats, including Keith, Tim McGraw (who apparently has political ambitions), Hal Ketchum (a member of the Music Row Democrats, along with Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith), and Billy Ray Cyrus (whose “We the People” became candidate Bush’s 2000 campaign theme song).

That isn’t to say there are many Nashville pacifists; country music’s roots are in the ballads brought to America by the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachian mountains and valleys, known for their sometimes violent frontier culture founded on male honor and religiosity. The Scots-Irish became a willing source of manpower for the American military for centuries.

As Walter Mead Russell pointed out in his 1999 National Interest article “The Jacksonian Tradition,” and James Webb reiterated in his book “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America,” America’s Scots-Irish have little patience for limited wars: they believe in fighting to win, and winning quickly. That helps explain, in part, why the Bush Administration has seen support for its adventure in Iraq slip in Red States.

PRESIDENTIAL WANNABE JOE BIDEN has provided ample comic relief these past few weeks with his “let Joe Biden be Joe Biden” and “Barack Obama is clean and articulate” riffs. But the Maryland Senator is not always clownish; his op-ed piece in the Miami Herald calling for the immediate opening of the Nazi archives at Bad Arolsen for Holocaust survivors, historians and researchers is public service at its best.

Germany and other European countries are foot-dragging on this because of “privacy concerns, logistical problems associated with making the records widely accessible and fears of new legal claims,” but the real reason, I suspect, is embarrassment over the tale of complicity and inhumanity the files will tell. Biden is right to call for an immediate opening of the records, before it is too late for the many aged survivors.

OUR WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the great New England poet Robert Frost: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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