Preview of Coming Attractions: Another Sequel

While social conservatives – those values voters as the pollsters call them – hate what Hollywood is doing to America, and has always done to America, the fact of the matter is that Hollywood doesn’t shape American values. Everyone out here is in the business of making as much money as possible – obscene amounts of money. And you don’t do that by foisting odd things on the public. You give the public what it wants. And if that’s gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence, and movies where the bad guys are running the CIA and trying to kill Jason Bourne, or movies that are variations on Elmer Gantry – one more manipulative and nasty preacher sucking the evangelical rubes dry – so be it. People will pay to see that.

You take their money. What’s the problem? Yes, there are stoner movies, and gory movies with lots of blood and dismemberment, but The Sound of Music and The Ten Commandments made money too. Hollywood aims to please. And you’ll pay for what pleases you. All Hollywood has to do is tell you what you think you know, and tell it well, or at least not bore you. Sure, there are movies that startle you – but mostly by confirming what you already suspected. And that’s deeply satisfying. So what we have here is a wholly commercial enterprise – pure capitalism at work. It’s hardly some godless socialist plot to subvert American values. There’s no money in that.

In the early eighties many were upset with the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High – those kids were obsessed with sex, and there was the comic center of the movie, Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli – a charming stoner if there ever was one. And Phoebe Cates was topless on that diving board, and Stacey had that abortion, and so on and so forth.

This wasn’t right. Such a film would corrupt our youth. But the film was written by Cameron Crowe, adapted from his book – as a freelance writer for Rolling Stone he had gone went undercover at a high school out here and wrote about it. The prose documentary became a film comedy. Yes, there was much to startle you – but mostly by confirming what you already suspected. And that’s deeply satisfying. And it was funny as hell. Kids do obsess about sex, and social status, and there’s not much room for anything else. Ask anyone who has ever taught high school. It’s difficult.

But the movie touched on that in an odd way. Jeff Spicoli, the perpetually stoned would-be surfer – he never did surf at all – faced off again and again against that sour but oddly heroic history teacher Mr. Hand – Ray Walston at his best. It was a battle of wits. And they actually seemed to like each other in an odd way. It was the kid who lives in the immediate now, with all its urgencies, facing off against the man paid to tell the kids there was more to life than the immediate now, to tell them that history matters, as it is the context of everything. But this was high school after all, and we all remember high school history class – boring and useless. It’s something you endure. And this teacher knew that. He just hammered home the lessons in what the kids found hopelessly absurd anyway. And he was well aware his efforts were absurd in their own way. The film ends with Spicoli privately showing Hand that he actually got it – he knew what a number of historical events were actually about – and he passed the class and got to go to the prom or whatever that was at the end. It was most unlikely – but again, Hollywood gives America what America wants. We like to pretend that we think that history matters. The pieties must be observed.

But the odd thing is that history doesn’t go away, ever. That past isn’t even the past. Richard Rapaport explores this is The Fight That Just Won’t Die – Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt are both dead, and they’re still fighting, albeit through surrogates. It is a never-ending argument. Folks have kept them alive:

Gore Vidal tells of an apocryphal pilgrimage each April 12, the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death at Warm Springs, Ga. The trek, organized by the Dutchess County New York Republican Central Committee, supposedly wends its way up the old Albany Post Road from Poughkeepsie to Springwood, FDR’s beloved Hyde Park home. According to Vidal, the mythic mission is meant to reassure twitchy Republicans that the 32nd president still rests in something approaching peace at the Hyde Park Presidential Library – that he has not risen for some new 21st century “rendezvous with destiny.”

That’s odd, and Gore Vidal may be kidding, but it seems likely. Twitchy Republicans do hope he’s really dead. They may need reassurance these days – “the American right seems unable to rest easy until all vestiges of the social welfare programs associated with FDR’s New Deal are dead and buried with him.” Obama may have them worried.

Oh, and this is Hyde Park – a nice place. But Rapaport provides the counterbalance:

More imposing (if less charming) than Roosevelt’s Hudson River home and library, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace in Palo Alto is Hyde Park’s physical, political and spiritual antipode. Ten miles from California’s restless Pacific coast, the 25-story sandstone Spanish-Colonial Hoover Tower is the tallest structure on the forearm of the Peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose. It is part of Stanford University’s campus, and it is home to the intellectual cream of the New Deal-phobic American right.

And that’s the setup:

The physical and geographical dissimilarities between the Hoover Institution and Roosevelt Library make a solid gantry for any examination of the fundamental political and personal antagonisms between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover and how succeeding generations of their kith have hefted the political cudgel to carry on that fight. Friendly acquaintances early in their careers, the two men became the bitterest of rivals, opponents and ultimately enemies in what was arguably the most momentous clash of American political ideology in the 20th century. In the 1932 presidential campaign, the distinctions could not have been more starkly drawn: New York versus California, city versus frontier, Episcopal urbanity versus Quaker simplicity, yachting versus fly-fishing – and, most important, government intervention versus economic hands-off.

And the rest, in amazing detail, explains how we’re still fighting that fight:

In ’32 it was Roosevelt’s “New Deal” that trumped Hoover’s “New Day,” beginning the unprecedented regime of social and economic interventionism that remains a critical national inflection point, one that Roosevelt partisans still believe saved the republic, and that Hooverites still violently attack as the beginning of the American welfare state.

In this clash, there remains a central enigma in what, with the possible exception of McCarthyism, remains America’s most fiercely fought ideological conflict: Why was the uniquely capable Hoover so ill-equipped to meet America’s worst economic crisis, while the seemingly out-of-his-depth Roosevelt managed to attack the Depression so effectively? Leave it to the Hooverites. Generation after generation, they have dedicated themselves to chipping away in an obsessive, decades-long campaign to discredit and overturn the “socialistic” theories and practice of the New Deal.

Throughout Roosevelt’s never-to-be-equaled 12-year presidency and for over 60 years since, New Deal social welfare policies have rooted themselves in the American political briar patch. Yet, despite the popular acceptance of Social Security, Medicare and the panoply of today’s New Deal-inspired social and economic programs, the Hooverite intellectual holding action has successfully fended off the final victory of Roosevelt’s liberal vision over Hoover’s free-market conservatism. Their ongoing counterattack is informed by the philosophies of Hoover, braced by the work of the institution bearing his name, and paid for by the free-market capitalists who still worship at Hoover’s stately Stanford obelisk.

The whole thing is worth a read – if you have the time – but some highlights:

The ’32 campaign was, above all else, about confidence and connection. Hoover, for all his intelligence and energy, seemed emotionally incapable of striking that right, reassuring note. It was, in fact, Hoover who first applied the then-voguish Freudian construction “depression” to the crisis, according to historian Robert McElvaine, because “it had a less ominous ring than the previously used descriptors, ‘panic’ and ‘crisis.'” While Hoover wanted a stuffy “Bank Moratorium,” Roosevelt instead called for the more buoyant “Bank Holiday.” Hoover’s tin ear extended to music. He invited heartthrob crooner Rudy Vallee to the White House, promising him a medal if Vallee would “write a great song to drive the Depression away.”

With his icy technocratic persona, Hoover was simply the wrong man to break out into “Happy Days Are Here Again,” and thus reassure frightened Americans. Urban shantytowns were called “Hoovervilles”; armadillos, said to taste like pork, became “Hoover hogs”; empty inside-out pockets were “Hoover flags”; newspapers stuffed inside clothing to ward off the cold, “Hoover blankets”; and empty freight cars, “Hoover Pullmans.” America’s comedic conscience, Will Rogers, summed up the relative regard in which Hoover and Roosevelt were held in the dismal winter of 1933: “If you bite into an apple and find a worm, it’s Hoover’s fault.”

FDR ran and won on Hope – sounds familiar. And after Hoover left office there’s this:

Thanks in part to Roosevelt’s enmity, Hoover remained sidelined, a reviled figure, blamed, unfairly or not, for the Depression. Hoover countered with a literary barrage against the new president and his New Deal. In a 1934 book, “The Challenge to Liberty,” Hoover discussed the dangers of economic intervention in terms of the loss of individual liberties. “We have to determine,” Hoover wrote with surprising heat, “whether under the pressure of the hour, we must cripple or abandon the heritage of liberty for some new philosophy which must mark the passing of freedom.” It was an argument that would be taken up by succeeding generations of Hooverites. Finally, Hoover warned of “the man on horseback, ascending triumphantly to office on the steps of the constitutional processes.” There was little doubt to whose steps Hoover was referring.

We’re still arguing about all this. History may be boring, but it never seems to go away. And a friend, dissatisfied with the April compromise that kept the government from shutting down, giving the Republicans all the budget cuts they asked for, and more, remembers voting for Obama:

Obama was still the smartest guy in the room – or “person,” if you want to include Hilary. He probably still is.

I remember at a family gathering back then, one of my cousins, a conservative, asking me if I agreed that if Obama gets elected, he would be the most liberal president ever, but just then, we got interrupted and I never got to answer. I would have told her that I myself am a liberal, although probably not very liberal in the grand scheme of things, but that I am more liberal than Obama. I still believe that.

He’s such a compromiser – he sees no virtue in holding his ground in defense of what is right. We who believe what we do need a strong person to defend our position, but will always be at a disadvantage, since those on this side also value compromise, so we’ll always be snookered by those on the other side, who don’t.

Obama may this past week have been looking at the polls that showed Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly in favor of compromise to prevent a shutdown, but I think whatever favor he curried with this deal will be short-lived, and that in the long run, the deal will be seen as a Democratic failure that was the result of his own weakness. It will be harder now for him to hold the line on raising the debt-limit, but if he similarly fails there, he may go down in history as one of our worst presidents, maybe even the worst, the one who allowed the nation to go under.

It seems FDR really is dead. One need not drive all the way up to Hyde Park to confirm that.

And now, as a preview of coming attractions, there’s this:

President Obama will deliver a major speech this week about plans to reduce federal budget deficits and long-term debt, senior adviser David Plouffe said this morning.

“He’s going to lay out his approach very clearly,” Plouffe said on CNN’s State of the Union, one of a string of Sunday talk show appearances he made.

Obama will address cuts to defense and domestic spending, as well as what to do with the growing entitlement programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, Plouffe said. He will talk about “dollar amounts” over “a period of years.”

“We have got to make sure that we are taking a balanced approach to this,” Plouffe said.

And Steve Benen comments:

The benefit of an address like this, at least in theory, is to frame the debate in a responsible way. Republicans want to tackle debt reduction by eliminating Medicare, gutting Medicaid, slashing taxes for the wealthy (again), and not struggling to actually reduce the debt much anyway. Democrats, the argument will go, have a more sensible approach that’s more likely to gain public favor and acceptance. Don’t go with that radical, reckless idea, the president is likely to say, go with my more prudent approach.

But then there’s the flip side. Once Democrats commit to systematic debt reduction as policymakers’ principal goal – as opposed to, say, economic growth – it sets the terms of the debate. The unyielding dynamic locks everyone into answering the same question: how do we tackle the deficit and the debt?

So Obama is turning himself into Hoover, preemptively giving up:

That’s the question Republicans (and much of the media) want as the central focus, but there are more pertinent and important questions that should be prioritized, such as, “How about a jobs plan to reduce unemployment?” Or maybe, “How will taking money out of the economy and reducing public investment lead to more growth?”

What’s more, it also sets baselines for a “compromise.” If Obama presents a credible vision for long-term debt reduction this week, we’ll have one pillar, which will serve as a counterweight to Paul Ryan’s radical House budget plan presented a few days ago. But a moderate counterweight may not be wise – if recent history is any guide, negotiations will produce a deal that’s somewhere between them.

In this case, that’d be a disaster. Even half-way to Ryan’s roadmap would destroy much of the modern American social compact, and prove devastating to the middle class.

Well, there is that. And Benen adds this:

Assuming that congressional Republicans are interested in a sincere, good-faith discussion about fiscal responsibility is folly. If this week’s presidential speech simply presents a sensible answer to a dubious question, without regard for the larger political dynamic, the White House will be making a serious mistake.

But Andrew Sullivan is more charitable:

And so Obama starts off this critical part of his first term by appearing to be above the fray and yet committed to compromise. Via Biden, he calls the GOP’s bluff, draws a line in spending cuts for 2011, and exposes the draconian spending reductions that the GOP’s no tax increase pledge requires. He comes back with a bid to tax millionaires, offers spending cuts that would be far more sophisticated and targeted away from investment than the GOP, and pledges to put his own proposals forward as early as this week.

Of course, for a blogger like me, you face a choice. Simply trust the guy and spin for him, or voice skepticism, outrage and disappointment and get played along with the GOP. But, of course, I don’t mind getting played. Because I want this president to succeed – and such success requires root-and-branch spending and tax reform.

He seems to be getting there – in that highly unsatisfying but politically shrewd way of his. So now we will have the Ryan plan and the Obama plan. Guess which one independent voters will like more?

And see Charlie Cook:

It’s little short of suicidal to drop a Medicare reform package – even a voucher plan that would be optional for those currently older than 55 – into tough budget negotiations stymied over Republican demands for deep spending cuts. Democrats have some experience with older voters going ballistic, even with changes that wouldn’t affect them.

For many seniors, doing anything to Medicare that can’t be portrayed as an increase is essentially a cut, and they will fight it to their last breath. From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is very dangerous territory. House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope – they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it.

Yep. And they want to refuse to extend the debt limit, the effects of which CNN-Money explains here – “A broad range of government payments would have to be stopped, limited or delayed, including military salaries and retirement benefits, Social Security and Medicare payments, interest on the debt, unemployment benefits and tax refunds” – and then things get worse.

And there’s this:

The down-to-the-wire partisan struggle over cuts to this year’s federal budget has intensified concern in Washington, on Wall Street and among economists about the more consequential clash coming over increasing the government’s borrowing limit.

Congressional Republicans are vowing that before they will agree to raise the current $14.25 trillion federal debt ceiling — a step that will become necessary in as little as five weeks – President Obama and Senate Democrats will have to agree to far deeper spending cuts for next year and beyond than those contained in the six-month budget deal agreed to late Friday night that cut $38 billion and averted a government shutdown.

Republicans have also signaled that they will again demand fundamental changes in policy on health care, the environment, abortion rights and more, as the price of their support for raising the debt ceiling.

America will default on its obligations and the world’s economy will collapse, unless Planned Parenthood and NPR are defunded – along with eliminating Medicare, gutting Medicaid, and slashing taxes for the wealthy (again). They don’t have the votes to do any of that, but they have leverage. Somewhere Herbert Hoover is smiling. Here we go again.

But Matthew Yglesias sees it this way:

I think the dynamics of a debt ceiling faceoff and the dynamics of an appropriations faceoff are quite different. That’s because a lapsing of appropriations triggers a very specific set of occurrences. When appropriations lapse, it becomes illegal for the federal government to do anything not related to the “essential functions” of human and population security. The key issue here isn’t that the government doesn’t have money. If you’re willing to work without pay temporarily, you’re not allowed to work if you’re deemed non-essential.

This is hugely disruptive and it’s obviously very burdensome to people who rely on government services.

The debt limit is a different kind of thing. When the Treasury lacks authority to engage in new borrowing, all that means is that the Treasury lacks the authority to engage in new borrowing. Nothing else has to happen. Some money will still be flowing in, which means some money can continue to flow out. And the administration has some flexibility in how it handles this. What’s more, the government can ask people to continue to do things in exchange for IOUs. Large defense contractors, for example, don’t live on a paycheck to paycheck basis. And if Robert Gates calls up an airplane manufacturer and says “look, we can’t pay you this month but keep building the planes and we’ll pay what we owe once the debt ceiling fight is resolved” the guys who build the planes are going to keep on building planes. There’s no dramatic “hostage” moment, there’s just a small-but-growing inconvenience for a large number of people who rely in part on government checks to make a living. That all happens well before the federal government would be forced into a default scenario where it can’t pay off bondholders.

How that plays out in practice seems to me difficult to predict, but it’s not the same as shutdown dynamics.

Ah, it’s only a slow-rolling disaster. But he does suggest being realistic:

With the political world gearing up for a debt ceiling fight, my hope and advice to the administration and its allies in congress would be for them to be doing everything in their power to push back against this idea. The view I would be pushing, formally and informally through all channels, is that there is not going to be a debt ceiling fight. There will be no fight because there’s nothing to fight over because there’s no negotiation to conduct.

Barack Obama’s position on the debt ceiling is that raising the debt ceiling would be better than not raising the debt ceiling. Conveniently, John Boehner’s position on the debt ceiling is that raising the debt ceiling would be better than not raising the debt ceiling. Under the circumstances, the following legislative bargain suggests itself: Raise the debt ceiling. Nothing cataclysmic happens the day the US goes past the debt ceiling, but it’s inconvenient. The way to resolve that inconvenience is to raise the debt ceiling. The next day it gets a bit worse and the solution is to raise the debt ceiling. A week later, it gets even worse and the solution is to raise the debt ceiling. A month later it gets even worse and the solution is to raise the debt ceiling.

And he makes it even simpler:

If there’s some large block of members of congress who genuinely believe that failing to raise the debt ceiling is superior to raising the debt ceiling, then obviously it would make sense to negotiate with those people. But I don’t believe that there are any such people. I’m happy to believe that there are lots of members of congress whose preference is to vote no on a debt ceiling increase (as I believe Barack Obama did at one point) but that’s something else.

But that’s forgetting history. There are the Hoover folks, still. Jeff Spicoli might have even known that. Hollywood movies do show people what they always suspected was true. History isn’t actually history after all – it somehow is the immediate now. Even the perpetually stoned would-be surfer knew that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Obama as FDR, The Uses of History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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