Thursday, December 30, 2010

Arab Nazareth, Israeli Democracy--Bundist Dreams

The funeral of Marek Edelman, Poland's wartime (and last) Bundist leader, Warsaw Jewish cemetery, October 2009. 

A little over three weeks ago (around the time the blog went quiet, in this season of reflection), Sidra and I took a little road trip to the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth, where we spent the weekend in a funky little inn, the Fauzi Azar. I haven't stopped thinking about it since. When you get away from the headlines that force your attention to the foreground--e.g., the Clinton speech, the rabbis' letter, unprecedented European calls for sanctions against settlements--the more ultimate truths of the background come into relief. The case of Nazareth is both fascinating and disturbing.

The city, it is true, didn't change my mind about things I and others have written about in the past. But it did make those things so vivid that I haven't been able to see the most familiar parts of Israel in the same way. The question, you see, is really not whether Israel can remain democratic; really, what's new about that worry except for the fact that it is finally dawning on people who call you anti-Zionist for saying it before it finally dawned on them?

No, the real question is whether any democracy can implement the kind of visionary federal arrangements Israel will need--not only with a Palestinian state, but with its own Arab minority--to survive as a vital, global and Hebrew democracy. The answer is yes, at least in principle. When you think about it, Europe's biggest national Jewish movement of the interwar period might serve as inspiration, if not as a model. But is there the time, let alone the will, to try in today's Israel, with its growing, orthodox right? Can Israelis be expected to muddle through by themselves?

A NUMBER OF my students had done a business plan for the Fauzi Azar last year and I was curious. It seems that the stately building in which the inn was established was the family home of a scion of a large, established Christian family that had been divided by 1948 war, with some cousins staying put, and others escaping the violence to Syria and Jordan--and then finding themselves unable to return. The building had meanwhile declined into disrepair, after the parents of the Azar branch died in the 1980s. Until, that is, a young Israeli Jewish entrepreneur, Maoz Inon, approached the younger generation of the family with a proposition:

The children, whose father had stood up to the government when its lands were threatened, would agree to lease Inon the building at no cost for years into the future; he would renovate the entire property, creating an international inn and youth hostel. Profits, such as there were, would be taken by his company, but there would be jobs for the family if they wanted them. Understandably, the children were skeptical at first, but his good-natured idealism eventually won them over. One daughter, Odette Shomar, eventually became chairman of the board. (I am oversimplifying the terms of the agreement a little, but never mind.)

The inn is now an international phenomenon. Volunteers from all over the world come to its hostel, where they are given a free room to sleep, and breakfast; they, in return, serve the hotel guests: walk them around the old city of Nazareth, bring them extra pillows, play them music, make them tea. Not coincidentally, the old city of Nazareth has been reviving wonderfully since the inn got started. Everywhere you go in the old city today there's the musty-sweet smelling dust of cement bags and hammer sounds of renovation: new places to eat, boutique-like stores and food emporia, crafts shops, and open air fruit vendors.

The atmosphere is not like the old city of Jerusalem, which takes for granted how central, contentious, and and beautifully pathetic it is; the old city of Nazareth, also lovely, is rather a kind of backwater human experiment. Nobody doubts it will remain in Israel. Like the rest of Israeli Arab towns, it is a hybrid between Hebrew commercial culture and Arab domestic culture. Yet here there are also bright-eyed evangelicals with a need for missionary work (also for clean beds and toilets) filling the negative spaces. You have a delicious little portent of what peace might feel like in this country, with Israeli Jewish tourists—bikers from Tel Aviv coming for a rest-stop, moshavniks from the Valley of Jezreel coming for olive oil and embroideries—sharing a dreamy Sabbath sunset in an Israeli Arab town.

OF COURSE, MOST Israeli Jews, not to speak of American Jews, would not even recognize Nazareth as “this country”—any more than a Polish nationalist or priest, visiting mainly Yiddish-speaking Bialystok in 1920, would have recognized that city as it was as a part of the new Polish state. On the contrary, Nazareth—for all its rivalries among Christians, Muslims, and Druze—would be lumped into the scare phrase “demographic problem,” or be seen as a symptom of what is threatening Israel’s character as “Jewish and democratic”—with “democratic” here pretty much boiling down to "more of us and fewer of them," so we can feel less guilty about giving ourselves privileges they don’t have, but presumably would have in their state, that is, if we ever get around to agreeing to end the occupation.

And when you emerge from the little bubble of the old city of Nazareth stronger realities assault you. Upper Nazareth, which was conceived as a Jewish town to look down on the Arab town, is an increasingly tense place, with Christian Arabs moving in, at times to avoid unpleasant confrontations with Muslims; and Russian Jews who were settled there in the 1970s, unsure about whether to stay or leave, rent to Arabs or refuse to.

Staying a couple of days in Nazareth, in short, feels a little like taking a vacation to a foreign, if curiously familiar country. (Wherever we went in Nazareth, Sidra and I first defaulted to English, as if we were walking through Ramallah, or Athens, for that matter, only to find our interlocutors stumped and frustrated; then we’d switch to Hebrew, the language of Yehuda Halevi, and see the relief coming over their faces.) And our drive only reinforced the feeling of familiar foreignness. We left the central thruway and drove up to Sakhnin for its “olive festival” (which we pretty much missed, alas); then El-Arabeh, then took the back road to Kefar Kana, and from there another back road to Nazareth. When we left Nazareth, we headed straight across the Emeq to Wadi Ara, where we skirted past the cities of Um-el-Fahm, Baka el-Garbieh, and the other cities of the Little Triangle, which border the Palestinian territories to the east.

We drove, that is, through six or seven Arab cities, more or less contiguous with one another, running from the Western Galilee down to the center of Israel, to the area where the Hebrew megalopolis of Tel Aviv starts spreading north and east. Roughly, we drove in and past Arab cities containing at least 600,000 people, as many people who were in the Jewish Yishuv and rose against the British in 1948.

The Arab cities are handsome in their way, since the architecture of their family compounds are handsome. But they are also suffering from serious infrastructural and educational deficiencies, inevitable in a country that spends less than half per capita on its Arab citizens than on its Jewish. They are hemmed in by state land policy. You hear of youth gangs growing, problems with drugs and petty thefts, maniac driving habits. And we haven’t even gotten to the feelings of rage inspired by such things as the rabbis’ letter suggesting the Jewish law mandates refusal to rent apartments to Arabs in Israel’s larger cities.

I DON’T MEAN to imply that this Arab population will rise against Israel, not in the short-term, not if things can remain "quiet." By any measure, polls show Israeli Arabs, including Israeli Arab youth, more liberal and tolerant of Jews than the other way around—what you’d expect from a minority. Up to 80% of Israeli Arabs express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have a Jewish friend, and so forth), but just under 50% of Jews do. On the other hand, if, say, Jerusalem were to explode in violence tomorrow, or missiles start flying into northern cities from Lebanon, sympathetic rioting in these cities seems inevitable—a replay of events in 2000 and 2006.

Yet, again, it is not the short-term that is troubling and exciting. The long-term question these hybridized Israeli Arab cities prompts is, what kind of democracy can Israel become, with and without the state of Palestine, given such facts on the ground? The assimilation of Israeli Arabs on, say, the French model seems unrealistic; these cities are not just transitional suburbs, and they are a forty minute drive from the rest of the Arab world, though who knows what they will will look like after another generation of network technology. Nor can they become part of the Palestinian state: they are too advanced, democratized, and Hebraized for that; aside from the triangle they are not abutting Palestine.

When you look at the West Bank, irrespective of the facts created by Jewish settlers, the case for some kind of federal arrangement seems pretty compelling. (My friend Sam Bahour and I made the case last year here, and I expanded on the point here.) Is there a federal model that will have to be considered here, too? This has been batted around in think tanks like the Adallah Institute for some time now, but the question no longer feels merely hypothetical--not to me, anyway, not anymore. Just as it would be vain to try to make peace with Syria before the Palestinian issue is resolved, it may be vain to imagine making peace with Palestine, while ignoring the festering problems of Israeli Arabs.

PERHAPS IT IS perverse to raise the point in this context, but the situation of Israeli Arabs is in fact curiously like that of the Jews of Poland during the interwar period, in that the Yiddish-speaking Jews represented an indissoluble minority that was culturally distinct, and would remain fiercely so, at least over a couple of generations; a minority with a centuries' long history and sense of place; a minority living in the interstices of a Polish nation with a quite distinct religious culture; a new Polish state, born out of deep historical grievance, and an equally fierce, once-repressed nationalism. How to absorb this growing, noisy Jewish minority, something over 10% of the population, into the new Poland?

And the strongest political movement in the interconnected Yiddish towns and cities (or parts thereof) was the Jewish Labor Bund. What this movement demanded was recognition as a national minority within the Polish state, constitutional equality, protection for its language and educational system, and more. Bundists ran as separate, Jewish national political parties. In December 1938 and January 1939, at the last Polish municipal elections before the start of the Second World War, the Bund received the largest segment of the Jewish vote. In 89 towns, one-third elected Bund majorities.

As socialists, Bundists sought "fraternal" relations with Polish workers, much like Israeli Arabs seek cordial commercial relations with Jews. But they mainly sought a kind of recognized autonomy in Yiddish towns, and, as individuals, the full rights in the great Polish cities like Warsaw and Krakow. And much like the rights of Israeli Arabs have become the crucial cause for Israeli Jewish progressives, so the rights of Jews were critical for Polish liberals.

SADLY, IT HAS become commonplace for Israelis, and American Jews, too, to look at the fate of Polish Jewry and consider the Bund hopelessly naive. But this view is itself naive--and cruel. The fact is, the Bund was suggesting an experiment in democracy that the Nazis ended, not the Poles, though there was a substantial Polish ultramontane right that was relieved to see it end: to see Polish Jews and progressives both put out of their sight, if not put to death. We simply do not know if the Bund's experiment could have worked, or how it could have been managed over several generations, particularly if there had been no war, and Poland had slowly begun to enjoy the benefits of European integration.

In any case, it is terribly wrong for us to look at the burgeoning cities of Israeli Arabs and see only a fifth column or a frightening birthrate. In any peace, Israeli Arabs will be a natural bridge to commercial, scientific, and cultural opportunities in the Arab world. They are also a lovely chance for Israeli Jews to get into the car and change the national gestalt without leaving their country, sort of like residents of Ottawa spending time across the river in Hull. Israeli Arabs are asking Israeli Jews something difficult: that little Israel become a Hebrew republic spacious enough, democratic enough, to absorb and acculturate another, even smaller people.

It might have worked in Poland, eventually. It had better work, with adaptations, in Israel.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Fire Next Time

The blaze is barely quelled, but the political firestorm is already spreading. I don't mean the posturing and second-guessing by ministers and various political figures; those, like Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai, cynically calling for a national inquiry into who did what over the past few days, or even into whether successive governments over the past few years have done enough to equip firefighters.

Rather, the fire is quickly becoming a metaphor for something deeper and potentially explosive in the Israeli political conversation, namely, the horribly skewed priorities of Israeli leaders pretty much since the 1967 war, but especially since the first Likud government in 1977.

The vast majority of middle class families on the coastal plain have seen the traffic and smog in greater Tel Aviv become insufferable, while commission after commission stalls out on providing a subway; the coastal highway become either stop-and-go or a death trap; the water-line in the Kinneret sink while desalination plants stall; the universities and secondary schools lose ground both in national budgets and OECD ratings; the crime rate soar; the Israel Broadcasting Authority become an embarrassment as compared with, say, the BBC; line-ups for ultra-sound machines getting longer.

In case after case, rightist coalitions have insisted the money was simply not there, and so Western standards for "quality of life" remained out of reach; the country's most responsible citizens have shrugged, more or less, and returned to work, knowing that rates of participation in Israel's workforce is actually among the lowest in OECD nations, around 57%, because of the amount of money supporting ultra-orthodox "learning."

The Carmel brush fires have suddenly given all of this frustration a powerful symbol. Just who have the governments been serving?

PERHAPS THE SIGNAL moment came on Channel Two Friday evening, when the fires were at their worst, and the newscast's most forceful commentator, Amnon Abramovich, let loose with what a great many in the audience were thinking. "If you are not a settler or a Haredi lobby," he said (I am paraphrasing),"you might as well forget getting anything from the Israeli government in recent years."

His words carried added poignancy, since Turkey--which Netanyahu's government has singled out for its putative drift into Islamosomething--had just promised to send aid; and the series of reports preceding Abramovich's commentary implied something that proved untrue but all too plausible, namely, that the fires had been arson, set by insurgent Israeli Arab youth. This was the other elephant in the room, which government after government has disregarded: the growing, dangerous alienation of a fifth of Israel's population--about which more in my next post.

All in all, the fires have awakened Israel's silent, slim majority to the paradox of their lives; that regional cooperation is not a myth, and that they are rich enough--global enough--to expect to live better than they do; yet their governments keep propping up settlement projects costing up to $20 billion over the years and engaging in diplomatic spitefulness against neighbors who criticize the very occupation they themselves have come to question.

The picture at the top is the look of yesterday's sundown, which I captured the tail end of from the Valley of Jezreel. It was, owing to the smoke, among the most beautiful the country has ever seen.  Might one hope for a metaphor in there somewhere?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hanukkah: The Pathos Of Purification

Hanukkah starts today, and the British novelist Howard Jacobson is not amused. The story of the Maccabees beating the Syrian-Greeks sounds suspiciously like "wish fulfillment," he writes. The miracle of the oil sounds saccharine. The songs are dull. Next to Christmas, what Jew is not feeling short-changed?

[H]ow many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.

Hanukkah should "merge with Christmas" or "be spiced up with the sort of bitter irony at which the Jewish people excel: "Instead of the dreidel, give the kids their own cars for Hanukkah, in memory of the oil that should have run out but didn’t." Cute.

WELL, HERE IS a little "bitter irony" for you, Mr. Jacobson, which suggests, alas, "contemporary relevance," too. On the eve of Hanukkah, the Israel Democracy Institute released its annual report, summed up lugubriously by Haaretz's editors:

Almost all the survey's findings point to this trend. A majority of the public supports predicating voting rights on a declaration of loyalty to the state; only 17% of the public believes the state's self-definition as a democracy should take precedence over its self-definition as Jewish; an absolute majority believes that only Jews should be involved in decisions crucial to the state; a majority supports allocating more resources to Jews than Arabs; a third of Jewish citizens support putting Arab citizens in detention camps in wartime; and about two-thirds think Arabs should not become ministers.

Just what does the eclipse of democratic standards in Jerusalem have to do with Hanukkah? Not much, unless you think the study of history is actually meant to teach us something.

Consider that by the time the Maccabees were in revolt against the pagan culture of Greece, the latter already encompassed articulated notions of individual human dignity--from Aristophanes to Aristotle--that no sword could efface. A part of what made the reach of Greek civilization so powerful, even eventually in Rome, was that it brought with its pagan cults ways of looking at nature, and human nature, that spoke to the hearts of educated people and would forever inspire doubts about mere loyalty to the tribe.

Yes, the terrible oneness of God was a beautiful idea as well. But it, too, as Christians would show, might be made more personal and, besides, it was not the only idea worth cherishing. The fanatic decision to restore the orthodox law, the priestly cult, the idea of a holy people, the sacrificial altar, etc., was not unambivalently progress, not even to Judeans. Any visitor to excavated towns like Tzippori today can taste the pleasure of the hybrid. Indeed, the real story of Hanukkah can be summed up by the fact that, just two generations after the Maccabees chased the pagan Hellenizers from the temple (in a lake of blood, if you go by Maccabees Book II), the Hasmonean dynasty the Maccabees founded willingly cut a deal with the pagan Hellenizing Romans.

In other words, when you hear the word purification, a cringe or two might be in order. The same when you hear about the heroism of Judean fanatics, from Judas Maccabeus in 167 BC, to the leaders of the Jewish Wars in 66 AD, to Bar Kochba in 132 AD. Their risings against empires and defiance of worldly cultures brought much death but no lasting victories. Judas Maccabeus's purification of the temple, which clueless Jewish children sing little ditties to at sundown, was accompanied by Taliban-like revenge slaughter against the slaughterer, Godless occupiers, and the purging of and forced circumcision of Hellinizing Judeans. Again, Maccabees Book II:

Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men. And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men...Now when Maccabeus had his company about him, he could not be withstood by the heathen: for the wrath of the Lord was turned into mercy. Therefore he came at unawares, and burnt up towns and cities, and got into his hands the most commodious places, and overcame and put to flight no small number of his enemies. But specially took he advantage of the night for such privy attempts, insomuch that the fruit of his holiness was spread every where.

Was it not a miracle just to survive such times?

FORGIVE ME, MR. Jacobson, but if you do not see in contemporary Israel people all too eager to spread "the fruit of his holiness," you are not reading Israel Democracy Institute polls. Worse, you are not acknowledging how much the concept of democracy, from ancient times to modern Israel, depends on the very concepts of individual human conscience and free-minded beauty the Maccabees, in their devotion to the holy, sought (and failed) to defeat--notions of conscience without which the Talmud itself would have been inconceivable, but that's another story.

Anyway, here is another take on Hanukkah and Christmas, which I've posted annually since I launched the blog three years ago this week. Count me with the candles and the Hellenizers, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Social Network

Back in 1983, I wrote a throw-away line in an article about George Orwell's newspeak: "The danger from computers is not that they will eventually get as smart as men, but we will meanwhile agree to meet them halfway." Unprompted, this little warning has now migrated to thousands of websites; and the surge in the past year no doubt has something to do with the rise of Facebook, and the way the brain engages and disengages as the page entitled "News Feed" rolls past.

Nevertheless, I have started taking my Facebook page seriously (well, halfway seriously) in the hope that it can be of use in supporting this blog. I have had about 18,000 "unique visitors" to the blog over the past year; about 39,000 over the past two years. But the most frustrating thing about blogging is not really knowing whom one is reaching, with no possibility of gaining a stronger sense of what is on your minds. If you come here more or less regularly, why not "friend" me (even if you cannot befriend me), and encourage people you think would be interested in the blog to do the same? I promise I shall say nothing about how much I enjoyed last night's dessert.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

J Street: Time For An American Plan

Readers of this blog know of my high regard for J Street. Its leadership has just released a statement that is worth reading with no comment from me, except to say that readers will also not be surprised by how fervently I agree with it.

In the coming days or weeks, the United States may reach agreement with Israel on an extension of the limited moratorium on settlement construction on the West Bank, and the terms of that extension may be sufficient to bring the Palestinian leadership to the table as well. J Street would welcome the resumption of direct talks, but our interest is less in reaching an agreement to keep talking or over the format of those talks than in finding a route to actually ending the conflict between the parties.

Therefore, we believe it is time for the Obama administration to adopt a bolder, more assertive approach in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict. The Administration should focus – with or without resuming direct negotiations and/or a 90-day extension of the moratorium – on delineating an agreed-upon border between the state of Israel and the state-to-be of Palestine, and on establishing security arrangements and that would accompany a two-state deal.

J Street supports long-standing American policy that both parties – Israel and the Palestinians – should comply with all of their internationally-recognized obligations. This includes prior Israeli commitments under the Road Map and other agreements both to stop all new settlement construction over the Green Line and to remove outposts, as well as Palestinian commitments to ensure security and prevent incitement.

However, the time has come for the United States to put forward a proposal to establish a border and security arrangements. With a border established, there will be no further need to negotiate over settlement construction. Both Israel and the Palestinians will be able to build where they please within their borders and not beyond.

Detailed security arrangements are necessary to guarantee a two-state deal and to address the full range of threats it faces (from Iran, from Hezbollah and from within Palestinian lands). Such a security plan will give Israelis the confidence that there is a U.S.-led international commitment to their long-term security as Israel pulls back from control of the territories. Finalizing arrangements on borders and security will then create a positive momentum toward addressing other final status issues.

Even if there is a new 90-day moratorium, it will pass quickly, and the Administration and the parties cannot afford to reach day 89 and suddenly find yet another impasse and crisis. Therefore, we suggest that the United States adopt a “borders and security first” strategy along the following lines:

If there is a resumption of talks, engage the parties in an exercise under American supervision to draw the actual border between the two states based on the following principles:
  • The borders should create the new Palestinian state on the equivalent of 100 percent of the land beyond the 1967 Green Line with one-to-one land swaps.
  • The borders should allow for many existing settlements, (which could account for as many as three-quarters of all settlers) to be part of Israel’s future recognized sovereign territory.
  • The agreement on borders between the states should also address the border within Jerusalem with the exception of the Old City and its very immediate environs.
  • If the sides are not able to reach agreement on borders within the 90-day period, or if “direct talks” do not in fact resume, the United States should present a proposal to both sides that adheres to the parameters presented above for a yes or no decision, with the support of the Quartet and other international stakeholders.
  • Simultaneously, address and finalize the security arrangements between Israel and a demilitarized future Palestine, and at Palestine’s external international border crossings, allowing for the deployment of an international force to guarantee the agreed provisions. The US should take this occasion to reiterate its commitment to guaranteeing the long-term security of Israel.
  • Once the border and security arrangements are agreed and in accordance with an agreed-upon timetable, Israel will withdraw from all of the territories designated for the Palestinian state and all other provisions will be implemented.
  • In parallel with implementation of the border/security arrangements, negotiations will then continue (or resume) on all other outstanding final status issues.
We also suggest that the Obama administration expressly take note of the Arab League Peace Initiative and urge the Arab League to recognize this new American-led effort as consistent with and responsive to their offer to achieve comprehensive, regional peace. To this end, we suggest opening discussions under US supervision to address the outstanding issues between Israel and Syria with the goal of achieving a comprehensive, regional agreement (including between Israel and Lebanon) that leads to full recognition and acceptance of the state of Israel by the Arab League.

A comprehensive regional deal will significantly reduce Iranian influence and its capacity to act as a spoiler in the region, posing the following choice for the regime in Tehran: either join the consensus for peace and recognition for Israel or be further isolated. The former option will open new horizons for negotiations with Iran while the latter would increase U.S. and regional leverage with Iran as the international community re-dedicates itself to preventing Iranian obstructionism and development of a nuclear weapons capacity.

The parties and outside experts are more than familiar with the options and trade-offs needed to establish a border and with it a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. This proposal puts the key question squarely before both the leadership and people on both sides and asks them to express their political willingness to actually achieve a viable solution – rather than continuing to put the spotlight on talks about talks and the conditions for entering into them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Jerusalem: Time To Clear The Air

From Canada's Globe and Mail, former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Norman Spector challenges former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler. Spector's trenchant little piece proves, as if we needed more evidence, that Jewish leaders in the Diaspora can no longer hope to finesse the critical question of Jerusalem's status, and cannot avoid public differences, even at the cost of long-standing personal relations. (Spector's column caught my eye and touches me for personal reasons, too; Spector was my college buddy and Cotler my camp counselor. We were all so callow, back in 1967, when Teddy Kolleck seemed heroic, and one could barely imagine a contradiction between a "united" Jerusalem and the peace of Jerusalem. Alas.)        

Globe and Mail
Posted on Wednesday, November 10, 2010
by Norman Spector

I see in my morning read that The Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (ICCA), which has been meeting in the nation’s capital this week, ratified the Ottawa Protocol yesterday. And, from the closing press conference, the National Post reports:

Irwin Cotler, chairman of the international coalition and a noted human rights activist, told a news conference the protocol breaks new ground. For the first time, it provides detailed definitions of what constitutes anti-Semitism and puts in writing what the group sees as the distinction between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of the state of Israel, the Liberal MP said.

“Let it be clear: Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is wrong,” the protocol says. “But singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium -- let alone denying its right to exist or seeking is destruction -- is discriminatory and hateful, and not saying so is dishonest.”

Also this morning, I see that The New York Times reports a heated U.S.-Israeli exchange at the highest levels concerning Israel’s plans to construct an additional 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem:

Mr. Obama said, “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations.” “I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough,” the president added during his visit to Indonesia. “Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust.”

A few hours later, Mr. Netanyahu’s office responded with a statement, saying that “Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.”

So here’s the question I would have asked Mr. Cotler at the press conference in Ottawa yesterday: Is it anti-Semitic to criticize Israeli construction in East Jerusalem?

And here’s the follow-up question I would have asked: “What’s your position on that construction?”

I would have asked Mr. Cotler these two questions because of an incident that occurred when I was ambassador to Israel and he was a McGill University law professor who periodically brought justices of the Supreme Court of Canada to Israel to meet with their judicial counterparts.

The program had the backing of the Government of Canada. And the incident involved Antonio Lamer who, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, stood No. 3 in Canada’s Table of Precedence.

When I learned that Mr. Lamer was to be escorted on a visit to East Jerusalem by Israeli officials, I sought direction from Ottawa. I was advised by officials at the foreign ministry that this was not the first time the Israelis had tried such a manoeuvre in order to buttress their claim to that part of the city. And I was directed to discourage Mr. Lamer from carrying through with the visit under these arrangements, which he readily agreed to. Mr. Cotler was furious, and he severely upbraided me in the local press. Which I thought at the time, and still do, was entirely inappropriate.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Chevy Volt: Crossing The Chasm

Yesterday's announcement that the Chevy Volt won Motor Trend's "Car of the Year" Award is not just a bit of Motor City hype. It is the beginning of a palpable solution to climate change.

There is no way to materially reduce greenhouse gas emissions without electric vehicles connected to a smart grid--that is, smart enough to charge batteries with power taken from renewable sources like hydro, sun and wind. But there is no incentive for power companies to make the enormous investments in such grids unless, first, the cost of oil and gas threatens to rise, and, second, electric vehicles are common enough, and concentrated enough in urban areas, to threaten neighborhood brownouts. The first condition is pretty much guaranteed by demand from China, India, Brazil, etc. And what of the second?

THIS IS MORE complicated, for it depends on electric vehicles being accepted, finally, by the mainstream market--not thousands of vehicles, but millions. As Geoffrey Moore put it, wonderfully, in his famous 1991 book about Silicon Valley, Crossing The Chasm, you can always get "innovators" and "early adopters"--you know, Wired, then Brad and Angelina--to try a technology, but to get to the larger market, the "early majority," you need to offer ordinary customers a strong value proposition: business-school jargon for making them an offer they can't refuse.

The Web would not have developed as quickly, if at all, if the personal computer had not been ubiquitous. But this depended--not on the promise of the Web, which ordinary customers could not fathom--but on the magical way computers allowed us, then and there, to avoid retyping documents or crunch columns of numbers one at a time--also on the deep pleasures of graphical interfaces. Word, Excel, Windows 95, etc. were "killer apps" that, inadvertently, laid the ground for the internet. What is the killer app for the smart grid?

THE CHEVY VOLT is, and Motor Trend's award is its certificate of fitness. Because the Volt gives ordinary customers, here and now, the serious benefits of electric mobility without requiring the revolutionary changes in infrastructure that electric vehicles will ultimately occasion. On the contrary, the widespread adoption of vehicles like the Volt will force those changes.

What benefits? In a nutshell, the cost of running an electric car is attractive: about 1-2 cents a mile as compared with 15-18 cents a mile for a gas-powered vehicle; cheaper maintenance; the chance to feel cool about oneself. Moreover, the Volt will allow 80% of customers to run on electricity alone for about 80% of the time, etc. The sticker price is still comparatively high for Gen 1, but remember when cell phones were $600?  But most important, the Volt uses the existing gasoline infrastructure to extend the range of the vehicle to what gasoline-powered vehicles get: about 300-350 miles. (I laid this out in this space here and here. The longer version, again, was a year ago in Inc. Magazine here.)

Industry insiders report that the Volt is about to win other awards, too. The 2011 Automobile Magazine "Car of the Year." The 2010 Popular Science "Best of What's New" Award. The 2011 Car and Driver "Ten Best Cars" distinction. This is a big f**cking deal, to recall a quote from a senior member of the administration.

And while we're on the subject. It has become so fashionable these days to belittle the achievements of the Obama administration, which has been judicious and successful in so many ways, that I know I risk being anything but cool by saying that its handling of the auto industry was inspired. Obama's investments in GM, his demand for a reworked business plan which showcased Volt technology, his change in company leadership, his "stimulus" investments in batteries and the grid--all of these--suggest a proper role for the commonwealth.

Obama did not just save "manufacturing" jobs; he put federal dollars underneath a technology that will prove as critical to green industries as the iPad will to publishing. It would be good to hear some praise for a change.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Coming To The Table, Redux

An old Soviet joke. A customer enters a fish market, asks for the last pathetic mackerel, and the clerk behind the counter is out of newspaper. So the clerk goes to the complaint box, pulls out the sheets, and wraps the fish. "Wait," the customer says. "You can't wrap fish in those." "Then write a complaint," the clerk says.

I'm not entirely sure why, but I thought of this joke listening to Arye Golan's circular questioning this morning of Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, who is close to Abu Mazen. It is important to understand that the program, on the IBA's Reshet Bet, is the equivalent of NPR's "Morning Edition," perhaps even more influential. Golan himself recently won the Solokov Award, something like a Pulitzer. Reshet Bet has over a 40% market share. (Hebrew speakers can listen themselves: click "Haboker Hazeh," and move the slider to about 1:34:40)

What makes the interview so interesting, in other words, is that Golan is probably our perfect representative of what Israelis call the "center." I might add, the entire conversation was conducted in Hebrew, which Dr. Abu-Zaida spoke fluently (the translation, perhaps a little rough here and there, is mine):

Here with me on the line, Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, good morning:

Good morning Arye.

With regard to construction in Jerusalem, you're demanding that it be frozen for the next three months; this is more important to you than negotiations over a border finally?

First of all we have had nothing official; it's not at all clear what the details of the agreement, such as it is, are…

Abu Mazen, the chairman [of Fatah], has not been updated?

I'm not sure because, even on the Israeli side, it is said that nothing is written, nothing is finalized; and that the negotiations are continuing to reach an understanding…However, if the issue of Jerusalem is divorced from the whole question of the freeze, I don't think you'll find one Palestinian, smart or stupid, will accept such a thing…

But in the past, there were all kinds of negotiations, and during times when a massive amount of construction took place in [East] Jerusalem. So Palestinians were idiots then?

I tell you, any Palestinian will say that during those years we made a very serious mistake: to sit at the negotiation table while the Israelis continued to build settlements. But we had made a calculation, that within 6 months or 12 months, we would get our state and we would live in peace, we with you. Until we realized that this is a "process" and not "peace." So Palestinians have understood, that we are not going to make exactly the same mistake again. We learned from our past mistakes. Moreover, everything Israel has done for the last 40-45 years has been aimed to divorce Jerusalem from all the other issues. You tell me, what is the difference between building in Givat Zeev or Maale Adumin...; what does Givat Zeev have to do with your holy Jerusalem, or mine.

But it seems the issue is…

...just because the government of Israel decided in 1967 to expand the borders of Jerusalem from 11 sq. kilometers to 70 sq. kilometers…

Actually Givat Zeev is not a part of Jerusalem, but a municipality of its own. But this is not the issue. There is the feeling here that you're always looking for excuses to flee negotiations:

You mean all that time we were negotiating we were looking for excuses not to negotiate. Why? We are living, where? Do we not live with only marginal rights? Where does this logic come from that we flee negotiations? We are simply not interested in continuing with the process that is merely called negotiations. We are actually looking for a solution.

But a solution is only at the table. And there is always something else, now it's Jerusalem now it's a settlement freeze; and these give Abu Mazen a chance to say, "I’m not in the game." Maybe it's worthwhile to sit and talk, to clarify all matters at the table:

You speak as if we didn't sit and talk and debate all these issues, including the question of Jerusalem, including the border. We have debated all of these issues. The problem is that the answers we've gotten have not been encouraging--no point in sitting for nothing. For example, we’ve been saying all along: "My friends, tell us where are the borders of our state." Netanyahu, through all of the indirect talks and even in the 3 or 4 weeks of direct talks, when Abu Mazen sat with him 3 or 4 times…well, he asked him, or you prepared to talk about the boundaries? And Netanyahu answered that he isn't prepared to talk about the boundaries. He's prepared to talk about security, he's prepared to talk about other things. But about the border, no. Why? Not because he doesn't know we will ultimately have to talk about the border, but because he knows that, politically, he cannot talk about any withdrawal.

Well, what about the famous case when Ehud Olmert gave Abu Mazen a map and said, "Think about it and get back to me," and to this very day he hasn't been back:

Not true, not true, Arye. He did get back to him; he did get back to him. Olmert gave him a map which had about 7% of [Palestinian] land going to Israel [presumably, in anticipation of a land swap], then corrected it to about 6%--what disinformation! Look how the Israeli public is building its positions on things that are simply not true--and Abu Mazen came back to him with a map of 1.9%. He came back to him. But then there was the war in Gaza, and then there were elections in Israel…

Oh, let’s stop debating history. Let’s think how to go forward...

But you should know in Israel that there are many things that explain the situation that are not true.

Okay we will have to leaves things here. Thank you very much Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida.
Now read the interview again, and look at the sequence of questions more carefully. Ask yourself if Golan's challenge to the Palestinian leadership to "come to the table" is not something like that clerk's invitation to file a complaint: You are looking for an excuse not to come to the table: building in Jerusalem is just an excuse not to talk about a border. Okay, the matter of Jerusalem is relevant to the border, but you talked before when we were building like crazy. Okay, you got nothing, and we kept building, but, look at history, we offered you a reasonably deal and you refused it. Okay, you didn't refuse it, but why are you debating history? The question is how to go forward. Why won't you come to the table?

(Incidentally, the best record we have so far of the Olmert negotiations with Abu Mazen can be found in this report of the James Baker Institute. See especially the maps, pp. 63-65)

Which brings us back to the future. I wrote yesterday that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have bought themselves an opening. If they are not prepared to cut into Golan's creepy circularity they can forget about a settlement. Very soon, they will have to make clear to the Palestinians, privately, if not publicly, that they will see to it that East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, and that Israel's border cannot include places like Ariel and Kiryat Arba. Otherwise, the only thing Palestinians would be coming to the table for is an argument about why they should come to the table. I suspect they know why already--and why they shouldn't.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Problem With Boundaries

There is something deeply unsatisfying about the reported deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Rodham Clinton: 90 days to stop building in the West Bank in return for F-35s and various diplomatic guarantees. Presumably, the Obama administration (to paraphrase Churchill) has had to choose between humiliation and the aura of diplomatic failure. It has chosen humiliation now, and will get diplomatic failure later.

But then why is Netanyahu's cabinet in an uproar?

Because what this deal actually does is provide the various parties to the negotiation an opportunity to delineate a border. As New York Times correspondent Mark Langer writes, burying his lead:

The logic behind a 90-day extension is that the two sides would aim for a swift agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. That would make the long dispute over settlements irrelevant since it would be clear which housing blocks fell into Israel and which fell into a Palestinian state.

As with healthcare, the administration is taking a path that is not easy to watch, but may be the most practical. I have argued here before that the US government must have, and eventually convey to the parties, a view regarding the elements of a final status agreement: more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. But the occasion for putting a thumb on the scales should be a negotiation over the border, not a dispute over continued settlements, which has been clouded by past negotiations over the border. Various talks between Israelis and PA officials, from the Geneva group, to the Olmert meetings, portended land swaps. These first efforts to draw lines, all of which assumed the Eztzion bloc would be part of Israel, say, cannot simply be erased from everyone's consciousness.

THE ANALOGY TO healthcare may be pushed further. The administration has been criticized for allowing Senate committees to debate the shape of the healthcare bill before committing itself to a final plan. The process was ugly; and the administration sweetened the outcome for resistant blue-dogs along the way. In the end, however, it got senators who had skin in the game, and it used their disagreements to define the "solution space" in which to intervene. And once (as Jonathan Cohn has shown) Obama saw the shape of the bill he could get, he still had to choose: let it go, for political reasons, or campaign for it, for historical ones. Had he not chosen the latter course, we would not have had a health reform bill at all.

Something like this moment is now in the offing in the Middle East. What the administration has done is allow Netanyahu the equivalent of (forgive me) pork to bring the Israeli state, so that the most critical issue defining a Palestinian state can be brought into relief. Israeli ministers most vociferously opposed to any state are justifiably in a panic (a "honey-trap" says Moshe Yaalon). Like Republicans who had hoped to kill any reform in committee, they are not so much convinced that they have lost the game as understand that now they are in one.

This is not to say the actual placement of a border is going to prove all that important in the long run: Israel and Palestine will be two interlocking city-states in any event. Still, it is crucial to have one somewhere, so that each city-state will know where its zoning rights begin and end. Anyway, the debate over the definition of a border will immediately occasion a triangular split in the Israeli government right between Land of Israel fanatics, for whom no settlement is a bridge too far, Orthodox fixers, and mere reactionaries, for whom Jerusalem is the main chance and security guarantees actually matter, and globalists, who fear most of all international isolation if the PA collapses and relations with Washington get freighted.

So the Netanyahu-Clinton agreement, should it be accepted by all sides, will not save Obama from choosing. Ensuing negotiations, over the next couple of months, will almost certainly not produce an agreement. But they will define the solution space Obama will have to move into and the line he will have to publicly fight for.  It will tee-up perhaps the most important foreign policy test of his presidency, and set up the right moment to visit Jerusalem. As with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--who had previously been thought weak, but proved how shows of strength require a sense of timing--it may be Obama's best chance to reignite the global hopes invested in him.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gone Quiet

You may have noticed that I've gone quiet over the past 10 days. I am finishing work on my new book, about Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, and have found little time for blogging. I expect to post sporadically over the next few weeks; I'll pick up the pace again in early December. In the meantime, regular readers who are not subscribing by email may want to consider doing so. It saves the bother of checking for new posts.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Debate Continues At TPM Café

For those of you who have been following my debate with Dean Baker, he's answered again, and again, and I've answered him again, and again, in this string that plays out at TPM Café. Be sure to look through the "Comments" section. Our differences sharpen there.

By the way, some readers of this blog have concluded that I am opposed, in some way, to government action in creating employment. Actually, I wrote in Strategy and Business 13 years ago that the government will have to create work for the chronically unemployable during the long period of transition portended by an economy in which, if you are nothing but a digit, digital technology will replace you. More Boston "big digs," I say; more new universities, more bullet trains. But this is not like "digging holes" in the sense Baker means it--not an economy in which hiked consumption causes business formation in the way it did a generation ago.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Economic History: A Last (Last) Answer To Baker

Dean Baker answered again, and there is enough of substance in his long post to warrant a long reply. You don't have to read Baker first to understand my post, but it helps. I suspect we are getting a head start on debating the soul of the Democratic Party over the coming year, as we prepare for 2012.

1. Of course the US government got America out of the Great Depression by spending on WWII. By 1947, the national debt was something over 110 percent of GDP. But the interesting historical question which Baker (relying on Dorothy’s ruby slippers) cheerfully avoids is, What was so unique about the American economy after the war, in the wake of the war, that staggering rates of growth over 20 years could mitigate the potentially harsh effects of accumulated debt?

Why did American GDP grow on average at nearly 4 percent a year from 1946 to 1973 (with many years at 10 percent), and with manageable inflation? Why, then, could the national debt be reduced to about 35 percent of GDP by the early 1970s? Moreover, what were the marginal income tax rates in America that allowed the government to keep spending and still draw down the debt?

The answer is not encouraging to economists who extrapolate from that time to this. After the war, America’s economy was the unrivaled manufacturing and financial powerhouse in the world. Its multi-national corporations dominated markets all over Europe, bought into Japan, etc., and controlled sources of supply in Latin America and the Middle East.

Americans needed one of everything, and novel TV advertizing ginned up demand; American mass production factories put barely skilled workers to work, while factories across the developed world were only beginning to learn from them—and, eventually, better the instruction. (Go back and read Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s 1967 book The American Challenge to get the French take on this hegemony.)

Inflation—which was about 6 percent in the 1940s—was kept below 3 percent during the 1950s and 60s, though the US government spent greatly on (comparatively unproductive things like) defense and (very productive things like) the GI Bill and the highway system. That’s because the US dollar was the world’s only reserve currency. The worldwide demand for dollars greatly restrained inflation. Besides, marginal tax rates on wealth were at 90 percent, so the government could recoup much more quickly.

So I’ll make Baker a deal. If he can show me that Japanese, Chinese, and European global corporations will exit the competitive landscape, that the American economy will grow at, on average, 4 percent a year for the next twenty years, that the euro will stop being an increasingly attractive alternative to the dollar as a reserve currency, and the Congress will reinstate 90 percent marginal rates on wealth—oh, and also that entitlement programs (Medicare especially) will not be in crisis owing to us aging boomers—I will concede that Obama blew it. All he ever had to do was tap his heels together and say, “There is no policy like spending.”

Then again, I suspect Baker would concede that many unfortunate countries spent their way out of, or spent to preempt, depressions, and then failed to grow anywhere near fast enough to pay for the privilege. The Begin government spent wildly in 1981 and Israel had 400 percent inflation by 1984.

Look, I am not saying the American economy today is what Israel's was then. Actually, I have high hopes for American electric vehicle technology, smart grid entrepreneurship, new media platforms, and other emerging sectors that should do for economic growth in the next decade what computers, telecom, and the internet did in the 1980s and 90s. I think the sheer gains in productivity from smart networks will help us. But these are not businesses that will employ nearly as many low skilled people as the factories of 1955 did. (I’ll come back to this.)

And the bigger logic is clear: at some point governments, like businesses, have to ask, am I really going to create more value than I am using up in the effort to create it? Am I eating my seed corn? America cannot live with the global competition of 2010 and think with patterns and numbers extrapolated from the 1950s--no more than it can predict the length of recessions today as if we were still back in the 1930s, when business plans got to investors by surface mail and telegrams, and you learned about the rest of the world with short wave radios.

2. Baker, sincerely perhaps, is distorting what I mean by stimulus needing to stimulate "trillions more" in private investment. My point is not about new spending in “physical investment in equipment and software.” It is, surely, that private sector investment capital dwarfs anything the American government can spend. The private sector still employs 8-9 times more people than the public. Almost all net new jobs over the past decade have been in entrepreneurial businesses.

So it matters what managers, entrepreneurs, fund managers, in America and around the world, think the American economy is going to look like in the next three to five years. They won't just be looking at how many people are going shopping this month. They will also be thinking about whether they are in sustainable jobs; about Americans as producers, not just as consumers. (If you are not producing today, will you be consuming tomorrow?)

3. Finally, and most important, perhaps, Baker is just missing my point about globalization. The problem is not simply the current rate at which foreigners buy American debt, but how long they will if they are not also buying American products at a corresponding rate. Baker thinks, oh, fine, let them stop lending, and let the dollar plummet. That will only boost exports; then they will buy our products. Well, this is true to some degree, but to what degree relevant to this discussion? Will a lowered dollar produce a competitive advantage that will mitigate the advantage of unskilled people working for one fifth of an American wage?

The question, remember is employment, not just growth. Jobless recoveries have been plaguing us since 2001. And the falling dollar will not produce anything like the kind of employment in manufacturing industries that mirrors what we saw in the 1950s and 60s? Baker says, well, Germany is a net exporter of manufactured goods, in spite of its high wages, as if this pertains to the discussion at all. He might have said Germany has been a net exporter of manufactured goods in spite of the comparatively high euro, but then he would be undermining his point, which is that devalued currency is cause and manufactured export is effect.

An economist who talks about things in such mechanistic ways is about as much help to us as a weatherman is to a farmer, or a sound engineer to a musician. Anybody who knows anything about manufacturing supply chains knows that a marginal swing in the value of the dollar will not boost exports in high labor components. Forgive the pedantry, but getting to know the business reality requires some time.

THE CHEVY VOLT, for example, will be "made" in Michigan, where it was designed, but when you increase the magnification, you see an integration of disparate components—battery pack, chassis, electronics, engine, suspension parts, etc.—each of which has a cost structure at the point of assembly that will determine where it can be made. Tax breaks, currency, etc., for component plants are a part of this puzzle but other considerations are much more important:

First, how "mature" is the component, that is, have its own sub-assemblies been integrated into a "solid state" design? (ABS brakes, for example, used to be two systems mounted on the rotors, but now they are one; how long before the additional system capturing braking energy in hybrid and electric cars will be integrated, too?) Second, how robotized are the process technologies producing the components? (People make much of "total quality" methods, pioneered in Japan, which inspired line workers to help management break conversion processes down to routine and mathematically monitored movements; actually, total quality paved the way for increasingly capable robots to replace those very workers.)

Third, how many of the same kind of component are needed for how many vehicle programs? (The more you need, the more a supplier can invest in economies of scale, automation, and so forth.) Fourth, how defensible is the intellectual property underlying a component's production? (Prototypes for very innovative components are almost always made in-house and supplied by carefully chosen partner-suppliers, no matter where they are.) Fifth, how difficult is the component to ship?

It is only now that the cost of "labor," the value of the currency, etc, in the cost structure can be seen in its proper context. A mature component, much in demand, and having no particularly innovative technology, will be mass produced in a way that requires comparatively little labor. It can be built anywhere local skill guarantees that quality standards in the plant will be met. Yes, the currency will matter, too, as will the question of unions helping or hindering production, the local costs of construction (do you need clean rooms?), and so forth. But these kinds of plants can be located anywhere near customers and they do not produce a great number of jobs.

One of the Volt's most mature components, for example, is its 1.4 liter gas engine, also used in many Opel models. It is made up of sub-assemblies now almost entirely produced by experienced suppliers whose smart machine tools and robots produce near perfect quality for whole families vehicles. The engine itself is assembled in highly automated lines, with no more than perhaps 10 per cent labor, mostly skilled technicians, in the cost structure. It is currently made in Austria, where wages are very high and quality engineering can be taken for granted. Baker's idea that Germany pays high wages and still exports is right. But he misses this point entirely: that the goods Germany exports are highly engineered, with highly skilled workers, and in production systems where the proportion of labor is small.

Then again, engines are big and heavy and expensive to ship. So Volt's production team is moving the engine's line to Flint in anticipation of the Volt hitting the mainstream market. Michael Moore will find this move satisfying, I suppose, but virtually no unskilled workers will be employed in the plant's assembly operations. What you'll need are people who can manage the robotics and flawlessly log quality data. When you consider that 14 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate, and how much higher this number is in Michigan, it is hard to see how Flint's piece of the 10 percent unemployment rate will be solved by "manufacturing"--though some of it will be solved by low-wage restaurant, hotel and custodian jobs adjacent to the plant. (McKinsey reports that most of the new employment in the 2000s were "service businesses" of this kind.)

In contrast, plastic and wire electronic harnesses on engines—also those new-fangled harnesses leading from the battery pack—require a much greater proportion of labor in the cost structure. Even mature harnesses are hard to manipulate and easy to ship. (Think clothing.) The proportion of labor in the assembly of harnesses—and in constantly changing electronic components more generally—will almost certainly remain double or even triple that of the engines. So we can forget about production of such electronic components leaving Mexico or the Far East, at least so long as UPS operates there efficiently.

IT IS COMFORTING, no doubt, for progressive Democrats to think that all we ever needed was a massive stimulus, that then there would be smooth sailing; that deficits don’t matter that much, that if the debt does not come down it only means manufacturing will be boosted (and unskilled workers will get jobs), that the problem of employment in America is simply a matter of boosting consumption—and that to think otherwise means either you are in the pocket of Goldman Sachs or gullible enough to believe their propaganda. Many of the comments I’ve read about my posts reflect this view.

I trust that Obama will continue to be skeptical of it, though he will keep droppin' his g's when he talks about endin' tax breaks for companies sendin' jobs overseas; skeptical even though Larry Summers has returned to Cambridge. That the president will continue to focus on the future and its productive foundations: investments in green mobility, greener infrastructure, investments in education, health care delivery and cost containment, immigration reform, technical standards for critical information platforms, and fiscal discipline.

Baker, no doubt, would be willing to accommodate the last thing if the other things could be advanced. But will they if we keep painting Obama the way Ted Kennedy painted Jimmy Carter, a stealth conservative who doesn't care about jobs and doesn't know what he's doing?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Defending Obama II: A Response To Dean Baker

My last post prompted a strong response from Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, on TPM Café. This is my answer.

Tucked away in Dean Baker’s rejoinder to my post on Krugman’s column is this (remarkable) aside: “He [Krugman] even has repeated the nonsense about preventing a second Great Depression.” Baker meant to seal the point that Krugman has been fair, even generous, to Obama at times. Presumably, my posts have been wrong (half-again-more-than-completely wrong) to question whether Krugman, and Baker for that matter, have been reckless in depicting Obama as “deserving much of the blame” for the state of the economy. The stimulus was too small, says Baker. Case closed. And that’s Obama’s fault.

But was Krugman’s conclusion that Obama prevented a Great Depression really “nonsense”? (It was not.) And, if not, isn’t Krugman’s complaint about the size of stimulus (and a week before the election, to boot) disproportionate, if not irresponsible? What urgent considerations, other than the size of the stimulus, did Obama have to navigate during those tight-rope months of Winter, 2009?

To restart a recovery, didn’t any amount of government spending have to be dwarfed by trillions in investment coming from CEOs, pension fund managers, sovereign fund managers, private entrepreneurs, etc., in America and around the world? Who, after all, were the people that government spending was aiming to “stimulate”? How, on the other hand, might such people have been spooked?

And is Baker right that sustainable businesses in the US might really have been engendered with a one-time hike in “demand” to make up for a good part of what demand lost; not just cash for clunkers, but cash for consumption of all kinds. Obviously, job formation was urgent; eight million jobs were ultimately lost. But does this mean more spending per se by American consumers was the answer? Does it  not matter what kinds of jobs--and where?

Baker talks about stimulus as if the American economy were not global; as if the demand of American workers for basic things through the decade before the big recession had not created disproportionate business formation in Korea, China, Brazil and Japan, where many of the products (or products’ components) Americans buy at Walmart and car dealers are made.

Of course, emergency spending as a radical answer to recession had a role—Krugman supposes unemployment might well be at 12 percent were it not for what Obama did get. But the economy is not a national closed loop. It is not the case that, if American workers consume, job-making American businesses start up. And at some point your spending gets you a crisis like Greece. (Remember near 20 percent interest rates in 1979?)

Come to think of it, what if not the crisis in Greece, and the EU's bailout, seriously interrupted the recovery over the past summer? What could Obama do about that? Nor could the federal government jump-start an expanded rail system, university system, and smart grid overnight. (Need I add that it won’t at all if Obama continues to be discredited by his own people and Republicans wind up running things?)

NONE OF THIS seems to matter to Baker, at least not here, in his eagerness to put me in my place. But anyway, his defense of more stimulus is tangential to Krugman’s point, which is not that the state of the economy is actually Obama’s fault, but rather that Obama is to blame for the Republican resurgence. Why? Because people are angry—implicitly, about high unemployment. Obama is responsible for (what Cokie Roberts calls) the perception out there that his presidency has been a failure, or anyway not on the side of common people.

And why is that? Because—and here Baker’s argument circles back on itself—the stimulus wasn’t big enough to “restore the economy to full employment.” Arguably, 9.5 percent means anger; 7 percent or under, relief. As for investors, the rich, why care about their perceptions? Wasn’t so much of their money made in unspeakable ways? Don’t you have to be Larry Summers, a step-child of Goldman Sachs, to care?

But could Obama ever have gotten more, for God's sake? Is there a shred of evidence that doesn’t demonstrate the opposite: that he got as much as he could against Republicans determined to humiliate him and Blue Dogs nervous about spending? “Perhaps not,” Baker concedes. But he has a story and is sticking with it. Like Krugman, he implies that Obama is losing now because he should have fought for more then, “told the truth,” had a “coherent story,” not spoken of “green shoots of recovery.” Presumably, the President of the United States should have issued dire warnings of an impending “goddamn disaster”: nothing to fear but confidence itself.

Obama, so the argument goes, should have demanded the Congress come up with (if I am doing the math correctly) another 700 billion in spending. Then, presumably, the independents who are now deserting Obama would be trusting him. Republicans would not be surging. His “brilliant” advisors were wrong to count votes. The really brilliant thing to do was tell Baker’s story without flinching.

This story usually has two other wrinkles, incidentally, though Baker only alludes to the second here. The first is that the fear of deficit growth, which Obama has echoed, and which seems the real public anxiety fanning a pro-Republican backlash, the Tea Party, etc., is what we used to call in the Sixties a case of “false consciousness.” The deficit is not yet close to what it was during and just after World War II.

But doesn't the trade deficit prove America no longer dominates world markets as after World War II? Yes, but American manufacturing will revive if only the RMB can be prompted to rise, or the dollar can be prompted down. “In the long-term,” Baker glibly adds, “we have to get the dollar down so that our trade deficit gets closer to balance.”

AS IF THE manufacture of any product or component that, say, has over 25 percent labor in its cost structure (e.g., engine harnesses) will ever be built in the US again. As if products that scale up with smart automation (e.g., battery cells) will ever need enough unskilled laborers to bring unemployment down to where it was—as if the problem for an increasing number of American is not chronic unemployability in an economy that has been transformed.

Look, we are all with Baker in wishing HAMP worked more effectively; that it helped 2 million homeowners renegotiate, not just 500,000. I am all for taxing financial speculation. But how about we start with getting high incomes taxed, or at least with giving Obama credit at this crucial time for being in that “neighborhood”?

For the cumulative effect arguments like Baker’s post, along with Krugman’s various shots across Obama’s bow (about Larry Summers, and so forth), has been to create this weird environment in which educated people have decided, sighing knowingly, that Obama is not really worth defending, that he’s surrounded himself with people who can’t be trusted, because they hang out with Harvard arrogance and Wall Street money.

Gee, give us a real Republican, so I can know my enemy. It all started with TARP and then Geithner’s plan for the banks. Baker, March 2009: “The core problem is that many of the largest banks are bankrupt…These geniuses [Geithner, et al]… subsidize the bankrupt banks and keep them breathing a little bit longer, while offering opportunities for other Wall Street actors to get hugely wealthy,” etc.) Just watch Jon Stewart’s questioning of Obama last night and you get the idea.

So sorry about Obama, we say. That campaign was so promising, wasn’t it? (You know, the campaign in which the guardians of “the coherent story” started with John Edwards.) Stewart’s audience gives us a mandatory chuckle when the name of Larry Summers comes up. So do the talking heads on Sunday morning. And what do less well educated people hear?

I can tell you what my handyman in New Hampshire hears, with periodic prompting from Rush and Beck, though he had voted for Obama in 2008. That these elites who screwed us, these “geniuses” who think they’re so smart—these people who think they are know better than us, but can’t add two and two (or $700 billion to $700 billion),who tax us to tell us what to do and how to live and make their friends rich—well, they are all a bunch of phonies.

Baker can have the last word if he wants it. Obviously, it would take a book to explore the arguable, anachronistic economic assumptions that get progressive democrats this sanctimonious. As for me, I am on nobody's payroll, but am enjoying something better than Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes just now. I fear the enjoyment will be short-lived if Democrats do not get past the year of magical thinking.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Krugman: The Narcissism Of Small Differences

Academic fights are so vicious, they say, because the stakes are so small. The narcissism of small differences, Freud said. But at times the stakes can be big, and the fighters can think they are still in the faculty club. It is a week before the congressional elections, Barack Obama is talking himself hoarse trying to rouse the Democratic base--especially impressionable young people, the un"likely" voters who made all the difference 2008--and Paul Krugman has decided this is a good time to stick it to Larry Summers just once more for good luck.

The real story of this election, then, is that of an economic policy that failed to deliver. Why? Because it was greatly inadequate to the task... If you look back now at the economic forecast originally used to justify the Obama economic plan, what’s striking is that forecast’s optimism about the economy’s ability to heal itself... Even without their plan, Obama economists predicted, the unemployment rate would peak at 9 percent, then fall rapidly. Fiscal stimulus was needed only to mitigate the worst — as an “insurance package against catastrophic failure,” as Lawrence Summers, later the administration’s top economist, reportedly said in a memo to the president-elect... Could the administration have gotten a bigger stimulus through Congress? Even if it couldn’t, would it have been better off making the case for a bigger plan, rather than pretending that what it got was just right? We’ll never know.

This is not so, or at least not in the categorical way Krugman is presenting things. Summers argued often during the winter of 2009 that in matters of stimulus one never knew just how much was enough, but "the risk of doing too little is greater than doing too much." As for the Congress, Henry Waxman--one of the House's most progressive representatives, and no wimp--told NPR just last week that Rahm Emmanuel was right to propose what he did, that he had carefully counted the votes in the Senate and the package passed was the best the president could get.

What about the administration being "better off" just making the case for "bigger," even if smaller was the only bill possible? Actually, it did make that case, though in the middle of trying to come up with a plan to keep "toxic assets" from sinking the banks, keep people with crushing mortgages in their  homes, save the auto industry, reform financial markets, reboot relations with the Arab world, and prepare a universal healthcare package, all the while trying to reassure investors who--unfairly, but what could then be done?--were the under 10% of Americans who controlled over 80% of the country's wealth.

Ah, but Krugman seems to be implying, the case for a bigger stimulus should have been made more strongly anyway; that there was at least some kind of public relations victory possible, a chance to control "the narrative," even if a tangible legislative victory was impossible against Republican leaders determined to both sabotage Obama's engine and then complain about its breakdown. (People I admire make more sophisticated versions of this case: John Judis says the administration might have struck a more "populist" chord, though "confidence" seemed more the watchword early in the precarious winter of 2009, and the inherent populism of the healthcare plan never really caught on as planned; Rick Hetzberg is certainly right to wonder about why we didn't get more of Obama's "outside game," especially when one saw the effect he could have on a crowd when he drove healthcare through.)

Still, if the issue is control of the narrative, not substantial achievement, has the administration really been the worst of the problem? Sure, it would have been better to see more of Ed Rendell and less of Larry Summers (or David Axelrod, for that matter) on the talk shows in the spring of 2009. But would it also not have been better for progressive columnists not to have appeared on the cover of Newsweek charging the Obama administration, which was actually blunted by Republican legislative veto, with selling its soul to Goldman Sachs? Where was the real catnip for 24/7 cable, shock radio, Fox, and even MSNBC? Oh, and who, now, thinks it would have been a good idea to have nationalized the banks? Who thinks the fight over the "public option" was really worth embarrassing Obama over, night after night for two months? Who thinks people who've defected from Obama have been more interested in the bigger stimulus as narrative than in whether it was really stupid for a cop to have arrested Skip Gates?

Look, Krugman is may be right to dislike Summers, his views, shows of arrogance, connections. (For my sins, I edited Summers at HBR in 1988, when he was working for Dukakis, and could have lived without the experience.) But even on the substance, good people might disagree. The persistence of unemployment, jobless recoveries, etc., in the new economy is a crisis for all progressive economists, not just Summers; and Krugman can be cavalier about these things himself. Keynes did not have to digest manufacturing robotics, smart networks, global sourcing, and financial instruments moving at light speed. Neither did Paul Samuelson or his rivalrous students. It is still not clear just what state action will produce the kinds of sustainable jobs and wages Krugman takes for granted when he speaks about, say, the Japanese government acting against the liquidity traps of the 1990s. Nor can one speak about deficits by calmly comparing America's rate of debt to GDP today to that of America after WWII, when the US was the science and manufacturing powerhouse of the world, and the world needed one of everything.

This week of all weeks, Krugman might be defending Obama's quite consistent vision, showing some admiration for his narrative, the way Rick Hertzberg (who saw what happened to Jimmy Carter) regularly has; or be defending investments in green infrastructure, higher education, and scientific entrepreneurship the way that other Times columnist does; or defending Obama's most populist of plans, the one to reimpose higher taxes on the (very) rich, a plan Austan Goolsbee is spearheading--or is Goolsbee's connection University of Chicago economics department a problem, too?

Who knows what will really happen on Tuesday. But we know that it will be followed by another Tuesday in 2012, and I don't see the broadcast media getting any more Morrowish by then, or the flocking of "independents" any less steered by who seems hot and what seems cool. Telling people you admire a president actually matters. A big piece of the narrative held against Obama is that liberals "always think they're better than ya'." I suspect Obama is now thinking this piece may be sadly true, and that we'll get, yet again, only the president we deserve.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What The Palestinians Want

Not to be missed: Yesterday's little column in Haaretz by Palestinian Authority leader and sometime negotiator Nabil Sha'ath. He is not the most popular of leaders in the West Bank; he's grown curiously rich, and was never a man of the people. Still, he's a straight talking man, who clearly represents mainstream thinking in the Fatah leadership. And for all the talk about the difficulties of negotiation, or the PA turning down various Israeli offers, you read Sha'ath's very blunt statement of the the PA's opening (and, over the years, consistent) position and have to wonder exactly what requires such hard bargaining--if, that is, the basis of the negotiation is a framework agreement that can be made fair to both sides.

The key paragraph in Sha'ath's column is the one where he speaks of the Palestinian "right of return." All other issues are more clearly understood. The current Israeli government insists that the PA should recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," thus precluding some sly Palestinian intention to swamp Israel with returning refugees. Sha'ath states that recognition of Israel should not mean undermining "the rights of Palestinian refugees and the rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel." Is this really code for the destruction of Israel?

No. Sha'ath, like most Israeli liberals, believes that the reality of Israel, a Hebrew-speaking state whose large majority is either ethnically Jewish, or practices Judaism, means Arab citizens will naturally acculturate to a patently Jewish state. But Palestinian leaders need not endorse residual deficiencies in Israeli democracy, that is, accept on behalf of the Arab minority the perverse way the current Israeli government defines "Jewish state." (If there is a sincere psychological impasse here, the US might secure an early agreement that both Palestine and Israel should be bound by "democratic standards of equality," and that each state respects the "cultural distinction" of the other.)

More important, though, a solution to the refugees' right of return is pretty much worked out, and Sha'ath was largely responsible for it. I interviewed Sha'ath for a Harper's piece several years ago. His position then, as now, is that this right be realized through a number of "modalities" he negotiated at Taba on 2001, and which were reaffirmed in the Geneva Initiative:

There would be financial compensation for lost property. There would be paid relocation to the Palestinian state. There would be contributions by donor countries, and even by Israel, to that state. (One economist present cheerfully put the amount of reparations at $137 billion.) There would even be a program of limited family reunification in Israel, up to a number “acceptable to the Israeli government,” say 10,000 a year over five years. Nobody could say justice of a kind was not being exacted.

The point is, the biggest problem of the negotiation is not what Palestinians want, or even the Palestinians Israelis fear. It is the Jews Israelis fear. Abbas sees delivering a deal for a state as his legacy--anyway, it's the only reason for his clinging to power. But the Netanyahu government, even if it can be drawn to the logic of Palestinian state, is trying not to confront its own great challenge, a mobilized settler (and settler-sympathizer) population, in and around Jerusalem, in and around the current government, that will resist any such state with unknowable force.

Tom Friedman is right: there will be no progress toward a deal if Netanyahu does not decide, or is not induced to decide by the US, that he must form a broader coalition and confront his own rejectionists--who are only getting stronger with each passing year.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Burden Of Roth's "Nemesis"

In 1943, Arthur Koestler published a little novel, which he called Arrival and Departure. The story, actually a kind of dramatized essay, features a young protagonist, Slavek, a student leader from Eastern Europe (we assume Hungary), who escapes the local fascists after they had tortured him brutally. He comes eventually to "Neutralia" (we assume Portugal, the way-station Koestler himself had escaped to), where he falls in love with the fetching Odette. Miraculously, the couple is offered safe passage to America. But Slavek is also given the opportunity to join the British Army. What to do?

Slavek finds himself so torn between, on the one hand, assuming his share of the responsibility for fighting the Nazis and, on the other, escaping into some private American happiness, that he suffers hysterical paralysis of his leg. (You can almost hear "As Time Goes By" playing between the lines.) But then the novel turns on a Koestlerian twist. Slavek presents himself to a psychoanalyst for treatment; and he finds out on her couch that his desire to fight injustice has been largely fueled by a neurotic impulse to self-sacrifice, even to moral grandiosity, deriving from irrational guilt over the accidental death of his brother many years before. Of course he would want to fight; that is his psychic disposition.

In record time (the plot is a contrivance, after all), Slavek is emancipated from the vise of this guilt and his leg recovers. Yet what emancipation is really possible from his terrible conundrum? Can knowing the tortured source of one's moralism--one's hubristic need to seem the champion--really help one decide a moral question? What should Slavek do, irrespective of his impulses, go to America or join the British army?

Koestler, it turns out, is not all that ambivalent. His Slavek chooses the army--the fight against the Nazis. Knowing what is understandable is not the same as knowing what is right. And right (here we see Koestler's admiration for Kant) cannot be grounded solely in knowing material facts, historical contingencies, universal pleasures--or psychoanalytic traumas. Some imperatives are, well, categorical: the need to see others as ends in themselves, even when you desperately want them to be your means; the need to do what you cannot ask others to do if you will not.

Indeed--Slavek concludes this--it is purely materialist explanations for human will that are themselves the problem; ethical systems that began with Bacon and Galileo culminated with Stalin and Hitler. In a farewell note to Odette, Slavek assumes the stance of a post-modernist prophet:

I'll tell you my belief, Odette, I think a new God is about to born. That is the kind of thing one is only allowed to say in certain moments... Praise to the unborn God, Odette. Do not try to divine his message or the form of his cult;  this will be after our time... For we are the descendants of Renaissance Man, the end and not the beginning..

Slavek might well have paraphrased Dostoyevsky: if there is no God, then all things are actions are understandable.

WHICH BRINGS ME to Philip Roth's extraordinary new novel, Nemesis, and J. M. Coetzee's diamond-like essay on the book in the current New York Review. Nemesis has been compared in this and various other good reviews to Camus' The Plague; and Roth himself told me he was reading a lot of Camus at the time of its writing. You can almost hear Roth's young protagonist, Bucky Cantor, echoing Camus' Dr. Rieux, that  there is no heroism in fighting the plague, only "decency." Coetzee writes that Nemesis is yet another book where "the plague condition is simply a heightened state of the condition of being mortal." Correspondingly, we surmise, standing up to the mysteries of mortality would seem Roth's version of existentialist spine.

Still, I wonder if the comparisons to Camus aren't a little rushed. Roth being Roth, we get a kind of a value-added existentialism in Nemesis, much like Koestler's in Arrival and Departure, only more dramatically convincing. We get, that is, a protagonist enhanced by our psychoanalytic knowledge of him and interpreted (this Coetzee wonderfully sees) by a narrator, another character, who may not be completely trustworthy. For Roth, I think, "being mortal" is even more complex and terrible than the way Camus presents the matter in The Plague--if not for the protagonist, then for us.

I AM ASSUMING that if you have been staying with me this far, you have either read Nemesis or read enough reviews of it that you know the plot. If not, here is the outline:

It is 1944, Newark; there is a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor, 4-F, sees his buddies going off to do what Slavek determines to do. At first he stays on the job, utterly devoted, coaching febrile, vulnerable boys in the city. Soon, some of his wards start dying. Bucky's girl-friend, Marcia, is at a distant summer camp, and urges him to join her--a prelude to engagement and the embrace of her loving family. He refuses.

But, eventually, and in what might seem an effort to pluck some joy out of an unhappy fate--an epidemic nobody could control or be responsible for, after all--Bucky does join her. Yet he quickly comes to see this as a show of weakness. Ironically, he discovers a few days later that he is himself the silent carrier infecting his boys; that, tragically enough, he would soon succumb himself to the disease; that in abandoning his job and fleeing Nemesis (the job was anyway--though he did know this--about to be terminated) he actually may have saved other Newark boys, though he wound up infecting various children at the camp.

But now comes the real moral problem. Bucky recovers, though his marvelous, athletic body is paralyzed. What seems to plague him most (we cannot be sure) is the shame that he had failed to do his duty. We get this idea because, confined to a wheel-chair, he refuses to even see Marcia. Finally, however, reluctantly, he allows her to visit, and she begs him to marry anyway, which presents him the decision once and for all. What should he do? Marry knowing he could never give her what he will get from her, or break off the engagement?

BUCKY, MUCH LIKE Slavek (I am not at all sure like Dr. Rieux), chooses to break off the engagement. He concludes that it is right to do so. But is it? Is agreeing to have a loving woman to care for you--that is, committing to such asymmetrical caring--really like acquiescing in, say, a Nazi occupation, or just the spread of a fatal disease? Everyone around Bucky, including the narrator, considers marriage to Marcia what he should have chosen if he were not encumbered by some stubborn, excessive moralism.

Indeed--and this is Roth's special gift--we "understand" Bucky in a way we could never understand Dr. Rieux. Like Koestler, but more compassionately, Roth complicates things by sketching a map to his protagonist's psyche: his childhood unhappiness, his physical insecurities, his family shame, his over-compensations, his comparative sexual squareness, leading to what vaguely seems all along an exaggerated, hubristic, sense of duty. And Roth--adding a ball even to Koestler's moral juggling--gives us a not-disinterested narrator to tell Bucky's story, the once-admiring younger Arnie, who having recovered from polio himself, cannot really forgive Bucky for wasting his "life" as he would not. What then can we make of duty?

Coetzee, it must be said, sets up these questions, but he does not, I think, take them on as squarely as the book would invite him to. Anyway, he misses Roth's point because he wants things to fit into a classical tragedy, not the contemporary kind Koestler implies. Coetzee shows convincingly that Bucky aims for a kind of dignity Arnie cannot or will not appreciate. And yet Coetzee supposes that dignity in Nemesis is utterly classical, a rejection of the very concept of chance, a determination to see life as meaningful, serious, hence moved by the gods; that dignity means acknowledging, if not accepting, their verdict. He writes:

God may indeed be incomprehensible, as Marcia says. Nonetheless, someone who tries to grasp God's mysterious designs at least takes humanity, and the reach of human understanding, seriously; whereas someone who treats the divine mystery as just another name for chance does not. What Arnie is unwilling to see--or at least unwilling to respect--is first the force of Bucky's Why? ("this maniac of the why," he calls him) and then the nature of Bucky's No!, which, pigheaded, self-defeating, and absurd though it may be, nevertheless keeps an ideal of human dignity alive in the face of fate, Nemesis, the gods, God...Ill luck does not call for remorse on a grand, heroic scale: best to pick yourself up and get on with your life. In wanting to be regarded as a great criminal, Bucky merely reveals himself as a belated imitator of the great-criminal pretenders of the nineteenth century, desperate for attention and ready to do anything, even commit the vilest of crimes, to get it (Dostoevsky dissected the great-criminal type in the person of Stavrogin in The Possessed).

But Roth is implying a slightly different, and (if possible) even more heroic conception of dignity in Nemesis than what Coetzee suggests here. Bucky does not reject being a victim of chance, nor is he punishing himself in order to valorize a "mysterious design." Rather, he rejects living as a victim, period. For this move you cannot simply acknowledge "fate, Nemesis, the gods, God"--all of which imply some kind of order behind events. You need the "new God" Slavek introduces, a personal faith in the meaningfulness of things in the absence of design, a moral dignity that is itself mysterious.

Bucky, you see, is not wallowing in the verdict of the furies and refusing to get on with his life. He is getting on with his life. For "life," to him, means exercising his God-given powers, not surrendering to the powers of the gods. If he condemns himself, it is not for having fallen ill, even this infected others. He condemns himself, rather, first, for leaving his post when he thought he might make a difference (and even if, as things turned out, he could not). And he condemns, second, and preemptively, any Bucky who would impose an invalid on a lovely young bride before her life has really begun.

Coetzee sees only the former condemnation without fully appreciating its import ("The Bucky with whom Arnie does not sympathize is haunted by a suspicion that when he said 'Yes, I will flee the city,' the voice that spoke was not that of his daytime self but of some Other within him").  But the second is the more important one, and brings us back to Slavek's choice.

Okay, one might say, and as Arnie suggests, a man like Bucky could not stand the thought of living his life as a burden on Marcia or anybody. Yes, we know he has a psyche that would call for action "on a grand, heroic scale," or we think we know through Arnie's filter. Such people (as Coetzee suggests) can be dangerous. So what? One's propensity to "desperately seek attention" through "grand" moral acts does not, in itself, mean one's act is not morally sound. The residual problem is still whether it is right to live as a burden on the people we love. Roth, like Koestler, complicates things for us but the complexity only makes the simplicity of the moral question feel all the more compelling.

If Bucky love Marcia would he not wish her to exercise her powers more fully than caring for him would allow? True, Bucky's reach for dignity implicitly denies Marcia the chance to reach for something like the same thing. (What right does he have to "save" her? Then again, what if not Marcia's limited horizons, cuddly family, and exaggerated sexual infatuation explains her propensity to give Bucky what he cannot give her? Should we trust his No any less than her Yes?) What, in any case, makes life worth living if not living by our own lights, in our own integrity, even when we cannot really know what the hell the gods want?

Nemesis leaves us dangling in circular questions of this kind. Yet Bucky's peculiar courage seeps into the back of our minds. Roth seems to be implying that living means living autonomously--being our own best evidence for autonomy. Dignity cannot (always) mean living with ethical clarity. But it does mean living responsibly: we may not ask what we cannot imagine fair for everybody. Anyway, we have nothing but fictions about one another, as Arnie has of Bucky, as Marcia has of Bucky, and Bucky has of himself, yet we judge, judge!, and JUDGE.

The point is, this is not just a problem for unusual characters. Nor is the specific moral question Bucky deals with only for people crippled by disease. We all go the way of Bucky. I dare say every aging person, contemplating the diminution of his or her powers, and sickened by the prospect of becoming a burden to loved ones--actually, sickened by the prospect of no longer being oneself--thinks often about the question of when "life" is no longer worth living and even about the courage to end it. Who but Roth, the chronicler of the pathos of our autonomy, should help us be thinking about this now?