Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lessons from Weimar Germany?

"We won't tolerate anarchy!/We will protect women and children!" - rightwing German poster, 1919

Returning to that article I commented on in my previous post, The US Is Facing a Weimar Moment by Robert Freeman, CommonDreams.org 03/15/09, I see it's even worse than it looked at first. I was planning to do this post to comment more specifically on why Freeman's discussion of the Weimar Republic is so deficient. But I realize that poor history is not even the most obvious problem of the piece. That problem would be this part, where he is referring to the situation of the US today:

The government's unfunded liabilities, promises it has made to the American people but for which no payment source can be identified, now exceed $60 trillion, a literally inconceivable sum that can never, will never, be paid. Federal Reserve economist Lawrence Kotlikoff has suggested that the U.S. government is "actuarially bankrupt."
This is pure reactionary fantasy propaganda. To put it nicely. This is a straight-up recitation of the nonsense being promoting by Republicans who want to abolish Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It really is nonsense.

If you want to see a more specialized breakdown in terms of economics and its implications for accounting of why it's not only not meaningful but downright dishonest to call those programs' obligations "unfunded liabilities", see Comments on the FASAB Exposure Drafts relating to “Comprehensive Long-term Projections for the U.S. Government (ED 1)” and to “Accounting for Social Insurance. (ED 2)” by Jamie Galbraith, Randall Wray and Warren Mosler 02/25/09. As the title suggests, you probably have to be a finance or accounting geek to actually enjoy reading that paper. But it does dissect what is a sophisticated scam in terms of technical accounting concepts that is being pushed by the anti-Social-Security crowd.

Freeman goes on to complain like some "libertarian" isolationist that "the U.S. has technically become a colony of China" because we borry a lot of money from them. As Paul Krugman explained in the interview he recently did with El País, China's massive lending to the United States constrains their policies more at the moment than it does those of the US.

Freeman's recitation of the anti-Social-Security script is more of a blow to his credibility than his lightweight version of the history of the Weimar Republic. I'll give a summary of the problems I see with the latter.

The problem with the parliamentary electoral system in the German Weimar Republic (1918-1933) was not that many political parties were allowed to campaign. Nor was it a problem that they had to rely on parliamentary coalitions to form a government. That's the case in most parliamentary systems today. And there's a good argument that the need to build coalitions reduces the liklihood that a single party could fatally undermine the entire constitutional system.
The two key problems with that system were that the percentage of votes required for a party to win representation in Parliament was so low that many parties could get into Parliament, so of them with miniscule support. This was a very destabilizing factor. The other major problem was that the President could dismiss Parliament on a whim and rule by emergency decree. President Hindenburg's extensive use of those powers made the last couple of years of the Weimar Republic only a semi-parliamentary system.

Freeman says of the German right, "All they possessed was a blinding, visceral hatred of the left and a masturbatory lust for the return to power." Say what? I'm not quite sure how he concluded that the German rightwingers possessed "a masturbatory lust for the return to power". I'm not even sure what that means.

But even if the general concept of mass rage fits nicely into the common American understanding of the rise of Nazism, his formulation conceals the fact that Hitler came to power through a complex series of political manuvers. Yes, he was a successful demagogue up to a point. But he was at least as successful at backroom deal-making. The picture of Hitler as a madman has more than a bit of truth in it. But he was also a talented politician, despicable though his goals were.

On other aspects of the Weimar history, his description of events is sloppy. Frederick Ebert didn't become Chancellor through a popular vote; he was appointed by Kaiser Bill (Wilhelm II). The circumstances in which he and his Social Democratic Party (SPD) came to power also makes it strange for Freeman to say that the various reactionary forces he lists "were completely discredited". Nor was their failure in the Great War generally viewed as "catastrophic, undeniable, and complete". The conservative parties did have signficant political clout, though they were a minority. The problem was that the leaders of the "conservatives" weren't genuine conservatives. They were reactionaries who wanted to go back to something more along the lines of the monarchy.

He oddly refers to the SPD as the "German Socialist Party". They were a socialist party. But I don't believe I've ever seen "Sozialdemokratische Partei" translated as anything other than "Social Democratic party".

Freeman's attempt to draw lessons or parallels are even more painful. The "alien political ideology - liberalism" was undoubtedly one of the Nazis' target, both philosophically and in party terms. But "liberalism" in German in the 1920s can't be compared directly to what Americans today mean by "liberalism".

And his attempt to analogize the American situation in 2009 to Germany at the end of the First World War is, to be polite, a very strained analogy.

If you describe things at a high enough level of abstraction, you can make any two things sound alike. Our rightwingers today have been saying, hey, look, Hitler drew big crowds and Obama draws big crowds, so Obama is like Hitler!

I see so many bad historical analogies that I sometimes wonder if anybody learns anything from history. But that assumes some basic level of familiarity with the history in question because you have to know something about history to understand how government handle public affairs. It's just that it can be tricky to draw specific "lessons from history".

In the case of the Social Democrats coming to power in the last months of the First World War, there are several important "lessons". One of them has particular relevance to Obama's positions on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. But you won't find those articulated in any sensible form (if at all) in Freeman's article. I tend to think that the more general the "lesson" being suggested, the less useful it is.

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