Thursday, July 19, 2007

mao, bush, and the "great man" theory of history

On a long car trip I have been reading "Mao: The Untold Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, originally published in 2005. As the title suggests, the book is less than complimentary. It's basic thesis is that Mao never really believed in communism or any other coherent set of values; had neither any affection for workers nor any appetite for physical labor of his own; was interested only in his own power and gratification; and, generally speaking, schemed, plotted, and murdered his way to control of the Chinese Community Party and eventually the country, leaving a trail of innocent victims in his path at every stage. The book estimates that 70 million people died during Mao's reign, including 38 million in famines deriving from the Great Leap Forward (1958-61)--all of them, the cover notes, during peacetime.

As readers of this blog will know, I am not a particularly big fan of Mao's or of the system that he created in China. The book is moreover extremely well-written, well-researched, and detailed. But I am intuitively suspicious of a theory that ascribes so much destruction to one person's personality traits. If Mao merely wanted to possess a lot of money and women, wouldn't it have been easier to be a successful businessman or an expatriate? And where were the rest of the Chinese people while all these things were happening? Did everyone else simply follow his lead during the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution--like the Germans supposedly did under Hitler--or was there a lot more enthusiasm for these policies than people want to admit? As Simon Leys argues in "Chinese Shadows," weren't many of Mao's techniques actually quite typical of previous Chinese emperors, and people's acceptance of them similar, as well?

This tendency to ascribe everything to personality factors--what might be called the Freudian theory of history--is also observable in the context of a person not usually compared to Mao, namely, George W. Bush. The NY Times website reported today that Bush's particular brand of religiosity, which posits freedom as a Gift from Heaven and American as God's instrument in spreading it, was responsible for most of his foreign policy and (by implication) for the country's increasing isolation in the world. Even conservatives, the report suggested, were tiring of the President's misuse of religious thought.

Interesting, of course; but didn't Woodrow Wilson have much the same view of America's role in the world? Come to think of it, isn't the merger of Christian religion and democratic political theory the essential American synthesis, and hasn't a messianic vision of America's purpose--alternating, to be sure, with more hard-nosed calculations--been a driving force in foreign policy from the beginning? Where did Bush learn these values, seeing (as his critics tirelessly point out) that he spent little time outside the country before he became President?

None of this is to say that Bush is necessarily right. Much of Wilsonian idealism ended in disaster--look at Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s--and idealism untempered by reality is often asking for trouble. But to blame these problems on Bush's personality quirks seems to me beside the point, and suggests that there are going to be a lot of disillusioned people when Bush is no longer here but he problems that he faces remains. At least he can't be blamed for starting a Cultural Revolution. Yet.

alitalia auction goes to . . . nobody

The auction to sell shares in Alitalia, the Italian national airline, has been called off after the only active bidder, Germany's Air One, pulled out of the race. Alitalia, a pleasant but perenially nonprofitable airline owing largely to inflated labor costs, will now have to look for another way out of its problems. Don't look to the Italian Government for rescue, either: the European Union has warned that too aggressive a subsidy will violate EU rules.

Alitalia's problems come in the midst of an already discouraging summer for Italian efforts to "normalize" the country and compete in the larger European market. Allegations that the security services kept tabs on magistrates and other public figures, reportedly providing the information to members of the previous (Berlusconi) Government, were another step in the wrong direction. The usual run of crimes and scandals, together with the perennial squabbling between political parties, have not helped.

One hopeful sign is the effort to combine a variety of left-leaning parties, including but not limited to the former communists (now clumsily labeled the Democrats of the Left), into a broad-based new alignment. The so-called Democratic Party--sound familiar?--has been holding meetings and conferences and is gearing up to elect its first leader later this year. A new label will not necessarily change things, but the movement confirms Italy's slow but steady lurching toward a two-party system and the regular alternation of power: changes that do not in themselves constitute normalcy but are a necessary precondition for it.

Grassley proposes changes for nonprofit hospitals

Sen. Charles Grassley, who often tries to do the right thing if somewhat laboriously in tax policy, has released a "discussion draft" of potential reforms in the tax-exempt hospital sector. Among the several proposed reforms are quantitative standards of charity care, as well as establishment of a more general charity care policy, for hospitals qualifying under sec. 501(c)(3), and the somewhat more nebulous requirement of "community benefit" for 501(c)(4) entities. There would also be new requirements regarding board composition, executive compensation, and billing of charges to the uninsured.

Living in a family with one tax and one health policy expert, I can tell you that the "charitable" hospital sector is in need of some reform. While once required to provide a significant amount of genuine charity care, such hospitals were successful in essentially eliminating this requirement during the 1950s and 1960s, so that--in most instances--the provision of an emergency room open to the public is enough to satisfy the Code requirement and qualify for tax exemption. While many hospitals do more than that, others do not, and some manage to locate themselves in places that make even the emergency room requirement have little if any meaning.

Here's hoping the Grassley proposals are a first step toward clearing up a situation in need of it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

mccain in 2008?

I supported John McCain's bid for President in 2000 and I continue to support him now. Yet one cannot escape the sense that there is something missing from his campaign. It is not only the fundraising problems or the overzealous support for Bush on Iraq. One wonders if, like Bob Dole a few times back, his time has simply passed.

The problem with this analysis is that, when one gets past the "flavor of the month" analysis to the actual substance, it's hard to see exactly where McCain has gone wrong. Yes, he has supported Bush in a pro forma way, but he was very clear early on the war would not be won on the cheap and honest to a fault about it. His courage in supporting immigration reform is a model for the rest of the party. Overall he is a an intelligent, moderate, "national greatness" conservative in the Western tradition, far closer to the winning Republican formula than any of the available alternatives.

It's hard to tell if things will turn around for McCain, although the long season makes it a more realistic possibility (and John Kerry did so in a much shorter season). As noted here before, both the 40-year pattern (in which the elections since 1980 perfectly track those after 1940 with the two parties reversed) and the 8-year pattern (2000-2008 looking a lot like 1960-68, down to the ranch in Texas and the so-called "credibility gap") predict a Democratic victory. Indeed, either Hillary Clinton or Al Gore fills the Richard Nixon role almost perfectly, although Nixon at least did not rely on Pat to do his campaigning for him. But it's a long campaign season and a few more terror attacks, which have plainly been encouraged by Western weakness, could turn everything around.

Incidentally, I find Clinton's campaign increasingly sad, notwithstanding the very real possibility that she will win. Once a fiery feminist, she is now pretty much openly campaigning as an extension of her husband's presidency, down to including him at an increasing number of her campaign events. Almost no one that you talk to, including liberal democrats, really wants her (or them) to be President. Sure, given the competition, it's possible and perhaps even likely that she can win. But could she govern?

Monday, July 02, 2007

a tall latte and a j.d. to go

My law school is offering a promotion (seriously). Iif you get a friend to apply to the law school, you get a $10 coupon at the local Starbucks Coffee, plus a chance at some larger prize. The friend has to indicate your name on their application, and there you go.

Like many proposals I see dangers and opportunities here. The potential for abuse is obvious. What if the student has no chance of getting into the law school, or no interest in coming if they are actually accepted? What if they're not a student, at all? Perhaps the application fee, which I assume is on the high side of $10, is sufficient deterrence.

But there are also opportunities. How about a $10 flat fee, with a bonus if the student is accepted and a further bonus if they actually attend? Or a sliding scale where free coffee is added for each additional point of (your friend's) GPA? This would also teach something about interest and investment skills, concepts I can never quite get across in my basic tax class.

One might be churlish, and ask what kind of law school needs a $10 incentive. But as my own tax professor once said, if you don't like my examples, just add enough zeros until they attract your attention.