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Post How Much Influence Do US Presidents Have on the Economy?
Created by John Eipper on 12/06/12 2:32 PM

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How Much Influence Do US Presidents Have on the Economy? (Istvan Simon, USA, 12/06/12 2:32 pm)

I do not agree with Cameron's analysis of 4 December, which I believe leaves important and very relevant considerations entirely unmentioned.

First, I do not buy at all that a President does not have the power to change much the direction of the "economic ship," the analogy used for the economic engine of a country. There are of course policies that have enormous influence on the future. For example, the adoption of Social Security and Medicare in the United States had obvious, long-lasting economic consequences, much beyond the terms of the Presidents who enacted them. They also had immediate effects on the reduction of poverty and well-being of retired older people. Similarly, Obamacare is a historic achievement of the Obama administration that will have a long-lasting and major effect on the well-being of the United States population, and also will have major long-term effects on the economy of the United States.

Second, Cameron's analysis of the Carter and Reagan administrations are faulty. Cameron mentions the appointment of Paul Volcker to the Fed. Indeed this had major and long-lasting effects on the economy, not all of which were positive. Under Volcker interest rates sky-rocketed to levels rarely seen in the United States. Indeed for a decade or so, cash was a major asset, with very high real interest rates. This slowed down inflation to nothing, but also caused a major slowdown of the US economy.

The Carter Presidency was a disaster both in terms of major Foreign Policy failures (e.g. the Iranian hostage situation and the spectacular failure of the military mission to rescue our diplomats, but also in a ridiculing of the United States on the world stage), as well as in terms of a general economic malaise and a climate of pessimism and lack of confidence in the long-term prospects of the United Sates. Indeed, one of the great accomplishments of the Reagan Presidency was to restore a sense of optimism on the economic and political prospects of the country, which had been badly shaken during the Carter Presidency. President Carter had one major and long-lasting achievement in Foreign Policy: The Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

Cameron also mentions the abandonment of the Gold standard, which happened earlier, in the Nixon presidency. Cameron seems to be in the camp of Dr. Ron Paul, who would like to return to the Gold standard, but in fact most economists, including major ones like Paul Krugman, think that this would be a very bad idea.

Now for the economic policies of Ronald Reagan. Reagan had one major accomplishment in my opinion, that I mentioned already. He restored a climate of confidence and positive expectations, but Reagan's economic policies were at least partly disastrous. Termed Vodoo Economics by his Vice President, George H. W. Bush, and indeed they turned out to be exactly that. This was the idea of "supply-side" economics, with the very strange and false idea that you could decrease taxes which paradoxically would result in an increase in government revenue. In fact it did not, and caused instead major deficits.

Reagan also went on a major spending spree, modernizing the US military. This was essentially classical Keynesian economic policy, with huge deficit spending, which indeed stimulated the economy much like it was supposed to do, while the deficits were made even worse by the decrease of taxes. The National Debt increased sharply under Ronald Reagan. Reagan also introduced a policy which from the economic or military standpoint made little sense, and which was a major waste of enormous amounts of money. This was Star Wars. While from the economic or military viewpoint, Star Wars was a huge mistake, from the political viewpoint it was a major triumph. For Star Wars scared the moribund Soviet System to its core, scared the Russians, and forced them to spend money that they could not afford, and which eventually completely bankrupted the Soviet Union. The result was the collapse of Communism and the "winning" of the Cold War by President Reagan.

The cumulative effects of these policies was in fact both in the short term and the long term enormous, which disproves Cameron's assumption that a President can have no major effect on the economy during his presidency. He can and he often does.

Cameron also under-estimates the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he calls total waste. It was not. Whether or not the results justified the expenditures in lives and money is a legitimate subject of debate, the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were major, though it is possibly too soon to reliably judge how positive they were. The Iraq war obviously got rid of a tyrant in the Arab World. Perhaps the Arab Spring is a consequence of the Iraq war. I invite historians in WAIS to comment on this intriguing possibility. The Afghan war got rid of the Taliban in power, and while the Taliban has a successful insurgency, I find it very unlikely that it would ever regain power in Afghanistan. Finally, the Afghan war led to the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Wars have many times major unintended consequences, that a superficial broad-brush analysis, as that of Cameron miss. For example, look at the Korean War. On the surface it changed little on the Korean Peninsula. It maintained South Korea, which became a major economic power in a couple of generations, while North Korea is still one of the most backwards countries in the world. The Korea War thus failed to liberate North Korea from the Communists.

Nonetheless, the Korean War had a huge effect in the region. One of its major unintended effects was that Mao Zedong's son was killed by the United States in the war. Had this not happened, China would most probably be ruled by Mao's son, and grandson, who would have established a hereditary empire, much like North Korea has. Instead we had Deng Xiaoping with the enormous changes that China underwent under his leadership.

JE comments:  Pres. George H. W. Bush was recently in the hospital.  Any update on his health?  My sources in Houston say that he has been very frail in the last year or so.

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  • Why Did the Cold War End? (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 12/07/12 1:48 AM)
    I extend a nod of appreciation to Istvan Simon (6 December) for bringing out the "contingency factor" as a key force directing the course of history, as opposed to the broad abstractions of social movements, technological developments and the like which today's historians like to focus on. The human dimension, meaning the personal decisions of national leaders, is often unpredictable and adds a large measure of spice to what would otherwise be boring determinism. This comes out most clearly in Istvan's mention of the death of Mao's son, though it runs like a red thread through the rest of his narrative, when he calls attention to the inputs of individual presidents to the shaping of the economy by their respective policy initiatives.

    At the same time, tucked in Istvan's posting is the dissemination of the essentially false notion that policies launched in Washington under Ronald Reagan, namely the Star Wars program, brought down the Soviet Union. His conclusion that the Soviet military response broke their failing economy and so ended the Cold War with an American victory has fed into the triumphalism we have seen in the American foreign policy establishment since 1992. This triumphalism brought the Neocons to power in the second half of the Clinton administration (yes Clinton, with the swearing in of Madeleine Albright) and the first term of the Bush administration, with all the terrible consequences for American finances and moral standing in the world that we have seen following the invasion of Iraq.

    This misinterpretation of the fall of the Soviet Union should have been dealt a death blow by the writings of the key personality in the Reagan Administration who advised the President as he negotiated with Gorbachev over dismantling the military confrontation and easing relations, and who then was sent over to Moscow to see to their implementation, providing him with a perch to witness Gorbachev's domestic reforms first hand and to meet all the leading players. I am speaking about Ambassador Jack Matlock, whose most direct challenge to triumphalism was his last book Superpower Illusions. Matlock insists that the fall of the Soviet Union was the direct result of the political and economic reform programs that Gorbachev was able to pursue because he had eased tensions with Washington through negotiations so as to end the Cold War. On which date the Cold War ended is something that historians may debate, but those who are serious put that day well before the Soviet Union collapsed.

    JE comments:  Gilbert Doctorow is correct that the personality-based, Carlylean interpretation of history has lost favor in Academe, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.  Regarding the thesis that the US bankrupted the Soviets by outspending them militarily, couldn't a case be made that the USSR in the 1980s was better situated for unchecked military spending, because the Soviet citizens had few expectations for material comfort and consumer goods?  This would seem to line up with Matlock's interpretation.

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    • Government Policies and "Contingency Factors" (John Heelan, -UK 12/07/12 2:39 AM)
      Gilbert Doctorow's post on "contingency factors" affecting longer term governmental policies (7 December) reminded me of a (disputed) quote by UK Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. The story goes that when questioned by a journalist what was most likely to blow governments off course, patrician SuperMac apparently replied, "Events, my dear boy, events!"

      Macmillan was referring to unexpected major happenings at home or abroad. Perhaps a good example would be the lasting effect on the policies of governments worldwide of the 2008 collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market and its derivatives.

      JE comments: A jewel of a quote. If Macmillan didn't say it, he should have. Funny thing about events: they never stop happening, inexorably...

      I am leery about reviving discussion on the US elections, but how about the event known as Sandy?  Would Obama have triumphed so decisively if he hadn't posed for photos with his new amigo, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie?

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    • History's "Contingency Factors" (Angel Vinas, Belgium 12/07/12 6:00 AM)
      I agree with the posts by Istvan Simon and Gilbert Doctorow (6 and 7 December, respectively). May I mention another case of the "contingency factor" at work?

      It has to do with Hitler´s decision to help Franco after the military rebellion of July 17, 1936. It depended on Franco´s ability to commandeer a postal plane of Lufthansa plying the Canary Islands route. Thanks to that plane he sent a mission to Berlin. Thanks to the personal acquaintance of the former Landesgruppenleiter of the small Nazi party in Spain, Friedhelm Burbach, with one of the emissaries, Burbach got in touch with Alfred Hess, brother to Rudolph, who opened the way to Hitler.

      The leader of the coup, General Mola, also appealed to Germany and fell back on the acquaintance of Spanish monarchists with leading but second-rank figures in the Third Reich. This went back to the mid-1920s. When Mola´s emissary arrived in Berlin, Hitler had already decided in favor of Franco. The carefully constructed plans of Spanish Monarchists with Italian fascists also favored Franco. The Italian war matériel contracted for supply on July 1, 1936 was eventually directed to him.

      Above all, the nominal leader of the rebellion, General Sanjurjo, died in a plane crash near Lisbon. The way was open for Franco to become the leading military figure in the insurgents. The rest is history.

      JE comments: "Contingency factors" may just be a fancy term for Macmillan's "events, events." Much of twentieth-century Spanish history was determined by one plane crash, just as the US post-1865 was defined by an assassin's bullet. And then there are the historical actors who didn't die: what if Corporal Hitler had been ground up in the slaughterhouse of the Western Front?

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      • History's "Contingency Factors": Spain (Robert Whealey, USA 12/09/12 4:08 AM)
        Angel Viñas's account (7 December) about what happened in Berlin on 25-26 July 1936 is indeed an innovation. All the accounts, including the books of Viñas himself, up to 1989, when my book on Hitler was published, assumed that Johannes Bernhardt and Adolf Langenheim were the two Nazis on that Lufthansa plane. The role of Friedhelm Burbach, who went to Alfred Hess before the two emissaries got to see Rudolf Hess, Deputy to the Fuhrer, adds a new wrinkle to Hitler's thinking about Spain in July.

        It is still unclear to me the importance of this "contingency factor." It certainly proves that Angel Viñas is one of the foremost researchers on the role of the Axis intervention into Spain's civil war.

        JE comments:  I think Angel Viñas had in mind the contingencies that led to Franco as the leader of the rebellion.
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        • Friedhelm Burbach (Angel Vinas, Belgium 12/10/12 1:31 AM)
          Thanks to Bob Whealey for his post of 9 December. Burbach´s role is described in a memo which he wrote to Franco after WWII, so as to prevent his deportation to occupied Germany. I also spoke to Burbach's family both in Spain and Portugal, which ratified it. Burbach died in an accident at the end of the 1950s.

          I am one of the guys who fell for Bernhardt´s self-interested account. Unfortunately the person who spent many years trying to document Bernhardt´s dark side suddenly died some fifteen years ago, and his family sent all his material to the rubbish bin. I came in too late to try to save it.

          In general one can say that the political and military Spanish archives have now been opened (although important exceptions remain, as in the UK or Russia). New evidence is coming to the fore in masses regarding the Civil War and the post-war period.

          We´re now in a position to rewrite the Civil War on an expanded documentary basis. Many of previous accounts will become obsolete. I´m happy to say that Bob Whealey's will withstand the test of time, since it was based on primary evidence. This won´t be the case with the many books which are "refritos" of (based upon) secondary literature.

          JE comments:  A question for Angel Viñas and other WAISer historians:  what's a historian to do when you realize you've been hoodwinked or "taken in" by a self-interested individual?  This must be a painful epiphany, both professionally and personally.

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          • When a Historian Gets "Hoodwinked" (Angel Vinas, Belgium 12/11/12 5:51 AM)
            I thank John Eipper for his follow-up query to my post of 10 December.  He raises an important question. When I realized that Johannes Bernhardt had hoodwinked me, I tried to set the record straight and published a new version of Franco's fateful mission to Berlin. Obviously I didn´t disguise the previous account. It wouldn´t have been right. I must say that Bernhardt´s version squarely fit into then available documentary evidence. He was a very clever man, and rose from nothingness to becoming Göring´s representative in Spain during the Civil War and the post-war period, always gravitating towards the center of power. As SS-Standartenführer, he also got into Himmler´s good graces.

            From the operational point of view, the experience with Bernhardt made me suspicious of oral sources. I turned to documentary evidence as the mainstay for any further analyses. Obviously not all the past is encapsulated in documents, but historians have long mastered the technique of how to critically handle documentary evidence.

            This is not to deny, however, the importance of oral sources altogether. There are fields of inquiry in which such sources are literally invaluable. In the Spanish case, many instances of brutal repression and killing wouldn´t have come to light if oral information hadn´t become available.

            JE comments: A historian's integrity is only enhanced if s/he acknowledges getting "taken for a ride" by an informant. I thank Angel Viñas for sharing this valuable lesson.

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    • Why Did the Cold War End? (Cameron Sawyer, USA 12/07/12 12:30 PM)
      In response to Gilbert Doctorow (7 December), the Cold War ended for a very simple reason--the Soviet Union went, absolutely literally, bankrupt. The impending financial collapse of the USSR--which was already being felt in the early 1980s--is what allowed Gorbachev to come to power with his radical reform program. But Gorbachev was unable to save the USSR, which simply disappeared in 1991. Gorbachev was already working on a negotiated end of the Cold War with Reagan in the early days of his regime, and there were some great achievements, particularly in arms control. But query whether it mattered very much: by December, 1991, the Soviet Union simply did not exist anymore. Gorbachev was a bit of a dead end in the larger picture of Russian history, although he has been much rehabilitated in recent years. Lately Putin is fond of comparing Gorbachev to the reformist Tsar Alexander II, who ended serfdom in Russia, and was murdered by leftist terrorists for his trouble. "Gorbachev gave us our freedom," Putin has said from time to time.

      Did Reagan's "Star Wars" program have anything to do with the bankruptcy of the USSR? I think that there is something to this idea--the Soviets were certainly allocating resources based on maintaining military parity with the US, and Reagan's willingness to spend vast sums of money on rebuilding the US military capability, which had been much degraded by our disastrous war in Vietnam and by Ford's and Carter's military budget cuts, certainly influenced Soviet budgets. But it would be a gross oversimplification to say that Reagan's military spending was the cause of the collapse of the USSR. Oil prices, the Soviets' own disastrous misadventure in Afghanistan, and the failure of the Soviet economy to modernize in the face of accelerating technological progress, were also factors, and probably any one of those was more important than "Star Wars."

      The "triumphalism" referred to by Gilbert, based on a lack of serious understanding of what really happened in the USSR, shaped US policy towards the new Russian Federation in the 1990s. A historic opportunity to realign world politics was lost due to the hubris which underlay this "triumphalism."

      JE comments: Is there any validity to the analogy (I just thought of it) that the "victors" of the Cold War learned nothing from their counterparts at Versailles in 1919?

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      • Why Did the Cold War End? Stephen F. Cohen (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 12/08/12 4:36 AM)
        In a few days I will be issuing a very belated review of the latest book by Stephen F. Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. This originally came out in 2009, but its 2011 paperback edition which I read includes an important Epilogue, an updated discussion of how the new cold war has played out under Obama and "reset."

        Among all historians of the Soviet Union, Cohen stands by himself as the most intellectual, the most concerned with the fabric of history, with causality and with precisely "lost alternatives," as suggested in the subtitle.

        I have serious reservations about the book, which I will set out separately. What I wish to do here is to recommend to WAISers the chapters 4, "Was the Soviet System Reformable?" 5, "The Fate of the Soviet Union: Why Did It End?" 6, "Gorbachev's Lost Legacies," and 7, "Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace?"

        Cohen grapples with the questions Cameron Sawyer (7 December) has put on the table in magisterial fashion. Though he was never an actor on the scene, as was Jack Matlock, Cohen got to know Gorbachev and others in his inner circle. He supported their cause of a genuinely democratic and social-market Soviet Union.

        While we can count many reasons why the USSR finally had to come apart, in the end Cohen places its demise at the door of contingencies, meaning the personality of Boris Yeltsin, his lust for power, and the complicity of the thieving Russian nomenklatura who found an ally in Tsar Boris. Read Cohen to enjoy all the angles.

        JE comments: Look forward to Gilbert Doctorow's full review of the Cohen book.

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