Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review (#18 of 2009)

In 2007, David Brooks interviewed candidate Obama and almost randomly asked him if he'd ever heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama replied "I love him," and proceeded to give him a detailed summation of Niebuhrian thought. This was rehashed again in January when NPR's Speaking of Faith hosted a forum on the subject. You can download the discussion and other Niebuhr-related info.

I was apparently oblivious to all of this at the time. When Obama gave his Nobel acceptance speech, the media pundits all noted its Niebuhrian themes and that piqued my curiousity. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be the book most often referred to when speaking on the philosopher/theologian.

To quote Obama via Brooks:

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from na├»ve idealism to bitter realism.”
This is a good summary. In short, Irony is about the ways America grew from post-colonial free-market isolationism to a reluctant superpower. Published in 1952 at the beginning of the Cold War, I find Niebuhr to be quite prescient. He is also very informed about microeconomic principles, which I found impressive. Either everyone was back then (as opposed to now), or Niebuhr is just special.

Here are points that stick out to me:

1. Americans tout their higher standard of living as a sign of their superiority over Communism, while Marxists tout that high standard as evidence of their guilt. Marxists/Communists assume that property rights are the cause of all economic ills and that if a nation has rich people they only became rich on the backs of the poor.

2. Americans have always been pragmatic about government. While personal liberty has always been the predominant goal of our society, we're pragmatic about the limits of it. Hence, we are always balancing growth with regulation.

3. Calvinists (Puritans) and Jeffersonians both (at least eventually) saw prosperity as evidence of God's favor. The prosperity of America makes it somewhat prideful in the eyes of the world, something useful to be mindful of.

4. America as the "Arsenal of Democracy" is one of the ultimate Niebuhrian ironies. We have to maintain a military force but beware of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" as Eisenhower would soon note.

5. Newly independent, developing nations are poor simply because their economies aren't developed and their land not yet productive. These countries need Western support but mostly time. But Marxists point to these countries as evidence of Western exploitation. The gap between poor and rich is always seen as a result of the rich exploiting the poor.

6. Communist countries uphold justice for the poor as the ultimate ideal, and yet their oligarchy oppresses the poor and always make them always worse off--another irony.

7. We can't export democracy or eradicate all evil in the world through it. Many countries just don't have the culture or mindset for it to flourish.

8. From #7, Niebuhr would have opposed the 2003 Iraq war while probably supporting the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

9. Niebuhr feared that America would engage in a fatal "preemptive war" against Communism that would destroy the world rather than simply wait for history to take its toll on Communism. Glad he was not proved right here.

10. Niebuhr looks down on "American Exceptionalism," the idea that America has a unique, world-enlightening role to play in history. He points out that most countries & civilizations have a history of that same belief. Obama has also stated that he does not believe in American Exceptionalism any differently then the French believe in French Exceptionalism, etc.

David Brooks argues that Niebuhr (and Obama) are wrong on this point, as would most conservatives I know.

In all, I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5. Having read it, I feel a little more caught up with other "bourgeois" people.

1 comment:

RoseCovered Glasses said...

Whether or not the average US Citizen knows it, the United States is creating the second-largest government/industrial complex in our nation's history. It is envisioned as a tail of bailouts to the financial industry, the automotive industry and others who show up with their hands out and their lobbyists in tow. It is also comprised of state governors who are poised to invent yet another form of pork with federal representatives and senators at their sides while raising local taxes for the citizen back home. This speculative panacea cannot survive.


The longest running and largest consortium of this type is the US Military Industrial Complex (MIC), funded historically at an amount many times the Wall Street and automotive bailouts combined. It is the elephant in the room in the burgeoning financial crisis, carrying the weight of wars, weapons systems and a pentagon/corporate financial relationship based on cost plus and time and material contracts since World War II.


We are importing goods and services and borrowing money from the Chinese, the European Union, Japan, Korea, India and other developing countries at a rate unmatched in our history. Loan proceeds are being used to fight wars and bail out our bankers, car makers and state governors.

Our largest export today is our public debt and our credit rating is slipping.


The MIC will be scaled down by collapse. The Russian MIC led to that country's financial demise. It is now apparent that we did not outspend the Russians at weaponry and interventions. We simply had a better credit rating that is now maxed out

The other government agencies will be re-scaled and downsized as well but not by any specific action taken by the pending or future federal establishment. The over 50 entities that make up the federal government, together with their corporate outsource services, will be shrunk dramatically because the US is broke. The feds will fight to preserve the artificial reality, but US financing and credibility on the world stage are drying up and the creditors are suffering.

No new administration can change the above facts by riding on the taxpayer's back with "Social Improvement", " Public Works" and "Creating Democracies in Other Countries" mantras. Such policies in the past have led to foreign interventions, thousands of young soldier’s s, bureaucratic growth in Washington and bloated corporations performing low quality service contacts.

Annual budget deficits and the national debt are at intolerable levels.


The US will come home from military adventures abroad because it will no longer have the money to run them and it will cease bailing out failing commercial establishments because there will be no funding for that.

The US will re-align priorities at the state and the national level much like all the little "Joe the Plumbers" throughout the country, who are toting skinny 401K's without jobs. They represent the present and future tax base upon which this country will run. America will not spend its way out of this dilemma because there will be no cash or credit left to spend.

The US will demonstrate financial prudence out of necessity, align spending with available revenue, downsize the
federal government and its corporate cadre, cultivate technology and the small business base and take care of its most important constituent here at home - the average tax payer.

The US will understand the above are not political objectives but economic realities that are here and now. World economics will not allow a new, financial, government/industrial complex to emulate or replace the MIC.