Monday, February 25, 2013

Sequesters And The Madness Of Crowds

Sequesters And The Madness of Crowds

My good friend Cynical Cynic sent me a link to an article by Rik Myslewski of The Register about a speech given by Carter Mead, a pioneer in microelectronic technology, at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

Before you think I have unsuspected gifts, let me assure you that my understanding of the term “Solid-State” doesn’t go much beyond that it replaced the tube technology in my father’s beloved Crown and Marantz power amplifiers.  However, a few of Mr. Mead’s comments particularly interested me. 

Mead spoke about how the quasi-revolution in physics that began with Einstein, Special Relativity and quantum mechanics has stalled, and how new thinking is needed to advance it. 

"Modern science started with an idea that was really given to us by Galileo," he said. "The idea was the isolated experiment. You took something and you very carefully sheltered from all the influences around, and then you were seeing the fundamental physics of that object."

Mead felt this worked, up to a point, but to go deeper you needed to use a less dogmatic, less enclosed approach. “We have a list of fundamental constants that we're not allowed to ask where they come from."  He then announced that he planned to spend the rest of his life doing exactly that, retesting fundamental constants within a comparative framework.

Mead got me thinking about a book written in 1852 by Charles Mackay, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness of Crowds.”  In it Mackay assays a variety of manias that seized the public, including the Crusades, witch-hunts, millennialism, and alchemy.  He adds to them three economic bubbles where price became divorced from value; the South Sea Bubble, the Tulip Craze, and the Mississippi Company Bubble. In all these, crowds become possessed of an idea, and acted with a passion that went beyond rationality.  Needless to say, these all ended badly.

Mackay and Mead are really talking about two different sides of the same phenomenon.  A belief, whether grounded in science, or simply faith-based, drives future behavior and, for a time, creates its own discrete self-reinforcing ecosystem.  That ecosystem shelters it from new ideas, even to the point of blocking information that could show it to be demonstrably false.  Mead tells the story of Charles Townes, the Noblest who invented the maser.  He took his ideas to Neils Bohr (Noblest in 1922) and Werner Heisenberg (Noblest in 1932) both of whom apparently laughed and told him he knew nothing of quantum mechanics.  Obviously, Townes got over it. 

You can see this encapsulated thought process in the sequester arguments.  First, there is the ludicrous dispute over who suggested it first--it now being acknowledged that sequester is a Bad Thing.  Then, it just degenerates into the same tiresome taxing and spending arguments we just presumably litigated in the last election, with the same buzzwords, or, put more simply, the Plutocrats vs. the Socialists.

Of course, this is nonsense.  Past the slogans, there is the fuzzy outline of an intellectual construct.  Instead of Newton and Einstein, we have Classical Economic theory slugging it out with Keynesian Economics.  Neither of these is a paragon of modernity. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Keynes’ seminal work The General Theory of Money, Interest and Employment at least made it past the Industrial Revolution to 1936.

Obviously, there have been a lot of changes in the world since 1936, to say nothing of 1776.  But, for now, the biggest elephant in the room is something neither Keynes nor Adam Smith could have anticipated; the initiation and growth of the major entitlement programs, and the extraordinary increase in life expectancy.  In Adam Smith’s time, life expectancy was under forty, in Keynes’ about sixty. Now, it is roughly eighty, and benefits (or suffers) from an unanticipated and somewhat perverse actuarial issue.  Medicare gives access to healthcare to those who might not have been able to afford it, and that allows them to live longer lives.  Put more bluntly, the better we do at keeping our seniors financially secure and medically cared for, the longer they live to use the programs whose cost we worry so much about.  As brilliant as both men were, neither Smith nor Keynes could possibly have been thinking about Medicare Part D, CAT Scans, or the hordes lined up for the early bird specials.

How we deal with this is at least one critical part of the sequester argument (the others are discretionary government spending and taxing.)   If we had infinite time, or this were just a theoretical discussion to be mathematically modeled, we could leave it to tweedy academics to fight it out over brandy and cigars. 

Obviously, the sequester shows it’s not theoretical, and we are certainly out of time.   But, even if policy could be determined by the best-trained minds, completely devoid of a partisan tilt, I think what Mead would say is that old theories were highly unlikely to come up with the correct solution. Just because an idea might be state of the art in 1776 or 1936 does not mean it still works now, particularly when all this new and unanticipated data has come in. He would probably urge you to clear your mind of all preconceived notions, and test your basic assumptions.  Then choose the optimal course.

That, of course, is not going to happen.  Gene Epstein, who writes for Barron’s, often refers to the late Nobel Prize winning economist James M. Buchanan “public-choice theory” where politicians reap short-term gains from spending money that can be paid back long after they leave office. They therefore have a strong incentive to preach and practice continued fiscal profligacy.  Epstein uses Buchanan to support his argument that entitlements are a Ponzi scheme that needs fixing or even ending.  But, if he weren’t as conservative, he might have easily said that public-choice theory also provides short-term gains from spending on defense, or spending on tax preferences, or even asking people for less money in taxes than the government legitimately needs to keep running.  I admire Epstein’s writing greatly, but he suffers from the same myopia that the rest of us do.

So, is the political system at all capable of finding its way through the sequester thicket and, ultimately, towards a more rational economic policy? Do election results give a direction?  I wrote above that these taxing/spending/entitlement reform issues had just been litigated this past November.  Actually, that was incorrect.  What was litigated, or more accurately, demonstrated, was public-choice theory.  Mr. Romney, afraid of losing the senior vote, promised them that there would be no changes to their benefits.  They rewarded him with a fourteen-point edge on Election Day.  And he refused to say which tax expenditures and deductions he would reform, merely that the whole would be net revenue neutral.  No point in frightening people he intended to take money from later.  None of this disproves Adam Smith, as neither Mr. Romney nor the GOP are exactly free-market capitalists; they are, instead, pro business, pro wealthy, and pro getting elected.

Mr. Obama, for his part, spoke as if raising taxes on the wealthy would be the cure-all.  Everyone would be able to hold his or her own and even prosper if only the rich would pay their fair share, the government “invests” and we did a little cutting on defense.  Mr. Obama and his party aren’t Keynesians; they are pro-labor, pro social contract and also pro getting elected.

And that makes this last election a lost opportunity, because the political viability of serious entitlement reform, hard-nosed budget reviews, and transparent tax reform hasn’t been tested. People are still dreaming of a world in which, if there is a price to be paid, it will be paid by others. 

For this, we can blame both our political system, and ourselves.  Irresponsible politicians, afraid to tell the truth to the people who elect them, have engaged in the same behavior described in Mackay’s book. They have metaphorically sent children to liberate the Holy Land, burned people at the stake, and stoked apocalyptic fantasies.  They feed the fanaticism that leads perfectly rational people to insist on completely irrational positions. And we are equally to blame, because it serves our self-interest and our ego to do so.  Read the comments in any on-line forum, and you can see how average citizens declaim as if they were experts. 

Mackay also tells us that popular delusions destroy the ability to see value (recall the GOP primary candidates all rejecting a hypothetical deal that would have been 90% spending cuts for 10% tax increases.)  He lists the following as payment tendered for one tulip: Two lasts of wheat, four of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, two tuns of butter, one thousand pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver drinking cup.

That must have been some rare bulb.  I wonder if that seller is still around to give bargaining lessons? Either that, or maybe we can hire Carter Mead to start questioning fundamental constants?

It has to be worth a try. 


Monday, February 18, 2013

Popes and Presidents

Popes and Presidents

The unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict  XVI, the first of its kind in over 600 years, has given rise to all sorts of speculation about the real reasons behind the move, and a glimpse behind the curtain of what hierarchy, coupled with power, can lead to. 

Benedict’s stated reason for resigning was a decline in his physical and mental resources, so much so that he believed he could no longer discharge his duties.  He is 85, his strength has been ebbing, and apparently the Vatican tailors have had difficulty keeping up with a persistent weight loss.  Still, all previous Popes, dating back to 1415, have died in office.  Benedict may have been older and more enfeebled, but there remain questions as to why someone who had the dedication and even the ambition to become Pope (and he must have had it) decided to leave it all so soon after attaining the apotheosis.

The back story, as covered extensively in the media, is a more intriguing one of a Pope grown weary of infighting and a Church struggling with internal politics, the toxic overhang of the pedophile scandals, and efforts to root out corruption.  A 2,000 year-old institution has a deep-rooted culture of how things are done.  Some of this is for good; the Church has a spiritual and pastoral mission.  Some less so; institutions may aspire to a higher calling, but, in the end, they are run by men (mostly) and those men are more prone to human frailties. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is often weak.  Benedict hoped to tame some of the excesses, but in the end, he may have succumbed to Newton’s Laws.  A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass (of the object being accelerated) the greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object). For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

If you will excuse the pun, the Catholic Church has a lot of Mass.  The Washington Post writer Jason Horowitz had, in an longer piece  an interesting observation and a quote: “A radical transformation of the culture is unlikely. “We’re talking about people who have given their life to this institution, but at the same time the institution has become their life,” said one senior Vatican official. “Unlike parish priests, who have the personal rewards that come with everyday contact, their lot is not as human. It’s bureaucratic, but it becomes all-consuming.”

He could just have easily been talking about Washington. We are living a great democratic experiment; that people of differing views and economic priorities can sort through them and self-govern.  In the secular world, it is as high an ideal as you can find.   But, the institution of governing, from the elected officials, to the lobbyists and fixers, the party officials, senior bureaucrats, the fundraisers and the bundlers, the pollsters and consultants--all have a vested interest in the status quo of power. Power, to many of them, is more important than good governance.  And they have the mass; it takes a lot of force to change that. 

Of course, Senators and Congressmen are elected.  But, just like the Vatican, in Washington,  fewer and fewer actually spend much time with the people they serve.  Even when they leave office, they find homes influencing or commenting upon the bodies they just left.  “The institution has become their life….their lot is not as human.”

There is, of course, one person who can break this up, just a little.  That would be the President, our secular equivalent of the Pope--without either the infallibility or the reflexive respect.  A President can set the direction.  A President has the bully pulpit.  A President can speak to all of us, for all of us.  A President can be what Flexner called George Washington; “The Indispensible Man.”

Just before Christmas in 1783, George Washington took his leave from his officers, retired from the Army and went home to Mt. Vernon, his Virginia plantation.  He could have had any role he wanted, even King, in the new country he helped create, but he chose to return to “his figs and his vines.”   When told of this intention, his former enemy, King George, said “then he shall be the greatest man in the World.”

Washington knew what he was doing.  The “country” such as it was, wasn’t in the least bit cohesive or ready to be governed.  The Articles of Confederation agreed to by the Continental Congress in 1777 were loose, by design, as each former colony hung tight to its sovereignty.  The country itself was anything but homogeneous; it was a riot of different ethnic groups, different languages, different nationalities, different religions, and different races.  A King with little statutory authority in a discordant kingdom would not be appealing.  Washington would go home, he would see to his plantation and his other assets, he would rejoin his family, and become the Virginia planter and aristocrat that he was before.

This didn’t last all that long.  The Washington we think of today, the man from the Gilbert Stuart painting, old, decorous, wooden, is a sturdy myth didn’t exactly match the flesh.  Washington was decorous, but he had very little Sitzfleisch. He wasn’t the kind of man who sat around very well, and after a few months with the figs and the vines, and the slaves and smokehouses, the livestock, the barns and the mills, he got a little bored.

He also worried that, without a national goal beyond mere survival and the tending to personal economic interests, all that had been won could be lost in just a generation.  He cast his eyes West (in those days, “West” was past the Allegheny Plateau and into the Ohio Valley).  His dream: a great nation needed to expand and the Potomac (which ran through his own plantation) would be the great artery for commerce from the seaboard States to the fertile interior.  Washington himself owned huge tracts of land out there, including virgin forest, bought from afar but based on his own observations dating back to his service during the French and Indian War.

So, on September 1, 1784, this wealthy national hero packed up a few things (including dinner linens and a silver service) and with a small party, left his gracious estate.  He set out through the backwoods, over mountains, through rutted trails, on horseback, on foot, in canoes, past sometimes hostile Indians, snakes (reptilian and human) and through all sorts of tricks that an unforgiving nature can play.  The goal, to find a path to connect the Potomac to the West. 

On his travels, he saw confirmation of his concerns.  The fertile bottom soil that had made Virginia planters rich was now denuded of nutrients by the harsh effects of tobacco cultivation. Forests that had been cleared to make way for farms no longer had the root system to hold the earth in heavy rains.  The country needed the West, needed the animals, the timber, the land.  Without it, there would never be an American Empire, just a loose confederation of States arguing over narrow economic issues and limited resources. 

Washington traveled 680 miles through the absurdly unforgiving terrain, visiting some of his own lands (and getting into arguments with the squatters who stayed there and refused to pay rents) drawing maps, keeping a diary of the smallest details and always planning for a route for the Potomac.  Near the end of his voyage, he sent some of his party ahead, along with most of the remaining supplies (including the tents.)  He rode southeast through the Alleghenies, and crossed Briery Mountain in what is now West Virginia.  There the path ended in an isolated glade, without a house in sight.  It began to pour, and the great man, who had conquered the British, and could have been King himself, huddled on the ground under his cloak, literally in the middle of nowhere, getting soaked.

I thought about this story when reading Thomas Friedman’s “How to Unparalyze Us” in this Sunday’s New York Times.  Friedman finds all the impediments, the impenetrable forest of partisanship, the rutted roads of compromise so easily abandoned, all the barriers that entrenched interests can put up.   But he sees clearly the problem.  People and business needs stability and direction to invest in the future, and they need optimism.  We have to break out of the stalemate of simply fighting over the allocation of finite resources, and move, metaphorically, West.  Congress, locked in inter-party warfare and ever beholden to special interests, can’t do it. The President has to do. Friedman says,  “To have any effect, though, the president can’t just say he is ready for “tough” decisions. He has to lead with his chin and put a concrete, comprehensive package on the table, encompassing three areas. First, new investments that would combine immediate jobs in infrastructure with some long-term growth-enablers like a massive build-out in the nation’s high-speed broadband capabilities. That would have to be married with a long-term fiscal restructuring, written into law, that slows the growth of both Social Security and Medicare entitlements, along with individual and corporate tax reform.”

Personally, I have doubts that “leading with your chin” is a good negotiating strategy.  The GOP has persistently demonstrated that when Obama offers, they take, while denouncing the offer, declaring it a new starting point, and demanding the other half.  But, given that this is President’s Day, perhaps George Washington’s example might not be such a bad one. 

Briery Mountain is now a restricted military area, but I think Mr. Obama could make a few phone calls and get in.  It is only about 200 miles from Washington, just a short hop by helicopter.  Maybe he ought to make the trip, do some exploring, and get rained on a little.

It worked for George Washington.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

What Peggy And Karl Could Learn From Scott Stringer

What Peggy and Karl Could Learn From Scott Stringer (If They Cared)

Peggy Noonan has dipped her aggrieved pen into her special well of outrage and come up with "So God Made A Fawner"  a riff on the Super Bowl Dodge Truck/Paul Harvey commercial, and the joint Clinton/Obama 60 Minutes interview by Steve Kroft.

Restrain your sense of surprise; she loves the Paul Harvey ad, so full of simple conservative values like faith and family and solid GOP voters.  And Kroft?  She called his interview “shameful.”  And, when that wasn’t good enough, she added “scandalous.”  For good measure, she used the phrase “puppy excrement.”

I guess she didn’t like it?  Kroft’s sin was that he didn’t blister the Barack and Hillary buddy show the way John McCain or Ted Cruz would have. That was Kroft's job, to carry Noonan's grievances into the room, and he failed.

Of course she is right about the interview.  It was a softball, just as was Bob Schieffer’s Mitt Romney interview a few months ago.  But her anger (and the comments it unleashed on the Wall Street Journal forum) show how representative of a certain wing of the Republican Party she has become.  She just hates Obama, and more and more, that animus is her coffee in the morning and her glass of wine at night.  Whatever he does or says, his face, his voice, anything associated with him, prompts splenetic eruptions from her.  The once temperate writer of sunshine for Ronald Reagan can’t curb her own darker urges. 

Meanwhile, back on the GOP farm, another struggle goes on for the “soul” of the party.  On the one side is the Tea Party and Dead Red conservatives, who relentlessly strive for purity.  On the other side are the party professionals, led by the esteemed Karl Rove, who value winning above all. 

Mr. Rove is not operating out a mere sense of altruism, nor is he alone.  The big money contributors are unhappy.  Most of the Suits invest for a return, not out of conviction.  To get that return, in taxpayer dollars, regulatory relief, tax expenditures, subsidies and special interest legislation, they need to win. When the GOP took some of that capital and invested it in an Akin, or a Mourdock, they not only blew chances to take winnable seats, they also damaged the overall GOP “brand” and bungled a chance for a big score.   Imagine, if you will, the sound of popping corks of an excellent vintage that would have greeted a GOP sweep.   

So, Mr. Rove (and the Suits) were not happy. The champagne had to stay on ice.  And the party leadership is not happy.  That has led to some introspection, and what seems to have emerged is three distinct approaches. 

The first is to work harder at rigging the next election, hence the maneuverings by GOP-controlled Legislatures in swing states such as Virginia to change the way Electoral votes are awarded.  No more winner take all, instead the votes would be allocated based on who won the Congressional Districts.  The GOP is interested in doing that in every swing state Obama won, a potent weapon with all that Gerrymandering.  For states Romney won, the change would not apply.  And that math, if applied in the last election, would have made Mitt Romney the winner, even though Obama won the popular vote decisively.  Think about that for a moment. 

The second approach is one more tailored to the Bobby Jindals and Marco Rubios.  Stop being the party of “stupid.”  Make good policy arguments that people can understand. Watch your language: try a little more sensitivity as to how something might be heard by women.  Be more inviting (or at least less openly hostile) to Hispanics. A tiny bit of substance, and a shiny new ribbon on the package. The party is giving that a chance: Rubio will give the GOP response to the State of the Union.

The third is Rove’s and the Suits.  Forget the substance, and forget the policy.  Worry more about appearances, so you can win.  Recruit normal-looking candidates who are disciplined and not inclined to travel down a scary path.  Rove’s American Crossroads is launching the “Conservative Victory Project” with the aim of identifying and rooting out the weird at the primary level, and supporting more mainstream conservatives with ads and other assistance. Mainstream Republican power brokers are lining up as well.  It is not a coincidence that Fox News rehired Rove, while ending their relationship with Dick Morris, and, more interestingly, Sarah Palin.  Fox is all business, and they have an acute ear for what is not working.

“Message change” and particularly Rove’s gambit are not exactly popular with everyone.  There are powerful elements in the Republican Party (particularly among the Teas and the conservative chattering class) that reject it, and people with grand ambitions, like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who will resist it mightily. Paul, by the way, will be giving the Tea Party response to the State of the Union.  In these circles, Rove has been pilloried as a mere operative, not a true believer.  To their way of thinking, the failures of 2012 were a lack of purity, starting at the top of the ticket, with “Moderate Mitt.”

What is interesting is what they are not thinking about.  And that brings me to Scott Stringer.  Who is Scott Stringer?  Well, he’s a middle-sized, middle-aged man, who would have no trouble blending into a crowd.   Currently he is the Manhattan Borough President.  His term as MBP runs out at the end of this year, and he is going to run for New York City Comptroller.  Mr. Stringer had initially aspired to Mayor, but decided Comptroller was a better fit this time around. 

Last week, Mr. Stringer gave his “State Of The Borough Address” and, before you laugh, remember that Manhattan has a greater population than twelve individual states.  We are just a little more tightly packed here. The event was held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the auditorium was packed with local politicians and guests.  Being a junkie, I went, but by the time I got there, there were no seats in the orchestra, and I had to go to the nosebleed section. 

It was a classic of the genre.  There was piped in rock, there was a huge screen on which pictures of Scott were flashed; Scott with constituents, Scott with dogs, Scott with cops. Scott with kids. Scott at seniors rally. Green Scott. Asian Scott. Scott with local dignitaries. Scott cutting ribbon. Scott serving food.  Scott with baby. Scott with wife.  Scott with microphone. Scott with Scott's youth sports league. Scott in MPB office.  Scott doing.

And then live music, and a marvelous personal introduction by Sade Lythcott.  And then Scott emerges, and gives the kind of speech a good local pol would give.  No soaring rhetoric.  He touches every base, thanks, by name, the numerous office holders and aspirants that are in the audience, he spreads around the credit for many initiatives.  He goes through a laundry list of programs and accomplishments; schools, healthy choices, gay rights, immigrant’s rights, domestic violence, affordable housing, all part of a progressive program the likes of which many New Yorkers approve of.  He is applauded, warmly, as he ticks them off.   

Then, he does something that grabs my attention.  He talks about something that is very present in many of our minds--the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.  Blah, Blah, I think.  Another laundry list item and some stupendous public works program.  He announces that his office has been working on a plan to mitigate the damage of future storms.  Up on the screen flashes a map of the East River with projected improvements, as Scott proposes a series of wetlands, parks and greenways to act as buffers from the next big surge. East River Blueway.  Not a cure-all, but small steps.  And people stop, and there is an audible murmur that goes through the audience. 

Is his plan sound?  Will it work? I have no idea, but Scott was thinking about it.  He was thinking about us. Heads nod.  Scott Stringer has just connected in a big way.  

And, if you are looking for a problem with the modern GOP, there it is.  They have lost the connection to all but the true believers.  Now, Peggy Noonan can turn out finely honed hit jobs on Mr. Obama while wishing fervently for a Bourbon Restoration.  And GOP operatives can continue to find ways to jury-rig the system.  And Karl Rove and the Suits can recruit better candidates and stifle those unattractive (but from the heart) utterances that sometimes burst out from the fringes. 

But, once they get past the anger, the tactics, and the optics, they could learn something from Scott Stringer, MBP, and all the other Scott Stringers out there.  Sooner or later, you have to start paying attention to the real problems of real constituents. Because, sooner or later, your constituents are going to be paying attention to whomever is paying attention to them. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

Four Losses: Koch, Kerry, Clinton, and McCain

Four Losses: Koch, Kerry, Clinton, and McCain

Ed Koch, the former Mayor of New York, passed away last Friday, taking with him a life well lived, rich with accomplishments and failures. 

Koch will be eulogized today.  He was funny, egocentric, imperious, commanding, smart, inventive, and completely devoted to his city.  In one final real estate transaction, he bought a plot in the Trinity Church graveyard, the last active cemetery in Manhattan, where he will hang out with a couple of former Mayors, a large number of Astors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John James Audubon. One imagines that they will have plenty to talk about--if he lets any of them get a word in edgewise. 

A lot of coverage has focused on how he brought the City back from the brink of financial ruin, and he did, but he also gave it a bit of its swagger back.  He understood that it was a jewel; raucous and cruel at times, noisy, expensive, demanding, crowded, but composed of exquisite facets that just needed a little buffing up.  On Koch’s watch the Central Park Conservancy was created, transforming what had been a symbol of decay into a great playground.  Koch pioneered other public private partnerships and business improvement districts, he fought with unions, he built public housing, he increased funding for schools, he did hundreds of large and small things, some good, some bad, but always moving forward, always with an eye to bettering his home.

He was a three-term Mayor, winning re-election by huge margins.  His third term was not successful, his appeal wore down, there were scandals, and he was turned out in the Democratic primary by David Dinkins, well-meaning but ineffectual.   After he lost, he said "The people have spoken...and they must be punished."  No false modesty in our Ed.

The post Mayoral Ed Koch continued the circus.  He was a “People’s Court” Judge, and an author, and a film critic, and a lawyer.  He had a radio talk show, reviewed restaurants, wrote columns, and generally did anything and everything to keep his ego from retiring.  He enraged many Democrats when he crossed party lines to endorse Republicans,  including George W. Bush in 2004.

But the man had juice.  He had passion; the right kind of passion, not just a love of self (although there was certainly that in abundance) but for the sprawling, tempestuous place he called home. And, when he died, that place filled with countless generous remembrances from both former allies and opponents.  Pretty impressive for a man who left office in December of 1989. 

It is one of those odd quirks of fate that Koch died as the Senate was concluding a round of hearings; outgoing Secretary of State Clinton on Benghazi, the nomination of John Kerry to replace her, and that of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  I can’t think of anything more timely to demonstrate just how much the times, and the culture, have changed some people over the last two decades.

Hillary Clinton lost a bitter battle with Mr. Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008, then put aside her disappointment and accepted his offer of the post of Secretary of State.  She has served her country well, and goes out with one of the highest approval ratings of any national politician, admired even by many Republicans.  The Benghazi hearings were a chance for the national GOP to muddy her up before she becomes the early favorite for 2016.  Suffice to say, she’s still a favorite, if she wants it.

Kerry lost a close election to George W. Bush in 2004.  He was an imperfect candidate with an imperfect message, and by the time Karl Rove and his friends were finished Swift-boating him, he came up short.  It must have hurt, but he gathered himself and returned to the Senate to play a constructive role.  He became a leading voice on foreign policy, eventually becoming Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009.  His hearing was approximately four hours, and the full Senate voted 94-3 to confirm him.

If John Kerry was given a warm welcome by his colleagues, even those who disagreed with him, they must have saved up all their venom for Chuck Hagel, who squirmed and stammered through more than seven hours of blistering cross-examination. 

Hagel was, frankly, poor.  He seemed ill-prepared at times and apparently astonished that his former chums would tear into him in so personal a way.  It was a terrible misjudgment, particularly since the entire Republican establishment and media had been firing artillery at him for weeks.  Perhaps he thought that in the chamber that he had served, Senatorial courtesy would carry him through.  He was wrong.  His future is uncertain; a few Republican Senators are making some noise about a filibuster, but he probably has enough votes to (barely) win confirmation.

So, why?  Hagel served as a Republican Senator from Nebraska as late as 2009, and Presidents usually get some deference on Cabinet picks. Part of it was un-slaked bloodlust after they had to be nice to Kerry and they were unable to lay a glove on Hillary during the Benghazi hearings. But, more than anything else,  Hagel was the place where the GOP decided to take its stand against Mr. Obama and his policies; if you can’t smack the President, there’s nothing like an Obama piñata.

Chuck Hagel became the whipping boy for a party locked into a neo-con vision of the world that counts the Iraq war (and Afghanistan) as signal accomplishments, even if most of the country disagrees.  That is understandable.  Less understandable is that the tip of that cat-o-nine-tails is Senator John McCain, loser to Mr. Obama in 2008, and a man apparently so marinated in his own bitterness that he has not only lost his perspective, but in danger of losing his place in history.

Watch, if you can stand it, an excerpt of the hearings, with Mr. McCain conducting a sneering, snarling, hectoring cross examination of the man who was Co-Chair of his 2000 Presidential campaign.  It is ugly in the extreme, both for what it might say about Mr. Hagel’s capabilities for the job, and what it does say about Senator McCain. 

Is this what contemporary politics is all about?  Must everything be grim combat? 

I hope not.  Read a few Koch stories, especially those told by the many he annoyed over the years, and you can hear the amused exasperation and admiration.  Ed Koch might have been a pushy, bombastic, aggravating man who loved a microphone, but he didn’t burn too many bridges.

Better yet, think about a fifth loser, Bob Dole, the former Senator from Kansas.  Dole retired to write books, to practice law, to work on world hunger with his friend, former Senator George McGovern (a sixth “loser” who then spent the rest of his life in public service) and to raise funds and advocate for veterans.

Dole had a long friendship with the late Senator Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, also a decorated (and seriously wounded) World War II vet.  They had met while rehabilitating at an Army hospital--both men had largely lost the use of their right arms.  Inouye died last December, and Dole, although seriously ill for years, and largely confined to a wheelchair, insisted on coming to the memorial as Inouye lay in state.  Harry Reid describes it in his eulogy to Inouye.  Dole had called Reid asking if he could go over to the Rotunda with him.  As they approached,  Dole said. “Danny’s not going to see me in a wheelchair.”  And he walked, with difficulty, but he walked, the rest of the way, and reaching the casket, saluted his old friend with his left hand. 

Pretty old fashioned, wouldn’t you say?  But some things, like friendship, service, and class, never truly go out of style.  They just get forgotten occasionally.