Items in the News: Tyson, Targeted Ads, MEOW

1) I agree entirely with the case made just now by my Atlantic colleague Joshua Green. Laura Tyson, of Berkeley, has again demonstrated the ability to explain big economic issues in clear, simple terms, a talent that many of the Administration's most prominent figures lack.

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It should not be that hard to explain why, with the economy again faltering because demand is going down, "deficit spending" is -- for now -- a solution rather than a problem, and "fiscal discipline," which sounds so virtuous, can keep everyone poorer longer. You can imagine Bill Clinton spelling this out and hardly breaking a sweat. For many decades after the Great Depression, the name "Herbert Hoover" conjured up the folly of tightening the public purse strings when loosening them would have helped everyone recover more quickly. Liaquat Ahamed's universally hailed Lords of Finance is a belles lettres version of the same Depression history (with emphasis on the related folly of worshiping the gold standard). James K. Galbraith, of U. Texas, has been a very insistent and effective voice from the academy about the dangers of pursuing deficit reduction now.

I don't know whether Laura Tyson ever wanted an Obama Administration job or exactly why she is not in one. (For the record: she and her husband, novelist and Atlantic correspondent Erik Tarloff, are longtime friends of my wife's and mine.) But, as Josh Green says, this is a moment for Administration officials to notice what she has done -- and, whether or not they bring her aboard, to try a similar approach themselves.

2) Today's NYT has on its front page a story about a new step in hyper-targeted online ads. Since ad systems can figure out exactly who you are and what you've been shopping for, they can serve up commercials for the same companies and products on whatever site you visit.
  This is similar to the "giant Japanese salamanders" phenomenon I mentioned over the weekend here. Yesterday a reader wrote about the strangely perspective-limiting effect of such ads:

I have had the same experience, albeit with non-political ads. I forget where they were based, but sites based in other countries with banner ads that were very local to me.

I first paid attention to this some weeks back and it made me sad, in an ineffectual, nostalgic, way.

As a teenager and even after, but especially as a youngster, one thrill of reading a (printed copy) of a foreign publication was the advertising. Ads for mundane products were exciting for me. Exotic.

Cigarettes come to mind. Rothmans. Export A.

In other respects the Internet may bring the world to our door, but in this small way the global village is shrinking us to the village in walking distance of our homes.


3) Wonderful and classy for The Atlantic Wire to note the centennial of William James's death. Only possible improvement: mention of James's final prominent work, and one of the utmost importance to Americans at this moment, The Moral Equivalent of War. (Online text here; Google books scanned text here; free audio book download here.)

I often think that this essay is the indispensable work of American political culture. It examines what is more or less the permanent challenge of American public life: how to evoke the spirit of sacrifice, common national purpose, and long-term perspective that is the noblest part of war, without actually being at war. It was written out of the shared generational experience, both glorious and hideous, of the Civil War, but it applies to chronic issues in American politics, including those of the 21st century.

Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war's irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us.

History is a bath of blood. The Illiad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed.... Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow, and thousands of years of peace won't breed it out of us. The popular imagination fairly fattens on the thought of wars. Let public opinion once reach a certain fighting pitch, and no ruler can withstand it. In the Boer war both governments began with bluff, but they couldn't stay there; the military tension was too much for them. In 1898 our people had read the word "war" in letters three inches high for three months in every newspaper. The pliant politician, McKinley, was swept away by their eagerness, and our squalid war with Spain became a reality.

Although James proudly announces himself a "pacifist," he goes on to confront the dilemma: war, mankind at its worst, also elevates some individuals and societies to their best. Identifying and sustaining a moral equivalent of war is thus the challenge. The phrase was mocked by the acronym MEOW when Jimmy Carter used it, without explaining the provenance, in some of his speeches about national energy policy in the 1970s. (For the record: I was involved in some of those speeches, and wished they had explained the provenance.) But it's a serious issue, worth reflecting on at any point and all the more so at this centennial observation of James's demise.