Magazines: Honor Roll


"In Washington, people don't read enough magazines."
—Irving Kristol

This may be true in Washington, but out here in Silver Spring, we read magazines by the truckload. Mail delivery in my neighborhood is a thrilling sight; once each day, the factory whistles blow, the police officers stop traffic, and the double-wide tractor trailers lumber chez Wooster with the day's reading matter.

Some of the material I carve into columns based on particular themes. But occasionally I come across noteworthy articles that don't neatly fall into categories. Twice a year I will discuss some of these. What follows is an analysis of the best articles I read between January and June.

"Less than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: Capitalism has won. The USSR, China, and Eastern Europe have given us the clearest possible proof that capitalism organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism."

Who wrote that paragraph? Milton Friedman? Thomas Sowell? Guess again. Robert Heilbroner, one-time hard-left economist, has discovered that everything he knew about economics was wrong. In "The Triumph of Capitalism," published in the January 23 New Yorker, Heilbroner explains why capitalism won.

Heilbroner has not entirely abandoned his faith in socialism: Despite 70 years of devastating achievements (the concentration camp, the gulag, and countless steel mills and shipyards rusting from the Baltic to the Pacific), "the vision [of socialism] has retained its inspirational potential, just as that of Christianity has survived countless autos-da-fe and vicious persecutions." The New Jerusalem, for Heilbroner, can still be found in Stockholm, if not in Moscow or Havana.

For most of the piece, however, Heilbroner demolishes the assumptions and principles of Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Joseph Schumpeter, whose pessimism about capitalism's future has proven unjustified. Heilbroner is also very astute in analyzing long-term economic trends. For example, he notes that, over the past two centuries, manufacturing output has increased, on average, at a rate of 2.8 percent a year, "not a terribly impressive figure until one realizes that it has multiplied production more than seventeen hundredfold during the period."

Heilbroner is a fine writer, and "The Triumph of Capitalism" is a thoughtful, if occasionally misguided, analysis. Alexander Cockburn spent much of a column in The Nation excoriating Heilbroner for his sins; I can't think of a better endorsement.

Much has been written in the American press in the last six months about the economic unification of the European Community nations scheduled for 1992. Most American journalists spend their time listening to bureaucrats in Brussels pontificate on The Meaning of It All. But Robert Cottrell, in the April 8 issue of The Spectator, examines how the European Community actually works. His findings: "fraud and profligacy costing the European Community's taxpayers hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of pounds each year."

The European Community spends about two-thirds of its budget subsidizing farmers. As in the United States, the EC accumulates mountains of agricultural products that no one wants to buy at the artificially high prices fixed by Eurocrats. The EC then disposes of these products—beef, wine, butter, olive oil—by paying exporters to ship them overseas.

But in many cases, the exporters don't ship the products they claim to be shipping, or they ship goods to markets where they can make large profits. According to investigators for the House of Lords, Danish exporters received subsidies for sending surplus cheese to the Caribbean and then resold the cheese to Americans and Canadians, netting profits from the sales and £530,000 from the EC. One trader exported offal and received subsidies for prime beef, earning £11 million from the EC. Another exporter convinced the EC that the railway sleeping cars he was shipping were really beef and earned subsidies for them.

Who gets these subsidies? Cottrell believes that "a significant proportion of the European underworld's treasury" comes from EC protectionism. It is known that the Mafia gets EC benefits, and it is suspected that the Irish Republican Army has also benefitted.

I'm surprised that Cottrell's charges haven't received more exposure, especially since many of them are confirmed by the Court of Auditors, the EC equivalent of the General Accounting Office. But I urge members of Congress to be suspicious of the EC's protectionist schemes. After all, a government that can't tell the difference between a railroad sleeping car and a cow is hardly likely to be a reliable negotiator on trade issues.

I've always been fascinated by neoliberalism, chiefly because I've never met anyone who can explain to me how, exactly, neoliberals differ from plain old liberals. Neoconservatives and conservatives debate constantly and ferociously; liberals seem much more complacent about ideology.

Perhaps this is because, at its heart, neoliberalism's gospel consists of the collected prejudices of Washington Monthly editor-in-chief Charles Peters. It's a very authoritarian doctrine; the perfect neoliberal believes exactly what Peters believes. This is why there is only one perfect neoliberal.

In The Washington Monthly's 20th anniversary issue (March), the magazine's most prominent alumni get a chance to tell Peters why he is wrong. Many of these criticisms make sense. For example, the most disturbing aspect of Peters's philosophy is his enthusiasm for enforced "national service," either drafting young people into the military or forcing them to clean out latrines and pick up trash under a revived Works Progress Administration. Michael Kinsley takes Peters's enthusiasm for the draft and stomps on it. "You don't have to be overly pessimistic about human nature to doubt that involuntary timeservers are going to put their hearts into their assigned tasks," Kinsley points out.

Gregg Easterbrook then attacks Peters's notion that profits are somehow distasteful. He notes that most corporations make profits "because they deserve to—the market is pretty effective in distributing that reward." What's more, Easterbrook says, absentee ownership is not necessarily bad, and most mergers take place not because money-mad plutocrats are interested solely in shafting customers but because "the resulting enterprises are more efficient than what they replace."

But the most trenchant criticism comes from Time editor Walter Shapiro. The Washington Monthly, Shapiro says, was founded in order to revive a Democratic Party demoralized after the downfall of Lyndon Johnson. What did the magazine have to show for all its "years of struggle and sacrifice"? Jimmy Carter. Given the choice the Democrats will make in the 1992 presidential race—either Jesse Jackson or a right-wing southerner—the militant moderation that The Washington Monthly stands for is as dead as Adlai Stevenson or Hubert Humphrey. After all, Shapiro says, Jesse Jackson is "the least likely figure in either party to lie awake nights wrestling with the knotty dilemmas of bureaucratic accountability."

Peters rebuts his critics with bluster and misdirection. He frequently adopts the second person, as if he composed his columns in an echo chamber and assumed that his mumblings were the roars of a cheering crowd.

The Washington Monthly's legacy to American journalism is the intricate nuts-and-bolts examination of how government works (or, as is more often the case, doesn't work). Few reporters did these sorts of stories before the magazine began; few do them now.

During the 1980s, the Monthly has largely been a spent force, not because of its politics, but because the magazine has suffered the intellectual hardening of the arteries that affects any magazine that has had the same editor for 20 years. In its heyday in the late 1970s, The Washington Monthly discovered Nicholas Lemann, Gregg Easterbrook, and other important journalists. In the 1980s, the magazine seems content to rest on its laurels, an anachronism fondly remembered but little read.

Coming next year, whether you want it or not, is The New Century, a quarterly coedited by the villainous Robert "Snidely" Kuttner and designed to be "the left-wing Public Interest." (Those with long memories know that The Public Interest itself was founded as a magazine of the left.) Kuttner is scouring the country for academics willing to defend national health insurance, farm subsidies, the New Deal, the Great Society, and other boondoggles.

But, Kuttner told Washington's City Paper, the magazine will be unpredictable. "We're not going to be knee-jerk statists," Kuttner says, thereby all but officially declaring himself a knee-jerk statist.

Thanks, Bob. Best of luck with your journal, and here's hoping that you will be so overwhelmed with your editorial duties that you will do America a favor and stop writing for The New Republic. That magazine would improve dramatically.

Martin Morse Wooster is Washington editor REASON.