Archive for May 25th, 2008

Material saturation

Perhaps symbolic of our age is how willing we are to simply discard things. Last year I bought an Onyx stereo receiver for $199. I could finally hook up my turntable, CD player, and two sets of speakers (one for the basement, one for upstairs) and fill the house with music. Alas, I didn’t buy the warranty (usually those things aren’t worth it) and after about a year it stopped working. I realized the “safety” had come on, which seems like must have been a minor repair. Circuit City, however, said that since it wasn’t under warranty they couldn’t even touch it. Repair estimates seemed to be around $100 at a minimum, with no guarantee that the problem wasn’t systemic. Ultimately, I found a similar Sony at Best Buy on sale for $130, so I bought it. What to do with the Onyx — throw it out? (I ended up donating it to the university, where the technical folk fixed it and I believe are using it in the fitness center).

I recently read of someone who said he wanted to buy battery replacements for a cordless drill, only to find a new drill with new bits were half the price of the replacement battery. In today’s world of cheap textiles, how many people still mend clothing, darn socks (does the younger generation even know what it means to ‘darn a sock’), or replace the soles on their shoes? With electronics so cheap, and repair so expensive, how many DVD players or small electronics will ever be repaired once something goes wrong? (And I wonder if anyone will be able to get my old Betamax working so I can watch my old betamax format VCRs?)

When I was visiting Russia I was impressed by the knowledge people had of how to improvise. No stereo in the car? No problem, wire up a portable radio to the car’s battery. Something goes wrong, figure out a way to fix it, usually with speed and innovation. They had to do that, they didn’t have the same access to cheap replacements and convenience. They learned to problem solve and improvise. Increasingly we don’t have that skill. Something goes wrong, all we need to do is drive to the local big box store and buy a new one. Rip my pants at a conference and instead of getting out a sewing kit to mend them, I zip over to the clothing store and replace them. If and when times get tough, we’ll have to relearn a lot of skills we’ve lost, thanks to the convenience of cheap products.

Add to that the waste. Immense amounts of stuff are either incinerated and put into landfills daily, even while much of the world lacks basic necessities. When our fast food gets a bit old before being sold it’s discarded. Others don’t have food. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a sign that we have reached a kind of material saturation. There are, at least for most of the industrialized West, no more material wants to satisfy. We can create more perceived wants through marketing and new technologies, disposing an old cell phone to one that takes pictures, or trading in a perfectly good car for one with a navigation system and more luxury. But after awhile there is no net material gain, once the newness wears off someone is no happier with a state of the art high definition plasma TV now than they would have been after purchasing a brand new color TV in 1968.

This isn’t just the wealthy, but most in the West are materially saturated, even if they are yearning for the kind of stuff the wealthy have. That yearning is artificial, created by marketers and the human desire to get what someone else has. But most in the West have reached a point where more ‘stuff’ cannot translate into more happiness. That’s material saturation. So we end up with anxieties, eating disorders, depression, neuroses, and other psychological difficulties, seeking some kind of fulfillment from something that no longer can add to our true well being. More stuff doesn’t mean much of anything.

To be sure, this isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. If we can get a handle on the need for a multidimensional life and not to focus on the material (money, work, career, stuff) and instead aspire to higher ends (friendship, community, family, art, music, learning) that material saturation can be part of an immensely satisfying and fulfilling life. Increasingly people are discovering that, there is a reason why people love music, travel, read, and learn. In those areas we’re not even close to “saturation,” there is much happiness to be gained by sharing an evening with a drink and friend, visiting a museum, or learning about something new. Travel is especially rewarding, as one can learn new cultures and ways of seeing the world. Community gives a strong sense of satisfaction, something that those without all the material stuff recognize. Still, as a society we’re often addicted to the material, and find it hard to break out, that’s where the pressures are — bills, career demands, television commercials, and a quick rush after shopping for something new. And if people can’t break that addiction and truly embrace what can add happiness to their lives, all the material wealth we have can be more of a curse than a blessing.

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Iraq myths and realities

When things were especially violent a few weeks ago, the anti-war side of the political spectrum complained that the media was ignoring Iraq, playing more attention to the political horse race at home. Now, when things seem a bit calmer, the pro-war side claims that the media is ignoring ‘success’ in Iraq because it doesn’t fit their narrative. The truth, of course, is that the country is suffering from Iraq fatigue, and absent some kind of breakthrough, the conventional wisdom remains that the war was a bad idea, but we’re still not sure how to bring this to closure.

So what is one to make of headlines out of Iraq? Just scanning today, there remains stories of corruption (latest: $15 billion of US aid unaccounted for), civilian deaths are mounting (today a story on how the US is increasing the use of air power, something the US also did in the latter days of the Vietnam war, thus bringing more civilians and children in danger), the cease fires in Basra and Sadr City remain tense, and the government is not undertaking any serious effort to disarm or disable the Mahdi army, and US ire increasingly is on Iran, who as noted last week really is coming out of this ahead. Interestingly as Barak Obama is criticized for being willing to negotiate with enemies, Israel has started serious negotiations with Syria looking to deal with the problems in Lebanon and with the Palestinians. Perhaps it would be easiest to whittle it down into some ‘myths’ and ‘realities’:

Myths

1. Any claim that the Iraq war can be a success is false. That ship has sailed. Even if Iraq became stable tomorrow, by any policy metric this policy has failed to achieve it’s goals, and the costs have been enormous. And, of course, nobody expects it to end any time soon, let alone tomorrow. So if you hear the word “success” used to describe US actions in Iraq, success has been defined so far down so far that the term is all but meaningless. The real goal now: find a way out of this that minimizes the costs and creates the possibility of stability.

2. Recent actions in Basra and Sadr city show that the Iraqi army is “standing up.” That is also a myth. This has been cosmetic, Iraqi forces have had intense help from the US, and have undertaken limited operations. Moreover in Basra most of the fighting was down by the Badr brigade (a militia with heavy Iranian backing), incorporated into the Iraqi army, but not truly integrated. Iraq’s fighting force is improving very, very slowly – and still infiltrated by Iran, the Mahdi army, different militias, and still subject to infighting and sectarian differences.

3. The Iraqi government is increasing its ability to govern. That’s another myth. The reality is that the Kurds are essentially self-governing, Sunni tribes run the Sunni regions, and Shi’ite power is divided, with the government effectively controlling only parts of Shi’ite Iraq. Power is fragmented.

Realities

1. There does seem to be improvement in oil revenues due to high oil prices and more effective efforts to stop sabotage – though sabotage is on going.

2. While it’s easy to distrust the Bush Administration, they are right that Iran is doing all it can to undercut American efforts in Iraq. Moreover, there isn’t a lot the US can do about it, which has complicated the exist strategy. We could leave Iraq relatively stable now, but Iran would be the power broker.

3. Corruption is immense, and that alone makes a stable democracy unlikely any time soon. Unless corruption is brought under control, power will continue to be sought so that one can benefit ones’ own clan or sectarian group. This will undercut any efforts the US makes to create what we’d consider a viable democracy, and make it easier for outside forces to play various factions off against each other.

4. Al qaeda in Iraq is weak. The “surge” was effective against al qaeda, but al qaeda was never a major problem in Iraq. When Senator McCain said leaving Iraq would allow al qaeda to take over, he was demonstrating a real lack of understanding of the situation (or a cynical belief that since Americans don’t pay attention to the details, they’d just believe him). And this leads to:

5. The war in Iraq is not about terrorism, but about regional stability and oil. The US really doesn’t fear that leaving Iraq will help terrorists, and the rhetoric that they will be “inspired” or “energized” by the US leaving is just silly – our being there helps them by giving them photos and stories of dead Muslims. But there is a fear that a more powerful Iran would create the danger of a regional Sunni-Shi’ite or Persian-Arab conflict (probably that would be averted) or, more likely, that the powers in the region will be more willing than ever to make China and the growing Asian companies top customers, risking oil shortages in the West.

Taking these myths and truths into account, it’s hard to see how the US can really find a way out of Iraq without either simply “declaring victory and leaving,” which is a real option, or working on regional arrangements which require intense negotiations with all parties, especially Iran. In terms of our national interest, the latter is more viable than the former. Finally, it’s unlikely that Iraq will spash itself on the news often in the coming months. Iraq is unlikely to explode into complete anarchy again, but is even more unlikely to become a stable effective government. Expect more of the same.

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