Archive for September, 2008

Belief and Perspective

(This continues the line of thought started in my last blog entry)

One interesting question that comes up either in political debates, or in looking at history, is why do we think the way we do — why do we hold the political, religious, moral and social beliefs we do?  Because of the enlightenment, most people like to believe that they have considered the arguments, analyzed the issues, and have come up with what they think is the most reasonable perspective.   Even those who embrace a more conservative view that tradition should be upheld tend to support that with an argument that goes back to Burke’s progressive conservatism: traditions maintain social order, which is good for the community and makes people more likely to succeed.

I am convinced that we use reason primarily as a way to rationalize beliefs we have ‘from the gut.’  I see that in campus debates on things such as academic policy, in discussions between people of opposing political positions, and in religious and moral questions.   Moreover, I don’t think this is a bad thing, I suspect it’s simply how we think and behave.  Emotion motivates, reason rationalizes.

So where does our emotional perspective come from?  Some of it is hereditary, certainly.   Much of it comes from how children are raised, and the experiences they have early in life.  And while some of that can be very specific to the family and the parents, cultural has a tremendous impact.  It conditions us, and helps determine how basic genetic predispositions are expressed.

If you travel from Maine to the deep south, or South Dakota to New York City, you’ll see fundamentally different cultural perspectives expressed across the spectrum of politics and life.   Travel Europe, and vast differences exist not only between the US and Europe, but also within Europe itself.  I noticed once back when I was living in Bologna that litter lined the Italian train tracks (this was the 80s), but when you crossed the Austrian border suddenly everything was spotless.  I saw an Italian father once instruct his child to toss an empty can out the train window, something which just would not have happened in Germany.  In Germany people stand in line to wait to board a train, allowing the arriving passengers to first disembark.  In Italy people shove their way aboard, and those leaving often have to push past.  At first Americans and Germans look down at the Italians for being so pushy and disorderly — but when I lived in Italy and learned how the game was played it made sense, and worked just fine.

In my first year seminar we’re looking now at the renaissance, and it’s very difficult to get students to try to see the world through the mind of someone in that time period.   The core beliefs were so much different, our 21st century experience is hard to put aside.  When Steve Pane, the music professor, plays music from that era, and compares it to an earlier era, most people think it sounds pretty similar.  But Steve points out that to the ear of that age these would often be radically different pieces, and could cause outrage.  We don’t hear that any more, we experience the world differently.

When I hear political debates, and experience people with vastly different views on some core issues, I realize that my own perspective cannot be proven with reason.  No perspective can.  In fact, I believe what I believe because it is who I am.   Particular views on policies or details may change (e.g., I may be convinced to support a tax proposal, I might decide that International Studies maybe shouldn’t require study abroad), but core beliefs about fundamental issues are from, if not my gut, at least my heart and soul.  They are an expression of something inside of me, something shaped by my experience and to some extent my genetics, but they are not simply the result of my mind analyzing and assessing external data.  I think this is true for everyone, and explains why so many people who are honest, intelligent and good, often hold completely different perspectives on major questions.

So what does this mean?   First, to recognize that reason doesn’t give us an answer key, that meaning for life is dependent on things outside of our ability to materially measure, analyze and assess.   From there, we need to learn to understand different perspectives on their own terms, and in fact be fair to those perspectives — understand why good, smart people can believe differently.  If we do that, we can get along well with and respect people who might be otherwise seen as “political or cultural enemies.”

The biggest barrier in all of this is ‘fear of relativism.’  That argument goes: “you’re embracing relativism, that all that exists is different perspectives.  I believe in truth, so I can’t go that route.”   But I would say I’m actually arguing against relativism.

What most people who proclaim truth do is to say that their subjective values are true, and denying their ability to claim them as truth is relativist.  But what could be more relativist than to say that one can assert what they hold true as true?  Isn’t that relativism defined?  But people who do that also claim other perspectives are false, so they aren’t embracing the principle of subjective relativism, they’re taking a rather solipsistic view towards truth — they have it, anyone else is wrong, and to claim otherwise is to be dismissed as saying there is no truth.  After all, if one believes they have the truth, then to deny their belief would be to proclaim truth does not exist.

When put that way, it’s clear the ‘fear of relativism’ is misguided.  Nothing I wrote says there is no truth, only that in the murky world of human existence we see reality from a variety of perspectives and thus we have to recognize that it’s virtually impossible to know if what we believe is true without relying on an unproven assumption or belief.   This suggests that while we can’t find certainty, we might be able to reasonably think we are moving closer to the truth if we are willing to explore why we feel what we feel, recognize that those emotions are driving our beliefs and our actions, and then work to understand why others react/think differently.

A concrete example: After I lived a year in Italy and in Germany, I viewed American culture differently.  Things I took for granted, I suddenly appreciated more, or found fault with, having experienced a different way of doing things.  Learning to speak German caused me to also look at my own language differently, better understanding the grammar and how some concepts cannot be translated directly.  In short, as a person I believe I grew and my life became richer by incorporating an other culture and language — understanding it and living/speaking within it.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for intellectual travel — to spend time learning another perspective, different ways of thinking, and the like?  And if we do, then won’t it be easier to see our own motivations more clearly, and perhaps realize that once firmly held beliefs really are no longer in line with who we are.  By reflecting and understanding more perspectives, we change ourselves — just as learning a language or living abroad changes a person.

To me that’s exciting, it suggests a chance for continual growth and discovery.  We can look to other cultures, other languages, other periods of time, or other disciplines.  Learning about music, art, literature, politics, or various things outside our usual experience is rewarding not because we can get a better job or win trivia contests, but because it can help us grow, learn and expand our understanding of reality.   Does it really help bring us a step closer to “truth?”  I’d like to think so.

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Ideology and Economics

One of the most pernicious and misguided developments of the past century or so is the rise of ideology as a kind of secular religion.   Ideologies emerge as vast simplifications of reality in order to build theoretical frameworks that are based on certain core assumptions.  The result is a world view that yields some fundamental principles which in turn are used to justify and rationalize action.

One example is free market capitalism.  Assumptions are made about human behavior, an individualist ontology is adopted, and the result is a theory of how the market works (supply and demand, equilibrium, self-interested behavior yielding the best result, markets being better than bureaucracies in making decisions since markets gather massive amounts of information through individual choices, etc.)  This theory then provides policy prescriptions and a blueprint for the ‘best’ sort of economic structure.  If you take this to a logical extreme (i.e., if you forget that the ideology is based on a vast simplification of reality) then markets are always the answer, there should be little or no government, and the ideology guides every choice to be made.  In its most dangerous form, ideologues try to don the mantel of ethics and principle by defining the ideology as the central core of human meaning.  A few of these people become ideological zealots, uncompromising puritans whose need for meaning in life is filled by a secular religion, and they become as dogmatic as your most devout religious extremist.   Often these same people see religion as a myth for the small minded, and don’t recognize that they are just as tied to myth as the religious folk they ridicule.  Whereas the religious at least know they are taking a leap of faith, the secular ideologues believe that reason has given them an objectively true answer.

But then check the other side, the socialists.  They have an ideology that defines capitalism as inherently exploitative and crisis prone, which, obviously, it is.  Yet when faced with this they try to create an ideological alternative where there will be no crises and no exploitation, just people working for the good of the whole, and sharing in the wealth.  This is rationalized with an ideology that subordinates politics, culture, human nature and psychology to economics.  All that matters is the economic system, and if it is run properly, a truly rational and just outcome will emerge, one that will yield such success that individuals will be free from alienation and able to achieve their true desires.

Of course, this “objectively just” economic system can’t function without a government, and somehow human beings when given power in a capitalist system will exploit, while when given power in a socialist system will work for the good of the masses.  Anyone see a problem with that assumption?  People are what screw up capitalism, people are what screw up socialism, and people do so not just out of ill will or selfishness, but also because their actions are driven by their cultural beliefs, political values, and position in society.

Now, as governments step in to develop plans to attempt to guide economies away from the catastrophic dangers that credit market collapse would create, left and right alike cling to ideology as their source for prescriptions about what to do.   Many “free marketeers” are appalled that even Republican governments and candidates are embracing an intrusive government solution.  The problem, however, is not regulation or government action, but under-regulation and government inaction.  The problem is also that you cannot have a major economic system without it being prone to close government-business ties.  The ideological dream of a market system absent politics (or with minimal political involvement), or of a socialist system absent markets (or with intensely manipulated markets) are practical impossibilities.  Such perspectives are examples of ideology-driven understandings of reality, rather than consideration of how human society really works.

Simply, ideology does not give answers about economics.  At best theories about capitalism, socialism, and various types of economic structures can be useful to develop pragmatic approaches to economic problems.  Those who grab an ideology will simply look for solutions, or rationalize non-action, by applying a principle which they falsely believe to be based on objective truth.  Instead of taking into account different perspectives, thinking creatively for solutions, making compromises about accepting some market exploitation and inequities and some government interference for a balanced, mixed approach that isn’t perfect, but might be as good as we can manage, they want their “ism” pure and unvarnished.  Instead of thinking, they want an answer key that comes from a set of assumptions and principles.

The current crisis defies ideological thinking.  It cannot be addressed with glib “well, let them collapse, it was a bad investment” or “bail out everyone, they were all fooled.”  Instead, we have to think about the consequences of different policies, the fiscal realities the country faces, the danger that doing too much to rescue failing banks and firms might harm the economy in numerous other ways, while doing too little might allow the crisis to spread out of control.   Most importantly, we have to separate economics from ideology, at least ideological purity.  The world is too complex, ideologies are too shallow and incomplete.  Creative problem solving involves borrowing and taking from many theories in a way that practically deals with problems.

The stock market has bounced back up, but the crisis hasn’t passed.  People don’t know for sure what will come next, short term traders are glad government is thinking of a $1 trillion dollar bail out, long term thinkers are worried what that means for the value of the dollar, debt, and the US economy.  This also shows the folly of paying hundreds of billions for wars we can’t afford, and suggests that ambitious efforts to expand health care and social welfare may be out of reach for awhile.   Somehow both parties have to come together and realize that this problem is such that we can’t afford ideological fantasy or partisan posturing.  We need solutions.

And as for ideology?  One can imagine perfect systems, such as a totally free market somehow balancing everything with government simply standing by (or maybe not existing).  One can also imagine a utopian socialism, of people all with enough to live well, no exploitation, and a true sense of liberty.  One can theorize that either of these would be a true, ethical and correct system, but both are so out of touch with the world as it really is and people as they really behave that they are meaningless.  Become a secular capitalist or socialist ideologue, and you’ll end up angry and resentful at a world that isn’t anywhere close to how you believe it should be.

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Obama vs. McCain

Last June I gave my analysis of the Presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain.  There is nothing there I’d take back, but now that we know the VP candidates, have had the conventions, and the election is less than a month and a half away, has anything changed?

First, a brief review of the action between then and now.  Obama led in most polls in early June, but by a rather small margin.  By the time of the Democratic convention McCain had pulled slightly ahead, as July and August found the country with a bit of Obama fatigue after all the coverage during the primaries, and Hillary supporters rallied into “puma” groups, convinced somehow they could derail Obama.  At the Democratic convention the strong endorsement of Obama  by both Clintons, combined with a pick of Joe Biden for the VP spot, helped push Obama into a 5 or 6 point lead.  Then McCain electrified his base by choosing an unknown, a young photogenic conservative Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, to be his VP.  That helped give energy to the GOP convention, after which McCain pulled ahead by 3 to 5 points.  Now Obama is regaining slight leads in most national polls as the public learns more about Palin, and frets over the economic crisis engulfing Wall Street and beyond.

As predicted, the primary “scandals” of Rev. Wright and the like have not come  back to haunt Obama — usually once a candidate survives a scandal, he becomes immune to it, sort of like surviving a disease.   And, as predicted, the race has become nasty, with allegations flying back and forth, and both campaigns taking off the gloves early.  So have the fundamentals of the campaign shifted at all?

In a word – No.  Obama still is the favorite to win, and the keys remain the economy, the mood of the country against the Republicans, and Obama’s ground game — the fact that he has a more energized and enthusastic set of supporters, with the likelihood of increasing voter turnout in what could be an unprecedented scope.

The two “wildcards” — Palin and the Economy — are long shots for McCain.  Palin had a positive short term effect, energizing the GOP base, helping McCain with fundraising, and making Palin somewhat the anti-Obama: a young, inexperienced GOP candidate for reform and change.   But just as Obama fatigue set in and hard questions were asked about him, Palin’s ability to maintain this energy for the distance is questionable.  Already scandals back in Alaska and lack of knowledge on foreign affairs is hurting her.  Even worse, her warlike talk about Russia, and claim that we are fighting a “war for God” in Iraq — rhetoric which is a mirror image of how Islamic extremists talk — is bound to used by the Democrats to scare people as election day nears.  Moreover, elections are about the top of the ticket.  If Palin keeps attracting attention, grabbing center stage at GOP events, that might undercut McCain’s appeal come November.   Politically he may have had to take the gamble of choosing someone so inexperienced and untested, but it was a cynical choice, done for politics, and remains a long shot.

The economy is even worse news for McCain.  As much as he now wants to claim the mantel of fighting big business and looking out for the little guy, the fact he’s a Republican and the GOP gets associated with deregulation and free market excess hurts.  To be sure, I’m convinced BOTH parties are co-responsible for this crisis, and the blame game is futile, we should be talking about how to fix things.  But politically this issue is potentially enough to give Obama a landslide victory if he performs well in the debates.  The fact that Republicans in Congress are turning against Bush on these issues doesn’t help.  In an election like this, the parties have to speak with a clear message.  If the GOP appears divided, it hurts McCain.

State by state polls in recent days show a trend towards Obama; even Indiana is leaning Obama’s way.  Some believe that Obama should have chosen Hillary, and this would have negated the Palin effect.  I disagree.  Having the Clintons around would risk removing Obama from center stage, and weaken his ability to distance himself from the wild 90s, when the foundation of this crisis was really set.  Moreover, that assumes the Palin effect is more than a short term reaction to a new face.  This is America, we’re smitten at first, but the effect wears off.  Obama has gone through that, and survived.  Palin’s still untested.

However, there are some tricky unknowns still to navigate.  The attacks on Obama will continue, with claims that he’s strange, a radical, someone not to trust in difficult times.  The idea will be that many voters who might now be saying they support Obama will go into the voting booth and say, well, Obama may sound better, but they know they can trust an old white guy war hero as a ‘safer’ choice.  In some ways, McCain’s choice of Palin might protect Obama from that reaction.  Race and gender still matter, and it is quite imaginable that racism might help McCain win.   This is not to say, as many defensive conservatives say whenever the reality of racism is brought up, that everyone who votes for Obama is racist.   Most just disagree with him, or think he’s not experienced enough.  But race will undoubtedly be a factor; there will be racial votes against Obama, plus minority voters who come to the polls for the first time and increase black turn out because Obama is black.  Race is a factor on both sides.

As of September 18, 2008 I still believe that this race will be decided primarily by the enthusiasm and organization Obama has “on the ground” in get out the vote efforts and a determined voting base.  I believe that the polls will remain close, but that on election day most swing states will tip towards Obama.  I still think the dynamics of the 1980 election, which put Ronald Reagan in the White House, are similar to the dynamics of this election — with Obama in the role of Reagan.  Of course in any campaign, anything can happen.

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Financial Crisis Worse than Terrorism

Stocks are down again by hundreds of points, below 11,000, as credit fears grip Wall Street.   The credit markets, under-regulated and drunk on the lure of easy profits from a housing bubble on the heels of a stock bubble, may be collapsing.  This is possible in part because of how long the crisis has been brewing.  Ever since the early eighties, when the Reagan Administration embraced a mix of increased public debt and de-regulation of credit markets, we’ve drifted on to ever shakier ground.  This is made worse by globalization, which allowed the US economy to appear more robust than it was, financing a 6% of GDP current accounts deficit through a massive influx of foreign funds.

CEOs and banking leaders may understand business and economics, but they are also human.  The environment is complex and turbulent, and it is easy to fall victim to two converging problems: avoidance of cognitive dissonance and groupthink.

The former comes from the quarter century of generally continued economic growth in the face of repeated warnings about dangers from the budget deficits, current accounts deficits, or bloated markets.  Just as those who should have known better in late 1999 prattled on about “Dow 60,000” or “Dow 100,000,” arguing that a new economy changed all the rules, it’s really easy to get so caught up in what’s happening that gloom and doom prognostications just seem completely out of touch with reality.  And when the stock crash didn’t sink the economy, well, then the economy must be extremely resilient.  The diversity and size of the US economy became stock words to dismiss the warnings.  The economy is “fundamentally sound” they would say, as if that vague phrase simply pushed aside all the warning signs.

If you came to Wall Street in 1978 as a young 25 year old novice, by 2008 you were a 55 year old veteran of the economic storms, having heard warning after warning for decades, with the US economy always chugging forward.  It’s easy to laugh off warnings as ‘just more gloom and doom,’ and focus on the short term profit making strategies that always worked before.

Moreover, you get bolstered by those around you.  Everyone grabs on to a ‘free market ideology’ which dismisses the need for regulations and has a faith that the economy is always onward and upward.  It becomes very easy to ridicule and dismiss those with different views, rather than actually analyzing them and thinking about the reality of conditions.  Armed with ideology and decades of experience, one can imagine the Wall Street mover and shakers believing theh not only understands it all, but have seen it all.  They convince each other that the naysayers are just shrill Cassandras, forgetting that Cassandra always turned out to be right!  The result: hubris.  A pride that causes one to be blind to forces that can destroy oneself — or in this case, the economy and some major financial institutions.

However, this is not just some contained crisis that will pass and impact only big names on Wall Street.   It’s also more than a short term crisis that will ripple through the economy and create a painful but not too intense or lengthy downturn.  This isn’t 1991, nor is it 1980.  First of all, globalization has changed the nature of the game.  It allowed the US to avoid painful adjustments when they could have happened by simply financing an obscene current accounts deficit with foreign capital.  Without that influx of money, the stock market of the 90s might have stayed within reason, and there may not have been the housing boom caused in part by easy credit.  We could not have maintained the fiction of a ‘strong consumer economy,’ as inflation would brought us back to earth.

Yet the impact of globalization also means that we may still be only at the tip of the iceberg.  Economic power has been shifting over time from the US towards China and India.   The oil rich states have also benefited from high oil prices, and a massive outflow of funds from the US.  They’ve often used that money buy US companies and stocks, at least until the last year or so.  Then the inevitable happen.  The last bubble burst, oil prices rose, and the US dollar started to decline in value.  The result was a slow motion unraveling of the economy which now is starting to spin out of control.  The consequences are profoundly more dangerous than the threat of terrorism we all feared after 9-11.

Jobs will be at risk, potentially even otherwise hypersecure jobs like teaching at a state university.  Retirement plans could collapse, infrastructure building and upkeep could fall apart.  Inflation could decrease the quality of life for everyone.  Politically, this could cause a massive surge leftward, as people will be angry and demand punishing the rich.  This could also cause a massive surge rightward, if people get angry and demand punishing the foreigners whose economies fare better than ours.  Nationalist emotion has historically been a very real reaction to domestic chaos, most obviously in Germany at the time of the Great Depression.

Most people are oblivious to this.  They know there is a crisis, they know they fear for the future, are experiencing real inflation, and having difficulty making ends meet.   They may not be able to pay their mortgages, or if they can, they see their retirement accounts sinking.  The knee jerk reaction is to look for a quick fix, or to ‘blame the greedy ones,’ but blame games and quick fixes are in short supply.  This has been a crisis building since 1980, when we started heavy deregulation and increasingly irrational economic policies.  We’ve watched imbalances grow for over a quarter century, and we’re now vulnerable in ways not seen since WWII.

The dangers this entails to our way of life are far greater than anything terrorism could cause.  While fighting a quixotic “war on terror,” we’ve squandered hundreds of billions and increased our vulnerability at our true point of weakness — our economy.  While focusing on homeland security, threats from extremists abroad, and geopolitical fantasies of “spreading democracy,” the very fabric and foundation of our national strength has been eaten away, to the point that a credit crisis could push us into severe recession, and any kind of oil shortage could strangle the economy.

We focused on the obvious and easy to understand threats of “bad guys with bombs” and a President who will “keep me safe,” ignoring the complex and difficult to grasp threats coming with globalization, a fetish for deregulation caused by an ideological faith in “markets,” and corrupt ties between business and government.  The apparent economic success after the end of the Cold War hid the growing economic decay, even as some publications and pundits pointed in horror to imbalances and warning signs that in retrospect will seem all too obvious.

Is this a done deal, are in on the verge of catastrophe?  I don’t think it is a sure thing, I think there are ways to get out of this.  We’ll have to cut government spending (including major cuts in defense spending, replacing our rambo like foreign policy with true multilateralism and cooperative ventures), regulate financial markets effectively, decrease regulation that stymies economic innovation, and pragmatically put aside ideological agendas to deal with a crisis.   That might mean putting off health care reform, tax cuts, and other policy goals.  But like a family that has to tighten its belt and make sacrifices to get through a crunch, we as a nation have to pull together to do likewise, and do so in a way that doesn’t just shift the burden to an ever growing underclass.  Are we up to the challenge?

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Dallaire: Hero of Rwanda

Every semester when I teach World Politics I start with a unit on the Rwandan genocide.  We see videos, and read the long but powerful book Shake Hands With the Devil by Romeo Dallaire.  I tell students not to worry about the academic side for these first two weeks.   Academia focuses on theories and objective analysis, and we’ll get to that later on in the course.  Humans are both head and heart, however, and I require students to write each day about the relevant section of Dallaire’s book, and what is covered in class, in terms of what it makes them think and feel.  The papers the students write are powerful in their own way.  Many have never heard of Rwanda, or even know much about what is outside the US.  As they discover the horror that humans can inflict on each other, they grapple to make sense of it, often ranging from anger to despair.  I get tears in my eyes not only from Dallaire’s book, but even reading what students write about their reaction to the book.

Romeo Dallaire was made commander of the UNAMIR mission designed to implement the Arusha accords in Rwanda.  However, when the Rwandan President was murdered and the Inherhamwe militia began it’s attempt to exterminate Tutsis, the UN pulled most of its forces out.  The US and UK opposed even keeping Dallaire’s small contingent of 450 men (mostly Ghanans and poorly trained and equipped Bangladeshis), while France actively supported the Hutu government, arguing that the government was trying to bring order to Rwanda, and it was simply the out of control Interhamwe that was the problem (which was untrue).

The basic history — that Dallaire’s force was too small to help and perhaps should have just left — misses the point on what Dallaire’s experience means.   Dallaire is a French Canadian military man from a military family.  When he was 47 he got the job to head the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission In Rwanda) force, noting that all he knew about Rwanda is that it is “somewhere in Africa.”  The UN, burned by the Somalia case a year before, thought Rwanda would be an “easy” case.  The two sides, Tutsi and Hutu, wanted peace, with Hutu moderates willing to share power with the Tutsis.

The reality of the situation was one that the UN apparently did not comprehend.  Ever since the Belgians had brought down ugly European racism in the early 20th century to declare ethnic superiority of the Tutsis and to give them elite positions, the hatred of the Hutus for the Tutsis grew.  The Tutsis were only 15% of the population, but were given education, power and perks by the Belgians.  From the time even before Rwandan independence in 1962 to the genocide there were angry repressions of Tutsis, and massacres on both sides.  The Tutsi RPF formed in neighboring Uganda to serve as a base of operations for Tutsis.  Their demand was power sharing.  Hutu moderates were willing to give them that, but Hutu extremists thought that the Tutsis should have no part of power in Rwanda, having been puppets of the Belgian colonizers and being a small minority in the country.   To prevent this power sharing from happening, they decided to try to kill off all the 1.2 million Tutsis in Rwanda.

Dallaire’s UN force watches helplessly as horror comes to the country.  From April 6th to mid-July, in 100 days, over 800,000 Rwandans are killed, a pace of death that surpasses even that of the Holocaust or Stalin’s death camps.  The killings are done more often than not by young boys, about 15 or so, and everyone is targeted from the elderly to young children.  They are killed with guns and machetes, as bodies lie in streets, rivers and throughout the city, creating a stench that Dallaire’s UN forces had to constantly burn bodies and fight the urge to vomit.   Dallaire pleads with the UN, feeling neglected as they lack food, medical supplies and basic equipment for even their small force.  He’s convinced that, given how one UN soldier can often hold off dozens of Interhamwe, who are poorly trained and often teens, a UN show of force of even just 5000 soldiers could have stopped the killing.  Instead, the world looked the other way.

Dallaire and his forces live through hell, targets themselves, enduring a torture made worse by the inaction of the rest of the world.  After all, these were tribal blacks in Africa, killing each other, no big deal.  But the problems in Bosnia, well, those were white Europeans!  Racism?  It has to be, how else could it be so easy to ignore such atrocities.  As Nick Nolte, playing a composite character based in part on Dallaire, says in Hotel Rwanda, “We think you’re dirt…the superpowers, the West…you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African.”  He says the word “African” as if it were the foulest thing on the planet.  Of course Dallaire, and the Nolte character, are criticizing the world for abandoning Africa — our racism and disregard for the humanity of people who are “different” is on proud display.

Dallaire returns, forgotten (no one wants to think about Rwanda), suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, takes heavy medication, and once is found near death from anti-depressants and alcohol on a park bench in Quebec.   He finally writes his book and now appears to be recovering, though he’ll never be the same as he was before he went through that hell.

But as we discuss the book and the event, it occurs to me that Dallaire is a true hero.   Unlike most of the world, he refuses to give in to the temptation to see the Rwandans as unnecessary.  He refuses to give up the mission.  He refuses to mourn the dead peace keepers (ten Belgians) more than the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.  He never stops seeing the Rwandans as human, never gives up trying to find a way to save the country, and then blames himself for the fact that the mission failed, that he couldn’t shame the world into doing more.  In one of humanity’s most shameful and brutal hours, he maintains a sense of decency, principle and humanism, and tells the story in brutal, heart shaking, and anger inducing candor.  His story means that when President Clinton says “we just didn’t get what was happening,” or Belgian politicians attack Dallaire for “not rescuring the Belgian peace keepers,” we don’t fall prey to those kind of simple attacks, we can know the real story.

Heros are those individuals who do something great, sacrificing themselves for others.  Dallaire sacrificed the rest of his life, having to endure psychological and emotional scars that are with him forever, in order to be able to tell an honest story about humanity at its worst — and in the form of Dallaire and his compatriots, also at its best.   He shows the contradictions and banality of world politics, with diplomats and leaders putting abstractions and power games over humanity, and then finding excuses to dismiss their errors.  He exposes the hypocrisy of principles that say “never again” after the Holocaust, but then take no action, depsite having stark and honest reports from a UN commander on the scene.  It also shows the evil that colonialism created, sparking failed corrupt states, ethnic violence and a destroyed political and economic culture across Africa.  While some in the West arrogantly dismiss such folk as primitives, priding themselves on our superiority, it’s clear here we’re refusing to take responsibility for the fruits of our actions.

Dallaire shows students from the start that world events are not abstract things that leaders do or just involve countries interacting.  It’s about humanity.  It’s about children, killing, gang rapes, poverty, and massive amounts of money being spent for great powers to pursue their own particular interests, while not spending even a tiny bit for those places deemed unimportant.  His description of Rwanda is an indictment of the international system and the values of the West.  His actions and effort to help is a redemption of those same values, an example of what it means to put principle first.

In political science “social forces” are often given precedence over individuals.  Abstract theories and cool detachment are valued over empathy and sentiment.  Dallaire’s book is also an indictment of that social science, showing that heroism is real, and theory and analysis without emotion and empathy is worse than cold, it is deadly.

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Economic Collapse?

In the post “Future Uncertain” last June, one commentator named Mike wrote:

“An economic collaspe is not only concieveable but it is HIGHY likely. The mainstream media is not telling people the full extent of the credit market woes. Ten of billions (Possible up to a trillion) more dollars will be wote down by banks in the coming months. It would one thing if the toxic watse dumping was finished but these banks are going to flood the market with a lot more of these bad loans. The markets can’t withstand any more…. The Dow will most likely be below 10,000 by the end of July…”

Now, Mike’s prediction of the Dow below 10,000 by July turned out to be wrong, but as we watch the markets wobble over the problems at Lehman, it is becoming painfully clear that Mike may have been off primarily in his timing.  The United States could be facing the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.  We just can’t tell how deep the problems are, or how they’ll play themselves out.  But consider the drama of the past couple weeks.  First, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are literally taken over by the government.

We’re talking about nationalization of the most important financial backers of home mortgages, seized by a Republican pro-market government, obviously without enthusiasm.  The reason they took over these giants is that they had no choice — if they failed, the mortgage market in the US would have ground to a halt, unleashing tremendous economic hardship to just about every sector of the economy.  Why this happened was clear: close ties between these two corporations and government had led to laws that made it progressively easier for them to back mortgages without oversight.  That’s fine when the market is booming and home values soaring.  But when the bubble bursts, it was disaster.

Is this a domino effect that could reck havoc throughout the entire banking sector?  Is this a limited problem?  Nobody knows, but as with Enron a decade ago, it’s possible that the financial sector has been skating buy the last few years with accounting tricks and short term book keeping shemes to avoid having to publicly admit how bad things are.  Consider: you might be making a decent salary, but yet due to purchases and poor spending habits, be in severe debt.   For a long time you can keep this secret from your closest friends and in some cases, even a spouse.  You can kite credit cards (get a new card to make minimums on the old), do home equity loans, find ways to make that debt something that isn’t felt in your day to day life.  It may drive you crazy when you think about it, but you can usually find ways to get by another day.  This can go on for years.

But when things start to go south, they go south fast.  Soon you’re missing payments.  Then suddenly interest rates jump from below 10% to above 20%.  Suddenly you can’t get new loans, your house has negative equity and the result is personal financial collapse or bankruptcy.  Now, what if the banking sector as a whole has this sort of problem?  Drunk on the easy money and loose credit of the early part of the decade, they got themselves in over their head, perhaps expecting continued economic growth to simply allow them to go on making large short term profits.   It wouldn’t be consumerism in this case, but “buying” more interest-bearing loans, with the idea that the money will be paid back and profits would rise.   When the bubble bursts, then the whole thing implodes, as happened at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and now Lehman.

One hopes that the other financial giants are on solider ground, but we’re not sure how solid, or who might be next.  The fact that it’s so difficult to find other firms to buy Lehman and limit the scope of this credit shows the relative weakness of the entire financial industry.   Add to that the troubled economic conditions: continued high oil prices (even if not as a high as mid-summer), a current accounts deficit, a weak dollar, and high unemployment.   The result is an economy as vulnerable as ever.  When we had our last major recession, the period of stagflation from 1979-81, the fundamentals were sound, but there was a real financial risk there as well.  The US still had a current accounts surplus, the oil price increases were artificial, due to tension in the Persian Gulf that would soon be allayed, and the dollar was healthy.  The credit markets, still mostly national and regulated as this was the ‘pre-globalization’ period, had only one glaring problem: the debt crisis.

The debt crisis emerged due to the way oil rich states invested “petrodollars” into major western financial institutions.  Those institutions in turn loaned money in vast amounts to third world states, on the premise that without strings attached these states could allow the market to lead investment and growth, and the loans would be paid back easily.  It didn’t happen.  Much of the money in fact went to buy oil, and the rest usually went to failed projects or into corrupt coffers, divied it between various bureaucrats and bigwigs.  When the truth came out that third world states might default, thus putting the entire western financial system in crisis, people panicked.  At the time, the prognosticators also speculated about financial collapse.  Is this another one of those crises we can get through?

Time will tell, but the way out of that crisis was: A) Buy time.  Short term loans were made to third world states so they could make interest payments, thus keeping the loans on the books as assetts for the banks; political pressure kept third world states from defaulting.  If they had defaulted, they may have lost aid, short term credit (necessary for trade), and access to markets; and B) Diversify risk.  Loans were sold at a loss to other banks, spreading around the risk rather than centralizing it with the major banks.   To be sure, high debt levels still exist, despite forgiveness of a lot of government debt.  But the threat to the western banking system has been mitigated.

This crisis is different.  It’s not one so easily controlled, as it is more than just a few states, and the sources of the crisis are the fundamentals of the credit markets, not just really bad decisions by banks on loans to third world states.   Still, no doubt the movers and shakers on Wall Street are in board rooms and on conference calls, trying to figure out the best way to handle this.  Perhaps they can come up with solutions, like in the late 90s when the ‘contagion’ in Asian currency markets threatened the world economy, or the response to the debt crisis.  Perhaps they cannot, like in 1929 when, after several short term efforts to steady the stock market succeeded, it finally crashed.

So while the political junkies argue about lipstick wearing pigs, who’s gaffe is up next, or who lied about what, the US economy stands in the balance.   The next few months may decide if we recover from these problems with a reformed, but able credit market, or if this is the start of a collapse that may profoundly harm our quality of life and material conditions.

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Is Iraq ready to explode?

People are beginning to realize that the “surge” is not the reason for reduced violence in Iraq.  The story I linked there repeats the argument I made a couple weeks ago that Iran is the reason that violence is down, and Iranian influence is actually bad news for the US in overall strategy.  But, because the US wants to find a way out of the debacle in Iraq, the Bush Administration isn’t countering the Iranian influence — they are willing to accept a real defeat in favor of a propaganda victory that might help the McCain campaign.  Apparently they are willing to lose a war in order to win an election.

Moreover, Americans on the scene are very afraid that the lack of political progress over these months of relative calm may be setting the stage for an increase in violence.   This worry underlies concern that Iraq is about to explode.  For the Bush Administration, the hope is that all the shit hits the fan AFTER the election, so that they can continue the fallacious argument that the surge is working.

This is a short entry today, but the topic is huge.  The US fought a war in Iraq that successfully deposed Saddam Hussein, but failed in every other goal.  Iraq is not a functioning democracy, not even close.  They held elections, but the government is a Shi’ite dominated bloc that only controls Baghdad and some Shi’ite areas, often because of a deal between Iran, Iraq and a few militias.  The Sunnis and Kurds control their regions, and if the Shi’ites try to extend control, the violence will expand again.  The dream of Iraq as a model democracy to alter politics in the region is dead, and the US policy has failed utterly and completely.

The reason for war in Iraq was ostensibly about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.  They didn’t exist, and that was never the reason for the war.  The war was a bold attempt to change politics in the region, make Iraq a pro-American democratic enclave, and use Iraq to pressure other states like Iran and Syria.  The failure to do so cost billions, as well as tens of thousands of lives and America’s position in the world.  It was a costly and dramatic failure.  Now there is an attempt to create a smokescreen, a claim that a “surge” somehow has turned things around, simply because deaths are down.

But the main goals haven’t been reached.  The country is in a precarious situtuation, with renewed violence likely when the right spark is struck.  Even the US military acknowledges this, although the Administration and the McCain campaign continue to put lipstick on the Iraq pig.   The American public has been fooled by this, exhausted by the Iraq war, and not wanting to hear continuing headlines.  The hope that the decrease in violence will lead us out is enough.

The reality is far different.  This has been a costly defeat to the US and the US military.  Our status in the world is diminished, our economic position is precarious, and we lack the capacity to counter states like Iran if they choose to pursue paths contrary to our interests.  We are in many ways an ex-superpower, even if that is unacknowledged.  And, once it becomes clear that the surge did not bring success, then the full diaster of the last eight years will have to be acknowledged.

The good news is that even if the PR machine spins this positively long enough for McCain to win, he is realist enough to be able to make a real change of course.   One has to hope he stays healthy, because I’m not sure Palin is up to the task.  Obama should be able to make changes, as long as he doesn’t have to feel he has to “prove his mettle” by acting tough.  In any event, a change is coming.  I hope Iraq doesn’t explode.  But no matter what happens the US will sooner or later have to accept the fact that our days as a superpower are over.

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