Archive for November, 2008

The Anti-Christmas

There is a weird sort of anomaly in the US system of holidays.  Thanksgiving, a day where families are to come together and express thanks about the good in their lives, begins the season leading up to Christmas day.  On that day Christians celebrate the birth of their messiah, Jesus Christ, while non-Christians share in the joy by celebrating the values that underlie the teachings of Jesus — love for others, principles like the meek will be strong, love your enemy as yourself, give unto others, do not desire wealth but focus on the spirit, be in this world not of it, etc.  For many of us who do not consider ourselves Christian the teachings of Jesus are nonetheless powerful and worthy of honor.  I have no problem wishing people “merry Christmas” and focusing on the ideals of love, good will, and joy, even as Christians focus on the birth of their spiritual founder.

Yet on the very day after the Christmas season begins Americans celebrate Anti-Christmas.  That is the Friday after Thanksgiving which this year was appropriately referred to as “Black Friday” (perhaps that isn’t a new label, but I can’t recall hearing it before this year).  On that day Americans give in to lustful greed and crass materialism, descending on stores and shopping malls in the wee hours of the morning to try to get the best deal possible.   Not everyone who shops early is motivated by lustful greed to be sure; many are simply trying to get a good deal.  Still, the day has come to symbolize people being pushed and tussled as they fight for a few remaining Wii games or the latest craze.

Symbolic of this was the death of a 34 year old Walmart employee in New York state who had the unfortunate job of opening the doors to the store at 5:00 AM.   Over 2000 people had gathered, beginning at 9:00 PM the night before, in order to try to get the best deals.  When he started to open the door a stempede ensued, trampling the man and sending others, including a woman eight months pregnant, to the hospital.   The doors themselves were damaged.  The crowd, however, presumably got some good deals on toys and electronics.

While most of the country was fixated on the on going crisis in India, where terrorists took over some top class hotels, I couldn’t get the Walmart death out of my mind.  What does this say about our culture?  Every year there are stories like this, and even though one could argue that this was one isolated incident, the pushing, shoving and frantic consumerism it represents gets reported from all over.

I refuse to go shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but people who were at the local Walmart here report that while traffic was bumper to bumper entering the parking lot near 5:00 AM, it was pretty orderly and people were generally not pushy or unfriendly.  I heard of people grabbing items (e.g., one case where after a woman got an employee to open the door for a laptop computer, someone reached in and grabbed it before she could — but that was OK, there was another one) and the like, and I suspect that’s what it was like most places.    So I’m not saying the greed and crass materialism is universal on Anti-Christmas any more than true love, good will and generosity are universal on December 25th.  Rather the two holidays symbolize two aspects of our culture: the crass, greedy, selfish materialist side, and the loving, generous, joyful spiritual side.

The Anti-Christmas of “black Friday” represents that part of the Christmas season which makes it a season of high stress, as people feel compelled to go to various Christmas parties, have lists of gifts to buy, and worry about getting out Christmas cards and decorating their house to impress others.  It is that part of the Christmas season which leads to high post-Christmas suicide rates, as the fake excitement, color, and mystique of the holidays give way to the grudgery of the ordinary every day set of problems.  The closeness of family and friends gives way to the alienation of the individual in a materialist rat race.   The Anti-Christmas is a reverse mirror image the good will of Christmas; rather than the meek shall inherit the earth, the aggressive will get the best deals.  Rather than generosity to the poor and giving to those who are needy, it’s about profits and the bottom line.   We learn early that while the spirit of Christmas is nice, the presents are what matters.

This juxtaposition between Christmas and Anti-Christmas is symbolic of a kind of cultural schizophrenia, where we veer from wanting the virtuous but cannot resist the base.   Much like how we embrace the evil and destruction of warfare in the name of freedom and human rights, we end up at cross purposes with ourselves as a culture, promoting values rhetorically that we quietly undermine with our actions.   If these were starkly different we’d be able to see and manage the contradiction better.  But Anti-Christmas is tied with Christmas in an intricate and hard to untangle manner.   The same is true with our wars (always fought with an honorable cause, hiding the horror they unleash), our economics (promoting a supposed ‘free market’ that creates a massive gap between the rich and the poor), our faithful folk (believing strongly in a religion of love and tolerance while condemning and sometimes hating those whose morals, religious beliefs or lifestyles are different) and our secular folk (condemning and mocking religion without realizing that atheism and secular approaches to reality rely just as much on a leap of faith concerning things about this world we do not know).

Moreover, since the real world is not black and white but shades of grey, the issues get blurry.  War may be evil, the rhetoric of freedom may often be overstated, but sometimes war may be necessary, sometimes violence is required to defend.    The person in line on Black Friday to get a special 5:00 AM deal may be trying to buy her sick daughter a game she can only afford if she sacrifices her own goods, and is able to get the best deal possible.  Symbolically the extremes and contradictions are clear; practically they merge together with complexity and ambiguity.

Perhaps the only way to deal with all of this is a kind of balancing act.  We in the west like our dualisms, but there is no reason to think that things like “Christmas” and “Anti-Christmas” are really stark opposites.  In fact, it could be that attributes of human personality can express themselves in ways that look dualistic, but are actually far more complex.    Would a non-materialist purely spiritual Christmas, whether worshipping the birth of Jesus or for non-Christians the ideals of love, good will and generousity really work?  Would that really be superior?  Probably not.   Even concepts like “good” and “evil” represent a kind of artificial dualism. Selfishness, anger, and envy are not always misplaced emotions; sometimes they may be necessary in particular contexts.  I recall when I read First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, who survived the Cambodian genocide as a child, I was intrigued by how at times hate and anger helped her survive.  In those circumstances, they were necessary.  Just as self-love is necessary before one can truly love others, selfishness is necessary before one can truly be generous.

So Anti-Christmas may be a misnomer.  The ideals of Christmas are beautiful, but in the abstract they have no meaning.  They are possible only in so far as they reflect an ability to control our human nature and act ethically, not denying our material, selfish, and competitive side, but reigning it in with a sense of purpose and perspective.    There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the post-Thanksgiving sales, only in letting the desire for a bargain cause one to see others as mere obstacles in the way of that great deal, pushing, shoving, and even trampling other humans.  Keep perspective — the ideals of the season balance the desire for material comfort.   We don’t need to strive for perfection, only a workable balance.   Now, let’s enjoy the holiday season!

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Creative Destruction

I have to admit to a kind of perverse satisfaction about the financial collapse taking place all around us.   Not that I like what is happening — it negatively effects me, my family and my children’s future.   Yet there seems to be some justice in having a distorted system finally start to rebalance.   Part of it is that I’ve been one of the Cassandras for so long now, I feel vindicated that gee, I called this right (along with quite a few others, to be sure).   But more importantly, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the system we had became a cancer to the body politic and even the spirit of the United States, and that as painful as it is, we’ll be better off if we can shed it and move a new direction.  The key will be, of course, where we go.

Other countries have been in positions like this and have not chosen wisely.  Germany in the late 20s found a broken and untenable Weimar Republic collapsing into depression and chose a way out which seemed to make sense at the time.  Adolf Hitler promised to unify the country, put people back to work, undo the disastrous Versailles Treaty that mistreated Germany and gave it second class status, and to make people proud to be German again.  For six years, he seemed like the real thing.  Germans were working, their economy was taking off (unlike the economies in the rest of Europe), and he ditched the Versailles Treaty with bold foreign policy strokes, all of them peaceful and successful.

By late 1938 Germans were convinced that fascism was the right approach.  They were proud again, their country stood tall, their factories were working, people had a strong sense of patriotism, and they were at peace.  Germans didn’t want war.  Sure, the intellectuals complained by authoritarianism, and the government came down on those who “weakened the country from within,” — the pacifists, socialists, liberals, internationalists and jews.  Yet the fear of Bolshevism was strong enough, and European anti-semitism intense enough that these were easy to ignore.  Ridicule the intellectuals, parade the plain spoken every day hero, and embrace German cultural values.  Gone were the “sex, drugs and cabaret” of the twenties, in were patriotic marches, youth camping and hunting adventures, and virtuous German activities.

Earlier Russia also saw its entire system break apart.  The Czar pushed the country into collapse in World War I.  The Empire was already weak and anachronistic.   When the war started Russian soldiers were only armed in the front lines, those behind would carry sticks and then pick up the dropped weapons of the soldiers who would fall in front of them.   The war broke the Russian economy.  People lacked food, villages lost a generation of young men, and the Russians won nary a battle against the Germans.  The people had enough.  They ultimately rallied around a leader who promised a new world, a utopia where all would share the fruits of their collective labor, and the state would wither away.  It rested on an rational, objectivist philsophy which posited itself as the true understanding of how society and history operates.  Within a decade this belief in having the “true, proper” understanding of politics and governance would lead to totalitarianism, tyranny, and poverty.  For awhile it appeared strong, a superpower challenging the United States.  But that was an illusion, the system rotted from within, destroying the economy and peoples’ spirits.

Humans create when things have been destroyed.   That creates opportunities and dangers.  We can avoid the lessons of the 20th century.

1) Avoid an emotional desire to create an artificial sense of nationalist unity, demonizing those voices who question the cause or the people, in a desire to create an order reflecting some kind of mythological sense of what society should be.  Fascism was like fantasy, a grotesque piece of social artwork, whereby the leaders built an narrative where their people were superior and strong, others were inferior and dangerous, and society was unified by a common ideal, culture, and support for the leader.  Fascism was about emotion, using rhetoric and propaganda to create a sense of unity and solidarity.  It appealed to the masses, it was anti-intellectual, sort of like talk radio on stereoids.  In essence, the fascist mantra is “we are great, all our problems are blamed on others.”  Fascism is a social manifestation of the same thinking that takes over an insecure individual who can’t accept that he or she screwed up and created problems and instead needs to feel the victim and lash out at others.  We are great, we just have problems because there are enemies who hate us!

2)  From Communism we need to distrust any ideology that promises a utopia, or claims to be the one, true, proper way to think about politics and the world.  In some ways, Communism and fascism represent truly opposite ends of the spectrum.  For fascism there was no truth but power; power forms truth, with power you can determine truth.  For Communism there was one true set of historical and social laws, and if you used reason and had the proper premises you would inevitably be drawn to the conclusion the Communism was the only system that promised true human liberty and an end to exploitation.   In the name of utopia and the “right” system government took all power.  After all, if you have the “right” ideology, shouldn’t you do what you can to make sure you have the power to implement it fully?   And, once that power was centralized it could be abused and freedom could be taken away in the name of a system.  Instead of utopia, it was tyranny.  It is the social manifestation of the perfectionist personality which wants to create the right system, and control it absolutely.

Ideologies are inherently vast simplifications of reality based on assumptions that can be questioned, and contestable definitions of terms.  If anyone claims they have the right ideological view, run away as fast as you can.  That kind of thinking becomes cultish, and rationalizes actions otherwise clearly irrational.   Appeals to emotion alone, however, can be manipulative.  In Consumerism and fascism I noted how similar the appeal of Madison Avenue is to that of fascist propaganda.  Finally, those who posit a utopia or a perfect world should not be trusted either.  If we build a society that looks utopian by today’s standards it will be through a long process of cultural transformation, it can’t be done on somebody’s masterplan, an ideology dreamed up by a human mind, abstract and absolute.

That said, America has built in advantages that Germany and Russia did not.  We have a strong tradition of individualism, democracy, and distrust of power.  While we have sections of society prone to militarism and nationalism (witness the hyper-emotional appeal of talk radio, which is reminiscient of fascist propaganda), and others that believe government can create the best and proper system (witness the strident appeal of far left blogs which belittle conservatives and claim to offer the only reasonable understanding of reality), most Americans are at heart pragmatic.   Americans have never given in to the ideological fervor that has too often driven European politics.  We prefer to problem solve, and hold close the notion that those who hold different opinions can talk and compromise.

But let’s not understate the danger either.  If we are facing a coming dollar collapse on top of the current set of economic woes, the infrastructure of our socio-political-economic system will be under seige.   The US was one of only a couple states that held on to a stable democracy during the Great Depression, our cultural values immunize us a bit from the appeal of utopian tyrants or blame hurling fascists, but the going could get tough.  We’ll have to hold on to the values in our constitution, the communities we have around us, and a belief that we look to each other to solve problems, not abstract philosophies or emotionally appealing rhetoric.

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Thankful

I’m going to do something different in my blog today: I’m going to open up completely into my heart and soul and say what I really believe.  My blogs usually offer political, economic, and sometimes social or psychological analysis, but rarely do I get into my deepest personal beliefs.  In part, it’s because in many ways I’m outside the norm of my culture and society.  But it also stems from my approach to discussion and dialogue.

To begin, I’m a perspectivist and a pragmatist.  That means I view the world as offering a variety of different perspectives or interpretations of reality, none of which can be posited as absolutely true.  However, as a pragmatist I recognize one has to “make one’s call” and act in the world, even if there is no way to know which actions are right.  Moreover, pragmatism for me is social; I am not alone in the world, I must take into account others.   I choose to try to find common ground with people and compromises ‘we both can live with,’ rather than adamantly and vehemently fight to try to promote my perspective.

To some, that’s a weakness, a lack of principle.  If I hold something as true, then shouldn’t I stand by it no matter what, refusing to compromise?  Indeed, isn’t it noble to stand by ones’ beliefs regardless of what the world says?  That’s where perspectivism kicks in — I know that the perspective of another should be treated with as much respect as my perspective.  Thus I can hold principles but compromise them for the sake of building a community or dealing with others.    I’m a fallible human with imperfect knowledge; it would be vanity for me to assume that somehow my views are superior to all others.

The natural reaction to that is for people to mistake it for nihilism, and assert that this makes me unable to stand against things like murder and rape.   Not at all.   Choosing when to compromise on principles, and what principles to compromise is a practical matter, one where I have to weigh the situation and make my best call.   In general, if my principles coalesce with those of the society around me, I feel comfortable promoting those social values.   We as a society believe murder, rape, and theft are wrong, and I’ll operate to try to stop or prevent such acts as much as I am able to.  When society is less clear — is taxation theft, is abortion or warfare murder, etc. — I’m less willing to simply act without regard to the perspective of others.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have a strong view, only that I have a sense of humility about my viewpoint — I may be wrong, I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on others.   Finally, when I have to choose to directly engage in or not engage in acts that reflect my own moral principles, I will choose to stick with my moral beliefs and act on them.  I will hold myself to my moral principles, even if I don’t believe I have the right to do so with others.

So here goes:  I believe mistreatment  of other humans is wrong, humans are ends themselves, not means to an end.  I believe that life is primarily spiritual rather than material.  I believe humans are essentially part of a unified whole, even if we experience reality differently (from different perspectives).  Therefore I believe that any act I take against or for another is the equivalent of someone doing that act against or for myself.  I believe that reality flows in response to our thoughts and beliefs, and this gives us an essential responsibility for our lives, even if it seems we are the victims of fates unseen.   Moreover, I believe we are eternal spiritual creatures, whose learning and choosing spans numerous lifetimes and kinds of existence.  Therefore I have an abiding faith that whatever happens will happen for the best, given the choices people have made, and there is always hope for improvement and the healing of wounds caused by poor choices.  Choice is our point of power, it is how we shape who and what we and our worlds are.   I believe the key to all of this is love and forgiveness; no force in the world is more powerful.  They are each part of the same essential force: grace.  A state of grace is a deep understanding that love and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin, reflecting recognition of the inner unity of humanity.

Whew, I’m weird, aren’t I?   Now, I could try to promote these beliefs as truth, persuade others, and use this blog to try to convince people that our world is not at all like we experience it.  But luckily I was born with a reasonably logical mind, and I realize very clearly that I am basing my beliefs on my subjective reflection on life, my emotions, and the various things I have read and heard over the years.  It is subjective.  It feels right to me, life seems to work for me when I live close to these beliefs, I have problems when I start losing myself in the world of appearances and forget these beliefs.

In other words, if other people have different subjective reactions to life than I, they have absolutely no reason to share my beliefs.   Just as a hard core Marxist materialist cannot demand I share her assumptions about reality and the nature of life, I cannot demand she share mine.   And, in fact, most people don’t share my beliefs, so I have to be especially modest about any claims that my beliefs are accurate.  I don’t know.  They work for me, but I could be deluded.  I’m OK with that, and that certainly keeps me from being dogmatic on most issues — this world could just be a meaningless materialist accident with spiritual beliefs relics of a past before we discovered science and rational thought.

What does this mean practically?  Well, for example:  if I followed my beliefs completely I would want to abolish the military, react to violence by doing as one wise man counseled ‘turning the other cheek,’ and respond to hate from enemies with love.  Yet I teach World Politics, US Foreign Policy, and next semester a class on “War and Peace.”  If I dogmatically took my beliefs into those venues, I’d be a rotten, intolerant teacher.   Most people believe war is often necessary, that real enemies are out there, and we need to be strong to have peace.   I have to be able to do justice to those perspectives, and spend very little time on the religious-spiritual-pacifist line of thought, because it’s not very common, and it comes from unprovable beliefs about the world.   I actually think my perspectivism helps my teaching; I can persausively give the realist, Marxian, neo-liberal or any other perspective because I try to approach them on their own terms, not through the lenses of my beliefs.  In fact, when I make policy recommendations as I did in “A New Foreign Policy,” I call for a smaller military focused on counter-terrorism, trying to figure out a way to compromise my core beliefs with ideas of others in society on what kinds of policies we should undertake.

But, one might ask, is that sincere?  If I really would prefer no military, shouldn’t I argue for that?   My response is that I have to take into account that my belief may be wrong, and therefore when arguing about public policy and actions taken by society, I have to adapt my beliefs to those around me — to compromise.  Now, if I were drafted and given a gun and told to kill, I think I would accept being killed before I would choose to kill.  Many people do make that choice.   (There are more complicated scenarios when I’m not sure how I would respond, to be sure, especially if my family was involved).  In other words, there is a difference between what I do to play my role in building a society, which is pragmatic compromise guided by principles I hold true but can’t prove true, and my own individual choices on the acts I undertake.

This also shows the limits of compromise.   I will compromise on shared policies which do not require me to act directly against my moral beliefs.   I’ll pay taxes I know will be used for things I think are wrong.  But paying taxes itself is not against my moral beliefs, so I’m willing to do that.   To those who look for a formula, or a logical conundrum of when I should or should not act, I have go back to my pragmatism.  Ultimately there is no clear formula to when compromise is best, in each instance I make my best call.

So, what am I thankful for?   I’m thankful right now that I can state what I think, and hopefully understanding people, even if they have a perspective very different than my own about life, can accept that I have my point of view, and engage in conversation and dialogue.  I am thankful that I have so many friends and colleagues with different perspectives than mine, but with whom I can debate and discuss without it becoming some kind of personal conflict.   I’m thankful for life, whatever its nature.   Happy Thanksgiving!

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What’s Up With the Dollar?

We have been spending a lot of time in my classes talking about the causes, consequences and possible cures for the current economic crisis.   It’s especially scary for students, realizing they are getting ready to enter the work world, and that they are being handed a debt of well over $10 trillion and an economy way out of sync.

Good students that they are, they maintain a bit of skepticism as to what their prof is telling them.  One astute student suggested that if my analysis was right, the dollar should be far weaker than it is.  The dollar, in fact, has been rallying.  Does that mean that perhaps our economy is better than many believe, and there is cause for optimism?  That is a very good and insightful question.

To be sure, I’m glad the dollar has shown strength recently.  We’re planning a travel course to Italy in February, and I hope the dollar rally lasts at least another quarter year.  We hope to offer a major travel course to Germany and Austria in May 2010, a high dollar then would be nice too.

Right now the dollar is at about $1.30 per Euro.   Historically, that is rather weak.  At one point back in 2000 it was 80 cents for a Euro, and for a long time a 1:1 ratio seemed like a relatively weak dollar.   Yet recently the dollar fall to about $1.60 per Euro, before the rally after the economic crisis began brought it up to almost $1.20 a Euro at one point.  At one level, given the bailout money, the weakened economy, and poor growth prospects looking forward, a strengthening dollar seems bizarre.  Can it last?

No.  The strong dollar is an illusion, a short term phenomenon caused by a variety of technical factors but most importantly the fact that the crisis is global and at least for now, dollars are trusted more than other currencies in a time of uncertainty.  There is also a belief by some that the US will actively pursue a strong dollar policy in order to spread the recession pain more widely.  However, when it comes to economics, the fundamentals can’t be denied.

First, the US still has a large current account deficit.  It is unlikely that foreigners will continue to finance that as American assets lose value.  A dirty little secret in the swiftness of Congress and the Executive to prop up many of these financials is the fear that if they are allowed to fail, foreign investors will be burned and start pulling out of the US, causing a run on the dollar.  Also, with investments declining and people selling, they needed to become liquid, and the dollar was a logical choice.  This points to a short term panic rally of the dollar, followed by a longer term dollar collapse.

So I have to say that I think the dollar’s current strength is, if not an illusion, a short term phenomenon.   At some point as the fed lowers rates, as US deficit spending grows, and it’s clear there isn’t going to be a sudden burst of economic activity in the US, there will be a dollar panic and we could see $2 to a Euro.   Now, the European economy isn’t exactly all sweetness and joy right now either, but they aren’t going to have to correct for a massive current accounts deficit like the US.

Practically, what does this mean?  First, oil will go back up in price when the dollar starts depreciating.  OPEC still prices oil in dollars, and if the dollar loses value, oil increases in dollar price (though  the increases are slower in other currencies).   The current drop in oil prices have been greater for us than the Europeans because of the dollars strength — it works both ways.  Second, we’ll get inflation.  Right now the concern is deflation due to decreased economic activity.  In a recession, with higher unemployment and decreased economic activity, inflation is usually not a problem.   Yet markets are now global, and so these things operate under different rules.   The only way to balance our current accounts is to depreciate the currency — the market will do that whether we like it or not.  Perhaps now is a good time to purchase some needed home goods or a new car, before inflation starts driving prices up.  If I had the money I’d dump dollars and American securities and go into foreign equities and currencies.  Oil stocks are a bargain now too — oil prices will go up.  Alternate fuels are being hit by current low oil prices, but they’ll come back too.

As investors decide to move from quick gain US investments in stocks and property (the ‘bubble investments’ of the last decade) to investments in actual production capacity and various global markets, the dollar has nothing to prop it up.   One student asked if all these massive bailouts might be setting up another bubble — throw so much money into the economy that credit remains cheap and speculators are able to find some new creative way to re-bubble the economy, lure in foreign capital to finance our trade and budget deficits, and keep the party going.

I think not — and I certainly hope not!  Every time we delay having to deal with the reality of our economic fundamentals, the ultimate price we’ll have to pay gets higher.  The higher the debt, the deeper the current accounts deficits, the more unstable both the dollar and the US economy becomes.  I think we were able to go from bubble to bubble in the last decade because the financial pundits and analysts never had a glimpse of the dark side of the economic illusion they were creating.  They convinced themselves that wealth creation was enough to offset debt, and wealth creation was measured in portfolio and investment values.  These were never real, they were artificially inflated buble values.  Now that it’s collapsed and people have been burned, I can’t imagine they’ll allow themselves to be burned again.  And even if enough short term greed were to allow some new bubble to form, peole would be quick to get out at the first sign of danger.

The fundamentals are clear and have been for about a decade.  We have been financing a life style beyond our means through unsustainable current accounts and budget deficits, using the power of our financial instutions and control of financial markets to allow this to be financed by foreign capital.   Such a situation cannot continue forever.   The painful rebalancing should have started with stock market crash, but after 9-11 credit was made so cheap and so much money poured into the system to prevent terrorism from bringing down the economy that we financed an even more dangerous bubble — a property bubble existing alongside bizarre financial instruments sold as investment grade securities.  Now, we pay the price.

If we’re entering a storm, we’re still at the outer bands, starting to feel the force of the winds, but with much more to come.   Once the dollar starts falling, foreign capital will bail from US markets quickly — as will American capital, since markets are global.  This will create a deep recession, accompanied by inflation, which will have the practical effect of lowering all our standards of living, and causing severe crisis to national, state and local budgets.   At some point, the storm will pass, and we’ll have to clean up the mess and find our place in a rebalanced world economy.

But there are two bits of good news here:  1)  We’ve been living in a kind of illusionary or fake economy for awhile now, the sooner we can get back to reality the better it will be in the long run; and perhaps the best news: 2) While I stand by analysis and note I’ve  been talking about the current accounts deficit, hyperconsumerism, and the ‘fake’ nature of our economy for years now, I’m a political scientist and not an economist.  I study political economy, but don’t get into the technical analyses.   So maybe I’m wrong.   I hope so.  I don’t think so, but I hope so!

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In the Hands of the Bureaucrats

Many people, including legendary reporter Bob Woodward, were surprised and a bit upset that Barack Obama would consider Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State.  Others are worried that he’s choosing too many people with backgrounds in the Clinton Administration, softening his notion of change.  Never mind that the only exposure top Democrats have had to leading the country’s bureaucratic apparatus came in the Clinton years — the Republicans have held executive power for 20 of the last 28 years — somehow Obama was supposed turn everything around with new blood.

First, to Hillary (assuming all the rumors are accurate).  Obama knows that he is bringing an intelligent, strong willed woman into a position where she could do things that embarrass him.   Colin Powell and more importantly some of his staff were often doing and saying things that annoyed the first Bush Administration.  Going all the way back to Henry Kissinger one recognizes the possibility that a Secretary of State can sometimes outshine the President.   Obama no doubt knows that many President’s prefer a non-descript bureaucrat in the State position, so as to assert Presidential authority.  Obama’s choice of Hillary reflects a deep confidence Obama has in himself, and his ability to lead.  He is saying, essentially, that he can work with Clinton as a team, inspire her confidence, and give her space to operate within a framework the two of them agree upon.

Choosing former members of the Clinton team for other posts only makes sense.  Obama is a relative newcomer to Washington, but even if he wasn’t, he would be foolish to tap lots of academics and DC unknowns to come and run very politicized inside the beltway bureaucracies.  Bureaucracies by nature know how to evade control from above, often subverting the goals of the leadership through misdirection, standard operating procedures, or bureaucratic neglect.  Leaders can’t watch everything, after all.  A newcomer coming in to “shake things up” without knowledge of the players and the lay of the land will be distrusted and most likely disdained.   Such a person would end of fighting battle after battle to control his or her own agency, only to find at the end that it’s difficult to even figure out what the agency is doing.  This is true for just about every important government bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy needs a strong leader who knows how to get things done in a bureaucratic setting.  That means knowing the important mid-level players, inspiring loyalty, and understanding that you can’t upset the power structures too much unless you can generate real buy in.  A bureaucrat who deals with the day to day world can often ignore the commands of higher ups, realizing that no one really watches what he or she is doing.   That becomes more difficult if that rogue bureaucrat is outside the general consensus within his or her agency — people will be more likely to notice and act to limit such behavior.  If the consensus is to distrust the leadership and change, people will look the other way knowingly as change is sabotaged from below.

It’s still early, but it appears Obama plans to have the message of change come from the top, with the agents of change being those who understand power politics in the nation’s capital, and are able to effectively operate to make things happen.   This is important.

When Bill Clinton came to power in 1992, his efforts to find a cabinet suffered from a desire to have a cabinet “that looks like America,” and focus as much on symbolism of change as on power and experience.  He had some fine picks, but in others, like his effort to find an attorney journal, it looked haphazard.  The result was that during Clinton’s first two years he squandered opportunities for real accomplishments, thereby helping feed a backlash against his administration.  That caused a massive shift in Congressional power to the GOP in 1994.  From 1994 on Clinton was less about change than about bipartisan reform, making his administration not that much different than those of the twenty years of GOP governance.

Obama cannot afford to stumble his first two years on the job.  Clinton had the benefit of having his first term be a time when the economy was bouncing back and things were stable.  He could adapt, learn, and ultimately come up with a better team and more effective leadership.  Obama does not have that luxury.  With problems festering in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, while the economic crisis threatens the core strength of the country, he has to hit the ground running.

Yesterday he named his “economic team,” and his appointments so far reflect a real focus on expertise and continuity.  His message is clear: America will change directions, but we will do so with experienced hands on the helm.  Those doubting Obama’s experience can be heartened by the fact the government will be run by, and Obama advised by, people with extensive practical experience in government, business, finance and foreign policy.   In a sense he’s again following the Reagan example: set principles at the top, and find the right people to put them into effect below.

Obama’s confidence is important.  He’ll have to work fast, make tough decisions, and inspire the country to believe in what he’s doing.  We’re facing challenges that this country has not faced for a long time, we are vulnerable to real declines in both power and prosperity.  Over coming weeks I’ll write more about how we can adapt and some of the issues we face.  It is possible to turn this crisis into an opportunity.  We are literally at an important historical juncture.   And, while there is always a risk that “old faces” will maintain “old thinking,” I believe it’s really important to have experienced hands in charge of the various bureaucracies, people who understand how the system works and can be effective agents of change.  Ultimately, as good as Obama’s rhetoric may be, and as bold as his initiatives might be, whether they succeed or fail will depend in large part on how they are implemented.  That is something Obama cannot control, that will be in the hands of the bureaucrats.

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Friendship

I am far behind in my correspondence to friends in Germany.   I have numerous excuses.  It’s difficult to write in German after being away from the language so long, I’m so busy I have even been late with birthday cards to family members, and Germany is so far away.  Yet back in the days of snail mail I was much better; letters crossed the Atlantic and it seemed I kept in contact with my European friends.  Because, the truth of the matter is that my closest friendships were forged in Germany between 1991 and 1992.

Making friends does not seem especially easy.  It’s not that there aren’t a lot of good people around me, or that I don’t want to spend time to get to know people well.  It’s just that time seems lacking.  With kids aged 5 and 2, a busy work schedule, and others with their own commitments and interests, time to really build a friendship is rare.  Instead I have numerous acquaintances, few real friendships.  And that gets me to think about my year in Germany.

I spent one year living in Berlin and mostly Bonn, from September 1991 to August 1992, working my dissertation with the help of a DAAD (Germany Academic Exchange Service) scholarship which paid me 1400 DM a month.  That was easily enough to live on, and much of the time I was in a dormitory in Bonn, on a “guest floor” on Endernicher Allee 17.    The guest floor was for scholars or students in town for a short while, not full time students of the University of Bonn.  Most were Germans doing practicums — Dorthe for the SPD, Ulli for the CDU, Volker in the press section of the Bundestag, and Claudia for law.  Some people came for a short time and would become full time students there, like Eric, who studied meterology.  We’d also get a few foreigners — no other Americans, but there was Helene from France, and Neil (a strange one) from Great Britain.

When I first moved in, most people were eating in their rooms (we had a kitchen for the entire floor, sharing cupboard space, a fridge, and cookware), and not interacting.  Each room had a bed, desk, and sink, and the floors shared two toilets and two showers.  I was in Germany not just to finish my dissertation, but to truly become fluent in the language.  I decided I had to change things up.  In early December I put up a sign in the kitchen:  “December 9, 1991 – Pizza Party, all invited!  Scott will provide pizza and beer!”  Having worked in a pizzeria much of my student life, I know how to make a mean pizza from scratch, the only difficult part was lugging a case of beer (a case of 30 half liter bottles) from the local store.   Not only did everyone show up, but that party changed the atmosphere of the floor.  Every night a group of us — different people every night, but I was always there — would meet and talk for hours over beers.  That was the way I became fluent in German, talking every night, day after day for hours.  When someone left or joined the floor we’d have a goodbye (or welcome) party, and the new person would be welcomed into the very social culture of our floor.  I found out later that after I left all that died, the head resident said the best times on that floor were when I was there because I constantly worked to bring the people together.

It was selfish, at first.  I needed to practice German!  But not since living in the college dorms had I spent so much time talking to people and getting to know them well.   We’d go to the movies, take walks, and as people moved out, I visited them.   Volker and Sonja in Muenster, Ulli moved on Dresden for government work (when I first visited him he was staying short term in a converted East German military baracks), Claudia In Goettingen, Eric in Saarbruecken, and Doerthe in Bremerhaven and later Sweden.   I also made friends with Tina from Passau (who I met on the plane flying over there – September 5, 1991) and had old friends, pen pals from my time in Bologna in 1982-83 – Gabi from Ingolstadt, Annemarie from Munich.

So I got close with a lot of people, and realize that even now as I count my friends here at UMF, I’ve not had near the conversations and shared experiences with them that I had in that year with my German friends, followed by extensive travels across Germany to visit people in the summers of 95 and 96.

Why is it that I can’t find time to cultivate friendships here like I did that year in Germany?  Part of it is that I now have family responsibilities — there I was alone in a dorm, with other people living right next door.  That’s a very different context!  But still, it seemed that during that year nothing was more important to me than the friendships I was building, the people I was getting to know.  It bled over to building friendships with Tina after meeting on the plane (I long lost track of her), and Gabi (we still exchange rare e-mails), who I first got to know as a pen pal back when I was 19.   That year was about friendships and thinking about life.  I wrote an unpublished novellette, and even got dissertation work done.  It was a special year, one of the most sacred times of my life.

Yet now, life is busy and interactions are brief and usually focused on a task.   Perhaps two of my closer friends at UMF show how this works.  I now co-teach with Steve, but until we worked together on a travel course to Italy, and were able to spend time in Italy eating and walking/talking with each other as well as students and other faculty, we had only brief conversations.  Even now, I daresay we talked more about life and things outside teaching during the Italy trip than in a year afterwards.    I also co-teach with Mellisa, who I got to know from Faculty Senate.  We worked closely together there, and when Natasha and I had our first child, Mellisa was a natural confidante.   Her oldest is four years older than ours, and she teaches Early Childhood; then she and Robert were having their second.  We exchanged a lot of e-mails, and actually found time to build a friendship.  But after that we each got busy doing other things, and though we still co-teach, we find it hard to find time to really talk.

And so it goes.  I don’t think it’s just me.  I think a lot of us in the US are caught up in that spiral of being so busy that we “don’t have time right now” to actually get together and just relax, talk, and get to know each other.  It seems all time must be productive, and there’s an elusive point in the future ‘when things aren’t so hectic’ which we believe is just around the corner, but never seems to arrive.

And so I think back on that time in Germany.  First, I have to catch up on my correspondence, with lengthy, personal letters that try to re-connect what we had.  That year was important, and those friendships special.  I know there is still something there, even after we’ve all moved on and in different directions.  I also need to make this a priority with the people in my life now.   Perhaps we’ll invite people over more often for just drinks or snacks, not having to have it be a full blown dinner or party.   The artists are investing in an espresso machine, I’m going to buy a share and then walk across campus to their building next semester and try to socialize more there.

That year in Germany stands out as something special.  Not just because it was an amazing year of travel, becoming fluent in a foreign language, and having a series of adventures.  But that year was devoted primarily to getting to know others and making friends.  The years since then have been a blurr.  Family has been important, and family experiences are strong in my mind, but relationships with others, even my very satisfying job seem to have been passing pay at light speed, one year after the other.

I have to focus on making time friends.  I need to make it a priority like I make taking time to write my blog a priority (and I probably blog because I need an outlet to communicate my thoughts beyond the daily work and family routine).  I need to slow down.  I need to really consider the people around me, take time to enjoy where I am, and connect with the people in my life now.

But first, I have some letters to write, auf Deutsch.

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A New Foreign Policy

One of the better political websites, politico.com, has a number of articles speculating that Obama will be hawkish in foreign policy.   The likelihood Gates will stay at defense, Clinton going to State, Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, etc., seem to indicate influence from the less dovish wing of the party.  That may be a premature assumption.

My colleague Steve Pane, an adept political commentator, music historian, professional pianist and pastry addict, noted that by putting ‘hawks’ in these positions it would make it easier for the US to leave Iraq more quickly — people who might have criticized it if outside would now be in the Administration.  That’s true, though I think the issue goes beyond Iraq.  If President elect Obama keeps Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, and puts Hillary Clinton in the State Department, he will have a credible team in place to create a new approach to foreign policy, one which likely could significantly cut military spending.   This defies conventional wisdom, as Gates is seen as a Bush holdover who  would seem to suggest some continuity, and Hillary Clinton ran as a hawk in her recent campaign.

Robert Gates was a leader in the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton which advocated negotiations with other regional actors, including Iran and Syria.  By all accounts, Gates agreed with that recommendation.  When he joined the Bush Administration he could not advocate such positions publicly because he had to represent and implement Administration policy.   By keeping him on, Obama could move towards those aspects of the ISG findings which President Bush rejected.   It’s clear that as the US leaves, future Iraqi stability requires involving Iran and Syria, especially because of Iran’s intense influence on the Iraqi government and various militias.   Gates is a realist, not a neo-conservative.  Realists are less willing to use military means to achieve policy results, they focus on diplomacy, and in fact are willing to negotiate with enemies because that’s where you need diplomacy the most.   Gates thus serves two uses for Obama: a) his approach to diplomacy is likely similar to Obama’s, and b) because he was in the Bush cabinet he will help lend credibility to the Obama foreign policy from the right.

Hillary Clinton as a hawk reflects an amazing metamorphisis from her earlier career.   I have no reason to think that she really is a hawk, or truly supports large military budgets.  She was positioning herself for a Presidential run, and she knew that as a Democratic woman she needed to have credibility on security issues.  Moreover, those who opposed the 1991 Iraq war were hurt later by that opposition, so she figured that supporting President Bush was smarter politically.   Because of her recently won credibility on defense and security issues, she could also help Obama reshape American foreign policy.

So what needs to be done?  First, the US to accept the reality that we are no longer in a position to simply demand things be done our way or we’ll just not play.   If the US seriously negotiates and participates in efforts at creating international accords, we’ll have considerable influence on the outcome.  We should do that and make necessary compromises in order to develop solutions to global problems.   European and Asian states will embrace an America working for the collective good rather than focused solely on maintaining maximum independence and supporting a narrow national interest.

Second, the US needs to cut military spending and military commitments abroad.  This is not something Obama could say in the campaign, as he would have quickly been painted as weak, not understanding the threats of terrorism and Islamic extremism.   I would argue, however, that our military strength has been more a liability than an assett.  It lured us into thinking there was a military solution to the terrorist threat and made Iraq a tempting target for military aggression.  By some accounts the real cost of that war is now over $3.6 trillion, money which could have better been used to bring health to our economy.   Even those who try to say we’ve succeeded in Iraq because violence is down have to admit that overall as a country that war has hurt us on numerous fronts.   It does dramatically demonstrate that modern global problems defy military solutions.  Solutions are primarily political, while terrorism requires not a major military machine able to win large wars, but a well oiled counter terrorism policy with special operations and sophisticated intelligence.

Obama should shift the military from “a big 20th century mechanized machine designed to fight for control of Europe” to a “sophisticated, intelligent, versatile athlete able to make well targeted interventions when necessary against both state and non-state actors.”   Moreover, we don’t need to spend half the world’s military budget to achieve this; we can have an effective military option at a lower price, especially since no major power can seriously threaten our domestic security.  The threats are small terrorist groups that escape the grasp of a huge military machine; we must adapt.

Finally, the US to seriously address the need for a global set of standards on economic regulation and development, environmental issues, and energy — the three E’s.    Not only is there widespread agreement that action needs to be taken on these problems, but these are areas where real bipartisanship is possible.  They can help guide the US towards a consensus on a more internationalist policy perspective.  The US can show leadership and flexibility, compromising where in the past we’d have gotten up and gone home; leading where in the past we’d have avoided the issue.  None of those issues can be dealt with at a national level alone, and all of them are of vital importance to the future of the planet.   A cooperative and progressive America working with the rest of the world on these issues will symbolize a new era of American foreign policy, and play to the strengths of Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic skills in support of Obama’s vision.

So three major components: move towards a more internationalist approach, cut military spending and reorganize the military to be smaller and more nimble, and begin a major effort to build international agreements on energy, the economy and the environment.  Done right, such a policy could not move us into a truly stable post-Cold War system, and avoid the perils caused by the economic and foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration.

Some people will never agree for military spending cuts, and of course, nationalists will always distrust international institutions.  But the world is in crisis, Obama will have an overwhelming majority in Congress, and now is the time for some bold and decisive actions.  I suspect the economic crisis will force cuts across the budgetary board anyway, and military spending is one of the least effective ways to stimulate the economy.  Obama has proven that he will follow principle rather than political expediency; here he will have to show true leadership.

There are a couple biases about America.  The European left often sees the US as a force for militarism, exploitation and evil in the world, while the American right sees the US as superior in ideology and values to the rest of the world.  Both biases are absurdly off base, and represent caricatured views of a complex country with diverse opinions.   A new foreign policy can bury these biases, and help build the foundation for dealing with the vast problems of this new century.

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