Archive for January, 2009


In a couple of weeks I’ll be blogging from Italy (part of a travel course to Italy involving 16 students), so Thursday I had to trek down to Augusta to order Euro traveler’s checks.  I usually advise strongly against the use of traveler’s checks, they are an obsolete form of bringing along travel money.  One hotel does not take credit cards though, and buying Euro dominated travelers’ checks here is the cheapest way to go.

En route I was listening to a talk radio show by a guy named Glenn Beck who had a guest on talking about faith.  He said that believers in a religion (it doesn’t matter which religion) tended to live seven years longer, and have better health than non-believers.  Moreover, survivalists say that “belief in God” is the most important factor in overcoming intense difficulties.  Again, it doesn’t matter which God.    Part of the benefit of religious faith is to be part of a community that helps each other and reinforces/supports one another.  There is no doubt that such communities are of real psychological value.  The second seems to be a belief that there is reason and meaning for existence, that one isn’t simply at the hands of a cold chaotic nature, where life is just an accident prone to arbitrary slings and arrows.  There is purpose.

I am not part of a religious community, nor do I believe in any particular form of God.   But I do have a deep and strong faith that there is meaning and purpose, and that the material world is just the surface of a far deeper, more complex and fundamentally unified reality.   I daresay this faith is as strong as that of anyone who puts their faith in Jesus or Allah, and perhaps stronger than those who mouth the religious tenets, but deep down live in fear of things going wrong, or of displeasing their God.

This faith is constantly tested, of course.   In my personal life there are ups and downs where I might get off centered and worried or stressed out.  But usually if stress or irritation levels rise I go back inside myself briefly and reconnect with my faith.  I know the world is good.  I know no matter what the moment may bring, there is a greater beauty and meaning.  And because I know it — I don’t just believe it, I know it — it makes everything in life so much easier.

To be sure, one can easily say that it’s impossible for me to “know” this; there is no direct, objective evidence outside my own subjective feelings.  People know a lot of things in their heart.  Some “know” Jesus saved them, others “know” that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.  Anyone’s subjective knowledge could be mistaken, and I realize that.  But to me, this is not just faith, but something I know to be true.

I teach courses that go through the Rwandan genocide, the crisis in Zimbabwe, child soldiers in Sierra Leone, and mass famine and malnutrition throughout the third world.  My academic specialization is German politics, which means I’ve studied Nazism and the holocaust.  Reading the stories of what people went through, especially the human side of how individuals fought, struggled, and suffered, it’s easy to get discouraged by the amount of pain and suffering on this planet earth.   It seems unfair, arbitrary, and often very, very evil.

Yet, if there is evil, there must also be good.  If our hearts cringe and our eyes cry when we read of Romeo Dallaire watching a three year old in Rwanda cuddle up to the corpse of his mother, eating a stale UN ration, or   when we want to vomit after seeing fields of mass victims of genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda, then deep inside we know that is not just value-free reality, something wrong is happening.  And you can’t know something is wrong, if something can’t be right.

How can one have faith if there is so much suffering?  Is my faith real?  I don’t focus on any God image, and certainly I can’t support it with objective evidence.   If my wife and children were to die in an accident, if I were to lose a limb, if the economic crisis caused me to lose my job, would I still see the world as beautiful, with an essential meaning?  Would such events destroy my faith, or would my faith give me strength to overcome them?

To be sure, I don’t want to have to endure that kind of test!  Still, pscyhologists note that our values are set at an early age, and often do not change even when circumstances change drastically.  For whatever reason, this faith is an integral part of who I am.  It has been that way for my whole life.  I cannot recall not looking at life positively, not being optimistic, not thinking that I can accomplish anything I set my mind to.   Faith, it seems, leads necessarily to optimism and positive thinking.   They are really the same.  Without faith, optimism and positive thinking look more like naive wishful thinking, after all.

Yet in our materialist culture where a false dichotomy between rational thought and spiritual faith has been created,  people who reject religious mythology as not making sense get pushed into thinking the only alternative is to embrace a kind of soulless secular rationality.   In so doing, life too often gets defined by the stuff one has, ones’ job, the respect one gets from others, or external sources of meaning that always and inevitably run out.

Faith can come in different forms.  A secular non-spiritual person may have faith in the complex order of the universe, and see playing a small role in a corner of it as an amazing and meaningful experience, even if they believe that life is just a short biological event, with the soul and identity dying with the body.   Anything that allows one to see the beauty beyond particular events and circumstances provides faith.

Finally, the fact it pains us to see the injustice and the pain is a strong message that meaning is gained and accentuated by trying to fight against such conditions.  We feel pain at what is wrong so that we are motivated to try to make it right.    Faith not only should not make us like Voltaire’s Pangloss, but in fact should give us the energy and motivation to keep fighting for what’s right, even if others lose their spirit and give in to negativity and depression.   If you have faith, you never surrender.

And if my faith is misplaced?   Well, no harm done.  And it might even help me live longer!


Colonialism and Failed States

Today in my course “War and Peace” we talked about failed or failing states.   In looking at states like Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, we directly confronted the question: would Africa be better off it were still run by the Europeans?  Are the Africans simply too primitive to run their own affairs?

It’s important to remember that colonialism was one of the most destructive forces in history.  It wiped out indigenous civilizations in North and South America, low tech holocausts where Europeans literally replaced the original inhabitants.  In Africa the entire political and social structure of society was obliterated, as the Europeans drew up borders and exploited their colonies for whatever they could find.  When they left, they imposed their political organization, the modern state, on the local populations.  These states often mixed up a variety of different ethnic groups, or cut whole tribes into pieces, with some of each group on different sides of various borders.

In the West, we often forget that the modern state was very hard to construct.  It emerged ‘naturally’ in Europe, over centuries, through bloodshed and violence.  Early states were more like organized crime syndicates than what we would call governance.  Monarchies emerged from large scale shake down operations and protection rackets, as the ‘bosses’ moved towards legitimating their rule as being of divine right or blue blood.  Even then it was centuries of violence, technological innovation and conflict that led to the first modern nation states.  After that it was centuries more of struggle to develop functioning democracy, get rid of slavery, and finally give women their rights.   The West did not have this imposed from the outside, but developed it along the lines of its own culture and civilization.

Looked at that way, the idea that former colonies could simply take western governmental structures and suddenly be functioning states is absurd on its face.   Democracy and functioning territorial states are very difficult to create and maintain, even European democracies usually failed on their first attempts.  In Asia states fit a bit better to the local traditions, most of which managed to survive European conquest (unlike in Africa).   The Americas not only got early independence, but thanks to the genocides committed there, they essentially replaced the indigenous population and culture with a new European one.   But in Africa, it was the worst of all words — the old culture totally destroyed, the population in tact, and a foreign political organization imposed with little regard to ethnic populations and natural borders.

Failed states were to be expected.  The Europeans modeled the behavior that those in power should control the population and exploit resources to their own ends.  Governments quickly became corrupt, and ethnic groups vied for power in order to control the resources and hand out government favors.   Despite that many governments were unable to penetrate their entire state, leaving vast swathes of Africa as essentially anarchies, run by local tribes or often war lords.

The lack of a stable culture not only meant that rule of law was not achieved, but when war and violence does break out, nothing seems to mitigate its affect.  Child soldiers are abundant in the various conflicts, often having cocaine directly rubbed into their bloodstream and told they are invincible.  Drugged up, they are taught to kill and mutilate, so that 14 year olds end up doing things so horrific they are beyond our imagination.  Groups fight for resources, compete for political power, and neglect the needs of the masses, caught up in chronic malnutrition (nearly half the population of the African continent) and lack of opportunity.

Those who argue that colonialism would be better than this ignore one thing: colonialism caused this.  Unless one wants to posit a perpetual colonialism as viable, whereby one group exploits another and in exchange keeps order and stability, privileging small groups while keeping the masses poor and powerless, it was inevitable that colonialism end.  And, while one might think that exploitive imperialism is better than what much of Africa has now — and in some ways it was — it was a fundamentally unjust, immoral and destructive relationship.  The problem is not that colonialism ended, but the transition to something new has been disastrous.

The result is the creation of state governmental structures unable to operate effectively.  In places like Nigeria, hundreds of ethnic groups compete for power, and with control of oil resources at stake, authoritarianism and corruption became the norm.  Sierra Leone started with an early successful transition, only to see corruption (thanks in large part to diamond trade) turn it into a civil war where amputation, child soldiers and atrocities overtook the country in the 90s.   Lacking a coherent social structure and political culture to support a stable government, countries had to choose between chaos and strict authoritarianism.  Transitioning from either to something better has proven virtually impossible.

It’s hard to see how to solve this.  Places with no effective governments are the most dangerous while the most effective governments are corrupt and authoritarian.  Simply, the state is not an effective political organization, at least not as defined currently in Africa.  And changing state borders to fit ethnic realities creates more problems — who controls resources, how are borders between ethnic groups defined, etc.   States don’t work, but there is no viable replacement.

One lesson in this is to recognize that any intervention by outside powers into a region’s natural development, even if they bring more technology, medicine and short term benefits, can lead to long term disaster.  (Star Trek’s prime directive was right on!)  However, while up until now failed states could be ignored — the world that said “never again” to genocide turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide, despite Romeo Dallaire’s heroic efforts.  Most people didn’t notice.  Now, however, with terrorism, new technologies, and the spread of both images and ideas, failed states can be dangerous.  One can imagine a charismatic leader finding a way to channel discontent into a major movement, one seeing the West — the colonizing powers that tore everything apart — as the enemy.  That could lead to a dangerous confrontation with a new kind of war.

We need to find a way to turn around that dynamic, to allow states to succeed.   And, unfortunately, this will require some intervention.  But I don’t think exploitive intervention like colonialism, or armed violent intervention like in Iraq, can be the answer.  Look what it did in Iraq, after all!  Or what the Soviets and the US collectively did to Afghanistan.  Rather, in Africa (where the problem is worst) the African Union needs to work with the UN to develop a plan to stabilize states who wish to work towards a functioning government.  There should be incentives (trade preferences, aid, etc.), and there should be oversight of all spending and government actions by an outside group, with a plan to assure transition to full independent control by the state itself.

To work, this would require a massive commitment by the industrialized states to invest time, money and people in giving states where people live in abject poverty, abuse and often the worst atrocities a chance to move forward.  We’d have to work with the people there, learning the culture and help them find their own path, not trying to simply create large export industries or infrastructure investment.   The current economic crisis makes that seem unlikely, but it could also create a volunteer pool for people needing work or a chance to make a difference.  Ultimately, a prosperous growing third world — albeit one with sustainable development, not just mass consumption — could help transform the world economy and avoid future threats of terrorism and mass migrations from South to North.

Impossible?   Only if the industrialized world lacks the will, or third world state governments refuse to go along.  The latter is less a problem; some states would take longer than others to join, some would fear neo-colonialism.  But it’s really an effort to relaunch independence for these states, and this time in an effective transition process.  More problematic would be the cooperation of the rich north in a time of economic crisis.  They will look inward, and not see the interdependencies and real danger of having mass amounts of people in dire straights.   There is still hope, but hope can always be trounced by fear and anger.

So, no, one can’t just blame the Africans for the failure of European imposed political structures to work.  People like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are products of these structures, the average people have little recourse (and in Zimbabwe they’ve been bravely trying to force change, risking a lot and so far being crushed).   We live the advanced lifestyle we have because our ancestors exploited and abused their colonies.  That helped put the West where it is now.  We not only have a responsibility to work to alter that, but it’s in our interest.    At some point these states will not only not be able to be ignored, but they’ll be able to do real damage to the world system.   We need transformational change, and the sooner the better.


Investment vs. Consumption

(I’ve been fighting off stomach flu and a cold, so I haven’t blogged the last couple days and this’ll be short…only slept a couple hours last night…)

There is a lot of criticism of the Obama stimulus plan for not providing money right now to stimulate the economy.  Instead, much of the money won’t be spent until 2010 and 2011.  Some think this is a sign of some ominous plot or alterior motive.  Afterall, if stimulus is what he wants, shouldn’t he spend the money earlier?

To me, this is precisely what the stimulus package needs to do.   We do not need a stimulus package that is focused on consumption.  Dumping a lot of quick and easy  money now into the economy so people can go buy more goods would create a short uptick, but it would be just more consumption based on debt, more living beyond our means.  When that money is spent, we’ll be back where we were, but perhaps now with inflation alongside a recession.

The Obama plan seems to focus on investing in infrastructure and setting up the framework for what we really need: a retooling of our economy and a move towards renewed production, and less consumption/speculation.  To be sure, the talk of pork, pseudo-ear marks, and Congress dirtying their hands to get a bunch of pet projects included is not good news.

So in theory the Obama approach sounds good — don’t go for the short term consumption fix, but the longer term approach of setting our economy up for new productive capacity.  In practice, we’ll have to wait and see.  If it works right the increase in infrastructure will have a short term, targeted impact on the economy which can go along with a growth in production.  That could start to lift us out of this.    But it’ll take years.


Spiraling vortex of doom

A student in one of my classes asked how I would describe the current economic state.   The title of the post was my admittedly flippant answer.  The economy is in a spiral downward, and nobody knows when it will stop, if and how it will turn around, and what the future will bring.

I’ve blogged ad nauseum about the economy: the general state, worries about future inflation, our societal error of wanting something for nothing, and have even attempted a “best case scenario.”  And those are only a few of my economic posts, to write more about this crisis is to risk being redundant.  So I’ll repeat the core, and try to approach this differently.  The core: We’ve been living beyond our means for nearly three decades and now are in for a period of painful rebalancing.  Read the posts linked above for details.

To many people the details aren’t as important as the questions: 1) Are we seeing the worst; 2) when will things finally bottom out; 3) how will things turn around; and 4) when will things get back to ‘normal?  Alas, the answers to those questions are not easy.

Back during the intense recession of 1980-82 the US did not make the structural adjustments to the economy that were necessary to remain competitive.   Instead we let the manufacturing sector start a slow death, led by a steel industry that was decimated by that recession (the Billy Joel song “Allentown” speaks to that, as more generally Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” each from the early eighties).   What we need to do to get out of this is make the adjustments we should have made nearly thirty years ago.  By living beyond our means through budget and trade deficits for so long we’ve made those adjustments far more difficult and costly than they would have been if we’d done them back then, and that means that this spiraling vortex of doom is likely to keep spiraling downward for the foreseeable future.  So the answer to question one:  things are going to get much, much worse before they get better.

One can only speculate on question two.   Bottoming out will occur.  I think given the stimulus plans in play it’ll be a weird bottoming out.  So much money is being pumped into the economy that things may start to seem to be improving (or the spiral downward slowing) for awhile.  But then we’ll probably shift to a period of stagflation (so lock in low mortgage rates now while you can!) where inflation alongside a continuing recession creates a “worst of all possible worlds.”   Only after that will we hit bottom, and the sign of that will be an increase in manufacturing jobs as we shift away from a service-sector driven economy.   My guess: six years, as long as terrorism, war, oil shortages, global warming, famine, or some other crisis doesn’t intervene.

How will things turn around?   Ultimately I think the government can’t do it, it’ll be market driven — the fundamentals of the economy will have to come into balance, we’ll have to produce as much as we consume.   Markets are not magic, and can malfunction either on their own or through government intervention.  Yet they do operate under economic laws based on supply and demand that cannot be ignored or avoided forever — sooner or later the system cracks.  The US has avoided the power of the market to force corrections thanks to our status as a global superpower and the world’s largest economy.  We were able to run outlandish capital account surpluses and large budget deficits without weakening the currency too much or causing capital flight.  The Iraq war was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back on our ability to do so; but at some point reality was going to bite back.

Does this mean I oppose the stimulus?  Not necessarily.  I believe it is likely to cause inflation (though stagflation is likely in any event, in my opinion — since I think the dollar is overvalued), but it depends on how it is spent.  Giving money to states and focusing on building productive infrastructure does set up a post-recession (depression?) boom in a way that just handing out checks and tax cuts does not.  So I don’t think the stimulus is a fix, I worry about creating more debt, but if done properly it might be part of a longer term improvement.

When will things get back to normal?   That’s a tricky question.  I’d argue that the hyer-consumer society of the 90s and 00s was not normal.  For students born in 1990, I would say that they’ve experienced an American lifestyle that was built on illusions.   If by normal one means the wild consumer oriented prosperity seems eternal mood of the last 25 years the answer is never.  That kind of hyperconsumer society was unsustainable and destructive on psychological and sociological levels.

But if by normal one simply means back to lower unemployment, the possibility of home ownership for most, educational opportunity and the idea that hard work can bring success — the America before 1981 — the answer is probably again not for six or seven years.   And frankly, that’s a somewhat optimistic assessment, I could see scenarios where this spiraling vortex of doom continues downward for ten to twenty years, especially if oil shortages, global unrest, global warming, terrorism and other factors start forcing their way back on the scene.

Still, most of us will have jobs.  Most families will survive.  We’ll still have lots of flat screen TVs, Ipods, Wii games, and other conveniences of the modern world.  The malls will still have shoppers, and we’ll get through this.  It’s still better than living in many other parts of the world.  But we’re in for a tumultuous ride, and it won’t be fun.


Bush’s Fatal Error

President Bush’s Presidency will be remembered as a failure.  It was a failure in terms of economics, as he did not undertake policies earlier to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in credit markets and the economy in general.  But it was a failure primarily due to Iraq, and what was arguably one of the most incompetently engineered foreign policy fiascos in recent history.

In 2003 the US invaded and conquered Iraq easily.  President Bush had at his disposal advice and plans that could have possibly allowed Iraq to recover and rebuild quickly.   This advice included allowing the Iraqi military to reconstitute itself, now as a loyal servant of a new Iraqi state, led by an interim government put together quickly so as to regain Iraqi sovereignty.  US military leaders had suggested a much larger force in order to provide post-invasion security, and prevent the looting and unrest that convinced Iraqis that the US cared not a whit for them.  Even the original occupation authority under Gen. Jay Garner had rational plans on how to get Iraq on the right track.   President Bush ultimately ignored all that and trusted the advice of the inner circle at the Pentagon and White House: Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith.

This failure is inexcusable for a President.  No decision puts the country’s citizens more at risk, causes so much death and destruction, and can damage both the country and the international system than the choice to wage war, especially a war of aggression.   President Bush should have actively engaged and listened to people in the Pentagon, people on the ground in Iraq, and challenged the inner circle neo-conservatives.   By all accounts, including most memoirs and reporting on the conflict, this was not done.  President Bush was described as somewhat distant from the details, perhaps believing that Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld simply understood these issues so well that he should trust them.  That faith in subordinates would undermine Bush at many turns.

This essential error — to trust subordinates — is tricky.  A President that gets too involved, and tries to micromanage, can end up not being able to stick to a decision or take bold action when necessary.   One criticism of President Carter is that he wavered between the advice of his hawkish National Security Advisor (Zbigniew Brezezinski) and the dovish Secretary of State (Cyrus Vance).   The best Presidents listen to diverse advice, don’t micromanage, but don’t simply trust major decisions to a small cadre of trusted advisors, especially when he must have known there were alternate opinions out there.

So why did Bush trust Cheney and Rumsfeld so completely, and why were these two experts with a long history of bureaucratic government service so fundamentally wrong about the nature of the challenge in Iraq?   How could the US government mess up so wholly and completely?

In Iraq the small cadre of “neo-conservatives” assumed that American power and money would be enough to easily make Iraq a stable pro-American democracy.  They did little planning for the post-war, and in a display of absurdity brought in a cadre of 20-somethings after the war to essentially run the country.   America would come in, set Iraq right, find politicians that could be manipulated, and use this as a base for re-casting the entire region into a more pro-American pro-western pro-capitalist bastion.   President Bush apparently went along with this because, as he said, “everyone wants freedom,” and it was assumed that the American way was the path to freedom everyone wants.

That kind of ethno-centric view of another society is the essence of hubris (an over-exaggerated pride and belief ones’ own power), and set up the failure in Iraq.  They didn’t understand the Sunni-Shi’ite split, the importance of having Iraqis control their own destiny, or the need to keep the Iraq military in tact rather than being angry, armed and unemployed.  They failed to recognize that democracy is very difficult to construct, and individual freedoms always sound good in the abstract, but without economic security and social order, it’s nothing but vague rhetoric.

Moreover, they had people who understood the problems, people in the State Department, the Department of Defense, high officers in the Pentagon, even on the ground in Iraq, who realized that the ideology-driven approach of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bremer, Wolfowitz and others was way out of touch with reality.  Like the “best and the brightest” in Vietnam, the neo-conservatives were brimming with confidence, even arrogance.  Rumsfeld fired generals who disagreed (hence the blowback when he and the President received unprecedented criticism from ex-Generals when the errors were made apparent by the course of history), and remained aloof from the day to day problems, denying them in press conferences which now are routinely used to mock and embarrass Rumsfeld, who not only was wrong, but was mocking and belittling those who have been proven correct.

President Bush should not have allowed this to happen.  He should have recognized that the neo-conservatives were not supported by most of the top Pentagon brass, the state department or the CIA.   He should have realized Cheney and John Bolton’s claims that the CIA was against them for political reasons was a dubious claim, and dug for more perspectives.  He should have been very cynical about the story being given to him.

Instead, he trusted his inner circle.  They played to his sense of wanting to ‘spread freedom’ and ‘help end tyranny.’  Theirs was not conservatism or realism, but a militaristic idealism, believing America could use its power to save the world.  Many of us recognized the ridiculous nature of these claims early on.  If I could notice this from a campus in rural Maine, President Bush surely should have recognized the dangers.

Was he lazy?  Did he simply decide that the VP and Secretary of Defense were better informed and understood these issues better?   Did they master the bureaucratic game and access to the President in a way that kept the President oblivious to the myriad of problems in the American approach?  Was Bush’s flaw his loyalty to these people, or was he caught up in post-9-11 bravado?

Whatever the case, he was responsible, and his errors on Iraq were grave.  Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead because of them, and those still there live in a society where much of the country is governed by Islamic extremists and militias.   I believe the same kind of errors were made on the economic front as well.   I think President Bush is a decent man, and I credit him for changing policy in his second term.  But this administration was a disaster at a time when the US needed visionary and skillful leadership.

From all accounts, Barack Obama is a very different kind of leader, one who seems to really take different perspectives seriously and intellectually engage.  It gives me hope that after eight years of having a ‘nice guy’ not quite up to the job making well intended mistakes with devastating consequences, we’ll finally have a leader who will do what a President is supposed to do.

Time will tell if that read on Obama is correct.

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National Defense

I have long been a critic of US foreign policy on a number of levels.  First, by embracing the role as a global super power, we have centralized more power in Washington DC than could ever be imagined by our founders.  The result is a government more distant from the people, more focused on global economic and political affairs.   I believe our liberty suffers, and our government becomes less of a democratic Republic, and more like an elite led empire.   Second, such policies are more likely to get us involved in conflicts — or to be the target of attacks.  If it were not for our embrace of this role, I doubt we’d have been hit on 09-11-01.

During the Cold War, these policies were defended because of the perceived threat from the USSR.  Now, these policies are defended because of the perceived threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.  However, we know now that the Soviet Union was never in a position to truly expand and dominate; they were barely able to keep their own ship afloat during the Cold War, and were in real decline from the early seventies onward.   They were more scared of us than we were of them.  We could have avoided the immense increase in military spending and governmental power (the Cold War shifted more power and resources to government than anything else in our history, including the Great Depression) by avoiding the militarization of containment and the Cold War.

The same is true with terrorism and fear of unrest in the Mideast.  If anything is clear from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that large militaries are not the key towards bringing political change to a region, creating stability or defeating terror organizations.   Israel’s experiences with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas this year show that large scale military operations against such opponents can fail even as they succeed.  Success of the operation does not translate into political or long term security success, and can in fact make the situation worse by increasing anger and animosity.

Simply, the old style of foreign policy is obsolete.  It doesn’t work.  The idea that a big powerful military keeps us safe is bunk.  That world exists no more, if it ever really did.

President Obama needs to embrace a foreign policy that is fundamentally different than the old mix of power politics and democratic idealism.   Ronald Reagan called us the “shining city on a hill,” whose example would inspire others.  That should be our model, not an army trying to bring our ideals to a word of diverse cultures and beliefs.  So yes, let’s be proud of our freedoms, our democracy, and our national values.   But let’s not expect others to adopt our way of life or governance, especially not over night or all at once — it took 200 years for us to overcome slavery, lack of women’s rights, and other obstacles.   We need to have the patience with others that we had with ourselves.

In foreign policy, we should start recalling our armed forces from bases around the world, and then start to draw down the size of our military force.  The first phase would have a positive effect on the economy as military forces would be housed and paid on US soil rather than overseas, even though there would be an initial cost in making the transformation.  In some cases, like Korea and Japan, this would be very welcome.  In other cases it may cause hardship.   We don’t have to close all our bases world wide, but we should close most of them; they are not needed.

But, one might ask, what about al qaeda?  What about terrorism, China or a resurgent Russia.?  We’ve been “at war” with al qaeda for years, but primarily with small numbers of forces or special operations.  If our big military could protect us from terrorism or defeat it, it would have done so by now.  Counter terrorism is best done through smaller scale intelligence operations working with groups from other countries.  A big military in fact can help terror organizations by creating civilian deaths and fear that helps them recruit.  Our large military — we spend over half the world’s military spending — does little to nothing to protect us from terrorism.

China’s military power is mostly defensive, and China cannot  project power very far outside its borders.  It certainly isn’t a threat to the US.   Russia as well is a weakened power, able to threaten countries like Ukraine or Georgia, but not most of Europe or the US.   And, given economic globalization, the idea that a huge military has any useful purpose is becoming increasingly untenable.   Moreover, it would be dangerous to confront other nuclear powers in minor struggles near their borders.

The US can keep its alliances; NATO can be maintained as an alliance, even if most or all American forces are withdrawn.  The US can be involved in UN peace keeping operations, and in fact should limit military operations to cases where there is clear international consensus to act, and the goals are clearly humanitarian.  Even then, military intervention should only be in the most dire of crises, not simply because of some perceived injustice.

This kind of shift in policy cannot take place overnight, but it is necessary.   We cannot afford to waste large amounts of money on a military that is of limited use or value.   The danger of a large military stationed all over the world is that it makes the US a symbol of corruption and decadence to many on the planet, and means US interests are more likely to be targeted.  When that happens, the US will then be tempted to use its military to lash back, even though it would mean a lot of dead civilians and a backlash against us.  That risks creating more strains on our country and economy at a time when we need to restructure.

To be sure, there are other complimentary changes in US foreign policy needed to maintain a credible deterrent while working with others to assure security and deal with global challenges.   But the world is in motion, things are changing in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.  One change is that military power of the traditional sort is no longer useful as major wars between great powers are virtually unthinkable.  There still is war and violence, but of a different sort, requiring different responses.

The path we’ve been taking has led us to arrogance, overreach, and unsustainable practices.    We need to revitalize our Republic, and to do so, we need to reject the practices of empire.


A New Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a distinctly American ideology, rooted in the American psyche and way of thought.  It’s early proponents, William James and John Dewey (thanks to Adrian for catching an earlier error as I mixed up Thomas Dewey with John!) rejected the navel-gazing internally complex world of European philosophy for an approach that engaged the world directly, without trying to determine absolute truth.  Modern neo-Pragmatists like Richard Rorty take it a step further, arguing that after 2500 years of searching for the “truth,” only to find a variety of ideas that can be defeated just by questioning main assumptions, we should give up.  Maybe truth is not able to be discovered in any philosophical sense; maybe we make up our reality as we go.

In a sense, pragmatism is liberating.  We don’t rely on some scholar to come up with some theory, necessarily a vastly oversimplified version of reality relying on unfalsifiable assumptions, to give us the “right” approach to life or politics.  The idea that reality has an answer key that we can figure out if we “correctly” understand the world is rooted in enlightenment era arrogance and the fact that it’s really easy for people to build theories that internally seem persausive — especially if you agree with core assumptions.

This fetish with theoretical simplifications of reality in order to determine what is politically “correct” has led to some of the worst conflicts and inhumane actions in history.   America is an inherently pragmatist country, both in its origin and history.  Pragmatism requires compromise between people with different world views, and our history is dotted with such compromises.  These may not always be ones we are proud of — considering blacks to be 3/5 of a human is one many Americans wish was not part of our history — but they reflect sentiment at the time, and allow social change as ideas change.   Pragmatism is a shield against ideological extremism, as well as a tool for progressive, rational development.    Pragmatism is essentially American, and reflects the spirit of our history and ideals.

This generation is, I believe, seeing a shift away from ideology-driven thinking to one of pragmatic change.   Ideologies have led to mass suffering, and cannot be proven right or wrong.  People caught up in ideological thinking, like this person, sustain their faith primarily by ridiculing others, proclaiming superiority, and avoiding ideas that threaten their faith.  But theirs is the ash heap of history, ideological thinking is the great error of the post-enlightenment era.

Pragmatism is a way to build cooperation between right and left.  It is an effort to compare different conceptions about the nature of the problems we face, compromise, and come up with efforts to solve them.  Rather than seeing politics as ideological warfare, it becomes one of trying to understand and solve problems, learning from mistakes and adapting.

The idea that a complex world like ours can be understood through a human constructed ideology takes a leap of faith completely unwarranted.   True believers in Marxism ignore the way history has proven much of what Marx thought wrong in order to redefine terms and reinterpret history.  On the other side you have people like Ayn Rand, a far better fiction writer than philosopher (in fact, her philosophy is usually considered pretty second rate), who inspire emotional devotion to a world view that one simply accepts on faith.  Ideologies are like secular religions.   But, while religion can remain a personal choice or way of life, ideologies attempt to spread and control how others live their lives.  Ideologues are, in essence, the functional equivalent of the religious zealots of the past, convinced they have the true faith, and others are simply ignorant, corrupt, or blind.

America’s response to Obama’s inauguration — a response of hope and even joy at a time when economic news is bleak — is not just a reaction to him or the fact we finally have a black President.  Rather, it’s a kind of relief that we have a President who wants to move beyond partisan ideological divides and focus on practical solutions to what the country faces.

This doesn’t mean people should automatically agree with him or support him.  I disagree with his expensive stimulus package (even if I hope it works), and Republicans are also noting that while they’ll work with him, they will push their view that smaller government is better.   And you know, that argument need not and usually is not ideological.   Republicans aspire to smaller government because they see it as less dangerous, more in line with America’s core value of liberty, and ultimately more effective than larger governmental bureaucracies.  Democrats see a more active role for government in helping expand wealth, work against inequities, and promote social justice.   These are different perspectives, but not ideological straight jackets, and certainly leave a lot of room for compromise.

Moving away from the age of ideology is difficult, especially for the baby boom crowd who came of age during the intensely ideological Cold War.  They learned to see the world as “ism” vs. “ism,” with different core principles, with one right world view.   Politics was a kind of war, fought in the precincts, newspapers and airwaves.   Clearly, no one expects that to go away completely — nor should it.  Pragmatism does not mean an end to disagreement, or that people will have similar views on what should be done.

Rather, a move towards pragmatism over ideological conflict means that people will be more open to testing how policies work, than relying on abstract theory to tell them what to do.  It means that rather than different world views colliding, compromise and trail and error will be possible.   Instead of grand visions of how the world “should be” or whatever forces operate to make the world what it is, we’ll recognize there is a diversity of cultures, perspectives and ways of life, none of which can be objectively proven as “right.”  However, we make our calls, make our choices, and construct the means through which we measure how well these choices work, allowing us to change course or try something new.

Ideology was, in some ways, the pinnacle of human arrogance, a belief that an individual is smart enough to have figured out the right way to organize the world and attempt to force others to live by those rules.   The fact of the matter is that reality is far too complex for our tiny human minds to grasp in the framework of an ideology.   Moreover, meanings and understandings change as cultures change.

Barack Obama’s election is celebrated in part because he embraces that traditional and truly American value of pragmatism.  That doesn’t mean he’s right.  That doesn’t mean he’ll succeed.  That doesn’t mean that the Republicans should simply defer to him — not at all.  It does mean, however, that we as a country are starting to move beyond the ideological conflict of the 20th century to a set of values more in line with what America is all about, a new pragmatism.