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.

1 Comment

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.


A Good Day for America

Some Republicans are sour about all the hoopla around the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Tom Delay, who used to dream of a ‘permanent Republican majority’ said that due to the nation’s economic problems Obama should have a quiet office swearing in, followed by a ‘chicken dinner.’  Others have lambasted the extravagence of the event while the US economy is in crisis.

To be sure, most of that is probably sour grapes.  Seeing the ‘other side’ celebrate can cause resentment, and people look for reasons to criticize.  Some go so far as ridiculing and insulting the ‘minions’ who are in DC.    The fact of the matter is, this is a very good day for America — no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

First, the cost of the inauguration is tiny compared to the economic problems we face.  What we gain for that cost is a time of celebration and renewal, as the nation recognizes what makes it great — a peaceful transfer of power, the fact we’ve overcome so much racism to elect the first black President, and a sense that what is good about the country can overcome the problems that we face.

More importantly, the country is at the start of a very difficult period of transformation.  We have been a materialist, consumer oriented society, focused on personal consumption rather than sacrifice or community.  The hyper consumerism of the past decades have rendered us a bit lazy and myopic.  As a culture we are used to getting what we want when we want it.  We have to drive the car off the lot today, no down payment, all on credit.  We need the new flat screen TV simply because our old state of the art large screen color set is out of date.  We’ve been spoiled by living beyond our means for decades.  That’s going to change.

Barack Obama will call on people to sacrifice, to take more personal responsibility, and to take community responsibility seriously.  He is reminding us of the values that our consumer society has been whittling away at.  Like children who get all they want, we as a society have learned to expect an easy comfortable lifestyle as if it were a birthright.   Those days are ending.

No government can force people to change their lifestyle.  If government were to try, it would not only fail, but lead to worse outcomes.   Economic reality can and of course is in the process of doing that.  But for America to do this successfully, and to create a new and better future, we need people to be inspired and prepared to work together to solve problems and focus on community as well as the self.  This has to be a choice, not something forced on people from above.

Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to do this.  He has already inspired a nation unlike anything I’ve seen before.   Republicans who are worried about his potential policies nonetheless recognize that when a country is in trouble, it’s important to pull together.   President Obama can’t succeed if the country is divided, or if the people simply expect the government to solve the problems so they can get on with their shopping.   President Obama can’t recast our world role if people don’t believe in the change — otherwise the right will accuse him of somehow embracing a weaker America.   He needs to inspire the country to come together and compromise to tackle problems of the scope not seen since the first half of the 20th century.

Will he do it?  No.  He can’t.  He’ll need help.  He’s been reaching out to Republicans lately, sometimes irritating Democrats, especially liberal partisans.   He has asked a controversial pastor to give the invocation, even though his position on gay rights is different than Obama’s and that of the Democratic party.   He needs not only to find common ground with these ‘opponents’ on some big issues, but convince those on the left that it is important to work with, not just defeat, the right.  The problems are too intense.

To be sure, there should not and will not be unity on policies — there will be intense fights on the budget, health care, and a variety of issues.  That is politics in a democracy, we cannot and should not have single party rule.  Yet on core values of this country, and the need to work together to renew our sense of purpose and who we are, there can be agreement.  We all believe in individual responsibility.  We all believe in strong communities and our responsibility to our neighbors.  We all believe in freedom and limited government.   We all believe that diversity is good, especially diversity of opinion.  And, in talking to students and friends, we share  a sense that as a nation we lost our way.  We’ve been caught up in consumerism, fear of terrorism, and a wave of nationalism.   We’ve overestimated our power and wealth, commiting the sins of pride and arrogance.

The nation coming together and celebrating this important transfer of power, and the hope people have for an Obama administration to start a national renewal are very good things.   Ultimately, we citizens are responsible for the country we have; Obama can inspire and provide ideas, but absent our actions and willingness to work together, compromise and take responsibility for our future, nothing will change.  To the extent that this day can inspire us to go out and do what is necessary to help the country and our communities deal with the difficulties of this era, it is very good for America.

It is shortly after 11:00 AM, EST (this blog is on GMT, which means it will look like it’s posted after 4:00).  I’m going to watch the ceremony, and give more thoughts later.  Now is a time to celebrate the values upon which country was founded — and with which the country can find a way to thrive again.


Adieu l’ancien regime

The french term “l’ancien regime” referred to the pre-revolutionary France of the 18th Century — aristocratic, monarchical and feudal.  It was swept away by the French revolution, as were the other regimes of pre-modern Europe.   I’m using the term far more broadly.   I believe the United States is on the verge of transformative change that will alter the nature of our society and country.  The institutional structure of government and the constitution will be the same, but the nature of political life is about to be revolutionized.  It is as if our collective unconscious were undergoing a transformation, needing to push off old habits and embrace difficult but necessary change.

This is not just about Barack Obama.  He is coming to symbolize the changes about to take place — a very different kind of President than we are used to — but the change is not driven by him.   The changes are being pushed by a myriad of factors that are coming together at the same time to make our old way of politics and life unsustainable:

1.  The economic crisis.  As noted before, the US has reached the breaking point in a system that had us consuming far more than we produce, financed by large budget and trade deficits.   That went on for thirty years, ending in a series of speculative bubbles whose collapse now leaves us with a painful period of economic change.

2.  The energy crisis.  Yes, oil has dropped in price thanks to the recession, and this gives us a bit of time.  Will we use it?    To think that the current drop is an end to the problem would be to live in a fools’ paradise.

3.  The environmental crisis.   While global warming gets most of the coverage, the last century has unleashed so much poison into our ecosystem that we don’t know the long term effects.

4.  The humanitarian crisis.  Humanity is in crisis.  Mass number of our species are malnourished, living in war zones, exploited for profit, or in danger of disease and famine.

5.  An identity crisis.  We have defined ourselves as a superpower, first the leader of the West during the Cold War, and then as the “unipolar polar,” a guarantor of global stability through our military and economic power.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring home the fact that our military power is of limited value in achieving political ends, and in fact this crisis is embedded in a global crisis of sovereignty.  The sovereign state is becoming an obsolete unit in a world defined by interdependence and globalization.

President Bush is the last President of the ‘old regime.’   Today, in fact, is the last day of that era.  His Administration epitomized the era from 1945 to 2008.   When the US was attacked on 9-11 he treated as another Pearl Harbor, designed to bring the country together against a dangerous foe.  But unlike 1941, our hyper-consumerist society did not want to sacrifice or be inconvenienced in challenging this foe.  We did not want our ability to enjoy material “stuff” threatened.  So we were told that our patriotic duty was to “go shopping,” a task we embraced with glee.

Nonetheless, our country did go to war, ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan with the help of a local alliance of various warlords and ethnic groups, and then ousting Saddam Hussein in a massive and overwhelming victory in April 2003.  Yet in each country military victory did not turn into political success.  While the Administration dreamed of comparing these states to Japan and Germany after WWII, they didn’t play that game, and now Afghanistan is slipping further into chaos, with the Taliban resurgent, and the US is being forced to leave Iraq without having transformed the Mideast.  In fact, Iranian influence in Iraq is intense, and one purpose of attacking Iraq was to weaken Iran.

The President also gave the country large tax cuts to get the economy moving.  And move it did!  The tax cuts and low interest rates created a massive increase in investment and wealth.  Or so it seemed.  The investments and wealth generated were simply on paper in the form of speculative bubbles.  They money didn’t go into strengthening or improving our economic foundation.  When these bubbles burst our economic weakness was laid bare, and we’re only now starting a long painful process of trying to rebalance.

The Executive Branch centralized more power than ever, seeing the country at war, and believing that success would lead the public to embrace the means used.  Instead, this changed world meant those old style policies would not work, and the public would sour on President Bush and the people around him.   But President Bush is only a symbol too.  He symbolizes the America of 1945 to the present, a brash, idealistic, often arrogant, and assertive America.  He symbolizes an America talking a great talk on individual rights, freedom and democracy, often blind to the contradictions between those principles and US policies and actions.     He symbolizes the America of Nascar, large SUVs and social conservatism.  An era passing.

Barack Obama symbolizes a more international flare to US policiy.  His father was Kenyan and he lived for awhile in Indonesia.  Much of his upbringing was in Hawaii, the last US state, by his grandparents who had their roots in rural Kansas.   His approach is secular, he’d probably wonder what the heck people saw in a NASCAR race, and would be more at home in Prius than a Hummer.  And we’ve all seen him bowl!

The country as a whole has to deal with needing to find some way to rebalance our economy to produce more and be less focused on crass consumerism or a desire for something for nothing.   President Elect Obama has plans for massive targeted government investments.   I’ve stated my skepticism in what I label a dangerous gamble.  But at least it recognizes that just tax cuts or sending people checks doesn’t work — that only feeds consumerism but doesn’t spur production.    Correctly targeted investments might actually work.

In foreign policy we need to recognize that the days of American leadership, unilateralism, and a belief that somehow we are the ‘indispensible power’ are gone.  Moreover, we have to get over our cultural ignorance about others.  Americans too long have assumed others are just like us, have the same goals as we do, and the same understandings of freedom and rights as we do.   In actuality, it’s a complex and diverse world, and we need to respect other cultures and ways of governance.  Moreover, we’ve vastly underestimated the ill will our military actions have brought us.  Many Americans seem genuinely puzzled that so many Iraqis hate us, since we think they should be pleased that we got rid of Saddam.  We don’t seem to understand that the santized version of the war covers up the intense damage we are directly or indirectly causing.

The good news is that to be successful the new regime will have to build on American values.   Those are freedom, hard work, community solidarity, and a belief that we can solve our problems and move forward.  The most important American value next to freedom is that kind of pragmatic optimism: whatever happens, we can solve any problem that arises and we can make tomorrow better than today.

And we can.   Recent years has seen a decadent America, with people so driven off course by materialism, consumerism and myopic selfishness that they’ve mistaken material plenty for progress and a good lifestyle.   We have become more connected to our stuff than to our friends, myself included.  We’ve let ourselves too often become apathetic, gluttonness, arrogant, and ignorant.   We don’t pay attention to the rest of the world, or to the needs of our neighbors.  We grasp emotional soundbites without listening to diverse points of view and really trying to understand others.  Simply: while the next few years may appear to be a time of material decline, it can also be a time of spiritual renewal.  We can reconnect with our core values, values hidden by all the materialism and bravado of the last few decades, but not yet destroyed.

So adieu, l’ancien regime.  It’s been fun, but not real.

1 Comment

The Beauty of Cold

The last two weeks have been intensely cold by Maine standards. By Minnesota and South Dakota standards (where I lived most of my life before Maine) it’s just typical winter weather. Having a nice taste of constant, cold weather reminds me that I love winter, and I love cold. Back when I was a child/teen I’d make a point to bundle up and go for long walks whenever the temperature dipped below minus 30 (it hardly ever gets that cold in Maine, unfortunately).

Cold is beautiful on a variety of levels. First, from inside a nice cozy house, one feels especially warm and comfortable knowing that outside there are harsh conditions. The hot cocoa tastes better, the sofa softer, and the atmosphere cozier when it’s below zero outside. From that comfort, the outside appears simply fantastic. Deep blue skies, white snow covering the yard, the stark winter landscape. Out in the winter there is little as beautiful as cross country ski trails twisting through the woods. Sure, in summer you have trees, flowers, and streams, but there is something supremely beautiful about starkness of winter.

Downhill skiing is as close to a religious experience as one can have doing sports, in my opinion. Moving in control yet with speed, surrounded by beauty on a mountain, hearing the skis glide on the snow is exhilarating. Yet while winter landscapes offer an unparalleled beauty, I mean it when I say cold is beautiful. For my entire life, I’ve had an aversion to hats and gloves. Sure, while skiing, shoveling, or spending long times in the cold one has to wear them, but I’ve always liked feeling that cold on my face and my head, I even enjoy feeling my hands chill to a point where it nears painful (growing up in this kind of climate, I know when the cold actually becomes dangerous — none of what I’m saying refers to conditions that threaten frost bite). The Bud Grant quote (he was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings back when they played outdoors) “cold is a state of mind” comes to me a lot. You can be in the cold and let it take you over, feeling miserable, wanting desperately to get inside, or you can embrace the experience of cold, and how it makes you feel.

Cold is a painless way to really feel alive and connected to nature. Cold is a sensation that seems to bring clarity to thought and vision, the world feels different. More than anything else, though, cold is a metaphor for life. Cold can be taken as dangerous (and indeed it can be), something to be avoided, something causing discomfort, something one flees. One can look at cold as limiting, making cars harder to start, requiring more effort to go out, and potentially freezing pipes and creating ice dams on roofs which can do damage. There are many reasons one can look at cold as a pain, something nature gives us out of ill will, which we have to tolerate.

But if one simply accepts that there are tasks, risks, and problems with every aspect of life and deals with them as they come, one can truly embrace and enjoy cold. Oh, the beauty and experience one would lose if one were to get so encumbered by the problems cold weather brings that they can’t experience it joyfully! And that is true about almost all of life; one can let the problems and difficulties of daily tasks, stressful changes, the dull routine, or sudden crises and problems bring one down. And, of course, sometimes tragedy strikes and sadness is inevitable. But most of the time we hold ourselves back from a truly joyful experience with life by being so taken by all the little difficulties and inconveniences, or the precautions and tasks, that we lose sight of the joy of everyday life. Learning to love cold is learning to live.