Archive for March, 2009

Obama’s Leadership

I think people on both sides of the political spectrum can probably agree with this: if Obama’s read on the economy is correct, he will end up as one of America’s greatest Presidents.  If his perspective is wrong, he’ll fail spectacularly.   The reason is that during a time of crisis he brings to the office a natural leadership capacity which suggests that he’ll be able to get in place the policies he wants, and then let his Presidency be judged on the outcomes.

Leadership is not a trait that’s easy to assess or measure.  Bill Clinton was popular, but he ultimately had to jettison his agenda for one that included heavy compromises with the Republican majority in Congress.   Not that he was a bad leader, but he wasn’t a really good one either.  He squandered his two years of having a Democratic majority, and was overly concerned with public opinion and daily polls.   He wanted to be loved and popular, and those desires can be poison to leadership potential.

George W. Bush actually exhibited some positive leadership traits in his second term, even as his popularity plummetted.   He essentially abandoned the neo-conservative policies he embraced in his first term, but did so in a way that did not seem to be an admission of failure.  Unlike Jimmy Carter, whose “eyes were opened” by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Bush never claimed his “eyes were opened” by the 2006 Iraqi civil war.  Instead, he changed policy.   The “surge” was less about more boots on the ground than a real shift in how Sunni insurgents were handled.   Through 2006 they were the enemy, allied with foreign al qaeda elements, and any call to give them amnesty was met with disdain.  They had killed Americans after all!  But by 2007 and into 2008 the US formed partnerships with them, ceased trying to defeat them, and instead joined them to focus on a common foe — al qaeda.

This also meant giving up on the idea of a wholly unified Iraq that would be a pro-American democratic ally in the region.  The Bush administration realized that the neo-conservative fantasy was dead.  But they still talked about democracy and managed to shift policy in a way that was credible, even if he couldn’t recover his popularlity.

Of other recent Presidents, George Bush the Elder showed positive leadership traits, while both Reagan and Carter get mixed reviews.  Reagan was too intellectually lazy to engage issues and let his staff run wild, ultimately leading to an Iran-Contra scandal which handicapped his second term.  Carter was too engaged and tried to micromanage, often vacillating on policy as he tried to figure out the right mix of perspectives.   He seemed afraid to get it wrong.

President Obama is illustrating leadership traits that we haven’t seen in the White House for some time, at least not in my life time.   First, he clearly is engaged.  He apparently became personally outraged at the behavior of the bankers and AIG officials who were receiving government bailouts that he decided to intervene and make sure that CEOs and in particular the automobile industry be held accountable.   In a piece in Politico, Allen and Vandehei describe a remarkable effort by the executive branch to influence corporate action and assure that the White House is the “biggest player” in economic restructuring plans.   Otherwise, no government help.

Two things strike me about this.  First, his is a major change in how government engages business.  To many on the right, this is an ‘imperial Presidency,’ a statist attempt to usurp private industry, doomed to the kind of pitfalls experienced in the old socialist economies of Eastern Europe.  To supporters of Obama, it is necessary action to both fix what the private sector so utterly broke, and hold people who get taxpayer money accountable.  If they are going to get billions, strings need to be attached.   He is getting intense criticism from both the right and the left.  On the left Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman skewers Obama for being too close to the corporate elite and not initiating dramatic change.   On the right, Senator Corrnyn considers this a power grab by the Executive to benefit “blue states,” an unprecedented exertion of executive power into the private sector.   Clearly, Obama is willing to act decisively, regardless of criticism (and as the G20 meets, I’ll note real differences between Obama and European leaders).  If he’s right, this will make his persistance all the more admirable and remarkable.  If he’s wrong, he probably won’t get a second term.

The second point is that he is doing this without rubbing business leaders the wrong way.   In a meeting with CEOs where Obama made it clear it would be done his way, the CEOs came out saying they felt “consulted” and not lectured to (in the “Politico” article linked above).  In other words, Obama is able to get even people who seem to be disadvantaged by his actions to if not buy into his plan, at least accept it and respect Obama as President.  This is a real mark of leadership.

To be an effective leader, you can’t simply bark out orders and alienate people.  One failure of President George W. Bush was how he had to force so many Pentagon Generals to retire in order to get things done his way going into Iraq.  Obama seems to get people to climb on board and work together, which is much better than having a power play.   Sure, it hasn’t worked well with the Republicans in Congress (except the important centrists like Snowe, Collins and Specter), but it has worked with less partisan groups such as the generals at the Pentagon (Petraeus has clearly gone from being Bush’s man to being Obama’s) and now CEOs who might otherwise be threatened by the President’s demand to shape the response to the crisis.   It seems that the President’s capacity to listen and alter his position in response to a good argument allows him to win over potential skeptics.

I don’t know if Obama’s approach is right.  I hope so, the risks are high if he’s wrong.  But I do know that I am somewhat comforted by the fact we seem to have an intelligent, engaged President with true leadership capacity in charge at this time of intense global crisis.   I hope he is being up front in saying that budget deficits need to be cut in coming years as well; I think his long term success depends on creating a sustainable budget.  I also tend to trust him that he does not want to impose socialism or have government run business — that this is a short term needed intervention to fix an economy spiraling into what I’ve called the ‘vortex of doom.’     In other words, so severe and perilous is our current situation that we have to act in ways we’d otherwise reject, the very prosperity and perhaps the stability of the nation is at stake.

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Twin Crises of Oil and Finance

Oil is now $52 a barrel.  Not too long ago that would have been a cause for concern.  In comparison to the prices in the summer of 2008 which hit $150 a barrel, it now seems like a bargain.  Yet given the severe economic recession, the price isn’t so cheap.   In the 90s, even as economies grew, oil struggled to stay even around $15 a barrel.  And, while efforts to restrict production have played a role in keeping the price high, similar efforts failed in the past.  What’s up with oil?

I’m increasingly convinced that the current recession is more than just a credit crunch, or even the result of a quarter century of debt combined with an unsustainable current accounts deficit.  To be sure, that “something for nothing” culture that created the tsunami which hit the world economy in September is a problem on its own merits.  But the situation is made much worse by how it is intertwined with the energy crisis and oil markets.

In 2008 we started to feel the first effects of so called “peak oil,” the spot in the history of oil production where we are at maximum production, with roughly half the world’s oil reserves used up.   By most  accounts, within a couple decades after peak oil there will be a sharp decline in oil production, as more expensive methods or locations are unable to compensate for the amount of oil production going off line due to aging oil fields.   It’s not surprising that this first encounter with peak oil led to drastically rising prices followed by a step recession.

In other words, two crises are hitting simultaneously, and while we were focused on oil in 2008, and now finance and credit in 2009, there is really no way out of this if we solve only one crisis.  Both must be dealt with.

The sudden collapse of the housing industry was hastened by high oil prices.  Consumer spending shifted to pay energy costs, creating a drop in demand for other goods.   This also meant that people could no longer afford increasingly higher priced homes, especially large ones requiring considerable energy for heating and cooling.   Consider: in the last three recessions, 1974, 1980, and 1991, a sharp spike in oil prices came just before the economic slow down.  Oil price increases directly sap money from the economy, exacerbating other economic imbalances and creating the spark for a recession.   This should have also happened in 2001, after the stock bubble collapse, but massive government spending and cheap credit in response to 9-11 kept the economy moving — and overheated.

If government action gets the economy moving again, oil prices will rise, risking a slip back into recession.  Since debt is increasing dramatically through stimulus and bailout measures, high oil prices could mean that any recovery will be stillborn.   They could also be the catalyst for inflation.

Stagflation — a recession plus rising prices, would again push down prices of oil, and perhaps that would lead to another attempted recovery.   But increase in oil costs might thwart any effort for long term recovery.   Perhaps we can at some point get a couple years of growth but any move to the kind of economic production of 2008 will significantly increase oil prices.  Since it’s unlikely debt and deficit spending will disappear any time soon, those high oil prices will cripple the economy and perhaps send us into a downward spiral from which there is no clear escape.  In a worst case scenario it could be something akin to the collapse of western civilization, at least in a way analogous to the collapse of communism in the early 90s.

There are two ways out of this: a) find another source of cheap energy (and to avoid a global warming crisis later in the century, it should be clean, cheap energy); or b) alter our lifestyle to create a sustainable economic system not based on constant growth and consumption.   “A” would take less of a psychological change in perspective, but “B” would ultimately be easier to pull off in material terms.

Part of the current Obama administration plans is to fast track solar and wind power production.  There are also discussions about returning to an expansive nuclear energy program.   All of this could make a difference, but as my blog repeatedly notes, many of our problems come from a culture defined by consumerism and abstraction.   We’ve disconnected ourselves from nature and from each other.

I know it’s true for me.  I’ve lived a life of plenty, have not put too much thought into energy use, and in 2007 we bought a house with over 3000 square feet of living space.   Yet due to work and family demands, I haven’t found time to connect well with neighbors, and its been all too rare that I get to spend time with friends.  E-mails and long talks after meetings replace families coming together to dine and interact.     I am part of this culture of abstraction and waste, I grew up in it, I’m used to it, and I have enjoyed its material delights, allowing distractions to make up for the lack of real contact with my community.

How to change the culture?   Well, there’s really only one way.   A whole bunch of individuals will have to choose to reach out to one another, shift away from a consumerist mentality, and think about the consequences of the lives we’re leading.   Neighbors talked last year of a community garden; we plan to participate.   I’m finding myself saying “no” to buying things I usually would not think twice about, and reflect on how well my actions and lifestyle reflects my true values.   In so many ways my actions fall short of the principles I believe in.  I can’t change the world, but I can make changes in myself.

Most important, we have to internalize the realization that we will not simply get through this recession and return to the boom times of the pre-2008 world.   We’re at the end of an era, and transitions can be difficult.  Better to embrace with open eyes the need for change, rather than hope or wish for some kind of short term fix.   The boom years were fun, but unsustainable.

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Freedom and Risk

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

Carrie, Mary and Laura Ingalls

Recent posts in “What’s Going On” and “The Mind of Mookie” brought up the question of whether or not America in 2009 is the America they grew up with, or is our emphasis on liberty being abandoned as government, litigation, and rules expand.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that there is not as much freedom.   As I thought about that, my eyes wandered to the top shelf of my bookcase here, where I keep my Laura Ingalls Wilder books, purchased starting when I was 9 years old, saving up my allowance.   My name is written on the inside cover with the date of purchase.   Talk about freedom!  No taxes, no government intrusion in every day life.

Not that freedom was complete.  They get kicked off their land at the end of Little House on the Prairie, the second book.   They had moved down to Kansas and settled so far from any town that the girls (Laura and her sister Mary) only saw the few others who lived nearby.  Ultimately relations with the natives led the US government to make them leave, but other than that any government or rules that mattered seemed to be local, and voluntary.

To be sure, they were poor.  They almost didn’t survive one winter in De Smet, South Dakota, as high snows kept the supply train from making it from Tracy, Minnesota.  They lived for awhile in southwestern Minnesota in a dug out, and only by the time when Laura was getting ready to leave home did the family seem to be relatively well off (though Pa had to held back from moving to Montana, since South Dakota was getting too settled.)    In the first book, living in more civilized Wisconsin, they slaughtered a pig, and the thrill for Laura and Mary was to use the bladder as a balloon.

These books always held a special place in my heart, in part because I grew up in South Dakota, about sixty miles south of De Smet in Sioux Falls.  South Dakotans to this day value freedom.   We (at heart I’m still a South Dakotan, even though I moved out a quarter century ago) were the last state to implement the 18 year old drinking limit imposed by the Reagan Administration, and one of the last to make seat belt use mandatory.    But, even if less restrictive than other states, obviously over the years rules and regulations have expanded.  Besides the drinking and seat belt laws, there are now child seat laws.  I remember when a child seat was a luxury, as a kid my sister and I would play in the back of the station wagon as my did drove on highway 60 at 80 MPH towards Madelia and Mankato to see my grandparents.

Part of the loss of freedom seems to be the inevitable expanse of governmental power as society remains stable and prosperous.  Things become more complex, people form groups that are more effective at making demands, and laws grow.  Rare is it that taxes or the number of laws on the books actually go down.  Moreover, this has been going on for a long time.

Laura Ingalls was born in 1867 and died ninety years later.  In her life she saw the country go from one where they could head from Wisconsin to Kansas in a covered wagon, with no rules or roads, Pa with his gun and they would hunt and farm to survive, to one with interstates being built to connect the country, and income taxes collected every April 15th.

At the same time, few children by 1957 would play with pig bladder balloons, and today children are deprived if they don’t have a stockpile of plastic toys and electronic games.   Back then living was a struggle; people died more often, diseases were hard to avoid (Laura’s sister went blind from scarlet fever, the whole family suffered malaria in Kansas), and the toys kids had were what nature would provide.  To survive, people relied on each other and their communities.

Yet complexity brought ills other than government.  Corporations became powerful actors and pseudo-governments in many places — factory towns would really be run by rule of law from the company, and their goal was profit and exploitation.  One reason government grew was because as society became more densely popualted and prosperous, the ability of some to use their power to control others grew.  Civilization, it seems, breeds both governance and powerful non-governmental actors, willing to exploit and use others.  To avoid rebellion, regulations and ultimately social welfare programs are necessary; otherwise, there was a risk of political instability.

Still, I don’t think that completely explains the changes in the country.   Freedom entails risk; the Ingalls were most free when their lives were more at risk.  We have decided to minimize risk, and as a father I am very glad I don’t have to worry each winter if we’ll make it through.   But at some point minimizing risk became an obsession.

Kids now have to be strapped into car seats all of the time. Seat belts are mandatory.  If nine people get sick from bad peanut butter the country goes into an uproar — how could government have let something like this happen?   Not only that, but if conditions are at all dangerous, we’re wont to sue and demand that nobody put us at risk.   A woman spills hot coffee after going through a drive thru — a rational person might say, gee, coffee is hot and drive thrus really aren’t the place to deal with that.  The modern American sues.

We need to protect kids from cigarettes, so make it illegal for parents to smoke in their car if a child is there.   Rather than expecting people to assess risk with their own eyes and judgement, they can sue if they slip on some water, or stumble because a concrete stairway is a bit worn down.  Ultimately, I think we’ve become a society so risk averse that we welcome rules.  Students on campus here recently pushed for rules limiting what could be sold at the snack bar or in vending machines, tearing down posters telling people to take the stairs because they might offend those with disabilities, or on both the left and right urging at various times that the administration limit student speech.  Rather than worrying about having self-esteem to remain confident despite words other say, we want to protect people from offense and insensitive comments.

In short, as a culture we tend to turn to authorities to reduce risk and harm to ourselves.  Moreover, our litigious nature makes people afraid of anything that might cause legal liability.  Thus we reduce our own freedom.  You can’t just “blame government.”  It’s our culture.  It’s not just the politicians, it’s how we behave.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe we’re spoiled.  Maybe our prosperity has caused us to be afraid of loss.   Maybe the more we have, the more we fear losing it.   And what where does thath leave us as a culture?  What is the way forward?

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Intellectual Arrogance

One trait that one can see through history is a belief that we can actually understand our world and improve it.  This creates a tendency towards intellectual arrogance; people become sure that their theories about reality are right, and can build rational arguments and cherry pick data to buttress their belief.  Yet shouldn’t we strive to understand the world in which we find itself and make improvements? 

Yes, but sometimes the results are horrific.   Over 100 million people were killed because people thought various forms of the ideology of Communism were accurate, and would produce a utopia if only a country could be reshaped, by force if necessary.   We in the West are not immune.   The neo-conservative thought that brought a destructive war to Iraq — and which in its early stages envisioned a kind of American imperium with Mideast states reshaped to become pro-American democracies — was based on similar arrogance.    Our democracy and capitalist institutions are the right ones for the world, the neo-conservatives argued.   We should be bold in even using force to expand their reach.    Why do we so easily get seduced by illusions of certainty?

 The problem, as noted by Renaissance Guy is that we have uncertainty in a world that requires us to act.   Moreover, while any claim to certainty can be doubted, experience often proves beliefs to have been effective.   I may be wrong, but my experience suggests that I’m probably right, so I’ll act as if I can assume certainty.  For all practical purposes I’m certain gravity won’t cease to function, or that gas won’t change to wine in my car’s tank.  Almost all of life runs that way — we can assume we are right in our beliefs because of practical experience, and we can act with certainty.

But what about complex and abstract beliefs, like ideologies, moral codes, or core values?   Here things get murky.  Experience is less likely to give one an answer about what is right or wrong.   Moreover, experience is so vast that when you move from the concrete to the abstract you can choose the evidence you use and the interpretations you make in order to justify or rationalize any belief.    Often the consequences of acting with certainty on a false abstract belief are not directly observable, or may themselves be ambiguous.   China’s one child policy forced birth control and abortions on people, but the result is that they got their birth rate under control.  Does that mean they did the right thing?   Do we know the long term consequences yet?

While consequences determine how we judge ‘correct’ beliefs in the world of objects, it may be that in the world of values and morality the consequence is either irrelevant or invisible.  It could be that a morally correct action requires one to sacrifice ones’ own life and gain nothing.   It may be that results of doing the right thing won’t be observable.  I may not realize that by stopping to remove that debris from the road I prevented a car from an accident that would have taken two lives.  We can’t know what might have happened differently if we acted differently.

Why does this matter?   First, I want to live the best life possible, so I try to figure out what is moral and good — so a question like this is practical.  Secondly, as a social critic entering into a major research project, this question is at the core of my analysis.  It touches on the economic crisis we’re experiencing, how we’ve gotten involved in numerous wars, and the fundamental values of our culture.  I fear that at this point we’re lost in a kind of post-modern conundrum, whereby truth is less important than political victory.  Positions are determined and argued based on emotion and tactics, there isn’t a lot of listening or interaction.  Indeed, it’s become very easy to demonize the other side, and through insults convince oneself that those idiots are simply wrong.  It all becomes a discursive war, whoever wins gets their way.   The most dangerous opponent is someone who agrees with you sometimes and wants to understand you — they may force you to consider their positions and compromise, and that’s would weaken core principles. 

How can one conceptualize an alternative where one doesn’t need to claim certainty or being right, and one can listen to other perspectives, and try to figure out ways to learn and understand — how to see the situation through diverse lenses?    On the one hand this seems like it should be easy — politicians need to start acting the way we teach kids to act in kindergarten: respect each other, talk nicely, share and listen.  We seem to know how we should act.  But in the real world of politics where people get emotionally invested in debates, ideologies and causes, it’s easier said then done.  Moreover, our culture and way of thinking breeds this kind of intellectual arrogance, an arrogance which causes all of us to far too often ignore those basic modes of behavior we teach our children.   We personalize our intellectual differences, the “other” becomes not just a different person, but a personification of a different/dangerous/wrong way of thinking.

That’s a key question I’m delving into.    Being at a university that is not publish or perish, I have the leisure of being able to read a lot, develop a research plan that reflects my interests (in this case it’s connected to consumerism and militarism), and try to address a major issue of the day, to make a real contribution.   I’m currently grappling with trying to understand Theodor Adorno, and have a list of other thinkers — even ‘out there esoteric’ philosophers — I’m going to consider.  This is going to involve psychology, sociology, philosophy, and bring together diverse approaches.  Peter Berger is another important thinker in this regard, he and Thomas Luckmann wrote the classic “The Social Construction of Reality,” and Berger has been involved in exploring the sociology of religion.  Art is important, I plan to work with people in the arts to develop this approach.  I may fall flat on my face with something totally unpublishable.   But I’d rather do that then engage in the cookie cutter writing that people at publish or perish institutions are forced to engage in.   Being willing to risk failure is necessary to success — and probably a good antedote to intellectual arrogance.   And if I have fun and learn something, all’s well.

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The Return of Big Government?

Many Republicans are upset that the Obama administration’s plans may mean, as one said, “the return of big government.”   While the growth in government spending and involvement in the economy should raise legitimate concerns, the idea of a “return” of something suggests it went away for awhile.  It hasn’t.

I don’t like ‘big government.’  I consider it dangerous, governments have done more killing and repressing of individual rights than any other human institution.  To be sure, mafias, businesses, religions, and other human constructs have done their share of evil as well, government’s claim to a monopoly on violence renders it an especially dangerous entity.

I’ve been questioned about whether or not this view is congruent with my support for much of the Obama Administration’s reaction to the current economic crisis, especially my blog on “the key to economic recovery” where I seem to suggest that even bolder action must be taken.  How can I reconcile these core beliefs skeptical of government, while at the same time embracing government action.

First, what is the role of government?  Americans in general are ideologically liberal, though not libertarian.   I don’t mean liberal in the political jargony sense that you hear from the pundits, I mean it in terms of ideology — Republicans and Democrats share the liberal tenets that freedom, individualism, and limited government are a necessity, and that markets operate much better than planned economies, even if regulation and rule of law is necessary for them to function.  The role of government is to provide rule of law, protect individual liberties, and work to assure that all citizens have freedom and opportunity.

Despite this ideological agreement, the last line is where differences emerge on how far government should go, and with what means.  Do we need to fight a war in Iraq or have military stationed globally in order to protect individual liberty, or could we do that with a much smaller military force?   Do we need government programs and regulations to assure freedom and opportunity?

As for security, one reason our government has become so big and powerful is that it undertook a global mission.   That kind of expansion of military power and foreign policy reach inevitably translates into an expansion of domestic power and reach.  I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago, “Rethinking National Defense” that addresses this issue.  So today I’ll focus on the social welfare question, what should the government do to assure freedom and opportunity for the citizens?

On this issue, there is widespread disagreement.  How does one measure freedom and opportunity, and to what extent should we try to assure people have it in equal amounts?  Is a wealthier person more free because they can take time off from work and travel the globe, while a poor person my be stuck in a horrid job and have no time outside of work and taking care of the household?   Some say that as long as they are not constrained by force, both are equally free.  Others say that the structures of society have benefited one at the expense of the other.   So differences emerge, and politicians compromise and make policy.

This leads me to my first quandry.  I dislike big government, but agree with the left that social structures truly deny freedom and opportunity to many people.   So how do I balance my desire to assure freedom and opportunity with my fear of big government?

Looking at history, I think it is clear that governments are usually ineffective when they focusing on trying to simply transfer wealth and equalize results.  If people get ‘something for nothing’ they’ll simply get addicted to the process.  The reason we value freedom and opportunity is so that people can live a meaningful life and be responsible for their choices.   Instead of focusing on that goal, the task simplified to just transfering money without much regard to whether the money would achieve the real long term goal.  The result has helped some, but for others has led to becoming part of a permanent underclass.

The problem emerges from the dictates of bureaucracy.  There is no one size fits all approach to helping people acquire the opportunity and freedom to live a meaningful life.   Some may need a little aid to get started, others will turn aid into an addicted dependency.   Yet bureaucracies need standard operating procedures (SOPs) and that requires a very rigid policy, especially if it is to cover a country with over 300 million people.  It is easy to have a one size fits all approach to handing out social welfare payments, so that’s what the governmental bureaucracy does.   Simply, the problem is one that can only be handled efficiently if you ignore the question of whether it actually succeeds in achieving the ultimate goals.

Yet, I do not want to simply say “oh well, guess we’ll have to live with so many citizens lacking real freedom and opportunity.”  Nor am I ready to say ‘leave it up to the churches’ or other private organizations.  They can do some good, but have limited reach.  Rather, why not shift most programs completely to state and local levels where the people are closer to the public and understand the problems better.  There may still be bureaucracies and inefficiencies, but probably far fewer.    Of course, this also means a shift in governmental power and money to the states.  This might mean a bigger government in, say, Augusta Maine or even at city hall, but a smaller government in Washington DC.   I’ve found state and local governments to be far less dangerous than huge national governments.    Also local governments could be more effective in eliciting greater involvement by private charities.

Well, great, you might say.  I get out of the dilemma by proposing a solution that is politically infeasible.   And what does this have to do with the stimulus anyway?   To the first point, I have to admit it’s a bit of a cop out on short term issues, even though it is my “ideal” long term outcome.  To the second point, one of the reasons I came to support the stimulus is the large amount of money it directs to states and even local governments to control.

The fact is that the Bush Administration bled states (to be sure, he wasn’t the first to do so), withholding funds while at the same time growing the federal debt by over 100%, from $5 trillion to almost $11 trillion.  That meant that all the debt went to increase the size and scope of the federal government, or to fight wars.   Weaker states become seen by citizens as ineffective, and thus people assume it as a matter of course that problems can’t be solved at the state level.  There is no money or will, thus all problems must have a federal answer.   That problem has been exacerbated by the previous administration and if the Obama plan starts working towards stronger states, that’s good.  But it’s only the first step.

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Favorite LPs

Moving away from politics, philosophy and economics, I’m going to lighten it up and write about my favorite record albums of all time.  I use “LP” and “record album” for a reason — I’ve failed to keep my promise made in college to change with the musical times.   I remain focused on my era for my favorite music.  Even those recent ones on my list tend to be from artists of the 70s who simply are still making music.   Sure, I’ll get a recommendation now and then — I’ve listened to and enjoyed Radiohead (though not enough to get it on my favorite list) and a few others, but my heart is in the past.    Recommendations on how to break out of that and what to listen to would be appreciated, and I will follow through.  These are listed in no particular order, though at the end I do say my favorite of all time.

Crime of the Century – Supertramp
Eve – Alan Parsons Project
Grand Illusion – Styx
Bat out of Hell – Meatloaf
Inside Job – Don Henley
Best of Joe South – Joe South*
Snakes and Arrows – Rush
A Farewell to Kings – Rush
Past, Present and Future – Al Stewart
Never Surrender – Triumph
Ipso Facto – Rik Emmett
Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morrissette
Pieces of You – Jewel
Misplaced Childhood – Marillion
Images and Words – Dream Theater
Jesus Christ Superstar – Andrew Lloyd Weber & Tim Rice
Asia
– Asia
Wheels Are Turning – REO Speedwagon
Fugazi – Marillion
Second Wind – Todd Rundgren
Adventures in Utopia – Utopia
Between the Wars – Al Stewart
Teaser and the Firecat – Cat Stevens

My favorite: Eye of the Storm – Roger Hodgson
Must be listed: World in Motion – Jackson Browne (this blog name comes from the title cut).

I actually think that music helped shape my world view.  I’ve always been very focused on lyrics, and appreciate great lyricists like Al Stewart and Neil Peart (Rush).   I also have always been a fan of the work of Kevin Cronin (REO) and Dennis DeYoung (Styx).   Todd Rundgren is  a favorite, and even though only one Alan Parsons Project album is listed, I have spent a lot of time listening to them, and to Supertramp.   But my favorite of all time is Eye of the Storm by Roger Hodgson of Supertramp.  He played every instrument himself, and that CD inspired me at many levels, including to write my one unpublished fiction story “Dreams.”

Putting on headphones and losing myself in an album/CD has always been a way to keep perspective.  I can’t imagine my life without this music.

* – “Best of” albums usually don’t qualify, but it’s the only one I have and I really like it.  Walk a Mile in my Shoes is one of my all time favorites.   If I had to choose a favorite song writer, I’d end up with Joe South – he wasn’t prolific, but wrote some damn good stuff!

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Hollywood, History and Afghanistan

Last night I finally got a chance to watch Charlie Wilson’s War, the true story about how a hard partying Texas Democratic Congressman pushed the US into the largest covert operation in history, supplying the Afghan mujaheddin with weapons able to prevent the Soviet Union from stabilizing Afghanistan.  The movie has a number of good points.  It’s extremely well cast, with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffmann perfectly cast and offering excellent performances.  The movie is entertaining, a bit nostalgic, and gets most of its historical facts correct.  However, its interpretation of history is vague at best and misguided at worst.

Essentially, the movie argues that Charlie Wilson virtually single handedly (or with help from the Roberts and Hoffmann characters) pulled the strings that funded the Afghan resistance, ultimately playing a major role in bringing down the USSR and ending the Cold War.  There are also strong hints that this set up what came next in Afghanistan – “the crazies” would come to power and we’d experience ‘blowback’ on September 11, 2001.  Apparently the stript originally was more overt on the latter, having an image of the 9-11 Pentagon attack at the end of the film.  Protests by Charlie Wilson and Joann Herring (played by Hanks and Roberts) got that and other allusions to 9-11 removed.

While Democrats might feel good about credit for ending the Cold War shifting from Ronald Reagan (who the Republicans consider the cause of the Soviet defeat) to a liberal yet hawkish Texas Democrat, the reality is far more complex.   The war in Afghanistan did not bring down the Soviet Union, nor did Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (which the Soviets decided was not a threat by 1987), nor should one credit the military buildup started by Carter and continued by Reagan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   The Soviet economy was in early collapse by the mid-seventies, as the KGB under Yuri Andropov reported.    The unworkability of the bureaucratic communist system doomed the USSR more than anything the US or any individual could do.  Such economic contradictions can be ignored for awhile, but ultimately they extract their price — as we’re learning here in the US as well.

Did Afghanistan play a role?  Clearly it did weaken both the regime and public support for it at a very important time for Gorbachev and his reform agenda.  However, by effectively preventing the Soviets from stabilizing the country, the US and Soviet Union doomed Afghanistan to a decade of destruction, Soviet atrocities, and shattered lives.  It set up the post-war rise of the Taliban and the country has never recovered from the decades of war that started in the mid-seventies.  Given that the Soviets invaded after getting rid of a more radical Communist to put in place one that would compromise with the Islamic groups, refusing to supply the Mujaheddin might have saved the people of that country from suffering immense hardships.

Moreover, it’s unlikely that an easier time for the Soviets in Afghanistan would have prevented Gorbachev’s rise to power or hindered his reform agenda.  In fact, a less beaten down Soviet Union may have made more stable reforms to democracy.  Instead Yeltsin drifted towards anarchy, anarchies inherently mean mafias and instability, and soon the Russians cried for a Putin.  Was this really the best result?

Another question concerns the way the Afghan conflict ignited Islamic extremism, and brought Muslims from all over, especially from the Arab world, to join the fight.  It’s what lured the young playboy Osama Bin Laden to adopt a rigid religious belief that he was the instrument of God to destroy first Communism and the Soviet Union, and now capitalism and the United States.

So if we want to credit this all to Charlie Wilson, he becomes an axial figure in modern human history.  His push to aid the Mujahideen in Afghanistan might be credited/blamed for ultimately bringing down both major late 20th century world empires, and assisting the rise of an extremist movement that, in an era of globalization, could prove extremely resilient.

And that’s where Hollywood history indeed falls short.  Reality is complex, human destinies interweave and interwine, both with each other, and with the vast and complex social structures we are born into.  Figures like Charlie Wilson are individuals, but also entail collective expressions that get put into reality.  If that sounds too esoteric, think of it in more practical terms.  There was in Germany in the late 20s and early 30s a national sense of anger, frustration, fear and a low sense of self-worth that manifested itself in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.  One can’t simply say that we’d all be better off if only Hitler hadn’t lived.  Rather, he was able to exist and act because he connected to the culture and context in a way that empowered him.  If Germany had been different, he would have remained a persuasive would be artist drifter.

Hollywood cannot get into the social fabric with much intellectual success, though even in the film on Charlie Wilson, the snippets of culture and society, especially as shown by the characters Joanna Herring and Gust Avrakatos.  One can experience that sense of reality’s cultural construction if you let yourself.  The mind has to reach out a bit, feel the complexities, and see the characters as more than just discrete individuals.  Indeed, the way Wilson was driven from being a go lucky partying career, where the big favor he wanted from Tip O’Neill was to be on the Kennedy Center board so he could get free tickets, to suddenly undertake a major policy initiative defies the simple individualist narrative.

Yet individuals do matter, they also aren’t mere conglomerations of cultural ideas and social structures.   Humans have a spirit or soul, I believe, that drives us.  Thus I cannot accept the social theories that view discourse and social development as driven simply by text or narrative, with humans being themselves constructed by cultural worlds in which they find themselves.  Those worlds could not have existed without spirit or a spark of creativity — you don’t get something from nothing.

Good historical movies pull that off that sense of balance.  Lawrence of Arabia was about Lawrence, but also about the times and the region.   The Killing Fields was not just about Dith Pran and Syd Schanberg, but about the larger issues they were swept up in.   Movies, like any art form, have the power to illicit emotional connections to the characters, and get one to feel the situation as well as just to understand it.  Given my view that modern social science (and perhaps modern academia in general) is too focused on “the head” and materialism; art and film represent a powerful way to inject emotional insight into our understanding of history and culture.

I’m not sure Charlie Wilson’s War was able to pull that off.  I enjoyed it, but the real issues were left unspoken.  It was assumed that Wilson’s war was a moral crusade to help the Afghans against the Communists, and little if anything was said about what this meant for the Afghan people.  It was frequently noted that we were there to “kill Russians;” since the Russians had invaded Afghanistan to begin with, the possibility this could be bad for the Afghans wasn’t even considered.

Still, the idea that historical change can come from a very unlikely and unexpected source is a powerful and accurate message.   Few thought in 1989 that protesters from East Germany and a mistake in a press secretary’s reading of his documents on November 9th would lead to a rapid dismemberment of the Communist bloc in East Europe.   This shows that individuals matter and can make a difference, and also that the flow of history is outside the control of any particular individual or group of individuals.   So in the end I guess I’d say Charlie Wilson’s War is a good film.  Not a great film, but a pretty good one.

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