Archive for December, 2009
The Reality Decade
Posted by Scott Erb in Afghanistan, Barack Obama, Economy, Iraq, US Politics on December 31, 2009
The first decade of the 21st century is about to come to an end. To those who say the new decade doesn’t start until 2011, I’d say that’s like saying a baby isn’t really alive until it’s first birthday. From Y2K to today, we’ve just put an interesting ten years behind us.
I’ve called the 1990s the decade of illusions, and noted how this decade has shattered those illusions. Others, from Time magazine to pundits on the news have labeled the “aughts” the ‘decade from hell.’ So where are we as 2009 comes to an end?
The difficulties of the last ten years started early. On March 11, 2000 the NASDAQ hit its high of 5011. Lou Dobbes quite his job as a news anchor to get involved in the dotcom craze, being a part of space.com. Jim Cramer said the NASDAQ could reach 8000 by the end of the year. The Bush-Gore campaign focused on how to deal with the budgetary surpluses that were expected — enough to pay off the debt within a decade or so. With the collapse of Communism, most people thought the future was bright — capitalism and democracy would expand, as would economic prosperity.
By summer the stock market had crashed. That fall into winter the US would endure a bitter contested election, one which a number of people would always consider illegitimate (though Vice President Gore graciously accepted the result). Then in 2001 the US would be hit by a terrorist strike that was a decade in the planning. Suddenly the invulnerable superpower had seen it’s economic euphoria and its military invulnerability punctured. In October 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan to try to capture Osama Bin Laden and destroy al qaeda.
In 2003 the US, defying most of the rest of the world decided to launch a war against Iraq, claiming the country harbored plans to build weapons of mass destruction. The reality was that the US wanted to dramatically alter the landscape of the Mideast to bring democracy and human rights to the region — and assure US corporate control of massive oil reserves. This would both protect the US from terrorism (democratic opportunity would diminish the allure of extremism) and assure that as oil production starts to decline, the US would be in control of its distribution. On both counts, the effort failed miserably.
For awhile, though, the US avoided confronting the reality of the collapsed illusions. In Afghanistan, the war was declared all but over, as the Bush administration dithered on how to handle the fact that Bin Laden survived and al qaeda was not destroyed. They put off any decisions on Afghanistan and focused on Iraq — where more American troops were engaged, and more oil was on the line. In Iraq the US at first claimed it was just ‘more difficult’ than expected, and we had to ‘stay the course.’ By 2006 the collapse of Iraqi society into a brief civil war made it impossible to put lipstick on the war and declare it successful. The public turned against the Bush Administration and the war, and the Democrats rode the wave to control both Congress and after 2008, the Presidency.
The US also hid economic reality for awhile with a cheap credit policy that fostered a real estate bubble, as from 2004-06 hyper-consumerism defined the economy. Savings rates went to zero, home equity loans based on the bubble fueled a spurt of consumption that created a brief illusion of renewed prosperity. That started to collapse in2007, and the oil spike of 2008 punctured that bubble completely, and put the entire US financial industry in peril of collapse. Only massive government intervention prevented total collapse, but the result was record deficits and debt.
Then in 2009 the final illusion — the idea that a new leader would come to suddenly and dramatically bring change and renewal — died as well. No President can wave his hand and change deep structural circumstances. Afghanistan worsened, attempts to stimulate the economy increased debt, and on the world stage the US suddenly found itself with a level of impotence never experienced since the end of WWII. The right would blame Obama, saying he wasn’t assertive enough, but the reality is that the US is a diminished power — not because of Obama (that over-estimates the role of the President — President Bush was even more marginalized at the end of his term) but because of the economic and political realities of 2009.
A decade from hell? Perhaps, but if so an inevitable one given the imbalances built up over the previous decades. To be sure, in many ways the 1970s were even worse — a lose in Vietnam, the Cambodian genocide (in part caused by US intervention in Cambodia), Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, two oil shocks, the Iranian revolution, Americans held hostage, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yet the US in 1980 didn’t have severe debts and deficits, and was still the primary world economy by far. I prefer to see the “aughts” as the “Reality decade.” Reality bites, the saying goes, and in the last ten years we were forced to part with the illusion that the US was an invincible dominant superpower.
The United States is a world power, but one currently in decline. Those who deny this fall increasingly into myths — they blame Obama or focus on emotional issues like wild conspiracies about global climate change (the most bizarre being the idea that scientists are engaged in some kind of massive multi-national fraud in order to gain research dollars), or other short term peripheral issues. Just as some over-estimated the ability of one person to change things, the other side makes the same error by ignoring reality in order to simply blame the President. Myths are built around national symbols, fantasies about a ‘war against Islam’ or some kind of utopian solution — if only the right policies were chosen, all ills would heal. But that is fantasy. We fell for that in the 1980s, and thirty years of trying to deny reality through debt and deficits brought us to this point.
That’s what it’s like when an empire falls. The nationalists look for scapegoats and try to deny the inevitable as long as possible. Pragmatists like Obama try to fix things, but refrain from questioning the core conditions that put us on this path. Those who benefit from the status quo try to fight needed change, worried that they’ll be worse off afterwards. The result is a continual drift downward, with small crises accentuating and hastening the decline. Whether it ends in collapse or drifts downward until at some point we simply are forced come to grips with the loss of power, the course right now is clear.
Yet there is one hope. The people might decide that we can re-embrace core values, retreat from trying to control the planet, cut unnecessary military spending, decentralize power from the central government, take on big money — the corporate and financial interests that have their tentacles deep into both political parties — and somehow break out of the hypnosis caused by bombardment from a mass media selling illusory narratives based on feeding emotion in order to gain viewers or readers. In a best case scenario, the reality decade will wake us up, and we’ll demand change. Obama’s election was indicative of that desire, even if the idea that one man could change this trend was misplaced.
The public is aware something is wrong. Populist propagandists are aware of this too, and are trying to lure the public into simplistic solutions — blame some scapegoat, promise an easy solution. We’ve seen that before — Mussolini and Hitler were classic examples. The solution is far more complex, and requires a rethinking of what kind of country we are entering the next decade. Are we up to it? And what exactly needs to be done? Those questions will be the challenge of the next decade.
Posted by Scott Erb in Uncategorized on December 30, 2009
A few have asked why my posts have become infrequent, suggesting I may be doing something good, like relaxing with family and friends and taking a break.
I’m teaching an on line course over winter term, my first web based course ever. It started out with 31 students, doing daily papers, discussion sessions, and research planning. It’s a three week compressed course, and between planning it, learning the infrastructure and actually now starting it, I’ve been doing much more work than for a normal course. It’s going well. The number of students is down to 21 (I suspect many didn’t realize how much work it would be over three weeks — the subject is “German and Italian Politics”), but tonight I’ve spent three hours since the kids went to bed grading and responding…but it’s fun. An on line course can be substandard, but I believe that the importance is for the instructor to be very involved, so I try to be.
That said, the kids are home all week, Natasha is working, so during the day we are playing. This further makes it hard to find extra time. And I’ve started transcribing old journals — dating back to when I was 13. Many of them are completely sports related — the summer of 1974 has been all about the Minnesota Twins. I do a few days inbetween other tasks, then google tidbits like “ABC Tuesday Night Movies” I watched, or other events I report on. Sometimes I get sad results — Joe Decker, a 16-14 pitcher for the Twins that year, died in Storm Lake, Iowa back in 2005. I also recall how much I liked the TV show Petrocelli.
So, between on line teaching, journal memories of Harmon Killebrew day or Rod Carew’s quest to hit .400 (he didn’t), and one of the biggest injustices of human history — Drew Pearson pushing off Nate Wright to allow Dallas to beat Minnesota and go to the Super Bowl — I’ve not had time to put together a timely or topical blog entry. Also, I was annoyingly devoted to President Nixon during the Watergate investigation.
In any event, we had a white Christmas, are enjoying true winter weather, and life is good. I wish everyone love, peace, and joy, and by next week I’ll find time to blog again (when the kids are back in school and day care, that’ll make things a bit more sane…though we’re having fun this week!)
The War on Christmas
Posted by Scott Erb in Christmas, Consumerism, Culture on December 22, 2009
There is a war being waged against Christmas, but it’s not by those who prefer “Happy Holidays” and don’t like nativity scenes on government property. The war on Christmas is being waged by capitalism, a force that at this point seems to have defeated Christmas, marginalized both the religious and philosophical ideals of the season, and has turned time with family and friends into pressured frenzied buying in the shopping malls.
Karl Polyani, who perhaps more brilliantly than any other economist or philosopher realized the true impact of capitalism on social life, recognized that unregulated markets would damage community and environment. In capitalism, everything becomes a commodity. People are “human resources,” nature is valuable only in terms of what it can produce or earn on the market, and unregulated, capitalism can consume societies whole. Capitalism is soulless, and seeks to view all of reality as products to consume or sell.
Capitalism, to be sure, is different than markets. Markets have been around for all of recorded history. Markets do not represent the dark side of capitalism. Markets regulated either by laws or the force of social norms and traditions serve the community. Many who claim to be capitalists and defend capitalism as a system are really only defending markets. Markets allow people to better exchange products, to produce what is wanted, and earn wealth for innovation and effort. Markets help free communities from shortages and suffering, organizing productive life in a manner that allows for adaption to change with the dissemination of diffuse information. So alluring are the virtues of the market that many leap to a conclusion that markets mean capitalism, and that the best markets are wholly unregulated.
Capitalism, however, is a system whereby the logic of the market becomes the religion of a society. The market is not a tool to help buy and sell, it defines the very nature of human existence. Everything is a commodity, the worth of anything is determined by its market value. Why does an inner city teacher who tries to educate children and save the lives of students who are being tempted by gangs and drugs get paid little while a back up professional athlete gets millions? The market says that’s the way it should be! The worth of what the back up defensive back is much more than the inner city teacher. A wall street trader probably offers less to society than that of an honest small town cop (given recent events, a lot less.) But in our society, the wall street trader has the most value.
This has a profound impact on human societies and psychological states. In a capitalist system, a sense of self-worth becomes problematic. It tends to get defined by wealth and what we have, rather than a sense of value to family, friends or community. For many, it leads to life as a cog in a machine. Originally it was the sweat shops of Manchester, England, working most waking hours for enough pay to barely survive, putting children to work at age 11 with no chance of a real future. Now we have worker protections, child labor laws, and get paid enough to buy televisions and computers, and take vacations now and then.
But for many this still is life as a cog. Few can take meaningful vacations, and often people fall into routines where it’s work, watch TV, relax, go to work…life in a guilded cage. Like Huxley’s Brave New World we treat our boredom with distractions. For some it’s drugs — prozac, alcohol, and other legal and illegal drugs. Even the super wealthy find themselves drawn to prescription pain killers and the need to numb that nagging recognition that material success does not provide a sense of meaning. For others the distractions may take the form of entertainment, a voyeuristic following of celebrities and their problems, being a hard core sports fan, or addiction to porn or gambling. It may be other life-dramas — affairs, conflicts, and personal situations that take over ones’ life to add excitement or a sense of danger and intrigue. Anything to numb the boredom. Others immerse themselves in religious belief, and churches can sometimes capture the sense of community capitalism has driven out of much of the western way of life. Often modern religion is taken over by the same forces: the 700 Club (and who can forget the infamous PTL Club) play to the worst of both the deviant tendencies of capitalism and our need for spectacle and distraction.
This escape from the real seems a harmless tragedy, though it is one of the main causes of our current economic and political breakdown, the scope of which I think people still underestimate. News about Tiger Woods is more important than the President’s Afghanistan plan. People who aren’t gay through themselves deep into a fight against gay marriage — something which affects them not a wit — and downplay issues of foreign policy and the economy. And people don’t notice the widening gap between rich and poor. Yet nowhere are these problems more pronounced than the capitalist war on Christmas.
Consider: the three wise men come from afar to give gifts to the Christ child to acknowledge his divinity. This becomes a tradition of exchanging gifts, originally small tokens to symbolize friendship and sharing. With capitalism this becomes the driving force of the economy. Charles Dickens, a very shrewd chronicler of the early days of capitalism, captures this in his famous Christmas Carol. Scrooge the capitalist sees the poor teeming masses as “surplus population,” with no value as they produce no goods. His cold disregard for others, but very staunch regard for good business and profit, symbolize the soul of capitalism. Money is worshipped, humanity is a tool for the creation of wealth. What gives life joy and meaning is derided as worthless sentiment, distracting one from the real business at hand — work to gain wealth. The values embraced by Christians at Christmas time are subverted by capitalism.
Scrooge, of course, is saved when confronted with the lack of meaning in his hyper-materialist world view. The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future make it clear that he has been wasting his life in a meaningless pursuit of transient trivialities, while what matters in life — love and connection to the humanity of others — got forgotten. Awoken, he gives to the poor, and saves himself by embracing the notion that wealth and markets mean less than community, friends and the real life conditions of other people. Unfortunately, capitalism as a system is immune to such a salvation. What now isn’t in the hands of some corporation? Big money seeks to expand profits with whatever means necessary. Ethics are embraced only to avoid a backlash — and even then appearance is reality. Marketers will sell a message that a company is ‘ethical’ or ‘green’ — but who checks out the claims? With the media in corporate hands, and the culture defined by a sense this is the way things should be (communism failed, after all). There is no restraint, everything is a commodity. Only when the excesses and contradictions in this state of affairs leads to collapse will people wake up.
This is the real war on Christmas. One half day with family to celebrate, weeks at the shopping mall, going through gift lists and the stress of having to get everything done. Christmas cards sent with assembly line efficiency, children making lists of what they want, their behavior itself valuable as “good” only because it gets them more presents. Santa commodifies “naughty or nice.” The themes of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ are hijacked by corporations trying to connect those values with their corporate image. Christmas becomes the most materialist day of the year.
And yet, Christmas has not yet lost. Some, like Helen at “Windows On the World,” hold on to religious values and the power of music, meditation and worship. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the universal appeal of the values put forth at Christmas: peace, love, caring, generosity, family, community and charity. Besides Dickens, there are cultural artifacts, ranging from films like It’s a Wonderful Life to silly modern cartoons like Grandma Got Runover by a Raindeer that keep our imagination from losing the sense of Christmas completely. As humans, we deep down sense that the hyper-materialism of capitalism and the commodification of all life into defining meaning as what something is worth on the market is wrong. We deep know know that being is more important than having.
If you feel stressed by the holidays, worried about plans, gifts, lists and money, seeing this as a series of chores to be accomplished, with the value ultimately in what you receive, or whether others like the gifts you gave, Christmas is losing. If the highlights are “black Friday,” going to the mall, and thinking about all the gifts you’ll return, Christmas is losing. If the movies seem too quaint or silly, and the messages of holiday cheer too corny, then at least on your private battlefield, Christmas is losing. If you feel a sense of joy, community, and find that this time of the year reminds you of the human desire for peace, love and a sense of meaning in life, and can brush aside the stress and materialism as unnecessary distractions, then there is no battlefield. If you hold on to a sense of what Christmas truly means, either in a religious sense or in the universal values affixed to the season, then you are not part of the war. The only way for Christmas to win in each of souls is to be at peace.
Obama an Historic Leader?
Posted by Scott Erb in 2012 Election, Barack Obama, Climate Change, Foreign Policy, Health Care, US Politics on December 20, 2009
Something is happening that is going under a lot of people’s radar. Barack Obama is slowly showing himself to be one of the most effective Presidents in recent history, with a style likely to go down in history. Remember: you heard it here first.
It doesn’t seem that way when you read the newspapers now. The conservative press is falling over itself trying to sell a narrative to the public that Obama is ineffective. As such, they may be fooling themselves into missing what should give them pause: Obama is making changes that cannot be easily undone, and setting himself up for ongoing success. His Presidency may end up more successful than even his campaign.
Since that doesn’t seem to be a common view right now — the left is sour that change hasn’t gone fast and far enough, and the right is pointing to low approval ratings and fantasizing about big gains in 2010. But consider the issues that have dominated this year:
1. A major economic stimulus of a size and proportion that has not been seen outside of war time. This package saved states from insolvency, and probably will lead to a spurt of economic growth that will serve the President well come 2012. Along with the repercussions from the unpopular bailouts, it also has re-defined the government’s role in the economy. Who would have thought that the Executive Branch could demand lower pay for big financial executives? That aspect won’t last, and banks are quickly paying the government back (which will also be good political news for Obama) to regain control, but as a whole the political economy will never be the same.
2. Health care reform. In the Democratic primary Clinton and Obama fell all over themselves in promising comprehensive and significant change. Of course, that was never realistic. Congress must pass health care reform, and those with a vested interest in the status quo have massive power and lobbying clout. President Clinton was surprised by the blowback from his 1993-4 effort, and when it collapsed in defeat one got the sense that the President called his staff to the oval office and said “let us never speak of this again.” Health care reform was dead.
It could still fall apart in the next week, but Obama seems to have cajoled and guided from afar a Congressional compromise that gets the most signficant reform possible to pass. To those on the left who agree with Howard Dean that this is a farce and a gift to big health business, I’d say — yes, that’s how it appears now. Those groups have so much power that you will NEVER ram anything through that will significantly undermine them. Never. Big money dominates in both parties, and corporations run America far more than bureaucracies. Politics is the art of the possible. But unlike Clinton, Obama kept the issue alive. He likely will get reform. And incrementally he can tweak the system, or when a crisis comes up take a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy to the various interest groups. They might unite to defeat a big infrastructure change, but if he can lure them into accepting one they see as “not so bad,” he can later focus on one big interest group at a time. It may take years, even beyond his administration, but Obama could be laying the framework for the most fundamental change in American politics since the new deal. It looks like he’ll pull it off, persisting despite attacks from the right and left. It’s pragmatic, persistent, Machiavellian, and the kind of leadership the Democrats haven’t had for a long time.
3. Climate Change. First the drama — the talks are falling apart in Copenhagen, and Obama flies in, holds late night meetings, and saves the conference with a “meaningful deal.” Environmental groups are upset the deal doesn’t go far enough, and the right is relieved that it’s mostly a deal in principle. But besides emerging with his reputation enhanced, Obama has kept the issue alive, able again to be built upon step by step. Remember, the Senate in principle voted 95-5 against a climate change treaty back during the Clinton years. This is another issue where strong, powerful interests and a massive well funded right wing disinformation strategy is attacking those wanting to aggressively cut CO2 emissions. If the talks had failed completely, Obama would see this issue become mission impossible — he could have still talked a good game, but it would have gotten much harder to make anything happen.
The incremental approach is also seen in the recent EPA announcement that increased CO2 emissions is a health hazard, giving the EPA the capacity to regulate it. That is just a first step — if it went too far and tried to impose harsh regulations right away, there would be a massive push back from Congress, and Obama would lose. Now he can slowly coordinate global agreements and slight changes in US regulations, perhaps cajoling Congress to make its own regulations to make sure the EPA doesn’t go “too far.” In any event, this issue has more landmines in the American political landscape than health care, yet Obama is shepherding in the only kind of change possible: gradual, incremental, and yet potentially foundational.
4. Foreign Policy. Obama sent a clear signal to the Pentagon and foreign policy establishment that he was not a push over. They tried to send him a range of plans for an open ended mission on Afghanistan. He rejected it, and ignored pressure to make his decision faster, even as the former Vice President said he was “dithering.” He didn’t let that hurry his pace until he was satisfied with his decision. He also didn’t go the easy route and appease the left in his own party by simply removing the troops and dramatically redefining the mission. Even as we continue apace to leave Iraq, Obama is setting lup a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On top of that, he’s undertaking new initiatives everywhere from the Mideast to our relationships with China and Russia, redesigning foreign policy gradually, but so far with impressive results. He didn’t let the anticipated political backlash stop him from canceling a missile defense shield set for Poland and the Czech Republic. He has signaled that the US is not going to provide defense for the world, and will work on more equal grounds with the EU, Russia and China. On economic issues this has paid off — China has done things that made the economy in the US less in peril. Russia has signaled new possibilities on START. More importantly, there is a sense that all powers want to try to bring stability to troubled regions, a true multilateralism.
Seriously, step back and think about it. A massive stimulus package with profound implications, a major health care reform act (still unfinished — if it fails this whole analysis is weakened), and small progress on climate change, but in a way that keeps the issue alive. He’s embraced a foreign policy moving away from the kind of arrogant self-importance of the past to one that is cooperative and yet principled. Issues that stymied Clinton, other Presidents and Democratic leaders, are being pushed effectively by Obama.
Those who thought Obama meant quick change are disappointed. But as a political scientist, I find myself pleasantly surprised by his pragmatism, efficacy, and recognition that politics is not about short term “wins,” but long term change. That gives me a real sense of optimism moving forward — more optimism now than in December 2008, even though the country as a whole was more optimistic about Obama at that point. He’s accomplished a lot on issues that usually halt Democrats dead in their tracks. And he’s slogging forward. But if you’re one of those on the left disappointed in Obama so far, or on the right convinced that he’s already failed, you may want to withhold judgment a little longer.
Fixing the Economy
Posted by Scott Erb in Consumerism, Economy, US Politics, World Affairs on December 19, 2009
“Unemployment is falling,” screams the headline at CNN’s business webpage. A couple of quarters of GDP growth, assurances from officials that the worst is behind us, and promising data on unemployment have some people betting that this sharp recession is past it’s bottom, and we’ll see a return to growth, perhaps fully recovered by 2012. The dollar is even of its lows, jumping from about $1.52 per Euro a couple weeks ago to $1.43 today. Maybe, just maybe, things are getting better.
I hate to throw cold water on this optimism, but unless structural problems are addressed, any recovery will be short lived. It’s being driven by the stimulus package and increased debt. That in and of itself isn’t bad — the point of the stimulus was to spur on growth, and it seems to be working. But, as I pointed out a month ago this crisis is in many ways worse than the Great Depression. Ben Bernacke, whose academic work focused on the Great Depression, handled this crisis the way he and others no doubt believe could have prevented the Great Depression after the stock market crash. He was probably right. Quick action to reinvigorate the financial sectors and stimulate the economy is having a growing impact. By the middle of next year those cursing Obama and Bernacke now may well be singing their praises. Yet the crisis is no where close to over.
Remember, back in the eighties the Reagan Administration restimulated the economy through debt and government spending, leading to an illusion of prosperity (‘it’s morning in America,’) but built on a foundation of sand. The manufacturing sector was dying and the prosperity was paid for by debt and increased trade deficits. This helped inspire a stock bubble in the 90s, and the hyper-stimulation of the economy after 9-11 fueled a real estate bubble. But each bubble burst. Only a recovery that rebalances the economy — keeps our current account in balance and ultimately works to pay down debt, at least as a percentage of GDP — can be sustained.
And again — with the baby boomers about to retire and start withdrawing from rather than paying into the social security system, medicare system, 401K plans, etc., the strain on the economy will grow. This suggests to me that it will be virtually impossible to ride yet another bubble or simply get back on track. Yet things can get better.
I’ve come to the conclusion that an increase in the government’s role in the economy will be necessary to fix this. Yet it can’t be something like bureaucratic socialism or an emphasis on government re-distribution of wealth. Rather, the government will have to create conditions conducive for economic growth and structural change. I do not believe the market can do this on its own, markets are not magic.
To libertarian minded readers who haven’t already clicked in disgust to some other website, I understand the danger. Big government is inherently dangerous. Governments wage wars, can stagnate the economy, and deny individual liberty. However, without governments, markets give in to massive corruption and organized crime. In this case governmental action caused the problem in a weird mix of too much government in terms of debt and spending, and too little in terms of regulation. The result was a massive redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich (the gap between the two is larger than ever since the 19th century), lack of regulative oversight over the financial sector, and an internationalization of capital that increased human exploitation and suffering.
To fix this, we have to embrace a few principles: a) credit is good, but high debt to GDP ratios are bad; b) the current account should stay within 2 or 3% of staying in balance; c) private debt needs to be offset by higher saving rates and reasonable regulations on credit (especially credit cards); and d) net worth in terms of wealth is not the same as savings.
a) Balance the budget through spending cuts, tax increases or (more likely) a mix of both. This should start within a year, after a recovery begins to take off (timing it will be tough — you can’t start taxing more and spending less too early, that could also damage the recovery);
b) support through tax credits and even direct grants investment and R&D into productive businesses, especially those which align with our comparative advantage. These include technology (especially green technology), alternate energy sources, and niche production. Local farming and production should be aided too. No help should go to service sector sources, as we have to shift towards production to get the current account in balance;
c) Engage in a massive overhaul of entitlements to assure they are viable for the influx of boomers retiring. This may require means testing for social security, and a health care overhaul to assure the long term viability of medicare.
d) Health care reform must be expanded to cut costs through rationing care (based on need, not wealth), limiting payment to physicians, and dramatically curtailing support for prescription drugs; and
e) US Defense spending needs to be cut dramatically, with a shift away from being a “global power” towards being able to defend the country from external attack. This means considering a withdrawal from NATO, a realist tripartite policy of working for stability with China and Russia, and removal of forces from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moreover, the financial sector must not only be regulated, but the international system needs a “new Bretton Woods.” The old Bretton Woods system, named after a resort in New Hampshire where top world economists met in July 1944 to start planning the post-war economy, was a success. It engineered a shift towards freer trade, a stable monetary policy (fixed exchange rates pegged to a gold backed dollar until 1971), and functioning international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF. However, globalization and the internationalization of capital have rendered this system obsolete. Globalization has altered and weakened state sovereignty to the point that international regulations need to be stronger; states no longer are able to reign in “big money” on the world stage.
This organization will have to effectively create rules to regulate credit markets, provide environmental standards, aid in technology transfers to the third world, promote stable monetary policies (perhaps replacing the dollar with a new global ‘currency of last resort’) and rules on trade. Free trade is the backbone of a global market economy, and capitalism does not function well without regulation and rule of law — history has taught us that much. Part of the problem now is that with globalization the old regulation regimes are no longer adequate. Another problem is that big business has so much power in the political systems of the industrialized West that regulation is resisted. Even Social Democrats in Europe have embraced market capitalism and a partnership with big business. Yet that government – business axis has created a different kind of monster, and unless we can defeat it, long term economic stability is unlikely.
We can prepare to move to a smaller carbon footprint, a new high tech energy society, a new generation of prosperity and production, and the ability to move ‘beyond oil’ as the backbone of the economy. To do so, we need to first get government out of bed with business (they’re doing nasty kinky things) and then to undertake a rational policy of targeted budget cuts, tax increases, investments in business/R&G and global regime building. Otherwise, we can probably have a “fools paradise” of apparent economic recovery until maybe 2015 or so, but it can’t last.
Finally, none of this will work unless people move away from being focused on consumerism and material stuff, and recognize the importance of family, community, and values. The policies and debt are symptoms of a deeper cultural problem, and if we don’t change that, we won’t have the will to do what is necessary for the future.
Posted by Scott Erb in Culture, Technology on December 18, 2009
My memory of computers, that is. This week I’ve been splitting my time between grading final papers and preparing for a web based course that begins December 28th. Not having taught an online course before, I’ve been spending a lot of time making sure the structure is clear, the infrastructure on “Blackboard” is set, and hoping things are uncomplicated and user friendly for the students. In a couple weeks I’ll find out if I succeeded. Meanwhile I’m grading more and more papers sent via e-mail. Some professors go virtually paperless. I suspect I’ll end up there too.
One good thing about being my age is that I’ve witnessed the growth of the computer from some fancy gizmo only big companies or universities had to an integral part of every aspect of our life. It’s pretty amazing how fast things have developed.
When I was six, the same age as my eldest son now, my dad would take us to his office, a computer service company called Data, Inc. We’d love to roam the place, looking at the punch card machines (often staffed with ‘punch card girls’ who worked even after the 9-5 shift), the big computers with huge roles of tape and lighted raised buttons. The company did payrolls and other sorts of services since back in the sixties owning a computer was a big deal!
In my first year of college (1978) my then girlfriend was taking computer science, and I recall going to the “computer room” of Augustana College. There were about four computers in a side room in the then Social Science building, actually a converted barracks. They were big, old and bulky; there was no operating system and I would have to type in commands using the “basic” language. It was time consuming, but once I spent hours programming a fake psychological test, where you answered questions and based on the answers you were given a profile. In my sophomore year my roommate had a Tandy computer that also lacked an operating system and saved programs on cassettes (you could hook a normal cassette player to the computer). There was a cool Star Trek game you could play. By my senior year Augie had a real computer center in the corner of the Gilbert Science Center, with over a dozen computers, and a new bred of human: the computer nerd. When I visited some years later, the dorm basements were all well stocked with computers.
In 1983 I took a job in Washington working for a Senator. I started in the CMS division, which used computers to keep data bases of voters, divided by issue interest, cities, and other things. We’d send letters to be printed, and be in charge of sending out the form letters. If, say, a post card campaign about an issue came in, they’d go straight to us to arrange for the form letter response. The Senator would never even know those cards came and went. It was still big computers, a green screen, and very limited functionality. I could use it as a word processor, but otherwise had to stay within the parameters of my job. When I moved to assistant Press Secretary I did get to operate a cool machine that would send images of letters and newspaper articles back to South Dakota. We called it a “telecopier;” now it gets called a fax. It stood three feet high, and had a strange smooth paper.
While working there I also entered the world of personal computing, buying a Commodore 64. No operating system, but you could buy software. The software wasn’t stored on the computer (I’d load “Paperclip” word processing software every time I used it), and the printer was a daisy wheel (the best quality — better than the yucky dot matrix or the typewriter style that got stuck all the time). Cool. For three or four years that machine served me as I got my MA, quit the job with the Senator, and then headed off to Minnesota to work on my Ph.D.
The computer lab at Minnesota was impressive for the late eighties. They had a laser printer, which everyone considered to be awesome. It wasn’t until the third year that I started using it, as I realized that Wordperfect was a much better software than Paperclip. We also could play games like Tetris and Simcity (some got addicted to the point they never finished their dissertations). Then in 1989 I got a Mellon Grant to go to Germany. That led to my first laptop.
It cost only $500, and was an Olivetti with two disk ports. That was important; it had no hard drive, so if I wanted to use Wordperfect I’d have to have the Wordperfect disk in one port and the disk I’d save my files to in the other. Its screen was not back lit, so it was hard to read (blackish on greenish). It was also heavy. But for the price, it couldn’t be beat. It was my companion in Germany in the summer of 1989. Before leaving on that trip our computer guru told me about “bitnet,” or the ability to send instantaneous messages from one university to another. It was, of course, e-mail — and to use it I would have to go to a university and have their computer department send it. Too complex, I thought.
After that trip my Olivetti served me until I got my DAAD scholarship to go to Germany in the fall of ’91. Before leaving I plopped down $1600 to buy a new Zeos laptop. It was luxury! A backlit screen so I could see clearly the words (no graphics, to be sure), a 286 processor, and something my Olivetti didn’t have — a hard drive. I could keep Wordperfect on the computer, and even save files. That machine served me in Germany, and was what I wrote my dissertation on. After I got back from Germany I found that we had all been assigned e-mail addresses: mine was email@example.com. From school, or from my office at St. Olaf when I taught there, I could use e-mail. I also could go to usenet discussion groups and debate politics and science, an experience I’ll write a whole blog entry about later. I even started to go to the world wide web, though it still was hard to navigate and lacked interesting content.
Up until this point computers were tools for what I was working on — papers, resumes, stories, dream journals, etc. Now it was becoming a mode of communication with connections to the outside world. The revolution was beginning!
In the Fall of 1995 I started work at UMF and finally got a real state of the art desktop computer. A Packard Bell Legend 406C, Pentium 75 with an 850 MG harddrive and 8 MG RAM. Wow! It even had a modem, and I could call up and get on line from my apartment. I also was able to get E-mail on a program called Eudora, which made e-mail communication easier to manage. Usenet group debates grew as well, and the internet got interesting, with even CNN and other news organizations posting things on line. One faculty member started his own webpage, and by 1997 when Frontpage software meant no longer having to learn html, I started mine as well. During the Kosovo war in 1999, a war which I opposed, I started posting daily entries talking about the war. I stopped after a few months, but I had posted my first blog — even though the term “blog” was not yet in use.
Now I have a Dell Latitude E6400 laptop, 2GB RAM, and a hard drive with 150 GB. Yet as students text, twitter, and colleagues use blackberries and Kindles, I realize that the pace of technological advancement just keeps growing. Back in 1995 most students still didn’t actively use e-mail; now it is a primary means of communications and students are required to have it and pay attention to it.
There is something really cool about being able to live through the growth of this technology, using it as it changes, and experiencing how it changes my life and our culture. When I was in college I dreaded aging — not just physical discomfort, but the idea that the glorious set of future possibilities would fade. Yet possibilities for the future still abound, the present is where one exists, and the past offers a reach set of memories that give life a sense of meaning and depth.
So from punch cards to wireless high speed home internet, what a trip this computer era has been…and still is.
Obama’s Rhetoric and Reality
Posted by Scott Erb in Barack Obama, Health Care, US Politics on December 16, 2009
President Obama’s job approval ratings have been slipping, driven in large part by dissatisfaction from the Left. As the public option fades from the health care bill, financial reforms seem meager and geared towards the interest of big business, and the change promised in the campaign seems to become “more of the same,” those who were inspired by candidate Obama find themselves underwhelmed by President Obama. What’s happened?
Part of it is simply the economy. As unemployment climbs over 10% and people worry about debt and deficits, it’s only natural they’ll blame the President. Obama inherited this crisis, but that doesn’t matter — he’s the guy at the top now. The big problem he faces with those who supported him is that he campaigned on rhetoric that is simply impossible to fulfill. Our system is geared to slow change, and the influence of special interests on Congress is something that no President can overcome.
Senator Lieberman is a very good friend of the insurance industry, for instance. So are other Senators. So when the lobbyists call and implicitly promise campaign contributions and support for those who help their business — often businesses in states represented by various Senators — they have clout. Given the filibuster rule which allows 40 Senators to block legislation if they choose (and for the last decade that rule has been increasingly abused, in my opinion), it becomes nearly impossible to pass any significant legislation that steps on the toes of powerful interest groups in the US. Since the President wants to get something…ANYTHING…he’s forced to compromise to the point that his own supporters become sour on the end result.
The President could try reconciliation, a process that only needs 51 votes, but that move prevents a lot of key reforms that aren’t related to the budget, especially important reforms to the insurance industry. It would be very messy, and probably end up taking even more time. Moreover, side issues can impede the process. Pro-life politicians demand that the new system not pay for abortions. And they have enough votes to force yet another compromise, again angering Obama’s core constituency. Obama, more a pragmatist than revolutionary (those who called him socialist and saw him as some radical leftist should at least feel relieved), goes along with it, much to the chagrin of his core supporters.
To those who don’t like the result, don’t blame Obama or the Democratic leadership. This is how American politics works. Even the heavy compromises that cause liberal Democrats to sour on the health bill would not have been enough to pass reform if it wasn’t for the large Democratic majorities in each house. The American system is geared towards incremental and slow change. The Republicans have also been using effective fear tactics to wear down public opinion, prompting an angry outburst from Senator Franken who bluntly (and accurately) accused some GOP Senators (in particular Sen. Thune of South Dakota) of lying.
Incremental change also means that change continues. Once a bill passes, a major new health care system will be in place. It won’t go away. If it fails to save money or protect patient rights, there will be pressure to reform it. Over the years it will morph into something different. If nothing is passed, the process of change does not begin. If a flawed bill is passed, the first steps will have been taken. Politics is the art of the possible, and this is all that is possible.
Obama is showing himself to be a pragmatic and cautious politician. After the last eight years, that is a breath of fresh air. That isn’t in accord with the rhetoric of change that he ran on, inspiring hope that the new President could somehow change politics in Washington and dramatically alter the course of political events. That rhetoric has met the reality of vested political interests, lobbyists and others in Washington who control the way the game is played. While Americans left and right buy into the fiction that the President is “the most powerful man in the world,” the reality is that the President is constrained by powerful actors with influence in Congress, the bureaucracy, the media, and the economy.
President Clinton learned this lesson in 1994, and saved his Presidency by deciding not to fight — he got on board with the special interests. Clinton went from being an agent of change to become a cautious, even a conservative President. Will Obama beat the same path?
Liberals on the left fear he will. Obama inspired hope for change, but confronted with the powerful interests of the status quo, he seems to be making a deal with the devil — he’ll play by the rules if they help make his Presidency go smoothly. The watered down health bill, they believe, is evidence. Obama didn’t campaign across the country and fight for real reform, something many on the left believe could have made a difference.
There is another alternative. With almost all the GOP dead set against change, power inevitably sat in the hands of Senators like Lieberman, Nelson, and Snowe. Nothing Obama could have done nationally would have altered their approach — and he would have set himself up for a humiliating defeat. You only go to war if you know you’ll win, and Obama certainly knew that radical health care reform was a gamble. It could be that instead of playing poker, where you gamble big to win or lose big, Obama’s playing chess. Get something passed — even if it is flawed. Think three moves ahead. Think of how the system can be tweaked, how to react when something doesn’t work, master the “art of the possible.” In that case progressives should hold their nose and support reform, recognizing that it creates a new infrastructure unlikely to go away, and does significantly protect consumers from insurance companies.
People expect and want sudden and dramatic change. But that’s not how the world works, especially not the Senate. Obama’s rhetoric was lofty and inspirational, his governing style is pragmatic and patient. On climate change, health care, and economic policy he’s passing what he can pass, which taken together is a pretty full plate of initiatives. Obama is accomplishing more than most Presidents in his first year, setting up the opportunity to build on these changes moving forward.
Like it or not, the vested interests in Washington hold real power, and cannot be pushed aside with populist rhetoric. By working with them, it appears to many that they are co-opting Obama. If Obama plays his chess right, he might actually be co-opting them.
(This is a self-indulgent post, I apologize in advance). The past couple of days I’ve been going through old papers in order to determine what I want to keep, and what can be thrown. This means looking through old notebooks from school, journals I was keeping when I was 12 or 13, and even an eighth grade sports column about the Foreman – Ali fight. I also found report cards. The earliest was from 4th grade, a number were from Junior High and High School. I was not a good student.
My worst subject was English — and my handwriting was atrocious. I did OK in history, and math depended on the teacher. My best subject was science. Some teachers would inspire an “A,” but usually I could cram in the study hall before the exam and manage a “C.” Except for a praising note home from a Psych teacher in 11th grade, I was at best an average student. In reality, I was a poor student that became average in high school.
I was an escapist. I never connected in a lot of my classes, and in eighth grade failed one of the easiest classes in Junior High – Photography. I never did my final project. I got kicked out of journalism class for failing to interview one of the coaches, and instead of reporting to the office to get re-assigned to study hall, I roamed the halls during that period the rest of the semester. They never caught me.
I took those traits into college. In my freshman year I had my first two exams on the same day, a Philosophy test from Dr. George Bowles, and a Biology test. I got a D- on my Bio exam, and an F+ (an odd grade) on philosophy. That night I recall thinking “I’m paying for this, this is my future. I’m smart. I can do better.” From then on I got A’s all the way through. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, 5th in my class, from Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
Still, I was an average student up until college. In fact, in grade school I was probably a fair to poor student, a bit below average. I never thought I was dumb, I always knew I could do better — the term “he has good potential” was assigned to me a lot (I could empathize with Linus Van Pelt). I just didn’t really care about the assignments and activities done in class. When I did care, I’d do really well. When I didn’t I was off in my own world. I’d get a C in science while writing my own notebook about the planets, their moons and the solar system. I’d almost fail English but every morning in home room (the typing room) I’d churn out sports columns for classmates to read. One piece I found last night was a fictional account of a “double no-hitter” — Bert Blyleven and Ray Corbin teaming to no-hit the mighty Oakland A’s back-to-back during a double header. Rather than learn from my teachers I’d emulate Sid Hartman and other sports writers.
Yet when I got to college and decided, OK, I’ll focus, I got straight A’s. I went on to get an MA from Johns Hopkins, and my Ph.D. from Minnesota. To be sure, that part of me that does what I want is one reason I’m at a small rural teaching university and not competing to be a top researcher at some big name school. I don’t want to play that game, I love teaching and don’t want the publish or perish stress. Like back in school, I have the belief that if I had wanted to I could have focused on an academic career and made a bigger name for myself, but why go to the trouble? Here I think that part of me that caused me to do poorly in school rescues me from the perils of being an over-achiever in my career.
As I see my children enter the education scene, I start to wonder how seriously I should take it if they don’t do well in school. Most of my colleagues — academics — are not like me. Most were good students from the get-go, and expect the same from their kids. Most probably think that if one falls behind in school it’s hard to recover. Yet it wasn’t at all hard for me. It could be that I’m naturally intelligent (when I was younger, I liked to think so). I did always do well on standardized tests, am quick thinking and have a good memory and verbal skills. But I’ve been teaching long enough to know those skills aren’t the same as intelligence.
More likely, I developed the skills I needed outside of what the schools graded. I was always an avid reader, even if it wasn’t what was assigned for class. I’ve been writing my whole life, including short stories and poems as early as the third grade. I’ve been fascinated by politics, religion, and world affairs since I can remember. I read the entire Bible when I was 13 (chapters each night), followed the Watergate hearings at 13 and 14, and devoured magazines about world affairs. Sometimes it got weird (at age 12 a book called “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay convinced me that Jesus was coming soon and the world was about to end), but that’s all part of growing up. I might not know about the civil war for the history test, but I knew what was going on between Israel and Egypt. I didn’t care about school, I cared about what interested me. Yet I came to college a decent writer and a good reader with a lot of background knowledge in science and world affairs. My weakest area was English (I didn’t know a direct object from a past participle), but when when I took German I was forced to learn grammar.
In fact, my blog really reflects those interests I had as a child. I was into philosophy, music, politics, and spiritual matters for as long as I can remember. My mom says that when I was three and told that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, I was very worried about his killer. I hoped that Lee Harvey Oswald was sorry and apologized before he was killed so that he could go to heaven (all I remember is the newspaper had a color photo of Kennedy — that was rare in 1963). In fact, going through my old photos and materials it really struck me that although the specifics of my beliefs have changed, I’m very much the same person. At one time I was a devout Christian, now I’m into a more universal spiritualism. At age 12 I went door to door to canvas for President Nixon, now I would back Senator McGovern. Yet, looking at all those old artifacts, my basic personality, interests, and focus in life has been pretty consistent. I’ve also been pretty consistent in doing what I want to do how I want to do it, regardless of the expectations of the world around me.
Which brings me back to education. I hope my kids do well in school, but what really matters is engaging the world and learning the basic skills of reading and writing. I’m going to fill the house with science projects, learning about the world, and foster a love for reading (which Ryan already has). If they do well in school, great. If not, I’m going to look at how they are living, and if they show curiosity, knowledge and a continued desire to read, write and explore. If so, I won’t sweat it. It’s their life, and as long as they go to college or the work world with the basic skills needed to do well, they can. I’m also going to look at their interests and priorities knowing that they will show me in these first years who they are, as it’s likely that their basic values and interests are going to be similar throughout their lives. And, of course, knowledge and education are pointless without the ethical values one needs to live a worthwhile life.
Sorry for the self-indulgent post – I spent much of the last weekend reliving the past through these old materials, so that’s what is on my mind today.
Health Care Reality
Posted by Scott Erb in Health Care, US Politics on December 11, 2009
As the House and Senate race towards an elusive goal of finding a compromise that can get some kind of health care reform in place, I think we need a sense of reality about where this is going.
Whatever gets passed will be significantly altered over time. Right now the goal is to get some kind of structure in place so that a new system is born. Once in place it will be all but impossible to eliminate. However, the kinds of compromises being made will create imbalances that will require change and generate political heat.
The current Medicare buy in plan will be a problem from the start. Hospitals are already reimbursed far too little under Medicare, and expanding this will mean dramatic cuts to hospitals across the country. Many small rural hospitals might face existential crises if this plan is passed, especially those in areas of relative poverty and high median ages.
Alas, both the Democrats and Republicans are afraid of the political consequences of acknowledging reality.
The Republicans are most off base when they assert that the system works well as it is, that we’re messing with a good thing, and try to make claims that others ‘flock to the US’ for quality care and that we are the “envy of the world.” They are wrong on two counts: a) few come to the US, and those who do are almost wealthy because we have a system that gives the best care to those with the most money; and b) the system is in a state of implosion right now, with insurance premiums set to rise dramatically in coming years, often pricing businesses out of being able to offer insurance, or at the very least dramatically increasing employee contribution rates. This means that more money will be sucked into the health care system even as people earn less and deal with an ongoing recession. The problem gets worse as the boomers retire.
Meanwhile Medicare and Medicaid patients are receiving unbelievable amounts of prescription drug care, far beyond what is reasonable. The power of pharmaceuticals in our economy can make even the Mexican drug cartels jealous. Simply, we have a health care system in a state of severe crisis, the worst of which is yet to come. If we do nothing, it won’t be like post-1994 when the failure of health care simply led to the status quo continuing and only those tens of millions who lack coverage (and usually don’t vote) truly hurting. This time, within a few years, the clamor for change will grow as insurance costs skyrocket. Our system cannot survive as it is.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are wrong in saying that we can change things in a painless manner. Health care costs have to be brought down dramatically, and that means decreasing costs and making tough decisions about what to cover. Does an overweight 75 year old really deserve an expensive hip replacement? Right now health care is rationed by the market, meaning that if you have money you get better care than if you don’t. Yet we see the signs of even that tattering. People are getting claims denied for all sorts of trivial reasons, often things that won’t stand up if seriously challenged. They know people can’t afford to fight, and often they can find technicalities to deny coverage. This means even people who think they are covered are increasingly finding that the profit driven insurance industry doesn’t care about health care, they care about profits. Innocent mistakes or bits of ignorance about arcane rules can lead to a ‘gotcha’ game of coverage denial.
The only way to cut costs is to decrease the number of procedures, stop covering ‘vanity’ procedures, cut the amount of prescriptions written, decrease hospital costs by reducing the level of service (four bed rooms or more, shared equipment, etc.), and reduce pay to physicians and hospitals, meaning a downsizing of the health care industry.
If the Democrats came out and said that, they’d have no chance of passing health care reform.
So, as is typical in our post-modern political system, the two parties ignore reality, compose their own narratives to support their positions, and push the real problems off. The Democrats realize something has to be done so they are trying to get something passed, knowing that the current system is untenable. You can always tweak or alter the system later. The Republicans concerned with health care reform raise good points too. Senator Snowe is right that the current bill would be devastating to many hospitals, and the moderates who question given plans often have good reason.
Yet many of the moderates and the opponents are either in denial of the reality that no matter what is done costs will skyrocket, or they are enmeshed with trivialities. It is surreal to see people who insist the private sector does everything better now say that the private sector can’t compete with any public option. But it’s absurd to think that a public option will magically reduce costs without people noticing any change in service.
Health care costs are rising at an unsustainable level. The current system will not survive the next decade, no matter what is done. The only way to reduce costs and make programs like Medicare sustainable in the long run is for a major restructuring in how care is provided and paid for. Since this restructuring involves cutting costs, it will be unpopular, and will deny people a level of care they have been used to. It will mean cutting physician pay (especially specialists), cutting overhead costs that now go to insurance companies (not just cutting insurance company profits, but the cost of administrating the system), cutting profits to pharmaceuticals and giving Americans more limited options.
Neither party will say this. They’ll either deny the reality with platitudes like “we have the best health care” or point to “savings by ending fraud and inefficiency” as the way out of the mess. A vast majority of the cost of health care is spent in the last ten years of life. As the boomers age, the strain on the system will grow proportionally. As we learned from the advent of this economic crisis, reality ultimately cannot be denied. The reality of health care in America is that something drastic will have to be done sooner or later — and the politicians on all sides of the debate aren’t giving us the full story.
Human Nature and War
Posted by Scott Erb in Culture, Life, Psychology, Science and philosophy on December 10, 2009
(Mookie’s article on a short history of warfare caused me to think about whether or not war is really part of human nature, or what human nature actually is)
I doubt most of us really reflect on what it means to be human. We are born into a world, find ourselves enmeshed a cultural-historical context which shapes much of who we become. Those born in the industrialized West will have an orientation towards individualism, materialism, and progress as an expectation. Being human for us is to strive to improve ourselves, succeed in material terms, and look for life to get better as time goes on. We usually expand this to the next generation — we want our children to have a better life than we do.
It’s really easy to take those cultural perspectives and posit them as reflecting “human nature.” It seems natural for us to “want more stuff” to “compete to succeed” and expect progress. Yet at other times in history centuries would pass in which the future was expected to be the same as the past. Progress was non-existent, maintenance of tradition and culture was the norm. Material prosperity might exist for a ruling class, but most people did not have excess consumption — your material goods were there to provide needs: food, shelter, clothing and tools. Success was survival, and communities operated in a tight knit communal manner — individualism was vastly constrained. Often the spiritual or religious was far more important than the material. What does the 45 years on this planet matter in comparison to an eternity of paradise?
The vast array of human cultures and historical traditions provide a hodge podge of ‘human natures,’ all of which might seem fundamental to the essence of being human if you live in that culture. Warrior cultures care less about life than about honor, some cultures embrace and respect human sacrifice, with the victims often welcoming their chance to play that role.
So can we say anything about a core human nature? Are we simply products of our time and place, constructed by socio-cultural forces we cannot control? Perhaps during a life we can transform our cultures a bit (though only if we can get a lot of other people to join the effort), but usually we learn to reproduce our world and it’s basic shared understandings and beliefs. We reproduce it without question if we think it natural.
Biologically one can talk about human nature in terms of some basic elements necessary for survival. We need to eat, we need to procreate, we need shelter, and we need a certain modicum of hygiene to avoid sickness. Psychologically we need to be part of a community. Human children left alone do not develop. If they live, they cannot function. Humans are also adaptable. We build cognitive maps based on the world we experience, which allows humans born into vastly different cultures to adapt and conform to the expectations within which they find themselves. That adaptability is part of our evolutionary success.
From there — the need to satisfy biological requirements, the need for community, and the capacity for adaption — we get a starting picture of a kind of fundamental human nature. Any culture we build has to allow us to thrive biologically and must entail a community. Therefore culture is an aspect of human nature. We don’t exist outside of a community with defined ways of life, ranging from basic and primitive to complex and sophisticated. We can adapt to all of them which satisfy our basic biological and psychological needs.
Another need is a need for meaning. This is a bit more controversial, since one can survive without thinking about what life or reality means. It could be that a sense of meaning a spiritual dimension of human nature, connecting the transcient and corporal with the eternal. Or perhaps the need for meaning comes from our need of community — there is no reason to connect with others unless that connection has meaning. It can be very basic, connected to our biological needs. We help each other survive. Yet from the start that gets translated into notions of identity (our tribe/clan) and then myths about why the world is as it is (proto-religious beliefs, God stories). Regardless of the culture, we seek to create a sense of meaning for our lives and that culture.
From all of this we can see why conflict and war can occur and even be common amongst humans. First, due to scarcity we may have to choose between having our biological needs fulfilled or letting someone else fulfill theirs. Humans are willing to sacrifice for others, even to the point of starvation. However, that only occurs when people identify with others, they are part of their family or community. One might risk death to save the tribe’s winter stock, the tribe is more important than the individual. Most of us parents would definitely put our childrens’ lives above our own.
Moreover, since we are meaning-creators, building myths and traditions to link and give rationale for the existence of a community, it’s also possible to fight over differences in meaning. For instance, most tribes created Gods to worship and to credit for acts of nature. As tribes interacted this led at first to polytheism — we have our Gods, they have theirs. But as communities developed agriculture, meaning that property rights came into being (we tilled this field, what grows here is our field), tribes started to see their God as stronger. The ancient Hebrews, originally a polytheistic tribe (the God of Israel was simply their God) moved to monotheism, or a claim that of all the peoples on the planet with different Gods, theirs was the one true God. As societies became more complex so did the mythologies. They coalesced into the great world religions. Now people could either fight over resources, or about the meaning of life, based on religious beliefs.
Even as we secularized in the last millennium myth came to dominate war causes, especially in the forms of nationalism or ideology. Ideology could be used to rationalize the holocaust, Stalinist purges, or the mass slaughter of the Cambodian genocide. Ideology could also be used to rationalize one community’s self-interest at the expense of another’s. If meaning is constructed in a way that defines those outside ones’ given community as unimportant, it’s possible to kill, terrorize, rape or enslave them without conscience. The difference between a terrorist, someone who gives their life to save another’s or a soldier who sacrifices for his or her country is that they have internalized a set of meanings which defines what they are doing as something noble and serving of their community. On the other hand, if individuals define meaning in terms of individualism, denying the necessity of community, it’s possible to rationalize doing anything to others — true sociopathic behavior.
So if human nature comes down to biology, psychology, and a need for meaning, then the various forms of conflict and human cruelty are not natural, but cultural expressions of fundamentally benign expressions of our core nature. We need food. We need shelter and security. We need community. We need to create meaning for our lives. We don’t need to do so in a way to rationalize genocides or warfare, those are the choices we’ve made — choices often made more likely by the belief that one’s cultural norms reflect “true” human nature.
If we are over going to overcome the problems of warfare and exploitation, we have to find a way to provide for peoples’ biological needs, sense of community, and quest for meaning in a manner that does not de-humanize others or posit ones’ own cultural world view as the true expression of human nature. That gives a sense of short term pessimism, but long term optimism. Given the prevalence of extremist religious, ideological and nationalist beliefs, and the scarcities on this planet, the likelihood we’ll overcome war and repressive governments any time soon is low. Cultures change slowly, and we’re in a period of instability and rapid change.
Yet in the long run we should be able to do it. It’s not that hard to grasp. We already hold it in some of our slogans — live and let live, to each his own, it takes all kinds to make up a world, etc. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this era as part of the dark and violent pre-history of human kind.