Archive for December, 2009

Looking Back

(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

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

(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.


Copenhagen Dreaming

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to begin negotiation on a successor treaty to the 1992 Climate Change Convention and subsequent Kyoto Protocol, I am optimistic that the corner may have been turned and the world can act in time to have a chance to mitigate the worst dangers associated with global warming.

Last October I gave a pessimistic view of what the future will be like, given the dangers of climate change.   That still stands.   Yet as the US moves to more aggressively combat CO2 pollution, and the EU proves that cutting emissions does not hurt the economy — indeed, it seems to help as it yields new types of research and development — I believe our chances of avoiding the worst future scenarios are improving.

First, a few things that need to be made clear.   There is very little controversy about the fact that the earth is warming, and warming in correlation with a rise of CO2 levels.   That is obvious.   Moreover, despite efforts by some to make a minor e-mail scandal at one university involving just a few scientists out to be something big, it’s not.   Nothing in that “scandal” calls into doubt the overwhelming evidence that global climate change is happening, and that humans are likely involved.   In fact, it takes an ignorance of science to think that it could — most of the evidence has nothing to do with the three or four people involved there.   Finally, it is also true that there are alternative theories about why the earth is warming, and many believe that the correlation with the increase in CO2 may be due to other factors, and point out that the climate science is full of uncertainties.

If you get past the politics-induced views on all sides of the issue, the question splits in two.   First, is climate change occurring?   The answer: Yes, with about as much certainty as possible in this field.    Second, are humans to blame?   The answer: it is very probable that humans are a significant portion of the cause.  It is possible that humans are not a major cause.

We can quibble, but those questions seem pretty settled by science (recognizing that settled science does sometimes change — we no longer think that light waves flow through an invisible ether, for instance).   The harder question has always been “what should we do about it?”    There, I think, the answer is coming into view.

First, libertarians, skeptical of big government, are right to be cynical about the ability to have government action and agreements regulate us out of the crisis.    The emphasis many on the left put on Kyoto or hopes for a new Copenhagen treaty ignores the limits of international law, and bureaucratic costs of regulation.   Indeed, because so many are focused on arguing against the science rather than the policy, this skepticism of regulation as the solution has been understated.   The skeptics lose the debate about science, but if the debate is about policy they could win some major points.

Second, fears about the economic consequences of limiting CO2 emissions appear misplaced.   It does not cost jobs nor does not hurt the economy to cut emissions.   In fact, if done right it can yield economic gains and ultimately will render us less susceptible to another energy crisis caused by our oil addiction.    (One of the most vociferous blogs against climate change action has an author who boosts about the junkets he gets from oil companies — hmmmm, no propaganda there, right?)

The EU’s success with the Kyoto targets along with the Obama administration’s willing to use climate change as a way to jump start the economy with new technological initiatives makes me think that we may be very near the day when the developed world stabilizes it’s CO2 emissions and undertakes a rational energy strategy to overcome dependence on oil.   This would address two real threats: declining oil production and climate change.

Once business comes on board recognizing that this is not only good for the earth, but also good for business, we’ll see a sea-change in attitudes about issues such as “cap and trade.”    Government regulations will not have to be overly bureaucratic and tightly enforced, but can be guidelines usually self-enforced.   That’s happened in most of Europe; I think once Obama gets past his early rough patch (every new President has one — though Bush the Younger’s was shortened thanks to the terror attack), this will take hold in the US.

Yet that’s not the hard part.   Right now we’re at about 380 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.   Scientists seem to think that 350 is the last “safe” number, and to get there we have to decrease the amount in the atmosphere.    The target now is generally to allow us to reach 450 ppm, giving us a 50-50 chance to avoid the most dire scenarios.   The increase to 450 will not come from the developed world, but the developing world as it continues industrialization.   China, India and especially Asian emerging markets will drive the increase.

Herein lies the real challenge.   Assuming the developed world does continue its shift to a sustainable output, how can we demand the developing world, where even with economic growth material conditions lage still far behind the West, cease increasing their output?   The only feasible way is through technology transfers, but that involves tricky questions of how they get paid for, if there are patent protections involved, and the potential to give developing countries an unfair advantages on the world markets.    It seems, though, that these are problems that can be dealt with, especially as western energy companies, creating real alternatives to oil, start having an interest in engaging new markets.

Since none of this requires any major level of heavy handed regulation, it could well be that leaders in Copenhagen could work on a process that does not require an actual treaty.   Treaties have the status of law, and in the US 1/3 of the Senate plus one — 34 Senators — can block a treaty.   Given the industrial lobby against regulation, it would be hard to get 67 votes for a significant treaty.   A mix of regulations, global commitments to collaborate and work pragmatically on goals to reduce emissions, create incentives for alternate energy, and handle concerns about technology transfers could be done without an actual treaty.   If they do get a treaty, it could be one palatable to the Senate.

Unfortunately, so many on the “left” have defined success in terms of getting a tough treaty out of Copenhagen that it might be hard to embrace a “soft” approach of incentives and a shift in business culture.   This will also never convince the died in the wool skeptics, many who embrace patently false claims like “the world has been cooling since 1998” and treat this issue as a political football.   They know the result they want, and will make any argument or push any “meme” that advances that goal.   For them, truth is irrelevant, power is what matters.    It will also never be enough for those who want to latch global wealth redistribution onto the climate change issue and use fear of global crisis to address other political goals.

But for those who really are concerned about the future of the planet, want to see CO2 emissions decreased, and hope to cut our dependence on foreign oil, this may be the right approach.   And so, with all due caveats in place, I’m cautiously optimistic — really for the first time in years — that we are on the right path.


A Decade Of Shattered Illusions

When it became clear that the Y2K bug that everyone feared would have no impact on the new millennium, people dove into the year 2000 with extreme optimism about the future.    For the next ten years illusion after illusion would be shattered, and we enter 2010 a humbled and wounded nation.   Here are a few of those shattered illusions:

1.  Stock market growth is permanent; anyone can get rich if they are just smart enough to invest in stocks (especially new economy ‘technology’ stocks like the dotcoms).   This illusion was widespread, as people focused on ever rising stock prices, with books out predicting “Dow 30,000” or even “Dow 100,000.   The Dow had zipped above 11,700, and on March 11, 2000 the tech heavy Nasdaq hit 5011.   CNBC guru Jim Cramer said he wouldn’t be surprised if Nasdaq hit 8000 by the end of the year.   That was the high point — by the summer of 2000 stocks were in step decline as the inevitable crash came.    People suddenly had to put off retirement, and the easy road to wealth vanished.   The heady go-go “roaring 90s” came to a screeching halt…at least for awhile.

2.  The US has solved its budget problems and now will experiences large surpluses.   Based on completely irresponsible extrapolations from the economy of the late 90s it was thought the US would pay off its debt quickly, and within a decade have surpluses of $16 trillion.   The dollar reached a high of 79 cents a Euro, and people claimed that our “free market” approach was working.    Capitalism and liberal capitalism was soaring!   Yet as early as 2002 it became clear that no surplus was on the horizon, as government revenues didn’t meet expectations, spending increased, while the Bush administration gave tax cuts — cuts paid for through borrowing.   Now debt and deficits are higher than ever, comparable to past times fo war.

3.   Cheap oil was here for the duration, no more oil crises!   The Economist magazine, often an early detector of false illusions, fell for this one as it had a cover story about the “oil glut.”   The US produced massive numbers of SUVs, ignored warnings about the environment or oil consumption, and imported very cheap OPEC oil at record levels.  Gas was often about 80 cents a gallon at the start of the decade.   That changed quickly, and by 2008 oil had jumped to $150 a barrell with gas prices nearing $5.00 a gallon.   It’s now down to “only” about $80 a barrel, but fears of ongoing shortages and production shortfalls should economic revival occur are real.

4.  After the fall of Communism the US is the dominant unipolar power, guarantor of global stability, and a force for good in the world.   After fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, which showed the very limited capacity of the country to effectively project military power to achieve political ends, the US is no longer a feared hyper-power.    The Iranians and North Koreans, hesitant early in the decade, came to mock US threats by 2006.   The public turned against military options for foreign policy, and the US military became overstretched and overburdened.  The suffering of US military families was immense as multiple deployments, psychological problems and strains on families mounted.   The US could not shape political results in the Mideast, and was increasingly vulnerable to China, the Arab states and Europe on the economic front.

5.   The real estate market is a safe investment, and a fine way to make money.   Buoyed by economic policies designed to keep the economy percolating after the 9-11 terror attacks, cheap credit fed a real estate bubble that quickly “saved” the country from a recession.   This bubble led to a renewed speculation, and an even starker crash when its residuals rippled through the financial sector in late 2008.   Now the economy stands in deep recession, and the US appears in more trouble economically than any time since the Great Depression.   This crisis has been thirty years in the making, and will not be solved quickly.

6.  Barack Obama’s election marks a major turning point in American policy and will lead us to be able to solve the problems caused by the Bush-Cheney administration.   Alas, blaming one administration and finding another to heroically solve the problems is the stuff of films and fantasy, not reality.   The problems were not all caused by the Bush Administration, and Obama has limited capacity to solve them.    As his approval rating falls, mostly due now to dissatisfaction on the left, people are coming to grips with the fact that the United States and the world are not what we believed they were on January 1, 2000.   Reality bites, and it has bitten hard.

The good news is that these illusions were never true, and it was inevitable that they would shatter.   The decade from 2000 – 09 was a reality check, as the United States learned that its hyperconsumerism, militarism, and belief in “the good life on the cheap” could not continue on the set course.    We learned that markets are not only fallible, but extremely dangerous when unregulated.    Moreover, the babyboomers are going to start retiring, taking money out of the system instead of putting money into it.   The costs will break the budget, even if we can get health care under control and extricate ourselves from expensive wars.    The good news is that we now can look at the past and future with a clear sense of vision.

The bad news is that there are still illusions — or delusions — being hawked by propagandists.   On the right the “tea party” movement, though still small, represents a nationalist effort at scapegoating from the right (Obama is bringing socialism, climate change is a ‘hoax’, “they” are trying to change to some elitist vision “real” Americans reject).  These are the same themes used by folk like Hitler and Goebbels when German illusions were shattered in WWI.   Rather than confronting the problems the country faces, you aim at an enemy, and say “if only those evil liberals/socialists/pacifists would stop undercutting the war effort and believe in America, then all would be better.”  Emotion is aroused, anger is kindled into a righteous rage, and the followers stop thinking.   The movement becomes more important than rational reflection.

On the left, Obama tapped into a segment looking for someone to somehow fix all of what was wrong, blaming everything on Bush’s wars and tax cuts, while overlooking the structural problems caused by the way both Democratic and Republican governments led the country for the past thirty years.    Obama’s campaign propaganda was just as emotion-laden as that on the right, reflecting the sense that change was coming to save the country and undo the problems of the past.    When problems don’t go away people sour on the change, we yearn for those days lost in illusion, not wanting the hard work of solving real problems.

Yet, while “hope” for Obama or “rage” against “liberals” can satisfy many political voyeurs, the reality is that we now face a momentous decision.   Will we actually take a close and careful look at ourselves — our culture, what we value, how we operate, how we deal with others — or will we blame others and avoid difficult choices?

Our crisis is not political, it isn’t even culture.   It’s spiritual.   Not in a religious sense, but in terms of values.   We’re ungrounded, steeped in raw self-interest, moral relativism, a sense that image is reality, and victory means virtue.  We are Rome in the end days of the Republic, losing sight of the fact that values are above both politics and consumption.   Politics is not reasoned debate, but meme-construction and trying to personally assault and discredit the “other side,” often with vicious individual attacks.

This cannot be solved with a new leader, a new set of policies, or some kind of quick fix.   It is neither left nor right, conservative nor liberal.  It is each person opening their eyes, seeing others with a sense of love and compassion, questioning their own values and beliefs, and thinking clearly about the world as it looks today, rather than wistfully wanting to go back and party like its 1999.    The first step is embracing the reality that the illusions of the past have been shattered.    The second step is avoiding the allure of easy answers — a hero to change things, or an opponent upon which to blame all the problems.   But it won’t be easy; change won’t come from the outside but from within.   Are we up to it?

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9-11 Revisited

Like most people, I remember distinctly what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when al qaeda launched a terror attack on the United States.   I had a sabbatical that semester, working on what would become my book on German foreign policy.  That morning I was watching a History Channel special about Apollo 13, and when it ended I turned to CNN to check the headlines.   They were showing the World Trade Center after the first plane hit, with the reporting still vague about what was happening.

“Holy Shit” I remember saying as I dropped down to the floor.   It was almost exactly 9:00; I grabbed a Videotape and started recording.   From about 9:10 until the collapse of the second tower at 10:30 I did what probably is my longest step machine work out.   I knew I’d get no real work done so I let all my anxious energy in watching such events unfold go into my work out.

We had Dishnet satellite television, and at that point in time they did not yet have local Bangor or Portland stations.   To get the network stations we had to purchase a package of New York locals.   That meant that most of the time I was watching local New York reporting on the attacks, not the national news.   That made it much more intense.   They reported from the street, it was their city, they interspersed footage of the burning twin towers with reports on school cancellations and information on transportation in the city.

When the second tower fell one announcer found himself barely able to hold it together “this a horrific situation…if you are a child and you are watching this without an adult…well, I don’t know what to advise you…”   You can tell that the anchors are worried that the reporters they have in the field might have been hurt or killed.   That day I would watch the reports from Nina Pineda, Michelle Charlesworth, Joe Torres and other local New York reporters who were on the scene — those reporters are to me part of 9-11.

Today in our “Truthiness” Honors class, examining “myth in America” from the myth of the first Thanksgiving to  the “myth of the free market” next week, we looked at the way 9-11 and the supposed conflict between Islam and the West is constructed in our discourse.   Part of it was basic remedial instruction on the nature of the Islamic religion, to inoculate students from the poisonous disinformation from the Islamophobes who want to paint Islam as a uniquely violent or intolerant religion.    A good chunk of the class was looking at the “mythic narrative” painted by the right of “Islam vs. the West,” and compare the caricature of Islam to the reality.

But the class started with video.  It started with the first reports of the attacks.   We watched as a New York local station talked with an eye witness from the first plane crash as the second plane is seen entering the screen and smashing into the second building.   The announcer and witness didn’t know what happened, they thought the first plane had exploded as it was in the first building.

We watched as initial reports from the Pentagon came in.  Chris Plante on CNN reported that a military officer at the Pentagon had observed a helicopter circling the building, going around to the back where suddenly there was an explosion.  It was odd — no mention of a plane.   This is the stuff that fuels conspiracy theories — the uncertainty and varied accounts.   There were reports of a car bomb at the state department (never happened), a fire on the Washington mall (never happened), evacuations, and the announcement that air travel was suspended.

We did skip some sections (though with a three hour class we could view about 45 minutes).   We then watched the first tower go down, as Peter Jennings asks in amazement…”the whole side collapsed?….the whole BUILDING?”   Jennings is rendered speechless and clearly trying to hold it together as he describes the level of destruction.   The New York reporting continues, scenes from the street, and interviews of people evacuating.   There are eyewitness reports of people jumping from the buildings, apparently unable to take the heat and smoke inside.   Nina Pineda describes people “crying their eyes out” remembering the events.

Then the second building goes.  The smoke and debris are astounding.   Reporters struggle to cope.   You see people covered with sot and ash, walking the streets.   Powerful video.

When I turn off the television, the faces of both faculty and students are filled with emotion — a mixture of grief and shock.   Some have tears, a few look stoic.  In the discussion that follows, it’s clear that this is a side of 9-11 that many have forgotten.   The event is distant, and for most of us it’s now packaged in an historical narrative that remembers how the country and world united, only to be torn apart when we went to war with Iraq.     We grapple with how this day will be remembered.   Looking at our problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the economic crisis facing the country, will this event ultimately symbolize not the coming together of America but the start of a decline?

We recalled the intolerance after the fact for dissent, though one student a bit older than the rest recalls being involved in the anti-war movement early on in DC, arranging protests against war by September 24th.   Others come from military families, and recall the sense of security the patriotism of the day fostered, though we all wondered about what happens when patriotism turns to nationalism.

The event also shows the power of symbolism.   As one announcer said, “America has changed today, suddenly we are vulnerable…today four symbols of American might have been hit.”  At one level, the damage done was moderate, and certainly much less in life and property damage than what we dished out on Iraq and Afghanistan.   Yet the emotive power of such an attack resonates eight years later.   And, of course, we recalled that it was eight and a half years between the 1993 effort to bring down the WTC and the successful effort on 9-11.    What would happen if there were another attack?

Would we fall for a simplistic “Islam vs. the West” interpretation and get lost in the romantic fantasy of some kind of civilizational ‘world war?’   Would fear and nationalism take us in a direction looking a bit like fascism, tidbits of which we saw in the frankly absurd reaction to some of the events after 9-11 — opposition to the Dixie Chicks, renaming french fries ‘freedom fries’ and calls to “bomb Mecca?”  Or have the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq caused us to recognize the futility of lashing back with an ill-focused war and undefined mission — to reshape the Mideast rather than get al qaeda.   Reshaping a region to your will is what you do if it is a civilizational death struggle; focusing on a precise enemy is what you do if it’s a focused and defined mission.

We reached no conclusions, except that all religions/cultures are capable of great good or evil, depending on how they are used.  It would be nice of the “good” side of Islam and the West could find a way to cooperate, rather than each “bad” side escalating conflict.     Cynicism and a fetish with strength and control feed fear and hate, while hope and a sense of empathy feed compassion and love.     But it was good to revisit the events, and for students to connect to the event in a way they never had.    In times like these, that’s important.


Afghan Hounds

Afghanistan is widely known for it’s beautiful long haired dogs, called Afghan hounds.   Right now, however, it is Obama being hounded by his decision on Afghanistan.   The right calls the 2011 deadline a ‘sign of weakness’ and something that ‘our enemies’ will use as motivation to hang on longer.   The left sees sending more troops to try to stabilize the situation as misguided and pointless.   To them Obama is weak in that he didn’t have the courage to end the mission.   Both left and right accuse him of playing politics with the war.   Others, such as Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight see it as political quicksand.   If he breaks his promise to leave he’ll be hurt bad; if he keeps his promise he likely won’t benefit.   Only a few loyalists don’t attack the policy from either the left or the right.

So what about the criticism?   The criticism from the right strikes me as unrealistic at best, disingenuous at worst.   It is unrealistic to expect the US to simply increase the scope of the war and continue indefinitely with a goal of defeating the Taliban completely.   We can’t afford that, we wouldn’t get NATO support for such an effort (we will get modest support for this plan), and it sets the US up for a humiliating defeat down the line.  I’m convinced that many on the right mistake rhetorical bravado for the realm of the possible.  Anyone can talk big about victory and ‘defeating the enemy,’ but talk is cheap.   Others like former Vice President Cheney, whose administration botched two wars and played a major role in driving the American economy into the abyss, have no business offering self-righteous criticism.

First off, Obama’s willingness to make a decision that he knew would satisfy no one is something I respect.   He is President, he needs to focus on the policy, not the reaction.   Those who charge him with playing small “p” politics are quite frankly dead wrong.   He and his staff certainly knew this would be the reaction, both left and right have been telegraphing their positions for a long time.   This was a politically risky choice, and Obama knows it.

A couple days ago, using a fictional conversation with Obama, I explained my take on the logic of the decision.   The US needs to get out, but getting out the wrong way could make matters much worse.   Getting out the right way requires the US try to pressure Karzai to make internal changes, convince Pakistan that the US takes the fight against terrorism seriously, and create an opportunity for the Afghan government to gain credibility with its people.   If this cannot be done in two years and with an increase in NATO support, it is indeed mission impossible.   In such a case, the US cannot stay, the war is unwinnable.

As a foreign policy analyst, I see compelling logic in Obama’s choice.   The GOP desire for an open-ended commitment until “victory” is achieved assumes that victory is possible.    It might not be, or it may only be possible at a cost much higher than the American people are willing to pay, or that is in our national interest to pay.   Obama has defined victory as a relatively stable Pakistan alongside an Afghanistan with a functioning government.    That cannot happen if the US were to simply leave as quickly as possible.   It might happen with the “surge” strategy he has put into place.  The 2011 deadline is important since it pressures the Afghans to take seriously the fact they’ll be responsible for their own security in short order.   What Obama has done is figure out a strategy to increase the probability of success at a price he thinks the country is willing to pay, and which does not inflict real damage on the country (which an open ended Afghan commitment might do).

The criticism from the left — and the anti-war right — falls more in line with my views, so I have a bias.  I think that increasing military involvement over there only means more people will die — Americans and Afghans — and likely will not affect the final outcome.   I think Obama should have made the tough decision to say “this war is over, if after eight years the Afghans are unable to maintain their security, then we can’t do it for them.”

Yet that’s easy for me to say on the outside.   Obama has to think of the implications of that choice, even if he agrees that we have to leave.    It’s one thing to be on the outside, a critic of US foreign policy under Democrats and Republicans, and say “stop the war.”   I have advocated a drastically reduced military budget and extremely few military commitments abroad for a long time.   To me the military is to defend the homeland, not to try to stabilize the globe.

Yet as President, Obama has to answer those who would say “what about Pakistan, what about the likelihood of a quick Taliban/al qaeda take over in Afghanistan if we simply left?  Would this help al qaeda plan a new terror attack?”   What Obama did was take those concerns seriously, but also demand an exit plan.   His plan is not really a surge, but a planned withdrawal.   To the world it sounds like the US is simply increasing its commitment to the fight in Afghanistan.  Many dismiss the 2011 start of troop reduction as a mere target likely not to be met.   I believe Obama is dead serious about meeting it, and hopes to extricate the US from both of the misguided conflicts during his first term.   He has decided to get us out of Afghanistan, but to do so in a way which tries to avoid worst case scenarios and at least sets up a chance for minimal success.

I hope it works.   I hope that the pressure on Karzai and the Afghans forces them to make concessions and deals with opponents, and move away from the corrupt and incompetent form of government they now have.   I hope the added short term muscle allows the US to make deals with mid-level Taliban and weaken that movement.   I hope the time this buys creates a chance to improve the stability of Pakistan.

If not, Obama will be hounded by the excess death and cost — human and monetary — of two more years of war with more American troops involved, with nothing gained.  If it does work, Obama will parade his successful Afghan policy as a triumph, hounding those who doubted him today.   It’s a gamble, but one Obama makes after careful deliberation and analysis of the situation.