Archive for March, 2010
Frank Rich, in a recent New York Times column, argues that the anger over health care reform isn’t really about health care, but about race. That doesn’t mean that people who oppose health care reform are driven by race, only that the level of anger and rage — Rich describes the frothing Karl Rove, and John Boehner’s “hell no” on the House floor as the official expressions of anger, as well as the wild behavior of the “tea partiers.” — are provoked by something deeper. Indeed, the predictions of Armageddon and the collapse of “the American idea” are so over the top that it’s hard to imagine health care being the sole reason. After all, every other advanced industrialized state has a health care system covering everybody, and all of them with more government control than the one we just passed.
Rich compares the rage here with that of the passing of the civil rights act, which generated far more anger than did passage of Medicare. And, to be sure, it wasn’t lost on Nancy Pelosi that protests against her frequently took the form of “retire Madam Speaker.” “I don’t think they are using my title out of respect,” she remarked. A black President and a female Speaker of the House lead a major reform effort, and the right wing sees red.
I suspect, however, race and gender are not directly the cause of the rage, though they do matter. What’s happening is the country is undertaking a fundamental transition away from the kind of culture we had thirty or forty years ago, which was dominated by a white middle class ethos, as minorities remained on the margins. In some ways it is a maturation of the rage that took place during the late sixties, as the civil rights movement and Vietnam led youth to question government authority and fight “the establishment.”
That generation provided radicals on the one hand, and the silent majority, as Nixon called them, on the other. The radicals put issues like equal rights for women, abortion, anti-segregation, affirmative action, and real economic power to blacks on the agenda. The silent majority considered the issues, rejected the radicals, but agreed with many of their ideas. The result was that what appeared to be a revolt turned into a real shift in culture. It was ushered in by President Nixon, who (painfully slowly) extricated the US from Vietnam, and with the Democrats passed a sweeping range of social welfare reforms, creating the basis of the modern US social welfare system. Nixon even tried to pass health care reform, with ideas arguably to the left of what just passed. Nixon embodied the new consensus — winning an election in 1972 with significant support from the left and the right, moderating the conflicts of the previous years.
The right wing, alienated by this new consensus at first, were placated in 1980 when Ronald Reagan found a way to mesh conservatism with the new, more liberal culture. Reagan did not cut back on the political changes of the sixties and seventies — the so called great society — nor did he govern in a purely conservative way. Spending increased, taxes increased, immigration reform passed (an amnesty program, no less) and government emerged bigger and more powerful than ever. His rhetoric appealed to the right’s desire for an America “of old,” focusing on core values of family, God and country, an appeal to individualism and the ‘American spirit.’
Reagan’s “revolution,” however, was Pyrrhic. His rhetoric and nationalism placated the right, who wanted a reason to feel back in control. His tax cuts shifted the burden from the wealthy to the middle class, but debt driven growth made everyone think it was onward and upward (just don’t mention the steel industry and bleeding of industrial jobs). Big business liked how they were deregulated and how labor unions were decimated. But even as Clinton continued this “new consensus” with welfare reform and deregulation, he also reflected the cultural change brought about in the 60s and 70s. Try as they might, the right could not make claims that Clinton was a ‘draft dodging druggie anti-American womanizer’ stick. The public really didn’t care. Even after the Lewinsky scandal, he left office with high approval ratings.
As all this was happening, though, the changes of the 60s and 70s were having economic and demographic impacts. Minorities were increasing in size, and their political perspectives, usually to the left of center, were gaining prominence. Ideas of equal rights, social change, and rejection of tradition grew, even during the Reagan and Bush years. By the dawn of the new century, the culture was nearing a tipping point, whereby the revolution of the sixties would mature into a very different notion of politics and governance, and a new politics.
The Iraq war and the economic collapse of 2008 (caused by the policies begun in the eighties) created a crisis that allowed a politician of the new generation, Barack Obama, to come out of virtually nowhere and win the Presidency. He reflects these new cultural ideals and a desire for social change, continuing the process begun in the sixties. Many who yearn for “the America we grew up in” or “to go back to America’s values” are remembering that earlier time when the culture was different, demography was different, and the economy far less complex and globalized. It is nostalgia, but a nostalgia steeped in fear, fear that their country changing to something strange and perhaps dangerous. What does it mean to be an American? Hence the birthers. Can a black man who grew up for awhile in Indonesia and whose father was African, and whose name is Barack Hussein Obama really be an American? What kind of American? He doesn’t reflect the values and traditions we’ve always associated with leadership!
It’s not overt racism, but race amplifies the differences between Obama and his politics, and the nostalgia for a past era. Take a broader view though, and this is nothing new. A while back I compared the current era to that of the wild west, during the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s youth. Now that was a time of freedom — and risk. Most people would not want that life style for themselves and especially not their children. We are a fundamentally different culture than we were then, and the change has been constant for the last century.
President Obama represents a generational transformation, one that is probably inevitable. Yet he and the Democrats don’t really know how to reflect these changes politically, it’s a new terrain with new challenges. That’s why the Republicans need to avoid the politics of rage, driven by nostalgia and fear, and think critically about how their values can guide a country more diverse, complex, and interconnected than any before. The politics of rage lead to fascism, and most Americans — including almost all Republicans — don’t want to go there. Yet they do need to come up with alternatives to engage Obama and the Democrats, who are literally making it up as they go, trying to solve extremely complex problems in a country divided and in a state of transformation.
Right now folk like Palin, Coulter and Breitbart speak to the gut, and arouse those who prefer to have enemy images to attack, and fear change. Others like Romney seem timid, wanting simply to find a path to power, willing to say whatever they have to say. Scott Brown and Paul Ryan are rising stars in the GOP, and seem to have an intellectual grasp on the issues that mixes a strong challenge to Obama and the Democrats with constructive criticism rather than rage. In any event, no one can turn back the clock. We’re not going back to the 1950s (or even the 1980s), and I don’t think anyone really wants to. Soon whites will be less than 50% of the population, the demographic changes will have profound political implications. Right now the ‘teapartiers’ are driven by a desire to stop these changes, and that is impossible. Race plays into this, but racism is not the main cause.
The Republicans need leaders who can do what Reagan did, and find a way to make peace with a changed culture, and bring the conservative vision into the 21st century. Yet they need to avoid the mistakes of Reagan, whose policies started a continual growth in deficits and debt, and yielded a “something for nothing” mentality. The longer the country is enmeshed in anger and partisanship, the more likely we’ll all sink — Republican, Democrat and independent alike.
The President goes into a war, expecting a quick victory, telling the American people that we are fighting a tyrant and dictator who could disrupt the region and sow instability. Moreover, the war is to spread democracy and enhance human rights.
Not long after the war began, it started to become clear that real victory in terms of setting up a stable regional order or stopping the slaughter of innocents would be far more difficult than planned. While the President urged the country to “stay the course,” the White House was condemned for poor planning and having no exit strategy. One pundit wrote “the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but muddled planning.” Ethnic violence seemed immune to the super power technology being used to try to bring stability.
Moreover, the Powell doctrine, which required massive power and complete public support, was being ignored. The President did not have the opposition party behind him, and soon was getting tremendous criticism for waging an unnecessary ‘war of choice.’ A long time government foreign policy elite who rose to become Vice President dismissed the Powell doctrine as a “paralysis doctrine.” Senator John McCain criticized those who didn’t want to go all in, saying that “the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.” McCain believed that more troops should be sent, surging existing efforts in order to create the prospect of a real victory. Nonetheless, as the White House and its allies strove to find an exit strategy, the human cost of the war rose, with most of the deaths being civilian, caused by ethnic conflict rather than American bombs.
A hawk in the Administration pushed for the use of US power. In one conversation this hawk admonished Colin Powell about being afraid to use power: “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” After leaving the administration Powell would later admit that upon hearing those words “I thought I would have an aneurysm.” But the Administration clearly believed it was important to show that the US not only had power, but would be bold in using it in order to shape the 21st century into being one in accord with US values. The war caused dissent within NATO, and severely harmed relations with Russia and China. The low point came when the US, apparently through error, bombed the Chinese embassy.
Yes, I’m describing the 1999 Kosovo war. The quote about the Powell doctrine being a paralysis doctrine came from Joe Biden, then speaking in his role on the Senate foreign relations committee. President Clinton was quoted in Time magazine as urging Americans “to stay the course.” And the hawkish administration official who almost gave Powell an aneurysm was Secretary of State Madeline Albright (though the conversation quoted took place in 1993, long before Kosovo, when Albright was still US Ambassador to the UN).
The differences between the wars are also significant. The Kosovo war dragged out 80 days, not over seven years, and not one American or NATO soldier was killed. It was purely an air war, as NATO politics prevented a ground invasion. And though the conflict created divisions within NATO, it was a NATO effort, led by the US. After the war the government admitted that it had overestimated the power of technology and the ability of to stop ethnic violence. In Time magazine on June 14, 1999 reporting on what top Pentagon brass took from the war, reported “in the next conflict, they fret, a really smart foe won’t fight the US int he skies or on the ground — places where victory is very unlikely. Instead it will be smart and strike far away from the war zone — in the heart of a US city, perhaps — with biological or chemical weapons.” Just over two years later that prediction proved accurate, though hijacked airlines were the weapon the ‘smart foe’ chose to use.
Still, despite the very different natures of the two wars, the similarities are striking. The Clinton Administration had a lot in common with the Bush Administration of a few years later. They believed the war would be much easier than it was, they under estimated the situation on the ground in terms of the power of ethnic tension, they had no exit plan, didn’t really consider what to do if the air strikes didn’t work as anticipated, and going to war created domestic divisions. They also believed that it was important that the US use its military power to spread democracy and human rights, and did not doubt that it was legitimate. The US wanted to force a deal between the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army, which not much earlier had been deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department) and Serbia over the fate of the province of Kosovo in southwest Serbia.
The impetus had been a massacre of 44 people in Recak, Kosovo, in January. When Serbia wouldn’t go along with a deal they felt was a breach of sovereignty in their struggle against terrorism, the US bombed. After the bombing started massive human rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians began, including a mass exodus, rape, and mass murder. The same question haunts the Clinton Administration in Kosovo as does the Bush Administration in Iraq: would the human cost been less if war had not been chosen? In each case they point to Milosevic or Hussein, and note that the dictators had been brutal. But would such atrocities as were later seen have happened without war? Would a different path of pressure been better and more effective in human terms?
Kosovo’s lessons were not learned by the Bush Administration as it planned to invade Iraq. Kosovo was, thankfully, over relatively quickly. The White House and NATO declared it a success, forgot those agonizing months where things were going wrong, and in the public mind the war had been about all those refugees fleeing Kosovo, forgetting that that was a consequence of the decision to bomb. Charles Krauthammer, the neo-conservative who would be important in arguing publicly for war in Iraq dismissed Kosovo’s woes as due to a “reluctant, uncertain” President. A serious President would have gone all in to win decisively, Krauthammer insisted.
Still, the similarities are enough to lead me to three propositions: 1) the Democrats and Republicans were not as different at least within elite circles as it appears to the public. Albright’s rhetoric sounds almost neo-conservative, the belief that power should be used and assumption of success dogged both Clinton and Bush; 2) just as the lessons weren’t learned after Kosovo, it’s very likely that despite the trauma caused by Iraq, many lessons here will be ignored too. Perhaps most likely is that people will again make tactical criticisms, without addressing the real question of what the US role should really be in this post-Cold War and post-9-11 world, and how effective military operations are; and 3) politicians these days seem much more hawkish than the military leaders. Powell reflected general Pentagon opinions for both Kosovo and Iraq; the military was far less keen on these wars than those in the White House. The drumbeat of war was pushed in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations by people with no or very limited military experience.
Moreover, the Pentagon “warning” in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time is still valid — if we take the fight elsewhere, it very likely will be brought back to us here. That’s a lesson the Russians learned today. We now understand the dangers, but are we really ready? Have we learned the lessons of Kosovo and Iraq? And what about Afghanistan and al qaeda? No time today to reflect further, but the similarities between Kosovo and Iraq suggest that our problem is not just that President Bush made some ‘bad choices,’ but is deeper within the US foreign policy/military policy mindset.
Last night here at the university we attended part of a film festival on social justice (take that, Glenn Beck!) put together by members of our Economics and Sociology departments (Dr. John Messier and Dr. Kristina Wolff). This is the third year of the film/lecture series, and though they choose the topic of health care awhile back, the timing of the series couldn’t have been better. Yet the films make clear to me that passing health care reform is not in and of itself an answer to our problems.
The first film was In Sickness and Wealth, and the second a Frontline episode Sick Around the World. The Frontline show surprised students as they learned that what gets decried as “socialized medicine” here is common around the world, and works. In most countries there are no waiting lists (or very short ones for elective surgery), private insurance companies competing for customers, and very satisfied citizens. There are problems — in the British single payer system elective surgeries do have rather long waits (six months or so), in Germany and Japan doctors complain about being underpaid, and in Taiwan the government is scared to raise prices enough to cover costs. In Switzerland a US like system was transformed to universal care about a decade ago, and it’s popular and working well. Clearly the doom and gloom statements from the right are non-sensical if you actually go out and get real world examples to compare.
Yet the US is larger, more diverse, and culturally different from the rest of the world. Health care reform will be a work in progress. That also brings up the first film, In Sickness and in Wealth. That film presented very compelling statistics that health in terms of life expectancy, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease gets worse as wealth declines. The wealthiest live longer and are healthier than those who are poorer. Moreover, this is a continuum, it’s not just a stark difference between rich and poor. Finally, this difference exists even if you control for life style choices. Wealthy smokers live longer than smokers who are not so wealthy. There is something about wealth that in and of itself contributes to health.
Part of it, the film argued, is the every day stress levels on people who do not feel empowered and in control of their lives. Stress releases hormones into the blood stream, and studies show that there is a positive correlation between poverty and high stress hormone levels. This can cause immune system weakness, early aging, weakened internal organs, and even cancer. Moreover, this affects children. Children whose parents were home owners have stronger immune systems than children whose parents did not, regardless of their life experiences today. The stress of a poorer childhood impacts health for all ones’ life.
To be sure, lifestyle, genetics, and other factors all play a role in an individual’s health. But one cannot just say that poorer people are less healthy than wealthy because they made worse choices, nor can one say that giving them all health insurance and access to health care will significantly improve their health or life expectancy. It’s class rather than access to health care that creates these problems, and the problems cost all of us in society.
They cost us first in Medicare and Medicaid, as well as in paying for those who get care but can’t pay for it. Over 60% of bankruptcies in the US come from medical bills, in the rest of the industrialized world bankruptcy caused by medical expenses would be scandalous. It also costs us in productivity. Instead of being active, producing members of the economy, many of the poor battle chronic conditions due to stress and other problems. That cost is hard to quantify, but if we had a society where class differences caused less stress and difficulty in life, the whole society would benefit. It was interesting that in the second film a German said, “we know that unemployment increases the chances someone would get sick. It would be irrational to take away insurance when someone gets unemployed, that’s when they need it the most.” But in the US we do that, adding to the stress level.
No one suggests that hierarchy and class can be eliminated. However, in Europe a mix of having health care as a right like education and police protection, along with better social programs to reduce the stress of living below the poverty line, probably explain why our health care statistics are so bad compared to the rest of the world. We pay the most — 16% of GDP (the next highest is Switzerland with about 12%, then most others are 6-8%), but have sub optimal results.
Those results are not because of people like me. My health care is very much like it would be if I lived in Germany, where private insurance brought through an employer covers you (and you can by supplemental insurance). I get as good as care as I’d get anywhere. But those who are not covered, or whose coverage gets denied, bring down the statistics. The culture of the country also harms us. Listen to the rhetoric by those who are angry about health care reform. Any government effort to try to help minimize the negative effects of being poor is criticized as ‘socialism,’ as people cling to a myth that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and it’s the poor’s fault that they are poor.
That myth is increasingly false. Between 1900 and 1976 the gap between the rich and poorest was decreasing, and people in that era had an easier time getting the education and opportunities to control their lives. Since the 80s there has been a tremendous shift of wealth to the elite — the upper 2% have 90% of the wealth, a statistic that has more in common with third world countries than other industrialized ones. If this trend isn’t stopped, we may start to look more like a third world country. It also is the underlying issue that really drives up health care costs, and which, if not addressed, will assure that health care reform can at best be a band aid, not a solution.
Somehow, Americans have to abandon the “myth of the market,” and recognize that left on its own, markets have winners, and those winners know how to subvert the game to make sure they keep winning and secure benefits for their families. Markets are neither just nor humane, and in the realm of health care, they can be deadly. In some areas, we need a strong government presence. And second, we have to develop some sense of social solidarity, that we’re in this together, that it matters if many fellow citizens have severe problems. Yes, charity is one way of showing that, but history shows that relying on charity alone just can’t work in a mass industrialized society. We need to figure out how to use government to address these problems without giving too much authority to the bureaucrats. There is no perfect way to do that, no pat and simple ideological solution. But at the very least we can look to other industrialized states and learn from them a bit about what works and doesn’t work, and then adapt it to our circumstances.
Yesterday I read Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch, published in 1994 after his death. Lasch argues that the US has developed a bifurcated society wherein the distance between the elites and the “masses” has grown. However, this isn’t a typical kind of elite led society where the masses are simply exploited; rather, the elites have disengaged themselves from society in a quest for comfort and security.
This includes big business and the professional class, as well as government and intellectuals. This has been fostered by two different forces. First, the myth that in market capitalism you are responsible for whatever you accomplish in life gives those who “lose,” who are not part of the elite class, no opening to complain or mount a rebellion. They lost because they couldn’t compete or lacked the merit to end up in the best schools or jobs. Instead, they need therapy — self hope books to promote self esteem, and today I’d add the ‘financial advice’ books that show the masses how to live on a small budget and nonetheless save for the future. They hold on to the hope that someday they or their children will make it, but despite the growing gap in incomes, the masses are subdued.
Second, the masses have their own culture. It is defined by more traditional aspects of American society — church, community, patriotism, perhaps guns and hunting. This creates a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as providing social cohesion.
The elites, on the other hand, go the opposite direction. First, the are increasingly prosperous, as the gap between rich and poor grows in the US. Lasch gives statistics, and in the fifteen years since the book has been published the gap has grown further. He also notes that a single income does not cover what it used to, so women have entered the work force at an increasing rate. However, this often increases the material gap. While the men in the elite may have earned $60,000 compared to $20,000 by someone in the lower-middle class, women usually earn about what their spouse earns. Thus an elite couple may have an income of $120,000 compared to $40,000 to the middle/lower class.
This literally amounts to different lifestyles and capacities between the two groups. Wealthier elites can disconnect themselves completely from the public sector. They can send their kids to private schools, fund their own retirement accounts, and lack any interest in the community good. With capitalism espousing an ideology of self-interest, they are content to believe that pursuing their comfort and prosperity is enough. However, just as the lower/middle class has been duped into not questioning the material distribution of wealth, the elite classes are obsessed with not losing theirs. They seek total security, be it seat belt laws, no smoking zones, and regulations that attempt to eliminate risk and guarantee comfort. They disconnect themselves from reality, living off the work of the lower/middle classes but wanting no contact with the risks and dirtiness of the real world.
Culturally, the elite are better educated, and thus more likely to reject religion, tradition, and patriotism. All of these things are, at base, irrational. You cannot make a strong cogent argument to believe any particular religious creed without moving outside logic. The enlightenment fought against religion, and with globalization and diversity, patriotism is seen as quaint provincialism, something an educated person rises above. Yet, this enlightenment rationality is also a trap. People have religion, tradition and patriotism for a reason. Life is empty without a sense of meaning, tradition creates social cohesion, and patriotism reflects a sense of common identity, values, and concern for the good of society. You lose these and there is no reason to care for the community, no core sense of values and identity to bind one to others. No wonder there is such a yearning for material security, that’s all the elites have — and ultimately, that’s cold and vacuous.
Lest one thinks that Lasch is a social conservative, he is just as hard on the right and their reactions. Society is never going to go back to the days when religion dominated, traditions lost to modernism are gone, and patriotism has a very ugly side as well — look at where nationalism took Nazi Germany and other states. The answer is not for the elites to join the masses and embrace their values, though Lasch is harsh in his criticism of how elites often show utter disdain and disregard for the way the “masses” think.
The sense I get is that Lasch essentially decries a lack of virtue. To get that we need to recognize our interdependence, and recognizese that it takes shared values to create community. Virtue requires that one not try to ‘flea dependence.’ The desire for complete security by the elites is disconnected from the experiences of others. It is individualist, a desire to protect what I have and own, and the style of life I want to pursue. Individualism, however, is a fatal illusion. We are all dependent, we all need each other, and disconnected lives lead nowhere. The capitalist myth of individual self-interest leading magically to better outcomes — that somehow non-virtuous people, selfishly pursuing their own interests will yield a result that is best for everyone — is on its face irrational. Yet that myth, along with the post-modern belief that there is no inherent truth and reality is whatever we make it to be, reinforces this desire to flea dependence and seek total security.
Lasch also spends time disagreeing with Walter Lippmann, who I wrote about awhile back. In that, I see the crux of the problem for modern society. Lippmann saw early on — correctly I believe — that the rise of mass media means that people make choices based less on rational reflection than emotional reactions to images. This makes public debate and democracy virtually impossible since mass opinion can be easily manipulated by those who control the media (either governments or those with wealth/power). Lasch objects to Lippmann’s early 20th century solution: to have public institutions use logic to try to separate opinion from truth, and govern based on scientific truth rather than bias or stereotype.
That solution is untenable. Enlightenment logic turns on itself and destroys any truth claim. Everything can be interpreted and recast. This inevitably brings back skepticism (which has existed since the earliest days of philosophy) in its current form, post-modernism. The post-modern embraces the lack of certainty to claim there is no truth, or that truth in the world depends on power. Yet such claims ignore reality. There must be production to produce goods, people live real lives, people have real aspirations, and people believe what they do because their beliefs are useful to yield outcomes people want. There may not be certainty, but there is reality. You may be able to twist any truth claim, but there is a world upon which that claim rests.
That is the conundrum of modern “elite” thought. It can’t be solved by embracing religion, patriotism or tradition, even though at least those reconnect people with a sense of the real, and with values that go beyond mere self-interest. But in mass culture now, even those things are being commodified and manipulated. The elites have material prosperity and security with no meaning, the masses have meaning but lack prosperity and security. The abyss between them grows, threatening social cohesion and the capacity of democracy to function. The elite have public radio, the masses have talk radio.
To be sure, Lasch vastly over-simplifies by creating essentially two amorphous groups. Yet I think he captures something about the modern dilemma. Not only does it create material and spiritual imbalances, but virtue gets lost by both groups, and society lacks a core sense of identity and cohesion. Lasch criticizes all sides, but one senses that elite get most of the criticism because, having more material wealth, they are better in a position to change the direction of society. Trapped within their own myths and disdain for the values of the “masses,” they instead disengage and look after themselves. Ultimately, that is unsustainable.
The conventional wisdom now is that the Democrats need to watch out for a drubbing this November, akin to 1994. There is a slim possibility they could lose their House majority, and many believe that by ramming partisan health care reform through, they are setting themselves up for a fall. But Andrew Gelman at “Politics Done Right” points out that the predictions of a massive GOP win started last September, and it’s not clear that passing reform changed the dynamic. In fact, I think there are a number of reasons why Republicans need to be worried this November. Not that they’ll lose seats — I cannot conceive of them not gaining seats — but they may find November not to be the spectacular victory of which they dream. Here’s 8 reasons why:
1. Obama’s PR machine. Up through November you’ll see the Obama machine in campaign mode, pushing the positives of health care reform, and filling the public agenda with other popular items. They didn’t fight the PR fight last year in part because they feared peaking too soon. The Republicans thus dominated the news with tea parties, talk radio and scary rhetoric. For the next seven plus months, they’ll have a formidable opponent.
2. Rhetorical extremism. Last night the Republicans attacked the Democratic plan less on practical grounds then with red meat rhetoric that is sure to energize their base — comparisons to the Soviet Union, claims America is being “destroyed,” and attacks on the Democrats as arrogant, dishonest, extremists wanting to impose their elitist vision of the country on the average hard working folk. That rhetoric does appeal to party ideologues. They despise government regulation, see the world in cold war ideological terms, and have an intense hatred for Pelosi and company. To them, the Democrats have declared war on “real” America.
However, most Americans are as distant from that ideological extreme as they are from the far left. If they go into November sounding like angry extremists, they’ll see their appeal fade as quickly as it grew, especially if the Democrats offer a reasonable counter-narrative. The country is not going to “rise up in anger” and start the electoral equivalent of a revolution. The Republicans have to put forth a more positive vision.
3. Issue salience fades. Right now Republicans claim they are ready for the fight, and the activists and bloggers are certainly in this for the duration. I remember how in 1983 Helmut Kohl was seen by Germans as a weak Chancellor because he was a “patsy” for the US by modernizing NATO missiles, even though there massive protests (we’re talking 400,000 and 500,000 strong — far more than the wildest ‘tea party’ fantasy) and 70% of Kohl’s own conservatives opposed it. If he went against the country, he’d lose the next election! But once modernization was a reality, the anger went away and Kohl easily glided to victory. Most who went along for the ride simply moved on after they lost the fight. Most people aren’t really all that active in politics, most people don’t stay engaged, and they especially don’t stay angry.
4. An energized Democratic base. Yesterday gave Democrats a dose of what they felt when Obama won the election and then took office: a historic sense that something consequential has happened. That’s been missing in the ho-hum politics of the last year, as Obama’s aura faded and his agenda stalled. Now the mid terms may matter more, fund raisers will ask donors to “save those who put their jobs on the line for health care,” and a bit of the magic may return. Add some more “big issues” (immigration, climate change, jobs) and the atmosphere in November could swing towards the Democrats.
5. Bad Republican Strategy. David Frumm has it right when he said that health care, predicted by Senator DeMint to become Obama’s Waterloo, turned out to be the Republican’s. Frumm, a former Bush speechwriter, notes that the Republicans could have decided to work with the Democrats and create what to many in the GOP would have been a better health care bill. If they had done so from the start, they’d have gotten the chance to “go back and start over” as Paul Ryan pleaded during the debate. But by March 2010 it was too late for that. The Republicans bet on a strategy to hold out and block reform, believing that it would fatally wound Obama and make it impossible for him to move his agenda forward. It almost worked. However, by failing, the Republicans get the worst of both worlds. They had virtually no impact on policy, as Pelosi was forced to make sure the left wing of her party was satisfied with the bill in order to pass it, and they ended up giving Obama an opportunity to rejuvenate his Presidency.
6. The bad strategy is likely to continue. Similar to number “2” above, the rhetoric from the GOP suggests that they want to make this an all out war against the Democrats come November. But to succeed, they have to essentially gain majorities in both Houses of Congress and take the Presidency in 2012. That is very unlikely. A better strategy would be to show they can bring good ideas forward and work with the Democrats. They look unwilling to do that and risk become seen as the “Tourettes” party that simply hurls epithets like “Liar” and “Babykiller” in the halls of Congress. If anger over this bill causes them to spend the next seventh months trying to obstruct all progress, they could turn the public against them quickly.
7. Public opinion on health care reform is fluid. Polls that dig deeper find that so many people really need to know more before they can be sure of an opinion. It’s wrong for the Republicans to say that the country has “spoken clearly” against this bill. Many are still in the “easily persuadable” range, meaning that this bill could be far more popular come November.
8. The economy might show signs of real life by late summer. If the country starts feeling like we’re moving in the right direction, a lot of what people see as negative moves by Obama now might appear in a more positive light. The economy is, after all, the real force determining election results. Campaigns and other factors can have a significant impact, but ultimately the Democrats best hope is for a sense that the “worst is over” in the recession, and Obama’s policies may be working (something the campaign machine will trumpet loudly).
Should the Democrats also be worried? Of course. If the economy seems to stumble even more, then perhaps the Republicans can indeed build a sense of rage or frustration. Anything can happen, and even in the best of all worlds for the Democrats it would be very difficult not to lose a significant number of seats this year. Many seats won in 2006 and 2008 are in conservative districts; the GOP will win a lot of those back. Comparisons to 1994 abound, but 1994 came as something of a surprise to the Democrats. Now they are bracing for disaster, and that’s good — they should be worried, and building a campaign on that premise.
Still, the Republicans need to guard against delusion, the false belief that the country is thinking like them, and that their rhetoric about “losing liberty” and “Democrats destroying America” reflects the country’s mood. The biggest threat facing them is to under estimate the ability of the Democrats to put forth a strong, effective campaign. The Democrats know the threat to them is real, and understand that ‘Obama mania’ is gone. That understanding may be what saves them.
Last January as it was becoming clear that Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat was likely going to be taken by the Republicans, with opposition to health care reform being a primary reason, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama were ready to scale back their health care plans in order to work with the Republicans. Politico reported that Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a proponent of going incrementally, and it was only the stiff resistance of Nancy Pelosi that got the President to switch course. Pelosi ridiculed Emmanuel’s “kiddie care” and pushed Obama to go for an historic major overhaul.
This says a lot about Pelosi’s power — and her leadership. Assuming the Democrats can hold on to a majority for awhile, she could become an historic leader not just for being the first woman Speaker of the House, but also being one of the most powerful and effective. She realized that going for the incremental approach would be a defeat to what she and others thought the election of Barack Obama was all about. She understood that off year elections mean loses for the party of the President, and that the Republicans were gaining a tail wind. If the President, after getting bills passed by the Senate and House, simply gave up, the Republicans would have a victory, and the President would look weak and ineffective.
Moreover, Pelosi knew she could get this done. She knew it was risky. She knew she could fail. She knew it needed President Obama to be engaged, active, and willing to put his Presidency on the line just as she would put her prestige as Speaker on the line. Sure, if they failed they would regroup and try to limit the damage, but no one doubted the damage would be severe — which is why Emmanuel and Reid were hesitant to move forward.
President Obama, after a year of sinking polls and criticism for not being engaged enough in pushing health care reform, took the gamble. By all accounts the President doesn’t gamble much — he is a consensus maker and a pragmatist. He truly wanted to get a bi-partisan approach, and was surprised by the inside the beltway backbiting that is Washington DC. To be sure, part of it was learning from history. President and Hillary Clinton took control of the health care reform process in 1993-94, essentially giving Congress something they had not constructed themselves.
Having it be a true Congressional process made sense — to a point. The Senate and House did pass a bill, and if not for the untimely death of Senator Kennedy, they probably could have made it happen without having to go through so many procedural hoops. But the pace reflected the President’s lack of focus, and thus it drifted into 2010, creating an opening for the Republicans, united in opposition to reform, to defeat the effort. If not for Pelosi, they would have succeeded.
President Obama, once he engaged, showed true leadership skills himself. He talked to everyone, negotiated between the various interest groups, and did what was necessary to create a coalition to pass the bill. That included an executive order against federal funding of abortion for Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a move that certainly does not reflect Obama’s personal beliefs. He canceled his trip to Asia, gave a heartfelt speech to the House Democrats, and used his charm — and power — to convince many Representatives to vote yes. This includes many who were determined to vote no, and some who will likely lose in November because of the vote. He showed that he has the leadership skill to have a real transformational Presidency.
The Republicans in the end seemed shocked that Pelosi and Obama could pull this off. The bitterness and hyperbole in the speeches before the vote seemed not only over the top, but spoke only to the most ideological Americans. Most people don’t see this as creeping communism or giving up the essence of what America is all about. That kind of talk is red meat for their base, but not going to convince anyone in the center. Finally, the idea that because polls show the public against the bill the House somehow should vote no ignores the meaning of Representative democracy. You elect Representatives not to vote the whim of the majority, but you elect people you trust to render judgment on issues so complex and unclear that you need to focus on it. Someone making their opinion while watching a few minutes of TV or hearing it talked about on talk radio is fundamentally uninformed. That’s why we have representative rather than direct democracy.
The bitterness of the Republicans reflect the fact that they thought they won last January. Health care was to be Obama’s “Waterloo,” and after the Senate Democrats lost their 60th vote in the Massachusetts special elections, it appeared Obama as damaged goods. No longer the “superstar,” his approval ratings were dropping, his supporters on the left demoralized, and the likelihood that he could accomplish anything significant decreased. This was their game plan, this was why they had to defeat health care. It was close, but they did it — even the talk coming from the Democrats suggested they were backing down.
Pelosi made sure they didn’t. Pelosi pushed the President to undertake the effort, and lead a momentous charge to win the votes necessary to pass the bill. She used power, charm, and intellect to do so. Agree or disagree with the bill that got passed, no one can doubt the fact that Nancy Pelosi is not just the first woman Speaker of the House, but one of the most effective. This bill would not have been passed if not for Nancy Pelosi — she made history.
Gas prices are at the highest they’ve been since the summer of ’08, and are expected to continue upward. Every dollar spent on energy is a dollar not spent somewhere else in the economy; if oil prices continue upward, the domestic and global economic recovery is in doubt. Moreover, concerns about decreasing oil supplies and a long term energy crisis, subdued by lack of demand during the global recession, will return. This would wreck havoc on US budget estimates and hopes to reduce the deficit. In short, another energy crisis could precipitate a renewed economic crisis just when people think we’re starting to see signs of possible growth.
There are reasons to think this likely. The high prices in 2008 came amidst high demand alongside an inability of oil producers to increase production. Part of it was real, part of it was a speculative bubble. The impact of the high prices was to puncture the property bubble and bring to the surface all of the shady and fraudulent practices done by big finance to try to profit on the bubble. Cheap oil brought us the most prosperous century in history; expensive oil brought it to a granding halt.
Many people have a reflexive “if we run short on oil, we’ll fine something else” attitude towards all this, a kind of faith that science will find something if oil runs short, and there’s no need to worry. This kind of thinking is similar to the way people dismissed worries about the stock and property bubbles, insisting that the US economy could not be stopped. We have the freest markets, high population, and superior innovation, the argument went — the gloom and doomers lack faith in the American free enterprise system.
Alas, such faith was misplaced. Lack of regulation lead to massive abuse by those “in the know” to essentially shift pension funds, retirement accounts, and personal investments into the pockets of big money on Wall Street. This “legal theft” was part of a “something for nothing” mentality whereby people thought getting wealthy was a birthright for anyone clever enough to invest or perhaps flip real estate. We now know the economy was built on a house of cards — debt, deficits, and cheap foreign goods — and we’re dealing with thirty years of growing structural imbalances.
Oil has been used for energy for thousands of years. Baghdad had paved roads as early as 800 AD. But it wasn’t until the “gushers” in Texas were discovered in 1901 that oil could be used in such quantities that it could fuel a century of growth. It could well be that the 20th century will ultimately be remembered as the “oil century” as the discovery of massive amounts of oil made it easy to build industry, travel the globe, and create a lifestyle based on power at the push of a button.
No form of energy is as efficient and easy to use as oil. It is relatively light, but has an intense amount of power. That made an airline industry possible, allowed nearly everyone in the first world to be able to propel themselves wherever they wanted to go with an automobile, and gave us literally lives of luxury. We call elevators, run factories, and heat households with this cheap, light, source of intense power. Without oil, the prosperity of the last century would not have been possible. What humans like to attribute to human ingenuity, or perhaps capitalist markets, was in many ways simply the result of harnessing an unbelievably potent energy source.
So what if it’s running low? Many experts, like Matthew Simmons, have done extensive studies of Saudi oil production and reserve claims, and conclude that the Persian Gulf is starting to run out of oil. This supports “peak oil” theory, which is not just a theory, but based on a fact. Back in the 1950s M. King Hubbert did some research as to when US oil would run out. He calculated based on the estimated reserve levels and geographical expectations on where more oil might be found. He concluded back in 1956 that US oil production would peak in 1973, and then decrease. The rise and decline of oil production would roughly follow a normal curve.
That is exactly what happened. US oil production peaked in the early seventies as US prosperity boomed. Then it started to decline, just as the power of OPEC and Mideastern states increased. Now we are way down the backside of the curve; even if we opened up all off shore oil drilling and Alaska it would only make a minor burp on the curve — it is impossible for the US to drill it’s way into oil independence.
If it happened here, it can happen in the Persian gulf. And despite some off shore finds and oil in western Africa, nothing new has been found to alter the general consensus of how much oil exists in the world. Moreover, during the so-called oil glut of the 80s, as production increased faster than demand, OPEC countries “recalculated” their reserves in order to increase their quotas. In one year many countries doubled their reserve estimates — most likely to get a higher sales quota. Based on stated oil reserves, most experts expect an oil peak around 2030, that gives us time to find new sources — though even then it will be difficult.
Others think we are peaking now, and the price rises in 2008 are not an anomaly, but what will soon be recognized as the new norm. The anomaly may be the drop in prices, thanks to a global recession which cut demand. Because of demand inelasticity price decreases and price increases can be dramatic if supply remains constant. We could see $4.00 gas again this summer, and that could lead to a cycle of recurrent, deep recessions, with every recovery punctured by high oil costs.
In the abstract, people who haven’t studied alternative energy sources, it seems comfortable to say “science will take care of it.” Others put their faith in some kind of natural gas finds and the like. The reality is that almost no alternative can match oil in efficiency and energy output. Nuclear plants take a long time to build, and uranium is also limited in supply. It takes massive energy to build solar panels and wind turbines. Not only would it take decades to build those sources to the point they can harness energy to maintain western life styles, but if we wait until oil is hyper-expensive to do so, the cost may be prohibitive.
So far hydrogen power is an energy transfer, so while it may help reduce global warming, it won’t solve an energy crisis. Oil shale and sands yield impressive finds, but aren’t massive enough to alter the basic supply — and it would take a long time and a lot of investment to get them to the capacity that they can save us. Even then, China is actively pursuing existing supplies, even helping Canada built a pipeline to get their oil sand oil to the Pacific. Simply: if you look at the details, there’s no magic bullet that will come to the rescue and allow us to maintain our “cheap energy” lifestyle. If the peak isn’t really until 2030, we do have time to shift to alternates, and that should be a priority. If the peak is already upon us, well, get ready for a real decline in material prosperity. I’m sure at some point we’ll have a new equilibrium built on alternative energy sources. The transition may take decades, however, and we need to be ready.
Whether in politics or daily life, humans make decisions based less on a rational analysis of a situation than internal psychological drives and emotions. This does not mean humans are not rational, only that rationality exists within a framework defined by a set of beliefs and desires which are not rationally chosen but have been acquired. A snow boarder might rationally practice and train to win a race, but the desire to snow board itself and undertake the particular risks of that sport cannot come from rational reflection alone, or from an innate quality of the person.
Sigmund Freud, in introducing the concept of the subconscious, had a profound impact on how we study and understand both politics and the media. Liberal democracies were founded on the idea that citizens should have a role in making decisions. The existence and power of the subconscious reinforces Thomas Hobbes’ concerns about democracy, namely that the passions of the people, unleashed, could cause ungovernability. It also brings to mind Montesquieu’s story of the Troglodytes. In a Republic prosperity and stability can give way to greed, selfishness and avarice. People become lazy, apathetic, and thus lose their virtue. This leads to corruption in government and ultimately a desire for renewed despotism. For Montesquieu this is the danger for republics.
Simply, western enlightenment ideals of rational governance are confounded by the existence of the subconscious, and the desires/drives of what Freud called the “id.” Democratic theorists have tackled this problem by focusing on the role of the Democratic process to mitigate the impact of human nature in order to try to develop a secular, rational approach to politics. Corresponding to what Max Weber called Entzauberung (disenchantment), or the positing of a secular world view above the traditional/religious notion of how the world works, traditions slowly were replaced by institutions designed to operate with legal/rational legitimacy. Though individuals may give in to greed, avarice and emotion, institutions set up with proper rules and procedures can presumably overcome that and provide rational governance.
Faith in this sort of approach was called into question by a Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Marx’s theory of Communism was an enlightenment project at its core – a theory using reason to unravel the laws of history and chart a path towards what Marx believed would be human liberation. The rise of fascism in Italy puzzled Gramsci, who recognized that rational self-interest was not guiding the masses, but rather they were being manipulated into believing the hegemonic fascist discourse. Culture and psychology can matter as much if not more than economic structures. During and after WWII the Frankfurt school wrestled with the question of why Germany, the land of poets of philosophers, could embrace an anti-rational anti-intellectual ideology such as Nazism. Adorno and Horkheimer pointed both to the history of myth, and the modern culture industry to show the flaws of enlightenment thought. Tradition not only provides political legitimacy and creates social norms to reign in possible negative effects of human nature, it also provides a story of reality which gives people meaning. Culture in that sense does more than help a polity function properly; it also gives people life meanings, which in turn create what people perceive as self-interest, personal preferences, ambitions, etc. Pure rationality or enlightenment ideology cannot do that, it only provides a tool to determine actions once interests and preferences are socially/culturally acquired.
In traditional societies, meanings and culture are transmitted through family and community. Modern societies see those forms of cultural socialization weakened in favor of mass media. Just as the printing press helped spread ideas that fueled the reformation, modern media creates narratives that shape how people view their world and understand who they are, what they want, and how they should think. Humans are prone to suggestion; hypnotists use this to get people to perceive their reality differently, want different things and engage in behaviors they normally would not. Socialization into a culture is really a process of creating suggestions from an early age to yield a person with a particular world view and set of values. Mass media of all sorts provide a constant bombardment of suggestions to people from a very early age, making the media a primary shaper of modern culture – and therefore how people understand their world and define their own preferences and values.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of modernism, beyond its ability to provide material well being, is the way traditional socialization has shifted to become a function of the mass media. Perhaps the greatest illusion of modernism is the belief that once freed of tradition humans would then be liberated – that reason would guide autonomous action and self-actualization. If socialization and core values get passed to people from various forms of mass media, then it’s really just a change in the source of socialization. If the media is controlled by a single entity, like the Communist or Nazi party, the result is totalitarianism, understood as an attempt by the state to control every aspect of society, to socialize people to a particular world view.
In open societies, disagreement and contestation is supposed to lead to better decisions. This is the “market place of ideas,” and people can compare claims with reality (cite). Yet, that assumes rational, engaged citizens looking at reality with an unbiased lens. Such citizens do not exist. Bias permeates all of society, as people learn to see reality through image, emotion and cultural beliefs. Advertisers understand this. You can use bias to appeal to emotion over reason.
In his classic The Selling of the President Joe McGinnis quoted Nixon campaign consultant Raymond Price: ” ‘Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we’re talking about…,’ Price wrote. ‘Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…When we argue with him we demand that he make the effort of replying. We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.'”
The hard part is stepping back and wondering how much of how we think is just a result of buying into the cultural “conventional wisdoms” of the day? How much are we programmed by society? How much of who we are depends on where we were born (determining religion, traditions, food preferences, etc.) and when we were born? What kind of man would I be if I had been born in Cairo, or in 1648? And, if media is a major source for constructing our identities and sense of meaning, who controls the media? What are their interests?
It seems to me that a lot of people concerned about freedom and liberty are so focused on the government as a potential denier of freedom, that they don’t see the influence of the media on the very way they think. So focused on overt control and constraint, people miss the powerful way subtle suggestions shape who we are and what we believe. Moreover, whether it be the selling of Barack Obama, or FOX new’s efforts to push a “tea party” movement, how much of our politics is shaped by myth rather than reason? Could this be what ultimately puts our Republic in danger — not the “id” and human nature’s dark side, but our ability to be manipulated by the media?
As a political scientist, I find the politics behind an issue like health care reform often more interesting than the debates about the policy itself. That isn’t to say that the “horse race” is more important than the significant issues at stake — whether or not health care reform is passed will dramatically impact the future of this country. But as we get within a week of a health care vote, I want again to write purely about the politics of the matter, not the policy itself.
A while back I wrote that President Obama must pass health care reform if the Democrats are to have a chance to avoid a cataclysmic November off year election. The reason is simply that the President needs a win to appear affective and maintain public support, the Democrats look inept if they can’t pass something, their base will be demoralized, and once health care has passed other issues can be pushed to the front of the agenda. When the Republicans run against the passed bill, the Democrats will bring up salient issues currently before Congress and say, “let the GOP debate the past, we’re looking forward to continue bringing the US out of the mess we inherited.” One must not forget that the energy of the base is the most important thing in an off year election. If the Republicans fail to stop health care reform, their base may be demoralized, especially if by fall the Democrats are playing to issues that independents are with them on.
I am rather optimistic that health care reform will indeed pass — things seem to be going the Democrats’ way. First, President Obama postponed a foreign trip to be here for the vote, and the rhetoric from the White House is not only optimistic, but definitive. That is putting a lot on the line, making a “no” vote ten times more devastating for Obama if he loses. They know the inside game better than any pundit or observer, they would have to calculate their odds as very good before heading down this path.
Second, the Republicans are talking more about “reconciliation” (the process to be used to avoid a filibuster) than the policy itself. This is a tactical mistake. The GOP has polls that say the public doesn’t want the reconciliation process to be used, but when push comes to shove, the American people don’t really care about or have a long term memory of the process used to pass something. Moreover, process discussion cedes the high road (policy discussion) to the Democrats — perhaps the Republicans are either too “inside the beltway” in their thinking, or focused on an “inside politics” game, namely putting psychological pressure on House Democrats. If so, that’s probably a bad strategy — not only can the Democratic leadership more effectively impact their members, but if it becomes an overtly partisan thing, it’s harder for party members to break ranks.
Finally, the pressure being brought to bear on Democrats to vote yes is immense. Labor is threatening to pull support from members who vote “no,” and to even seek opponents for them in the next primary. The President has the powers of the Oval office and is putting pressure on waverers. The Speaker of the House still has considerable power, and inside deals can be cut — sometimes involving issues still months away. Activist groups are rallying and calling to pressure House and Senate Democrats — and almost all of them are pushing for a yes vote. These are groups that will “get out the vote” in November (especially Labor), help raise funds, and whose endorsement is often needed. All of this can sway members who even a week earlier might have been pretty sure they were going to vote “no.” When it’s clear this “isn’t a normal vote,” but one where rewards and punishments are tied to how a member votes, well, it’s often an offer a Congressperson or Senator cannot refuse.
For President Obama and House Speaker Pelosi, this vote is a personal test of their leadership. If Obama “raises health care reform from the dead,” passing what appeared defeated after the Massachusetts special election, then his leadership will be hailed from pundits and politicians alike. Clinton couldn’t do this, Obama could, despite immense pressure and at times looking like it was game over. If Obama fails, it will add to a string of difficulties that have dogged the President since the summer, and almost assure a strong set of Republican gains in the fall. To be sure, Clinton lost health care and bounced back, and Obama could too. But Clinton also lost much of his agenda when that happened; Obama wants to continue to press forth his.
The Republicans may be overplaying the process card, but they are remaining united, and seem to have no wavering members who the Democrats could pluck. They also have polls that they shove in the faces of moderate Democrats, or Democrats who were pulled into office on Obama’s coattails last fall. Why should they fall on the sword for Obama and Pelosi? Why should they risk electoral suicide? Since most members put staying in office ahead of all else, this remains a strong argument from the GOP, though one with an ironic twist. The best outcome for some House members is if health care passes (helping the Democrats in the fall overall), but they vote no (meaning they keep support from moderates). If they vote “no” but the Democrats go weakly into the fall, that “no” vote probably does most of them no good, even amongst independents.
Then there are the Kucinich Democrats, those who think this bill is too meek and won’t accomplish what’s necessary, and refuse to support this because it doesn’t have things such as a public option. The problem with this position is that holding out for the best can guarantee continuance of the worst. If health care reform dies, the Republicans will pick up numerous seats in both the House and Senate, and the next chance for major reform might be over a decade away. Passing this now and then improving upon it is a far better path. Politics is the art of the possible. The Democrats (and Ted Kennedy) rejected a much more “liberal” possibility back in the 70s, and now nearly forty years later still haven’t gotten anything significant passed into law. Idealism must be tempered with pragmatism.
Obama can lose and still get re-elected and have a good Presidency. But if he loses, he may well lose his opportunity to be the “agent of change” people wanted. Change is a funny thing; people want it in the abstract, but don’t like it when it affects them. The problem now is that change is necessary; if not done voluntarily, it will be forced upon us. There are many aspects of this health care bill I do not like. However, I’m still hopeful that Obama can be the transformational President so many of us hoped we were getting back in November 2008. He has taken his time to get going, but now faces a test that will define his Presidency, the future of the Democratic party, and perhaps this country. The stakes are exceedingly high — and that’s why looking at the politics behind the policy can be so fascinating.
Physics until recently has been the effort to discover the universal set of laws underlying the way the universe runs. To do so, the theories have had to get ever more bizarre — an infinite number of parallel quantum universes, 11 or more dimensions, inflation at the start of the universe, etc. All these become necessary to pursue theories that hope to be the grand “theory of everything,” a full explanation of why the physical world works as it does.
Yet, according to this month’s issue of Discover, there are reasons to doubt that there is an unchanging set of universal laws governing how the world operates. One reason is the incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics between the macro and micro worlds. Since the incompatibilities are very minor when dealing with very small units (subatomic particles) this doesn’t usually cause a problem. When trying to understand physics at the time of the “big bang,” however, you need both to coincide.
In some ways, calling into question the quest for a theory of everything isn’t as radical as it seems. Newton’s “clockwork universe” so defined physics before Einstein that the shift relativity and quantum mechanics brought was disturbing to the dominant world view. Even Einstein could not accept what quantum mechanics was serving up. Newton’s world was orderly and perfect, if you could know at any one time the position and speed of all objects, you could calculate back to know the past, and forward to know the future. It ran like a machine, put in motion by some “Prime Mover.” The need for an entity to put the world in motion was also a strong argument for the existence of God.
But what kind of world do we have if there are no absolutely universal laws; and what reason could there be to question them? Last year Discover had an article about the biocentric theory of the universe. This theory is radical, it posits the universe as having been created by life, not the other way around. Philosophically this is reminiscent of philosophers such as Bishop Berkeley, who correctly noted that we don’t ever truly experience reality, but only our senses of it. Reality, for Berkeley, was a persuasive illusion.
This year’s article (which I cannot find a link to) has a variety of other challenges to the idea of one set of timeless universal laws. One notes, simply, that if time is real, and time is all about change, then why should we expect timeless universal laws to underlie it? His approach (Lee Smolin, who has been working with social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger — who posited an anti-statist notion of socialism back in the 80s) notes that the quest for a single set of laws leads to bizarre equations that cannot be measured, seen, or really even clearly imagined. That could mean that the world is really bizarre, with paradoxes and apparent contradictions that we need to find some kind of solution for, or it could mean that the premise is wrong — the search for an underlying order is misguided.
Another, Stuart Kauffman, an evolutionary biologist, believes that perhaps the universe itself, including the laws that drive it, is evolving. The laws that govern physics now may not be the same some distant point in the past. Finally, Andreas Albright comes to his challenge through his own efforts to understand the time shortly after the big bang. He found that there is no way to calculate it back to provide a single “ticktock version” of how events unfolded. It could be that time operated under different laws in those circumstances.
I think what’s happening here is simply the next step of demolishing the Newtonian view of the world as a clearly ordered place operating under laws of nature which have a clear, logical coherence. This enlightenment effort to posit a world we can understand, once we get enough data and analysis, was rooted in a kind of human arrogance – a belief we are capable of really understanding the forces which drive our existence.
I’ve used the “ant in the White House” analogy before. An ant in the White House has a world that it explores and lives in, making sense to its limited capacity. The idea of the President living there, American politics, or even the complexity of the human world is completely and totally un-knowable to the ant. The ant might get stepped on, walk across the oval office desk, or interact directly with this world — but it can’t understand it.
I believe that is probably more true for us than our human arrogance wants to accept. For my money, I find the biocentric theory the most intriguing. I would say, though, that it’s not life that creates the universe, because life as we understand it scientifically is a biological and material phenomenon. Rather, some spark of life — commonly known as spirit — would have to drive the universe and create it. Matter may be, as Berkeley argued, a persuasive illusion. Berkeley thought reality was really akin to a dream of God’s. A biocentric universe holds open the possibility of religious and spiritual explanations for the existence of the world, something many enlightenment scientists find either unpersuasive or too reminiscent of traditional mythology. Yet even if we doubt the literal truth of those myths and stories, perhaps there is some symbolic truth behind them.
And really, if there were one underlying mechanical/material set of laws that defined the universe, wouldn’t that leave the question open of why there is something rather than nothing? How could a reality with fine tuned laws just exist? For Rousseau, Voltaire and the Deists, who doubted Christian theology, this was enough to posit the existence of an “intelligent designer.” A biocentric theory does give us an “intelligent designer” – life, or the life force, or the spirit which animates life.
There is something ironic about Max Planck discovering quantum mechanics at the end of the 18th century. Physcists at that time had been convinced they solved almost all issues regarding how the physical world worked, and Planck was advised to look for a more interesting field. He decided to try to focus on a few remaining puzzles in physics, and that led him to his discovery that, along with Einstein’s theories, would destroy the old Newtonian world view. Now physicists have a similar sense that they are close to a “theory of everything,” and that it’s just a matter of tying up some puzzles about, say, incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and relativity. There will still be things to learn, but there is a sense that the standard model of particle physics along with relativity and quantum mechanics gives us a general sense of what the world is all about. The big discoveries have been made, or at least theorized (e.g., the Higgs boson).
But maybe we’re on the verge of another dose of humility — perhaps we are much farther from understanding the underlying nature of the universe than we believe. It could be that the whole idea of a timeless material set of laws has misguided western science for centuries. It might even be that the apparent dismissal of the “spiritual” by enlightenment thought was premature. That leaves us a lot more questions, but few clear answers.