Archive for May, 2010

Heading Home!

We were up at 3:50 today, taking the TXL bus from Alexanderplatz to Berlin Tegel, and now at 9:20 London time (10:20 Berlin time, and 4:20 EDT) we are at London Heathrow, waiting for British Airways flight 213 to Boston.    I can’t wait to be home, it’s hard being away from Ryan and Dana for so long — this has been a long trip!   I have a few themes to write about in coming days or weeks, but no time now —  here are some photos:

Salzburg castle

The fortress in Salzburg

dinner wien

A great dinner in Vienna - Gulasch

Salzburg

Salzburg's old city

Potsdamer Platz

A portion of Potsdamer Platz -- empty space when the wall came down

Gedaechtniskirche

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche -- left destroyed as a memory of the horror of WWII

Schloss Sans Souci

Sans Souci - Potsdam palace

Leave a comment

Living History in Berlin

berlin wall

From Berlin's East Side Gallery -- the former wall. "Politics is the continuation of war by other meeans."

In 1991 I was interviewing a political activist in Schwerin, a city from former East Germany.    People were starting to notice the unexpected difficulties in bringing two cultures together, as “die Mauer in Kopf” (the wall in the head) continued despite the falling of the material Berlin wall.  Germany had unified in 1990, but the people were being divided into Ossi vs. Wessi, East vs. West.  The easterners resented the “better than thou” attitude of the westerners, who they considered arrogant.   The westerners resented the over $1 trillion dollars spent to rebuild a country of 16 million people, especially as the “Ossis” seemed not to appreciate it.  “Check back in 20 years, it will take a generation,” the activist told me.   That was almost twenty years ago.

It is hard to believe this is the same city I saw for the first time back in 1989.  As I have noted in this blog before, the fall of the wall was for me one of the most emotional and powerful historic events in my life time.    Some snippets that strike me now:

1)   Hauptbahnhof.  The main train station is a five level modern sleek station with shops, escalators, and an aesthetic that embodies the “new” in post-wall Berlin.   Trains come and go on the diverse levels, a different feel that traditional stations.  Yet when I first went to the “Lehrter Stadtbahnhof,” it was a sleepy S-Bahn station (public transportation), the last stop before heading across the wall to Friedrichstrasse.   It was therefore quiet, small, and non-descript.   That is gone completely.  A Hauptbahnhof has risen up where the small S-Bahnhof once stood.

2)  Reichstag area: In 1995 I had the luck to see the “wrapped Reichstag” from the artist Christo.  It was an amazing exhibit.   Then in 2003 I went to the top of the glass dome for the first time, it had been remodeled and put back into use for the parliament.  Yet the big change is the maze of buildings that have arisen.  Back in 1995 one had a clear view of the Reichstag from the S-Bahn, and you could easily see Christo’s work glistening in the sun.  Now buildings hide the Reichstag, all of them new, modern and clean.  The whole region that was once barren is now home to a vast governmental sector, crowned by an immense Chancellory building.  Once it was a museum and a lot of empty space.

reichstag dome

The glass dome atop the Reichstag building, taken from the roof of the building

3)  Potsdamer platz. While I was amazed as early as 1995 by the growth in this once empty area along the wall, the building done where “no man’s land” once dominated is unbelievable — and it keeps going.   It isn’t the most beautiful urban landscape — very corporate, with sort of a Times Square feel — but it dominates the center of Berlin.    It is immense, exudes wealth, and clearly brand new.  When I went to Potsdamer Platz in 1989 I had followed the wall from the Brandenburg gate, and it had a small snack cart and shop, with otherwise mostly empty space.  It’s now a different world.

4) The Holocaust Memorial.   From 1995 on, I saw signs of a future holocaust memorial, but even as late as 2003 nothing was there.   Obviously, such memorials can be controversial.  But now there is an abstract but powerful set of over 2700 concrete blocks, some taller than people, each a different shape, on land that is uneven.   When you walk through it is physically uncomfortable and odd.   Nothing stated on it says anything about why it is there — for that you have to find the entrance to the underground information center.   Again, an entirely new Berlin.

5) Potsdam. Outside of Berlin the  city of Potsdam has been completely remade, starting with the main train station.    Besides the loss of old Communist buildings, the station is modern and sleek, though it was odd to see Dunkin Donuts and Subway there (sorry, Subway, but you can’t compete with Doner Kebabs!)   It was also odd to read in the city center that Hooters is coming to Potsdam.   That’s globalization, I guess!

Potsdam stadt

I could go on; the world is much different than it was back in the eighties.   This is true everywhere, but Berlin is just change on steriods, as cranes and construction sites still dot the city as the transformation continues.    A subterranean parking center is being built on Alexanderplatz, where reconstruction has added buildings and made the place almost unrecognizable.  From the early Doner Kebab mobil stands, to the shacks, and now to the permanent shops, the old East Berlin central square has taken on a new character.

To be sure, there is poverty here as well.   Go outside the central areas, and the old apartment buildings still have a socialist feel, despite paint jobs and renovations.   The East is still obviously the East, even as the stark differences in appearance are fading.  In 1991 it was easy to guess who was from the East and who from the West; that’s no longer the case.

Nonetheless, I’ve witnessed  and lived history in my relationship with Germany and Berlin.   The world I knew is gone, Berlin is not the same city I experienced in 1989 (and 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2003).   Seeing it change and then having a seven year gap between the last visits reinforce how drama of this transformation.

When I was young, history was in the past, something I had not experienced.   No more.  I’ve lived history.  I’ve been in divided Berlin, I’ve crossed over from West to East at Friedrichstrassse.  I saw a post-Communist rally with Gregor Gysi speaking a year after unification, I’ve watched Potsdamer Platz get reborn, saw the old, wrapped and new Reichstags, and now experience 21st Century Berlin.

At the Neue  Nationalgalerie Thursday I saw an exhibit called “Modern Times,” or Moderne Zeiten, covering the years from 1900 to 1945.  It ended with paintings depicting the rise of national socialism and the horror of the war, with a destroyed Germany at the end.   Powerful and moving, it placed my experience of Berlin and German history in context.  This is an on-going story with tragedy alongside glory.

What I enjoyed most at the museum was a 65 minute film Sinfonie einer Grossstadt (Symphony of a City), which showed events from an average day in Berlin, filmed in June 1927.   I intended to watch just a few minutes, but was mesmerized into viewing the entire show.  That was during a period of relative optimism in post-WWI Berlin, before the great depression.   People went through life in a very different Berlin — yet in many ways it is indeed the same city.   Trains, trams and early cars coexisted with pedestrians, playing children, and life played out on the same streets we walk today.  Yet that Berlin is long gone, even as remnants shape the present.

So walking through Berlin in 2010 I realize this is also just a piece of history.  Everything will change, there will be trauma, there will be joy.   That’s the way history unfolds.    1933 exists in history, as does 1989.    Appreciating the sites, sounds, and tastes of this moment is a unique glimpse into one episode of the long story of Berlin.  One can visit cities and simply experience the present.   It is a powerful and moving experience to travel through time as one embraces the present.  A sense of the past, a glimpse of the future, and the immediacy of the now mingle together; that is Berlin.

Leave a comment

No Time!

Dachau, Munich museums, the city on a sunny day, last week more Vienna, and no in the room internet, and I’ve not had the chance to live blog this travel course like I  did last year in Italy.  I’m taking notes, though, and will blog about it more when time comes, maybe  “after the fact,” especially  with a slow internet connection.

A few points: this is a great group of students, we’re spending lots of time together and enjoying ourselves, laughing a lot and they’re learning  a lot (and so am I).  Wombats is an excellent hostel chain too, the food in Vienna and Munich has been awesome (and the pastries ungodly delicious).  I’ve been walking over ten miles a day, and the faculty are outlasting many of  the students walking.    Tomorrow is a day trip to Salzburg, and I’m not sure when I will have time to do a proper blog.  Sorry — I thought I could live blog this like I did last year in Italy, but it’s light later, we’re more active outside in May than February, and well, I’d rather live it now and blog it later!   More to come, in the not too distant future…

1 Comment

1421 vs. 1942

Schoenbrunn

Alas, my blogging is a bit curtailed this trip so far, as I don’t have in-room internet access.  Also, with Vienna so full of activity, we’ve been on the move all day.   Last night (Wednesday) we climbed St. Stephens, went to the Jewish Platz museum, spent time at Schloss Schoennbrunn, had some amazing cakes (Wiener Maedltorte is yummy!), and went to a really interesting E-Guitar concert from Seth Josel at the Essl Museum just north of town.  Dinner after that, and it was midnight before getting back to the hostel.

Vienna from Stephansdom

Vienna from a top St. Stephan's Cathedral

The visit the Judenplatz Museum was interesting.  In 1421, as the Viennese were in the midst of building up St. Stephan’s, a holocaust took place.  The entire Jewish community of the city was killed, the synagogue destroyed, and no trace of this event remained until recently.  While “holocaust” may not be an apt term — the numbers were in the hundreds or perhaps a couple thousand, not millions — the event was as violent, destructive and evil as that perpetrated by the Austrian Adolf Hitler and his German supporters five hundred years later.

Jewish synagogue ruins

Excavation on the site of the old Synagogue, now under Vienna

Vienna is also the city where Hitler learned to hate Jews.  As an aspiring artist, his work was mediocre, and he was constantly turned down in his quest to enter the art academy.   Jewish artists were gaining fame with works he thought weird and  out of step with tradition.  As the empire was decaying, the anti-semetic and pan-German rhetoric appealed to him.   Yet as the 1421 example shows, this was only a continuation, or at least a repeat of Austrian history.

To be fair, in European history the Germans and the Austrians have a better record than other countries in their treatment of Jews.  Prussia granted Jews full rights in the 18th century, including access to professions that had been limited.   Joseph II liberalized Austrian laws at the end of the 18th Century.  Jews were mistreated throughout Europe.   Still, the symbolism of 1421 vs. 1942-45, and the fact a holocaust shrine is built on the site of the synagogue destroyed in 1421 speaks volumes of this shameful aspect of European history.

Many in the West speak ill of Israel, or of Muslim states.   The Israelis are oppressing  the Palestinians, or the Muslims are dangerous, strange and all potential terrorists.  Yet who are we in the West to cast stones?  Sure, now Christianity does not support genocide or mass killing, and now our enlightenment values embrace human rights.   But those are recent developments.   We seem to pretend that past ills are irrelevant, or that it was natural for us to move from there to here.   Muslims are violent, people say, whitewashing the intense and centuries long violence from the West.

The bottom line seems to be fear of difference.  That’s what caused such animosity to the Jews in the 15th century, and why Americans now see Muslims as dangerous and strange.  Such fear can easily turn to aggression and a rationalization of violence and injustice.  I’m sure the 15th century Viennese who supported the action against the Jews were not all blood thirsty immoral cretins.   Nor were the Germans of the Third Reich, the conquistadors of Latin America, the US cavalry spreading West or the slave holders of the deep south.  Throughout human history greed and/or fear of difference has lead to dehumanization of others and acts of evil.   That’s true in all civilizations, East, West, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Rwandan, etc.  It can extend to ideology as well, as the acts of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others demonstrate.

Yet, Austria also represents an effort to embrace difference, at one point holding a multi-ethnic empire, and now being a strong supporter of the UN and international efforts to promote peace.  I get the sense, reflecting on this history, that part of the human condition is somehow learning to accept that others can be different in custom, thought and history.  It seems an easy lesson to learn, but reflects an effort to expand culture beyond the shared ideas that keep a small group united, and to embrace pluralism and diversity.   That is a remarkably hard lesson to learn, though hopefully we’ve come a ways since 1421!

1 Comment

Dying Empires

First, sorry I have no pictures to post today. My camera’s batteries were out of juice — but tomorrow I’ll post some!   Our first full day in Wien was great.  12 miles walking, four hours in the Art History Museum, delicious pastries, and the students were blown away by the grandeur and splendor of the central city.  Vienna is one of my favorite cities, it has an amazing atmosphere, architecture, and vibrancy.   Yet as I walked this city and as we talked to students about its history (mini-lectures in front of monuments and churches, as well as a full seminar about the piano and Mozart from Steve), I couldn’t help but think about how this city was capital of a 650 year empire which collapsed just under 100 years ago.

Austria was a dying empire by the end of the 19th century.   They knew it.  Yet they also didn’t know how to stop it.   One option was to liberalize, but the power structure, including Emperor Franz Josef, who came to power in 1848 and ruled until his death in 1916, worked against that.  Franz-Josef was one of a long line of Hapsburg rulers, starting with Rudolf in the 13th century.   Liberalizing — moving towards democracy, capitalism, and a focus on individual rights — went against the aristocratic traditions which defined the empire.

Indeed, the Austro-Hungarian empire as it was then known (a sop to Hungarian nationalism) was structured on ideals and traditions that had persisted for centuries but which had become anachronistic.  The Catholic Church was a powerful force, but throughout Europe it was on the defensive.

Back before Napoleon the “Holy Roman Empire,” ruled by a Hapsburg emperor covered almost all of Europe between France and Russia.  But it wasn’t an empire as we’d now define it (Voltaire famously quipped that ‘the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire’).   The Hapsburgs held large swathes of territory, and nominally ruled many others.  But in reality it was a decentralized even anarchic set of diverse principalities and communities with no core principles determining governance.  In some places the church had control, there were other ‘free cities’ run by local councils, and there were numerous territories governed by a ‘prince,’ or an aristocratic landlord.   The rules and procedures for how this operated were rarely written down, and perhaps couldn’t be.  It was based on tradition, custom and local practice.  The most powerful “princes” were “electors” who would meet to choose the Emperor.  But even that choice was usually pre-determined — it would be the Hapsburg monarch.

The benefit to the participants was that the Hapsburgs really didn’t rule most of the Empire.  Cities, local aristocrats, the Church and others had their territories and things operated according to custom and tradition.   Empress Maria Theresa started to change that in the 18th Century, consolidating Hapsburg power and creating a true central European empire.   Napoleon’s wars destroyed what was left of the old Holy Roman Empire, and Austria survived as a large multi-ethnic empire based on anachronistic traditions in a modernizing world.

Yet it begin the 19th century the dominant power, while Napoleon’s defeat seemed to be a defeat of liberalism and enlightenment values.  The enlightenment proved resilient, however, and as Austria clung to tradition and looked skeptically at capitalism, industrialism and democracy, the rest of Europe moved forward.  The Austrians, trapped by tradition, culture, and history — how could a 650 year old empire truly be endangered? — played for time and hoped for rejuvenation.
On the fringes, populists thought they knew what was wrong.  They were convinced the problem was a refusal to embrace pan-Germanism and the influence of Jews.  While the populists were easily dismissed as right wing xenophobes, their growing influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries would shape a young would-be artist, a provincial Austrian who,after some time leading the Bohemian artistic lifestyle, turned to the far right: Adolf Hitler.

These nationalist movements were diverse, and existed uncomfortably alongside liberalizing efforts from those wanting a modern,democratic Austria.  The right wing movements were held together by anger at the status quo, a clear enemy image (usually the Jew, but also socialists, the monarchy, and ‘liberal internationalists‘), and a stark appeal to the fears and emotions of a people who realized their country was moving away from what it had been in the past, but were afraid of where it might go in the future.

As I wander through modern Vienna, it‘s clear that while that old world did indeed crumble, Austria today is  in many ways far better off than it was during its imperial heyday.   The people are wealthy, the country stable, and as part of the European Union they have rejected the wars that had European peoples at each others’ throats for centuries.  To get here from there they had to digest the end of an era, a fundamental change in their sense of what it meant to be Austrian, and the very nature of how their world was ordered.   Fear of that kind of existential change meant it could only happen with systemic collapse, in their case through the trauma of joining the Third Reich, and suffering the physical and moral destruction of WWII and the Holocaust.
Pondering that, my thoughts wander to the US.   Are we also going through an existential shifting of values and conditions.  Are the “old ways“ no longer functional?   Are at least the fringes of the so-called ‘tea parties‘ a kind of gut fear reaction of the far right, just as anti-Semitism and pan-Germanism was in 19th Century Austria?   Is the anger at “illegal immigration,” often anti-Mexican sentiment rationalized with claims its just about the illegality, similar to 19th Century Austrian anti-Semitism?  No, I’m not saying this will lead to a Holocaust or American Nazis — I don’t think that will happen, our culture is too different.  I’m thinking more generally if we’re not undergoing the kind of transformation, albeit from a very different to a very different system, that Austria undertook.  And if so, will the transition be as difficult as it was for this once great Empire, now a shadow of what it once was.

I also think about where we spent a day trying, ultimately successfully, to evade the volcanic ash cloud — London.   The British Empire went through a similar transition, and despite pain and real hardship, came through successfully.   Their liberal pragmatic traditions allowed gradual transformation, while Austria’s did not.   We’re much more like the British; does that mean we’ll muddle through change, with the extremists making noise, but never gaining the upper hand?

Of course, these comparisons could be off base.  Visiting former empires in a time when it looks like US power and prestige is under siege makes it perhaps too easy to draw uncomfortable comparisons.   But when I hear people complaining that they want the “America that used to be” to come back, that reminds me of those Austrians who didn’t want things to change.   Change is real.  We’ll never be the America we used to be.  History doesn’t work that way.   That doesn’t have to be a bad thing though.

3 Comments

Wien!

Not much to post yet, but after waiting for hours of delays in both Boston and London, we dodged the ash cloud and made it to Vienna on the 17th — 10 hours late, but on the right day.

British Airways came through, changing their afternoon Vienna flight to a larger plane to include our 24 person group (thanks to the ash cloud we missed our original connection).    Last night the faculty went out and had a traditional Austrian meal — Steve and Sarah had Wienerschnitzel, and I had goulash.    I also enjoyed a Hefe-Weizen (a yeasty wheat beer), and thanks to Steve we all had sauerkraut.   If you’re used to American sauerkraut and hate it (like me), you need to try the real stuff over here, it is good!   Why do we ruin sauerkraut in the US?

Plans today: the Art History museum, a walk (despite some rain), and a day trying to overcome jet lag.   I don’t think I can post as prolifically as  I did from Italy last year.  I don’t have wireless in my room, but hopefully I’ll get some photos up.  For now, here’s one of us waiting  for the ash cloud to pass (I’m not in this one since I took the picture):

Waiting for the ash cloud to pass

Waiting for the ash cloud to pass

2 Comments

In Every Crisis, a Silver Lining…

After today I’ll be blogging from Vienna, part of a two week travel course to Vienna, Munich and Berlin.   In February 2009 I blogged from Italy, starting with the post “Vatican Voices.”   This time my meals, souvenirs, and melange will be relatively inexpensive, thanks to the financial crisis hitting Europe.   The Euro now costs $1.25, compared to the $1.60 it cost a couple years ago.   To be sure, back when I first took students to Italy in January 2001 it was 88 cents to buy a Euro.  In that trip students were buying leather jackets and feasting at fine restaurants.  Still, it’s been awhile since the dollar was that strong.

Update 3: We’re here, at Wombat’s in Wien.  A long trip, but we made it, and I enjoyed a great goulash with bread dumpling and Weissbier for dinner.  Now, a well earned night of sleep!

Co-instructors of this course are Dr. Steve Pane (Music history) and Dr. Sarah Maline (Art History).   Between us we plan to explore the art, music, and political history of these three cities, with consideration of the present crisis and what it means for the EU.   One thing about a travel course is that it takes one out of the mindset of thinking about the subject matter as independent, as if outside space and time.   The history of the cities we visit is part of what they are today, and current events can only be understood by seeing the present as reflecting aspects of the past.   Moreover, teaching about political science and political history becomes far more interesting when connections are made to the worlds of art and music.   In academia we treat such things unidimensionally, you take an art course or a poli-sci course.   In a course like this these blend together without disciplinary boundaries.   That’s the way the real world is.

The volcano is spewing more ash into British airspace, meaning we may have a “mini-crisis” of having our flight canceled or delayed.  I’m not sure how we’ll deal with that — presumably we won’t know until we’re at the airport and then I guess we’ll have to ‘wait and see’.   If that happens the key is to look for the silver lining of that experience, fate works in strange ways.

Also, though not reaching my goal weight of 186, I have gotten very close (189.8), losing thirty pounds since February 12.   The impetus for this disciplined and successful diet was illness.  I was unable to keep anything down for a day, and felt horrible, one of the worst bouts of flu I’ve had for a long time.   Yet that propelled me to a needed diet, and now my “in shape” clothes fit, and that feels good.

Still, I’d like a nice normal on schedule flight.   Last year we almost missed our connecting flight to Rome, and thanks to Delta airlines we barely made it.   On the way back the snow storm that hit the northeast had us delayed, and we waited hours before we found out we would make it back — and then it was touch and go if the van could come to Portland and get us.   On top of that, arriving home from Italy at midnight, our cars were buried under 30 inches of snow.   Last month a flight that was supposed to be Chicago-Portland became Chicago-Boston with a car rental to Portland.   And now volcanic ash?   Well, if it happens, we’ll deal with it.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico the BP undersea well is still belching oil into the ocean.  I’m not sure how to find a silver lining there.   It’s a reminder that no matter how safe our technology seems to be, something can go wrong.  There is always risk.   Perhaps it’s a reminder that while in most crises there is a silver lining, it may be wrong to say that’s the case about every crisis.  Sometimes, something comes along that just plain sucks, and there’s nothing good that comes of it.   On that happy note, it’s off to Europe…volcano gods permitting…

Update: We are now at Boston Logan.   We were about to board when the pilot and crew came out and said that due to the ash cloud, departure is delayed until at least 10:00 Boston time.   So students are playing cards, listening to I-pods and waiting, I’m reading A Nervous Splendor about Vienna in 1888-89, by Frederic Morton, and we wait…obviously we’re missing our connecting flight to Vienna, but if Heathrow is closed that wouldn’t take off anyway.   But I have a comfortable rocking chair here, and the airport is pleasant.

Update 2: We took off shortly after 10:00 on the 16th, but missed our flight to Vienna.   After a long wait in line to rebook, we had a very helpful British Airways Rep.  He scolded the rebooking folk, “you had a group of 24 and you didn’t think to rebook them?” and after giving us vouchers for a free lunch, managed to get a larger plane for the afternoon Vienna flight.  Last year Delta held a Rome flight and bused us across JFK to  catch it, this year British Airways provides a larger plane so we can make it.  UMF has clout!   Anyway, the ash cloud could still hamper us, but it looks like we should start boarding for Wien in a half hour!

Leave a comment

Avoiding Global Depression?

Historians have the benefit of hindsight.  In hindsight it will seem inevitable that after the popping of the real estate bubble and the collapse of financial institutions due to wild speculation and excessive credit, states would suffer next.  After all, the huge increase in debt — private debt has soared as much as government debt has — created an unsustainable economic pattern.   You can’t borrow and spend forever.

The problem is that this pattern, which has persisted for at least thirty years, has yielded unsustainable practices and expectations that have not yet disappeared.   The equivalent on the micro level is the market for construction workers and electricians during the housing bubble.  People built life expectations and planned careers based on economic conditions which could not last.   Now hundreds of thousands of people face making major life changes due to the economic collapse.   For countries like Greece, the pattern of the last thirty years allowed continued accumulation of debt, and inept governmental practices.

At the same time, another factor was at play — demographics.   Social welfare systems, especially pension plans, were designed when populations were young.   That meant one could be generous to senior citizens, assuring them a comfortable retirement with quality health care.    Yet as a society gets wealthier, fertility rates decline.   People want to enjoy the material comforts of the modern age, and frankly, kids mess that up.    Add to that increased life spans due to improvements in medical care, and the elderly become an unsustainable burden on the young.

Finally, there is the energy situation.  The 20th century was built on cheap oil, and that era has past.   Even as we try to suck more oil from deep sea wells, oil shale, and possible new finds, it’s clear that world oil production has peaked and the future will mean more expensive oil.   That means that just as our imbalances are becoming unsustainable, the thing that kept the economy moving is becoming more expensive.

So we have three structural imbalances: 1) governments (and private citizens) addicted to debt, building an economy that relies on consumerism and government largess; 2)  demographic changes that create an aging society; and 3) the end of cheap oil.   Can we deal with these without another “Great Depression?”

A “great depression” is the equivalent of a major heart attack to a person who has spent his or her entire adult life over eating, not exercising, and enjoying an unhealthy lifestyle.    This person has probably read the warnings, heard about the dangers, and knew that the extra fries and beer were harming his or her body, but would think “yeah, I have to get healthier but hey, I’m OK now, and I’m enjoying life…”   The heart attack forces the person to rethink his or her fundamental behaviors, and perhaps chart a new course.   The alternative is early death.

A “great depression” is similar.   When we’ve had unhealthy economic behaviors and policies long enough, the system collapses, it can’t continue.   If changes aren’t made we will enter a period of sustained pain, ended by the political equivalent of death — warfare, anarchy, and chaos.    So, following the metaphor, one way to think about this is to figure out what kinds of practices are sustainable within the new economic conditions, and what we need to do to alter our “economic life style.”   A few things come to mind:

1.  Reduction of debt.  This is being forced upon us anyway.   Debt requires someone willing to loan the money, expecting to earn interest.  In the current environment, people are not certain they’ll ever be paid back, and so credit dries up.   Governments need to work for balanced budgets.   The hard part of this is that cutting government spending also means taking money out of the economy, potentially harming any recovery.    A structural stimulus (money spent on building the infrastructure for a sustainable economy and not trying a quick ‘spend all at once’ stimulation of the economy) is rational, but as it is implemented, real cuts in other spending must take place.   This includes rethinking social welfare programs, slashing unnecessary military spending, and assuring that money spent is not wasted.

2.   Ending the culture of consumerism.   Americans especially, but really everyone in the advanced industrialized world, has been partying for decades now thanks to increased debt and cheap energy.    We’re now fat, lazy, and expect “something for nothing.”   Whether it’s people living on welfare, or the pseudo-capitalists who thought getting rich was as easy as simply finding clever ways to invest (flipping real estate, buying dotcom stocks), the idea that we can have it all without much effort has to be rejected.    Already people are moving that direction, but too many still expect that “once this is over,” they can go back to the habits of the past.   Think of it as a life style change like similar to the one forced upon our heart attack victim — we won’t enjoy the excesses that we were addicted to in the past, but ultimately we’ll find a sustainable life style not simply defined by material pleasures of the moment more satisfying.

3.   New economic policies.   The fear of protectionism and how that hurt the world in the thirties has led to acceptance of free trade that isn’t truly free.   If countries like China keep their currency value artificially low, or if other countries exploit workers with extremely poor wages, we have to be willing to say that we don’t need their products.   The notion of fair trade has to replace free trade.   Free trade too often has been a kind of defacto slavery (the poor in the third world supply us our material toys, even as they toil with little), and has created first world economies which no longer produce the stuff we need.    Our economy shifted from production to more service sector jobs, which added little real to the economy, sustained only by debt and bubbles.

US tax rates are at historic lows, we need to consider higher taxes to pay for the infrastructure investments to get us to a sustainable economy.   A fair tax, or some kind of system that avoids the loopholes and perks to the wealthy in the current tax system would be a clear way to do this.  A value added tax might work too, though if it’s simply added to the current structure, it could do more harm than good.

All of this will be difficult to sell to a public used to “something for nothing.”  The government will give you less, you’ll pay more, and the consumer life style you’ve grown accustomed to will have to change.  Populist movements will rebel against this pragmatic and necessary message, and the danger is we’ll end up in economic and political stagnation, weakening the country (or even western civilization as a whole) to the point that a stable transition becomes impossible.   Key will be energy.  If we can start making real infrastructure changes which produce jobs and new technologies, a path may emerge to at least stabilize the situation, even as we make difficult cultural adjustments to new economic conditions.

Avoiding global depression requires societies to pull together to solve problems, recognize that debt and consumerism got us here, to rethink cherished social welfare concepts, and cut military spending.   It’s possible.  The alternative will be social division, resource wars, increased terrorism, and stagnation of a civilization that for better or worse has been exceedingly dynamic for the past four centuries.    We live in interesting times.

UPDATE: I just read a piece from John Judis of The New Republic on “the case for gloom and doom.”  He cites the theory that overproduction (producers making more than consumers can purchase) is the cause of the current crisis.  This is the flip side of too much debt — debt drives up demand, yielding even higher (and ultimately unsustainable) levels of production.   This also brings into question the ability to re-balance by simply increasing demand — that ceases to work when debt levels are already high and there is so much over-production.    To me that further points to the need to have any stimulus be long term (spent over years, not injected right away) and focused on building the infrastructure of a sustainable economy.  The open question is whether going through a major global depression is the only way to rebalance and restructure the world economy.

3 Comments

2010 Elections

It’s a ways out to forecast what will happen in November, but with  speculation rife that the Republicans are going to come roaring back, perhaps regaining a majority in the House, it’s worth looking a bit forward in the crystal ball.

First, 2010 will be the third election in a row where the public mood was decidedly negative and wanting change.  The Democrats benefited in the first two, but now as the party in power they’ll be hurt.    Some in the GOP believe the mood represents a conservative uprising against liberalism.   In 2008 people were equally convinced that the embrace of Obama meant a rejection of conservative principles for a more active state.  In reality, neither ideological interpretation holds water.   The GOP is benefiting in 2010 from the same dynamics that benefited Obama in 2008 – a country discontent and wanting change, even if they aren’t sure what kind of change to embrace.

But to what extent will a disgruntled public shift from supporting Obama’s promise of change to that of the Republican party?   Will it be a tidal wave or a trickle.   In Great Britain a similar mood worked against Labour in their election last Thursday.   Yet when the votes were counted Gordon Brown had led the Labour Party to a more competitive defeat than people were expecting.  The Conservatives couldn’t win a majority, and many pollsters were caught off guard by the strong Labour showing.

The reason I mention this is to note that wide range discontent does not necessarily transfer to electoral tidal wave.   As the election nears, campaigns will become personal and the issues of the day will be whatever late summer and early fall bring (with the Democrats having some control over the agenda).

American elections have two dynamics which should protect the Democrats.   First is the incumbency advantage.   The word on the street is that this is currently a disadvantage as people are in a mood to ‘throw the bums out.’   But almost always the appearance of that mood is far stronger than the reality.    People often come to decide either that their own candidate is an exception, or that compared to the alternative, they’re best serve keeping their Representative (or Senator).    The loss of Senator Bennett in Utah is pointed to as a sign of incumbents in danger, but he was stopped at a state convention, where a small group of activists weld considerable power.   That is far different than a statewide election.

Second, unlike British elections, people are voting only in part based on party and the country’s leadership.  Most people focus on the individuals running for office.    When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts it mattered that Coakley (his opponent) did not run a good campaign, and that he ran superb campaign portraying himself as an independent minded moderate Republican.   Already the “tea partiers” have labeled him a “Rino” (Republican in name only) for some of his votes.

Both of these factors suggest to me that the talk of a Republican take over the House is premature and based on flimsy evidence.    The Democrats go into the fall with a significant money advantage, and perhaps help from an unlikely source: the tea party movement.   Recent polls show a rise of Democratic enthusiasm as the election nears, while GOP enthusiasm is down somewhat from the time of the health care vote.    One cause for this is that Democratic minded voters don’t like the tone and message of the “tea parties,” and can be inspired to give money and time — and to vote — in order to prevent that group from expanding power.

Expect the Democrats to use quotes from Sarah Palin, some extreme images from tea party rallies (just as the right cherry picked what to show from anti-war demos, the left will do so here), and quotes from Republicans like Michelle Bachman to rally supporters to their cause.    The message: help prevent the country from going in that scary right wing direction!    With it hard to keep up the level of enthusiasm the Republicans had in late March, there may be more vigor in the Democratic campaigns than expected.

This creates a challenge for the Republicans.   They need the enthusiasm, but don’t want to turn off moderate voters.   They pulled that off with Scott Brown, endorsed by the tea party movement even though he’s more an Olympia Snow than a Jim DeMint.   But will that be enough to get moderates who have voted Democratic in recent years to decide the Republicans offer the better alternative?   Here it will really matter how the individuals running in the races campaign — they need to show reasoned pragmatism and not ideological fervor.

The Democrats have challenges as well.   While the GOP often finds ideology as a thorn in its side, special interests vex the Democrats.   Will Hispanics punish the party for slow movement on immigration reform?   What about environmentalists concerned with climate change, or blacks worried that Obama hasn’t done enough for their interests?    If Obama aggressively tries to satisfy these groups, he may get a lot of support, but also gives the GOP a storyline:  Look at the politics of old, making deals, appeasing special interests, and running up debt as the country refuses to face serious problems.   If Obama does not keep enthusiasm in these groups (which are more important in off year elections than Presidential ones), then the gain amongst moderates may not be enough to offset the loses.

The parties both know that the public wants cooperation to solve problems, hence the Democrats are complaining that the Republicans are running an obstructionist Congress, while the GOP says that the Democrats are ramming things through without trying to find compromise.   The truth is fuzzier — the Democrats want to compromise, but not to the extent demanded by the Republicans for bi-partisanship.   Moreover,  at this point the Republicans think their hand will be much stronger after November, so it’s rational for them to obstruct for now.

I suspect that in November we’ll see modest Republican gains in the House, I’ll guess around 25.   In the Senate the Republicans will gain four or five.   These are significant gains and would put both houses in reach for the GOP in 2012 or more likely 2014.   That said, with an electorate very evenly divided, a slight shift to either party could have a tremendous impact.    And given the topsy turvy nature of current events these days, anything can happen between now and November!

Leave a comment

Lieberman’s Dangerous Initiative

Senator Joe Lieberman is going to introduce legislation to the Senate that would strip Americans of their citizenship if they enter into the service of terrorist groups hostile to the US.   It’s not clear how this would work; apparently the suspect would have to be caught overseas and clearly be associated with a terrorist network.

What Lieberman is essentially arguing for is the ability to presume guilt in certain cases and, based on that presumption, strip an American of  his or her citizenship.   Then the suspect does not have the rights an American would to a fair and speedy trial, with the chance to face the accuser, and could presumably be kept captive and interrogated for as long as the terror threat from that or perhaps other terrorist organizations continue.

This is a classic case of fear driving policy in a way that could set a precedent that might undercut the very essence of our democratic Republic.    Now, those supporting this bill would point out that it really is an extension of an existing act which strips citizenship from Americans who serve in hostile armed forces.   A Japanese-American who leaves to fight for Japan in 1941 would, if captured as a POW, be treated like any other POW, and no longer considered a US citizen.

While it seems slight to expand “hostile armed forces of another state” to “terror organizations hostile to the US,” there is one enormous difference.  International politics and international law is centered around states.   When someone enters the military of another state, that is a clear act which, if done voluntarily, explicitly connects that person to their “new” state.

Terror organizations are different.   First, it’s not always clear if people are working with such an organization or understand the nature of that connection.   Let’s assume, however, that most of the time they do.   Most of the time if someone goes and trains with the Taliban of Pakistan, they know they are part of a movement hostile to the US.   How is that really different from joining the German military in 1942?

The first difference seems trivial, but is significant.   A person stripped of his or her citizenship in this way is rendered stateless.  The terror organization may be located in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, but unless the person has dual citizenship, there is no reason for the state in which the terror organization operates to extend any kind of citizenship.   This creates a situation that explicitly goes against international law.   While some in the US don’t think that’s important, the ramifications of breaking basic norms of international law can be serious.

More importantly, while I’m sure proponents of the law can point to cases where it is just as clear to us now as the Japanese American’s decision to join the Japanese army would have been in 1941, one can imagine more tenuous claims.   Let’s say an anti-war activist organization uncovers information about how the US is damaging civilians in Afghanistan.  He could  be arrested, and the military could choose to claim he was working as a terrorist, strip his citizenship, and deny him the ability to get the full story out.  This is not likely to happen, but it is easy to imagine an innocent US citizen being rail roaded and destroyed.

Or, let’s say there is a rise in anti-government terror, with groups internationally working to try to fight against their governments or the UN.   One could imagine a government deciding to silence an effective critic by tying him or her to such an organization if he or she attended a conference overseas that turned out to have participants from or ties with an organization labeled by the US as a terrorist group.  No matter how weak the US case would be, once citizenship is stripped, the rights of the defendant become much harder to protect.  Arguably they could get their day in court, but the path there would be time consuming and uncertain.

And even if neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations would abuse the power so blatantly, what happens if there is further economic decline, oil crises or global instability?  How easy might it be for governments to declare organizations to be terrorist and then use that to silence or eliminate critics?   With foreign armies you have a clear demarcation — the person has to join the military of another state.    Again, joining the military of a hostile state is an objectively clear act which the US cannot re-define.  However, if the government can simply define organizations as terrorist, and then be able to strip citizenship on the assertion someone is associated with them, the chance for abuse of power grows tremendously.

A final objection is that such a law shows disrespect and antipathy for the US justice system.  Is our legal system so flawed that simply granting rights to accused terrorists destroys our ability to get at the truth and punish those who violate the law of the land?  If so, fix our legal system, don’t diminish the Constitution or the rights of individuals.    We should be proud of our system of justice and the high priority we give individual rights.  To scrap those out of fear when things are uncertain is a very dangerous precedent, and one which shows little faith in how the United States operates as a country.

There are very few people who would legitimately be subject to this law, not that many Americans join terror organizations overseas.   Those who do certainly can be handled without creating this potential abuse of power by future governments.    The most dangerous laws are those past in haste, out of fear, in response to an emotional event.   Senator Lieberman’s proposal endangers the very principles he claims he wants to protect, and should be rejected completely and absolutely.

6 Comments