Archive for June, 2010

Random Musings

For those who read my blog, you know I’ve gone a week without posting.   We soon leave for South Dakota and between grading summer experience journals, starting a web based Foreign Policy course, and watching the kids, I’ve been busy!  Since I’m teaching an on line course I will bring my computer along on the trip, so I may blog from South Dakota.

A few random musings:

* the Supreme Court decision affirming gun rights was expected, and though it weakens the ability of state and local governments to have leeway in how the 2nd amendment is interpreted (it again is a federal standard), it’s not a surprising or very consequential decision.   In fact, it probably helps Democrats by de-politicizing the issue.

* Elena Kagan is being attacked by Republicans for having liberal views, especially ones like those of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Yet Marshall was a respected and historic justice.  Agree or disagree with him, sharing his views cannot be seen as making one ineligible for the Court.   If Kagan does not get swift and overwhelming approval, the process has been poisoned by politics.

* Economic stats in recent weeks suggest the recovery may not yet be real.  If things continue to slow down, the possibility of a global depression is very real.   The problem is that a sustainable economy will have to balance production and consumption in a manner that reduces debt.   Right now production is focused in China and the third world, while consumption is in the debt ridden first world.   The first world cannot increase debt and consume at levels reached in the last decade, so a rebalancing requires more production in the first world and more consumption in China and third world states producing for export.   That is a major shift, and probably requires a long term slow down to force a change.  If so, we’re still in for considerable pain.

* The BP oil spill continues to dramatically show the cost of our addiction to oil.    The good news is that this example of our need to shift to cleaner energy sources corresponds to an economic slow down that keeps oil prices reasonably low.   That still creates an opportunity to use energy as a means of rebooting the economy.   The US has to focus on producing clean/alternative energy equipment, thus increasing productive capacity in products that will have global demand.  That could be a key for rebalancing the economy.   Alas, the long term consequences of the sea bed gusher are still unknown and certain to cause extreme hardship for tens of thousands on the Gulf coast.   BP and the US government are powerless to stop it with any speed; this is a problem no one was ready for.   It remains very depressing.

* My foreign policy course has started with some good discussion, especially about America’s role in the world.  The upcoming generation has not been raised with the illusion that the US is the undisputed world power; indeed, today’s first year students were in their formative years as the US war in Iraq went south.  If anything, there is skepticism of the US projecting power and trying to “run the world.”  That’s good — we need a very different foreign policy in the new century.  Globalization has changed the world scene and relative US power has declined.   Yet the US is still wealthy and powerful, and can play a positive role in world politics.   Figuring out how to do so is not an easy issue, and is a motivating question for the course.

* Driving home from a union meeting in Bangor I listened briefly to talk radio.  Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh sounded Goebbelesque as they claimed Obama was purposefully destroying America.   Disgusting.  Then I listened to a bit on NPR about the WestVirginia “text book war” of 1974 when people protested against new textbooks in school.   The fundamentalist crowd claimed it was a Satanic left wing effort to indoctrinate children.   When the extremes of that movement turned violent, the movement  failed — Americans reject violence as a means to promote a political movement, even if they agree with the goals.   In many ways, I think the so called “tea party” movement reflects that segment of society.   It is a minority view that is nostalgic for the America they think existed in the past.   Those days are over, forever.    But that’s not the end of freedom or the American way, as the nostalgics believe.   Rather, as always, our values become applied to a new generation and a new context.  The point is to make sure those values are retained, not to try avoid the inevitable change progress and history bring.


Afghanistan: Mission Impossible II

Back in October 2009 I put up  a post “Afghanistan: Mission Impossible.”  In it, I noted that President Obama, in trying to figure out the best strategy in Afghanistan, may be undertaking an impossible task.   Afghanistan may not be winnable — at least not at anywhere near a cost we’re willing to pay.

Today as General Stanley McChrystal is called to the White House to answer for remarks he made in an interview to Rolling Stone magazine (I expect him to quit), the drama appears to be a General vs. the White House.   The General thinks the White House is not doing enough to win; the White House has long had doubts about McChrystal’s ability to do the job and follow orders.   Who is right?   Well…neither…or both…

The thing about undertaking impossible tasks is that there will always be someone who thinks that it is someone else’s fault.  Thus when things are getting tough, fingers get pointed.   It takes awhile for people to have the perspective to say that perhaps the task undertaken was simply not feasible given the conditions and costs — that now is the consensus on the war in Vietnam, or the idea that Iraq would be a model state to transform  the Mideast.

The problem is that planners, both civilian and military, can always dream up a plan that on paper looks like it might work.   It’s akin to a football coach putting together a plan for a play that should be able to score a winning touch down.   If executed right, if the defense plays as we expect, and if there are no other difficulties encountered, then we should score.

But while football is a game with strict rules and constrained inputs and variables, reality in a place like Afghanistan is full of different players, possibilities, conditions and interests.   Plans dreamed up that work “on paper” are necessarily vast simplifications of what needs to be done, and built on assumptions that don’t take into account the complexity of the situation and are usually optimistic.   That’s why plans put forth by the White House or the Generals usually are vague — details and implementation is where the complexity comes in, and each step of that path is steeped with uncertainty.

Planners understand this, and thus often say the right words when putting forth their ideas:  “Things have to go right…corruption and local politics might get in the way…there is a strong chance this could fail…”  Deep down, however, there is a sense that all problems can be solved, and the right strategy can work if the best people are on it, and can react to events in a rational manner.

But the complexity of Afghan local politics, the embedded culture of corruption (made worse by the fact now people expect the resources of the state to be worth trillions), external interference, and difficulties in implementation of any strategy make it unlikely that the US will succeed in Afghanistan.   At this point, it’s best to say “we gave them a chance, but now they have to make their future.”

That doesn’t mean get out as quickly as possible, nor does it mean to stop humanitarian assistance and some level of military aid.  Instead it means to negotiate with all parties, including the Taliban, with some kind of exit so that Afghan politics reflects Afghan interests.   We can draw a set of clear boundaries — no support for al qaeda and terrorism in exchange for a hands off Afghanistan policy.   We can remind them that if there is another 9-11 the American public, now in an isolationist mood, might suddenly want even more severe action.   We can also make arrangements for some level of covert involvement.

Simply, this is not a war the US can “win” if victory is defined in terms of creating the kind of political and social outcome that suits American sensibilities.  It would be nice if we could, but reality doesn’t work that way.  Cultures and countries develop on their own timetables and in their own manner; trying to force the issue or push them often makes things worse rather than better.   The outcome we desire becomes associated not with freedom and prosperity but the whims of an outside power willing to slaughter innocents and bribe elites in pursuit of its interests.

So from a wider perspective the fight between McChrystal and the White House is symbolic of the US trying to win a war it can’t win (again, not at the cost the public would be willing to pay) and solve a problem that defies solution.   The only thing to do is redefine the goals downward and find a way to exit sooner rather than later.   We face massive long term economic problems and a need for complete reform at home.   Right now, we can’t reshape a country which has defied outside interference for millennia.    So call McChrystal back, radically change the strategy, put someone new in charge to oversee the change, and have 98% of US troops out by 2012.

UPDATE: As predicted, McChrystal resigned, and now has been replaced by his boss, Gen. David Petraeus.  Although I doubt they’ll follow my “get out quickly” advice, I do think the move is smart.  Petraeus is a politically adept, PR savvy General who understands the region and the nature of counter-insurgent operations.   He is also a pragmatist who hopefully will recognize if the situation is so bleak that it’s more rational to leave than stay.   Even then, of course, how we leave is key.   It’s probably good that McChrystal was let go and Petraeus put in charge, though I’m sure all sides would have preferred it to be less messy.

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Building a Better Future

Having been bearish on the US debt and bubble ridden economy for about 15 years, and having argued against interventionism and foreign policy activism for even longer, my views seem to have been vindicated by recent events.  The US economy finally showed itself to be unsustainable, and the effort to “spread democracy” and follow a neo-conservative dream of creating a world conducive to American values proved to be a pie in the sky fantasy.

Psychologically people get locked into thinking about things a certain way.    We avoid cognitive dissonance, we find ways to support our world views.   I don’t want to be a knee jerk “bear.”  Now we see the problems; now people can make changes.  For the first time in well over a decade I’m starting to think the future might indeed be better than the past.

I already wrote a post about how to maintain US influence in world affairs. So far, the late Bush and early Obama Administrations have started down a path that leads us in the right direction.   The more difficult problem is the economy, and unsustainable debt.   The dire scenarios being discussed could turn out to be just as wrong as the “new economy” fantasies were during the recent bubbles.    Here’s why:

1.  Tight credit has helped shift public habits from increasing debt to finally starting to save again.  In the short term this seems like a bad thing since saving does not stimulate an economy in need of a jump start.   However, this also represents a necessary change in habits if we are to rebuild a sustainable economy.   People may be coming out of their delusional consumerist fog, and that’s a good thing.

2.  We’re all in this together — the world economy has been hurt by high debt and bubble induced crises.  Even those relatively well off, such as China, need stability.   While such crises can create conflict, they also can inspire new levels of international cooperation, and right now world leaders seem more disposed to cooperation than conflict — an improvement over 2003-04 when it appeared that undercutting the US had become a goal for middle powers.

3.  The BP disaster should push us even harder towards a post-petroleum economy.    Ever since the first energy crisis and President Nixon’s hope for energy independence, we’ve only given lip service to a desire to wean ourselves from oil.   Now the cost of our addiction includes not only foreign wars, terrorism, and recession, but also visible and long term environmental damage to a major coast line — something which could easily happen again if deep water drilling continues.   This event has caused me to prepare for a major investment in changing how I heat my home.   I may not get off oil completely, but it’s suddenly worth it both economically and morally to change how I live.

Beyond that, technological development of alternative energy sources is growing quickly.   Vastly more efficient solar panels, geothermal energy, wind turbines are being produced.     In the last four years the idea of a quick shift in energy sources has gone from being seen as virtually inconceivable to at least being in the realm of possibility.  If this continues, the oil era may come to an end sooner rather than later, and could help stimulate a new economic boom.    This also could do more than any treaty in curtailing the emission of green house gases into the atmosphere, and make it possible to avoid the worst aspects of global warming.   In the past I thought the oil addiction was simply too hard to break, that we were facing an almost certain energy crisis which could last decades and spawn and global depression.  Now I’m starting to think that won’t be the case, that we can make the leap to new energy sources.

4.  Pragmatism (examples: Obama and Brown).   Right now Obama’s approval ratings remain slightly below 50% (with at least 10-15% coming from the left).    People are dissatisfied with the present, and that spells trouble for the party in power.   So far, however, Obama has steered a rather pragmatic course and has tried to avoid ideological warfare.  And for all the noise made by the so-called “tea party” folk who fantasize that we can “return the government of the founders,” the most successful Republicans have been people like Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who also tries to be pragmatic and avoid ideological war.  Though Obama is on the left and Brown on the right, and thus they have different perspectives, if the pragmatic middle can come forth in both parties we might see a capacity to solve problems.   If it becomes the far left vs. the far right — Olberman vs. Beck — then the country could go into gridlock and decline.

My hope is that in the 2010 elections the pragmatic middle ends up out performing the ideologues in both parties, signaling that extremism doesn’t win, and we can get the two sides to work together and solve problems.   I actually think the American people are wise enough to send that message.   Both the elections of Obama nation wide and Brown in Massachusetts were designed to make that clear; let’s hope the politicians are listening.

5.   A new vision of government.   The financial crisis and BP disaster show that you can’t rely on markets or de-regulation to magically make everything better.   We need effective government, regulation and rule of law.   On the other hand, the demographic time bomb faced by social security, medicare, and the health care system show that government programs cannot magically make everything better either.  We need to limit bureaucracy and cut government spending.    It’s not “return to the founders” vs. “embrace socialism.”   Instead, we need to rethink how government functions and make sure it addresses 21st century problems effectively.

To me that means rethinking all government programs and spending, with no sacred cows.   Whether it is military spending, social security, higher education or aid to children, everything should be analyzed, assessed, and we should ask “can we do this cheaper.”  I think we can.  I don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth out of how much the government spends — there isn’t only waste, but also a lot of unneeded, ineffective spending going on.    We’re still prosperous and creative enough to maintain a solid standard of living if we can avoid a severe collapse caused by heavy debt.

The tax code needs overhauled as well; there are too many breaks for the wealthy, too much of  if has been written by big business, and it’s finally time for something like a “progressive fair tax” that is more effective and can generate increased revenue.    It’s best to do that not by increasing current tax rates, but by rethinking the tax structure so people who now avoid taxes find it harder to do so.

There are two obstacles to changing our vision of governance.    One is the power of special interests, groups that like aspects of the current system and have the political clout and power to try to protect their particular programs.   The other obstacles is ideological thinking — those who rely on abstract “principles” that don’t work in practice like they are supposed to in theory.   Whether from hard core socialists or adamant libertarians, ideology-driven thinking is irrational in that it ignores reality in favor of simplified interpretations of how the world ‘should’ work.

6.   Spiritual rejuvenation.   I’m not talking religion here, but a shift away from a crass focus on consumption and “consumerism” towards a recognition that life is not just about our material condition, but has meaning at a deeper level.   The spiritual connection may be social (family, community), religious, connected to nature or the arts, or simply a recognition that life has a spiritual purpose.    Without spiritual rejuvenation we doom ourselves to an anxiety-ridden quest to prove our worth through consumption, and that’s driven the oil and debt addiction as much as anything else.

There’s always been a disconnect between my personal optimism for every day life and my predictions of economic/political gloom and doom.     Now that people see the problems that were being ignored for so long, I’m becoming optimistic that we can build a better global.  There are dangers ahead and the most difficult part is yet to come.   But perhaps the 21st century will when we the oil era recedes, technology and global cooperation starts to yield hope for the third world, and we build a sustainable economy where material consumption is no longer seen as the reason we’re here.

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FDP and SPD?

(Though I don’t blog about German politics much, that is my area of expertise, so please forgive an self-indulgent look at what’s going on in Germany).

In Germany the FDP, or the “liberals” (meaning believers in limited government and lower taxes) have been questioning their coalition with the CDU or Christian Democrats.   It’s not that the coalition government of Angela Merkel (CDU) is going to fall any time soon, it’s just that many in the FDP are starting to wonder about being associated with the government in power during a time of crisis when many unpopular decisions need to be made.

During the last recession, many major western governments changed hands.   In the US Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, in Britain Margaret Thatcher overtook James Callaghan, as in both cases the left lost to the right.  But in France Giscard D’Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand, while in Italy the Christian Democrats had to allow a Socialist to become Premier.   The point is that if you are in power during a recession, everything you do will look bad, whether you’re on the left or the right.  Decisions that must be made will be easy to ridicule and condemn, and your party will be associated with the pain of hard times.

Last year as the full brunt of the economic crisis hit Germany, Angela Merkel was spared such a fate as she stayed in power, forming a coalition with the FDP.   But it was a bit of a fluke.

Germany’s major parties are the CDU (in Bavaria the CSU), SPD, FDP, Greens, and the Linke (leftist).   The CDU/CSU is Germany’s conservative party, though these are conservatives who favor national health care, are skeptical of military spending, and believe in tough environmental and safety regulations.   The SPD is the Social Democratic party, or the main party of the left in Germany (though the left is splintered).  Originally they advocated a democratic move towards socialism, though now they support a market economy, claim to be in favor of helping business, and reject socialism.

The FDP is the pro-business, free market party.  They’ve long advocated fewer regulations and lower taxes.   To be sure, even they do not question the need for a national health care system, and they do not support dismantling the German social welfare system.    The Greens are the environmentalist party, focused on civil rights and protecting the environment.  They’ve been skeptical of government power, and have been labeled “left libertarian.”  Die Linke, or “the left” is a party that still espousing a kind of Democratic Socialism, made up of leftists disappointed with the SPD’s veer towards the so-called right, and of remnants of the old Communist party of East Germany (though they do not defend the old East German regime).

When Germans vote, their most important vote is for which party they want to represent them in the lower (and most power) House in parliament (the Bundestag). In recent years the emergence of five competitive parties have made forming a government more difficult.  Up through the end of the Cold War the FDP was generally the king maker, siding either with the CDU/CSU or the SPD.   In the 90s the SPD and the Greens formed a partnership, governing from 1998 to 2005.   After the 2005 election the vote was fragmented, and ultimately the CDU and SPD formed a “grand coalition,” with the major party of the right governing with the top party on the left.

Thus when the 2009 elections came, the SPD could not paint itself as an opposition party able to criticize all that was wrong with the country and the government at the time.   They shared responsibility.  The smaller Greens and FDP could, and their vote totals went up, the FDP had one of its best elections ever.  At that time the FDP had a clear preference to govern with the CDU/CSU and Merkel formed her new government.

After the bail out of Greece and continued worries about the German economy, the FDP is rethinking its image — and its numbers in public opinion polls have plummeted.   First, calls for tax cuts is increasingly regarded as unrealistic given the budget problems Germany faces and concerns about the Euro.    Second, anger about how the government is handling the economy make it lucrative to be on the outside.   Merkel is said to be in over her head, caving to pressure from Obama, or not fully engaged — as one German friend complained to me “she’s not doing anything.”   You can throw stones from the outside, but in government you have to actually make tough calls, and support Merkel’s decisions.

Germany has elections at the state level quite often, and there is where the FDP has started to flirt with the SPD, and is considering the formation of FDP-SPD coalitions.   State level coalitions often reflect local political realities more than the national configuration.  However it’s also a chance to test the waters, and see whether or not a “social-liberal coalition” makes sense.   Theoretically Chancellor Merkel could be deposed by a “constructive vote of no confidence,” if a majority in the Bundestag could agree on a replacement.  The FDP did this in 1982 when they left a coalition with the SPD and Helmut Schmidt, choosing instead to join Helmut Kohl and the CDU/CSU.

So far Merkel has handled the recession probably as good as she feasibly could.  Merkel, like Obama in the US, is suffering less from her actions than from conditions and the need to make tough, unpopular choices.  And that’s the irony of politics — timing is often far more important than what you actually do.   Moreover popular politicians often later have their actions looked at in a much more negative light (such as Reagan’s massive increase in public debt).  As the recession and ramifications of high debt levels have their implications on our way of life, an interesting sub story will be the impact this has on political systems across the industrialized West.   I’ll try to blog about various countries for those who want to keep up on what’s happening even outside the US.

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Joining the AARP

I was about 25 years old when, visiting my dad, I saw that he had a magazine from AARP, the American Association or Retired Persons.  I made a face, “why do you have that magazine?”

My dad grinned widely, pulled out his AARP card and said, “I’m a member!”

“But you’re not retired,” I protested, “and you’re not even old.”  He was fit and still looked pretty young — not one of the gray haired geezers I thought of when AARP crossed my mind.

“I signed up the day I turned 50, it’s a great deal.   You get discounts on just about everything, it makes sense to get it when you’re still active and can save more money.”   I shook my head, realizing that my dad, the ever pragmatic businessman, looked at the bottom line only.   While some might object to the politics of the AARP and others wouldn’t want to join an organization associated with old people — especially just upon hitting an age that sounds older — none of that mattered to my dad.  He’d save money.   Accordingly, he’d be a fool not to join.

My dad had a marvelous sense of self-interest.   He voted Democrat up until 1968, apparently a Kennedy & LBJ voter while my mom went for Nixon and Goldwater.  But, he said, once he started making over $25,000 a year (which was a lot for the mid-sixties) he switched parties.    He was upfront with the reason – once you start making a lot of money, it’s smarter to vote Republican, he argued.    After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer he was overjoyed to find a $3000 big screen television for sale.  His joy did not come from the fact he’d have big screen entertainment in his final months, only that he made a great deal.   There were no payments for six months, and an optional life insurance policy.   “It’s a freebie” he said gleefully.   And it was — my sister had to do a little arguing, but there was nothing there about pre-existing conditions so it was indeed free.

Though my dad and I were quite different — he was a successful businessman who flunked out of college, was on the football team, and didn’t like reading, while I’m a college Professor who dislikes playing team sports and loves to read — I did learn a lot from my dad.   First, he was always trying to have fun.   Whatever happened, good or bad, he’d make a joke about it, and appeared to hardly ever worry or succumb to stress.  He had a kind of natural happy go lucky air, and people always remembered him laughing and having fun.   He’d make a point to chat with wait staff, people working the cash register, and had absolutely no pretense.   He once told me how after work he and some friends went to a bar near the stock yards.   “We were sitting there, businessmen talking solemly, while across the bar were stockyard workers laughing, drinking and really having a ball…I wished I was with them.”

I think I learned a lot from him, and find myself joking like he did, and seeing the bright side of things.   For instance, we’d be on vacation  and see pouring rain out the window, ruining our day’s plans.   My dad would grin “I’ts a beautiful day…”  he said exuberantly.   As we looked out the window he’d add “…in Chicago.”  Somehow, we’d find a way to have fun.  I have a similar kind of natural optimism and desire to make almost any situation fun.  My dad kept his sense of fun even after he was told he had only five months to live — to the end he was joking around and cheering others up.   He never once felt sorry for himself or complained that it was unfair to go at age 60.   Life is what it is, complaining doesn’t help.

And, of course, some of his pragmatism rubbed off on me too.   So when I turned fifty, I knew that one of the first things I’d do is join AARP.   They made it easy too — I got an invitation to join the day after my birthday (that’s a bit spooky — they definitely are a powerful interest group).   Planning an upcoming trip to South Dakota, I’ve already saved more money than the membership cost on hotels (compared to other on line sites), and the car rental.   It’s fitting that the savings start with a trip back “home.”

It’s too bad he died before my kids were born, they’ll never know “grandpa Ron.”   All I can do is try to model that style of having fun while looking at life with a bit of humor and irreverence.    A lot of people take life far too seriously, especially the true believers in a particular ideology, religion or way of living.    Some people constantly measure themselves against others as if they somehow had to prove their value to the world.   Still others let life’s ups and downs create dramas and depressions, as they drown in circumstances beyond their control.   Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my dad is that stress and worry are unnecessary life burdens.   You just take life as it comes, work hard, treat other people well, and have fun.   That and, of course, to join the AARP as soon as possible after turning 50.


Learning About Patsy Cline

One of our decadent pleasures we allow ourselves is to spend a lot of money on a babysitter three or four times a year and drive down to the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick to see a  musical.   I’ve blogged about a show before, when I saw a superb performance of Les Miserables about two years ago.

Today as we were heading down we were contemplating not buying the whole season package next year.  It’s expensive — the babysitter costs as much as the tickets, and it takes away weekend days (though we could change to an evening show).   Because of our tickets we also had to miss a recital a friend was performing today, something we regretted.   On the plus side, we treat ourselves to great Indian cuisine when we go (though our favorite restaurant was closed today), but do we need to go to every show?   Today’s show, Always Patsy Cline was a case in point.   I had no idea for sure who Patsy Cline was.  I thought she was some kind of country singer from the past, but this is one show we’d have chosen to skip if we didn’t have season tickets.   Today turned out to be an argument in favor of getting season tickets.

Patsy Cline was indeed a country music star in the late fifties and early sixties, though that was an era when the line between rock n’ roll and country was not so clear cut.   Her songs (which, of course, filled the musical) were country, but not twany or silly.  In fact, they were excellent, I loved the music.   I learned that Patsy Cline died at the age  of 30, at the peak of her career (for many she was as big as Elvis) in a plane wreck in 1963.   I also learned a bit about our culture and the music of that era.

To be sure, this wasn’t a powerful or emotional musical.   Often  I have tears in my eyes, or am very moved by the message and emotion of a show.  This time I wasn’t — only the lullaby song (with Patsy missing her baby while on the road) got close to evoking a tear.  Still, it was a very meaningful show.

There were only two actors — Jenny Lee Stern played Patsy.  Not knowing Cline’s music, I had no basis to judge her portrayal of the past star.  But the Sunday Matinee brings out a lot of elderly patrons (I think the average age in the theater was about 65), and I heard murmurs that “she is very good” or “she’s really hitting the mark.”   Stern is far more petite than the real Cline, but has a powerful voice and made me a fan.   The other was Charis Leos, a Maine State Music Theater regular who played Louise Seger, a friend of Patsy’s.  Charis is a regular at MSMT, and always gives a popular, humorous performance.    She had fun with the role and injected the necessary comedy to make the musical memorable.

Apparently Louise Seger met Patsy in Houston at a concert, and they became friends.  The musical looks at Patsy through the lens of this friendship, a kind of “average fan” getting to know a singer who is a real human despite the fame.   Patsy comes off as a lovable, generous, and down to earth star, who is taken aback by the ride she’s on, enjoying it but also overwhelmed by all that is happening.   From internet research I know that she had a tremendous stage and media presence, using radio and TV effectively to create a positive image.   Jenny Lee Stern portrayed that aspect of her career very well; it really worked.

The show not only got me curious about Patsy Cline, but also about that era in US cultural history.  Rock music was just emerging as a force of its own, spawned by country with an infusion of jazz and an emphasis on rhythm.    The Beatles would later push rock in a different direction; in Patsy Cline’s time the line between country and rock/pop was thin.   Pop was still more folk like Frank Sanatra and Andy Williams, rock was closer to country.  Patsy, like her contemporary Elvis Presley, moved that line closer.  One has to wonder what would have happened had she lived.

The musical gave some insight on what life was like in that era, a kind of magical time in US cultural history, as modern materialist consumer society was just being born.  The depression and WWII were recent history, but wealth and prosperity were growing, people were yearning to own homes and acquire part of the “American dream.”   People still saved, credit cards were not yet in use, and the Cold War was in force.   The car was starting to dominate US culture, but fears of oil shortages, deep oil well spills and global climate change were still decades away.   Most oil came from the US, not the Mideast.

And, as is often the case, I returned from the show and started looking up information on line — was Louise Seger a real person (yes she was), getting more information on Patsy Cline, watching some Youtube videos, and thinking about how, had she lived, she’d now be nearing eighty years old.    Instead, she died in her prime, forever young.   When I think about cases like that I realize that we make life too difficult when we worry, stress out over small things, judge others, or expect the world to be a certain way.   You live, and you never know when it will end.   The key is to live fully, and at least in music and image, Patsy Cline did so.

I also feel enriched that I learned about a country music icon who until yesterday was just a name I vaguely recognized as having something to do with music.   It may not have had the powerful message of Les Miserables, but it was fun and I learned something.    Enjoyment and education — that’s what life is all about, after all!

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The Crime of the Century

“Now they’re planning the crime of the century
Well what will it be?
Read all about their schemes and adventuring
It’s well worth the fee
So roll up and see
How they rape the universe
How it’s gone from bad to worse
Who are these men of lust, greed and glory
Rip off the masks and let’s see
But that’s not right, oh no, what’s the story
But there’s you and there’s me
(that can’t be right…)
— Crime of the Century
, Supertramp, title track from their 1973 LP
(Song by Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies)

As the oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico, the fingers of blame are pointed everywhere.   Some on the right blame Obama for not being “forceful” in his response.   Others blame British Petroleum (BP) for overlooking dangers and possible design flaws.  Still others blame the oil industry in general for undertaking deep sea drilling without really making sure it’s safe.  Even others blame Halliburton for shoddy work.

But if we rip off the masks to see who’s really to blame, we look in the mirror.  We are the ones demanding oil.   I’m probably more to blame than many — we heat our home with oil, I help lead travel courses to Europe, we drive to camp grounds and on vacations.   Our house has too many square feet, and I buy countless petroleum based products.   I consume, buy my kids too many cheap toys, and waste.  Moreover, even as I know this is the problem — that we are addicted to oil and consumption — I can’t break my habit.

I know people who really do try to live an energy conscious life style.  But when I think of what I’d have to give up, and the fact that most people would go on consuming and nothing would really change, it seems normal to simply go along with the flow.   Anyway, just about everyone does it, right?

Therein lies the problem.   As long as oil is relatively cheap, and the consequences of our addiction tolerable (just think of what drug addicts will endure before they change) we go on.   Oil companies drill in deeper water, politicians scream “drill, baby, drill” and people scoff about global warming or warnings that such deep drilling is dangerous.   Such is our nature as humans.

If we want to believe that we can consume oil without regard to the environment, that oil supplies will last, and that drilling is always safe, there will be those who will give us a story to rationalize not looking closely at our choices and their consequences.   Drilling is safe, there is undiscovered oil everywhere, global warming is a myth, go on and live without regard to the consequences of our actions.  People believe what they want to believe; they want to believe that which allows them continue their habits and hold on to beliefs they’ve become used to.

Serious commentators will develop sophisticated arguments to support their position.   Oil companies will nurture bloggers and the press with trips to oil rigs and seemingly flawless studies to support their position.   Books supposedly “debunking” global warming theory will pop up, questions about one bit of evidence (something all science has) will be used to dismiss all evidence.    Weird bits of evidence will be presented as if they disproved science (e.g., a claim that deep oil rigs prove that oil is simply an earth by product of virtually unlimited supply).  Those who believe what is for them convenient will think that the others are duped.

In all the noise, of course we’ll find support for what we want to believe.  How could we not?  There is a blog to fit every point of view, movements from the tea party to “yes we can.”   Anarchists will find like minded folk convinced that government is the only real evil; socialists will find comrades who believe capitalism is the reason for all our woes.  And, of course, there is always uncertainty — an opening to simply grasp what we want to believe and hold it.

So we consume.   It’s good for the economy, after all, and there’s always someone telling us we need X, and credit is easy to get for Y.   We demand more oil.   And the consequences follow.   And suddenly it’s BP’s fault.  Obama’s fault.  The lax regulation of the Bush Administration’s fault.  But really, it’s our fault.   And those like me who are concerned about global warming, peak oil, and the environment have no business proclaiming any superiority to those who don’t — I consume as much if not more than most of them.   Talking the talk is meaningless if you don’t walk the walk.

So as I reflect on the oil plunging into the Gulf, perhaps all summer and beyond, with other wells also at risk, I really don’t feel like demonizing an oil company or a politician.  I can (and just have) criticized our oil addicted materialistic consumer culture, but in so doing I’m like a drunk condemning alcoholism.  I’m a part of the problem.   So, the challenge of the oil spill for me is not to blame others, but to look at the mirror.   What can I change in my life?  This event is real, the consequences will be with us for a long time.   Likely, worse is yet to come.   I’m as much to blame as anyone.

It won’t be easy, and it will take some time, but my behavior has to change.


New World Order: Under Construction

We’ve become accustomed to the view that globalization is a friend of American ideals, economic liberalism, and westernization.   The cheery “world is flat” line from Thomas Friedman paints a picture of connections growing between countries and cultures, with self-interest and the material prosperity promised by markets trumping extremism and radicalism.  Even those with a more negative view of globalization tend to see the US and “world capitalism” winning — they argued that the price would be exploitation of the poor third world states, with perhaps some uprising against the West “down the line.”  Aside from the environmental concerns of global warming, globalization has generally been viewed  as a positive development for American ideals, even if the transition to a better world might be difficult.

Increasingly globalization looks connected to the dissolution of the Cold War and its bipolar system into a multi-polar anarchy, with both Communism and Capitalism succumbing to major crises.   The idea that economic liberalism “won” could in hindsight look like a fool’s fantasy, as if sailors ignorant that their own ship was slowly sinking cheered as their opponent’s ship sinks faster.

This does not mean that the US is not going to remain a power.   Former superpowers such as Russia, Britain, France and Germany still play major roles on the world stage.   The US has 300 million people, a high tech economy, a powerful military, and despite economic crisis, the capacity to grow and prosper.   This does mean that the rules are changing, and that the emerging world order is going to be far different than the one people are accustomed to, and certainly much different than the “unipolar” world neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer envisioned.

The evidence is all around.  It’s evident in the argument put forth by Walter Russel Mead about Brazil and Turkey. During the Cold War the range of actions of these states were limited by their need to maintain support from the US.   In a more unorganized world, the United States is not as important to these states, and they have responded with assertive policies often directly countering US interests (Brazil with Iran, Turkey opposing Israel).   The US can get mad, but there is little concretely that can be done to punish them.   In the past American unilateralism had sting; now there are other places to turn, and many other middle and even slightly larger powers that want to assert that they no longer fear America.

China has already made that clear with even whiffs of refusal to finance on going American debt.   Sure, China still needs our markets — but not as much as they used to.  Alternates are growing, and a weakening US economy means it’s easier to get oil for the Chinese economy.

The US miltary increasingly looks anachronistic, even as it is as powerful and technologically advanced as ever.  The reason is that warfare has changed.   Much of US power is based on the ability to use nuclear weapons — yet that weapon is one of deterrence, perfect for countering Soviet power, but not useful on the messy chess board of post-Cold War world affairs.     In all but the most fanciful and unlikely scenarios these weapons are simply unusable.

With terrorism and asymmetrical warfare becoming the dominant military strategies, more emphasis is based on economic policies and small regional conflicts.  The US can get involved in these, but Iraq and Afghanistan show that the cost is high, the ability to project power limited, the public’s tolerance of such actions low, and locals can undercut US objectives.   Currently that’s the problem in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most think it’s highly unlikely the US will get involved in more such wars — we can’t afford it, and the public would oppose it — so fear of US military power has declined dramatically.    The US can use air strikes, but few believe that can achieve anything but the most limited objectives.

So, despite the disdain of diplomacy and internationalism by many on the right, the reality is that the rules of the new international order demand multi-lateralism.   There is very little the US can do on its own effectively.  The US has to compromise more and can lead less, something different than the past view as the United States as the “leader of the free world.”

This change has been rapid and dramatic, and has not been digested by many who are used to and comfortable with the old order and a dominant United States.   They blame Obama or Bush, think the US needs a more assertive foreign policy, but to support this they rely more on tough rhetoric than a reasoned argument about American capacities.    The result of trying to maintain the old policy patterns would be a United States trying to act beyond its capacity to succeed, thereby looking even weaker and more isolated.   By trying to push, demand, and force others to do things our way, we’ll be less effective and garner more ill will.

Yet, again, the US is still the dominant military power and has the largest economy.   The problems within the EU recently, China’s emerging domestic dilemmas, and other tensions show that while the US may not be the undisputed “leader of the West,” it’s also not a has-been.   The key to an effective foreign policy is to adjust to the need to “compromise more and lead less,” in order to still exercise some leadership, and still get others to compromise as well.   If a salesman goes to his boss and demand she give him a huge raise because of all the sales he’s made, she might decide it isn’t worth it and fire the guy.   If the salesman negotiates reasonably, he may get a satisfactory raise and stay with the firm.   We can’t be the bombastic power making demands, we have to be the confident power building alliances and coalitions.

That still doesn’t solve the problem of figuring out just how the new order is going to look when the dust settles.   A lot depends on oil supplies, how bad global warming really is, Mideast crises, and what happens over the next decade or so to the global economy.   But we are in systemic transition, always an unstable and often violent time.   It’s important to recognize that we have to let go of the assumptions and expectations of the past, and recognize that this is a new era.   The US can still be a major player, but not as a “dominant leader” or “unipolar power,” but through cooperation, alliance building, and multilateralism.

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Sunday School

Today I started a non-sectarian Sunday School for my kids, ages 7 and 4.  The goal is to teach them the main stories and teachings of the great world religions.    They know that we don’t believe in any one particular religion, but I hope that they learn to understand and respect them, even if they are raised to be personally skeptical of organized religion.  I also think that knowledge of the biblical tradition is very important in western culture — it amazes me these days how so many young people know so little about the Bible.   More and more people are being raised in agnostic households, or by people who don’t regularly attend church.   When a reference to Jonah and the whale, Daniel or even Moses goes over peoples’ heads, they are disconnecting from their cultural heritage.  I also think respect for and knowledge of Islam is exceedingly important, lest they fall victim to those who propagandize that Islam is somehow an inherently violent and dangerous faith.

Part of this is to help assure our kids have the tools to avoid falling for the temptation of “conversion” if things are going bad in life.   People with no knowledge of religion often grasp at it when they hear the promises, not having worked through and understood the issues involved.  On the other hand, I don’t want them to be like Christopher Hitchens, hating religion and disrespecting the faith of those who believe.  Religion may be a barrier to individual liberty, but it’s also going to be a major part of our world for the foreseeable future.  To try to demonize it and those who believe is to be the moral equivalent of those who demonize agnostics and atheists — it’s attacking those who think differently.  I hope my kids learn to respect those who think differently.   Finally, there are issues for which science has no answer.   There is a place for the spiritual; in my opinion, the world is essentially spirit, though I’m not yet sure what that means.  I am a philosophical idealist (meaning I think ideas rather than matter is the essence of reality) and thus while I am skeptical of organized religion, I am open to religious thought and experience.    Embracing a faith of materialism makes no sense to me either.

I’m going to start with the stories.  Having told them that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God, but just have very different beliefs about God, and some different stories, I’m starting with the stories they have in common, those of the Old Testament.    Today we talked about Adam and Eve (our 7 year old cynically said “we evolved from things like apes, people weren’t made…”  Yes, I replied, but we’re learning what people who believe these religions think. )   They liked it — they took to the story about how God had angels as helpers, the most beautiful of whom was named Lucifer.  But then Lucifer wanted power, and led a rebellion against God and lost.   I then tried to get them to guess on what other names Lucifer had, and I liked how a light bulb went off when Ryan realized it was “the Devil.”   Again, he pointed out that there really wasn’t a devil, and I assured him we were dealing with what I consider to be like fairy tales.

But, I pointed out, they have meaning.  There are reasons these religions developed these stories — there are morals behind them, lessons about life.  I tried, as best I could for a seven year old, to convey the value of such symbolism.  Anyway, they liked how Lucifer pretended to be a snake, got Eve and Adam (Ryan struggled a bit to remember their names at first) to try the forbidden fruit (he then remembered a Simpson’s episode based on the story), and were kicked out of the garden.   Dana (the four year old) was a bit sad that they were kicked out.   I briefly told them about Cain and Abel, but Dana looked at me sternly, “Daddy, that is not a good story to tell kids, it’s not appropriate.”

Finally, since it was a rainy day, I told them about Noah and the Ark, quizzing them afterwards.   Ryan correctly deduced the reason for a male and female of each animal to board the ark (to have babies so they can have more), and I tried to look up Jewish interpretations of the story (as opposed to Christian) to tell it.   They each thought God was really being bad by killing so many people.   I said God was angry that people cared only about money, didn’t want to help others, thought only about themselves, and lied and cheated each other.   They realized that young kids shouldn’t be punished for that, and decided this wasn’t a very good deity.  I reminded them it was a story, symbolizing the same thing the snake in the garden symbolized — good and bad ways of living, with the idea that bad ways get punished.  (“But that’s what karma does,” Ryan interjected — OK, I guess he’s already had some eastern thought).   Yes, this is just a story, remember?

They were relieved when I told them that God felt bad about what was done, and sent a symbol to promise never to kill everyone in the world again.  I started describing it, and soon Ryan yelled out “a rainbow!”  I then quizzed him on the stories, and he had them down pat (the kid has a great memory for details).  He said he didn’t think he’d like this “Sunday school” idea because he knows church is boring (though he’s never experienced it), and thought it would just be about stories of what people thought of God (which in his mind is a Simpsons version of God and church).  He’s now looking forward for more.

My plan over the next few years is just go over the basics of the major religions — the myths, stories, and individuals.   Then we’ll go back as the kids get older and get into the philosophical questions, comparing the religions, and finally as they get towards their teens go into the various sects within each faith.  I hope they emerge with a spiritual consciousness, an understanding of their own and other cultures, an immunity from religious indoctrination, but an openness to diverse ideas.   At the very least, we’ll go over the moral and ethical issues that religions address, and make them relevant even if we don’t have a belief in a particular God.  We’ll see how this goes!


What if Israel is Right?

In the latest confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the interception of supply ships headed to Gaza, the usual lines have been drawn.   Those supporting Israel claim the ships represented a danger to Israeli security, while those supporting the Palestinians paint this as just another episode of Israeli evil and brutality.

Now, I’m absolutely convinced that Israeli policy has been misguided for some time.   A policy of occupation that humiliates the civilian population and focuses on military security over humanitarian concerns has utterly and absolutely failed.   Israel is less secure than it was in 1967, militarist groups like Hamas have grown stronger and used Israeli actions as propaganda, and the international community views Israel as a rogue state.   The approach they have taken hasn’t worked — they need to completely rethink their policies and consider ones grounded in a more humanitarian concern for the civilian populations.   The economic blockade of Gaza needs to end; Israel is only hurting itself and empowering its most radical opponents with this tactic.

However, that does not mean that Israeli fears are wrong, or that the Israelis don’t have a legitimate fear of Hamas and nefarious activities in Gaza.   The smuggling of weapons, firing of missiles into Israel, and the growing possibility of an all out military conflict in the region combine with concerns about Hezbollah and Iran to create a sense of urgency in Israel.   In many ways the existence of the Jewish state threatened more than any time since the war of 1948.

The shift from “conventional” warfare to asymmetrical wars and terrorism has come at the expense of Israeli security.  Moreover, the rise of Iran as a regional power terrifies Israeli officials.   If things continue, it may be possible that nuclear terrorism and an insurgency backed with Iranian power could threaten the continued existence of Israel.  So what if Israel is right?  What if Iran is plotting the destruction of the Jewish state?   What if Hamas and Hezbollah represent a potential to disrupt the region and weaken Israel?  What if nuclear terrorism is part of the plot?

If those worst fears of Israeli supporters are accurate, then one could expect at some point a crisis in Gaza or even the West Bank to expand, igniting another war.  It could be against Hamas, Hezbollah, or both at the same time.  Israel would hold its own in the fighting, but would find that weaponry sent by Iran would give Hezbollah the capacity to do real damage.   There would be real temptation for Israel to expand the war and attack Iran.  That could be playing right into the hands of the Iranian conservative leadership.

Consider Iran to be akin to the rising Prussia of the late 19th century.    Prussia fought two wars to unify Germany and become the dominant central European power.   However, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was smart enough to realize that if Prussia invaded other states it would be seen as the aggressor and condemned by all European states.   As strong as the Prussian military had become, it wasn’t strong enough to counter all of Europe!   So it suckered Austria and France into each declaring war in Prussia.   Prussia was seen as the victim and benefited from the aggression of others.  If Israel were to attack Iran outright, it could be akin to the French invasion of Prussia — a gift to a country that wants to expand its power, but doesn’t want to appear an aggressor.

If Iran has nuclear weapons, it also would not use them first.   Israel has lots of nuclear weapons, and might be tempted to destroy a number of Iranian sites.   If so, then Iran theoretically could use Hezbollah to launch nuclear terrorism (or missiles) into Israel.  Israel’s small size would allow even a small number of weapons to devastate the landscape and essentially destroy the country.  Israeli counter strikes into Iran could escalate, but that would yield massive civilian casualties and world pressure would be against Israel.   Israel would be seen as getting what it deserved, since it used nuclear weapons first.   Even the US at that point might wonder why it should support a state that is nothing but ashes — and could even turn against remnants of the Israeli military.   Iran would emerge as dominant in the region, while Israelis and Palestinians would ironically share the same fate — their lands poisoned and their people dead.

Note: I do not think this a likely scenario, I actually don’t believe that the worst Israeli fears are accurate.   But it’s nonetheless a feasible scenario, and I may be wrong and they may be right.

So what should Israel do?  First, don’t make Iran the modern Prussia — do not strike first, especially not with nuclear weapons.  Israel is too vulnerable to the possible responses.  Second, recognize that there are splits within the terror networks, and even between Hezbollah and Iran.   The fear Israel has of Iran is only slightly greater than the fear the Arab states have of their Persian neighbor.  Nobody wants Iran to dominate the region.

Israel needs to work with the Arab states to balance Iranian power.   That’s only possible if there can be a peace agreement allowing a viable Palestinian state, and ending the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.   Israel has a strategic interest in finding a long term solution to this crisis as the existence of the Jewish state becomes more tenuous the longer the situation remains as it is.

The biggest block to that peace is not the Palestinian people or the Palestinian Authority.   The problem, again, is Hamas and Hezbollah.   As long as violent terror organizations which openly wish to end the existence of Israel have strength, Israel cannot risk a Palestinian state.   With Hamas governing Gaza, this roadblock is immense.  So Israel has attempted to use force and economic pressure to weaken Hamas.   Just as in 2006 Israel hoped to use military force to weaken Hezbollah, the effort has failed.  Terror organizations are different than armies; they cannot be defeated in the usual way.  The flotilla fiasco, a PR nightmare for Israel, shows the problem — it’s easy for the extremists to play the entire situation for propaganda purposes.

Israel needs a new approach.   Besides lifting the siege of Gaza, a major humanitarian offensive should start with the goal of lifting up the Palestinian people.   Israel needs to try to recast the situation as a humanitarian problem to be solved, rather than a conflict to be won.   Israel cannot win this kind of asymmetrical struggle, and over time becomes more vulnerable.   But working with the international community, Israel could reconfigure the discourse surrounding the conflict and undercut the extremists.   The bottom line remains the same: one cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian.  The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll sink or swim together.

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