Archive for November, 2011

Adieu, Tea Party?

As we go into the 2012 election season I get the sense, as I wrote last month, that the political pendulum is starting a swing to the left.    The political discourse doesn’t sound the same, rage at the Democrats and Obama has faded, and disillusionment with the GOP Congress and its refusal to even close loopholes for the wealthy is growing.  Moreover even if the public doesn’t embrace Occupy Wall Street, they’ve shifted the conversation to one about relative wealth and the power the establishment elite.    That doesn’t necessarily help Obama, as he’s an establishment Democrat, but overall it’s not the kind of mood that’s good for the Republican party.

Pew research has released some polls that might give us a glimpse at the mood of the voters.   The first is the above poll showing “Tea Party” approval and disapproval.  Almost all through 2010 more people agreed with the Tea Party than disagreed, with an election day peak of 27% agreeing while 22% disagreed (most people, obviously, were non-committal).    Now 27% disagree while only 20% agree.   In tea party districts election day agreement was 33% to only 18% disagreeing.   Now it’s almost even, 25% agreeing, 23% disagreeing.   This loss of support by the Tea Party coincides with a loss of media exposure and the lack of any big rallies or media blitzes.   The Tea Party appears at the very least dormant.

Here’s another snippet from Pew:

Around election time in 2010 the GOP was viewed negatively by 49% of the population, with 43% having a positive view. This may seem odd given the election results, but don’t forget that a lot of people see both parties in a negative light.  By last month the favorable rating for the GOP fell to 36%, while 55% had an unfavorable view.   Not a good trend for the Republicans heading into an election year.

In tea party districts the GOP was viewed favorably by 51% around election time and unfavorably by 43%.  By March 2011 that gap had grown to 55% favorable and 39% unfavorable.   Since then it has turned around.  In Tea Party districts the Republicans are now viewed favorably by only 41%, while 48% view them unfavorably.   Given that many of these districts have vulnerable first term members, this could be an ominous sign for the Republicans.   The good news in this for the GOP is that maybe they bottomed out in August — there was a slight uptick for October.

But what about the Democrats?

The Democrats don’t have rosey numbers either.  Last year before and even after the election they were viewed more favorably than they are now.  Still by 46% to 45% the general public views them more favorably.  In tea party districts the Democrats remain almost as unfavorable as ever, though their numbers are about the same as the Republicans.   Though the trend hasn’t been as pro-Democratic as it has been anti-Republican, the Democrats haven’t been hurt this last year as much as the GOP has been.

So what does all this mean?   First, there is a real chance that 2012 will turn out to be a much bigger Democratic year than most people now predict.   Not only is Obama still the odds on favorite (in part due to weakness in the GOP field), but the Republicans are almost certain to lose seats in the House despite Democratic retirements.   The possibility of the Democrats retaking the House cannot be ruled out.

But besides electoral politics, this is a sign that the Tea Party may have ran its course.  Not only is Occupy Wall Street grabbing the headlines and media attention, but anger at Republicans is muting past anger at Democrats.   Obama is hurt by a bad economy, but enough people still see it as something he’s inherited and believe the Republicans have stood in the way of compromises designed to pass measures to improve things.    People may not have warmed to the Democrats, but they’ve cooled to the Tea Party.

This suggests that the Republicans need to seriously think about compromise.   The message is clear: the American people don’t want hyper partisan ideological jihad.    Moreover when stories come out from Wisconsin that groups are collecting fake petitions on the Scott Walker recall ballot in order to try to fool voters into thinking they’ve signed — a felony offense (some are even going up and ripping them up) — it feeds into the stereotype of the Tea Party as mean spirited extremists.     The GOP has to turn this around if it wants a chance to hold on to the gains of 2010 and perhaps take the Presidency.

This creates opportunity for the Democrats.   Obama can run against Congress, and Democratic candidates can push Republicans on unpopular stances and their refusal to close loopholes on the wealthy.   However there is one thing President Obama and the Democrats need to harness if they’re to turn around their 2010 fortunes and garner a big victory: optimism.

On the campaign trail and in individual campaigns the Democratic theme has to be “a better tomorrow, starting today.”   Optimism needs to replace the hope of 2008.   The worst is behind us, we have a vision of renewal and innovation.   America isn’t done for, we’re not facing long term crisis or inevitable collapse.   We don’t all have to learn how to grow crops and prepare for calamity.   We’re neither going to war with China nor are we going to be overtaken by them.   The future is bright.

An optimistic message and a little economic good news, and the Democrats could end up looking at 2011 as a tough period that they survived.   Republicans might look back and think they peaked too soon.    All of this is speculative, it’s trying to intuit the pulse of the country, interpreting slight shifts in public mood.   Bad news, a scandal, a foreign policy disaster, economic crisis (or growth) all can push aside other factors in shaping 2012.

Still, one thing seems clear: the Tea Party is yesterday’s news.   Even in its own distracts it’s lost popularity and has run out of gas.  Its style and methods now turn people off more than they help.   The Republicans have to recognize this, and realize that the anger of the Tea Party may have helped in 2010, but it’s not an effective long term approach.   They have the House now, anger works against them.

And if it makes the Tea Party feel any better, the same kind of collapse happened to President Obama after his election.   Movements can arise, but are hard to sustain.   OWS should take notice and learn from this as well.


The New Pepper Spray Craze!

If you were in charge of marketing the “occupy” protests and wanted an image to elicit the maximum sympathy for the protesters and most animosity towards the police, this image would win, it’s a marketer’s dream.   The officer nonchalantly springs the painful chemical into the eyes of waiting youth, crouched and docile.    The STATE will not be challenged by mere youth!

Yet even as pepper spray images proliferate via Facebook and other social networking sites, the use of pepper spray seems to be turning into a national craze.   First, you get the inevitable humor:

Pepper spray at the Macy's parade! (What - you say it's been photoshopped?)

If King George III had had pepper spray

Of course, good ideas spread fast.  If it’s good enough for the state, then it should be useful for the private sector.   One shopper took that message to heart as she expressed the Christmas spirit by pepper spraying twenty other shoppers, many of whom had to be hospitalized, so she could get her Xbox game system.

Successful shopping with credit cards and pepper spray!

Of course, why should anyone be bothered.    After all, pepper spray is, at least according to FOX news, a food product.

Why, if you listen to this bimb…I mean, anchor, it’s sort of like throwing rice at a wedding, it’s just a food product!  Despite FOX news’ efforts to try to make it seem like pepper spray is essentially harmless (perhaps one reason shoppers might think it OK to bring to a competitive shopping match like Black Friday), it’s not that simple.   There have been deaths associated with pepper spray, it can cause temporary blindness, and is an inflammatory agent irritating the eyes and making it difficult for people to offer resistance.

Even the Pentagon had reservations about approving it for widespread use, and besides death it has been associated with a number of potentially severe reactions.     It might have been messier to arrest the protesters, but that would have been a smarter choice (though the smartest choice would have been to let them be).

The occupy movements are not going to continue forever.  They’ve made a huge impact on the political conversation in the country and have publicized the rather dramatic shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest over the last 30 years.    The have been successful at job one — shift the agenda, shape the conversation, and get attention.   Job two, turning that into political results, requires them to organize and act politically on multiple levels.

Most protesters are workers and students who take time from their otherwise busy schedules to participate.   Most pay taxes.   Their dedication is inspiring; they’re willing to undertake considerable effort to try to bring about change they think is good for the country, and that demonstrates true patriotism .   I get a sense that a political change is starting.    Images like that of the police spraying docile protesters helps them far more than having to move off a square hurts; such a movement is less about occupying territory than about ideas.

I still hope they call a “global day of protest” and move the “Occupy” movement to stage two, I think they’ve achieved all they set out to achieve in stage one — and probably beyond their wildest expectations.     The “pepper spray moment” may be remembered as one of those iconic images that helps define the issue — and gives us some humor at the same time.

Under the sink next to the Pam and the Olive Oil


Discarded Veterans

“Within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later.  By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them…Discarded veterans are never a pretty sight.  They are troubled and some physically maimed.  They often feel betrayed, misunderstood and alone.  It is hard to integrate again into peacetime society.  Many are shunted aside, left to nuture their resentment and pain.”
Chris Hedges, from “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.”

As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, expect the same scene to play itself out over and over.   Parades welcoming home the troops, signs and cheers from citizens grateful for the sacrifices made.    Waves from returning veterans, smiles, and thank yous will be shared.   Perhaps a rally or two, hugs and then everyone goes home.

Yet if you look at the statistics, combat veterans have markedly higher divorce rates, suicide rates, incidents of domestic abuse, and depression.    Most of this is caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which haunts at least a third of combat veterans.   It damages the brain, meaning that it can show itself as a variety of mental disorders from anxiety and stress to even bipolar disorder and other conditions.

There is no way someone like me who has never been in the military can really know what these people go through.   We can only imagine what it must be like, as a young man or woman, to enter the service full of enthusiasm to serve ones’ country and protect it from foes, and then be thrown in conditions that nobody can truly be prepared for.    Moreover, given multiple deployments, many have to go through this over and over, constantly juxtaposing civilian life with military life.

Not everyone in the military experiences combat the same way.   Elite units such as Army Rangers or Navy Seals experience it with more intensity than others.   Some units see a lot of combat, for others it’s limited.    Some people lose most of their buddies, others only a few.  Some people know they’ve killed innocents, usually by mistake, others know they have not.   No one leaves unaffected, but most manage to patch things together and go on with life.   Some resilient people come out strengthened by the experience, others seek to forget it.

On Thanksgiving it’s normal to thank veterans.   Even those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that almost everyone in the military went out of love for the country and its liberties.   If the wars were wrong, the blame rests on the politicians, not the soldiers.    We assume that the military with its VA hospitals and GI bills takes care of veterans after they come home, integrating them into life.   We assume that benefits for veterans are generous.

It’s not that simple.   A case here in Farmington of a former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek brings that home.     On Saturday November 19th he was shot with deadly force by a member of the Farmington police force.   Apparently he had gone to the door of the municipal building (which currently houses the police force) and knocked.   When the officer opened it and asked what he wanted a confrontation ensued, with the officer shooting Crowley-Smilek four times.

Crowley-Smilek had been in trouble before, bringing an armed weapon to a University of Maine Farmington basketball game, and allegedly beating up someone outside a bar recently.   There have been a few such incidents since he returned from service in Afghanistan.    There he had been injured badly and came home with PTSD, taking numerous medications prescribed by the VA.   I never met the man, but from all accounts by family and loved ones he knew he had problems and had been trying to deal with them.

He confronted the officer on Saturday with nothing but a kitchen knife, leading many to criticize the officer and wonder why he couldn’t have just shot him in the leg or somehow disabled him.   The thing is, a small town cop against an Army Ranger, even one armed with just a kitchen knife, is not a fair fight.   I suspect Crowley-Smilek left him with no choice but to shoot.   Mostly likely it was the outcome the victim intended.

Justin Crowley-Smilek, killed November 19, 2011

Studies out there suggest that 40% of returning combat vets seek aid for mental health issues.   Many with problems do not seek aid.   When we send troops to war we debate a lot of things.   We ask if the war is just, discuss the cost, and of course worry about how many soldiers will be killed.  We don’t usually think of going to war in terms of dooming many young people to a life time of mental distress.   We also tend to ignore veterans after the war ends, except on particular holidays.

For instance, Congress finally passed a plan to help jobless vets.   The sad fact is that in this economy coming home from military combat often means leaving a job for unemployment.   Yet even that bill took a long time to pass because of political infighting — Republicans wanted to connect it with other jobs bills before they’d give in on this one.    Finally, realizing this would be an embarrassment, they joined for unanimous approval.

Yet overall we do a poor job of taking care of veterans after they return.   How many suicides, divorces, addictions and messed up lives does it take until people see that ‘support the troops’ does not mean ‘support the war’ or ‘come out and cheer at parades?’

We are entering a new post-war era, as Iraq and Afghanistan both wind down.   Hundreds of thousands of vets involved in those wars will be coming home to a society that can either welcome them and give them the care and help reintegrating that they deserve, or cheer and say thanks and then discard them.   I did not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of what this would mean for many American military families.    Our leaders chose to get into those wars and send young men and women over to often experience events that they can never truly escape.

To be sure, the majority can handle it, but there is a large minority who cannot, and that causes considerable suffering.  As a society if we can choose to pay the terrible costs of going to war we have to be prepared to pay whatever the cost is to take care of those who return scarred both physically and psychologically.   That is the true way to be thankful for their service and to support the troops.


It’s Up to the Voters

There was a time when something like the “Supercommittee” set up to cut a relatively modest $1.2 trillion over ten years at a minimum (with hope for a larger deal) would have been almost certain to succeed.  There was a time when the top political leaders would get behind closed doors and say “let’s do what needs to be done, and craft find a deal each of us can live with.”   They’d agree to split the political costs and put the country ahead of the next election.

Those days are long past.  Now DC is divided by a deep partisan rift.  That much isn’t new; partisan division has been the norm in the US since the founding of the country.   Now, however, it has led to political dysfunction as ideology creates a kind of jihadist mentality.   No tax increases ever!  Social Security must be untouched!  Ideology trumps rationality.

I’ve pointed out many times that ideology is a very poor way to interpret reality.  Ideologies are overly simplified visions of reality that, when taken as dogma, make it possible to interpret reality through that lens.  That doesn’t mean you can’t have some kind of ideological world view, it just means one needs to remember that the ideology itself both a simplified version of reality and only one take on it.

Take FOX news for example.   They are perhaps the most blatant “news” source that interprets what they report through a clear ideological prism.   The result: Fox viewers know less about what’s going on in the world than even those who watch no news.    Interpreting the world through an ideological lens without critically reflecting on that lens or the information means one has a poorer understanding of reality.   The survey cited isn’t extensive enough to prove that broader theme, but the evidence fits.

If mediocre minds (and most politicians fit this bill) get comfortable with ideology driven understandings of reality, they can feel they are on like a holy crusade to get the “right” policies passed.   Compromise is seen as weakness.   Yet compromise is the essence of the American political system.   We’ve always had hyper partisan political fights, but the politicians in the end built personal relationships with each other, recognized the need to problem solve, and did what was necessary.   Even the Republican hero Ronald Reagan was a pragmatist when it came to Congress — that’s what the founders intended; the founders were above all else pragmatists.

They looked to Montesquieu and took concepts such as checks and balances and separation of power — something Montesquieu learned about by studying the old Roman Republic — and shaped a system that could not easily be dominated by one party or person.   With frequent elections alongside such divisions of power, it is almost always a necessity that politicians compromise.   Even when one party controls all branches of government compromise can be difficult, as the health care battle of 2010 demonstrated.

However, the system requires the political leaders to want to govern more than just campaign.   The country has to be more important than the next election.   Getting the job done has to be more important than ideological purity.   There are still politicians like that in each party, but they’re getting drowned out by the ideologues.   In the case of the super committee the Republicans are more to blame for its failure, and they perhaps have the most to lose.

Democrats generally supported a plan like that of President Obama to mix dramatic cuts in spending with moderate tax increases, as well as some reforms of medicare and social security.   This would be a high stakes agreement, with the GOP losing the political weapon of saying “we never raise taxes” while Democrats could no longer say “we won’t touch entitlements.”   If done right neither side would be happy, but an important step in fixing the economic imbalances would have been taken.

The Republicans balked at any tax increase.   Even when members of the committee seemed to warm up to the idea it may be necessary to reach a compromise, the message from the rest of the GOP Congress was clear: don’t you dare.   The Democrats may have ultimately had problems with entitlements, but it never got that far — and without tax increases a budget deal is DOA.

When the Supercommittee was created it appeared that it was a victory for the Republicans.   Speaker Boehner said he got “98%” of what he wanted, and President Obama’s approval ratings sank.  He was seen as weak in standing up to the Republicans, and unable to lead in a time of crisis, leading to a downgrade of US bonds by Standard and Poor’s.    Yet now the Democrats find that the triggered $1.2 trillion cuts that get made without an agreement don’t look so bad.   They contain a lot of defense spending cuts that Democrats genuinely find more appealing than do Republicans.   Medicare and the entitlements are protected.    The cuts sting the GOP more than they do the Democrats, and they set up an election that could play into Democratic hands.

DC protesters mock the Supercommittee

First, one has a do-nothing Congress that can’t reach agreement.   The GOP in the House can pass their own plans, but that’s a kind of political masturbation.   The trick is to pass something that both can agree too.   The Democrats in the Senate could face similar criticism but they’ve appeared more willing to compromise and anyway, the House takes the lead on spending and revenue bills.

Second, as Americans start to wake up to how relative wealth has shifted away from the middle class to the wealthiest, the election will pose a simple question: given the crisis we’re in and the spending cuts that we know we need to make, should the wealthiest Americans play slightly higher taxes?   Recognizing that the cuts hurt the middle class and poor, and that even with higher taxes wealthy Americans will still be the least taxed wealthy of the industrialized world, that is an argument the Democrats are poised to win.

Finally, it will appear that the GOP class of 2010 blew its chance to make a difference.   People voted them in not to get a right wing crusade — many of these voters also voted for Obama in 2008.   They wanted to force the two parties to work together and felt that with health care and other issues the Democrats were using their control of Congress to push through their own agenda.   Indeed, the 111th Congress under Nancy Pelosi was one of the most effective in history at getting legislation passed.   But rather than forcing the Democrats to compromise the GOP put up a brick wall, and Congressional approval is lower than ever.   This means the Democrats have a small chance to take the House back in 2012.

It’s up to the voters.  If they vote out Obama and give the Senate to the Republicans, the GOP can start making cuts with no tax increases — and the Democrats will be ready to bounce back in 2014.   If the status quo is maintained the GOP will realize it has four more years of Obama and can’t stall hoping to have the White House soon.  If the Democrats regain power in the House it will be narrow enough that they may see a need to compromise in order to avoid a debacle by 2010.    But the politicians aren’t going to do anything major until they hear from the voters next year.


From Europe to Asia

President Obama announced the expansion of US military ties with Australia

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a problem.   As much as he wanted to get involved with the war that started in Europe in 1939, there was intense domestic opposition.    Many Americans, especially the “isolationist” Republicans had disdain for Europe.    European states were the world’s great powers, if we focused on them we’d have to play by their rules.   Asia, on the other hand represented an opportunity for the US to expand our influence and in fact counter European power.  Hitler may be a problem, but Tokyo stood most directly in the path of US interests, especially the American desire to develop a strategic partnership with China.

Of course it took a surprise attack from Japan to get the US into World War II, and for most of the war US efforts focused on the Asian theater, leaving it to Russia and Great Britain to try to beat back the Nazis.    When the war ended, the US occupied Japan and imposed a constitution designed to assure that Japan would not be a rival for dominance in the region.   President Truman and Secretary of State Acheson had to exaggerate the danger of Communism to get the Republicans to embrace NATO and the rebuilding of Europe.  Their eyes were still on Asia.

Then in 1949 Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution put an end to US hopes for regional hegemony.   With China “lost,” the region declined in importance, and US interests shifted back towards Europe where they’ve stayed for over sixty years.    To be sure, the US fought in both Korea and Vietnam, but those conflicts were not so much about Asia, they reflected global Cold War dynamics.  Our best troops, technology, and emphasis was on the NATO alliance – Europe and the US were “twin pillars” of the western alliance according to President Kennedy, a “community of common values” said West German Chancellor Adenauer.

NATO became the most successful alliance in history

After the Cold War ended the US started to withdraw troops from Europe.   Russia was not seen as a serious security threat, especially not by the Europeans.   The US wanted to enjoy what President Bush (the Elder) called ‘the peace dividend,’ and Europeans felt they didn’t need the US to defend them.   NATO remained a successful alliance, but it’s necessity was in doubt.    Relations hit a low ebb in 2002-03 when a combination of American refusal to participate in international ventures important to the Europeans (ICC, Kyoto Protocols, etc.) and widespread European opposition to a US war in Iraq created mutual ill will.   Though they’ve patched things up again, it’s clear that relationship is not what it used to be.

With President Obama’s announcement in Australia of a growing US presence in the south Pacific, US policy has come full circle.  The future is no longer in Europe, but Asia.   Europe’s economic and financial mess rivals our own (the problems are, to be sure, different), while Asian countries represent the future, and perhaps a path towards economic stability.

As a Europeanist (that’s my specialty in political science) one might think I’d oppose such a move, but I don’t.   Moreover, I think the EU will also shift it’s priorities from the US to Asia — Asia is the new center of economic power and perhaps the engine for the 21st Century.

From the standpoint of the United States and Australia the move makes sense in realist terms.    The shift of US interests from Europe to Asia, as well as the growing importance of India and China in the region suggests that its important the US care for its alliances in the region, particularly with Australia, Japan and South Korea.   A stable balance of power will prevent China from using its power to extend hegemony and work against US interests.

In neo-liberal theory, the case isn’t clear cut.   China’s reaction was one of annoyance: China’s economic relationship with Australia poses no threat to the country, but its alliance with the US creates a threat to China.    Australia should think about whether or not its worth it to anger a friend with whom it is engaged with a cordial, mutually beneficial relationship.

Chinese-Australian economic ties have been deepening, and benefit Australia

In that sense the US has far less to offer.   The US economy can’t help pick up Australia’s as ours remains mired in recession.   As the regional economic powerhouse, its in Australia’s interest to foster good relations with China — after all, who thinks China is going to invade Australia?

The strongest case against the agreement is based on an analysis of internal Chinese politics.   For years there has been a tug of war between China’s military and civilian leaderships.   The military thinks in realist terms, seeing the US as a potential threat to Chinese power and security.   After all, despite China’s wildly successful economy, they still lag far behind the US in military prowess.   The civilians don’t see war as likely, and recognize that conflict would mess up a very well developed strategy for economic growth and influence.    Up until now they’ve placated the military by allowing them to use a chunk of China’s economic growth to develop their capacity.   Yet the rift is real.   Will this tip the balance of power within China towards the military and yield a more confrontational China?

It shouldn’t.   As much as China protests (and the civilian leadership has to protest loudly or else face a more assertive military leadership), they know that this isn’t really a threat to China.    At best it’s a hedge against China exercising undue influence in regional disputes, it provides the US and its allies a slightly stronger voice in regional politics.   China may not like that, but they can live with it, as long economic and diplomatic efforts are made that take Chinese interests into account.

Rivals more likely to become partners than enemies

Ultimately the pro-Asia lobby before WWII may end up having been prophetic.   The US has a future in Asia, not as the dominant power but in partnership with China.   China’s problems of political transformation, corruption, environmental degradation and adapting to its position in a global economy are more easily solved by working with rather than against the US.   US economic ills are real and structural; China could damage our economy severely without a shot being fired.   Yet they don’t want that because they would be hurt by the resulting economic instability.   They would rather see the US restructure its economy.   They can help  a weakened yet still relevant US adapt to new international realities.

In that sense the shift of emphasis to Asia is part of a global dance.   China and the US are still rivals and the US is dealing with a relative loss of global power while China is on the rise.   There is concern amongst US allies about growing Chinese clout.  The US worries that without the capacity for quick intervention in the region China could fill the power vacuum.    Yet this rivalry can and should turn to partnership over time.   The world is still “realist” enough that the US presence in Australia is needed to remind China of the relevance of American military power.   But globalization is rendering military power ever less important, and over time the Chinese and Americans will see that their destinies are better linked in partnership than broken in conflict.

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Kansas City Bomber Raquel Welch

I have a vivid memory of watching the Tonight show as Johnny Carson was interviewing Raquel Welch.   She comes out with a cat that sits on her lap.   She asks Johnny “do you want to pet my pussy?”   He answers “sure, if you move that damn cat.”   In my memory it’s vivid, I can see the picture, hear his reply, the exact intonation and see her response.   I’m sure I saw it.

Or did I?   Not according to Snopes.  They note that the story most often involves Zsa Zsa Gabor, but sometimes involves Raquel Welch or a number of others.   That inconsistency is the mark of an urban legend, they state.    Doing a google search the story most often includes Gabor so I must be wrong.   Or maybe not — in this thread another person remembers it just as I do, with Raquel Welch, and around 1970, when I would have seen it.   This post also has the incident involving Welch in the 70s, which would fit my memory (it even mentions a clip, though I can’t find a clip posted anywhere).

In my mind there is no doubt but that it happened.  The memory is vivid and clear, including a memory of me shocked by hearing that (suggesting it probably was 1972 or a little after) and seeing her reaction.   There is no way my memory could be so detailed about both what I saw, how I felt and what my reaction was without it being true.   That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, that’s what I feel to be true deep down.

But, of course, the evidence is against me.   Who am I to argue with Snopes?   What if as a 12 or 13 year old I heard this urban legend, visualized it in my mind, and somehow over time came to believe I’d seen it.   Having watched Johnny Carson almost every night from age 10 to when I went to college at 18 I know his mannerisms and could easily have concocted a mental image of this exchange.   Over time real memories and stories heard/scenes imagined blur.   Perhaps what was once my imagination of a story I heard became to me a real memory.

Memories are strange things.   In the court of law eye witness accounts used to be given the most weight; now they are if anything more distrusted than objective evidence one can glean from records, videos or other documents not so vulnerable to subjective error.

Part of the problem is that memory is imbued with a strong sense of subjective interpretation.   For instance, let’s say I had an argument with someone in a bar in 1994 — or perhaps an early internet debate back when usenet was new and flame wars common.   I might remember it with me rationally trying to reason with someone who is obstinate, arrogant and even rude.   If that person were to recall the argument he or she would likely have the same memory — but with me the obstinate one.

If one has self-doubts, one may remember things as being more personally insulting and cutting then they were.  Small statements that one is sensitive to may dominate a memory of a conversation where objectively that statement was inconsequential.

I remember seeing John F. Kennedy’s picture in the newspaper in color when I was three years old.   He had just been killed, and a color photo was rare.  I remember learning to walk and wondering why my parents were forcing me to do that, as my dad flashed lights at me.   But there is also a picture of those first steps — is my memory a reconstruction based on that photograph, or real?   Did that photo reinforce a real memory?

One memory I have is at age 2 in the Black Hills going to a zoo.   My dad was enthralled with buffalo on the other side of a ridge, but I couldn’t see them (he had binoculars).   I looked down and saw blankets and sheets floating down a stream, then apparently going under the stream and coming out at the start and flowing down again.  I tried to get my mom and dad to look, but they were just into the buffalo.   There was a picture there too — me looking down, my dad with binoculars.   Once years later I asked my mom about that, and she said, “all I remember is you were really fascinated by a clothes line with sheets on it in the valley below.”

So the memory was real — albeit through the eyes of a two year old whose brain had not yet categorized clothes line perception and thus saw the sheets flowing down the river.  But that shows another limit of memory, our brains interpret and categorize based on experience.   We can’t be sure that our perceptions and interpretations are accurate, only that our brain is doing the best it can within its experiential framework.

Yet within our brain every memory is said to exist.   Brain surgeons sometimes trigger old conversations, or cause patients to hear the past as if it were happening in the present.  For that person the past is the present, the experience of that conversation is suddenly real.

Memories are flawed and biased; one remembers a reality where oneself is more benevolent than was likely the case, with others perhaps more flawed and malevolent.    Memories fit into categorizations and can reinforce conflicts and bias, whether on a personal level or between groups like the Israelis and Palestinians.

Memories are useful, of course.   Remembering how one was swindled makes one less likely to fall for the same ploy; memories of help and friendship can lead to positive action.   The subjectve bias inherent in all memory means simply that we should be open to learning how others may have interpreted a situation differently, recognizing that even if it contradicts what any of us remember, that doesn’t mean the person is lying or dishonest.   We all mold memories to fit our own subjective states.   Recognition of that makes it easier not to carry grudges and to avoid resentment.

Yet I still insist that it was Raquel Welch being interviewed by Johnny Carson, and he delivered that line.   Perhaps he was reprising something he did with Zsa Zsa Gabor earlier.   Perhaps an angry Raquel demanded the tape be destroyed, and since this was pre-VCR and original tapes were often unique, the whole incident could easily have been made to go away.   As long as the two never talked about it all there would be were the stories of people who remember seeing it, but in an era where Youtube provides instant proof for all recent claims, no clip exists.

I remember this 1970 least I think I do...

There is no way to objectively know if my memory is right or wrong.   There is no evidence for the objective observer to side with me, and as Snopes notes, the evidence suggests this to be an urban legend.   My subjective evidence is still convincing to me, even as I recognize the likelihood of error on my part.   It’s also a reminder that even though we think we objectively and clearly perceive and understand the world, interactions and activities around us, we’re always twisting and interpreting it in ways that are biased towards our beliefs, past experiences and world views.   At the very least, that should lead to humility.


Global Day of Protest

The writing is on the wall.    After months of remarkably peaceful protests and the igniting of a global social movement that may change politics and even herald a new era, it’s time for the Occupy Wall Street movement to move to a new phase.

Winter is coming, the thousands of devoted supporters contributing time when they can are being drawn away by other life concerns, and there is a danger that the crowds could become more militant and needlessly confrontational.    With tents and sleeping bags no longer allowed at Zuccotti Park, the viability of a long term presence declines.   Continuing the occupy movement now risks losing the profound message of the need to expand democracy and transparency lost with the shift of power to global financial and corporate interests.

To mark the end — and make clear that those who are violent and destructive are not representing the movement — the Occupy Wall Street leaders should proclaim a global day of protest and solidarity for the cause of democracy and transparency.    December 1st would be a good day for that, maybe call it “Democracy day.”    They should call on everyone to come out and engage in peaceful protests to underscore the efficacy of the movement so far and show that while they’re ending the first phase, it’s not an end to their efforts.    That way the “occupy” portion of OWS ends in a confident victory rather than stories of police confrontations and declining numbers.

The next phase should be to maintain connections across the globe, coordinate protests at various points (including flash protests to show the latent strength of the movement), and most importantly mobilize and energize especially the youth to be politically active and engaged.   The US has a major election coming next year, and across the planet the current economic crisis leads to new challenges.  21st Century protests shouldn’t be run in accord with 20th Century norms; arrests and unrest is a mark of failure not success.   Occupation of space is only valuable to garner attention, in and of itself it is unimportant.

The fact is that neo-liberal de-regulation and a “hands off” approach to the economy has failed.   For thirty years government has become less willing to regulate the economy, taxes have declined, and debt has grown.  The result is a mountain of debt, the largest maldistribution of income since the 1800s, an economic crisis, and a decline in democratic accountability as non-state actors grow in prominence and power.

The “Tea Party” movement recognized this too, and their solution seems to be rooted in nostalgia.   They want to go back to the America they used to know.   At one level that’s good — they remember an America with a bustling middle class, a strong work ethic, and a sense that you are responsible for your own destiny.    I daresay OWS wants the same thing, but disagrees that you can get there just by cutting government.    That “painless” solution ignores the fact that the world is fundamentally different now than it was 30 or 40 years ago.    Some on the tea party fringe want a culture war over homosexual rights and immigration, but that’s something they can’t win — since about 1300 western civilization doesn’t go backwards, it progresses.

Some OWS folk also look backwards, to failed ideals of socialism, Marxism and big government.   Yet enough in both movements also look forward.   They recognize that high debt levels are unsustainable, that power has become centralized to a big business/big government nexus, and that average folk are increasingly unable to have a strong voice in how the polity functions.

The common bond between left and right here is a desire for democracy and a rejection of centralized power.   The left is concerned about centralized corporate and financial power while the right is more concerned about centralized governmental power, but if each is honest, they’ll realize both have a point.   Big business funds, finances and supports big government.   Big government answers to big money.  If the left and the right choose one “side” and demonize the other it just perpetuates the problem.

Expanding democracy and citizen voice will not be easy.   Due to the information revolution, the loss of sovereign powers by states and the obsolescence of current political structures, it’s not something that an election can “fix” or a few policies can address.   We’re looking at the need to transform political structures and use technology and communication to not only increase transparency but make clear how power is being exercised.

But that’s OK.   OWS doesn’t need an end game now, the fact that they don’t have specific goals and demands is a strength.  It reflects the reality that these problems require a political transformation so fundamental that we have no real understanding of what it will look like.   Right now the process of expanding knowledge about the situation and waking people up to the fact things need to change is important.   That’s why the lack of a clear agenda is a good thing — no one knows where this is going.

I hope the OWS leaders realize that long term occupation is not feasible, and that they have already had a powerful start to a movement that represents an historic and monumental shift in global politics.   They have to keep this going, and the way to do so is to move from ‘occupation’ to spreading ideas and expanding connections.


Building Systems

It started with the mathematicians and the scientists  — Galileo, Descartes and Newton.  The idea that the universe could be conceptualized as a system following universal and natural laws created a world view that threw medieval thought and Aristotelian scholasticism in the trash heap of history.   Instead of a world of particulars there were universals, the same laws of physics apply everywhere in our space-time universe.

Before long such thinking was applied to human behavior, yielding both powerful insights and dangerous dogmas.   Giambattista Vico’s theory of history published in Scienza Nouva (1725) is one of the first, yielding a theory of historical evolution and class struggle that influenced diverse thinkers from Karl Marx to James Joyce.   Building systems to explain human behavior created a new way of thinking that would change the world.

Adam Smith, author of "The Wealth of Nations"

Adam Smith was a moral philosopher whose 1758 book Theory on Moral Sentiments brought him to prominence, but his system building classic Wealth of Nations changed everything.  It showed both the power, and the potential pitfalls, of system building.

Throughout history merchants knew that if you increased the supply of something while demand stayed steady the price would drop.   The “law of supply and demand” was part of the practical knowledge of doing business throughout history.   Yet Smith took and it formalized it into a law and along with notions like the importance of the specialization or labor created a systemic view of market economics which came to be called capitalism.   He published Wealth of Nations in 1776 and it became a smash hit.   It described the workings of the industrial revolution, and for the first time argued that as individuals pursued their self interest they would inadvertently yet in a very real way be promoting the public good.   The idea that individual self-interest was not bad (greedy, selfish, etc.) but rather good (it allowed the market to create prosperity and adapt) was knock out stuff.

Of course, if you read Smith carefully, you see that the system builder recognized that his system was not self-sustaining and perfect.  Unlike Newton’s mathematically precise world, markets are human constructs and do not operating magically or naturally.   Smith argued that the wealthy can collude and circumvent markets, exploiting labor and using their power to benefit themselves.   Self-interest has limits, if capitalism is to work.   Indeed Smith skewers the wealthy of his day, often with rhetoric that is more fitting for Occupy Wall Street than the University of Chicago.

The problem is clear:  human system building simplifies a myriad of variables into a model that works well, all other things being equal.     Because human behavior is variable across cultures and time, any system that generalizes by definition has limited applicability.   Moreover, due to complexity the simplification is a good starting point for basic principles, not for claims of universal truth.   Smith understood this.

But those who came later made the fatal flaw of turning systemic thinking into ideology.   Theories of how reality work came to be grasped with a religious zeal as being the truth.   That rationalized looking at the world abstractly.   Perhaps the best example is the response of Great Britain to the Irish potato famine of 1846-51.    The Irish were starving in droves (over a million perished) but a libertarian philosophy led them to rely on the market rather than to intervene.   To this day when there are crises people say “individuals can help if they choose.”   That sounds good in theory, but in reality not enough ever choose to do so.

Once you embrace a system as an ideology, you lose the capacity to recognize that the system itself is an imperfect model of reality that doesn’t always work.   One further interprets reality through the system, and finds reality always fits ones’ ideological world view.   With a complex reality that one can interpret in a variety of ways, one can always support ones’ pre-existing view.  If one holds on ideology with a kind of religious fervor, there is never any reason to doubt one is right.

System builder Karl Marx

Karl Marx, writing 50 years after Smith, admired Smith’s work and considered him his “favorite economist.”   Most importantly, Marx (who also admired Vico) tried his hand at system building.   Like Vico he tried to explain the broad flow of history, using the tool of the dialectic borrowed from Georg Hegel, the German Philosopher he had studied.   Hegel’s dialectic was used to examine ideas, Marx used it to examine economic history — historical materialism.   Like Smith Marx used his system to look at how the economy functions, getting an explanation of why capitalism was leading to sweat shops and working class misery rather than prosperity.

Marx’s system suffered all the flaws that Smith’s did, perhaps more so due to the methodology of relying on the dialectic.  Moreover, Marx was not just a theorist like Smith, but a political activist who hated the poverty and misery he saw in the working class.   This led him to make a fundamental error: he extrapolated his system into the future without supporting his vision with evidence.

Marx’s insights on how capitalism function are still used today by people analyzing the political economy.   They’ve been altered and updated, but like Smith, his theory has proven resilient.    Both Smith and Marx – as well as others – have contributed to our capacity to make sense of how the economy functions.   But Marx’s extrapolation into the future imagining a perfect class free society without any exploitation led to horrific abuses of power by revolutionaries determined to achieve this just and utopian future.

System building leading to ideology is dangerous and misguided.    Ideology leading to dreams of utopia and a desire to make that utopia real are dangerous.

Ideology is not the same as having a perspective and a set of beliefs.   Everyone needs perspective and beliefs to make sense of the world, but you don’t need ideology.   Ideology comes from taking a systemic representation or model of reality and using it as the framework through which to interpret reality.

The systems are themselves not bad; they are useful.    In fact, Smith and Marx both provide useful systems that are not in contradiction to each other, even if they focus on different factors as relevant in different contexts.    It is useful to understand, try out and explore the potential and limits of a lot of abstract systems of thought, efforts to model and make sense of reality.   The danger comes when one mistakes the system for a true representation of the actual laws of nature.   The mistake intensifies when the ideology is grasped with a religious fervor so that the holder of the “one true ideological belief system” sees battling the others to be just and necessary, just as the religious soul might believe she must defend the one true faith.

Now is the time to step back from ideological delusions.   Building systems is a good thing, they help us understand, analyze and try out theories about how reality works.   But all systemic thought has limits, and the sophisticated thinker can try out different systems and explore where they lead, not needing to think he or she has the one true world view.   Moreover, humans construct culture and worlds; how the world changes, even human nature, is somewhat malleable in light of those activities.   As we move forward into the 21st Century job one must be to shed ideological dogma and think creatively about the transformations taking place.


Reports of the Euro’s Death are Premature

I started serious study of the European Union when it was the ten nation European Community back in 1982.   At that time, the EC was deep in crisis.  Britain was threatening to leave over how much it paid in compared to what it got back, divergent monetary policies were stalling efforts to create a stable exchange rate system, and even Ernst Haas whose ‘neo-functionalism’ was the driving theory behind European integration had labeled integration theory ‘obsolescent.’

At the time I took a course in Bologna, Italy, taught by Gianni Bonvicini on the politics of the West European integration. Bonvincini was strong proponent of integration, and told us that it was all but inevitable that Europe would develop a common currency.  He said European integration always moved in fits and starts, with existential crises causing critics to (sometimes gleefully) claim its demise.   For every two steps forward there was often a step back, but that success was far more likely than failure.

The EC survived that bout of “eurosclerosis” and by the early nineties goods and people could flow more freely than ever as borders became irrelevant — you could cross from Germany to France like one might from Maine to New Hampshire.   When the Cold War ended and barriers to international capital flows dramatically decreased, countries were compelled to adopt tighter monetary policies, thereby making the idea of a common currency feasible.   In December 1991 EC leaders signed the Maastricht treaty to create a common currency and rename the Community “the European Union.”  Although there were many times in the 90s people were certain that the Euro would never actually get off the ground, it was born in 1999 when  the European currencies became permanently fixed.

By that time the EU had 15 states, but only 11 were in the Eurozone.     France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland were clearly ready.   Spain and Portugal were questionable but overall had a good enough track record of economic improvement.     Italy really didn’t fulfill the criteria, but Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s economic austerity programs of the late 90s were seen as putting Italy on the right track, so it was accepted.

Three states opted out of the Eurozone: the UK, Sweden and Denmark.   A fourth was seen as not being ready:  Greece.  As the EU moved towards the issuance of actual coins and bills on January 1, 2002, the Greeks pressured the EU to bring them into the core group as well.   With only 10 million people their economy was small; any crisis in Greece could be handled.   On the other hand, Euro-imposed discipline might help improve the Greek economy and keep it open to outside investors who prefered Euros to Drachmas.    Ultimately, much to the chagrin of many economists and central bankers, the EU gave in — Greece was able to join in 2001.

Since then the Euro has expanded to many other countries: Malta, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Slovakia.   These countries have low debt and have done well in recovering from Communist rule.

Overall, the Euro has been a success, maintaining high value and becoming a true alternative to the dollar (even today the Euro trades at $1.37 per Euro, much higher than their original goal of a 1:1 valuation).    Alas, the crises in Greece and now Italy have led many to say “bye bye Euro,” believing that the experiment in monetary union is failing.

Don’t believe it.   The Europessimists of today sound much like those of the early 80s, yet I think Dr. Bonvicini’s claim that success is far more likely than failure still rings true.  The Euro will survive and eventually thrive again, just as the EU will continue to deepen regional integration, redefining the concept of sovereignty.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be some dramatic moves.   There are rumors throughout Europe that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy are talking about a smaller Eurozone, with a number of countries potentially being “kicked out.”    This is possible and while it would be called a “collapse of the Euro,” it actually might be necessary to save the Euro.

The reality is that the Euro itself has functioned and still functions very well as a common currency for most Eurozone members.   They would find it extremely expensive for the currency to somehow go away.   Businesses and banks would recoil at losing the Euro as they’d have to deal with a confusing world of diverse monetary policies and currency exchanges.    With the most powerful economic actors in Europe working to assure the Euro survives, it will.   Moreover, Merkel may not be as dedicated to Europe as Kohl was — but she’s pretty dedicated!

The problem is less the Euro than high debt rates in Italy and Greece.   That’s dragging down the Euro and also threatens the solvency of European banks.   The banks need to be recapitalized in order to protect the European financial system — that’s the case no matter what the currency.   It’s easier to do that with the Euro than with a set of local currencies.   States leaving the Eurozone (Greece, maybe Italy, Spain and Portugal as well) would face a very difficult economic reality.     It would be hard to get investors to commit to a state where currency values would be likely to plummet.   Even if they did default on their debt, the shock to their domestic economies would be immense.

Still, it would be the equivalent of a bankruptcy which would give the states the same chance to start over that bankruptcy gives an individual.   Overtime if they built a stronger more sustainable political and economic structure they could rejoin the Eurozone.   That might actually work better than trying to pursue expensive bailouts of deeply indebted economies.   The taxpayers would rescue their own banks rather than countries swimming in debt — but that might be an easier political sell.

Most people assume that if forced to leave the Eurozone states would simply go back to their domestic currencies.   But it’s possible to imagine a second Eurozone currency for countries “on probation.”  The benefit of this would be that the ECB could also set monetary policy for that currency, recognizing that inflation is perhaps an inevitable short term condition. The goal would be to ‘rejoin’ the Eurozone at some point, and fiscal plans could be developed to reconstruct these sick and in some ways unsustainable economies into ones that could function within the Eurozone.

I’m not sure how feasible a “Euro light” would be — what it would be called, or even if it truly could work as a common currency across the ‘problem states.’    In essence this would be a resurgence of a theory popular in the 90s for a “two speed Europe.”   The wealthier countries would increase integration and become more closely linked then they can now.   The problem states could be put on a strict leash, forced to follow strict guidelines if they want to rejoin the core.   In theory this could actually push integration forward and deepen it.    That would make this like past existential crises — what doesn’t kill the EU only makes it stronger!

There would be immense opposition to such a Franco-German plan, and the short term costs in those two core countries could be large (especially as trade would decline as ‘core country’ goods would become much more expensive in inflation riddled problem countries.)    Rather than this being the death of the Euro, this could be the crisis that the Euro inevitably must face if it is to emerge as a true long term global reserve currency.   And to those who predict that this will destroy the project of European integration, well, people have been predicting that about various crises for over fifty years.   So far they’ve been wrong every time.


On Nothing Particular

At a recent G20 meeting

Today’s blog entry is about nothing particular, just some snippets and thoughts.   First, I love the above picture making the rounds on facebook.   The North Americans (Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama) ignore or avert their eyes from the woman bending down to get some fallen documents, while Berlusconi and especially Sarkozy unabashedly enjoy the view.

I showed my class this after finishing a power point.   I also added this joke on cultural differences:  The difference between heaven and hell: in heaven the Italians are the cooks, the French are the lovers, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the administrators and the British are the police. In hell the Italians are the administrators, the French are the mechanics, the British are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers and the Germans are the police.

Another oft shared facebook graphic.   Unfortunately they don’t cite the source of the stats, but I’ve encountered these kind of numbers before so I am convinced they are accurate:

More Stats...

It occurs to me that what Occupy Wall Street has done is bring the real and undeniable shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans and has made it mainstream and well known.   In the past most Americans assumed wealth was more evenly distributed then it is, that class mobility was greater than it really is, and that the wealthy got to where they are by working hard and having good ideas.

It was probably true before the massive de-regulation starting in the 80s; wealth and income equality were greatest in the mid-seventies, and there was a thriving middle class.    De-regulation and lower tax rates are not the cause of the swing — globalization’s dynamic contributed to it as well.   But the public pretty much went on believing things were cool as consumerism raged and people simply stopped saving and went into debt to maintain their lifestyles.

Now people are waking up to what’s happened, and recognize that the ideal of hard work and initiative being the key to success is losing validity.  Even people not necessarily sympathetic to OWS are starting to absorb the data and recognize there is a problem.  We live in interesting times.

Geothermal working well!

In another front, so far our geothermal system is doing well.   We enjoyed AC all summer for the first time (Maine doesn’t need air conditioning, but it’s nice to have!), and it’s been effective and efficient.  The one problem is that it hasn’t done much to heat our water, meaning the boiler still turns on a lot for that.   That’s not a huge expense, but we want to figure out if we can use the hot water generated here to better connect to our domestic hot water supply.   The cost of running this system seems to be about $30 a month, though the coldest summer months have yet to arrive (though we were running dehumidifiers in the basement in the summer so they may have been part of the cost increase).

And it looks like this May I’ll lead a travel course to Germany!

The course will focus on East and West Germany 20 years after unification — how has the country changed, what differences remain — likely with a week based in Munich and a week in East Berlin.   It won’t be a large class like the Italy trips in recent years have been, and I’ll be the only faculty member (rather than the team of four for Italy).   But it’s in my area of specialty, and we’ll get a chance for some day trips to places like the Alps, Ludwig’s castles, Dachau, perhaps Weimar and Buchenwald, Wittenberg where Luther started the reformation, and Leipzig where the protests in the East really took off.   Berlin is always an amazing city to visit.

Finally, kudos to all the Mallett school families (K-3) who attended and participated in the Harvest dinner Wednesday.  I baked some European brown bread and buttery pan rolls, but the variety and quality of the food was unbelievable!  Turkey, potatoes, pasta, salads, deserts…and despite well over 100 people in attendance, we didn’t run out of food!   Being involved in the PTA this year (I’m chair of the fundraising committee) is fun, especially since we have a new school — the old 80 year Mallett closed and the new one opened this fall.

The new Mallett school!

The school is superb — big classrooms, nice common areas, a good library and modern equipment.    It was built beside where the old one stood so construction could be underway even while the kids were still attending the old one.   That made last year a bit messy in terms of drop offs, pick ups, noise and the like.   But it was worth it!  Having kids in third grade and Kindergarten there, it’s fun to be active in that community!

So no particular theme today, just some end of the week odds and ends!

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