America in Decline

Trump takes his seat before his speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh

Not long ago there was speculation that the EU would disintegrate due to a crisis that threatened the very existence of the Euro, the common currency of 19 EU states.   One sign of the instability was bond yields – Greek bonds rose to over 10%, while Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal had to pay over 6% to issue bonds.  Germany and the healthier economies had yields below 1%.   The higher the percentage, the more expensive it is for a country to borrow money.

Today the 10 Year Treasury bond for the us is at 2.38%.  Italy’s bond is healthier at 1.80%, Spain even better at 1.47%.   To be sure, Germany is still the best at 0.38%, while France is at 0.74%.  Greece is still over 5.0%, but Ireland has recovered fully and is at 0.62%

That may seem a boring statistic, interesting to only bankers and investment analysts, but it is really telling.  Right now investors feel better betting on the Spanish, Italian and Irish economies than on the US.  This means that despite Brexit and concerns about Euro stability, Europe’s economy looks stronger on the world stage than does that of the US.


Reports of the Euro’s demise were premature; the Euro seems to prove that whatever doesn’t kill it makes it stronger

Why the bearish approach to the American economy?   One reason is debt.   Every industrialized state has historically high debt to GDP ratios; indeed, never has so much of the world had so much debt.   But looking at government debt only shows part of the picture.    Italy as a 130% debt to GDP ratio, while the US is at 106%.   Germany is at 70%, Spain at 99%, and Greece way up at 180%.  Sweden is healthy at only 41%, while Japan is in bad shape at 245%.

The US looks especially unhealthy when total debt- which includes business, consumer, and all debt – is considered.  It is nearly 350% of GDP.   The US has also been on an unsustainable path of consuming far more than we produce, relying on a capital account surplus (foreign investment in the US) to finance that practice.

Right now it appears that the US may be teetering on a debt crisis of its own, as recent years have seen the US stimulate the economy without making structural adjustments to bring the budget back in line.  Moreover, with the Trump administration calling for massive tax cuts without spending cuts, there is concern that the US economy could even be flirting with inflation.  Add to that the fact that US leadership is considered suspect – Trump is seen by most as an incompetent populist way over his head – and the global community has quietly but decisively shifted away from confidence in the US economy, or America as a global leader.


So what does all this mean?

Decline does not mean collapse, the US economy and the country as a whole will remain an important factor in global politics.  But the 21st Century has introduced some new realities.   American military strength is seen as relatively less important.   There appears to be no major military threats, and failures in Iraq and Afghanistan show the US to be somewhat of a paper tiger.  The military is huge, but it has trouble projecting power.

The threats are from terrorism and new tactics like cyberwarfare.  Big armies aren’t effective against those threats; intelligence gathering and special operations are key.  So the world in general sees the huge US military more as a drain on the American economy than a bastion of global stability.

The symptoms will be less US influence on global affairs, fewer allies rallying to American causes, and an economy that continues to weaken for average workers, even as the very wealthy gain.  That is also a symptom of decline – rather than the whole country gaining in prosperity, divisions occur, making things like Trumpian populism viable – something unthinkable not that long ago.

Debt will mean an increase in power and wealth for the big banks and financial institutions, who increasingly do not see themselves as “American” but “global.”  What’s good for Goldman Sachs isn’t necessarily good for America.   Working class anger will increasingly give fodder to populists – including racists and xenophobes, while both parties will tend towards more extreme positions.


Can this be reversed?  Yes.  The US can only revive itself by embracing the demographic trends that promise a “new America.”  Whites will be less than 50% by 2050, increased diversity means a shift in culture and economic activity.  To revive, the “new America” needs to break out of continual high debt and consumerism, embrace the need to save and produce, and break the unholy alliance between big money and big government.

I believe the values that define this country will overcome the current troubles.  Indeed, militarism and the desire to be a global power broke with those values, and help set up the conditions that threaten our future.  First, however, the US must exorcise the demons of nationalist populism, militarism, and consumerism.  This will require an awakening of sorts, as people recognize we’re on a very dangerous path.  Alas, there is no sign of that happening yet.



Leave a comment

Fire and Fury


When President Trump threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea in response to their nuclear developments, I was intrigued.

Presidents choose their words carefully.   A threat like that no doubt involved an assessment of plans, input from military and state department officials, and consideration of intelligence on North Korean motives and capabilities.  There must be a purpose for that wording, and I was trying to figure out what that purpose might be.

Fire and fury sounds nuclear, but isn’t explicitly nuclear.  North Korea responded by saying that they’d use nuclear weapons if attacked by the US.  Coming on the heels of sanctions, this seemed a calculated move to increase pressure on Kim Jung-Un, North Korea’s rather secretive and at times bizarre President.

But no.

Now we find out that President Trump’s threat was improvised, and came as a surprise to his aides.  It did not involve a well developed strategy, nor was it a part of some kind of calculated escalation.

Excuse my language but, what the fuck?  Donald Trump is President of the US, when he says something like that – threatening “fire and fury,” it’s serious.  It’s not just a slogan for reality TV, or an effort to appear tough.   This is the real world.

But no.  He just wanted to sound tough.   He probably liked the “fire and fury” sound, sort of like ‘shock and awe.’   But as wrong headed as the 2003 Iraq war might have been, it was thoroughly planned and had a rationale that had been debated and analyzed in the White House, Pentagon and State Department.


Two of the world’s worst leaders. Let’s lock them in a cage together. And then throw away the key!

To have an undisciplined President is downright dangerous.  To be sure, the rest of the world is learning not to take him too seriously.    A classic example is Trump’s decision to pull out of the trans-Pacific partnership.  He promised bilateral deals better for the US.  The reality is that the rest of the world is making deals without us, and this has caused severe consequences to agriculture in the US – hurting states that voted for Trump.

On issues of defense and foreign policy, this weakens the US.  With a President that is seen as weak and impulsive, countries work together to contain the damage he can do, ignoring his demands and taunts.   The stunningly incompetent way he discussed issues with the Mexican President and Australian Prime Minister – conversations published in the Washington Post – undermine his office and authority.

So in a worst case scenario, Trump’s undisciplined impulsiveness could lead to an unneeded and costly war, perhaps doing existential damage to the US.   In a best case scenario Trump gets ignored and the US declines in world clout and prestige.

The good news?   We live in a democracy, and democracies have self-correcting mechanisms.  Moreover, Republicans and Independents are waking up to the fact that their President is a disaster.   Republicans are not going to let their party be damaged by an incompetent buffoon much longer.   Meanwhile, progressives have more energy and drive than anytime in recent years – and Democrats are using Trump’s buffoonery to recruit top notch candidates for 2018.

And the rest of us?   Really, maybe we should just watch baseball or read books.  Year Zero by Rob Reid is an awesome sci-fi comedy in the same vein as ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide,’ but mocking the music industry and, well everything.  It’ll take your mind off Trump!  And Brian Dozier hit a grand slam last night.

Leave a comment

Trump: From Bizarre to Dangerous


When Donald Trump won the Presidency, I was comforted by the fact that a President can only do so much – he is surrounded by a bureaucracy and numerous advisers.  Surely they’d keep Trump reasonably controlled.

I was wrong.

Nearly 200 days in the Trump Presidency is not only an epic failure, but the rest of the world is treating the United States as an afterthought.  Respected under Obama, resented under Bush, ridiculed and laughed at under Trump.    What next?

There is no need to list the bizarre antics of the President and his gang that can’t shoot straight (unless they’re aiming at each other).  If the President had been an engaged leader, Obamacare would be gone, replaced by some conservative alternative.   Indeed, with a majority in both houses, a competent leader would be well on his way to making significant legislative changes.  So far, Congress has accomplished nothing.

Instead, the one establishment Republican, Reince Priebus “resigned” shortly after Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci said he was a “paranoid fuck” who spent the day “sucking his cock.”   Steve Bannon also received a heap of similar profanity from Scaramucci during his interview with the New Yorker.   The tabloids celebrate.  (And the circus continues – as I am ready to post this, the latest news is that Anthony Scaramucci is now out as communications director.  On and on it goes...)

<> on July 25, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Anthony Scaramucci apparently believes Reince Priebus is extremely flexible and acrobatic

And while Trump talks nice about Russian President Vladimir Putin, revelations of contacts between Trump campaign insiders and the Russian government continue unabated.  Meanwhile the Russian government has given over 700 Americans in Moscow their walking papers in retaliation for Russian sanctions passed by Congress.  In this major foreign policy crisis the President is AWOL.

The President is lazy.  He doesn’t bother learning policy details, spends most of his time watching television, and seems more concerned about image than substance.   As he continues to suffer the worst approval ratings of a newly elected President ever, his strange tweets get more press than any comment he makes on policy.

This means that the United States is adrift.  Trump’s bullying style – he had the interior Secretary threaten Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) with cuts in spending for her state should she vote against the Obamacare repeal – backfires.   Murkowski still voted no, and Trump’s vindictive pettiness is seen as weakness.    He knows how to be a “boss,” he has no skill in political leadership.  He blames everyone else for his failures, but refuses to look in the mirror to see the real cause.

Perhaps the strangest example is the way he is using tweets and insults to try to push Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.   Sessions was an early Trump ally back when most Republicans thought he had no chance.   As Attorney General, he’s pursued Trump’s policy goals.  But Trump blames him for his Russia scandal problems, believing that if Sessions hadn’t recused himself from the case, he could have brushed all that under the carpet.   That shows both Trump’s pettiness and his disregard for rule of law.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions was an early supporter of Donald Trump, but is now angry and indignant about the abuse coming from the White House.

Globally, the US is simply being ignored.   Trump tweets that China is “no help” on North Korea.   China shrugs, and works out trade deals with the EU.   Trump demands the Paris climate accord be renegotiated to get the US on board.   Instead the world moves forward, with allies France and Germany working with individual states and cities who want to follow the accord despite Trump’s rejection.

Indeed, the North Korean missile launched into Japanese territory would garner Presidential and media focus; instead, the President tweets a few threats and the media continue to focus on the myriad of scandals and outlandish stories from Trumpworld.

While it’s possible the Trump administration will get its act together, that would require Trump to change.    He refuses.  I suspect he’s too lazy.

For the country, the question is whether or not our system can handle an incompetent President without imploding or falling into crisis.   During Watergate the system successfully dealt with a criminal albeit competent President.   Can the system handle Trump?

This test could not come at a worse time for the US.   The US needs to play a positive role in a world where globalization, terrorism, conflict, climate change, and economic turmoil threaten stability.  Instead, the President rages, tweets, huffs and puffs, but appears impotent.  The US drifts as the rest of the world grapples with profoundly important issues.

In a way it serves us right.  Trump represents the infantalist consumer oriented glitzy all show and no substance twist our culture has taken in recent decades.   He is like a child in the White House, lazily following his impulses, but avoiding real effort.   There are signs that the country is waking up and actively resisting our boy President.   Still, the question is not if his Presidency will damage the country, but how much damage will be done.


Topsy Turvy European Politics


President Macron’s party swept the legislative elections, meaning France will be working for a stronger EU for the next five years.

In France Emmanuel Marcon, spouting a pro-EU, neo-liberal praise of globalization defied the apparent populist trends to easily win the French Presidency and a large majority in the National Assembly.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain Theresa May’s gamble to call a snap election failed miserably.   She put her 17 seat majority on the line, believing the polls that said she could win by 20% and gain 100 seats.  Instead the Conservatives beat Labour 42-40%, and she lost her parliamentary majority.   She looks to remain Prime Minister by forming a partnership with the conservative northern Irish DUP.    It will be precarious, at the first big controversy her government could fail, meaning new elections.

She campaigned on the argument that she needed a strong majority to negotiate a good Brexit deal for the UK.  Well, so much for that!  Indeed, some are quietly discussing the possibility that Brexit may be avoided after all.


Jeremy Corbyn was seen as a weak far left candidate who would be crushed by Theresa May’s Tories.  The close election came as a shock.

Taken together, the two stories point to a rough Brexit for Great Britain.   The French want to prove that leaving the EU is painful.   The Germans and French may play “good cop/bad cop” with the British, perhaps dangling out the idea of remaining inside the Union after all.   Stranger things have happened.

Earlier this year Gerd Wilder’s Party for Freedom was expected to do very well in the Dutch elections, perhaps winning a plurality.   While he did gain some votes since the election before, his numbers dropped precipitously from polls in 2016, with the establishment parties hanging on in the Netherlands.   Beyond that, the nationalist UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) failed miserably in the British elections, while polls show the anti-EU “Alternative fuer Deutschland” (AfD) having its worst numbers in years ahead of the German election in September.   Angela Merkel’s CDU looks strong, bouncing back after predictions that her liberal refugee policy would threaten her re-election.

What to make of all this?

In 2016 it looked like Europe was going the route of nationalist populism.  With Marine Le Pen on the rise in France, Wilders polling very well, and Merkel in trouble, the nationalists were on the rise, the establishment on the run.   With the Brexit vote to “leave” surprising everyone mid-year, predictions were made that perhaps even France would vote to leave, especially if Le Pen became President.

So what happened?   What did everything turn around, almost on a dime?

A possible answer:  Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent, Brexit.

To many Europeans, nationalist populism was an effective way to protest a feared loss of control as more power shifts to the EU.   When the Syrian refugee crisis hit a peak, fear of terrorism and worries about the cultural identity of Europe grew.

merkel trump

After trying to reason with President Trump, who was rude and dismissive to Chancellor Merkel, she announced that the Europeans would have to accept  that America could not be counted upon.

But when the Brits passed Brexit and the Americans elected nationalist populist Donald Trump, most Europeans were shocked into reality.   Moving away from the EU towards some kind of nationalist vision was not just a protest, it could have real world implications!   Europeans asked themselves if they were really ready to give up the benefits of the European Union, which is the major reason for peace and economic vibrancy in Europe.  Indeed, the EU’s willingness to expand eastward helped stabilize democracy and markets in East European states, a real success story.

As the Trump Presidency wobbles, the geo-political balance appears to be shifting away from the US, as the Europeans cultivate ties with China and other states.  The Anglo-American core of the western alliance is weakened, as Angela Merkel more often is dubbed “the leader of the free world.”

Yet politics is fickle.  The US still is the major military force of the West, and has the world’s largest economy.   Americans are already turning against Trump, and the prospect that the next President will be a committed Atlanticist is quite real.  If that were to happen, the Europeans would welcome the US back (though the French might be a tad disappointed).


Although Northern Ireland and Scotland are unlikely to become independent to stay in the EU, the internal politics of the United Kingdom suggest that Brexit may not be a done deal.

Still, one wonders what would have happened if Trump had not been elected.   Would the Europeans have shifted away from populism so quickly if the real world implications weren’t put on display with Trump’s America?   Ironically Trump’s election may have played a role in turning European politics away from the populist right, towards an acceptance of the establishment ideals that have worked so well since the end of WWII.

Yet the political world remains in flux.   In Great Britain the resurgence of the Left shows the criticism of the neo-liberal establishment remains popular on the both sides of the spectrum.  Macron’s French victory could sour should he not deliver on his promises.  Trump remains a wild card – unpredictable and unconventional.

Still, for now European politics appears more stable than it did a year ago, even as flux and uncertainty remain.  When the Germans vote in September that will complete elections in the “big three” this year – France, the UK, and Germany.  Things appear to be stabilizing, but the 21st Century has so far demonstrated that the political world has become unpredictable in these days of systemic change.

Leave a comment

What does Sunday’s French Presidential election mean?


Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front is one of candidates likely to make it to the second round of voting.

On Sunday April 23rd the French go to the polls for the first round of the 2017 Presidential election.  Current President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party is not standing for re-election, thanks to extremely low approval ratings.  Whoever wins this election will become the eighth President in the French Third Republic, which began in 1959.

The election Sunday will not produce a winner.   To become President after the first round of voting requires a candidate receive a majority of the vote – at a minimum 50% + one vote.   That has never happened in the Fifth Republic, and won’t happen Sunday.

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, speaks to employees as he visits the headquarters of the KRYS group in Bazainville

Emmanuel Macron, leader of the pro-EU centrist “En Marche” movement currently has a slight lead in the polls, with 23.5%

On May 7th, two weeks after the first round of voting, the top two vote getters will face off to see which will become President.   Historically that meant the leader of the Gaullist right against the Socialist party candidate.   That would mean Francois Fillon of the Republican (right of center) party against Socialist Benoit Hamon.  Fillon, dogged by scandal accusations, still has an outside chance at making the cut (he polls about 19%), but Hamon is way back and it would be a shock if he survived the Sunday vote.

The leader in the polls is Emmanuel Macron, a young (39 years old), brilliant investment banker and former economics advisor, he espouses a pro-EU, pro-globalization free market approach he hopes will revitalize the French economy.  He supports the French social welfare system and believes in accepting refugees, a hot button issue in France.    Following a close second is Marine Le Pen, at 22% to Macron’s 23.5%.   She is the daughter of racist right wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leads the National Front party he dominated for so long.  Unlike her father she tries to espouse a softer, gentler nationalism that avoids overt racism.  Yet she is anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and argues that France should stand up for the interests of the French people first, and reject globalization.

Right now the smart money is on these two keeping their lead and competing head to head in the run off.  However, with 11 people running in the first round, and the polls bunched up, it’s impossible to know for sure.  The two who appear within striking distance of the top two are Fillon and far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.


Jean-Luc Melenchon has shown surprising strength from the far left, and could be a spoiler.

Nightmare scenario:  If it’s Le Pen vs. Melenchon, France will be in panic mode.  It would be far right against far left, two anti-EU candidates who attack France’s core post-war identity.   This would be the most likely case for a Le Pen win.   As controversial as the far right has been, it has become more acceptable in recent years.  The far left seems a Zombie – risen from the dead but without new ideas.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – which poison to choose?  If this is the match up, all bets are off.  The EU may be jeopardy, France may be taking a scary and unprecedented turn, and it’ll be a helluva show.

Most likely scenario:  If however it’s Le Pen vs. Macron after Sunday, breath a sigh of relief.  This is the match up most expect, and currently the smart money would be overwhelmingly with Macron.   Yes, Brexit and Trump over performed polls and expectations.   Le Pen could as well.   Still, at least this gives the French a choice between a hard turn left or right, or maintaining the post war identity that has worked well.

Odd scenario:  If it’s Melenchon vs. Macron, it’s the reverse of the above, only surprisingly it would be the far left rather than nationalist right that becomes the primary alternative.   This can only happen if Melenchon lures votes away from Marine Le Pen by crafting his leftist nationalism in a way that appeals to working class Le Pen voters.  Macron would almost certainly win such a match up, but it would be interesting to see how the pundits and politicians react.

Right wing scenario:  On the other hand, if Fillon moves ahead of Macron, it could be Le Pen vs. Fillon.  In such a case Fillon is almost certain to win.  He keeps many conservative votes, and voters from the left will do anything to stop Le Pen.  Still…Fillon has been dogged by scandals and it’s conceivable that his appeal would be short of expected.   Le Pen may have a better chance against Fillon than she would against Macron.

Other possible matchups would be:  Fillon vs. Macron (interesting, though Macron would again be the favorite), and Fillon vs. Melenchon (Fillon favored, but Melenchon’s populist leftism could play surprisingly well).

Here’s the problem – in a race with 11 candidates and four of them polling just above or below 20%, there can be volatility.   Any one of those scenarios is possible, even if Macron vs. Le Pen is most likely.    What we’ll learn on Sunday is who the two candidates in the run off will be.  That’s when the fun begins!


The do-nothing President?


Nearly 100 days into the Trump Presidency it appears as if the Donald is over his head.  Sure, he shot a few missiles into Syria, and met with some foreign leaders.  Yet for all the talk of “making America great again,” and “draining the swamp,” this administration has been at best quiet, at worst ineffective or incompetent.

This should not be a surprise.   During the campaign I used the metaphor of a car salesman.  The salesman can make lots of claims, talk up the car, and his job is done once the buyer signs the dotted line.  Trump is a good salesman.  But when you actually need to service the car, the salesman is irrelevant.  The mechanic in the service department has no desire to talk up the car; she’ll tell you what’s wrong, and even note if a particular model has problems the salesman didn’t mention.  You would never want her replaced by the salesman – you need her to keep the car in working order.

Yet Trump made the sale and now he’s in charge of the service department and doesn’t really know what to do.  He’s used to giving orders and having his staff follow through (ready to fire them if they fail), but that’s not how the Presidency works.  Business leaders in general have problems moving to executive positions in government; this seems especially so with Trump.

The health care fiasco is this in a microcosm.  With all the bravado of a salesman Trump declared that the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would yield a better system that would “benefit everyone.”   Yet reality was messy.   People would be thrown off insurance, the public was worried about losing aspects of what they liked about the ACA, and Republicans were split on just how to “repeal and replace.”

At that point, the President had to become a master of detail, someone who could sit down with the stakeholders, negotiate, cajole, and make the deal.  The trouble is, Trump has never really been a good deal maker.  He’s a salesman; his deals have historically been poor, which is why he has so many failed businesses and has often flirted with bankruptcy.   He assumed his staff would do the hard work, he didn’t realize he actually had to do more than just talk and posture.   The result: an embarrassing failure that left Washington insiders amazed at the apparent incompetence of GOP leaders and especially the President.

Now as the Republicans turn to his promise of tax reform, people are pessimistic that anything can be done.  With Trump’s approval ratings down around 40%, he lacks political capital to pressure people to comply, and he appears to lack the patience to learn the details and work through the issues.

The missile strike on Syria is another example.  While a few people said that this represented “toughness” on the part of the President, it’s easy to order attacks.  Obama, Bush, Clinton, and really every President in recent history have ordered strikes.   The Syrian strikes were especially impotent – the US warned Russia, who assured Syria was not caught by surprise, and they did little damage.   Overall, it’s hard to see much change from the Obama foreign policy to the Trump policy, despite his promise to “put America first.”


At a California protest that bloodied both Trump supporters and opponents, this woman is punched by a known white supremacist – caught on film.

That leads to the most incongruent aspect of the Trump Presidency – his populist message is at odds with his style of governance.  He quickly ordered an end to the “drain the swamp” rhetoric, and has stocked the White House with lobbyists and insiders.   His nationalist guru Steve Bannon is finding himself overshadowed by Trump’s mainstream son in law, Jared Kushner.  Simply, beyond rhetoric President Trump has done nothing that really jives with his campaign.   The salesman behaves differently when he runs the service department.

Yet anger at Trump from the left, along with support by xenophobes and white supremacists on the right still resonate.   Republicans hope the President’s mainstream approach to governance will convince  moderates that he isn’t some kind of dangerous radical.  But already Breitbart news and some on the “alt.right” have warned Trump that if he veers too far from his rhetoric, or if he were to dump Bannon, they’d turn on him with a vengeance.

Simply, Donald Trump doesn’t have what it takes to be President.  He lacks patience, discipline, and is too insecure – focused on how the media portrays him.   Rather than lead a revolution in American politics – some kind of rejection of globalism in favor of strident nationalism – he’s appears like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.   He’ll enjoy the pomp, offer rhetorical flourishes, but lacks the capacity to have a disciplined approach to governance.

This could change – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump want to turn the administration around, and they are likely a moderating influence.   This could be early day stumbles; perhaps he’ll learn on the job.  But at this point Donald Trump, for all the bluster, appears en route to becoming “the do nothing President.”

Update:  This article in the “Daily Beast” chronicles an effort by the “adults” in the White House to gain control and stabilize the Presidency:


What Is Love?


Is Tina Turner right that love is “just a second hand emotion?”

I was in South Dakota this weekend for my niece’s wedding reception.  Two years ago, my nephew got married.  Both have awesome partners and are clearly in love.  In all the talk about love, partnership, commitment, it occurs to me that as a culture, we have a very tenuous grip on what love actually is.

The divorce rate is over 50%.  I’ve been divorced more than once.  I clearly haven’t understood love properly.  Perhaps Joni Mitchell put it best in her classic “Both Sides now”:

“Moons and Junes and ferries’ wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all”

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is a classic in questioning love, life and of course clouds!

So what is love?

I’ll take a Platonic approach to this.  Plato argued that the world we experience, the world of appearances, is not the true world.  The true world is the ideal; our world is just a poor reflection of that ideal, more illusion than reality.

In our world ideal love is distorted by human weakness, emotion, jealousy and fear.   If we want to experience love, it seems we should seek the ideal, and try to work against the distortions.

So what is ideal love?   Here’s a stab at a definition:  Love in its ideal form is when one person cares about another to the point that the well being, happiness, and autonomy of the other is an end in and of itself.    The last phrase is important – if it is an end in and of itself, it is not transactional.  One doesn’t give love in return for love, or predicate love on what another does in response.  In the move from ideal to “real in the world” love, the most difficult aspect is to have love as an end in and of itself.

Autonomy is an important aspect of love, yet one that people find difficult to apply.  If someone complains, “She doesn’t pay attention to me,” “He doesn’t buy me anything,” or “She ignores me when I’m talking about things important to me,” then one is really saying, “he or she is being autonomous, rather than doing what I want them to do.”   That ain’t love, that’s a desire for control.  Even harder might be, “she slept with someone at the party, she cheated on me.”  She can’t cheat if she’s autonomous.

While monogamy may be a common result of real love, expectations of monogamy are attempts at control.   People usually nod to human jealousy and decide that if its expected of both, then at least it’s fair – two people agree that they can’t give up wanting some control of what the other does.  In essence they say “we’re humans, humans are jealous, so let’s just accept that and promise to give up our autonomy in this realm.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a step away from ideal love.

The happiness of the other as an end is also an ideal difficult to achieve.   Two people decide to find ways to be happy together, each compromising so that their happiness is shared.   When these compromises yield happiness – the two enjoy doing something together – it’s great.  They’ve learned to expand the experience of happiness to something new, that is an important benefit of love and friendship.   But if they struggle through something (‘Football is important to Joe, so I’ll entertain his friends and pretend I’m enjoying the game….then he’ll go shopping with me which I know he hates…’), then it’s really misplaced.   Better to go off and do something on their own or with other friends than believe it’s necessary to be together all the time.

At base, the more insecure one is, the more it becomes tempting to use relationships as a crutch to bolster self-esteem or avoid confronting difficult truths.   Insecurity is the root of negativity, and the most certain path to the farthest point away from ideal love.   Since all humans have some level of insecurity, love in the world is always likely to fall short of the ideal.


Perhaps the Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda put it best.

Yet as I think of my niece and her husband starting a life together, the joy of the two dancing to their song, and sparkle when they’re eyes meet, I hope they don’t give up the quest to express love in the most ideal way possible.

And as I consider a planet full of fear, jealousy, insecurity, stress and struggles for control, I realize that this isn’t just about relationships.  The quest to experience love in its ideal form is universal, connecting all humanity.   Getting closer to idealized love is the only path to really limit pain, misery and boredom in this world.   But universal love for humanity is abstract and difficult.

Best to start the quest to express love as ideally as possible with the people around us – friends, family, partners, and even those who just cross our path for brief periods of time.  Perhaps most importantly is to love ourselves – one cannot be strong and secure without self-love.   We may learn that love is indeed the answer.