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27 March, 2010

Made by Washington: Ignorance and Hackery

Tying  partisan hackery and propaganda with the general populace's ignorance of affairs of state is a popular trope of late. This week's New York Times provides a fine example:

AT the White House signing ceremony for health care legislation on Tuesday, President Obama declared, “In a few moments, when I sign this bill, all of the overheated rhetoric over reform will finally confront the reality of reform.” For Democrats nervous about political fallout from the bill in the November midterm elections, it’s reassuring to imagine that the myths about the legislation — that it provides free coverage to illegal immigrants, uses taxpayer money to subsidize abortions and mandates end-of-life counseling for the elderly — will be dispelled by its passage.

But public knowledge of the plan’s contents may not improve as quickly as Democrats hope. While some of the more outlandish rumors may dissipate, it is likely that misperceptions will linger for years, hindering substantive debate over the merits of the country’s new health care system. The reasons are rooted in human psychology.

Studies have shown that people tend to seek out information that is consistent with their views; think of liberal fans of MSNBC and conservative devotees of Fox News. Liberals and conservatives also tend to process the information that they receive with a bias toward their pre-existing opinions, accepting claims that are consistent with their point of view and rejecting those that are not. As a result, information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs is often disregarded, especially if those beliefs are strongly held.

I am not very fond of ideological media outlets or blinding partisan worldviews. However, I believe any attempt to blame either for public misperceptions concerning legislation hopelessly confuses cause and effect. The real problem lies not with the way legislation is spun, but with the legislation itself.

To put it simply, important legislation is not friendly to the curious citizen. Consider a few numbers provided by breaking down the original draft of House's health care reform bill:

"While it has 363,000 words, only about 234,000 have an impact on substantive law. Presumably, those who regularly read legislation develop the ability to tell the wheat from the chaff, and so an experienced legislator would pretty quickly figure out the relevant 234,000 words....

While 234,000 words are no mere bagatelle, they don’t present an impossible barrier to reading, either, Mr. Katz and colleagues [the crew who first crunched these numbers] suggest. They compared the bill’s substantive words with the length of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, devoured by fans worldwide, and found the total comparable to the longest book in the series: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which weighed in at 257,000 words. "

While the good men at the New York Times and the number crunchers they interviewed did their best to assuage any worries readers might have about the bill's length, they left me feeling rather cold on the matter.

I ask you to approach this as would the average citizen with no special expertise in health care administration or lawmaking. Any such person interested in reading the bill would have to wade through 363,000 words. It should not be too hard. Apparently one third of those words have no substantial impact on their live, or the lives of anyone they know – but how are they to tell which words those happen to be? How are they to analyze a bill that can be deciphered only by "experienced legislators"?

Then there is the matter of the bill's size. The Times article favorably compares the bill to a 3 pound, 827 page book. Outside of children novels, how popular are books of this size? Does the average man read 800 page works very often? For most Americans, reading a book of this size is regarded as a major undertaking. And none of those books are written in legalese.

 For those not employed by the Congressional Research Service the laws passed by Congress are  opaque, inaccessible, and mysterious. Lacking the hours of time needed to understand the legislation under debate, citizens go to a different source to stay informed: Fox News, MSNBC, and other partisan media outlets.

Let me be clear: Every recondite bill proposed in the House and Senate empowers pundits whose currency is hyperbole and spin.

The blogs, radio programs, and talk shows of ideologues are the only place left for citizens seeking a quick update on affairs of state. Duplicitous pundits stand as the gate keepers between the citizenry and the laws designed to govern them.

This is the driving force behind the ignorance and hackery so common amongst our people.

ADDENDUM:

In anticipation of those who claim that abstruse bills are a necessary evil, I provide links to the full text of  some of the most significant pieces of legislation published between 1787 and 1964. None are larger than 30 pages; many could fit within a newspaper column. Nor do any require any special legislative education to understand.

The Northwest Ordinance                           Federal Judiciary Act


Fugitive Slave Act                                          Interstate Commerce Act

Sherman Anti-Trust Act                               Federal Reserve Act





26 March, 2010

Did a North Korean Sub Sink the ROKS Cheonan?


About 40 sailors are missing after a South Korean navy ship sank near the border with North Korea, Yonhap news agency said citing military officials.

The patrol vessel, with 104 people aboard, sank after an unexplained explosion tore through its hull.

Several sailors also died, officials are quoted saying as divers prepared to return to the scene after daybreak.

South Korean officials played down earlier reports that it may have been the result of an attack by North Korea.

There was no sign of the North's military in the area where the ship sank, Yonhap said citing officials.
The ship was the ROKS Cheonan, a Pohang class Patrol Combat Corvette patrolling in waters close to prior skirmishes between ROK and DPRK ships. 

NerveAgent (of Visions of Empire) argues that the authors of wire reports like the BBC piece above have bought South Korean propaganda hook, line, and sinker. According to him, this is the real thing:

Reporter for Peace
"NerveAgent". Visions of Empire. 26 March 2010.
So... the Cheonan must have backed up onto a rock that had remained undiscovered after decades of vigilant naval patrolling, causing the stern to explode and the ship to catch fire and sink. According to Baker, that sort of thing is an ordinary “accident that happens on a ship.” The fact that the incident occurred near the Northern Limit Line is completely irrelevant.

What planet is Baker living on? The DPRK commits military provocations on a regular basis, regardless of its inferior capabilities. These are political actions designed to get attention.

Seoul does seem to be playing down the incident; after all, if they acknowledged it as a North Korean attack, they would be compelled to respond in some fashion. It’s clear that they don’t want to do this. Unfortunately, nobody has reported the story from this angle.

·

A few thoughts.

NerveAgent writes off the wire reports' glaring flaws as a matter of incompetence. I believe there is another explanation worth consideration: collusion. Editors are often friends with Presidents. Both in times of war and times of rumored war statesmen have called upon reporters to keep stories from reaching press. My suspicion is that the same has happened here. It was likely "suggested" to the various bureau office editors that the full extant of events be withheld from their dispatches until the South Korean government has had a chance to plan a proper response to the events unfolding before them. I doubt that any of these editors offered any serious resistance to this suggestion. If the peace should fall apart they know whose homes will be greeting the first North Korean missiles.

Most newsmen are in no such danger. I doubt the story can be contained once pundits oceans away learn of the Cheonan's fate. In particular, conservative outlets with an axe to grind will be quick to pick this up in service their own political battles with domestic opponents.

President Lee Myung-bak has very little time left before this story explodes across the world. Lets us hope he can make the best of it. 


ADDENDUM (30/3/2010):  I have been following the news reports on this one, and I have yet to see a more convincing explanation for this event than a DRPK torpedo. However, it appears that I was wrong in one respect - world leaders (and editors) have proved themselves quite capable of directing the public conscience elsewhere. The traffic this page has received reflects this; on the day this was published it received more than 100 hits.  Today it received four.  

ADDENDUM II (1/4/2010): South Korea is keeping the surviving sailors  under a strict media quarantine. None of them - including the healthy ones - have been allowed to tell their families or the media of the events that led to ROKS Cheonan's destruction.

24 March, 2010

Health Care: America's Sickness or Symptom?

I suffered through a very rough batch of pneumonia five or so years ago. The experience is lodged in my memory as a rather wretched affair. I was bedridden for a month's time, not a day passing that I did not cough up a cup of bile. Despite my misery, I was in one respect quite fortunate: I lived near a physician who happened to be a friend of my family. I knew the fellow only from Sunday meetings at the local chapel, but he seemed rather glad to help me and soon set me up with a subscription of antibiotics designed to drive the illness away.

His description of the medicine he subscribed was quite interesting. Pneumonia is not an infectious disease, as I had assumed. It is simply the inflammation of the lung's alveoli, the respiratory sites where oxygen is delivered to the blood. This inflammation – the pneumonia – was the work of my immune system, which had begun filling the alveolis up with gunk as soon as my lungs had fallen prey to a bacterial infection. These bacteria were the real sickness. My pneumonia, as dangerous as it may have been, was just a symptom. While treatment existed to reduce the inflammation itself, it could only ever serve as a stop-gap for the real thing. If the true sickness was not destroyed, the symptom would eventually return – and with more force than before.

I believe a fitting comparison can be made between the sickness and symptoms that caused my month abed and the sickness and symptoms that plague our Republic. While the natural reaction to any disaster is to condemn it as the source of our ills, we must be wary with any such diagnosis. If what we call an illness is in reality an inflammation, we risk treating the symptom instead of its source. As with diseases of life, this is only a stop-gap solution.

Take the recently passed bill on health care reform. As did many souls of a right-wing bent, I found myself disgusted and dismayed with the bill's passage in the House. I soon noticed a difference, however, between myself and many of the conservatives and libertarians mourning along side me. They were shocked to see such a clearly unconstitutional mess make it through the House. I was shocked to see that such a clearly unconstitutional mess could make it through the House. They were angry with a Congress willing to pass a 2,000 page behemoth no elected official had read. I was angry that Congress was capable of passing a 2,000 page behemoth no elected official had read. They were frightened by the amount of leverage and control the government will soon have over a wide swath of the private sector. I am frightened by any government that can attain this kind of control and leverage over the private sector in the first place. As I see it the danger before us comes not from one party or bill, but in the way our parties write their bills. It is a structural problem, not a partisan one.

I sympathize with those who view the bill as a great disaster brought upon the American Republic by the Democratic Party. I respectfully disagree with this position. Its advocates place a good deal more importance on the power of individual personalities than I think can be justified. Legislative majorities come and go. Parties rise and parties fall. Political philosophies go in and out of vogue. Such changes will happen in any healthy democratic republic. This cannot be helped.

With rare exception, the means by which these parties execute their vision changes at a much slower pace. Absent those few great revolutions and reformations found in our history, the rules and norms that undergird America's government are subject only to incremental change. It is with these rules, not the parties that abide by them, that the root of the Republic's woes can be found.

The creation of a health care regime should not have been a surprise to anyone. Its existence was foreshadowed years ago. It should be remembered that the practice of forcing under-scrutinized and liberty stripping legislation of dubious constitutionality through the House did not begin with this session of congress. And if the last party in power was unafraid to use such a contrivance in pursuit of their host of pet issues, why act surprised when the current majority followed suit?

"Give a small boy a hammer", wrote Abraham Kaplan, "and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."  This 'Law of the Instrument' does not discriminate between children and governments. Both can fall under its influence with incredible ease. Indeed, both have.

Be under no illusions concerning this matter. We have established a system whose automated response to adversity is imposed centralized control and bureaucratic enlargement. Public Law No. 111-148 is simply the most recent and severe manifestation of this reality.

I can only hope that the severity of this symptom has not obscured the sickness behind it.

 
Note: This post is a reaction to several comments – made both at the Stage and elsewhere – from various readers in response to the post "Progressives, Conservatives, and the Politics of Reconciliation." While it is not necessary to read that post in order to benefit from this one, reading it will augment the reader's understanding of my position.

Notes From All Over

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

There are quite a few this time, so I thought it would be best to organize them by topic.

GRAND STRATEGY

Ashley Tiller. Times of India. 30 January 2010.

I do not know how I missed this essay when it was first published. If you are going to read one thing about U.S.-Indian relations this month, make this the piece. Taking "what can India give the United States?" as a starting point, Tiller provides an insider's view of the great transformation of American  perceptions of India's strategic role that has occurred in the last decade and makes a compelling case for India's relevance in America's broader foreign policy agenda. Much recommended, if only because this is a relationship Western outlets pay so little attention to.


NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHITECTURE

P.W. Singer. Foreign Policy. March 2010.

The Pentagon has embraced video games as a legitimate training and recruitment tool for the U.S. Army. While the long term consequences this will have on America's military culture will not be known for awhile still,  Singer's article is thought-provoking nonetheless.

William Easterly and Laura Freschi. Aid Watchers. 15 March 2010.

Everybody likes to talk about the "three D's" of defense, diplomacy, and development. We are less ready to acknowledge the many cases where we face a trade off between the three. 


 Noah Shachtman. Wired. 22 March 2010.

Shactman identifies two sections of the NSA, by definition diametrically opposed to each other: the cyber-geeks that shore up our virtual defenses against hackers and probes, and the cyber-spies whose seek to play Big Brother in the name of our defense. Noting the difficulty these dual roles cause domestic companies and foreign allies, Shactman proposes that the agency be split into two. It is not often I smile upon new government agencies, but on this I have been convinced.


WORLD AFFAIRS


Jeffery Gettleman. Foreign Policy. March 2010.

Africa's wars once has a purpose, argues Gettleman, but they do no longer. Warlordism has become its own reward. A well reasoned piece.

Brendan I. Koerner. Wired. 22 February 2010.



Charlie Carpenter. Lawyers, Guns, and Money. 18 March 2010.


AMERICA - OUR PRESENT AND FUTURE

Bryan Hoyt. Private Sector Development Blog 22 February 2010.

More evidence that we are privatizing the gains and socializing the losses. 


Jason Kuznicki. The League of Ordinary Gentleman. 19 March 2010.

The best piece of this nature I've seen. Outside of the general predictions made here I see little use in the predictions game –as nobody knows what is actually inside this bill it is all guess work anyway.

Julian Sanchez. Cato@Liberty. March 23 2010.


John Quiggin. Crooked Timber. 22 March 2010

Both Quiggin and Sanchez try to predict what long term changes the health care bill's passage will have on American party politics. They serve as fair counterpoints to each other; I recommend reading both.

TREATS

Kristo Miettine. American Creation. 14 March 2010.

"Agnostic". Dusk in Autumn. 25 February 2010.

 John Adams on government and Adam Smith on the internet. Both made me smile.

21 March, 2010

Progressives, Conservatives, and the Politics of Reconciliation

This post shall break an unspoken rule that has guided my hand for a good year now. I am about to write about domestic politics.

Long term readers of the Stage know that American political issues do not get much coverage here. Save in the rare cases where they intersect with the broader realms of history, international affairs, and strategic thinking, I leave my thoughts on domestic politicking at the door. The reasoning behind this decision is simple: picking the truth out of the nest of theatrics, sound bites, hatchet jobs, and electoral machinations that make up America's domestic political system is a tiresome and mind numbing exercise.

This is not to say an aversion to boredom is the only reason I keep the course. By avoiding the temptation to devote this site to cheap political potshots, the Stage has remained unscathed by the swarms of partisan hacks that are as inevitably drawn to them as flies are to dump heaps. Far from being a trolling station, this blog has drawn readers from across the political spectrum, and the discussions in the comment threads have been all the better because of it. I would hate to ruin a successful formula.

I am afraid I shall do so anyways. I do not depart from tradition lightly – there is a good reason for my change of heart.  I have grown increasingly concerned with the state of American political discourse. I keep a close eye on conversations in camps both left and right, and what I see disturbs me. Ours is a political culture handicapped by self-imposed insularity. Not simply collections of like minded people, political persuasions have become secluded bubbles that cast their occupants asunder from reality. Meaningful dialogue between the two sides is gone. Dead. Eradicated. In its place is a battle of caricatures, both camps engaged in a fierce competition to see who can burn the most strawmen at the party bonfire. And who can blame them? Those dwelling worlds apart from reality form a poor picture of it. Having fooled themselves into believing their own propaganda, America's pundits thunder past each other, shouting not to gain the attention of – much less engage with – their stated opposition, but to win the acclaim from the throng that holds them up.

This is an unhealthy development. Not without precedent in our history, but a dangerous ailment nonetheless. Democracy bereft of dialogue is dead.  Like it or no, our current state of affairs has created a trivialized people and a divided republic

And this genuinely frightens me.

So I shall do my part to stop it. The mixed readership of the Stage makes this site an ideal forum for such an effort – or at least, as ideal a forum as can be found among semi-popular blogs of a political nature. What I aim to present below is an accurate portrayal of current progressive and conservative thought, absent hyperbole or spin. My hope is not only to spark a frank exchange of views from both camps, but to recalibrate the lines upon which we debate. You shall be the judge of how successful I am.

·

Over the last few weeks "reconciliation" has become a rather popular word in Washington. Particularly popular with the President and his cohorts, it is a term mostly used by those from the left side of the fence. The adoption of this trope is quite recent. I first noticed its use shortly after the election of Scott Brown (R-MA) as Democrats scurried about trying to piece together a strategy in wake of an electoral defeat they were utterly unprepared for. Shortly afterwords the President and his men began to use the word with some enthusiasm; if nothing else, the Obama administration knows a winning rhetorical device when they see it. Thus the last month and a half has seen my mailbox (the recipient of my subscription to White House's e-newsletter ) cluttered with messages lauding the President's efforts to work with the Republican opposition. Even the White House's health reform web page reflected this change in emphasis, with conspicuous tabs trumpeting "Republican Ideas" and "Bipartisan Meetings" quietly added in.

I doubt this conciliatory posturing is done for the Republican's sake. The message has been delivered mostly through mediums conservatives avoid (who reads White House e-mails but progressive fanboys anyway?), and has had, as far as I can see, little impact in conservative circles. No, the target demographic for the message of 'reconciliation' are those the Democrats are truly afraid of losing in the upcoming elections: moderates and progressives frustrated with the Democrat's inability to accomplish what they promised. In other words, Scott Brown Democrats.

In a time where most Americans are frustrated with Washington as a whole and find little to like in either party, calls for reconciliation are useful. It is an easy way for the Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Republicans. "Look", they say to voters, "we have been trying to fix this country all along. We have even been willing to go to the other side for help. They are the reason this country has ground to a halt." It is a truism amongst Americans that a house divided cannot stand; Democratic media hands never fail to point out that it is the Republicans who keep the house divided.

A standard example of this line of reasoning was published but a few days ago in Merced Sun Star (H/T Rethinking the US):

Are We Splitting Into Two?
Steve Cameron. Merced Sun Star. 18 March 2010.

The Republican Party has taken a position entirely new to this country.

Rather than helping to govern, in what historically has been known as the role of "loyal opposition," out-of-power Republicans instead have decided to put party ahead of country -- and so they refuse to participate.

No matter what bills are proposed and how much good they might do an obviously ailing country, Republicans vote "no."

On most issues in the U.S. Senate, it's all of them.

And because of arcane parliamentary rules that dictate Senate action, a unified minority of 40 senators in this 100-member body can stop anything even from being debated -- let alone brought to a vote.
So what you have is total gridlock, and Republicans consider that a "victory" because it gives them a chance to claim Obama and the Democrats couldn't fix the country's problems.

We've reached a point where the good of the people, those same people Republican Abraham Lincoln once claimed owned their government, has been tossed into a passing Dumpster.

All that matters is politics.

For the Democrats the advantage of this narrative is clear: it not only relieves them of the responsibility for their first year of failed governance, but provides them with with a new villain to crusade against – the corrupt and Machiavellian politicians who care about nothing but power, known by most people as Republicans. The disadvantage of this narrative has also made itself clear: many progressives have actually started to believe in it.

Is there truth in the claim that the Republican minority is being obstructionist simply because it is in their political best interest to do so? Of course. Yet no one – least of all progressives – ever seek to explain why this is so. How is it that the Republicans can bring the entire system to a halt without taking any flak from a base that whips itself into a frenzy upon hearing of government waste and bureaucratic politicking? The answer, I think, is that this base – and the politicians it elects – do not see the party's obstructionism as a matter of politics, but principle. This point was aptly summarized by a post written by at Three Sources, home to many conservative blog friends of mine:

"Boulder Refugee." ThreeSources.com. 18 February 2010.

Over the past 80 or 90 years, the US has gradually drifted to the left in the form of expanded government regulation, bureaucracy, oversight and personal intrusion. During the periods in which Conservatives have prevailed at the ballot box, the result has been an arrest or a slowing of the leftward drift, not an actual move back to the right. There have been some notable periods of deregulation and reduced tax burden, but even under Reagan, the actual size of government never slowed as measured by Federal budget or number of agencies. The best we have enjoyed is a smaller government as a percent of GDP, but that does not represent an actual return of personal authority and freedom to the people.

The country has now reached a crossroads: we either move once-and-for-all into Euro-socialism or we start to reclaim the individual liberties that the Constitution and founders intended. To use a football analogy, the Left can see the goal line and is intent on crossing it. At the same time, the Right understands that this is a goal line stand. We either stop the Left and push them back or we lose the game.

The Tea Party protests are the manifestation of this reality. An awaking population is not only saying "no" to nationalized healthcare and "no" to expanded government, many are saying, "Return Liberty to its rightful owners." In this fundamentally ideological battle, there is no middle ground. Prior comprise has only resulted in extending the time to a socialist state.
Though rarely heard in conservative circles, the progressive response to this viewpoint is predictable. It would sound something akin to this:  "What the hell is he talking about? Do we live in the same country?"

This reaction is justified, in part. As progressives see it, conservatives can talk all they want about this new age of left wing tyranny, but all of this talking does little to disguise the fact that President Obama's policies are barely distinguishable from those enacted by the last guy. A quick look at the list of things President Obama has actually accomplished confirms this. Was it under the watch of President Bush or President Obama that America's deficit skyrocketed, unemployment increased, troops were "surged" half a world away to shore up an imperial counterinsurgency campaign, America's wealth was redistributed in the name of economic stimulus, and faltering industry leaders were bailed out from bankruptcy? 

That is unfair, the conservative will cry - what about the few places were clear differences between the two are undeniable? The progressive reply is not difficult to fathom. What has become of these legitimate differences? Does America have a new cap-and-trade carbon regime? Has she entered into direct negotiations with Iran?

Strip away the President's veneer rhetorical flourish and it is hard to see a difference between him and conservatives who came before. Far from being a progressive Moses guiding America to the promised land, Obama has proven to be a mere mortal, misguidedly working in the service of the status quo.

·
These two visions are hard to reconcile. One presents America as a nation teetering on the pit of  fanatic progressivism. The other sees an America mired in the mud of moneyed interests, her potential chained by conservative cronyism. That two narratives so radically opposed can comfortably be held by members of the same ruling class stands as a testament to the insularity of our times.

It also betrays the essential uselessness of dividing American politics into camps "left" and "right". While useful for holding up media bigwigs and party bosses, this distinction has lost all true descriptive utility. For all their narrative differences, the two parties are in practice one and the same. Both are engaged in viscous boxing bouts with shadows, more concerned with soundbite triumphs than girding up to face the Republic's most pressing problem: the fundamental bankruptcy of the system in which we reside.

This is a crisis everybody – from the TEA folk to Democrats despairing filibuster rules – recognize, but few are willing to face head on. Our Union has become sprawling mess of bureaucratic regulations, servile citizens, and oligarchic financiers. The Republic has proven itself incapable of providing meaningful action for the protection of the liberty and prosperity of the people. This course is not sustainable. 

In this sense the progressives were right: the problem is not that President Obama seeks radical reform, but that he does not. Like an old lady adjusting her living room furniture even as the house in which she dwells threatens collapse, Obama has occupied himself with the vigorous pursuit of scattered parts of his domestic agenda, lending nary a thought to the health of the system as a whole as he goes.

It does not have to be this way. Stop for a moment and look at what we have become. Is this what we want? It is far past the time for Americans to step out of their rarefied bubbles and truly grapple with both each others' ideas and the problems that plague this Republic. The moment for the citizenry of this country to stand up and show that they are ready to cast off the title of sheep is now. Ours is to begin a great conversation – an honest discussion on how best to reform, purify, restore, or construct the structure and scaffolding of our society and state.

This is our choice. We can decide the future shape of our country now, or wait until the next shock arrives and have someone else decide it for us.



·

SUPPLEMENTAL READINGS: Problems with the System

America's Greatest Challenge -- and Danger
"T. Greer". The Scholar's Stage. 18 January 2010.

A short overview of the real challenges faced by the Republic, as it currently exists - the twin evils of an apathetic citizenry and a core elite more interested in stealing from the rest of us than governing. These two facts also go a long way in explaining why our current party system endures in its present form.

Down with the Plutocracy!
Donal Goodman. The Distributist Review. 17 March 2010.

I have a hard time deciding whether to put this in this category or the one below; Goodman provides both an extensive and excellent review of the rise of an American oligarchy (his word is 'plutocracy') and suggests some practical steps American citizens can take to end it.


"The Big Picture: Privatize the Gains, Socialize the Losses."

Peter T. Treadway. The Big Picture. 30 January 2009.

It is an easy thing to say America's financial system is broken; it is another thing altogether to show how it became so. In this latter task the author brilliantly succeeds. Here you shall find presented a history ranging from 1910 to the present day of the events that have pushed America down the road of state corporatism.

Demosclerosis
Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.

Rauch provides a lucid description of the institutional decay that plagues our political structure. I cannot recommend this essay enough.

Is the United State Good For America?
"Joseph Fouche". The Committee of Public Safety. 28 January 2010.

Blog friend JF asks an important question - is the United States good for America? (I wrote a response to this piece that can be found here.)


SUPPLEMENTAL READINGS: Building Blocks for a New Conversation

Light the Fireworks - The Campaign Begins Today!
"Fabius Maximus". Fabius Maximus. 9 March 2010.

A call for the citizens of this country to stand up and take their country back. Much recommended.

Divided We Stand
Paul Starobin. Wall Street Journal. 13 June 2010.

A manifesto for devolution, one possible alternative to the current system.

The Civic State: Remoralizing the Market, Relocalize the Economy, and Recapitalize the Poor
Philip Blond. ResPublica. 27 July 2009.

This essay has been making great waves across the pond, but the basic ideas presented within can be applied here. Blond strikes me as a 21rst century Burke; his cause is to replace the "Market State" with the "Civic State", an entity whose goal is citizen empowerment and societal improvement based upon the traditional models - in essence a return to the world that developed liberal democracy in the first place. His is another option worth our consideration.

More links will be provided as I find them. Submissions - particularly from outlets normally deemed progressive – are welcome.


15 March, 2010

Those Tickled by Geopolitics...

Should bookmark Southern Pulse.


I have been reading this website for a week or so and have been consistently delighted with the reports it provides. I cannot think of any site that serves as its equal – all the big media outlets and think tanks have dozens of analysts monitoring the Middle East and North Asia, but few bother reporting happenings in Latin America.

 Not that Latin America actually matters.


ADDENDUM: Blogging by Boz is another good site on Latin American politics more than worth your time.

14 March, 2010

Oops

Some of you may be wondering where the post "Haiti and the Washington Consensus" dissapeared to. Truth was, it was unifinished -  I accidently pressed "publish" when I meant to press "save as draft. The post will be restored soon as it is finished.

10 March, 2010

Through the Agency of Demons: A Small Sketch of the Modern Mind's Making

"Who does not know that wars, the mighty tempests, the pestilence, all the ills, indeed which afflict the human race, do so through the agency of demons?" (Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, p. 83)  

So wrote the Saxon priest Helmold of Bosau nine centuries ago in his history of Eastern Europe, the Chronica Slavorum.  I came across  Helmold's words not in the Chronica, but in a very different source  – March Bloch's excellent account of early Medieval institutions and culture, Feudal Society.*

Bloch uses Helmold's statement to explain the attitude of dependence that permeated Feudal culture. As Bloch states directly after quoting the Saxon priest:
“Wars, we notice, are mentioned indiscriminately along with tempests; social catastrophe therefore, was placed in the same class as those which we would now call natural. The result was a mental attitude... [of] reliance on the means considered more efficacious than human action.”
And thus we can divine why Helmold would criticize Henry the Lion for starting wars out of greedy intent (as he is famous for doing) yet still blame "all the ills that afflict the human race" on devils. For Helmold, mistakes, misjudgments, and human failings were but the work of malicious and ethereal forces whose influence could not be checked or measured. This fatalistic dismissal of human responsibility – and the passivity in the face of catastrophe that followed from it – was a hallmark of Medieval thought. The attitude is understandable: the world of the Feudal man was a world of perpetual and uncontrollable strife. Agricultural methods of the time required two thirds of all fields to lie fallow; the fields (in in the words of Bloch) "represented hardly more than a provisional and short lived conquest of the wasteland" (61). Medieval lives were overwhelmingly provincial; events that transpired outside of a fifty mile radius were the stuff of legend. Invaders (particularly the Arab, Viking, and Magyar raiders who ravaged Western Europe at the beginning of this period) were aliens, their intentions unfathomable, their ways and speech impossible to comprehend.

In such conditions it is little wonder that Helmold and his fellow monks consigned the fate of their communities to the pawn's part in a monumental battle twixt Heaven and Hell.

This view of the world was not to last. Indeed, the move away from this fatalistic ideology mirrors – or perhaps defines – modernization. Some say the change began in 1455. Others point to 1492. Or 1543. Or perhaps it was 1648, 1712, 1776 or any of a thousand dates that may mark the beginning of the modern world. The particular moment humankind emerged from the abyss and stepped into the hallowed light of modernity is a debate best left to the ivory tower; my concern with this onslaught of dates is of a different nature. Renaissances, reformations, revolutions – each breakthrough was chip off the old order; each eroded away the ancient structure of thought and belief.

It is easy enough to chart this transformation. Having escaped the Malthusian loop that had defined his existence since the days of Olduvai, man passed through the veil and saw his world through new eyes. No longer was it the battle ground for forces all powerful and incomprehensible, but a mutable realm subject to  transformation, experiment, and above all else, description. Man had been reborn as the Nomenclator of Laws. The laws began small - paltry affairs concerning apples and planets - but their scope widened as memories of the old order faded with time. Soon the entirety of human affairs had been reduced to these equations; no more could famines or shortages be called the province of the Gods. In an age of famed rationality such was contrary to Reason itself! Such heresy could not be contemplated. Thus the lawmaking continued. Treatise by treatise the domain of angels and demons receded into irrelevance.

Yet humankind was not entirely satisfied with this arrangement. The rule of all powerful deities and spirits had been replaced with a tyranny of irrevocable and uncaring laws. Man had simply replaced one taskmaster with another. And the new master did not heed prayers.

 This state of affairs did not last for long. It could not - modern man's transformed frame of mind would not allow it. Traditional ties of kinship, tribe, and aristocratic class were falling away. Revolutions past had cast a new reality; as far as the West was concerned human society had entered a stage of meritocratic transformation. For the first time in historical memory the shackles of disparity had been cast aside in favor of seeming social equality and mobility - in short, democracy. The democratic way of living did not just free man: it empowered him. As the prophet of this new age would declare, "their destiny is in their own hands" (Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan, p. 16).

The spirit of the times  rebelled against the very notion of man subservient to laws governing the social sphere: those in control of their destiny do not take kindly to rules that might suggest otherwise. So the rules changed - or the relationship of man to them. What had once been a limit to progress was now a tool to bring about its fruition; knowledge was now called power. Why stop at naming a law when one could use, apply, and manipulate it? It was no longer man's place to be governed, but to govern, to recreate society with rules of his own creation. 

By the time Bloch published his book this transformation was near completion. As his words betray, it was in "human action" he found  the potential to prevent social catastrophe. In this opinion he was hardly alone; it was his generation who would utter  "never again" with firm fervor and faith that stating such had the power to make it so.

If the trust in the mastery of man was strong in that age, stronger still is it now. Bloch would not list the misery caused by storms and plagues along with his social catastrophes; to the man of this day they are one and the same. Today we think of typhoons, pandemics, droughts, and floods as catastrophes that can be averted, prevented, predicted, and stopped. This is a transformation in thought of proportions few have stopped to consider. For those living in the third millennium, there is no distinction between the environmental and social.  What part of the universe is left to dwell outside of humankind's ruling domain?

Man: Master of the Universe.

This cultural paradigm has allowed humankind to thrive in the midst of modernity. But as is the case with many a victorious strategy, success has sown the seeds of future defeat. By allowing our understanding of the universe to increase unhindered, the reality man's reason had mastered revealed an uncomfortable truth: mankind has mastered very little. It turns out that the laws we named were but fictions, history is is a string of uncontrollable accidents , and the greatest challenges of the future  are subject to neither model nor prediction. We have lived by the manta "knowledge is power" only to discover that the ancients were right - the real wisdom is found in the knowledge that we know nothing.

How then shall man face this fact? Where will the modern psyche find solace when faced with naked reality?

Perhaps it is time to consider a more medieval attitude.

*My review of which can be found HERE.

02 March, 2010

Notes From All Over 27/02/2010 (Civilizational Collapse Edition)

A Collection of essays, reports, and blog posts of merit. 

Due to the particularities of my schedule, I will be unable to post much this next week. Perhaps the week after that as well.  We shall see. To make up for this lack of material, I offer you a few interesting readings loosely connected in their subject matter: the decline, over-extension, or collapse of societies and civilizations.

Joseph Tainter. Ecological Complexity. 13 February 2006.

A discussion over at the Committee of Public Safety prompted me to go back and reread various essays and articles by archeologist Joseph Tainter. Tainter has developed a theory of civilizational collapse that I find intriguing. I plan on reading his book later this year, but for now this article suffices – it is a good 13 page distillation of his core ideas. (And do not let the 'sustainability' in the article's title dissuade the security nerds here from reading it! Tainter uses the term in a very different sense than its modern day ecospeak equivalent.)

Speaking of ecospeak, I have come across two spectacular articles on the subject of ecological collapse:

Benny Peiser. Energy and Environment. 2005.

Pekka Hamalainen. Journal of American History. December 2003.

NOTE: I apologize for being unable to locate a copy of this article outside of JSTOR. If any of my readers find one, I will be glad to post it. Those without access to JSTOR may e-mail me asking for a copy and I will be happy to send it to them.

The first article (coming via Fabius Maximus– he collected a great many more papers on a similar theme) tells the story of the island of Rapa Nui's collapse. Rapa Nui (commonly known as Easter Island) has become a sort of poster boy for proponents of ecological collapse theory. According to these men, Easter Islanders brought about their own demise by destroying Rapa Nui's ecological balance. As their lifestyles became more extravagant and their numbers grew, the people of Rapa Nui began to destroy the island's forest, degrade the its topsoil, and drive Rapa Nui's animal life to extinction. As a result of this environmental devastation, the people of Rapa Nui had no resource base to fall back upon, and their society collapsed.

While it is a great morality tale, this story has a problem: it never happened. The real story of Rapa Nui is much more mundane, if not less tragic. Imperialism, not the overuse of natural resources, was the evil that crashed Easter Island's fledgling civilization.

In sharp contrast to Diamond's exaggerated description of ecological collapse is the more balanced account found in Pekka Hamalainen's discussion of the North American Plains Indian tribes. Hamalainen's thesis rejects the one paradigm that has defined historical discussions of Native Americans since Americans began writing history books  – mainly, that the central event in the history of the American Indian was the white man's Westward expansion. Hamalainen contends that this is false. If you wish to tell the tale of the Great Plains tribes, you should not be "facing East from Indian Country", but facing South from buffalo country. The most important event for the Comanche, Shoshone, Kiowa, or Sioux tribes was not the arrival of American pioneers from the West, but the arrival of horses from the Spanish lands in the South.

Hamalainen description of the horse's effect on the plains tribes is fascinating. The horse allowed tribes like the Comanche to transform from autonomous bands of hunter-gatherers tagging behind buffalo herds into a unified "empire" of pastoral nomads with the power to terrorize European powers and sedentary tribes for the better part of two centuries. Yet the new plains powers could not last indefinitely – their empires were built upon a contradiction that ultimately proved their downfall. The source of the plains tribes' wealth and power were their horses, which depended on large open grasslands to survive. This put the great Indian horse herds in direct competition with the one resource plains Indians depended on for subsistence: the buffalo. By the late 18th century the system could no longer sustain itself, and buffalo populations begin to crash. By the time the Americans came to the scene the tribes were but a shadow of their former glory, horrifically reduced by disease and famine. It was a simple matter for the U.S. Army to sweep in an remove the last vestiges of the Plains Indians' old way of life.

Like Tainter, Hamalainen has written a book quite near the top of my reading list: Comanche Empire.


Moving on to the theme of modern day collapse:

H. Charles J. Godfray et. all. Science. 12 February 2010

Don Peck. Atlantic Magazine. March 2010.

Here are two causes for alarm with solutions in sight. Undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of the next fifty years will be meeting the subsistence needs of the additional three billion people we expect to add to our numbers. Drastically increasing global food production is one of the largest hurdles to doing so without disaster. Dr. Godfray and co. provide a valuable road map to avoid such a disaster.

Don Peck's essay for Atlantic decries calls of economic apocalypse. His view cannot be called optimistic, however. In place of full economic collapse Peck predicts a prolonged recession. Such a recession will leave a generational mark upon the American Republic. Peck's speculations on that matter are both fascinating and thought provoking.


Dylan Grice. Societe Generale Research. 11 February 2011.

Unlike the last two collapse-scenarios mentioned, I see little being done to stymie this crisis in waiting. To quote from the report:
Last weekend, the G7 ‘committed’ itself to the path of further stimulus. As politicians are wont to do, they presented it as though it was somehow a difficult decision: “the position for most countries is to support the economies now, and get the budget deficit down as the economy recovers.” said the UK’s Chancellor, Alistair Darling, nodding earnestly. Am I the only one who heard a heroin addict steadfastly committing to his next fix?!

...

Maintaining a stable debt to GDP ratio requires governments to run a primary balance proportionate to the difference between interest rates and GDP growth.

...

One might think governments ‘only’ need a 3% underlying contraction of fiscal policy in order to right the ship. Wouldn’t doing that over a number of years be plausible? Perhaps, but I can’t find any examples of it having happened before. And while that doesn’t make it impossible it does illustrate both the political difficulty of following such a path, and the behavioural biases present in politicians’ confidence that they will - if it is difficult to summon the political courage today, why will it be easier tomorrow?

Niall Ferguson. Foreign Affairs. 26 February 2010.

This piece serves as a fine ending note for this collection of letters. Ferguson has (in the words of blog friend Joseph Fouche)  "thrown a historical bomb shell at theorists of social decline."  While the counterpoint is welcome, my personal feeling is that the good historian protests too much. It hardly needs to be said that most civilizational collapses are unexpected 'black swan' events - if they were anything else, the great majority would have been averted. However, the unpredictability of an empire's final throes does not render theories of collapse and social decline useless. The metaphor of the camel's back serves us well here. Few can predict the exact manner in which a stray straw floating in the air might fall onto a camel's back. More difficult still is to predict the precise straw that will break the poor creature. But the wise herdsman can know when the camel has been overburdened to the point where a straw might break the back.

As are the camels of metaphor, so are the civilizations of reality. The proper concern of civlizational theorists should not be the prediction of the exact moment or cause of a collapse. Rather, theorists should concentrate their efforts on developing models that predict when societies become most vulnerable to these 'black swan' events. Plagues, barbarians, terrorist, famines, recessions - such ills befall all complex human societies. Some of the societies find the power within themselves to overcome these challanges; others fall prey to them. The difference between the two is rarely found within challenge itself. A people are brought to its knees by what came before the last straw. Societies, states, empires, and civilizations do not fall simply because they are confronted with unexpected challenges. It is when they lack the capacity to respond to these unexpected challenges that collapse ensues.