Categories
Criticism Foreign Policy Iran National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

John McCain’s Hip-Shooting Onanism

[digg-reddit-me]Joe Klein has had enough (h/t Andrew Sullivan):

McCain’s bleatings are either for domestic political consumption or self-satisfaction, a form of hip-shooting onanism that demonstrates why he would have been a foreign policy disaster had he been elected.

To put it as simply as possible, McCain – and his cohorts – are trying to score political points against the President in the midst of an international crisis. It is the sort of behavior that Republicans routinely call “unpatriotic” when Democrats are doing it. I would never question John McCain’s patriotism, no matter how misguided his sense of the country’s best interests sometimes seems. His behavior has nothing to do with love of country; it has everything to do with love of self…

The protesters admire our freedom, but…[they] consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran – a crude, unsophisticated demagogue…

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout “Allahu Akbar” in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program…

Klein’s exactly right on all counts. Except perhaps the “hip-shooting onanism” – that’s an image too far. For those unfamiliar with the biblical term, it refers to the story of Onan who was struck dead by God for “spilling his seed” on the ground. Onan was actually having sex with his dead brother’s wife at the time – but that was okay as his duty was to impregnate her. But he attempted to avoid impregnating her by “spilling his seed” – which wasn’t okay – and thus he was killed by God.
Despite the disturbing image, I can see why Klein found it hard to resist labelling McCain’s foreign policy views mastubatory. The compelling argument for the necessity of the President taking the side of the Iranian protestors is the same as the rationale for masturbation: It feels good, so do it.

Obama, meanwhile, has reiterated his position today:

This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

Obama realizes this is not about us – but about Iran. And though his comments equating Mousavi and Ahmadinejad may have gone too far, it is important to realize that we are not likely to see a Western-style democracy coming out of Iran. Many of the protesters in the street want more freedom – but they still support the nuclear program and political Islam and see the 1979 revolution as a positive event. But the rising up of the people helps to demonstrate why I believed – and still believe – “Iran and America are natural allies on most issues.” It’s why I find Les Gelb’s assertion that “Within ten years, Iran will be our closest ally in the region,” to be convincing despite our history of conflict over the past three decades.

Categories
Law National Security Political Philosophy Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Experimenting With National Security Policy

[digg-reddit-me]On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.

Categories
Iran Politics The Opinionsphere The Web and Technology

The High Point of Web Journalism

I’d like to echo Henrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker:

Iran’s Gandhian uprising is one of those mesmerizing stories that some of us want to follow minute by minute, like Watergate or the fall of the Berlin Wall. As many have noted, cable TV news has turned out to be useless; it’s little more than talk radio with pictures of the hosts…The best way I’ve found to stay informed has been Andrew Sullivan’s pioneering blog, the Daily Dish

He aggregates not just the news coming out of Iran but also the domestic debates over what it all means and what the President ought to be doing about it…What really makes the Dish’s coverage of this story so compelling, though, is that its impresario brings to it the same engagé passion that he has brought to the torture revelations and the gay marriage fight. This is a high point of Web journalism. [my emphasis]

For what it’s worth, Sullivan quotes another blogger who suggests CNN may have turned a corner:

After taking it on the chin from the blogosphere for several days, it’s time to applaud CNN.  Last weekend, CNN was basically dead air on Iran.  This weekend the full power of CNN is on display, in what amounts to a team effort to duplicate what only Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney have done from their laptops up to now.

Categories
Barack Obama Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

How Obama Uses Civility and Respect as Political Weapons

[digg-reddit-me]Jonathan Chait describes “The Obama Method” in a not-yet posted piece on The New Republic. He tries to explain the eerie similarity between how Obama has reached out to moderate Republicans and independents at home while marginalizing right-wingers and how Obama reached out to the majority of Muslims while isolating the extremists in his foreign policy (and specifically the Cairo speech.) Chait also tries to tie this in to different critiques of Obama:

Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That’s exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.

Let’s call this method in foreign policy – which assumes every foreign rival is a reincarnation of Nazi Germany – the Bush doctrine; and in domestic policy, in domestic politics – assuming that all Republicans lie about their goals and probably hate the poor and downtrodden and merely want to aid the rich in getting richer – we can call this the Krugman doctrine. (On the Republican side of this, it would be the Rove doctrine, but that’s not relevant here.) The Bush/Krugman doctrine – in assuming that all opponents are acting in bad faith – is rather simple.

  • Identify your opponents.
  • Tell everyone what you believe and call your opponents names (your skill at name-calling is the only way to demonstrate your moral clarity).
  • Everyone will see how right you are.

This isn’t that bad of an approach for a newspaper column – it can be downright entertaining and sometimes even enlightening. As a basis for foreign policy or domestic political agenda though, it is poisonous – and though it may work for a time, the results diminish rapidly. Obama’s method operates differently:

  • Demonstrate one’s respect for one’s opponent.
  • Start with the assumption they are acting in good faith.
  • Invite them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problem(s) on which they are opponents.
  • If they are acting in good faith, they can be worked with.
  • If they are not, “by demonstrating [one’s] own goodwill and interest in accord, [one] can win over a portion of [one’s] adversaries’ constituents as well as third parties.”

I disagree with Chait that Obama’s method “entails  small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground,” though. Chait, for example,  cites the line I criticized in Obama’s Cairo speech in which he called the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed.” In this case, I think Chait is right – that this line is intellectually dishonest. But his appreciation for Reagan which Chait also cites seems perhaps a bit exaggerated, but consistent with the rest of Obama’s beliefs – which tend to find a balance between Reaganesque individual responsibility and Kennedyesque calls for national responsibility.

Chait traces this method back to a Obama’s training as a community organizer. He cites a Mark Schmitt piece in The American Prospect which describes the community organizer method of dealing with opponents acting in bad faith:

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists – it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands – put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

Chait explains why Obama’s approach is so successful:

The rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict – red state versus blue state, Islam versus America – and puts it onto specific questions – Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified? – where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherent of the opposing camp.

Obama’s method seems designed to short-circuit the dynamics of moral outrage that lead to polarization, extremism, and even violence. He illustrated this in his campaign – as he tried to calm his supporters down, defending pro-life demonstraters and on the eve of the election, as his crowd booed McCain, chiding them: “You don’t need to boo. You just need to vote.” And now, in reaching out to the Muslim world he is demonstrating this same grasp of how to defuse the escalating cycle of moral outrage – by treating his opponents with respect and as “people of goodwill.”

A little bit of civility will not remake the world – but it can go a long way in calming tensions.

[Image from the White House at Flickr.]

Categories
Foreign Policy Iran Videos

It Will Be a Revolution

[digg-reddit-me]Andrew Sullivan has mined the internet for information coming from Iran in the past few weeks. One thing that becomes clear in reading Sullivan’s site is that – if the assorted tweets, videos, images, blog posts, and messages are in any way representative – something new is in the offing in Iran. Sullivan quotes one young Iranian on his blog on Friday night, after the Supreme Leader has set out his demand that the protests stop, with the promise of violence in his words:

I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to get killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow! There are a few great movie scenes that I also have to see. I should drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read the poems of Forough and Shamloo again. All family pictures have to be reviewed, too. I have to call my friends as well to say goodbye. All I have are two bookshelves which I told my family who should receive them. I’m two units away from getting my bachelors degree but who cares about that. My mind is very chaotic. I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so they know we were not just emotional and under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children…

Later on Friday, in the night, a woman videotaped the sounds of shouts from the rooftops of Tehran of “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to the Dictator” as she explained the poetry of the moment:

Then, from Saturday I believe, there is this thrilling video from the Persian BBC:


The theme of the coverage of the Iran in the Times and other papers this morning – and indeed since Saturday – has been: “There is no going back from here.” Mousavi has made it clear he is not compromising on his core terms – and is prepared to martyr himself. On the other side, sources suggest the regime is preparing to label Mousavi a terrorist – as official media sources have hinted he is working with a small terrorist group within Iran.

What has become clear – given these sentiments of Mousavi and his supporters – is that what follows will be either a revolution or a crushed rebellion. The legitimacy of the regime has been questioned – and even if Mousavi is able to maneuver his way into taking power without removing Khamenei or the current power structure, the result is still a revolution. Because, as the system is set up, Iran’s democracy is designed to merely provide an outlet for frustrations – not to create a government with the consent of the people.

The candidates are chosen in advance by the ruling class – and alternate candidates are not just shunned, they are excluded. The votes are tabulated in secret – and the results of the election can be invalidated by the Supreme Leader if he deems the result to be improper. What the Iranian people have made clear in the past week is that their consent is required for the state to function. This fundamentally changes the social bargain at the heart of the Islamic republic – and directly challenges the more authoritarian vision of Ahmadinejad and his faction.

Categories
Iran

All About Iran: Iran’s Social Bargain, Maximal Uncertainty, and Breaking News

Now for the best reads of the week – all Iran-related:

Iran’s Social Bargain. Mark LeVine for Al Jazeera describes “Iran on the Brink” – with a “?” His piece offered insights none of the mountains of commentary seemed to have touched on. As an added bonus, he comments on questions of how a state legitimizes itself and how China’s response to its democracy movement in 1989 is not open to Iran today:

Cultural liberalisation became the safety valve that allowed the emerging generation of Chinese citizens to accept the continued power of the Communist party.

Needless to say, no such safety valve exists in the Islamic Republic, where a cultural perestroika is precisely what Ahmadinejad and his supporters in the leadership and among the people want to prevent…

In China the government struck a bargain with the people, telling them: “You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t challenge the power of the state.”

The Iranian government has over the last two decades negotiated a very different and more narrow bargain with its citizens: “You can do what you want behind closed doors, as long as you keep the music down. But we own the street and the public sphere. So put your headscarf on before you leave the house, and don’t think about challenging cultural or political limits publicly.”

That bargain has now collapsed as hundreds of thousands of Iranians have, at least for the moment, reclaimed the streets…

Iran long ago lost the singular, collective will that enabled the revolution; the protesters are no longer imbued with the idea of bi-kodi, or self-annihilation, martyrdom and complete self-sacrifice that toppled the Shah and helped the country withstand eight years of brutal war with Iraq.

A maximally uncertain future. David Brooks’s column this morning tries to look at the past week’s events in Iran from an historical perspective:

At these moments — like the one in Iran right now — change is not generated incrementally from the top. Instead, power is radically dispersed. The real action is out on the streets. The future course of events is maximally uncertain.

The fate of nations is determined by glances and chance encounters: by the looks policemen give one another as a protesting crowd approaches down a boulevard; by the presence of a spontaneous leader who sets off a chant or a song and with it an emotional contagion; by a captain who either decides to kill his countrymen or not; by a shy woman who emerges from a throng to throw herself on the thugs who are pummeling a kid prone on the sidewalk.

Brooks quotes on of Obama’s advisers commenting years ago:

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.

Keeping Up To Date on Iran. Andrew Sullivan, the Tehran Bureau, and the Times’ The Lede have made themselves indispensable sources for breaking news and insights on what’s going on in Iran.

Categories
The Web and Technology

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2009-06-19

  • I usually don't go for those cute animal pics – but c'mon: http://bit.ly/MVhsT #
  • Trying to figure out how the Iranian crisis in Tehran and elsewhere will end http://2parse.com//?p=3156 #iranelection #
  • "I wish you a story with a happy ending, and the wisdom to look for it." http://www.jwcampbe.com/quotations/?p=357 #
  • How we got screwed in the generational bargain with our parents: http://2parse.com//?p=3118 #
  • Will the rain ever stop? #
  • RT: #iranelection Twitter users are changing their time zones & location to match Tehran and confuse/overwhelm the Gov't #
  • "Technology has not just made the world more dangerous; it has also enabled freedom to keep one small step in front of tyranny and lies." #
  • Apparently Andrew Sullivan's blog is under attack for his pro-Green Revolution blogging http://xurl.jp/95r #

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Categories
Iran

How Does the Iranian Conflict End?

[digg-reddit-me]The stories in the Times and elsewhere turn today to the question of how this stand-off in Iran will end. None of the three most likely scenarios have unfolded in the past week – as the protests have not petered out – and in fact seem to be growing in strength; the government has not tried to put down the protests with violence (on a large scale); and Mir-Houssein Mousavi has not backed down – as Robert F. Worth in the Times quoted a relative of Mousavi’s:

Mr. Moussavi says he has taken a path that has no return and he is ready to make sacrifices.

This last comment – and the growing strength of the crowds – suggest that no resolution is in the immediate offing. Despite this, it’s hard to see how long the type of drama overwhelming day-to-day concerns can last. Eventually, one needs to get back to the business of living. It is this prospect most of all that seems to undercut the ferment for change. I’ve seen 5 basic scenarios outlined for how this could end, listed in order of descending likelihood:

  • Violent government crackdown. This is what everyone is preparing for – and what the Revolutionary Guard is warning about.
  • Power-sharing. Mousavi seems to have ruled this out, and this compromise seems unlikely to satisfy many of those protesting, but enormous pressure is being put on Mousavi to accept some sort of arrangement, and he has always been a man of the status quo. The prospect of a President Ahmadinejad and a Foreign Minister Mousavi, for example, has been speculated.
  • Protestors stop showing up. Eventually, the movement just dies out – as people get on with their lives. It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s hard to imagine any ending to these protests. This seems to have been the initial hope of Khamenei – and the reason for his superficial attempts to appease the protestors by allowing a review of a small percentage of the votes.
  • A new election. This is the demand of the protesters and Mousavi. But to allow a new election because of massive voter fraud would call into question the leadership of Iran – and probably implicate leaders from Khamenei to Ahmadinejad to the Interior Department to the Revolutionary Guard. The storyline supporting this demand calls last Friday’s election a coup d’etat – and thus demands a new, more fair election. After this controversy, it seems necessary that Iran allow some transparency in their vote-counting process – rather than having it all centrally controlled and secret.
  • A revolution. The protesters could overthrow the current regime – but the tenor of the current protests has deliberately stayed away from this idea. Mousavi has been encouraging his supporting to chant generic Islamic slogans – rather than more charged ones.

There are a few wild cards at work in all of this however.

Neither Mousavi nor Khamenei nor Ahmadinejad are completely in control of the forces supporting them. Both Mousavi and Khamenei are considered uncharismatic power brokers (with Mousavi even being compared to an “Iranian Michael Dukakis“) – and both have achieved what they have by positioning themselves cleverly rather than by articulating a vision, winning over the people, or the other traditional measures of leadership. Ahmadinejad is charismatic – and has many supporters – but he is generally seen as, not a true leader, but a front-man for the second-generation revolutionaries who are seeking to purge all of the first-generation revolutionaries from power (except Khamenei). It’s unclear what would happen if Khamenei were to push for a new election – would the more radical elements overthrow him? It’s also unclear what would happen if Mousavi were to tell the crowds to go home – he seems to have gained their confidence, but he freely admits this movement is not about him. Mousavi’s external spokesperson admitted to Foreign Policy yesterday:

[T]he young people in the streets are more modern [than the 1979 Iranian revolutionaries]: They use SMS; they use the Internet. And they are not being actually led by anyone, but they are connected to each other.

The power struggle among the Iranian elites has finally come into partial view. There seem to be three basic factions: the Reformers – including former President Khatami, former Prime Minister Rafsanjani, and Mousavi; conservatives led by Ayatollah Khamenei; and the far right-wing religious cultists fronted by Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani is generally considered to be the second most powerful person in Iran as he leads the council which can remove the Supreme Leader, has thrown his support behind Mousavi. In the run-up to the election, he was providing logistical support to Mousavi – and was accused of corruption in a public debate by Ahmadinejad. It is widely rumored that Rafsanjani is now trying to round up clerics to support Mousavi in Qom.

At the same time, the Hojjatiyeh now led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (who seem to have a set of beliefs similar to the Christian millenialists who are trying to create the conditions for the end of the world) have been gradually infiltrating the government and the Revolutionary Guard, and at this point have many of leadership positions, including the presidency held by Ahmadinejad. Yazdi rejects the idea of elections – and wrote a fatwa two weeks before this election condoning fraud and cheating in an election to achieve the proper ends. Ahmadinejad himself apparently does not refer to Iran as the “Islamic Republic” as it is officially called – but as the “Islamic Government.” The Hojjatiyeh’s views are in many ways antithetical to some of the founding ideals behind the 1979 revolution – which is why the Hojjatiyeh did not join the revolution and did not assume positions of power until recently.

Khamenei has generally opposed the reformers – and has historical bad blood with Mousavi from when they both were in positions of power in the 1980s. But he is of a different generation and background than the Hojjatiyeh. He has tended to support them, but also has sought to check their power. It’s unclear at this point whether Khamenei is simply accepting their position of power or actively promoting their interests.

How this ends is still unclear. Khamenei’s remarks this morning have been described as “ominous.” That seems to point to a forthcoming government crackdown – but is far from clear that this crackdown will be successful – and it could possibly destabilize the regime, forcing many clerics who are suspicious of the Hojjatiyeh and who think the election was fraudulent to come off the fence and back Mousavi. The social bargain that underlied the Iranian government’s rule though seems to have come undone – as the people, in anger at hypocrisy and being robbed of their votes, have braved the wrath of the government, defying clear orders not to assemble. What they have demonstrated, with their massive, non-violent civil disobedience so far has been exceptional – and whether they succeed or not is an example for the world.

[Image by Hamed Saber licensed under Creative Commons.]

Categories
Brazil China Foreign Policy India Russia

A Counterbalancing Bloc

David Rothkopf makes a good point, reflecting on BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China):

I don’t think we should see the rise of a counterbalancing bloc  as a terrible thing either for the world or even for America. While having enemies is to be avoided wherever possible, having rivals is essential. It promotes reevaluation and growth. Imagine what computing would be like if we lived in an all Microsoft, Apple-less world. They make each other better. (Which in that case means Microsoft forces the smaller Apple to be innovative and Apple forces the Microsoft behemoth to be less awful.)

Categories
Barack Obama Conservativism Domestic issues Economics Financial Crisis History Liberalism Libertarianism Political Philosophy The Opinionsphere

A Generational Bargain (in which we are getting screwed)

[digg-reddit-me]Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:

California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.

Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:

We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.

California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:

  1. a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
  2. the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of  increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)

This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.

This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.

Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

David Brooks explained this grave situation facing Obama and the difficult tasks ahead (focusing especially on the growing deficit). Brooks concludes with reasons for hope and despair:

The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.

Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.

[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]

  1. This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. []