Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

28 April 2013

The Physics-Economics of Solar Panels


Whenever there’s more heat than light on an issue, you can bet there’s a gap in public understanding.

Take immigration, for example. The GOP’s business wing relies on illegal immigrants’ cheap labor to make money. Its political wing fosters fear and loathing of illegal immigrants to get votes. That schizophrenia is why we have had no immigration reform since 1986. The stalemate is likely to continue, as the GOP’s backers continue to seek both money and votes, without seeming to notice the contradiction.

Solar energy is similar. What drives the “debate” is public misunderstanding of what solar panels are and how they work.

In several earlier essays (1, 2 and 3), I tried to shed light on this subject by doing the engineering-accounting-economic calculations the right way. But as my wife points out, my writing is sometimes verbose and complex. This essay is the Cliff Notes version for our Twitter age.

Solar panels are a unique way to generate electricity. Our species has never used anything remotely like them before. So the attitude of many people toward them (unfortunately including more than a few engineers) is a bit like savages who just discovered fire contemplating a gas turbine. “How,” they might say, “can we do anything useful with something that just goes round and round in circles?”

Solar energy’s detractors are a lot like those savages. They don’t understand what solar panels are and how they work. But they do understand that their output is “intermittent,” i.e., it decreases on cloudy days and stops at night. So since they’re used to coal and natural-gas generators, which aren’t intermittent, they just can’t get their minds around the other unique features of solar panels, which are decisive advantages.

Solar panels use no fuel and create no effluent while operating. Most people know that. They know it, but they don’t really consider the importance of having no greenhouse-gas effluent whatsoever, and therefore no acceleration of global warming, or the absence of acid rain, mercury pollution of oceans and lakes, and asthma-causing particulate smog—things that coal power plants produce every day in great profusion.

Yet this is just the beginning of solar panels’ advantages. What many people don’t know is that they are not mechanical devices. They don’t have moving parts, so they don’t wear out or break down. They are solid-state devices whose entire “works” are hidden inside their molecular structure. They generate power at the subatomic level, through a solid-state-physics process called the “photoelectric effect” that Albert Einstein got the Nobel Prize for explaining some 108 years ago.

So solar panels don’t move, turn, revolve, whiz or buzz. They just sit there, reliably (and quietly) turning the Sun’s radiant energy into useful electricity, day after day, without fuss, rotary motion, smoke or noise.

But nothing is perfect. Instead of breaking down or wearing out, solar panels slowly and predictably degrade. Their power output decreases according to a linear formula, over very long periods of time. This is not economics, politics, or ideology. This is physics and engineering.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the manufacturers’. The industry-standard warranty now uses this formula. An example appears on LG’s online solar-panel spec sheets [path: Technical Specifications > Certifications and Warranty].

The formula is high-school algebra. Power output decreases by 3% the first year, and by 0.7% per year thereafter. That means the panel continues to produce useful power for nearly 140 years. (Manufacturers only guarantee this formula for the first 25 years, but lawyers and accountants can’t change physics.)

If you replace the panel when its power output drops by 67%—to 33% of initial power—it will have run for about a century. By then it will have generated the equivalent of 66 years of full-power output.

You can use these basic facts to calculate the generating cost of solar-panel energy per kilowatt-hour. That cost is quite different from the buying price of the panels, per Watt of nominal power-output capacity (an industry-standard figure explained below).

To do the calculation correctly, all you need is three other numbers, as follows:

1. The Manufacturer's Per-Watt Panel Price M. The manufacturer’s wholesale price M for solar panels, in dollars per Watt of (nominal) power output, or capacity. This is an industry-standard parameter. Only a few years ago, it was over a dollar per Watt. Today it is close to 50 cents per Watt, with First Solar the industry price leader (using non-silicon technology).

2. The “Turnkey Factor” T. The ratio of the total cost of building a working solar array, including buying the panels, to the price of the panels (of which there are many, all the same). Analysts express this cost as a “turnkey factor” T. It’s the cost of the ready-to-run solar array, per Watt of nominal output capacity, divided by the per-Watt panel price.

3. The Solar Irradiance Factor. This number accounts for the facts that (1) the Sun does not shine at night, (2) the Sun shines less brightly on cloudy days, and (3) the Sun’s irradiance differs at different locations on the Earth’s surface, depending mostly on latitude. Solar-panel installers use calculated solar irradiance tables for the last element (3). But we can make a good approximation on all three elements by assuming that, in sunny climes like our American Southwest, and at that latitude, the sun shines eight hours per day on about two out of three days.

With these numbers, we can calculate the cost of using solar panels to generate electricity. (See also, 1 and 2.) In these calculations, the panel’s effective working lifetime is a key parameter, because solar panels have no fuel or fuel transportation cost, no pollution-remediation cost, and very low maintenance (occasionally cleaning dust, snow or leaves off the panels). Therefore, by far the dominant determinant of the cost of solar-panel power is the amortized cost of building the solar power plant.

The results are as follows:

Cost of Solar Photovoltaic Energy, Excluding Plant Maintenance

Turnkey Cost MT
of 1 W cell
Cost of Energy C
(cents)(cents per kWh)
4003.2
3002.4
2001.6
1501.2
1000.8



Three conclusions leap out from this table. First, when properly calculated, the cost of electric energy produced by solar panels is very low.

Industry experts now tout MTs of $4 per Watt and $2 for large-scale commercial arrays. With the lower number, the long-term generating cost of solar energy is already at 1.6 cents a kilowatt-hour. That is less than one-seventh of the national-average residential retail price of electric energy for 2010, namely, 11.54 cents per kilowatt-hour.

No other means of generating electric energy now known can match, let alone beat, that cost. For example, I have calculated the generating cost of the gigantic Four Corners coal power plant, from which I (and most of Northern New Mexico) get 87% of my electricity, at about four cents per kilowatt-hour, 2.5 times as high. This plant is the biggest, and presumably the most efficient, coal-fired power plant in our nation.

The second thing to note in the table is that energy cost depends strongly on the parameters M and T. These are the numbers to watch as the industry progresses. M has dropped from over a dollar to a bit over fifty cents in just the last three years. T factors range from 11-12—the apparent turnkey-to-panel cost ratio reported for a recently powered-up solar array in Las Vegas—to solar industry reports of 2.

Third, the calculation underlying the table depends entirely on the observed rate of slow decline in solar panel output. If advances in semiconductor technology decrease this rate of decline, the generated cost of solar-panel energy will decrease accordingly. This industry is just entering its exponential growth phase, and there is every reason to expect such advances.

An Example in Las Vegas

The comment pages of online media were all agog recently with news of a new solar array in Las Vegas. It’s a medium-scale three-megawatt array designed to help power a city sewage-treatment plant. According to the local news report, “The $20 million project will generate 6 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.”

With those simple facts—cost, nominal power output, and annual energy output—we can apply the foregoing analysis and test our calculations.

The news report doesn’t include the panel price M, but we can calculate the product MT from these figures. The array’s nominal power output is three megawatts, and its turnkey price was $20,000,000. So the turned-on-plant price per nominal Watt capacity is 20 million dollars over 3 million Watts, or about $6.67 per Watt. That’s the product MT in our analysis above.

The first thing to note is that Las Vegas didn’t get a very good deal. The state of the art is an M near fifty cents per Watt, and a T for commercial-scale arrays near 2, or at least below 3. So the product MT should be no higher than $1.50 per Watt, over four times lower than Las Vegas’.

Their are many possible explanations for this discrepancy, some innocent, some not so much. City projects involve a lot of red tape and delay; the city may have contracted for this array several years ago, when industry cost parameters were higher. Since the project was only medium-sized, contractors may have required the city to pay closer to home retail prices. Since Las Vegas is known for gambling and entertainment, not technology innovation, it may have had to import talent at additional expense. And this being Las Vegas, we cannot rule out sweetheart deals with contractors, or even outright corruption.

For whatever reason, Las Vegas paid over four times more than today’s state of the art can do. But did the city get a bad deal in the long term? Let’s analyze.

The array will generate 6 million kilowatt-hours of energy every year. At the 2010 national-average residential retail electricity price [Click on “All Tables,” then download Table 4 into Excel] of 11.54 cents per kilowatt-hour, the 6 gigawatt-hours represent a $692,400 annual savings to the city. On the $20 million investment, that’s a 3.46% rate of return.

If the city qualified for lower commercial electricity prices, 10.19 cents, that annual savings would be $611,400, for a 3.06% rate of return. (Such a small array would not likely qualify for the much lower industrial electricity pricing. Anyway, industrial power is interruptible—not a good thing for a sewage treatment plant.)

A rate of return around 3% is hardly stellar, although not bad in today’s low-interest-rate environment.

But the immediate rate of return is not the point. That’s short-term thinking. That’s the take-the-money-and-run philosophy that got us in such trouble in the Crash of 2008, from which we are still recovering.

Instead, let’s think long term. At a 3% rate of return, the city would have paid for its investment in a little over 33 years. After that—on our assumption of replacing the panels at 33 percent output—the city will have over 67 years of virtually free power, albeit with a steadily declining output.

Should we forego these impressive cost and environmental advantages because the power output is intermittent and declining? Or should we figure out how to use this cheap, clean power to our economic and health advantage?

Before you answer, consider the common home mortgage. Many families work and invest for thirty years to pay off their thirty-year mortgages, so that their children can inherit their home free and clear.

That’s just what Las Vegas will do. After a payback period roughly equivalent to a thirty-year mortgage’s, it will have another three-and-one-half generations’ worth of electric power for free, with a very small maintenance charge, no pollution and no contribution to global warming or positive global-warming feedback.

That’s not quite as good as a home mortgage, whose payoff yields fee simple title forever. But it’s a hell of a lot better than high-maintenance, high-fuel cost and high-pollution alternatives, which provide no fuel-cost protection, let alone free power for over three generations.

So Las Vegas may have paid too much, but it did the right thing. Advances in technology may reduce the sewage plant’s power requirements as time goes on. Even if not, and even if the city has to add new panels periodically to maintain the solar array’s rated output, the replacement-panel costs will be lower, likely much lower, due to interim advances in the industry. Las Vegas made a wise long-term investment in its future, something our American culture once did routinely, but has trouble doing today.

Note: the time value of money

Business-savvy readers will note that the foregoing plant-payback analysis (except for the last paragraph) neglects the time value of money. If Las Vegas had to borrow the money to build the array, the interest on the loan would decrease the array’s net rate of return and prolong the payback period. The foregoing analysis assumes that Las Vegas has the money in the bank and is self-financing the array.

The are good reasons for this approach, some of which I’ve noted previously. But in this particular case, there is an even better reason. If Las Vegas had not built the array, it would have had to continue paying the power company the $611,400 per year it previously paid for power (at commercial rates) indefinitely. At very least, it would have to pay that sum for the 66 years of effective full-power operation of the array, for a total cost of $40.3 million, double the plant’s cost.

The present value of that payment stream would of course be less. But it’s hard to know how to discount the payment stream for coal power back to present value, especially over such a long period. If we use a convenient online annuity PV calculator over 66 years, we get a present value of $ 22.3 million at an interest rate of 2%, but only $17.5 million at 3% and about $10 million at 6%. So the present-value of the coal-power payments could be more or less than the cost of the solar array.

But who wants to gamble on interest rates (especially for cities) being closer to 6% than 2% over 66 years, while also gambling on the stability of coal-produced electricity rates? Gambling is how Las Vegas fleeces tourists, not how it runs itself. It knows the House always wins.

Insofar as this array is concerned, Las Vegas has insured its future with an investment now. Even if it had to borrow money for the array, a fixed-interest-rate loan makes its costs known; and its power costs will be zero (except for maintenance) for a long time after the loan is paid off. If solar panels have to be replaced, their replacement prices will likely go down over time, with improvements in technology and manufacturing, while the price of coal-produced electricity will likely go up, due to both increasing fuel scarcity and increased shifting of pollution costs onto polluters.

The clincher reason for ignoring the cost of money is that interest rates and commodity prices usually rise together. So as interest rates triple from 2% to 6%, taking the accumulated cost of coal power (after discounting to present value) down to half the price of the solar array, the cost of coal (and therefore coal-produced power) is likely to rise accordingly. So the $10 million cost of coal power (after discounting to present value), will become more like $30 million, due to commodity price inflation. The $20 million solar array is still the better buy.

Finally, just for fun, let’s do the numbers for the same facility, assuming a current state-of-the-art MT product, for commercial-scale arrays, of $2 per Watt. Then the 3 megawatt plant would have cost $6 million to build, not $20 million.

In that case, the annual $611,400 savings in unused coal energy would provide a 10.2% annual rate of return. That’s a stellar return for any investor today, let alone a city!

If the city borrowed money to build the plant, even at 5% interest, those savings could pay off the loan in less than fourteen years. Thereafter, the city would enjoy over 86 years of free power (except for maintenance) before the array’s output dropped to one-third its original value. If we considered probable increases in coal-power pricing—whether due to commodity price inflation or costly pollution-remediation measures—the rate of return would be even higher, and the payback even faster.

Footnote: Some solar arrays have very sluggish motors that rotate the panels to face the sun as it appears to move across the sky during the day. But economics disfavors this unnecessary embellishment. Most solar arrays today use fixed panels, which are cheaper to build and maintain.

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21 April 2013

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?


Introduction
“Why?” The unanswerable question
The culture of Hadji Murat
Alpha-male culture
The Tsernaev Brothers
Conclusion
Coda: alpha males’ psychodynamics (added Monday, April 22)
Addendum on Margaret Thatcher, an unlikely alpha male

Introduction

Friday’s capture of the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber casts a terrible shadow over my new series on human morality. What caused the two Tsernaev brothers to commit mass mayhem on so many innocents at a sporting event? If some bizarre form of human morality drove them, it surely was one with which most of us Yanks are unfamiliar.

The crime’s most striking feature is its utter senselessness. The bombs killed a few. But mostly they just macerated so many young, vibrant runners’ limbs. With all those nails and ball bearings, they were designed to wreak maximum havoc on human flesh and bone.

If mayhem can be a crime of passion, surely this was one. Maybe the Tsernaev Brothers had lost their reasoning power entirely. But if they had any, their goal was plain: to maim and to kill. Apparently they wanted many live victims, who would remember.

But remember what? Will the survivors—including the many single and double amputees—now support the cause of Chechen independence?

Not likely. Far more likely, the crime will drive Americans away from the Chechen cause. They will now have more sympathy for the hundreds of Russian children lost to Chechen terrorism at Beslan, and the Russians (mostly freed by sleep gas) held in terror at the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow. They will push us Yanks toward supporting the Russians in crushing Chechnyá forever.

Surely the Tsernaev Brothers, normal students, could reason this far. Surely they could anticipate that this type of crime would only boost the rising tide of equally senseless Islamophobia in the United States. So what drove them?

“Why?” The unanswerable question

What follows is speculation. But it’s informed speculation that those interrogating Dzokhar Tsernaev ought to consider. For the little locality that the Russians found so difficult has a troublesome similarity to North Korea. Read on.

If you want to know Chechnyá, you must first turn to Russian literature. Specifically, you must read a short novel of one of the greatest writers of all time, Lev Tolstoi. First published just over a century ago, it describes the Russian Empire’s battles to tame the Caucasus region. The novel is named for its dark hero, Hadji Murat—a doomed Chechen freedom fighter.

The novel’s most important feature is its detailed portrayal of the unique culture in which Chechen freedom fighters live. If you ignore present-day anachronisms like now-outmoded firearms and horses used for transportation, the novel will strike you as written yesterday.

It opens with a traveler in the region trying to pull up a thorny turnip-weed beside the road. The weed resists. All the narrator manages to do is bloody his hands and destroy a rag that he used to protect them. The hardy, spiny weed, he says, is a metaphor for the Chechen people.

The eponymous hero, Hadji Murat, has his own hard code of morality. Wronged by a rival clan of his own people, he agrees to help the Russians. But then, inevitably, he turns against them and is hunted down. In his inimitable style, Tolstoi instills in the reader a grudging respect for Murat and his world, as incomprehensibly alien as they may seem. It is a strange, hard and uncompromising culture, but one not devoid of grace or attraction.

Hadji Murat is the prototypical alpha male. Leader of his clan, he is a law unto himself. He fights on, for unseen reasons and unknown gods, until the bitter end. He changes sides, fights and runs, always for some hidden purpose, known only to himself. His life is a combination of honor, machismo, and stern moral command, for which he ultimately dies ingloriously.

The culture of Hadji Murat

It takes an entire short novel, plus Tolstoi’s ineffable insight, to see Murat’s culture whole. It is that alien to us Yanks today.

Russians of Tolstoi’s time perhaps understood it better than we, for they were still subjects of the Tsar. But we modern Yanks are imbued with a culture of teamwork, cooperation, and discussion. We have a tough time even seeing Murat’s culture clearly, let alone understanding it.

Law does exist in that culture. There is a rude tribal moral code, and there is the Qur’an. But there are no judges or imams to apply them. Hadji Murat, a local tribal leader, is himself the law. He makes decisions on the spot, and his word is law, for his tribe, his family and ultimately his own fate.

Tosltoi brilliantly describes how Murat’s absolute alpha-male leadership slowly narrows his (and his people’s) options under the Russian Empire’s relentless pressure. There is little talk of fault. For however wily, “moral” or “immoral” Murat may be, he faces inconceivably superior force. In the end, his options dwindle to crossing a river, as the Russian Army approaches from his rear.

It’s odd that we Yanks have such trouble recognizing this type of culture. John Wayne in his movies espoused much the same philosophy. “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” He wasn’t talking about law. Nor was he recommending consulting elders, priests or even superior officers. You take a glance at your own internal moral compass, then you plunge ahead, into the mouth of Hell if necessary. What the Tsernaev Brothers now have proved is that the Hell you enter can suck in others, too.

Law and religion are somewhere in the background, but action is all. So it was with Hadji Murat, although the background law and religion are different from ours. So it was, I think, with the Tsernaev Brothers. The chief ingredient is alpha-male rule.

Alpha-Male culture

All this hit me full force while listening to the Brothers’ estranged uncle tell Djokhar to turn himself in. What brought me up short was not the advice. In substance, it was good and proper. What caught me was the tone of voice.

I have heard that tone of voice before. Despite the slight foreign accent, the tone and cadence were pure Archie Bunker. The uncle was a common man in complete charge of his family and, insofar as he was asked to comment, in charge of the world. He spoke with absolute authority and no little menace. He expected to be obeyed. And lo and behold, Djokhar eventually did turn himself in, though not until after the biggest manhunt in our nation’s history.

Listen carefully for that tone of voice, and you will hear it in other places. You will hear it in the voices of North Korean newscasters telling civilians (and recalcitrant foreigners) to prepare for war. If you listen to old tapes of Aldof Hitler, you will hear it, although a bit screechier. It’s not a tone of reason, teamwork or persuasion. It’s a tone of absolute command. It doesn’t say “think.” It says, “hear and obey.”

The Tsernaev Brothers

Focus on this alpha-male culture. If you do, you might begin to understand what may have happened to the Tsernaev Brothers.

They seem to have broken the mold of domestic terrorists. Both were apparently well assimilated immigrants. Neither was an isolated, asocial, wimpy geek ready to snap. Both were successful students, known and generally liked by their peers. Both were active in sports. Neither was anywhere near borderline autistic.

But there are hints in their personal histories. The killed older brother, Tamerlan, said he didn’t have a single American friend, after over a decade here.

Why is that? Could it be that he was raised to be an alpha male in a culture of social media, cooperation, friendship and teamwork? Could it be that what he most wanted in life was to find an admirable alpha-male adult in his new world to tell him what to do?

Instead, he found only the Internet and Wal Mart. Too many choices. His ailing father went back to Russia, which has occupied his homeland for well over a century, apparently to die. Why is that?

Both the sport Tamerlan chose and his name are indicative. He chose boxing, and he became a local champion. How else could a young, foreign kid seek to gain instant respect and obedience? How else could he become an alpha male among his peers?

And his name—Tamerlan—derives from one of the greatest fighters in human history. The great Chinese Emperor Zhu Di, who proclaimed the Cheng He voyages that discovered most of the world, died fighting Tamerlan’s namesake, the Great Emperor Tamerlane.

Tamerlan took an American girlfriend and married her. She had been a Christian, but she converted to Islam at his insistence. Then, under his influence, she put on a hijab. What better way to show submission to her husband’s rule, just as in the homeland, and just as every alpha male craves?

In such a culture, did the younger brother have any real chance to break away? Or was his obedience to his elder brother’s whim foreordained? (I’m not suggesting this as a legal excuse, just as a practical and emotional explanation.)

As the youngest and most assimilated member of the family, Djokhar likely had some reasons for continuing to live. But once his older brother had been killed, his estranged uncle was the local surviving alpha male in his life. Which was more important: his own will to live or that surviving alpha male’s clear command? His interrogators will probably want to find out. The answer may surprise them.

Conclusion

Culture trumps almost everything. It easily trumps law and religion. The only reason we can have a culture of the rule of law is that we and our cultural ancestors have been living with one for the eight centuries since Magna Carta.

That’s why we still have so many white Southerners—including senators, who ought to know better—resisting a half-black president with all the means at their disposal, 148 years after the Civil War’s end. Even in a society built on law and compromise, it will probably take another generation or two (or three) before all of us can really appreciate diverse people as just like us (apart from foreign cultures).

Islamophobia is wrong and dangerous because it mistakes religion for culture. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, among others, are majority Islamic. But none poses the slightest threat to world order or peace. The same is true for the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims living in Europe and the United States.

What poses the danger, in my view, is the alpha-male culture of some tiny portions of the Islamic world: the Taliban, the jihadis, and perhaps Chechnyá, too.

We—the entire human race—are fast at work building a modern, diverse and global society of teamwork, cooperation, reason, specialized expertise, free markets, trade, and common rules. Alpha-male rule is a throwback to our evolutionary past. Every advanced country has gotten rid of it with term limits, checks and balances, and some form of collective government. (Surprisingly for us Yanks, China is ahead in this regard, however “authoritarian” it may seem in another sense.)

But one thing is absolutely clear. We must abandon alpha-male rule, consciously and deliberately, if we are to progress further as a species. Law and collective rule are the models to follow, even when Congress is in gridlock. If nothing else, the New Boston Massacre proves that.

A vestige of alpha-male rule may have its place within the police and military. But there it subsists under a legal culture and subserves civilian control, complete with term limits and checks and balances.

By itself, alpha-male rule has produced a spectacle of horrors. Hitler and Stalin were not the end of it; they weren’t even the beginning. Today we face Kim Jong Un, Robert Mugabe, and the failing but still living specter of Fidel Castro. And you can be sure there will be others, for the alpha-male ape is part of our evolutionary heritage. He will be part of our culture until we extirpate him by conscious effort.

In order to become fully civilized, we must do just that. The maxim “two heads are better than one” is not just a proverb. It’s a recipe for peace and effective government, in families as well as nations. For the lesson of the New Boston Massacre is that the threat of alpha-male families extends far beyond the families themselves.

We can start by giving our own John Wayne culture the early retirement that it so richly deserves. Big fists, big guns and big bombs don’t make right, might or civilization. They just make violence, corpses and amputees.

Coda: alpha males’ psychodynamics (added Monday, April 22)

The more I think about it, the more the alpha-male explanation of Tamerlan Tsernaev’s behavior seems right. How else could an otherwise normal, healthy, socially active sportsman like him end up with no American friends after over ten years in America?

If you are raised to be an alpha male, and if your peers accept you as such, you have no friends. Why? Shakespeare said it best: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Friendship is a relationship among equals, not between master and underling.

If you are raised to be an alpha male and no one accepts you as such, what then? You are fundamentally dissatisfied with yourself and others around you. Under the well-known psychological phenomenon of “projection,” the fault becomes theirs, not yours. Your social-media watching, cooperating, team-working, fun-loving, gossiping peers become your nemeses and enemies, or human trash. They are then fit objects of slaughter and mayhem.

The violence they seem to merit is just part of the general violence, always just below the surface, that keeps alpha males in charge. Listen carefully to the Tsernaev Brothers’ uncle, and you can hear a hint and threat of that same violence clearly in his voice.

It is hard for us Yanks to get our minds around this phenomenon because we live in an entirely different culture. From our earliest days, we hear Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words ringing in our ears: “All men are created equal.” And despite all the moaning, groaning and resistance, we have a President half of whose genes come from the same race of people who once were slaves here. Egalitarianism is built into our education, our upbringing and national credo.

Now imagine a very different culture. There, fathers are absolute rules of their families, sometimes to the point of life and death. All men are not created equal there. There are leaders and followers, rulers and subjects. The only point of equality among them is loyalty, which flows mostly upward.

The cultural heroes are not Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr. They are Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Is it so hard to imagine that a clash with such a culture, inside a single individual, could produce extreme psychic distress and hence extreme behavior?

And let me emphasize once again that the religion, Islam, has little or nothing to do with this clash. Like the Bible, the Qur’an has odes to peace and lots of “smiting.” Both books, after all, were written in the first millennium. True scholars of Islam today emphasize the peace, just as do Christians, because that’s what our common global civilization respects and demands today.

Addendum on Margaret Thatcher, An Unlikely Alpha Male

While on the subject of alpha males and a culture of dominance, it would not be remiss to pen a few words about the passing of Margaret Thatcher, the first-ever female prime minister of Britain. She died about two weeks ago.

Her death evoked all the controversy, angst and dissension of her life and governance. There were encomiums from the usual suspects, British conservatives, The City (Britain’s analogue to Wall Street), and banking barons. But there were expressions of hatred from the coal miners and representatives of British labor, who despised her.

Thatcher was undoubtedly the most divisive British prime minister in my lifetime, and I’m 67. She remains divisive even in death. Why? She was an alpha male with a vagina.

Before I have to dodge brickbats, let me explain.

In both the style and substance of her governance, Thatcher embodied a culture of dominance. Like every alpha male’s, her regime began and ended with a single principle: “I’m the boss!”

Thatcher “persuaded” by humiliating her own cabinet members. (Eventually, she lost her grip on political power when her personal abrasiveness went over the top.) She didn’t just defeat the coal miners politically. She crushed them and their union. She offered little or no assistance, retraining or compensation in a vast reversal of fortune that, while perhaps necessary, was economically wrenching for large sectors of working Britain.

In so doing, she aped her role model and mentor, Ronald Reagan, whose domestic policy came straight from the attractive but dangerous alpha-male fantasies of Ayn Rand (like Thatcher, a female). Reagan’s first significant domestic act as president was to crush the air traffic controllers’ union, thereby establishing his dominance as the nation’s economic boss. His acts defeated the strike, but without much thought to professionalism, technical expertise, or the future of air travel.

For about a decade afterward, Reagan’s union busting made a real dent in the efficiency and safety of air travel. The controllers were (and still are) a group of consummate professionals, working under incredible pressure doing one of the most difficult and critical jobs in our modern economy. Yet Reagan treated them much the same as our arrogant industrial magnates had treated the striking Pullman porters earlier in the last century, albeit without violence.

With his lockout and ring-kissing tests for rehiring, Reagan decimated the controllers and crushed their morale, forcing many into other careers. It took—and still takes—years to train a good air traffic controller. So the corps that Reagan’s alpha-male exercise left behind was less competent and effective for years afterward.

The only thing that saved the nation was that air traffic was not yet as dense, intricate or as important to national commerce then as now. If present conditions had prevailed, Reagan’s crude “I’m the boss” drill would have produced economic, if not actual, disaster. The resulting slowdown would have made today’s Sequester-caused delays look like a walk in the park. Or planes would have crashed. Even as things were, there were enough delays to trouble frequent travelers.

Paradoxically, Thatcher copied Reagan in his disastrous economic policy, but not in his successful foreign policy. During the Falklands crisis, she acted the pure alpha male. She played on British pride and the past glories of empire, leaving the plight of the hapless Falklands residents (nearly all of British descent and English-speaking) to a rare afterthought.

Her (and Britain’s) forceful response was perhaps inevitable, given the brutal acts of the Argentinian junta. But Thatcher made things worse with her alpha-male chest-beating. An earlier but less macho show of force by the still-potent British Navy might have avoided many deaths on both sides.

In contrast, Reagan’s foreign policy relied much less on alpha-male chest beating and much more on cooperation. While he sought—ultimately successfully—to bankrupt the Soviets with an unwinnable arms race, at the same time he offered the olive branch of disarmament. He found a sympathetic soul in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and he pursued nuclear arms reduction with a level of passion and vigor not fully known until recent biographies exposed it.

History will cite Reagan’s healthy start at real nuclear disarmament as partially justifying the over-the-top adulation his memory enjoys today. But it will recognize his domestic economic policies as extremist folly. In their lack of balance, subtlety and economic understanding, those policies were analogous on the right to Communism on the left. They are the source of most of our economic discontent today, including the deregulation-caused Crash of 2008. Unfortunately, Thatcher aped these counterproductive policies of economic dominance, but not the fruitful policies of cooperation with enemies in disarmament.

If you want to know a truly admirable female British leader, you have to go a bit further back. Queen Elizabeth I was one of the greatest leaders of England of either gender. She was also one of the greatest leaders of all time.

She ruled not by aping alpha males, but by exploiting the evolutionary advantages of her gender: cooperation and a disposition toward nurturing and sustaining life. She took an island riven by both internecine and external warfare and imbued it with a cooperative, business-oriented culture. She quashed male rulers’ obsession with murdering each other for royal succession. Instead, she turned England’s attention toward exploration, trade, economic development and commerce. Three centuries later, the business-oriented culture she instilled in that small island has come to dominate the world.

Queen Elizabeth I was not alone. She had the benefit of a superb legal culture going back to Magna Carta four centuries earlier. And she made some mistakes. She tried to grant royal monopolies to provide tax-free rewards to her favorite supporters. But the British courts overturned them, and later Parliament adopted the Statute of Monopolies—the model for our antirust laws and perhaps the single most important new legal-economic rule in human history. Yet all in all, Elizabeth I quashed the bloody deviation begun by Henry VIII and put England back on the true path of peace, prosperity and economic development.

Dominance or cooperation? Alpha-male chest beating or fragile civilization? Those are the still-unanswered questions of human social evolution.

Together, Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth I showed that female rulers, like males, can follow either path. But world history since Elizabeth I has been conclusive on which is right. England’s science- and business- oriented culture, which we Yanks have inherited, not only has enjoyed smashing success. It has become a global model.

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16 April 2013

New Series on Morality


[For an annotated index of previous posts on this subject, with links, click here.]

Over a month ago, it dawned on me that our entire species—all of us, everywhere—is undergoing a moral crisis.

The old moral order is dying under the impact of new thinking and instantaneous worldwide communication. Organized religion, authoritarian government, authoritarian learn-by-rote education, and oppressive, father-knows-best upbringing are all in decline, if not under siege. The recent upsurge in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam is like a last frost before summer, a false and transient deviation before our moral climate improves for good.

Ideology has always been a weak and unsatisfying substitute for religion. But it is dying, too. China and Russia have abandoned their Communist ideology of their own free will, although China retains it in name only. We Yanks and our fellow travelers are doing the same (belatedly) with our post-Cold-War triumphalism over the success of capitalism and free markets. Slowly but surely, we are coming to understand that capitalism, free markets and profit are only tools. They can take us efficiently where we want to go, but they can’t show us the right direction.

Only moral philosophy can. We’ve got a good car with a powerful economic engine, but we still need a driver and a good road map.

Along with these revelations came a personal one, too. Many of the 660-plus essays on this blog are really about morality. I just didn’t recognize that fact when I first wrote them; their titles don’t always reveal their essence.

So just as I did not long ago with energy, I’m starting a new series on morality with this post. Like the series on energy, it begins with a listing and index to previous posts on that general subject.

The theme of this series is quite simple. Morality is not “given” to us. We must invent it for ourselves. Or if you prefer, we must discover it. The task is a collective and perpetual one, with which we all must struggle, worldwide, for as long as our species survives.

Plato, Socrates and the other old Greek philosophers started the project over 2,300 years ago. So did the Chinese scholar Confucius, centuries earlier and on the other side of the world. But in the West the project got interrupted by organized monotheistic religion. The muscular, proselytizing religions—principally Christianity, Islam and certain aspects of Judaism—stole the show for a long, long time.

Now change is in the air. You can see it in the slow decline of organized congregations and decreasing regular attendance at churches, synagogues and even mosques (outside of major religious holidays).

You can see it even better in the blockbuster movie Life of Pi. While a tour de force in video, the film is really about human morality. It explores the stories we tell ourselves to make a hard life easier and closer to our hearts’ desire.

I won’t spoil the film for those few who haven’t yet seen it by writing more. I’ll just note that it is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and it’s still early days. In my view, scholars will one day cite this film for the start of an era when we, as a species, began to grow up.

In some respects, Life of Pi resembles Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immortal novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Lincoln first met Stowe, he wryly remarked that her book had sparked our Civil War. It lit the flame that began our nation’s cataclysmic transition from slavery to freedom, and from a country by, for and of propertied white men to the most diverse and ethnically open society since ancient Rome. The transition that Uncle Tom’s Cabin sparked is still ongoing after over 150 years.

Stowe used an age-old medium, written literature. In contrast, Life of Pi’s director Ang Lee used the visual impact of transcendently beautiful photography, enhanced or generated by computers. His technologies of communication were, in historical terms, brand new.

The film shows what those technologies can do in skilled hands. They can drive important messages right past our reasoning centers and into our most primitive forebrains. Life of Pi does that. It’s a seminal work that every serious moral thinker should see, maybe more than once, on a big screen and in 3D.

So now, after a hiatus of over two millennia, we humans can get back to one of the most important projects in our collective history. Consciously and deliberately, we can resume devising (or, if you prefer, discovering) a morality that suits us, makes us happy, and best realizes our collective potential as a species.

To work well for us, any new morality must come from deep, clear and bold understanding of who and what we really are. Science will have a big role to play.

Why? Not because science tells us what we should do. That is not a scientific question. But science can tell us who and what we are more accurately—and more honestly—than anything else in our history. More important, science can tell us the practical consequences of various moral choices, such as overusing coal.

As “masters” of our dominion (Earth) we can overgraze our land and overfish our seas. We will have an abundance of food for a while, but then we may suffer and starve. Science can tell us how and when this might happen and help us avoid the moral sin of arrogance and the practical sin of improvidence.

“The wages of sin,” the Bible tells us, “are death.” In the ancient world, that advice could be taken literally. The sin of murder, for example, could spark revenge and retaliation, even war.

But today ever more pallid sins may have global effect. Pollution could cause widespread famine or disease. Global warming could cause the premature deaths of billions, far more quickly than most of us now expect.

Take coal, for example. We can overexploit it and have plentiful energy, perhaps for as long as another human lifetime. But, if we do, we will leave our children and grandchildren with a blasted and polluted planet and an infrastructure incapable of supporting anything like our comfortable lifestyle as fossil fuels run out. In the meantime, global warming might impair our habitat and destroy large parts of it, leading to the suffering and premature deaths of billions of us, give or take a few hundred million.

Our modern human “footprint” is infinitely larger today than it was in the pristine and innocent days of Cain and Abel. Today the human tragedies we can cause (or fail to avoid) can be global and catastrophic. Just remember October 1962. Science can teach us how to avoid darkening our own fate.

Science can also teach us to avoid the moral sin of arrogance and its own wages, which can be equally disastrous. From our very first philosophical speculation—that the Sun revolves around the Earth because it seems to—we have always tended to aggrandize ourselves and our place in the Universe. The more we study science, the more we understand that we are just parts of an incomprehensibly complex and intricate web of life on our small planet, which lies adrift in an incomprehensibly huge void. The resulting humility and realism can increase our odds of surviving with anything approaching collective happiness.

As we look at ourselves and attempt to determine who we are, where we live, what we can become, and what courses of action will both keep us alive and make us happy, modern branches of science will be especially important. They include evolution, biology, psychology, child development and economics. Studying them will help us devise a morality that will maximize our collective happiness, minimize our collective and individual pain, and realize our potential as a species. Knowing, for example, how fragile and how precious our brains are might help us avoid the sad fates of many football stars and Mohammed Ali.

But science is not all we will need for a new, more practical morality independent of myth. History will be a close second. Knowing our checkered past will help us appreciate our mistakes and avoid repeating them. At very least, we should shun another bloody century like the last one, with its near-brush with species self-extinction in October 1962.

Religion will play a lesser role, as we will see. It has been important, sometimes vital, in developing and maintaining individual morality, i.e., the morality of interpersonal relations. There its most important products have been the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, which have echoes in every organized religion. On an analogy to economics, we might call these rules “micromorality.”

But on a morality for our whole species—what we might call “macromorality”—religion has been lamentably weak. It has done little, for example, to curb the insanity of war, or even to advance the difficult inquiry into what wars (if any) are “just.”

Often religions have helped justify wars or cheer them on. Lawyers have done far more than clerics to advance this realm of human morality, whether by Magna Carta, the Trials at Nuremberg, or today’s International Criminal Court.

The same is true for economic equality. Every major religion tells us to pity the poor, not despise them. Most urge us to help them and give them charity, at least on religious holidays.

But no religion tells us whether we should reform or re-organize our society in order to drastically reduce or eliminate poverty, or, if so, how. They all implicitly assume that poverty and squalor are inevitable parts of the human condition, just as women’s economic and physical subjugation, slavery, universal military service, near-universal wars, and widespread racial intolerance (often condoned or even supported by clerics) once were. That perspective does little to realize our species’ potential.

Organized religion has failed for two reasons. First, it has always had to coexist and cooperate with secular authority: governments, financial and commercial powers, and the military. In some cases it has conspired with secular authority to maintain its leaders’ power and privileges. Too much independence (let alone opposition) would have risked losing those gorgeous, opulent churches and mosques (usually on the best high ground in town), and the comfortable and secure life styles of the folks who run them. This is what Jesus had in mind when he kicked the money-changers out of the temple.

Second, for long periods of history organized religion was (and still is) part or all of government itself. Just think of the Holy Roman Empire, the Ayatollahs today in Iran and Iraq, or even the Vatican. Today the Vatican is but a weak vestige of its former self. Yet it has been capable of hiding pedophiles, for decades, from the knowledge and wrath of secular society and the justice of secular courts, even in the world’s most powerful nation.

To do their jobs well, moral philosophers must not fall into this dependency trap. They must be wholly free of government, secular and organized religious authority. They must be ready, willing and able to criticize, even condemn. They must be free from ties of loyalty, salary or sustenance to the powers that shape our world. In short, they must be truly independent thinkers, able to speak nasty truth always.

The founders of our great Western monotheistic religions were all like that. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were original thinkers and moral leaders. Jesus, in particular, was one of the greatest political minds that ever lived.

But the human institutions that grew out of their prophetic leadership have become followers of the prevailing political winds. They have become coddlers of pedophiles and terrorists. In modern terms, they are “co-opted.”

Jesus would not recognize the Catholic Church today—from its magnificent palaces (aka “cathedrals”) to the worldwide business interests that sustain its wealth and power. He would think the money-changers had won.

Two things in our modern era hold better promise. The first is our universities. Venerable innovations of the Renaissance, they have plenty of warts and administrative barnacles of their own. Chief among these are the silos of separate departments and the obstacles that examinations, diplomas and degrees put in the path of the rare genius.

But, at their best, universities are refuges for free thinkers. This is so even in societies whose tolerance of free speech is far less absolute than ours under our First Amendment. And here, where good ideas often get lost under an avalanche of self-serving nonsense, including advertising, propaganda and “spin”, a great moral philosopher like the late John Rawls could find safe harbor in a university.

The other refuge is quite new: cyberspace. This revolutionary medium offers a safe harbor—even limited anonymity—for free thinkers. It also offers them an audience far wider and more immediate that any ancient Greek philosopher ever enjoyed. Plato and Socrates could only have dreamed of having a truly global audience, which could read their works, in an instant, without regard to distance in space or time.

This post is just prologue. Suffice it to say here that conscious, deliberate and systematic development of human morality by our best minds is still a work in progress. It is still in its earliest stages—a global project held in abeyance for millennia while the fire of institutionalized religion burned itself out.

Now, with the decline of organized religion, the demise of Communism, and the belated recognition that capitalism, free markets, and profit are tools, not religions or moral plans, it can begin anew.

“This above all,” Shakespeare wrote: “to thine own self be true.” Science and the clear thinking it encourages are helping us discover who we really are, how we came to be, how we develop and age as individuals, and how we are evolving socially. History helps us know what we have been and the terrible mistakes we have made. With that self-knowledge—more accurate and detailed than ever before—we can begin to develop a morality based not on the conveyed Word of unseen deities, but on the essence of Shakespeare’s sound advice.

What follows is an index of previous posts on (or touching) the subject of human morality. Where titles under a topic are out of alphabetical order, the order reflects my judgment of importance and general interest.

Topics

Authoritarian Government
Character and Morality
Culture and Morality
A Culture of Self-Promotion
Difficult Moral Issues [including abortion]
The Environment and Morality
Evolution, Survival and Morality
Facts and Morality
Gay Marriage and Morality
Genocide and Other Atrocities
Government and Morality
Individual Responsibility: Where Micro- and Macro-Morality Meet
Law and Morality
Liberation and Morality
Markets and Morality
The Media and Morality
Minor Moral Atrocities [Destructive Politics and Tobacco]
Ninjas, Drones and Torture
Nuclear Weapons and Morality
Prejudice and Morality
Religion and Morality
Technology and Morality
War, Peace and Morality



Authoritarian Government

What is “Nazism”?

Father Knows Best, or Does He? [An inquiry into the causes and effects of authoritarian government]

Should Russia Invade Syria?


Character and Morality

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Selfishness is Not a Plan

Proving Dratler’s Law

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Arrogance and Humility [and their practical, political effects]

Stiff-Necked Diplomacy [Arrogance and Mideast deadlock]

“I Don’t Want to Think About It!” [Willful ignorance and moral consequences]

Fear and Age [The moral consequences of deliberate demagoguery]

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Bye, bye Boomers [The Baby Boomers’ Moral Legacy]

Senator Clinton’s Political Epitaph [Morality and political calculation]

Learning to Love Logic [Spock the Vulcan and President Obama]

The Gang’s New Capo [Political parties and gang behavior]

Sarah and Sonia: A post-fourth note [on character and conservatism]

Lieutenant Ehren Watada [Moral courage and its consequences]

The Sizzle and the Steak [A 2008 comparison between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama]

Perseverance

Virtue [in the ancient world and America today]

Steve Jobs, an American Original, R.I.P.

Michelle [Obama]’s American Story


Culture and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

What is “Nazism”?

Tribalism

The Explainers

Tea-Party Culture: A Moral Anachronism

A Christmas Message of Love

Alsace, Avatar of Peace and Joy

Cheap Culture [The evolutionary perils of short-term thinking]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Whence Morality?

Should Russia Invade Syria?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Rotten Business [The decline of morality in American business]

Nuclear Corruption [The practical consequences of corruption]

Mortgages, Law and Culture, or Why Plato Still Matters [Some surprising facts about our mortgage crisis, and what they say about American morality]

Rick Wagoner and Our Culture of Incompetence

Immigrants, Alpha Males, and America’s Three Cultures [The moral codes of America’s three dominant cultures]

“Old Europe” [and its Enlightenment culture]

The Real Antichrists

Ordinary People Matter [in Egypt as here]

“I’ve Got Mine, Jack!”: The American Recipe for Dystopia

Islamophobia: Three Lies


A Culture of Self-Promotion

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Killed for a Photo Op [Death and self-promotion]

Tired of Lies [Self-promotion and “spin” in politics]

“Our gall is not like your gall.” [Intel’s transparent PR campaign]


Difficult Moral Issues

Abortion


The Environment and Morality

Coal: Faust’s Fate Come to Life [The moral consequences of energy policy I]

Irony to the Max [The moral consequences of energy policy II]

A New Environmental Vision [the moral and economic effects of foreign cane ethanol]


Evolution, Survival and Morality

Of Apes and Men [A discussion of social evolution away from alpha-male leadership]

What is “Nazism”?

Tribalism

Build or Bomb?

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Whence Morality?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Innumeracy, Economics and the Great Accommodation [The practical and moral consequences of overpopulation]

That Old Alpha Thing, or Why Obama Might Lose [A 2009 inquiry into alpha-male leadership]


Facts and Morality

“Intelligent Design” and Engineering: A Tale of Orwellian Word Theft [Engineering, both human and divine]

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

P.S. Propaganda, Argument and Fact

Inaccurate [A riff on factual accuracy and morality]


Gay Marriage and Morality

A Papal Lesson in Humility

Why the “Defense of Marriage” Act is Inhuman, not Just Inhumane

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Bans on Gay Marriage: A Question of Values


Genocide and Other Atrocities

Individual Responsibility: the Salvation of Our Species?

What is “Nazism”?

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Germany and America II: Could it Happen Here?

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

A Christmas Message of Love

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Rx for Syria: Stopping Air Attacks on Civilians and Cities

Genocide in Arabia

The Banality of Evil

What If We Are Wrong? [The Holocaust and Arab liberation]

Darfur


Government and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

What is “Nazism”?

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

And you thought government was bad! [A practical and moral comparison of government and big business]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

Putting a Price on Obstructionism [The price of obstructionism in government]

How the Bankers Got Away, and How to Stop Them Next Time

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Holder’s Decision [The moral value of public trials]

Ecclesiastes and the EU

Reds on the Right [in our American government]


Individual Responsibility: Where Micro- and Macro-Morality Meet

Individual Responsibility: the Salvation of Our Species?

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

The Korean Philosopher’s Dilemma [North Korea and moral responsibility]

Holder’s Decision [The moral value of public trials]

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope

Bankers’ Chutzpah [Capitalism and individual responsibility]

The Protestant Ethic and Germany’s Contrition for Wartime Atrocities

Financial Judgement at Nuremberg

France and Germany versus the Psychopaths

Germany and America I

Confessions of a Cockeyed Optimist


Law and Morality

Law and Justice

How the Bankers Got Away, and How to Stop Them Next Time

Can Justice do justice [in holding bankers accountable]?

Whence Morality?

Judge Sotomayor and “Identity Politics”


Liberation and Morality

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

The Arab Spring, Ten Months In [A comparison of indigenous liberation and foreign intervention]

Futurophobia [America’s response to Egypt’s Tahrir Square Revolt]

Arab Liberation: Which Side Are We On?


Markets and Morality

Our Global Moral Crisis [Why capitalism is not a religion or moral code]

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Trade, Economics, and Ancient Rome [Trade and social equality]

A Season for Workers? [loss of American jobs and industrial leadership]


The Media and Morality

Proving Dratler’s Law

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Gossip and Policy

How Rick Santelli Killed the Housing Rescue

What Broke Our Democracy

Signs of a Sick Democracy: the First [2012] New Hampshire “Debate” [ABC’s moral abdication and journalistic malpractice]

He [Tim Russert] Did His Homework

Outrage! (The Shirley Sherrod Story)


Minor Moral Atrocities

How Karl Rove and Frank Luntz Destroyed the Republican Party

Big Tobacco’s Just Deserts


Ninjas, Drones and Torture

Our Modern Ninjas and their Role in Human History

Childish Things [American attitudes toward torture]


Nuclear Weapons and Morality

The Case for Nuclear Proliferation [How nuclear weapons have, so far, avoided war among major powers]

Why Do We Need Armed Forces? [The changing role of the military in a world of nuclear deterrence and more rational, collective government]


Prejudice and Morality

Tribalism

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

A Papal Lesson in Humility

One of Us [A brief history of the political tarring of Barack Obama]


Religion and Morality

Coda: the Divinity that Hinders [of Jesus]

The Explainers

A Christmas Message of Love

Tribalism

Build or Bomb?

Strange Sympathies [for Islamists in Egypt]

China Rising I [The advantages of politics free from religion and ideology]

Should Russia Invade Syria?

A Papal Lesson in Humility

The Protestant Ethic and Germany’s Contrition for Wartime Atrocities

Whence Morality?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Why an American Jew Supports Palestinian Statehood [The moral consequences of religion in politics]

Carter and Hamas [The consequences of religious intransigence]

Can Markets Be Wrong? [Capitalism as a new religion]

“Intelligent Design” and Engineering: A Tale of Orwellian Word Theft [Engineering, both human and divine]

Islamophobia: Three Lies [The morality of religious scapegoating]

A Time of Reverence and Awe [A note on some very good clerics]

True Believers and The Power of Nations [The consequences of strong religion for national power]

Looking for God in a Godless World [God, morality, and organized religion]

Germany and America III: Following Jesus’ Advice [Jesus as human history’s greatest pol]

It’s the Bystanders, Stupid! [why turning the other cheek really works]


Technology and Morality

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Proving Dratler’s Law

Revolt of the Experts [in American politics]

Jeff Bezos and the Pope

Lack of Imagination IV: Technologies of Freedom [Liberation technology]

Is Facebook Doing Us In?

Redundancy [Of components and systems to avoid disaster]

The “Second-Amendment Solution” [A comment on firearm regulation and modern technology]

Search-and-Seizure Heresy [A comment on government searches and modern technology]


War, Peace and Morality

Build or Bomb?

A Christmas Message of Love

What is “Nazism”?

A Moral Equivalent of War, or Why Oil Prices Dropped so Rapidly

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Our Big Foreign-Policy Blunders, and our New Opportunities

Our Species: Which Leaders? (A Visual Essay)

Mandela’s “Miracle”: Empathy and Perseverance

Alsace, Avatar of Peace and Joy

Just War [When, if ever, war is justified, and how far we are from a moral consensus]

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela [Eulogy]

Should Russia Invade Syria?

The Marathon Bombers: Alpha Males Lost in Modern Civilization?

Trade [As an alternative to and preventive for war]

Rx for Syria: Stopping Air Attacks on Civilians and Cities

Breaking the Nuclear Taboo: Another Risk of Iran Going Nuclear [Political-military restraint and morality]

Versailles or the Marshall Plan: China’s Choice [Shaping the moral and practical consequences of victory]

Why Our Pentagon Must Slim Down [The dangers of an outsized military, or why Ike was right]

Mirror of Tragedy [In the USA and Russia after the Cold War]

Ideological Mirror Images and Olympic Lessons [Who really lost the Cold War?]

Thanksgiving Message [2007, on why it’s our real national holiday]


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06 April 2013

North Korea: A Test of Emotional Intelligence


[For a recent post on the “Defense of Marriage” Act, click here.]

Introduction: Emotional Intelligence and Leadership
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
The Problem of the Kims
Korea’s Macho Culture
The Intelligent Triad
Conclusion

Introduction: Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

This blog has already explored the difference between emotional and analytical intelligence. A good leader needs both: analytical intelligence to know what to do, and emotional intelligence to get people to do it, even when they can’t quite see that it’s in their own best interest.

The two types of intelligence work best when in rough balance. With strong emotional intelligence and weak analytical intelligence, a leader can draw his people into the jaws of Hell. Just think of Hitler, Stalin or Mao in his later years, with his Great Leap Forward and Red Guards marginalizing and persecuting all of China’s experts on anything.

If analytical intelligence dominates, you get a good but ineffectual leader. Think of Woodrow Wilson. He helped the Allies win World War I. Then he tried mightily, but failed, to get Europe not to squeeze a beaten Germany. Or think of Jimmy Carter, who got our hostages back from Iran unharmed (one minute after the end of his term), but only after a failed military mission to free them.

History will vindicate both men. In fact, it has vindicated Wilson already. Instead of stomping on an again-beaten Germany after World War II, we unveiled the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt it. That plan did exactly what Wilson had prescribed, just one world war too late. There was a small matter of fifty million premature deaths, plus the first use of massive fire bombing and nuclear weapons to slaughter civilian populations—all because Wilson couldn’t get his self-righteous allies to follow his good advice.

Some day, history will vindicate Carter, too. People will realize how much worse our relationship with Iran would be if our military rescue had failed only partially, and Iran’s zealots had slaughtered most of the hostages, with the inevitable US response. As it was, Carter got them back with no slaughter and no war. Not bad for a peanut farmer from Georgia!

Why Emotional Intelligence Matters

Although Wilson and Carter were both good presidents, neither will be lionized like Reagan, who, with far less analytical intelligence, made many more mistakes. Wilson helped win the first great war but couldn’t close the deal for lasting peace. Carter made the best of a very bad situation (partly of our own making) but let our right wing paint us as losers.

Reagan drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy with an all-out arms race. But he brilliantly closed the deal for peace when he told his opposite number, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!”

A good man, Gorbachev probably wanted to tear it down anyway. And it was hard to tell from Reagan’s tone whether his famous line was an order or a plea. But with that single sentence, Reagan got the Russians and the whole world to see what a senseless, wasteful and unsustainable human tragedy the Cold War was. It and the Soviet Union faded into history just four years later.

For that single act, we can forgive Reagan his equally senseless and unsustainable economic policies, which have just driven us nearly into bankruptcy, and which will take decades more to reverse. The Cold War was, after all, the greater evil. It nearly led us to species self-extinction in October 1962.

And therein lies perhaps greatest tale of emotional intelligence, one which saved us all from extinction. The Soviets had precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis by installing medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Several were fully assembled and operational. We surrounded Cuba with a naval blockade to keep more from coming in. As we learned only much later, the Soviets sent submarines armed with nuclear torpedoes. Their commanders were authorized to use them at will, without resort to higher authority; and they couldn’t contact Moscow anyway.

As the Soviet fleet approached our naval blockade, Armageddon was just minutes away. All our Cabinet but the President’s brother Bobby Kennedy (then serving as Attorney General) wanted a full-scale invasion of Cuba.

But our President JFK believed that the Soviets wanted a nuclear holocaust no more than we did. He contacted Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev and made a deal. Like most of our people who had any sense, Khrushchev was so relieved and grateful for that species-saving arrangement that, upon hearing of JFK’s assassination a year later, he wept. This was the once-peasant Communist leader who earlier had banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, crying “We will bury you!”

The emotional intelligence and empathy of these two men, leaders of inimical states, saved us all from species self-extinction, or something very close. Hard, cold, rational analysis could not have done the job. Our generals did that and wanted war, which they thought we could “win.” Only the emotional understanding that the Soviets loved their children and their nation as much as we loved ours saved us. (The saving also required a realistic understanding of what nuclear weapons can do.)

The Problem of the Kims

And so we come to North Korea—a hermit hereditary monarchy run like a medieval feudal state. With its level of social advancement and economic progress, it should be fielding horsemen with lances and crossbows. But instead it has nuclear weapons and missiles that some day (not now!) might be able to deliver them.

North Korea is so pathological a society, and so isolated from the rest of our species, as to require extraordinary emotional intelligence. Analysis is not the issue.

It takes no genius to see that starving a whole people to build a fearsome but ill-fed army and a nuclear arsenal is not a viable long-term national strategy. It takes little talent to ken that living by extortion and smuggling, without being able to feed one’s population or produce anything of lasting external value, is no more so.

It also takes little insight to see that such a society can sustain itself, even temporarily, only by fear, both internal and external. The internal fear—of a supposed “invasion” that never comes—maintains the pathological tyranny’s power. The external fear allows it to maintain its pathological isolation, without which it would soon collapse from within.

The little nation has less than 25 million people, fewer than any two of China’s big cities, or than Greater Tokyo. Yet its instability makes it a powerful time bomb. The teenage mutant tyrant was raised on American movies, rich foods (in a starving nation!) that made him fat, absolute power, and the sort of public fear and adulation that we’ve not seen since Stalin, Hitler and Mao. His psyche is a bizarre concoction of myth, arrogance, others’ sycophancy, youth and inexperience.

Kim is self-evidently seeking to maintain and consolidate a tenuous hold on national power. Wherever he goes in public, a cloud of short, much older men surrounds him, wearing broad-brimmed military hats that look like flying saucers. How many are sycophants? How many want his job or his head? How many are under the influence of his uncle, who reportedly is his tutor and the power behind the throne?

We simply don’t know. But Kim could believe he can take South Korea, let alone painlessly, only if he believes in his own divinity.

Maybe he does. But surely some on his military staff are informed realists. Surely they know that a single nuclear-armed submarine, hiding off Korea’s coast, could obliterate all of North Korea’s cities and most of its population in fifteen minutes. Surely they must know that very smart weapons accurate enough to take out a single Taliban hideout will be seeking Kim and each of them personally if war starts.

If not, we should find some way to inform them, diplomatically of course. Maybe we should send them a documentary of the destruction of Hiroshima, from the records of its Peace Museum, together with video of the 50 megaton thermonuclear blasts over Bikini in the 1950s. Then maybe we should explain that those bigger bombs have over 3,000 times the power of the one that leveled Hiroshima. Finally, we might explain how our nuclear submarines can hide quietly in the ocean, escaping detection even by the Soviets, whose technology was and is decades ahead of North Korea’s.

But we must contend with Lord Acton’s truth. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Maybe it corrupts reason, too. Maybe Kim and his staff, and not the ivory-tower Ayatollahs, are the really crazy ones.

That’s possible. Anything is possible in North Korea’s pathological society, in which people cured of cataracts (for free!) by an altruistic Western-trained doctor tearfully and abjectly thanked Kim’s father, not the doctor, for their restored sight.

But far more likely is what seems obvious to outsiders. Kim is conjuring up an external threat to cow his own people (perhaps including some of the flying saucers in that cloud), strengthen his tenuous grip on power, and suppress any thought of rebellion. He also wants to test whether he can continue to extort rice, oil and patience from the outside world, including his annoyed patron China. But even if this is so, it’s hard to discount the possibility of miscalculation and escalation on the part of such an isolated and pathological leader, a mere boy striding like a man on the world stage, with a nuclear weapon clenched in each untested fist.

Korea’s Macho Culture

Here’s where emotional intelligence matters. Korean culture is the most authoritarian, paternalistic and macho that I have ever experienced. In order to attract Western business, South Korea’s law firms take the form of partnerships, But in fact they are not partnerships at all. They are all one-man shows, with a single boss lawyer and the rest his employees. As soon as a leading employee can, he splits off and starts his own one-man show. (Nearly all of South Korea’s lawyers are men.)

A few years ago, Korean Air had the worst safety record of any developed country’s airline industry. When consultants looked into it, they quickly found the reason. The pilot was King of the Cockpit. Usually a graduate of the Korean military, he was even more authoritarian and paternalistic than the norm for Korean men. This stern authority figure so cowed the copilot and engineer that they quailed even to mention lapses in proper procedure and other dangerous conditions they observed. It took well over a year of intensive training in teamwork to bring Korean Air’s accident ratio down to international norms.

A third example of Korean cultural intransigence I know from personal involvement (as a consultant). Two Korean vendors in the US made and sold little souvenirs to the tourist trade. One sued the other for copyright infringement, on a disputed, esoteric and unclear point of copyright law. Rather than concede or settle, one mortgaged his house to continue the legal battle. And these men were from the South, not the North.

You might think of “saving face” as a part of Chinese culture. But the Chinese have nothing on Koreans in that regard. If we push the boy tyrant into a corner, he may act like a cornered rat with nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones that could turn Seoul into a living Hell in mere hours.

That possibility no one can discount. Nor can anyone estimate it with anything approaching precision. That’s what makes the teenage mutant tyrant so hard to crack. He may be feigning craziness in a rational but cynical plan to continue his international extortion. Or he may actually be crazy. That’s why emotional intelligence is so important.

The Intelligent Triad

Fortunately, the Korean Peninsula’s fate seems to be in good hands, at least outside the North. All the three leaders facing Kim have every earmark of extraordinary emotional intelligence.

I have already written about our President’s emotional intelligence. I won’t repeat the analysis here. He beat Hillary Clinton at the height her capability and the high water mark of nostalgia for the Clinton Dynasty, right after Dubya’s catastrophic regime. He beat both John McCain and Mitt Romney, two very different candidates, in the latter case despite a still-lagging economy. He did so over the dead body of the greatest propaganda machine in human history (Fox), with mega-financing of superpacs, which our Supreme Court had conveniently (for the GOP) authorized just in time.

He got health insurance reform passed, something that other presidents (including Bill Clinton) had tried and failed for a century to do. Then, when the GOP refused to consider raising taxes to balance the budget, he struck a deal that traded off small cuts in entitlements for huge reductions in our bloated military. It’s called the “Sequester,” and the right wing didn’t even see it coming.

Just recently, he got Israel to apologize to Turkey and so to restore relations between the two most rational powers in the Middle East. Call him a “socialist” or “Nazi” if you like (throwing accuracy out the window), or both in the same breath, as many do. But if you are honest and read the news, you have to acknowledge him as one of the greatest political strategists in our history, comparable to Lincoln.

Here his race actually helps him. What “black” man in still-racist America hasn’t had to use emotional jujitsu just to get someone to listen—really listen—to his good ideas? When President Obama comes up against Kim’s and his minions’ arrogance, “face” and machismo, he will have done that drill thousands of times before.

Next is Xi Jinping. We don’t know that much about him. But two things we do know suggest that he, too, is a master of emotional intelligence. Well before he took the top job in China, he said the following:
“Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us . . . First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”
As the first sentence suggests, that remark came of out exasperation with Western criticism. If you compare China today with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union, or even “Red” China during its revolutionary phase, his words ring true.

But even if you don’t believe them, weren’t they just the right thing to say to ease anxiety, give reassurance, and avoid a tone of belligerence? Xi was self-evidently exasperated, but he soothed instead of arousing or offending his audience. Maybe that remark was his “tear down this wall” moment, even before he took the top job.

The second important thing about Xi we know only from circumstantial evidence. Just before he took the top job, the dispute between China and Japan over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands was growing hot. Chinese mobs were surrounding and ransacking Japanese car dealerships in big cities, apparently with official permission, or at least acquiescence. In response and in protest, Japanese mobs were forming in Japan.

Unfettered nationalism and a horrible history were beginning to raise their ugly heads in both countries, threatening a war between the world’s second and third largest economies, one nuclear-armed and the other nuclear-protected by us. So-called diplomats were using blunt and even harsh language. In short, things began to look pretty grim.

As soon as Xi took firm hold of the reins of government, all this stopped as if he had flicked some powerful switch. Maybe nationalist elements, like the People’s Liberation Army, had incited the Chinese mobs. Maybe Bo Xilai, a notorious nationalist, had been responsible, and that’s why he was so quickly sacked. (The Party can tolerate a lot of corruption, but not suicidal policies that would destroy the social and political stability for which it has struggled for over half a century.)

But whatever the reason, it’s hard to see the timing as a coincidence. It remains to be seen how quickly and well China and Japan can resolve their dispute over the Islands and neighboring energy and mineral resources. But the result so far is consistent with a top Chinese leader of strong emotional intelligence, who actually lives the remark he made so famously before assuming the top job.

The third point of the triad is South Korea’s new female leader, President Park Geun-hye. We don’t know a lot about her either. But her personal history is indicative. Her father was Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s longest-ruling strong man. He seized power in a coup in 1961. He remained in power until assassinated in 1979—nearly two decades later. His wife, the new president’s mother, had been killed in an assassination attempt five years earlier.

This history suggests that Korea’s new president is fully familiar with Korea’s authoritarian and paternalistic culture. She knows its risks and discontents from painful personal experience. Her response is self-evident from her choice of policy in dealing with the North, at least before the present crisis. She advocates “trustpolitik”—a new regime of détente, trust-building and eventual cooperation, and a stark contrast with the confrontational policies of her predecessor Lee Myung-bak.

Conclusion

Park will supply the softness and the carrots. She will be the “good cop.” Obama and Xi will supply the realism and the sticks. They will be the “bad cops.” (Only Xi will have real leverage over Kim, since China supplies most of North Korea’s oil and much of its rice.) All have every reason, in both their personal and professional histories, to treat Kim’s and his minions’ machismo and face-saving with the sensitivity and finesse that they require.

At the end of the day, this crisis is not primarily a military one. Nor is it a policy problem to be solved analytically. It should be amply clear to the dimmest wit that there is only one pleasant way out for North Korea: slow, careful and steady abandonment of its isolation and Spartan character, and reintegration with the rest of the human race, beginning with the South.

The North can remain a separation nation, aligned more closely to China than to the West. But much like the old Soviet Union, it has to become a normal country again.

Now that the Cold War is long over and China is capitalist in all but name, the models here should be East Germany and German reunification. Sparta cannot win when the other 99.6% of humanity is Athens.

So the problem is not the goal, which is obvious. The problem is how to get there, and how to convince Kim and whoever else holds real power to start down that road. Emotional, not just analytical, intelligence will be the workhorse.

While it is working, it will be hard to read the news. The most important achievements will occur in secrecy, or at least privacy, in closed rooms. There may be public bluster, threats, posturing and even frightening military action. Our military’s readiness, capability, and restraint will all be vital, and equally important. But the most important thing will be the hidden chess game of diplomacy, plus whatever personal relationships the triad can establish with their counterparts in North Korea.

For that game, you couldn’t ask for a better team than Obama, Xi and Park. Let’s just hope that each of them will give the crisis the sober and sustained personal attention that it deserves. That might be just what Kim, with all his unpredictable tantrums, is really after.

Footnote 1: Actually, President Kennedy and General Secretary Khrushchev were not our only saviors. Even before they made their species-saving deal, a Soviet submarine flotilla commander named Vasiliy Alexandrovich Arkhipov had refused to let Soviet nuclear torpedoes fly. His courage and good, human judgment—under appalling conditions of extreme heat, depth-charge bombardment, and no word from Moscow—also saved our world.

Footnote 2: Kim Jong Un is actually somewhere between 27 and 30 years old. (Our newspapers don’t seem to know his age for certain, a fact that reflects North Korea’s extreme isolation.) But I think the phrase “teenage mutant tyrant” describes his probable impact rather well. Although not numerically accurate, “teenage” conveys his youth and inexperience. “Mutant” reflects his hereditary succession from two similarly bizarre tyrants and the so-far-vain hope that he might be different. “Tyrant” needs no explanation.

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