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

27 September 2013

Selfishness is Not a Plan


[For a brief addendum on the GOP’s reason for shutting down government or causing a first-ever fiscal default, click here.]

Introduction: Ideology, Facts, and Consequences
Food-Stamp Folly
Stiffing our Youth
Conclusion
Update

Introduction: Ideology, Facts, and Consequences

We humans are strange creatures. Most of us have little experience in abstract thought. So we’re not very good at it. Yet we try to practice it nevertheless. Often we do so in the fields that most affect our future welfare, happiness and prosperity: politics, policy and how we get on together.

In most cases, we don’t tie our abstract thought down to real life. We leave it floating at both ends. We don’t base our abstract opinions on facts, and we don’t explore the consequences of applying them to real life. So our views on how we should manage our life together, as a society, float in space like limp pieces of string, untethered to reality at either end—their origin or their effect.

Facts and consequences. These are the contact points of any theory with reality. They are the “experiments” that validate, or invalidate, any scientific theory. Ideology is no different; it’s just another theory applied to politics.

When we Yanks neglect these endpoints, as most of our pols do, we get no working pragmatism, but a toxic brew of wishful thinking, fantasy, theology and self-delusion. For a people who began our collective existence with the enlightened pragmatism of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, that’s a sorry turn.

A case in point is the right wing’s current obsession with the deficit and “entitlements.”

Nearly all competent economists—especially the most distinguished and smartest—think our deficit is a long-term problem. The same is true of our chief “entitlement,” Social Security.

The latest published projection of the Social Security Trustees estimates that the Social Security Trust Fund (excess of income over expenses) will become depleted in 2033. [search for “depletion of total”] That’s the same as last year’s projection, without accounting for our very slowly recovering economy. In any event, it’s twenty years away. (Medicare’s trust fund is projected to last only until 2026, but health-care cost increases are dropping so quickly as to make that projection meaningless. Unlike health-care costs, Social-Security costs, which depend only on promised benefits and demographics, are predictable.)

The thing is, we have ten other grave national problems. They are much more threatening to our future welfare than the deficit, which is resolving before our eyes, as our economy slowly pulls out of stagnation. And they have festered now, on the average, for over nineteen years. (I wrote my post on the subject almost two years ago, and the average was 17.5 years then.)

So why should we, as a nation, obsess about a problem that won’t become real for another generation, when we have so many unresolved problems right now, which have already festered for about the same amount of time?

Why, indeed. You can get a good idea of our motivation from slogans. It may surprise you that the slogan “It’s your money!” long predates Dubya. In fact, it came out of the mouth of Ronald Reagan, in 1981.

What does it mean? It signifies a series of political campaigns, and a political ideology, based on selfishness. The notion is simple: the taxes you pay are your money, and you can best decide how to spend it. At least you can better spend it on yourself than on government.

That simple notion became part of the GOP’s ideology with Reagan. Funny how, in the intervening 32 years, most of our long-festering problems either started or got worse. They include: foreign oil dependence (getting better now with domestic fracking), infrastructure decay (still unresolved), economic inequality (getting much worse), finance going rogue (still in doubt), public education decaying (still a big problem), the decline of American science (ongoing), endless wars (maybe ending?), immigration (still in doubt), broken government (worse than ever), and global warming (accelerating).

Not all these problems are curable with money alone. But money certainty won’t hurt any of them. And some of them, including foreign oil dependence, economic inequality, finance going rogue, and endless wars, made our money problems worse. They might easily do so again.

But I digress. The subject is selfishness. It would be hard to find a clearer indication of that motivation than the consistent GOP mantra of 32 years, “It’s your money!”

That’s what passes for the “factual” tether for that part of GOP political ideology. It’s certainly not a fact. But it taps into a deep well of human emotion, unfortunately not from the better angels of our nature.

The facts suggest that financing for Medicare and Social Security are good for now but need long-term tweaking. The facts also suggest that we have a lot more serious problems, which have festered already for some time.

Now let’s look at consequences. What are the consequences of the ideology of selfishness that the GOP has peddled, with all the power of Madison Avenue and modern public relations, for a generation and a half?

There are far too many even to mention, let alone analyze, in a short essay. So I’ll just focus on two: (1) feeding the destitute and (2) higher education.

Food-Stamp Folly

If there’s any single book that young people ought to read to appreciate the cataclysmic recent changes in our national personality, it’s Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression. This marvelous easy-reading book is available on Kindle for less than ten bucks. In it, readers will find stories of how past economic agony affected real people, not through dry statistics, but from the mouths of the people who suffered.

They will learn two undeniable facts. First, in those days we were a generous and compassionate people. Our farmers left sandwiches on windowsills for unemployed migrants to eat. (Now we call those migrants “freeloaders” or “takers.”) The same farmers who handed out sandwiches were losing their own livelihoods, due to the collapse of farm-commodity prices. Many were even losing their farms and homes to foreclosure—losses that some resisted by organizing.

Everyone had so little, but all shared what they had. That was America some eighty years ago.

Second, government came to the rescue of ordinary, destitute people. FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) gave millions of people (mostly young men) honest pay for honest work. If you visit our national parks today, you’ll find plaques recalling their labor and monuments to it: roads, bridges, buildings, dams, aqueducts, flood-control measures, and other improvements in the land.

The work these men did was mostly hard manual labor. It was tough but it was healthy: working in the outdoors, in clean, fresh air. It built some of the infrastructure of this nation, including the gems in our crown, our national parks. We saved these workers and their families from destitution and built our nation, in ways we still can see.

Now fast-forward to today. We have just experienced the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. (I would like to say we have come through it, but we’re not quite out of the woods yet.) Have we Yanks cooperated and helped each other out of it, as we did in the Great Depression? Hell, no.

Our stimulus was miserly, a pittance compared to what we invested in the Great Depression (relative to GDP). The vast majority of it went to tax relief and private welfare, such as insulation for individual homes. Less than 17% went for infrastructure improvements that benefit all of us, like those the CCC and WPA made almost a century ago.

Because we were so stingy with our stimulus, a lot of people ended up out of work for a lot longer than they otherwise would have. Many, if not most, of them ended up using food stamps so they could eat. Every reputable, let alone quantitative, analysis of the explosion of food-stamp usage since 2008 attributes it to that cause: people losing jobs. Shirking may have occurred, but it was quantitatively negligible. (Right wingers love to quote anecdotes of rare individual abuse because the numbers are all against them.)

So what does the GOP House try to do? It tries to cut food stamps by forty billion dollars, or five percent, just at the time when people most need them.

Five percent may not sound like much. But out of 47 million current food-stamp recipients, that’s more than 2.3 million people. Should we let them starve?

Think about that. In eight decades plus, we have gone from putting sandwiches on our window sills to feed the unfortunate, and paying with our taxes to put them to work for our common benefit, to refusing to give them either work or food when broken markets won’t.

And what’s our primary motivation for this neglect? Keeping our own money.

The factual theory underlying this selfishness is that all those destitute people are shirkers and freeloaders. Yet every solid investigation shows the vast majority are looking for work and have been for a long time. So much for facts.

As for consequences, need you ask? If you live in a city, and if you don’t try hard to avoid seeing them, you will find homeless and destitute people in your streets. Some cities try to keep them out of sight in jails or shelters. Others, it appears, deport them. San Francisco and Los Angeles are investigating whether a mental hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, dumped its homeless mental patients on them. Stalin, who deported millions for purposes of ethnic cleansing, would be proud of that.

So the next time you step over a homeless beggar in your city streets, or fear to go down by the river where the hoboes have their fires, thank the Tea Party, if its exercise in selfishness succeeds.

Stiffing our Youth

The second sour fruit of our selfishness is much less visible than homeless beggars. But in the long run, it’s much more important. It’s what we are doing to our college students and to our system of higher education.

In the 1960s, I went to college at the nation’s most prestigious public university, the University of California, Berkeley. I paid no tuition, none whatsoever. I paid only a so-called “incidental fee,” one hundred dollars per semester. The state and federal governments subsidized my education as an investment in my and our nation’s future.

To support myself, I had scholarships based on merit. But after my first year, I also worked.

The University employed me. First I installed towel racks in dormitories. Then I helped teaching assistants grade papers. Finally, I helped a physics professor, whose first language was not English, edit his superb book on thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.

All this work was useful. But for me and for society, the important thing was that I got paid. I could concentrate on my studies and be confident in my future, untroubled by ever-mounting debt.

Fast forward to today. There is tuition at Berkeley. Along with other fees, it amounts to $7,611 per year for state residents and $19,050 for nonresidents. For a four-year college education, that’s $30,444 for residents and $76,200 for nonresidents. For me in the 1960s, my total tuition, aka “incidental fees,” added up to $800 for four years.

Those sums don’t (and didn’t) include room, board, books and incidentals. Adding in those living costs brings the price of an education at a first-class public university today up to a small fortune. At a private university it’s a medium-sized one, well over $120,000.

No wonder the average college student today emerges with his or her degree burdened by debt of $26,000.

When I graduated from Berkeley in 1966, I had no debt and money in the bank. Not only that, when I graduated from UC San Diego with a Ph.D. in physics, aided by merit-based fellowship and a working research assistantship, I also had no debt and money in the bank.

I was not alone. That was the norm for students of my day.

Who was responsible for the change? For California, which led the nation downhill, I know, because I was there. I lived there until well into adulthood. That selfsame Ronald Reagan made the change, not out of any brilliant economic insight, but because he saw the University and its intellectuals and students as inimical to his right-wing views. Only later, in retrospect, did he justify gutting the University of California (and a lot of other things) with the slogan, “It’s your money.” Like lemmings, the nation followed.

These are the facts relating to higher education. What are the consequences? There are many, all bad.

First of all, the financial pressure of enormous debt destroys the educational experience and what is left of the delights of youth. College should be (and once was) a time of searching and experimentation, in which young people discover themselves, their interests, aptitudes and talents. Many make lifelong friends and find lovers or spouses. It’s a time when our society, with parental care, tolerance, and lots of freedom, once turned adolescents lovingly into adults.

That nurturing experience made us the world’s most creative and innovative society. But no more.

The menace of mounting and crushing debt has changed all that. Now students must think of money, and little else, as they choose their majors, pick their courses, and select their careers and life paths. What was once a brief interlude of exploration, discovery (of self and world) and experimentation has become a pressured exercise in risk-averse financial strategizing.

If you want to know why we have a surplus of lawyers, investment bankers and specialists in public relations, political consulting and lobbying, and a dearth of scientists, engineers, deep thinkers, and risk takers, you need look no further than that. (Medicine is one of our few remaining bright spots; its high salaries still attract talented people despite the crushing debt of medical school.)

I have written a long essay analogizing the current conditions of our college students to the indentured servitude by which ordinary people came to our shores in Colonial times. I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that we are reverting to a system from the 1700s, after trying a system of free, universal subsidized education in the last two centuries, which made us the world’s most successful nation. That’s hardly progress. It’s backsliding.

A colleague who teaches molecular biology at a leading public university reports that all of his best Ph.D. students, for the last decade or so, have been Chinese. This is just one anecdote, but you hear the same story from all over American academia. In serious courses of study in science, engineering and technology, Chinese and Indian students dominate. Students born in America are a small minority, if not absent entirely.

Some of these foreign students stay here after graduation. But many of them don’t. And as their home countries improve in standard of living and social organization, more and more will take their native talent and our expensive education and go back home. There they will invent the next breakthrough in health care and medical devices. So some day you (or your children) may have to travel to Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi or Mumbai to get the world’s best health care.

And why are Chinese and Indians investing in higher education when we won’t? It’s not just their greater populations. It’s also the fact that they value higher education, individually and collectively, more than we do. No Chinese or Indian would ever write an article, like the vapid nonsense in our press during the last year, “explaining” why higher education is not a good “investment.” They know the open secret of our national success even if we have forgotten it, and they buy it at any price.

Not only do we burden college students with enormous debt. When they worry so much they take food stamps (for which many are eligible) to reduce their debt, we threaten to cut those, too.

If you are a college student today, you might think, without a trace of paranoia, that the society around you is out to make you poor. Making higher education an exercise in poverty and risk-aversion is not an effective educational strategy.

And why have we done that? Just to keep more of our own money. For over thirty years, individual selfishness has replaced rational national educational and industrial policy. And, so far, it shows little sign of abating.

Conclusion

No people has a lock on history, however “exceptional” it may think itself. We are not a chosen people, any more than the beleaguered people of Fortress Israel. Our destiny is no more manifest than that of any other people on this planet.

We have succeeded so far because our leaders have been smarter and more foresighted than others’. We have done well because we thought clearly and planned well.

All that is changing now. We “plan,” if at all, only for the short term. We no longer invest for the long term, whether in our youth, in industrial policy, or in our infrastructure. We are penny wise and pound foolish.

These are facts, plain to see. The consequences are just as plain. If we continue on our present path, we will decline, and others will rise. China and Germany already are, and other nations are jostling in the queue behind them.

Our planet has no dearth of wisdom and talent. It’s a competitive world out there, in which people and capital can move freely, almost everywhere. If we want to succeed in the intense globalized competition that we helped create, we must think and plan better. Selfishness is not a strategy; it’s a vice.

Footnote: Reagan’s success in politics, and its ultimate cost, illustrates what I modestly call “Dratler’s law of brains and politics.” People with high emotional intelligence and low analytical intelligence make poor leaders.

Reagan rightly saw that an appeal to people’s selfishness would make him president and keep him there as long as our law allows. What he didn’t foresee (or didn’t care much about) was the consequences, which are still with us today. His strategy was effective emotional manipulation but ultimately not good for us.

Although I wouldn’t liken Reagan to Hitler and Stalin, they all did similar things. The salient difference is that the base emotions the tyrants exploited were worse than selfishness, namely, fear and hate. And once they gained power, they stayed there until removed by death. Their method was murdering anyone who objected.

That’s not so easy in a democracy. But there emotional manipulation can live on long after a leader, as it did in Reagan’s case. We may have as much as another decade to go before “It’s our money!” yields to “We’d better start planning again.” If we wait much longer, we can put a banana on our flag.

Update. After having worked on this essay for several days, I was pleased to find indirect confirmation on PBS last evening. A feature by Paul Solman, PBS’ economics correspondent, explored the growing custom of unpaid internships for students (and other people seeking paid work), and what they are doing about it.

Now current and recent students have three strikes against them: (1) crushing debt for their education, (2) proposed cuts in food stamps, and (3) the notion that they ought to work without pay for a while just to “earn their spurs.” It all makes you wonder why so few youth register and vote, let alone organize. If they were a racial or ethnic group, the Justice Department would be suing for civil rights violations. Maybe they can claim age discrimination, although the relevant statute was adopted to cut bias against old people like me.

Unlike other oppressed groups, youth grow out of it. But this generation’s youth will be stunted, economically and maybe educationally, when they do. The “generational theft” that the right wing constantly conjures up is not the deficit: it’s making youth pay for people my age by denying them the same opportunities and advantages I had. Fox and other propagandists are so effective that many of them even think this real theft is a good idea.

No parents worthy of the name would do this to their own children. Isn’t it the same sin to do it to someone else’s children? And isn’t it a sin against society and our collective future to hobble the people who will make it when they are most vulnerable and just starting out? The only force dark enough to make us sin so much is love for our own money. Scrooge and Silas Marner would be pleased.

Addendum: The Party of “No” Goes Garden Trampling

An old Russian joke explains why Russia is still a poor country, enjoying little global respect, while Britain (with a much smaller population) enjoys widespread respect. In Britain, if Jones grows a beautiful garden, his neighbor Smith will work late at night and on weekends to grow an even more beautiful one. In Russia, if Ivan grows a beautiful garden, his neighbor Boris will come out late at night and trample Ivan’s.

Now we have the spectacle of Republicans acting just like Boris in this joke. Having torpedoed universally desired immigration reform, they have no positive plan for national renewal whatsoever. They don’t even have a plan to reduce the deficit and rationalize the Sequester—a drum they’ve been banging in the last three electoral campaigns.

Instead, what is their plan? It’s to destroy the President’s signature electoral achievement, modest and incremental health-insurance reform. Like Boris, they’ve tried 41 times to trample it, by repealing, defunding or delaying it.

If the GOP were really confident that so-called “Obamacare” is that horrible, what would it do? Would it try to gut it before it goes into effect, while the public is still confused about it? Or would it wait until the reform fails miserably, blame the whole thing on the Democrats, and score big political points?

No, the GOP is doing with Obamacare precisely what the coal industry’s PR hacks tried to do about wind and solar power. Both the GOP and the coal barons know full well that health-insurance reform and renewably energy, respectively, are the future of this country’s health and energy systems. They are terrified that all their bad-mouthing so far will soon prove demonstrably false. (A new post on this point for energy is coming here soon.)

So what do they do? They grow desperate. In just a few days, people who don’t have health insurance (and whose state governors haven’t also elevated bad-mouthing above their constituents’ interests) will access exchange markets on line and discover that insurance policies explained in plain language are available at subsidized and reasonable prices. Slowly but surely they will come to know the GOP’s anti-reform propaganda for what it is: careless, thoughtless and baseless lies—a combination of absolute mendacity and a political hail-Mary pass, destined to fall far out of bounds.

That’s why the GOP is eager to do anything and everything to kill reform before it takes effect. Not only is it willing to shut down the government—which is a long-time goal anyway. It is even flirting with causing a national default, for the first time in history, with potentially catastrophic consequences for all Americans.

As you evaluate the GOP’s antics, action and political theater, you should ask yourself two questions. First, is this a positive program or part of the GOP’s relentless stream of negativity? [search for “uplifting”] Second, what would you think of an individual who spent all her energy trying to tear down someone else’s achievements, rather than achieving anything positive on her own? Should you think any better of a whole political party, or a strong wing of it, that acts the same way?

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20 September 2013

Lloyd Blankfein, Bashar Al-Assad, and the Pope


[For an update on psychopaths in Congress, click here.]

Introduction
Blankfein
Assad
The Pope
Conclusion

Introduction

What does Lloyd Blankfein have in common with Bashar Al-Assad? And how do both differ from Pope Francis? If we can answer those two questions and use the answers to pick better leaders, we can make this century a whole lot better than the last.

To me, Blankfein and Assad are both psychopaths. They are highly educated and brilliant, but psychopaths nevertheless.

The word “psychopath” is not a generalized insult, like “soundrel” or “bastard.” It has a very special meaning. Psychologists tell us that psychopaths differ from the rest of us in a number of specific ways. But two stand out, and most of the rest follow from these two.

First, psychopaths lack empathy. They just don’t know how to put themselves in other people’s shoes. And even if they know how, they don’t use that knowledge in planning and executing their actions. Whether their lack or nonuse of empathy is genetic or learned science doesn’t yet know.

Second, psychopaths have a limited or non-existent sense of moral responsibility. They have ways of convincing themselves and others that anything bad that happens is the fault of others, not them. A good example is bankers blaming the government for their buying, packaging and selling liars’ loans.

The better educated and more intelligent psychopaths are, the more plausible their rationalizations and finger-pointing. That’s why intelligence (both analytical and emotional) is positively, not negatively, correlated with psychopathy. The smarter a psychopath is, the more easily he can convince himself and others that he is not to blame. And the more easily he can use weapons of financial or actual mass destruction without a pang of conscience.

With this background, let’s take a brief look at Blankfein and Assad and see how well each fits this mold.

Blankfein

Blankfein, you may recall, has been chairman and CEO of the investment bank Goldman Sachs since 2006, two years before the Crash. He was and is the big boss.

According to investigative reporter Matt Taibbi, Goldman Sachs was the bank that pulled the trigger on the Crash of 2008. It did so by making insistent collateral calls on the insurance giant AIG. That started the dominoes falling, or what I call the stampede by financial professionals.

When all the dust had settled, several million people were out of work, several million had their homes “under water” or in foreclosure, real estate values had plummeted between 20% and 30% nationwide, and the federal government was out several trillion dollars. Blankfein surveyed this financial mass destruction, and his own bank’s profits, and declared that he and his bank had been “doing God’s work.”

Would you say that statement lacked empathy?

Now let’s look at moral responsibility. When the SEC sued Goldman Sachs, its complaint was very simple. Goldman, it alleged, had sold packages of mortgage-backed securities to an investor without telling him that a consultant had designed the packages to go south.

Not only that. As became known later, most of the banks that sold these securities to investors knew they were garbage. The lenders that had made the liar’s loans underlying the packages had massively violated not just their own credit standards, but the standards for income and assets that had prevailed in the mortgage industry for decades.

The chance that Goldman, with fingers and contacts in every corner of high finance, didn’t also know this is minuscule. The chance that Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman and a brilliant man, also didn’t know is even more minuscule. It was his business to know things like that, and no one has ever accused him of being slow, stupid or negligent in knowing the things he needs to know to make money. That’s why Goldman made money throughout the Great Recession, and why Blankfein is still CEO.

So what did Goldman do? It settled the SEC’s suit for $550 million. But it did so upon one important condition. It did not admit (or deny) any guilt or fault.

CEO Goldman and his board, in effect, made the following public statement:
“We are paying over half a billion dollars for something, but we won’t say what it is. We did nothing wrong. We didn’t even make any mistakes. All we made was money, although we may have left the global economy in shambles.”
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a lot like the second prong of psychopathy.

Unfortunately, in this case the SEC was an accomplice to psychopathy. It didn’t have to settle, let alone on those terms. It had a strong case.

Our new SEC Chief, Mary Jo White, has a better idea. Although she had to recuse herself from the current case against J.P. Morgan Chase, she established a principle that rogue banks like Goldman and Chase have both to pay and to admit fault. Her SEC is not going to indulge psychopaths’ self- and public delusions. Score one for human civilization.

Assad

Now let’s turn to Assad and see how he compares. The fields of action are quite different: finance and war. The misery is (mostly) different, too: financial suffering, stress and poverty versus blood, gore and rotting corpses. But they do overlap a bit in the occasional suicides and murders that financial misery motivates.

What about empathy? To see that trait (or its absence) in Assad, all you have to do is watch his extraordinary one-hour interview by Charlie Rose.

Again and again, Rose reminds Assad what a charnel house Syria has become and how universal is the suffering. Again and again, Assad gives a Gallic shrug, or waves his hand, saying words to the effect of “war is like that.”

Really???!!! Let’s extrapolate. Syria’s population is less than 23 million. [Click on “People and Society”] Ours is over 307 million. If we Yanks suffered proportionate misery, we would have 1.33 million dead. That’s more than we have lost in any war in our nation’s history, including our bloodiest, our own Civil War. In fact, it’s more people than we have lost in World War II and all the wars we have fought since, put together.

And what about the seven million Syrians displaced, either internally or abroad? If we Yanks suffered proportionate misery, 93 million of us would be living from hand to mouth in unfamiliar and squalid temporary homes. The only things that could actually do that to us might be a nuclear world war, a great plague like those of the Middle Ages, or a sudden and massive climate cataclysm that raised the sea level by several meters and inundated all our coastal communities.

Sitting safe in his opulent palace, with his pretorian guard and his bunkers at the ready, Assad waves his hand as if all this suffering were routine and normal “collateral damage” of war. Empathy? I think not.

Now lets look at moral responsibility. Assad represents a tiny 12% of Syrians, the Alawites. Yet again and again in his interview, he insisted that the whole Syrian nation and its people are behind him.

What evidence did he adduce for this extraordinary claim? The fact that the war already has lasted 2.5 years. In his view, he and his 12% minority couldn’t have held out this long without the Syrian people’s support.

Really???!!! Assad’s regime has all the air power and heavy weapons. As he has now finally admitted (in an attempt to avoid military sanctions), he has chemical weapons, too, and no compunction against using them. Assad also has the financial and military backing of one of the world’s great powers (Russia) and one of the three most powerful countries in the Middle East (Iran).

The rebels have none of these. Until Assad began using brutal force to put down their peaceful go at their own Arab Spring, they were ordinary people, with little or no military training. And just like people everywhere, they took time to make up their minds about the civil war, and to grow to hate Assad and his butchery. His slaughter just helped them make up their minds quicker, whether to flee or fight. The vast majority fled.

On the field of battle, numbers meant—and mean—nothing in the face of Assad’s modern means of industrial-scale slaughter. Even now, the jihadis are making larger dents in Assad’s juggernaut than the other rebels simply because the vast majority of Syria’s people, and hence its rebels, are not fighters. If Assad had given just a few inches, they would still be baking bread, fixing cars, and curing sick people in hospitals.

So who is responsible for the butchery? Syria’s ordinary people, who just wanted a bit more say in their governance and were met with bullets, bombs, mortars, artillery and now poison gas? Or Assad, whose response to legitimate protest was brute force?

Minority sectarian or ethnic rule is inherently unstable. It’s even more so when the majority begins to assert its interest and rights and the ruling minority responds with savagery. That’s what the British wisely recognized in India, and why they gave it up. That what the whites wisely recognized in South Africa, and why they exploited Mandela’s extraordinary wisdom and talent to switch peacefully to majority rule.

This central truth is what Assad just can’t see. As the toll of death and suffering rises to world-historical records, he’s still no closer to his apparent goal. If he wins, he will rule as undisputed tyrant over a land of tombs and rubble.

So who’s at fault? Do you have to ask?

The Pope

Before we fall into a good despond, let’s quickly compare Pope Francis.

Blankfein is a top banker in a free country, with a tradition and a recent propensity to let bankers do what they want. And if Blankfein can’t do what he wants now, he has the lobbyists and lawyers, and his firm has the campaign money, to get lawmakers to let him do what he wants later. Assad can do (and does) what he wants by definition. He’s a dictator.

The Pope has no such free hand. The Catholic Church today is probably one of the least flexible institutions on Earth. It has a rigid hierarchy of leaders who measure their promotion time in decades. And it has two millennia of carefully debated and recorded doctrine. (If you think the Internal Revenue Code is complex, imagine two millennia of Church doctrine stored in the Vatican, much of it in Latin and Greek.) Apart from the world’s various armies and maybe North Korean civil society, no other human institution is so circumscribed.

Yet in his humility, empathy, and wisdom, Pope Francis sees that something is wrong. He sees things in that two-millennial tradition that need to change.

And so, in his responsibility, he tries to change them. He invites gays into his Church and invites his Church to become more welcoming to them. He seeks to downplay the vicious dispute over abortion, which has made good people do horrible things, like murder doctors. And as a great thinker, the Pope is no doubt aware of how pols have manipulated the abortion issue to put into political office some of the worst people ever to get there, including Dubya, who started two wars, both unnceessary.

With what does the good Pope hope to replace bigotry and discord? Jesus’ message, the core of the Church’s teaching for the past two millennia.

As a Jew and agnostic, I don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God. I don’t even know what that means.

But, as I’ve analyzed before, I do believe Jesus was one of our species’ best political and social thinkers of all time, probably the best. And if “prophet” means someone who sees much farther and thinks much more clearly than the rest of us, then Jesus was that, too.

Jesus invented bumper stickers two millennia before there were cars to put them on. “Love thy enemy.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Turn the other cheek.” Unlike today’s superficial and snarky stickers, his were so deep they are almost impenetrable.

They are easy to repeat, but hard to understand. Except for the second, they are counterintuitive. They are devilishly hard to follow. But where our species has managed to do so—in the Marshall Plan after World War II, in the freeing of India, in the salvation of South Africa, and in helping our African-Americans reach for justice and social acceptance—we have had astounding success. Where we have failed, as in “resolving” World War I and in Syria, we have made such horrible messes that all humanity hangs its head in shame and sorrow.

So Jesus’ nuggets of advice are not just unattainable moral desiderata. They are practical prescriptions for living well on this Earth.

The dirty little secret of Jesus’ sound advice is that it’s based on our own evolution, both biological and social. Our entire success as a species derives from our ability to empathize, cooperate and take responsibility for our acts.

Next to these traits, our brain size and opposable thumbs are minor. The traits that Jesus emphasized are what let us dominate this planet.

Even Einstein couldn’t run an airline, let alone build a Dreamliner, all by himself. And as we now know, even birds use tools, which, having no opposable thumbs, they hold awkwardly in their beaks. But as far as we know, no other animals feel empathy and can consciously accept responsibility before and to other members of their species.

So psychopaths like Blankfein and Assad lack the two most important attributes that make us human: empathy and responsibility. They elevate the individual drive to survive and dominate, which every animal has, above our uniquely human attributes. They reduce us to the level of other animals, with appalling results to match: financial or actual mass destruction.

Conclusion

For psychopaths like Blankfein and Assad, it’s all about “me.” Like most modern bankers, Blankfein just wants to get rich, by any means that won’t land him in jail. “Shareholder value” is a convenient rationalization.

Didn’t the Texas megapreacher say “Jesus wants you to be rich”? Maybe. But Jesus himself said something different, something about camels and needles. It’s too long to fit on a bumper sticker, but it’s equally memorable.

What did Jesus mean by that parable? Did he think material wealth is a bad thing?

Probably not. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have advised wealthy people to take care of the poor. He would have advised them to hold potlatches and become poor.

What Jesus meant is that he wants us to be good, not rich. If you can get rich by being good, do so. But if you get rich by laying waste the economic landscape, as Blankfein and his ilk have done and may still be doing, that’s not so good. (Jesus also meant to say that, the way society was structured then, as now, it’s not so easy to get rich by doing good. That observation, among many others, showed Jesus’ superb political and social insight.)

As for Assad, there’s little good to say about him, except that his butchery is not (yet) as bad as Hitler’s, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s. You don’t have to do a lot of analysis to condemn him as a psychopath. You just have to look—without flinching!—what at he has made of Syria today, and hear his flimsy justification for his crimes.

There is another path. Pope Francis doesn’t own it, but he is becoming one of its foremost exponents: humility, empathy and responsibility.

There is some irony in the top leader of a Church that fought the idea of evolution tooth and nail touting our chief evolutionary advantages. But we should ignore the irony and accept the leadership. The more we follow leaders like Pope Francis, and the more we reject psychopaths like Blankfein and Assad, the closer to our lost Eden we will get.

Footnote: See Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America, Chapter 3, Hot Potato, The Great American Mortgage Scam (2010, available in electronic form on Kindle). Unfortunately, you have to read most of the last half of this rather long chapter to get the big picture of how Goldman’s own acts triggered the collapse of our American and the global economy. Not only did Goldman buy massive collateral default swaps from a firm—AIG—that it knew or should have known didn’t have the capital to back them up. But as the light began to dawn on the whole band of swindlers and thieves, it was Goldman’s insistent and loud demands for collateral from AIG that caused the government to bail AIG out (lest it go under and drag innumerable insureds and retirees with it) and the Crash to begin.

As CEO of Goldman, Blankfein was literally in the room where all this happened. Observers also in the room described his attitude and acts as hyper aggressive and implied they were unreasonable.

It is possible to see Blankfein as the one who saw earliest how serious the coming catastrophe was to be. But if Taibbi’s reporting is right, he did his best to save his firm, while knowing that doing so would precipitate, if not provoke, a national and global crisis with no end in sight. Rational self-preservation? Maybe. Empathetic or responsible? Definitely not.

Update: Psychopaths in Congress

While on the subject of psychopaths, what can we say about Ted Cruz and the Tea Mob?

For the nth time, the Tea Mob is playing with fire—risking shutting down our government or throwing our nation into default. (Cruz is a latecomer.) If you think the Crash of 2008 was bad, just wait. What caused the Crash was the risk of default of just a few big banks and AIG. What do you think will happen in the event of the actual default of the United States of America, heretofore the world’s safest investment, and the repository of trillions of dollars from all over the globe?

It won’t be the end of the world, at least not quite yet. But it might be the end of the rational financial structure that our nation and our allies have spent the time since the last Great War building. It would almost certainly be the end of our Yankee global economic leadership. And remember that a sea of similar economic troubles helped cause our species’ most horrible war. That’s why we spent so much time and effort trying to rationalize the global economic system after it.

So what is the excuse for this latest extortionate threat of economic Armageddon? Last time, it was ostensibly reducing the deficit, which every economist believes (and then believed) can wait until our weak economy gets stronger. This time, it’s defunding Obamacare.

Forget the fact that we have tried to rationalize our dysfunctional health-insurance system for a century, since Grover Cleveland. Forget the fact that Obamacare is the best compromise we have been able to come up with after a century of trying. Forget the fact that some thirty million people, who have no health insurance, are just about to get the chance get some on reasonable terms and at reasonable prices. Forget the fact that, as I analyzed over three years ago, reps from the states with the highest rates of uninsured people voted against Obamacare and are now trying to sabotage it. Forget the fact that—except for Texas (we’ll get to Cruz!)—those states are our poorest, least-well-educated, least developed and least productive.

Forget the fact that what they are doing is un-American. Until now, our national motto has been “do it, try it, fix it.” Shouldn’t we at least give something that took us a century to enact a try, and then tweak it and make it better, rather than kill it and go back to square one?

If it really is as bad as Fox and the right wing have got large numbers of American dupes to believe, won’t that become self-evident after it goes into effect? And can’t we repeal it then?

The right wing’s dirty little secret is that they actually think it will work rather well, and that Americans will get to like it, just as they now like Social Security and Medicare. So their last-ditch attempt at extortion is not a sign of real confidence in their position. It’s desperation.

Forget all that. Just think about the stock market. We were getting a nice rally, and now we’re about to go into a dive. If we even approach default, let alone see it, we are likely to suffer something that will make the Crash of 2008 look like a walk in the park. At very least, we may see the double-dip recession that we thought we had avoided with our weak stimulus and Ben Bernanke’s Herculean efforts.

Before the Crash, about half of Americans owned stock. Maybe a few percent fewer do now. So the absolutely inevitable stock-market dive will rob the wealth of about half of us. And it will hurt most directly the middle class and owners of small businesses, most of whom have their own retirement plans, built around 401(k)’s. Maybe that’s why the GOP’s business wing is now engaged in a political civil war with Cruz and the Tea Mob.

Those who own stocks directly can cut their losses with stop-loss orders. The more adventurous can pick up their favorite stocks at lower bargain prices later. But you can’t put in stop-loss orders for mutual funds, and many of the best mutual funds have penalties for short-term trading. So a whole lot of wholly innocent people—approaching half of us—are going to lose money because of these cretins.

And so we come to Ted Cruz, the biggest cretin of them all. Watch the look on his face as he threatened to filibuster bills to maintain our fiscal health and international credit, if they don’t also defund Obamacare. [set the timer to 0:28, or just wait] People my age have seen that look before, on the face of another senator who almost destroyed our nation: Joe McCarthy.

It’s the look of a naughty little boy who’s discovered a secret that can get people to look at him, talk about him, and maybe (if they’re really stupid) even vote for him. In Joe’s case it was accusing innocent people, including high-level public servants, of being closet Communists. In Ted’s case, it’s destroying our ability to manage government, and maybe our fiscal health and national credit rating, in order to satisfy people who hate a new law that won’t really affect most of them, and that they don’t really understand. (The Affordable Care Act is complicated; no one denies that.)

To anyone who can judge character, watching Cruz is depressing. Not only is he a grown man—and a physically big one—with the smirk of a little boy who has found a way to make himself notorious by being really bad. He is also willing to torpedo the personal wealth of over a hundred million Americans, plus the global economy, to gather attention. You would think that if he took these things seriously he would wipe that smirk off his face.

Remember the two signs of psychopathy: lack of empathy and lack of moral responsibility. Cruz and the Tea Mob are going to tank the stock market, hit our middle class hard, kill what’s left of our nation’s global economic economic leadership, and maybe throw us and the world back into a recession much more severe than the one we’re now crawling out of.

All for political points. Empathy? I think not.

And when they’re done with their extortion and depredations, they’re going to claim that all the eminently foreseeable economic consequences were the fault of the President and the Democratic Senate, just for wanting to continue implementing a law duly adopted by Congress, which tries to cure a century-old problem of too many people suffering and dying without proper medical care in the richest nation on Earth. And they’re going to claim all this is others’ fault because they simply don’t have the votes to do what they want the right way, by debating Obamacare on its own merits in a separate bill.

Responsibility? You decide.

One thing is certain. Were Pope Francis a legislator, he would never even think of doing anything so rankly and obviously extortionate. It would remind him of the Mafia in the country surrounding the small principality (the Vatican) where he now lives and works.

P.S. A Belated Solution?

Of course there is an easy solution to all of this. When the bill or bills come back from the Senate, stripped of the Obamacare-defunding language, all John Boehner has to do is pass them in the House with both Democratic and Republican votes. It’s a sign of our political dysfunction—and our collective ignorance of history—that pundits wonder now whether this will happen. In the days before the GOP made filibusters routine, and before the Tea Mob made moronic intransigence a loyalty test for membership in the GOP, that was how nearly all important legislation passed, with bipartisan votes.

Now, of course, extremists have changed all that. Boehner may lose his speakership for doing the right thing. (And we deride Egypt!)

We will see whether he is a true American patriot, an economic Neville Chamberlain, another psychopath bent on advancing his own welfare at the expense of the nation’s, or an extortionate cretin like the rest. In the meantime, the uncertainty will drop the stock market, our international standing, and the very notion that the world should follow a neurotic, riven, indecisive nation like ours.

If Boehner were really a patriot, he would announce right now that he plans to pass clean bills with bipartisan support. By so doing he could end the uncertainty and ring down the curtain on this depraved and disastrous political theater. If he doesn’t, people in his relatively wealthy southwest Ohio district should take careful note of the resultant losses in their 401(k)’s and remember well when they vote next year.

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11 September 2013

Our Big Foreign-Policy Blunders, and our New Opportunities


[For brief comment on Vladimir Putin’s op-ed, click here. For brief comment on his op-ed as international precedent, click here. For distinctions among propaganda, argument and fact, click here. For a recent essay on Russia’s responsibilities in Syria, click here. This essay is, in some ways, a continuation.]

Introduction: our blunders
The dark horse
A correction?
Conclusion: opportunity in crisis

Introduction: our blunders

What were our biggest foreign-policy blunders of the last century? There are several candidates, but two stand out. Let’s look at the list.

World War I was one of the most pointless wars in human history. [search in linked source for “not so”] It was an orgy of imperialism and national pride, in which tens of millions of young men died for no plausible reason that anyone can discern in retrospect. Its excesses, including poison gas, are things our species has been backing away from ever since. But we did help our allies France and Britain (and Russia, too, before the Bolshevik Revolution). And the tragic decision to punish the Germans collectively for losing was not ours. Our own president then—another professor, like our current one—argued vehemently against it, to no avail.

The greatest war in history followed, as night the day. And it was one of the few we really had to fight. Hitler and Imperial Japan threatened to roll human civilization and the sweetness of human life back centuries.

Our Korean war may have been costly, but look at South Korea today. Anyone who owns a Korean smart phone or LCD TV, who drives a Hyundai or Kia, or who admires the Korean alphabet, has to be glad we made the sacrifice.

The tragedy of the Korean peninsula’s division is almost entirely the fault of Mao’s China. It wanted a buffer state against Western interference, and it destroyed half of a people to get it. Now China must bear most of the consequences of having a rogue nuclear power right on its border, and the ever-present threat of a plague of impoverished refugees.

This was China’s blunder, not ours. To his credit, its current leader, Xi Jinping, seems tacitly to recognize that fact. The Little Kim’s risky tantrums stopped altogether shortly after Xi consolidated his power over the huge Chinese Empire. Now there is a faint chance of eventual reunification.

Vietnam is high on the list of our own national blunders. Like Robert E. Lee in our Civil War, we fought on the wrong side. We had gotten our start as a nation by breaking away from a colonial power, Britain. Yet when Vietnam sought to break from its old colonial master, France, we blindly supported our European ally, not our ideals. We ended up losing 50,000 Americans for a corrupt, cruel and inept puppet government on the wrong side of history—all because the word “Communism” spooked us. (Korea was entirely different; we fought to preserve a modern state from unprovoked invasion by a puppet of China, which has become one of the most pathological and abjectly miserable political creations on Earth.)

In terms of lives lost and results achieved, Vietnam was probably our single greatest foreign policy disaster. Its symbols were two iconic images: a South Vietnamese general summarily executing a prisoner with a pistol on video, and the last helicopter fleeing our embassy in what was then Saigon, with a long line of disappointed would-be refugees fruitlessly waiting. These images—metaphors for the entire war—make us hang our heads in shame. And they should.

Gulf I may not have been an absolute necessity, but it had some good results. It contained Saddam. It restored Kuwait’s sovereignty and oil fields (after curing Saddam’s deliberate sabotage). It signaled the entire world that we would throw our military might, whenever necessary, into keeping the world’s oil wells open for fair, nondiscriminatory business, and thus keep the global economy running. And by following the Colin Powell’s wise and circumspect advice not to invade Baghdad [search in linked source for “Powell right”], we gave Gulf I the highest results-to-cost ratio of any war in our history. It was also the shortest major war in our history: less than two months.

Dubya’s invading and occupying Iraq (including Baghdad) a decade later was an unmistakable blunder in conception. We didn’t need to topple or kill Saddam. Our “no fly” zone from Gulf I already had contained and neutered him, insofar as concerned international mischief, for over a decade. He had no weapons of mass destruction, so our primary reason for going to war was bogus.

Yet the jury is still out on results. We did get rid of Saddam. We allowed the Iraqi people to deliver his just desserts, albeit crudely. We restored majority rule in Iraq, avoiding the minority-driven ethnic cleansing and partial genocide that is now going on in Syria, or that South Africa might have seen without Nelson Mandela. We introduced free elections into Iraq, plus the new idea of solving solving sectarian discord and inter-factional conflict with electoral campaigns and agreements, rather than bullets and bombs.

There are still plenty of people in Iraq who prefer bombs, most of them foreigners. But Iraq on its worst day is nothing like Syria. Nouri Al-Maliki at his worst has trouble compromising, especially with Sunnis, but he’s nothing like Bashar Al-Assad. How can you tell? Because over 180,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Iraq. They voted with their feet. Nobody in his right mind is fleeing Iraq for Syria.

As in Iraq, our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was an horrendous blunder in conception. We invaded and occupied an entire nation just to stop a few hundred terrorists. We’re now doing much better with proportional, targeted use of force: drones, ninjas and other special operations.

But as in Iraq, the jury is still out on results. Hamid Karzai is corrupt and inept and sometimes cluless, but he’s no Bashar Al-Assad. At his worst, he’s better than the Taliban and the various brutal warlords who cut Afghanistan into pieces before his rule. Under our tutelage, Afghans have studied the benefits of voting, religious tolerance, schooling girls (and boys in real schools, not madrassas!) and joining the modern global economy. After we leave, putting those fire-hose lessons into practice will be up to them.

Should we have gotten into these wars for the reasons we did? Probably not. Were they pointless excises in meaningless slaughter, like World War I or Syria’s Civil War today? Also probably not. We won’t know the long-term results of our costly and bloody efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan until long after I am dead. So we (or at least folks my age) should probably reserve judgment. Good things sometimes come from projects badly conceived and even (as in Iraq) horribly mismanaged.

So was Vietnam our single greatest foreign-policy blunder? Maybe not.

Not all foreign-policy blunders involve war, or at least live, hot war. The Cold War was almost as pointless as World War I. We and the Soviet Russians had no reason to become implacable enemies. We had been allies in World War II and had achieved mutual victory with mutual aid. We live on opposite sides of the globe. We had and have no disputes over boundaries or natural resources. Where we come close to each other, in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the Russians had never even thought of invading. They had sold it to us over a century before and stood by their sale.

Sure, Stalin’s paranoia and Russians’ punch-drunkenness after the costliest war in their history made them afraid, and us afraid in return. But cooler heads and wiser policies eventually prevailed. Our own George Kennan developed the policies of containment and deterrence, which eventually worked without war.

But we shouldn’t pat ourselves alone on the back. In October 1962, we humans came within hours, if not minutes, of species self-extinction. Who averted our species’ untimely end? Three men: Soviet General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, an obscure (until recently) Soviet flotilla commander named Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, and our own President John F. Kennedy.

Arhkipov decided, as the chief of three responsible Soviet officers on the spot, not to unleash nuclear torpedoes on our Atlantic fleet then blockading Cuba. He did so under impossible conditions of heat, fatigue, stress and lack of instructions from Moscow. Khrushchev not only made a deal with Kennedy to avert a nuclear holocaust. Unbeknownst to us (and most Russians), he had revealed, deep in the Soviet Plenum, the horrors and bestiality of Stalin’s rule and Terror. He gave Soviet Russia the very first push out on the long road toward self-healing and revival, with the results we see today. Putin’s Russia is far from an ideal nation, let alone a democracy. But it’s infinitely better than Stalin’s Soviet Russia, both to people inside it and in foreign policy.

So of the three men whose cool and mature judgment saved our species from self-extinction, two were Soviet Russians. We Yanks should never forget that. And we should give the Russians more respect.

Russians are not like us and don’t share all our values. But they live in a much more dangerous neighborhood than we, across which invading armies have been marching for millennia. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, they have mostly been a stabilizing influence in that blood-drenched space. They are a wise and wary people, with much tragedy in their history, and they had the good sense to abandon Communism on their own initiative.

We can deal with them, on Syria and other matters, if we just stop looking down our noses at them. We should never condescend to anyone before standing in their historical shoes. And as the youngest, newest and callowest major power, if also the strongest, we have a lot of history and humility still to learn.

The dark horse

So does this list exhaust our foreign-policy blunders? Not yet. There’s one, smaller cold war that’s still going on right now. And we, not Stalin’s paranoia, propaganda and prisons, bear primary blame for it. It’s the one with Iran.

There is no question who started it. We did. Back in 1953, Iran was our ally in the big Cold War and a fully democratic nation. It had a duly elected prime minister named Mohammed Mossadegh. He had the temerity to nationalize Iran’s foreign oil companies. So we and our CIA, with connivance from the Brits, instigated a coup, deposed him and installed the Shah. There followed 25 years of increasingly brutal dictatorship, by a puppet government (of ours) that Iranians grew to know and hate.

Now imagine how you might feel if you were an informed Iranian of my age today. You lived the best years of your youth under the heel of a vile tyranny because your democratic leader tried to nationalize foreign oil companies. And we Yanks were responsible for the change.

Yet that’s not all. You might look at Saudi Arabia today. And what would you see? A nation that did exactly that same thing—nationalize its foreign oil companies—just about eight years later. And four decades later you saw the President of the United States (Dubya) walking hand in hand with the late Saudi King Abdullah.

So Iran got the imposed tyrant and his brutal secret police, the Savak. Saudi Arabia, which did exactly the same thing, got the gold and (much later) the hand of our president. Do you begin to see why rational Iranians might feel unfairly treated?

They don’t call us the “Great Satan” because the Qur’an says so. Our nation wasn’t around when it was written. They hate us for our own bad and stupid acts.

But that’s still not all. In 1979, Iran had the temerity to overthrow the tyrant we and the Brits had installed.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution was really none of our business, although it removed a hated tyrant we had installed. But Iran did make one mistake. It took our diplomats, their staff and other Yankee visitors hostage, and held them for 444 days.

Iran did not torture or behead them, as Al Qaeda might have done. Instead, it eventually let them go. All were unharmed, although a few had medical issues exacerbated by their long, tense confinement.

For this single sin, we have sought to punish Iran ever since. In 1980, while the Islamic Revolution was still resolving, we incited Saddam, with our materiel support, to attack Iran without provocation. The resulting eight-year war killed an estimated half-million Iranians (one million on both sides) and accomplished nothing else. The two countries’ mutual border is almost exactly where it was when the war started. The resulting pointless slaughter bore a striking resemblance to World War I.

We didn’t attack Iran. Saddam did. But he did it with our encouragement and support. We didn’t like the leader of either country much, so we helped set up a war between them that would drain them both dry. We collectively punished the people of both countries for the acts of their leaders—the very same thing that Woodrow Wilson had argued vainly against after World War I, and that we had shunned after World War II. That was a sin, for which we are now paying with the irrational enmity we deserve.

Israel is paying, too. As I have argued, the only plausible reasons for Iran’s irrational enmity toward Israel are its hatred for us, Israel’s sponsor, and its desire to reconcile with the Sunni Arabic world and its terrorists. Those are not good enough reasons to start a war. But for Iran, they’re good enough to finance and aid terrorism that kills schoolchildren.

A correction?

Sins grow and fester until confessed and forgiven. Six years ago, long before the current nuclear issue arose, I argued that we should apologize to Iran, just as Colin Powell apologized to China when our surveillance plane downed its hotshot pilot. [search in linked source for “uniform”] The only difference I can see is that China is bigger and more powerful than Iran. But our sin against China (if a sin at all, and not a mere accident) was nothing compared to our sins toward Iran. Even if you multiply the magnitude of the sin by the power and population of its victim, Iran is the more justly aggrieved.

An apology costs nothing and detracts nothing from our military readiness or capability. We should give one simply because we did wrong, and because we think of ourselves as good people. But our right wing won’t let us. It wants us to be “strong” and “proud,” never to admit error, and to meet all enmity with force. That’s not being strong. That’s being a bully.

In any event, we must reconcile with Iran soon. The Iranians we educated during the Cold War are now coming into their primes, including positions of leadership inside Iran. Soon they will start to retire and die. Our vast community of Jewish Iranian expatriates here, mostly in Los Angeles, is estranged from the “old country” by religion, national enmity, and a desire to be patriotic Americans. We need to make amends with Iran while it still has many people who recall from personal experience what we Yanks were like in our best years.

As a college student in the sixties, I knew one such Iranian. His name was Parviz Amin. He was smart, engaging, funny and a fine human being. His only vice was chasing after multiple American girls when he wasn’t studying. Everyone liked him. There was nothing about his culture or his personality worthy of the enmity between our nations today.

Another Iranian approached me on the Internet a few years ago. (I will withhold his name to spare him any possible embarrassment or misunderstanding.) He wanted a copy of my licensing treatise, which he had trouble getting in Iran. I looked up our boycott regulations, which don’t ban educational materials, and sent him one for free. He was immensely grateful and kept me informed of his eventual doctoral degree and career path as a licensing expert. Today he is a presence on social media, constantly reaching out to us Yanks and others outside Iran.

This is my impression of Iranians. They are a capable, energetic commercial people, much like us. Notwithstanding their leaders’ often intemperate statements, they are not bellicose. They have not been an expansionist power since the old Persian Empire centuries ago. The only recent war in which they have been involved was the one which we instigated Saddam to make on them. (Their Islamic Revolution was too bloodless and quick to be considered a war.)

For huge blunders with disastrous human consequences and zero good results, nothing can match our misadventure in Vietnam. But for sheer stupidity and uncharacteristic ill will, our ill-treatment of Iran over half a century comes close.

We need to think hard about how to fix the wrongs we have done. It takes two to tango, and two to reconcile.

Conclusion: opportunity in crisis

Why write all this now? Because of the Syrian crisis.

The Chinese word for “crisis” has two characters: one for “danger” and the other for “opportunity.” So far, everyone has focused on the danger. But there are opportunities, too.

The first opportunity is Russia’s initiative to put Assad’s chemical weapons under international control and destroy them. It is hardly a done deal, but it’s an immensely promising proposal. If it works, the international community will have put its full force behind the ban on chemical weapons, with Russia and China aboard. All the world’s major powers would be voting clearly for civilization and against bestiality.

The process would inevitably involve Iran, which is Syria’s closest patron and neighbor. (Russia has no common border with Syria.) If Iran’s new, moderate government works with Russia to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, it will show the world that Iran is a responsible and civilized nation. Paranoia toward Iran in the West will wane. At the same time, Iran could protect itself from those weapons falling into the hands of Sunni terrorists who might some day use them against Iran or its allies.

The next step might be Russia guaranteeing a nuclear response to any nuclear attack on Iran. That guarantee might convince Iran that it doesn’t really need nuclear weapons. Iran is big enough and has a strong enough military (with relatively recent combat experience) to repel any conventional attack from neighbors. We are not about to attack Iran, as anyone who understands our recent history knows. Verifiable Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons would end the boycott.

The final step might be us reconciling with Iran and working hard to restrain the Saudis’ and Gulf Kindoms’ financing of Sunni terrorism. If that happened, there would be no visible reason for Iran to persecute Israel, and lots of reasons to leave resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to a final diplomatic push, with all sides leaning on its allies (including us leaning hard on Israel).

Is all this an optimistic fantasy? I don’t think so. The world’s major powers, and the UN, now have an extraordinary collection of capable, thoughtful, and well-intentioned leaders. Just to list their names (in alphabetical order) inspires optimism: Abe, Ban, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Obama, Putin, and Xi. They have different attitudes toward democracy, but there is not a stupid or evil person among them. Not a single one even hints of war, let alone conquest, as a national desideratum, let alone a goal.

These are well-educated, clever, wise and quintessentially civilized leaders. They all have difficult problems with divisive domestic politics. But they all also have much freer hands in foreign policy. If they focus on the world, rather than their divided domestic polities, they might make enormous progress for our entire species. They might, in a mere decade or two, make the world a place in which international cooperation replaces enmity for the long haul.

The other reason for optimism is the Islamic world’s own spontaneous rejection of terrorism. While the rest of us fear terrorism most, the vast majority of its victims are and mostly have been Muslims.

Now we all know they don’t like it. Like most people, they don’t enjoy seeing their spouses, children, parents and friends blown up in places of worship, marketplaces, weddings and funerals. They also don’t like extremist religion that fosters or encourages terrorism and treads on their own personal liberty and independence. Like everyone else, they don’t want to be told what to think and how to act.

That is, perhaps, the only clear message emerging right now from the whole Middle East. The great mass of ordinary people there doesn’t like terrorism or the people who perpetrate, support, endorse or justify it.

Egyptians are willing to tolerate, even invite, a continuation of harsh military rule to protect themselves from terrorism and theocracy. They want to be Muslims the same way the French are Catholics and most of us Yanks are Christians: lightly, gently and each in his or her own way.

Education helps, by letting people understand that there is wisdom in more than one book. And as we learn more about Egypt in this crisis, the more we are learning how educated, thoughtful and civilized Egyptians can be. They are harsh toward the Muslim Brotherhood not because they are cruel, but because they think that Islamists and their terrorist allies threaten their civilization more than the Egyptian army. That much is clear.

Looking beyond Egypt only confirms this view. Tunisians are now skeptical of their elected Islamist leaders, and city folk stopped Turkey’s Erdogan from confiscating a popular park. Even Assad claims he is fighting terrorists, and there is some evidence of that, although the 100,000 people killed in his quest to keep power couldn’t possibly all be terrorists.

All this gives the lie to the West’s paranoid fantasies. Ordinary Muslims don’t like terrorism any more than anyone else. While repressed and oppressed by tyrants, they were passive about it. The tyrant had assumed all power and control over their lives, so they thought it his job to stop terrorism, too.

But now that the Arab Spring has released them from tyranny and encouraged them to take control of their lives, they are voting, fighting and struggling against terrorism and theocracy with a vengeance. In fact, they are doing it with such zeal and vehemence that some of us in the West think they are going too far.

As Mark Twain might say, reports of a “clash of civilizations” or the demise of Western civilization are greatly exaggerated. Or as our own President might say, there is no “Western civilization,” “Eastern civilization,” or “Islamic civilization.” There is only human civilization. And wherever it resides, it doesn’t like terrorism.

The five big problems facing humanity today are: (1) terrorism, (2) the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (3) global warming, (4) the population bomb, and (5) bankers destroying well-functioning economies in heedless attempts to enrich themselves. The Syrian crisis holds no chance to resolve all five. But it does hold out the hope of substantial progress on the first two.

As for us, we ought to stop calling ourselves “exceptional.” That’s just a more subtle way of saying we’re better than others.

As the list of our big blunders in this essay suggests, since World War II we have often been “exceptional” in acting before thinking, not to mention knowing. But there’s a bigger problem with our self-congratulation than that. “Deutschland über alles” was not a motto that led to peace, harmony and tranquility.

We should think of ourselves as “exceptional” only in private, and only after we have apologized to Iran (at least implicitly) and begun to work hard to clean up the messes we ourselves have helped make. Iran’s isolation from most civilized society is one of them. You cannot convince a people to take responsibility by ostracizing and demonizing them, especially when their bad acts are direct results of your own.

The world’s unusual group of wise, competent leaders—including Iran’s new, moderate ones—now has a chance to change all this. They should grab that chance with both hands and run with it as far as they can. And we, the people, wherever we live, should put aside our tribal pride and support them enthusiastically.

Short Update on Putin’s Op-Ed. Careful readers will note that this post was published the day before Putin’s now-famous op-ed in the New York Times. I had no advance notice that that op-ed was coming. I do not agree with several important things in it, especially his baseless assertion that rebels were responsible for the recent chemical attack.

But for different reasons than Putin, I stand by my assertion (and Putin’s) that the notion of American “exceptionalism” is dangerous. For us, it motivates nationalism—a form of tribalism—and carelessness in foreign affairs. You have no less obligation to be careful, to think things through, and to show empathy and compassion for others because you think yourself “exceptional,” i.e., superior to others. In fact, you have more. As for dealing with others, it’s a very poor way to persuade them by starting with the notion that “we’re better, smarter, more moral, and/or stronger than you.”

No business person or diplomat would ever try that approach in personal negotiation. So why should we do it as a nation? And why should the President have mentioned it at the very end of his short address to the nation? Surely he, a master of politics and timing, knew he was speaking to multiple audiences.

Nearly every major power is “exceptional” in some way. Russia itself is “exceptional” in having suffered so massively in the Great War, having given up Communism decisively of its own initiative (unlike China, including the name), and having dissolved its Soviet Empire (not entirely unlike the British earlier) with almost no bloodshed, while maintaining complete control of its nuclear weapons.

Nearly every major power, including us, is also “exceptional” in having done some pretty bad and stupid things. For Russia, they include crushing Eastern Europe and the Baltics and invading Afghanistan during the Cold War. For us, they include Vietnam and our half-century grudge against Iran (outlined above).

Construed as something positive, the notion of American “exceptionalism” is at best a badge of unrealized intent and a half-truth, at worst an invitation to laziness and self-delusion. I persist in believing that it is about as helpful to international relations and clear thinking as was “Deutschland über alles.”

For a superb paragraph-by-paragraph fact-check and analysis of Putin’s op-ed, read Max Fisher’s piece in the Washington Post, with most of which I agree. The only important thing I would add is that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has become, under our occupation, anything like the charnel house that Syria has become under Russia’s wing, as outlined for Iraq above. Refugees are still pouring into Iraq from Syria, not vice versa. Afghanistan is too far away, but no doubt Syrian refugees fleeing ubiquitous violence would go there if they could.

Putin’s Ploy: Leaders Speaking to Other Peoples

As the brief comment above suggests, international affairs are not capable of resolution with mindless slogans like American “exceptionalism.” Such bumper stickers are poor substitutes for thinking.

On the Russian side, the notion of restoring Russia’s nineteeth- or twentieth-century “imperial greatness” is equally unhelpful. Russia voluntarily and wisely abandoned its Soviet Empire in 1991, over two decades ago.

It lagged Britain by most of a century. But better late than never. Today Russia is forging a new political and economic reality with independent sovereign states, its former vassals. Backsliding is neither possible nor desirable.

We cannot forge a peaceful and prosperous world with slogans or glances backward. Today, every serious issue in international affairs demands careful and sustained case-by-case attention, based on the best knowledge of actual facts that modern technology and societal organization can provide.

The universal goals, as well as the needed process, are now becoming clear. They are: promoting stability, avoiding war, suppressing atrocities, and protecting and advancing our common, global economy. In the nuclear age—and five years after a global near-depression caused mainly by us Yanks and our banks—our species can aim for no less.

It is in this light that we should assess Vladimir Putin’s recent attempt to sway our Yankee political opinion with his op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Many Yanks may object to an authoritarian leader like Putin, of a prickly sometime-partner, sometime-rival like Russia, instructing and lecturing the American public. They might object even more if they recall that Putin recently cashiered many Russian civil-society NGO’s, claiming they were foreign attempts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.

But I don’t mind the hypocrisy, in part because it’s so obvious. When the chips are down, as Russia appears to think they are in Syria, Putin takes an opportunity to put his case directly to the American people. So does Bashar Al-Assad, using the medium of his recent hour-long interview with Charlie Rose.

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, there are several distinct benefits.

First and foremost, these events give the lie to the paeans to unfettered national “sovereignty” that we constantly hear from authoritarian nations like Russia, China and North Korea.

Unfettered national sovereignty is fine in normal times and for normal issues. No one outside wants—or should want—to intervene in Russia’s or China’s handling of its central banking, industrial policy, pension or health-care system, social safety net, national minorities (peacefully!), or even military development and supply (short of obvious preparation for aggressive war).

But when a nation begins to threaten its neighbors or slaughter its own people, let alone with weapons of mass destruction, national sovereignty must yield to our common human values, still under development but now beginning to resolve.

Genocide is not business as usual, even if only partial or attempted, as in Bosnia and Kosovo two decades ago and Syria today. Nor is a destabilizing military buildup, such as Iran’s putative development of nuclear weapons. Extraordinary circumstances like these are exceptions to the rule of respect for national sovereignty. They permit, if not invite, interference and intervention on behalf of all our species.

No one thinks, for example, that international attempts to halt expansion of The Little Kim’s small nuclear arsenal are illegitimate. What applies to little powers should apply to big ones, too.

In making his appeal in the New York Times, Vladimir Putin tacitly recognized this point. His primary argument was that we Yanks claim to have a nation ruled by law, and that a strike at Syria unauthorized by the UN would be unlawful. There is force to that argument, and many here at home have also made it. It is no less forceful or valid for Putin’s having repeated it. And Putin’s appeal to our legal side implicitly acknowledged our respect for the rule of law—one of our admirable national attributes. (Whether law trumps humanitarian and moral concerns in this instance is another matter.)

But in making his argument directly to the American people, Putin has tacitly admitted that “interference” in the decision-making of other nations is justified under extraordinary circumstances, such as Syria poses today. His hypocrisy cannot stand. He, like every other sentient, modern world leader, recognizes that it is better to try to sway a foreign power than to fight it, whether directly or by proxy.

The second benefit of a ploy like Putin’s is that it lets us peer directly into the mind and character of an important foreign leader. We get to see a little bit of what Putin thinks is important, and what he thinks is important to us. We thus learn a little about him, about Russia, and about how we look to him and other Russians. All that is useful information.

Six years ago, I harshly criticized Charlie Rose for haranguing, rather than interviewing, Iran’s Ahmadinejad. Instead of getting us inside this loopy leader’s mind, Rose made a fool of himself and, indirectly, of our elite media and our culture.

This time he did much better. Despite his age, jet lag and obvious fatigue, he let Assad do most of the talking. The result was a unique glimpse into the mind of a smooth and brilliant psychopath.

The overwhelming and consistent impression from the Assad interview was of his conflating himself completely with the Syrian state. You could almost hear him saying, with Louis XIV of France, “L'État, c'est moi!”

We all know what happened to Louis. And we can speculate that Putin missed the point because, for all his considerable talent and innovation (see below), that may be how he thinks of himself in relation to Russia. Why else would he jigger Russian laws so obviously to stay in power?

So we got vital information from Putin’s op-ed. And we got more real information about Assad and his thinking from that single interview than we did about our presidential candidates from all our so-called presidential “debates” last summer, with their phony scandals, focus on irrelevancies, and clueless moderators. This was good.

Finally, the effects back in Russia of Putin’s foray in our press are still unknown. You could tell how much Putin controls television (not the press!) in Russia by what he tried to accomplish here. He tried to get us Yanks to believe that the rebels used the chemical weapons. And he tried to sell us the false comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and Syria on the other, which I refute for Iraq above.

But our Yankee media are not controlled by Putin, and we are resistant to propaganda. Right here at home, we have the most powerful propaganda machines in human history: Fox and our political ad manipulators. Thanks to Aussie Rupert Murdoch and our own Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, these organs of propaganda are better funded and more sophisticated than the Nazi or Soviet propaganda machines ever were.

So most of us have been or are becoming immune. Armed with that immunity from constant exposure, we Yanks are simply not going to believe Putin’s lies about the rebels, or his false comparison. When Russians back home see how we react, which they can do easily through the Internet, they may become more skeptical, too.

Today we live in globalized world, knit together by air travel, massive seaborne trade, global economic ties, and the Internet. There are no private fora any more. When Putin says something important in Russia, our media report it here. Vice versa for President Obama. So we might as well get used to getting the information (even along with propaganda) directly from the horse’s mouth.

Our society will stay in the vanguard in this regard. With all our warts, we Yanks still have the world’s most open society, and the world’s most permissive media. No one controls our part of the Internet, except for child pornography and other gross crimes.

If he had the time, Putin could write a column in English and post it on the Internet for our perusal every day. Thousands, if not millions, of Americans would read it. Certainly people in all of our foreign-policy think-tanks would.

Some day, every major power will be like that. Direct communications from foreign leaders will become routine, if not everyday, occurrences.

For all his machismo and wistful glances back at Imperial Russia, Vladimir Putin is an extraordinarily innovative ruler. In his first tenure as President of Russia, he arranged a nationwide telethon, throughout all of Russia’s eleven time zones, to speak directly to Russia’s people. No leader in Russian history had ever done that. Now he is reaching out, however awkwardly, to our people and citing our own traditions, in an attempt to press his point of view.

Like Ronald Reagan here, Putin is Russia’s “great communicator.” His writing or speaking to us can do no harm and might do some good. And his effort has placed him squarely behind the sensible notion that, when things get really messy or dangerous, there is nothing wrong with trying to “interfere” in another country’s decision-making process. Isn’t that what diplomacy does?

P.S. Propaganda, Argument and Fact

For students and young people who may be reading this essay, I want to clarify an important distinction. The distinction is vital both to international relations and to breaking our political gridlock at home.

When Putin tries to persuade us that it’s better not to remove Assad from power, or that we Yanks shouldn’t call ourselves “exceptional,” that’s an opinion. It’s not propaganda.

We may disagree. But we can’t call it “false” in any meaningful sense, because that’s apparently what Putin sincerely believes. There is nothing wrong with an opinion sincerely and accurately expressed, whether it comes from one of our own politicians or the leader of a foreign power.

Whatever reasoning Putin (or anyone else) states to justify and support his opinion is argument. That, too, is not propaganda, as long as it is based on accurate, or at least plausible, statements of fact. When opinion and argument supporting it shade into propaganda is when they try to get us to believe so-called “facts” that just are not so.

For example, there is virtually no credible evidence that Syrian rebels were responsible for the chemical weapons attacks of August 21. The sarin-containing artillery shells came from an Assad-controlled suburb of Damascus and landed in a rebel-controlled area. They were of sophisticated design and construction, of the same type used by Assad’s forces in other contexts. The rebels simply don’t have the industrial infrastructure to make such shells, or the equipment to launch them. And there is no evidence that anyone who does could have have given, or did give, the rebels such weapons. Finally, although we Yanks want to keep the details secret to preserve our intelligence-gathering capability, we overheard Assad’s own officers discussing the attack beforehand.

If this were a court of law, and not just international opinion, the evidence against Assad’s regime would be enough even to satisfy our Yankee “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal trials. We would call it “overwhelming circumstantial evidence.” We would credit it because direct evidence, such as a confession, would be very hard to get. As we know from recent history, Assad had every practical and political reason to deny even his possession of chemical weapons, let alone their use. He did so until the very moment when he agreed to surrender them for destruction.

There is virtually no evidence on other side—only argument that the rebels had used chemical weapons before. And even that argument is shaky. It’s based primarily on lack of reliable intelligence about those small earlier attacks, rather than any positive knowledge of rebel use.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of our wisest and most insightful politicians. He once said, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” That insight applies to everyone, from candidates for mayor to leaders of great foreign powers like Vladimir Putin.

When a writer states his opinion and supports it with arguments based on fact, that is legitimate and proper, no matter how strongly you, I, or anyone may disagree. But when he tries to get us to believe things that just are not so, or that just did not happen, that is propaganda.

Skillful propagandists try to get people to believe false “facts” in all sorts of ways. Most often, they appeal to emotion, not reason. They excite nationalism, racial and ethnic identification, religion, and other sorts of tribal pride. They exploit irrational “peeves,” like the distaste that many Yanks have for China, Iran, Russia and Muslims generally. They try to incite fear, greed and hate.

We Yanks have no shortage of propagandists ourselves. The Madison Avenue folk who create political ads for money are among the most skilled propagandists in human history. They try to incite the most basic human emotions—fear, greed and hate—with visual images and sound bites that strike deep in listeners’ memories and emotions.

So-called “pundits” at Fox at somewhat less skilled, but they make it up in volume, by constant repetition. And they have two advantages over the ad people. They have much more time, especially in propagandizing couch potatoes who leave their TV on, glued to Fox, all day. Second, they make their propaganda entertaining with their shouting, sarcasm and other verbal and visual antics.

The crucial distinction here is between opinion and the argument that supports it, on the one hand, and facts on the other. Proving facts requires evidence. Stating opinions and making argument don’t, although both work better with supporting evidence.

An example may be helpful. It is no secret that former Vice President Dick Cheney has tried to justify our invasion and occupation of Iraq since before they began. Many times, he insisted that Saddam had had important contacts with Al Qaeda before 9/11. He kept repeating that assertion every chance he got.

Eventually, the US intelligence community and every reputable major newspaper in our nation refuted this so-called “fact.” But a year later, about a third of Americans still believed it, according to our polls.

That’s propaganda! Through constant repetition of falsehood, Cheney had convinced a substantial minority of Americans of something that just was not so. Their belief strongly influenced their opinions about the war that has cost us so much in blood and treasure.

The Nazis invented the propaganda technique of repeating falsehoods as if they were true. They called it “the big lie.” Actual experiments showed they could get people to believe big lies if authority figures repeated them often enough.

Putin may have been trying to do the same thing in insisting that the rebels used the sarin. He’s a very smart guy, and Russia has excellent intelligence. The KGB and its successors probably have better human intelligence than we, although we may have the edge in technological eavesdropping.

So it’s doubtful that Putin believed what he said. He has access to much the same information that we do. Yet whether or not he did believe, the technique of repeating a lie or doubtful intelligence over and over again is a classic technique of propagandists.

The gold coin of persuasion is credibility. Every time you lie or stretch the truth, you lose credibility. That’s why our President is so understated. He was trained at our nation’s top school of persuasion, Harvard Law School, which teaches every lawyer to preserve his or her credibility like the rarest treasure. (I know. I went there, too.)

Putin made a serious rookie error in trying to put over a fairly obvious lie—that the rebels used the sarin. His attempt to convince us of that falsehood badly damaged his credibility for the rest of his message, much of which was well directed. For a man so smart to have made such a rookie blunder could only have come from his experience in Russia, where he controls the electronic media and can get most people to believe whatever he says.

This point is another reason for encouraging direct communication between leaders of major powers and other powers’ people. Foreigners are inherently much less credulous toward even a great leader’s pronouncements than his or her own people. The discipline of maintaining credibility in order to convince foreigners is a good one. It will encourage a global standard for credibility and thus more effective and fruitful international dialogue.

When I was a kid, I attended what was then one of the best public high schools in the United States: University High School in Los Angeles, right near UCLA. In my social-studies course, we had a two-week unit on propaganda and how to identify it.

I don’t know whether we still have such instruction in our high schools today, but we should. It would help citizens understand when Putin is properly arguing and trying to convince us, and when he is propagandizing us. And it might even help save our democracy at home.

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