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

13 April 2015

John Kerry and Why Culture Matters


[For analysis of Hillary and her “debut” as a real candidate, click here. For an update on oil pricing in the medium and long term, click here. For a discussion of one source of our national belligerence, click here.]

It’s hard for most of us Yanks to ken, let alone appreciate, John Kerry. He’s one of us, but he’s unlike most of us. He’s of our smallest and most unusual Yankee culture. He’s a New Englander.

In the old days, the phrase “rock-ribbed” was an obligatory adjective for that noun. What did it mean? It’s not exactly self-explanatory, is it?

But at its base, New England culture is neither mysterious nor strange. It’s just unusual, especially for us Yanks. And especially today.

Like any culture, New England’s traditional one has a whole constellation of characteristics and values. But two stand out. First, you do what’s right, what works. And if it hurts, you suck it up. You suck it up even if it hurts like hell, even if it kills your career and makes you miserable. You don’t complain or make excuses.

Second, you don’t brag or tout yourself. Ever. You are humble and self-effacing. It’s not about you. Ever.

All by themselves, these two traits of New Englanders explain two key things about John Kerry. First, they explain much of why he lost his bid for the White House in 2004. Second, they explain why he just might be the best thing for us Yanks in 2016.

Remember how Dubya the Frat Boy defeated Kerry? He “Swift Boated” him and called him a “Defeatocrat.” Kerry didn’t defend himself. Why? Because he would have had to tout his own virtues. Kerry just couldn’t do that. Why? Because he’s a New Englander.

Kerry fought and was wounded in Vietnam while Dubya was sitting out the war doing macho stunt flying for the Texas Air National Guard. Also unlike Dubya, Kerry was and is a smart, thoughtful guy. He doesn’t let his “gut” rule him. He thinks.

When Kerry got home from Vietnam, he began to figure out that our fight there had been a tragic mistake. If anything, we Yanks should have been fighting on the other side, against colonial rule. Wasn’t that what our own Revolution, so long ago, had been about?

So Kerry changed his mind and his position. He had fought in the war and had been wounded, but he became an anti-war protester, later a leader of the anti-war movement.

That’s how Kerry got his start in politics. He bore the slings and arrows of the super-patriots, the chicken hawks, and all the rest. He bore the unkindest cuts of all, from his fellow soldiers who had fought and been hurt, too, but couldn’t see any reason to change their minds.

Kerry bore all these things without flinching or complaining, because he’s a New Englander. Eventually, he became Senator from Massachusetts. His fellow New Englanders saw his true grit, in both war and protest against it.

Changing your mind requires a special virtue: humility. In order to reverse course, you have to admit you were wrong.

Most pols have trouble doing that. They don’t ever change course. They “stay the course.” They double down.

LBJ did that in Vietnam. If you’re too young to have lived through that era, know three things about it. First, it was our most ignominious and costly Yankee defeat ever. (A PBS special airing this week reprises our dismal, frantic flight from what was then Saigon.) Second, it involved, killed and wounded more of us Yanks than any war since history’s most horrible one, including Dubya’s two decade-long unnecessary wars.

Third, the War in Vietnam split our Yankee nation right down the middle for two generations. The chaotic Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 was just the beginning. Our current President recognized all this in his insightful and prescient “one America” keynote speech in 2004.

Sadly, LBJ was far from alone in doubling down on a mistake. The first to double down in Vietnam was French President Charles de Gaulle. You can see his machismo and sad intransigence in his face just by looking at his photograph. After his ignominious French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, he handed the whole disaster off to LBJ, whose Texas machismo wouldn’t let him say “no.”

There were and are others, too. Dubya doubled down in Iraq. Putin is doubling down in Eastern Ukraine. Assad is doubling down in Syria. Kim is doubling down on nuclear weapons and missiles.

Fortunately for our species, the most catastrophic doubling down in history never happened. During the 1962 Missile Crisis, our leading general General Curtis LeMay wanted to “vindicate” our failed Bay of Pigs invasion by mounting a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Most of Fidel Castro’s minions wanted to fire Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles at New York and Washington to stave off that invasion. (Contrary to our intelligence then, but as we know now, a few of those missiles were already operational.) Nuclear Armageddon—the Mother of All Doubling Down—was minutes away.

That doubling down might have extinguished our species. Our entire Cabinet, except for JFK and his brother Bobby, was for it. The only thing that prevented it from happening and let our flawed species muddle on was the cool and mature judgment of three human beings: two Russians and a Yank, JFK. Not coincidentally, JFK was also a New Englander.

Now come Pope Francis and John Kerry to show our species the virtues of humility. It’s about time!

You can see Kerry’s humility and “no excuses” culture on display in Judy Woodruff’s extraordinary interview about Iran last week. Kerry says that Iran must come clean about its past nuclear programs, and that we will relax sanctions only gradually, as Iran keeps its promises. Kerry humbly (and accurately!) confesses that the “Deal” isn’t there yet, and may never be.

Kerry is tough as nails, as much on himself as on Iran. He makes no excuses. He just tells, soberly, severely and accurately, what has been done and what must yet be done.

Other pols would give themselves wiggle room. They would mealy-mouth it so they could claim any result as “success.” They would be planning in advance how to “spin” a loss or stalemate as a “win”—how to keep their career and personal prospects alive, even at the cost of a nuclear Iran.

Not Kerry. He’s a New Englander.

In the end, culture trumps all. It trumps law, and it trumps science. It determines whether people follow either. Our minority rule in Congress, our Old South Revival (aka the “Tea Party”) and our many climate-change deniers prove this point.

Culture even trumps religion, although religion can be part of culture. If you doubt this, consider Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Hamas and the Islamic State. They are all majority Islamic entities. Yet are they all the same? Not hardly. The difference is culture.

We Yanks are a truly multi-cultural society. We have three primary cultures. In the last two generations or so, we’ve mostly given only two of them a try. LBJ and Dubya, both Texans, turned our Western macho culture and Southern apotheosis of war into our three longest-ever wars: one abject loser and two stalemates. Reagan gave us a combination of Mid-West culture and Western self-promotion. It worked to end the Cold War but gave us two generations of selfishness as an economic “strategy.”

Maybe it’s time, for a change, to give our New England culture another try. Oddly, the Senior Bush was of that culture. He was raised and educated in New England before moving to Texas. Not so oddly, he exercised self-restraint in war, with Colin Powell’s sage advice. He brought us Gulf I—the shortest, least costly and most stunning major military victory in our history. He even raised taxes when necessary, breaking his rash “read my lips” pledge and forfeiting a second term. Like Kerry and our current President, he never complained and never made excuses.

At the moment, we Yanks seem to have degenerated totally into our Hollywood “culture.” It’s all about self, image and “spin.”

Various GOP hopefuls strive mightily to achieve just the right combination of pandering to the motley group of extremists and clueless billionaires that Dubya, Rove and Luntz wove into their parody of a serious political party. They make the campaign for leadership of the free world look like an episode of “American Idol.” Jeb is still trying to decide whether he wants to be yet another one of them or risk his political future on being serious. Hillary goes on Facebook and Twitter to change her image and “spin” her past.

But Hollywood is not a real Yankee culture. It’s a fiction monger. Some might say that its current incarnation is a pathology, at least compared to the uplifting myths it used to tell.

Once upon a time, we Yanks had the reputation of New Englanders. Before the Crash of 2008, which we caused, you could take our word to the bank, especially in financial and economic matters. When Adlai Stevenson showed our U-2 photos of Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba, no one worldwide doubted them. The whole world gasped.

We’ve lost a lot of ground since then. We’ve lost so much that Assad and Putin think they can use our own too-compliant media to propagandize us. Who do they think they are? Fox?

So maybe it’s time to revert to the culture of John Adams and our Northern Founders. Maybe it’s time to tell the truth even when it hurts, to stop beating our chests and justifying our mistakes and arrogance by calling ourselves “exceptional,” and to stop complaining about the global peaceful competition that was once our credo and that we and the Brits started. Maybe it’s time for our opposition in Congress to stop believing that the solution to every foreign problem is war. Maybe, in short, it’s John Kerry’s time.

Footnote: Perhaps the main reason why Kerry lost in 2004 (besides the general human propensity not to change horses in midstream) was the lack of vision in his campaign. But Kerry’s a good man and a smart man. He has a vision inside him; he just has to articulate and elaborate it. You can hire writers, advisers and even thinkers; you can’t buy good judgment, virtue or vision.

A New Prediction for Oil and Gasoline Pricing

About three months ago, this blog published a prediction that oil prices will stay low for quite a while. That prediction superseded an earlier one, which saw no rational economic motive for the Saudis’ letting oil prices plummet but did see political motives. That earlier post had neglected long-term economic factors, in effect accusing the Saudis of resorting to short-term thinking almost as much as our Yankee Congress.

The later and better prediction—of low oil prices for the foreseeable future—relied on a growing new phenomenon. For the first time since the discovery of oil’s use to power cars over a century ago, it now has reasonable substitutes for that primary use: natural gas and electricity. Demand is now in play.

Unbeknownst to me, that’s exactly what the Saudis themselves were thinking. At least it was according to a recent blockbuster article on Bloomberg.com. That articles recounts the history, biography and recent changes in views of Ali al-Naimi, a brainy American-educated technocrat and Saudi Arabia’s Oil Minister for the past twenty years.

Bloomberg’s longish article is well worth reading. It tells a lot about the Saudis’ practical and wily oil policy, how a really smart self-made man (Naimi) rose in the Kingdom, and how the Saudis slowly learned the differences between desire and reality, wishes and consequences in the real world.

But for the bottom line, I can save you the time to read it. What Naimi learned, and what the Saudis now believe, is that global demand for oil is likely to peak before supply.

They are worried not just about competition from natural gas and electricity (almost none of which comes from oil). They are also worried about reduction in global demand due to conservation, energy efficiency and increasing gas mileage, efforts to fight climate change by reducing the use of fossil fuels generally, and efforts of developing nations, especially China, to avoid the past mistakes of developed ones.

Of course Naimi knows more about all these things than I do. For twenty years he’s been the head of Saudi oil planning and the de facto head of OPEC. He’s spent his whole professional life worrying about these issues, and he’s now 79.

Yet two things are notable. In the past, Naimi has been unusual for his openness and accessibility to the press, especially for a Saudi. About demand decline, not so much. Last November, the polished and urbane English-speaking manger brusquely told a badgering television crew to “Get the hell out.”

The second thing notable thing is that you don’t have to be an OPEC insider, let alone a Saudi, to understand what is happening globally with energy in general and with oil in particular. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open to what is going on in the world.

You might have to be an insider to know that frantic filling of tanks at low prices has supported oil demand for the last several months, and that prices might drop to new lows when all the tanks are full. But you don’t have to be an insider to know that demand is now in play and will be for the foreseeable future.

With their light, sweet, cheap crude lying right near the surface in their desert Kingdom, in big underground pools, the Saudis are the world’s low-cost producer. Their modern, world-leading high-technology oil exploration and extraction industry doesn’t hurt. While oil prices fall, they can keep selling at a profit longer than anyone else, including our Yankee frackers.

Their concern about peak demand long preceding peak oil is now open and public. They’re afraid that they won’t be able to sell their oil at high prices forever. If their reserves turn out to be as big or bigger than they hope, they even fear that they might not be able to sell their entire reserves at all.

Imagine how you would feel, after all that investment, trouble and worry, to see some of your oil stay uselessly in the ground, and some of your massive sunk investment go to waste! So, among other things, the Saudi Royal Family is beginning to plan for a post-oil economy. Right now. The Saudi Princes!

The consequences for oil pricing in the medium and long terms should be obvious. My 2012 prediction of six- or-seven dollar gasoline prices is most probably wrong. If the Saudis have anything to say about it—and they most certainly do—oil prices are likely to stay at or below their current levels (as long as Saudi prices don’t go political) until the Saudis’ reserves run out. When the dust settles, they aren’t going to be left with oil in the ground.

What will that mean for cars and light trucks? It won’t change my December 2013 table of cents-per-mile driving costs much at all. Even at a steady price of $2.00 a gallon, the cost of driving on gasoline will be 6.67 cents per mile (for a 30 MPG car), still the highest in the table. The cost of driving on natural gas at industrial pricing will still beat it by over a factor of three, and of driving on commercial solar photovoltaic electricity by over a factor of seven.

So only one thing still stands between Naimi’s demand fears and his worst nightmare: lowering the capital cost of electric vehicles. With the Germans, Japanese and Chinese all bent on that goal, not to mention us Yanks, how long do you think it will take?

“Apotheosis of War”

This odd choice of phrase is deliberate, not accidental. It’s the translation of the title of a famous Russian painting, the (or an) original of which hangs in the permanent collection of San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor.

That title well fits the American South’s pathological culture. The South so honors military tradition and values that you might think it actually won the Civil War. It has a number of our leading military institutions, and it has produced some of our greatest generals, including its own champion, Robert E. Lee.

Those facts might seem strange, but not after you think a bit. The South’s culture was born of slavery and remains tied to bossism, coercion and oppressing the little guy. Why else would the so-called “conservative” culture of our poor, mostly non-industrial South universally support Wall Street’s economic dominance?

That fact makes no logical or territorial sense whatsoever. But it makes perfect cultural sense.

Ultimately, a culture of slavery that morphed into authoritarian dominance must rely on force. So militarism comes with the territory.

Can the South change? Isn’t that the most important question for the success of our nation and maybe our species?

The answer is probably yes, but slowly. African-Americans, who live there in large numbers, are part of the key. Another part is in-migration by people of all races and cultures, including retirees from New York, snowbirds from all over the frozen North, and immigrants from all over the world.

Watching in-migration make demographic changes in a pathological culture is like watching grass grow or paint dry. It’s patient, exhausting and frustrating work. But we have few other options.

We tried the worst war in our Yankee history. It abolished slavery but left the South’s culture largely intact. You don’t change culture by making war. More often, you entrench it.

The law is another unlikely option. A constitutional amendment to abolish the filibuster, Hastert Rule, and malapportioned Senate is probably not happening, except by prying these tools of minority rule from the South’s cold, dead hands.

An option I once suggested—economic coercion—appears to have no support. So waiting for Godot may be the only realistic option. Another that could gain steam is organizing, something that our brilliant community-organizer President might try after he leaves office.

Whatever option ultimately works is going to take time, patience, skill, finesse and determination. It must match, at least in part, the skill and doggedness with which the South—from our very Founding and the drafting of our Constitution—has bent the world’s greatest democracy to its own twisted ends.

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