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 August 2008

Ideological Mirror Images and Olympic Lessons

[For comment on Russia’s occupation of Gori, Georgia, click here. For an update on humility, click here.]

“O wad some Power the gift tae gie us,
to see oursels as ithers see us.
It wad frae mony a blunder free us!”
To a Louse, by John Burns

The most important thing that we Americans can do, at home or abroad, is to pray for that gift. Here’s how we look to the rest of the world at this critical moment in our history:

1. Health Care. Alone among the great industrial nations, we have no national health-care system. Its absence has spread poverty and insecurity among our people and hung a heavy millstone around our industry’s neck.

Now we hope to build world-beating “green” industries to restore our economy and beat climate change. But how can we do that if those nascent industries will bear the same health-care cost burden that already has decimated our consumer-electronics and automobile industries?

2. Pensions. As I’ve outlined in another post, pensions present the very same problem. We are alone in the industrialized world in having an inadequate, begrudging national pension system that fails to reflect our national wealth while imposing enormous financial burdens on private industry. Other nations—with fewer resources and far less innovative power than we—scratch their heads as we deny and cheat our venerable elders and undermine our industrial competitiveness.

3. Energy. Alone among the great industrial powers, we have no national energy policy. When the rest of the world looks at us, it sees the world’s most haphazard, wasteful and inflexible use of energy. It sees a nation that once could send men to the Moon but can’t build a high-speed rail system (except in our Northeast Corridor) or see the need for one. It sees a nation that invented nuclear power but uses less of it proportionally than many third-world countries do.

Europe and Japan tax gasoline to price levels about twice ours and have cars that are about twice as efficient. So they pay about the same price for mile of travel but put half the expense into their own societies, rather than Saudi, Iranian, Russian and Venezuelan coffers. They can’t understand why we are too stupid or stubborn to do the same.

4. Infrastructure. Every schoolchild knows how the first transcontinental railway opened our West, made us one nation, and facilitated our rise as a global industrial power. That was over 150 years ago. Every adult knows how our Interstate Highway system, begun by President Eisenhower, did the same in age of the automobile. That system began over sixty years ago.

Yet now our railways are obsolete, and our roads are clogged and decaying. Our levees failed in Katrina. Our air traffic control system is antiquated and increasingly dangerous. Our municipal water is often impure, and our bridges are literally falling down.

Cars on Europe’s autobahnen and autostrade go faster than on our freeways. Because of their speed, potholes get filled within hours of their reporting. Because Europe has marvelous intercity and suburban rail transit, its roads are less congested than ours. When Europeans come here and see the sorry state of our railways and our freeways—let alone the streets of Manhattan—they wonder that a rich and once-powerful nation has gotten sloppy, neglectful and slovenly. When they venture to visit Manhattan, they fear underground pipes exploding and cranes falling down.

5. Military Adventurism. Right now, just after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, is a good time to think about military adventurism. Even if the Georgians attacked first, as Russia claims, there was and is no justification for the disproportionate scale of the Russians’ response.

But in two respects the Russians deserve grudging admiration. First, unlike Dubya in Iraq, they sent an adequate force to do the job. They didn’t pretend their troops are supermen and send a small expeditionary force to do an invading army’s job.

Second, like Bush the Elder in Gulf I—but unlike his prodigal son—they had limited objectives. While they made no secret of their desire for “regime change” in Tbilisi, they didn’t seek to force it by conquest. They seem content to await the probable political consequences of Saakashvili’s bloody blunder. Secure in the separatist enclaves (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) where the local public largely welcomes them, the Russians apparently won’t make the mistake of occupying all of Georgia and creating another Afghanistan. Nor will they risk another Iraq.

[UPDATE: Although accurate when written, this paragraph is no longer entirely accurate. The Russians have occupied Gori. For the consequences, click here.] If you doubt this, look at a map (click to enlarge it). Georgia is a long, thin country. Its northern and southern boundaries are mountainous. A long, fertile east-west valley extends the country’s length, with key railways and roads along it. In the middle of that valley is the rail and road intersection of Gori—a strategic objective so vital that you need no military expertise to see its importance. Yet the Russians have not invaded Gori, far less occupied it. They’ve left it empty. The Georgians, who fled in terror, can creep back any time they like. Gori, not Russian words, is persuasive evidence of Russia’s limited intentions.

While the world still respects our values and fears the Russians, it wonders how we brought ourselves so low. It marvels that the Russians can show more restraint and wisdom in Georgia than we have shown in Iraq.

* * *

How did all this happen? How did the “world’s sole superpower,” the nation that “won” the Cold War, become the world’s buffoon: an inept, blundering behemoth? How did Russia, which “lost” the Cold War, emerge so quickly from its torpor, develop a swashbuckling version of “cowboy” capitalism, and regain a central place on the world stage?

The answer is that no one really “won” the Cold War. Both sides lost.

With the possible exception of World War I, the Cold War was the stupidest and most unnecessary conflict in human history. Two great nations had just collaborated closely as allies to defeat history’s greatest menace to peace, stability and human freedom: Nazi Germany. On opposite sides of the world, they had no common borders and no real reason to fear invasion or attack from each other. Yet in a few short years they became bitter enemies. They wasted prodigious amounts of money, time and talent building thermonuclear and biological weapons that were never used and today only tempt terrorists. In 1962 they came within hours of engulfing the entire world in mutual nuclear annihilation.

Sure, Stalin was paranoid. Sure, Communism was bad economics and worse politics. Sure, Soviet Communists gave the rest of the world reason to fear, with their constant bragging (“We will bury you!”), trash-talking (“war mongering imperialists”), and threats to convert the world to their twisted system.

But we shared many of the same characteristics. With his constant Red scares and imaginary Communists in our State Department, our Senator Joe McCarthy was hardly less paranoid than Stalin. He just had less power. Senator Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” We put the Shah in power in Iran—with obvious consequences today—subverted a duly elected president in Chile (Allende), and generally stunted Latin America’s social and economic growth by supporting a depressing succession of crude right-wing dictators.

Our people had no trouble understanding the merits of Goldwater’s philosophy, especially a mere two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly destroyed the world. They handed him defeat in his bid for the presidency by the biggest landslide in postwar electoral history. So we avoided Soviet Russia’s greatest political excesses, let alone its terror and its gulags.

But economics and social progress are another story. The social and economic ideology that arose among us during the Cold War, and which predominated after we “won” it, has been every bit as lopsided as the Soviets’. Relative to the size and strength of our economy it has been just as disastrous as Communism was for the Russians. For in truth the Cold War made us the Soviets’ ideological mirror image.

They had “Soviet Man” and the myth that state ownership and control of everything would solve all problems. We had the myth of the “beneficent entrepreneur,” whose personal greed, harnessed by proper incentives, would solve all problems. Both were caricatures of human nature and human life, cartoon philosophies for a complex world. The Cold War’s mutual arrogance, rigidity, and paranoia strengthened and entrenched both mindless ideologies and kept them from serious re-examination for decades.

In a way, the Russians won by “losing.” After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, they had no choice but to re-examine their national philosophy and their future. They flirted briefly with democracy, a form of government utterly foreign to their history and their culture. Ultimately they chose the “Chinese model,” authoritarian government with a relatively free press and nascent free markets.

The Russians are about a generation behind China, which began its transformation thirty years ago with Deng Xiaoping. Like the Chinese, they have yet to learn the lesson that strong, healthy and friendly neighbors provide better security than weak and restive vassal states. But they have abandoned their ideological cartoon and are on their way.

In contrast, we are just entering our “post-Soviet” transformation period. Because we “won” the Cold War, we had no reason to re-examine our cartoon ideology. Quite the contrary. Leaders like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Dubya—hardly the brightest bulbs in human history—assured us that our own cartoons were what let us “win.” They highlighted our caricatures and taught them to our children.

Instead of thinking seriously about our future, we beat our chests and crowed. We lorded it over the “defeated” Communists, called our adversaries names (“axis of evil,” “tyrants”), derided our allies and spiritual elders as “Old Europe,” and generally acted like the victorious ape in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now we have some serious thinking to do. Are venture capital and incentives for yet more individual greed really going to give us a decent health-care system? decent and equitable pensions? Can they remove the cost millstones that are making our industry uncompetitive? Can they provide energy independence and decrease global warming? Can they reform our pathetic military-industrial complex, which couldn’t supply our troops quickly with Humvee or body armor and soon will have taken four years to write a contract for a new tanker plane? Can we compete in world where every other advanced nation has a thoughtful national plan to solve these common problems and has taken a different, more reasonable, more nuanced approach?

That’s where the Olympics come in. “Sportsmanship” is not just a word. Even in our crass, selfish, arrogant and obese society, the spirit still exists.

The most teachable moment of the Olympics so far was not our basketball team’s impressive victory over China’s. Nor was it our men’s beach volleyball team coming back after a depressing loss to twenty-third-ranked Latvia. It came when our star swimmer, Michael Phelps, took the trouble to walk over and console French anchor swimmer Alain Bernard after Bernard lost the medley relay in a dramatic photo finish.

Bernard, not Phelps, had been the “trash talker.” “The Americans?,” he had said, “We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.” After our win, Phelps could have trashed-talked back. He could have beaten his chest and mocked the losers, as many Americans did after we “won” the Cold War. Instead, he walked over and offered the loser sincere sympathy, recognizing that his team’s win came by only hundredths of a second, and that “time and chance happeneth to them all.”

That’s the kind of perspective and humility that makes athletes and nations great. Maybe after eight years of trash talking, beating our chests, believing in cartoons, and allowing every aspect of our society to crumble, we can emulate Michael Phelps and get back to the serious business of restoring our greatness. I needn’t say which presidential candidate is better equipped for that task; the answer is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

UPDATE (9/16/2009): David Brooks’ column of a few days ago reinforces the central themes of this post: thoughtfulness and humility. It outlines the reactions of our leaders and entertainers to our victory in World War II.

Far from today’s orgy of breast-beating and self-congratulation, the mood then was one of relief and humility. We were relieved that humanity’s greatest self-generated catastrophe was at last over and humbled by our own role in ending it and by the tasks of reconstruction and reformation that lay ahead. We knew that we had not won the war alone. But we also knew that, as the only participant whose homeland had not been devastated, we would have the job of building a new world.

Today we are in much the same position as Britain at the end of World War II. We are an aging empire hobbled by outmoded ideology, emasculated by enormous debt, and hampered by residual jingoism and condescension toward others. We are therefore no longer able to serve as the world’s engine of growth and social advancement.

Humility behooves us in our present state. It might even let us see a way to restore some of our former power and glory.


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