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

29 July 2009

Ecclesiastes and the EU

    “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
This old saw has both great truth and great falsity.

Today we take it to mean that the Nature of Man changes not, or at least changes too slowly for us to perceive. There is truth in that insight. Our evolution required many millions of years. In comparison, our recorded history of some five thousand is an eyeblink.

Anyway, our own civilization has all but halted our biological evolution. We have tamed the vicissitudes of Nature and made “survival of the fittest” a social rather than biological fact.

So our basic makeup seems invariable. We still have the same jealousies, envys, rages and unreason that we did in Caesar’s time or in the Pharaohs’. Shakespeare’s plays, written nearly four centuries ago in a vastly different age, still speak to us as if composed yesterday.

But while human nature may have changed little over recorded history, what we do with it has changed profoundly. We may not be evolving much (or may be evolving too slowly to detect), but our memes and social institutions are in continual evolutionary ferment.

Today we have experimental and observational science. As distinguished from the solipsistic musings of “natural philosophy,” modern science is only about four centuries old. It has given us electricity, telecommunication, controlled flight, atomic energy, atomic weapons, space travel, and the Internet, among many other things.

None of these things existed in the time of Ecclesiastes. Then and for millennia afterward our own or our beasts’ muscles did our work. We produced power and light by burning things. Now we take energy from the atom, the wind, the sun, the tides and the Earth. Now we are powerful enough, as a species, to extinguish ourselves (and most other living species) in an orgy of rage or stupidity. Or we can make our planet a paradise, more livable for us and our fellow creatures than it has ever been since we arrived on the scene. This power, too, is new.

Our evolution in the social sphere has been no less profound. So many things we take for granted today did not exist in the time of Ecclesiastes. Despite ancient Rome’s generally high level of civilization, there was no such thing as a police force, even in Roman times. The rich protected themselves from crime with bodyguards (often slaves), high walls and grated windows. The poor fended for themselves as best they could. Now we have a formal institution designed to protect everyone, rich or poor, from crime and make the law a reality on our streets.

Universities are also a recent social innovation. There was no such thing until the Renaissance. Higher learning, study, and research took place―if at all―in castles and monasteries under the patronage of royalty, nobility or an authoritarian Church, and at their whim. Now every nation has permanent institutional centers of culture designed to preserve and advance human learning and to train the next generation of teachers and researchers. The Internet’s impact on this relatively new (half a millennium) human institution is a work in progress, but it is likely to be world-changing.

The business corporation, too, is a relatively recent innovation. A Roman creation perfected during the Enlightenment, this profoundly decentralizing institution has done much to improve the human condition. It is largely responsible for the predominance of Western cultures in business and innovation.

Evolution can seem particularly slow in the political sphere. The contest between democracy and authority is as old as Athens and Sparta. Democracy appears to be winning now, but its ultimate destiny is unclear. The world’s newest rising power, China, seems bent on an exhausting an authoritarian model based on technocratic Mandarins.

Yet there are three relatively recent political phenomena that no one in the time of Ecclesiastes could possibly have imagined. One is our own nation. A second is the United Nations. The third is the European Union.

From prehistoric times until 1776, nation-states arose out of tribalism, ceaseless war and conquest. With rare exceptions (in Greece, Rome and England) they governed largely by force alone. The Enlightenment produced a wholly new political conception: the idea of “social contract,” that government depends on the consent of the governed.

Our nation is the first in world history to be designed from the ground up as a matter of social contract. Our Founders cobbled it together from thirteen very disparate British colonies. The Constitution they devised for that purpose is the world’s first national charter based entirely on social contract. That simple fact has made us the world’s most powerful, admired and envied nation, with our historical progenitor, Britain, a close second.

The US is thus unique in human history for arising out of conscious design, not evolution. Maybe that’s why so many of us―despite the evidence of science―believe in “intelligent design” rather than biological evolution. That phrase does not describe our biology, but it does describe our form of government, and it distinguishes our government from all that came before. Oddly enough, the very same concept applies to the United Nations, which many of the folks who believe in “intelligent design” of living creatures tend to deprecate.

But whatever the oddities of current American politics, one thing is clear: of all human governments that we know of, only the US and the UN arose from intelligent design, not evolution. That is, until the advent of the European Union.

Like the UN, the EU is a rationally designed political creation of diverse sovereign states. Unlike the UN, it is a real government, with enforceable laws and regulations, circulated currency, and functioning courts. As such, it is the second greatest political-governmental innovation in human history, after the United States.

In some respects the EU is even more impressive. While diverse and quite different (some industrial, some rural; some slave and some free), our original thirteen colonies had generally common cultures and had never warred among themselves. In contrast, the EU knits together separate and distinct sovereign states with vastly different cultures, languages and histories. Many of them spent much of the previous several centuries warring with each other over religion, territory, and the sheer glory of imperial conquest.

Today, you can travel by train from Edinburgh to Rome, Prague, and beyond and not see a single customs agent or border guard. You can use the Euro to buy things from Cork to Sicily, with stops in Bavaria and Budapest. And in a single railway car on a train in England, you can hear Polish, Italian, and various Indian dialects spoken by business people, young students and families with children out for a holiday in London. More important, a Pole, Czech or Spaniard can seek gainful employment and new opportunity in the traditional economic powerhouses of Britain, France and Germany.

As a result, the EU has supplemented, if not partially replaced, the US as the place that humanity struggles to get into. The Statue of Liberty, with its promise to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” may stand in New York Harbor. But it was, after all, a French creation. Now the same promise―if not the same statue or military power―beckons from Europe.

These peaceful achievements, so commonplace today we hardly notice them, are extraordinary in human history. They would make someone from the time of Ecclesiastes cry with joy.

So as we contemplate the possible decline of our own country and China’s rise, let us not forget the EU. It is already bigger than we are, 350 to 300 million. Only about a half-century old, it truly is something new under the sun. In historical terms, it is not much older than the Internet. Other groups of nations, including Mercosur in South America and ASEAN in Southeast Asia, are trying to emulate the EU’s dramatic success, each in its own clumsy way. Evolution, whether social or biological, seems to proceed in fits and starts, rarely in a straight line.

For us Americans, the EU’s social and political promise at times may produce mixed feelings. It is a rival for admiration, envy and prosperity. By and large, it already has the universal health care and social safety nets that we are desperately trying to put in place or repair here at home. Far from being “Old Europe,” as The Arrogant Idiot Rumsfeld blathered, it is the newest brilliantly functioning governmental institution on the world stage. These facts should make us Americans a bit humble in claiming the status of God’s elect.

But the EU is more than just a rival for admiration and envy. Its existence shows that we Americans are no longer alone. The last best hope of mankind now resides not in a single nation, but in a few principles not seen in Ecclesiastes: social contract, liberty, free markets and the rule of law.

These key ideas of the Enlightenment now animate a marvelous congeries of nations across the Atlantic, which, like us, was consciously designed around them. Unlike us, the EU not only has better social welfare systems already in place; it is also open to new membership. We last admitted new states―Alaska and Hawaii―50 years ago. The EU admitted ten new members as recently as 2004, and it has a formal application process with several other applicants in waiting. Folks from the time of Ecclesiastes would be astonished and pleased.


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24 July 2009

Three Gates

[For an update on July 26, click here.]

Two of the many reasons I admire our President are his brains and his humanity. He is one of the smartest public officials of my lifetime, and he always seems to expect the best of people.

That’s why the President’s two-word description of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s arrest for trying to break into his own home in Cambridge was so apt. The arresting officer, said the President, had “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Gates for disorderly conduct after Gates had produced two types of ID showing he was in his own home.

How stupid was the arrest? Let me count the ways. First, Gates is a national celebrity. He teaches African-American studies at Harvard, our oldest and arguably most prestigious university. His subject has made him a regular not just in academic circles, but in news circles and on talk shows as well. Google his name, and you will get over 21 million search results, many of them with pictures.

Professor Gates is not only a leader of his community. He is also a nationally known and visible leader as well. You would think a sergeant on the Cambridge police force might at least have some vague awareness of a person that prominent in his own community, which he is sworn to protect and serve.

The second proof of stupidity is the sergeant’s reaction to Gates’ driver’s license. It doesn’t take much intelligence to understand that a burglar is unlikely to have taken the trouble to produce an official-looking false picture ID for each house he targets. Smart police know that burglars pick targets of opportunity on the spur of the moment, based on conditions in the neighborhood, the number of people nearby, and things like unlocked doors and open windows. The very fact of Professor Gates’ ID with his home address showed that he was no burglar.

Third, there’s Gates himself. He’s a bespectacled, bearded, middle-aged professor of slight stature. Every picture I’ve seen of him shows what can only be described as a “sweet” face. He’s hardly a menacing presence, even if he was understandably upset at being accosted as a criminal after enduring the frustration of having to break into his own home after an exhausting trip to China.

Criminals sometimes come in odd packages, but Gates’ appearance and obvious education and refinement would surely be far outside the average police officer’s experience of common criminals. Any officer with brains should have known that this was no ordinary break-in artist.

Finally, there’s the Internet. I don’t know whether Cambridge police carry mobile PCs or have ways of receiving photographs in squad cars. If they don’t, the should. If they do, it would have been a simple matter for the officer to Google Gates, or to have a colleague in HQ do so, and verify Gates’ appearance, description and identity. There’s little excuse today for failing to recognize a guy whose name produces, in seconds, over 21 million search results, many of which include high-resolution pictures.

So stupid the arrest undoubtedly was. But it was also undoubtedly more.

To see how, imagine that we are talking about another Gates. Not Henry, but Bill (the software titan and philanthropist) or Bob (our Secretary of Defense). In either case, the good sergeant would have laughed, commiserated, and offered a few tips on safely sequestering spare keys outside the home. Isn’t that what we all would expect if accosted by police under similar circumstances?

But Professor Gates got far less. He got handcuffs and a trip in a squad car to the police station. If, like me, you find it hard to conceive of any justification for that arrest, you have to ask why. Why Henry, but not Bill or Bob?

The answer, of course, is racial prejudice. It takes more than momentary stupidity to ignore the all the evidence of your own eyes: the slightly built, bespectacled, refined professor, whose face you think you might have seen before, standing before you with picture ID in hand. You have to be more than stupid to ignore all that and see only the tribal badge of skin color. It takes a lifetime of stupidity ingrained into habit, which is precisely what racism is.

It doesn’t help that the greater Boston area (which contains Cambridge) bears the dubious distinction, along with Chicago, of being among the most ethnically balkanized cities in America. It is still a place where a kid, deviating just a couple of blocks on his way home from school, can get harassed or beat up. The ingrained attitudes that made the Cambridge cop so dumb are not confined to race, but they are strongest there. Boston is a place where people take delight in directing strangers to their neighborhoods several blocks or miles out of their way, just for sheer spite.

So if stupidity was all Henry’s arrest was, it was a special kind of stupidity. It was the kind of stupidity that understandably keeps chips on the shoulders of so many of our fellow citizens. It is the kind of stupidity that neglects or underutilizes so much talent of so many who don’t look or speak like the our rapidly vanishing racial majority. It is the kind of stupidity that, every day in ways great and small, undermines the central tenet of our nation, that all of us are created equal. It is a cancer on our body politic.

We rightfully take pride in having overcome that special kind of stupidity long enough to have elected our most promising president in generations. But we’ve got lots more to do.

Those of us who hale from our rapidly vanishing majority of non-Hispanic whites have the obligation to lead the charge to eradicate this special kind of stupidity. Although we are not its targets, it hurts us just the same. And we had damn well better eradicate it before we ourselves become a minority and therefore one of its targets, too.

If we wake up and continue that noble endeavor with renewed vigor, Professor Gates’ stupid arrest may ultimately help make us smarter. But we’re all going to have to work at it and stop fantasizing that we live in a post-racial society. We may get there in another two generations, if we all work at it as hard as we can.

But we’re sure as hell not there yet. If you think we are, just imagine how you would expect to be treated in similar circumstances, and then read the story of what happened to Professor Gates.

Update: Peeling the Onion of Race and Police

As the story of Professor Gates’ unfortunate arrest continues to unfold, we peel back the layers of the onion of racial prejudice and police conduct.

Amidst all the blather, it’s probably useful to recount what didn’t happen. As far as the various public reports reveal, neither Professor Gates nor the police sergeant moved to strike or threaten the other. The officer never drew his weapon.

The confrontation between Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley was entirely verbal. Gates reportedly harangued the officer about the daily indignities to which people of color are generally subjected in our far-from-color-blind society.

While his harangue was unfortunate, it is entirely understandable for three reasons. First, having African ancestry makes Gates (like every other person of color) a target of those indignities. Second, studying those indignities, their sources and consequences is a large part of what Gates does for a living. So they are probably never far from his conscious mind. Finally, Gates had just returned from a trip to China. After at least sixteen or so consecutive hours of travel, he was undoubtedly exhausted, jet-lagged, and not in his best form.

Add to the jet lag some sixteen hours of general indignities and regimentation to which all of us, regardless of color, are subject when we travel by air in this post 9-11 world. Then add the further indignity of travel from Logan Airport to Cambridge: a close encounter with carbon monoxide in the Logan Tunnel, which (though less severe after the Big Dig) is still one of the nation’s worst. Finally, throw in a jammed front door to Gates’ home, probably the result of a real attempt at burglary while he was gone, and you have some small idea of the state of Gates’ mind when Sergeant Crowley arrived on the scene.

The confrontation apparently started when Sergeant Crowley told Gates to step outside. The accounts do not report Gates’ precise reply, but it probably was something like, “No, I won’t. This is my home.”

Had Sergeant Crowley lightened up at that point, you wouldn't be reading this post. Nor would our President be going through verbal contortions trying to get our addled brains focused back on our most exigent issues: health-care and energy-policy reform.

But Crowley is apparently one of those cops who believe that establishing his own personal authority, especially over people of color, is more important than winding down a harmless verbal confrontation, in which nothing but feelings were injured. Relying on the authority of his uniform and ultimately his weapon, he established his primate dominance by putting the exhausted and frustrated Gates in the squad car and taking him away.

We can dispense with the endless speculation whether Crowley would have done the same with a 100% white man. (I say 100% white because most of our African-Americans are part white, and Gates’ light hue suggests the same of him.) I think not.

But in any event two things are clear. First, at some time before being carted away in the squad car, Gates showed Crowley no less than two ID cards verifying his identity. One (probably his Massachusetts driver’s license) showed the address of the home in which he was standing.

Second, Sergeant Crowley was sworn and trained to keep the peace. Gates was trained and employed to be sensitive to and expose precisely the sort of indignities that he was experiencing at that very moment. I might add that police are selected and trained to have nerves of steel; professors generally are not.

So I would say that Gates was doing his job, even off duty, while Crowley was not. And as there is no report that Crowley was on a second shift, there can be little debate about which man was better circumstanced to keep his head.

The New York Times had a fine report yesterday on the two types of police officers that populate our protective forces. One sees discipline, respect for authority and control as paramount at all times. It takes no lip from citizens, especially not from those of color. The other sees taking verbal abuse as part of the job, as long as no one gets hurt.

There is little doubt in my mind which type represents the future of policing in our highly mobile and diverse society. Martinets and authoritarians had their place in the British Empire, but that century is long gone. Whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or on the streets or our cities, quickness of understanding and human compassion are far more important than quickness with the handcuffs or on the draw.

Sergeant Crowley may be a fine man, as some say. He probably did not attain the rank of sergeant without having put his life in jeopardy to arrest criminals and protect the innocent. But he apparently lacks the skill and judgment to avoid turning an exhausted professor’s attempt to enter his own home and get some much-needed sleep into an agonizing national controversy.

If it were up to me, I’d see that Crowley and those like him have fine careers at internal desk jobs, interacting with their police colleagues, but not with the public. If his ilk disappeared from positions of armed authority on our cities’ streets, chips on the shoulders of many worthy people of color would soon follow.


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07 July 2009

Russia and NATO

The end of Robert McNamara’s tragic and disastrous life is a good time to reflect on our ignorance of foreign cultures.

Every American who cares about foreign policy—which ought to be all of us—should watch McNamara’s appalling but fascinating interview with Robin McNeill in 1995.

In that interview, McNamara baldly admits his ignorance. He just didn’t know, he says, that North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, anticolonial leader of great popularity and iron will, who was neither in Khrushchev’s pocket nor in Mao’s. He just didn’t know, in other words, that his “domino theory” (on which our part in the war was based) was utter nonsense.

Every expert on Vietnam knew and said so publicly at the time. But McNamara (and President Johnson) knew better. McNamara felt in his bones that our war was a lost cause from the very beginning, but he did and said nothing. And after the sterling examples of Eliot Richardson and Cyrus Vance, McNamara had the gall to say we Americans have no tradition of principled resignation.

The point is not just to spit on McNamara’s grave, although God knows he deserves it. The point is to draw a valuable lesson: ignorance about foreigners and their cultures can lead to fatal error.

With that in mind, I’d like to review a half-dozen facts about Russia that most Americans don’t know, and that those who know often don’t appreciate fully.

1. Russia’s Suffering in World War II. In its Soviet guise, Russia suffered far more than we or any of our allies in World War II. No one knows for sure, but the best estimates are that the Soviet Union lost 23 million people. That was about one in seven citizens and nearly four times the number of Jews lost in the Holocaust. Our industrial might helped win the war against Nazism and save Russia, but our losses in the entire war (including the Pacific) were tiny in comparison: less than 450,000 dead.

2. The Siege of Leningrad. This tragedy in Russian history, which I’ve described in another post, was one small example of Russia’s wartime sacrifice. In less than three years of siege and in a single city (now renamed St. Petersburg), Russia lost more people (estimated as twice as many) than we lost in the entire war, on all fronts. They died of wounds, cold, and hunger, and some survivors resorted to cannibalism. To understand what Leningrad means to Russians, you would have to combine the attack on us at Pearl Harbor with the Alamo, the Bataan Death March, and Andersonville (our Civil War concentration camp). Even all together, these four American tragedies wouldn’t quite match Siege of Leningrad, either in the scale of suffering or in its freshness in memory.

3. Invasions from All Sides. Anyone who seeks to understand Russia should spend a day walking around Moscow with a knowledgeable local guide. In the central city, there are war memorials on almost every block. Some recall Russia’s own expansion as it formed as a nation, but most recall invaders repelled. In just the last two centuries or so, Russia has endured four incursions from the west (two from Napoleonic France and two from Germany), two from the east (both by Japan), and interminable border skirmishes in the south, which are still ongoing today (in Chechnya and Georgia). Russia has suffered invasion from every direction but its frozen north.

4. Tensions with the Islamic World. For us, tensions with Muslims are new. Not so for the Russians. They’ve been jostling and fighting with Islamic peoples on their southern borders for about two centuries. If you want to get a flavor for how long and with what result, read Lev Tolstoy’s great novella Hadji Murat, about an Islamic resistance fighter in the Caucasus. The novella first appeared in print a century ago. Yet except for the ubiquitous horses and outmoded weapons, it could have occurred in Iraq or Chechnya yesterday. In understanding the Islamic world and how to deal with it, Russians have a century on us, maybe two.

5. Genghis Khan and the Mongols. The great Mongol Empire conquered or absorbed most of what is now Russia before Russia was much of a nation. But Russians still remember. In fact, they remember so well that Stalin ordered the chronicles of Genghis Khan and his Mongol conquest suppressed during most the Soviet period, for fear that the Mongols would rise again. You can read about the Mongol Empire, its conquest of Russia, and the Soviet suppression of its history in a fascinating recent book.

6. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I have written an entire post on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I think is one of the most important events in world history. The United States and the Soviet Union came within minutes of mutual nuclear annihilation. Had nuclear war erupted, it likely would have destroyed the Earth’s biosphere and extinguished most mammalian species, including us.

The Russians took the first step away from the brink by turning back the Soviet fleet approaching our blockade around Cuba and dismantling the nuclear missiles there. By agreement between President Kennedy and General Secretary Khrushchev, we reciprocated by removing our medium-range missiles from Turkey and giving Cuba a guarantee against invasion that stands to this day.

There are Americans who believe that our own clandestine services arranged Kennedy’s assassination because he had the effrontery to make this deal with the Soviets and let humanity muddle on for another day. If there are Americans who believe that, there are undoubtedly Russians who do, too—perhaps Putin’s friends in the former KGB. As for General Secretary Khrushchev, he reportedly wept on hearing of Kennedy’s death.

Against this background, it’s not hard to see why Russia would see encroaching NATO as encirclement, or a missile shield ostensibly directed against Iran as a dangerously destabilizing force in the nuclear balance of terror that has kept the peace among major powers for almost half a century.

Russians are fully aware of the power of American inventiveness and innovation. Although Soviet “historians” laughably claimed priorities, Russians know we Americans invented virtually every important consumer device, from the light bulb, through the phonograph and TV, to the Internet, as well as the most important recent military advances, including controlled flight, atomic weapons, and night-vision goggles. What we didn’t invent, like radar and jet engines, our present allies England and Germany did.

That’s why the Russians eagerly signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and that’s why they were horrified when we withdrew from it. That’s why they fear an anti-missile shield in their erstwhile satellite states and won’t hear that it’s only a small one and only directed at Iran.

Call these attitudes paranoid if you like. But it’s not paranoid to fear those who are really out to get you, and people have been out to seize Mother Russia by force from all directions for half a millennium before our nation was born. What looks to us like paranoia seems to Russians only historical realism.

With this history in mind, two relatively recent events struck me as absolutely extraordinary. Both sprang from the mind of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and both reflected attempts to free himself and his people from the ghosts of history.

The first event occurred early in Putin’s first term as President of Russia. He approved changing the name of “Leningrad” back to its pre-Soviet version, “St. Petersburg.”

That may seem a small thing. But you can imagine how veterans of Russia’s tragic struggle against Nazism—let alone heroes of the Siege of Leningrad—reacted. They were appalled, just as American veterans and their families might be appalled upon seeing Pearl Harbor re-designated by its native Hawaiian name.

Yet Putin got on television—in a broadcast made available in the West—and explained the name change patiently. He acknowledged the heroism of Leningraders during the war. He recognized their pain on seeing a symbol of their heroism and sacrifice abandoned. But he said that Communism had destroyed Russia and would not be coming back. He approved the name change, painful and confusing as it was for many Russians, to make that point absolutely clear, in a nationwide “teachable moment.”

Putin’s second extraordinary step came just this week. He allowed us Americans to send troops and weapons—the whole nine yards—into Afghanistan through Russian air space. Not only that, Russia reportedly would pay the air traffic controllers’ fees for their passage.

Think about that. Putin approved weapons- and troop-carrying American military overflights for action in Afghanistan. Those flights would carry the troops and weapons of the very same nation whose adamant opposition and Stinger missiles drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan, barely twenty years ago, at an appalling cost in Russian lives and equipment.

Our own recent movie Charlie Wilson’s War let the world know just how much responsibility Americans had for all the Russian deaths and suffering. Imagine how you would feel, as the Russian mother of a son whose plane was downed in Afghanistan by a Stinger missile, about Putin’s decision.

I know, I know. In the long run, Russia has more to lose from terrorist havens in Afghanistan, and more to gain from a peaceful, prosperous democracy there, than we do. Afghanistan is a lot closer to Russia than to us. Surely Putin understands that.

But think about the common Russian people. As a matter of internal politics, permitting our overflights was a decision that no American politician in a similar situation could have afforded to make. If it were America, there would be protests in the streets. Republican blowhards like Rush Limbaugh would shout “traitor” from the rooftops. From an internal political perspective, Putin’s decision to grant permission looks like an enormous concession to us, and Russia’s people will probably perceive it as such.

Is there any similar, reciprocal move we could make to keep the “reset” button firmly pressed?

I would argue that, far from expanding NATO to encompass more former Soviet satellites and “encircling” Russia, we should think about how to wind NATO down and give the Russians some peace. There are three reasons for this conclusion.

First, as Iraq suggested and Afghanistan proved, NATO is not much of a military alliance. Every member nation jealously guards its power to approve contributions of troops and material, down to the platoon level, as well as the power to set rules of engagement. We have seen recently how well that hydra-headed command structure worked in Afghanistan. Without the United States and its massive contributions of troops and equipment, NATO would be woefully ineffective. Without British and Canadian troops and equipment, it would be pathetic.

NATO is more a sign of resistance to and solidarity against former Soviet aggression than a vibrant alliance with an effective fighting force. It is more symbolic than real.

Second, as a symbol NATO has severe disadvantages. Its existence gives Europe a pretext and excuse for failing to undertake the hard work of adding foreign and military policy to the EU’s portfolio. The EU—especially the Euro Zone—has far more substance and reality than NATO ever had or ever will. Over 300 million people follow its rules and pay its taxes every day, and most of them also use its currency. It is high time for Europe to continue its process of peaceful integration and extend integration into the realm of foreign policy and closer military cooperation. NATO’s existence retards that process by providing an excuse for inaction and another bureaucracy with which to contend.

Finally, whether or not you believe the threat is real, NATO threatens Russia in Russians’ eyes. Even if not a threat, it is a symbolic affront to Russia, for it was created to contest Soviet domination of Europe. It has served that purpose admirably. Now may be the time to wind it down and seek more effective means of European cooperation and integration that can entice Russia to join and participate eagerly, without embarrassment, political or otherwise.

As for the Ukraine and Georgia, which now are the principals objects of desires to extend NATO, they will always be closer to Russia that to the West. For them, geography is destiny. As oil gets more expensive with economic recovery, they will naturally trade and do business more with Russia than with the west simply because they are there.

Of course we should support the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Ukraine and Georgia (and similarly situated nations) for self-rule, independence from Russia and democracy (if they want them). But the situation in the Ukraine and Georgia is far more complex than most Americans have analyzed. Both nations have strong cultural ties to Russia. Stalin came from Soviet Georgia, and the Ukraine’s capital, Kiev (Kyiv in Ukrainian), is an icon of Russian history. In addition, the Ukrainian language (though not Georgian) is close enough to Russian to allow both peoples to communicate and to learn each other’s tongues easily—about like Italian or Portuguese as compared to Spanish.

Most important of all, both countries have large ethnically Russian, Russian-speaking minorities. Most of these people didn’t come as soldiers or conquerors; they came as migrants for economic reasons or for warmer weather. At worst, they are victims of the mass displacement that Soviet “planning” wrought throughout the Eurasian Continent.

If we Americans are true to our own values, we ought to be as concerned about the civil rights and human rights of these Russian-speaking minorities as we are about the rights of the native majorities under whose hegemony they now find themselves. Saakashvili’s Georgia, for example, is no paragon of democracy and human rights; to pretend it is is nothing more than Cold War jingoism on our part.

Except for the speed with which it was achieved, there is little surprising about the concord in renewing and extending the SALT Agreement. The massive arsenals of nuclear weapons that each side has are not only unnecessary for deterrence. They are also expensive to guard and maintain, and they are extremely dangerous. Terrorists might seize them, or they might cause horrendous environmental damage in man-made or natural disasters. Most warheads contain plutonium, which is not only highly radioactive but one of the most toxic and carcinogenic substances known to science. Reducing these unnecessary expenses and risks to a reasonable minimum is in everyone’s financial and security interest.

The military overflights to Afghanistan are another story entirely. Although undoubtedly in Russia’s long-term interest, there is no immediate need for them in Russia and likely fierce domestic opposition. Putin and Medvedyev have put themselves out to accommodate us, our new President and our immediate pressing needs. If nothing else, that shows that they are serious about “resetting” the relationship.

We should work hard to find a reciprocal concession to prove that cooperation runs both ways. Reconsidering the future of NATO, an organization whose military effectiveness is doubtful, whose symbolic value is fading, and whose very existence is constraining European integration, might be just the thing.


04 July 2009

Independence Day

[For comment on Sarah Palin’s discordant swan song, click here.]

The Fourth of July is an odd holiday. Unlike Thanksgiving, it is not a day of quiet contemplation with family and close friends. It is a day of excess—of fireworks, of too much sun and grilled meat, of bombast, of self-congratulation and (in the worst of times) of breast-beating and jingoism.

Perhaps the time of year makes a difference. Thanksgiving comes at the end of fall, when failing light and warmth remind us of our human vulnerability and mortality. The Fourth comes in the heat of summer, when life seems easy, at least for the moment. The harvest is not yet in, and hot weather can stoke unfounded hope, ebullience, hubris and irrational exuberance.

In a way, that’s too bad. We have never needed quiet contemplation more. For we could be on the cusp of great renewal or greater decline. Our collective attitude will determine which.

This year we have more than the usual number of blessings to count. We still have our Declaration, with its promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and its assurance that “all men are created equal.”

This year those glowing words gleam more brightly than ever. We have a member of a once-enslaved minority in the White House, and he seems our wisest, smartest and most competent leader in many years. More than any words, those two facts prove the power of that promise of equality.

Today we sing the Star Spangled Banner. Its words recall the improbability of our experiment in democracy and justice. Its most indelible image comes in the chorus: our flag, tattered but still waving, in the dawn after a night’s fierce bombardment. Like that flag, we have enormous resilience as a people. Other societies endure paralysis and social stagnation. We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, renew ourselves, and do what must be done.

Like that flag, we have just survived a devastating bombardment of our own stupidity and greed. We seem to have avoided the worst, a complete economic collapse. We have learned the Great Depression’s lessons well. We turned to much-disparaged government to repair the excesses of an immoral and profligate age. We will probably need another stimulus, and we just may have the good sense to provide it.

Our anthem’s images of war recall other trials and sacrifices. This year we are on the way out of our second unnecessary war in two generations. We may even have turned that disaster into a partial success.

More important, our national trial taught us an enduring lesson. At last we have accepted Von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. We learned that killing the “enemy” is less important than protecting ordinary people and gaining their support. We understand that changing minds is both more right and more effective than destroying the bodies that house them.

Only days ago we began testing that truth in Afghanistan. We tasked our 4,000 marines in Helmand Province not with devastation, but with building communities.

That strategy is self evidently the right one. Why it took a nation founded on respect for the common person so long to discover it is a mystery of history. Whether we have the will, skill, patience and resources to follow it to a successful conclusion remains to be seen.

But what about here at home? How does our own ordinary citizen fare?

For forty years, we have abused our common citizen so that a small class of elite could grow richer and more powerful. And we have done so in a uniquely American way.

With advertising and so-called “public relations,” we have created human history’s most powerful and effective propaganda machine. By means of seductive calls to slippery abstractions, we have convinced whole swaths of ordinary people to vote against their own economic and social interests, again and again, year after year. And we have done so so subtly and earnestly that most of them don’t even know it. We have made Caesar and Goebbels look like pikers.

But abuse is abuse, and oppression is oppression, no matter how subtle they may be. In the richest and most powerful nation on earth—and the one conceived with the best intentions—common people are more insecure, more vulnerable to adversity, less healthy, less wealthy (compared to the elite) and more confused than many of their foreign peers and than they themselves have been in the last half century. Our massive propaganda apparatus has got them to believe lies that impair their health and threaten their future every day. Although massively discredited by recent history, still the propaganda machine grinds on.

And that’s why we find ourselves on the cusp today. We can turn away from the myths and propaganda. We can believe in ourselves again, incur the temporary debt we must, restore our middle class, repair our badly broken health-care system, and build new industries to save our planet and restore our industrial might. Or we can heed the propagandists, do nothing, and let the self-seeking paper shufflers drive last best hope of mankind into accelerating decline.

The choice is ours. We like our popular President, his easy manner, his brains and his good humor. But we have not yet accepted fully his wise leadership. The last forty years’ myths and propaganda still hold us in thrall. We know the path we have been on leads to ruin, but we blanch at stepping from the familiar into the unknown.

If we can take that hard step—if we can have the faith in ourselves that has always distinguished Americans—we will earn an independence that we sorely need. We will be independent of self-interested propaganda. We will grow independent of foreign oil. We will become independent of fear about our health—to the extent that the world’s greatest medical technology permits. And we will restore the pragmatism and common sense that have characterized us as a people since De Tocqueville’s time.

Now that would be an Independence Day to cherish forever! Maybe next year.

Sarah and Sonia: A Post-Fourth Note

There is one more thing we’re now blessedly independent of that I didn’t mention: Sarah Palin.

Mareen Dowd nailed it today. Palin isn’t planning some secret political cabal for 2012. She hasn’t a trace of the brains—let alone the discipline and stamina—of an Obama or a Hillary Clintion. She failed to gain national glory in a single year, so she’s taking her marbles and going home. Good riddance!

It’s a mystery how “conservatives” could have considered Palin for national public office for more than a microsecond. She’s everything true conservatives detest. She’s an ignoramus who scorns education and expertise. She knows nothing about history or our national values. She has no persistence or perseverance; she expects instant success in everything she does. She’s an “American Idol” sort of American.

Like an eager but unprepared ingénue, Palin got “discovered” for her big break. But she found the path steeper after leaving a state with fewer people than (as one blog commenter put it) a good concert in Central Park.

Those who think Palin is a champion of the Second Amendment should think again. Most Alaskans don’t shoot for sport or self-protection; they shoot for meat. A moose or caribou can feed a family for an entire winter, at the price of one bullet if you shoot straight.

Most immigrants to Alaska didn’t go there to make the world better; they went there to escape it. For those of us old enough to remember, the fringe that Palin personifies recalls an earlier fringe forty years ago: the hippies. Except for the fundamentalist religion and right-wing ideology, it’s all the same: the narcissism, the escapism, the boundless ignorance, the unfounded moral superiority, the lack of discipline, the irresponsibility—even saddling kids with odd names that will haunt them the rest of their lives. If you visited San Francisco’s infamous Haight-Ashbury District in the sixties, you’ve seen it all before.

Palinites are hippies with Bibles and guns. If history runs true, they’ll lead the Republicans over the same political cliff and into the same forty-year political wilderness as the hippies led the Democrats two generations ago.

Conservatives, indeed! True conservatives, from Alexander Hamilton to Teddy Roosevelt, would convulse with laughter or terror at the thought of Palin in the White House. Probably even Barry Goldwater would. (Reagan the Actor I’m not so sure about. He cut his teeth on show business, and he wasn’t very bright.)

If you want to see a woman who has lived conservative values, look at someone else much in the news lately: Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Raised in a housing project by a single mother, she kept her eye on the ball. She excelled in school, got herself into Princeton and Yale Law (the nation’s most selective law school), got experience in prosecution, corporate law, and civil rights and only then took a seat on the bench.

Unlike Palin, Sotomayor paid her dues. She delayed gratification for decades of serious study, hard work, patience and discipline. She didn’t look for glory in a single year.

Judge Sotomayor has gotten lots of flack for her “wise Latina woman” remark. But I think I know what was on her mind when she made it. When she first went to Princeton, it was mostly male and lily white. She was all alone and alienated, feeling the homesickness and insecurity that every freshman feels. But there was a difference: there was no one like her on campus to share her stories and her pain.

No doubt she called home and friends tearfully may times during that tough first year. I’ll bet dollars to donuts some wise Latina woman—probably her mother—told her, “Stick with it, kid! Don’t quit! Make something of yourself!”

Anyone one who’d prefer Palin as a role model to Sotomayor is smoking something awfully strong. Maybe that’s being “conservative” today, but it’s not what the word meant when I was growing up.


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01 July 2009

Early Dog Days

The dog days of summer are supposed to come in August, when heat and humidity get oppressive, most summer vacations are over, and there’s nothing to do but sweat and stink and look forward to fall.

But in politics and public policy the dog days are here right now. We had a little summer titillation with Mark Sanford’s true confessions. We had a little jolt of hope with Iran’s incipient peaceful revolution. But now we’ve got to live with the truth that Iran’s future depends on Iranians, and South Carolina has to live with Mark Sanford at least until he resigns.

Besides those two short-lived novelties, we are left with the same dumb disputes that we had two years ago, before the presidential campaign. Some ostriches still deny climate change, or maybe their coffers are so full of coal-industry money that they can only say “no.” Some seem to want the President to fail just for the spite of it, and if the Earth cooks it won’t happen on their watch anyway. That’s carrying anti-Bill Clinton vindictiveness a step beyond.

The very same folks (mostly Republicans) are trying to kill health-care reform again by spouting the same old three big lies—government incompetence, bureaucratic control, and consumer choice. They confuse the public by citing a price tag of over a trillion dollars.

But that price tag is for ten years. Since when have we ever priced government programs on a ten-year basis? Not since I was a kid, about half a century ago. But the nay sayers managed to make it stick. God, these guys are good!

If you price health care on an annual basis, it will cost about $100 billion. That’s pocket change today. We allocated seven times that much to TARP, put almost eight times that much into stimulus and will have spent almost as much on GM and Chrysler. Isn’t the health of our economy (which depends on health-care reform) and the health of 47 million people worth as much? Ya think an eleven trillion dollar economy can afford one percent to get health-care right?

Polls says the numbers on these issues have changed a few percentage points, but no one really seems to have wised up. The demagogues sure know their trade.

Thank God for the President’s patience! Besides making tough calls on North Korea and Afghanistan and temporizing on Iran, most of his job today consists of explaining to idiots things that anyone with half a brain would have taken away from last year’s campaign. Our Earth is cooking because we burn too much coal, and America must lead because no one else will. If we don’t catch up with the rest of the world on health care, our heavy industry and our economic leadership will disappear, just like most of our auto industry. Our standard of living will follow.

How the President—a man of extraordinary intelligence—can explain the same things over and over, day after day, and not lose his heart or his sanity is beyond me. I’d love to hear him address teachers of retarded students; I’ll bet he would have instant rapport.

Some say Obama had his “Dukakis moment” the other day. He admitted he would dip into his big stash of well-earned royalties to pay for Michelle’s or the kids’ health care if necessary. His detractors, who never seem to quit, say that admission undermined his support for a government insurance option.

But unlike Mike Dukakis, Obama got it right both ways, emotionally and politically. Of course anyone with money would pay for the best health care he could afford when his loved ones need it. But the larger truth is that private health care will never go away. Every country with a single-payer system—even Russia—has a robust system of private doctors and hospitals for those who can afford them. The rich will never lack good health care anywhere. What’s at stake is whether ordinary people can get to see a doctor when they need one.

Why ordinary people let the demagogues and propagandists keep them from seeing that simple fact, year after year, is a mystery beyond my comprehension. Either the propagandists are really good at what they do, or the American people are extraordinarily thick. Maybe it’s a combination of both.

While on the subject of being extraordinarily thick, have you heard about the Latino activists who want to boycott the 2010 census? After decades of trying to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, they want to put them there permanently and officially. They want them not to be counted for purposes of federal aid to states and localities, or for representation of their numbers in congressional, state, county and city elections. So even if they become citizens, their votes won’t count as much. Don’t they realize that Republicans got their erstwhile lock on Congress and several state legislatures by just such means? Are they eager to become co-conspirators in Republican gerrymandering? Do they even know what the word means?

You can’t fire activists because they appoint themselves. But these guys are so dumb they might as well be working for Rush Limbaugh. They win my “do what I say or I’ll shoot myself in the head” award hands down.

So that’s what we’ve been reduced to here in July, just before Independence Day: more theater of the absurd. Sanford smolders with suppressed love. Iran temporizes while the climate heats up and Rome burns. Health care and climate change hang in the balance, waiting for the stupid to get smart or the dishonest to repent.

You wonder whether people think anymore and whether politicians talk so much because they just like to make noise. Maybe swine flu affects the brain, even a light dose.

The only sweet note is Al Franken, and you have to wonder whether the comedian knows how to be serious. His vote will help, but it won’t be decisive.

The dog days are here already, and it’s only going to get hotter.


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