Monday, December 29, 2008

Vacation Notice

A Musing? is on vacation. See you soon!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Information Age Revolution is a Bigger Deal than You Thought

The internet is revolutionizing economic production and human relations. I'm not sure that there has ever been one machine that has so clearly revolutionized both of these phenomena simultaneously.

That concurrence of phenomena is revolutionary in extraordinary ways. Information technology is therefore transforming not only how we view work and how we view relationships but also how we view the relationship between the two.

The relationship between work and human relationships is one of the central questions of history. Namely, how is productive activity helped or hindered by the impulse to connect with other human beings?

Information technology is beginning to make us optimistic about the economic potential inherent in cooperative, creative relationship. That optimism is politically profound in that it calls into question the paradigm of human society that focuses on the role of the ruler vis-รก-vis the ruled.

It is no coincidence that this reevaluation is happening at a time at which we can finally imagine that it is possible to care for the basic needs of all of humanity. Rather, that fact, the fact of plenty, affords us the comfort and confidence to re-imagine social relationships. At the same time, of course, information technology is partly responsible for the explosion of wealth that makes such a reality imaginable.

This revolution in social relationships has the potential to call forth an age of prosperity and peace that has been beyond our hopes. This is partly because information technology so clearly demands the mindset of cooperative thinking and so clearly highlights the potential inherent in the development of human capital.

Marx postulated that an age of cooperative production would be ushered in by the rise of the proletariat, the working classes. He did not, however, spend a great deal of time outlining the process by which the masses could prepare themselves to lead and organize society. His focus was on cooperation but not on the creative potential that has to be nourished to make cooperation worthwhile and productive. It is no surprise that Russia was never able to organize a society based on worker's empowerment: The workers were not sophisticated enough to run society. Inevitably, elites took over. Such elite control was inevitably, too, subject to corruption.

The rise of the paradigm of cooperative, creative production is at least as important as which class rules society. Information technology has highlighted, even to hardened capitalists and self-promoting entrepreneurs, the importance of developing human capital. This fact should not be dismissed with cynicism. Rather, it points to the forces of this age and should be seized upon accordingly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Sovereign Wealth Funds represent an attempt by states to benefit from markets but also have the potential to inject political considerations into macroeconomics. Is this inherently a bad thing? Free trade orthodoxy might say so. But, where is the bright line that distinguishes the familiar economic collective of individuals (i.e. the corporation) from the economic collective we call the state? In other words, will the time come at which free citizens endorse increased activity of such funds in the name of economic well-being? Will future citizens of the world look back and have difficulty understanding the distinction between capitalism and socialism?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What Do Financial Markets Tell Us about Ourselves?

Financial markets are like the mirror of mankind, revealing every hour of every working day the way we value ourselves and the resources of the world around us.

It is not the fault of the mirror if it reflects our blemishes as clearly as our beauty.
(Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money)

What do you think the financial crisis is telling us?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Foreign Policy Prediction

Obama's cool veneer on foreign policy issues still hasn't been matched by a convincing agenda: "Be gentler and wiser." does not a strategy make, even when paired with a great deal of detailed knowledge.

I have enough confidence in Obama to believe that he is capable of coming around to a progressive, but realistic strategy. The question is: How much pain will intervene? Furthermore, foreign policy difficulties could be the specter that haunts the Obama administration: It all depends on Obama's learning curve and the pace of world events.

My prediction is that Obama will eventually come around to a global stabilization policy that rests on stronger concerted action between democracies. He could certainly accomplish this, if he wished to, while maintaining the least combative stance possible towards authoritarian regimes.

My instincts tell me that Obama's conciliatory nature, and Democratic biases, will lead him to favor gentle diplomacy with rogue regimes. I suspect that this will bear some fruit but that it will also encourage some destabilization: some nations will be encouraged by Obama's caution. The logic of democratic convergence will eventually make itself clear and Obama will be capable of discerning as much. Will it be too late for him? I hope and suspect not but cannot rule out the possibility.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Community Organizing in Government

Obama's background as a community organizer is showing itself in his governing style. Today, for instance, (1) I received an e-mail from the Obama camp with a video responding to the prolific community discussion on health care found on the change.gov website. The e-mail talked about the importance of transparency and engagement and still refers to Obama, at times, as "Barack." Very heimish (warm, friendly). (2) Additionally, Obama took the opportunity of his meeting today with the National Governor's Association to ask for their feedback about how to spend stimulus money:
The meeting with the governors was "unprecedented," said Gov. Edward Rendell (D) of Pennsylvania, in that it was the first time a transition team for an incoming administration reached out to state governors to ask their help in crafting a national agenda. Forty-three of 50 states are facing serious deficits.


It looks like we have our first "information age" president.

The Nation-State and Global Integration

A few questions about strains on the power and efficacy of the nation-state:

(a) Does the global financial crisis call for international management of, say, currency exchange rates?

(b) Do globalization and the near-global triumph of capitalism undermine the greatest incentive (namely, international competition, respectively, among capitalist powers and between capitalist and non-capitalist powers) for leading capitalists to attend to the well-being of those who are not succeeding?

(c) Do global warming and other environmental strains demand an internationally-coordinated response that cannot entirely be managed by one nation-state?

My answer to all of these questions is 'yes' and points to the growing importance of international cooperation to solve many of our most pressing problems. I am not arguing that states are not strong. Neither am I am arguing necessarily for inter-governmental cooperation to solve these problems (although, such will sometimes be vital). Rather, I am arguing that a global perspective is becoming of greater importance. In due time, I believe that such a perspective will become the dominant paradigm, superseding the nation-state paradigm.

It is no coincidence that this pattern of integration presents itself as we find ourselves in a world in which everyone can be lifted out of poverty and in which universal education can be imagined. These goals can be achieved because (a) the global economy is sufficiently integrated to distribute basic goods, services, and skills to those in need of them, (b) globalization and the near-triumph of capitalism have led to a global economy in which human capital is of ever-greater economic value, and (c) environmental challenges force us to focus on how we can develop wealth without solely relying on materials. The best answers to this question are the development of technology and of human capital.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Emerging Independent Judiciary in Iraq

Briefly:

Here’s a story you don’t see very often. Iraq’s highest court told the Iraqi Parliament last Monday that it had no right to strip one of its members of immunity so he could be prosecuted for an alleged crime: visiting Israel for a seminar on counterterrorism. The Iraqi justices said the Sunni lawmaker, Mithal al-Alusi, had committed no crime and told the Parliament to back off.


Read more.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Impressed by Obama

Obama's strategy thus far, on three major issues, can be characterized as "focus, continue, and engage." The broad outlines are perfectly elegant.

Specifically:

+focus on the economy: little explanation is needed here. Obama has managed to include many major advisors in his administration: Geithner at Treasury, Summers at the National Economic Council, Goolsbee and Volcker on a special recovery taskforce.

+continue with the late second-term Bush approach to foreign policy: The caution here is reassuring to me and seems that it will be generally endured by those further to the left on such issues.

+engage on health care: Obama has chosen to extend internet democracy first to the discussion about health care. This is wise because (a) he can thus engage activists, and perhaps even temper their expectations as they are forced to wrestle with real world issues, even while he postpones immmediate action and (b) he may actually be able to glean a few good ideas as discussants will be able to sift the 'wheat from the chaff' through a participant-run ratings system.

Very impressed.

An Ironic Aspect of the Economic Crisis

One of the perceived causes of the crisis is that Americans do not save enough. Interestingly, many stimulus packages are designed to work only if Americans spend the money that they save.

American Competitiveness

Brooks on Michael Porter, of Harvard Business School, and his suggested response to the economic crisis:

Porter wrote that the U.S. economy has historically benefited from several great assets: an unparalleled environment for entrepreneurialism, a tremendous infrastructure for scientific research, the world’s best universities, a strong commitment to competition and free markets, decentralized regional economies, and efficient capital markets.

But, Porter continued, these advantages are starting to erode. The U.S. has an inadequate rate of reinvestment in science and technology. America’s confidence in free markets is waning. Lack of regulatory oversight has undermined capital markets. Universities have not sufficiently increased graduation rates. American workers do not have a credible safety net. Regulations and litigation have inflated the cost of business. Most important, there is no long-term economic strategy to organize responses to these problems.

Condolences

My condolences to the people of India, a vibrant and justifiably confident democracy. Of course, it is sad again to see fellow Jews targeted in a disconcertingly familiar episode.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama and Russia

I agree.

Obama enters office signaling that he will continue the policies of President Bush's late second term in Iraq and Afghanistan, and key architects of those policies, starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will likely keep their jobs. That would leave Russia as the unexpected laboratory for Obama to shape his own foreign policy.


Read more.

Monday, November 24, 2008

GM, New Deal, Etc.

My apologies for my short-term hiatus.

This clip from "This Week with George Stephanpolous" presents interesting discussion about the role of the government vis-a-vis GM and infrastructure projects. The most intriguing idea, though perhaps not presented in the most substantive way possible during this particular interview, is David Brooks discussion of the importance of supporting social networks in the era of an economy dependent on human capital.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Dollop of Buyer's Remorse

I'm not feeling too happy about Obama's advocacy of a GM bailout, especially since it's one of his first economic moves. I don't like the trends it symbolizes.

From newser.com (which reports on Krauthammer and Brooks):

American prosperity relies on creative destruction—the failure of nonviable companies and their replacement by defter rivals. The government endeavors to protect the worker in periods of transition, writes David Brooks in the New York Times, but not the firms themselves. That’s why the auto-industry bailout is a bad idea: Extending the life of the Big Three means preserving their unworkable business models.

The financial bailout ensured that the system itself continued to function, Brooks writes, but “a federal cash infusion will not infuse wisdom into management” at GM, Chrysler and Ford. Charles Krauthammer, in the Washington Post, agrees, writing that the Detroit bailout underlines philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats: “In this crisis, we agree to suspend the invisible hand of Adam Smith— but not in order to be crushed by the heavy hand of government.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Provocative, but Worth Considering

Thomas Sowell writes:

Barack Obama has the kind of cocksure confidence that can only be achieved by not achieving anything else.

Anyone who has actually had to take responsibility for consequences by running any kind of enterprise-- whether economic or academic, or even just managing a sports team-- is likely at some point to be chastened by either the setbacks brought on by his own mistakes or by seeing his successes followed by negative consequences that he never anticipated.


The kind of self-righteous self-confidence that has become Obama's trademark is usually found in sophomores in Ivy League colleges-- very bright and articulate students, utterly untempered by experience in real world.

The signs of Barack Obama's self-centered immaturity are painfully obvious, though ignored by true believers who have poured their hopes into him, and by the media who just want the symbolism and the ideology that Obama represents.

The triumphal tour of world capitals and photo-op meetings with world leaders by someone who, after all, was still merely a candidate, is just one sign of this self-centered immaturity.

"This is our time!" he proclaimed. And "I will change the world." But ultimately this election is not about him, but about the fate of this nation, at a time of both domestic and international peril, with a major financial crisis still unresolved and a nuclear Iran looming on the horizon.

For someone who has actually accomplished nothing to blithely talk about taking away what has been earned by those who have accomplished something, and give it to whomever he chooses in the name of "spreading the wealth," is the kind of casual arrogance that has led to many economic catastrophes in many countries.

A Watershed Moment for Gay Marriage?

The Republican mayor of San Diego, a relatively conservative city, breaks down in this poignant video as he endorses the legalization of gay marriage.

The aesthetics are powerful: Mayor Sanders presents as a genuine, straightforward man who has deep love and concern for gay San Diegans. I think that the symbolism of the man, his city, and his party will help to catalyze a significant change in the political context on this issue over the next few years.

If you'd like to support the mayor, for whom this process has been difficult, you can contact him here.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Media and Obama

Victor Davis Hanson:

Imagine the reaction of the New York Times or the Washington Post had John McCain renounced his promise to participate in public campaign financing, proceeded instead to amass $600 million and outraise the publicly financed Barack Obama four-to-one, and begun airing special 30-minute unanswered infomercials during the last week of the campaign.


I don't agree with all of the points in this article (especially the section about Palin) but do find compelling the sections about the media's treatment of campaign finance and Obama's associations.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Scariest Palin Clip Yet

Palin recently mocked fruit fly research at an autism conference, even though such research has provided indispensable genetic knowledge and insights into autism itself.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kagan on Europe: A Spicy Interview

Here are excerpts from a spicy interview with Robert Kagan in Der Spiegel. I particularly enjoyed the incisiveness of his critiques of European political blindnesses.

First:

Kagan: Correct. And, in that respect, ever since the surge, the additional troops we sent, there have been great successes…

SPIEGEL: …which are undeniable, though not necessarily sustainable. And this results primarily from the fact that the US government is paying bribes to tens of thousands of Sunni fighters to turn their backs on al-Qaida and no longer attack US troops.

Kagan: The money is really not the main issue. The issue is the entire new US military strategy, which establishes security and dramatically improves the lives of people. The New York Times recently reported that the overwhelming majority of al-Qaida terrorists have abandoned Iraq as a safe haven and that they are joining their fellow insurgents in Afghanistan.

SPIEGEL: The terrorists are undoubtedly concentrated in Afghanistan and in the border region with Pakistan, and some are certainly going to those places from Iraq. But this is not an entirely new development. The war against terrorism should have been waged in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, as Obama has said.

Kagan: You cannot acknowledge our successes in Iraq because Europeans can never admit that Bush is doing something right.


And:
SPIEGEL: An overwhelming majority of Europeans want to see Barack Obama become president…

Kagan: Yes, of the United States, although they would never elect someone like that in their own countries. But I understand the Europeans. I too believe that Obama would be an exciting choice, given America’s history. But also a risky one. He has no foreign policy experience compared with McCain, who has been to Europe dozens of times and is intimately familiar with world problems.

Monday, October 27, 2008

End of an Era: Free Market Orthodoxy Is No Longer Ascendant

Agree or not, the following exchange signals the end of a 28-year era of American politics in which free market orthodoxy defined the terms of domestic debate:

“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”

Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”


Read more.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Election: Summing It Up

I wish that I could say it this well.

Leon Wieseltier:

McCain feels with his heart, but he thinks with his base. And when he picked Sarah Palin, he told the United States of America to go fuck itself. I used to think of my dilemma this way: Obama's conception of America is better than he is, McCain's conception of America is worse than he is. But McCain is looking more and more like his America, which is Bush's America: a country of capitalists and Christians. I do not know how to explain what has become of him. . .

Obama is a smart man. He is a decent man. He is an undangerous man, in the manner of all pragmatists and opportunists. He reveres reason, though he often confuses it with conversation. His domestic goals are good, though the titans of American finance, the greedy geniuses of Wall Street, may have made many of those goals fantastic. He will see to it that some liberalism survives at the Supreme Court. This leaves only the rest of the world. What a time for a novice! I dread the prospect of Obama's West Wing education in foreign policy: even when he spoke well about these matters in the debates, it all sounded so new to him, so light. He must not mistake the global adulation of his person with the end of anti-Americanism. And he must not mistake his hope for the world with his analysis of the world. But OK, then: Obama, and another anxious visit to the ballot box, with--in the stinging words of Du Bois--"a hope not hopeless but unhopeful."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

GEOPOLITICS, FINANCE, AND EDUCATION

In the upcoming weeks, world leaders will meet to begin to consider a new financial architecture for the world.

If they fail to found a cooperative framework, the threat of protectionism, economic decline, and the associated political challenges (which would not be small, and could be frightening) will be our biggest challenges.

If they succeed (as I suspect that they will), we will have taken a noticeable step to a more integrated world in which conflict between large nations becomes somewhat less likely. Challenges would still remain in that regard, to be sure, not least the endurance of petrodictatorships. Still, new issues will, after such a success, begin to come to the fore. I believe that one of the boldest dividing lines in a more stable (I take small group terrorism into account here.), integrated world will be the divide between the information technologically-able and the informational technologically-challenged. The would increase the importance of education, relative to international relations, as a defining issue for geopolitical stability.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Spread the Wealth Around"

A propos of Obama's comment to a voter that he intends to 'spread the wealth around,' I would suggest that that comment will not prove as incendiary as it may have in an earlier age. For the time being (at least) the federal bailout has broken the US taboo of respect for individual responsibility. In a financial climate that reminds us of our interdependence, the concept that helping those in modest circumstances may be (even financially) beneficial to us all (expressed by Obama, though not as widely reported as his less politic, and less rigorous, statement, above) is not as seditious as it once might have seemed.

Conservatives and Liberals, Culture and Politics, US and Iraq

An excerpt from a note I recently wrote to Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of "What Makes People Vote Republican?":

Your article on on "What Makes People Vote Republican?" should be read at every dinner party here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I quoted you extensively on my blog and, in conjunction with the Palin selection, much discussion was stimulated.

An interesting connection might be drawn between (simply put), on the one hand, the liberal focus on politics and conservative focus on culture and, on the other hand, the neoconservative (at least) focus on reforming Iraqi political arrangements and the liberal tendency to focus on, so to speak, "the long, careful evolution of culture that prepares the ground for democracy." I would argue that conservative sensitivity to cultural development leads to the supposition that cultural arrangements are the crowning achievement of political development, and that the inverted (no connotation intended here) liberal relationship to culture and politics, leads to the opposite conclusion.

Intimations of a New Global Order

David Ignatius:
The new interventionism isn't so much socialist as it is Confucian -- a belief that a public-private partnership of the wise ones will get us out of the mess. And if it's any consolation, the Chinese are becoming more like us, even as we are becoming more like them. . . .

One hopeful sign last week was that the Chinese were moving toward private ownership, even as America and Europe were moving away from it. The Chinese government announced a new rural policy aimed at allowing millions of farmers to own the land they have been working. This would create a huge new reserve of private wealth in China, which could power domestic spending and growth. [Read more.]


A focal point of this new order, which I will explain further later, will be the development of the economic potential of the mass of producers. The innovation will be that such focus will be justified in terms of the promotion of prosperity, not just through appeals to social justice.

A few suggested conversation topics:
What positive effects can you imagine coming out of the crisis?
Can democratic institutions respond to crisis with coherence?
What aspect of the financial crisis would you focus on if you were Paulson?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Iceland and China

. . . the government of Iceland is presiding over a massive default by all the country's major banks. This troubling development points not only to an even more painful recession than anticipated, but also to the urgent need for international coordination to avoid something worse: all-out financial warfare.

. . . Iceland's promise to guarantee domestic depositors while reneging on guarantees to foreigners may be just a first step. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's decision last week to sue Iceland over this issue may escalate the crisis. The use of counterterrorist legislation to take over Icelandic bank assets and operations in the United Kingdom also has a potentially dramatic symbolic effect. (Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, "The Next World War? It Could Be Financial." The Washington Post, 10/12/08.)


There's a reason that the gestures by the US government have not sufficed to reassure financial markets: the US is no longer the unquestioned command and control center of the global economy. We have to take the imaginative leap that integrates rising developing nations into our paradigm of economic management.

Peter Boone and Simon Johnson, in today's Washington Post, point to the depth of the financial crisis in bracing detail but, unsurprisingly, fall back on nostrums about the power of the "the world's leading financial powers -- at a minimum, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany" to reassure markets. Am I naive, or does US to China (between $1.5 and $2 trillion, I believe) qualify China as an important financier? How can anyone be sure that the Chinese, given their own fragile politics, will support any plan that comes from the West in a time of financial crisis?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Broader Perspective on the Financial Crisis

The response to this financial crisis will be both economic and geopolitical. The Great Depression called into question the stark laissez-faire approach of the industrial revolution and its aftermath. The US stepped into global leadership after World War II by leading the construction of a global financial system that has done a very good job at promoting stability and growth.

The change that we are facing now is not essentially about investment banks, mortgage lenders, or homebuyers. Rather, it reflects the transition of the global economy to an era in which the US cannot be the only hub at the center of the wheel.

C. Fred Bergsten and Arvind Subramanian, in today's Washington Post, help to explain how this process underlies the more obvious signs of crisis.

Beyond the short term, countries will need to develop a cooperative framework to prevent and resolve such crises, most urgently within Europe. There is inherent tension as finance becomes global but its regulation remains national. The current crisis originated in the United States but was importantly affected by massive savings surpluses in some countries and the resulting surfeit of liquidity, which drove down interest rates and encouraged irresponsible lending here. Those international imbalances were in turn partly caused by misaligned exchange rates. Global oversight of both financial regulation and currencies can no longer be neglected.


One way to understand this is that China, most importantly, has artificially increased its capital reserves by preventing its currency from appreciating to its correct market value. China sells more exports than it otherwise would, and buys fewer imports than it otherwise would. Ultimately, the Chinese money does make it back to the US, but in the form of payments for Treasury Bills (This is due to a Chinese concern about inflation as well as a concern that excess capital would lead to social unrest and/or uncontrollable wealth flows that could weaken Communist Party control.).

Simply put, it seems to me that the net consequence is that cash comes to the US Treasury rather than to, among others, US producers. The cash in the Treasury was then ultimately lent out at low interest rates, creating investment opportunities in a society in which wages were not appreciated significantly (because of, among other reasons, the fact that American products were not easily sold to countries that have maintained a high exchange rate of local currency to dollars).

The predicament in which consumers cannot afford appreciating assets in reminiscent of the pre-Depression years in which consumers could not afford proliferating production. The similar increase in consumer credit is an unsurprising result.

Essentially, a change in global financial architecture is needed, not only for the reasons mentioned by the authors, above, but also so that the US can benefit most fully from concentrating on the development of its human capital, the long-term sine qua non for economic growth and political stability.

Concerns about political stability should not be minimized. The inherent tensions between communities constituting a democratic society are generously lubricated by growing wealth. The sense of chaos that can percolate through a society in the absence of such a scenario lends itself to exploitation by authoritarian-minded regimes. I do not think that the US is on the brink of such a scenario but the 20th century taught us well that farflung events can have a dramatic impact on our society.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Irresponsibility in Government

There are many criticisms that can be made about the consequences to the market of a federal bailout (see George Will today, for instance) but I am certainly willing to take the lead of Paulson, Warren Buffett, etc.

Nonetheless, I do not credit most House Republicans with being thoughtful free marketeers. The sequence of events over the last week suggests that many had trouble understanding the crisis and that political calculation was predominant aspect of their thinking, despite the serious crisis. Michael Gerson points out, additionally, the many Democrats made similar calculations and that Pelosi's prevote speech was exceptionally poorly considered.

All in all, I agree with Gerson's estimation that the current political crisis in more frightening than the economic crisis:

America is left with one portion of one branch of government that does not seem to work. House Democrats seem temperamentally incapable of building genuine consensus on issues that matter. Many House Republicans seem so alienated from the mainstream policy consensus that they inhabit a different world. One wonders if any emergency short of an invasion of American territory would unite them. Even then, Pelosi would probably blame the conflict on cowboy diplomacy, House Republicans would talk of the natural fruits of McGovernism, and the vote on declaring war would be close.

Though some compromise may eventually be passed, it is now clear that American political elites have lost the ability to quickly respond to a national challenge by imposing their collective will. What once seemed like politics as usual now seems more like the crisis of the Articles of Confederation -- a weak government populated by small men. And this must be more frightening to a world dependent on American stability than any bank failure.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cincinnatus

Perhaps you know the Roman legend of Cincinnatus, the farmer-cum-dictator, who led his country in war and then returned, peaceably to the plow afterwards.

Our modern day Cincinnates (if you will) are Bernanke and Paulson who, though not dictators, are to be expected to control large amounts of capital with great financial consequence. The stark image of these two men crafting policy of great import, with limited outside involvement, reminds me of a section of Friedman's book: "China for a Day." In that section, Friedman daydreams about the potentialities of American creativity that would be unleashed if our government, fractured and unfocused as it is, could call for the bold changes in energy policy that China regularly has, at least, begun to do.

The scenario laid out by David Brooks (see below) could have been predicted by Aristotle, who diagnosed the weaknesses of democracy. Will our Cincinnatus, and their associated class of financial mandarins, go their way quietly when their work is done?


Two predictions:

1) Strong financial authority, provided to elites of that system, will supersede some of the authority of our populist leaders, caught up in the politics of fundraising and reelection. It will also lead to the responsible investing in America's energy, infrastructure, and human capital that is so vital right now.

2) Centralization inevitably leads to abuses of power. Expect, in say, ten years' time, a movement to arise to confront the smugness of a self-satisfied financial elite that, if all goes well, will have saved the country from a host of economic pitfalls.


Finally, the Brooks quote:

And lo and behold, a new center and a new establishment is emerging.

The Paulson rescue plan is one chapter. But there will be others. Over the next few years, the U.S. will have to climb out from under mountainous piles of debt. Many predict a long, gray recession. The country will not turn to free-market supply-siders. Nor will it turn to left-wing populists. It will turn to the safe heads from the investment banks. . . .

The government will be much more active in economic management (pleasing a certain sort of establishment Democrat). Government activism will provide support to corporations, banks and business and will be used to shore up the stable conditions they need to thrive (pleasing a certain sort of establishment Republican). Tax revenues from business activities will pay for progressive but business-friendly causes — investments in green technology, health care reform, infrastructure spending, education reform and scientific research.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life of Mind, Life of Body

A poetic selection from a Victor Davis Hanson article that draws the conclusion (incorrectly, I think) that Palin is qualified for the presidency:

While civilization advances on the shoulders of the educated, it is carried along by the legs of the muscular classes. And the latter are not there by some magical IQ test or a natural filtering process that separates the wheat from the chaff, but rather by either birth, or, as often, by their preference for action and the physical world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Carbon Tax

I am for a carbon tax.

I just completed Tom Friedman's "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" and I am convinced that (1) society has to pay for the externalities (an economic term related to costs effected by, but not calculated into, a transaction or activity) due to carbon emissions, (2) that a predictable market for alternative energy development is necessary for high investment therein, (3) that countries that move ahead rapidly with the development of cleaner energy will be at an advantage in the future, and (4) that the US is behind many other industrialized nations in this race.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Financial Crisis and Isolationism

A friend today said to me, "Maybe we should be willing to spend extra money to buy American-made products. The Chinese are going to fund our new government intervention in the economy but we should be taking care of ourselves."

I think that this sentiment is exactly misleading. Our weaknesses are tied, in part, to our failure to recognize that we need to market ourselves to the world. Turning inward would be a temporary salve but would actually be the harbinger of gradual economic and political decline.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Class in America

The issue of why class politics, as such, have not taken a strong hold on the United States is much debated by socialists, Marxists, etc.

Here are two theories with which I'm familiar:

+ The vast resources (through the land itself and, later, through global power) of the country have helped to temper class resentments.

+The racial divide has prevented a strong unification of the working class.

Its interesting to note that the United States has long (since, at least, the late 19th century) had a relatively large proportion of "tertiary workers." This categories those who are neither owners of capital nor "professionals" nor factory laborers but who work, for instance, in "offices, shops, and services" (Hobsbawm, "The Age of Empire," p.115. New York: Vintage, 1989.)

Historically, such tertiary workers tend to be less class conscious than, say, factory workers and certain segments thereof tend to be open to cultural appeals for purity and righteousness.

A certain segment of the labor movement (Change to Win, since 2005) under the leadership of the Service Employees International Union has, in recent years, refocused efforts to organize the type of service workers that, in various forms, characterize American labor history. They have had some success but the jury is still out on whether a strong labor movement can be built from that millieu.

What's your point of view? What's the future of America's working and service classes?

Palin and Culture, Pt. III

From Jonathan Haidt, who appears to be very interested in helping Democrats garner more electoral success:

. . . the second rule of moral psychology is that morality is not just about how we treat each other (as most liberals think); it is also about binding groups together, supporting essential institutions, and living in a sanctified and noble way. When Republicans say that Democrats "just don't get it," this is the "it" to which they refer.


From Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal, via my brother, Jeremy:

As a result of all this intellectual tumult, one stark distinction stands out among the differences between contemporary liberals and conservatives (the real differences, not the manufactured ones). Liberals always think that there is something broken in politics. Conservatives always think that there is something wrong with the culture.

These conflicting urgencies have given the conservatives mostly the upper hand for over a quarter of a century. Since culture is more immediate to us than the abstract policies and principles of politics -- and seemingly more dependable than politics' often fluid expediencies -- a politics of culture is going to be more successful than mere politics. For many people, the idea that Republican politics are wholly responsible for the country's ills is hard to accept. You can't feel politics. Rather, such people blame a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility for the deepening malaise (the word that sank President Carter among liberals who thought they smelled a Christian conservative in progressive clothing). You experience selfishness and irresponsibility in the flesh every day.

A shout out . . .

. . . to my Amusers ("readers") in Georgia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. You're my first in those states.

"Green and Flat"

Could renewable energy somehow connect to the integration of the global poor into the global economy?

Friedman argues, in "Hot, Flat, and Crowded," that, just as developing countries, lacking infrastructure, leapfrogged over the age of landline telephony directly into cellphone usage, so, too, do they need to leapfrog (at least in large measure) the age of centrally organized 'dirty' power into decentralized solar, wind, etc. power. He writes of a rural Indian village that powers internet-based employment with solar power. Interestingly, he notes, some town residents had lived in the city but returned, in spite of somewhat lower salaries, so that they could enjoy the openness of the countryside, the culture and family ties of their youth, etc.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Palin and the Cultural Divide

My Palin post has generated the first inklings of "A Musing?" debate so allow me to harness that horse . . .

A few thoughts on the cultural divide that has been highlighted by reactions to Palin (If this issue interests you, do not miss the Haidt piece discussed below.):

+I believe that the 60's student movement brought many important issues to the fore. I do also believe that it announced the 'divorce' of the elite student from the "ho-hum conventions of American life" (as many of the students saw it) and accordingly helped to lay the groundwork for the deep misunderstandings that we read about today.

+The elites, in my opinion, were taking advantage of their class privileges and have become accordingly self-involved. Judith Warner, in the New York Times:

[University of Virginia associate professor of moral psychology Jonathan] Haidt has conducted research in which liberals and conservatives were asked to project themselves into the minds of their opponents and answer questions about their moral reasoning. Conservatives, he said, prove quite adept at thinking like liberals, but liberals are consistently incapable of understanding the conservative point of view. “Liberals feel contempt for the conservative moral view, and that is very, very angering. Republicans are good at exploiting that anger,” he told me in a phone interview.


+Haidt writes a highly fascinating piece on "The Edge" website, called "What Makes People Vote Repulican?" It is only a few pages long and is one of the best analyses of political-cultural connections in America that I have ever read.

+Despite my disapproval of Palin as a candidate, I think that it is important that we recognize that non-Ivy league, non-Davos summit folks can be excellent leaders. Truman, for instance, never attended college.

Environment: Scary Thoughts (mostly)

1) I'm listening to Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded and found the following scenario quite sobering (I hope that I'm getting it right.):

+Palm oil was once seen as a promising biofuel.
+It now seems that the cutting down of forests that include palm releases more carbon dioxide than is saved by using palm oil fuels.

2) In the category of hope, you might want to check out Google's "RE
3) One cute mnemonic from the Friedman book: Fuels from "hell" come from below ground (hence the mnemonic), tend to be non-renewable, and tend to pollute the environment (coal, oil, gas, etc.). Fuels from "heaven" come from above-ground, and tend to be renewable and clean (solar, wind).

4) I'll digress into some word games because I've noticed how adept Friedman is at making up cute mnemonics. I assume that he puts great stock in the importance of catchy phrases.

Here's my (perhaps, awkward) attempt: An interesting, non-political note: During a geological debate in the 19th century, some (who emphasized the power of the oceans) were called Neptunists (named after the Roman ocean god, Neptune) and some (who emphasized the power of internal earth processes) were called Plutonists (after Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld).

We could call the sources of fuel that Friedman mentions "plutonic" and "jovial" (after Jove, the god of the heavens). Which type of fuel would make you feel better about the future?

FInance and Mortgages

Anyone out there who can help me to gain a deeper understanding of the current economic situation? I get the basics so probably need someone who works in a related field.

The Blog

I'm making an effort to make at least one post a day, even if short. I'm starting to feel some traction from readers, after the first nine-ten months on the 'job.'

Monday, September 15, 2008

PALIN

I'm not sure which bothers me more, the idea of Palin as president or the condescension towards her from intellectual elites.

I found Palin quite unimpressive in the ABC interview, social views aside. Still, I am deeply bothered by the "Americans are stupid for not seeing that Obama is better for their interests." trope that I hear on the Upper West Side. Here's a letter that I wrote to the NYT and WaPo editors on Palin and the liberals. I call it "Palin Payback":

Dear Sir:

Sadly, the popularity of an inexperienced and unprepared Gov. Sarah Palin is payback for the inveterate condescension of coastal liberals for their countrymen in the heartland. I have often wondered how the same sect of people that calls on America to show understanding and compassion for Anti-Americanism around the world can scarce be counted on to show a similar approach towards fellow, thinking citizens whose beliefs on religion, gun ownership, etc., are different from their own. A Palin victory would be poetic, even if not just.

Monday, September 08, 2008

My Views on The Presidential Campaign: An Update

A few developments have moved me into the Obama camp, for now. The most important is my discomfort with the image of Palin as Commander-in-Chief (see third point, below):

+I like the Biden pick. He has much of the international vision and gravitas that Obama lacks. He also is grounded in the mundane political issues that Obama does not clearly address.

+I like Obama's move to the center on NAFTA.

+I like Palin's grit and am glad that she is in the race. Her mere presence challenges Obama to prove that he is a real reformer. Furthermore, she challenges the cultural elitism of the Democrats (Read this excellent article on the topic.) that disturbs me so greatly (They can't help but respond intelligently to the crowds that are enthused by her style and personality.). Certainly, I find her equivocation on evolution and global warming to be troublesome, but she is not likely to be the one who sets the agenda on this front unless . . . McCain dies in office. In short, Palin's social views and her relative ignorance of international issues make her a huge risk, in my mind, should she have to step in as president. The risk of choosing Obama, whose awareness of foreign affairs, though not extraordinarily deep, is extraordinarily deeper than Palin's, is much less.

The Invasion of Iraq: A Response to Sir David

I supported the invasion of Iraq and am aware of the resolutions that preceded it. Still, I would argue that the US has accepted an international cost in executing a war of choice that was not supported by the public opinion of the democratic world.

The effectiveness of the US to act as an international policeman is necessarily supported by the good opinion of fellow liberal democracies.

Russia's Antidemocratic Alliance

In the latest, tit-for-tat move between the US and Russia, Russia has announced that it may hold joint naval exercises with Venezuela. This is a clear (though unacknowledged) move to send a message to the US regarding its current naval activities in the Black Sea.

How many similar, anti-US regimes of consequence can the Russians reach out to? One potential step for Russian escalation of their defiance of US hegemony would be to strengthen Russia's ties to Iran. This would cause concern for Russia, though, as it fears Iran's nuclear ambitions and Islamic radicalism. Russia itself has Islamic minority nationalist movements that it sometimes struggles to control.

Fortunately for the West, Russia's connection to Venezuela does not have strong ideological underpinnings. Venezuela, ironically, is now the more 'socialist' of the two countries (Russia's is a brand of state capitalism.) and its brand of demagogic populism is likely to unnerve Russia's more austere leadership.

Another interesting development for the West is that Russia appealed for, but did not receive, support for its Georgia moves, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose only other weighty member is China. The Chinese, suspicious of all foreign interventions and protective of the perception of their neutrality, recognize at the same time that the future of their economic system (and of the Communist Party, whose legitimacy rests on economic growth) is tied up with the globalized market system as supported by the United States and the West. Is it possible that a resurgent Russia could, once again, push China closer to the more stable and predictable Western powers?

Friday, August 15, 2008

IRAQ AND GEORGIA

What do these invasions teach us about the state of our geopolitical system?

When the US invaded Iraq, it certainly contravened international legal norms that provided for aggression only when an enemy presented an immediate threat. This is a norm that the US helped to enshrine in the post-World War II legal order. We have witnessed, since the fall of the Soviet Union, a strengthening of the social and economic order promulgated by, and beneficial to, the US: democracy and free markets. The process of the US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath involves a negation of the legal order of the era of Pax Americana but an affirmation of the era’s social and economic order. In short, the US undermined the international legal system while strengthening the international social system.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia, however, represents a challenge both to the international legal order and to the socioeconomic order of US-led globalization. In Iraq, we ultimately seem to be witnessing the triumph of the liberal economic and political order. The ability, or inability, of that socioeconomic order to prevail in Georgia is of great symbolic significance over the next few years.

The US invasion of Iraq was, if you will, a wager in which the socioeconomic order of international democracy was chosen over the international norm of national sovereignty. It is not surprising that US disregard for the latter is costing us right now. Still, we would be foolish to be entranced by that fact and to overlook the greater stakes that underpinned the initial wager. The pace of the march of political and economic freedom around the world is at stake.

GEORGIA ON MY MIND, or WHY THE INVASION MATTERS SO MUCH

International aggression and ethnic separatism are important elements of this crisis but they do not lend it its singularity. Russia, an important global power, is announcing its refusal to align itself to a US-led global system that tends to support economic and political freedom.

Paul Krugman
explains (though perhaps a bit too defnitively for my tastes):

[T]he war in Georgia [marks] the end of the Pax Americana — the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force. And that raises some real questions about the future of globalization.


Some have asked, “Didn’t the American-created global order suffer a greater defeat with the invasion of Iraq?” or “How is the Russian support of South Ossetian independence different from the US support of Kosovar independence?”

The US invasion of Iraq does have consequences for the stability of the international system. It does make it harder for the US to assert the importance of respecting national sovereignty. But, it did not alter the fundamental fact that the US economy, society, and culture tend to see their interests aligned with politically and economically free societies ruled by law. No one is surprised that, following the increasing democratic stability in Iraq, the US is getting ready to leave. No one is surprised that the US is helping to support a free society in Kosovo. Russia cannot be expected to act similarly.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

GEORGIA AND RUSSIA

Here are McCain and Obama's statements on Georgia.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

THE MEANING OF THE INFORMATION AGE

This is my most extensive political theory work to date. It may be a bit rough around the edges but I hope that you will find it interesting. I am hoping that it will impress but even more so, that you will be inspired to offer me criticism and guidance.
THE SADR MILITIA ANNOUNCES THAT IT WILL DISARM

From Pete Wehner:

What we are witnessing unfold in Iraq will one day be written about in history books, and not just military history books. To have taken a situation critics said was a mistake of historic proportions–the worst foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Republic–and to transform it into a victory, which is what is well under way, is among the more dramatic and important moments in American history. These have been exhausting years for our nation, ones during which tremendous errors in judgment were made. But they have been memorable and proud ones as well. And now, we can say with increasing confidence, they have been successful ones.


I supported the war and was hesitant and nervous about the surge. I respect the position of war opponents. Still, are there any such opponents out there who will celebrate these salutary developments in Iraq?
"Obama, the postmodernist"

by Jonah Goldberg


I don't entirely agree with the tone and the perspective but I think that the main thrust of the argument is quite correct and is worth consideration before you cast your vote. Any postmodernists out there who care to offer their two cents?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Are America’s Elites Post-American?" and Other Implied Questions of a Rambling Monologue

I admit that I'm throwing these thoughts at you, dear reader. Much can be more tightly defined and/or more broadly spun out. I'd love your feedback: What message do you discern from these expatiations?

The confrontation of non-democratic powers reinforces our belief that we need to dynamic, flexible, and largely unconstrained by governmental regulation. The self-interested reason that elites sometimes support social programs is that they believe in the strengthening of the nation-state, in this context.

The intermingling of elites, however, has undermined the sense that the future of elites is tied to the common person. At the same time, the common American supports the status quo because of a belief in the need to confront regimes that are less free, and potentially aggressive.

Peaceful accommodation among elites may eventually lead to the perception that aggressive confrontation is not strongly needed and the common person may decide that it is worthwhile to secure health and educational benefits for himself.

Trade agreements are one step in the direction of events such as these unfolding. More significant, however, would be (1) the democratization of China and (2a) the democratization of important parts of the Middle East or (2b) a dramatic decrease in our reliance on oil (NB: 2a and 2b do not both need to happen for the belief in a stable, wealthy world to take root much more firmly.). Such an occurrence (which would likely take decades to solidify itself) would convince common folks that the need to band behind their elite leadership is not so strong as it had earlier seemed.

Obama is an interesting phenomenon because he senses the potential for such a secure, wealthy world order to emerge. He simultaneously seems to support the passions of common folks to secure their part of an international system that does not fully consider them. This is a common liberal stance in American today. Obama is so successful because he presents it with so little acrimony. The image is understandably appealing.

The shortcoming is that, so long as challenges to the democratic world order are not taken seriously, the risks remain of (1) an ebb in the tide of democratic expansion and/or (2) a crisis in the relationship between Obama and American middle in the event of future challenges to that order.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Brooks on Education and Technology

David Brooks makes the following point today:

In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.


I find this point convincing at first glance. It begs the question: How do we promote educational investment at a time at which we are hypnotized (often very justifiably) by technological development? Do we fear sacrificing the latter for the former?

Brooks also argues, however, that the principal reason for America's role as a 20th century superpower was "a ferocious belief that people have the power to transform their own lives gave Americans an unparalleled commitment to education, hard work and economic freedom." I am inclined to think that the aforementioned is just one aspect of a propitious brew that included prolific natural resources and an ambitious (that is, not just educationally/intellectually ambitious) and entrepreneurial populace, inter alia.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A EUROPEAN'S TAKE ON OBAMA AND AMERICA

"Eventually, We'll All Hate Obama[,] Too"


Despite the provocative title, this piece is not meant to bash Obama. Rather, the purpose is to highligh some fundamental divisions between American and European perspectives that are likely to challenge any future administration.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

OBAMA ON TERROR

From today's Washington Post:

Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves.


What's going on here? Obama's stances are based on electoral politicas and are delimited by the moral stances of the left regarding the initial justice of the two respective wars. The left is generally uninterested in a geopoltical analysis of the current security needs of Afghanistan or Iraq. The justice, or injustice of the inception of each war is enough to guide the general strategic thinking from certain quarters.

I respect the moral judgments of many who proclaim the legitimacy of the Afghanistan war over the Iraq wars. There are many sounds reasons uppon which to base such an argument. Such judgments do not an indefinite policy make. I am reminded of a favorite Max Weber quotation that states, regarding political action, "it is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who fails to see this is, indeed, a political infant."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ALEXANDER THE GREAT

I'm reading the classic source on Alexander the Great's campaigns, "Anabasis Alexandri" by the first century Greek historian known as Arrian. The account, with a military focus but many key personal elements, is sometimes riveting, sometimes dry but quite reflective and highly articulate. At the very least, it impresses one with the richness of first century literature.

Here's a scenario to chew on:

+Alexander and his troops are on the march, somewhat isolated, in Asia.
+Alexander uncovers a plot against him.
+One of the participants in the plot is the son of one of Alexander's generals.
+Alexander has the son killed.
+Alexander has the father killed, possibly because he does not want to risk the father's wrath against himself.

What would you have done if you were to have been Alexander?
OBAMA AND ISRAEL

This is my first post about Israel but I think that Nathan Diament frames very well the major questions of Israelis and Jews, writ large, on the eve of Obama's visit to Israel.
OBAMA THE CULTURAL PHENOMENON

Shelby Steele brilliantly analyzes the Obama candidacy today.

To sum up Steele's most salient points:

1) The most salutary effects of an Obama election are cultural in that his cultural stance would allow us to move beyond a large part of the politically correct conversation on race. The caveat is that a failed Obama presidency would not accomplish this. Obama's rhetoric, I would add, implicitly acknowledges this truth. Jonathan Stein in Mother Jones shares this related thought that substantiates the idea that Obama is well aware of this aspect of his candidacy:
"Obama's rhetoric makes an undeniable suggestion: that his election, not an eight-year administration that shttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifuccessfully implements his vision for America, would represent a moment in America of the grandest, most transformative kind. And that's a bit much."


2) Obama's amorphous politics perfectly suit his being such a cultural phenomenon. His lack of hard political commitments is his charm, in this context.

3) As long as Obama makes the election about cultural attitudes and makes political differences seem unimportant, McCain will epitomize "retrogression" and the election will be about "the establishment of his own patriotism, trustworthiness and gravitas."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT AMERICAN POWER

Please consider reading this if you are queasy about American power in the world (Friedman today on Zimbabwe).

Monday, July 14, 2008

"WHAT IF CANDIDATES PANDERED TO ECONOMISTS?"

by Gregory Mankiw

Thursday, July 10, 2008

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE

It strikes me lately how promising a subject of public health research is the topic of water. Algae blooms off the coast of China, pollution in the Yellow River, contaminants (medications, pesticides, etc.) in our our drinking water, etc., etc. This is an issue in the developing world as well as the developed world.
Joint Medical Program at Cal and UC-San Francisco

This program involves a heavy amount of case study, as opposed to rote learning alone, and leaves participants with an MPH and an MD. I've had some excellent conversations with professors here about this and am very excited to learn more.
OBESITY AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTANTS

I've come across some interesting studies about the possiblity that environmental contaminants may make obesity and/or diabetes more common. Fascinating.
CHINA, PUBLIC HEALTH, SAN FRANCISCO AIR

Read this New Republic piece to see how they all intersect.

Monday, June 30, 2008

FOREIGN AID AND FOREIGN POLICY

+ Sam Ruteikara argues that American attitudes about sex, in so far as they influence foreign aid policy, have undermined the Ugandan effort to fight AIDS. This is not the traditional critique (that pro-abstinence policymakers undermine condom distribution, sex education, etc.). Rather, Ruteikara argues that an American bias towards accepting casual sex has undermined Uganda's efforts to discourage the same.

+Gregory Scoblete suggests that we consider Obama and McCain's foreign policy in terms of their particularist and universalist tendencies, respectively. More specifically, how generalizable do they each believe American values to be? These positions do not easily correlate with the hawk vs. dove paradigm.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

TWO BOOKS I'VE BEEN READING

+I'm enjoying Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, a magical realist and cutely funny depiction of post-revolutionary China.

+I also recently began Margaret MacMillan's Nixon and Mao, which discusses their 1972 meeting and its political, historical, etc. background.
"ECONOMIC TRANSITION AND HEALTH TRANSITION . . ."

I've been reading about China's health care system and came across a study that raises some provocative questions about how economic transition (that is, systemic change in an economy, as opposed to economic growth, per se) affects public health. The paper suggests that China's gradual economic transition (as compared to that of Russia) has led to better health outcomes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

CHANGE, WROUGHT WITH CARE

+Read George Will on "libertarian paternalism" and the surprising power of the default (not on your computer but in government policy).

+Evan Thomas wonders what Obama really thinks about the expectations that he is creating.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

PERSONAL NOTES REGARDING ORGANIZATIONS OF INTEREST

+The China Initiative at Harvard's School of Public Health recently caught my eye. I've written to them to set up an infomational interview; will this become my MD/MPH program of choice?

+As I am in the Bay Area this summer, I contacted Kiva, my favorite microloan organizaiton. I am hoping to drop by for a visit.

+I can't remember if I've written about Tom Friedman's piece about Van Jones' environmental outreach work in disadvantaged communities. In any event, I wrote to Green for All (Jones' organization) in nearby Oakland to see if I can volunteer and check out their work.
ELECTION

It may surprise some of you, given my recent, criticisms of Obama, but I've recently found myself considering voting for him.

Here's my scorecard:

1) Economics: I'd been leaning towards McCain, in part because of Obama's attacks on NAFTA. Now Obama claims that these attacks were intemperate. I don't believe him; I believe that they were carefully planned. Still, I'll take it. If Obama continues to move in the free market direction resonant with the profile of some of his top economic advisors, this will have some influence on me. Also, the revelation that McCain is a computer illiterate raises some serious concerns for me, since computer technology is central to the economic changes underway in the world. (By the way, this article on Obama's NAFTA shift may provide more evidence that folks seems to be disappointed in Obama, rather than cynical about him, when he takes a stand they don't approve of.)

2) Foreign Policy: I've tended to side with McCain, due to his believable firm posture when it comes to facing down Iran, as well as his clear support for stabilization efforts in Iraq. First of all, I think that Obama is preparing to shift his "Iraq pitch," as I tend to believe the Iraqi foreign minister's recollection of their shared telephone conversation and because Obama has recently promised a pre-election trip to Iraq. Secondly, I have been reading (read: "listening to") Fareed Zakaria's Post-American World. It is going some way to convincing me that terrorism can be contained and that the US centrality to global affairs is diminishing. These perspectives tend to move me towards Obama (I'll deal with this in greater depth later.).

3) Social Issues: I'm more comfortable with Obama.
MORRIS AND McGANN on McCAIN

Morris and McGann analyze McCain's recent advocacy of offshore drilling and take on the wishful electoral thinking of liberal orthodoxy in the process.

"The Democratic ambivalence stems from liberal concerns about climate change. The Party basically doesn't believe in carbon based energy and, therefore, opposes oil exploration. That's why Obama pushes the windfall profits tax on oil companies - a step that tells them “you drill, you find oil, and we'll take away your profits.” But Americans have their priorities in order: more oil, more drilling AND alternative energy sources, flex-fuel cars, plug in vehicles and nuclear power."


Alternative energy technology should be one of our most serious pursuits. Still, we must face the "here and now" geopolitics and the weight of oil-derived influence therein.
OF WEBSITES AND PUNDITS

+ I love, and recommend, the Real Clear Politics website. The site, run by Time Magazine and CNN, provides a remarkably broad range of timely (updated twice a day) articles. Most are very good at least in terms of their ability to be illustrative of particular political viewpoints.

+My politics are not close to the DailyKos on a wide range of issues but I do heavily admire his great sense for how politics works on the ground. Compared to CNN chatter, his in-depth knowledge (even, as he would put it, "feel") for the personalities and organizations that influence electoral politics is highly impressive.

+Dick Morris: He is, as many of you know, a through-and-through political operative but I do admire his clear insights about the ethos in which the American voter operates. An inordinate number of bloggers offer advice to candidates that is, unbeknownst to them, actually a type of wishful thinking designed to promote their own views. Morris tends to get the political-electoral facts right, as I see them. See post directly above for a discussion of Morris' latest article on oil, Obama, and McCain.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

WHAT DOES "CHANGE" MEAN?

In case you were still wondering if people of many political stripes are investing their hopes in Obama, read this piece from The Guardian. Compare the left-wing hopefulness of that article to the right-of-center (somewhat more skeptical) hopefulness of David Brooks (see my June 13 posting) and you will get a sense for some of the discord that will arise in the next few months or during the first few months of an Obama presidency.
TIM RUSSERT

There are few newsmen who can consistently be counted on to be clear, thoughtful, tough, and simultaneously decent. Tim Russert was one of this ilk. I will miss him.

Friday, June 13, 2008

QUICK POSTS:

+ Krauthammer on the good news from Iraq, with specific evidence.

+ Brooks on Obama, reform, and education. Brooks analyzes Obama's stance on education to try to see if Obama has the substance to follow up his reform rhetoric.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MORE GOOD NEWS FROM IRAQ

A Wall Street Journal article to make you feel good (I hope ;) about Iraq:

"[As of February 2008,] Three main challenges to security and political progress remained: clearing al Qaeda out of Mosul; bringing Basra under the Iraqi government's control; and eliminating the Special Groups safe havens in Sadr City. It seemed then that these tasks would require enormous effort, entail great loss of life, and take the rest of the year or more. Instead, the Iraqi government accomplished them within a few months."

Monday, June 02, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO, PUBLIC HEALTH, CHINA, AND ME

I continue to be committed to writing a political blog. I'm sensing, however, that my blog may take an autobiographical turn.

I feel satisfied with the general exposition of my analysis of current events that has covered these pages over the last several months. I still hope that you will review, and then comment on, my work.

In a hopeful sign, I am engaged in, and/or near, some work that allows me to express some of my political energy in new ways:
+This summer, I will be working with the Berkeley School of Public Health on a range of studies. One of the studies is an evaluation of the health effects of various pollutants on the people in a particular region in China.
I do not expect to be heavily involved in this study but I am excited to learn more about public health issues in China, especially as they relate to environmental contaminants, a dramatically growing problem in that country.
+Apropos of China and of my stay in the Bay Area, recent studies show that Chinese pollution is making its way to this area of the country.
+Finally, I am beginning some work this summer on an environmental program at a Westchester Co., NY synagogue. I will continue that work in the fall.
+As a (perhaps) side note, my studies of Chinese are going strong. I am over halfway through my Level III studies of the Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese tutorial. I expect to cross paths with various teachers (formal and/or informal) over the course of the summer.

As you can tell, various gurglings are supporting my vision of working on public health issues, China, the environment, etc. as I approach my formal studies of medicine in the years ahead.

I look forward to keeping you posted and hope that you will encourage, criticize, question, and/or laud my efforts when you feel moved to do so.

Many thanks,
Barak

Thursday, May 22, 2008

CHINA AND DEMOCRACY

... and some hopeful developments in China, from Nicholas Kristof:

"In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we’ve seen a hopeful glimpse of China’s future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe — just maybe — the birth of grass-roots politics here.

In traveling around China in the days after the quake, I was struck by how the public and the news media initially seized the initiative from the government. Ordinary Chinese are traveling to the quake zone to help move rubble, and tycoons, peasants and even children are reaching into their pockets to donate to the victims.

“I gave 500 yuan,” or about $72, a man told me in the western city of Urumqi. “Eighty percent of the people in my work unit made donations. Everybody wants to help.”

Private Chinese donations have already raised more than $500 million. That kind of bottom-up public spirit is a mark of citizens, not subjects."
GOOD NEWS FROM IRAQ

Read from this Washington Post selection about a signal event in the progress of Iraqi security:

"Iraqi soldiers moved unhindered through Baghdad's vast Sadr City district on Wednesday as Shiite militiamen who have long controlled the area faded from view and schools and businesses began to reopen after weeks of strife.

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is pursuing an increasingly successful effort to contain the militias of his Shiite rivals and to exercise authority over areas where Iraqi forces were once unwelcome. The strategy has won Maliki admiration from Sunni politicians and from U.S. and British officials, who credit him with exerting some of the political will necessary to achieve reconciliation."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"DEMOCRATIC RECESSION


Tom Friedman suggests today that

There are two important recessions going on in the world today. One has gotten enormous attention. It’s the economic recession in America. But it will eventually pass, and the world will not be much worse for the wear. The other has gotten no attention. It’s called “the democratic recession,” and if it isn’t reversed, it will change the world for a long time.


It is interesting to consider that Friedman's focus on globalization may, in fact, obscure the importance of observing trends in the growth of democracy. David Brooks' recent column (discussed here) suggests that technological change is more essential than globalization as a factor driving our economic evolution. Today's Friedman column, with its focus on the importance of oil in driving corruption, makes clear the importance of the economic structure of a society in influencing its political organization.

Friedman has, in the past, suggested that globalization is one of the principal meta-narratives of our time. I think that today's column gets much closer to specifying the actual issues that influence our lives and our future.

In short, technological change and democracy are much more significant factors in global development than is globalization. It is to our intellectual detriment that we misconstrue the relative primacy of these factors.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

MORE ON CHINESE NATIONALISM

On the new generation of Chinese nationalists:

Hardly uneducated know-nothings, young nationalists tend to be middle-class urbanites. Far more than rural Chinese, who remain mired in poverty, these urbanites have benefited enormously from the country's three decades of economic growth. They also have begun traveling and working abroad. They can see that Shanghai and Beijing are catching up to Western cities, that Chinese multinationals can compete with the West, and they've lost their awe of Western power.

Many middle-aged Chinese intellectuals are astounded by the differences between them and their younger peers. Academics I know, members of the Tiananmen generation, are shocked by some students' disdain for foreigners and, often, disinterest in liberal concepts such as democratization. University students now tend to prefer business-oriented majors to liberal arts-oriented subjects such as political science. The young Chinese interviewed for a story last fall in Time magazine on the country's "Me Generation" barely discussed democracy or political change in their daily lives.


Read more.

Monday, May 05, 2008

CHINESE NATIONALISMS

From an op-ed in the Washington Post:

Frequently the past few months, I have been asked about the wisdom of using the Olympics as an opportunity to push China to improve its human rights record. Underlying these questions is a sense that international pressure may have played into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party by triggering nationalist emotions and rallying indignant Chinese people behind the regime.


This concern is understandable. It is critical, however, that people distinguish among the four types of nationalism in China today to determine how best to pressure the regime to make improvements.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

TOM FRIEDMAN: BACK, WITH A VENGEANCE

An excerpt:

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”


Read more.

Friday, May 02, 2008

THE COGINITIVE AGE, NOT THE AGE OF GLOBALIZATION

Brilliant, yet again. Read David Brooks' explanation of why technological change should be seen as the major driving force behind changes in our economy.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

CHINESE OLYMPICS

I think that I'm for a boycott.

Read what Jewish leaders have written on the subject.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif

Thursday, April 24, 2008

THE STATE OF EDUCATION IN THE US

Ruminations thereon . . .

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Peace in Iraq

David Brooks broadens our understanding of this topic in today's New York Times. Here are the first several paragraphs:

The U.S. brought no shortage of misconceptions into Iraq, but surely the longest lasting has been what you might call: Founding Fatherism. This is the belief that peace will come to the country when the nation’s political elites gather at a convention hall and make a series of grand compromises involving power-sharing and a new constitution.

The Bush administration has been pushing the Iraqis to make this sort of grand compromise for years — to little effect. The Democrats happily declare that there has been no political progress in Iraq because this grand compromise is the only kind of political progress they can conceive of.

As Philip Carl Salzman argues in “Culture and Conflict in the Middle East” (brilliantly reviewed by Stanley Kurtz in The Weekly Standard), many Middle Eastern societies are tribal. The most salient structure is the local lineage group. National leaders do not make giant sacrifices on behalf of the nation because their higher loyalty is to the sect or clan. Order is achieved not by the top-down imposition of abstract law. Instead, order is achieved through fluid balance of power agreements between local groups.

In a society like this, political progress takes different forms. It’s not top down. It’s bottom up. And this is exactly the sort of progress we are seeing in Iraq. While the Green Zone politicians have taken advantage of the surge by trying to entrench their own power, things are happening at the grass-roots.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

THE AUSTRALIAN PM

I hadn't been expecting to write about Australia. Still, I found this description of the new Prime Minister's foreign policy to be interesting. He seems to me to be on the right track for the decades ahead.

An excerpt:

It would be easy to ridicule [Prime Minister Rudd's foreign policy] ambition and it would be wrong. The European portion of Rudd's world tour takes him deep into the second leg of his now famous foreign policy tripod. The American part of the journey represented the first leg of the tripod: the US alliance.
Here Rudd made profoundly important commitments to the US alliance as central to Australian foreign policy, to a view of the US as "overwhelmingly a force for good" in the world, and displayed a warmth to Republican and Democratic leaders alike, which underlined the bipartisan quality of the alliance in both the US and Australia.

Now, in Europe, he displays the second leg of his policy tripod, his commitment to multilateralism and the institutions of global governance.

Next week, in China, we'll get the third leg: deep engagement with Asia.
IRAQ

I have to admit that the information coming out of Iraq, regarding the fighting with al-Sadr, has been ambiguous. We'll have to stay tuned.

I will note, on the plus side, however, that Sunnis had been waiting for some time for this al-Maliki to confront the Shiite militias.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A FEW CAMPAIGN-RELATED ARTICLES

Krauthammer writes an excellent piece called "The Fabulist vs. The Saint" that highlights Hillary's lies and Barack's "free pass" from the media.

Dick Morris highlights the low expectations of the electorate that Hillary Clinton has evinced. This is something that I've been thinking about for a while, expressed rather clearly here by Morris.

And finally, here's an older Hillary Clinton piece from the late Michael Kelley.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

YAY!

I was happy to see specific ideas about expanding NATO in Foreign Affairs magazine. Frequent readers will recognize the resonance of this idea with my refrains about the collective challenges faced by the world's democracies.

A couple of quotes [emph. mine]:

#1
Clearly, NATO is changing. But is it changing enough? If the point of the alliance is no longer territorial defense but bringing together countries with similar values and interests to combat global problems, then NATO no longer needs to have an exclusively transatlantic character. Other democratic countries share NATO's values and many common interests -- including Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and South Korea -- and all of them can greatly contribute to NATO's efforts by providing additional military forces or logistical support to respond to global threats and needs. NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan have benefited greatly from contributions made by non-NATO members. Australia, Japan, and South Korea have sent substantial numbers of troops to Iraq in support of efforts by NATO members to stabilize the country. Together with other non-NATO democracies, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa, they have also contributed significantly to peacekeeping operations around the globe.

#2
Creating a global NATO is not about saving the alliance from obsolescence. The issue is not whether NATO goes out of area or out of business. The issue is how the world's premier international military organization should adapt to the demands of the times in a way that advances the interests not just of the transatlantic community but of a global community of democracies dependent on global stability. Global threats cannot be tackled by a regional organization. NATO has worked well in the past because its founding treaty demands that members be committed both to the political and economic principles underpinning democracy and to the common security challenges faced by the alliance. It would be foolish not to welcome into the alliance other countries that can make the same commitments and help confront new global challenges.

Monday, March 31, 2008

SPIRIT & INTELLIGENCE

Back to Aristotle, whose profound insight below is colored, unfortunately but not surprisingly, by racialism and some degree of historical determinism:

The people of cold countries, generally, and particularly those of Europe, are full ofs spirit but deficient in skill in intelligence; and this is why they continue to remain comparitively free, but attain no political development and show no capacity for governing others. The peoples of Asia are endowed with skill and intelligence, but are deficient in spirit; and this is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves. The Greek stock, intermediate in geographical position, unites the qualities of both sets of peoples. It possesses both spirit and intelligence, for which reason it continues to be free, to have the highest political development, and to be capable of governing every other people . . . (Politics, VII, 7: 1327b18ff)


It may be tough not to focus on the apparent ethnocentrism/racialism/racism in this selection. I think that there is a truth bubbling (at least) right near the surface. This truth involves the fact that strong cultures are undergirded by both intelligence and a strength of spirit. I think that Greece did embody that confluence for a period of time in the ancient world. Aristotle missed the fact that these qualities can grow or, alternatively, degrade, in a particular culture over the course of a period of time (I would even hold that the 'intelligence of a society can grow over time. I'm not referring to evolutionary biology here, but to the fact that the organization and values of a particular society can promote, or diminish, the degree to which intelligence; as opposed to say, ideology, fear, or anger; defines the actions of the society in question.).

The United States has, over the past century, been largely successful at combining intelligence (read here: an appreciation of the role of learning and science in developing a country's institutions) and a strength of spirit (read: innovativeness, an ability to confront societies that do not nurture individual growth Roger Cohen's recent op-ed piece highlights some of the ways in which China, specifically, and Asia, in general, is developing these qualities in a way that should give US citizens pause to consider how true we are being to our own best traits. Namely, are we valuing science enough? Are we concerned enough with innovation and the development of raw talent? Will the weaknesses of our secondary school system undermine our ability to be a world leader in the medium- or long-run?
A GOOD DAY IN IRAQ?

This is an important (short) article about the recent fighting Iraq, providing some long overdue context to the story.

Here's an excerpt:

Anyone who follows the news closely in Iraq knew this day would come. The British left a power vacuum behind in the south that the Baghdad government could not fill at the time, and Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Brigades filled it instead. They have fought each other and some smaller Shi’ite groups for control of the streets ever since 2005, as Steven Vincent tried to warn people just before they murdered him in Basra. The Iraqi government had no choice but to challenge the militias for control of Basra and the surrounding areas, but they waited until the Iraqi Army had enough strength to succeed.

Did our media give anyone this context? No. They reported it as some kind of spontaneous eruption of rebellion without noting at all that a nation can hardly be considered sovereign while its own security forces cannot enter a large swath of its own territory. And in the usual defeatist tone, they reported that our mission in Iraq had failed without waiting to see what the outcome of the battle would be.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY

Here is the best article about Obama's foreign policy vision that I've read yet.


This quotation sums up the analysis:

Obama's foreign policy brain trust . . . envision[s] a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering "democracy promotion" agenda in favor of "dignity promotion," to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It's both and neither -- an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership.



I have two comments about the quotation:

1) I like the idea of "dignity promotion": I appreciate and support the desire to address "conditions" that "prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root." I agree that we have thought too litle about this in recent years and I would appreciate it if we come to see Obama 'put his money where his mouth is' and explicitly make the kinds of arguments that Kerrey, et. al, are somewhat more cautious in making, but which many Democrats apparently believe. I agree that the Democrats will not be come credible about foreign policy by being "lite Republicans."

2) I am not comfortable with the apparent dismissal of the idea of "democracy promotion." The US is not simply a charitable organization. It has fundamental interests at stake that are tied to the promotion of democracy. Is it possible that the focus on 'dignity' rather than 'democracy' implies a focus on basic needs and a relative neglect of the political and civil forms that stabilize free and prosperous societies?

As Aristotle writes in Politics (IV.4:1291a19ff):

If the mind is to be reckoned as a more essentially a part of a living being than the body, parts of a similar order must equally be reckoned as more essentially as parts of the city than those which serve its basic needs. By this we mean the military part, the part concerned in the legal organization of justice, and (we may also add) the part engaged in deliberation, which is a function that needs the gift of political understanding.