Monday, September 21, 2009

The End of the American Consensus

We weren't told how to behave that day after 9-11, we just knew. It was right; it was the opposite of what we feel today . . . Are you ready to be the person you were that day after 9-11, on 9-12?

-Glenn Beck, 3/13/09

Wherefore 9/11 nostalgia?

What kind of nostalgia does the memory of 9-12-01 provoke? Why would it be appealing?

The memory of unity, of confronting the world as a coherent American people is clearly part of such romanticism.

The current economic recession, the fear of terrorism, and intensified political partisanship (through the Bush and, now, the Obama years) heighten the appeal of a reassuring unity.

Whence our discord?

But the events themselves (terror attack, economic recession) do not explain all of our unease. Nor does partisanship explain all of our discord.

Rather, 9/11 and the financial meltdown forced us to recognize American vulnerability in new ways and to make decisions that undermined the ideological consensus, predicated on the integrity of nation-states and of markets, that constituted the bulwark of American political life from, at least, World War II until recent years.

Let’s look at the security and economic challenges of recent years to understand how they have punctured this American consensus.

The security challenge:
9/11 demonstrated the limitations of the nation-state system: We learned that the apparently mundane political goings-on in other nation-states are of vital security interest to us even when possess no large conventional army. In other words, we have to pay attention to foreign societies, not just foreign militaries. The Bush Administration’s argument for the Iraq war, love it or hate it, proposed a response to this facet of the security challenge. At the same time, the preemptive Iraq War directly undermined Americans’ faith in the stability and relevance of the international laws undergirding the nation-state system.

The economic challenge:
The TARP bailout demonstrated the limitations of our corporate sector as well as our new economic vulnerability: Ultimately, the stabilization of that sector demanded the ‘public insurance’ of our tax dollars. Also, our debt and our trade imbalance demonstrated that the economic goings-on in other nation-states are of vital interest to us. Our large international debt limited our options to respond to the financial crisis and may have contributed (read more here here and here) to it in a number of ways.

In short, events have overwhelmed the ideology that underpinned American political thinking from the end of World War II until recent years: We now have less faith in the international system of nation-states as well as less faith in free market, corporate capitalism.

This ideological disorientation causes the malaise that Glenn Beck now exploits.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Future of Our Political Parties

I predicted, after 9/11, that the political parties in the US would fundamentally reconstitute themselves. 9/11 demanded an acknowledgment of an interconnected world in which the political organization of other countries, as well as non-Americans’ perceptions of us, were to be of vital consequence.

Bush won the day because he was the only one to present a coherent argument for American engagement in a connected world: Namely, America must reshape the world in its own image.

Obama’s argument for pragmatic flexibility, paired with his symbolic internationalism, gave heft to vague calls made by John Kerry in 2004 for ‘multilateralism;’ working with, and learning from, the rest of the world was now an affirmative act of engagement rather than a retreat from American principles: We were to engage the world with a willingness to adapt. This argument, of course, resonated more strongly in the absence of the perception of immediate threats from terrorists.

The economic crisis of the past year, too, supported Obama’s argument for increased American flexibility: how could we claim to know what is best for the entire world when our cherished capitalist system was mired in such a quandary?

Finally, Obama’s careful management of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, not in accord with the speedy withdrawals originally called for during the Democratic primaries, has robbed the Republican Party, even further, of a potentially affirmative, internationalist message: that of the United States bringing democracy to the world. The GOP’s impulse to take on the world reverts, accordingly, to a shallow xenophobia and isolationism.

Bush and Obama share (and the fact of their sharing anything is surely disturbing to many) a conviction that the world is increasingly intertwined. Each built a political persona based on that idea. All those who reject contending with this emerging reality are left to make increasingly ideological claims with little empirical backing and to entertain the least reality-based members of their political tribe. It is clear which party follows these patterns today.

If Obama leads the Democrats to a principled, if much more cautious and less violent, promotion of democracy around the world, and couples it with enhanced American flexibility on a range of other international issues, the Democrats will have stolen the center for a good time to come. Few constructive messages for the GOP will therefore remain and the party will accordingly continue to wither.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The True Story of the GOP's Dissipation

Rapid global development and economic/financial change undermine the relevance of strict rightists and leftists: The need to adapt quickly to new technologies and new economic realities will reward adaptable, rather than orthodox, parties and regimes.

Edward Golberg of Baruch College, in today's Friedman column diagnoses the malaise of the Republican Party accordingly:
Globalization has neutered the Republican Party, leaving it to represent not the have-nots of the recession but the have-nots of globalized America, the people who have been left behind either in reality or in their fears . . . The need to compete in a globalized world has forced the meritocracy, the multinational corporate manager, the eastern financier and the technology entrepreneur to reconsider what the Republican Party has to offer.

Health care is one example of an area where government can play a productive role in supporting economic growth and human capital development.

Government intervention is only justified in the Right's worldview when the capitalist system is under threat (e.g. during ideological struggles with the Soviets, radical Islamists, etc.). They have no ideological context for coming to terms with the pressing national-economic needs of globalization.

Some on the left have a similar problem coming to terms with globalization but the left's solutions happen to be more pertinent at the moment. And, the anti-WTO, anti-trade wing of the Democratic party has receded, for the time being.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Why Business is The New Communism

Which companies have changed our lives most in recent years?

Could you argue that Google and Facebook have been at the lead?

Perhaps you've thought about how these companies don't just represent new computer tools but new philosophies of doing business: they organize information to make it accessible and trust that that will draw you into their grasp, that they will find out how to make money off of you accordingly.

What's communist about that?

The fact that these companies have an interest in engaging your creativity. That commitment, to the extent that other businesses adopt it, represents a revolution in the relationship of commercial interests to social development: people are inherently valued as knowledge producers and consumers, and the increasing intellectual efficacy of an individual is seen as an economic opportunity for business.

So what?

Many have argued, over the past several hundred years, for a social counterweight (often this role is taken by, and presumed by, government) to the narrow interests of business. Others have argued that the narrowness of business interests is a good thing, as it counterbalances overambitious intellectuals and bureaucrats, and is the stuff of gradual economic and social improvement.

The business philosophies of the Information Age undermine the supposition that broad social thinking and the profit motive tend to lead to divergent paths (though, of course, they sometimes will).

The key idea is that increased access to, and ability to contend with, information is (a) increasingly essential to our economy and, simultaneously, (b) increasingly understood by businesses as an essential avenue for growth.

I am not arguing that business will solve all of our social problems, only that the emerging business philosophy of interconnectivity can lead to enormous social good and hold government increasingly accountable to making economically effective investments in human capital.

A substantiated belief in the alignment of business interest and human development is, where it exists, a salutary development that has wide implications. That trend is where we should keep our attention in coming years, and decades.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Why is the Health Care Debate Happening Now?

Because a Democrat is in the White House?

Because health care costs have skyrocketed?

Because free marketed ideologies have been discredited by the financial crisis?

Because Obama is especially charming?

The principal reason these debates are happening now is none of these things. The sea change in public opinion on health care over the past few decades is a result of the international predominance of capitalism and democracy.

Sound crazy?

During the Cold War, for instance, Americans were much more sensitive about socialist reforms. Now, a minority of Americans expresses such concerns.

At the same time, the idea of taking a huge economic risk in the midst of a focus on international political competition with, say, the Soviet Union or Islamic fundamentalists, was extremely frightening.

Finally, of course, the focus on human development has grown with the increase in the value of human capital in the global economy.

So, the global triumph of capitalism and democracy has (1) reduced ideological sensitivity, (2) shifted our focus away from international political competition, and (3) created the conditions for international economic competition, based on human capital investment, to take on increasing importance.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

I'm sure you've seen this posted on your homepage:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

I've certainly felt an upsurge of sentiment on this score. And I doubt that that upsurge will go away.

This is not just about health care, though. There is a change of mores occurring in the US, with implications both promising and daunting.

Individual responsibility, to be sure, is not disappearing, but the idea of health care as a right will help to solidify a new meaning of the word "right."

Many others have noticed that "rights" used to imply a freedom from government interference. And that they are coming to mean an entitlement to social support.

This change comes with some risks, economic and social. New rights, however, can lead to both economic and social inefficiencies and efficiencies. We should not pretend that the two conversations are unconnected nor, alternatively, that they always point in the same direction.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Health Care: A Right or A Privilege?

"I think health care is a privilege. I wouldn't call it a right." So says Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) in a recent interview.

This comment is disturbing some liberal commentators. See here and here.

And, yes, the questions raised are essential.

But liberals should pause and realize that the abundant economic wealth that surrounds them makes much more practicable the very idea of "health care as a right." The individualism/individual responsibility that DeMint advocates is an essential element in the growth of wealth that we have witnessed over the past several hundred years. Wealth matters. Individual responsibility matters.

Conservatives should equally consider how mores can evolve, and redound to society's benefit, with new economic and social circumstances. Protections help to make society more stable and help to make less privileged members more productive. Rights matter. Both socially and economically.

One lens for considering the balance between economic growth and civil rights is the historical one:

Namely, rights and protections extended in economically advantageous fashion at one point in economic development might have undermined general economic growth at an earlier time. Had Roman slaves been protected from forced dislocation, as were feudal serfs, the Roman Empire might have been economically undermined in dramatic fashion. Had feudal serfs been extended universal K-12 education as is the common citizen of our time, agricultural output of the period would likely have declined precipitously. By the same token, a commitment to the universal health in our own times may be compatible with strong (more on this adjective later) economic growth even though the costs of such a commitment would have been overwhelming in an earlier time.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why are there More Independents this Year?

Why did the numbers of independents surge this year? Because neither the Right nor the Left could provide satisfactory answers to the economic crisis: Capitalism, it seemed, could not be left to its own devices without resulting dramatic social repercussions. On the other hand, a nation bridled with great debt could not be depended on to spend its way out of crisis.

The Democrats are ignoring the debt crisis of the future by acting as if spending is the salve for all social wounds. The Republicans are ignoring the financial crisis of last year by blaming Obama for all government actions, including those initiated by Bush; instead, they choose to increase the shrillness of their rhetoric.

The economic crisis did demonstrate that government spending is sometimes necessary to ‘right the national ship.’ But our looming debt should remind us that such spending must be, in the vast majority of cases, a carefully considered economic investment.

The ideologies of the past must give way to a more pragmatic approach to spending and investment that acknowledges the tremendous, but not infinite, power of individualism to drive national growth.

Research Organizations in the Information Age

How can an academic research organization engage a broader public in its work? How can it provoke the common man to buy in to its research process?

Academics need to ask focused questions about which they can gain some insight from the hidden analysts in the general public. Discussion boards that allow for ratings, such as the Obama online discussion about health care, provide for the rise to prominence of the strongest ideas and critiques. Researchers can learn from these and can create a sense of investment by demonstrating that they are doing so.

Ultimately, grants will be written so that data is shared with the public even as analysis is ongoing. If someone else can do a better analysis of ‘my’ data, so much the better for society. If someone can correct my errors before I write up my work, so much the better for me.