The Face of Class Warfare

In the wake of the election, I more or less swore off posting political content here, except on special occasions like when the first day of a new month falls on Saturday. On days like this, I am allowed to provide links to stories I think are important.

Please check out this post on the website of Sen. Bernice Sanders (Independent) of Vermont:

The good news is, Senator Sanders won a decisive re-election victory this past November. The people of Vermont know a good thing when they see it!

I’m not a real active Facebook user, but even I have recently scratched my head at posts on my newsfeed from entities I’ve never liked or friended. Maggie has the answer – “sponsored stories,” a newly implemented FB practice that allows pages to pay-for-“reach.” And here we naively thought all posts were created equal – HA! Show ’em da money! – Morgan

Maggie (Not Margaret)

Or, Sponsored Stories are Bad News for Facebook Users

Recently, my Facebook reach has been rather down.  What, I’m I suddenly not as interesting?  Are my pictures not as good?  My posts not as funny?  Although Facebook doesn’t provide individual users with stats about their posts’ engagement and reach, I can tell you what my graph would look like – like a plane crashing from 30,000 feet.

For a while, I was thinking that this was a personal problem – that I’d been so fussed on school and work that I’d let my social media presence slip.  I didn’t even want to think about my Klout score.  Then friends started mentioning that they were experiencing lower engagement, as well.  I started seeing, “Hello, can anyone see this?” posts.  Then I noticed that the same problem was happening on the pages that I admin.

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The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich – A book review

Anyone paying attention knows that our nation has lost its way, but that’s where clarity ends.  How and when did we go wrong?  Sometimes I wish I could read the histories that will be written a hundred years from now, after time has lent perspective to the chaos of current events.  Thanks to Andrew Bacevich, we don’t have to wait for at least one piercing analysis.

Bacevich, a Viet Nam veteran, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the army.  He holds a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins before joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.  In March, 2007, he described the US doctrine of “preventative warfare” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.”  Two months later, his son died in Iraq.

Andrew Bacevich

In The Limits of Power, published in 2008, Bacevich steps back to examine our history from WWII to the present, to look at the root cause of the folly that has made constant warfare, with its huge cost in lives and resources, our norm.  Foreign policy and domestic policy are wedded together, he says.  Despite political rhetoric, our seeming state of perpetual warfare is not simply the result of international villains like Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, or even Osama Bin Laden.  To blame them, he says, is like “blaming Herbert Hoover for the Great Depression or…attributing McCarthyism entirely to the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy.”  Foreign policy has become “an expression of domestic dysfunction.”  Bacevich pulls no punches, and pinpoints the nature of this dysfunction in the title of his first chapter, “The Crisis of Profligacy.”

“For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.”

Bacevich says the critical, though seldom acknowledged, turning point was bookmarked by two presidential speeches.  The first was President Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech, though he never used the word.

The seventies was a decade of severe economic shocks that saw the first oil crisis, a stock market meltdown, and our transition from a producer to a consumer economy.  On July 15, 1979, Carter said the real crisis was not what OPEC was doing to oil prices, but our way of life, which makes us depend on foreign oil.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

To continue down that road, Carter said, was “a certain route to failure.”  He urged a renewal of national purpose, characterized by national restraint and an effort to find and develop alternative energy sources.  The main effect of his speech was to provide ammunition to his political opponents.  Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, in his “morning in America” speech told us there were no restraints.  The energy crisis was the government’s fault.  The solution was to reduce federal spending and cut taxes.

In an effort to salvage his re-election prospects, Carter adopted a pugnacious tone, articulating the “Carter Doctrine” in January, 1980.  He said the nation would “use any means necessary, including military force,” to prevent any other power from dominating the Persian Gulf.”  Sadly, this endorsement of American imperialism rather than his earlier call to fiscal and moral balance is what guides our politicians to this day.  It isn’t hard to see why.  In the 1980 presidential election, Carter won just four states, while Reagan carried 48.  No one in Washinton missed the message:  the way to get elected is to pander to our illusions, to suggest that our credit is infinite and the bills will never come due.

In 1983, President Reagan proposed his “Star Wars” missile defense shield, implying that our national security and way of life were wedded to military superiority.  “Defense is not a budget item,” he said.  George Bush didn’t think so, nor do this year’s presidential candidates.  The President criticizes the Ryan budget for draconian cuts to key domestic services, but says nothing about its huge uptick in military spending – perhaps because for Democrats too, “defense is not a budget item.”

Bacevich articulates solutions akin to Carter’s – an end to the fool’s errand of trying to reshape the world in our image and an effort to set our own house in order.  He cautions that expecting those in power to adopt such a course of action is like expecting the CEO of a major car company to lobby for public transportation – there’s too much power and money vested in the status quo. Among other suggestions, he says:

“No doubt undertaking a serious…national effort to begin the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy promises to be a costly proposition.  Yet…spending trillions to forcibly democratize the Islamic world will achieve little, while investing trillions in energy research might actually produce something useful.” 

Technical innovation has been an American strongpoint, from the Mahattan Project to the space race, to the digital revolution.  In contrast, our efforts to reshape other cultures has been rather dismal.

If a change of course is possible, Bacevich does not think it likely.  Throughout his book, he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, a pastor, theologian, and author who wrote between 1930 and 1960.  He gives us this quote by Niebuhr:

“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”

The Limits of Power is a disturbing book to read, but one I can recommend to everyone who prefers hard truth to subterfuge and lies.  For a more recent look at Andrew Bacevich and his ideas, I recommend this interview, conducted in March, on “Moyers and Friends:”

As they say in 12 step programs, admitting there is a problem is the first step toward a solution.

Bill Moyers on “The Cowardly Lions of Free Speech”

Here is Bill Moyers’ response to the recent Supreme Court decision not to revisit Citizen’s United.  Check out the full clip, which only runs 6 1/2 minutes.

Three things don’t go together: Money. Secrecy. Democracy. And that’s the nub of the matter. This is all a sham for invalidating democracy in the name of democracy. It’s the trick authoritarians always use to hide their real intention — in this case absolute power over our public life and institutions: the privatization of everything. The Supreme Court is pointing the way. Instead of mitigating the worst excesses of both the state and the private sector, the Court has taken sides. Saying to the massed wealth of the one percent: America is yours for the taking, for the buying.

There really is nothing to add to something so shameful and tragic.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Files for Chapter 11

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after reaching a deal with creditors to wipe out more than $3 billion in debt.  This will be the second major restructuring for Houghton in two years.

The Journal calls Houghton a major textbook publisher, and the company says it’s been hurt by state and local budget cuts to K-12 education programs.

Fans of Tolkien know Houghton as the American publisher of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Several books I treasure are Tolkien  editions illustrated by Alan Lee, artistic director for Peter Jackson’s movies, whose drawing and paintings shaped the films, and in some cases, served as the the actual backgrounds for outdoor scenes.

These are kind of books I treasure as print editions.  At the same time, it’s easy to imagine a transition to ebooks could be a business saving move for the textbook division.  Industry watchers knew Houghton was in trouble as early as 2008, when it temporarily suspended new book acquisitions.  It’s hard to believe they are the only traditional publisher that is struggling for survival.

Andy Grove on How to Create American Jobs

In the wake of this week’s jobs report, here is a Businessweek article from the July 1, 2010 in which Andy Grove, lays out a path to American economic renewal. If anyone has the chops for this, it’s Grove.  One of the three founders of Intel, he helped light the fire that gave us Silicon Valley and changed the world.

(l-r), Andy Grove, Robert Noyce, and Gordon Moore in 1978, on the 10th anniversary of Intel. Photo courtesy of Intel

The bad news is that Grove’s formula depends on intelligent and focused government action. In 2010, that didn’t seem as hopeless as it does now.  Yet perhaps ideas are like seeds; the good ones grow, even though they may take a while to germinate.

One key problem, according to Grove, is our loss of hi-tech manufacturing jobs, not only because of the human cost, but because of our loss of the expertise that production brings.  He says the US has already fallen too far behind to ever catch up in technologies like solar panels and batteries for fuel efficient cars.  “Not only [do] we lose an untold number of jobs, we [break] the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution. As happened with batteries, abandoning today’s “commodity” manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.”

Grove suggests we need an employment-centered economy and political leadership.  He cites the performance of several Asian economies, including China, the source of so much hand-wringing in the face of perceived U.S. decline.

Andy Grove, 2010

Grove recommends government incentives to aid the growth of key industries and keep the manufacturing base at home. He ends the article with a chilling bit of history:

Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there was a time in this country when tanks and cavalry were massed on Pennsylvania Avenue to chase away the unemployed. It was 1932; thousands of jobless veterans were demonstrating outside the White House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition moved in on them, and herded them away from the White House. In America! Unemployment is corrosive. If what I’m suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it.

I suggest everyone concerned with employment and US technical expertise take a moment to read what Grove has to say:

People and the Planet: A Report by the Royal Society

On April 26, The Royal Society, the UK’s 350 year old academy of science, released the results of a 21 month study of patterns of population and consumption.  Sir John Sulston, chair of the working group, put it very simply:

“The world now has a very clear choice.  We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption.  We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices.  Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.”

The Society issued a 132 page report that makes several key recommendations

  1. The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty, and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development, education, family planning and health.
  2. The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
  3. Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet need for contraception is high.
  4. Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues. Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.

Please look at this video clip of Sulston summarizing the findings of the report, which he will present at the United Nations on May 1, ahead of the Rio+20 conference.

Of special interest to me was Sulston’s critique of GDP as the key measure of economic wellbeing for nations.  GDP, he says, drives growth to levels that cannot be sustained.  Michael Meade once observed that unbridled growth in the body is cancer, and unbridled growth in the body politic is a parallel ill.

Growth is such an ingrained measure of wellbeing that re-imagining global socio-economics will not be simple or easy.  One tactic, according to the working group, is to factor in real costs:  what are the real costs of disappearing forests and species?  What is the real cost of water when the study predicts that 1.8 billion people will live with severe water scarcity by 2025?

The issue of water brings to mind my previous post, “Another Regulation Conundrum,”, which describes a couple’s 40 year effort to create an self-sustaining and non-polluting homestead.  One of their projects was recycling household “gray water.”  The county building codes have no provision for such experimental ways of doing things, and the couple has racked up large fines and an eviction notice.  In a very real sense, the status quo is the problem.  According to the Royal Society, not only our building codes but the mindset behind them must change or the quality of life for everyone will continue its spiral of decline.

One parting thought:  the study was released on Thursday.  Why haven’t we heard it mentioned on any US media?

What is Social Darwinism?

No, I am not playing Jeopardy, I’m considering the phrase Barack Obama used to characterize the recent House budget proposal.  I thought I had a good idea of what he meant:  survival of the fittest, applied to human endeavors.

I learned a lot more from an article in a New York Times opinionater blog post written by Philip Kitcher, John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia.  In his article, “The Taint of ‘Social Darwinism,'” Kitcher credits the birth of the concept to 19th century philosopher, Herbert Spencer, who first talked of “survival of the fittest.”  The phrase was never used to describe evolution but survival in the human jungle.  Kitcher characterizes the Social Darwinist view:

“Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons.”

I can’t help thinking of Charles Dickens’ London, where “the fittest” is the pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge.

One not so grand irony is that many of our latter day Social Darwinists were born into wealth and opportunity, while truly self-made men and women, like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, understand the value and necessity of supportive social structures.  In Kitcher’s words, “Horatio Alger needs lots of help, and a large thrust of contemporary Republican policy is dedicated to making sure he doesn’t get it.”

I urge everyone who has a stake in this debate – meaning all of us – to give Philip Kitcher’s article a read.