Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Meltdown

As long as cowboy capitalism was only hurting the poor, those in power saw no reason to rein it in.  Now that it’s hurting Wall Street, the free-marketers are, in Senator Dodd’s words, gasping for air.

The commentators are as eloquent as they are shy of saying what they know has to be done - at least in their gut.  They argue about the need for more regulation, with a few braver souls murmuring that the system itself has to be reformed.

When you say that the system has to be reformed, as opposed to regulated, you are saying that free market capitalism has run its course.  One analyst actually admitted that the reason why the present situation is inevitable is that humans have a tendency to always want more. That means that advertising feeds into a basic human trait which eventually leads the entire society to the poorhouse.

Sandwiched in between other comments, several commentators on today’s talk shows mentioned health care as one of many examples of how bad things are, but they weren’t brave enough to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.  Why would they pronounce the words health care in the same breath as financial crisis unless they wanted to imply that both need to be socialized?

Fareed Zacharia, who continues to be the one talk show host who is really worth listening to - Sunday at 1 pm on CNN - interviewed Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, now eighty-five years old and still better informed on world affairs than most office holders.  Zacharia chided him gently for forbidding the chewing of gum in his authoritarian regime (you can get nicotine gum with a prescription), but having looked it up it turns out that Singapore also controls what people see on electronic media.  Singapore is among the dozen or so countries that ban porn (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE, Kywait, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Kenya, India, Cuba, China), and this allows me to transition to my next point, which is that although Singapore is not a predominantly Muslim country, the government attitude toward the vulgarization of sex is similar to that of Muslim countries - and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists

Kew calls himself a social Darwinist, but his interpretation of the term is somewhat different from that which prevailed in the late nineteenth and earlay twentieth century: that only the fittest can be expected to - and should - survive.  Kew interprets it as meaning that the task of government is to help individuals to survive, even if that implies an authoritarian regime.

Interestingly, a June article in the NYR describes Obama’s economic approach as “behaviorist”, defined as “seeking to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics”.  That sounds to me like a back door approach to social-democracy to me.  Not surprising, since we have a lot more knowledge at our disposal than the social democrats of a hundred years ago.  We can combine a belief in equality with insights into how people make economic decisions, as well as recognition of the need for incentives to move things along.  And if you listen carefully to Obama’s comments on the subject, you’ll catch him saying just that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Service (sic)

There is great confusion out on the campaign trail and in the world at large:

The two American presidential candidates recently devoted an hour each to answering questions about “service”, yet both endorse a forty-five year old blockade of a country whose political philosophy is based on the notion of service.

In case this isn’t immediately crystal clear, let me be more precise:  In Cuba, the principle of solidarity (which is the moral basis of service) is taught from nursery school on.  Cuban medical personnel not only serve their own people on salary, many of them spend time in distant lands to help others.

The stated purpose of a socialist government is to ensure that the community supports the individual in his life and endeavors.  In the U.S., volunteers are expected to do for others what the government doesn’t do.  Americans pay taxes AND are expected to pick up the slack when their taxes don’t cover basic support.  In socialist countries, salaries are low but there are no taxes and the government is expected to provide health, education and welfare to its citizens, in addition to organizing things so that everyone has a job and food on the table.

Even though we support monetarily and militarily a large array of dictators across the globe who have no concept of service to others, successive presidents have continued to do all they could to bring down the Cuban regime. Even after the Russians had removed their missiles from Cuba, in the sixties, even after the Cold War with the Soviet-Union-now-Russia had ended, even after we started talking with the North Koreans, the only Cubans we talk to are dissidents.

Clearly, the Cuba experiment in trying to make socialism work must have both Democrats and Republicans - and this is where the relatively small difference between the two is most apparent -  very worried.  Currently, the emphasis is on the fact that the Cuban government deems it necessary to remove from the public arena those of its citizens whose opposition the U.S. government supports, so that some of the Cubans we talk to become political prisoners.

Hmmm.  Is that worse than the U.S. government arresting Americans whom it suspects of sympathies with any one of a long list of enemies, and is known to spirit them off to places where the level of human rights is such that they can be tortured?

Meanwhile - and this is where it gets really confusing - the (for want of a better word, and notwithstanding its political overtones) capitalist system, which has spawned an international money market, is teetering on its heights because the free flow of goods, services and money is unregulated by governments.

Progressive commentators rightly point out that we’re witnessing a kind of socialism for the rich,  but I’m not aware of any discussion of what a social-democratically inspired international monetary system would look like. (Keynes?) According to the April review in the New York Review, of Joseph E. Stiglitz’s most recent book “Making Globalization Work”, this former chief economist at the World Bank uses that word approvingly, in yet another small sign that American intellectuals may be timidly abandoning their McCarthy-inspired self-censorship.

I think the world is struggling on many fronts and at many levels toward a social-democratic version of modernity based on sustainable development, where individual service would not be an antidote to runaway inequality, but the functioning basis of government.

And I am convinced that unless the new president can steer this country in that direction, the world is going to be an increasingly confused and scary place.

As a first step, talking to the Cuban government would start to brush the cobwebs out of our heads.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nine-Eleven’s Invisible Legs

What’s significant about nine-eleven for me is that it begins to put the U.S. on an equal footing with the rest of the world when it comes to the back-story of political attitudes and behaviors.

Living for most of my life in various European countries has made me aware that both public and official reactions to events are colored by past history, learned and repeated over generations of life-times.  Until now, the U.S. has not possessed the kind of history that has marked other peoples: the only wars on our soil were of our own making.  Nine-eleven marked the first attack by an outside enemy on what we only now call “the homeland”.  Other nations have used that expression, as in “the fatherland”(Germany), or “the motherland (France), for generations.

Yet tragically, our political class does not seem to have been in any way transformed by that now-shared experience.  We still don’t understand why the Europeans are reluctant to accept “defensive” missiles intended to deter Teheran, and why they are not going to go head to head with Russia over Georgia - or anything else.

Another example - particularly sad at this moment - is our insistence on punishing Cuba for being an experiment in socialism.  For almost fifty years’ we’ve maintained a blockade on that tiny country, while cheerfully accepting abusive regimes by the dozen.  I don’t think it’s only because these might serve our purposes - or because of the exile vote. The policy is so old that American leaders have ceased to examine its rationality.  While Cuba could be seen as a threat when it harbored Soviet missiles, that was forty-five years ago, and the same country (now called Russia) that provided the missiles is now a partner of sorts.

Newscasters report hundreds of deaths in Haiti, compared to half a dozen in next door Cuba, without being allowed to add that the Cuban government has created well-oiled means and mechanisms for protecting the lives of its citizens, much less that these citizens live rent and tuition free, and have enjoyed free health care since the very earliest years of the revolution.

Nine-Eleven's legs could carry us far, but they're still invisible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Taming Horses and Adversaries

A few days ago I happened onto an old Western, The Big Country, in which Gregory Peck tames an unridable horse.  In this fifties film, he achieves the horse’s submission by getting up again and again to ride him after being thrown, having the horse’s bridle held by another person while he mounts, or turning the horses head to one side with the reins.

I couldn't help but compare this approach to one I’d seen on a recent Nature feature, about a program for men serving jail time, in which they learned to tame horses using a completely different method than the one in Peck’s film:  they worked over days and weeks to gain the horse’s confidence and allow him to become familiar with his future master.

Undoubtedly, these two filmed narratives reflect the fact that since the fifties, psychology has become a major element of our culture.  Sadly, this progress has not extended to the way we deal with our political adversaries.  Barack Obama would have us apply the method documented in the Nature program, while John McCain touts the cowboy method.

Sadly, again, we witness the predominance of the cowboy approach to adversaries in the behavior of too many soldiers, as documented in several films about the Iraq war.  I don’t remember the title of the one I saw a few months ago on television, shot by a soldier with a camera, that documented language and behavior both in the barracks and on duty.  The vulgarity of the language was only the icing on the cake, so to speak: the soldiers were filmed breaking down doors, raping and killing civilians whom they had decided deserved to be chastised.

Aggressive behavior could be brushed off as untypically American, yet half of us appear to respond enthusiastically to the candidate whose rhetoric is all about winning and the honor thereof.  In case anyone still thinks McCain’s use of the word honor corresponds to the classical definition of the term, they should remember that, in true cowboy fashion, it includes ‘Bomb, bomb Iran.’

Friday, September 5, 2008


John McCain probably had several reasons for picking a little-known governor of a peripheral state as his running mate:

  1. The Alaskan Republicans wanted her out of their hair.

  2. She was part of a group calling for the oil-rich state to become an independent country.

  3. She presents an excellent profile for a future Republican ikon: a female George W. Bush, the guy you could see yourself drinking a beer with,while the presidency was run by the boys in the back room. What they perhaps didn’t bargain with, is that she is also a Dick Cheney clone.

P.S. True to its lapdog credentials, the media sees nothing wrong with a potential VP having campaigned for a state to secede.