Thursday, May 20, 2010
Fast forward to the 1990s. Russia seemed for the moment to be headed towards Democracy, but to a group of radical free marketeers who were somehow charged with transforming the economy, it seemed desperately important to get the "means of production" back into private hands. Apparently which private hands didn't seem to matter. Everything was in flux; the moment could be lost if not seized now. And so vast enterprizes came to be privately owned by ex party hacks and a few "wild west" style entrepreneurs. Newly billionaires got total control over the media, and elections were highjacked, and Russia reversed course, away from democracy and free speech. Enormous piles of money in the midst of a population that had lost all its savings, and was lucky if they received any wage at all, could buy just about anything.
Businesses big enough to buy and sell small or poor countries can rival the most misguided states when it comes to destroying freedom and democracy. Look at Russia, and look at the history of Latin America. The U.S.'s Founding Fathers set up a system of competition between branches of government to make it less likely to devolve into absolutism, but government is our only tool for disciplining the potential tyranny of wealth. When too much power is taken away from government, as with Weimar, and the Russia of the 1990s, it invites takeover by some other power, which then becomes, in effect the government. The next step after a government small enough to "drown in a bathtub" is typically not pretty. For Russia as a case in point, see Sale of the Century by Chrystia Freeland.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Now they facilitate the equivalent of old fashioned whispering campaigns, but vastly more powerful, and while that sort of thing mostly happenned on a state level or smaller (it being hard to do it on a difficult scale and not get caught). E.g. the rumor that Ann Richardson was a lesbian in the Texas governor's race, and the one spread in just one state in the 2000 republican primary campaign that McCain had an out of wedlock black child.
But email knows no boundaries. A couple of years ago, I started getting forwarded emails from my Mom, with claims that could generally be shot down easily with 15 minutes of internet research. They seemed to be really affecting my parents' views, and based on what they told me, they were generally believed by most of their friends. But they were quite simply full of provable lies. They would show signs of having been forwarded a half dozen or so times, with visible 'CC' lists giving them a sort of homey look. You receive this sort of thing from a friend who forwarded, and are apt to assume it was written by a friend of that friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend, not that they are being churned out by some sort of under the radar political operator, but that is what I think they are, based partly on consistency of style.
Here are a couple of references:
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Nuclear weapons led to decades of huge military build-ups and relatively small proxy wars, and a dangerous dependence on spreading sophisticated arms and military training among unstable, irrational and undemocratic allies, and especially towards the end of the Cold War, building up the capabilities, organizational ability, and confidence of extreme groups like the Wahabis and Muslim Brotherhood.
It is hard to remember the few short years when the atom bomb seemed to give America an unanswerable advantage.
The use of drone aircraft, esp. in Pakistan and Afghanistan may help accomplish the seemingly impossible task of flushing Al Queda out of wild mountainous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but at the risk of outraging much public opinion in Pakistan and possibly helping destabilize Pakistan with its large nuclear arsenal. The advantage could also be short lived. With advancing technology, a new kind of cheap off-the-shelf drone may some day be widespread, wiping out this U.S. advantage.
Drones, "smart bombs", and all the high technology warfare that the U.S. alone has mastery of at the moment are dependent on some very fragile infrastructure and a peculiar state of international affairs. For a long while, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had a mutual reluctance to militarize space, with the exception of spying and the extreme case of ICBMs. I.e. we did not shoot down eachother's satellites. If one did, the other would, and the world was safer if we both had spy satellites than if neither did. For the last 2 decades inertia has ruled in this area, except that the U.S., with its new use of aerospace enhanced "conventional" weapons is "playing a dangerous game", giving other nations the motive to shoot down our satellites. China is probably the only nation likely to do this, having the technological strength (and wealth), and the possibilities for vast hidden military power (I think China must be the least monitored and monitorable great power having still great hinterlands that can be hidden from foreigners and from the vast majority of Chinese). This, combined with the sheer manpower of China, could facilitate enormous secret projects. These might involve the training of huge numbers of soldiers in foreign languages and whatever else it might take to quickly seize and hold an area, say, of the middle East. Or they might involve developing and assembling some new technology of warfare, such as a communication network consisting of a vast swarm of solar powered unmanned planes distributed high in the atmosphere, and simply too numerous to take down with any technology other than a very similar but superior swarm of robotic flying machines (while satellites remain extemely vulnerable -- I can only imagine such a system deployed after the U.S. satellite communication system was destroyed. It would be enormously hostile and provocative but an extremely effective shift in the balance of power). As long as China does not become an open democratic society, such things are at least remotely possible. On the other hand, a rich and comfortable ruling class will at most times prefer the status quo to the unpredictable consequences of such a move, which probably gives us time to try to resume making the world more open and democratic.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The recent attempt to convince people that there has been no rise in the CO2 level (based on misrepresentation of one climatologist's words -- try googling "wolfgang knorr climate change") is apparently so meritless that neither Rush Limbaugh nor Glenn Beck will touch it, so it has been left to somewhat lower profile blogs like hotair.com, Lucianne.com, and BigGovernment.com.
The increase (by close to 50% in the last 100 years) of CO2 does not prove global warming, and there are various complicated arguments that accept the increase of CO2 but still say there's no global warming problem. For my part, basically I accept that the vast majority of relevant scientists agree it is happenning and is due to fossil fuel burning and deforestation. How rapidly it is happenning is controversial, but there are signs that the consequences, esp. melting of ice sheets could speed up in unexpected ways.
The projections have to be based on some baseline estimates of the amount of gas, oil, and coal that will be extracted and consumed. If there is a revolution in extraction -- whether from offshore drilling, "cracking" technologies for natural gas or simply discovery of vast new oil fields -- resulting in hydrocarbon fuel use greatly exceding current projections then the projections of greenhouse gas increase will also have to be revised upward. We have observed overall temperatures rising decade by decade, and have recently been surprised at how much difference one more degree of average temperature seems to make -- esp in the melting of ice sheets (the melting of ice that currently rests on land, as in Greenland and Antarctica is what would raise sea levels. The melting of floating ice, such as at North Pole will NOT have such an effect). At the very least we are changing something that we cannot reverse, and do not understand very well.
"Global warning" however is far from the only reason to try to burn less fuel, and develop greater fuel efficiency and more renewable energy. The less carbon based fuels are in demand, the less of our real wealth will go to extracting them. Without some downward pressures on demand, with contries like China finally becoming technological powerhouse (their population is comparable to that of the whole industrialized world), we are pretty sure to see $4/gallon gas again, and it could well greatly excede this. The fact that so much of the source of world wealth is in Russia, the middle east, Latin America, etc. has partly reversed a long trend of ill educated and undemocratic nations having no leverage over the educated, democratic and stable nations.
(Partial change of subject to economics in general):
A great deal of the danger and instability of the world today (and at other times in history) is due to such a powerful resource being in corrupt and often irrational hands. The potential for renewable energy will be much more evenly distributed among nations, and will almost certainly be extremely beneficial to one of the poorest parts of the world, and maybe the next great manufactury of terrorists if people are not given better things to pursue -- Africa. It will tend to make these countries self-sufficient, without however, providing a concentrated faucet of wealth prone to be monopolized by a few people in power (this is an idea becoming clear(er) in my mind for the first time. What might be called a "faucet effect" may go a long way to explaining the conditions of the old American South (cotton and slavery), Central America (banannas, and heritage of slavery), South America (among other things, oil, copper and other ores, and the heritage of slavery), the middle east (oil), Southern Africa (gold and diamonds). All of these products -- natural resources and mono-cultures) seem to be managed most efficiently between a powerful few in one country and a powerful few in another country (I wrote about slavery as a "skimmable" river of wealth in paper for History of Ideas class).
The most recent cultural change in much of the Muslim world is the shockingly prevalent willingness to kill oneself in order to kill "enemies".
Such shifts in a culture take on a momentum of their own, so that what was first largely inspired by fear of conquest by the West has led to more deadly warfare between Islamic sects.
We actually need a broader word than "culture" -- maybe "state of society" comes close, because more transient qualities, like the mood or morale of a society can be just as important. Also, the almost total breakdown of normal economic daily life in places like post-invasion Iraq and the Palistinian territories leaves huge numbers of people, men and boys especially, with nothing they can think of except taking up arms to make their lives meaningful. Men (and I'm thinking mostly of more traditional societies, so "men" it is) who once found meaning and satisfaction in being economic providers for their families are an easy target for the promise of "meaning" that war provides (see Chris Hedges' War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning).
The impact of the glorification of suicide "martyrdom" resembles that of a huge technological breakthrough -- making existing strategies of defense irrelevant.
Wars in general tend to brutalize the people affected by them, and the effect of a long war is especially bad - apt to leave behind a generation that knows only war, is totally uneducated and inexperienced in peaceful pursuits (i.e. the pursuit of "normal economic life", in which people spend their time trying to produce something useful for themselves or for someone else to buy). The Viet Nam war was the longest American war and the war with the least happy outcome, but the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are approaching that record. The Civil war and the American involvement in WWII both took under 4 years. Long wars provide a training ground for the people you are fighting. They are likely to develop all sorts of new tactics and weaponry, and in U.S. experience this has often tended to nullify the technological advantage we might have had at the beginning.
If we say we are waging war because we must, in order to preserve or restore peace, then bear in mind that warfare will break down inhibitions against people killing eachother; and at the extreme create whole generations of people who are hardened to killing, have no experience of normal economic life or free inquiry, and have had no chance to be educated.
Turning to the aim of domestic peace -- consider what I heard recently about the California prison system, where the philosophy of only punishing and stopping criminals basically robbed it of effectiveness once all training and educational programs were stripped away (need to expand this). In the TV series The Wire, you had policemen and women with a very deep understanding of criminals as human beings, but not any less "tough" as a result. You had people fighting crime with a very effective combination of force and of empathy (dare we say even love, at times -- consider "Bunny", the black police commander who adopted a young man who had seemed to be on the road to viciousness).
The idea of the "empathetic warrior" has always been deeply interesting to me, from the imaginary "Caine" of the "Kung Fu" series (a naive fantasy I admit) to Joseph Stilwell, they have fascinated me. It is the opposite of the idea that when fighting something, you must treat the people who embody that thing (e.g. criminality or the Communist ideal/delusion) as embodiments of evil to be crushed. It calls for the ability to imagine that they could be something else. This includes the interrogator, like David Alexander (How to Break a Terrorist) who can "turn" an Islamic terrorist rather than (usually futilely) trying to beat information out of him.
I have to face head-on the idea that there is something "parental" about this attitude, and that is just what many people abhor (i.e. the "nanny state"). But all of the bad parenting in the world doesn't invalidate the idea of taking responsibility for children with compassion and force when needed. And all of the stupidities and crimes perpetrated by governments and parties in the name of dreams of a better world (whether that "better world" is a socialist or free market ideal) do not invalidate the idea of a community somehow acting in a collective fashion to try to promote the welfare of its individuals with compassion, imagination, and at times, but as little as possible, force.
Most people, though they may sing the praises of freedom (Burke "snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze"; Johnson's "yelps"), know this on some level, but then their minds get stuck in some particular rather perverse image of what that looks like -- one that reassures individuals that it is not their responsibility and none of their business -- a simplistic view of the "benevolent dictator". It might be Winston Churchill not preventing the bombing of some town so that the Germans would not discover their intelligence leak, or the Colonel played by Jack Nicholson shouting "You can't handle the truth". I'm sure that Soviet era Russian textbooks could provide many more such romantically tinged vignettes of leaders making "the hard decisions", but why dwell so much on such examples. I suspect there is some kind of agenda, maybe conscious or maybe not, behind the propagation of such images.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Let me take a stab at a rough division into sectors of economies in the modern world
- Government proper - military, police, courts, postal service, tax collection, ...
- Government-industrial complex - i.e. most manufacturing in the USSR as well as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but should we also include road building and maintenance in the U.S.?
- Education - may well belong to some larger category - to be determined.
- Private goods-creation (industry but also building, restaurants, ...)
- The business of exchange of everything else
- The Primordial Soup, from which new political life forms are apt to emerge. The people with nothingto do and often nothing to lose.
In Iraq, had we not had the silver bullet idea that
toppling the dictator == Freedom and Democracy == Things will be "normal" like in the U.S.
we might have done a sober analysis of the institutions that kept peoples' lives from falling apart, and tried to preserve those activities that could be divorced from the criminality of Saddam's state. These included "inefficient" state run industry (by the quotes I'm not asserting it was efficient, but compared to what? To nothing being manufactured, and people having no place to go to work?), which I gather the occupying forces tried to disband overnight, as well as the military, which was either disbanded or non-functional during the period when most of what was left of Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed, which made it far more difficult to bring back any sort of normal economic life, which helped keep millions of people in the primordial soup for a very long time.
The disbanding of the state industrial complex was done in the name of Free Marketism, but it took the Iraqis further away from the ideal of a humming society of people producing and exchanging goods.
This seems pretty incomplete, but my life is chopped up into such little pieces that I have to for not put things "out there". I realize my understanding is sketchy and based on too few sources, but I'm trying, and I think many people who know less than me are going around sounding totally sure of themselves.