Arasmus

Humpty Dumpty at the Kyber Pass

Posted in History, Politics by Arasmus on December 1, 2009


At the outset, it is worth mentioning that as I watched President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan tonight I realized that the luxury of not being governed by an idiot has yet to wear off. Obviously, the entire Iraq War has been a complete distraction from the efficient prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. On somewhat of an aside, I also appreciated Obama’s reference to Eishenhower’s principle that every issue of national policy must be placed in balance with every other issue. I thought his short-list of our present challenges as (1) the economy and (2) China, showed the proper focus, or at least one with which I agree.

Now with respect to Afghanistan, I see 2 challenges.

The first is the definition of success. In this speech Obama defined success as destroying Al Qaeda’s ability to act. He did not include in the definition of success building a vibrant and successful Afghanistan. That was wise. Although I am only half-way through Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia), I can already appreciate just how far behind Afghanistan is in terms of thinking of itself as a single nation and possessing national institutions that command the loyalty and support of the civilian population. The problem is whether you can quench Al Qaeda’s ability to operate and avoid having to suckle a fledgling Afghanistan. Didn’t Al Qaeda select Afghanistan precisely because it was unable to hold itself together? (By the way, there is no shortage of failed states, which has always led me to wonder why we define the theatres in the “War on Terror” with such a geographical emphasis). I agree no nation can afford to bankroll Afghanistan, especially the United States in its current condition. But the ability of Afghanistan to have a concept of itself as a multi-ethnic nation and rise up from the ashes of ethnic and tribal violence does not at this point look promising. There will have to be some nation-building, the question is how much time and how much money will it take to get to a critical mass that can effectively police disrupting influences like Al Qaeda.

The second issue is Pakistan. An Al Qaeda or Taliban leader watching tonight’s broadcast will probably go through the following considerations if he hasn’t done so already. An enlarged American force is on its way. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to avoid all confrontations with a superior force and to instead wear that force down by hit and run tactics, draw it into situations where its size becomes a disadvantage and target its weaknesses. In his speech tonight Obama said that he would start pulling troops back from Afghanistan in 18 months. This weekend I briefly caught an interview with Reza Aslan who has written the book, How to Win A Cosmic War, God, Civilization and the The End of The War on Terror. He captures quite well the perspective that Islamist fundamentalists have of this conflict as one which they don’t see ending any time soon. So for them, it is a viable option to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, probably to Waziristan in Pakistan, wait there for 18 months and return once the Americans start to leave. The question then becomes whether Pakistan will attack them in Waziristan. Pakistan is an anemic state. Since partition it has failed to build up the type of democratic institutions that might have at this point afforded it greater economic growth, reduced poverty and inequality, rule of law, a military under civilian control and reduced corruption. It has none of these things so it has little ability to act. Pakistan is also disinclined to act because their number one priority is to counter their heightened sensitivity to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the precarious position in which Pakistan finds itself (specifically the the high water mark of concern re the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during the Swat Valley insurgency) this obsession with India seems to me a poor choice of priorities. But Pakistan believes that the Americans are not in Afghanistan for the long haul. And they are right. So Pakistan sees the relationship between its security services and the Taliban as a potential pawn that they can use in a post-American Afghanistan to counter Indian influence in the region. If Pakistan does not prosecute the war on their side of the border Al Qaeda will not be neutralized in Afghanistan. They will merely move to Pakistan and lie low. Pakistan is key. And the key to Pakistan is India.

We Get What We Deserve

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on March 25, 2009


The progressive view today is that America needs to invest in its infrastructure in order to dig its way out of the hole in which it has placed itself. And when we think of infrastructure we thing of bridges, roads and broadband – physical things, divided into the shovel-ready and those that at some point will require a shovel. This ignores an important fact. One of the main reasons why the United States finds itself in its current predicament is because of the weakness of its intangible cultural infrastructure. If this is not fixed then it is just a matter of time before we find ourselves, albeit surrounded by windmills and fiber-optic communications, in another mess, entirely of our own creation.
Culture matters. People, especially en masse, respond to incentives. We often think of this when we talk about economics but wealth is not the only incentive. Status can also be of at least equal importance. In his novel, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway observed “[t]his honor thing is not some fantasy, that I am trying to inflict on you . . . I swear it is true. Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine or olive oil. There is honor among pickpockets and honor among whores. It is simply that the standards differ.” The value of honor, which is just one type of status, is not limited to Spaniards but is something we all feel and appreciate. The cultures of the world are replete, not only with examples of those that chose honor over wealth, but often those that choose honor over life itself. Friederich Nietzsche takes this idea one step further. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he argued; “[a] table of values hangs over every people. Behold it is the table of its overcomings; behold it is the voice of its will to power.” I have always been fascinated by this quote because for me it captures a powerful idea – a society can decide where it will go tomorrow by the values it chooses to live by today. The Roman poet Virgil said it best; “we make our destinies by the gods we choose.” I think the important word is “choose.”

It is not always easy to choose the things that a culture values because we often think that culture is something that emerges over time. But to leave it at that is as irresponsible as saying that wealth emerges over time and to make no further inquiry into the conditions in which wealth develops and to try and create the most favorable environment for such growth. We perspire to no end to ensure that we create the right conditions for economic growth yet we seem fecklessly indifferent when it comes to encouraging a culture that will drive us to a favorable destiny. I am not saying that the United States does not have a table of values, it very much does. The problem is that some of the values are out of date. They are mismatched in the modern world and this mismatch is crippling the nation. I like to think that it is a unique observation of mine, that with respect to people and nations, it is often that which made them great that also unravels them. The headstrong entrepreneur pushes through all the naysayers and makes his vision a reality only to lose it all by ignoring everyone who tried to tell him the end was nigh. The culture of the United States values individualism and self-reliance but these values also contain within them America’s greatest weakness.

Times have changed. Individualism is all well and good when what happens to you doesn’t affect me. As I sit on the stoop of my Texan ranch and watch my children and cattle grow strong on the back of fertile soils, it matters little in fact, that my neighbor seems unable to thrive in God’s Country. But with industrialization, the people exchange their pastures for a paycheck. Now my destiny and security are inter-connected with that of my colleagues in joint-venture. As our society evolves the inter-dependencies increase. I receive and make payment with pieces of paper, relying on the expectation that my fellow citizen will do likewise. I connect my home to common networks of energy and communications. I send my children out of the home for their education and hope that they will return safely in the evening. I even allow others to have an equal say in how I can live by participating in a democracy and obeying the rule of law. As this process continues, a tension emerges between the values of independence and responsibility and the reality of my inter-dependence and the fact that I am increasingly affected by the actions of others for which I am not responsible. In 2009, the American citizen stands on the balcony of his urban condominium and surveys a nation that has lost fifty percent of its wealth on the stock exchange, one in 70 homes foreclosed, several millions unemployed and the nation bleeding billions of dollars and thousands of lives in an unnecessary war that we started because of a lie. A Re-run of the film Wallstreet plays with dripping irony in the background and the Talking Heads ask “how did I get here?”

For the sake of dramatic effect, let me answer that question in one word: education. The American educational system is corrupt. It is the footprint of a culture that is too in love with values of independence and self-reliance applied to the absolute.  Therefore, the system was considered optimal if my kids got a good education. What happened to your kids was your problem. And so the system spread across the continent with good schools for the rich and the illusion of an education for everyone else. The outcome was obvious. In 2003 the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development compared the performance of American 15 year olds with that of other nations. Americans came 24th in a table of 38 competitors in mathematics, 19th in science, 12th in reading and 26th in problem solving. In a 2006 assessment the US came 35th out of table of 57 in mathematics. And everyone who lives in the United States knows that the national figure masks a huge range in educational performance. For example, in the capital of the United States, only 46 percent of elementary school students were considered proficient in reading and 40 percent in math. In high school only 39 percent were proficient in reading and 36 percent in math. And it gets worse. The desperation for a good education became so intense that even the prestigious schools could not resist the fortunes that parents were willing to spend to rescue their children from falling into the growing underclass. Soon, prestigious universities realized they could make more and more money from stamping people’s heads with labels like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Just ask a law graduate from either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School what they learned during their time there and they will freely tell you that they discussed only vague jurisprudential concepts and policy considerations. One friend of mine told me recently that her entire tort law class involved applying the idea of societal cost and benefit to various scenarios. Merely saying that ensured that you passed the class in a program in which grades were never disclosed to employers.  I learned that much at the kitchen table. Don’t get me wrong, some of the smartest people in the country graduate from these schools, but if they were among the smartest people in the country going in, what did the school do for them? It doesn’t matter does it? Because the goal was to get a high paying job when you graduated. Indeed, just in case there was any doubt, the cost of the education is so high that you have no choice but to search feverishly for a high paying job just to get the bank off your back. In 1999, lawyers’ salaries at the top firms jumped 25%. The next year law school tuition went up as well – did the quality of the education jump that much or was it just the cover charge?

Again and again you see the culture cutting its own throat because of a mis-guided belief that all that matters is that I get ahead and education serves no greater purpose than to allow me to climb over you. Your fate is irrelevant. The problem is that as we become more and more interdependant through systems that become more and more sensitive, what happens to you is almost as important as what happens to me. For example, in a democracy, a great measure of my fortune is decided by a committee composed of every single person in the United States. If a sufficiently large number of the people on that committee are badly educated, if they cannot tell the difference between responsible media and idiots, between populist rants and logical arguments, between the better judgment and the idiotic, then they are going to get me in trouble. And that’s exactly what happened. 85% of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attacks and so the United States invaded a nation that had zero relevance while the rest of the world looked on in disbelief and horror. The Iraq War has now lasted longer than World War 2 and has cost the Republic trillions. The handful of media companies completely failed to unearth the truth at the time because it had no incentive to do so – the educated are a minority – to reach the majority they have to dumb it down, which was easy and cheap. And so the cycle perpetuates itself. A man fired from a job managing a horse-association is put in charge of national emergency planning and everyone expected that to work. As if in some biblical tableau, the corruption increased such that the just were smitten and the ignorant raised high. Financial news networks failed to ask how long a nation can borrow money or how long real-estate prices can continue upwards without end because the majority didn’t care to know. Political candidates went on television and argued that they were qualified to handle the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation because they could see another nation off the shore. And the educated knew it was ridiculous but they voted for that party nonetheless because they still believed that it was more practical to ensure their individual independence than to share an intelligent government. And then the music stopped.

And there you are. You thought you could go it alone didn’t you? You thought all those test scores and foreign policy adventures were irrelevant to your life didn’t you? How is your 401k now? I am being severe to make an urgent point. Whereas taking care of your neighbor may have been a religious precept thousands of years ago, in today’s interconnected society concern for your neighbor’s welfare is a necessity. I am not advocating a nanny-state where initiative is crushed and the lay-about is rewarded the same as those that work hard. I am advocating that we acknowledge that we are more interdependent today, as a neighborhood, a nation and a globe than at any time in history. Issues that were once either yours or mine are now ours. And the most important; our most vital national infrastructure, is our respect for education, for better judgment, for wisdom. Because it is from the status that we give to education, that a better education system will emerge. And today, our respect for education is as dilapidated as any bridge in Pennsylvania. If it were otherwise how could we live with the shame of our poor performance in international educational comparisons? If it were otherwise how could television news networks have the audacity to put forward a level of programming that is so intellectually impoverished that it is laughed at in the rest of the world? If it were otherwise how could demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, a man who makes more money the more outrageous he can be, emerge as the pre-eminent voice in a conservative tradition replete with great thinkers? If it were otherwise how could NBC get away with having Keith Olberman throwing pieces of paper at a television camera in lieu of content? America does not value education because if it did how else could we explain a nation that has managed to create the perception of an even debate on global warming when the vast majority of scientists are lined up on one side? How can a nation that values education put the theory of evolution and a fairytale told to an ancient people on an equal footing?

So how about we stop it? Please. Let’s turn this ship around now while there is still time. Enough, with the pretty twinkies and the chiseled-jawed news anchors that can’t tell Iraq from Iran without a tele-prompter. Enough, with the two-car garage and the half-witted offspring. Enough, with the erectile dysfunction ads and the worship of gaudy vulgarity. Enough, with seeing political candidates struggling to distinguish foreign factions and then arguing that we should kill one or all of them. Enough, with the ridiculous argument that an American life is worth more than a human life. Enough, with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.  Let us pause for a moment and realize we took a wrong turn somewhere and that we need to recover our course. Let us start with our values. Let us value reasoned discourse. Let us encourage learning because it is dignified and makes our society better in a myriad of ways. Let us communicate to children the value of reading, music, art, science, justice and making a difference in the world rather than bling-bling, tits and ass. Let us have some sense of shame and a more appropriate sense of honor.  Let us speak highly of teachers, especially in the company of children. Let us each, in our everyday lives communicate the value of education and the model of an educated life. That seems to me to be the stimulus we most urgently need.

President Obama’s First Weekly Address – Transformation and Transparency

Posted in Economics, Politics by Arasmus on January 24, 2009

Here is the first weekly presidential address of Barack Obama. In this broadcast he describes the recovery plan in greater detail. You can see the text of this address on this page and you can stay up to date on the latest news from the White House by checking the new White House blog.

For me the top level concerns that I am glad he underlined in this address are;

(1) that the transformation of the US economy should be the primary focus of the recovery plan with stimulation of the economy a secondary effect and not vice versa. At present the Republicans on the Hill are on the other side of this issue – seeking tax breaks for the wealthy (quel change?) rather than investing the money today to yield greater and more sustainable returns tomorrow.  This is not the oft-cited example of Friedman economists because in this case we must transform and stimulate, rather than merely stimulate the economy.  Whether it was the dawn of the nuclear age, the space-race or the internet, the history of the US economy demonstrates that the great leaps forward were initiated by the state and then developed and expanded by the private sector.  So it must be with alternative energy. The network effects of the current out-dated means of energy supply and usage are so large that only the state is powerful enough to point the market in the right direction.  It is vital that the state do this in the right way, but do it, it must.  It must not pick its favorite candidate for the energy of the future, but it must offer rewards and incentives for whatever source achieves the metrics that it defines.  I believe that one important element in creating this fertile environment is to introduce a cap-and-trade carbon market so the real cost of pollution can be assigned to dirty-industry and clean-industry rewarded.  By contrast, the alternative favored by the Republicans, giving people cash, will not lead to solar panels on roofs, it will not lower our dependence on oil and it will not lead to better schools. We must make this transition at some point between now and when oil runs out. As time passes the pain of climbing energy costs will increase. We are peculiarly fortunate that if we effect the stimulus that we require by making this transformation today we will kill two birds with the one stone and position ourselves to lead the next phase of global economic growth. The consequence of a stimulus package that is in the majority composed of tax breaks to the wealthy, will be that at some point in the future we will still have to transform our economy to alternative energy but at that point we will have to do so with less money, more debt and an economy drained of its vigor after a decade of high energy prices. Its always better to bite the bullet when you still have teeth!

(2) transparency and accountability are not preferable – they are essential: without transparency and accountability there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the taxpayer will be cheated and robbed by immoral private-market partners. The behavior of contractors during the Iraq War offers shocking support of this claim (see The Three Trillion Dollar War by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes). Indeed, one only has to look at the behavior of individuals like ex-Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain (spent $1.22 million redesigning his CEO office last year while at the same time failing in his role of steward so badly that the company had to lay off thousands of workers and was eventually bought out by Bank of America) to realize how callous and clueless powerful individuals can be when they are not supervised, even in times of grave national emergency.

So far, so good. We move forward.

An Army Marches On Its Stomach

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on November 3, 2008

The final preparations are complete and everything is packed and ready to go. An army marches on its stomach and so I’ve planned for some sustenance in the event of being unable to get away from the polls. The champagne should tell you that I am, cautiously, optimistic. L’audace!

Tools of A Modern Citizenry

Posted in Politics, Technology by Arasmus on November 3, 2008

One of the many reasons why I am so excited about this election is because it is astonishing evidence of the impact of technology on the political process. Technology is of course agnostic and depends on humans for its moral value. In this election we have seen the Obama campaign use technology to devastating effect on the Republican Party. By contrast with the Republican power base, the Democrat base is diverse and encompasses various interests at all levels of society. This great umbrella has been the weakness of the party, until now. The campaign’s proficient use of the internet has allowed it to reach out with their message, organizational instructions and requests for finance.

Here is a picture of the plethora of gadgets that I will be taking with me tomorrow with the goal of communicating my experience to the world, something that was beyond the ability of the normal person just several years ago. I will probably not use half of them but I am bringing them just in case. With these tools I can transmit, photos, voice, text and even video anywhere in the world – focusing the eyes of the world on any undesirable behavior or alternatively to just record what will be a historic day. This is the awesome power of the citizen in the modern age. On an aside, it is power that must never be concentrated – it must always remain like a mist, protecting our freedom, everywhere and nowhere. This collection of circuitry is probably the worst nightmare of both the traditional media and nefarious actors everywhere. And that seems just to me. The traditional media failed to ask George W. Bush the tough questions that might have prevented the Iraq War, because they were afraid of losing their seats in the White House press corps. Their ability to act as the fourth estate became concentrated and neutered. And as for nefarious actors, I can only say; cheese! The world is watching.

For those interested, above we have:

* Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera
* Sony high-definition video camera and charger
* Blackberry 8800 backup phone and charger
* Canon Powershot and charger
* Apple Powerbook 17 inch and charger
* Garmin navigatorand charger
* Android G1 and charger
* Plantronics headset for VOIP calls
* Olympus dictaphone
* SD Card adaptor – this allows me to take high quality photos with the cameras and insert the card into my phone and send that file anywhere in the world.

Precinct 414 – Thelma Crenshaw Elementary School, Midlothian, Virginia

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on November 3, 2008

This is where I will be spending election day tomorrow, Precinct 414 just southwest of Richmond, Virginia. I am going, with others, to ensure that the election process is run fairly and to help anyone who has questions or needs help to vote. The polls open at 6 am and close at 7pm and we will be there from 5:30 am until every vote is counted. I’m very excited to take part in what is a historic election, not just for the United States, but for the world. I will be Twittering and photoblogging my progress throughout the day so if you are interested you can follow me.  I will upload my thoughts througout the day as well as photos of the action on the ground.  Precinct 414 is in Chesterfield County and a report on the February 2008 Primary Elections in that county found that a number of polling stations ran out of ballots. This issue, and excessive wait times are my two main concerns at this point as I think across the nation, this election will see unprecedented turnout. It is going to be long day, but I hope a happy one.

Brute Necessities

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 29, 2008

In Tuscany about now, maybe a little earlier, the farmers cut away the old dead wood from the olive trees. The perfumed smoke rises up from the valleys into the cold air. Through it you can make out a distant cathedral, or a train station built by fascists. It seems jarring to smell destruction in a place so often associated in one’s mind with that growth that having settled things affords. But this is how it is done. For centuries on end, independent men have pruned the origins of their sustenance and left them, as the poet says, “hacked clean for better bearing.” We are coming now to the end of a sad summer of bitter fruit. And so we cut out the old dead wood that has betrayed us. The memory of so much bitterness has shaken our belief in the fecundity of this valley. We doubt it all and the decision of so many ages before to settle in this place. I remember better summers, glorious halcyon days when together we teased each other, free in our own land, as we carried in the harvest. Those days existed, I recall, for I have not yet lost my mind, I think. And so something must have happened to cause this harvest to have been so bad. In some way we must have strayed from the old traditions that year on year filled our now empty barns with tall jars of grassy, perfumed oil. With my other eyes I can see my mother, half-lit in the window. She fills a peppermint bottle in the shadows of the cellar. I can smell the song of lamb cooking over the open fire. She is gone now. The jars are dusty. Empty. Unasked I defend myself. Throwing my arms out to heaven I point up and down the smoke filled valley – it is a blight! Father. I stare down on the village below. It is inevitable now. Rumors wind by the river, of troops on the move from Pisa. The days of this Prince are ending. We will be a republic once more. I stoke the fire and remember sitting on my father’s knee as he told me, beneath his father’s gaze. Of round tables and our old customs. The leaves spit and hiss amidst the flames. I watch a line of luminescent orange sear through a blighted leaf – the tired green and the spotted mold equally consumed. Next summer we will have a harvest mother, when things are settled and the lamb is done.Brute NecessitiesB

A Better Way To Do Things

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 29, 2008

This morning a user on YouTube left a comment on my profile at that site. The comment was short and said something close to ‘like terrorists everywhere, anybody but John McCain.” I don’t have the comment because I deleted it. Later I watched a speech by Robert Kennedy and reflecting upon it and speeches by Barack Obama I wrote the commentator the email below. The reason I am posting it here is because it is an example of the effect that Barack Obama has already had, on me, on public discourse, and on this nation. It is evidence of leadership by example.

“Dear Romphh

I am writing to you because of your comment that you left on my YouTube profile to the effect that terrorists would desire the election of anyone but McCain. I had deleted your comment, thinking that it was just the sort of thing one has to deal with on such an open and anonymous forum as this. A while passed and as I was watching some old historical footage in which former leaders of the United States called on us to come together that I realized that I could do better.

I disagree with your point of view. To focus exclusively on your point I think that the policies of the Bush Administration, and those advocated by John McCain do not help us to defeat terrorists. Specifically, I think putting a standing army in Iraq, a place where there was no al-Qaeda presence to begin with has only delivered a target around which terrorists could gather, to practice and improve their techniques, and continue to erode our image around the world. The erosion of this image is not an insubstantial thing. We rely on the good will of other nations to exercise their best efforts to arrest terrorists within their own borders. It is because of good will that the British help to catch terrorists in London. The war in Iraq is forecast to cost us 3 trillion dollars and Professor Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist, has argued that it is one, if not the cause of our current financial weakness. The way to fight terrorism is not by putting a standing army, at great cost in an irrelevant battlefield and in doing so remove a counterbalance to Iran. A fraction of the cost of this approach could have been spent on infiltrating terrorist networks, on developing our intelligence capacities and allies on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The war in Iraq has not shown America’s strength to the world, in fact it has shown how America can be antagonized into a weak position. I think it is important to understand that al-Qaeda wanted the United States to put an army on the ground in the Arab world. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is what John Brennan, head of the National Counterterrorism Center said: “al-Qaeda’s strategy has been to bleed the U.S. into bankruptcy and to continue with the same approach will have severe consequences for U.S. national security.”

To win this fight, we must use our head and not just our muscle. To move, as the enemy wants you to move, is to concede to his strategy. If you reflect upon the history of guerilla warfare, from the Boer War in South Africa to the conflict in Northern Ireland, infiltration and not a standing army is the best way to defeat a terrorist organization. A terrorist group attacks a standing army and then disappears into the civilian population. The army strikes back, civilians are killed and the ranks of terrorist organizations are swelled. Infiltration removes the opportunity of the terrorist organization to score points in the media, to point to civilian casualties. Infiltration puts the terrorist group on the defensive and cripples them from within.

This is not some hidden insight. I remember discussing this with my history teacher decades ago. That the Republican party failed to appreciate that they were in effect, being goaded into an ambush on an epic scale strikes me as being an example of extraordinary bad judgment. It was a bad judgment that came at a horrible price to American soldiers, the lives of thousands of innocent people and to the image of the United States in the minds of people all around the world. The administration that made this mistake has shown itself unfit to rule. John McCain voted in favor of this war and in doing so showed that he too is unfit to lead. Barack Obama was against this war because he anticipated how it would play out. That’s judgment, and its the judgment we need.

I understand if you continue to disagree with me, but I hope you respect that I have taken the time to explain my point of view respectfully to you. You and I should be able to talk about these things as two people working together to build a democracy. I am doing this because the example of Barack Obama has shown me that just because we have different points of view we don’t need to be disrespectful to one another.

Have a good day and whichever way you decide to vote, please vote.

Fatal Privilege & Essential Empathy

Posted in Anthropology, Politics by Arasmus on October 28, 2008

With our presidential election just a number of days away, I found it interesting to revisit the themes that Jared Diamond explores in his book Collapse. In this video lecture, Jared summarizes his thesis. In doing so he relates the astonishment of his UCLA students when faced with examples of societies that cause their own collapse. These students ask how was it possible that the people in those societies did not see the collapse coming – what did the individual who cut the last palm tree on Easter Island think he was doing? Diamond points to a disconnect between the reality that a society is experiencing and the reality perceived by its leaders. The various chiefs of the doomed Norse society on Greenland wanted more and more livestock because the chiefs were in a competition with each other on this metric, even though the overstocking that it caused was reducing their people to poverty. In short, there was a conflict of interest between the interests of the leadership and the interests of the society they lead.

Turning now to the choice before the American people, one has to ask which of the two candidates has the experience to best appreciate the conditions that American society is going through today? Which of the two know poverty? Which of the two know uncertainty? Which of the two know the conditions that are necessary for people to move themselves from poverty to security?

Both John McCain’s father and grandfather were four star US Navy admirals. His current wealth has been widely commented upon. It is fair to say that John McCain has lived a privileged life that was in no small part due to the family into which he was born and that into which he married. These factors, suggestive of patrician envelopment, do not preclude his potential to be a good president. One could argue that this financial position allows him to make independent decisions or that by virtue of his background he comes to the job with a species of institutional knowledge. But the same could have been said for the Norse chieftains that drove their societies to extinction. By virtue of his background, McCain has been immune to the hardships and constraints felt by the majority of the American population. By contrast, Barack Obama came from an economic position in society that is closer to that of the majority. For example, his experience of his mother arguing with health insurance companies from her death bed allows him to better empathize with, and represent the interests of the 45.7 million Americans that live without health insurance. John McCain has never experienced that life-lesson. He does not know what it feels like to live, and know that one’s family lives, in perpetual fear of getting sick. Furthermore, Barack Obama is a self-made man.  He owes his position to his own hard work rather than a multi-generational inheritance. He has first-hand experience of the conditions that are necessary for others to similarly advance and it appears to me from his speeches he believes that one of the key components is access to education. McCain’s record shows that for him education was a rather annoying chore.

As if to further illustrate Diamond’s thesis, the presidency of George W. Bush has clearly taught us that we all need to carefully consider who we put in power. The incompetence of the Bush administration, in particular its attitude towards financial regulation (if not foreign policy), has brought our society to, and many other societies beyond the brink of collapse. Over a decade of wealth creation has now been erased. Our world today is too interconnected for any one of us (American or not) to think that he will be unaffected by the choice of US president. I challenge anyone to point to a single asset class anywhere in the world where an isolationist can park their wealth and be beyond the incompetence of George W. Bush.  In such a delicate world, facing the sort of threats described by Diamond, and of which every single one of us is now aware, we must ensure that the individual to whom we give executive power has the deepest understanding and empathy of our condition. Most of us do not have the ability to right our mistakes with a check from the family. Most of us take care of ourselves. Most of us got what little we have by working hard for it. That is why, at this point in our history, in a world as interdependent as ours is today, we cannot afford a privileged president.  We need one who has lived with the same tradeoffs, incentives and compromises with which the vast majority of Americans live every day. From this point of view at least it seems clear to me that Barack Obama’s experience and achievements in life make him more likely than John McCain to make better decisions for the American people.

A Righteous Wind At Our Backs

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 24, 2008
“The Washington Post reports at an “ear-splitting rally in the Richmond coliseum and a late-afternoon speech at a chilly park in Leesburg, Obama promised to deliver the Commonwealth in the Democratic column,’ saying at one point, ‘I feel like we’ve got a righteous wind at our backs.’ USA Today adds that in Leesburg, in a ‘county that President Bush won by more than 13,000 votes in 2004,’ Obama ‘drew a crowd — estimated at 35,000 by the township parks department — that stretched across the rolling hills of a local park.'”