November 2 - Spiritual dehydration
My last entry, "Material Saturation" talked about how I believe that we are, as a society, at a point where more material prosperity adds virtually nothing to our happiness and satisfaction. Yesterday I was involved in a panel discussion about southern Africa where the participants talked about how many of the ideals and values that inspired the quest for change have now given way to raw materialism -- the desire for good sun glasses or a second car. I saw the same thing happen in eastern Europe, as the post-communism era saw idealistic efforts to think about how to reform society give way to consumerism and efforts to have more stuff. In teaching about world politics it never ceases to amaze me what greed drives people to do: kidnap girls to use as sex slaves, kill others in order to make money or eliminate competition, devote ones life to the acquisition of material possessions, oblivious to the fact that, as the saying goes, 'you can't take it with you.'
Meanwhile, despite our material comfort and prosperity, we yearn for more. Rousseau noted this back in the mid 18th century -- rather than being satisfied when natural demands are met, we create artificial demands that can never be fully realized. We are not satisfied with a great meal after the hunt, celebrating with family and friends, we want gourmet food, with the best chefs and finest wines. We aren't happy with shelter from the elements, we want a large house with all the conveniences imaginable. What at one point is a luxury, like a VCR or a microwave, soon becomes perceived as a necessity. And we get locked into a spiral of needing more and better stuff, and then measuring ourselves by comparing ourselves to others in a material sense -- does he make more than me, does she look better than I do, why do I drive this beat up old car while he drives a Lexus, etc. Even when others are not judging us, we get caught up in thinking that others will be looking at our material conditions, and drawing conclusions on our value as a person. People secretly want others to fail in order to reinforce ones' own sense of self worth, and we seek diversion and distraction, anything to keep us from having to be alone with our thoughts, coming face to face with who we are. People throw themselves into following sports, becoming political junkies, or look for things to steer their thoughts away from really reflecting on what they are doing with their life -- besides measuring their worth in material terms. All this feeds into a kind of material neurosis, incurable due to material saturation.
I think the way to counter that is to recognize that material saturation is, at least in the case of we in the industrialized West, usually accompanied by a spiritual dehydration. For many, even the idea of something spiritual is suspect -- that's the stuff of religion, superstition, new age silliness, or distraction from the material realty of life -- the opiate of the people, as it were. Yet that view of spirit is very limiting, and reflects an enlightenment era error -- namely to see understanding reality as a competition between religion/superstition and reason. By fighting religious authority, the believers in reason bracketed out spiritual concerns (though philosophers like Rousseau and the later romantics brought them back in) and dismissed them. This made it easier to embrace the material, it's objective, and can be measured and quantified.
Yet people yearn and are dissatisfied. Life becomes a treadmill...pay the bills, clean the house, take the kids places, and then shop for a brief respite from the every day routine, a rush of adrenaline as some new items are added to ones' collection. Soon that becomes old, and the routine goes on, eating away at peoples' enjoyment of and experience of life. How do we respond to this spiritual dehydration?
For people like me, it's not to embrace an organized religion or new age mysticism. It's also not simply to go out and do things with friends; a rich party life can also be very dissatisfying. At base, I think, it has to be seeing oneself as a spiritual being in the world. And I'll define spiritual in a way that may be odd: spirit reflects the creative force within us, the part of us that wants to explore, learn, create, and experience. It isn't disconnected from the material world because we are in a material world. But it's mastery of the material, it's seeing ourselves as our own rulers, autonomous and creative, taking each moment and doing something with it. Taking responsibility for life, and not wanting the mundane, not wanting to be molded by society. Most importantly, we need to be able to take any moment or situation and do something with it, without needing to measure it's material worth or compare to others. This doesn't address the metaphysical questions about spirit or meaning, but rather a practical "how does spirit manifest itself in the world of life" definition. Beyond that, I think such creative energy requires us to recognize the essential connection we have with each other, the human need for that connection, and its importance in sparking creative drive and giving it purpose.
November 6 It Begins...
Due to an under the weather child today and yesterday I have had limited time to write in the blog, so today will be very short.
Right now we're seeing the signs of an early energy crisis. High oil prices, spot shortages, and adjustments being made across the economy. So far, low interest rates have offset the macro impact of these changes, but I have the feeling that this winter may be remembered as the start of the energy crisis. Perhaps I'm over-reacting to small tidbits of news, but I get the feeling that life is going to get more complicated for just about everyone in the next year or so. Hopefully I'll have time to write more tomorrow!
November 7- Decline
This February I'm involved in a travel course to Italy with three other professors (a musician, an Art Historian, and a specialists in literature), and planning for the trip is bring home some hard truths. First, we're flying in February, which I hoped would yield cheaper off peak air fares. But now it looks like it will be the most expensive flight of the four travel courses to Italy (and one to Germany) so far. The reason, of course, is oil, which has now reached near $100 a barrel.
OK, hotel costs off peak have to be good...and they are...but wait, calculate the Euro to dollar price and ...UFF DA! Suddenly it's even more expensive than last year's January trip (over New Years). Rail passes are also more expensive due to the exchange rate change, as are admissions to museums, food, and everything one can buy. The result is a travel fee a lot higher than expected (and a good $400 more than the fee over winter term 2000, which was four nights longer, back when the dollar was strong). How long can we keep getting enough students to make such a trip go if these costs keep rising? If oil prices don't go down, will flying become too expensive?
I start close to home here because it does feel like, for the first time, there are real direct impacts of the changing nature of the global political economy on every day life. America's decline, felt especially in the falling dollar and higher energy prices, is becoming harder to ignore. As we waste money on a rather pointless exercise in Iraq, we ignore the need to make really difficult decisions at home about how to deal with life as a post-super power.
Right now we seem to be in denial. Oil prices will go down, the dollar's decline hasn't really been directly felt by most people, and politicians continue to focus on focus groups and strategy, not on real problems. Ignorance of reality which will only hasten the decline. The signs are everywhere -- the collapse of a section of I-35 in Minneapolis last summer is an anomaly, but also symbolic of the fact our infrastructure is aging, and our ability to keep it up and rebuild is increasingly unclear.
Two things give me hope. First, I think today's students are very optimistic and progressive, and in general I have a lot of faith that the next generation may be able to correct some of the problems the current generation of leaders -- my generation -- are making. The second point is more subtle. Last night after telling my 4 1/2 year old his "Calvin and Hobbes" story (which I make up nightly), we listened to the start of an audio book. I laid in bed next time as we heard Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods read. In that book she describes getting ready for winter, pa laying traps for bear, deer and other game, salting the meat and fish, preserving the vegetables and preparing for the coming winter. The dangers of life in (at that point) the forest of western Wisconsin were clear. It was dangerous to be outside without ones' gun, and you lived by what you could produce.
Laura's doll was a corn cob with a cloth around it, and she and Mary loved to play with the pig bladder turned into a balloon after the butchering of the hog. Pa even had to make his own bullets. Yet they survived, and despite what seems today like poverty, were a happy family. Thinking of that gives me some hope because it reminds me that to think "oh my God, America's in decline, things are getting more difficult, what kind of world have I brought my children into" is misguided. However things change in a material sense, the important part of life is not possessions, cheap oil, or even a good job. I doubt we'll get to the point where I have to hunt the wild turkeys in the back yard to feed the family, but it's nice to remind ourselves that happiness does not depend on our material condition. Maybe that's a lesson that we as a culture need -- and are perhaps destined -- to learn.
November 9 - 18 years!?
Today in Germany there are probably many young people celebrating their 18th birthday. Those teens would have been born on a day that signified perhaps the most dramatic shift of the 20th century, the fall of the Berlin wall. I had been in Germany that summer, doing research on East-West German relations. I had an interview with a professor at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin set for early August, and contemplated canceling it. I was going through my money rather quickly (a Mellon grant I shared with a colleague who was looking at Dutch relations with Eastern Europe) and heading to West Berlin was a pain. You had to pay extra money since the rails were in East Germany (my Germanrail pass wouldn't cover it), and it seemed like more of a hassle than it was worth.
I had never been to West Berlin and had never seen the wall. Maybe I could wait for a future trip when I had more time and money. Ultimately, I decided to go. I got on the train in Hannover, and stood in the hall the whole way looking out the window, my first glimpse of "real existing socialism." We stopped at the station in Magdeburg. No one got on or off -- this was a "Westzug" -- but apparently we had to wait for something. I looked at the people on the platform, waiting for trains and doing normal train station stuff. Some teens were kicking around a soccer ball, and a police man came over and said something to them. I made eye contact with a very attractive woman, who probably was wondering about all these westerners passing through. Then the train went on.
Life looked almost normal. The cars were tiny, but the houses had television antennas and gardens; it was clear that while East Germany was a totalitarian state, people were living normal lives. I contemplated how people often get so overcome by political ideology that they don't comprehend that most people make their life's meaning and purpose without regard to the political system, focusing on what they control in their every day life. Then we pulled into Berlin. I had my meetings, where professors and political experts all predicted East German Stalinism would hold out as long as possible, and change would be slow. German unification? The most optimistic estimate was twenty or thirty years, after the US and the USSR built a closer relationship. Nobody saw the storm on the horizon.
I made a visit to East Berlin. The change from the hustle and bustle of the West to the serene and quiet beauty of East Berlin was interrupted by a two hour process of waiting in line in a hot room and having to exchange currency and answer questions. In the East, though I was impressed by the grandeur of old Berlin, the city was quiet -- more quiet than any major city I'd visited. To convince myself I was really still in Berlin I literally had to walk down Unter den Linden to the east side of the Brandenburg gate to look over at the people on the platform in the West, looking into the East. I had stood there the day before gazing East. At that point I realized then just how absurd the division of this great city was. Absurd! The day continued. I enjoyed walking through the East, getting some beer, some ice cream, looking through a meager central store (which was their show case to western tourists, suggesting that the average store was much more sparse), gazing at the TV tower and the "Pope's revenge" -- how the sun shines off it in the shape of a cross. I finally crossed back, not realizing I was seeing Berlin just a week before protests would start and the regime would unravel. On that early August day it appeared that the division was set in stone. I'd walked about ten miles just exploring the East, watching the people, getting a sense of every day life. It wasn't hellish, but it was barren. It wasn't glitzy, but it lacked something. Politics isn't everything, most of real life goes on despite the nature of the regime.
When I crossed back to the West, walking down the Ku'damm to my hotel, I noticed the punkers begging for money, the wealthy businessmen in suits rushing by, the traffic snarled up and the street festival by the Gedaenkniskirche. At that moment for the first time I realized I could feel what the difference between East and West was; it transcended politics and ideology, and at some level could not be put into words. The trip to Berlin was important to me, I soaked in the experience and observations, and worked through it in my mind and heart.
The next day I took a train back, heading to Munich -- the city of Weisswurst and Hefe-Weizen. We passed the industrial regions of Wittenberg and Bitterfeld, where factories seemed to stretch for miles, places with 15,000 workers, belching filth into the air so immense that it covered cars with ash, and forced us to close the train compartment window despite being in a train with no A/C on a day where the temperature was in the mid-90s. Again I looked out the window the whole way, focusing on any people I saw, watching activity at train stations, and observing 'no man's land' near the border. Then I was back in the West. In less than a week the first stories were coming out about East Germans trying to cross into Austria from Hungry. Before I left the country I had a hotel room in Munich where I watched the news on TV about the increasing tensions, pressure on Hungary, and East German leader Honecker's stubbornness. Back in the US I observed the crisis grow, the protests spread, and then on November 9th, as I drove into school at the University of Minnesota, I heard the first reports of the wall 'becoming irrelevant.' I rushed up the 14th floor of the Social Sciences building and asked if anyone had been following the news. They hadn't. In these pre-internet days we headed to the Lippincott room, a conference room with a television, and watched the news. Having been there and felt the division, I could not keep from crying, it was so joyful to watch the city take the first step to unity. I ultimately had to go home and watch the coverage, it was emotional for me.
I've since been to Berlin many times. In the 90s I tried to get there every year or two, and I took numerous tours across East Germany to watch the change, talk to people about their lives, and observe what in some ways was an amazing social science experiment unfolding, as one culture suddenly was overtaken by another. I've seen Berlin change to the point it's hard to know where the wall is, with huge complexes rivaling Times Square standing in an area once considered no-man's land, with nothing but guards and empty fields. 18 years have transformed that Germany I experienced in August 1989 into something completely different. A generation is emerging into adulthood who have never known the division. But I can still feel it, the same feeling I had looking across the Brandenburg gate at the platform on the other side, recognizing that beneath all the hoopla, nuclear arms racing, posturing, ideology and the like, the division of Europe and Berlin was, at base, a level of tragic absurdity that often got lost in the political rhetoric. In any event, I'm glad I managed to see and experience East Berlin at that time, just before the transformation.
November 13 - Life Traps
With two young children I realize one of the hardest things to teach is how to live. I don't mean how to be responsible, how to adapt to change, how to work hard, or to provide basic knowledge about science, history and art. Those are the 'easy' things to teach. It takes time and effort, but they are observable in daily life. I'm more concerned that they will have happy, rich, full, meaningful lives. But what does it take to live a truly meaningful, joyful life?
First, there are some traps that I think people need to learn to avoid. These traps are judgmentalism, accomplishmentism, and comparativism. Each of these traps not only leads to personal despair and dissatisfaction, but usually a kind of despair that people try to spread to others in order to assure that, as the saying goes, misery has company. I think its important to understand these traps in order to help prevent children from growing up caught in their grips.
Judgmentalism is the tendency to judge everything against ones' own standards and biases. It can be petty ('she sure keeps her house dirty,' or 'I wouldn't be caught dead in public looking like that') or profound (racism, homophobia, etc.). Ultimately that trap leads to both an inability to truly appreciate other perspectives and other people because, rather than experiencing and accepting people for who and what they are, they are seen as objects to be judged. Moreover, judgmentalism hinders true evaluation ones' life. The root word in evaluation is value; to evaluate is to think about the values inherent in a circumstance, a relationship, or a situation. Those things do require judgments, and to make value judgments one has to understand different perspectives and people on their own terms. Not doing so traps a person in a world of biases and pettiness and ultimately distracts one from truly living and experiencing life, or to have meaningful relationships with others as true subjects rather than objects.
The second trap is an emphasis on accomplishment. While clearly I want my children to do great things, what's great isn't always what society or others judge to be great. Greatness is, at base, measured subjectively. Accomplishmentism results when you give society or others control over ones' experience of life (often -- unsurprisingly -- these first two traps come as a team, a judgmental person tends to emphasize accomplishment). Thus the pursuit of a career is not joyful, but a desire to gain recognition and success. Even something fun like throwing a party turns into hard work in order to have a 'successful' party, whose success is measured by the things people say afterwards. This only detracts from the joy of having and even preparing for a party. Through accomoplishmentism one ends up gearing ones' life to the expectations of others, or society as a whole. True reflection on ones' own values and priorities gets replaced by a measure of what will gain recognition and respect from others. Ultimately this gives others (or society) control over ones' life, and that leads to a sense of frustration and emptiness. Even the most successful find their lives to be somehow empty or unsatisfying -- one has accomplished a lot, but remains unhappy. That is because ultimately giving others control over ones' happiness can't work -- if it's not from inside, it simply provides a distraction from the sometimes torturing question: what is this life is all about?
The third trap is one of comparison. Often people focus on how they 'measure up' compared to others. This often involves material things and can lead to extreme frustration and anger. If one finds that a co-worker earns more while doing less, ones' entire mood and ability to enjoy work and colleagues is weakened or even destroyed. If one looks at ones' own possessions, which by any objective measure may go far beyond ones' needs and indeed provide considerable comfort, and compares it to those of wealthier friends or what gets advertised on TV, one can feel somehow like ones' 'missing out' on what others are enjoying. This also can co-exist with accomplishmentism, as those who suffer from the former often became ardent comparativists in terms of both the accomplishments of others and (since this is key to those who focus on accomplishment) the recognition and esteem given for those accomplishments, whether in salary, awards, or even prestige. Ultimately this trap can get people so concerned with others, even needing others to do worse than themselves in order for them to be happy, that it makes real happiness impossible. At times people compare very well to others and they may feel good for that moment, but as with accomplishments, it's fleeting satisfaction.
All of these traps share one trait: people let their happiness and life satisfaction get determined by things in the world which they cannot directly control. People can drive themselves crazy because they seek happiness from conditions around them, rather than finding it within. Life is, after all, not a set of accomplishments, comparisons or judgments. Life is a work of art.
So how does one teach that? Given that our culture is built on the kind of traps described above, how can we raise young children to think independently, to boldly make their own choices, to love life and live it to its fullest, exploring their own drives, desires, potentials and thoughts in the process? How can we avoid having them fall into the temptations of consumer society, defining happiness as hedonism, and seeing a day on the couch watching a big flat screen TV as a day well spent? I think there are a couple ways. One is to experience and appreciate nature not as something to be controlled, but something of aesthetic beauty of which we are a part. Here in Maine that is probably one of the strongest forces helping avoid the life traps that shape modern society. Another way is to model in our behavior that approach to life -- parents are the biggest influence on children, if we push them to succeed or focus on outside recognition, we're sending the wrong message. If we judge them and try to mold them to be what we think the 'proper' child should be like, they learn to be judgmental. If we are constantly comparing them to others and they see us putting great importance on how we ourselves compare to others, they'll learn to measure self-worth through comparison.
Modeling it, of course, means we have to live it ourselves. And the key to that, as silly and mushy as it may sound, is that at a deep and fundamental level no one can truly be happy, avoid the traps above, and effectively model the right behavior if they do not love themselves. I don't mean a petty narcissism, but a true sense that "I am a good, vibrant, energetic being, in control of my choices, building a life I can be proud of, one I would be thrilled to live again, even if I were to know everything would turn out the same." To really live life, one has to be willing to define ones' own values, take responsibility for what one does, and throw oneself into life, recognizing that we live not to simply be comfortable, have stuff, and accomplish things. We live to live. Life as art has a natural aethetic. Children seem to sense that, their play is a creative expression of who they are, enjoyed on its own term, a manifestation of that natural aesthetic. I think the goal is help make sure they don't lose that sense of life as play, adventure, fun, and joy.
November 16 - Italia!
Sorry for the lack of blog entries this week. We are planning our third "Discover Italy" course, which involves 37 students (we're at about 40 each time) and four professors (one art history, one music, one literature, and me). I'm the "logistics" person, which means I find hotels, book the flights, and organize transportation and the like. This also includes figuring out student fees, and getting students to get deposits in so we can get tickets at decent prices. That's taken up this week, planning for the February trip. We now have tickets, the hotels are booked, and we're planning the trip.
Of all the things I've done here at UMF, one of the most enjoyable is having worked with Steve, Sarah and Luann to implement this Italian travel course. Every time we do it, it's a joy. I've learned so much about Italian art, music, and culture by listening to their seminars and participating in their tours, and each time we do the course improves. So now that the logistics are set -- costing far more than expected, thanks to high priced oil and a plummeting dollar -- it's just a matter of working with my colleagues to plan the itinerary. Main stops: Venice, Florence, Rome, with day trips to Siena, Luca, Bologna, Pompeii, Napoli and Pisa -- though nobody bodes all the day trips, with forty people there is a lot of choice. It's also fun to prepare the seminars, especially the ones we do together, combining, say, politics and music and discovering new connections and insights. Still three months away, but that time will go by fast!
Anyway, I have no energy to write anything cogent at this point, and I guess things have been happening in Pakistan and Iran I need to catch up on. Have a good weekend!
November 19 - Alienation and the arts
Last week I mentioned how I have enjoyed the Italy travel courses because by working with faculty from the arts I have begun to learn about a whole new cultural world with which I had only peripheral contact in the past. After an invigorating discussion this weekend about the arts, western philosophy and post-modernism (which I won't get into here), I was thinking this morning on my way to work about how the arts connect to a major issue in political science: alienation.
Philosophers like Rousseau, Marx and Freud all posited an humanity wherein individuals are essentially alienated from their true selves. For Rousseau it was the existence of civilization, creating artificial wants and desires, making it virtually impossible for people to find true satisfaction. Caught up in wanting something more or seeking status, we lose ourselves in a game which by its very nature alienates us from our true selves and sabotages happiness. For Marx it was the economic system -- exploitation leads to the construction of different cultural worlds, all created to service the existing mode of production, with humans of all classes separated from their true humanity by the nature of economic production. For Freud it is our subconscious, a dominant superego telling us that we are not truly worthy, and a powerful id containing passions and appetites, driving us to undertake actions which build barriers to understanding our true selves. And, while for Marx and Rousseau the causes were observable, for Freud the drives are hidden even to ourselves, in our subconscious. We know we're not truly satisfied, we get angry when we repeat patterns of behavior that create problems or despair, yet somehow we can't seem to avoid continuing these patterns. It seems to be who we are, while in reality it is our unconscious preventing us from discovering who we are.
I think all three of these philosophers reflect their cultures and times more than any universal aspect of what it is to be human. I disagree with Rousseau that civilization is such an evil; it's merely a challenge for our psyches to overcome -- how not to let the modern world make us dizzy and steer us away from honest introspection and self-awareness. I disagree with Marx on fundamental grounds because I am not a materialist -- though his theory of alienation is perhaps the most persuasive aspect of his writing. And Freud's contention that the superego is overly perfectionist while the id is untamable seems too pessimistic. Limit feelings of guilt and the superego can be held in check, think through the consequences of actions and the ego can stand up to the id. Yet Freud is right, I believe, that there is an unconscious, and that means you have to work at being self-aware enough to handle those challenges. You can't limit feelings of guilt or think through your actions if you don't delve deep into yourself and know what it is that drives and motivates you.
This brings me to art. It seems to me that alienation is better understood as humans giving up their sense of responsibility for their own lives; it feels like life is happening to them, and even individual identity seems a given -- in a day where psychology and genetics dominate, people simply accept that they are as they were born to be, with no personal choice in the matter. This dual loss of personal power over ones' life forces people to look for satisfaction from external sources, meaning one becomes more distant, even afraid of, a deep, reflective inner life. Living an alienated life thus entails at its core a sacrifice of creativity and originality. Conformity and fear of rejection bury the true, creative, playful inner self.
Art -- including music, literature, film, poetry and any other form of creative expression is perhaps the most powerful source of opening up that inner self and countering the cold social forces of alienation. You don't need to completely eliminate the capitalist mode of production a la Marx, and there is no reason for a Rousseau-esque condemnation of civilization and society. It may even be a more powerful way to release and in fact get to know ones' unconscious than Freud's difficult and sophisticated attempts at psycho-analysis (and I can't really buy his ideas of sublimation -- directing energy thoughtfully seems more positive).
This doesn't include only producing art, but also in experiencing art in its various forms. When confronted with something truly creative, the mind is forced to interact and jolt itself into thinking about something from a different perspective. Of course, one can still resist; people who ridicule art they do not understand clearly are putting a barrier between themselves and their ability to experience something original or strange to their current patterns of thought. Also, there are different levels of creativity -- a Rembrandt portrait may evoke less thought than a Picasso, a Wagner symphony may be more powerful than the latest hit from Carrie Underwood. Yet all of these have some power. Even in "pop" forms, we seem to need art. We need to keep our creative inner self alive to avoid experiencing life as drudgery. And, the more bold our attempts to engage and experience art in various forms, the easier it is to open our minds and experience the world as something spiritual as well as physical. Spiritual doesn't necessarily mean religious; rather, I consider it that inward journey needed to avoid the traps of alienation.
I've been to Italy many times, visited museums, and explored and learned about the country and its people. Yet now that I'm learning real insight into Italian art, music and literature as part of these travel courses, I find the experience not only more rewarding from an intellectual level, but one that connects me with Italy and its history in a manner I had not imagined possible. And to me that kind of experience is the opposite of alienation, it is living.
November 23 - The Decline of American Power
The US emerged as a super power after WWII, as the former powers in Europe and Japan had been devastated by war. During the Cold War the international system appeared bi-polar, but inherent weaknesses in the Soviet economy meant that while the Soviets could exert raw military power over satellite states and match us with nuclear weaponry, they were in no condition to truly rival American power. As the economy started to displace military power as a primary measure of leadership, the Soviets simply collapsed.
However, looking at historical trends, it's clear that the US cannot be expected to enjoy true dominance for a long period of time. Rivals always emerge, as evident in the rise of the EU, Japan and more recently China and India. But what does this mean for the United States? For some, especially those whose fetish is to focus on military power, they look at our huge military machine and, despite obvious problems demonstrated in places like Iraq and Kosovo (or even Vietnam farther back), still see us as dominant. Our economy is still the largest in the world, and to many, talk of 'decline' is just hyperbolic alarmism reflecting either unnecessary pessimism or perhaps latent anti-Americanism.
However, a broad view of history suggests that not only is relative decline inevitable, but it need not be seen as a danger. In fact, recognizing the reality of a shift away from what Charles Krauthammer called a unipolar moment to one where the US needs to act in concert with others to try to solve global problems is important. In short, if the relative decline is real, we have to avoid overestimating our power, prepare for some difficult choices down the road, avoid seeing military action as some kind of cure all (let's just bomb Iran and all will be better!), and truly work with other states. Up until now our policy has been primarily to cooperate with others by setting broad policy parameters and building coalitions to go along with our policies. We've been less willing to compromise on policy goals and principles, or give up the notion that we are the "leader" of the West, or some kind of guarantor of world stability. Changing that will take swallowing some nationalist pride, but the good news within globalization is that such cooperative ventures are actually good for a country. European countries in the EU are arguably better off than when they had empires and were engaged in trying to assert sovereign will.
So are we in decline? I'll offer the following argument, you be the judge:
1) Public and private debt started increasing at a massive rate around 1980, with private debt growing quickly from 1990 on. During that time the US went to being the world’s largest debtor nation (having been earlier the largest creditor). The US economy shifted from industrialization to service economy, with emerging markets like China and India growing fast, and competing for oil. US Debt went from 30% of GDP in 1980, quickly to 70% of GDP. By some estimates private debt nears 50 trillion;
2) From 1980 to the present the US managed to hide some of the structural problems by enjoying some of the lowest oil prices in history while running up a huge debt. The private debt increase was due to a credit boom, which fueled two bubbles: the stock bubble and the housing bubble. The latter led to more debt as people kept the economy going through consumer spending through home equity loans. Those have dried up. We’re now in deep debt, with recession looming.
3) The current accounts deficit is unsustainable at 6% of GDP. That means the dollar is overvalued. While the bubbles existed we pulled in enough foreign capital to keep the capital account high, financing the current accounts deficit. Now that the bubbles have collapsed and credit is in crisis, that is collapsing, meaning the dollar is losing value fast. That also means oil prices are rising faster for us than, say, the Europeans, and the dollar becomes a less important currency.
4) The capital account "boom" meant that countries like Japan, China and Saudi Arabia purchased large amounts of American currency, as well as portfolio investment. That gives them a chunk of the economy that is unprecedented — and if the dollar keeps falling, they could add to the woes by pulling out and shifting their investments elsewhere.
In short, the US economy is in a structural mess, with no clear way out, and dependent upon foreign investment and the service sector. Again, this is unprecedented, you’ve not experienced this before. The bubbles have burst, oil prices are high, and as the WSJ article shows, production is leveling off as demand continues to increase.
This creates an obvious conclusion: the US is in economic decline. Not a radical collapse, just a fall from dominance, and more dependent on others than before. This will force us to be less unilateral in foreign policy, and more responsive to other states — circumstances are forcing humility on us.
5) Militarily the us spends half the world’s military budget and is stationed all over the globe. This has created a kind of empire, which Charles Krauthammer labeled a ’unipolar power.’ This unipolarity naturally creates competitors for power, and insecurity in others. China, Russia and others have been working to undercut US influence, and supporting countries like Iran. The EU recognizes that the future is not dependent on the US, and their interest lie in forging closer ties with other states as well. The US is still important, but relative to other states, not as important. Again, a decline in relative power.
6) The US in Iraq has shown that even as a "hyperpower," the US military cannot easily shape a weak, decimated country to its demands. Instead, after bluster and bravado, we’ve been forced to define down goals to try to just find a way to have stability, as Iran and Syria each have expanded power.
7) the rise of non-state actors like Hezbollah, al qaeda and others provide threats not easily dealt with by our traditional military. Moreover, the importance of economic factors over military ones make it possible for states to respond to American military power by using oil as a weapon or other economic tools, which can be extremely effective, perhaps doing more damage than bombs. Iran is emboldened by the fact we’ve had such horrific problems with Iraq, and only could find some stability after essentially giving up the desire to "win," in the manner originally intended.
8) The US by ignoring the UN and other international efforts pushed the EU and allies towards anti-Americanism in their publics, and distrust of American policy. While the Bush administration, but altering its ’with us or against us’ tone and reaching out and compromising has adapted (thanks especially to Rice), it’s clear that the US is no longer the leader of the western alliance, and the Europeans and others will ignore us or work against us if they decide they don’t like our policies.
9) The Iraq war’s cost also demonstrates classic imperial overstretch, and the fact that the globalized world system isn’t easily shaped by raw military power. It is unlikely that American military might is all that useful — economics seem to matter more.
So we're at a crucial juncture in American history, the post-war period is over and it's clear there are limits to our economic and political power that Americans are not used to. I think Iraq has been a wake up call, to show us that rhetoric and military power aren't enough to alter the reality of a globalized and increasing multi-polar world.
November 27 - Excessive
Coming to class this morning I noticed that every door, bathroom, and various parts of the walls all had the same photocopied 'posters': pictures of poor children with the caption "didn't your momma teach you to share" and one word statements like "excess, unnecessary, waste, etc." Apparently this is a reaction to the commercialization of Christmas and of our consumer society. However, the irony is that by putting these papers up everywhere the "protest" was excessive. I'm left to ponder: were they just being rather dense, not realizing that they were showing themselves to be part of the problem with wasteful and excessive plastering of doors and walls with the same photocopied messages, or was this some kind of surreal protest message, showing the futility of excess through a demonstration of excess? (Later update: It turns out this was an art project for a class, and indeed the wasteful and excessive posting was meant to provide an ironic comment. Moreover, some on staff thought it was racist because it depicted in some pictures black children, one with an extended belly due to parasites. They read it as meaning 'didn't your momma teach you to share' as that 'the fat kid should have shared with the skinny ones.' That obviously wasn't the intent, but it was interesting some read it that way. You know, that was really interesting! OK, back to the blog written earlier)
In any event, the Christmas shopping season is underway and I hate it. Don't get me wrong. While not a Christian myself, I find the ideals of love, good will, kindness and joy to be powerful. I generally like the Christmas season because for awhile these ideas cease to be corny and become celebrated, and movies, stories and traditions celebrate life as something spiritual or even magical. Whether it's classics like It's a Wonderful Life or recent hits like The Polar Express, there is a sense that society glances away from the mundane material routines and at least glimpses a deeper sense of meaning.
But the commercialization of our holidays has become so complete that stores were even open on Thanksgiving, trying to get those early consumer dollars in a year where high oil prices and the mortgage crisis threatens to limit consumer spending. It gets more bizarre when you look at how this operates. At one point Christmas was a time to find something special, something another person might not give to themselves, and buy it as a gift. The cost wasn't important, it was meant as almost a personal message, something meaningful. Now gift lists are exchanged -- people place orders with family and friends for what they want, and we play the game of mutually filling those orders. Because one is giving and receiving gifts, the guilt factor is absent, we overspend to both give and receive items we'd otherwise determine unnecessary. Children get overwhelmed by large numbers of presents that they appreciate none of them, and simply want to be stimulated by the next new gift.
And, of course, soon people realize that sending heavy items through the mail adds to the cost, so why not give a gift card? Rather than pay $30 at Kohls for, say, a nice slow cooker for mom and then spending $10 on postage to get it there, why not just give a $40 gift card? It's rational. So people move from filling orders for each other to simply exchanging virtual cash. There is no special meaning, no sense of a personal touch (even if Kohl's has a nice variety of gift cards to choose from). It's just a material game we get caught up in.
I really hate it. I'd like to simply not play. I tell my wife we should get just two or three presents for the kids, and something nice for each other. I want to tell my mom and siblings "let's limit ourselves to $10 on each person and get something small and personal -- no gift cards," but yet I can't. I'd be a scrooge, I'd be told "come on, get in the holiday spirit!" The holiday spirit has become playing the material game.
Yet it's not. Not completely. The songs still sing of good cheer, the music still has a magical quality, and despite the commercialization, there is a sense of generosity. It's just that in a weird way the very message of the Christmas spirit is expressed in a way opposite of it's intent. Instead of celebrating the magical, spiritual and communal side of life, we embrace the competitive, material and excessive nature of consumer society. In that sense, the "protest" on the walls and doors of campus today reflects that contradiction: the message that we waste too much and become too excessive is expressed in a way that is excessive and wasteful. So in a way, the "protest" was brilliantly done, even though I suspect the brilliance was unintentional.
November 28 - An Opportunity for President Bush
Going in to 2008 one has to wonder what President Bush is feeling. Does he feel that despite the miscalculations, especially in Iraq, history will ultimately judge him as having made necessary moves? Does he look at his low numbers and the high cost of the Iraq war (I'd call it a fiasco) and think "if only I had the chance to do it again?" Or, perhaps, does he just not think about what's done and instead look forward. Hopefully it's the latter because he has an opportunity to create a legacy which, quite possibly, might overcome the negatives associated with Iraq.
That opportunity is made explicit in this week's cover of The Economist which shows a picture of President Bush with the caption "Mr. Palestine." As Mideast leaders gather in Annapolis the President is oddly reprising a similar late term summit arranged by President Clinton, designed to move the peace process forward. President Clinton failed, in large part because the Israelis could not compromise on Jerusalem, and Yasser Arafat feared a backlash if he made the necessary compromises. Arafat, it seems, was no Rabin or Sadat -- and yet death caught up with him anyway. Now after nearly eight years in the abyss of suicide bombings, unilateral withdrawals from territory, and an Israeli war with Hezbollah, they come together again. Can they forge a way out of what looks like a potential path to increased violence?
The extremists on both sides say "no," and unfortunately they are quite vocal and numerous. Israeli extremists don't want to see a viable Palestinian state, fearing it will be the launching pad for anti-Israeli raids or, in a less rational vein, believing God wants them to have all the land. Palestinian extremists don't think Israel should exist: Jews living in Palestine should live under Arab rule and follow Arab laws. Yet moderates have stared at the future and they don't like what they see.
Israelis recognize after the 2006 war with Hezbollah, where they failed to meet their most basic objectives and which by most accounts was the first real Israeli military failure, that despite their strength and military successes, the era of globalization, terrorism and increased proliferation of weapons of mass destruction leaves them vulnerable to an existential threat. One could imagine Hezbollah teamed with Hamas launching attacks into Israel devastating to the Israeli economy and potentially the state itself. Not this year or the next, perhaps, but five or ten years down the line. If Iran continues to grow in strength, this would be even more likely, in any event, the future is uncertain. For Palestinians this isn't a welcome scenario either. Most Palestinians aren't in the camp of wanting to eliminate Israel or engage in a massive war that would surely bring considerable pain and suffering to the Palestinian people. Most Palestinians don't want to be the victims of a war driven by religious fanaticism. They are angry at the Israelis for decades of humiliation and oppression, but recognize the reality of Israel. The key will be to get the majority who want peace to be able to marginalize the extremists. That's been hard to do since the extremists can use violence to stoke emotions and fears, and derail efforts to bring peace.
Moreover, the Palestinians are split like never before. Hamas won recent elections -- not so much because Palestinians agree with their anti-Israeli stance, but because of corruption in the Fatah party -- all politics is, at first, local. Still Hamas is more powerful than before, and so far have shown only hints that they are responding to their position with a new found sense of responsibility. The Israelis seem to recognize that the situation as it stands is untenable. If this continues -- conflict, violence, then a bit of calm, repeated over and over -- Israel's security is at risk. Over time the Arab states will gain power, while Israel will remain small and vulnerable. The best hope for Israel is to somehow create a peace that can last. And Arab leaders recognize as well that their biggest threat comes from fundamentalists and extremists who prey on the frustration of an Arab public which has seen its countries and leaders humiliated so many times at the hands of Israel and the West.
Can they pull it off? Can President Bush play a role in making it happen, and have that as perhaps his primary legacy? The odds appear bad, given the difficulties in the Mideast today: the problems in Iraq, the strength of Hezbollah, an ascendant Iran, and staggeringly high oil prices. Yet the fear in both the Israeli leadership and the governments of Arab states about a possible dark future is real, and they know that solving this problem would go a long way to improve prospects. The Palestinians and Israelis have their destinies linked, the Jews won't be driven into the sea, the Arabs won't be driven into the desert. So now the President has injected the US into this latest peace effort. They say it's always darkest before the dawn; if that's the case, then that might be the best sign that this time they could start a process that can lead to major improvements.
November 30 - Bush and Nixon
President Bush seems to be engaged in a rather remarkable Presidency. He is combining the Johnson and Nixon administrations together in terms of foreign policy style, and thereby pushing the US away from the neo-conservative idealism that led to the invasion of Iraq to a modest and pragmatic realism, which may allow the US to extricate itself from Iraq in a way Nixon would have called "peace with honor" (see the January 18, 2007 blog for more on that).
Rarely has a President made such dramatic shifts in foreign policy. To be sure, the President took awhile to make the change. Up through 2005 the phrase "stay the course" was on everyone's lips, as were claims of "slow and steady progress," as war proponents were caught off balance by the difficulties in Iraq. In 2006, however, Iraq collapsed into the highest level of bloodshed since the start of the war, the Democrats took Congress, and the public gave Bush his lowest approval numbers ever. He was becoming a joke, and he and his staff knew it.
Leadership starts at the top, and I suspect that at some point President Bush said "this isn't working, let's cut the BS and figure out what can." In short, he moved towards the kind of realism that Nixon and Kissinger used to deal with a similar situation in the late sixties. The result is that the US has shifted its diplomacy in virtually every arena. They made a deal (brokered primarily by China) to pay the North Koreans not to make nuclear weapons. They moved Arab-Israeli peace and the idea of a Palestinian state to the top of the agenda. Rather than trying to defeat the insurgents in Iraq, they decided to buy them off, and focus solely on al qaeda and foreign fighters -- a tiny part of the insurgency -- as the enemy. Instead of wanting Muqtada al-Sadr dead or alive, the Shi'ite militia leaders and Shi'ite groups in general have been left pretty much untouched by the Americans. Though armed by Iran and vowing no long term deals with the Sunnis, the US isn't trying to subdue them. Instead, diplomacy with Iran is considered the best bet for preventing more civil war in Iraq. And, within that framework, Saudi diplomacy with Iran seeks to find a mutually beneficial balance.
In short, the Bush Administration shifted its goals in the region from that of creating a 'model Iraq' able to bring transformation to the Mideast to helping regional powers create a "stable Iraq," whose future is unclear, and part of a tricky geopolitical balance in the region. It's very likely that Iraq will emerge with exceedingly close ties to Iran, and may end up dominated by the Shi'ite coalition of parties that could, overtime, yield a one party state. Corruption is as high as ever, the dream of a stable Democratic Iraq is probably gone, at least for now. In Europe the US has shifted diplomatic tone completely, as Time magazine noted awhile back, cowboy diplomacy is out, trying to compromise and be a partner is in. Bold efforts to address growing power in Russia and China have faded. The US has, it seems, learned humility.
Of course, Nixon's realism, which saw just a dramatic a change, moving from the heady days of JFK and LBJ's "Grand Design," which really was early neo-conservatism, that time directed against communism, to detente which normalized relations with the Soviets and Chinese, had weaknesses. It got us out of Vietnam, but left the region in turmoil. It created a sense of stability which shattered after the fall of the Shah in 1979. Ultimately, though, by normalizing relations with the East the Nixon-Kissinger policies set up a peaceful end of the Cold War.
For Bush, who managed somehow to incorporate both Kennedy's audacity and now Nixon's focus on power, the obstacles are clear. While the US may be able to leave Iraq without absolute disaster, the foreign policy debacle will cost us for a long time. And, unlike during the Cold War, where the Soviets were a predictable opponent -- a sovereign state with interests -- the US remains entangled in a complex struggle involving oil, religious extremism, transnational terror organizations, and fears of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, Iraq has laid bare America's weaknesses -- the US no longer appears invincible and able to simply remove regimes and force change on other parts of the world. Indeed, combine a lack of appetite for foreign intervention by the American public with the obvious limitations of power shown by the Iraq fiasco, and you see an America if not subdued, at least tamed. We now face a multipolar system without the stability of Cold War bipolarity.
Bush has made the right start in recognizing the limits of military power and abandoning brash diplomacy. The realism in dealing with Iraq is yielding a far more promising outcome than did the desire to simply "win," which dominated until 2006. Yet where do we go from here? The world is arguably more dangerous now than it was in 2003, and the US in a position of less power and prestige. How do we create a foreign policy recognizing the realities of the current situation? I will ponder that question over the weekend.