Friday, November 23, 2018

Time to Empty Your Pockets

I just made my self read the nine page "Executive Summary" of the recently (November 14) released Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission . It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I won't put myself through the full 116 pages, especially as I scanned the make-up of the commission and the list of those who gave testimony. It's definitely the swamp.

The message briefly is this: Be Afraid!!  Be Really Afraid!!!  Every corner of the planet has some state or terrorist out to get us and the only way to prevent this is for us to build a bigger military industry with lots of technological gizmos as fast as we can. Nary a word about personnel. No mention of earlier concerns (before Trump administration) about the role of climate change. No hint that increased diplomacy might reduce these alarming fears. Simply our already bloated military footprint needs to be bigger.

Having recently finished Harvard Professor of International Relations Stephen Walt's, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018) an insightful read into the foreign policy establishment since WWII, this playbook is perfectly predictable.  

The Hell of Good Intentions

If this passes as leadership and our spineless Congress bows adoringly to everything military ( to do otherwise would be to be seen as either unpatriotic or weak on defense - big political no-no), you can bet that Republicans and too many Democrats will not raise taxes to cover these costs, but rather will cut funding for health care, environmental protection, transportation, infrastructure, renewable energy, etc.

Ironically, a report was released at nearly the same time last week from Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs that looked at the cost of our wars since 9/11 and shows the bill comes in at $5.9 Trillion. Most of the folks on the commission or giving testimony have been either making the policy or otherwise supportive of one that has given us "17 years of fighting; thousands of US soldiers killed and many thousands more injured; hundreds of thousands of civilians killed; millions of refugees; and the costs go on."

I have been meaning to go back and read the similar playbook that accompanied George W. Bush into the White House from the Project for a New American Century. How coincidentally that the title of their playbook, which included attacking Iraq even before 9/11, was titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses", another militaristic approach to foreign policy. And where did that get us????

We need to call this out, stand up to robbing our treasury to fund the arms lobby, and seek to develop a world order built on the rule of law, diplomacy, sustainable development, and shared leadership. The American empire project will end. If we follow the militarists it will end a lot uglier than if we build trust, cooperation, and address our shared challenges - climate change, growing income inequality, adequate health care access, clean water, good food and livelihoods for all.

We should be putting our shoulders together to address the Sustainable Development Goals all United Nations member states have agreed to. Throwing money at the military is a fool's errand.

Image result for sdgs

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Narcotic of Power

I still have two chapters to go before I finish Philippe Sands penetrating 2005 book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules, so what follows might have been improved if I had finished before sharing these thoughts.  I can’t be sure if what follows is inspired by that engaging book, or the recent storm over the Supreme Court, or recent decisions by the current administration to withdraw from and ignore legal agreements, or the fight to end gerrymandering or the corruption of democracy generally. Probably all of the above and more are responsible.

Lawless World

What all of these things point me towards is the use of power.  The old saying that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems truer with each passing day. The framers of our constitution were certainly concerned with the abuse of power and shaped that constitution with some purpose to create a “balance of powers”. But even that was contextualized in the moment. Women and blacks and indigenous people were not presumed to have any power, and the constitution certainly isolated them from it. The supposedly strict constitutionalists amongst us who try and interpret everything in the constitution literally, fail to appreciate how flawed the Constitution was from the start. That’s why it has been continually amended.

No one seeks to be on the bottom of the power ladder. Neither is this is a partisan issue. Neither major party prefers to be in the minority. When it finds itself in that position the minority party hopes that there are rules that prevent the majority party from annihilating the minority. If we believe in equity, we must have protections for all from the concentration and the abuse of power by some. Constraining the accumulation of dominant power and moving towards governance that is designed to share power is precisely what our founders sought with the original constitution, despite its shortcomings more obvious to us since. It is also what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were hoping to establish globally with the drafting of the Atlantic Charter and later the creation of the United Nations.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fundamental statement of individual freedom from the abuse of power. UDHR passed overwhelmingly 70 years ago and remains the bedrock of individual rights, which have been expanded with subsequent conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1977) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1977).

Let me try and put some flesh on the bones of these thoughts using the examples from which I opened this blog.

Philippe Sands is a noted British legal scholar, teacher and practicing attorney who has specialized in international law and been involved in numerous important cases of international legal arenas. In Lawless World, published in 2005, Sands walks us through a number of cases that demonstrate how the U.S. (and sometimes with British support) has frequently confounded other nations by undercutting global agreements in their development stage, refusing to support many, and ignoring when it’s inconvenient, its own international agreements since WWII. In great detail and with clear prose and argument he addresses many moments in recent history including the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, Geneva Conventions, UN Charter, International Court of Justice and more. Of course there is voluminous amount of material since the Bush Administration came to office, although the book ends as Bush is starting his second term.

The U.S. of course wants to promote an image as the true democracy and law abiding nation, but Sands demolishes that image with a plethora of cases. He looks carefully at the legal gymnastics used to try and justify the U.S. illegal invasion of Iraq, the illegal detention of non-combatants, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers, the undermining of the Kyoto Protocol and on and on.

Sands makes the plea for establishing rules that we can agree to and then following them, even if we don’t like them. Can you imagine a baseball game where one team decided you needed four strikes for a strikeout to give their hitters a better chance? The recent decisions to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Nuclear agreement with Iran and other nations are just more of the same. It is interesting to note that even fifteen years ago Sands identified John Bolton, current National Security Advisor, as a detestor of international agreements. No surprise that he has helped engineer the recent U.S. abandonment of global agreements.

Prof. Michael Schwalbe wrote an unfortunately under-read book, Rigging the Game: How Inequality is Reproduced in Everyday Life, that depicts with crystal clarity how the rules are rigged against the poor. It is a clear example of the abuse of power. An abusive power I might add that has been consolidated with recent additional tax cuts for the wealthiest amongst us. 

Cover for 

Rigging the Game

But the inequality we face is not simply an economic one. As noted political scientists Kay Schlozman,Sydney Verba, and Henry Brady have documented in several recent books, paralleling income inequality is political inequality. Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Failed Promise of Demoracy(2012) offers 693 pages of evidence In this hefty, multiple award winning tome, Schlozman and colleagues review a huge number of studies and discern, what a reasonable person might easily infer, that the growing economic inequality parallels a growing political inequality.

 They followed that up this year with Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age (2018).Their evidence is compelling, but If that wouldn’t provide sufficient research evidence try this.

 “According to a new study from Princeton University, American democracy no longer exists. Using data from over 1,800 policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of – or even against – the will of the majority of voters. America’s political system has transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where power is wielded by wealthy elites.” So reports Ellen  Brown, founder of the Public Banking Institute in “How America Became an Oligarchy”

See also Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s Captured: The Corporate Capture of AmericanDemocracy to see how the abuse of power often tied to wealth and privilege  has infiltrated and ‘captured’  the executive agencies and the courts. It’s the reason that so many books are coming out that focus on the death or dying of democracy.


The recent Supreme Court brou-ha-ha is a clear example of using power to squash the minority. It started when the Senate majority refused to hold a hearing and vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merick Garland in 2016. The abuse of power has grown with the Republican erasure of the filibuster rule and then consummated in the rush job to get  Mr. Kavanagh on the bench without the full review of  documents of his past record, or a thorough investigation of allegations regarding sexual assault and drinking.

Moving to a world where we look at power as not one of “power over” but rather as “power with” is a major step. Perhaps nowhere is this most visible than with the global concerns over climate change. Just last month we saw the release of the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent report that sees catastrophe less than a generation away if we don’t dramatically reverse direction in our consumption and release of carbon. This is not something one community or one nation can adequately confront. It should unite us as one human family on a single planet with a shared future. Does one nation believe it can or should try to survive the potential catastrophe alone? Especially if that nation is more responsible per capita than any other nation for the coming catastrophe?

Economist Jared Bernstein made an interesting point years ago describing basic worldviews distinctions between YOYO’s and WITT’s. YOYO’s Bernstein says, are those that believe that You're On Your Own, the pull-yourself-up-by-the- bootstraps approach and that hard work is all that is necessary for success. WITT’s, Bernstein argues, believe that We’re  In This Together and believe more in fundamental democracy and giving a hand-up as captured in the New Deal.

Roosevelt expanded that idea from application within the U.S. to consideration for a global family. While the US was a main driver of this post-WWII effort, we reserved for ourselves and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, a power-over veto that has hampered the possibility of reaching the promise from which the UN was born. This perhaps was cornerstone of what has been the US belief in its own exceptionalism. Unfortunately it is an anathema of a truly global democracy that Roosevelt hope to evolve. In recent years as Philippe Sands so clearly depicts as does Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard  in his new tome, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), America has defied international agreements whenever they are inconvenient. It’s an abuse of power and the rest of the world recognizes the hypocrisy, even if we citizens are in denial.

The Hell of Good Intentions

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Limits of Our Thoughts

The reading pile keeps getting bigger. Each morning upon grabbing the coffee and nestling into a corner of the couch, I reach for one of the books in my reading pile. On the coffee table in front of the couch are the magazines that pile up – The Sun, The Atlantic, The Nation, Yes Magazine.

Today I grabbed a recent addition to the book pile, Stephen Walt’s new The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018).

The Hell of Good Intentions

It’s one of the best reads of 2018 if not the 2000s. I’ve got two chapters left, about 70 pages of the 360 ( 70 pages are notes, themselves worth reading). Anyone interested in foreign policy should read this critique of the “establishment” since WWII through early 2018 and why policy alternatives to what Walt, describes as “liberal hegemony” never seem to change whether Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump sits in the oval office. Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University.

Also in the pile and partially read are:

Also in the pile but not yet started other than the introductions are
George Orwell. TheRoad to Wigan Pier (1937) which Ellen just read and highly recommended it for it’s pertinence.

Gretel Van Wieren. Food Farming and Religion: Emerging Ethical Perspectives (2018) Stumbled upon on the new book shelf and noted that author was an MSU professor (I have not met) but in the intro she highlights work of two other MSU profs I do know.

Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland. Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities (2018)

Noam Chomsky. Who Rules the World (2016)

I often wonder how the brain and impulse drive the selection of items for the pile and how it then integrates the ideas as I read them. Based on past experience I may not finish all of them, and certainly as the Walt book shows, some other title will get added to the pile and potentially take precedence over others. Usually when that happens,  like Walt’s book, the writing is excellent and ideas more compelling or perhaps fresh, innovative or at least new to me.

I admittedly don’t absorb anymore the full detail as I read the pages. I tend to carry forward the general intent of the book along with its tone. In some cases I note certain quotes and page references for possible future use. In many cases the references lead to other titles added to the pile or websites to investigate.

I recognize all this as a privilege that I have, or at least make the time, to delve into this playground of ideas. Of course, scholars like Walt or the others represented in the pile, dedicate even more of their time and energy into delving deeper into segments of the world of ideas than I do. But most of those are within a narrower band width of human thought than I can manage. So it intrigues me as I interact more and more with elected officials and their staff, to consider how much they read, how limited that time is and perhaps again how narrow the area of focus.

Mr. Trump, who appears to celebrate not reading, except teleprompters,  is at the abysmal end of this scale. But what of Senator X,  Representative Y, or foreign policy staffer Z.  How many books have any of them read in the past year? What is the longest policy report they have completely read from an academic journal, think tank, or government agency? It concerns me that the responses would be closer to Trump than to Walt, or even me. While Walt doesn’t discuss this information deficit directly thus far in his book, his notion of how the foreign policy elites constrain the limits of consideration helps me understand why new ideas, or even the reconsideration of failed policies, seem “foreign” to most elected officials.

Expanding our horizons and possibilities in our increasingly complex world through reading of serious, thoughtful, and sometimes lengthy writings might help all of us appreciate the limitations of our electoral system and those that represent us. Ignorance is not bliss.