September 30, 2013

Washington Shutdown: The US Defeats Itself

After the American Century

The deadlocked government is a pathetic spectacle. The US is becoming a fumbling superpower, and Washington seems to have lost touch with the dangers that lurk in legislative gridlock. Meanwhile, the world is moving on, even if the US government is not. Perhaps in theory no other nation is as powerful as the US, but in practice no external enemies are needed. The United States is defeating itself.

When future historians analyze the post-Cold War era, they will describe how the United States, without a major external threat to bind the government together, splintered into factions and undermined the nation's finances, its environment, and its ability to compete.

Because of internal divisions, the world's only superpower is losing its moral and economic leadership. Congress, and more particularly the Republican Party, bears major responsibility for the crisis, as the nation sinks deeper into debt while lobbyists protect special interests and ideologues slash essential programs, such as food stamps, that assist ordinary Americans.

The opportunity to be a world leader in alternative energy technology has been squandered, and other nations instead are developing those industries and making themselves more efficient than the United States. American energy use per capita remains twice that of Europe, not least because of the widespread use of fracking in the US, which pollutes ground water in order to produce more oil and gas and promote continued over-consumption of energy.

Congress has also failed to meet the need for affordable health care necessary to remain competitive with other industrial nations. Obamacare is better than the old system, but it is still a poor compromise. It is the best program that Congress could produce, but compared to what already exists in other nations, it remains a private and for-profit system that is over-priced. In America, decent health care is in danger of becoming a consumer good for the well-to-do, not a right for all citizens. Obamacare seeks to deal with that, but it is not an optimal solution.

Compared to health care available in Scandinavia, Germany or France, Obamacare is expensive because it requires an army of insurance industry employees, lawyers, and accountants, none of whom do anything directly for patients. They are supposed to make the system more competitive and therefore less expensive. This is akin to setting up competing traffic lights, sewer systems, libraries or fire departments based on a fantasy that this will improve service.

Congress has also gutted a tax system that was functioning well in the 1990s. After 2001 Bush created large deficits by reducing the income tax on the wealthy. As a result, the debt burden grew for a decade, and an increasing share of the federal budget is now used just to pay interest. With this debt burden, the government's ability to take new initiatives has declined, but Congress refuses to re-instate a tax system that can pay the costs of government.

Congress does not save in all areas, however. Since 2001 it has spent an unspecified amount, far more than $150 billion, on surveillance and spying. The spy agencies allegedly can read all messages and infiltrate everywhere, but they either cannot or do not wish to stop the epidemic of Internet fraud or the avalanche of spam, both of which are costly drains on the US economy. National security is now defined as almost entirely a matter of stopping terrorism, and apparently the Congress thinks that it is impossible to spend too much on that goal.

Symptomatic of the general American failure of these years are confrontations over the budget.  leading to today, October 1, with its government shutdown. The government is without funds. This idiotic brinkmanship puts the American currency and the US economy at risk.

Should foreign nations, corporations and investors lose faith in the political stability of the United States, the rush of money out of the country could possibly be irreversible. Oil might be traded in Euros rather than dollars, for example. Investors looking for a stable currency could go elsewhere. Suddenly, the US might need to pay its own debt rather than rely on others to buy its government bonds.  If that happens, the collapse will eclipse the crash of 2008, and the era when the United States was a superpower could come abruptly to an end. It could become a gigantic, economic invalid, with high interest rates, a huge national debt, and an outmoded energy system.

This extreme scenario is unlikely, but the Republicans are doing what they can to undermine permanently the integrity of the economy. They are becoming a greater menace to the United States than any foreign threat. Having won the Cold War, the United States is defeating itself.

September 24, 2013

Is there Civil Religion in European nations to the same degree as in the United States?

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                        

I asked my students today whether civil religion was common to all societies, and in particular whether Denmark had a civil religion. For those not familiar with the term, the idea of civil religion can be traced back to at least the eighteenth century, but it came to prominence because of an essay written by Robert Bellah in the late 1960s. Bellah argued through many excellent examples that the United States, lacking the social glue provided to many societies by a shared religion, had developed a patriotic civil religion instead. 

Singing the National anthem at a baseball game
The Constitution specifically prohibits establishment of a national church, and the Bill of Rights makes illegal the creation of any law restricting religious freedom, including any attempts to establish religious requirements in order to hold or be elected to an office. Such restrictions were not unusual in the eighteenth century, where Protestants were often excluded from certain positions in Catholic countries, and Catholics excluded from some offices in Protestant states. 

As Bellah pointed out, in the United States in major speeches the President frequently refers to the Deity, but it is always a generalized God, not one tied to a particular religion. The Constitution makes no reference to Christ, for example, and this was quite intentional. The new United States made a point of the separation of church and state.  In contrast, most European nations did have a state church, and many also had a royal family that was baptised, confirmed, married, and buried in that national church. The royal families and their churches staged rituals that ensured continuity of society, in most cases playing a role that became less overtly political over time, as the monarchies tended to become symbolic points of unity rather than wielding power in government itself.

The United States, with no royals, no national church, and also without a long historical tradition, had to create alternative rallying points, and gradually did so, by inventing holidays (Thanksgiving, President's Day, Memorial Day. the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, etc.) by establishing patriotic sites (such as Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, Bunker Hill, or Mt. Rushmore), and through the repetition of certain rituals, not least the ritual of swearing in the president every four years.  The US also has "sacred" documents in shrine-like locations, notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, displayed at the National Archives in Washington.  

Indeed, Americans have also consecrated some natural sites as national symbols, notably the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Niagara Falls. The sublime in America often became a patriotic emotion, and was also linked to technological achievements that seemed to represent the greatness of the nation, embodied in great railroad lines, skyscrapers, enormous factories, and NASA's space program.

My students had read Bellah and discussed these matters, but most of them concluded that Denmark, had no real equivalent to American civil religion. They thought their country far less patriotic than the US, but I wonder if that is entirely correct. Lacking a civil religion (if indeed this is the case) is not the same thing as not being patriotic. However, several of the students said they were not interested in the Danish royal family or the Danish Lutheran Church. Point taken. But it does seem to me that Denmark is bound together rather tightly by a long history and a great many traditions. Alternately, several students spoke of the intense nationalism that erupted after the Danish football team won the national championship in 1992. Huge crowds spontaneously filled the city centers in a general euphoria.

Two British students in the class thought that their society did embrace the monarchy more than in Denmark, and that there was a Civil Religion there. Just think of the last night of the Proms when a delirious crowd sings "Land of Hope and Glory", while millions of their countrymen watch on the telly.  

The discussion is not over, for this was only the first of three seminar sessions on civil religion.

September 15, 2013

Constant availability + new communication technologies = Stress

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                         

More than half of all Americans report that they are stressed. The American Psychological Association has conducted a survey showing that half of Americans feel that their level of stress has increased in the last five years. There are many reasons for this, but here I want to examine one of them: the constant interruption of work and thought by new communication technologies.

Once upon a time, the mark of success was having a secretary who screened an executive's phone calls and routinely said that he or she was in a meeting or otherwise unavailable. The most successful people were hard to reach. They had buffers of all kinds around them. Today many of the secretaries and almost all the buffers are gone. The ideal is constant availability: to have a phone handy and to check email at all hours, so that documents can be downloaded and read anywhere. This situation is not unique to white-collar workers. The plumber gets phone calls all day, and the contractor sends pdf files to his clients. Constant availability + new communication technologies = Stress

I have had unknown journalists call me before 7 AM, asking questions about events that occurred when I was asleep. I have students who send me things on Friday night and expect them to be read on Monday morning. I have been on conference programs as a commentator and received the articles I am to discuss in the airport on my way to the meeting. Everyone has similar experiences.

Why did most people in 1960 assume that to be productive a person needed shields from constant intrusions, while today the reverse assumption reigns: that productivity is supposedly based on constant networking while surfing ever higher waves of information (and trivia)? One is expected to follow a host of people on Twitter, Facebook, email, and text-messaging, and yet somehow have time for reading, reflection, writing and serious conversation. Interruptions have become constant, like static on an old radio that is continually on.

Such interruptions are far more frequent for young people. The Pew Trust found in a survey that almost all people under 24 use text messaging, and that they average more than 100 messages sent or received every day. They deal with more than 3200 a month. In addition, they make or receive 15-20 phone calls every day. Add to these roughly 120 messages all the email sent and received and top it off with Twitter and Facebook, as well as browsing the Web for information. If these many messages are distributed evenly over a 16 hour waking day that makes an interruption every five minutes. In addition,  there are TV programs and radio, as well as listening to music, usually through earphones.

People under 24 do not think of this endless stream of messages as interruptions, but rather as normal life. Yet I have a 17-year-old nephew who says he suffers from stress, and it seems to be a worsening problem among younger people. Time itself has become the scarcest resource, and enormous numbers of people feel stressed all the time. High levels of stress cause headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and fatigue, to make a short list. Stress also exacerbates many illnesses and in older people increases the risk of heart attacks.

Multitasking is often praised as proof of adaptability and productivity, but studies show the reverse. People who constantly shift between working on several different things take more time to complete their work. My observation is that the greater the number of tasks, the greater the chance that some of them will be forgotten entirely or will be poorly done. As an author in Forbes put it, whether old or young, "Your brain just can’t take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of information and encode them fully into short-term memory. When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for recall later."

Would Hemingway have been a better writer if he had received a constant stream of messages from Twitter? Would Charles Dickens have written as many good books if equipped with email? Would Einstein have thought up the theory of relativity if he had an I-phone to distract him  with half a million apps? It seems likely that our mental and psychological makeup is not geared to a constant bombardment of messages, questions, advertisements, and comments. If consciousness is a stream, then all these interruptions are muddying the waters.

The solution? Turn off the phone and the email for some periods each day, so you can concentrate on doing one task well. Do tasks one by one, rather than simultaneously. Limit use of Facebook to a single period of no more than one hour (not during work) each day. These things have worked for me, though it would be even better if I had a full-time secretary/buffer between me and the tides of trivia and nonsense in the world. But that is a luxury of the past unless someone can develop an app to simulate that role.

September 09, 2013

Ten Ways to Respond to Syrian Use of Poison Gas, Other than Bombing

After the American Century

This column was written before the possibility of removing the poison gas emerged, with the subsequent negotiations between Russia and the United States. Much happened in just a week.

The use of poison gas is completely unacceptable and risks transforming warfare into indiscriminate mass-extermination. Some people therefore think that President Obama is showing weakness because he is not just bombing Syria without consulting Congress first. They would like to see more cowboy diplomacy of the sort practiced by Ronald Reagan in Libya and by George Bush I in Somalia. By some strange logic, many of the Republicans who cheered on George Bush II in attacking Afghanistan and Iraq now want restraint in Syria. But war should be declared and funded by Congress.

The more serious problem is that officials inside the Beltway, both Republican and Democratic, have reduced the available options to (1) launch missiles or (2) do nothing. There is serious mental poverty in Washington when people cannot think of more options than that.

Here are ten other ideas about what might be done. No doubt some of these ideas are better than others, but none of them involves bombing a foreign government or killing people.

(1) Punish economically the states that supply the Assad regime with arms and military supplies. It should cost something to support gas warfare. American tourists might also be advised to avoid travel to such countries.

(2) Press the World Court in The Hague to investigate and charge Syrian scientists and government officials with crimes against humanity.

(3) Launch a global public relations campaign against Russia and China for supporting Syrian atrocities at the UN and thereby paralyzing any world response.

(4) Seize Syrian government assets, if any remain in the United States, and use them to feed the enormous number of refugees fleeing the civil war.

(5) Create a no-fly zone over Syria, so its air force cannot bomb the Syrian people.

(6) Work insistently with the Arab League to develop a coherent regional response to the crisis.

(7) Break all diplomatic relations with the Syrian government. Expel their ambassador and staff.

(8) Press the rebel groups to find common ground to create a political alternative. Otherwise, their victory over the current government would likely only lead to more civil war.

(9) Press NATO (i.e. the European so-called allies) to take a role in the crisis. Europeans seem to have forgotten that it was in their own World War I that poison gas was used indiscriminately.

(10) Hold ceremonies at the graves of soldiers who perished due to gas warfare in every European country that refuses to hold Syria accountable.

One could also drop vast quantities of laughing gas on Syria, and see if that changes the mood. (OK, that is not a serious proposal, but it shows the ability to bomb, while not doing it.)

These are some of the many things the United States might do in this crisis and that President Obama could do (in most cases, including the laughing gas) without consulting Congress. It is time to use more imagination and less force in meeting international crises. The military approach has not been so wonderfully successful that all other alternatives can be ignored.

September 07, 2013

National Security Agency costs more than faculty of the Ivy League plus US Cultural Exchanges

After the American Century                                                                                                                     

Should the United States invest in education, cultural exchange, and international understanding, or should it take money away from such things and instead invest in spying, code-breaking, eavesdropping, and the creation of international distrust? Since 2001, the answer to that question has been to plow billions into The National Security Agency (NSA) while cutting funding for cultural programs. Since May the NSA has been much in the news, as the extent and reach of its programs has become known. Most Americans, if asked before then, probably could not have said what the initials N S A stood for, even though they were paying billions of tax dollars to support it.

The scale of the NSA's main facility at Ft. Meade, Maryland is best grasped by some comparisons. It is larger than the United Nations building and US Congress combined. It is the largest employer and the largest user of electricity in the State of Maryland. There are spaces for more than 18,000 cars in its parking lot, and the site has its own entrance from the nearby interstate highway. Do not try to use the entrance, however, as it is for NSA employees only, and you will be stopped if trying to enter the area.

There are many NSA facilities besides the buildings at Ft. Meade, both in the United States and abroad. Estimates of the number of employees vary, but apparently there are about 30,000. Being a secret organization, it is hard to get a reliable figure. The Washington Post recently wrote that there were 35,000 code breakers working for the NSA and affiliated groups at the CIA and other agencies. Whatever the number, it is clearly more than the combined faculties of the Ivy League plus MIT and CalTech. Harvard has 2100 faculty, for example. Dartmouth and Brown have fewer, Cornell has more. But the faculty for these ten elite universities are less numerous than the employees of the NSA.  Is the social, educational, and cultural value of the NSA greater than ten of the world's finest universities? The Harvard faculty has won 44 Nobel Prizes, trained generations of outstanding leaders, and graduated an international body of alumni from almost every country in the world. Such universities are a major force for progress, peace, and prosperity. They not only create knowledge; they create a global community. 

BEcause the NSA is secretive it cannot create a global community. It creates suspicion and distrust. It stimulates paranoia. It assembles enormous databases.  It listens in on the presidents of foreign countries, and has recently angered Brazil, Germany, and Mexico, to name just a few. Its staff creates encryption and de-encryption codes. They publish some articles, but their best work must be hidden from scholars, and they cannot be said to be part of or to participate in the global community of knowledge. They are paid as well as Ivy League faculty, but they do not have the same credentials. Would anyone seriously propose that the NSA's contribution to life is equal to that of one Harvard or one Yale, much less 10 such universities?

I am not arguing against the NSA, as such. But how large should it be? At what point would money be better spent elsewhere? Its value does not increase as a direct function of its size. When do diminishing returns set in? An NSA twice as large is not necessarily twice as valuable. There is an enormous new building about to open in Maryland. There is a new data center in Utah as well, and there are more facilities on the drawing board. 

The budget increases for the NSA have come at the expense of other programs, notably cultural exchanges, such as the Fulbright program, which creates strong international connections and builds understanding and trust. As the NSA has grown, such programs have shrunk or disappeared. The Mike Mansfield Fellowship program improved cultural understanding between Japan and the United States, until it was cut from $1.8 million to 0! Likewise, the Institute for International Public Policy Fellowship Program (IIPP) once offered study abroad to minority undergraduates, but it has lost all of its funding. The State Department also plans to eliminate all funding for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship. It provides postgraduate study in Ireland and Northern Ireland for 12 individuals a year. That is a small investment, but over time such programs create valuable networks of human relationships.

The largest and oldest such program, The Fulbright, has had to struggle for funding since the end of the Cold War. Yet in many nations the American contribution is matched or topped by the partner countries. Germany and Denmark, for example, put more money into their Fulbright exchanges with the US than the State Department does. American cutbacks in this case make no economic sense, for these foreign countries are funding US faculty and students to go abroad. There are more than 300,000 Fulbright Alumni from more than 150 countries, and everywhere they are a force for mutual understanding that promotes economic growth and cultural exchange. About 8,000 Fulbright awards are granted every year, with roughly 30% of the money coming from other nations or private contributions.More than 40 Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes. No one from the immensely better-funded NSA has done so or ever is likely to do so, because its organization and goals are antithetical to the values that these prizes recognize.

The US government contributes about $275 million per year to Fulbright. By comparison, the 2014 budget for NSA and the like is 175 times that size. It "Provides $48.2 billion in discretionary base funding for the National Intelligence Program." This is more than the operating budgets for the ten leading universities already mentioned and all the exchange programs combined.

Instruments of "soft power" such as the Fulbright Program are being neglected or even abandoned in favor of secrecy, spying, and code-breaking. Yet the West won the Cold War in good part because its cultural life, its educational institutions, and its consumer goods were more appealing than the Soviet alternatives.  Expanding the NSA at the expense of good universities and cultural exchange is not good policy. It is time to see the NSA as just one part of a coordinated approach to better security and improved international relations. Spying cannot bring peace or prosperity. Creating vast secret agencies with no public oversight does not enhance democracy. The danger in such enterprises is that the means become the ends, that surveillance itself (and its expansion) becomes the goal.

September 05, 2013

Where did Syria get its poison gas?

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                        

I have read the headline stories in the newspapers of three nations, and fail to find much discussion of a vital question: Who supplied the poison gas to Syria? Such weapons are outlawed by an international treaty that has been widely respected since the 1920s. Such gas is not made in a basement by a self-taught chemist, and the delivery systems are also complex and demand sophisticated manufacturing. 

Scientific American has posted an article about this issue, detailing the difficulties of determining who made the sarin gas. It points out that fragments of the bombs that contained the poison gas can offer some useful clues. "The materials composing the rockets could differ depending on who made them, thereby pointing a finger at who deployed them." This is no doubt true, but apparently no such analysis has yet been completed.

Meanwhile, Der Speigel reports that German Intelligence has concluded that the gas used was almost certainly sarin, and that it believes the Syrian government (and not the opposition) has the expertise to manufacture both the gas and the small missiles used to deliver it. The  delivery system itself requires considerable expertise. It sprays out the gas as a fine, deadly mist that lingers longer in the air during the early morning hours, when the missiles hit, than it does during the heat of the day.  In short, the gas, the missiles, and the sophisticated delivery system all point to the government. The same story reports that German Intelligence intercepted a phone call that also seemed to confirm Assad's direct involvement with the attack.

While different sorts of evidence seem to point to the same conclusion as to who used the gas, however, we still do not know who made it. A third party might have been involved. For example, Iran has the ability to make it, and it supports Assad. Russia has long been an ally, and of course they too could produce it. Whoever these persons are, they should be the focus of an international manhunt. The only use for sarin nerve gas is slaughtering indiscriminately all the people who happen to be nearby when it is released. Those who manufactured it and the military people who used it should be named, shamed, caught, tried, and punished. Their assets should be seized and used to help surviving victims. They must become infamous.

The Jewish Press says that the central figure in Syrian gas production is Dr. Amr Najib Armanazi. He is head of Syria's Scientific Studies Research Center. The United States Treasury reached the same conclusion, and as early as 2005 it imposed sanctions on him and his enterprise. Should there not be a warrant for  Dr. Amr Najib Armanazi's arrest and trial in The Hague?