Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘america’

The Referendum of Hope

January 4, 2008 · 1 Comment

Of Barack Obama’s speeches’, Ezra Klein comments:

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

It seems a vote for Obama, aside from his stance on the issues, is a referendum on the identity of America.  The vote for Obama is truly a progressive vote in the sense that it represents an urgent and hopeful desire to (finally) “move on” from the ugly and bitter legacies of previous generations and administrations.  The Iowans who kicked off this election told the rest of the country three important things:

1.  America is post-racism.   Not to say that racism doesn’t exist in America, only that Americans are tired of allowing this legacy perpetuate as a latent and lingering issue that divides and defines us.  We are ready to move on.  We are desperate to move forward.  For all of the talk of “electability,” only 10% of Iowans claimed it as the determining factor in their vote.

2.  America is genuine in accepting and practicing a “moral authority.”  A vote for Obama is a statement to the rest of the world: “We are not the country our foreign policy over the past 5 years has painted us as.”  We do not condone torture.  We do not fear monger.  We are a strong nation based on tolerance, on ingenuity, on hard work, on freedom and democracy.

3 .  America is ready to explore the issues that unite us, and find common ground on the issues that divide us.  Most importantly, a vote for Obama is a vote for a new brand of politics.  There are those who are cynical of bipartisanship.  There are those who champion partisanship, because it makes people more politically aware of our differences and alternatives in policy decisions.  But the good people of Iowa have told the cynics to shove it.  We pledge allegiance to America, not its political factions.

A vote for Obama is a vote for the harder path, the higher ground. A vote for Obama expects more from America then what we’ve seen or known.  I hope he sweeps through New Hampshire and beyond.

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The Republican Machine

December 27, 2007 · 1 Comment

I’ve finished my whirlwind Christmas break in Iowa and the primary was a big topic of discussion around the Host household.  My stepmother particularly had some interesting things to say which I feel are worth sharing because my parents probably represent a decent sample of your typical upper-middle class, white, aging household that the candidates are busily pandering to.

Let me preface her comments with the following: despite the fact that I lived in Washington, attend a policy school, download 3 political podcasts, read several pundit blogs and related weekly magazines, and was stuck in a hotel for 24 hours in Chicago watching Meet the Press and Charlie Rose, my knowledge and opinion of the political race cannot reasonably compare to that of my stepmothers. 

(Well, at least according to her.)

My step-mother is the type of person who laments the fact that the media refuses to report on substantive issues, but holds no particularly active interest in substantive issues, and reads US Weekly religiously.  I can remember her watching the OJ Simpson trial daily and rhetorically asking nobody in particular, “why do they keep on showing this trash?”  

I think when it boils down to it she is one of several Iowans whose most important “issue” is how electable the Democratic candidate is in 2008 against “The Republican Machine.”  

Whereas in New Hampshire the voters choose according to whom is most appealing to them, Iowans choose the candidate whom they perceive is most appealing to everyone else.  Which is why you have so many undecided voters, even this late in the game.  New Hampshire wants to propel the best candidate forward, to generate momentum for a potential darkhorse, whereas Iowans just want to pick the inevitable winner.

With “electability” in mind, the logical candidate, by my step-mother’s reasoning, is Hilary Clinton.  She believes Clinton is the most battle tested and has a lower “floor” in terms of how far she can fall in the face of negative campaigning by the Republican Machine.  Barack Obama, she believes, would not withstand such concentrated attacks for the duration of a full political cycle.

I pointed out that Obama also had a much higher ceiling in terms of how high he could rise.  He has much lower negatives than Clinton and appeals much more strongly to the independent voters of this country, especially college educated white men.  The same college educated white men (like my father) who voted for Bush in 2000, and have regreted that decision ever since.

My step-mother got defensive and said the only reason Clinton has such high negatives is because she is a woman.  

I conceded that she was probably right, that Clinton was held to an unfair standard, especially by other women, because she was a woman. 

Then we dropped the subject and moved on to more appropriate topics for a family dinner.

I was left wondering though, if the direction (and abrupt ending) to our conversation would be the nature of the public debate as this campaign continues.  That is to say, is it possible (or probable) that the Democratic candidate (presuming it is either Hillary or Obama) will bait The Republican Machine into overly negative campaigning, and then counter-punch with “these criticisms are unfair and would never be charged against a white male”?

I think such a strategy could destroy a candidate like Giuliani or even Mitt Romney, who might be perceived as political machinists.  But if such charges were made against Mike Huckabee, and the original smears were appropriately distanced from his campaign, the strategy could conceivably backfire.  In fact, if Huckabee were the Republican candidate, the right could bait the left into the distractor issue of equal treatment by sex/ethnicity, then pour on fierce denials, wrapped in Christian values of tolerance and brotherhood. 

Suddenly then, Obama/Clinton becomes the divisive figure, by virtue of the fact that his/her race/gender causes the nation to collectively ask itself whether it is “ready” for a black/woman president. 

This anxiety sways guilty liberal voters (who were likely already in pocket) but the Christians become apprehensive… are they ready for four years of an internal dialogue of whether they are “fair” in their assessments/criticisms of the American president? 

This is the same confounding anxiety that hiring managers must face, that academic deans must consider when recruiting faculty, and admissions directors mut weigh when selecting the student body.  It is an issue so sensitive that you must address it before you can dismiss it. 

It then comes to pass that the same mentality that causes Ann Coltier to call the white American male “the Jew of liberal-facism” will motivate Christians to vote Huckabee. Because these voters are accustomed over the past 16 years to being vehemently critical of their president, and they are more comfortable being angry at a white male then they are at a woman/black male, Christians will independently decide that the country “isn’t ready” for X kind of president.  And because most voters decide based on the bandwagon (picking the winner), Mike Huckabee might steal an election that nobody thought the Republicans had a shot at.

So I hope Romney pulls away, the counter-valent skepticism (a Mormon?) will off-set between the parties, and we can collectively celebrate our diversity. 

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Dropping Knowledge: On Guilty Liberals

December 9, 2007 · Leave a Comment

I found this gem while researching my paper on Globalization.  From “In Defense of Globalization,” by Jagdish Bhagwati:

I also think that an altogether new factor on the scene that
propels the young into anti-capitalist attitudes comes from a different,
technological source in a rather curious fashion. This is the dissonance
that now exists between empathy for others elsewhere for their misery
and the inadequate intellectual grasp of what can be done to ameliorate
that distress. The resulting tension spills over into unhappiness with the
capitalist system (in varying forms) within which they live and hence
anger at it for its apparent callousness.

Today, thanks to television, we have what I call the paradox of inversion
of the philosopher David Hume’s concentric circles of reducing
loyalty and empathy. Each of us feels diminishing empathy as we go from
our nuclear family to the extended family, to our local community, to
our state or county (say, Lancashire or Louisiana), to our nation, to our
geographical region (say, Europe or the Americas), and then to the world.
This idea of concentric circles of empathy can be traced back to the Stoics’
doctrine of oikeiosis—that human affection radiates outward from
oneself, diminishing as distance grows from oneself and increasing as
proximity increases to oneself. In the same vein, Hume famously argued
that “it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole
world to the scratching of my finger” and that “sympathy with persons
remote from us is much fainter than with persons near and contiguous.”

What the Internet and CNN have done is to take Hume’s outermost
circle and turn it into the innermost. No longer can we snore while the
other half of humanity suffers plague and pestilence and the continuing
misery of extreme poverty. Television has disturbed our sleep, perhaps
short of a fitful fever but certainly arousing our finest instincts.  Indeed,
this is what the Stoics, chiefly Hierocles, having observed the concentric
circles of vanishing empathy, had urged by way of morality: that “it is the
task of a well tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to
draw circles together somehow towards the centre, and to keep zealously
transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones.”

At the same time, the technology of the Internet and CNN, as Robert
Putnam has told us, has accelerated our move to “bowling alone,”
gluing us to our TV sets and shifting us steadily out of civic participation,
so that the innermost circle has become the outermost one.
So the young see and are anguished by the poverty and the civil wars
and the famines in remote areas of the world but often have no intellectual
training to cope with their anguish and follow it through rationally
in terms of appropriate action.

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Providing Perpetual Peace: A Defense of American Hegemony

December 7, 2007 · Leave a Comment

The following paper was written for my Conceptual Foundations of International Politics class.  I am in the midst of finals, and am too lazy to post anything original.  Note to anyone doing “Google Research”… don’t copy this.

In his sixth thesis on the “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Immanuel Kant (14) states:

Man is an animal which, if it lives among others of its kind, requires a master. For he certainly abuses his freedom with respect to other men, and although as, a reasonable being he wishes to have a law which limits the freedom of all, his selfish animal impulses tempt him, where possible, to exempt himself from them. He thus requires a master, who will break his will and force him to obey a will that is universally valid, under which each can be free. But whence does he get this master? Only from the human race. But then the master is himself an animal, and needs a master.


Robert Kagan (348) calls this reality of the human condition a “Kantian paradox.”  As it is applied to international theory, “the only solution to the immoral horrors of the Hobbesian world [is] the creation of a world government,” but “that the ‘state of universal peace’ made possible by world government [is] an even greater threat to human freedom than the Hobbesian international order, inasmuch as such a government, with its monopoly of power, would become ‘the most horrible despotism.’”  Kagan’s solution to the Kantian paradox, at least in the case of Europe (which he classifies as living in a “post-historical paradise” (333)), is the provision of security by the part of the United States on Europe’s (and presumably, the world’s) behalf.  This assumption is based on the logic that the “less profound the security competition, the less likely is war” (Mearsheimer 42).  In this paper I will argue a liberal perspective that the preferred organization of the international system, in the pursuit of securing a Kantian “perpetual peace” for the world order, is a unipolar one lead by the United States, provided that the US also practices self-restraint in its exercise of power, in order to maintain its legitimacy as a unipolar hegemon. 

The foundation of legitimacy behind what is today described as Pax Americana (Khalidi) stems historically from the outcomes of the Second World War, in which the United States established an enduring compromise with the shattered European nations to exercise and sustain its advantageous position of military and economic power based on a pledge of restraint in kind, for permission to protect (Sestanovich).  John Ickenberry (202) calls this compromise a “constitutional settlement”, one which the United States agreed to reluctantly, given its traditional preference for isolationism in international relations (with the notable exceptions of Latin America and the South Pacific (Khalidi)).  America’s reluctance to assume the “dual orders” of containment of a rising Soviet superpower and establishment of a liberal political order built around “economic openness, political reciprocity, and multilateral management” was ironic in that it established a recognizable legitimacy to lead the international system as a “benign hegemon” (Ickenberry 160, 198).  The United States thus engaged in the construction of multilateral, globally integrated liberal institutions such as the United Nations, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the dual intention of sustaining its own position of prominence, while at once limiting the returns to power (including in many ways, its own).  These steps were vital in preventing future major power wars, and to promoting the relative global peace, stability and prosperity that much of the developed world has enjoyed in the post-war period (Sestanovich).  The post-war power arrangements made by the United States are therefore relatively easily justifiable within their historical context, given the mutually beneficial nature of the “constitutional settlement,” and the natural emergence of a bi-polar international system.  However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in a uniquely unipolar moment:  “In the 1990s, like a victor in a great war, the United States faced choices about how to use its newly acquired power” (Ickenberry 233). 

Indeed, the political vacuum left behind in the international balance of power by the dissolution of the Soviet state certainly presented the United States with an opportunity to either push forward as a global empire, withdraw into a “whole-hearted embrace of liberal multiculturalism,” (Hurrell 12), or broaden its sphere of influence in a limited fashion by “pursuing an institution-building agenda” (Ickenberry 234).  It is important to note that the US under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush chose the latter path by expanding NATO; creating the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and World Trade Organization (Ickenberry 234); and pushing the European establishment for a full reunification of Germany (Sestanovich).  Such actions of self-restraint and institutional self-binding were consistent with the expectations of a rational hegemon seeking to undercut others’ perceptions of threat (Ickenberry 20), while simultaneously shaping those institutions in ways that closely reflected US interests (Hurrell 12).  The result, in neorealist terms, was both a reorganization of the international structure (bipolar to unipolar) and the international system (redistribution of capabilities from competing blocs to a sole superpower) (Waltz 140).  As was the case following WWII, American hegemonic primacy was and continued to be considered legitimate by the rest of the world, for several reasons.  First, the United States had garnered tremendous legitimacy as the victor of the Cold War, as embodied by Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant declaration of “The End of History.”  Second, the withdrawal of sovereigns in the areas of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia “left in their wake a host of groups – ethnic, religious, cultural – of greater or lesser cohesion,” that, in the absence of an American security guarantee, would otherwise pursue “salient windows of opportunity” via aggressive-offensive internal and external power struggles in an environment of instability and insecurity (Posen 28).  Third, as Robert Jervis notes, “The US usually [gave] considerable weight to its partners views, and indeed its own preferences [were] often influenced by theirs, as was true in Kosovo” (Jervis 7).   Fourth, “US power not only preclude[d] effective opposition, but also increase[d] the incentives to bandwagoning” by weaker states looking to benefit within a system characterized by hegemonic capabilities to control and distribute global commodities, including gas and oil  (Hurrell 12).  Fifth, as mentioned earlier by Kagan, and expounded upon (less condescendingly) by Jervis, the American security provision permitted “America’s allies [to] not have to fear attacks from each other:  their militaries—especially Germany’s – were so truncated that they could not fight a major war without American assistance or attack each other without undertaking a military build-up that would have a great deal of warning” (Jervis, 7).  Put simply, a benign US hegemony effectively eliminated the security dilemma for much of the developed world, and resulted in a relative stability that most closely resembled the Kantian “perpetual peace” introduced at the beginning of this paper.

            It certainly can – and has – been argued that while the United States may have emerged after the Second World War “reluctantly,” the expectation of it remaining a “benign” and self-restrained hegemon has always been untenable.  States rationally look to maximize their power.  (Mearsheimer 31).  Indeed, Kagan’s neo-conservative “solution” to the Kantian paradox – unipolar provision of global security at the least expense to human freedom, which I will call “The American Leviathan” – seems incongruous prima facie with the neorealist (as tempered by liberal institutional) benefits argued previously of such a system, at least in the long-term.  Whether by convention of the unipolar structure, or by intention of the superpower itself, the United States is today a de facto empire (Ferguson 4). This certainly does not imply that the US projects its power in the same way toward all nations, only that it dominates certain regions in order to sustain a power position of leverage in the distribution of collective goods (Mearsheimer 41).  Thus, while the status quo distribution of capabilities may be satisfactory today (insofar as it results in relative peace, prosperity and security), it is unwise to assume that major power rivals will accept such an arrangement in perpetuity, especially given the realist power maximizing considerations.  We have already witnessed in the twenty-first century that the “present trajectory in which the United States maintains hegemony rejects significant limitations on its freedom of action” (Jervis, 11).  The refusal to participate in or abide by global initiatives such as the Geneva Conventions, the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court, and the unilateral decision to engage in preventive war and regime change in Iraq, all reflect efforts by the United States to resist being the “tied down Gulliver” (Hurrell 8) of international institutions.  But, it is argued: “hard unilateralism and the emphasis on the threat and use of military force can make sense only on the assumption that the dominant response of weaker states will be straightforward submission […] or the desire to negotiate.” (Hurrell 12), which is in itself an arrogant and dangerous assumption and overestimation of capabilities.  Over time, the “constitutional settlement” ceases to be agreeable to all parties, and the relationship becomes one of coercion instead of mutual cooperation.  If then, as is argued, the current system of hard hegemonic unilateralism is unsustainable; we must consider alternative arrangements of power to arrive at a theoretically preferred structure.  The neo-realist perspective as embodied by Waltz states that there exist only two alternatives:  bipolar or multipolar (Waltz 6).  Multipolar systems are inferior because “uncertainties about the comparative capabilities of states multiply as numbers grow, and because estimates of the cohesiveness and strength of coalitions are hard to make” (Waltz 6).  Indeed there exists no historical or empirical evidence to argue that a multipolar structure would be any more peaceful or prosperous than the current arrangement.  Neorealism also obviously rejects other liberal multipolar theoretical alternatives that are based on democratic peace theory and which assert the sublimation of national autonomy to supranational interests, be they economic or political (as proposed by Jervis (14)).

We are left then, with Waltz’ assertion that a bipolar structure is the most pacifying arrangement in world order (Waltz 6).  In the current context, such a structure might predictably arise from the rise of China or China and Russia as regional hegemons (Jervis 12).  Waltz’ reasoning for assigning eminence to bipolarity over hegemony is its possibility for external balancing.  He states:  “The vice to which great powers easily succumb in a multipolar world is inattention; in a bipolar world, overreaction; in a unipolar world, overextension” (13).  Of these vices, overreaction is the most manageable because it is balanced both internally and externally, whereas a unipolar hegemon, without other great powers to check its expansion, is balanced only internally.  The argument logically concludes that “moments” of unipolarity are not durable, because other states will predictably balance against the strongest.  What Waltz’ theory fails to explain in the present context is why, “for their parts, the other members of the security community seek to harness and constrain American power, not displace it” (Jervis 7).  That is to say, why has there not yet arisen a legitimate challenge to the artificial imposition of hierarchy implied by American empire?  One might explain this phenomenon as a reflection of American power itself:  that the significant entry barriers that checking American military power might entail would be too great, and that “others accept the [status quo] to keep their own defense spending very low, especially because the alternative to American dominated stability might be worse.”  (Hurrell 8).  However true it may be, this explanation seems insufficient.  Why then do these states continue to participate in liberal institutions?  Why do they then ally themselves in America’s global war on terror?  To some degree, the participation of other powers in American established and internationally integrated liberal arrangements demonstrates that American hegemony must be accepted as legitimate through liberal and constructivist lenses.  The participation by other powers may be reluctant, but so then, as Ickenberry argues, was the systemic creation by the world’s leader.  It is thus interesting to note that while Waltz’ theory of stability crumbled with the Berlin Wall, it stands stronger today in a unipolar world: “Stable systems are self-reinforcing, because understanding others’ behavior, making agreements with them, and policing the agreements becomes easier through continued experience” (136).  Because America has in many ways acted as a responsible steward, as a “benign hegemon” overseeing Pax Americana for the duration of its “unipolar moment,” its legitimacy to lead remains relatively unchallenged, the world more prosperous, and the risks to major power war less than they were previously under the Cold War bipolar system.  Certainly there are increased risks of asymmetric warfare and terrorism in such a structure, but as long as non-proliferation remains a cardinal priority, the threats of terrorism, while unpredictably dangerous, are not existential (as they were during the Cold War (Khalidi)).

Of course, as Khalidi observes, the United States did not entirely decide how it should behave as a unipolar hegemon until 2001, when it radically changed its National Security doctrine (Khalidi).  That is to say, it is too early to dismiss neorealist predictions of unipolar excess giving rise to external balances and inevitable major power conflicts.  The idea of “legitimacy” is in many ways a constructivist concept that cannot be properly addressed using realist tools.  However, the fact remains that the American hegemony continues to be legitimate, and should continue to remain so as long as it “recognizes the extent and potential of its soft power and acts judiciously on that recognition” (Hurrell 5).  Moreover, as Jervis argues, “The American hegemony will surely eventually decay but increased European and Japanese strength need not lead to war, contrary to the expectations of standard theories of hegemony and great power rivalry” (Jervis 7).  It is important not to undervalue the constraining nature of the American domestic makeup, which complicates “natural” imperial tendencies based on a “self-image that precludes it for seeing itself for what it is, in part because of the popularity of values of equality and supra-nationalism” (Jervis 11).  While these values can certainly be manipulated in the Wilsonian and Jacksonian traditions (Mead 23), as they have been by the current neo-conservative administration, they remain a pacifying force for “good” (as perceived by other states), consistent with democratic peace theory.  While the Kantian paradox remains, the Pax Americana version of perpetual peace, provided by an American Leviathan serving in the role of “surrogate government” (Waltz, 196) at the international level, continues to be the preferred system of the international order.   


Works CitedFerguson, Niall.  Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.Hurrell, Andrew. “Hegemony, Liberalism and World Order: What space for would-be great powers?” International Affairs 82, I (2006): 1-19.

Ickenberry, John G. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

—“American grand strategy in the age of terror.” Survival 43:4 (Winter 2001/2). 19-34.

Jervis, Robert.  “Theories of War in an Era of Great Power Peace:  Presidential Address, American Political Association 2001.”  American Political Science Review 96, No. 1. March 2002. 1-14.

Kagan, Robert.  “Power and Weakness.” Policy Review No. 113 (June 2002): 333-350.

Kant, Immanuel. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View.” On History, Trans. Lewis White Beck. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.  1-24.

Khalidi, Rashid. “Alternative Views of American Primacy.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 8, 2007.

Mead, Walter Russell. “The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy.” The National Interest Issue 58 (Winter 1999/2000). 5-27.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Posen, Barry.  “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.”  Survival 35:1 Spring 2003. 27-47.

Sestanovich, Stephen. “American Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective.” Conceptual Foundations of International Politics course lecture. Columbia University School for International and Public Affairs. Altschul Hall, New York. October 1, 2007.

Waltz, Kenneth.  “Structural realism following the Cold War.” International Security Vol. 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000). 1-28.

Theory of International Politics. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1979. 

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Dropping Knowledge: Stating the Obvious

November 26, 2007 · 1 Comment

oil map of world

One thing I’ve learned studying IR Theory is that most decisions at their core are based on the theory of structural realism. That is to say, at a minimum all states make decisions to ensure their survival, and that states with greater capacities will seek to increase their capabilities (also known as “power maximization”). Great powers constrain each others’ maximization pursuits, resulting in what is known as a “balance of power.”

In today’s world, the key to power is oil. This point tends to get vastly understated in the discussions we have about current affairs. For example:

1. When we talk about the rising cost of oil (which is now flirting with $100 per barrel), we tend to neglect two important facts: first, that the price elasticity of demand for oil is extremely inelastic. That is to say, it doesn’t matter how much oil prices drop or rise, the quantity demanded remains the same. As President Bush said in this years’ State of the Union Address: “Our nation has an oil addiction.” And it’s not just our country, although we’ve got it the worst. It’s a global addiction.

Second, addiction by its very definition implies lack of control. Which brings us back full circle to the original point: whomever controls oil, controls the world. From the perspective of industry, this is because the factors of production of almost every sector include components that are sensitive to oil prices. These price sensitivities can have a direct impact on cost, as in manufacturing, or an indirect impact (via transportation costs), as in technology. And every sector has varying degrees of energy costs. So the more sensitive an industry is to oil prices, the more power whomever controls the oil supply has over that industry.

From the perspective of the consumer, rising oil prices are also felt directly (at the pump and airport), and indirectly, by both a constrained budget set (more money spent on gas means less for movies, clothes, etc.) and by the increased prices for consumer goods (the costs of which are passed along by producers). You know what they call the combination of rising prices, low interests rates, and decreased purchasing power? Inflation.

2. If I lost you above, I shouldn’t have. Go back and read it again. I’m just stating the obvious here. The first point was meant to establish just how important of a position the global control of oil is to whomever can secure it. Take a look at the map above. You see how little oil Europe has? China? The US? India? The less oil a country has, the more it is willing to give up to get oil. The more globally integrated oil is within consumption and factors of production, the more dependent consumers and producers become on oil.

Now take a look at this map. Notice how many US military bases are in the Middle East? You think that’s a coincidence?

3. The logical “next steps” everyone seems to recognize, especially given the environmental considerations of oil, is the pursuit of “alternative” sources of energy. There is of course some game theory to this though. Even if there were a cost-effective substitute for oil (and there most certainly is not, at least yet), the transition costs of adopting that alternative source across sectors would be enormous. And the countries that undertook such an enterprise would be buried by the “cheaters” who continued to use oil (and at an even lesser price due to drop-out of demand). No, oil is a fixed commodity, and unless we find some form of global governance to ration it (highly unlikely), it seems the race is on to squeeze the orange and horde the juice before its all gone in the next 25 years or so.

In the meantime, there is evidence to believe that the financial markets are grossly distorting the price of oil by placing a premium on the political risks associated with its extraction. Based on global supply and demand, it is argued that the price should not be any higher than $60 per barrel. Speculative trading creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where oil rises to $100 because traders spread unsubstantiated rumors that China and India are insatiable, or Nigeria/Venezuela/Iran are unstable. The consumer ultimately suffers here for the reasons mentioned previously, including inflationary risks, and even risks of recession.

All of this information is extremely relevant when we consider the following foreign policy “debates.”

1.)  Iran and Nuclear Energy– Notice how much oil Iran has?  Notice how much they consume?  It would be economically advantageous if they were to consume nuclear energy and maximize foreign oil sales.  When hawks argue about Iran “obtaining nuclear weapons,” they’re really pushing an agenda that says “Iran holds the potential to leverage and balance the oil oligarchy, and once they obtain nukes we can’t foment a regime change.”

2.)  “Democratizing the Middle East”– The so called “Bush Doctrine” is a fanciful liberal justification for a realist policy.  Oil rich countries really only have two options:  1) illiberal autocracies (Saudi Arabia) or 2.)  illiberal democracies (Venezuela).  The distribution of wealth obtained from a natural resource is complicated in state systems because the citizens of the state feel entitled to the financial windfalls in some form or another.  Elites must either find their power base internally (by implementing fiscally irresponsible, short-term, socialist programs) or externally (by charging rent to the United States in return for a strong military presence or other forms of foreign “aid”).

3.)  Iraq — With the above point in mind, the US objective has become to contain the sectarian violence within the confines of Baghdad.  Let politics play out on a political stage, but keep the pipelines flowing in the fringe regions.  A true power-sharing constitutional government isn’t possible as long as the US is present: because the emergent elites are reliant on the US for security provision, they will never have popular support, and vice versa.  Not to say the US prefers a disorganized central government, only that it benefits from one.  Our presence is justified for as long as there is insecurity.

So that was my Thanksgiving dinner conversation with my parents to justify my expensive Ivy education.  No solutions provided, only a survey analysis.  My stepmother thinks that Hillary will have solutions to these problems.  I introduced her to Mark Penn, the next Karl Rove.  She’s no longer so optimistic.

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The Blogger’s Imperative: Always Consider the Alternative

November 16, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Reader’s Note:  I intended to post this on the Huffington Post but in retrospect it’s probably too meta.  I do think that there is a place for ombudsman-like impartial eye for bloggers, especially as blogging sites become primary destinations for news and information.

The Huffington Post’s recent admission of first-time profitability marks an important occasion in today’s media landscape. 

More than any other outlet, the Huffington Post represents what Al Gore terms “the Marketplace of Ideas.”  The web-site’s only compensatory incentive to its contributing bloggers is the platform itself, a conduit through which competitive voices can be heard and considered.  The opinions that most resonate with the readership rise to front-page prominence, while lesser viewpoints simply fall by the wayside. 

A general imperative for consumers of information is to “always consider the source.”  In this sense, the Huffington Post holds a powerful comparative advantage over established media outlets, which are increasingly characterized by thinly veiled ideological slants or biases, or are otherwise beholden to the advertising interests that sustain their business models.  That is to say, opinions on the Huffington Post can be evaluated on their face, with a lesser degree of suspicion as to the vested interests or motivations of the authorship.

The successful “networked democracy” that the Huffington Post has achieved is certainly a worthy cause for celebration.  However, as the outlet gains prominence and increased readership, the very model which has made it a success threatens to dilute its cause and purpose.  Let us consider future challenges to the web-site:

  1. First, the extremely low entry-barriers for contribution arouse cause for concern as to the quality of the product, and a super-saturation in the “marketplace.”
  2. Second, the powerful reach of the outlet provides opportunities to amplify and distort opinions and ideas that are simply bad or ill-informed. 
  3. Third, the insular debates of the community may devolve into an in-group dynamic that threatens the logical norms by which arguments are framed.
  4. Fourth, the “publish or perish” cycle accelerates the process of due-consideration of important ideas and arguments.  1,800 writers are constantly competing for the advancement of issues to “the next topic.”
  5. Fifth, and most importantly, the high number of contributers and low-entry barriers for contribution diminish the accountability of each individual to provide responsible, well-reasoned opinions.  A democratic exchange of ideas shouldn’t be throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.  It should be at once a constructive and critical exercise. 

With respect to the fifth point, let us remember and consider the words of the late Norman Mailer, who explained its danger to Charlie Rose:

“Democracy is noble, and because it’s noble it’s always in danger.  Nobility is always in danger.  Democracy is perishable.  I think the natural government for most people, given the perversities and the depths of human nature, the ugly depths, is facism.  Facism is a natural state.  Because it’s easier.  It’s easier, and if you have any resentment, your resentment can be focused.  The hardest thing in a democracy is knowing whether your resentment has any point to it or not.”

Mailer’s words ring true posthumously in the current context if we consider this web-site to be a “networked democracy.”  It is far easier to focus our opinions and resentments around polar arguments than it is to find a constructive point of departure from these criticisms.

If then it is the imperative of the informed consumer of information is to “always consider the source,” it seems the imperative of the blogger is to “always consider the alternative.”  The strength of any democratic exercise lies in the extent to which all parties recognize their rights and responsibilities to maintain the integrity of the democratic structure.  Mediocrity, group-think, laziness, distrust, subterfuge, and a lack of comity – or reciprocity in constructive arguments – threaten to degrade that structure. 

The expansion of the blogger’s legitimacy therefore must be accompanied by a self-disciplined commitment to provide high-quality, progressive, and well-reasoned opinions.  Although we are all entitled to our own opinions, and assured the right to express them, we must also recognize our responsibility to do so constructively, lest our “networked democracy” degrade into “networked facism.”

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Living in America!

November 8, 2007 · 1 Comment

After receiving the results from my Econ midterm (by far the hardest exam I’ve ever taken), I gotta say… thank the good Lord for grade inflation!

America!  Where a 66% is a B+!

I feel GOOD!  It’s a MAN’s world!

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Live From Bolivia

October 24, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Reader’s Note: My friend Katie is working on a prolonged water sanitation project in Mizque, Bolivia as part of the Peace Corps. She sent me a wonderful birthday care-package and included a really interesting “day in the life” note that I asked to share on my blog, and she obliged. Really worth the read for four important reasons: 1) to get a snapshot of what the Peace Corps is all about, 2) to gain an appreciation for just how suspect the third world is toward United States foreign policy in Latin America, 3) to gain an appreciation for how democracy works in a small, multi-ethnic, underdeveloped country like Bolivia, and 4) to gain a perspective for the challenges of development work. It’s sweethearts like Katie that make me resent my sometimes cold-hearted professors who call us “modern day missionaries” and describe the world through a pessimistic, “realist” lens.  The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Dear Jon,

Happy Birthday! Hope you’re celebrating al estilo New York City – though maybe in grad school birthday festivities consist of giving yourself a much needed nap? Well, I hope you treat yourself in some way – and I know I’ll be toasting you with chicha from Mizque!

I had a super interesting/hard day today in Mizque – started writing your b-day note while processing the whole experience and then thought it was just too intense for a nice little update. Long story short, I sat through a long afternoon of reuniones at our town Central Campesina where dirigentes from all over the communities in our municipality were gathered to decide whether our alcalde was cumplir‘ing with his mandate, or whether, midway through his term, he should be kicked out and replaced by someone more “effective” from within his MAS (Evo’s) party.

I showed up to support the mayor 1) because a change midterm would delay all the projects I’m trying to finish this spring and 2) if this mayor goes, so does my AMAZING counterpart, the Jefe de Obras Publicas in the alcaldia, a dude who’s widely recognized within PC to know his shit, especially when it comes to sustainability and the social/community development side of projects — a rarity among Bolivian engineers.

Anyway, it turned into a draining afternoon as different groups presented on the state of the nation/department/town etc., and of course TONS oftime was spent praising the donations and coordination from Venezuela/Cuba/Japan (we also have JICA volunteers in Mizque), and then criticizing America repeatedly for having plans within the CIA to kill indios or for our desire to see Evo kicked out of office (of course in order to prove I didn’t feel the same I felt I had NO option but to sign the petition being passed around to give Evo the next Nobel Peace Prize :) )

So, it was just a frustrating few hours of feeling bashed and isolated among people I typically think of as companeros. I kept getting teary-eyed and walking around outside to esacep all the accusations a bit– and of course every friend/dirigente I chat with NEVER saw the connection between the criticisms and me! The just keep coming up to me and chatting about projects or their kiddos — and when I bring up how awkward I felt during the speeches they remind me how much I know they care for me and cuidar me as a Mizquena, but to think of how badly/isolated Bolivians must feel when THEY go abroad to work and are always treated like poor second-class citizens…

Well, I guess that put me in my place, b/c it really is true — PEOPLE in Mizque couldn’t be more humble, generous and supportive of me and my work, so I need to get over the fact taht I don’t get much recognition publicly b/c of the poor US image.

Development work really is thankless most of the time — and I’m used to being so well supported and loved and thanked in life that leaving all that reassurance to live and work amongst people who maintain pretty steely characters and don’t like your country can be really frustrating. Luckily the work itself is usually its own reward — like seeing kids washing their hands with soap for probably the first time in their lives or teaching my women’s organization how to make a meal that has neither papas nor arroz in it and instead uses lots of colorful veggies and fruits, and the actually LIKE it.

I definitely feel pretty lucky to get to do this work in Bolivia — especially in my 20s when I could be stuck doing clerical work in some office 9-5 back home :) And it’s always validating to read someone like Jeffrey Sachs and check out all the different Millenium Goals that PC work gets to work toward. I agree with the importance of providing basic services and infrastructure ESPECIALLY in sanitation in places like Bolivia where people are so poor and dispersed (this country’s geography really does make development SO DIFFICULT!)

And I like all of Sachs’ ideas on debt relief and more aid and economic reforms within developing countries. What still consistently frustrates me (and I’m not sure if he addresses this at all b/c I’m just halfway through) is how you get people working an a developing country like Bolivia on a well-thought out plan that they can actually follow through on to better their economic situation/daily life. Because, to me, it seems like other countries could donate more $ to places like Bolivia to use to develop their basic services, infrastructure, shitty education system, etc. but if there’s no plan from them on what to do with the newly educated/urban populace (here they mostly become taxi drivers or leave the country to work in Spain/US/Argentina, etc.) or how to keep people from leaving their communities once all those basic service projects are finished (it’s super commonplace to finish a bano/water system project here just as all the most active/good leaders of the community leave to make more money in the city or abroad), then I just don’t see how things will get much better any time soon.

And I really don’t see organized leaders with good plans for moving people out of poverty in meaningful or lasting way in Bolivia — though I do think Evo DOES promote a lot of good efforts like the Cuban “Yo Si Puedo” literacy campaign and the attempts to keep private investment in the country while trying to nationalize some aspects of industry — especially the gas — so that Bolivia isn’t just pillaged of its natural resources as it always has been.

But yeah, like you said — other industries need to be developed for when oil/gas is no longer as pricey of a commodity. And I just don’t see many plans being developed that are working toward long term goals of growing Bolivia on competitive footing to deal with the rest of the world? Well, I hope building rainwater catching tanks makes some difference!

Anyway, I guess my 2nd attempt at a letter today once again isn’t very birthday-esque. Just nice to be able to share some of the frustrating/tough bits of life here with someone who actually cares and is probably up way too late most nights reading and thinking about all these development issues.




The majority voted to keep our mayor in office — yay! They were there till 4 am discussing everything, good thing I gave up at dinnertime :)

Cool, huh? Katie’s the best…

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Generation Overwhelmed

October 23, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Aside from the fact that this article capitulates and accepts the generational typecasting that Friedman and others have patronizingly assigned to my generation (and I don’t buy that he was trying to be a provocateur so much as a disappointed observer), I generally agree:  1.) our clarity of understanding of power dynamics, including the historical perspective of previous generations’ naivety, combined with 2.) our overwhelming access and consumption of information, as mitigated by the limitations of our recognized self-impotence, results in a pervasive paralysis of quiet frustration.

Is that a cop-out?

It’s a cop-out insofar as it’s justification for the charges Friedman and other’s have made.  But I don’t think the charges are fair.  Let me explain:

Friedman’s argument in his “Generation Q” article is that, given the political tendency to mortgage the future for the present, America’s twentysomethings cannot afford to be as silent as they have been.  They cannot be reliant on insular forms of communication such as social networking, e-mails or blogs to organize and demand accountability from leadership.  They can’t afford to be snarky and cynical and vote for Stephen Colbert to express their discontent.

But does Friedman really have the expectation of the self-disenfranchised to demand change?  Or is he just another writer leveraging a condescending understanding of Generation Y to remind the boomer establishment of its paternal responsibilities to leave the world a better place than they found it?

The youngins, you see, are too unable or too unwilling to inherit the world that is their birthright.  Newsweek would have you believe we are “Peter Pans” refusing to grow up.  That we don’t want the responsibility that accompanies the power to implement change.  That we are “narcissists,” and too self-involved to engage in the pressing issues of the day.

USA Today, and , ironically enough, probably paint the most accurate picture. Gen Y’ers are self-entitled, impatient, disloyal loudmouths who overvalue their own opinions.  And that makes for great leaders who challenge the establishment from within, that drive change and innovation, that carry the entrepreneurial spirit of a strong economy and democracy.

To Friedman, I would quote from the Simpsons:  “The politics of failure have failed.”  We have a more refined understanding than the hippies ever did of where power resides, how it acts and operates, and … most importantly…we’ve got a pretty good idea of how to obtain it.  Sure, we may be just as naive and just as tempted to “sell-out” once we get our piece of the pie.  And we may be obstructed in our ambitions by boomers looking to preserve their vertical heirarchies and save themselves from the assisted living future to which they themselves condemned their own parents (which, by the way, were proud members of “The Greatest Generation.”)

But just because Generation Y may not be making noise in the streets, doesn’t mean we’re silent.  Call us corporate carpetbaggers, call us self-entitled narcissists.  But don’t call us quiet.

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Dropping Knowledge: Rentier States

October 15, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Dropping Knowledge”… where I laymenize an important aspect of social science.

A rentier state is a government that derives all or a significant portion of its national revenue from the rent of its indigenous resources to external clients.  It is a term most commonly applied to oil rich countries (such as Saudi Arabia), which grant access and management of its petroleum deposits to the United States (or the UK, Russia, etc.) in return for a “rent.”

Rentier states are inherently undemocratic.  You see, the geo-political distribution of natural resources makes certain areas extremely profitable, by random chance.  If the states themselves lack the privately developed technology and infrastructure to efficiently extract and distribute their resources, they must (or are otherwise coerced to) outsource such activities.

The thing is, democratic societies detest foreign management of domestic resources (see: Venezuela, Bolivia), and will take steps to “socialize” their industries, directly tax the exports instead of charging rent to foreign entities, and redistribute the wealth domestically, for a much bigger return.  But democratic management of a single resource economy naturally entails a heck of a lot of fighting over “who gets what, and why.”  And government industries are never as efficient as private industries in terms of production, so global trade organizations (OPEC) get antsy when a member state isn’t hitting its productive capacity.

The most efficient governmental arrangement for single-resource economies is therefore the rentier model… small, authoritarian leaderships (Saudi royal family) that placate domestic population by subsidizing EVERYTHING (except, generally, higher education, since educated elites tend to challenge authority).  The tax costs “flow” through the rent charged to Americans for pumping out oil and establishing military bases in the region for security purposes, and no taxes are levied domestically.  The royal family invests the majority of its staggering financial resources back into US securities, which solidifies the dollar and keeps oil demand and prices high.

This brings up a couple important issues:

1)  Some “experts” like to state that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  Bush is actually right when he says this is false (just look at Indonesia).  It’s actually more likely that democracy cannot exist without a diversified economy.  The less access there is to economic opportunity, the less people are involved in the management of the economy.

2)  Democracy is about sovereignty, about the population making decisions based on the Wilsonian principles of self-determination.  If you look at Iraq, you have two major obstacles:  the first is the introduction of a political power struggle between rival populations (Sunni and Shia).  Sunnis are keenly aware of their minority position in Iraq and refuse to participate in a political framework that is illegitimately stacked against their interests.   Shias are a minority within the greater Muslim world and subscribe to a cultural narrative based on resistance to oppression and illegitimate authority.  Even if Shia leadership wanted to achieve stability under the watchful eyes (and guns) of the US, they would continue to be undermined by Iran, which has no interest in seeing a successful secular Shia-dominated democracy as a neighbor, because that would intensify domestic pressures for reform.

The second obstacle to self-determination is that clearly, the preferred interest of Iraqis is American withdrawal, if not now (in the short-term), certainly in the medium- and long-terms.  Iraqis are well aware that the Persian Gulf war resulted in the construction of permanent bases in Saudi Arabia.  And Secretary of Defense Gates has stated publicly that the US “has historically had a strong presence in the region, and we will continue to have a strong presence in the region, and it’s important for our friends, and those who might consider themselves our adversaries, to recognize that.”

The US would prefer for the political outcomes of Iraqi democratic elections to be friendly governments that actively engage in rentier relationships to assuage the masses and ensure their positions of power.   But the Iraqi population will never recognize a pro-US business government as legitimate.  We live in an Age of Information where covert regime changes or puppet governments are really, really hard to achieve.  In the meantime, as instability and civil war rage on in Iraq, the US is quietly consolidating four major bases around the strategic oil regions in the country.

3)  That last point is the most telling.  For all of the gum flapping that goes on about “the principals of liberal democracy” and “freedom,” we tend to get distracted from the realist perspective — that control of Iraq means control over the second largest oil reserve in the world.  Always keep in mind that oil is a finite resource whose price rises with scarcity.  It’s one thing for Saudi Arabia to sell oil at (relatively) competitive prices now… it’s another thing entirely for the US to be rationing the last drops of oil in 20 years, at monopoly prices (don’t forget about Alaska!).  That means the potential for wealth and global power… power over everyone who is addicted to oil… is assured to whomever controls Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to some, but that means the business and military pressures are too great on the executive branch of the US government to expect a withdrawal anytime soon, unless Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul magically win their primaries.  The US army/state department did not spend billions of dollars on bases and the world’s largest embassy to come home any time soon.

4)  With all of this in perspective, it’s important to recognize why Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The real “Inconvenient Truth” isn’t necessarily that global warming is a real threat per se… I mean, that was already pretty obvious.  It’s that oil consumption is behind global warming, and that oil demand makes actions like the war in Iraq profitable.  By raising awareness about an ancillary (but still primary concern) of global climate change, Gore is indirectly calling for the necessity to research and develop alternative sources of sustainable energy that would compete with coal, oil and natural gas, making those resources’ price demands more flexible, and reducing the profit incentive of military control and domination of them.  Hence the “Peace” rationale in the Nobel Peace Prize.

The thing is, alternative energy sources are nowhere nearly as profitable as oil, even given the tremendous extraneous costs of financing strategic military bases around the world to protect the investments.  And the transition costs to adopting alternative energy sources would be tremendous in every sector, so oil companies can continue to pass the costs incurred from political instability and deeper, harder to get to reserves (i.e. the melting North Pole) onto the consumers.  I’ve read somewhere that the McKinsey Global Institute did an analysis of gasoline consumption in America, and found that demand wouldn’t significantly falter until the price went past $5.00 per gallon.  (I’m couldn’t find the exact report via a Google search, but hey, it’s midterms… give me a break).

The key of course is then electing leaders who are seriously committed to implementing policies of consumer regulation that prevent us from letting our aggregate demand get the better of us.  Individual conscience in the US is (generally) against empire, against war, against destruction of the environment, against global injustice.  But we speak with our wallets, we make demands through our purchases and consumption, and global suppliers react accordingly, even if the outcomes violate our individual consciences.

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