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Entries tagged as ‘social science’

Relative Happiness

February 11, 2008 · Leave a Comment

Super interesting discussion here:

The jist of the research is as such: ten years ago, it was commonly assumed that people adjust (or more accurately, adapt) their derived level of life satisfaction according to their material circumstances. Married people were only slightly more happy than single people. Rich were only slightly more happy than poor, and so forth.

This assumption was coined a “hedonistic treadmill.” That is, as our income or position in life increases, we become accustomed to our new circumstances, and our derivation of happiness remains the same. We may move in absolute terms, but we stay in place, relatively speaking.

The above research suggests, however, that while happiness levels may remain stagnant, satisfaction correlates positively with income.  That is to say, while the process by which we may become wealthy does not bring us greater happiness per se (considering the trade-offs of stress, forfeited leisure, etc.), we do become more satisfied by achieving the accomplishments of material success.

So it seems while the mantra “money can’t by you happiness” might be true, money can be used as a motivational means to realize our self-worth.  Satisfaction comes from without, but happiness comes from within.

If you’e on a treadmill, you might not be moving anywhere, but at least you’re staying in shape.

And with that thought, I’m going to take my unsatisfied ass to the gym.

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It’s Time for a 21st Century Theory of International Relations

December 18, 2007 · 5 Comments

Last Monday’s lecture in my Conceptual Foundations of International Politics class was taught by Professor Jeffry Sachs.  He is a cheerleader and an optimist and certainly has some ideas worth listening to.

One of the things Sachs spoke to that I really had been waiting to hear all semester is that “it’s time for a 21st Century Theory of International Relations.”  It’s so true.

When historians are evaluating the Bush legacy, and America’s history at the turn of the century, they will be harsh not for any specific policy decisions undertaken, but the principles under which those decisions were made.  And the principle that will be criticized most harshly will not be the naive presupposition that democracy can be exported by force.  It will be the more dangerous assumption that our global society can be managed unilaterally.

Think of it this way:  when you see advertisements today like the following:

palmolivedm2711_468x478.jpg

You are somewhat appalled (or ironically amused) by the quaint anachronism implied by the advertisement.  This is because we’ve redefined cultural norms of a woman’s role in society.  We’ve read the Feminine Mystique, we’ve experienced a cultural “movement” to the extent that such previously established cultural norms now seem dangerously retrograde and unsophisticated.

Now consider the following:  In a 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine, Ron Suskind interviewed an aide to the Bush White House:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

It’s only been 3 years(!) and this quote ALREADY seems out of touch (with the reality they’ve created!)   The only thing that remains true from this quote is that solutions have, and will always emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality.  Empires create problems that empires cannot solve.  And problems exist outside of the control of empire, which is why empires inevitably dissolve, either by overreach, or overreaction.

We need a 21st century of international relations that teaches those Americans in power that a unilateral American empire is an unsustainable reality.

We need a theory that is based on the discernible realities of the problems we face in the 21st century, that are far different from the problems of the 17th, 18th, 19th and even the 20th century.

We need a theory that recognizes that a liberalized, open, global economy is the new reality for all of the world, and states must adapt accordingly or suffer the consequences of adhering to “quaint anachronisms.”

We need a theory that recognizes that the world is adding 90 million people per year, that we might already be at carrying capacity, that we are on the possible brink of a Malthusian catastrophe.

We need a theory that recognizes what  Jared Diamond teaches: that societies which destroy their own resources destroy themselves, and that today we are a de facto global society sharing global resources.

We need a theory that  stops relying on a theories of balance of power between states, and one that looks at non-state actors.  One that studies asymmetric gaps in capacities, instead of evaluating the capabilities of a single country.  One that redefines the idea of sovereignty, that universalizes the principles of human rights, that establishes and regulates the norms of global capitalism.

In the 21st century, it makes more sense to look at the galactic federations of science fiction than it does to look backward at the Holy Roman Empire.  And we have the capacities of reason, of predictive forecasting, of logic, and of history to guide us.  What we lack is the political leadership, and a progressive , normative, academic consensus.  So get on it people.

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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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Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

November 20, 2007 · 1 Comment

My meta-analysis of “Soulja Boy” was neither funny nor poignant, as hard as I tried to do both. But this movie speaks to the point I was trying to make:

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Reading Between the Lines: Deconstructing Soulja Boy

November 15, 2007 · 3 Comments

Last week marked the end of Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” seven-week reign on top of the Billboard 100 charts. Before Mr. Boy follows the Italian marble-with-gold-inlay-brick road into bankrupcy and obscurity, we should take a moment to interpret the significance of his words in the historical context in which they were written.

Soulja boy off in this ho
Watch me crank it
Watch me roll
Watch me crank dat soulja boy
Then super man dat ho!

The 16-year old’s adoption of the name “Soulja Boy” in a post 9/11 environment, at a time when our country is fighting a two-front war, is somewhat of a departure from the crunk/dumb/hyphy movement that has most recently dominated the hip-hop movement, and a revisionist regression to the thug-life style that preceded it.

Consistent with the necessities of self-promotion in any introductory single, “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” is particularly interesting in its establishment of a hyper-masculine self-identity vis-a-vis several distinct social signifiers:

Soulja Boy’s postulations of masculinity are reinforced by affiliations with an institutional terminology endemic to the military establishment, which both propagate and legitimize said identity. However, it is important to note that the term “Soldier” is not incorporated whole-sale, but piece meal: whereas a soldier is a conformed, replaceable part submersed within a larger operation, a “Soulja” emphasizes his unique identity through self-referential dandyism (”watch me crank it, watch me roll”), highlighting his individual talents, namely sexual.

Soulja Boy’s claims are confirmed by the refrain “then super man dat ho.” According to urbandictionary.com, to “superman a ho” is to “have sex with a woman from behind, after climax pull out, and [ejaculate] on her back. When she tells the guy to wipe it off, he pretends too, and when she wakes up, she has the bed sheets stuck to her back like superman’s cape.”

Nope…didnt make that up. This was the #1 song on the airwaves for seven weeks… as Dave Chappelle says about the term “skeet skeet skeet”… “White people don’t know what it means yet!”

Hip-hop has forever been charged with blatant misogyny, but codifying a degrading sexual act in otherwise innocuously mainstream terminology seems more humorous than it does derogatory. In the same sense that “dead baby jokes” evoke a dark humor with escalating levels of grotesqueness, so it seems audacious sexual acts (or claims thereof) are increasingly self-satisfying to the extent by which they cleverly embarrass and degrade the female sexual partner. Implicit to this relationship is the understanding that only complicit women would tolerate such abuse, which is in turn further reinforcement of a masculine identity that asserts its undeniable will on the opposite sex.

The term “superman” therefore seems somewhat appropriate in the Nietzschian sense– an assertion of will, a rejection of behavioral consciousness as constrained by societal norms (yes Carlo, fast and loose here, I apologize). However, let us not forget the alternate identity to Superman: the anxious and uncomfortable Clark Kent, who is utterly impotent and uncomfortable with his ego. Kent must couch himself in a cape and uniform to assume the unfaltering male characteristics of strength, bravery and chivalry.

Not to say there is anything chivalrous about clandestinely using semen as slow drying cement, but certainly there is underlying anxiety that motivates a 16-year old to so emphatically posit himself as a “Soulja Boy” who cranks dat.

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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 Inc.com , 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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Five Degrees of Friendship: Part 2

September 29, 2007 · 1 Comment

Part 1 of the “Five Degrees of Friendship” spurred some interesting discussion: one of my friends lamented off-line that she was “destined to a life full of superficial friends, and an uptick in casual sex;” another disagreed with my “quantity over quality” premise because, based on her experience, the aging process helps identify and value true quality over quantity. Most readers (accurately) recognized me as a BS artist (aka “social scientist”).

The original premise of my theory was as follows:

The natural trajectory of the quantity/quality friendship ratio seems
to reach equilibrium at college (when you live right next to or with all of your
closest friends), and then steadily tilt toward quantity over quality (as you
begin to meet new people via networking while your closest friends move on or
away), until you reach old-age (most of your friends die off, and you find
yourself in a “dorm for geezers” aka “rest home”).

Allow me to explore these stages further:

Birth – 18 years

When you’re born, you have one friend: your mom. Your relationship with your mother is the first one you recognize in the world, and is the most important. She loves you unconditionally, she is responsible for you, she buys you toys to play with, she laughs at your jokes and yells at you when you mess up. And you, in turn, draw her pictures, try to make her laugh, tug on her dress. You learn when to push her buttons and how to get what you want out of her. You learn to manipulate.

As your mom slowly grants you more freedom, you discover new friends. They aren’t push-overs like your mom. They are self-entitled and selfish, primarily because their only previous friend was their own mom. You learn to negotiate with these people. You learn how to conspire with them against your parents, and you bond over the commonalities you share as little people against a big world. You learn to categorize these people as “best” friends or simply “friends”. These dynamics play out when you start inviting people to birthday parties or doling out Valentine’s day cards.

By the time you’ve hit puberty and enter adolescence you’re being socialized into an ever expanding environment. The creek of elementary school trickles into the stream of Middle School, which dumps into the river of High School. As you meet these new people you are forced to expand the quantity of your friendships, but at the same time your insecurities incline you to cling desperately to those whom you consider highest quality.

18-25 Years

Within the first few months of college you realize that everyone was insecure in high school, and you let down your entry barriers for “friendship.” The introduction of alcohol is a social lubricant that vastly expands your network. As a result, you walk around campus recognizing a lot of faces, but not all of the names.

In college, you begin to feel the constraints of time management. “Hanging out” with one group of friends incurs an opportunity cost for not “hanging out” with someone else. This is especially the case if you’re involved in a serious monogamous relationship (the introduction of which skews heavily toward “quality” over “quantity”… a huge professional mistake to make this early in your pre-career).

The insular nature of the first few years of college (i.e. the “dorm” experience) teaches you the importance of networking. To gain something you want (booze, entrance into an exclusive event, free stuff, a ride in a car, an internship), it oftentimes depends on who you know that can arrange such things. The “enablers” are oftentimes shifty characters who you wouldn’t otherwise be friends with, but their utility makes them permissible as “fringe” friends… a completely superficial relationship.

At the end of college you’ve reached a point of quantity/quality equilibrium: you’ve established your “long-time” friends that “know” you, but at the same time you’ve recognized the necessity to diversify your relationships in order to maximize on exploitive potential for personal gain.

In Part 3 I will discuss the latter years of life: 25-65, 65-75, and 75-death. Comments welcome.

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Five Degrees of Friendship: Part 1

September 10, 2007 · 8 Comments

I was reading at Micro Persuasion that the virtually overnight popularity of social networking sites has dynamically changed the meaning of “friendship,” or at least drastically changed the threshold by which friends are categorized.

Rohit has written the seminal entry on the economic cost-benefit analysis of interpersonal relationships, and I highly recommend that all of my readers give it due consideration. His sub-categorizations may be cynical, but they’re also extremely insightful and speak to the matter at hand of quality vs. quantity (plus it always feels good to be commoditized by your friends).

As for my contribution to the subject, my recent foray into the liminal space between major life stages has placed me into a new context through which I’m forced to analyze the nature and value of my previously developed friendships. What kind of people do I enjoy most? How did I meet them? How did I get to know them? Were we friends by circumstance, or common interest? (This is of particular interest to me I’ve made so very few straight male friends since college, and I’ve forgotten how to socialize. I made most of my guy friends while stuck in a stage of arrested development, when the conversational topics of bonding centered on sports and misogynistic rap lyrics… after two years of hanging out exclusively with gays and females, I can only functionally conversate on High School Musical… and misogynistic rap lyrics).

Hypothetically, I can take the recalled information, apply it to my new situation, and voila! – a whole new set of people to hang out with.

Here’s the catch– I’m in a professional school, where the emphasis is on “networking,” and therefore quantity over quality.

In fact, it seems the natural trajectory of the quantity/quality friendship ratio seems to reach equilibrium at college (when you live right next to or with all of your closest friends), and then steadily tilt toward quantity over quality (as you begin to meet new people via networking while your closest friends move on or away), until you reach old-age (most of your friends die off, and you find yourself in a “dorm for geezers” aka “rest home”):

Looking at the above chart, it is clear there are five stages in life when your priorities shift in terms of interpersonal relationships: birth-18; 18-25; 25-65; 65-75; and 75-death. In my next post, I’ll take a more in-depth look at these stages.

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