The Wealth of Nations and the Work of Fables

One of the challenges of a fragmented, partisan, hostile political landscape is to get reliable insight into conversations you disagree with. Recently, we have discovered that Russian agencies are seeking to amplify social division in the U.S. However it is unfair to (only) blame the Russian government: they are amplifying something that is already here. My students feel very uncomfortable when I push them to seriously consider other points of view on policy. They are not sure where I stand politically, and that makes them nervous because most of the media (on both sides) continuously makes the argument that the ‘other side’ in American politics is ill-willed, ill-intentioned, and foolishly destructive.
What follows is a story that was forwarded many times by email, and according to its own self-reporting, is a quote of a widely-shared Facebook posting. So I am fairly convinced that this is a reliable portrayal of a conservative point of view, not one that has been cherry-picked by partisan media. I will include the entire message, and then contemplate the troubling work this fable does.

An important message for your children if they don’t already know, but especially for grand children and great grandchildren in this day and age where the movement for socialism is alive and well. This is a good non-confrontational way to get the message across that capitalism and hard work go hand in hand and are the ONLY sure roads to success. BUT, never forget: “MAKING A LIVING IS NOT THE SAME AS MAKING A LIFE!”

A genuine capitalist with a grasp of the real world! Good read!
The Corvette. A man named Tom Nicholson posted on his Facebook account the sports car that he had just bought and how a man approached and told him that the money used to buy this car could’ve fed thousands of less fortunate people. His response to this man made him famous on the internet. READ his story as stated on Facebook below:

A guy looked at my Corvette the other day and said, “I wonder how many people could have been fed for the money that sports car cost.”
I replied I am not sure;
it fed a lot of families in Bowling Green, Kentucky who built it,
it fed the people who make the tires,
it fed the people who made the components that went into it,
it fed the people in the copper mine who mined the copper for the wires,
it fed people in Decatur IL. at Caterpillar who make the trucks that haul the copper ore.
It fed the trucking people who hauled it from the plant to the dealer
and fed the people working at the dealership and their families.
BUT,… I have to admit, I guess I really don’t know how many people it fed.
That is the difference between capitalism and welfare mentality.
When you buy something, you put money in people’s pockets and give them dignity for their skills.
When you give someone something for nothing, you rob them of their dignity and self-worth.
Capitalism is freely giving your money in exchange for something of value. Socialism is taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat that you never asked for.

The first line assumes a condescending attitude towards “children if they don’t already know” that capitalism (and hard work) is the only way. This kind of absolute certainty about a set of policies is only justified if overwhelming evidence supports that position. The financial crisis that began in 2007 is strong evidence that a deregulated capitalist system is unstable and capable of destroying the wealth and savings of hundreds of millions of people. So the certainty expressed here is not justified.
That does not mean that other answers are automatically correct, either. But advocates of deregulated capitalism insist only on their own yardstick: either one must be absolutely certain that this specific version of capitalism is correct (you “already know”), or equally certain that some other solution is absolutely correct. That is a “straw-man” assumption that is not even stated, so the author does not need to take responsibility for asserting such a narrow point of view. It is possible that there is no one fixed solution. The core problem is this: starting from an assumption of certainty leaves no room for listening, for responding to evidence that might show that your one solution might have serious flaws.

Second: the author states the purpose of the story: “to get the message across that capitalism and hard work go hand in hand and are the ONLY sure roads to success” in contrast to socialism “in this day and age where the movement for socialism is alive and well.”
My main concern here: capitalism and socialism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in modern economies, capitalism and socialism are inseparable. This goes straight back to Adam Smith, who was trying to figure out how to restructure the British political economy to help grow the wealth of the whole nation. Nationwide wealth did not mean the wealth of individual, supposedly “self-made” men. In Smith’s era, it meant the common-wealth, rather than the wealth of the permanently privileged class of aristocrats. One of his suggestions: liberate the markets from the direct meddling of the aristocrats, and guarantee the property-rights of commoners by having tax-funded police and courts that anyone could access.
Smith also argued that liberated markets would find a balance of high productivity, high quality, and lower prices so long as: (a) producers sought to sell the most at the highest price they could; and (b) buyers could comparison-shop for the best quality at the lowest price. That is what he meant by the “invisible hand.” Nothing mysterious about it. And nothing mysterious about when it fails: when that market gets dominated by a few firms.
But what it also means is this: Smith was arguing for markets that were freed from the control of a privileged few, and regulated by the public government. Is that capitalism or is that socialism? The answer is yes. In other words, they are not separable, and there really is no possibility of choosing one “versus” the other.
What parts of the American system are socialist? Public schools. Libraries. Freeways. Regulation of money supply and prime lending rate. Product safety: food, vehicles, drugs, toys, paints, and clothing. The Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that commoners have access to a tax-funded court system to defend property rights, just as Smith recommended.

Third: the story itself is about buying a luxury car versus giving to charity. Socialism is equated with charity, without any clear explanation of why they are supposedly the same thing. This maneuver demands that you accept this questionable equivalency. Then the author implies that all socialism is the same as a coercive Communist regime: “Socialism is taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat that you never asked for.” This vilifies socialism, taxation, and charity all at the same time, and folds them all together. It characterizes charity as ‘giving a man a fish’ without teaching him how to fish. Since most “teaching a man how to fish” starts with tax-funded schooling to teach literacy, math, and analysis, this bundled vilification falls apart right away. Also, voluntary charity is pretty different from Stalinist confiscation of property, which is usually what is implied by the “against your will” reference.

Fourth: the Corvette-owner’s response shows awareness of all the people involved in production. He uses a very socialist ‘dignity of labor’ argument for why his purchase is a good thing. I actually agree strongly with the dignity of labor; as did Eisenhower who allowed a third of the American labor force to unionize. Yes: if you work hard, your labor should be rewarded, your rights and property protected, and yes, that includes the right to pursue happiness. Conservatives from Nixon onward have had a very poor track record of promoting the dignity of American labor in any way. So in this case, borrowing a socialist argument when you demonstrably really don’t mean it is dishonest and dishonorable.

Stepping back for another look: the political work of fables

The actual event probably happened. But the re-telling and re-framing and sharing of this story means that the role of this story is now as a fable. Fables have a purpose, a social function. What work does this fable do? For those who accept the assumptions of this fable, it helps them justify their point of view by belittling a straw-man version of a ‘socialist’ point of view.

First: it works because it is simple in structure: an out-of-context retort by someone who is offended by a challenge.

Second: it portrays the Corvette-owner as the victim of condescension from the “charity” person. The re-telling of this story is a collective act of conservatives repeating to each other that the ‘other side’ is condescending. Those who agree with the fable do not see themselves as condescending: “This is a good non-confrontational way to get the message across…” However that is a blindness that comes from not looking too closely at their own tone, their own story-telling. Ancient Greeks had a word for such deficient self-critique: hypocrisy. I don’t want to slip into a ‘what about-ism’ here by implying that liberals, socialists, and all other unsundry folk are not condescending at times. Acknowledging condescension is a first step towards being respectful to differing viewpoints.

Third: the ‘take-away’ ending lines argue against taxation. Note that there are other ways to fund governments rather than taxes: through sales of oil, rare minerals, or other natural resources. Non-taxing governments understand that since the people do not fund them, they owe the people nothing. Examples: Nigeria, Angola, DR Congo, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar. In this actual world, taxes are not as inevitable as death. But be careful what you wish for. These comparative examples suggest that taxation is a powerful mechanism of government accountability. No one likes paying taxes. The ongoing struggle of governments to extract taxes from reluctant populations is a process that holds those governments accountable at least as much as voting does.

Fourth: this fable does important political work right now. In 2005, George W. Bush’s failure to respond to the flooding of the poor parts of New Orleans damaged is reputation. The current Republican-controlled government faces a similar threat with the poor response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. How to disparage calls for a government response? If tax-funded disaster-recovery work is characterized as charity, and charity is “taking your money against your will and shoving something down your throat” like assistance to an island of Spanish-speakers, this tone of conversation may protect Republican reputations while delivering a minimal response.

How to challenge such a fable?

Challenging this fable requires persnickety analysis. Detailed analysis does not mobilize voters or win heated arguments. George Lakoff is correct: all this reasoned analysis goes nowhere against a simple, emotionally sympathetic, straw-man argument for capitalism “over” socialism. Furthermore, I do not and cannot directly disagree with some of the arguments here–especially the value and honor of labor. I reject the intolerant either/or presumptions of this fable, but that is because actual, functioning capitalism is inseparable from socialism. Any country that has industrialized since 1870 has major socialist components in its political economy.
Furthermore, the either/or argument is totalitarian. The argument pre-constructs any disagreement as an opposition to economic growth and the dignity of labor.  Absolutist arguments like these cripple our ability to tackle the actual, complex problems of managing our economy so that we can produce wealth and well-being through our work.
What I really disagree with is the type of capitalism implied by this fable: de-regulated capitalism. Adam Smith’s arguments, described above, make a strong case for why deregulated markets fail: almost de-regulated markets “consolidate” into a few dominant firms who dictate prices to consumers (phone companies, internet service providers) and buyers (Wal-Mart, and perhaps Amazon). Monopoly is not necessary for a market to fail; even control of about 1/3 of most markets will dominate prices and terms-of-service, pushing aside the invisible hand of balanced interests.

But how to make a persuasive argument for a regulatory political economy, where taxes are reinvested in the people to build the common-wealth? How to make that argument with the same, blunt, bumper-sticker simplicity of the Corvette-buyer fable above?

The following ‘visualization exercise’ has the same bluntness. Unfortunately, it probably reads as condescending to someone who is already certain that de-regulated capitalism is the “ONLY sure road to success”:

Imagine a country without taxes.
A place where markets are completely free.
A place where no-one takes your money and spends it on socialist things: schools, roads, building inspections, and workplace safety enforcement.
A place where life is simple because all the red tape, all the regulations have been removed.
There is such a place:
Somalia.

Republicans need to save their own credibility

This is a weird post. But it needs to be said, publicly:
Republican leaders need to challenge President Trump, and if necessary, impeach him and remove him from office.

Why?

In order to restore some credibility for the Republican party for future generations.
The Unites States needs at least two credible political parties to struggle publicly over policies, and give the population at least some choice during elections. Since the Gingrich-led House in 1994, Republican political leaders have been behaving as what political scientists call “disloyal opposition.” A loyal opposition is one which sincerely and substantially disagrees with the party in power, but expects that it gets voted in, it will continue some policies while changing others that it really prefers. A disloyal opposition vandalizes the government by recklessly and cynically dismissing people and policies.

Perhaps this began with Ronald Reagan’s inaugural phrase: “government is the problem.” Since then, Republican leaders have behaved in the strangely contradictory way of attempting to trash modern American government when they are the government. George W. Bush (unlike his father) behaved like a member of the disloyal opposition through his eight years of tenure as president, including when both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court favored him. If daddy gives you a mansion, and then you trash it, how should you be remembered?

But the current situation is even worse. Trump has alienated the vast majority of Latinos, African-Americans, and the majority of women. Asian-Americans have been quiet about this (they were subjected to extraordinary discrimination and violence in both the 19th and 20th centuries), but his treatment of China cannot be helpful.

In California, that leaves only about 15% of the population (white men) whom he has not attacked as a category. But even if he could recruit 2/3 of white men to support him, that is only 10% of the population. Which means California is extremely likely to vote for whomever the DNC selects as the Democratic candidate.

The demographics of California are a preview of what the rest of the United States will be in one generation. If Republicans remain associated with Trump’s toxic bigotry, they will be unelectable across the majority of the country, and the Republican party will wither, leaving only one significant political party, and no significant choice for voters. Would Americans voluntarily give up democracy to become a one-party government? I may agree with more Democrat policies than Republican policies at this time; but I don’t want to see ANY party become the sole credible party of the country.

Right now, we have a billionaire president who has convinced himself that he is a victim. I think Republicans may expect Democrats to seek impeachment of the president, so that Republicans can say he is a martyr and call themselves victims. For the moment, that wins elections in a country where a lot of privileged people regard themselves as victims. I don’t think that will last. I don’t think that truly pious Christians will continue to unquestioningly support such a publicly immoral man, despite what their televangelist leaders preach at the moment. White men? Victims? I just worked for half a year in Afghanistan. Consider what I have witnessed, and then try to look me in the eye and tell me you are a victim. There are Americans who can—and they are precisely the peoples whom the president and the Republican party sneer at and seek to marginalize.

A reversal of policy is possible.

In the 1920s it was the Democrats, including President Wilson, who supported the intensification of Jim Crow laws and practices against Blacks. It was Roosevelt who interned Japanese-Americans. Between 1948 and 1964, there was a “Great Flip.” It started with Truman’s de-segregation of the military, and granting of citizenship to Chinese and Native Americans after WWII. It ended with the racist Dixiecrat senators like Strom Thurmond switching to the Republican Party in 1964. In 1920, the Democratic President Woodrow Wilson segregated Federal offices. In 2008, a completely different Democratic Party put forward an African-American as presidential candidate. We should not forget where the two parties were in the 1920s (or especially the 1860s and 1870s), but that does not mean we can ignore where they are now.

Taking Responsibility Earns Respect

Republicans control all three branches of government now, and have had dominating power almost continuously since Reagan. For six years out of the last 38, Democrats have had majority power: 1992-1994, and 2008-2012. To try to blame any political consequences at present on the Democrats or “the Far Left” will be remembered as the whining irresponsibility and attempted impunity of spoiled children. Is that how 21st-century Republicans want to be remembered? Is that whom they want to recruit to their party? And what kind of a platform is “trash the other guys’ work and send people back to coal-mining?” Republicans chose to eliminate the Voting Rights Act; Republicans are openly working to deny voting to African-Americans. How can this be reconciled with a commitment to liberty and democracy?

There are real policy problems we need to struggle over. How do we grow the well-being of American families into the 21st century? What policies will enable us to live better, by whatever measure we care about? Republicans seem to be fixated on how they are offended by the behavior of others who disagree with them. “Those are distractions,” as President Obama cautioned. While distracted with their own sense of self-righteous offense and the self-pity of Trumped-up victimhood, Republicans look increasingly unattractive to American conservatives. By aligning themselves with white supremacists and overt racists, the Republican Party is sacrificing its long-term future electability for very short-term electoral gains.

To restore their own credibility—to restore and sustain their own electability—Republicans need to challenge president Trump and remove him from office, if necessary. They should not wait for Democratic leaders to be in a position to do this. If Dems challenge the president, there will be Americans who regard him as a martyr, just as many Southerners still regard Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a martyr. But I think—I hope—that self-pity will lose out to a “We can do this” attitude among American voters and political mobilizers. America needs a party that argues for fiscal responsibility; argues for individual rights and duties; promotes meritocracy over nepotism; and enforces regulations that maintain market competitiveness, rather than corporate consolidation and market domination. In other words, a Republican party more like the one in 1954, when unionization and top-bracket income taxes were both at their highest. I do not agree with many parts of the Republican platform of 64 years ago, but at least I can respect it and understand the logic behind most of those positions.

Right now, a party which seems devoted to sneering at whole populations based on their gender or skin color is a party with no future in a country where women outvote men, and where whites will soon be one of many minorities—as it is now already in California. Republicans, please work towards the future of American democracy. Please depart from Trump’s policies and cultural politics; please seek to serve the whole population. Please promote voting, and recruit immigrants to become citizens. Above all else, do not let Russian social-media operatives sucker you into “being offended.” Patriotism means opposing Russian political malice, and opposing Americans who have profited from that malice. You can do this.

A Call for Answerable Socialism

The candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 have demonstrated that Americans are reconsidering Socialism carefully, and that Socialist candidates can get elected. The problem for Americans is that Socialism is an ambiguous term. It can mean political economies ranging from Denmark and Sweden to the USSR and Venezuela. The first two are called “Democratic Socialist” and the latter two are called “Totalitarian Socialist,” at least by American political scholars. But the confusion remains because many totalitarian countries actually put the word “Democratic” in their names, including the former East Germany and the present North Korea.

I propose a new term, to identify a specific type of Socialism that the United States needs: Answerable Socialism.

Why “Answerable” instead of “Democratic”?

I am certainly in favor of democratic government. Regular elections usually hold political leaders answerable to the people they govern. However, populist leaders can abuse supposedly democratic processes and act with impunity. Abuse can happen through forcing certain candidates out (such as Bernie Sanders in 2016), or through purchase of the election through massive campaign-funding, through distortions of facts, and through appealing to fears rather than aspirations of the voters. So democracy alone is insufficient to maintain answerability of leaders. It is a mistake to assume that periodic elections automatically equal rule-by-the-people. Democracy is a means towards that goal, but not the goal itself.

What other practices and institutions keep leaders answerable to the people? An uncensored, independent press, and taxation. The role of a free press in maintaining answerability was clearly articulated at the time of the American Revolution. However the link between taxation and political answerability only became apparent when some countries found that they could abolish taxes and fund their governments through revenue from resources such as oil or diamond exports. This phenomenon is now called the “Resource Curse” because countries that rely on resource-exports for revenue have a strong tendency to treat their own people badly. The reason can be summed up in a simple maxim: “If the people do not fund the government, the rulers will come to believe that they owe the people nothing.”

Conversely, paying high taxes is a constant irritant. I will not pretend that anyone actually likes doing that. But it is a mistake to think that the only solution is to therefore cut taxes and seek other sources of government revenue (like export-revenues, or borrowing from the future and going into deep debt). Instead, promote an understanding of how the irritation of taxation is a prod towards answerability. It seems that people feel much more strongly about having the government explain what it is doing with their money, compared to what the government is doing with their occasional vote. With the adoption of the Internet in the 1990s, governments now have an efficient, inexpensive means to explain how they are investing tax revenue. An independent press can cross-check whether rulers are being honest with those explanations.

A Competitive-Market Socialist system

Answerability is a call to set up and maintain political mechanisms that will hold leaders answerable even more than technical democracy by itself. This is the opposite of totalitarianism, and tyranny by a thug-like populist leader who plays on fears and phobias rather than hopes and aspirations. However, Americans also question whether Socialism means abolishing a market economy and the financial incentives for productivity and innovation.

Actually, a Socialist political economy is more suitable for maintaining a competitive market economy. Why? Because a de-regulated “free” market slides very quickly into an economy controlled by cartels and oligopolies, if not outright monopolies. As Adam Smith argued, such economies are market failures. Smith argued that the role of regulation is to maintain competitiveness.

In practice, there are actually only two types of market: a competitive market (maintained by regulations and enforcement) and a dominated weak market. There are a few ways a market can become weakened by domination: excessive government interference (such as in the USSR under Brezhnev and China under Mao) or by private oligarchies. De-regulation leads to private domination of the market, so a supposed “free” market is actually a path to market failure. Either type of dominated market stifles innovation, and stifles new competitors from coming in and keeping prices low and quality high.

Why not just call it Capitalist, then?

A Competitive-Market Socialist system certainly allows for inequality, but it balances inequality against the need to maintain the welfare of the whole population. The United States (and all wealthy countries) implemented many socialist programs decades ago, such as universal primary and secondary education, publicly-funded civil courts, public health agencies, and municipal infrastructure. Using tax revenue for human investment in both education and health are the most effective ways that governments can promote both well-being and competitive economies. A capitalist system alone does not do this. Technically, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are capitalist, and almost completely de-regulated because their governments are mostly collapsed. “Pure” capitalism where there is no government regulation and no enforcement is clearly disastrous. However, a well-taxed and well-regulated capitalist economy is productive. In other words, Socialism and Capitalism are not mutually exclusive. The most effective Socialist political systems are those which regulate and promote Capitalist wealth.

Not against Capitalism, but thinking beyond Capitalism

In the 19th century, Socialist thinkers assumed that the central problem was to manage social inequality to prevent popular revolt against the elite. In the 21st century, that problem persists but a completely new problem has emerged: the question of ecological sustainability. As Naomi Klein and others have argued, Capitalist political economies are running up against a fundamental system design flaw. Capitalism requires economic growth in order to remain viable. However human population growth is declining in wealthy countries, and we are destabilizing many ecosystems through the scale of our collective economic activities.

The problem of sustainability provokes a very different question: How do we enable all humans to live well without exhausting natural resources and destabilizing the climate? Whatever answer we find to this question, it will force a fundamental design-change in the market system. The difference between mercantilism and capitalism was that Mercantilists believed that the “resource pie” was essentially land, and that it was a fixed quantity. With the invention of intellectual property, Capitalism assumes that the “wealth pie” can be grown without limit. This assumption has worked extremely well for 200 years, resulting in massive growth of wealth and human population. Inequality, discrimination, and injustices have tainted that success, and the way to address those problems seems clear: make governments more answerable.

However we are back up against the limit of natural resources again, in a more complex way. We need to adjust the market system to address this limit. So this is not a 19th-century argument for a revolutionary overthrow of Capitalism, nor an argument against markets, nor an argument against living well. Rather, it is an observation that we need to shift our attention towards revising the design of our market system to address three core goals: to achieve and maintain a good quality life for all people; to balance inequality with justice; and to coexist well with all the life and processes of the earth. I see no clear answer about how redesign markets to achieve these goals; it is a very complex problem which might require very refined solutions. However, the process for getting to that answer is clear: we need a political system that responds to the people, invests heavily in their education, and rests its credibility on the argument that its purpose is to maintain their long-term well-being.

A proposed Constitutional Amendment: Rights of the People

Note: this Amendment was drafted by some friends of mine. I like it, and believe it deserves wide consideration. I will comment on it below the text.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT XXVIII: “Rights of the People”

Section 1

The Federal Government shall mandate and provide free, universal, “single payer” healthcare to any and all US citizens, or permanent residents, regardless of age, medical status or medical history. Each person over 18 shall be issued some form of National Health Care Card. Private health insurance will still be available, but all physicians must, as a pre-condition of their state licensing and certification, provide service if possible to any citizen with a card. The intent: No one should be denied the right to health care because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 2

The United States Federal Government shall make available to any and all academically qualified citizens and permanent residents, free tuition at a public two or four-year state college or university. This includes up to and through the doctorate level, including professional graduate programs. These schools must be accredited by the appropriate accrediting agency. The intent: No one should be denied the right to a college education because they don’t have adequate funds for tuition.

Section 3

The United States Federal Government shall provide financial stipends for livable housing to any and all US citizens and permanent residents who are unable to pay fair market rates for housing in the area where they reside. These stipends will be individually evaluated and issued on a sliding scale of payment, determined by family size, income, assets and zip code. If it is determined that there is an inability to work due to physical or mental health or other issue, resulting in a citizen not capable of affording livable housing, free housing will be provided on an emergency basis. The intent: No one should be denied the right to livable shelter because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 4

The United States Federal Government shall provide money to any and all citizens and permanent residents for food to those who need it. This program will be an upgrade to the National Food Stamp Program, (SNAP): as long as a citizen can demonstrate need, they will be issued monthly stamps/coupons providing for sustenance. The intent: No one should go hungry because they don’t have adequate funds.

Section 5

Congress shall earmark adequate funds annually on a nondiscretionary basis, to cover the costs of Sections 1 through 4. These funds will come from a pool which will be funded annually by a new progressive tax structure on all citizens and all corporate and investment earnings. Since the Constitution defines corporations are persons, they shall be taxed like persons. They shall behave like good citizens in that they shall invest in people for the good of the people and the country. The intent: to reaffirm the rights described in the Declaration of Independence, and enhance the social contract of our democracy without bankrupting the government.


Pietro’s Comments

I like this proposed Amendment because it is focused. It proposes four rights: healthcare, higher education, housing, and food. I also like the fact that the economic benefits likely to result from these rights would more than pay for the costs. Why?

1. Lowering risks to business entrepreneurs.

Small business start-ups are the backbone of a growing economy. But small business fail 80% of the time as a general rule. So individuals must be willing to take risks, and fail, in order for that one-in-five success to become a common event. However, individuals become increasingly risk-averse if they fear losing health-coverage, housing, or even going hungry if their business fails. In order to encourage people to release their creative energies and try audacious things, we need to let them know that failure will not be punishingly costly.

2. Treating education as a national investment in growth.

Which economic sectors have experienced the most economic growth over the last 40 years? Advanced technology in pharmaceuticals and medical instruments; electronics hardware and software; the entertainment industry; design and branding. Working in all of these fields–as an entrepreneur or even as a laborer–requires advanced education.

We can bring clothing and manufacturing back to the U.S. through protectionist tariffs, but those are not growth industries and the pay in both sectors flattened out decades ago. Even East Asian countries are now being priced out of manufacturing by even poorer South and Southeast Asian countries. So, yes, we can implement a National Charity Act of protectionist tariffs to make Bangladeshi shirts more expensive than shirts sewn in Tennessee. Or we can invest in the citizens in Tennessee to innovate the next valuable economic innovation.

3. We need to take care of those who take care of us.

America needs a high-tech, innovation-driven economy, but it also needs to take care of the people who care for us by picking up the trash, teaching our children, caring for our elderly. These service-sector jobs are respectable and absolutely necessary, but do not pay well. So we need to guarantee housing, health care, and food to all of the people who care for us. Cities in the U.S. are not functioning well at the moment because high-salary people have moved back into the centers and service workers now have to pay the highest price in both fuel and time to get to the places where they can earn a living. If the right-to-housing becomes a civil right in every jurisdiction in the America, cities will be compelled to make housing available where the jobs are.

4. What about the ‘undeserving poor?’

First, set the policies that will maximize long term economic growth for the whole country, before seeking out policies to punish the people you think are ‘undeserving.’ When I think of ‘undeserving,’ I think about the billionaire who would get free healthcare through this Amendment. Can we afford it? Yes. In fact, I am not sure that we can afford not to implement these rights.

5. These are positive rights. The Constitution only has negative rights.

Most of the rights in the U.S. Constitution are ‘negative,’ meaning that they restrain the Government from messing with the People in some way. However, the right to vote, the right to tax-funded civil courts, and the right to a speedy and impartial trial are actually positive rights. Furthermore, we have enacted major positive rights as Congressional Acts: the right to clean air, the right to clean water, the right to non-poisonous food. In fact all three of these positive rights were signed into law by Republican leaders who saw them as expressions of the long-standing conservative promotion of individual rights. Democrats, likewise, have promoted positive rights. Many of the rights proposed in this Amendment are similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was largely drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt, and which the U.S. has adopted through ratification.

Conclusion: a nonpartisan Amendment that would be most useful.

This Amendment is consistent with John Dewey and Jane Addams’ push for universal, compulsory primary and secondary education in the early 20th century. Implementation of universal K-through-12 education prepared the U.S. to become the global economic powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s. Which countries have higher standards of living than the U.S. today? Singapore, where the government develops 80% of the housing stock, and promotes higher education very aggressively. Hmm. Does this damage trade and competitive markets in Singapore? No. Hmm. It is worth looking around the world to discover that these proposed “Rights of the People” are not actually that radical. They just make sense.

Returned to California

For security reasons I do not specify the dates and times of my travel to and from Afghanistan. However at this point my official duties to the Afghan government are over, and I am back in California for the long term. This is an important time for both places: both struggling with housing crises. Both struggling with the politics of ethnic plurality. California (1) being targeted by the national government because its policies are so at odds with an increasingly vicious shift in conservatism, and (2) suffering from unprecedented wildfires in a moment when national leaders are desperate to deny that climate change is happening. Afghanistan struggling with (1) the ongoing challenge of the Taliban bid to reclaim national power; (2) the new, fascistic violence from IS; (3) destructive foreign interference in Afghan politics; and (4) internal problems in the government. Such interesting times!

Meanwhile: in June I was teaching a “Globalized Urbanism” course at UC Berkeley for the first time–whoo! That was demanding! In July, worked on final edits of several publications. So not much blogging, when it felt like any side-writing was procrastination. But if the current window of time holds open, I have a few things to post. Next up, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution and some reflections on it.

Tammie Jo Shults and this American moment

Captain Shults has just exemplified a Third-Wave feminist principle in the most extraordinary way.

The basic tenet of feminism is that women should enjoy equal treatment under the law, and in public social practices. Since Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), there have been multiple waves of feminism as a philosophy, a political movement, and a set of practices. First-Wave feminism was the demand for the right for women to vote and the right for women to inherit property. Before that, Western women were property (unlike Muslim women, who have had property-rights since the founding of Islam). Since First-Wave feminist achievements happened too far in the past for living memory, anti-feminists employ a strategy of ‘willful amnesia’ to portray all feminism as a radical agenda. Well, getting the right to vote and controlling one’s own property are radical social changes; but do conservative women really want to give up those rights? Do conservative men actually oppose those rights for their wives and daughters?

Captain Shults exemplifies the value of both Second- and Third-Wave feminism. Second-Wave feminism is the argument that women have the right of equal access to employment and social opportunities. Shults was one of the first generations of American women who were allowed to fly combat aircraft. The Air Force had not changed policy in the 1980s, but the Navy let her fly F-18s. For the sake of all the passengers on her flight yesterday, I thank the USN. As a military pilot, it would be absurd to disparage her as an ‘elite urban coastal liberal.’ Captain Shults is a working woman and a patriot who lives in Texas.

However what is most striking is the way Captain Shults exemplified the core principle of Third-Wave feminism. Having basic rights (Wave 1), and then equal access (Wave 2), still assumed that women would have to conform to men’s roles and behavioral expectations. The Third Wave argues that perhaps women will redefine those social, political, and economic roles once they have the authority to do so. This is complicated in two healthy ways. First of all, Third-Wave feminism encompasses not just women, but a robust theory for all underrepresented groups. Any group that gets equal access, status, and authority is likely to redefine some traditional roles, assumptions, and stereotypes. Second: such redefinitions are reciprocal processes. Women as combat pilots does not necessarily mean a ‘feminine’ style of combat pilot. It might mean a questioning or rejection of some masculinist stereotypes – and those stereotypes might have been ill-suited for men, too. So people and their roles may get redefined, or re-thought.

Here is how Captain Shults embodies a Third-Wave Feminist practice: after engine #1 blows out on her plane, she is gracious in her communications with air traffic controllers. Perhaps what she is expressing is a Texan civility; certainly she is expressing a veteran’s calm under pressure.  When you listen to her discussing the situation with air traffic controllers – especially the man in Philadelphia – clearly she is not only calm, but she seems to be trying to calm him down. She signs off her communications with “thank you” and she expresses delight when she affirms that she sees the airport.

In fairness, the air traffic controller did not know how bad the situation was, and had no control over it. I would be just as alarmed as he was. But for Shults, the situation really was that bad. I am not sure how much more damaged the plane could have been and still have landed intact. Similar in difficulty to what Sulzberger faced with double engine failure, but also very different it all details. The shredded cowling meant not just total loss of left-side thrust, but much greater drag on the left side of the plane. I am guessing she had to extend drag flaps on the right wing and increase thrust on the right engine, just to stay airborne. Incontrovertibly courageous. But in her radio-communications she is not emulating the masculinist ‘steely-eyed, square-jawed’ stereotype of courageousness. She is herself, and she is a competent, accomplished veteran pilot. She maintains a sweet tone, to keep the ground-control fellow calm when he flusters about which runway she should land on. Sweetness as a supreme expression of command? That is new, and instantly makes sense when you listen to the recordings. In her situation, she needed ground control to be calm, and communicate clearly; so she manages him as well as her crippled plane.

This is what Third Wave feminism means (and not more than this): once given access to equal positions, any newly-admitted group may redefine basic assumptions about appropriate behavior in those roles – ways that might be healthier for men, too, in this case. Courage, graciously redefined.

The Orville, and Criticism as Intolerance

During the fall of 2017 I noted some online disagreements about the quality of the most recent Star Trek franchise, Discovery, and the overtly campy alternative, the Orville. I have not watched Discovery as of this writing, so I will not comment on it nor compare the Orville to it. But since I have been back in the U.S. I did just watch the first season of the Orville, and I really enjoyed it. The tone certainly reflects Seth MacFarlane’s humor on Family Guy. It is considerably racier, cruder, and more irreverent than Star Trek, but there is no mistaking that it is an homage to Star Trek. And even though the Orville mocks itself, it seems very respectful of the series that inspires it. Most of ‘the aliens’ are actors in simple prosthetic make-up, and they all speak English. The point, from a world-building point of view, is that the focus of the show is human relationships, not speculative science. Given the quality of the CG effects for exterior shots and the portrayal of one protoplasmid alien crewmember, the choice of humanoid ‘aliens’ for the rest of the cast and guests is very explicit.

The Orville references Roddenberry’s concepts in the same way that the film Galaxy Quest does. In fact, it feels like a serialized adaptation of Galaxy Quest—and other Trekkie-produced fan fiction such as Starship Exeter (outing myself as a committed nerd here, yes; but those are my credentials for making this commentary). Not only is The Orville derivative; not only does it declare its own awareness of its source of inspiration; it says pretty clearly: “We will use this established genre and world in the way Roddenberry intended. We will use it to make strong commentary about present-day prejudices and cultural issues.” The official Trek franchise has done that, especially in the shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and from what I can tell from reviews, social commentary on our own present plays a major role in the new Discovery series as well.

One major improvement MacFarlane has made on the ‘orthodox’ Trek formula is that he uses a lot of humor to avoid making the storytelling feel like pedantic moralizing. This comic-ironic-melodramatic tone was first demonstrated in this genre in the film Galaxy Quest. Furthermore, MacFarlane uses humor to open the space to explore emotionally painful situations. For example, the dysfunctional relationship of the captain and his first officer/ex-wife is initially reminiscent of the Honeymooners, or the Taggart/DeMarco relationship in Galaxy Quest. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear how devoted Grayson is to Mercer. Her devotion can be interpreted simply as a heartbroken relationship. But I see a much more interesting dimension to her character: the shame and atonement of a soldier who is devastated by the taint of being regarded as a betrayer. MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a more blank everyman; but it is the character he wrote for Adrianne Palicki (who plays his ex and First Officer Grayson) who has much more depth and dramatic internal tension.

Several of the episodes revolve around difficult issues of parenting, both for Bortus and Dr. Finn. The most disturbing sequence in the season was the portrayal of Dr Finn’s “mama bear” reaction to being separated from her sons. She kills her captor/protector, Drogen, in cold blood to get back to her children. After she escapes, she encounters precisely the dangers Drogen had warned her about: biological contamination and deranged survivors. Drogen’s motives for locking up Dr. Finn are never clearly revealed. Perhaps his intentions were not entirely honorable; but it becomes clear that he was entirely truthful in what he actually did say. It therefore becomes a little troubling that Dr. Finn never indicates any regrets or second thoughts about having killed him.

In the next scene, a horde of zombie-like infected survivors approach the crashed shuttle where she is tending to her younger son. Dr. Finn hands a weapon to her older, adolescent-age son and gives him terse advice about taking a “wide stance” to stabilize himself as he fires. The whole sequence has the emotional brutality of another likely dramatic inspiration: Firefly. Maybe that weapon was set to stun, but when a ship arrives to rescue them, the heavy-weapons fire it uses to drive off ‘the natives’ is clearly lethal. My main criticism is that I would like to see the emotional consequences of that scenario explored much more. There are questions of colonialism and deeply asymmetrical conflict, which shapes a lot of the reality I live with in Kabul. But I was impressed that MacFarlane would go that dark in a series that seemed to start off as a satirical comedy. The mixture of sarcastic, ironic humor and very serious melodrama is not completely new with this show (Firefly and Galaxy Quest both did this), but it is a relatively new narrative form that seems to enable unexpected room for emotional depth in a teleplay drama.

What surprised me most, however, was the extremely negative reaction of official critics towards the show. Variety, Vox, and Indiewire condemned the show in ways that were so skewed I wondered whether these critics have ulterior motives they are ashamed to reveal.

First, they each criticized the show for being derivative. That is a strange criticism, since The Orville clearly admits that it is derivative, and uses that tongue-in-cheek stance as a central theme. The criticism itself seems absurd; but it also suggests that the critics share an assumption that I find much more disturbing. These critics implicitly assert that we are not allowed to build on previous storytelling. They are insinuating the ultimate monopolistic privilege: that the creative work of previous storytellers is not just copyrighted, but trade-marked—a perpetual condition of lock-out from anyone else building on prior work.

That aspiration for perpetual monopoly exclusion is exactly why I object to the Disney Corporation’s efforts to extend copyrights in perpetuity. Rather than protect their own specific portrayal of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Belle, and the Beast as corporate trade-marks (a reasonable use of existing intellectual property law), Disney has successfully lobbied Congress to grossly extend copyright protections solely for the sake of protecting their old films. This is especially perverse because most of the stories they use are based on Grimms’ collection and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, which are available precisely because their copyrights have expired.

The original intention of copyright was to give the creator monopoly rights to revenue for a limited time: seven or 14 years. Monopoly profits to the creator were balanced against the encouragement of cultural development, by limiting the duration of copyright, to allow future storytellers to continue to build on prior creativity in exactly the way storytellers did before the existence of copyright. Since the original Star Trek series is now 50 years old, MacFarlane should not even have to avoid using exactly the same terms that were used in Roddenberry’s teleplay a half-century ago. The problem is not derivation—the problem is the opposite: the culturally stifling intellectual property restrictions which these ‘critics’ seem to advocate. Whose side are the critics on?

Second, each of these critics portrays the show as ‘culturally regressive’ especially because the captain is a white male. I recommend that you actually watch the episodes and then look at what the critics omitted and insinuated. Is the captain a white male who is slightly thick and probably less qualified than both his First Officer and (as we later discover) his navigator? Yes; and the show’s own writing is very clear on that point. Not only is it a comic device, but by now it should raise the question for the viewer about white male privilege. That is the point of dramatic irony—the viewer knowing more than the characters in the drama. Do the critics have so little respect for viewers that they think this irony will be lost on the viewers? Wait—have you never worked for a privileged white man whom you clearly feel does not deserve the pay, authority, and status he has as your boss? I think the only people who could miss the irony of this situation are people who themselves are so privileged that they have not had to work under a boss. We even know that First Officer Grayson was instrumental in putting Mercer in the Captain’s chair, and she later plays the same role of advocating for the promotion of the navigator (LaMarr). Again, she is the more interesting character, and she is exemplary in showing how to work in an organization, specifically as an XO. Compare her to Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica, or Will Riker on The Next Generation; she is a model of competence and leadership within her chain of command. Is she recognized for this? Yes, explicitly by her ex, the captain.

And when it comes to gender politics, I am completely at a loss as to how The Orville is regressive. Bortus’s male-male marriage to Klyden is one of the few things that is not played for laughs. Furthermore, there is a scene where Captain Mercer invites another male to rejoin him in bed. Later, when he discovers that his desires were manipulated with pheromones, he is irritated by the deception but not in any way ashamed of his own bisexuality. How is this ‘regressive’? If anything, it clarifies the point that sexuality is completely distinct from the issues that really disturb him: deception and betrayal.

I am not alone in my confusion about the hostility of critics towards this show. The Variety review allows readers’ comments, and the tone of those responses is very similar to my perception. Why the hostility? The Orville is interesting because it is both goofball and occasionally very dramatic. No one is claiming this is high art. No one is claiming this is original world-building. Quite the opposite: it is not original world-building; it is cultural commentary wrapped in satire wrapped in explicit homage. If that is too many layers of irony for you, then you are not going to like most of the creative work of the early twenty-first century, because this is the hallmark of this moment.

As for the critics, I worry—their snobbish condescension seems not only disproportionate, but really off-base and either tone-deaf or intentionally perverse. Are they skewed by their own social-media echo-chamber, their own elitist social bubble? Do they want to prematurely kill off another interesting social commentary show, as happened to the original Star Trek series and Firefly? A side-by-side viewing of Orville episodes with how critics characterize the series undermines the critics’ credibility, in a time when I would like to see much more support of shows that have a diverse cast (as the Orville does) and challenges many gender and sexual stereotypes (which the Orville does) without being heavy-handed and pedantic (which the Orville successfully avoids through self-deprecating humor). As for great drama? Go back and watch all the original Star Trek teleplays. A few were great: most especially the heart-breaking “Let that be your last battlefield.” But most of them were pretty cheesy, as were most of the Next Generation teleplays. And if a critic thinks that is heresy—if they imply that previous creative works cannot be criticized and must never be emulated, imitated, or satirized—isn’t that critic revealing their own fundamental incompetence at their professed job?

The Wikipedia article on the Orville has separate sections for “critical response” and “audience response” because official critics panned the show (19% approval ratings) and viewers really enjoyed it (90%+ approval ratings). Maybe viewers like crass, vulgar satire; I admit I hope the intrepid crew of the Orville encounter an archvillain based on Stewie, or a sentient, martini-drinking canine species based on Brian. But far more so, I hope the show uses the light touch of humor to gain access to more painful and sensitive emotional issues of human relationships.

And more clowns. They really are scary.

Thinking ahead for the next U.S. Administration

Oprah Winfrey as President;

Kamala Harris or Anita Hill as Attorney General (the other as Vice President);

Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Labor;

Tammy Duckworth as Secretary of Defense;

Elizabeth Warren as Secretary of Treasury;

Sherman Alexie, Secretary of Interior;

Michael Pollan, Secretary of Agriculture;

Bill McKibben, Secretary of Energy;

Michelle Obama as Secretary of State or Director of NSA or any post she wants;

Neil deGrasse Tyson as Science Advisor and Director of NASA;

George Takei as Ambassador to the U.N;

…who else for the Dream Team?

Trump through a post-colonial lens

Left-leaning journalism in the U.S. has settled into a consistent hostility towards the U.S. president. This blog posting was provoked by a Fresh Air interview of Evan Osnos, who astutely tracks the way that Xi Jinping of China is quietly taking over a geopolitical leadership role from Donald Trump. I don’t disagree with the details—I dislike Trump’s personalization of the office of the president and corresponding damage to the dignity and authority of that office. But I think we need to view the consequences of his actions from a different long-run perspective: the preferences of the American people.

Despite what Trump himself seems to think about the U.S. presidency, it is not all about him. Liberal journalists shudder at the thought that so many Americans voted for him. Not a majority, but close enough to tip the Electoral College in his favor; very much like George W. Bush. I would like us to consider that pro-Trump vote much more seriously, as a vote against empire.

The word ‘empire’ used to freak out Americans. Our attitude about empire was encapsulated in the original Star Wars movies, in which the Imperials were Brits, and they were the bad guys. It aligned with our founding myth of the American Revolution against the British Empire. By myth I don’t mean that it was untrue; I mean that it is a belief that frames our way of seeing ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about the danger of imperialism to the souls of Americans:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change—especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

I highly, highly recommend reading the entire speech that King delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” I believe it cost him his life. I believe it was not a coincidence that he was assassinated exactly one year later to the day. At that time Americans were not ready to see our interventionism as imperialist. In the beginning of the speech—which made me weep as I re-read it—King makes it clear how he came to understand the suffering of Vietnamese in Southeast Asia though the suffering of black Americans in southwest Georgia. It is a political positionality we need to consider very carefully. What might look like support for democracy from the American privileged side, might look like something very different on the un-privileged receiving end of the policies.

Post-colonial theory emerged in 1978, with Edward Said’s publishing of Orientalism. It was a moment of perhaps the lowest Western colonial commitment in more than 500 years. Not only had the U.S. withdrawn from Vietnam, but the recent “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal led to the decolonization of Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor. In hindsight, maybe the theory should have been called something like “colonial critique,” because the “post-” was a little optimistic and premature. However, the theory is a very useful lens for looking at geopolitics in a different, long-run perspective. Unfortunately, most post-colonial theorists have marginalized themselves politically by focusing on highbrow literary criticism. I think they miss Said’s point: when he looked at French Orientalist paintings and literature he was looking at popular culture of the time. To understand the way that Americans see the world, it is useful to look at their reactions to the not-so-highbrow works of Lucasfilm.

Only under George W. Bush did Americans begin to recognize and generally accept that we were being imperialist. This again was reflected in our reinterpretation of our position in relation to Star Wars, with memes in which the Stormtroopers are seen as cops who just had a job to do, and were slaughtered wholesale by rebel terrorists in the destruction of both Death Stars. Adam Driver, the actor currently playing the role of Darth Vader’s grandson, even raised this issue in an interview before the release of the latest Star Wars (Episode 8). We see the most famous of all current stormtroopers take off his helmet, and he is a black man. He is our protagonist. He rejects his forced conscription as a stormtrooper, but his former comrades are not entirely wrong when they call him a traitor. We disagree with the stormtroopers in the current films, but they are humans; we can see ourselves in them at least a little.

But how are Americans really imperialist? Even when we occupy countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans seem to want to ensure the maximum amount of local sovereignty. We even do that to a fault. In Iraq, the Bush team hastily set up a winner-takes-all voting system which essentially handed national domination to Shi’ite Arabs from the southeastern part of that country. We alienated the Sunni minorities: Kurds to the north, who eventually rejected American advice and declared independence in 2017—and Sunni Arabs in the western part of Iraq, who became the sympathetic base to ISIS. L. Paul Bremer’s version of “make Iraq sovereign again as fast as possible” has had some ugly long-term consequences. It was naïve politics, but it revealed the degree to which the U.S. really did not want to call Iraq a U.S. colony, or territory, or protectorate.

So is the U.S. really imperialist?

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued (in 2000, so before George W. Bush’s presidency) that the U.S. benefited from global political and trade relations in many of the ways that Industrial-Era empires used to, in the ‘classic’ 1870-1945 era of European colonialism. In contrast to the Europeans, the U.S. could allow substantial sovereignty at the local level and still strike free trade deals; it could allow disagreements up to an extent, but contain them through occasional military interventions, as well as mutually-beneficial trade, aid, and military-cooperation projects. So Hardt and Negri didn’t argue that the U.S. was overtly, intentionally imperialist; but that it enjoyed benefits comparable to a global empire nonetheless.

However this ‘global engagement’ policy of the U.S. bothers many American voters, especially since the Cold War is formally over. It is worth remembering that before the Cold War, American conservatives were strongly isolationist. Opposition to immigration produced substantial restrictions on immigration in 1924; the U.S. failed to support the League of Nations; and Republicans were opposed to getting involved in the growing conflicts in Europe and East Asia from 1935 to 1941. This isolationism returned as soon as the Cold War was over. Since 1992, Republicans have been arguing for reduced involvement in international affairs. First, a reduction of contributions to the U.N.; then a withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, just as it was forming in 2001; most recently in withdrawal from UNESCO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and the Paris Climate Accords. U.S. Liberals might not see these as imperialist policies; and I don’t think they were intended to be. But the effect is troubling. At minimum, these commitments were ‘international entanglements’ that many Americans regarded as distracting from a focus on domestic economic policy.

In 2009 I reviewed the campaign debates of George W. Bush and Al Gore from the fall of 2000. In those debates, Gore clearly portrayed himself as the internationalist, and W portrayed himself as domestically focused. Rather than rely on anecdotes and partisan diatribe, let us review the actual source material. Here is an extended quote of George W, on October 11, 2000:

MODERATOR: Should the people of the world look at the United States, Governor, and say, should they fear us, should they welcome our involvement, should they see us as a friend, everybody in the world? How would you project us around the world, as president?

BUSH: Well, I think they ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn’t matter who you are or how you’re raised or where you’re from, that you can succeed. I don’t think they’ll look at us with envy. It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And it’s — our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom-loving nation and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.

….

MODERATOR: Sure, absolutely, sure. —Somalia.

BUSH: Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that’s where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn’t have supported either…

I’m worried about over-committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I’m not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.

In retrospect, it is ironic that W committed so many troops to an ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. That policy decision irritated the American voting public for precisely the reasons that Bush himself explained so clearly as a candidate in 2000. But again, I don’t want to focus on that president for what he did later. I looked at those speeches to see why almost a majority of Americans voted for Bush in 2000 rather than Gore; and why a largely overlapping body of voters elected Barack Obama in 2008.

A major campaign promise of Barack Obama was to get the U.S. out of Iraq. He was one of the few national politicians who had never supported that invasion and occupation, and he objected to its open-ended, vague mission. In other words, Bush and Obama’s campaign arguments overlapped because both candidates wanted to reduce the “foreign entanglements” of the U.S. Furthermore, among presidential candidates in 2007-2008, Obama was the furthest outside of being an embedded politician. In that sense, there is also a strong overlap between the reasons people voted for Obama in 2008 and why so many voted for Trump in 2016. Based on voting behavior, Americans are extremely dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy, and the culture of “establishment” politics.

Put succinctly: when presented with the opportunity to vote against American empire, Americans will do so emphatically and repeatedly. Despite real and continuing racism in the U.S., Americans will vote for a black man if he makes a persuasive argument that he will reduce foreign entanglements. Americans will also vote for a clearly unqualified and offensive billionaire if he makes convincing arguments against foreign entanglements. In 2016 and 2017, American political analysts focused on the deep political divisions among Americans. I think—a Obama argued in 2007—that this is a distraction. Commentators on the left and right focus too much on the man who was elected, and not enough on explaining American electoral behavior. I think if we pay more attention to the voters, we will find that the key common ingredient is that Americans really, really, really don’t want to be an empire.

Trump said many contradictory things while campaigning, and has not been consistent on his campaign promises. But I got a sense that Hilary Clinton was in trouble in June of 2016 when Trump started talking about reducing American foreign involvements, and Clinton countered by being the internationalist. And as unpredictable as Trump may be, here is one place where he is consistent: he is indeed reducing American foreign entanglements.

Back in the interview which provoked this blog post, Gross and Osnos point out that, as the U.S. withdraws and leaves a vacuum in many international arenas, China is happily and quietly moving in to assume those roles. Using the same post-colonial perspective, it is worth noting that China does not have the same cultural squeamishness about empire that Americans have. The Chinese certainly did not like being colonized by foreigners. They called Europeans barbarians, and call Japanese “sea pirates.” But that is not a categorical opposition to imperialism, and the Chinese are quite proud of their own imperial history. A close read of San Guo YanYi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) gives a good sense of Chinese cultural sensibilities regarding empire. In that story, trouble begins as the Han Empire falls apart, and trouble ends as the Jin Emperor restores order and peace.

San Guo YanYi is one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature, and it is actively endorsed by the current government of the Peoples Republic. The story was filmed in a beautiful, 94-episode television production in 2010. I highly recommend it. But given the themes of the story, and the timing of that production, it is worth pondering whether Chinese political leaders see the present as something akin to the end of that hundred-year episode of political strife portrayed in the story. Both the leaders and the people of China may be very happy for China to return to being the zhong guo—the “central county” on the world stage.

Meanwhile, Americans need to get better clarity about our own internal politics and how we want to position our country in the global political economy of the 21st century. It will help if we recognize the shared, deep-seated American opposition to empire, beyond the caustic partisanship of current public discourse. We also need to get beyond that distraction in order to pay more attention to what is happening outside of the U.S. Unlike Americans, the Chinese political leadership seems like they will be much more comfortable assuming a role of global domination. Since Americans dislike the role so much, we need to get clarity about how we will position ourselves in a world where another country takes over that role. I am not hearing anybody framing geopolitical discourse this way in the U.S. right now, but the time is upon us.

The Future of English

Today the Chronicle Vitae listserve sent a link to Nina Handler’s article, “Facing My Own Extinction.” In the article she described the dim prospects for English as an academic discipline, and questions the ability (and utility) of her and her colleagues adapting to a changing world in which English disappears as a scholarly discipline.

I am not sure if I can offer encouragement. However, I remember the same grim mood in Geography at Berkeley in the late 1980s, as the University of Chicago program shut down. At my graduation in 1988, Alan Pred questioned the future of Geography as a discipline. A few years later, the rise of online maps and GIS provided a solid economic base for the discipline, and a wider recognition of it. A decade later, the global public became alarmed about climate change, a topic we had been studying as geographers for decades. So: no further worries about Geography as a discipline. It has certainly changed, but the core interests are still taught within the discipline.

What about English?

I do not know the field as an insider, so much of what I see from the outside might seem like very disturbing change. But here are some thoughts:

1. Since the end of the Cold War, the question about which would be the global language was settled: it would be English. In the subsequent 25 years, the number of people who speak English as a second language has become considerably greater than people who speak it as their native tongue. I believe this demographic shift in speakers will also change who defines the language, and how. Already, many of my colleagues remark that the nature of English is that it is easy to make yourself understood, even if your English is very bad. However, total fluency is nearly impossible for someone who did not grow up with the language. This differs from other languages with precise grammatical rules, where it is hard to learn initially, but once you are fluent, you are fluent. How will this characteristic of English affect the way it evolves over the 21st century?

2. Within academia (I am in planning), the role of poesis has become much more important as we try to make sense of difficult problems in race/gender/class injustices, and in the linguistic process of policy formation. We are not following Worf, but we are sensitized to the fact that the phrasing of policy questions, let alone policies, can foreclose certain voices and avenues of inquiry. Words matter very much in public policy.

3. We are figuring out interfaces with machines, and this affects language in several ways. First, a programmer once remarked to me that the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major at Berkeley was mis-designed. He did not need to learn Electrical Engineering. He needed to learn comparative linguistics, to better understand the nature of syntactical structures in Perl versus Python, and languages such as Fortran and C. This is more linguistics than English per se, but it is related.

None of these comments may provide comfort to Dr. Handler, because they are not about the emotional depth and nuances of English Literature and 19th-century poetry in particular. I must say that I have heard this same lamentation among my Afghan colleagues: to learn Farsi is to learn poetry; and they grieve that young Afghans do not learn Firdawsi, Sa’adi, Rumi. And then they break into recitation and it is mesmerizing. So I have witnessed the same grief, worldwide. Perhaps, if we pay attention to shifts in venue and context, we may continue to find the unexpected places and moments when poesis is truly embraced.