Summary: We need to return to basics in order to reform America. Devising complex technocratic solutions are a snare and dead end, building castles in the sky while the 1% gain strength. We need to return to the fundamentals of the American project, both the symbolic and conceptual designs. Today we look at the Pledge, another in a series searching for a path to a better future for America.
Oaths were not purpos’d, more than law,
To keep the Good and Just in awe,
But to confine the Bad and Sinful,
Like mortal cattle in a penfold.
— Samuel Butler’s “Hudibras”, Part II, Canto II (1664)
This is great: Article II Section 1 of the Constitution:
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
In the fires of the Civil War a more detailed oath was forged, passed on 13 May 1884, now taken by all civil, military, and judicial officials excerpt the President. This is perfect:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
This oath points to our duty under the founding document. The Tea Party was exactly right that we have lost sight of our system as it was, and forgotten how it should work. Too bad they’re interested in only fragments of the Constitution, and despise some of its principles (i.e., they’re part of the problem, not the solution).
As the United States evolved in the Gilded Age, with rising inequality at home and imperial aspirations abroad, our rulers devised an oath suitable for peasants. This was written by Francis Bellamy (socialist and Baptist minister) in 1892, formally adopted by Congress in 1942, and revised four times since then. The Founders are appalled by this.
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Summary: This is a follow-up to Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
— Lord Salisbury, discussing Great Britain’s policy on the Eastern Question (1877)
“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn
1. blunt trauma
2. mindless repetition.”
— Mike Few, from the comments
These quotes go to the heart of American geopolitics, the deep flaw: a too-slow response to information, and unwillingness to learn from events. That is perhaps the great lesson — war warning — from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We show no signs of learning it. The outcomes of these wars were apparent long ago, even to non-specialists like me. It’s a great betrayal to those who suffered in these wars to treat these as occasions for patriotic rituals, but fail to learn.
In March 2007 I wrote that the war was lost, the outlines of the new Iraq were visible, and we could help build it then leave: The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace. In September 2007 this was even clearer; from Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq
The following are guesses amidst the fog of war. The first two expand upon observations in my article of March 2007. These were controversial then, but almost consensus wisdom today.
- Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.
- Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process. Ethnic cleansing is their major tool. This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.
- It’s not about us. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.
- More fighting lies in Iraq’s future, mostly battles for control of the new proto-states and border wars. Hopefully this means less killing.
By July 2008 it was obvious:
As time goes by the fabric holding “Iraq” together torques and tears. Kurdistan is now in almost all respects an independent nation. Slowly the Sunni and Shiite Arab regions are developing their own political and governmental apparatus. Eventually the pieces will fit together in a new configuration. That process might be peaceful, incendiary, or anywhere in between. We have little to say about it.
Yet the war continued until the July 2009 withdrawal from the cities, with the last troops out by the end of 2011. Blood and money spilled in an already vain quixotic war, for no gain for America. Worse, out intervention unleashed forces now tearing Iraq apart, so that the toll of suffering greatly exceeds anything Saddam might have done — something we refuse to see (amnesia is so comforting).
“Calling Afghanistan a war without exit or victory is stupid as well.”
— Joshua Foust, in February 2008, one of the many hawks who built a career advocating war in Afghanistan. Six years later we have found neither victory nor an exit.
Summary: What have we learned from our experiences in Afghanistan? My guess: not much. Certainly not the vital lessons we need to learn in order to prosper in the 21st century. This is thousand words raising questions. In the comments post your thoughts, and pointers to works by others grappling with these issues.
Every society experiences defeat in its own way. But the varieties of response within vanquished nations — whether psychological, cultural, or political — conform to a recognizable set of patterns or archetypes that recut across time and national boundaries. A state of unreality — of dreamland — is invariably the first of these.
From the Introduction to Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003)
The closing of Abu Muqawama (run by Andrew Exum) and The Oil Drum were greeted with tears by their fans, Probably undeserved tears. Both played large roles in major issues during the past decade, but perhaps not useful contributions.
Abu Muqawama focused on providing expert, fact-rich, but horrifically wrong advice during our “small wars” (small but expensive wars). The Oil Drum provided fact-rich discussions with wrong conclusions about “energy and our future”. Both were nodes for concerned, educated, knowledgeable professionals and laymen. It’s disturbing that these cohorts of our best and brightest could not the errors in their analysis — or question them after years of failed forecasts.
For ten years I’ve written about America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop. Here we have two tangible examples. This post looks at Abu Muqawama.
The Afghanistan War
Anrew Exum was a paid propagandist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). CNAS is one of the leading pro-war think-tanks, started in 2007 with lavish funding (now their roster of corporate donors). In August 2009 he ran a debate about “why we fight” in Afghanistan. The pro-war submissions were bizarrely weak. The anti-war submissions and comments (e.g, Bernard Finel, Col. Gian Gentile) were more strongly reasoned and factually supported. In broader terms, most of the comments were anti-war. Probably not how Exum intended this to run. But at the end he wrote a predictable pro-war screed, with more of our hawks patentable bad advice.
Take a stroll on memory lane, see for yourself the confidence of the hawk’s advice.
Summary: A people’s myths reveal much about them. Today we look at our myths as shown by Hollywood on the big screens. It shows a people with powerful fantasies, but they point to a dead end instead of a viable future.
“All fantasy should have a solid base in reality.”
— Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson (1911)
- Our heroes
- This is the best possible ending for a lone hero
- Question for the comments
- A change of trend?
- For More Information
(1) Our heroes
America’s film heroes follow a deep thread in America history, going back to the mythical cowboys of the post-civil war frontier. Lone rangers, film noir detectives, 1960′s anti-heroes, lone heroes, vigilantes, lone superheroes. We love tales of solitary men fighting the forces of evil in the community — often the leaders of the community — and ride out of town into the sunset.
When it comes to our heroic myths, it’s all “High Noon”. We play the role of civilian bystanders. Ignorant, passive, perhaps even cowardly.
Our myths have dug into a fun but futile rut, one that is symptomatic of our inability to take collective action. It’s symptomatic of our dysfunctionality. Our weakness. And grown worse over time.
Our myths in the past were populated with organizations that protected us:
Summary: We have begun a critical phase in the great monetary experiment. We know that we should stop, but our leaders fear the resulting economic shock. They fear to stop, fear to continue. There is a clear model describing this process, but one too disturbing for most people to accept: addiction. The decisions made during coming months might teach us much about America, and perhaps have historic effects.
All the perplexities, confusions, and distresses in America arise, not from defects in their constitution or confederation, nor from want of honor or virtue, as much from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.
— John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 25 August 1787
- What kind of drug is monetary policy?
- What model best describes it?
- Look at our history
- What comes next?
- Other guesses
- It’s not just the US
- For More Information
- The big picture
(1) What kind of drug is monetary policy?
Ed Dolan (economist, bio here) made a typically brilliant insight in the comments to this post. I referred to monetary policy as a “drug”; he replied that it was not a drug — in the sense of illegal drugs (stimulants, intoxicants, hallucinogenics). This forced me to rethink this idea. What kind of drug is monetary stimulus?
There are drugs which are both legal and illegal — medicines with risks. Like heroin. As described in previous posts, heroin was the battlefield medic’s most powerful drug — but dangerous if used too long.
(2) What model best describes monetary policy?
We usually understand the working of complex systems in terms of models. Since the US joined the great monetary stimulus experiments in 2008, some have warned that it was a process of addiction — like that of heroin (see details in this post). Most users of heroin stop before serious effects hit; the sad cases are addicts who ride their addiction to the bottom, following this path:
Summery: Much of the work on the FM website examines minutiae for clues and insights about the wider world. Today we look at this strange but revealing article (revealing about us). It suggests what where we have gone wrong, and how we can still return to a better path.
“Elites’ strange plot to take over the world“, By Matt Stoller,
Salon, 20 September 2013
“A few decades ago, politicians hatched a Tom Friedman-esque idea to unite U.S. and Western Europe.
Did it succeed?”
This fun article holds many lessons for us. It’s in Salon, one of the new breed of online magazines with a contrarian flavor (Slate being the exemplar), providing a well-written mixture of information and misinformation designed for maximum clicks.
The author, Matt Stoller, is a well-educated young journalist, almost certainly knows that much of this is nonsense. Journalists write to their audience, and Stoller understands our fantastic idea of how the world works. See his opening:
The idea of a country seems pretty simple. … But the way political decision-making around security issues ricochets around the world, from Western capital to Western capital, is making a mockery of commonly held conceptions of national sovereignty. In recent weeks, a British parliament vote on Syria forced the U.S. president to seek authorization from Congress, while leaked documents detailed extensive cooperation between the intelligence services of the U.S. and other nations. The president of Bolivia was forced to down his plane by Italy and France, just because he joked about having Edwards Snowden on board. And so on, and so forth.
This all demands the question: Why do we hold the conception that we live in separate nation-states?
Notice the sleight of hand. Stoller says the reality of separate nations requires that nations be unaffected, even unlimited, by the actions of other nations. This confuses “sovereign” — able to make their own decisions — with domination, able to do as they want without consideration or influence from neighbors. As if nations existed not on a crowded world, but on separate planets.
Much like teenagers discovery of sex and love in every new generation, Stoller’s discovery of yearnings for a world government after WW2 — a surprise to Americans now dreaming of world hegemony — is not new. It was not new in 1648, when European nations signed the Treaties of Westphalia and created the modern international order in crowded Europe. The limitations of sovereignty were not new when the Scythians, Hittites, Egyptians, and Israelites fought in the ancient Middle East.
These “conceptions of national sovereignty” might be “commonly held” but are quite daft. “Our own history should teach us this. From the start, America was largely defined by the actions of other nations. To mention just a few:
Summary: Many people believe the American political system has become some combination of rigid, dysfunctional, perhaps even stupid. All of these are false. The US political system is alive and evolving rapidly, as a New America rises on the ashes of the Republic-that-once-was, built to the designs of its plutocratic stakeholders. That so many remain blind to this reflects the quiet nature of the process, and the skill of its key actors. Today we examine some of the evidence.
After 30 years the shift of America has become obvious, along with the Republicans’ successful leadership. Especially after the events during Obama’s administration (aka Bush Jr’s 3rd and 4th terms).
Many social policies have become more liberal. But few of the 1% care who sleeps with whom, or the details of births and deaths among the proles.
What about the Democratic Party’s excitement over the debt crisis fiasco, and the resulting GOP dip in in the polls? Even the most successful movement has reverses, often from over-confidence and excessive aggressiveness. Setbacks are not defeat. What matters is how they respond and adapt.
Consider instead the momentum of events, their intellectual and financial resources, their legion of shock troops in local communities, their powerful organizational support structure of think-tanks and advocacy groups. All they lack is skilled strong leadership — to replace their current collection of clowns and poseurs. When they have that missing piece, they can shift to a higher speed.
Let’s look at some articles of the past month, much like the news flow for the past few years. And the past three decades.
(1) “Conservative Georgia District Urges G.O.P. to Keep Up the Fight“, New York Times, 6 October 2013 — Read the quotes!
(2) “Take Back the House? Democrats Aren’t Even Ahead on Friendly Turf In 2014“, Nate Cohn, The New Republic, 7 October 2013 — Candidate selection is vital, and the GOP has the vital edge in enthusiasm.
(3) “The mythical moderates?“, David Karol (Assoc Prof of Politics, U MD; bio here), blog of the Washington Post, 8 October 2013 — The GOP has stronger internal cohesion, giving them an edge in every conflict.
Summary: Today we have an essay by Andrew Odlyzko, one of the top polymaths and futurists writing today. He reminds us of the difficulty in accurately predicting the future, and the peril of relying on past successes to solve our problems. The industrial revolution relieved the UK’s crushing debt in the 19th century. As the post-WW2 boom relieved the US’s large war debt. The future might not be so kind to us.
“Crushing national debts, economic revolutions,
and extraordinary popular delusions“
By Andrew Odlyzko
Professor of Mathematics. University of Minnesota)
A superpower with crippling debt, exorbitant taxes, glaring inequality, wages far exceeding those of competitors, high and persistent unemployment, lack of basic workplace skills, malnutrition, a rapidly growing rival across the ocean to the West, heated debates about the role of government in the economy, and widespread pessimism about the future. Could that be any country but the U.S. today, with China as the looming threat?
Toss in costly military misadventures in the Middle East, Greece unable to pay its debts, a sclerotic domestic legal system clogging up the economy, and the rising competitor flouting copyright and other property rights and relying on slave labor, and the case seems clinched. Yet this is also an accurate description of Britain around 1850, with the United States as the transatlantic rival. Surprisingly, what followed was an explosive acceleration of the Industrial Revolution that saw the UK sprint ahead of others during the “Great Victorian Boom” of the third quarter of the 19th century.
Britain in the 1840s
Summary: Employment is the weak link in the recovery. The news media focuses on the month-to-month changes in the jobs report, which consist mostly of noise. Strong months confirm the optimists; weak months confirm the pessimists. In fact the trend of growth remains the real story, with the US economy near stall speed (jobs and wages growing only slowly) — supported only (like the other developed nations) by massive multi-year fiscal and monetary stimulus (now fading). Here we look at the September report, which contains many useful insights. The key point: it gives no evidence that the widely expected second half growth acceleration has begun.
- The big picture
- Household survey
- Establishment survey
- Other important metrics
- Other posts in this series
- For more information about US economy
(1) The big picture
Here we examine the September employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They conduct two surveys: one of households, one of businesses. They are not directly comparable, each giving different perspectives on the US economy.
The theme of this report, the words most often used, is little change. It paints a picture consistent with the many other streams of information about the economy: continued slow growth. No signs of the long-awaited acceleration back to average growth rates. This is a major factor in the Fed’s decision when to taper.
We should also consider the price paid for this slow growth. Not just the $707 billion in debt the USA accumulated during the past 12 months (4.5% of GDP), but also the not-yet-known results of five years of zero-interest rates and three rounds of quantitative easing (the third and largest still running). This does not show that economists know nothing, or that these stimulus programs do not work. It shows that the economy remains weak, or even sick.
(2) The Household survey
The Current Population survey is a simple survey of households. Compared to the survey of businesses it has large error bars; there are no revisions. It’s worth watching because it’s the basis for the headline unemployment rate, it gives useful data not in the more-accurate business (establishment) survey, and because some research suggests that the household report shows inflection points before the establishment survey.
Here are the numbers for September, in thousands, seasonally adjusted. Highlights:
- Continued slow growth in employment; steady drop in the number unemployed.
- Continued shift of employment from part-time to full-time (disproving one of the many false claims about ObamaCare).
- No progress in the key ratio: employment is growing at the same rate as the population — so we’re not getting stronger, in this sense.
|Description||August 2013||September 2013||Change||Change|
For the bigger picture here are the YoY numbers, in thousands, not seasonally adjusted. Slow but steady improvement.
Summary: What makes an experiment is uncertainty about the outcome, no matter how great people’s confidence. That applies to the great monetary experiments now in progress by China, Europe, America, and Japan. Europe since 2008, the USA since 1998, and Japan since 1988 all have common histories: confident leadership, unexpected crises, and repeatedly wrong forecasts.
After all that it will astonish historians how we worship the power of central bankers. But that power neither makes them omnipotent, nor their theories accurate. Today’s post by Nathan Lewis discusses one of the possible outcomes.
“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is difficult to discover.”
— Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic “Weeping Philosopher” of Ionia
Today’s guest post:
What is “Hyperinflation”?
By Nathan Lewis at New World Economics, 13 October 2013
Reposted with his generous permission
- A history of hyperinflation
- Hyperinflation: not what you might think
- What hyperinflation looks like
- USA in the 1970s; Mexico in the 1980s
- Other lesser-known episodes
- Why not us? Or rather, why not us yet?
- About the author
- For More Information
- A Last Resort, if all else fails …
(1) A history of hyperinflation
The word is tossed around, and many have an opinion about it, without having any real clear idea of what it means.
We all probably have some mental picture of the “billion dollar banknote” or “price of coffee rises as you drink it” kind of hyperinflation, as happened in Germany especially in 1923.
But, this is somewhat rare. Not as rare as you might think, but it constitutes only a small portion of those events which I think are legitimately labeled “hyperinflation.” This table lists fifty-three of the most intense hyperinflations in recent history: The Hanke-Krus Hyperinflation Table.
The least intense hyperinflation listed on this table is a 55.5% increase in “prices” in a month in Kazakhstan in 1993, which works out to a doubling of prices every 47.8 days. However, this table leaves out many hundreds of events which are legitimately called “hyperinflation” in my opinion, and in the opinion of those who lived through them, and historians.
You see what I mean when I say that it is “not as rare as you might think.” Here’s Wikipedia on various hyperinflations.
(2) Hyperinflation: not what you might think
Extreme hyperinflations like these tend to grab people’s attention. However, I would suggest that they are actually less relevant than some milder cases.