Thursday, September 3, 2015

Capitalism in Vietnam: War as Overrated

Going to war might seem like the most expedited course to achieving geopolitical aims, even when they in actuality predominately economic in nature. To the extent that the Cold War was from the American standpoint a means of keeping capitalism from succumbing to socialism (i.e., the state rather than private industry owning the means of production), the American involvement in the civil war in Vietnam was a waste of effort, not to mention lives lost. For the feared “loss” of Vietnam to communism turned out only to be temporary.

“In the early years of a united Vietnam, the government pursued disastrous experiments with collectivized farms and bans on private enterprise. The country’s leaders changed course around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, embracing the market economy, a pillar of the very system they had fought to defeat.”[1] The Soviet command-economy, based on quotas of goods rather than supply and demand, was quite inefficient, and thus weak. It didn’t take long after the Soviet Union’s collapse for the Vietnamese government to the Communist ethos of conformity and the shunning of ostentatiousness that came with it.” Saigon, “a free-wheeling bastion of capitalism before 1975, . . . returned to its roots with vigor.”[2] Like water flowing downhill, business interests resurfaced and came out on top.

In retrospect, was the Vietnam War worth it for anyone? (source: CNN)

The Vietnam-war policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations appear in contrast to have been efforts going upstream, against the current, with Saigon ending up falling to the North Vietnamese after Nixon’s resignation.   Roughly 58,000 Americans and as many as three million Vietnamese died in the “conflict,” which “on some level,” according to the New York Times, was “about keeping Vietnam safe for capitalism.”[3] As it turns out, the angst was for naught. All the swimming upstream was for naught. With a bit of patience and faith in free enterprise (as well as the power of money, given human nature), the Americans could have obviated war. The interests of American business would have had the last laugh even without the cashing-in by the defense-contractors during the “conflict.” War itself—the urge to force an issue rather than let it play out with facilitating foreign policies—may be over-rated, and thus over-relied on by clutching hands that are impatient and trigger-happy.

[1] Thomas Fuller, “Capitalist Soul Rises as a City Sheds Its Past,” The New York Times, July 21, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The American-Iranian Agreement: Moving Mankind Past War

In an epoch of technological development, the relative dearth of political development as concerns international relations has been evident. In June 2015, Pope Francis advocated the establishment of a global institution having governmental sovereignty with which to combat the human contribution to climate change. Such a political development would be significant, given the long-standing default of sovereign nation-states and unions thereof. In July 2015, U.S. President Barak Obama announced an agreement with Iran that would keep that nation-state from develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. Just three years earlier, war had seemed unavoidable. I submit that Obama’s accomplishment can be thought of as a step toward rendering war itself as obsolete, or at least perceiving it as a primitive means of resolving disputes internationally. More subtly, the feat makes the sheer distance between the premises of war and those of diplomacy transparent. Paradoxically, this insight implies just how difficult a shift from a war-default to one that takes war as obsolete must be.

Even if diplomacy can deliver more than war, obviating the path toward war can require a lot of time and effort. “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not—a comprehensive, long-term deal with Iran that will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama declared in announcing the deal.[1] With Iraq still a trouble-spot in spite of the U.S. invasion and occupation, costing more than $2 trillion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s two years of arduous work with Iran can be viewed as superior to war as a means of satisfying U.S. interests—not to mention that of the international community.

As difficult as it was for Obama to persuade a militaristic people to have faith in diplomacy as being capable of delivering more than war—a thankless task to be sure—he found himself having to defend even his campaign promise that he would talk to America’s enemies. When he first declared he would negotiate with adversaries, it was by accident. During a 2007 presidential debate, when asked if he would negotiate with adversaries as president, he made the unprompted declaration and explained it by discrediting the antithetical, war-default premise. “(T)he notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them— which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [George W. Bush] administration—is ridiculous.”[2] Obama's premise obviating war is clearly far removed from his predecessor's war-premise.

Tellingly for what it reveals about where the American people stood at the time, the declaration that initial communication should not be conditional “set his campaign into a minor tailspin. ‘We did not expect him to say that,’ former Obama spokesman Bill Burton told The Huffington Post of that debate moment. ‘We were like, 'Oh my God. How do we walk it back? [Former Secretary of State] Madeline Albright’s attacking us!'’"[3] That a former Secretary of State would criticize the very notion of talking to adversaries is itself remarkable. Did she believe that not talking is actually punishment? What is it in American society that undergirds such an uncompromising, even childish, attitude that is so presumptuous or “entitled”? Malignant narcissism, such as can be found in spoiled children, may be behind the primitive level of social skills (which, not coincidentally, is in turn consistent with the mindset of war as the default “problem-solver”). In other words, the hypertrophic conditional regard (e.g., conditional love) may have been acceptable in American society. This point is in itself worthy of investigation.

From the not-speaking-as-punishment assumption, Obama’s mere overtures to Iran must have seemed radical, even ludicrous. “After just two months in office, Obama took the unconventional step of sending Iranians a holiday message on Nowruz, the Iranian new year. ‘For nearly three decades, relations between our nations have been strained,’ he said. ‘But on this holiday, we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together.’ Shifting his focus from the Iranian people to the Iranian leadership, Obama looked into the camera: ‘My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us.’ . . . it was the first time since the dissolution of U.S.-Iranian relations [in the late 1970s] that an American leader publicly extended the offer of rapprochement.”[4] The sheer amount of time spent under the war premise would make the greeting seem radical even though from the antithetical diplomacy premise the overture could only be counted as a first step.

In conclusion, the ideational and attitudinal distance between the default—that of war as the preferred problem-solving device—and Obama’s premise that war itself can be surmounted by replacing it’s premises with those conformable to direct communication—attests to just how much time and effort is needed in political (as distinct from technological) development. That is to say, political development in the realm of international relations is not apt to come about as easily as technological development has since the early twentieth-century. Moving humanity off war is clearly no easy feat, and Obama’s accomplishment may have to withstand several relapses before the American people have sufficiently shifted their mindset to treat Obama’s premises as the default.

[1] Sam Stein and Jessica Schulberg, “How a 2007 Debate Gaffe Paved the Way for a Deal that Will Define Obama’s Legacy,” The Huffington Post, July 14, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pope Francis on Climate Change: The Mutually-Reinforcing Impacts of Power, Wealth, and Culture

Writing in 2015, Pope Francis addressed the problem of climate change and suggested what he, or the Vatican more broadly, considered to be necessary systemic changes on the road to recovery. In the encyclical, the patient may be human nature itself—specifically, its self-destructive propensity and trait of power-aggrandizement. In other words, we had lost control of our built-up (i.e., artificial) societal systems and structures, which could wind up strangling us in their protection of the status quo. In this essay, I discuss the Pope’s portrayal of the problem of climate change from the standpoints of culture, power, and wealth. I then address the feasibility of the Pope’s prescription.

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system,” the Pope reports.[1] “In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. At the time, India, Pakistan, and parts of western North America were either in or soon to be in heat-waves.

The Pope turns to what he viewed as more subtle causes of the climate change. “The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.” These “man-made” contributors in turn set in motion natural contributors. “The melting in the polar ice caps and in high altitude plains can lead to the dangerous release of methane gas, while the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.” Put another way, the CO2 already in the atmosphere—at approximately 400 ppm—had already triggered natural processes beyond the reach of human technology. The resulting climatic shift could easily outpace the ability of biological evolution to adapt. Given the historical role of the Creationism-Evolution false-dichotomy, the Pope’s reference to evolution is striking.

Undergirding the role of fossil fuels, the Pope highlights socio-economic and political obstacles. “Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity.”

The Pope evinces very little patience for such attitudes. He was hardly alone. "We are not here today to debate whether or not climate change is real. We are not here to debate whether or not human activity is contributing to that. These questions have been settled by science," U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said a week after the Vatican’s release of the encyclical.[2] On the same day, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change came out with its report.[3] More severe heat waves, longer allergy seasons, and decreased urban air-quality were already erasing gains made in public health, according to the report.[4] It's like a cigarette smoker with lung problems,” a Commission official said at the time. “Doctors can treat the disease, but the first thing that has to be done is to get the patient to stop smoking, or in this case get off coal in the next five years.”[5] In short, the world—or, more precisely, the species—no longer had the luxury of denial; in fact, radical change was urgently needed.

Formidable, well-entrenched forces nevertheless stood in the way. In fact, some were actually urging environmental deregulation. Accordingly, the Pope charges ahead. “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.” This is not enough. “Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation. But the cost of the damage caused by such selfish lack of concern is much greater than the economic benefits to be obtained.” In other words, an expedient, selfish mentality—doubtless rooted in human nature itself—has been a steady obstacle to caring for ecosystems such that the species made in God’s image might long endure.

Additionally, organizational and societal artifacts have been erected in line with the sordid mentality. Indeed, the Pope claims that “many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption.” Privileging “short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production,” those models do not adequately absorb externalities—such as costs borne by the environment because firms can evade them. Whereas “the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production.” The circular system of inputs, manufacture, and use is not sufficiently closed. On the input end, natural resources are depleted. On the output end, waste piles up in the “throwaway culture,” whether in the oceans or in the air.

Unfortunately, culture and leadership can wind up reinforcing each other in favor of the status quo. “The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations.” We lack principled leaders with the guts to stand up to the corporate patrons whose disproportionate impact on democracies gives the vested interests in the status quo a veto on real change. The inherent conflict of interest is of course ignored. Additionally, people are too willing to enable the denial espoused in some of their respective leaders’ rhetoric. “As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” A cultural mentality ensconced in a throwaway society reinforces the leaders of denial.

Furthermore, the live-for-today mentality societally in an era of technological advancement proffers a blind faith in technology as savoir. “Following a period of irrational confidence in progress and human abilities,” Francis writes, “we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change.” The incrementalism itself may reflect the nature of the production model based on Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management. The Pope points to the tunnel-vision inherent in such an approach. “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.

Not even human pride in our sapiens brain can touch the intricate complexity in Creation as evinced in natural laws. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.” The precariousness of conditions consistent with human life is invisible next to the observed constancy through a “long life” and, moreover, the length of human history. “Many people will deny doing anything wrong,” the Pope maintains, “because distractions constantly dull our consciousness of just how limited and finite our world really is.” The subtle premise that tomorrow will be like today is so hardwired into the human psyche that we are vulnerable to environmental shocks.

Not unexpectedly, the Pope assumes a distinctly religious perspective. Rather than selfishly padding our own nests in excess to what is natural (not to mention necessary) within a narrow perspective, “we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness.” Seeing himself as such an instrument, the Pope goes beyond the problem itself to propose possible steps toward a solution.

Given the tyranny of the status quo and its formidable defenders, the Pope argues that the “establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable.” The Pope is proposing here that some governmental sovereignty be transferred to the global level because relying on nation-states to deal with the externalities (i.e., CO2 emissions) had only resulted in dismal results. In other words, the nation-state system itself (and the disproportionate influence therein of business interests) had become incompatible with the new problem, which is inherently global and thus potentially treated at that scale, politically speaking.

“It is remarkable,” the Pope observes, “how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment makes it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” According to the Pope, “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.” In other words, plutocracy—wherein wealth rules—combined with the externalities-problem of the nation-state system rendered continued reliance on the extant system of geo-politics nothing short of a fool’s errand. In fact, the reliance could be classified as self-destructive from the species’ standpoint.

Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a seventeenth-century philosopher, wrote in his treatise, The Social Contract, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” At least with respect to the tyranny of the industrial and political status quo, those chains are entirely of our own making. It is easy to point to theoretical freedom, and yet quite another to stand up to the paymasters in order to hem them in such that the maximizing species will not pierce the semi-permeable membrane of the Earth’s habitat for humanity. If a transfer of governmental sovereignty to a global entity is needed to stave off additional climate change, who’s to say that large multinational corporations won’t capture that power too? Moreover, how many government officials would willingly give up some power to a global organization that could hold them accountable? At the time, the U.S. would not even agree to be bound by the International Criminal Court. Also, neither China nor Russia—defenders of the notion of absolute sovereignty, or “internal affairs”—would likely consent to be bound by a global entity that could be dominated by the U.S. and the E.U. In short, if the Vatican’s assessment and prescription are correct, the species made in God’s image might turn out to be a flickering image on the mask of eternity.

1. Pope Francis, “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si,” All quotes from the Pope in this essay are from this source.
3. The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, “Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” The Lancet, June 23, 2015.
4. Sheppard, “Surgeon General.”
5. Seth Borenstein, “Panel of Doctors Give a Warming Earth a Physical and Say Kick the Coal Habit Immediately,” US News and World Report, June 22, 2015.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Reforming Chinese Courts: A Fool’s Errand?

With Chinese courts revising more than 1,300 criminal decisions in 2014, the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Zhou Qiang, told the national legislature in March 2015, “With regard to wrongful convictions, we feel a deep sense of self-blame and demand that courts at all levels draw a profound lesson.”[1] Six months earlier, President Xi Jinping had initiated legal reforms on the premise that the Communist Party needed a “better-functioning” legal system in order to be able to govern.[2] The question is whether this push will come to anything substantial.

According to The Wall Street Journal, political considerations are one reason why the courts have had so many wrongful convictions, including in capital crimes. “The police, prosecutors and the courts are often coordinated by the party based on interests other than determining the truth,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights researcher, explains.[3] This collusion is vulnerable to the human presumption of infallibility. The police or government officials presume that “they have their man,” and the prosecutors and even judges act as reinforcers (or enforcers). As a result, the defense attorneys can only put up defenses they know will not make any difference to the outcome of the cases.

In Western jurisprudence, the conventional wisdom is that only a judiciary independent from the government and police can resist “political considerations” and intimidation. Even when formally separate, a judiciary can still be subject to pressure, however. Chinese firewalls can fail when a power-gradient is sufficiently steep. A judge facing re-election, for example, may not want to “rock the boat” with “the powers that be” years before the election, lest other candidates be used to take the judge out.

Unfortunately for the Chinese people, President Xi continued the requirement that the legal system serve the interests of the Communist Party.[4] So for all the atoning for miscarriages of justice, the government’s efforts to reform the legal system in order to instill public confidence in it and thus in the party as well, the collusion—and thus the wrongful convictions—would likely continue. Put another way, without fundamentally altering the design of the system that includes the government, the Communist Party, the police, lawyers, and the courts, urging judges to be more careful can only be a fool’s errand.

[1] Josh Chin, “Top Judge Apologizes for Wrongful Convictions,” The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.