Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chicken Little or Just a Little Chicken?

Neither actually. The title is in honor of today’s publication in Nature of the genome of the domestic chicken. Meanwhile, I’m not particularly alarmed by recent political developments, though I certainly expect the outcome to be unfavorable for the United States. I’ve reached the time in my life when I find that external events have little lasting effect on my equipoise, either because I have an ever decreasing stake in the game or, more likely, because I’ve finally finished bulletproofing my vanity. My selfesteem unthreatened, I’ve risen above it all like a soap bubble, trivial and very temporary but round and perfect. Besides, though unfortunately my money's not in Euros, I mostly share the complacent European take on the Grand Fiasco. I calculate that the American empire is more likely to blow itself out in a noisy squall than to take the planet down with it in a terminal hurricane. So far, at least, we’ve been very careful to avoid a confrontation with anybody really dangerous so our Middle Eastern adventures have something of the staged and cheesy quality of a professional wrestling match, albeit the phony contest leaves all too many real corpses lying around. In this respect, Mr. Bush’s obvious lack of personal courage is a very positive factor. It’s hard to imagine these blowhards picking a fight with the Russians or Chinese.

America is not the world, and our misfortune is not necessarily a tragedy for humankind. Indeed, as Emmanuel Todd points out, loss of primacy may not even be a disaster for the Americans. The U.S. is a very rich and powerful country and will probably remain relatively rich and political significant even after it finishes impoverishing and humiliating itself—200 years after Napoleon, Paris remains a wonderful place to live and Washington may turn out to be a similarly agreeable monument to vanished pretension. Anyhow, as a rule, though everybody claims to be surprised when it finally happens, the decline of states and societies always takes longer than expected. It’s not quite time to start selling sombreros and colorful plaster piggybanks to Canadian tourists.

I go through phases of being similarly sanguine about the consequences of our neglect of the environment. Despite the interminable attempts of right-wing op-ed writers, most people knowledgeable about global warming don’t expect the Northern hemisphere to turn into a double boiler. Indeed, unless there really is some catastrophic tipping point, a real but modest possibility, global warming won’t ruin the Earth because its inexorably increasing effects will make international countermeasures inevitable. The people who project future energy prices for the utilities already routinely factor in the cost of CO2 recapture into their estimates of the economics of coal-burning power plants because in the long and even medium run, the opinions of this or that politician won’t matter. Willy-nilly we’ll have to restrain greenhouse gas emissions because, by definition, realities don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks. Just as the U.S. will eventually have to cut back on deficit financing even if Bush becomes dictator for life, even the Cato Institute will end up supporting global emission caps. Because the administration dragged its feet—and knuckles! —about global warming, the price of dealing with the problem will much higher than necessary but the resulting poverty, sickness, and death won’t necessarily make a good special effects movie. Let’s look on the bright side.

I also moderate my pessimism with a sometime belief in the Caucasian Cargo Cult of science. Like any other projection, guesses about the economic, political, and environmental future are based on assumptions about boundary conditions. For example, Marx’s prediction of the collapse of capitalism, indeed, his whole view of the human prospect, was vitiated by a drastic underestimation of the productive power of technology. I’m well aware that my own thoughts about what may or may not happen in the next several years similarly depend upon an estimate of the advance of technology. Maybe nanotechnology or some other Great Pig will arrive at the last moment and usher in a Rabelaisian millennium of sausages and mustard or, at the very least, ensure that even the humblest family will be able to enjoy the apocalypse on a high definition plasma screen in their cozy abandoned coal mine.
Live and Learn

Experience is a great substitute for brains—Hamburger Helper for the cognitively penurious. By now, I’ve accumulated enough of it to get through a few senior moments. Unfortunately, I’ve also had a lot more practice at being wrong than younger folks so maybe I’ve gotten better at that, too. For example, the current administration demonstrates a host of tendencies that were formerly thought to presage disaster; but the Conservatives and their de facto supporters in the media assure me that they’ve changed all that. Don’t get paranoid just because your lover is a bisexual Haitian hooker with a drug problem. The government is in good hands. The rules have changes under the new dispensation and it is no longer unwise for governments to:

Conduct public affairs in profound secrecy

Bribe and intimidate the press

Institutionalize groupthink by surrounding the leader with Yes-men

Destroy the careers and reputations of anyone who dissents

Denounce domestic opposition as unpatriotic

Replace professional civil servants and government scientists with political appointees

Vilify opponents by well-orchestrated campaigns of innuendo and slander

Suppress or distort unfavorable economic statistics

Disseminate inaccurate scientific and medical information

Freely break existing international agreements

Conduct aggressive wars without international sanction

Undertake military actions with insufficient forces

Permit or encourage the use of torture

Systematically weaken civil rights

Run up huge deficits

I could have sworn that a country ruled in this fashion was heading for disaster, but what do I know? Perhaps some one in the non-fascist right can explain to me again why I shouldn’t fret.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Now That We Need Him

Marxist ideas are laughed at these days, especially by Libertarians, Neocons, and other deep thinkers; but Marxism raised questions that don’t go away just because the most dogmatic version of the philosophy was associated with a failed empire. Like other enterprises of thought sponsored by religions or political movements, Marxism provided a context in which insightful inquiry of a focused kind could take place, not despite but because of its ideological setting. One can learn from Marxist sociologists and historians just as atheistic scholars can profit from the philosophers and theologians of Christendom without sharing even one article of their credo.

Whatever its failings, Marxism has at least one huge virtue. It relentlessly asks the question “who?” of history and politics. Thus where social scientists, no less than television pundits, blithely assume that policy debates are about the best means to achieve common goals, the Marxists recognize this methodological bipartisanship for the rhetorical scam it undoubtedly is and try to figure out which interests speak through which proposals. It may be an oversimplification or even paranoia to assume that all human affairs are a struggle between the exploiters and the exploited, but the opposite presumption is far less realistic. The current debate about social security reform, for example, is certainly not about how best to structure a system to assure a decent retirement for everybody. That’s why the official arguments on both sides seem so feeble. The wonkish debate is a ceremonial clown fight that serves to misdirect attention from the real issues. In fact, for middling people, attempting to preserve the social security system in something like its current state is a defensive struggle to maintain one of the few remaining mechanisms of income redistribution. For the well off, privatizing the system is an offensive operation to make the over all tax system less progressive and thereby increase the disparity of wealth between the haves and have-nots. One group doesn’t want to get poorer. The second group wants to get richer at the expense of the first.