We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Protectionism Works

Protectionism is what made every historically major country wealthy and powerful in the last 300 years (including the current free trade pushers like UK and USA). Protectionism should stop being a bad word as Japan and China can testify

The title may make the reader shake head immediately because a kind word is not often found with "protectionism" in the same sentence these days. Although United States industry was essentially built on protectionist tariffs (until 16th amendment of 1913 allowed federal government to start functioning via income tax instead of high tariffs on imports) the last 30 years involved continuous top down push of free trade propaganda. It is thus understandable that protectionism brings a negative psychological reaction even if there aren't ready made arguments to explain why.

If one looks at how world's key societies rapidly became wealthy and powerful (in the last 300 years), protectionism was always the dominating factor to help out native industry. France and England in 18th-19th century, United States, Japan, and Germany in 19th-20th century, and China in 20th are just some of the success stories.

In fairness, we can't overlook a number of small (population and physical size) states that are positioned to thrive in free trade by their geography (ocean reliant ports of Singapore, Hong Kong, Netherlands and Switzerland with its base in ancient Alps trading routes) which often also function as financial hubs. As far as large historically active players on the world stage, all became what they are due to basics like tariffs.

One may begin to argue that protectionism of old was different in that it was an ideological pillar of now "discredited" mercantilism. However, mercantilism never went away and still works wonderfully in more advanced forms in China and Japan (and even in Western Europe to a certain degree). Certainly we can understand the desire of a state to lower protectionist measures once its industries have sufficiently grown and benefited from them. We have seen England begin to push free trade propaganda in 19th century after its factories became the best in the world. Same pattern continued with United States (which had some of the most advanced and some of the only factories left standing) after World War 2.

One would think that United States would learn a lesson from slow decline of British Empire (late 19th century to 1960s) due to transition from mercantile protectionism to free trade and reserve currency imperialism. Surely it would have affirmed that lesson from the rapid rebirth (after the initial breathtaking success of their mercantile industrial expansion in late 19th century) of Japanese and German societies in the 1950s ad 1960s. It was crystal clear what works for national enrichment, job creation, national self respect, technological progress, and higher quality of life for the average citizen.

It can be summarized as follows:

1) Tariffs work, keeping out foreign competition and their advanced imports such as cars works, trade barriers work, high import duties work, allowing foreign companies to set up shop only in partnership with native companies/unions works

2) Free trade doesn't work as well as trade barriers historically when it comes to rapid national development and can even fatally drain a nation

For a number of years before the current economic depression hit, many old time free trade warriors like Nobel prize winning neoclassical economist Paul Samuelson began to realize that the global reallocation of industry can produce a domestic win-loss scenario for United States (especially in its trade contact with protectionist China) where the loss is so great as to be socially catastrophic. Samuelson used to have absolute faith in comparative advantage but his most recent major paper argues that free trade theory needs to be reformed for the modern world if it is to survive. Samuelson is too old (94) to meaningfully contribute at this point but major reallocation of his thought at this age shows the seriousness of free trade problems. One translated Der Spiegel interview has him mouth the thoughts familiar to anti-WTO protesters: that rising economic inequality within "globalizing" nation is a type of win-loss scenario that is unacceptable and stupid to be allowed to happen.

Another crusty dinosaur, Alan Greenspan, has mentioned a few years ago how rising inequality can threaten democratic functioning of United States. When free marketeers and capitalist internationalists utter words like these, it's the equivalent of John McCain saying that perhaps United States naval forces should be cut down in size. It's the equivalent of the Pope saying that perhaps some birth control should be introduced into church doctrine to save lives. Some of American elites (mostly in the nationalist democratic wing of the American oligarchy) have taken notice of this.

At this point, rapid and badly needed protectionist measures may shock United States into falling further into the economic abyss. Chinese retaliation and corresponding rise in cost of imports will not help United States get further away from risk of a hyperinflationary scenario. It would thus make sense for Barack Obama to sneak in defensive nationalist measures gradually. His recent decision to to impose a tariff on Chinese tires may be beginning of such an attempt. Tariffs on foreign made car batteries and materials/parts connected to industries decided to be"strategic" ( like green energy ) may follow. The way protectionism is introduced by the current administration will be vital for any chances of American rebirth within a generation.

When pound sterling began declining as reserve currency in the 50s and 60s along with British industry, London decided to cut off its foreign colonies for purposes of national regeneration and survival. United States needs to begin a similar process of disengagement from the world to match decline of the dollar as reserve. Since British Empire and United States were both in strong imperial position at the time of their full commitment to pushing free trade on the world, they found it easy to combine lack of protectionism with parasitic existence of unproductive consumption through the use of reserve currencies. In that sense, free trade "worked" for them for a while even as it impoverished small countries that were pushed to engage in it. This period is now coming to an end and a new model has to be formulated.

Some Europeans, like Emmanuel Todd, propose "protectionism on a continental scale" (the article is in French but is very readable with google translate). It may be argued that China already practices that to a degree in that it has the population and economy large enough for import restrictions without being crushed and impoverished. European Union definitely has what it takes for such an action especially if it coordinates with some nearby states like Russia. North American Union and South American Union may one day be such entities to effectively fight off Asian and European imports. Trade cannot be decoupled from production and effective production needs to be able to compete between itself rather than just exist in one part of the world where it's cheapest.

Let's hope some common sense prevails and more people question official orthodoxy of global unification by only one narrow "inevitable" route (the optimism of Thomas Friedman is now laughable in hindsight). Real globalization seems a lot more within reach when self enriching, wealth producing, continent wide economic unions do business with one another in a more equal way.

Lets remember what the 25th president of the United States William McKinley said about free trade at the end of 19th century when he affirmed a commonly held belief among American elites and citizens,

"Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man. [It is said] that protection is immoral…. Why, if protection builds up and elevates 63,000,000 [the U.S. population] of people, the influence of those 63,000,000 of people elevates the rest of the world. We cannot take a step in the pathway of progress without benefitting mankind everywhere. Well, they say, ‘Buy where you can buy the cheapest'…. Of course, that applies to labor as to everything else. Let me give you a maxim that is a thousand times better than that, and it is the protection maxim: ‘Buy where you can pay the easiest.' And that spot of earth is where labor wins its highest rewards."

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Afghanistan Election: Does Obama Want a New Puppet?

Hamid Karzai finds himself under the same scrutiny usually reserved for allies of China and Russia. Afghanistan as an American protectorate may soon see change in management as has historically occurred when puppets didn't perform

In the eyes of the new reform minded regime in the White House, the Indian educated CIA man Hamid Karzai may have outlived his usefulness. Even as Karzai's vote total is inching closer to 50%+ needed to avoid a runoff, he finds himself in the same situation as Babrak Karmal in 1986. That means that just like the Soviet backed mayor of Kabul in the 80s, the new American backed mayor of Kabul has grown too comfortable in his expectation that a foreign force will prop his rule indefinitely. Sure, he tries to be a political middleman between various factions by not sticking his head out too much in siding with any one of them. That tactic of survival through doing nothing has historically worked only for a time. Eventually, somebody gets frustrated.

In this case it appears to be the American generals who saw soldier casualties rise every year since 2001 invasion. NATO's very existence is at stake in a mission that was supposed to give the obsolete alliance some relevancy. The rising casualties and disgruntled protests from alliance countries make the issue more urgent for the preservation of American power in Western Europe. Their recent insistence that the Afghan army get expanded and start pulling its weight is analogous to Soviet command's desire to expand Afghan army in mid 1980s after 6 years of escalating casualties among occupying troops.

What does it mean for a puppet army to do more work? It means creating conditions where the occupying power can delegate killing to others. In Soviet Union's case, it was pressured replacement of Babrak Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah. Najibullah has shown himself to be energetic, efficient, and very willing to crack skulls and use Afghans against other Afghans. Besides being a more aggressive and more capable puppet, he also had potential to gain more legitimacy among Afghanistan's population by also being very supportive of extended modernization efforts to raise quality of life.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's snappy "Western leaning" (usual catchphrase to refer to actual and potential American puppets as shown by the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia) reformer challenger fits the role of a replacement puppet perfectly. For an occupied country (where corruption and election censorship is a lot worse than Iran), Abdullah has been getting unusually large amounts of American media coverage before and during election process. United States media does not usually focus on challengers taking on corrupt incumbents trying to influence election results in their favor unless these incumbents have become obstacles for American geopolitical strategy. US and its intelligence organs and NATO allies have been creating public relations victories and force multiplier effects for pro-Washington friendlies for decades. They recently had great success by dislodging Yanukovich, Shevardnadze, and Milosevich (with a possible attempt against Ahmadinejad in Iran this summer) by promoting "pro-Western" opposition to power through rapid creation of negative international media perception (character assassinating incumbents as corrupt and needing to go for the good of all). Even the Northern Alliance side in the 1996-2001 civil war was elevated to be a knight in shining armor with relatively great success.

Karzai has recently found himself under the same public relations attack that is usually reserved for allies of Russia or China. He has:

1) been warned by a US envoy to prepare for a recount. Although he is supposedly 2% away from reaching 50% to clinch the nomination, this week saw nullification of entire ballot districts, a process that can be modified to create whatever result is needed.

2) been object of major negative attention from key national propaganda papers like New York Times and Washington Post (that have some influence on wealthy American citizens).

3) has not been supplied with enough weaponry for more independent functioning in last 2 years even after personal requests. He subsequently threatened to acquire weaponry from "the other place" (presumably a non-NATO regional power)

Karzai and his family also have relatively strong ties to the previous regime in DC as their connections to Bush family and CIA go back 20 years. As India and Pakistan intelligence services begin to position themselves to end their conflict over who will have influence in Afghanistan, United States may very well decide to back Abdullah Abdullah as new puppet (his base of political support is in northern non-Pashtun Afghanistan). As we saw in the second phase of the Afghan civil war in the late 1990s, non-Pashtun northeners will have no problem slaughtering Pashtun Taliban even without an international Western force in the country. The spectacle of the Afghan election and the low turn out has shown that even the illusion of a democratic mask on a puppet regime is unworkable. Insurgency continues regardless of whether the leader is Pashtun and whether the leader is willing to not exert himself too much.

It is thus logical for an occupying force to leave a smaller ethnic group (or in Afghan case, an alliance of ethnic groups) that resorts to a lot more forceful and independent pacification methods to remain in power after the imperial withdrawal. It has been done like that throughout history. Getting members of a new leadership from the former Northern Alliance region is also more acceptable to European Union (whose members have more responsibility, connections, and personal hearts and minds contact there) and Russia (which wants a friendly Tajik/Uzbek buffer between Central Asia and fundamentalist Islam in southern Afghanistan. They already had spillover from Afghanistan once during the civil war in Tajikistan).

This week brought the additional criticism of the current occupational arrangement from Western European NATO members after the fuel tanker bombardment. Although the German command ordered the bombing, the Anglo-American tactics of long distant bombardment is what's criticized here. Clearly Europeans want to accelerate the process of passing their duties to their connections in northern half of the country (who will then have a more intimate violent contact in pacifying the south while aided by generous donations of cash and weapons). Even Russia jumped on the bandwagon this week by asking to help NATO plan the process that it has so much experience with.

Dealing with Karzai will not be a matter of creating another orange revolution since he has managed to make a lot of connections in central and southern parts of the country (even if he has no control over them). He can't be simply assassinated either was the South Vietnamese puppet in the old days. It remains to be seen whether Obama administration can be creatively proactive in restructuring the regime of this American protectorate by itself (and thus show leadership and get respect to preserve its status as first among equals in NATO) or if it will defer to designs of other NATO members.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review of Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Brzezinski explores in 1970 how Internet will reshape human psychology/social climate and how United States will decline if it doesn't meaningfully direct technology that it spawned.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has long been a controversial figure and target of conspiracy theories within the United States and around the world. As one of key organizers of the Trilateral Commission (David Rockefeller's globalist platform towards greater world integration), Brzezinski combined his analytic genius with the financial and social backing of the world's most energetic internationalist activist oligarch. Reading even a bit about David Rockefeller's life is enough to catch a glimpse concerning the real power structure of the world.

It was never a secret that policy formulation about global development occurs when a few hundred powerful individuals meet to eat and drink while talking and sharing stories. Among these billionaire businessmen, heads of state, and Ivy League scientists/researchers, there are always a few who become the theoretical strategists that help the rest of the elite see more of the big picture.

Brzezinski was one of these strategically minded people in whom the will to power was overflowing. He got to position of formulating international policy for Jimmy Carter by writing a brilliant book on the state of the world in 1970 and where it may possibly be headed. A very kind conspiracy website has offered the whole text of this book in PDF format: Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era to be read by anybody who is interested in one of the best, clearest, and far reaching sophisticated political science dissections of the 20th century. Used copies can always be bought for 300 dollars and libraries don't seem to readily have it at all (all adding to the conspiratorial mystique of a text by a man who perhaps did the most to collapse Soviet Union through alienating it with American international emphasis on human rights and setting a trap for Soviets in Afghanistan).

Since the book was published in 1970, Brzezinski was writing during the peak of American civilization (1968-1973). The country's raw physical power and culture were at their furthest global extent during this time. People to this day write silly articles complaining of supposed great "self indulgence" of the generation that matured during that time period. It is understandable since people who reached their productive age of mid to late 20s in years after 1973 were working with increasingly weaker and economically stagnating society and thus couldn't do as much even if they had the will. A declining society will not empower individuals and vice-versa.

Brzezinski seems to have fallen victim to a conceptual trap that happens when observing the world by standing at the peak of a great hegemony. It is like a geostrategist writing about the future of the world right after Germany conquered France early in WW2. Brzezinski himself was 42 years old just having polished, extended, and turned his greatest research paper into a book after self sharpening criticism of other brilliant minds like Samuel Huntington.

Nevertheless, even with this understandable handicap he produced a brilliant pragmatic analysis of most of the world and even United States to a degree (even his bleak scenarios for near future American domestic developments could not envision the deterioration during 1980s and 1990s). Nietzsche, in his Will to Power notes, commented that,

"It is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things, to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organizes a small portion of it oneself."

Brzezinski captures the essence of the quote in that he observed the international dynamic by looking at changes in power arrangement that will occur from technological and conceptual trends (which in turn change social/psychological development of world's people) without applying any ideological construct. He then went on to give this personal organization direction by suggesting what to do in the decades ahead and then went ahead and did everything possible to back his suggestions with physical violence.

The book can be simply summarized as follows:

3 great constructs 1) monotheistic religion, 2) nationalism, and 3) Marxism have pushed humanity the most towards understanding more about the world and igniting human desire for greater equality and freedom (each in its own gradually increasing way that responded to particular social conditions at the time). However all 3 are beginning to lose their power over the minds of men at the time the book is written in 1970. They are all rapidly losing their universal appeal and utility since they cant be meaningfully and productively applied to a globalizing pluralistic world of many interests, factions, supranational problems, and technologies that radically and quickly reshape social forces and psychological consciousness of men. The said technologies (they are primarily mass communication technology and post-industrial managerial systems techniques. Brzezinski comfortably speaks of implications from internet's revolutionary effect on social psyche in 1970) are being the most widely implemented in the United States. As such, United States will be the hardest hit and the most reshaped by being the first post-industrial great power. Mass communications technology is creating global consciousness among those exposed to it but may also contribute to great upheavals in the third world by bringing insufferable psychological appraisal of all too real inequality. United States should thus use its position as the most scientifically advanced post-industrial state to enter into increasingly closer collaboration with Europe, Asia, and Soviet Union for its own domestic security and security of the world. Since there is death of ideology (by stagnation, growing irrelevance, and conceptual inapplicability of religion/nationalism/Marxism to solve world's problems), United States as the backbone of a new world order is the most logical and humane way to go into the unknown future for which prepackaged constructs no longer apply.

That's the shortest summary that could be done and it doesn't even touch on his dissection of the severe American and Soviet problems (as well as remarkably accurate predictions on which scenarios likely await Soviet Union in 1980s).

The book's solution may sound imperialist from the summary (and in light of Brzezinski's past hawkish geopolitical dealings in breaking Soviet power that were at times more forceful than Kissinger's). However, the analysis and book's suggestions made in 1970 are not extremist at all and I cannot think of any other way that world's elite's can bring more global unity in a more peaceful way than one proposed. Some of Brzezinski's emphasis for America's domestic evolution is on:

1) Putting aside ideological bigotries when solving national problems and using scientific and technocratic governance to best apply emergent technology

2) Increasing role of scientists and engineers in government yet at the same time countering and balancing their role with soft science policy makers (since many scientists are good at their specialized field of study and not good at integrated philosophical policy making). Putting emphasis on systems analysis borrowed from the corporate world and NASA. Thus promoting integration of technological solutions with humanistic psychological/social study into effects of said solutions when applied to the country at large.

3) Relying less on coercive measures abroad and closing down most of military bases overseas. Reducing the size and arrogant presence of foreign missions and embassies by emulating the style of cheaper corporate offices, laboratories and R&D departments

4) Closing the racial inequality between blacks and whites in United States through continuous life education (1-2 years university training every 10 years of one's life) and civil service in psychologically inspiring developmental projects. Utilizing the internet and computing to bring ivy league level educational materials to all Americans into their homes and schools and to create digital voting and legislative participation. German style technical and job training in junior year in college to better close American divides between rural/urban peoples, whites/blacks, young/old.

5) Pushing for a constitutional convention (for historic anniversaries of 1976 and 1989) to remodel American governance more on the West European model of pluralistic democracy. Do away with archaic aristocratic structures to preserve liberal democracy and prevent stagnation and oligarchic corporate encroachment.

6) Break up emerging monopolies of media conglomerates to provide a more decentralized news feed to consumers

Ridiculous, absurd, authoritarian, kinda Marxist? Many semi-educated people on the Internet are saying that about these proposals ever since Brzezinski backed Obama for president. Undoubtedly, he now has communication and thus some influence on the new president the extent of which we will see by the congruence of Obama's near future policies and Brzezinski's recent recommendations (his books in last 20 years that are highly critical of republican approach to global integration). We see a lot of his quotes taken out of context. For example his thoughts that expansion of Communism's popularity was in many ways a positive evolution for humanity. The same can be said about Napoleon's influence on the world and nationalism. We can see how out of context statements can indeed sound disastrous to conspiracy minded individuals.

However, there are currently no "more acceptable" alternatives to solving 21st century problems on international scale without relying on elites like Brzezinski "conspiring" together. Even creation of more democratic methods to solve global problems will involve elites in the formulation of these methods. Noam Chomsky praises Bolivia as the most democratic nation in the world today for their mass participatory democratic efforts. As of today, key states on earth cannot use advanced Bolivian methods satisfy conspiracy theorist's desire for needed transparency and democracy.

The most fascinating aspect of the book (and prime reason on why everybody with some free time should read it) is just how relevant it is to today's world 4 decades after being written. We are now very far in construction of global consciousness with post-industrial communication technologies. A whole generation of people has lived their whole life and has been morphed by the forces discussed in the book.

The second best reason to read it is to see how Brzezinski's analysis of Soviet Union's inability to transform into a more technocratic society now also applies to United States remarkably well. In fact, in light of the great similarities of modern USA and Soviet Union in 1980s (in terms of problems they face/faced), there is uncanny relevance if one substitutes USA for Soviet Union in a lot of the book's summaries. Since I have increasingly written about many such similarities, these parts of the book drew my interest and focus the most. Here are some examples:

"it is striking how much intellectual effort has been invested in asserting and proving the distinctive character of the communist system. It once again reveals the importance attached to the notion that the Soviet past is linked to a future that is absolutely distinctive and not part of a broader stream of man's political evolution"

"Yet, in spite of this, the Soviet conception of the broad framework of contemporary reality, as articulated by top leaders and even as presented in scholarly journals, remains fundamentally dogmatic. The basic premise continues to be the Manichaean notion of the antagonistic dichotomy between the socialist and the capitalist worlds (or between good and evil)"

"The antagonists are capitalism and socialism." 18 Eventually one or the other will have to prevail, ‡ and Soviet analysts are confident that they know which one it will be. This theme runs like a thread through all major speeches, foreign policy analyses, or scholarly commentaries on world affairs."

It is remarkable that Francis Fukuyama got as much coverage as he did due to disintegration of one "socialist" regional power while China remained standing. We can imagine how Soviets had their own Fukuyama equivalents and how Chinese and Europeans have their own today who make proud declarations. Let's continue,

"The consequence, however, is to congeal certain formulas and claims, making intellectual innovation more difficult, even when on the operational level ideological restraints are increasingly evaded. The result is a condition of arrested ideological development, of ideological petrifaction rather than erosion, Marxist thought remaining vital only outside the Soviet Union"

This quote is fascinating in that there is good reason to believe that many societies around the world today do more to evolve and improve capitalism than United States does.

"Protracted internal decay as a result of the leadership's inability to come to grips with current problems, continued failure to catch up with the United States in the scientific competition, and internal threats to national unity could in a context of increasing ideological indifference combine with an international security threat to spark a fundamentalist spasm from a section of the elite. Such spasms are characteristic of political faiths in their decline. "

It is ironic that Brzezinski recently criticized George Bush Sr. for not taking advantage of Soviet collapse by creating new international structures. It now seems obvious that Washington DC's leadership was simply not capable of being creative and flexible enough to shape a new world order in early 1990s. Beginning of the Reagan period was the equivalent of the start of the Brezhnev period of defensive ideological orthodoxy and thus stagnation. Bush administration's heightened use of simplistic symbolism and a violent jihad abroad was the last gasp and manifestation of this period.

It may very well be that old age got to Brzezinski as well (or perhaps being wealthy he became too alienated from general society) and he was not able to articulate of a crash program to reverse these difficulties. He now hopes to preserve United States as a player by a continuing push to weaken Russia and China so there is victory by default. All his advice on how to reform United States in the 70s and 80s was definitely rejected by oligarchic coup against Jimmy Carter (the collaboration between intelligence services and Reagan's campaign to have American hostages in Iran longer for political expediency being one strong dimension of the coup).

Brzezinski's worst scenarios for United States (such as those concerning potentialities of not integrating blacks and whites, consolidation of media corporations to create ideological propaganda, not being a role model for Germany and Japan anymore, not closing the growing perceptual divide between the young and the old in the 70s, not focusing on technological solutions for political and social problems, not continuing integrated efforts to eliminate American poverty, not continually expanding corps of engineers and scientists) have been surpassed by an even darker reality.

"it follows that this society's most imperative task is to define a conceptual framework in which technological change can be given meaningful and humane ends. Unless this is done, there is the real danger that by remaining directionless the third American revolution, so pregnant with possibilities for individual creativity and fulfillment, can become socially destructive."

Unfortunately the book is often known for quotes like these
Barack Obama has arrived too late in the game to create meaningful reform. The recent Japanese election has shown total social rejection of emulating United States in the foreseeable future. The new ruling party is showing their split from their former colonial master as far as not betting on its future. Democratic Party of Japan has articulated desire to not buy any more American debt. The loss of Japan as an ideological colony after the loss of Germany (its condemnation of the Iraq invasion in 2003) is a loss of a very historically key tool for an American president. Obama may try to call for "sacrifice" and try to organize the youth to perform civic duty but that will get laughter at best and radical hatred at worst. Harnessing the "technetronic age" (Brzezinski's hybrid of technology and electronics) by politicians is now impossible on this continent without drastic political reform. Internet is now effectively harnessed from below.

If you're interested in psychology, political science, sociology, technology, futurism, or just like a great enlightening read (only 120 pages) then give Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era a go. It has aged well.

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