Thursday, September 9, 2010

In which Thomas Friedman saves me

Quite some time ago I was involved in a comments discussion at Reclusive Leftist which shook one of my long-held beliefs about “the Left”. It occurred in the context of a discussion on health care policy but veered into the issue of the United States’ superpower status. RL is replying to an earlier comment on health policy when she says:

... international comparisons don’t matter to most Americans. Exceptionalism is strong in this country. Most people cannot quite believe that anything learned in any other country really applies to America.

It’s enormously frustrating, of course. But I don’t know any way around it. I think we may have to get further along in our descent from World Superpower. Kind of the way Britain had to stop being an empire before it could really deal emotionally and psychologically with being one of a number of small European countries.

A friend of mine likes to cheer on the Chinese. Take our crown! she says. We’re ready for you to take over as the Evil Empire!

To which I replied:

Which is why I found Dr. Socks’ comment #51 quite surprising and rather discouraging. I always believed that conservatives who insisted the Left actually *wanted* the US diminished and would be overjoyed to let others - India, China, possibly Russia - become the globe’s super-powers, were paranoid wingnuts. Sure, I would say, the Left wants the United States to use its power and wealth differently but it doesn’t actually want the US to be at the mercy of other countries, a couple of which have remarkably lousy records on human rights. I now realize I’ll have to go abase myself for being so naive.

I thought about this exchange from time to time but never quite found a hook on which to hang it in a blog post. (Besides I don’t like to abase myself any more than anyone else does.) Recently Thomas Friedman wrote a column that gave me that hook. He argues that:

When the world’s only superpower gets weighed down with this much debt — to itself and other nations — everyone will feel it. How? Hard to predict. But all I know is that the most unique and important feature of U.S. foreign policy over the last century has been the degree to which America’s diplomats and naval, air and ground forces provided global public goods — from open seas to open trade and from containment to counterterrorism — that benefited many others besides us. U.S. power has been the key force maintaining global stability, and providing global governance, for the last 70 years. That role will not disappear, but it will almost certainly shrink.

Friedman quotes Michael Mandelbaum’s claim that:

No country now stands ready to replace the United States, so the loss to international peace and prosperity has the potential to be greater as America pulls back than when Britain did.

He then does a brief rundown of possible replacements:

After all, Europe is rich but wimpy. China is rich nationally but still dirt poor on a per capita basis and, therefore, will be compelled to remain focused inwardly and regionally. Russia, drunk on oil, can cause trouble but not project power. “Therefore, the world will be a more disorderly and dangerous place,” Mandelbaum predicts.

Friedman (and Mandelbaum) appear to be arguing that the existence of any global superpower would be better than none. That may be true in terms of containing armed conflict. I don’t think it’s true in all global concerns, though. It seems to me that the United States has usually tempered its raw national self-interest with at least some concern for the welfare of the global community as a whole. I’m not sure China would so temper its own self-interest - although I suppose it might grow into that - and I am fairly sure Russia would not. As for Europe, I believe it probably would be concerned with global welfare but think that’s irrelevant since Europe seem to be permanently stuck in wimpy - although enough chaos in the wake of an American retrenchment might change that.

Still, it’s reassuring to see that someone who I think can accurately be described as Left (with a capital “L”) acknowledges the fact that the United States’ reign as superpower has provided benefits - “global public goods” - for other countries. He may not agree with me that this country has been unusually beneficent but it eases my mind to read the remainder of his column and find that he would, in fact, like for the United States to do whatever is necessary to stop its “descent from World Superpower”. Not only is it substantively reassuring, it also means I can dismiss Reclusive Leftist’s position as on the fringe and not have to abase myself after all.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lovely spam, wonderful spam

Blogger is sorting some comments into the Spam bucket which is fine. It’s sorting some non-spam comments into the Spam bucket which is understandable. However, when it emails me about comments it is not warning me when a comment is sorted into the Spam bucket and that's neither fine nor understandable. This means I’ve been assuming the comments I’m emailed about have been showing up and so I haven’t been keeping up with un-spamming good comments as well as I should. I finally figured out this was going on and will be checking the Spam bucket more often - I’m hoping to remember to do it every day.

My apologies to anyone whose comments languished unread for too long.

Majestic equality

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. - Anatole France

And to drive gas guzzlers.

Jeff Jacoby has written a critique of last year’s Cash For Clunkers program. There were a number of problems with this program but the one that stands out for me is the one caused by the environmental aspect of Cash For Clunkers. In order to help the environment, the program required the destruction of the (perfectly usable) cars traded in when new cars were bought. This has reduced the supply of used cars and driven up the price for people who want to buy one. According to Jacoby, there should have been no question who would benefit and who would suffer as a result:

No great insight was needed to realize that Cash for Clunkers would work a hardship on people unable to afford a new car. “All this program did for them,’’ I wrote last August, “was guarantee that used cars will become more expensive. Poorer drivers will be penalized to subsidize new cars for wealthier drivers.’’

I have written before about a government program - outlawing incandescent lightbulbs - that is saving the environment on the backs of those who can least afford it. As I said then, I do not think either Michael Crichton or Aaron Wildavsky would be surprised at yet another example of the truth of Wildavsky’s conclusion that:

resilience is a better strategy than anticipation, and that anticipatory strategies (such as the precautionary principle) favor the social elite over the mass of poorer people.

(Via Greg Mankiw)