Our Empire of Consumption — the American Way of Life is Not Negotiable

Bill Moyers interviews US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, who identifies three major problems facing our democracy: the crises of economy, government and militarism, and calls for a redefinition of the American way of life. Excerpts below.

Link: Bill Moyers interviews US Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich.

BILL MOYERS: You call us an "empire of consumption."

ANDREW BACEVICH: I didn’t create that phrase. It’s a phrase drawn from a book by a wonderful historian at Harvard University, Charles Maier, and the point he makes in his very important book is that, if we think of the United States at the apex of American power, which I would say would be the immediate post World War Two period, through the Eisenhower years, into the Kennedy years. We made what the world wanted. They wanted our cars. We exported our television sets, our refrigerators – we were the world’s manufacturing base. He called it an "empire of production."

BILL MOYERS: Right.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers.

BILL MOYERS: And you say this has produced a condition of profound dependency, to the extent, and I’m quoting you, "Americans are no longer masters of their own fate."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, they’re not. I mean, the current debt to the Chinese government grows day by day. Why? Well, because of the negative trade balance. Our negative trade balance with the world is something in the order of $800 billion per year. That’s $800 billion of stuff that we buy, so that we can consume, that is $800 billion greater than the amount of stuff that we sell to them. That’s a big number. I mean, it’s a big number even relative to the size of our economy.

BILL MOYERS: And you use this metaphor that is intriguing. American policy makers, quote, "have been engaged in a de facto Ponzi scheme, intended to extend indefinitely, the American line of credit." What’s going on that resembles a Ponzi scheme?

ANDREW BACEVICH: This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due. I testified before a House committee six weeks ago now, on the future of U.S grand strategy. I was struck by the questions coming from members that showed an awareness, a sensitivity, and a deep concern, about some of the issues that I tried to raise in the book.

"How are we gonna pay the bills? How are we gonna pay for the commitment of entitlements that is going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire?" Nobody has answers to those questions. So, I was pleased that these members of Congress understood the problem. I was absolutely taken aback when they said, "Professor, what can we do about this?" And their candid admission that they didn’t have any answers, that they were perplexed, that this problem of learning to live within our means seemed to have no politically plausible solution.

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that the tipping point between wanting more than we were willing to pay for began in the Johnson Administration. "We can fix the tipping point with precision," you write. "It occurred between 1965, when President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, and 1973, when President Richard Nixon finally ended direct U.S. involvement in that war." Why do you see that period so crucial?

ANDREW BACEVICH: When President Johnson became President, our trade balance was in the black. By the time we get to the Nixon era, it’s in the red. And it stays in the red down to the present. Matter of fact, the trade imbalance becomes essentially larger year by year.

So, I think that it is the ’60s, generally, the Vietnam period, slightly more specifically, was the moment when we began to lose control of our economic fate. And most disturbingly, we’re still really in denial. We still haven’t recognized that.

BILL MOYERS: Now you go on to say that there was another fateful period between July 1979 and March of 1983. You describe it, in fact, as a pivot of contemporary American history. That includes Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I would be one of the first to confess that – I think that we have misunderstood and underestimated President Carter. He was the one President of our time who recognized, I think, the challenges awaiting us if we refused to get our house in order.

BILL MOYERS: You’re the only author I have read, since I read Jimmy Carter, who gives so much time to the President’s speech on July 15th, 1979. Why does that speech speak to you so strongly?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word "malaise" in the text to the address. It’s a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don’t act now, we’re headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.

He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded.

BILL MOYERS: And he lost the election. You in fact say-

ANDREW BACEVICH: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: -this speech killed any chance he had of winning reelection. Why? Because the American people didn’t want to settle for less?

ANDREW BACEVICH: They absolutely did not. And indeed, the election of 1980 was the great expression of that, because in 1980, we have a candidate, perhaps the most skillful politician of our time, Ronald Reagan, who says that, "Doom-sayers, gloom-sayers, don’t listen to them. The country’s best days are ahead of us."

BILL MOYERS: Morning in America.

ANDREW BACEVICH: It’s Morning in America. And you don’t have to sacrifice, you can have more, all we need to do is get government out of the way, and drill more holes for oil, because the President led us to believe the supply of oil was infinite.

BILL MOYERS: You describe Ronald Reagan as the "modern prophet of profligacy. The politician who gave moral sanction to the empire of consumption."

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, to understand the truth about President Reagan, is to understand why so much of what we imagined to be our politics is misleading and false. He was the guy who came in and said we need to shrink the size of government. Government didn’t shrink during the Reagan era, it grew.

He came in and he said we need to reduce the level of federal spending. He didn’t reduce it, it went through the roof, and the budget deficits for his time were the greatest they had been since World War Two.

BILL MOYERS: And do you remember that it was his successor, his Vice President, the first President Bush who said in 1992, the American way of life is not negotiable.

ANDREW BACEVICH: And all presidents, again, this is not a Republican thing, or a Democratic thing, all presidents, all administrations are committed to that proposition. Now, I would say, that probably, 90 percent of the American people today would concur. The American way of life is not up for negotiation.

What I would invite them to consider is that, if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, and of course you need to ask yourself, what is it you value most. That if you want to preserve that which you value most in the American way of life, then we need to change the American way of life. We need to modify that which may be peripheral, in order to preserve that which is at the center of what we value.

via Barry Ritholtz

Leadership in the U.S.

Thomas L. Friedman at the NYTimes.com offers some suggestions for McCain and Obama. Excerpts below.

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – No Laughing Matter – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com. Thomas L. Friedman

We have been living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. President Bush has nothing to offer anymore. So that leaves us with Barack Obama and John McCain. Neither has wowed me with his reaction to the market turmoil. In fairness, though, neither man has any levers of power to pull. But what could they say that would give you confidence that they could lead us out of this rut? My test is simple: Which guy can tell people what they don’t want to hear — especially his own base.

Think how much better off McCain would be today had he nominated Michael Bloomberg as his vice president rather than Sarah Palin. McCain could have said, “I’m not an expert on markets, but I’ve got one of the best on my team.” Instead of a V.P. to re-energize America, McCain went for a V.P. to re-energize the Republican base.

So what would get my attention from McCain? If he said the following: “My fellow Americans, I’ve decided for now not to continue the Bush tax cuts, because the most important thing for our country today is to get the government’s balance sheet in order. We can’t go on cutting taxes and not cutting spending. For too long my party has indulged that nonsense. Second, I intend to have most U.S. troops out of Iraq in 24 months. We have done all we can to midwife democracy there. Iraqis need to take it from here. We need every dollar now for nation-building in America. We will do everything we can to wind down our presence and facilitate the Iraqi elections, but we’re not going to baby-sit Iraqi politicians who don’t have the will or the courage to reconcile their differences — unless they want to pay us for that. In America, baby sitters get paid.”

What would impress me from Obama? How about this: “The Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers union want a Washington bailout. The only way they will get a dime out of my administration is if the automakers and unions come up with a joint plan to retool their fleets to get an average of 40 miles per gallon by 2015 — instead of the 35 m.p.g. by 2020 that they’ve reluctantly accepted. I am not going to bail out Detroit with taxpayer money, but I will invest in Detroit’s transformation with taxpayer money, provided the management and unions agree to radical change. At the same time, while I will go along with the bailout of the banking system, it will only be on the condition that the institutions that got us into this mess accept sweeping reforms — in terms of transparency and limits on the leverage they can amass — so we don’t go through something like this again. To help me figure this out, I’m going to keep Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on the job for a while. I am impressed with his handling of this crisis.”

Lee Iacocca: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Excerpts from Lee Iacocca’s book published in 2007. Apparently he was right on the mark and we’re seeing the results in 2008

Link: Iacocca: Where Have All the Leaders Gone?.

Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course." Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out! You might think I’m getting senile, that I’ve gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore.

I’m going to speak up because it’s my patriotic duty. I think people will listen to me. They say I have a reputation as a straight shooter. So I’ll tell you how I see it, and it’s not pretty, but at least it’s real. I’m hoping to strike a nerve in those young folks who say they don’t vote because they don’t trust politicians to represent their interests. Hey, America, wake up. These guys work for us. Who Are These Guys, Anyway? Why are we in this mess? How did we end up with this crowd in Washington? Well, we voted for them, or at least some of us did. But I’ll tell you what we didn’t do. We didn’t agree to suspend the Constitution. We didn’t agree to stop asking questions or demanding answers. Some of us are sick and tired of people who call free speech treason. Where I come from that’s a dictatorship, not a democracy. And don’t tell me it’s all the fault of right-wing Republicans or liberal Democrats. That’s an intellectually lazy argument, and it’s part of the reason we’re in this stew. We’re not just a nation of factions. We’re a people. We share common principles and ideals. And we rise and fall together.

Where are the voices of leaders who can inspire us to action and make us stand taller? What happened to the strong and resolute party of Lincoln? What happened to the courageous, populist party of FDR and Truman? There was a time in this country when the voices of great leaders lifted us up and made us want to do better. Where have all the leaders gone?

U.S. Energy Policy: Stay Addicted

Thomas L. Friedman describes missed opportunities for leadership on energy policy.

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – 9/11 and 4/11 – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.

President Bush is well on his way to being remembered as the leader who wasted not one but two crises: 9/11 and 4/11. The average price of gasoline in the U.S. last week, according to the Energy Information Administration, was $4.11.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on breaking our addiction to oil. Instead, he told us to go shopping. After gasoline prices hit $4.11 last week, he had the chance to summon the country to a great nation-building project focused on clean energy. Instead, he told us to go drilling.

Neither shopping nor drilling is the solution to our problems.

What doesn’t the Bush crowd get? It’s this: We don’t have a “gasoline price problem.” We have an addiction problem. We are addicted to dirty fossil fuels, and this addiction is driving a whole set of toxic trends that are harming our nation and world in many different ways. It is intensifying global warming, creating runaway global demand for oil and gas, weakening our currency by shifting huge amounts of dollars abroad to pay for oil imports, widening “energy poverty” across Africa, destroying plants and animals at record rates and fostering ever-stronger petro-dictatorships in Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

When a person is addicted to crack cocaine, his problem is not that the price of crack is going up. His problem is what that crack addiction is doing to his whole body. The cure is not cheaper crack, which would only perpetuate the addiction and all the problems it is creating. The cure is to break the addiction.

Ditto for us. Our cure is not cheaper gasoline, but a clean energy system. And the key to building that is to keep the price of gasoline and coal — our crack — higher, not lower, so consumers are moved to break their addiction to these dirty fuels and inventors are moved to create clean alternatives.

This moment — $4.11 — represents Bush’s last chance for a legacy. It amazes me how inadequate his response has been. By hectoring the nation to simply drill for more oil, he has profoundly underestimated the challenges we face, misread the scale of the solutions required, underappreciated the American people’s willingness to sacrifice if presented with a real plan, and ignored the greatness that would accrue to our country if we led the world in clean power.

Who’s Going to Fix America?

Thomas L. Friedman gets on his soapbox about the need for a better-functioning democracy in the U.S.

Are we getting the leaders we deserve?

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – Anxious in America – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.

My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working.

I continue to be appalled at the gap between what is clearly going to be the next great global industry — renewable energy and clean power — and the inability of Congress and the administration to put in place the bold policies we need to ensure that America leads that industry.

“America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so,” Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib noted last week. “A political system that expects failure doesn’t try very hard to produce anything else.”

We used to try harder and do better. After Sputnik, we came together as a nation and responded with a technology, infrastructure and education surge, notes Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. After the 1973 oil crisis, we came together and made dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. After Social Security became imperiled in the early 1980s, we came together and fixed it for that moment. “But today,” added Hormats, “the political system seems incapable of producing a critical mass to support any kind of serious long-term reform.”

If the old saying — that “as General Motors goes, so goes America” — is true, then folks, we’re in a lot of trouble. General Motors’s stock-market value now stands at just $6.47 billion, compared with Toyota’s $162.6 billion. On top of it, G.M. shares sank to a 34-year low last week.

That’s us. We’re at a 34-year low. And digging out of this hole is what
the next election has to be about and is going to be about — even if it
is interrupted by a terrorist attack or an outbreak of war or peace in
Iraq. We need nation-building at home, and we cannot wait another year
to get started. Vote for the candidate who you think will do that best.
Nothing else matters.

Leaders of Institutions

This explains a lot about why organizations fail.

The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution.

From A Tiny Revolution: Democrats And The Iron Law Of Institutions

via isen.blog

Honesty and Leadership

From BeliefNet, a story about honesty and wise leadership.

A successful business man was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business.

Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.

He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.” The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued. “I am going to give each one of you a seed today – one very special SEED. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO”.

One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and they planted the seed. Every day, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that they were beginning to grow. Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew.

Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure. Six months went by — still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however. He just kept watering and fertilizing the soil. He so wanted the seed to grow.

The year went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot. But she said “Jim, it is important to be honest about what happened.”

Jim felt sick at his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot into the board room. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful — in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed at him. A few felt sorry for him!

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back. “My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!” All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He ordered the financial director to bring him to the front.

Jim was terrified. He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!” When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story. The CEO asked everyone to sit down, except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, “Here is your next Chief Executive! His name is Jim!”

Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. “How could he be the new CEO?” the others said. Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were all dead – it was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you.”

“Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my original seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive!”

If you plant honesty, you will reap trust.

If you plant goodness, you will reap friends.

If you plant humility, you will reap greatness.

If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment.

If you plant consideration, you will reap perspective.

If you plant hard work, you will reap success.

If you plant forgiveness, you will reap reconciliation.

So, be careful what you plant now; it will determine what you will reap later.

Freedom and Creativity from Minds Without Fear

Atanu comments of Atlantic Monthly’s list of The Top 100 most influential Americans. He says that many on that list could be called “The Top 100 Most Influential People”. Then he explores why  the modern world is defined and shaped by many on that Atlantic Monthly list. Click on the link below and read this uplifting post. Excerpts below.

Link: Atanu Dey on India’s Development » Minds Without Fear

How did such a small population – relative to the larger global population of humans – ever get to have such a disproportionate influence on the world by producing such a large number of amazing individuals? What is the secret of their success?

I believe that the answer is summed up in one word: FREEDOM. The Americans have enjoyed freedom and upon that fertile ground have grown up mighty oaks. The lesson is simple and striking: if a population enjoys freedom, it naturally produces phenomenally successful, amazingly creative individuals. The freedom to think, the freedom to speak, the freedom to write, the freedom to investigate the natural world, the freedom to act and create, and a large number of other freedoms—these form the environment which allows the human mind and spirit to flourish. America has truly been the home of the free. The country after all was founded on the fundamental urge to be politically and economically free.

I believe any collection of humans can produce the sort of super humans that America has done in its brief history if – and that is a big IF – the collection enjoys freedom.

FYI – Atanu lives in India.

Big Oil’s 10 favorite members of Congress

MSN Money columnist Jim Jubak describes why alternative energy gets very little financial support from the federal government. Big Oil knows how to maintain its monopoly — investing in Washington politicians.

Link: Big Oil’s 10 favorite members of Congress – MSN Money

Wonder why we don’t have a national energy policy or a serious push toward alternatives? Follow the money that oil and gas companies send to Congress.

Amazed that Washington loves to talk about energy research with promise 15 years down the road, but won’t put significant money into alternative technologies that could reduce energy consumption now?

For answers to all those questions and more, just follow the money. Nothing about U.S. energy policy should be a surprise if you know where the money’s been going and which legislators have taken the biggest payouts from the energy industry. So don’t miss your only chance in the next two years — the Nov. 7 election — to tell Congress what you think of its sellout to the energy companies.

The top five contributors were Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Valero Energy, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Here are the top 10 — all Republicans — as complied by the Center for Responsive Politics:

Big Oil’s 10 favorite Congress members
Rank Candidate Office Amount given by oil and gas industry

1

Hutchison, Kay Bailey, R-Texas

Senate

$258,361

2

Burns, Conrad, R-Mont.

Senate

$188,775

3

Santorum, Rick, R-Pa.

Senate

$188,120

4

Bode, Denise, R-Okla.

House

$153,650

5

Allen, George, R-Va.

Senate

$148,600

6

Talent, James M., R-Mo.

Senate

$147,470

7

Cornyn, John, R-Texas

Senate

$142,750

8

Barton, Joe, R-Texas

House

$138,450

9

Hastert, Dennis, R-Ill.

House

$122,200

10

Pombo, Richard, R-Calif.

House

$121,340

Data from the FEC as of Sept. 11, 2006. Compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

avily to Texas Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; to Sens. James Talent of Missouri, Conrad Burns of Montana and George Allen of Virginia, all of whom sit on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; to Illinois’ Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House, who plays a huge role in deciding what legislation moves to the floor for a vote and what doesn’t; and to Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, head of the Senate Republican Conference and announced candidate for Republican whip in 2006 if he wins re-election.

ngressional critics of global-warming theories. At a recent congressional hearing, he said, "As long as I am chairman, (regulating the gases that produce global warming) is off the table indefinitely. I don’t want there to be any uncertainty about that." But Barton’s likely replacement would be John Dingell, D-Mich., a fierce advocate for the U.S. automobile industry.

No matter how the elections turn out this year, of course, the connection between money and politicians will survive. Incumbents of both parties know that taking the money out of politics — I mean, really taking it out — would destroy one of most effective tools they have for assuring their own re-election. Taking the money out of campaigns is less likely than the Easter Bunny passing out eggs in January.

So vote your convictions. Throw this year’s bums out. They certainly deserve it. Then watch to see which newly elected politicians start quickly to work to become next year’s bums.

Winning the War on Terror

Tom Evslin at Fractals of Change offers six steps to victory for Winning the War on Terror. These ideas are probably too reasonable to be supported in Washington, where strategy is too often based on cliches and under-the-table profiteering.

Link: Fractals of Change: Winning the War on Terror.

Start a dramatic program to reduce US dependence on foreign oil (and establish US leadership in alternatives). 

Way too much oil money ends up directly supporting terrorists or running schools for future terrorists or supporting absurd monarchies in countries which spawn terrorists. 

End the war on drugs. 

We aren’t going to “win” this one.  Attempts to keep drugs illegal just drive up drug prices and profits for the drug trade.  Terrorists and drug cartels are natural allies.

Partition and leave Iraq.
Time’s up.  I’m still not at all sorry Saddam was toppled.  I still remember that he did not allow the UN inspections required to assure that he did not have WMD.  That was his mistake and not ours.  But creating a democracy in Iraq is a job for Iraqis. 

Take effective action to topple the regime in North Korea.
The most dangerous illusion in the world is that joining the nuclear club puts a country beyond restraint. 

Depolarize our domestic debate on civil liberties.
This debate is much too important for the name-calling it’s degenerated into.

Rename the war on terror.
…much of the world is at war, with Islamic fascists. In fact, no one suffers from radical Islam more than Moslems.  There is no point in being politically correct and not recognizing our enemy.