May 12, 2015

TPP On Trial

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do ...

The Democrats’ revolt against President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership has everything to do with the “giant sucking sound” of job loss echoing over Baltimore and St. Louis, Detroit and Gary… and still more to do with the inability of our own polarized and privatized society to repair the social contract at home. Only at the end of our untypically acrimonious hour did a moral come clear: the 30-year regime of expanding global trade could well founder for want of a firm public decision to share the pain and the profits in that transformation. The more we learn about TPP, the more it looks like a blunt instrument of the banking and corporate interests to protect their investments, and of Big Pharma, Hollywood and Info Tech to protect their “intellectual property” abroad.   Enforceable compensations for workers and communities, here and there, would be nice, too.

Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia struck the resounding note on our show of disenchantment heading toward despair. Our friend Jeff has been an inexhaustibly cheerful and pragmatic promoter of globalization strategies that have in fact lifted the starving and the desperately poor. But the TPP bandwagon looks now to be fueled by the fantasy that trade is money-making magic — and he’s off it.

[Obama] said, “Look, why is Elizabeth Warren pounding on me? We’re together on minimum wage, we’re together on job training, we’re together on clean energy.” The problem is he hasn’t gotten any of those things passed…Trade worked more or less as one would expect trade and investment to work. It has created an expanded world economy, it has helped a lot of poor countries to gain a foothold and to grow, and it has exacerbated income inequalities in our country and elsewhere. What hasn’t worked is normal politics. We don’t have what I assumed 30 years ago, as a child of the sixties, was a completely normal idea: that there would be adjustment assistance, that there would be worker training, that we’d care for the environment. What we really have is a system of corporate governance. We don’t have a democratic polity right now in the sense of representing the interest and needs of the American people. Enough is enough. We can’t keep exacerbating these inequalities unless we get our own politics right.

The Harvard economist in our huddle, Robert Z. Lawrence, is a TPP stalwart. The loss of manufacturing work in America is not as extreme, he noted, as the near-vanishing of farm labor in the 20th Century — and the driving force in both transformations was not trade, he argued, so much as the vaulting productivity of new tools — mechanical and now digital.

Automation, technological change and innovation have allowed us to produce the same quantity of goods with far fewer workers… Trade allows us to get higher living standards, but what we haven’t been good at is adjustment policies that help workers who are dislocated… While I agree that we have deficiencies in terms of the way we help workers or don’t help workers, the real question facing us today is: Are we better off being in the game and negotiating for the kind of agreements we like or are we going to let others do it instead of us?

Our journalist, meanwhile, Barry C. Lynn mourned the fact that we can’t just hit the TPP kill-switch. Why not? We don’t own the switch anymore:

The WTO system — the agreement that we signed back in 1994, put in place in 1995 — was a decision by the U.S. government or by people who had control over the US government to get the government out of the job of regulating trade — essentially to turn over the job of regulating trade to the people who run our corporations and the people who run our banks.

We heard a lot of crossfire in this conversation and, in the end, an awkward consensus: that our president is pretending not to know that the trade regime is out of order.

Field Recording: “Seaming Suits in New Bedford”

Max and I went to Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, a garment factory in New Bedford, Mass., to gather sounds and hear from workers about technology, free trade, labor, and what it’s like to be one of the last manufacturers in this famous old whaling port. See some photographs we took, below.

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Podcast • August 15, 2012

Jackson Lears: Too Scary to Talk About

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg) Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jackson Lears (30 min, 16 meg)

Jackson Lears, the American cultural historian at Rutgers, is touching on themes somewhere below the waves of our 2012 campaign: the blotted copybook of Capitalism, and the intuition of a “pre-World War One moment,” coming up on a century after the Guns of August, 1914. A “perfect storm” in 2013 is what the doom economist Nouriel Roubini sees developing at the junction of European debt, the stall in US growth and East Asian production, and war in the Middle East, starting with Iran. But who’s to worry? Lears speaks of the suffering and anxiety that plain people know but politics avoids.

Our public process, he’s observing, still treats the Money Men as

“… a meritocratic elite that can’t be penetrated. It seems to me that this explains the Democratic Party in its attacks on Mitt Romney. The Democratic Party is in bed with Wall Street, too, just as the Republicans are. The attacks on Romney tend to focus on the question of his personal income tax. Will he release his returns or not? Or they focus on what he did when he worked for Bain Capital… rather than talking about the broad structural structural and systemic questions of what neo-liberalism generally has done to us — what the regime of deregulated capital that we’ve had in place for the last 30-plus years has done to everyday people and their everyday lives. This is something that is not admitted into the charmed circle of responsible opinion. You’re not supposed to ask: Is it really in everyone’s best interest to allow multi-national capital the kind of free-floating freedom that it now is allowed, world-wide. Is there in fact an argument? Tony Judt‘s argument would be: well, there’s only one way to build a humane social democracy, and that’s by creating a welfare state to contain the excesses of capitalism. And I would agree with that. My difference from him would be that you have to do it with an American accent; you’d have to do it in an American idiom which would be an idiom of small-market populism rather than European big-government. Because there’s a suspicion — and I think it’s a justifiable one — of “the state” in this culture, going back to Jefferson’s time. It tends to undermine any attempt to ‘Europeanize’ the American economy.

In Jackson Lears’ take, the same demons spook the almost-centennial of World War I.

As Mark Twain said: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes! … Even the Germans who are supposedly the models of fiscal responsibility have now seen their credit rating downgraded by Moody’s, so that national sovereignty is being abridged by these private organizations that have arrogated this power to themselves to evaluate the stability and strength of national economies. So we have this odd mix of globalized capital and national government power, national sovereignty, and nations often having to bend their knees to that globalized capital. This could very well provoke, and indeed already has provoked, a great deal of populist outrage, which could also end up being right-wing nationalist outrage… there is this ferment beneath the surface of anger, much of it economically based, much of it could be racially or ethnically motivated. Add that to the possibility of resource wars in the future, the possibility that countries like China and India are not going to want to restrict their own economic growth in the name of environmental responsibility, any more than than the U.S. has been willing to. You can see how the World War I analogy comes to people’s minds… as an instance of a general sense of imminent catastrophe and as a kind of unfolding apocalypse that comes from the inability of democratically elected leaders to come to terms and confront the powers they and their predecessors have unleashed… I think we’re looking at a crisis that was induced by specifically neo-liberal globalizing capital policies but has yet to reveal its true significance, and that of course is only going to play out over time.

Rescuing “capitalism” from its heavenly post somewhere between timeless Natural Law and “God’s work” undertaken by Goldman Sachs is another piece of Jackson Lears’ professional agenda, for another conversation. As teacher, writer and editor of the Raritan Quarterly, Lears’ object is encouraging the vigorous young “History of Capitalism” subfield in his ancient discipline. It’s part of the project that Daniel Rogers at Princeton also noted — to put history back into historical studies after Francis Fukuyama’s infamous The End of History.

Podcast • April 24, 2012

Andrew Bacevich: Here’s who Lost the American Century!

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall ...

Andrew Bacevich is marking The Short American Century as the span of less than 70 years between Henry Luce’s momentous 1941 essay in LIFE magazine and the decay of our Iraq War and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. I take it personally, still with a pang — seeing the American glory days of my boyhood through rose-tinted glasses, Bacevich tells me. But I might also date our downfall much earlier than Bacevich does — in 1971, one could argue, the year when the cosmopolitan giant of our journalism Walter Lippmann, stricken by the heedless slaughter in Vietnam, declared: “I am a neo-isolationist and proud of it.”

I’ve always told my kids that the American Century could be summed up on two fingers: (1) the timely and decisive — late! — entry of US fighting forces into the European War; and (2) the sound of Count Basie’s band. You can still hear in the Basie recordings: the rhythm of our industrial production, the cultural glory of the great black migration out of the South, not to mention the transnational chic of Basie’s big hit in 1955, “April in Paris,” written by the Russian-American Vernon Duke, born Vladimir Dukelsky. Now there was American power! What happened?

If the erosion of “social democracy” is the great lament of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, which prompted this series of conversations, it’s the want of “pragmatic realism” in American foreign policy that binds the eight striking essays Andrew Bacevich has gathered into The Short American Century. Jackson Lears contributes the definition of pragmatic realism, from William James, as the tradition that, “at its best, counseled war only as the last resort — the least desirable alternative in the policy maker’s arsenal.” Others recount the decline of our postwar multi-lateralism — remember the Marshall Plan, the creation of the United Nations and NATO — and the eclipse, especially under George W. Bush, of Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” And meantime our Empire of Production became an Empire of Consumption, then of trillion-dollar deficits, an Empire of Debt.

Andrew Bacevich likes to describe himself as a conservative Catholic from the Midwest. He is a West Pointer who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Long before his son and namesake was killed in action in the Iraq War, Bacevich had taken his history Ph.D. at Princeton and embarked on a series of studies of The Limits of Power and American Militarism — of the arrogance of empire, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the spirit of the “Who lost China?” nagging in the McCarthy era, I am asking him simply: “Who lost our Century?”

I’d probably nominate the post-Cold War presidents as a group — for the remilitarization of American foreign policy. Reagan’s role, of course, is to revise the image of the American military and the American soldier — in a sense to banish the negative image from Vietnam. George Herbert Walker Bush’s contribution was to inaugurate a new era of interventionism — in Panama certainly, in the first Persian Gulf War, but also not to be forgotten, in Somalia — his going-away gift to the nation. But I would very much then include Bill Clinton in my list of villains, because it is really during the Clinton era — this draft-dodger of the Vietnam era who seemed to represent the inverse of the militarist. But it’s Bill Clinton who becomes more promiscuous in his use of American military power than any preceding American president: upping the ante in Somalia; intervention in Haiti, intervention in Bosnia, intervention in Kosovo, any number of dust-ups with Saddam Hussein… That’s the circumstance that George W. Bush inherits, and I certainly don’t want to let him off the hook. But to understand the hubris of George W. Bush’s vision of a “global war on terror” that is going to liberate the Islamic world — that vision is rooted in expectations about the efficacy of military power that grew out of the Clinton years and the years when his father was president. So all these people, I think, should plead guilty to the charge of abusing and misusing American military power and accelerating the end of the American Century…

The pattern continues. The expectation of the people who voted for Obama — and that certainly includes me — was that his ascendance would mark a break in the trajectory of ever-increasing emphasis on military power to try to sustain what remains of the American Century. And he has been a major disappointment. Now he would say: hey, I promised to end the Iraq War, and I ended it. I would respond: Yes, Mr. President, but in addition you both expanded and prolonged the Aghanistan war; you extended the Afghan war into Pakistan. You opened up new fronts in this supposed global war on terror — in Yemen, in Somalia. A couple of weeks ago there was a drone strike in the Philippines…

That hard experience and candor haven’t made it to the presidential campaign where, as Jackson Lears writes, “The vision of the American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles.” To Andrew Bacevich, we look like a chicken just after it’s lost its head.

We are running around the world using hard power in questionable circumstances, yielding ambiguous results. And meanwhile here at home we’ve had five years, is it, of trillion-dollar deficits. The American Century is running on fumes at this point.

Andrew Bacevich with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 20, 2012

Next round: Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Why Nations Fail on the political structure of inequality.

Podcast • March 28, 2012

Mark Blyth (8): How Germany gets to eat our lunch

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg) Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg)

Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version of a trans-Atlantic political economist at Brown? As usual, he’s talking faster through that Glasgow brogue than I can listen or think. But when I transcribe him, I begin to get his big picture: of Europe still strangling itself with debt born of Euro-nomics, while Germany (despite everything) takes care of industrial business. The US, meanwhile, looks to be tip-toeing away from financial meltdown but neglecting its old productive core.

Nobody’s noticed this. Two years ago the Germans decided they were phasing out nuclear power, completely. Nuclear power is around 20 percent of their electricity generating capacity. If you spend any time in Germany in the winter, you will know one thing: it faces Russia, and it’s cold. This is not something you screw around with. So what are these guys going to do? Well, when you think about Germany, you think about — apart from austerity and madness in the Eurozone — you think of really good engineers, right? You think about people that still have serious apprenticeships, serious skills, an entire engineering culture… (I’m sure I’m talking into a German microphone; that means it isn’t going to break.) The point is: what they’ve basically decided to do is go all-out into alternative energy. They’re going to put about 300-billion Euros into it just to get started over the next ten years. They’re bringing together all the top guys and top firms in collaborative research. They’re not competing; they’re trying to develop the best technologies — wind, solar, everything. Why? Because they know something we’re in denial about. Oil is running out. That’s a fact. The planet’s warming up. That’s a fact. You can call it Climate Change Chicanery if you want; but you’re not paying attention. The Germans don’t believe any of that stuff, and they know we’ve got one shot, and one shot only. Whoever figures out how to make sustainable green tech in the next 30 years gets to sell it to everybody else for the next 1000. That’s what they’ve figured out. What are we doing? We’re shutting down our engineering. We’re hollowing out our skills. We’re closing down our options. The Germans are going to have our lunch. The Chinese will be in for the appetizers, but the Germans are going to take the main.

On the Occupy movement which Mark Blyth says could be back any minute because the streams of discontent are o’errunning their banks — sky-high college costs and 20-percent youth unemployment feeding the flood: You heard it here first that it wasn’t the scruffy kids who started Occupy. It was their parents.

A lot of this is an inter-generational problem. My colleague Sven Steinmo — a Norwegian-American who teaches now in Florence — finds himself telling his kids when they ask what he wants for Christmas or his birthday: ‘I want nothing! I have everything! My generation has absolutely everything.’ He came of age in the 1960s when it was perfectly possible to go to Berkeley for $400, and he did. And then grad school, and then a job in a higher-ed system that was expanding. And then he lived through the 1980s and 90s when investments were booming. And now he’s the guy who’s coming up for a pension, and he’s got two houses and lives in Italy. And all the people coming after him, including his kids between them, can’t afford a mortgage. So there’s an interesting problem. The people who vote in the US, and the people the politicians pander to, tend to be old, and gray. They have the money. They have the pensions. They have it all, and they’re not giving it up for anyone. So you have an inter-generational conflict that hasn’t yet spoken its name. Maybe that’s the way Occupy comes back.

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 26, 2012

Hang in for the Blyth case — listen three times if you must, as I do — that there’s no plausible alternative out there to an “American-dominated global order.” It has everything to do with the point that China’s assets are still, in the end, our paper.

Podcast • February 10, 2012

Pico Iyer: Channeling Graham Greene and the World Spirit

  “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of ...


“Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, – yet, general ends are somehow answered… the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays: Montaigne, or The Skeptic.

 “God save us always from the innocent and the good…”

The voice of Graham Greene, spoken by the British journalist Fowler in Greene’s prophetic novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, published in 1955. Quoted anew in Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head.

Pico Iyer — my monitor on the global spirit in conversation and books — hears voices: of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell among others. But the strongest dialog in Iyer’s busy brain seems to run between Emerson and the late English novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991), the Catholic agnostic who prayed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in, and the subject of Pico Iyer’s shivering introspection, The Man Within My Head. Emerson is “the God within,” as Harold Bloom has said, a companion in the daylight hours. Greene is “the fallen man within,” who keeps turning up in dreams and the subconscious. “Graham Greene is more of a warning than an illumination,” Pico Iyer is telling me. “Thoreau and Emerson and the American Way have shown me where I want to go; Greene is pointing to all the ditches and the cracks in the road along the way.”

I am wondering: where’s our American Graham Greene when we need one? Greene’s peers in school after World War I, Pico Iyer writes, “were learning strength and how to go out and administer Empire, already in its first stages of dissolution. Greene, meanwhile, was learning the opposite: how to take power apart, how to do justice to its victims, on both sides of the fence, how to make a home in his life for pain and even fear. As classmates set about making the official history of their people, he began picking at its secret life, its tremblings, its wounds.” Greene, in Pico Iyer’s line, was “an Englishman in flight from English-ness.” So I am asking: who are our exemplary strong antidotes to American exceptionalism and heedless folly in the world?

The names that immediately come to my head are Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, perhaps. Robert Stone is almost a direct heir to the Greenian legacy: a troubled Catholic who goes to the warzones of the world to see the soul in peril in all senses but also to see what America is up to in these shadowy corners… But the other thing is that American literature is currently being written and re-written by the latest newcomers from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Korea — … think of Chimamanda Adichie, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lee Yun Hee and many others. And what they’re doing, among other things, is they’re remaking America… importing the wisdom of their ancestral homes and making new combinations. So that’s all promising. The American soul is taking on new colors now, and our President is another example of that. If nothing else, no matter how you feel about Obama, I would say we’ve never had a President who understands life in Indonesia as he does. We’ve never had a President who knows the complications of interacting with Kenya and therefore with many other impoverished nations, at least on the human level, as he does. He hasn’t always managed to translate that into policy but it’s certainly a step forwards because in terms of global understanding which is the currency of the moment, he has it.

Podcast • September 6, 2011

Mark Blyth (5): Sovereigns, Citizens and Suckers

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (28 minutes, 14 mb mp3) Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, talking trash again and taking some credit. He’s the political economist ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (28 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, talking trash again and taking some credit. He’s the political economist who doesn’t mince words, even when he’s writing for fellow professionals. At Triple Crisis, for example, the other day: “The European sovereign debt crisis is little more than a huge ‘bait and switch,’ perpetrated on the publics of Europe, by their governments, on behalf of their banks…”

In the Scots vernacular, he is reminding us (and the Tea Party) not just that our humongous public debt is a gift of the private sector and the bailed-out banks, since 2008, but also that much the bigger piece of the general debt crisis today is the household debt that’s nearly doubled in the US in the last decade: i.e. underwater mortgages and credit card debt. So are we looking at a “Japan decade” of de-leveraging (paying down debt) and very slow growth?

Hold on. Have you been to Japan lately? It’s a pretty nice place. That decade of ‘helpless stagnation’ is actually okay: Japan’s got more modern infrastructure than we have by a factor of twelve. It’s got better educational outcomes, people live longer. So let’s put this into perspective: it means that you don’t have absurd growth and a housing bubble, it means that you don’t go back to people betting their entire fortune on an internet stock. We stop the casino, we chill out for a while, we pay back some debt. It’s probably a good idea. But we’re not going to do that if we slash the government budgets at the same time that we’re all trying to save the private. You can’t do both.

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown University

Podcast • March 29, 2011

Hamid Dabashi: “A new world giving birth to itself…”

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.” All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and ...

Hamid Dabashi is here to calm our nerves through the dreaded American Decline. “Empires don’t last,” he smiles. “If they did, we’d be speaking Persian.”

All the news looks bright to the sometimes gruff and provocative Iranian historian of culture and colonialism at Columbia University. Even Qaddafi’s last spasms in Libya have the virtue of putting the seal of King Lear’s madness on a half-century, now finished, of post-colonial tyranny. “Qaddafi was the nativist aftertaste of European colonialism — the bastard son of its militarism, charlatanism, barefaced barbarity…” he writes.

Even the cruelty and sickness today in Hamid Dabashi’s native Iran will be seen one day as a bad episode in a long and vivid dream of democracy. It’s a dream sustained in a century of Iranian poetry, fiction and film and in conversation with the globe — a dream that came to life in the Green Movement in 2009 and in the now global raps of Shahin Najafi and the sublime music of Mohsen Namjoo, seen and heard all over the world on YouTube. Young Iran in 2009 helped generate the revolutionary waves of 2011, Dabashi is saying, and Iran’s dream will rise again with the others.

“The world after Tahrir Square is like Christopher Columbus approaching the new continent. A new world is giving birth to itself… We are looking at a seismic change, not informed by miracles or ideology but by demography and economics” — that is, by the young majority in the world and by the mobility of labor and capital. Egypt in 2011 is “the first post-modern revolution,” not led by a designated or charismatic figure, but with a built-in distrust of grand narratives, Islamic or Marxist, and of grand illusions. The shape of the new map is still unimaginable. “We don’t know what the future is, but, boy, is it good to be alive and witnessing it.”

We seek out Hamid Dabashi — and we read his books like The Green Movement and the USA: The Fox and the Paradox — to catch an unequivocally enthusiastic long and cosmopolitan view of events that still seem to baffle, maybe unsettle, most of us Americans.

Not the least of Hamid Dabashi’s reassurances comes in his view that Americans are ready in fact to “return to the fold of the world,” to see themselves as “a microcosm of the world,” not master of it. We experience every day “the globality of our condition,” even though officialdom and media resist the idea. He says we have changed more than we realize in 30 years since he immigrated, first to Philadelphia — before feta cheese and pita bread, for example, were American staples. “We are emerging from a provincialism which was ideologically manufactured, against the grain of our everyday experience of successive waves of immigrants. The world kept coming here, but entering this delusional ideology that we are exceptional. I am convinced we are overcoming that split — between the republic in our hearts and this imperial hubris that we flex. Look: CNN fires Lou Dobbs and asks me to write columns for them. Who could have imagined that?”

Podcast • March 24, 2011

Mark Blyth (3): The Black Swan of Cairo

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to ...

Mark Blyth, the know-it-all professor with the Sean Connery delivery, is back in the pub tonight, and not a moment to soon. When the political economy of energy is screaming red-alert, from Japan melting to Libya’s oilfield civil war, cheerful chatter from a certified political economist can sound like music. Let’s just forget that Mark Blyth, on our last round, told us that austerity would be our nightmare in 2011. And let’s remember it was Mark Blyth’s friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb who cautioned us almost a year ago that we seem to have entered the Age of the Black Swan — a black swan (think: BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico) being an unimaginable event with big consequences and its own impervious mythology of cause and effect. The social service of black swans is to remind us that fragility is a main mark of global systems. In conversation at the Watson Institute, Mark Blyth is generously scooping himself from an article he and Mr. Taleb have co-authored for the magazine Foreign Affairs.

Let’s not get too bent out of shape about it, because complex systems, when they’re tightly coupled, are Black-Swan prone. And if all the volatility in the mix gets packed and shoved under the carpet, so to speak, then they become prone to these explosions. We also have a remarkable capacity to bounce back. Let’s think about what happened with Japan. You had the Trifecta from hell: first you have an earthquake at 9.0, so let’s follow up with a tsunami, and then a nuclear accident. What happens? Global stock markets fall off a cliff. A week later, they’re back. And the Japanese look like they might actually just pull this off. Why? Because they are a very technologically advanced society. Because they’ve got more experience with nuclear energy than anyone else. And because we got lucky. Let’s face facts, it could have been a lot worse. Now what is the lesson that we’re going to take from that? Being humans we’ll probably learn too much, which is to say, “Well, that shows that nuclear power is safe.” No it’s not. We got a sixty year track record. We’ve been lucky so far, but that doesn’t mean we’re not turkeys looking for Thanksgiving once again.

So we become more tightly coupled, there will be more Black Swan events, but our capacity to bounce back is always there… But you don’t want to get in a position whereby what you’re saying is don’t touch anything ever, don’t try anything ever, because it will end up creating some kind of downstream consequence you can’t calculate. Some of those consequences might be good.

Let me give you an example of this. A long time ago, back in the nineteenth century–before they had a fully formed notion of how diseases were transmitted through bacteria and viruses, etc.–there was a theory of disease that said it traveled on the wind, it was smell. And it was the stench that really made you sick. Hence why the Victorians were always running out to get “good air” and go out into the countryside and all that sort of stuff. Now, they were completely wrong. But one of the things that they did, because they were obsessed with smell, was to build sewers. Now that was exactly the right thing to do, had you had the proper theory of disease. So on the wrong theory, they got the smell and literally got the shit off the streets and put it all underground. And in doing so, they made the biggest advance in public health ever, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes, nonlinearities work out in a really good way.

Mark Blyth in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 22, 2011.

Podcast • March 1, 2011

Parag Khanna: Why Nobody Runs the World

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3) Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Parag Khanna. (21 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Parag Khanna — the young freelance adventurer, noticer and scorekeeper in geo-politics — broke the news in the mainstream press three years ago that the United States’ “unipolar moment” had expired in the ruins of Iraq. Who Shrank the Superpower? was the cover headline on Khanna’s debut in the New York Times Sunday Magazine — counting on top of military costs the loss of American moral and economic “soft power” in the era of George W. Bush’s unilateralism. Globalization, as Parag Khanna argued in his first book, The Second World, had become a three-way street, meaning that aspiring peoples between the “first” and “third” world (think: Venezuela, Turkey, Kazakhstan) had the choice now of modernizing with the financial and technical help of (1) the U.S. (2) China or (3) Europe– and that the American route was looking less and less attractive.

The title of Khanna’s new book, How to Run the World was slapped on with deepest irony, or perhaps cynically for the airport racks, because it suggests the opposite of his essential point: that power in the world has devolved into a possibly benign anarchy as in the Middle Ages — that what looked like a “unipolar” world at the end of the Cold War has become not so much a “multipolar” as a “heteropolar” system today. The power of states (and the United States) continues to ebb, and the non-state actors include a mismatching multitude of impulses and institutions, public and private — including the stateless statesman George Soros, the Arab money pool known as Dubai, Cameron Sinclair and his Architects for Humanity, the Catholic Church and Al Qaeda. Nobody runs a networked world, and nobody is about to:

We still accord this privileged status, intellectually or otherwise, to the nation, the state, the territorial, that bounded geographic unit, as if, if and when a terrorist group or a company really does become as important as a state it would become a state. That’s not true at all. We are in a trans-national, trans-territorial sort of space globally, in which Royal Dutch Shell is perfectly happy not being a state as such. It has a global footprint and global operations. The Gates Foundation does not have to be a state to influence policies of hundreds of countries when it comes to public health. George Soros calls himself very proudly a stateless statesman, because of the diplomacy that he conducts everywhere on behalf of the causes that he holds dear.

So to me the idea that something is becoming like a state is a linear projection, a teleological assumption that more power means becoming more like a state. That’s not what the new Middle Ages, as I’m calling it, is really going to look like. Religious groups and religious actors, even those in the world of Islam who want a global caliphate, are really thinking much more about spreading that geography and community of belief, more than they’re thinking about what straight-line borders are they going to put down on a map. So I think we have to be very imaginative about what forms about identity and power are going to shape the 21st Century and focus ever less on just who is a state and who is not a state. …

Parag Khanna in conversation with Chris Lydon.

Podcast • February 25, 2011

Peter Hessler’s New China: Is this any way to live?

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known ...

Peter Hessler, covering the new China for The New Yorker, made himself the rising star of the John McPhee school of reporting. It’s not just that he’d taken McPhee’s writing course at Princeton — known sometimes as The Literature of Fact. (“I prefer to call it factual writing,” McPhee has said.) It’s more that Hessler got the hang of circling a vast subject until the proportions of the story reveal themselves. (“Cycles of one year, fifty years, a thousand years: all these different cycles spinning around…” as McPhee put it, about his masterpiece on Alaska, Coming into the Country). In China, Peter Hessler made it a habit to return on schedule again and again to families and factories that intrigued him; sometimes he had five years’ observation under his belt before he began to write his story — in The New Yorker and then in books like Country Driving, his latest. Our conversation here is about the unconventional fruits of that long grazing — not least the discovery that this “new China” we find so challenging is just as new and maybe much more pressured and exhausting for the Chinese. The Wei family, for example — Hessler’s friends and neighbors in a small town north of Beijing — set the pattern over the last decade of spiking prosperity and crashing all-around health.

I was with [Wei Ziqi, the father of the Wei family,] through a number of events, including his son’s becoming very sick, to the point where his life was in danger and Wei Ziqi and I, and the other family members had to work together to try to get him medical care… The next year is when his business really started to take off. One thing that really struck me was that he had been so incredibly calm while his son was sick, very rational and easy to talk to and amazingly stoic, and I found him much more unsettled by his initial business success. … Then I realized, people in this village are used to people being sick, they’ve been through this before, that’s an experience that they know how to handle in a sense. But they’re not used to having a loan out, they’re not used to having a new business, they’re not used to trying to interact with city folk who are customers, and that was harder for him. … In America, people who had gone through this illness with a child would have been devastated at points, and he never had that reaction. But he was much more stressed by having a loan, which doesn’t stress out Americans very much (maybe it does now).

Business in China comes with a lot of vices. When I first met him, he had a very healthy lifestyle, he was working in the fields and so on. In China, if you’re a business man, you smoke. It’s part of the routine … it’s a very important type of communication between males in China. … Most men doing business smoke. So he started smoking, he also started drinking. … The more successful he became, the more he smoked and the more he drank.

Peter Hessler in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 9, 2011.

Peter Hessler lives and writes in Colorado now, waiting a New Yorker assignment to the Middle East. He came home at a moment when “Americans are not feeling great about themselves,” but he’s been feeing what we take for granted: striking examples of “common decency” every day in America, people volunteering serious time and talent to local life, social involvement not to be observed in China. What he remembers about China is “energy… buzz, people on the move. They are good-humored people. They get the joke.” What he notes about both places is that “It’s not a race. It’s not a zero-sum game. I don’t think it’s as directly competitive as people say. China and the US have been good for each other over the last twenty years. It’s great for the US that this has been a stable part of the world.”