BIODIVERSITY AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: AN EPIC DEBATE FOR 2013

Any list of “top” events must necessarily be subjective, a reflection of the writer’s priorities and the information filters used. Looking back over 2012 in the English and French media a number of important news stories emerge, from the popular to the arcane, from the 2012 Olympics to crazies gathering in Bugarach, France, from whence apocalyptic survivors would be whisked away in flying saucers, to the 75th anniversary of the apotheosis in music and film of the German folktale, Snow White.

Two of my favorite sites for year-in-review content are The Economist, The world in 2012 and the now obligatory “Google search review” video, Zeitgeist the Year in Review.

Among the many, many stories worth at least a mention in any future “history of the world”, I would say 2012 was the year when the West finally got serious about understanding Islam, an inevitable development driven by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the strategic PR win by Hamas in Gaza and surprisingly, by François Hollande’s trip to Algeria to commemorate the 50 anniversary of the independence of Algeria and to “tell the truth” about French colonization of the Barbary state. These events offered an image for the triumph of openness and for the possibilities of renewal.

Architect's rendering of the airport in its natural setting
One area in which such a breakthrough did not happen was in the half-century, on-going debate over local development and economic progress. This debate pits civil society anxious to generate growth and income (maintain healthy tension) and ecologists. A major theater where these issues are being worked out, is the proposed Nantes Grand Ouest airport, where civic leaders have been fighting 50 years for a second municipal airport and ecologists who argue that the a second airport facility is not necessary and would cause irreparable damage to local ecosystems.

The very high level and abstract climate change debates at the December 2012 Doha Climate Change Conference, while credited with preparing the way for a 2015 agreement, failed to produce a breakthrough in national positions. Indeed, for those not following the long scale time frame, Doha was simply another failure to extend the Kyoto agreement or bring the Americans and Chinese closer to consensus on their global responsibilities.

The big story in France though, bigger even than this spring’s elections was the eruption of violence around the proposed Great Atlantic West airport. Here was a debate of epic and universal proportions for which there is no clear answer and which will divide and polarize for years to come.

Greenpeace banner on the Louvre pyramid
In the mid-sixties civic leaders in the Loire Atlantique region seeking to promote economic growth identified an opportunity for a regional airport serving the west of France, an airport which by one account could rival “Amsterdam in air freight”. The airport to be located just north and west of Nantes would be an “intercontinental airport” and consolidate that city’s position as a transportation hub on Europe’s Atlantic façade.

An additional argument which is important in the French context is that since the mid-nineteen-eighties, the French have been consciously working at decentralizing and deconcentrating (sic) cultural and government infrastructure. The new airport would be a freight hub for high value-added air cargo and so alleviate airport congestion in the Paris metropolitan region.
These are important arguments in support of a tenth international airport in France, a country which is at the same time, the world’s fifth largest economy and 4/5ths the size of Texas.

Chronology of events

  • In 1965 the Loire-Atlantique prefect appoints a site selection committee for a second airport for Nantes.
  • by 1974 project zoning and enabling authorizations are in place
  • twenty-year hiatus between 1974 and 1994
  • 1989 Jean-Marc Ayrault, a professor of German is elected mayor of Nantes
  • 1994 the Pays de la Loire regional council reintroduces the idea of building a new airport to be completed by 2007

Beginning with the 1994 Regional Council report, civic leaders focused on inscribing the project onto the list of national infrastructure priorities, leading to the project acquiring a certain inevitability. Henceforth, community efforts to obtain public authorizations and fund a Nantes Grande Atlantique airport dominate local development thinking.

  • in 1998, the Minister of the Environment under Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, declared that a transcontinental airport in the Nante metropolitan area would be compatible with the national transportation blue print;
  • in 2000, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin set into motion the administrative procedures for a public enquiry for major public works projects.

While civic leaders were organizing local efforts to support a new airport for Western France, scientists and ecologists elsewhere were beginning to sound the alarm concerning the non-sustainability of cheap energy driven consumption so that by the late nineteen sixties, a counter argument emerged in the form of ecological conservatism and a global agenda for the environment. The debate was formally presented with the publication in 1972 of the Club of Rome report The Limits of Growth. The originality of the report produced by three American environmental scientists was the application of computer modeling techniques to evaluate Thomas Malthus’ theories of population growth and sustainability in the face of finite resources.

At the same time, the United Nations organized and hosted the first “Earth Summit”, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This summit would be followed by the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) and the Rio+20 summit in 2012.

To even further complicate the environmental issues, there were French policy issues regarding the geographic distribution of national infrastructure investment. Up until the 1980s France was highly centralized with governmental and economic activity concentrated mostly in and around Paris. With the decentralization policies put into place in the Mitterand years, development infrastructure and decision making were relocated to urban centers such as Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux.

There can be little doubt that human society in 2012 is older and wiser than it was in 1962. Over these 50 years the limits of the sustainability have become ever more apparent and the question that must be asked is whether growth policies of the sort imagined 50 years ago for the west of France are sustainable. The economy is contracting and the natural resources that would otherwise be used to create airport and support infrastructures, roads, buildings, housing, are already well employed providing “environmental services” as wetlands supporting biodiversity. Would these resources be better used supporting urban growth?

The 1992 Earth Summit framed the “precautionary principle” which states simply that if there is any doubt about the sustainability of a project it is up to the project promoters to demonstrate sustainability.
At stake in the area just north and west of Nantes are not only six and one half square miles of wetlands vital to a local wetlands ecosystem, but untold tens of square miles that will be released to real-estate developers and promoters hoping to cash in on the new money. It will be tantamount to feeding the boom-and-bust economic beast. But can she be denied?

The Notre-Dame-des-Landes project is not only about the sustainability of one project, but about society’s ability to adjust to new information. Environmental conservatism and a contracting economy are elements of information that civic leaders did not possess 50 years ago. The public interest arguments for decongesting the Paris region and investing in public infrastructure in the west of France are good. But then, so are the arguments for preserving biodiversity and scarce natural and financial resources in the face of a contracting economy.

The Notre-dame-des-Landes airport project has 50 years of momentum, the working lifespan of an adult past retirement age. Would repudiation of the project at this point be considered a repudiation of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was, after all, the Mayor of Nantes and then a representative to the National Assembly before forming a majority government for François Hollande.

So the real question just might be, “is change without disruption from outside possible?” Does France really need a tenth intercontinental airport?

Consciousness

You appeared on my dog’s blanket
A singular curiosity in the existence of a house pet
that has never met a late season grasshopper;
Short movements and your eyes tell me you live.

And yet, consciousness ebbs and
There is nothing you can do;
There is nothing I can do
But stay a moment until your time is come.

The sun looks in askance,
no longer hot enough to sway an appetite;
You alone among your kind
Have stayed for the shorter days and cold

Your eyes have lost their sparkle
But I know they are watching me
While Brahms plays a disconnect
From the drama of the moment.

But is it drama?
Or do you simply, in the wisdom of your kind
Understand the moment as the extinction of a flame,
An ebb of awareness before a deep sleep?

Farewell spirit and consciousness.

I shall look for you again in warmer times,
When your spirit and kind shall once again soar
Above the prairie racing before my footsteps
In the parade of living things.

(Aix en Provence, November 17, 2012)

GEOGRAPHIES OF REFERENCE

My young friend (and nephew) Florian Pellet recently posted a 1997 article from the Cato Institute (Boaz, David. Creating a Framework for Utopia, Vol. 31, No. 6, November/December 1997) as an interrogation on what it means to be a libertarian. The article coincides with a number of my own preoccupations regarding the management and care of public spaces. As I am into my 18th year living in France and it has been 15 years since the article appeared, I believe this article is ready for commentary: the key insights concern not only time and historical context, but essentially geography. Here’s why.

The article, “Creating a Framework for Utopia” offers an enticing view of the Libertarian philosophy as a philosophy of individual liberty and community self-determination. It makes a strong argument for the freedom to innovate and the right to self-determination. But, as the author implies clearly in his title, “Creating a Framework for Utopia”, he is not concerned with practicalities but with daydreaming about a world in which we are free to pursue our dreams unfettered by practical consideration.

As a plea for a libertarian Utopia, a number of major fallacies very quickly become evident. The first, and the least forgivable of the author’s intellectual shortcuts is his very obvious anti-government bias. For Boaz (and writers published by the Hudsun and Cato institutes generally) “that government is best that governs least”.

How often have we heard this platitude? And how often must we hear it more before we learn to question such simple mindedness?

To paraphrase the United States’ founding fathers, gathered in Philadelphia and prepared to risk all for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, governments are instituted among men to secure these rights. After a bloody and ill-financed seven year war of independence and after a six-year experiment in confederation politics, many of the same founding fathers agreed to a centralized union governed by a membership charter, the United States Constitution. The preamble to that document reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It was understood then that a government (by the people and for the people, if you will) was necessary to ensure the public good.

What is missing from the Boaz article is not only that governments are necessary, but any mention of the values that such governments serve: the public good defined by a majority of citizens through their representatives met in Congress. Indeed, such governments are necessary and even to be hoped for because of their capacity to create and promote “public values”.

These ideas are so fundamental as to be pointless in repetition. And yet, if we do not repeat these truths we are likely to miss the fact that these truths assume the existence of a public good, that there is a greater public good in well organized (and governed) collective living than in individual selfish organization.

The second fallacy in the Boaz approach is the implicit assumption of market efficiency and the author’s failure to so much as acknowledge market failure. Fifteen years down the road from Boaz’ original work, the evidence of market failure is all too evident: the 1999 reform of United States banking laws (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) which created banks “too big to fail” led to the 2008 world financial markets meltdown; Increased concentration of media power and the relaxation of media ownership rules in 2003 led to complacency in following the Neoconservatives as they manipulated public opinion and a weak president; Merger and acquisition approvals from the Department of Justice far too numerous to count have resulted in anticompetitive markets where high barriers to entry encourage the creation of economic power at the expense of innovation. Absent responsible regulation, the “market approach” to regulating public spaces consistently fail to produce “socially desirable” outcomes.

Why the quotes around “socially desirable”?

Because social desirability is the quality expected and the end result of a political process and public policy.

Competitive and accessible education for the brightest and the best is a socially desirable outcome, public healthcare and a confident, healthy workforce are socially desirable outcomes for their benefit to worker productivity, a vibrant and competitive media landscape is a socially desirable outcome when you consider the importance of an informed citizenry. And yet, for each of these examples (and there are others) we Americans have accepted mediocrity: in education we have accepted that a liberal arts education should be an exercise in a student’s ability-to-pay, or at least, mortgage his/her future (although to be fair, localized and community based alternatives exist). With respect to health care it remains to be seen whether Public Health Care as it is now conceived will deliver on its public policy potential. Concentrated and monopolistic media ownership have led to complacency on critical national issues – the matter of public safety and security, the right of privacy, global warming and the depletion of major national aquifers.

Markets do fail and the social ills which confront America today are largely a reflection of those failures.

The third and perhaps most important fallacy in the Boaz argument, is the author’s failure to account for the practical aspects of geography in his Utopia. Boaz develops as a central premise the idea that historically there is tension (and competition) between centralizing and decentralizing views of authority. He notes that for any “country larger than a city, local conditions vary greatly and no national plan can make sense everywhere”. But, rather than develop the attractiveness of local scale for market economies, Boaz launches into a discussion of “economies of scale”, a traditional and well documented approach to the creation of wealth.

The issue is not the creation of wealth, but the scale at which wealth is created and redistributed as a matter of fairness and equity.

Boaz writes in his section of a “Framework for Utopia”

What we need is not utopia, but a free society in which people can design their own communities.

I couldn’t agree more.

But it is not enough to agree; one must understand that community is first and foremost geographic. It is rooted in place. It exists and is viable because of water resources or fertile land or access to some special ingredient that gives its inhabitants and the inhabitants of its trading area a competitive advantage in producing a tradable surplus.

Wealth creation is a matter of trade and tradable surpluses. And it is here that market theory becomes relevant. One cannot trade if one does not have producers of goods or buyers willing to exchange for those goods.

Trade and comparative advantage are central to the economic functioning of the community and geography is the sole criterion for sustainable development. But geography is not of itself sufficient to explain community development. Communities exist within hierarchies of communities and share specific values by treaty or by acknowledgement of suzerainty.

For instance, cities that participate in the hierarchy of French cities share a language, a set of laws, ideals about social justice and the meaning of life. They acknowledge a shared history in terms of a succession of events. By the same token, the cities that participate in the Mediterranean hierarchy of cities share a water resource and acknowledge a shared history of rivalries and outcomes as do the cities and communities on the North Sea and of the Baltic and Black seas.

It is these stories that create sustainable human relations, not the pursuit of riches or the accumulation of wealth. It is shared stories such as these that create the conditions for sustainable redistribution of wealth and for cooperative development, in short, the conditions for creating a utopia of cooperating and prospering communities.

Social Conservatism and Engaging with the World

A high school friend who has devoted his life to “seeking God in his creation” and to community service recently sent an excerpt from the book The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christian Values in a Mass Media World. I took the excerpt as a challenge, first because the text was in Portuguese and I needed to prove to myself that I could still read and master ideas in Portuguese. Secondly, after 17 years in secular France I no longer feel the need for God as an affirmation of Life, Love or purpose and this chapter offered an opportunity to think upon “engagement”, “conformity” and “coming out from this world” in the sense proposed by Paul to the Romans, by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2).

[To begin, and to keep matters simple, I did find the text in English and suggest that if you are not familiar with Portuguese you might want to read the chapter in English. Have a look at Who Stole Our Culture?, which you will find on the World Net Daily website, www.wnd.com.]

There is nothing to recommend about the author William S. Lind, unless you consider that he has coined a media-friendly moniker and is successfully exploiting this simplification among those who long for aesthetic and philosophical certainty.

Just what then is “Cultural Marxism”?

According to Lind, “cultural Marxism” is a subversive ideology, with a “deliberate agenda” to undermine Christianity and in so doing, destroy American culture.

In his chapter, Lind traces a plausible connection (loosely and with considerable license) between the Marxist observation of tension between social classes caused by competing social and economic interests and Marxist atheism. Starting from the vantage of class struggle (as if this were the only path to change) he traces the ideology through anarchist movement to the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci and the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs, to the Frankfurt School of social thought uprooted by the National Socialists in Germany and transplanted to New York. From New York, Lind traces the ideas of Western Marxism through Herbert Marcuse to the “counter culture movement” of the 1960s, concluding

That generation, which runs every elite institution in America, now wages a ceaseless war on all traditional beliefs and institutions. They have largely won that war. Most of America’s traditional culture lies in ruins.

Of course, Lind continues with his own prescription for “taking back our culture” which is nothing less than “Coming out from this world” (II Corinthians 6:17).

I have several problems with this article. First and foremost, the logic and the reasoning in this article work only if you reason from the standpoint that we live in an “us versus them” world, populated by conspirators who would “defeat” another, in short, a video-game world. This is all very Star Wars, very Manichean, simplistic and reductive. It is the case of good versus evil, where, if I am right, you must be wrong. If I believe in God (or do not, as the case may be) anyone who disagrees or challenges my deepest belief is against me.

The second problem I have with this piece is the unspoken belief that “Marxism” is bad and is diametrically opposed to … well not even capitalism, but Christianity. The dichotomy of Marxism and Capitalism I can understand. But Marxism and Christianity…? Maybe if you consider that anarchists and socialist revolutionaries were bent on overthrowing the capitalist order to ensure social justice. But surely, those are not the Marxists we see everyday who, in small ways work for social justice and to alleviate human suffering.

Finally, I dislike this article because it is prescriptive invites me into a world of belief that I cannot abide, the world of the socially conservative. It would have me agree about things I reject completely and absolutely and the public evangelist ideal that what I believe should be a matter of community record. I will not profess my faith except as a community act. I will not bear public witness but would expect those who “seek God in his creation” to have patience with me and see the spirit of Life, Truth and Love in me.

It is as if the need to believe in and affirm a purpose for life precluded any possible argument for millions of years of biological experimentation, as if it was foreordained that we should occupy the highest rung on the evolutionary ladder, and that God will show his chosen species a way out of the evolutionary mess we have created for ourselves.

Here is the text from an excellent review I also found on-line, at a website calling itself, Armchair Interviews:

“The authors have a biblical world view that says that the purpose of man is to know, love, and serve God. Therefore anything that moves someone closer to that end is good. If it does not—it is not good. It is that simple.

“This would explain why Pat Boone would lead his family out of a viewing of the movie, “Paint Your Wagon” in the early seventies. Why? Because the premise of the movie was that the town would be a better place if there were more woman of a certain type—a prostitute. And much of the movie focused on how to get these women to town.

“Many people would say that this is simply entertainment, point to the number of awards the movie garnered, and say that Pat Boone was narrow-minded and out of touch with the times. Pat Boone’s response would be that the movie did not cause people to know, love, and serve God—and therefore should be avoided.” (Bob Pike, “The Culture-Wise Family”, a review published in Armchair Interviews)

In my own life, I have preferred to live as Paul counseled the Romans (Rom.12:2), that they should not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind so that I might prove what is that good, and acceptable and perfect will of God.

COMPROMISING NATIONAL AUTHORITY

This post was originally written and shared with an old friend, Bud Oakey (see Thoughts from Bud
). As I write, the run-off candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy (who received 27.18% of first round votes) and François Hollande (28.63%) are maneuvering for the second round  scheduled for Sunday, May 6. The rhetoric of the second round has been of very high quality and a real national debate is actually taking place on issues such as the social responsibility of the financial industries, resident migrant rights and citizenship as well as the issues raised in this article. With feed back and encouragement I will be pleased to continue sharing.

The problem posed by the French election is how to reconcile French national ambitions and perceived global responsibility as a nuclear power and the world’s fifth economy with diminishing expectations at home and the difficult sustainability of the French social model.

First though, we should take a moment to understand what the French understand as their “social model”. The French government does what it does in the international sphere to promote French industry and create national wealth. It sells Rafale jets, negotiates treaties, builds nuclear reactors and high speed trains and signaling systems. The fruit of this work is national income or the “common wealth” which is captured through income taxes (a regressive tax which produces a relatively small percentage of fiscal revenues), value-added taxes (a consumption tax paid by everybody across the board and representing the bulk of French government revenues) and property taxes which are collected by the national government but essentially redistributed to local authorities. (You should note that education, health services, fire and police protection are organized and financed nationally.)
The question is, what should be done with excess wealth? In other words, how should it be distributed?
Some say the excess wealth should be kept at home and used to “ensure the domestic tranquility”, i.e. support a 35-hour work week, retirement at 60 years and a high minimum wage, saying, “after all, we earned it”. These people do not generally concern themselves with paying down sovereign debt or the competitivity of French industry. The other side argues that this national wealth should be reinvested in promoting the productivity of French industry, and that the French labor, despite apparent productivity, has not worked hard enough (they are overpaid) or long enough (retirement should be postponed to 65 or 70 to reflect longer life expectancies).

I have no doubt about where I stand on these issues, except that Sarkozy’s flamboyance, his in-your-face style sends a message that quite understandably offends French sensibilities. (We should note that the threshold for being considered “flamboyant” in France is much, much, much lower than it is in Italy, for instance, where Berlusconi flaunted his money and virility to make a mockery of virtue and traditional Italian values.)

So what we have on the one hand is a socialist party organization that smells the blood of a wounded adversary and positions its candidate as the “mild mannered, nice guy next door” devoted to his party, best-in-his-class public servant and scorned husband to boot. (It does not hurt him that many French find his former wife, Ségolène Royal to be an ambitious woman who lost patience with her plodding husband and ran for president herself.) Here we have a first reflection on how the social model is broken, or at least, “exposed” in an unwelcome way. The French genuinely believe in women’s liberation but found (in 2006/2007) the public behavior of the outgoing and rhetorically brilliant wife of the Socialist Party First Secretary (at the time, François Hollande) pushy and somewhat misplaced. Even so, the Socialist Party today is not offering anything new. It is merely offering old wine in new bottles.

On the other hand, Sarkozy has governed well but the rashness and impetuosity of youth. In my opinion he gambled his political capital on reform. Also in my opinion, he won his bets. France is better and stronger for his first term (five years) and for his management of the sovereign debt and Euro crisis. But how much of this success is due to the man and UMP party faithful, and how much of this is the result of the inevitable, of bureaucratic (in the noble sense) continuity?

Unfortunately, the Sarkozy camp are discouraged, and two days out from the first round of the general election, don’t see their way to a clear-cut victory. And also unfortunately, the left has fielded two excellent candidates (in the sense of competitive politicians) who between them stand a chance winning over 50% of the popular vote on the first round. (Because they are two candidates there will still be a run-off. But if the left remains united that does not augur well for Sarkozy.)

The “financial” versus the “real” economy
Any analysis is necessarily a simplification, a reduction of complex processes to a single snapshot in time, and that, a snapshot described through the eye of the beholder, in this case your friend and humble servant, moi.

Since 1984 France has been reforming its institutions to provide greater autonomy and freedom of action to its territorial administrations. By order of size, these are, from largest to smallest, 27 regions corresponding more or less to the feudal divisions annexed to create modern France, 83 departments (sometimes compared to counties) set up following the Revolution of 1789 as the administrative units for implementation of public policy. And finally, there are some 36,000 cities, villages and towns, of which only 255 are “cities” of more than 30,000 inhabitants. It is in these cities that the “real economy” takes place.

The gutting of French industry by low-cost producers (read, low labor-cost producers) has a deep effect of the viability of these local economies in a globalized and globalizing world.
With the advent of consumerism (an economic layer predicated on the need to consume to ensure full employment and productivity), the disappearance of physical barriers (both transport and telecommunications) village and town communities are threatened with transformation as supply territories, destined for rural impoverishment by big city “consumption machines” that monopolize energy and concentrate resources to accumulate ever more wealth. We are talking here, about megacities and urban centers, as well countries and ideologies.

Some on the left maintain that our troubles are produced by globalization and the blurring of traditional barriers. Others, mostly on the right, argue that the French are not sufficiently globalized, that France must defend itself from cultural and economic colonization, not by protectionism and introspection, but by offering new models of social organization, renewing the national capacity for empathy as a means to resolve persistent (and growing) inequalities, not only at home, but as humans. There is no turning back. If we are to survive as a species, to retain stewardship of the blue planet, with its oceans, forests, atmosphere and soils rich in diversity and teaming with life, we much propose new models of growth and social authority.

What does all this mean for the choice of candidates in 2012?
The 2012 general election presents a choice between those who slow the pace of globalization and if that were to prove impossible, erect barriers to ensure that for them at least, the world would not go too fast and those who consider that liberal democracy is the way forward: On the one hand, reactionaries and would oppose modernization by obstructing, and on the other hand those who believe that for France and indeed, the world, the only way forward is through closer integration and improved stewardship.

Stated this way, the choice is obvious. But from a French perspective, looking at Sarkozy the flamboyant, man of power head of state, the choice is somehow transformed into a choice between consumerism and family values, between the local economy which the French left has fairly successfully coopted, and the globalized economy and progressive colonization by financial, political and industrial elites.

The candidate who most engaging is Jean-Luc Melenchon. I think this is because he is an effective speaker, a performer with a populist socialist message. He is to the far left of the socially acceptable socialists and he is dangerous, like a bad-boy lover. One of the articles of his platform is constitutional reform, a 6th Republic. I cannot imagine that this would benefit France in anyway, but it is useful to think that the alternative to another five-year term with Sarkozy would be constitutional reform. And that is not an option!

Finally, and to his credit, it should be mentioned that Sarkozy has been open to shared sovereignty in areas that can no longer be successfully managed as national domain; the seas, the atmosphere and carbon entitlements, food security and water. Europe needs effective institutions, and the way forward clearly lies in strengthening these. The direction offered by the Sarkozy camp is the only way forward if you would live in the Star Trek utopia proposed by Jacques Cheminade (currently polling less than ½ of one percent) while avoiding the disaster of the shy, teddy-bear-like anticapitalist, Philippe Poutou (currently polling less than 1% of first round voting intentions).

An Open Letter to Gulam

Gulam is a deeply conservative young man posting to the Truthdig website. I know nothing about him except that he is articulate and defends the thesis that America and Europe are cultural imperialists exporting decadent values in the name of consumerism. He believes feminism and women’s liberation are ploys to promote consumption and that a woman’s place is inside the home and that families are the basic social units of society. Finally, he criticizes the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) and scientific rationalism as an industrial age rationale for consumerism.

His posts to the discussion forum for the article “This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet With Us” (Chris Hedges, March 7, 2011) appear in the commentary section immediately following the article. They accuse Westerners generally and Americans in particular of using feminism to promote western style materialism and consumerism to undermine moral society.

The subversion of local society and social processes by outside parties is an invitation to abuse and unfairness, all too often a ploy by the wealthy to externalize the environmental and social costs of their own consumption behaviors. The notion that one might use feminism as a tool to subvert local society and impose a consumerist agenda inspires these thoughts.

Dear Gulam,

I read with interest your posts to Truthdig.com in the discussion forum for Christopher Hedges’ provocative article, “This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet with Us” (Truthdig.com, March 7, 2011).

As someone who cares about dialogue and who believes that sharing energy and ideas for a better world is a worthwhile undertaking, I thought I might share a few of my own ideas to your comments.

The West uses feminism as a means to domination
I don’t agree. I believe this is a defensive strategy used by Islamists (those who confuse religion with governance) to flag foreign influence, setting it apart from local culture. Feminism is used in this case as a symbol of cultural imperialism. It is too bad that you confuse the two, because the real subject is the health and well-being of your own society.

In the West, the feminism I know has many sources. These include 1) recognition of sexuality as a shared experience that can be pleasurable and is necessary for procreation, 2) an incitement to sociability, arising from our ancient philosophical preoccupation (4000+ years) with “beauty” and “truth” (incidentally, a preoccupation at odds with the moral precepts of the religions of the book, and the subject of much discussion today in America), and 3) the sense shared by most people in the West that “feminism”, whatever it may mean to you or to me, is a socially responsible policy to strengthen the bond of family and to encourage responsible reproduction.

Feminism is a way of introducing consumer demands only the West can satisfy
Expansion of Western consumerism is more a reflection of commercial and economic interests that have come to dominate Western culture than a desire to promote feminism, or even, of feminism as a strategy for promoting consumerism. Credit markets are an important part of modern economies and reach far down into local society; it is capital mobility and credit markets in Europe that have made Europe what it is today. Improved access to local credit is one of the key contributors to the “Arab rebellion” about which we have been hearing so much lately.

While credit infrastructure is strong in America as well, in that country a corporatist culture condones predatory lending practices, encouraging individuals and households to contract personal debt for even the most trivial consumption. In the end, the corporate culture that drives the American economy exacts payment in blood, whether in fighting its wars or in surrendering your home to money lenders.

These issues are not related to feminism but to the competition for power. Predatory behaviors are accepted because American’s subscribe to the liberal model of laissez-faire economics. Laissez-faire economics amount to Darwinian selection (survival of the fittest) applied in the economic sphere. Such behavior is condoned because most people consider that they benefit more by having such a system. Many today question whether this continues to be true given the failure of the financial markets, but traditional elites continue to hold real power.

Feminism, as I said above is a matter of honoring the human spirit and the female partner in founding a family. These are two completely separate subjects.

Cultural imperialism and the competition for power
The competition for power, not the emancipation of women is the real subject.

European competition for power has its roots in the contest to succeed the Emperor of Rome. By the time Europe emerged from its long dark age the empire had become Christian and several well defined power centers had emerged: the Franks (French), the Saxons (a federation of Germanic tribes in the north, including the Anglo-Saxons and Danes). In one way or another a ‘balance of power’ was maintained in Europe, that is until the Portuguese found a way to trade directly with South Asia, circumnavigating Africa. Then they settled Brazil and capitalized on the slave trade. At about the same time, Spain began plundering the West Indies, the Aztec, the Maya and finally, the Inca. The English, the French and the Dutch were slower getting started but were not far behind and ultimately, immensely successful in their own colonization efforts as traders and merchants of a process called mercantilism.

Colonization accelerated in 19th century with the partition of Africa, the conquest of North Africa and South Asia, the forced opening of China, the conquest of Southeast Asia and the defeat of the Spanish Empire.

These colonization efforts have been rationalized in many ways. The Spaniards called it bringing “Christianity to the heathen”, the French called it “spreading the enlightenment”, the English and Americans called it and still call it “Free Trade”. A recent and notorious name for the colonization competition was the “Cold War”. (Because of the power competition between socialist Russia and laissez-faire America, all countries in the world were required to examine their self-interests and chose one or the other orientation.) The non-aligned movement went a long way to developing a viable “third option”, rejected of course, by the power brokers in Washington and Moscow.

Then there was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. There was the near consolidation of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban and then 9/11. Afghanistan was harboring a man who dared to organize an attack, a very successful attack against American interests on American soil.

What all of these ‘colonizing’ societies were doing however, and they were all doing the same thing was exporting their own social model and idea of stability. This is the reality of the war in Afghanistan which amounts to a contest for power and an attempt by one sovereign nation to impose a model of social stability on another. Feminism and consumerism have nothing to do with the moral tribute (geostrategic alignment) demanded and totally unimportant on the scale of issues related to anarchy and the harboring of terrorist organizations exporting opium and violence.

You state, “the secular model has followed where the Enlightenment logic led”. Demographics and the industrial revolution aside, Enlightenment thinking arose as a challenge to the doctrines held in faith by the elites of the 17th century. The Enlightenment affirmed the primacy of logic and rationality as ultimate tests of soundness and good policy. The questions you raise concerning “Enlightenment logic” should not then be so much about the Enlightenment model as no such “single” model existed, but about the logic which you say “led” to our consumerist, materialist society.

A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble


The following is a full-text reproduction of an op-ed opinion by Robert L Borosage, published in the www.huffingtonpost.com. For the original, go to A Debate Worthy of a Great Nation in Trouble.


Lipstick on pigs, sex ed for pre-K, earmarks gone wild — this presidential campaign is descending to a bridge to nowhere. We cannot let that happen again. This country is up against it: The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Gilded Age inequality, Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophic climate change, the lawless presidency and more. The next president will face stark challenges that cannot be ignored. We need a debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. And the only way that will happen is if citizens insist on it.

Today in the New York Times, the Institute for America’s Future begins a series of “op ads” designed to highlight critical crises this country must address — and to enlist others in challenging the media and campaigns to address them. For the first of these op eds, go here. We should all join in this effort. Challenge the gotcha journalism, the politics of diversion, lies and posturing — and demand that this presidential campaign get down to the real questions the next president must face. (Full disclosure: I co-direct the Institute, although I post here in my individual capacity.)

For example: How do we make this economy work for most Americans?

Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — the metastasizing financial cancer now threatens global recession or worse. How and whether to bail out the banks, how to avoid a severe downturn should be at the center of our debate.

But for the next president, the financial mess shouldn’t obscure this economy’s deeper problems. Underneath the current crisis is a stark reality: even when it is doing well, this economy hasn’t been working for most Americans. In the last seven years, for example, when the economy was growing, when Treasury Secretary Paulson was hailing the “strongest world economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime,” when President Bush and Senator McCain were declaring — McCain as recent as yesterday — that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” working and middle income families did not share in the benefits.

From 2000-2007, corporate profits were up, productivity was up, but incomes did not keep up with prices. For the first time since the Census Bureau started publishing the records in the 1940s, the typical family actually lost ground over the seven years of “recovery.” And the costs of basics — health care, housing, gas and home heating, college tuitions — soared. Poverty spread. More Americans went without health care. Savings were consumed. More added debt, tapping into their home’s equity, providing the kindling for the mortgage inferno. And that’s when the economy was “good.” (For detailed analysis see EPI’s new Stateof Working America) No wonder the Rockefeller/Time Magazine poll released in July revealed that fully half of Americans no longer believe the American dream is attainable by working hard and playing by the rules. Something is fundamentally wrong.

And it isn’t like the weather. It isn’t an act of God. Some blame “technological change,” but America’s middle class was built on the technological revolutions of the post-World War II period; technological change may expand the pie; it doesn’t determine who gets what slice. Others blame globalization. It’s true that the US strategy in the global economy has given corporations a club in negotiations with workers. We lost one in seven manufacturing jobs over the past seven years. But service jobs that don’t compete in the global economy haven’t fared well either. Others say the workers are at fault, for they lack the education they need. But as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, even incomes for college graduates also didn’t keep up over the cycle.

The fact is that the very few captured the benefits of growth. The 15,000 richest families — one one-hundredth of American households — captured fully one quarter of all the growth of national income. The vast majority of households lost ground. (See Scott Lilly’s analysis here)

This hollowing out of the American middle class is rather a direct expression of policies designed to benefit wealth at the expense of work, to empower CEOs and weaken workers, to privilege Wall Street over Main Street.

Over the last 30 years, conservatives and their ideas dominated Washington. Both parties joined in. Under Reagan and Clinton, banks were deregulated and a casino financial system grew in the shadows. Global trade deals protected property rights, not worker rights. Taxes were lowered on the wealth and raised on work. With the crushing of the PATCO air comptrollers strike, Reagan declared open season on unions. The minimum wage was frozen for a decade, lowering the floor. Companies under pressure from speculators and global competitors began shredding the promises once made to workers — cutting health care, abandoning pensions, ignoring rules on hours and overtime. Undocumented workers were easily exploited. Even Microsoft, the most profitable monopoly of the time, resorted to using permatemps — permanent temporary workers — to avoid paying folks full-time benefits. Under Bush, this all came to a head.

What’s needed is a fundamental change of direction. Instead of trickle down growth, we should be driving the economy from the bottom up. Instead of focusing on freeing up capital and executives, we should be empowering workers. The IAF ad suggests three fundamental reforms that reflect a growing consensus among progressive economists.

First, empower workers to organize. Unions help workers gain a fair share of the profits they help generate, and help to enforce agreements on hours, conditions and treatment. Since companies now systematically squelch organizing efforts, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to choose how to organize — either through by getting a majority to sign membership cards or by holding an election, and mandate negotiation of a first contract.

Second, forge a public social contract to replace the private one that the companies are now shredding. Mandate companies to provide basic health care, contribution to a public pension, paid vacation and sick days, a decent minimum wage, pegged to inflation. These mandates can be phased in over time; mom and pop stores can be exempted. The point is to enforce — as other industrial countries do — basic minimums in law so that companies can’t compete on the low road, by driving wages and conditions into the ditch.

Third, make full employment the stated goal of our economic policies — both the fiscal and trade policies of the administration and Congress and the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, with the government acting as an employer of last resort to keep employment levels up. Over the last 30 years, market fundamentalists — reflecting the priorities of Wall Street’s investors — have made inflation the priority, not full employment. But wages rose across the board only — as in the last years of the Clinton administration — when the economy neared full employment. When jobs are plentiful, workers can negotiate a better deal from their employers because they are better able to abandon a bad deal.

The Presidential Debate

How do the presidential candidates stack up on this agenda? McCain declares himself a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” embracing the basic mantra of market fundamentalists — lower taxes (particularly for the wealthy and the corporations), less regulation, less domestic spending. He is skeptical of unions, and has voted repeatedly against raising the minimum wage, much less extending a public social contract to workers. He wants to unravel employer based health care, not mandate it. His basic promise is to shake up government, make it less wasteful, reduce taxes for companies and the affluent, and get out of the way. In this election, he is the proud representative of the course we’ve been on.

Obama, due in part to the contested Democratic primary race, has put forth a bolder agenda. He pledges to support the Employee Free Choice Act, and to reverse Bush’s anti-union executive orders. He hasn’t called for a new public social contract, but favors raising the minimum wage, and pledges health care for all. He’s said little about running a full employment economy, much less about government as an employer of last resort. But he does call for a public investment bank, and large public investments in new energy and conservation, in modernizing our infrastructure and in investing in education and training.

The Debate We Deserve

Presidential campaigns aren’t policy seminars. Candidates need to inspire voters, define themselves and their opponents. Insult, invective, lies and distortions have been part of American elections from the beginning.

But Americans also deserve a debate that exposes the choices each candidate would make on the fundamental questions facing the country. Why not make this a feature of the TV debates, rather than rehashing old distortions or trying to gin up personal conflicts? What if a debate stated with this question:

Most Americans saw little of the benefits of the last years of economic growth. Wages didn’t keep up. Poverty spread. More people went without health care. And that’s when the economy was growing. Both of you claim to be candidates of change. What fundamental changes would you make to insure that this economy works for working people?

Wouldn’t that be a more interesting question than whether Sarah Palin was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it?

A debate worthy of a great nation in trouble. That’s not too much too ask. Nor too much to demand.

A Little Humor, Please!

This morning’s readings brought Colbert King’s OpEd column in the Washington Post, “Jesse Jackson’s Unkindest Cut“, (July 12, 2008, A14) to my attention.

As a born and bred WASP refugee of the New Orleans battle front (see below), I desperately wanted a black man to address the, you know, virility issue. When Colbert refused to go there [he dismissed this, “setting aside all of the highbrow speculation about the deeper meaning of (Jackson’s) words” adding “This whole thing is silly.”], I wasn’t sure I would read any further.

Well I would have been wrong.

Virility is a matter of self-image (just as attractiveness may be for others) and like one’s racial heritage, has absolutely no bearing on whether one is a responsible citizen. Citizenship, not self-confidence is the issue at the bar. So, after ironizing about Jesse Jackson’s remarks and the media establishment’s prudishness regarding race relations and penchant to sanitize denial (my own words) with the politically correct, Colbert concludes:

There’s only one aspect of this episode that still concentrates the mind. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) angrily denounced his father’s comment, saying in part: “I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Now there’s a bright and courageous young man who, given his father’s predilections, could do with an iron jock strap

After thinking this through, perhaps it is Jesse Jackson, Sr. who should wear the iron jock strap.