Thursday, October 28, 2010

Post-election thoughts

Frankly, the news about the current election has been deeply disturbing. The change that was promised has not occurred fast enough or easily enough for a large number of people, and so they are shifting their alliances, a shift that endangers whatever progress has been made over the course of the Obama administration.

As I was reading the paper today, I came across an article on the front page of the New York Times. The article about the new supercomputer in China is disturbing on one level, although I have faith that the greatest strength of the United States lies in whatever is left of its democracy, rather than in its technological prowess.

That said, it struck me that there could be advantages in taking an extremely competitive approach toward this challenge from China. As JFK took office, Washington focused on the Soviet Union, and the advantage that the USSR was gaining in space technology. As we now know, some of the "missile gap" was really non-existent, yet it provided a focus for JFK's agenda. Our own space program was in large part a response to this perceived threat from the USSR. With the space program, the US gained national pride, scientific prestige and a technological edge. The long list of innovations and advances that came from the space program includes items such as aircraft controls, microcomputers, virtual reality, athletic shoes and even enriched baby food.

But the space program and these fruits would not have occurred if the project were framed in purely scientific terms. The US needed an enemy, some foe that threatened us on a profound level, in order to mobilize and support such a broad program.

If the current president took a similarly competitive approach toward China, it could benefit him politically and help the nation as a whole. While I am personally not very competitive, I think the US culture is. We need a foe. But not any foe will do. Since the end of the Cold War, we have faced foes that are amorphous and not really worthy of a superpower. You can find them in the movies of Bruce Willis or any other action hero. Drug lords and terrorists. How do we combat such enemies? Response to such threats requires police actions, not broadly organized efforts.

Really facing the threat from China would require a broad effort to completely streamline our education system. At the moment, a large number of high school graduates are math illiterate. That would have to change, beginning with rigorous math education in the lower grades. In institutions of higher learning, the focus would be on regaining the technical edge that we had in this area at one time. In this atmosphere of shared sacrifice, the hedonism that afflicts our society would become less socially acceptable.

All this would require funding at a time when the opposition complains about the size of the debt (largely run up by the previous president). This funding will be impossible to obtain unless the need is framed in terms of a national emergency. When World War II began, notions of balanced budgets were thrown out the window. While I think the program to repair the nation's infrastructure is important and long overdue, it does not have the psychological impact of making sacrifices because of an existential battle. It is such a battle that could revive this country and the political fortunes of Mr. Obama.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Government for sale

It's good that the Democrats are making this point. I hope that it is effective - and I hope that after the election the continuing attention is paid to taking the money out of the US election system, because it is becoming completely corrupted!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Corporations and the future of our democracy

It is hard to get perspective on the times in which we live, but In the United States now it seems that we may be in the first stages of some strange power shift. The economic benefits conferred by corporations may be now outweighed by the political harm they cause.

These thoughts come to mind after reading the news this morning. First, a Washington Post article about the level of corporate spending in this year's election. Millions of dollars are being spent - much of it on misleading and outright deceptive advertising. The bulk of this advertising and money supports conservative Republican candidates. Candidates who are pledged to support policies that support wealthy people and large corporations. Because of recent Supreme Court decisions - decisions by an extremely conservative Supreme Court - the donors do not even have to reveal who they are.

And what are these corporations doing for the nation economically? Not so much. They are profiting from government policies - sometimes from the very policies they criticize. The New York Times has an article about the billions of dollars they are borrowing at rock-bottom rates, essentially sucking cash out of the economy. What are they doing with this cash? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sitting on it. Waiting for the economy to recover - so they can more profitably invest the money they have borrowed so cheaply. No one has the incentive to go out and make the gamble to spend the money first. We cannot count of private industry to help the nation in its current economic woes.

In short, the nation's relationship with its corporations may be tipping. Corporations for roughly the last 150 years have played a dominant role in our political and economic life. And large corporations, of course, have always inflicted some harm on society. Take W.R. Grace Inc., which poisoned the populations of entire communities. Companies such as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company killed and beat workers who sought higher wages. C. Wright Mills argued more than 50 years ago that large corporations enervated the nation's very soul. On the other hand, the corporation as a financial entity also allowed profitable investment of capital and economic development for the country as a whole. Incorporated businesses can raise money through stock sales, ideally using the capital to invest profitably and benefitting stockholders and the rest of society. But what economic development are corporations offering now? Not much. At the same time, the harm corporations inflict on our democracy is steadily growing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Propaganda and negotiation

I am now teaching at a university. One of the classes I teach is communication ethics. It's a broad subject, and during my lectures I make use of the knowledge I have about a lot of little things. Journalism, politics, negotiations, religious philosophy . . .

The other day, we were discussing situational ethics as they relate to communication. We were discussing the political communication in the US that has developed recently. That is to say - the sharp partisan rhetoric that has dominated discussion. I referred back to a class that I had on negotiations years ago. That for negotiations to succeed, both parties must view the other as a partner. We must make it our primary objective that the bargaining partner also be satisfied with the negotiations. If we do not, we will be trapped in zero-sum adversarial negotiations.

One aspect of this approach is that rhetoric is important. Feelings are important. If I am insulting you, I am not creating an environment conducive to negotiation.

So, this is what we have in the United States. Hateful rhetoric that makes negotiation nearly impossible. Why is this being used? Because the people propagating it have no real interest in negotiation. How can we respond to such rhetoric?

Personally, I hope to God that the better aspect of people will eventually reject hatred and those who sow hatred will fail in their objectives. But I am really not sure if this will happen before many people are hurt.