Thursday, October 24, 2013

Austerity or Vibrancy

The war has ended. You have been destroyed. You have been conquered. You have been forced to capitulate. You are now at the mercy of your conquering masters.

Twice in this century Germany faced these prospects. In the first instance, the nation was forced into paying reparations and extreme austerity. The result was chaotic and financial ruin that seeded political insanity bent on vengeance. In the second occurrence of Germany at the mercy of victors, a reordering of social priorities and massive infrastructure rebuilding investments yielded a strong economy and good governance that produced a rational political partner with its former vanquishers.

Economically within the United States we are at a similar juncture and could learn from the lesson of the two German outcomes. Many personal balance sheets containing falling housing equity, eroded retirement savings, and education debt have been a result of actions by our conquerors from the financial industry and their tight circle of corporate allies. Our jobs, indeed our livelihoods, have been commoditized for maximum return through minimum care and rendered available for impersonal trade and export.

We are at a fork in the road but unlike the tale of the two Germanys, we have an ever narrowing window of political possibility into which we can insert ourselves to help determine the terms under which our future will be formed. It is not conspiracy peddling to recognize that huge financial interests consisting of a relatively few large corporations, a handful of investment banks, and financial instrument dealers have purchased great political clout and are ready to dictate the terms of our capitulation. Recognizing this dynamic should compel us to act with political expediency.

There are many choices that face us in charting a better economic course for our own future and that of succeeding generations but the core choice is between austerity, onerous painful payment of reparations in service to the narrow, and vibrancy, focused investments to back the broadest components of our society.

Austerity in the form of slashing government services and long term investment, continued financial allowance of debt entrapment, cutting entitlements to place more money in limited private hands for esoteric gambling by financial instrument hawkers, and above all a focus on market machinations that serve a selfish few places us all in the destructive pattern exhibited in post World War One Germany. And the results will perhaps be some on paper declines in national debt with mega-trading wins back and forth between a few wealthy individuals and corporations for perhaps a decade or so. In the end this reparations for our past “misdeeds” will lead to a yoke that must be revoked and it will engulf those who commanded austerity in a destructive epilogue to their era and error of profiteering. Despite all talk of long term fundamentals, the masters of finance are incredibly shortsighted and the outcome of austerity is a weakened and limping economy begging for political chaos.

The beneficial outcome from aiming for vibrancy on the broadest levels for the greatest number of people, businesses, and institutions of value is the lesson to be taken from the rebuilding of post World War Two Germany. Massive investment broadly applied will yield massive returns with both financial and societal benefits. By aiming our publicly shared investments at infrastructure, education, health, environment challenges, and even personal debt remedying we can move into full employment, stabilize societal disarray, and just as importantly engender the predictability, reliability, and opportunity that allows businesses that produce goods and services for people to thrive. We need to avoid a misguided focus on cutting public services and debt devoid of strategic investments that in the long run will yield a strong economic model to pay for services and debt that provided a good return on our investments. Bracketing our investments with an overarching goal of supporting long term sustainable outcomes across widest possible spectrum of definition is an added factor we should also embrace.

The two German post war outcomes provide an allegorical representation of how we might approach this county’s future. We can serve narrow or broad interests. We can make our economy work well to serve a few fortunate placed individuals and corporations or the very broadest swath of individuals and businesses of all sizes. We can choose short term maximized returns confiscated from society or long term sustainable returns shared by many to stabilize society.

We have come to the fork in the road; our choice is between austerity or vibrancy.   

Sunday, September 1, 2013


A military strike on Syria responding to its use of chemical weapons is now on our horizon. Brute use of war power is always troubling in its myriad of near term unintended consequences and its reassessment in longer term historical reflection.

However, the question of just war always seems to haunt the United States whether it is to counter an invasion or engage in so called surgical strikes. Because this country to a great extent defines its history through the lens of wars past, has committed grave errors in its use of military might, and has a large portion of its economy and government bureaucracy firmly tied to militarism, the exceptionalism we employ in invoking military solutions is not just suspect but unsound.

Far more than the quality of our intelligence regarding Syria today or Iraq yesterday affects our war judgment for we as the world’s most out of proportion sized war machine need to question if we are capable of acting with wisdom. Our outcome calculations have so often become miscalculations and we have become so adept at marshaling emotions to underpin war making at the highest levels of our society that in reality our default understanding ought to be that our modern military judgment is faulty and incapable of rendering good decisions.

Yet as we turn toward the current situation in Syria, for liberals and progressives who have consistently opposed the use of military force as the default methodology for settling conflicts, there lies a deeply troubling set of sub-questions:

  • Is war justified to prevent genocide?
  • Is military intervention to stop ethnic or minority cleansing right?
  • Is armed force appropriate to halt a sovereign nation’s internal civilian slaughter?
  • And most troubling of all, where is the line in the aforementioned questions between six-million Jews or fourteen-hundred Syrians or one persecuted victim that creates an urgency to transform diplomatic and economic efforts into war making?

I submit that the difficulty with the preceding questions is the equation of
action X = military response Y
is far too complicated and laden with variables to ever answer. The trouble with our modern world “security” system is that we have refused to reach beyond the nation state to provide the calculations necessary. The world’s nations, especially the United States, are so mired down with their exceptionalism, internal pandering, and self interests that any decisions made on military action are flawed upon inception.

We need to do something on behalf of those being gassed by Assad on the streets of Syria, we need to do something about regimes using bullets or starvation to ethnically cleanse, and we need to do something to have a protocol ready to deal with genocide. Alas punitive strikes are like spanking and only harden a target regime’s determination to become entrenched in its exceptionalism with mere delays in deaths or even more troubling desperate escalation to complete the proscribed killings. The greater step of invasion is far more likely to widen the circle of violence creating more casualties and innocent war victims insensitively termed “collateral damage”

Thus we, both the United States and all nations, must confront our present ineffectiveness of regrettably only possessing the blunt instruments of war, exceptionalism, and self interests in order to help Syrian civilians and so many forthcoming future victims elsewhere. Only a new protocol with new tools applying wisdom based on moral precepts can solve the present concern in a manner that steps toward halting harm and healing hurt. It must be robust, it has to be neutral to sovereign interests, it needs to contain exceptionalism, and it must provide both the immediate term end of killing and a longer term stable solution. Like bankruptcy, a process for emerging on the other side of a governance failure must be implemented, monitored, and enforced.

The solution proposed only appears too late for Syria if we refuse to begin working on it with great conviction and energy now in a humble partnership with the world.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Foreboding Echos

I infrequently agree with viewpoints offered by George Smith but when he’s so completely on the right train track as he was in July 17th’s column, reinforcing his concerns, opinions, and questions should compel many to add greater citizen voice to his message.

In his column, Mr. Smith addresses concerns about trains carrying oil through our towns; he lives in Mount Vernon and I live in Readfield. Not only are these under-regulated and under-staffed trains lumbering through Maine communities in exponentially rising numbers but the larger questions he raises about the energy directions we truly ought to be pursuing and how we ought to really be investing security resources are key considerations that people, officeholders, and our professional public servants in Maine and this country need to be asking and addressing.

That Lac-M├ęgantic and its surrounding environment is so similar to many small towns in Maine makes the horror of this disaster delivered by low-regulation, skimpy safety margins, inadequate equipment, and most of all our oil dependency addiction, traumatically and immediately relevant. The very train that wiped out a town center and so many lives was headed to Maine to transit our towns and our precious environment. Many more trains are still crossing our state carrying an exponentially growing volume of unrefined oil and exponentially growing potential risks.

It used to be our family found the late night lonely whistle of a train rumbling along Maranacook Lake and through Readfield Depot a bit enchanting and a reminder of an earlier era when my grandfather worked a lifetime for the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad. Now that same sound imparts a far more foreboding and troubling echo.

The above post was published as a letter to the editor in the July 26 Kennebec Journal.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Profiles to Discourage

One understanding that President Obama lends to the national reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is racial context. A prime reason Barack Obama can easily identify with Trayvon Martin is that both share the experience of profiling.

My initial brush with the profiling of the President came in a discussion with two male relatives of my age from swing states prior to the 2008 election in the midst of exploding financial chaos and early indications that Senator Obama was likely to defeat Senator McCain. The verdict from these men was that perhaps it would be good for Obama to win so that 'one of them' got to see how complicated and difficult this governing stuff could be for once and all. The unspoken yet obvious implication was that this would provide a glimpse into majority white responsibilities and thereby prove to be a lesson for someone so 'uppity.'

The President observed on Friday, "There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator."

Unfortunately for this country, the profiling of Barack Obama did continue beyond his service as a Senator and has carried on into his Presidency. The tea party, as the most visceral example, profiled our President and recast the context of his efforts to level economic playing fields and provide better health care access for all in coded racial terms. And like a nervous populace profiling someone walking through their neighborhood in a hoodie, the situation lead to increased demand for 'policing.' Republicans in Congress react to that pressure from their tea party base by veering far to the right to demonstrate their role as protectors.

Time and time again as the Obama presidential-legislative vehicle carefully observed the rules of the road and used every compromising courtesy, the GOP cops have 'pulled him over' and engaged in harassing obstruction to ensure he has not been able to get us to the destination we voted for, by our chosen route, in a timely and satisfactory fashion.