Archive for ‘USA’ Category
The end of the Cold War left NATO without its raison d’être. Its creation was predicated on the existence of an existential threat emanating from the USSR, one that would take the military shape of high intensity warfare: waves of armored columns crossing the central European plains backed by massive infantry formations covered by blanketing air cover and even tactical nuclear weapons. NATO was designed as a collective security arrangement whereby superior counter-force on the part of the US and its Northern Hemisphere allies served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. That strategic orientation was at the heart of the Cold War.
With the Soviet Union gone, so was the need for that strategy. NATO first sought to incorporate, over Russian objections, former Warsaw Pact states into its embrace. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined first, followed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. It shifted its focus towards multinational peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, irregular low-intensity conflict operations such as those in Kosovo in the late 1990s (the size, scope, pace, depth and range of weapons used in kinetic operations determine the relative intensity of combat). Later it cast its collective gaze further afield, involving itself in the International Security Assistance Force occupation of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
The irony is that these strategic shifts did nothing to allay Russian concerns that NATO’s primary focus remained on curtailing its ability to project force to its West and South, but in Western capitals the belief was that NATO needed to re-boot given the shifting geopolitical landscape and strategic priorities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
None of the new NATO missions substituted for those designed to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and with the exception of the US, this was reflected in diminishing defense budgets, numbers of uniformed personnel and overall military significance within policy-making circles in member states. However it tried to redefine its core mission, NATO was increasingly seen by elites and public alike as a security organization without a purpose. Many felt that it should be disbanded and replaced by more flexible military agreements that would eliminate the costs of maintaining a permanent NATO infrastructure in Brussels and annually contributing, both militarily and financially, to its operations. It was believed in some quarters that this could be done without significantly impacting on any nation’s self-defense in what was seen as a largely benign European strategic environment where conflicts were more intra-rather than inter-state in nature.
It was for that reason that I penned this column as part of my late “Word from Afar” series as Scoop.
Now, thanks to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, that has changed. In the eyes of its champions, NATO is once again confronted by hostile Russians on its Eastern flanks. Not surprisingly, US and European military-security officials, especially but not exclusively in places like Poland, have been quick to raise the specter of Russian imperialism in the former Eastern European bloc, calling for a revitalization of NATO’s original primary and core concern: containing the Bear.
The justification for NATO revitalization is based on the belief that Putin will not stop in Crimea or even the Eastern Ukraine, but has intentions to at the very least “Finlandize” a number of former Soviet Republics on Russia’s border that he feels have gotten too politically close to the EU and their Western neighbors. Given that the uprising in Ukraine was seen as a vote in favor of closer ties with the EU, the Russian response in Crimea is taken as indicative of its approach towards other “pro-EU” governments in its near abroad.
Just as Putin was able to capitalize on Russian nationalism as a generator of support for the invasion of Crimea, so too can conservative politicians in many European states use his actions as a catalyst for nationalistic appeals. Fear of the Bear is widespread and often visceral in many parts of Europe, especially those that suffered under Soviet occupation or at the hands of Soviet troops during the Great War. They and their descendants provide receptive audiences for anti-Russian appeals made on both politically opportunistic as well as principled grounds.
This is music to the ears of European defense bureaucrats, even if the US is not quite as capable of shouldering the burden of their collective defense in the measure that it once used to. For European security elites, the good ole days of robust defense spending, new weapons acquisitions, force expansion and significant military say in national policy making are now set to replace the politics of austerity and neglect that characterized the post Cold War period. Security decision-makers will make the argument that resurgent Russia is as much a threat today as it was back during the Cold War, even if its reach is now more regional than global in scope and its power is derived as much from its energy exports as it is from its military capabilities. Their argument will dove-tail nicely with those of anti-Russian nationalists, so the die is set for another re-casting of NATO’s mould.
Of course, while NATO went through contortions of re-defining itself after the Cold War, Russian strategists continued to focus primarily on defending their land borders and promoting Russian influence in neighboring states so as to provide a buffer to would-be aggressors, particularly from the West. For the Russians the “liberation” of Crimea is just a natural and justified reaction to the steady erosion of Russian influence in regions in which it has core historical, cultural and political interests. It is this “natural” reaction that has prompted the calls for NATO’s strategic re-orientation, which in turn means that the two strategic visions have once again been counterpoised.
This will be welcomed by Russian military and NATO officials because it marks the return to the common logics of collective defense that justify their positions and the arguments for counter-force deterrence that bound them together in opposition during the Cold War. However, for the citizens affected by a return to Cold War logics the prospects may not be so rosy.
Whatever the case, there are bound to be more than a few NATO officials quietly hoisting a glass in honor of Vladimir Putin, for it is is he who has given them importance once again.
Posted on 17:08, November 19th, 2013 by Pablo
It is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and Jim Mora at RNZ remembered it. He invited me on to the Panel segment to discuss its relevance today with a person who is well informed and one who is less so but strongly opinionated. The segment occupies the first 10 minutes or so of the audio feature and I come in at about the 4:20 mark.
For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.
What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.
The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it). AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?
The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.
On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.
In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.
Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.
I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.
Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.
In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.
Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.
I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).
But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.
It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).
The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.
While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.
There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.
Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.
The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.
Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.
I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.
Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.
I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.
Hence my disappointment.
Broadly speaking, the way in which terrorists have been depicted in the US has some interesting, contrasting themes. White native-born (male) individuals who commit acts of politically-motivated lethal violence are generally depicted as marginalized sociopathic psychos rather than as individuals acting out of sincere ideological belief (I say “sincere” because homicidal individuals often attach themselves or attribute their actions to political causes without fully subscribing to the ideological precepts underpinning them). This lumps this type of terrorist in with genuinely insane psychopaths and allows the state to address their acts as criminal offenses rather than as political crimes.
For example, the Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombers and Atlanta Olympics bomber all acted out of sincere ideological conviction (Unabomber Ted Kaczynski published a 35,000 word manifesto of his beliefs). Yet, they were treated by the justice system less like al-Qaeda style fighters and more like the criminally deranged Tucson shooter who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and killed six others.
In the 1960s and 1970s groups like the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army and Weathermen were treated as guerrilla groups, which by definition recognizes that their challenges to authority are based on contrary political ideologies. These groups marshaled their opposition to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Capitalist (WASP/C) status quo along racial and class lines. The used an unconventional war of position to convey their counter-hegemonic resistance to things as given. Because of this, the state saw them as an existential threat that challenged the socio-economic, cultural and political parameters of US society. They were treated accordingly, which in some cases slipped into extra-judicial punishment.
The predominant US born white male terrorist profile is that of a loner or small cell member whose ideological foundation is at the core of the WASP/C value system. The WASP/C terrorist believes in individual choice and natural rights in a free market unencumbered by tyranny. He may believe in God, a preferred religion and/or racial hierarchy. He despises the central (federal) government, foreign agencies and often times large corporations.
In effect, his armed critique of the system comes from deep within rather than from without. He sees the usurpation of traditional values and hierarchies as evidence of terminal moral decline, and he feels compelled to stand against it. He is a modern Minuteman.
This is why the WASP/C terrorist is treated like a psychopath rather than as a guerrilla or unconventional fighter. His values are too “close to the bone” of the US belief system to be treated first as an ideological critique rather than as deranged. Instead, the WASP/C terrorist is profiled as having severe unresolved personal issues, to include sublimated or repressed sexual urges that are eventually expressed through anti-social violence. However he is portrayed, his political motivations are downplayed in favor of flawed personal psychological traits.
In recent times the terrorist challenge in the US has been seen by the state as coming from foreign-based Muslims and their domestic supporters. These have been treated much in the way the guerrilla groups of the 1960s and 1970s were. They are depicted as having an ideology that is anathema to the American way of life. They are held to hate US values and its freedoms. The fight against them is framed in existential and civilizational terms. Focus on the criminality of their acts is shared by focus on the ideological reasons for them. They are considered to be ideological enemies as much if not more than as criminals.
The two-track meta-narrative on terrorists allows the US to reaffirm its core beliefs without subjecting them to re-examination. It reinforces the dominant ideology by differentiating between criminal and political violence along lines that do not challenge core WASP/C values and beliefs, which are now shared by non-WASPs and WASPs alike (popularized in the “anyone can make it here” credo epitomized by the Obama presidency).
Although it is easy to see why the US would adopt this meta-narrative on terrorism, it is unfortunate. It creates two standards of justice, one political and one criminal, with which to treat terrorists. This is inimical to the equal justice underpinnings of liberal democracies and paves the way for the creation of parallel judicial systems such as that seen in the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals.
It would seem preferable to treat all terrorism as criminal offenses. The issue is not whether the perpetrators are foreign or domestic. The type and location of the crime is what matters, and issues of nationality or domicile are at most the justification for extradition requests. Political or psychological reasons can be offered as an explanation for why terrorist acts were committed, but they cannot be used for the purposes of meting our different standards of justice. That has the benefit of reassuring friend and foe alike that the focus will be on the crime, not the cause.
That, in of itself, can be a significant deterrent to those who would otherwise pursue terrorism as a form of political expression.
Postscript: It will be interesting to see which narrative emerges with regard to the Chechnyan brothers involved in the Boston bombings. Home grown, self-radicalized small cell jihadis, part of an international al-Qaeda plot, or siblings with some creepy inter-personal dynamics? The rightwing US media already see the Muslim -bashing angle as the preferred interpretation, but the official government response (so far) is to not be as quick to attribute ideological rather than criminal intent to their actions.
Posted on 11:55, December 15th, 2012 by Pablo
Once again, the namby pamby pinko liberals have gone ballistic about a school shooting. The closet Muslim atheist commie gay-loving half-breed president cried crocodile tears about the deaths of some children and a few teachers even though that many are killed each week in car wrecks, water mishaps and domestic violence incidents that have nothing to do with guns. Reliable reports from Fox News state that the killer may in fact be a Democratic plant used to whip up anti-gun hysteria so that the liberals can continue their secular progressive agenda against the second amendment and God. As the great statesman Charlton Heston once said, they will have to pry my cold dead fingers off my fully automatic, 50 round magazine AR-15 (American made of course) before they take away my right to bear multiple arms.
The hard target truth is that banning guns only allows the deranged and criminally minded to have them. Instead, we need more guns rather than fewer guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens (although perhaps not those of color given their proclivities). After all, an armed crowd is a polite crowd.
Guns do not kill people, people do. Guns are not sentient beings, with a conscience. They are tools. Tools should be readily available to everyone because they are helpful in advancing God’s plan for America. The more tools available the better the project advances. How the tool is used depends on the person wielding it. Just like a hammer, saw, crowbar or chisel could be employed in deranged or criminal ways, so too guns can be used for unlawful purposes. Just because they may be automated and are designed to kill does not mean that they are evil. Heck, if we follow the liberal-vegan-animal rights activist logic, a line trimmer in bad hands is a serial killer.
The issue is not the availability of guns in the US. It is about the prevalence of nutters in an increasingly non-religious multicultural society where traditional Anglo-Saxon values, to include
With that in mind, as responsible gun fetischists the NRA has consistently lobbied for better security at schools. But unlike passive measures like metal detectors, rent-a-cops and triple locked gates during school hours, we advocate the arming of all school teachers and administrative staff. We have also undertaken studies that demonstrate that 10 year olds who have taken a gun safety course are quite capable of carrying concealed weapons and using them to good effect in self-defense situations, including those that may arise in schools. We say that it is better to target the solution rather than the problem because any solution that seeks to limit ownership of guns IS the problem.
We believe this even though we are fully aware that public schooling is a yoke placed around the necks of parents and children by big government, be it local, state or national. We understand that public sector employees, to include teachers and school administrators, comprise a large part of the enemy within. But as parents, siblings and spouses going about their lives, they have a right to defend themselves by force in the face of tyranny or criminal intent.
The bottom line is that this latest tragedy would not have happened if the principal, teachers and fourth grade students at this particular school had been armed. Say what they might, the liberals cannot escape that bullet proof logic.
Posted on 15:50, November 6th, 2012 by Pablo
If I read the conservative commentariat correctly with regard to tomorrow’s US elections, the following will happen:
Obama wins: As the fifth rider of the apocalypse, Obama will bring the end of days, armageddon, leading to the imposition of a debt-ridden, welfare-spending LBGT atheistic Islamofascist Zionist-Stalinist-Orwelian state in which children and the elderly are eaten after being vivisected and animals and dirt will have more rights than natural gas. The walls of the shining White house on the hill will crumble. Locusts will plague and fire will belch from the skies in non-industrial areas as the ground turns to dust and the rivers run dry. The seas will retreat and the icecaps will melt, but not due to man-made climate change. Female sports will become dominant.
Romney wins: Milk, honey, money and expensive Eau de Cologne will rain down upon the chosen debt producing and debt reducing Christian people and hedge fund managers, sunshine will spring eternal, a million flowers will bloom, all dole-bludging, illegal alien LBGT atheist Islamofascist Zionist-Stalinists will be rendered asunder by lightning strikes from the heavenly Father and world peace and prosperity will obtain in our time. White folk will become cool again. Soccer will be purged from the global landscape because it is un-American and does not involve teams with American Indian names, padding, helmets or blunt instruments and has a penchant for shorts that is second only to League in terms of questionability. White shirts and somber ties will once again be suitable apparel. Shoes will be tied. The help will know their place.
Posted on 04:53, September 21st, 2012 by Pablo
For those interested in US domestic politics and the potential impact of a Romney presidency on US foreign policy with a South Pacific angle, my thoughts on the subject are gathered here.
My yearly sojourns to the US provide a regular opportunity to garner a snapshot of the state of the union, at least from my limited perspective. This year I returned to my old stomping grounds in the desert southwest and to the home away from home in South Florida. After a wet monsoon season the desert was lush and the 360 degree skies saturated with cumulus, cirrus and stratus cloud. It was great to hear Norteno music and Spanglish spoken in the street.
My son joined my partner and I for a trip to the old mining town of Bisbee, where we stayed at the haunted Copper Queen (est. circa 1880) and had a long night on the town that ended up in some biker/metalhead dive bar. It was great. I highly recommend the Arizona desert to New Zealanders interested in a dramatic contrast in landscapes and Western cultures.
South Florida has been less pleasant. There is a palpable tension in the air marked by hostile attitudes and unbelievably aggressive, to the point of criminally reckless, driving. The region is known for its fast pace and shallow materialism, but in this trip there is something darker about it. Some of this can be attributed to the election campaign, in which some of the local attack ads are truly astounding in their ferocity and disregard for decency (the issue is large: one-third of the US Senate, the entire US House of Representatives, and most local offices are in play). There is a buffoon Republican named Alan West running for the US Senate, and his ads make the Swiftboat and Willie Horton attack ads look tame. He says nothing about what he proposes and spends most of his time defaming his Democrat opponent. Seeing that Romney is set to lose the presidential race, the right wing talkback and television outlets have ratcheted up the hysteria and vitriol to the point that even John Stewart or Stephen Colbert cannot parody them adequately. In a word, the place is nuts.
This condition of political anomie may be compounding the sense of frustration and anger felt by an increasingly divided–the word “polarized” does not do justice to the chasm between the US right and left–polity that more than anything else is diffident in its regard for politics. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions were not as well attended and not as widely viewed by TV audiences as in previous years, and it appears that the election abstention rate is going to be very high this year. People appear to be cynical, bitter and lacking in hope for the future regardless of who wins in November. All in all, this is the sorriest state of mind I have found the US to be in since my move to NZ fifteen years ago.
That is the backdrop to the subject of this post. As readers will know, the focus of the 2012 US election begins and ends with the economy. Platitudes are proffered and panaceas are prescribed. Words like “competitiveness” and “innovation” are bandied about like lollies. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of a root cause of the American economic malaise: its reliance on services.
The US is a country dominated by the service sector rather than true productive enterprise. Think of the variety of services now on offer: wealth and asset managers; financial advisors; PR and other “communications strategists;” personal trainers; life coaches (of which there are half a million in the US); pain management specialists (aka pill doctors); landscapers; floral designers; escorts; private alarm and security companies; fishing, hunting and tour guides; real estate agents; internet and in-store movie suppliers; credit card purveyors; nail and hair “artists;” wedding planners; a zillion types of mental health counselors and ambulance chasing lawyers; insurers; car, cat and dog groomers; dog walkers; bird, cat, dog and horse whisperers; DJs; car valets; (for-profit) drug and alcohol rehabbers; tennis instructors; beauty consultants; fashion stylists; liposuction specialists; motivational speakers; management and risk consultants; self-help gurus; personal assistants and agents, accountants; home delivery services; website designers–the list is as varied as it is endless. While one might argue that all retail sales are a service, my point is that in the US the extent of service provision is on its way to infinite, and this infinite progression dominates its economy.
The basic problem of reliance on services as the core of economic activity is that making money through facilitation is not equivalent to being productive. Nor is working hard synonymous with productivity. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of all OECD countries. By that standard they should be light-years ahead of the democratic capitalist world in terms of real productivity. But they are not. That is because hard work and income earned in services does not, in the larger scheme of things, add real value to productivity. It may make the national quality of life better, but it does not advance the overall condition of the productive apparatus. It is the economic equivalent of silver–it is nice and attractive, very malleable, easy to buy, wear and replace, but is no substitute for the economic iron required to build and progress a nation.
What is noteworthy about the US service sector is that, at over 75 percent and growing, it is steadily occupying a bigger and bigger percentage of the national GDP (agriculture is less than 2 percent and manufacturing is at 20 percent). The creative genius involved in the proliferation of services is matched by its relentless rent-seeking: in South Florida television ads are dominated by ambulance chasers (who prefer the term “personal injury lawyers”), pill-pushers and geriatric care providers who offer relief and compensation for a myriad of ills previously unheard of or for which personal responsibility used to suffice.
The majority of US college graduates, be they from two or four year colleges, receive degrees in areas other than science or engineering (business, education and liberal arts degrees are the majority of those granted in the US). Since the bulk of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school, this leaves a labor pool full of people who cannot actually produce or add value to anything other than by virtue of their slick talk and quick uptake on the job. Since most people coming out of US universities and colleges are neither particularly articulate or quick on the uptake, their default option is to join the legion of personal service providers.
No that all services are of the silver variety. Some of these are important, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, firefighters, police and lifeguards (I shall defer from elaborating on the public versus private aspects of the service sector, but note that what are considered public services are basically considered to be core functions of government, many of which are being privatized and downsized in the current fiscal environment). Many services are linked via supply chains to the manufacturing and research sectors. Others, such as the information technology services that spawned Google, Facebook and Twitter, create wealth but do not always really produce anything tangible or contributory to the value-added project (which in part explains the lukewarm stock market reaction to the Facebook public stock float). The vast majority of US services are, needless to say, even less contributory to the national productive apparatus.
The critical and deleterious aspect of the services domination of the US economy is that it is moving the country away from the production of real value added assets, much of which is increasingly monopolized in terms of ownership anyway. Add to that the overwhelming influence of the financial service sector, and what is left is a country that buys more than it makes (and what it makes are increasingly capital goods as much as consumer durables and non-durables), and in which people increasingly use services rather than do things or rely on themselves.
The social division of labor created by service sector dominance in the US appears to produce two distinct cultural characteristics. First–and this is very evident in South Florida and a subject that I have addressed in previous posts–is a culture of blame-assignment and responsibility-shifting where nobody is personally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Even hardened criminals commonly use the excuse that their teachers, counselors and psychiatrists failed them in the lead-up to their crimes, and in many instances this suffices to mitigate their culpability and reduce their sentences. They are not alone in this. In fact, there is an entire service industry comprised of counselors, insurers and lawyers that profits from shifting blame and responsibility, criminal or not.
The second aspect is the increasing compartmentalization and personalization of service work, which in turn produces an erosion of horizontal solidarities brought about by common insertion in the productive process. Much of the service sector is characterized by individual entrepreneurial or material pursuits. The individualization of service work, often aided by stay-at-home technologies that facilitate the rendering of such services, removes the associational and emotive ties that are part of the working experience in mass productive enterprise. This atomizes and alienates individuals as social subjects, as their material fortunes no longer depend on common identifications and sense of purpose (which occurs whether the workforce is organized or not precisely because it is a collective enterprise).
Social group associations, service group size and individual immersion in non-work related collective undertakings such as sports and churches mitigate against a complete return to survivalist alienation, but they do not fully overcome the dissociative effects of the nature of service provision. The effect of this is to reduce the ties that bind people together, which helps explain the turn to shifting blame and responsibility onto others.
Needless to say, I am only extrapolating from what I am seeing in the US during my limited time here. I recognize that generalizations are fraught and speculation based on fraught and fragmentary generalizations are to be suspected. So take this appraisal as an opinion, nothing more. Moreover, the US remains the largest national economy in the world, the largest trading nation, and the largest manufacturing economy. Its information technology, robotics, telecommunications and aerospace industries are world leaders. Its automobile and construction sectors are on the rebound. It is by no means weak in spite of what I have outlined above.
Even so, the trend is disturbing (at least for those with an interest in the US). For small countries not intent on projecting power or devoid of natural and human resources, reliance on services as the mainstay of the economy is acceptable if not advisable. Competitive advantage in services may counterweight a lack of comparative advantage in productive resources.
However, it seems to me that if a large, militarily aggressive country with a global reach relies on services as its engine of economic growth rather than on value-added production, than it will find it increasingly difficult to hold the its position over time. I might be wrong and, like (but better than) the USSR, the US can continue to ride on the production associated with an immense military-industrial corporate complex that spins off technological innovation and civilian applications as a matter of course even as the overall presence of value-added manufacturing as a component of GDP decreases. But if that is the case, it seems a risky proposition for sustained growth and global prominence given that an increasing percentage of the inputs to that type of production are derived from external rather than internal sources.
Meanwhile the life coaches continue to facilitate personal self-realization, realtors hustle properties, lawyers litigate and asset managers channel money made from services into other services. Wall Street and Washington both believe that ongoing reliance on services for economic growth is sustainable and desirable. In broad economic terms, that is like equating a merry-go-round with a wheel. It is that merry-go-round that Obama, Romney and other US politicians are trying to fix.
As is well known, the US is undergoing a demographic transition that will see the majority of the country being non-white in origin by 2030 or thereabouts (for the purposes of this essay I shall use the US definition of “non-white,” which is a person who does not have two caucasian parents. This definition is a throw-back to the bad old days but has managed to remain as a racial standard in census calculations. Interestingly, in Brazil a person is considered white if they have a single drop of white blood regardless of how dark they may look. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why that may be). The US is also a country with more females than males as a percentage of the population. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the country is headed to a majority female, coffee-with–milk colored future in the next two decades.
The trend has motivated political parties to seek and court the new generation of dark skinned voters, be they Latino (of which there are many persuasions that do not exhibit uniform political or social attitudes), Arab (ditto), African (both continental and hyphenated new world such as Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Peruvians), Indians (both native and from the sub-continent) Asians (of all stripes) and other “non-white” populations. Although dark-skinned populations have traditionally occupied the working and lower middle classes, they now span the gamut of socio-economic status. This has meant that what was once the preferred recruiting ground for the Democratic Party and other small leftist-oriented political groups has now been opened up to the Republicans and their smaller conservative counterparts. One can no longer look at individuals of color and automatically assume their voting preferences. This has made the non-white electorate an extremely important swing vote in national and local elections.
I mention this because one would think that the GOP would understand the importance of recognizing these shifts in its election strategy and candidate selection. In 2008 it gave a nod to “hockey moms” by nominating Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. The Democrats saw a fierce primary campaign for the presidency eventually won by a man of half-African descent over a white middle aged woman. The mixed race Presidential candidate brought on an older white male Senator as his VP choice, and together they went on to win the 2008 election over the hockey mom and her geriatric white male former war hero-turned Senator presidential running mate.
In this year’s election the Republican primary offered some interesting twists. It included a black man and a white woman along with an assortment of white males of various Christian persuasions (I mention religion because in the US atheists and agnostics stand no chance of being elected if they state so publicly. Even non-religious people like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have to pretend to be pious church-goers, so long as the church in question is a christian denomination. It will be a while before a Jew or Muslim makes it to the White House as either POTUS or VP, Joe Lieberman’s failed 2000 vice presidential nomination notwithstanding).
However, by the end of the GOP primary campaign it was an older white male millionaire ex-governor who emerged as the presidential candidate. He had many options when it came to choosing his running mate. Condi Rice was mentioned. Bobby Jindal (of Indian extraction) was mentioned. Marco Rubio (a Cuban American) was in the mix. But who did Mitt Romney choose? A younger white male congressman who, among other things, professed to be an Ann Rand devotee until the mid-2000s, has never run a business (which the GOP claims is essential for breaking out of the Washington DC mindset) and who is considered the intellectual giant behind the GOP small government, lower taxes, less expenditure philosophy–that is, at least until it emerged that he lobbied for Obama administration stimulus funds to be directed towards his congressional district in Wisconsin.
In effect, what the GOP has opted for as a presidential ticket is a white bread double-down on an increasingly blended ethnic stew: two caucasian males, one Mormon and one Catholic, both from privileged backgrounds, preaching fiscal austerity as the panacea for US ills. Neither has foreign policy experience. Both are “chicken hawks” (pro-military without having served) and have conservative social views (although Romney appears to have a utilitarian approach to his conservatism, in that he is when it suits him to be): anti abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-welfare, anti-undocumented immigrants (I refuse to use the term “illegal alien” that is preferred by right-wing commentators in the US). That also sums up the essence of the GOP ticket: it is defined by what it is against rather than what it is for (which, as I have written in previous posts, is a bad position upon which to base any political platform).
There is more to the picture but it strikes me that this choice of candidates says more about the GOP nostalgia for a lost past rather than a vision for the US future. It does not appear to recognize the changing nature of the US demographic mosaic (which, besides the changing ethnic blend also includes a different social fabric than in the past in the form of a rising population of single parent or blended family households, a fifty percent divorce rate and a slowing overall birth rate. Both Romney and Ryan live in traditional marriages with stay at home caucasian wives and multiple children). It is for that reason that I believe that, regardless of the merits of their macroeconomic arguments (and I see very little merit in them), the GOP presidential ticket will lose in November. Because whatever Obama’s flaws and faults (and there are plenty), he clearly understands that there is no going back to a white bread past that was not so good for grains of a different color.