Monday, September 11, 2006

This 911, I am Pissed and Screwed.

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I am pissed because I was there, five years ago, watching the whole thing from the vantage of an office building not twenty blocks immediately north of the twin towers. I am pissed because when I saw the second plane strike, I realized this was no accident. I am pissed because I wanted to know why. I am pissed because I now understand why. I am pissed that it has been five years, and no one has yet addressed the root causes of this disease, but only contemplated addressing the symptoms. I am pissed because even the base satisfaction of a properly virulent revenge has been denied with 2,885 Coalition military dead, chasing the wrong criminals. I am pissed because my anger is pointless and will change nothing. I am pissed that we are all screwed.

Allow me to elaborate. I will begin by saying I am lucky that no one I know personally died that day and my most heartfelt sentiments go out to those who did. Like many Americans I didn’t think a lot about the Middle East before 911. I grew up during the cold war. I was 5 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The attack on the Cole and other incidents had nothing to do with me. They had to do with my country, but not my person. Of course, this perspective changed after the attacks.

For some, it was about blood. They wanted revenge. Understandable, no? Personally, I expected a post Pearl Harbor-style response wherein we’d all change our habits and gear up for a country-wide war. But that was far fetched, and unlikely. We had to keep shopping…or else the terrorists would win. I was prepared for a mass response of the highest order, physical and intellectual. I expected that our greatest minds would cease working in the world of commerce and begin to look deeply at the problem itself to develop a rational and multi-faceted solution. This didn’t happen either.

Once I cooled down somewhat, I began trying to wrap my own feeble head around just what was going on. I read whatever I could find. “Why they hate us” was the title of more than one article and cover story in the news media from left to right. The administration’s party line was “They hate us for our freedom”. With this, I began to become pissed at more than our enemies.

Former CIA Bin Laden Chief, Michael Scheuer’s excellent book, Imperial Hubris details how stupid the above statement really is. He notes that it is our policies and actions, not values, are the cause:

"The fundamental flaw in our thinking about Bin Laden is that 'Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than what we do.' Muslims are bothered by our modernity, democracy, and sexuality, but they are rarely spurred to action unless American forces encroach on their lands. It's American foreign policy that enrages Osama and al Qaeda, not American culture and society."

Aha! This made sense to me. I began to become furious that we were not looking at our foreign policy and determining how we could change what we were doing. (That this would indicate the value of terror as a tactic to shift policy, did not yet occur to me. I merely wanted us to be safe.) But then, I began to see that while I had the right to be pissed it was pointless. This is where the “screwed” part of this post begins.

Scheuer final chapter details some hard questions/suggestions for dealing with the threat of fundamentalist wrath. Included are:

  1. attain energy self-sufficiency
  2. examine whether we have a duty to defend freedom beyond our borders
  3. examine what we gain from backing corrupt tyrannical Muslim régimes, except for cheap oil
  4. determine if there is a need for bases on the Arabian peninsula
  5. Decide if it makes sense to spread democracy
  6. Examine whether support for Israel serves U.S. interests

While these are points worth raising, they fall apart under an examination of how the US economy actually works today. Scheuer seems to preach isolationism, which it seems, in application, would cripple us more than another 911.

What do I mean? Our national security is not limited to defense of our country. Not when it comes to economics. Not anymore. Rather, it is our interests abroad, those in foreign sovereignties, upon which our livelihood depends. This is the great strength and the great weakness of the American Empire. Our rule is fueled not through military conquest, but through the individual success of our publicly traded corporations.

A little marketing for dummies, if you will. To have a successful brand, you need to grow revenues. You can grow them by increasing price point, but more likely you will aim to do one or both of two things instead: lower costs and increase volume. If you’re a consumer packaged goods manufacturer, you possess a range of brands in your portfolio. These brands are overseen by a brand manager. The brand managers’ bosses want to see significant (read double digit) growth from the brands every year. If they fail, they get fired.

Why is this? Because a publicly traded company only sees its stock go up if it is able to meet (and surpass earnings). It has to grow. If it doesn’t…its value is affected. If CEOs don’t make their earnings, they get fired.

All this is well and good when you’re selling your goods to your fellow citizens. The problem is that consumers are a finite variable. There are only so many people that will be willing to pay $7 per unit for a bottle of name-brand laundry detergent, no matter how many promotions you do and clever product innovations you offer. What do you do when every last person who is willing to buy that $7 unit is buying yours and not the competition? Where does your next stage of growth come from? The answer is new markets. And new markets are found overseas.

New markets are a key part of the process of nationals and multi-nationals truly becoming global companies. And, because it is not just volume that matters, but cost, these markets are also explored as areas by which one can attract inexpensive labor and materials.

Wikipedia defines Globalization as “an umbrella term for a complex series of economic, social, technological, cultural and political changes seen as increasing interdependence, integration and interaction in between people and companies in disparate locations…The concept has been referred to as the shrinking of time and space.” The benefits of a global society, without owing debts to the citizens of those countries outside your own, is the cornerstone of the US brand of imperialism. It is not our country that rules. It is our businesses. Businesses which fund the government and employ our people.

Interdependence. Openness. These are the essential truths of a global market. And they extend beyond the consumer sphere to that of commodities and financial transactions. This works to create exponential opportunity. And, sadly to create exponential vulnerability.

What war we’ve waged in the post Cold-war era has been to protect our national interests not so much in terms of the US government, but in terms of US-based global corporations.

Yeah, I know...DUH. But it puts us in a difficult place. The smart ideas Scheuer puts forth would curb growth, putting a pinch in all our lives. You will be astounded how dependant we all are, not just on access to oil, but to access to unfettered trade. We will always play a heavy hand to facilitate this access.

Here's the deal: we can't change our foreign policy. Not without changing how we do business. And because we're in so deep, that seems unlikely to me. Policy makers are screwed. And that means we will maintain a military presence around the world, and that we will support those regimes that help us, despite what they may do to their people. And, through this, we will continue to curry resentment and put ourselves at risk. In other words, we're all screwed.

The world is interlaced now more than ever. Some terrorist beheads a journalist and it can be emailed around the world in minutes. We see each other virtually in real time. A market crash in Asia affects the US. A typhoon in Australia can affect a CEO's job in Switzerland. The floodgates are open and there isn't a lot we can do.

Winston Churchill is famous for saying "democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others." Well, if you look at the last 100 years, democracy means capitalism, with varying regulation. Taking a good hard look at the US, I don't see how we can truly be successful changing our basic business practices. Not now. We're post-industrialist. We're a giant branding machine. And potentially, we will have to face the music again for the policies we put into place. This does piss me off. But, moreover, it makes me incredibly sad.

Respect to those who lost their lives on 911. And to those soldiers doing the bidding of their country. We owe you. And it is probably going to get worse before it gets better.


Blogger Jill said...

You are always in enjoyable read.

I like the point that you get to that democracy doesn't have to equal capitalism. Democracy may breed capitalism, and capitalism may thrive best in a democracy, but there are European countries that we denegrate for their so-called socialist policies and because they might not have as high a per capita GDP as the US, but in my ignorant mind they seem to be doing pretty well despite it, and the trade off is that the US has become the big rich bully in the playground that the rest of the class is conniving to undermine. Eventually the bully gets taken down. It is only a matter of time.

I recommend that you read last week's New Yorker article about the long term goals of Al Qaeda and how they intend to take over the world by 2020. It sounds like Pinky & the Brain a little. But the plan is to take advantage of the weaknesses that you are identifying here in your piece and rule the world. I'm glad I'll be dead or too old and feeble to notice.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Bdog2 said...

Well, you've certainly defined the predicament. The current system renders us so immensely vulnerable to the vagaries of countries who hate us. The one thing that can unite them, in fact, is hatred of us. And we have no way out.
I've been perceiving lately a smell of weakness emanating from our government. (Bluster doesn't equal strength.) And we all know what happens when predators smell blood in their prey.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Bdog2 said...

Well, you've certainly defined the predicament. The current system renders us so immensely vulnerable to the vagaries of countries who hate us. The one thing that can unite them, in fact, is hatred of us. And we have no way out.
I've been perceiving lately a smell of weakness emanating from our government. (Bluster doesn't equal strength.) And we all know what happens when predators smell blood in their prey.

1:38 PM  

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