Sunday, January 20, 2008

stuck in the past

the front page of today's NYT week in review says it all: "In Search of Reagan."

this year's GOP convention will mark 40 years from Reagan's first bid for the White House, and he's still the most important man in the party ... even though children born when he was inaugurated are already approaching their late 20s.

april of this year will also bring the 40th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King. like Reagan, he's also excerting a posthumous influence on politics as the Democrats quarrel over the appropriate way to discuss him. a day before the holiday named in his honor, King seems more important as ever -- even though the battles he fought have long been resolved in his favor.

other events in the news of a similar vein: National Institutes of Health does little to nothing to police the impartiality of doctors it pays to carry out research. A report from the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human services to Senator Grassley found:

"NIH is not aware of the types of financial conflicts of interest that exist within grantee institutions because details are not required to be reported and most conflict-of-interest reports do not state the nature of the conflict."

In fact, at least 89% of institutions feeding from the NIH's $29bln annual trough of grants didn't even bother to state conflicts of interest . For example, do they also receive funds from a big pharmacuetical company that will benefit from their findings? Such conflicts are now so common, even the FDA struggles to find impartial experts for its advisory panel, according to the NYT.


-the Federal Government's intelligence service (NIE) concludes Iran ceased its nuclear ambitions in 2003. during the intervening time, the US repeatedly wasted its national honor and integrity on sabre-rattling against a non-existent enemy. it joins other impotent American complaints about everything from China's currency to how we're treated in the UN. it seems in recent decades, we've become a master of talking loudly while carrying little to know stick. we allow ourselves to be seen on the losing side of conflicts, complaining futilely and loudly over how we're treated. advertising you're powerless to achieve your goals is a sure way to destroy your credibility.
of course, our government has developed these habits because, for years, we were the only show in town. we were the global epicenter of politcal freedom, economic progress and intellectual innovation. we grew accustomed to thoughtlessly imposing our will upon other nations, to issuing opinions and directives on economics and politics. even though other countries objected to some of our conduct, especially in matters of trade and diplomacy, they considered our overall role in the world to be positive. with an adversary like the soviet union, it was easy to be the good guy... but today our smug self-confidence not only creates animosity, it also prevents us from solving our own problems. some instances I have cited in this blog include how the FBI refused to hire as translators arab-americans who are veterans of our own military.

other countries have faced similar challenges. the best comparison is probably the UK after 1910, when countries like the US, Germany and Japan rapidly surpassed it in economic power. it followed years of living high on the hog and leadership, and its decline was marked by a lack of innovation, stagnation, and being stuck in its own grand past. the next 50-70 years for britain featured inflation and general societal decline.

in the early 1800s, most of the world's big economic and scientific developments happened in the UK. by 1940, the same could be said of the US. today, in the area where I think the most important progress is yet to be made, alternate energy, we find ourselves badly behind nations such as australia and spain. increasingly, new billionaires are coming from outside the US. while citizens in countries like Peru and Columbia gain the right to keep their social security savings in private accounts, we blindly stick with our own unsustainable system.

while these may all seem like disparate concerns, to me they all embody the same basic themes of decay and stagnation. that can best be understood relative to other countries, where globalisation is introducing millions of people to wealth and opportunity for the first time ever. in the meantime, we face the prospect of being the first american generation since at least the great depression to be worse off than our parents. while indians are rejoicing at owning their own first vehicles, we stress about being able to afford gasoline for our own.

compared with just 10 years ago, the momentum has shifted against us. similar events happened in the 1970s, when the US faced the ignomy of borrowing in marks to prop up the greenback. unexpected things, especially a secular bear market for commodities and a wave of global demand for US Treasuries, combined with Reagan's leadership, reversed that tide. while other unexpected conditions may arise, this time it seems much less likely. we're in decline and other countries are in ascent.

our stagnated partisan political system is incapable of solving problems like healthcare or education. 40-80 years ago, our government swung into action with legislation... facing the Depression, we passed the National Recovery Act ... seeing police violence against blacks in the south, we passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts ... fearing destruction of the environment, we quickly passed the EPA act. Regardless of what anyone thinks about any of those laws, they represented action... a far cry from what happens today, when Bush failed to pass almost all his major legislation despite controlling both houses of congress. While the Democrats might have tried to liken their victory in 2006 to Gingrich's triumph in 1994, unlike him, their efforts since the election have been invisible.

the first part of improving any situation is recognizing the basic problem.
it's not just special interests -- they have existed for centuries.
it's not just economic problems -- we faced much worst in the 1930s and late 1830s.
it's not just partisanship -- it was far worse in the early 1790s and 1990s.
it's not just presidential incompetence -- we saw plenty of that under nixon, hoover and others.
it's not just the war in Iraq -- vietnam, and even the philippine occupation, were by any measure far worse.

one must look at all these things together, and compare them relative to the rest of the world. for the first time in perhaps 200 years, the US economy is shrinking relative to the rest of the world, and its political influence is declining. we're clearly on the downward slope, burdened by our own past. the next question is, what can be done about it?


this theme of impo

it may have started as early as the late 1980s, when a wave of 1960s nostalgia swept the country after the 20th anniversary of woodstock.