Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Empire Falls Back

For several years I worked with a group of Indians on a complex engineering project. We spoke on the phone almost every day, often for many hours. In many ways this was one of those classic globalization projects that Thomas Friedman wrote about - a complex distributed endeavor involving participants from all over the world.

I grew to know many of them quite well, not because I could see them in the flesh, but rather because I could hear their voices, and I could understand their very individual approach to solving engineering problems. We worked as peers, but our situations were very, very different. I remember one occasion when we were arranging a teleconference, when the project manager spoke about the constraints they worked under. Her staff had to come into the office, they could not phone or work from home, and many of them had one-way commutes of 2 ½ hours!

So here I am, an American born into the middle class, working together with people who, by virtue of study and exhausting commutes like that, had pulled themselves up into the Indian middle class. They were still making far less in purchasing terms than I did. While their prices for daily food and shelter were far less then mine, there was absolutely no comparison between lifestyles. And so I wondered – if we are all doing the same work, on the same project, as part of the same team – why is it that I live better than they do?

This - in a nutshell - is the nature of the American Empire. Living at the center of an empire conveys enormous, disproportionate advantages that rely on the ability to draw dollars at the center vs. rupees on the margins. And I drew those dollars not because of base engineering ability, or natural talent, but rather because of one thing only: long-term relationships with other people at the center.

Things are changing very rapidly, and I believe the current economic crisis is the tipping point that will accelerate our economic decline, and ultimately unravel our empire.

On one of my trips in India I was driving along a highway out in the country, and I saw something extraordinary. Every twenty miles or so I saw a small, relatively new, school building, and these didn’t promote themselves as general schools, but rather schools of engineering. Quite often I could see the Indian students outside in their bright school uniforms. India and China now educate far more engineers than we do.

It is easy to be dismissive of new schools like this and the quality of their graduates but there is no getting around one, simple point. The best and most talented 1% out of a population of a billion will be more talented than the best 1% out of a population 1/3 that size.

We like to tell ourselves that we somehow deserve the wealth we’ve acquired, and the extraordinary ease of our lives compared with the rest of the world. Some say we have these things because of our freedom, or the ability of our economy to adapt to new circumstances, or our ability to assimilate immigrants, or a stable political structure. Or sometimes just some unique “can-do” American spirit. I’m sure these have been factors in creating our empire, but we are, in my view, an empire built on war and industry. First it was the slow drive West as we took the continent from its original inhabitants. Then it was the growth of Malthusian industry. Then it was two world wars where we used our industry to destroy the powers of the Old World.

The industry is leaving now. While American workers are still the most productive in the world, the risks of hiring the next worker here is considerable. Hire here and you have to hire HR people to position you against lawsuits, and every employee you hire is a roll of the dice. Just one employee and their lawyer can take the productivity of a thousand other workers. That is why we now graduate far more lawyers than engineers. Why make things when you can make more money by taking things? No American business can survive without the overhead of a team of lawyers and lobbyists on retainer. We’ve returned to feudalism, where the knights are lawyers, and the Dark Ages was no innovative time.

But the wealth to be plundered is drying up. We don’t make things anymore; we buy things from the rest of the world. We don’t tax ourselves for all the costs off our social programs, we borrow it. And with the recession, the stimulus bill, the new spending bill, and what we’ll spend to “reform” health care, we’ll be borrowing a lot more.

We can’t sustain this. I know lots of pundits claim that America is the indispensable nation, that the rest of the world has no choice but to ship us phones, TVs, cars, refrigerators air conditioners – all for . . . well just bookkeeping entries. Just promises to pay more at some later time. Maybe the rest of the world will loan us money to educate more and more lawyers, school administrators, accountants, and social workers – but I doubt it. I know of no historian that doubts that the British Empire lost its hegemony over the world because they became a debtor nation, and needed us to pay their bills. I see no reason why the Chinese and the Indians – productive, still-growing economies, won’t do to us what we did to the British.

I suppose it is in the nature of empires to seem immortal, because they suffuse themselves into every aspect of the world. At their height, it just doesn’t seem as if the world could be ordered any other way. While empires can last for centuries, they do, eventually, die. Perhaps our decline won’t be driven by war, but the historical record doesn’t offer much reason for hope.

The financial crisis seems pretty bad now, but the time may come when we'll look back fondly at a time when we only needed to worry about money.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's Morning in Obama's America

Octomom beams with pride as she takes us all on a tour of her brand new house. "I earned it," she says. Not with a job mind you - those are becoming pretty scarce nowadays, especially when you are "disabled."

So if you're struggling through this financial crisis, know that the fast track to success in modern America is to do something outrageous. Something notorious enough to attract attention from those willing to pay for a front-row seat at the train wreck.

Keep your credit card handy. At 5:20 she says she is "hoping for donations."

She says in the video that she is leasing the house, but this article claims the home was bought by her father. Her father said in his Oprah interview that he has $100 in the bank.

Thank God the Bush years are over, and we can return once again to an era of responsible home ownership.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Red Meat for the Pro-Choice Crowd

The lack of consensus on abortion shows no sign of easing. Each side points to their favorite outrages. Pro-life people point to this case, where a living infant was tossed in the garbage. Pro-choice advocates point to this story. A nine-year old child, raped by her step-father was given an abortion. The Brazil Catholic Church has excommunicated the child's mother and the doctors that performed the abortion.

I won't comment on the former case, since I am generally pro-life. I will comment on the latter, in order to correct some of the distortions and hate I see on the pro-choice side.

I agree with the Church's stance in this manner. In the Church's view, performing an abortion or assisting in the procuring of abortion warrants excommunication, because it is clearly and unequivocally the deliberate taking of an innocent human life.

I think in this case, the Church has correctly described the father's crime as heinous. The Church's position is that a later C-section would have allowed both the children and the mother to live. The left wants the mothers health to be a justification for abortion, but any anxiety or discomfort can be always be characterized as a health issue. This effectively means support for all abortions at any time. The Church's position is that killing a child is only justified if it is a true, unintended side effect of efforts to save the mother's life.

Some on the left even believe the nonsense that the child herself was excommunicated, which justifies even more hatred.

There is a paradox in the reaction to this.

By excommunication, all the Church is saying is that from the perspective of Church offices these people are to be shunned. They are not asking that they be burned at the stake. They are not saying that they should be personally be shunned by Catholics. They are not asking that they be denied love, empathy and support from other Christians. They are just saying that in the absence of repentance they should be denied the only real benifit of formal Church membership: the sacraments. Excommunication is not permanent. Excommunication can be lifted, and access to the sacraments can be achieved by repentance.

What I find paradoxical in the reactions to this is the claim that it is somehow brutal and draconian, while at the same time claiming that there is no value in the sacraments, because they are merely anachronistic religious drivel.

Most people seize on the seeming unfairness of not excommunicating the step-father. It isn't at all clear that he is even a Catholic, hence excommunication may not even be relevant. Even if he is a Catholic, excommunication is not intended as a remedy against all sinners - otherwise the Church would be empty. It should not be supposed that the Church approves of all people and their acts who are not excommunicated.


This is clearly a hard and extreme case, as this little girl's life has been a true horror. From my perspective as a Christian, evil acts like these call for Christian love as a response, not death.

This story will surely be used as another another justification for Obama's Freedom of Choice Act. Like most bills, the name itself is a lie, because it may take away the choice of health care providers to refuse to perform abortion. The story will be cast as "look how shallow and brutal the Catholic conscience is!" So if you are a nurse or a doctor in any public health facility, any claim of conscience will be seen as bigotry, and so you will have no right to refuse to perform an abortion.

My pro-life position is this. I have no desire to outlaw abortion, and to jail mothers and doctors who perform them. At the same time I will not support any politician or party who advocates using the public purse to fund or subsidize abortion, and who uses the power of the state to promote it.

The left loves to cast such positions as patriarchal, as motivated by what they characterize as the need to control woman's bodies. But it is the left that seeks control over bodies, because they want to compel people to perform abortions and to pay for them against their will. While there is some disagreement on whether the language of the law will eliminate conscience exemptions, I have no faith in the legal system's respect for conscience in this matter. No one thought that the Civil Rights laws would result in favoritism, but they did.

To me the only possible response to the Freedom of Choice Act is for Church-owned hospitals to refuse to comply, refuse to perform abortions, and to allow the inevitable siege of lawsuits to put them all out of business.