James C. Banks

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

Advice of a Superfluous Man

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2011 at 5:54 pm

You may have noticed that I have not been blogging much recently; in case you are not aware of the reason, I have been busy celebrating Easter and my birthday for the past week or so; arduous tasks which have prevented me from getting too close to my computer.  At one year shy of being a quarter-century old, I cannot attest to have gained disproportionate wisdom since the Spring of 1987, though I have had opportunities and adventures that many people have not been able to experience.

I don’t really have any advice that couldn’t be given better by someone else, but, were I to recommend a few things to keep in mind, these would be they:

Love God and do as you will:

This truism originates with St. Augustine. I appreciate it as a reminder that, for all the worries about living according to one legalistic standard or another, these two adages hit a balance of grace and freedom.

Mediocrity is not actually THAT bad:

As a Virginian suburbanite, I hate suburban life as much as the next human being, but anyone who lives a suburban existence should be grateful that he/she is there rather than, say, the Gulag Archipelago circa 1958.  More importantly, it is an individual’s domestic life—e.g. being a loyal spouse or good parent—which really makes him/her an individual. Are you a graduate of Harvard Business School’s class of ’09? Congratulations; there are five hundred others who are too. Some of these graduates will be CEO’s, some Senior Vice Presidents and other mid-level executives. All of this has some value, in that it can pay for a more peaceful domestic existence (See next point), but if the latter is not where your emphasis is, than you’re working awful hard to leave your money to your alma mater or the New York Symphony Orchestra.

It’s not material, but materialism, which is evil

God appears to appreciate material things; otherwise He would not have seen that they were good. And material things are there to be enjoyed. I’m partial to both books and beer, but I don’t think that one is more valuable than the other. Excess of the former is more conducive to attaining maturity, but, if both are just viewed as ends in themselves—rather than vessels for fostering wisdom and enjoyment—both will end up making you delirious.

Sleep matters

Either take a nap or sleep-in on Saturdays. It is at such moments that you come to realize what a privilege it is to exercise liberty in a free society.

The Candidacy of Reductio ad Absurdum

In Uncategorized on April 23, 2011 at 3:28 am

Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is something that I don’t recall having seen before: a candidacy as reductio ad absurdum.  I agree with Scott Adams that Trump’s candidacy is a ruse, though it may not be entirely self-conscious.  It is more likely that Trump has been playing his persona for so long that he no longer distinguishes between his showmanship and reality.  The notion is absurd that Trump could actually sell his political positions as being based on genuine conviction: can a man who appears in this video really be all that concerned about cultural or moral decay?

Trump himself is less interesting than the people who appear intent on supporting him. Come Election Day, I don’t think that he will receive a single vote (other than someone who might write his name in the ballot as a joke), but this is why I qualify with the word “appear”. Many commentators and talking-heads will, no doubt, make the case that their support reflects a high degree of “unseriousness” among the American populace.

I understand this argument, but I think that it misses the more pertinent point: These potential voters are not serious when they say they will support Trump, but when they say they will support Trump it reflects the seriousness and anxiety with which they gauge the nation’s challenges.

With spending out-of-control and war on two continents, a large percentage of the population is ready to say that they will take something—anything—other than the status quo. They are serious in the same way as a disturbed individual who only lightly slashes his wrist is serious: such an individual may not have ever meant to kill himself, but he did express genuine misery by his action.

According to Real Clear Politics, Donald Trump currently polls ahead of Mitt Romney at 17%.  Of course, this poll doesn’t mean anything this early in the electoral season.  But it is a considerable rebuke to the governing class who supposedly are serious about the American interest that a large swathe of the populace is willing to tell an online surveyor they support a practical joker for the presidency (and would probably say they would support Ronald McDonald were he to run). 

These elites should take note, because Trump’s popularity indicates that Americans are fast turning into cynical apoliticos and don’t mind saying they would be willing to elect one of their own as president. No one is expressing confidence in Trump, but with every voice that says it would support him, it is a vote of no-confidence in our current political order.

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid (The Real Chinese Threat)

In Uncategorized on April 16, 2011 at 4:05 am

I heard it again: That is, another prediction that the United States’ economy is about to be eclipsed by China. This time, the prediction came from a friend who pointed to the arbitrary fact that China has just become the world’s largest English-speaking nation. “You could transplant all the jobs from the United States to China,” he said “and you’d still have people who were unemployed.” While I am willing to admit that the United States is in the midst of a budget crisis that it is a significant threat to its future well-being and leadership, I have never found it convincing when prophets of doom assert that this fate will come about through the ascent of the Chinese economy.

Misguided population control policies which China has no desire to change have created dysfunctional demographics which will leave China with too many retirees and not enough young workers, and this is not even China’s greatest worry.  Increasingly, China has become a nation divided into a class of cosmopolitans and peasants in a country in which the people at the very bottom of the social order struggle to make subsistence. 

No doubt, some Chinese official or apologist would point out that wealth disparities are even greater in the United States.  I would be willing to concede that this is probably true, but it is not relevant to the problem. The difference between making $300 per year versus taking home $1 million is inordinately more significant than the difference between making $1 million per year versus making $1 billion. It is life quality rather than income quantity which dictate class barriers. The disparity of income between America’s superrich and its middle class is pronounced, but the standard-of-living, based on health care, housing, leisure and other factors is hardly noticeable when compared to where it stood one hundred years ago.

More important than any of these factors, though, is China’s crude political authoritarianism.  While China used to be a communist country it has remade itself over the years—playing on its people’s resentments—into something that more closely resembles a fascist nation.  But this political order threatens Chinese growth particularly in advanced technology sectors.

While the Chinese government is happy to welcome companies interested in opening factories for athletic shoes and plastic cups (since these manufactured goods are unlikely to cause political unrest) it is less likely to have entrepreneurs who develop cutting-edge technologies. The example of Google is representative of the reasons why.  Manufactured goods and innovations can be revolutionary without being subversive, but it will become increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes to deem which to regulate and which to permit.  

Doomsayers will likely point to China’s investment in fields of study like science and engineering as a sign of their ascent.  This is a claim I hear often among researchers in science and technology, but I have never found it convincing.

It is true that nations which are economically prosperous often do have a research and development establishment, but there are also many nations with a research and development establishment which are not economically prosperous.  The USSR valued science and technology education above all other fields of study and placed and had an inordinate number of Ph.D.’s in these fields (and famously imprisoned Josef Brodsky for writing poetry instead of having a “useful” occupation), but this did not prevent the empire’s economic and political demise.  Many of these Ph.D.’s can be found wandering around America’s institutions of higher learning, from lab to lab and postdoctoral fellowship to postdoctoral fellowship.

Again, this is not to say that scientific research is unimportant, but it is the ability to organize, market and leverage scientific developments which is more important. The internet had been invented more than thirty years—and had been made available on all continents for more than half-a-decade—before Sergey Brin learned how to make his first billion dollars off of it.  To find an entrepreneurial edge requires an intimate experience of what average people desire.

This experience, however, is limited under a repressive regime, because people’s desires are always being contorted by the weight of the political influence. The Chinese government might be able to create their own version of Google, but there is no question that any rational consumer would prefer the alternative product which is not censored or monitored by the state.  China has potential for exorbitant growth in high-technology sectors within its own borders, but this potential is limited by its borders.  This brings me to the real threat posed by the Eastern ascent.

While China has opened to a somewhat pluralistic economy since communist party members decided that getting rich was glorious, their government has never accepted a capitalist framework. It is possible to experience economic growth while repressing the population if the government adopts a system which is neither capitalist, nor communist but rather mercantilist.  Because China can only have full control over potentially subversive technologies and innovations within its spheres of influence, it is incumbent upon China to increase its spheres of influence. While it is difficult to speculate where this will end, it is likely to lead to a China which is more belligerent and, because of its geographic orientation, looking to expand eastward rather than the westward.

Chinese militarism is on the rise, but still comparatively weak when placed alongside the military strength of the United States. Even its military innovations—such as a land-based missile which could destroy an aircraft carrier—suggest that Chinese military prowess still measures itself in relation to a nation with a navy powerful enough to exercise its strength on China’s front porch. But the will to power is not always rational, and, as males increasingly dominate the younger demographics, the irrationality of Chinese nationalism is likely to increase.

While countries are as likely to go to war during times of prosperity as they are during times of hardship, they are less likely to turn their sights on countries of comparable strength. This is more likely to occur during a time of recession, when the government scrambles for a scapegoat for public anger. If Chinese nationalism continues to grow as it has in recent years, I will not be afraid of an expanding Chinese economy, but I will be terrified of a contracting one.

The Imperialism of Personality

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am

The internet is a crucible of schizophrenia. I do not mean this literally (and I am defining schizophrenia by its common rather than clinical definition). The majority of individuals who use it are not at risk of mental disorders. But I do not know of any technology that has bifurcated the human psyche in the way that the internet has done. Visiting my facebook page, for instance, isn’t going to tell anyone much about who I am; the narrative of my life as presented in the stream of social media—short of the constant fear of having my identity stolen—is mine to control. While there are quite a few individuals who have chosen to “over-share,” to put it mildly, I somehow doubt that anyone is entirely sincere in the persona that he or she presents.

Irony, hypocrisy and insincerity are old enough to be time-honored traditions. I am not arguing for abandoning them. A glance at the graffiti on the inside of a public restroom stall is enough to turn anyone against total honesty. But there is cause for concern as the public persona becomes increasingly invasive—not only pushing out into the morass of blogosphere, social media and networks but also pushing back into the home office and living room.

Insincerity may have always been a hallmark of public life, but the instruments of it have changed.  The powdered wigs and pancake makeup of Versailles have morphed into the JPEG photographs and HTML texts of Palo Alto. Individuals can build relationships without ever seeing their new acquaintances in the flesh and, conversely, they can stay in their room under lock-and-key without ever really being alone, as acquaintances prowl their public personas online.

While it is always dangerous to predict where these new technologies are taking us, it is likely that this schism between the private and the public life will increase in the 21st century. While companies now buy themselves credibility by renting enormous office buildings in strategic locations, entrepreneurs may discover that they can perform their essential services while contracting their work out to independent consultants who provide managerial work on a computer screen and never get out of their pajamas. At least, it would remove the off-loaded cost of office overhead.

Because of grocery and Chinese food deliveries, consultants like these could stay indoors for weeks at a time, except for holidays when they might take an occasional trip to visit their grandparents or date a girl whom they met in an online matching site. But, if individuals like these were to have no interaction with the world—no identity apart from their electronic identity—what would become of their ever-shrinking sphere of neglected individualism—the self that isn’t constantly seeking to connect or pair up with the mediate invasiveness of the world?

It remains to be seen, but, if nothing else, this trend probably won’t make restroom stall graffiti much more enjoyable.

It’s Not Too Late to Declare Mission Accomplished

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2011 at 1:51 am

An argument I have been hearing recently in regard to the Libyan war—or situation, or kinetic military action or whatever you want to call it—is that going in probably was not a good plan, but, now that we have gone in, we cannot leave until Muammar Al-Gaddafi is gone. The argument runs something like this: The outcome of the Libyan civil war would probably not have had more than a tangential effect on American foreign relations and interfering was not in our interest; nonetheless, we have interfered in the situation, therefore, we have to interfere all the way; otherwise, there will be no end in sight to the civil war and Gaddafi will be able to claim that he has defeated the United States if he remains in power after the coalition’s air raids stop.

I understand where those who voice this argument are coming from, but I do not think that this is the only option on the table. The war, as it currently stands, has no specific goal and, therefore, no mission at which the United States can fail. Having no goal is not sound strategy in the long-run, but it gives the government enough leeway to define terms of victory in the broadest possible terms. It is conceivable that the president could order that American operations in the region desist since American military operations were meant to protect Benghazi from being leveled; Gaddafi’s forces did not level Benghazi and, therefore, America’s mission is accomplished. This is probably the safest course to follow, as the greatest danger in Libya is not from direct fallout, but rather the threat of that the intervention might damage the image of American resolve, if the country should involve itself deeply and then retreat.

It is unlikely that the government will take up this exit strategy. Even Tea Party candidates disagree on the Libyan intervention.  Disagreement tends to perpetuate the status quo and, regardless of the politicians’ positions on the issue, plans for what to do next are obscure. Even if removing Gaddafi were to become a goal, it is hard define how this should be done. Will it involve sending in the marines or are we actually confident that it can be done by arming the rebels?

With the exception of those opposed to the intervention by instinct—like the Pauls or Dennis Kucinich—there are no politicians who will settle for less than total success in Libya.  But no one has any idea what total success is.  It is better to be satisfied with having achieved our principal mission (we did successfully defend the civilians of Benghazi) and return to concerns in the region which will have a more direct impact on America’s long-term interests. Losing a few resources without knowing why is preferable to waiting until we have lost what we can never get back before trying to remember how we ever got involved.

In Libya, We Need to Know “What Is the Cost?”

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm

All of the supporters of our war in Libya have one thing in common: They dismiss or fail to consider altogether what the implications of interfering in a tribal society might mean.  Here’s Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

It has been exceptionally rare for major powers to intervene militarily for predominantly humanitarian reasons. One rare example was the United States-led Kosovo campaign in 1999, and another was Britain’s dispatch of troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the brutal civil war there. Both were successes, but came only after years of killings that gradually built up the political will to do something.

Here is Senator Rubio:

As long as Qaddafi remains in power, he will be in a position to terrorize his own people and potentially the rest of the world. In fact he has vowed to turn rebel strongholds into “rivers of blood.” If he succeeds, it will provide a blueprint to repressive regimes across the Middle East in the use of force against unarmed civilians. And unlike the conflicts in other nations in the region, the rebels in Libya have requested and welcome our support.

Though Kristof is the only one who uses the term “humanitarian,” both are framing their justifications along the lines that the war in Libya is a humanitarian intervention.  This is not necessarily the case.  Our intervention might have protected civilians in Benghazi, but it has also enabled the rebels, when they enter places like Bin Jawad to go “building to building, [and] house to house.” Admittedly, the rebels are probably not as extreme in their sojourns through living rooms and bed chambers as Al-Qaddafi would have been, but there is no evidence that this will hold true for a rebel administration, should it take power in Libya. 

Even if the regime that succeeds Al-Qaddafi is more liberal, this will not necessarily be better for our national interest. The regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia are comparably repressive; the difference is that the Iranian regime wants to export its authoritarianism.  As repressive as Al-Qaddafi is, he has not been much of a threat to freedom outside of Libya since dismantling his nuclear weapons program; with the rebels, we have no idea how formidable a threat they will prove to be.

The Obama administration seems to be aware of this dilemma.  Otherwise, NATO would not have warned rebels that they will carry out airstrikes on any side of the conflict which attacks civilians. In theoretical terms, this humanitarian policy is completely consistent; in practical terms, it is completely crazy.  This claim is not universal, but it is generally true that civilians will be better off the sooner the conflict ends; however, if NATO’s air forces bomb both sides in the conflict, it will only prolong the fighting, tilting the balance first to one side and then to the other.

We can hope for the best in Libya (and I do), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine what that best scenario might be. No amount of good intentions will bring back the cost of this conflict if it comes out badly.