Bacevich speaks to Moyer about the American Empire
August 18, 2008 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich speaks to Bill Moyers (transcript) about the American empire and his new book "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism."
posted by geos (81 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 

BILL MOYERS: Here is one of those neon sentences. Quote, "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people," you write, "is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad." In other words, you're saying that our foreign policy is the result of a dependence on consumer goods and credit.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Our foreign policy is not something simply concocted by people in Washington D.C. and imposed on us. Our foreign policy is something that is concocted in Washington D.C., but it reflects the perceptions of our political elite about what we want, we the people want. And what we want, by and large - I mean, one could point to many individual exceptions - but, what we want, by and large is, we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods.

posted by geos at 7:02 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


also,


BILL MOYERS: You, in fact, say that, instead of a bigger army, we need a smaller more modest foreign policy. One that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capability. "Modesty," I'm quoting you, "requires giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise. It also means reining in the imperial presidents who expect the army to make good on those illusions." Do you expect either John McCain or Barack Obama to rein in the "imperial presidency?"

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, people run for the presidency in order to become imperial presidents. The people who are advising these candidates, the people who aspire to be the next national security advisor, the next secretary of defense, these are people who yearn to exercise those kind of great powers.

They're not running to see if they can make the Pentagon smaller. They're not. So when I - as a distant observer of politics - one of the things that both puzzles me and I think troubles me is the 24/7 coverage of the campaign.

Parsing every word, every phrase, that either Senator Obama or Senator McCain utters, as if what they say is going to reveal some profound and important change that was going to come about if they happened to be elected. It's not going to happen.

BILL MOYERS: It's not going to happen because?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Not going to happen - it's not going to happen because the elements of continuity outweigh the elements of change. And it's not going to happen because, ultimately, we the American people, refuse to look in that mirror. And to see the extent to which the problems that we face really lie within.

We refuse to live within our means. We continue to think that the problems that beset the country are out there beyond our borders. And that if we deploy sufficient amount of American power we can fix those problems, and therefore things back here will continue as they have for decades.

posted by geos at 7:07 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


more from Bacevich in a previous post. including two excerpts from the referenced book.

here.
and here.

but this interview is worth it's own FPP, in my opinion.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 7:57 AM on August 18, 2008


sigh. of course there is no apostrophe in 'its.'
posted by ilovemytoaster at 8:01 AM on August 18, 2008


Georgia War: A Neocon Election Ploy?
Is it possible that this time the October surprise was tried in August, and that the garbage issue of brave little Georgia struggling for its survival from the grasp of the Russian bear was stoked to influence the US presidential election?
posted by stbalbach at 8:14 AM on August 18, 2008


"we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods"

~HAPPY MONDAY EVERYONE~

But in my eyes, a great read makes for a great FFP, no matter how depressing.
posted by Damn That Television at 8:53 AM on August 18, 2008


Two thumbs up - great post.
posted by alexwoods at 8:59 AM on August 18, 2008


Sometimes I can buy myself a bit of sanity by not thinking of the pending collapse of the U.S. and the reasons it is justified, but then Friday night on PBS always brings me back home.
posted by troybob at 9:17 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


"we want this continuing flow of very cheap consumer goods"

And China is giving it to us, which means we should be very afraid. I've been reading up on China's history recently and they were treated pretty shabbily (from their POV at the very least) by the western powers in the 19th and early 20th century. They have a chip on their shoulders, something prove and a long memory. Even not under an authoritarian regime they could be trouble...
posted by DU at 9:19 AM on August 18, 2008


We're fucked.
posted by chillmost at 9:23 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Good find.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:35 AM on August 18, 2008


This is a phenomenal interview.
posted by gen at 9:36 AM on August 18, 2008


Great post.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:52 AM on August 18, 2008


Yes, great interview. Great, and and not a little depressing for the view that this attitude is not going to change through conscious redirection or the next election, but only after the crises when parts of the system start breaking down.

The following was huge for me. From the transcript:

There are many people who say they support the troops, and they really mean it. But when it comes, really, down to understanding what does it mean to support the troops? It needs to mean more than putting a sticker on the back of your car.

I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.

And then we really turn away. We don't want to look when they go back for two or three or four or five combat tours. That's not supporting the troops. That's an abdication of civic responsibility. And I do think it - there's something fundamentally immoral about that.


Why don't people get this? A yellow car magnet and unquestioning support of the president is NOT "supporting the troops". Requiring the soldiers to do multiple tours in remote conflicts is not supporting the troops.

(Disclaimer - my brother just retired from the Cdn forces. I didn't relish the thought of him possibly going to Afghanistan just to help a bossy neighbour fuck shit up)
posted by Artful Codger at 9:53 AM on August 18, 2008


"Great, and and not a little depressing for the view that this attitude is not going to change through conscious redirection or the next election, but only after the crises when parts of the system start breaking down"

That's what it took last time.
posted by Naberius at 10:13 AM on August 18, 2008


(Also. MetaFilter: They have a chip on their shoulders, something prove and a long memory.)
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on August 18, 2008


By this point everybody who's paying attention gets the idea: America is failing & is likely headed for a crash. There's a number of factors involved, we can't be sure which one will be the straw that breaks our back or when it'll hit us, but we all know it's coming.

The question becomes, what do we do about it? Is it enough to play Chicken Little & warn that the sky is falling so that when it finally falls we'll have the satisfaction of saying "I told you so"? Can an Obama-led political renaissance that works within boundaries the current system head it off or at least cushion the blow? Should we reactivate our Y2K compounds? (not that I built a Y2K compound to begin with)
posted by scalefree at 10:21 AM on August 18, 2008


Wow, I just reread the speech Jimmy Carter gave in 1979, the one the Reaganites beat him up about because it was depressing and demanded sacrifice from the American people, in contrast to the happy talk St. Ron was spewing. It strikes me that nothing has really changed since then. All the attempts to free ourselves from entanglements with the politics of oil have been for naught.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fantastic post. Thanks for this.
posted by never used baby shoes at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2008


Just read part one of the book yesterday. Highly recommend his work (and Chalmers Johnson's) for a nice history of the last 200 years.
posted by ao4047 at 10:41 AM on August 18, 2008


Mental Wimp - the Carter speech is one of the turning points that Bacevich talks about in his chronology.
posted by ao4047 at 10:44 AM on August 18, 2008


As I pondered McCain's recent comment that Russia was bad for invading Georgia because 'in the twenty-first centuries, nations don't invade other countries' (paraphrased), I wondered which was going to die first: American Exceptionalism or irony?
posted by norm at 10:45 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Continuing on Mental Wimp's point, and Bacevich's interpretation of Carter's speech (emphasis mine):

"Well, this is the so-called Malaise Speech, even though he never used the word "malaise" in the text to the address. It's a very powerful speech, I think, because President Carter says in that speech, oil, our dependence on oil, poses a looming threat to the country. If we act now, we may be able to fix this problem. If we don't act now, we're headed down a path in which not only will we become increasingly dependent upon foreign oil, but we will have opted for a false model of freedom. A freedom of materialism, a freedom of self-indulgence, a freedom of collective recklessness. And what the President was saying at the time was, we need to think about what we mean by freedom. We need to choose a definition of freedom which is anchored in truth, and the way to manifest that choice, is by addressing our energy problem.

He had a profound understanding of the dilemma facing the country in the post Vietnam period. And of course, he was completely hooted, derided, disregarded."


Freedom is not the choice between curly and straight fries. Freedom is not the ability to go to the mall to see the latest Hollywood spectacle. As antagonistic as the thought is to the ideal of the American way of life, freedom is not capitalism. (We can argue all day about the degree of correlation between one and the other, but it is not a causative effect). Freedom is something far, far more basic, and far more powerful. But there's been a conscious trade-off in the American psyche: an exchange of liberty for a platinum credit card.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:57 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


This interview is fantastic. I don't see it as necessarily depressing. Maybe if you want to maintain a lifestyle of unbound consumption without a thought to consequence, sure. Otherwise, he's just pointing out what many have realized - America is making a turning point. A maturing. It can be either more painful or less painful, depending on our priorities. One thing I should point out though - when he says "it's not going to happen because the elements of continuity outweigh the elements of change" - well, this is always the case, really, isn't it? I don't share his pessism that Americans refuse to self-reflect. Talk to anyone person to person and of course they realize we can't live this way forever. But many public officials refuse to acknowledge this reality, which is dangerous. But it's happening, like it or not, and the great leaders of the 21st century are going to be the ones who bravely accept the turning point to come and guise us through it; instead of coddling us with a false sense of Consumerland inertia.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:02 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


They have a chip on their shoulders, something prove and a long memory.

This reminds me of something I read in Zoe Chace's Olympic Diary from Owen, one of China's Olympic torch-bearers:
Years later, when you look at history, you will see, we have made great progress. After we've had so hard time, we've survived. All of the Chinese are strong. We can never be defeated! You can kill us with your gun. But we will never be defeated. We survive. That's what the Olympics can tell the world."
posted by ahughey at 11:11 AM on August 18, 2008


I can't wait to read more of Bacevich's stuff. When he says we need to take a look at ourselves, I wonder how much he goes on to address what I think is a big issue in the U.S.--that we have confused the symbols for the reality they are supposed to represent (which we see in patriotism, party politics, and even Olympics medal counts), and I'm always curious as to how we find a way out of that.

But then his talk overall (and any Moyers show I watch, pretty much) tends to leave me frustrated over being able to see that there's a problem, having an idea of what the problem is, and still not being able to figure out how to change my life so as not to be part of the problem. So far, moving to Uruguay is the only thing I can come up with, and I haven't been working on my Spanish.
posted by troybob at 11:23 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Great post. Thanks for this.

I wanted to ensure props to for FPP to separate that from my comments.

---

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Oh noes! We're all gonna die!

ANDREW BACEVICH: Sometime around the 1960s there was a tipping point, when the "empire of production" began to become the "empire of consumption." When the cars started to be produced elsewhere, and the television sets, and the socks, and everything else. And what we ended up with was the American people becoming consumers rather than producers.

Another way to look at that is to say that some American businesses by and large discarded heavy-duty, polluting, low profit margin manufacturing in favor of other industries, both high tech and not, that will by and large define the 21st Century, while other businesses were proven incompetent (Hello Ford, Chrysler, GM...) and Americans turned to better values (Hello Toyota, Honda, Nissan...) , thereby saving money and bettering their lives in other ways.

It also helps to buy things from your former enemies, such as Germany and Japan, and potential enemies, like China. It makes them less likely to shoot at you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:37 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


but this interview is worth it's own FPP, in my opinion.

Agreed. Well done, geos.
posted by homunculus at 11:41 AM on August 18, 2008


Bacevich's lecture on Reinhold Niebuhr is also worth checking out.
posted by homunculus at 11:51 AM on August 18, 2008


It also helps to buy things from your former enemies, such as Germany and Japan, and potential enemies, like China. It makes them less likely to shoot at you.

They'll hold fire at least until they after have sent creditors to collect, who come home empty-handed.

I have a suspicion that this is not a set of problems that Americans can buy their way out of.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:14 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, Troybob.
how to step back without putting our head in the sand.
or running away to Uraguay. [not Uraguayist]
posted by ilovemytoaster at 12:20 PM on August 18, 2008


One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.

here is 'billmon' on the "hollowed out" politics of what just happened in Georgia...
posted by geos at 12:25 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


They'll hold fire at least until they after have sent creditors to collect, who come home empty-handed.

You realize that when Chinese institutions buy Treasury bills, they're buying them because they think they're the safest investment on the planet, right? Otherwise, they'd happily invest in Mexican pesos.

In order to buy debt, someone has to sell debt. And to sell international debt, you have to have a solid promise that you can pay, because you can't exactly offload North Dakota (even though you might like to).

So, what you saying is that the Chinese are incredibly stupid, because we Americans have fooled them into buying something that they know will ultimately be worthless.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:01 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


This.

This right here is why I love MetaFilter.

Thank you.
posted by Vindaloo at 1:01 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


not being able to figure out how to change my life so as not to be part of the problem. So far, moving to Uruguay is the only thing I can come up with

Why Uruguay? The more pre-industrial agriculture-focused economy? I don't know. I suspect that somebody's going to have to figure out how to do post-industrialization sustainability well, so you may as well stay here and see what you can figure out. I also suspect Uruguay will have its own issues and it'll take you years to understand those, too.

I don't know how the puzzle pieces fit here, nor am I particularly great at really opting out. I use re-usable water bottles, I drive the used cars I purchase until I can't figure out how to maintain them anymore, I don't shop at Wal-Mart, or, in general, buy something just because it's the cheapest option. But I don't know how much better the other big box stores I sometimes shop at are, I'm addicted to computing and the internet, I drive/travel in my fossil fuel run vehicle for fun as well as necessity, and I'm not as conscientious as I could be about where/how/by whom the products I consume are produced. So I certainly know I'm not all that when it comes to solutions.

But working hard to be less of a consumer and treating your own income as something to invest is a start. Picking investments that foster more local production is another good step. Making your home the center of even some marginal real production via gardening or some craft is another. Talking casually to people about the benefits of these ideas in a non-judgmental way in the right setting is yet another.

The sluggardly and real cultural (and personal) inertia is in many ways pretty depressing. But abandoning ship or hope doesn't seem likely to help.
posted by weston at 1:16 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


You realize that when Chinese institutions buy Treasury bills, they're buying them because they think they're the safest investment on the planet, right?

It doesn't have to be a very good investment to be the safest on this planet right now. Also there are not enough Mexican Pesos or any other currency for China to invest in (without driving its own costs WAY up; demand and supply, you know). Thanks to the debt-making machine of the Bush Administration, they're the most available investment AND if China doesn't keep buying them, the American economy will collapse a lot faster and it'll lose it's biggest customer. China is not incredibly stupid, but the Good Old American talent for scamming has suckered it in pretty well. Remember, for a few decades China was fully committed to the worst economic policy of the 20th Century... Communism. And it's still a rather monolithic Dictatorship (I just re-edited this paragraph to change the "they"s to "it"s... "The Chinese" still speak and invest mostly collectively) and if enough of the Politburo gets really pissed at us, China is certainly capable of acting against its 'best economic interest', at least as we have convinced them it is.
posted by wendell at 1:27 PM on August 18, 2008


I nearly cried reading that interview. Then I forwarded the link to everyone I know.

What a feeling to read an intelligent, well-reasoned explanation of what I've been trying to clumsily put together in my own mind for so long.
posted by threeturtles at 1:37 PM on August 18, 2008


Cool Papa Bell is the only one making sense here. The rest of you are responding in the patented Bill Moyers way: wringing your hands with a kind of de-Jesused Protestant guilt. You (to paraphrase Whitman) sweat and whine about your condition; you lie awake in the dark and weep for you sins; you make me sick discussing your duty to the environment. You see it as your "duty" not to participate in consumer society. Who do you think is impressed? If you are a devout fundamentalist Christian non-materialist, that is one thing. But if you are regular asshole American, you do the world a lot of good by buying up its products.
posted by Faze at 1:52 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


In order to buy debt, someone has to sell debt. And to sell international debt, you have to have a solid promise that you can pay, because you can't exactly offload North Dakota (even though you might like to).

Don't be so sure. Russia sold Alaska to the United States because it needed the cash. It's rare but not unheard of, and as America slides slowly into third-world status and more public trusts become private property, there may be any number of creative "refinancing" programs coming to handle the massive, crushing debt Bush has incurred on behalf of the American People.

So, what you saying is that the Chinese are incredibly stupid, because we Americans have fooled them into buying something that they know will ultimately be worthless.

Define worthless. Unpaid debt has certainly been a historical pretext for intrusion into and control of other countries (e.g., Versailles Treaty). Political and economic controls would be worth something to an up-and-coming world power like China.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:53 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I mean, look at the power that Saudi Arabia exerts over United States policies, directly and indirectly. The current administration even let the bin Laden family out of the country during the no-fly weeks after 9/11, abrogating any chance at a criminal investigation! That's the kind of obligation that debt holds over a country, the kind of sway that it buys around the integrity of law and democracy.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:58 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


As Cool Papa Bell said, some of this does ring rather strange. Bacevich speaks of Americans becoming consumers rather than producers, but this is a strange way of saying that we moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Yes, we don't produce as many physical goods like cars and socks as we did, but do produce much more high technology, financial services, etc. It's a curious romanticizing of the manufacturing past: is it somehow better or purer to produce physical goods than services and technologies? The framing of what he calls the "tipping point" of the 1960s is puzzling.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2008


Faze, no one is disputing that the stuff we buy keeps people employed. The point of this interview is the pursuit of resources to maintain our comfie lifestyle without a thought to sustainability or consequence, in which the military plays a role. This persistent mantra of "shut up and buy" is wearing thin, and strawmanning doesn't help, either.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:00 PM on August 18, 2008


(OK, one of the points of the interview, that is ... )
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:13 PM on August 18, 2008


It's a curious romanticizing of the manufacturing past: is it somehow better or purer to produce physical goods than services and technologies?

McJobs are perhaps not a good foundation for a strong, vibrant, first-world economy. Most of the high-value-added service jobs you are hinting at are held by a very small fraction of the working population, with the rest in the process of being outsourced when possible.

When you can no longer buy products from your own country, when you no longer make value-added products from your own natural resources, when you're selling your food crops to turn into energy, etc., you as a nation are no longer in charge of your own fate. Third-world African nations invaded by mining, logging, and energy corporations are only too keenly aware of this fact. Manufacturing is one of many important and legitimate means to the end of true self-governance.

It is worth noting that capital has become liquid to the point that corporations can easily play countries and labor pools off each other. In a race to the bottom, everyone loses, except for a few equity holders at the top.

What Bacevich suggests is that most Americans do not have the means to sustain their level of consumption in the face of this changing reality, that we have leadership that seeks to encourage the maintenance of this unsustainable lifestyle, a leadership that remains embroiled in debt-ridden colonial exercises overseas and remains steadfastly impotent to the actions of private industry to further usurp the "common good."
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:24 PM on August 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


> It's a curious romanticizing of the manufacturing past

I don't think it's just romanticizing manufacturing, it's romanticizing manufacturing as the core of the very productive, export-focused economy that we used to have. Today we consume (as imports) more than we produce, and the almost wholesale elimination of the manufacturing sector has been a very visible sign of that to many people.

Since we haven't yet figured out how to achieve a trade balance with our new service-focused economy, it's understandable that many people look back towards manufacturing and heavy industry (which in large part was responsible for growing the economy so steadily over the 20th century) as our lost salvation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:25 PM on August 18, 2008


Don't be so sure. Russia sold Alaska to the United States because it needed the cash.

Well, now you're comparing apples (debt) and oranges (physical real estate). Debt is a promise of future payment. Alaska is a place I can visit.

It's rare but not unheard of, and as America slides slowly into third-world status and more public trusts become private property, there may be any number of creative "refinancing" programs coming to handle the massive, crushing debt Bush has incurred on behalf of the American People.

So, you are saying we might have to sell North Dakota (or something ... you get the point), after all? Sorry, just can't go there with you. That'd be a struck-by-lightning scenario. I guess aliens could arrive tomorrow and take over the world, too, but I don't think we need to spend money for defense readiness.

Define worthless. Unpaid debt has certainly been a historical pretext for intrusion into and control of other countries (e.g., Versailles Treaty).

Careful, now. You're edging toward a Godwin...and moreover, it's the exact opposite of what you're describing. In that case, the debtor invaded the debt-holder, not the other way around.

But besides, worthless = a rate of return that doesn't match your expectations. You buy $100 worth of Treasury bills, and I give you $100 back (or less), when you could've had $101 if you bought euros or pesos or whatever. If you're buying Treasury bills, it is in your best interest to ensure that they're worth something. I don't loan you $100 bucks and then shoot you in the foot -- after all, I won't get my $100 back anytime soon.

There's another analogy here, and that's the old business saw: "If I loan you $100 bucks, that makes me generous. If I loan you $1 million bucks, that makes me your partner."

Political and economic controls would be worth something to an up-and-coming world power like China.

Sure, but they have that now, along the lines of what I said above. The U.S. can't mess with China too much because that's where we get our Barbie dolls. And China can't mess with the U.S. too much because we're the ones buying the Barbie dolls. This is a good problem to have.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:39 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Careful, now. You're edging toward a Godwin...

Ugh.

Never mind. Thanks.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:40 PM on August 18, 2008


when you no longer make value-added products from your own natural resources

See, I just think you're over-focusing on what "natural resource" means. There's wood and oil and lumber and wheat, sure. But that's not all.

There's also the talent, energy and brainpower of people, which will always be attracted to the places where they will be best rewarded for the application of their talent, energy and brainpower. The U.S. still has that in spades, and I remain optimistic on that front, too. So, the sky just isn't falling.

Now, we are in a very literal international battle on that front, as Indian and Chinese kids stay at home and apply their talents in greater frequency. And the way forward is education.

But that word -- education -- literally does not appear in the interview transcript. Sad.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:48 PM on August 18, 2008


The U.S. can't mess with China too much because that's where we get our Barbie dolls. And China can't mess with the U.S. too much because we're the ones buying the Barbie dolls. This is a good problem to have.

Genuinely curious here:

We're indebted to and have as our major manufacturing base a country responsible for some pretty nasty human rights violations. How is this a good problem to have? We can't do anything beyond some vague polite suggestions that they might want to stop persecutions of consciousness, and they can go right on doing what they do, because of this symbiosis.

In other words, I'm not sure I understand what's good about this scenario.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:50 PM on August 18, 2008


Excellent interview. It's good that people are starting to encourage some reflection.

Freedom: the power to look the other way and know it's probably someone else's problem. Probably.

Thanks for sharing, geos! (Also, you rocked my C64/1541 world)
posted by davemee at 2:55 PM on August 18, 2008


wendell for a few decades China was fully committed to the worst economic policy of the 20th Century... Communism.
There's been a few contenders for that title thought up since.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:02 PM on August 18, 2008


Blazecock Pileon,
You seem to be holding a very 19th-century view of what a country is and should be. The world has changed. No one is or can be an autarky. The world is interconnected, capital is liquid, production is movable. You are right that our leadership needs to adapt to meet this changing reality, but the answer isn't to try turn inward and backward to a world that doesn't exist anymore. The solution is to find a way to be sustainable in the new framework. This is not a "race to the bottom where everyone loses". The spread of trade and production has allowed to the growth of nations around the world, first the Asian economies like Japan and Korea but more recently China and India as they have benefited from overseas investment. Standards of living have been able to rise because of this...but there are attendant problems that need to be solved. I just think his view, and yours, are unworkable because they don't address the reality of the world today, and they try to replicate a past that was not any better.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:05 PM on August 18, 2008


You see it as your "duty" not to participate in consumer society. Who do you think is impressed?

I don't have a problem with participating in consumer society; what I dislike is seeing the ways I participate in it inappropriately and to excess, and I want to figure out (1) what a good balance is, (2) how to institute it in my life so I don't make the existing problems worse, and (3) how to offset the involuntary ways I contribute to the problem. It's easy enough to ignore this responsibility, and I don't preach to others about what their responsibilities are; but I'd rather be in a position of anticipating and preparing for the inevitable change that is coming (e.g., recalibrating need-vs-desire, defining quality of life away from goods and purchasing power). What gets me is that even being conscious of it, on another level I still participate. (For instance, after watching the Moyers special, the thought occurred to me that we probably don't need all those satellite channels, and so I started looking into how to cut back; I hit the web to check stuff out, and after three hours I found that I wanted a new TIVO, a new Macbook, and a Netflix set-top box. Shit!) And it's not that I feel it is my 'duty' to do something about it as much as the fact that, for me, I just don't like it; this is not how I want to define for myself what it means to be human.

And I don't see the problem as being that manufacturing is being done elsewhere; it's more that we have developed a reliance on buying things to make us happy, to the point where we have trouble distinguishing need from desire; we've grown accustomed to those things being cheap; and we've overextended ourselves to buy them in order to support the illusion that we are doing better than we are. I think Bacevich in part is warning us of the walls we are going to hit if we continue on this path, one of those being that we're going to reach a point where we don't have the credit to sustain it anymore (and that fact that living on credit is not actually 'sustaining' is going to compound that shock), and also that the U.S. is going to decline in terms of being number one in line for all the resources we've tended to take for granted and that we use disproportionately to the rest of the world.

When I think of Uruguay, I'm thinking in terms of trying to find a place that's easy enough to move to and that is enough of a cultural change that I can break the over-consuming mindset I feel stuck in. Good for those who can do that without a change in geography, but I've gone from feeling like I'm soaking in it to drowning in it, and while I take all the blame for how I react to it, I feel like the culture has too many mechanisms designed to put me right back on that path.
posted by troybob at 3:35 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I listened to a full recording of Jimmy Carter's 1979 speech for the first time a few years ago.

Listening to the speech which suposedly destroyed his career* made me respect Carter more than just about any political leader in the last 40 years.

A political scientist I knew pointed out that his approval rating actually went significantly up immediately after the speech, but then the opposition's characterisation of the speech - as opposed to what he actually said - was used against him in the following election.
posted by jb at 4:35 PM on August 18, 2008


(that was in response to Mental Wimp's earlier comment - sorry for the non-sequitor).
posted by jb at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2008


>I have a suspicion that this is not a set of problems that Americans can buy their way out of.

But by god they'll try!
posted by pompomtom at 5:17 PM on August 18, 2008


You see it as your "duty" not to participate in consumer society. Who do you think is impressed?

What makes you think the *primary* reason to do this is to impress anybody? And what makes you so sure this is simply more religious guilt when there's clear personal benefits available to some forms of reducing your impact?

I can't stop rolling my eyes at stuff like this. People buy water bottles as a status symbol? Maybe some people do, I don't know, but regardless of whether or not some people need one to go along with their , it's a nice spot between not having to buy bottled water over and over again while still being a step up from re-used orange juice and gatorade bottles (and it's much more portable and not all that much more expensive than a set of cups). So, for me it's not just that I'm not imposing a disposal or recycling cost on the world at large every time I want to haul 32 oz of liquid around. It's that I pay less for it. Even if nobody's impressed, there's measurable utility and semi-appreciable savings. If enough people do happen to be impressed and, then that might translate into a measurable social benefit. Maybe it would in fact be nice for everybody.

But apparently some people are not only unimpressed, they're anti-impressed, and feel imposed upon somehow by this kind of behavior, so they label it "trendy," imagine those involved as "self-righteous" or overcome with needless guilt. That's pretty twisted. I don't pass judgment on people who may have their own reasons for buying bottled water or any other activity that might not fit the model of an ideal conservationist -- I certainly engage in these things -- but heaven help me if I don't feel a bit of superiority over anybody who's let themselves get mixed up enough that they have to find an angle from which they can comfortably mock or criticize a behavior that seems perfectly rational on both a personal and social level.

The world has changed. No one is or can be an autarky.

I don't think anyone is really advocating this. But this also doesn't mean that comparative advantage should be the sole or even necessarily the most important factor in production and import decisions, or that there might not be a wide variety of reasons for adopting a range of positions between complete autarky and barrier-free trade.

When I think of Uruguay, I'm thinking in terms of trying to find a place that's easy enough to move to and that is enough of a cultural change that I can break the over-consuming mindset I feel stuck in.

That makes more sense -- I definitely subscribe to the idea that external changes can be a catalyst for internal ones.
posted by weston at 5:20 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


weston,
I agree with you about taking into consideration reasons for placing trade restrictions or conditions (labor, environmental, developmental, etc). I am by no means a blind free-market booster. I was more responding to Blazecock Pileon's comments that strike me as something like nationalism by another name, and to some extent Bacevich by implication though he doesn't outright say it, that we need manufacturing to keep us strong and safe. There seems to be this idea that manufacturing is somehow magical, that it's "real work" and things were better back when we were making "real" things like TVs. Perhaps it's some form of "industrial romanticism", where instead of looking longingly back to the countryside and the days of agriculture as they did in the Industrial Revolution we look longingly back on the days of factories and railroads. pKadin2048touches on this a little.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:36 PM on August 18, 2008


We're indebted to and have as our major manufacturing base a country responsible for some pretty nasty human rights violations. How is this a good problem to have? We can't do anything beyond some vague polite suggestions that they might want to stop persecutions of consciousness, and they can go right on doing what they do, because of this symbiosis.

In other words, I'm not sure I understand what's good about this scenario.


What's the alternative?

What you have now is economic and social engagement, which will hopefully continue, and hopefully influence future Chinese leaders. We can argue about degrees of persuasion, but this is still the essence of diplomacy.

Your alternate is a revamped Cold War, disengagement, war-by-proxy and war, period, just like the U.S. had with the Soviets, and just like the U.S. still has with Cuba. If China's biggest customer walks away in a huff, guess who loses his job making Barbie dolls, and guess who gets a new job making guns.

We're indebted to...

Indebted. Again, as if someone's going to re-possess North Dakota. You may be "indebted" to a loan shark, because Johnny Two-Times will shoot you two times if you don't pay it back. But when your loan is something like $800 billion a year, it stops looking like a loan and starts looking like an economy.

So, who's got the short end of the stick here, exactly? Guy A, who "owes" Guy B nine hojillion dollars? Or Guy B, who is hoping Guy A pays back the nine hojillion dollars?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:38 PM on August 18, 2008


What you have now is economic and social engagement, which will hopefully continue, and hopefully influence future Chinese leaders. We can argue about degrees of persuasion, but this is still the essence of diplomacy. ... If China's biggest customer walks away in a huff, guess who loses his job making Barbie dolls, and guess who gets a new job making guns.

So we're supposed to keep doing business with China because we're afraid they'd go to war with us?

See, this is the part I don't get. Forget about degrees of persuasion - I don't see any amount of persuasion at all. I just see two business partners, each making money off the other. Is there a precedent anywhere in the world where being the business partner of a totalitarian regime - without exerting any otherwise meaningful influence on their policy - has magically changed them to the good guys? I have seen Libya change (to an extent) as the result of an international embargo. And it's not as if this embargo launched a wave of vengeful attacks against the rest of the world for not doing business with Libya. Granted, it didn't hurt us all that much to get the world to stop buying Libyan oil - not nearly as much as it would to move towards other manufacturing bases besides China. But it I'm not really seeing this nebulous, supposed diplomacy and influence from us to get China to change at all.

I'm not even saying we would need to go balls-out and stop doing business with China altogether. A limited embargo on certain Chinese goods would be influential, and a start. At least a more substantial one than this talktalktalk of "engagement" when the only thing that's really going on is Business As Usual.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:04 PM on August 18, 2008


Again, as if someone's going to re-possess North Dakota.

Actually, there are several (many? Anyone have a number?) African states which have found that their debts left them so dependant on international lenders such that they had to choose between a) declaring the government completely bankrupt (and thus essentially a non-government), or b) giving up economic soveriegnty to the international lenders in order to be allowed to keep borrowing. Whether or not you agree with the policies which were forced on them, it was a serious erosion on their national soverignty and interfeerance in their domestic economic policy.

It's not inconceivable to me that the United States could see such abrogations on its own soveignty, though, considering its size and political and military power, it will probably proceed in a much more subtle way than such intrusions on national sovereignty have in many developing countries.
posted by jb at 6:21 PM on August 18, 2008


(I really need to learn how to spell sovereignty - it's such a useful, and sadly underused, word. Like legitimacy.)
posted by jb at 6:22 PM on August 18, 2008


I actually agree with most of what Bacevich says, but it just strikes me as weird that everyone's response is "Gee, what can I personally give up that will improve the situation?" As if anyone cares if you give up bottled water for Lent. God doesn't care if you lead an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. There is no big Bill Moyers in the sky checking up on whether you shop at Wal-Mart or not. There are times when it is good for you acquire goods and possessions, and times when it is good for you to get rid of them. For everything there is a season. But it all has to do with YOU, the internal tides of your spirit, NOT the international balance of trade, someone's interpretation of environmental data, or Jimmy Carter's worried face. Live YOUR life, not the life of some nation or world community you imagine you belong to. What you as a tiny little individual do or buy has no influence on China, or George Bush, or the war in Iraq. Worry about the decisions that are actually critical to YOUR life, and YOUR family. Everything else is an illusion.
posted by Faze at 7:18 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Worry about the decisions that are actually critical to YOUR life, and YOUR family.

I find that not being a selfish pig is pretty critical to my life.
posted by troybob at 7:28 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, who's got the short end of the stick here, exactly? Guy A, who "owes" Guy B nine hojillion dollars? Or Guy B, who is hoping Guy A pays back the nine hojillion dollars?

Obviously, the both get fucked.

In the interview Bacevich never talks about manufacturing vs. service industries, he talks about surplus vs. debt. Here is the section that you all seem so confused about,

"When President Johnson became President, our trade balance was in the black. By the time we get to the Nixon era, it's in the red. And it stays in the red down to the present. Matter of fact, the trade imbalance becomes essentially larger year by year."

And beyond the trade imbalance the U.S. has massive government debt and massive personal debt. It doesn't matter what kind of economy we have if we are using more money than we have. And unless you take the Cool Papa Bell position that we are simply to large to fail, this money is going to have to get paid sometime and it's not going to be pretty.

And this has nothing to do with personal responsibility, unless it's personal responsibility in the voting booth. The elites in the U.S. have set up the system explicitly in order to encourage consumerism and debt. What's needed is not an increase in personal financial responsibility but a massive restructuring of the economy.
posted by afu at 7:46 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Guy A, who "owes" Guy B nine hojillion dollars? Or Guy B, who is hoping Guy A pays back the nine hojillion dollars?

to follow the cartoonishly Panglossian template you set up, let's just say it all depends on Guy A's collateral. in America's case it's not really Alaska (funny it was mentioned in the discussion anyway because all those polar bears are siitting on quite a bit of sweet, sweet crude) but America itself -- her role as the Greatest Country in the History of Everything -- Bacevich is talking very appropriately about Empires, and the way they usually set up their own demise, he's not talking about "Macroeconomics 101 Explained To A Drunken Guy Watching NASCAR At The Bar". wasting time trying to figure out exactly if, and if yes, how nicely will Wen Jiabao yell -- to insist on the cartoonish template -- "No Tickee No Laundry" to Cool Papa Bell is frankly a disheartening exercise in uselessness. just ask the ghosts of Romulus Augustus, or Karl I of Austria, they'll tell you that it's never about "if" it ends.

one does not need to have memorized Der Untergang des Abendlandes (which, by the way, just like the satanic Karl Marx's works, is a fascinatingly appropriate read for these times) to figure out that 9/11 should have taught us something pretty evident to all those who've taken the time to read up a bit on ancient history: empires do fall and they do it much sooner than their emperors -- or their subjects -- would have imagined. and there's no such thing as a thousand year empire -- Godwin!

the old "motus in fine velocior" is another good warning sign -- just turn on CNN to see exactly how fast.

Bacevich is paying attention. those who think that trying lamely to bribe the Barbarians by paying them sweatshop wages to make cheap shit for Massa is a good form of long-term insurance, not so much.
posted by matteo at 7:54 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Response to 9/11 Offers Outline of McCain Doctrine
posted by homunculus at 8:11 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


So we're supposed to keep doing business with China because we're afraid they'd go to war with us?

Well, one of the alternatives would be a kind of severe disengagement you seem to be espousing. And like I said, that looks like the Soviet Union of old and Cuba of today, still, 50 years later, where we were apparently waiting for Fidel to die, and nobody won.

Or, you can stay engaged and try diplomacy.

Is there a precedent anywhere in the world where being the business partner of a totalitarian regime - without exerting any otherwise meaningful influence on their policy - has magically changed them to the good guys?

How about the U.S. and Britain after the War of 1812? Britain supported the Confederacy, remember. We seem to have set aside our differences without firing any more shots.

Actually, there are several (many? Anyone have a number?) African states which have found that their debts left them so dependant on international lenders such that they had to choose between a) declaring the government completely bankrupt (and thus essentially a non-government), or b) giving up economic soveriegnty to the international lenders in order to be allowed to keep borrowing.

Well, a better example would be Argentina's economic shocks where the IMF sent the country into a tailspin. Argentina climbed out of the hole with the help of the IMF and G7 nations. But again, for this to happen to the U.S. would be a struck-by-lightning scenario. One of the ways Argentina has recovered has been, ta da, by buying U.S. dollars.

this money is going to have to get paid sometime and it's not going to be pretty.

Clinton was doing pretty good, increasing revenues and paying down the debt. Then everything went to shit. Thanks, George.

The elites in the U.S. have set up the system explicitly in order to encourage consumerism and debt.

Yes, because there is such as thing as "elites" that force you to buy things instead of save. It's not like the government doesn't sign fruitful retirement savings plans into law or anything.

cartoonishly Panglossian

The only thing cartoonish here is having Chicken Little pretend he's a futurist.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:50 PM on August 18, 2008


God doesn't care if you lead an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. There is no big Bill Moyers in the sky checking up on whether you shop at Wal-Mart or not.

Whether or not there is has little bearing on the consequences that flow from choosing those things.

There are times when it is good for you acquire goods and possessions, and times when it is good for you to get rid of them. For everything there is a season.

Fair enough.

But it all has to do with YOU...not the life of some nation or world community you imagine you belong to.

I can understand not believing in God or Bill Moyers, and I can even understand believing that emergent behavior is hard to predict or alter, but you seem to be suggesting it doesn't exist or isn't shaped by collective behavior of its individual constituents.

What you as a tiny little individual do or buy has no influence on China, or George Bush, or the war in Iraq. Worry about the decisions that are actually critical to YOUR life, and YOUR family. Everything else is an illusion.

See also: the conclusion that no one should bother to vote, because no one individual vote matters.

It's certainly true that improving your own lot in life is a more practical and usually more rewarding task than trying to reshape the whole world to your convenience. But it's simply inescapable that individual decisions impact others and multiplied over millions of people have macroeconomic and social results.
posted by weston at 9:34 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, one of the alternatives would be a kind of severe disengagement you seem to be espousing. And like I said, that looks like the Soviet Union of old and Cuba of today, still, 50 years later, where we were apparently waiting for Fidel to die, and nobody won.

I'm not at all espousing any sort of "severe disengagement". Unless anything beyond "Keep buying their things and don't say anything that might annoy them" is severe. I specifically said we wouldn't have to go with a total embargo, but that we do need to take some step, such as a partial embargo of some Chinese goods.

As far as the Soviet Union goes, their collapse had a lot to do with their own failed economic policies, a disastrous war in Afghanistan, overreach of satellite nations, among other reasons, and weren't engaged in the sort of "we might as well call it capitalism" brand of communism that China has. And Cuba? Really? The US and Mauritania are the only two countries who don't trade with Cuba.

Or, you can stay engaged and try diplomacy.

What diplomacy? Where?

How about the U.S. and Britain after the War of 1812? Britain supported the Confederacy, remember. We seem to have set aside our differences without firing any more shots.

Namely because Britain needed us much more than we needed them. We had resources that they required to do business. It wasn't very difficult to mend fences in that situation.

I really find this whole thing baffling. If the US is China's greatest consumer, and they're so completely dependent on our buying what they make, we can and should take some sort of initial steps towards influence, or at least shut the hell up about how much we value human rights and democracy in this country.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:01 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Er, upon further review, I believe I'm wrong about Mauritania.)
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:12 PM on August 18, 2008


What you as a tiny little individual do or buy has no influence on China, or George Bush, or the war in Iraq. Worry about the decisions that are actually critical to YOUR life, and YOUR family. Everything else is an illusion.

Economic solipsism: Keeping you blissfully unaware since 1883!
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 11:15 PM on August 18, 2008


From way up-thread: Bacevich speaks of Americans becoming consumers rather than producers, but this is a strange way of saying that we moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.

Translation:

"Bacevich speaks of Americans becoming consumers rather than producers, but this is a strange way of saying something that I would rather not discuss without using jargon that specialists made up as recently as (who knows?) maybe a couple of decades or so ago to describe certain historically recent economic trends in scientifically-precise sounding terms that have the effect of obscuring how little is actually understood about these ultimately historically unprecedented developments. In other words, give me a second here to make some shit up."

here seems to be this idea that manufacturing is somehow magical, that it's "real work" and things were better back when we were making "real" things like TVs. Perhaps it's some form of "industrial romanticism", where instead of looking longingly back to the countryside and the days of agriculture as they did in the Industrial Revolution we look longingly back on the days of factories and railroads. pKadin2048touches on this a little.

For me, it's not about romanticizing anything (well, okay, I'll admit I do sometimes get misty-eyed longing for the days of craftsmen and trade guilds): it's about having a robust, failure resistant economy. Too much development focused narrowly in any one particular industry or economic sector is a long-term recipe for a fragile, easily shaken economy.

Besides, our economic choices shouldn't just be about maximizing our competitive advantages and growth. Economic choices have direct impacts on our culture and way of life (which shouldn't just be a euphemism for our consumption habits). The monomaniacal way global economic policies tend to focus on growth and competitive advantage--to the exclusion of almost all other considerations--makes it pretty plain these aren't policies focused on the common good, or oriented toward long-term social stability and the well-being of ordinary people. These are the kinds of aggressive strategies that originate in corporate boardrooms and that's where they belong.

America, or any other modern country, would never consider an economic policy of "let's just take care of our basic needs, maintain our current level of economic development, and work on fostering and maintaining social health and stability." No, the approach is, "Well, it's out of our hands. The invisible hand just took all your jobs over to China. I guess you'll all have to find new jobs now. Oh, and yeah, you'll lose the social and professional prestige of your old job, the new job will pay less, be less secure, and will probably leave you demoralized. But that's those wily market forces for you." We seem to speak of "market forces" with the same willfully obtuse and superstitious deference we once reserved for the gods on Mt. Olympus.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:48 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Fear, Procurement, Profit: Permanent War and the American Way
posted by homunculus at 3:30 PM on August 19, 2008


*I don't think we actually support the troops. We the people. What we the people do is we contract out the business of national security to approximately 0.5 percent of the population. About a million and a half people that are on active duty.*

Skip Bacevich's son was one of that small percent. His son died in Iraq.
posted by Megami at 5:49 PM on August 19, 2008


I've been thinking about this for the past couple of days since I made my last comment, and I think there's another issue about manufacturing that makes it attractive: it's traditionally served as a very good engine for moving people up the socioeconomic ladder.

At the height of the industrial economy in the U.S., a person with a relatively basic education could hope to get a job in a factory and make a decent wage. This isn't to say that the jobs were necessarily low-skilled, but the entrance requirements were fairly modest, and there was a path up from there. (Two of my grandparents, both immigrants, followed this path -- starting out on a factory floor and working their way up to managerial jobs, and I don't think it was that uncommon. It's certainly become mythologized to a certain extent, but there's a basis for its status as a cultural myth.)

This is tougher to do in a "knowledge economy" where much of your future success is predicated on the quality of your education, and you're basically locked out of most jobs if you don't have substantial post-secondary training. (Which represents a big investment of time and money, in opportunity cost if not cash.) Even if you heavily subsidized education, I think you'd still run the risk of creating a quite rigidly stratified society, with little mobility between low-skill/low-investment and high-skill/high-investment jobs.

I think even among people who normally aren't that concerned about economic equality issues (i.e. many conservatives), this represents a danger, or at least a problem. It's a fundamental change and a challenge to some old and well-loved assumptions about what's required to succeed. It's much harder to say with a straight face that success is available to anyone with a strong work ethic, when it's clear that anyone without a college education is going to be flipping burgers until they die.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:28 AM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with Kadin2048's comment, and would add the observation that the radical refocusing on knowledge-based business has been one of the factors driving the increased stratification of our society, through the mechanism he identifies. As large slices of the population are permanently shut out of upward mobility, we see wealth aggregating more and more at the top, while those below the pinnacle see their incomes and wealth decreasing, bit by bit, year by year. This is not a sustainable economic model, even though for some time it can sustain overall growth, because eventually it will lead to unrest and instability. However, as long as growth is occurring, people who only look at total economic activity believe that all is well.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:24 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The View from 2016
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on August 20, 2008


Worshiping the Indispensable Nation
posted by homunculus at 7:45 PM on September 9, 2008


Namely because Britain needed us much more than we needed them. We had resources that they required to do business. It wasn't very difficult to mend fences in that situation.

That's one spin to put on it, that Britain needed America's resources. The other spin is that America needed British capital. I knew someone who wrote his thesis on how the development of the western U.S. was heavily based on British and French investment. And the U.S. apparently owed Britain money until World War I (at which point the British gov't started borrowing from the U.S.)
posted by jb at 9:00 PM on September 12, 2008


The Petraeus Doctrine: Iraq-style counterinsurgency is fast becoming the U.S. Army’s organizing principle. Is our military preparing to fight the next war, or the last one?
posted by homunculus at 2:40 PM on September 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


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