Eugene Linden
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Latest Musing

Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Deep Past
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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OUR CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES


Saturday April 14, 2018

            The Darwin Award confers mock recognition on individuals killed by their own stupidity, thereby improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it. If there existed such an award at the national level, the U.S. of today would be a lock to win. Put aside ideology and step back from the drumbeat of constant crises that has characterized the Trump Presidency, and the sheer stupidity of our current posture on major issues comes into focus, along with a big question: How could a superpower with an incomparable network of universities, scientific institutions, and think tanks be so colossally dumb when it comes to government policy?  Simple answer; that’s the path we’ve chosen.

            Let’s look at a few of the particulars.

            Gun Violence:  We have roughly the same crime rate as other industrial countries, but we’re the most trigger-happy developed nation on earth with more than 10 times the rate of gun-related deaths as does Australia and Germany, 20 times the rate of gun deaths as Spain, 50 times that of the United Kingdom, and an infinitely greater rate than Japan and South Korea, which really don’t have statistically significant, gun-related deaths at all. Yet, the Trump’s first response to the Parkland slaughter is that we need more guns, with the current push being to arm teachers in schools. Consider the counterfactual: If more guns were the solution, wouldn’t all those other developed nations that have vastly fewer guns and strict gun control laws be collapsing amid rampant killings?   

            Climate Change: After 2017’s $307 billion dollars in losses from hurricanes, drought-related wildfires and other severe weather, one might think that the federal government would want to understand whether a warming world might increase the risk of more such events. One would be wrong. Instead, the administration has been stripping all mention of climate change from its publications and policies, and installing people who deny the threat in key positions. And given those losses, wouldn’t governments at all level want to update flood zone maps to take in the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms? Apparently not; there’s active opposition to updating the maps at all levels of government, all but guaranteeing that future storms will produce even more losses for taxpayers (because private insurers will update their own loss projections and pull out of vulnerable areas). Dumb? As Trump often says, “you tell me.”

            Finance and the Economy: After 2008’s near death experience for the U.S. financial system, the Congress enacted Dodd-Frank, with rules limiting risk taking by large financial institutions. Before that, risk-taking in the opaque world of derivatives had been involved the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, as well as in the fall of the energy trading giant Enron. Now, Congress apparently feels that bankers will never again try to game the system, because there is a bi-partisan effort to roll back regulations on banks with under $250 billion in assets (up from the current $50 billion threshold), a move that would deregulate lenders as large as some of the worst actors in the housing bubble collapse. Not content to unleash the banks, Congress and administration are also dismantling the Consumer Protection Bureau, which was set up to protect people from the predatory practices rampant before the financial crisis.

            The Fourth Estate: Journalists in this country have already been marginalized by the rise of free digital news and the spread of social media. Now the Trump administration has been attacking the very concept of a free press with its dismissal of any reporting it doesn’t like as “fake news.”  At a time when politicians routinely lie, and big corporations have been freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision to devote massive efforts to influencing public opinion, access to independent, credible reporting becomes the last check on the abuse of power and corruption. The campaign to discredit this vital backstop may be the most short sighted Trump initiative of all -- just ask the citizens of North Korea, Iran, or Russia what are their checks on power in countries without a free press?

            Diplomacy: With ambassadorships in crucial posts such as Riyadh and Seoul still waiting to be filled and senior positions at the State Department left vacant, the Trump administration seems to believe that diplomacy does not require diplomats, particularly when we have a lot of nuclear weapons, and a President willing to use them. With a growing number of unstable nations trying to join the nuclear club, this approach to foreign policy seems like a promising fast track for the U.S. to win a collective Darwin Award, dragging the rest of the world to the podium along with us.

           And so it goes: Trump looks back to the days of Herbert Hoover in his trade policy; the Energy Department is busy trying to revitalize coal burning as the rest of the world pushes full throttle towards the transition away from fossil fuels. We’re looking back, while others look forward. It’s as though the loud, ignorant bully in the back of the classroom has come to the front, shoved aside the teacher and taken over the curriculum.

            We have only ourselves to blame. Long before Trump won in 2016, voter disengagement abetted the election of governors and state legislators who pandered to the more motivated extremes, and, once in power, who then gerrymandered districts to solidify their grip. We started down the path of stupid years ago. If we want to change direction, voters need to rouse from their apathy lest, as the Chinese proverb holds, we end up where we’re headed. If, however, the above policies represent who we truly are; we deserve what we reap.

           

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Short Take

Afghanistan: When Losing is Winning

The stunning, but entirely predictable, collapse of the Afghan military marks the latest installment of our failure to understand what wins wars. Short answer: it’s not weaponry; it’s morale. This pattern of failure goes back 60 years to Vietnam, and even further. We load up corrupt autocrats and war lords with weapons, only to see war profiteers siphon off and distribute the bounty, while the other side pursues their goal with patience, and a deep sense of mission – however wrong-headed we might think that is.

There’s a tell in this pattern. When a superpower continues to hew to a failed strategy of counter insurgency after 60 years of failure, someone must be making out, big time. We don’t need to look very far to see who that is. Defense contractors get to sell the weapons  that we hand over to our feckless allies, and then, after tens of billions of dollars in materiel are left behind as we withdraw, they get to sell all over again as we restock. Thus, losing becomes a win-win strategy. In that sense, winning would be a losing strategy because they don’t get to double-dip. So, once again in Afghanistan, Mission Accomplished!



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