Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama and the War in Afghanistan

President Obama inherited two ill-fated wars from President Bush. Today, he stands poised to exit Iraq “with honor” and refocus efforts on “winning” the war in Afghanistan. In both cases, Obama has stated that his decisions will be contingent upon the advice he receives from his generals. The underlying assumption here is that these wars are primarily “military events” and that these decisions require “military expertise.” Let’s explore these assumptions. First of all, military generals are loath to lose wars. The military code of honor does not condone losing, and therefore Obama should realize that his generals will not admit that the war cannot be "won" militarily, but they will request more time and more resources, especially troops. The underlying the military perspective is that war resembles a “game,” in fact the lexicon of war is rife with sports metaphors. (war strategy, war games, victory, defeat, etc.) At the root of this vision is the assumption that there are rules of war and that victory is marked by a decisive “final score.” Historically, that final score has always been tabulated based on military criteria: body counts, territorial control, etc. In the end, there is a ceremonial event where the “losers” surrender and sign a peace treaty that acknowledges the “winner.” Throughout human history military generals have always approached war from this “winner-loser” framework. However, this military interpretation is necessarily blind to the fact that war is ultimately a political event, and therefore, “winning” must relate to the realization of political goals. In my view, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been waged based on the pursuit of vague, and unrealistic political goals. In fact, if you look closely at the stated goals of the Bush administration for Iraq you’ll note that they changed over time from eliminating weapons of mass destruction, to removing Saddam Hussein from power, to establishing a democracy, to restoring urban security. Now we can’t blame the military for meandering political goals. Given that the civil war between the three Iraqi religious factions has subsided (thanks to the implementation of a successful military strategy: "the surge"), the most recent political goal (urban security) appears to be within reach. Obama feels as though we can soon leave Iraq “with honor” and pursue victory "with honor" in Afghanistan. What might "victory with honor" in Afghanistan mean? Well... military victory would require a final score based on the realization of military goals, such as killing large numbers of Taliban soldiers (and their sons) and holding territory. In the end, we’d have that ceremony where a Taliban leader admits defeat and signs the proverbial peace treaty. If there is one, single, powerful leader that can sign that treaty I’m sure our politicians know where to find him. A political victory would be marked by the realization of our stated political goals for Afghanistan. What exactly are those goals? Well, again we have that notoriously vague notion of establishing a democracy in a culture that has been dominated by religious authoritarianism. The current “elected” government has been marked by corruption and ineptitude. The assumption is that all Afghanistan really needs to do is militarily defeat the Taliban and elect a new crop of honest and efficient political leaders. But democracy is not a cure-all for all of Afghanistan’s social, political, and economic woes. For centuries it has been one of the poorest nations on earth. Most of its income today is derived from the illegal drug trade and arms dealing. Education in Afghanistan is monopolized by religious leaders. Therefore, their schools do not produce doctors, lawyers, engineers, chemists, or biologists that go to work every day providing goods and services. When there is an election, voters will elect more religious leaders. Women will not go to school and they won’t vote. But they will produce more male children that will attend these religious schools and thus perpetuate the status quo. Therefore, as we move our troops into the Afghan wilderness, Americans must demand clarity in terms of both our military and political goals. What do we really hope to gain for Afghanistan (or the United States) by removing the Taliban from power? How will we know when the war is over? And, most importantly, who will sign the peace treaty? My modest view is that President Obama cannot expect our military generals to answer these questions for him.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Imagination Recession

Although, the current Recession is very real, it is considerably more than an economic malaise. My view is that the root cause of that Economic Recession is our failure to exercise and implement our imaginations; call it the “Imaginary Recession.” Let me explain. Buyers and sellers make decisions based on quality and price. Businesses go bankrupt when they try to sell goods and services that buyers don’t buy. Over the past few years, entrepreneurs have survived in highly competitive markets, not by offering imaginative new products and services, but by recycling what has already been done. When those old ideas didn’t work, they simply borrowed money to stay afloat. Just look around at the kinds of stores that occupy strip malls. Sometimes over-priced, low quality products and services that compete in saturated markets survive (for a while) with the help of imaginative marketing campaigns, but in the long run the “chickens come home to roost.” The borrowing frenzy worked as long as financial institutions were willing and able to lend money to unimaginative entrepreneurs. The current economic recession began when those chickens showed up. Honestly, if you look objectively at most markets you’ll note a stark lack of imagination at the grass root level. How many franchised fast food restaurants can that market support? How many auto dealers, heartburn medications, gas stations, banks, coffee shops, hospitals, rock bands, sports stadiums, airports, or highways? Health care reform debate doesn’t focus on new ideas, but on whether we should copy health care systems in Canada, Great Britain, France, or Germany. Everyone is trying to “cash in” on old ideas. How long will we continue to burn oil, gas and coal before imaginative engineers come up with a whole new technology? As things stand, we have a long wait! One major reason why we still burn fossil fuels is that our public school systems do not produce imaginative scientists. In fact, I would argue that our educational system punishes creativity and rewards conformity. Why does almost every high school in the United States have a football stadium, but very few have a state-of-the-art science laboratory? Why not expend that same of time, energy, and resources promoting math and science? But in the final analysis, its government that bears most of the responsibility for stifling imagination, thwarting innovation, and upholding the status quo. It does it by stealthily imposing regulations that make it more difficult to compete in markets dominated by old ideas. That’s why it’s a lot easier for a restaurateur to open a Subway franchise than a family restaurant, easier to get a research grant to study heart surgery (or drug treatment) than for stem cell research. My jaded view is that if we expect to survive the Economic Recession we’ll have to minimize the government’s ability to protect the status quo from imagination and innovation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Teenage Pregnancy

I read in the paper the other day that the birth rate among teens (15-19) is on the rise in 26 states. So what? Let’s start with some rather hard facts. First, Mother Nature has programmed us to reproduce, whether we like it or not. And as a species, we’re pretty good it; as evidenced by our absence on the “endangered species” list. Maybe we’re too good! Second, Mother Nature discourages procreative efforts that are both “too early” and “too late.” Biologically, “too early” might refer to prepubescent pregnancy, which is pretty much impossible apart from biotechnology (ova retrieval, IVF etc). It might also mean that “too early” might threaten the life (or health) of mother or child. “Too late,” biologically speaking, might relate to the age of the ova and possibly the sperm. We know that late procreators run a higher risk for genetic malformations, especially, Down syndrome. Human children require a certain amount of “care” in order to survive long enough to sustain the procreative cycle. Culturally speaking, procreating “too early” might mean that young couples or young single mothers that have children might not be able to “care” for the child. “Too late,” might refer to the probability that the old couple or single mother might be too old (or sick) to care for the child; or they might be so old that they may die before the child can survive his/her own. The key work here is “care.” In our current cultural environment, “care” implies more than the provision of basic food, clothing, and shelter. Today, parents are also expected to prepare their children to participate in our complex socioeconomic environment. In other words, “care” requires the provision of an education. In this regard, many “old couples” are much more financially secure than “young couples,” and therefore might be more likely to be able to afford to provide that education. Now, for a libertarian, the basic question is who is responsible for providing all of this “care” when the teenage procreative couple (or single mother) are unable to do it? Here are the possibilities: the male (or sperm donor); the female (or egg donor); the couple together; the immediate family of either the procreating male and/or female (grandparents, older brothers or sisters etc); or some third party (government or a charitable organization); or all of the above. Many (if not most) libertarians lay the onus of responsibility on the young couple, their parents, and/or other blood relatives. Unfortunately, our culture has evolved (or devolved) to the point where many families are now dysfunctional. At least some of that dysfunctionality can be blamed on perverse incentives wrought by government: welfare programs (which discourage work), public schools (which discourage learning), tax policies (which discourage marriage), minimum wage laws (which discourage low wage jobs), child labor laws (which discourage child labor and/or education), and health care policies (which discourage low wage jobs and maternal and neonatal health). So until we address the root causes of what makes teen pregnancies problematic, I really don’t know what to say!