An American Dilemma

Many of us (i.e., white Americans) are surprised by the recent and not-so-recent events in Ferguson. To many white people, the recurrence of such stark racial issues reeks of a time forty or fifty years past, irrelevant to a so-called post-racial America. What many of us don’t realize is that very few people outside white America- whether American minorities or people outside the US looking in- are surprised. Firstly, our memories tend to be shorter than the memories of people living in other countries. The LA riots were barely twenty years ago. Those with power tend to write the history books, and, as such, we have been very successful in ensuring that any obvious signs of racial inequality are relegated to dusty corners of the history books. Secondly, I learned US history once outside the US and once inside, and I can vouch for the graphic, brutal horror with which America’s racial narrative is taught overseas. It is simply not taught in the same way here in America. This is not to say that people in other countries are not racist. But the racism of people in other countries generally resembles tribalism or xenophobia more than the systemic societal schisms were see here. The American form of racism (much like baconnaise or deep-fried Coke) is a unique and terrible thing.

With the possible exception of Brazil, in no other post-Enlightenment country were labor and capital ever divided cleanly along racial lines. In no other post-Industrial Revolution society did labor ever own zero wealth and resources. Nowhere else in the world was national unity ever challenged and redefined by the right to own other human beings. In no country were slaves ever literally half the population, as they were in the US at the peak (trough?) of slavery as an institution. Nowhere else did it take a hundred years to ‘clean up the law books’ (read: establish a series of marginally less unequal equilibria) after slavery ended. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there should be small wonder we’re still struggling with the idea of racial equality.

When people say things like ‘there’s still a lot of racism in this country,’ I can only think ‘no shit.’ There’s very little else in American history that rivals the centrality of the racial narrative as a driver of the American identity. The concept of individualism may come close, but, lest we forget, the right to own slaves was itself for years couched in the language of individual rights. It was varying opinions on this racial divide that formed the biggest challenge to the American identity in its formative years, and it wasn’t until that schism came to a head and quite literally tore the country apart that the identity of the country coalesced into something remotely unified. White Americans- even white liberals- don’t want to hear any of this. We want to be in charge of opening and closing the debate on race. We want to define when racial America ends and post-racial America begins. Realistically, we can’t do that. The debate has been open for well over four hundred years, and we can’t close it unless we discuss our own failings as a society. Until then, there will only be more Fergusons to come.

Why Doesn’t Anything Make Sense Anymore?

Often, we tend to forget that oil supply, and hence oil prices, are heavily influenced by cartels and political pressures as much (if not more so) than they are by the whims of commodity markets. The recent dip (or crash, depending on your degree of sensationalism) in oil prices seems to be an excellent example of the interconnectedness of global politics and economics, as well as the complexity of the political situation in the early 21st-century. It seems increasingly clear that the us vs. them mentality that got us through World War II and the Cold War no longer suffices, and that the survival of any one nation on the global arena depends on its ability to navigate the increasingly complex network of relations being built.

The consensus view on the recent oil price shock seems to be that it’s primarily the cause of Saudi Arabian manipulation. Specifically, the aim of this manipulation seems to be two-fold. Firstly, it is an attempt to control the effects of the shale oil boom that North Dakota is currently undergoing. It’s fundamentally a question of price elasticity of supply- Saudi Arabia knows that it has more than enough oil such that a downward shift in price will not hugely impact its coffers. The amount of extant shale oil, however, is much lower, and a price shift could affect not only shale oil revenue, but also investment in the booming shale oil industry. This apparent Saudi hostility to US interests is not new- the relationship between the Saudis and the US has always been a rather vitriolic alliance of convenience, at best; simmering hostility at worst.

The second goal of this price manipulations seems to be targeted toward Russia and Iran who, as large oil producers, effectively depend of oil revenues for balanced budgets and (broadly) functioning economies. Russia and Iran’s fingers in Syria, specifically their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are a threat to the Saudi’s regional dominance, and weakening these two states may well serve as a decisive shift in the conflict. This move, coming several months into a Western effort to stop the spread of ISIS, also lends some credence toward the “the Saudis are totally funding ISIS,” which has as yet gone “unproven.”

It’s fairly clear that the aim of the Saudis is a bipartite destabilization- finding the one political move they can make which would help to weaken both their neighbors to the North and their frienemies to the West. I have long been a critic of Saudi foreign policy- they have historically shown themselves to be far too willing to shake with one hand and backstab with the other. As such, the only sensible course of action given the Saudi’s latest move is to ensure that their plan backfires. Otherwise, the terrorists, quite literally, win.

The perennially unstable three-bloc system that pits the West against Russia-China-Iran against the Sunnis Middle East is inefficient, given that two of these blocs depend on the other for their energy needs, their budgetary health and their economic competitiveness. Similarly, although the Western bloc and the Russian bloc may differ in ideology, neither bloc would be opposed to a serious reigning-in of Islamic fervor around the world. Finally, while the current set up does not provide a sufficient bulwark against the rising tide of Islamism, the combined might of four of the world’s military forces might just do the job.

The problem here is that we’ve already gone down the rabbit hole far enough that the only way out, even if temporarily, is ratcheting up brinksmanship. I am fully aware that the suggestion I gave in the above paragraph is no solution at all. Fortunately, there is a genuine solution to this issue that is technically possible- to relegate energy policy to an independent, non-sovereign, international body- much as was attempted with capital policy as a result of Bretton Woods. Unfortunately, this solution is unlikely to be enacted until we’ve gone too far- human beings have a sad tendency not to see the writing on the wall. Even more unfortunately, this solution is far from perfect- nothing says “potential corruption” like “independent international body.”

Regardless of where we end up, it’s clear that “us vs them” is dead, buried and consummately rotting.

About Last Night

Now that the fog (or red mist, rather) has cleared, I’m beginning to piece together what exactly happened last night. All told, last night’s results were, I suppose, a mixed bag. Maybe that’s a good thing- after all, a functioning (or at least semi-functioning) democracy has less unity of purpose than a dictatorship, especially in a large, diverse country. So maybe we can take some solace in the fact that our democracy seems to be working. Similarly, the ‘midterm swing,’ a shift of confidence away from the President’s party, is a tried and true American tradition, although this was a swing of historic proportions- rightly worrisome to many progressives. But, lest we forget the silver linings, Cory Booker got elected in New Jersey, and my home state of Connecticut re-elected Dan Malloy, the best governor we’ve had in years. Cold comfort, though, given the number of utter whackjobs that did get elected. When is this right-wing populist obsession with ‘political outsiders’ gonna die? Who- or what, for that matter- are these people going to elect next? There is a worrying lack of historical information here: right-wing populism, especially when combined with a taste for political outsiders, rarely ends well. Hyperbolic? Sure. But, in the eternal words of Lisa Simpson, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.

In addition to a lack of historical information, there seems to be an even more troubling gap in basic American civics. Voters, disturbed by a seemingly weak President and a do-nothing Congress, vote for the opposition. In the moment, isolated from any context, this makes sense. They assume this inaction stems from traits inherent to the President and his party, ignoring the institutional checks and balances we all apparently learned about in school. To them, the solution to an apparently milquetoast President being blocked at every juncture by the opposition party who controls the half the legislature is forcing the control of the whole legislature into their hands. The whole system of checks and balances was set up to prevent changes from taking place too quickly, and the slow pace of change in this country is, again, a sign that some aspects of our democracy are, unaccountably, still working the way they’re supposed to. Listen, if you guys want a dictator, I’m sure that can be arranged.

Bear in mind, for the handful of aspects of American democracy that are working, there’s a whole lot that aren’t. The Republicans lagged the Democrats by 1.1 million popular votes in the House election but swept a cool 34 seat majority. The article above pins this fact on politically partisan gerrymandering, and its not far from the mark. Throughout the country, most urban areas districts are crammed together, ensuring massive Democratic majorities, rather than blending urban, suburban and rural districts together to make district races in any way predictable. Some districts, such as the one I live in, don’t even field Republican candidates, and I’m sure there’s at least some rural districts out there that don’t field Democrats. One solution would be to redistrict the way we’re supposed to- through the use of politically independent census data. A better solution would be to scrap the first-past-the-post district system entirely and replace it with a proportional system which would not only allow for significantly better representation, but also a true, multi-party democracy. Imagine that- a Republican Party that isn’t held hostage by its most militant wing. We can always dream.

But what’s done is done. It’ll be a messy two years, but maybe- possibly- we’ll be in better shape for 2016. Probably not, though.

Well, This Sucks

I realize that pacing, compulsively refreshing Politico, muttering to myself, drinking, sweating and swearing is a consummate part of being an active member of a 21st-century democracy. I realize that there are still thousands of people across the world who don’t have access to even the modicum of choice we have in this country. I realize that, in many ways, I’m lucky. But even I, with my incurably bleeding heart, would club every last baby seal in the face just for the catharsis.

I just now got news that Mitch McConnell is the new Senate majority leader. I’ll let that sink in while I, ironically enough, pour myself a hefty glass of Kentucky bourbon.