Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Fix The World

My flight back from Brazil to Canada last week unfortunately had a connection in Washington. Even though transit only, I had to queue at US immigration for two hours to have my fingerprints taken and to get an I-94, just to hand it in behind the next door. It didn't help there were two officers for about 500 people. By the time I had located my bag and dropped it onto the next conveyor belt my onward flight had left. Needless to say, I had then to go through security one more time, throw away the water and Coke to buy new one at the airport in Washington. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the actual reason behind the totally nonsensical liquid ban: to force travellers to buy a Coke for $4,20. And what btw happens to the gallons of soft-drinks homeland security collects every day in the land of the free and the home of Coca Cola?

Either way, I went to customer service and got myself on standby for the next flight to Toronto. And while I was hoping somebody misses his flight at noon, I was walking up and down the hallway in what must be the dullest terminal in the world. The newsstands were offering an abundance of Obama fan products, T-shirts, baseball caps, mugs, pins, pens, keyrings, you ought to be prepared for inauguration day! Obama was grinning down from literally every newspaper. Having time to kill, I bought the Newsweek Special Edition “How to Fix The World - A Guide for the Next President.” It is a collection of advises from "bold innovators from different fields” and is a very mixed bag.

Many of the contributors advocate the need to global politics and multi-lateralism. Kishore Mahburani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, for example writes

“While Americans like to show off their toughness by mocking multi-lateralism, strategic thinking shows that the United States is well served by strengthening, not undermining international cooperation. Fortunately, the economic meltdown may have finally changed Americans' views on this question.”

Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, writes “Russia and the United States must work together in a multipolar world,” and Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University, addresses the need to promote democracy both in and outside the USA:

“The new president should keep in mind the power of example. Washington can't promote democracy abroad if it erodes at home.”

Several contributions are about the US relations to India, China and Russia, some offer advice on the war in Iraq and Afganistan, and how to deal with Iran. Gideon Rose, managing editor of the journal Foreign Affairs, asks for “adult supervision” of foreign politics, praising the “disciplined intelligence” of Obama's campaign and his “respect for professionalism”. Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes on the importance of promoting women's' rights in the Middle East, though she remains vague on how so.

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics and professor at Columbia University, calls upon “more global and more robust oversight” of financial markets:

“What we need now is a global financial regulatory body to help monitor and gauge systemic risk. If financial rules are allowed to vary too widely from nation to nation, there is a risk of a race to the bottom - some nations will move toward a lore lax regulation to capture financial business at the expense of their competitors. The financial system will be weakened, with consequences that are now all too apparent.”

And he offers the following insight

“[W]e need to restrict the scope for conflicts of interest - whether among rating agencies being paid by those they are rating, or mortgage companies owning the companies that appraise the properties on which they issue mortgages.”

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, asks for “A New Kind of Globalisation” and uses many fashionable words to say little:

"The architecture designed to deal with global markets is creaking. To deal with all this, we need a new multilateralism, one that suits the times. It should be a flexible network, not a fixed system - a network that maximizes the strengths of interconnecting actors, public and private.”

He then asks for a “steering group” to "tackle the reform of financial systems” but he remains vague on the how and what. I'd hope Obama has advisers that have more useful things to say.

Pascal Lamy, director-general of the WTO, advocates that the new president should “reignite Americans' belief in free markets”. He is concerned since “a survey conducted in 2008 found that only 53 percent of Americans think trade is good for their country.” Well, I think one should consider the reason for this might not be their lacking belief in free markets, but rather their lacking belief there is intelligent life outside their country. He goes on to reason “And while trade does create both winners and losers, Harvard professor Robert Z. Lawrence argued convincingly in a 2008 study that the stagnation of middle- and working-class wages is largely attributable to the larger share of the profits that has gone into the hands of the superrich.” If anybody could tell me why this is an argument either pro or con regulation, I don't get it.

Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, president of Brazil is very clear and uninhibited to the point:

“We [in Brazil] are ready to do our part [to develop a better system of international economic governance], and our economy is better prepared than most to confront the crisis. We have said no to macroeconomic adventurism. Inflation is under control and we are growing steadily. We have plenty of foreign reserves and owe nothing to the International Monetary Fund [...] Since I took office in 2003, more than 10 million Brazilans have joined the workforce. Some 20 millions have risen out of absolute poverty [..] Above all, we are redistributing our income and reducing social inequality [...]

This is not the time for protectionism, but for progressive action born of generosity and solidarity that will forge collective answers to 21st century challenges.”

But let's come to the more fun part. Sameer Reddy, a freelance writer based in Berlin, points out that “the United States has a serious public-relations problem” because “if you ask citizens of other countries to paint a portrait of the average American tourist, it would look something like this: a loud, chubby sightseer wearing a fanny pack, baseball cap, printed T-shirt, jean short and sneakers.” But “the election of president Obama - with his youthful, cleancut good looks,” he writes “offers a valuable opportunity for a national top-to-toe makeover”. He then continues to advocate that simplicity, not sloppiness, “is Americas true stylistic heritage” and that “when Obama takes office Jan 20, Americans will, with luck, create their own new New Look, modeled after his elegantly simple and straightforward wardrobe and manner. And women everywhere will be watching carefully as the new First Lady, Michelle, tries to find the elusive balance not only between work and family but between practical and stylish dressing”.

I would only want to add that Americans might profit if they'd pay more attention to what their politicians do than how they look.

And what advice would you give?


  1. I'd only hasten to advise that "inclusiveness" can be an intellectual trap, as seen by the Rick Warren debacle. What I mean is that one should not feel compelled to include agents of hatred and intolerance in the procedures and ceremonies of an inclusive democracy. Rather, inclusiveness should be an opportunity given to individuals. That way, individuals who choose to squander that opportunity by preaching and providing material support to horrific levels of discrimination will be ignored, as is their due.

  2. Maybe read a book or two?

    Turn of the TV for at least two hours / day.

    Read the Koran and try to find parallels to the Bible.

    Go for a jog.

    In fact, go for a second jog.

    Buy organic food.

  3. Hi Bee,

    Nice post although I’m sorry to hear that your flight back was more of an ordeal then what should be necessary. As indicated in your Newsweek review, Obama certainly will have no complaint that he suffers from a lack of advice as he prepares to take the reigns. For the most part however what many are recommending doesn’t go far beyond what each holds special interest in. The tough job he has now is to consider what represents to be solutions that address the overall concerns and which truly are simply concerns of special interest. I certainly don’t envy his task, yet I do wish him the best, not just for his sake yet for all of use. Soon the party will be over and the work will be at hand. I find when it comes to Obama, empathy is certainly not a difficult feeling to project.



  4. Any why must it be only Americans who change themselves to "fix the world"? ;-) Seems to me that Americans can't win no matter what because there are always people in the world who hate us regardless of how "inclusive" or fit or whatever we are. When our economy was booming the world hated us because we were "using up too much" of the world's resources, but yet when our economy crashed and we couldn't afford to buy so much of those resources the rest of the world hated us because we weren't buying up their stuff. Go figure.

    If everyone would be more concerned with keeping his own life in order instead of blaming Americans for every problem in the world then things would be better all around.

  5. Indeed, Rae Ann, Obama would be well advised to first clean up his own mess before attempting to improve the world. I think Larry Diamond give a very good recommendation to watching out for democracy at home. As a rule of thumb: if you have the impression that political opinions are weighted by the money people have who hold them, there is something fishy with your democracy.

  6. Dear Bee,

    There is a whole lot of stuff that surrounds the actual exchange of goods, services and money that happens in "free trade". That is we have had interminable rounds of government talks over free trade - Uruguay round, Dubai round, etc., etc. That is why there is a World Trade Organization, which excludes some nations (why does it take membership in an organization to have "free" trade???) International "free trade" is really bounded by all kinds of government rules, and these are rules made up for the benefit of the rich, not of the average person.

    That is where "regulation" comes in. It is "free trade" if it benefits the rich, it is "regulation" if it benefits the average person, because the "natural" order of things is to benefit the rich. To the extent that our nations are democracies and require support from the people, "regulation" is necessary to keep up the support for "free trade".


  7. Dear Arun,

    That isn't so surprising. Consider that even though there are good reasons to believe a free market economy increases wealth, there is no knowing a priori where the wealth goes. So where will it go? It will go to those who have the largest influence. If the system is not balanced by an actual democracy, those who have the money have the influence. As a result, the rich get richer, and the poor are lucky if they remain where they are. That's of course not something people like to tell. Thus, one invents the idea of "trickle-down" according to which improvement will come to everybody if they only wait long enough and only believe in the blessings of the free market hard enough.

    The irony here is that there needs to be a system outside the free market for wealthy people to exert their influence. And a dysfunctional democracy provides an excellent way to do that. In that sense one could come to think we'd be better off without government at all. Just that in this case power would be exerted in the old fashioned way, by force and suppression. Thus, the only way I see is to make sure democracies actually work as they are supposed to. Plus, they could need an upgrade every now and then. Best,


  8. California this past Friday declared its Treasury desiccated. Welfare ends 01 February 2009 (500,000 VICTIMS! in LA County alone). State employees are to be suspended en masse without pay - no income but ineligible for unemployment (sparing statistics).

    The Officially Sad fall off their golden palanquins in two weeks. 12 ga. buckshot rounds vanish from shelves as stocked. Social advocacy will be returned to the income-redistributed as they repeatedly chamber their votes. THAT is change you can believe in.

  9. Rae Ann said: “If everyone would be more concerned with keeping his own life in order instead of blaming Americans for every problem in the world then things would be better all around.”

    You may be exaggerating the “blame” people from other countries tend to attribute specifically to Americans for world's problems that tend indeed (I hope you would agree) to form a dangerously growing, self-amplifying “spiral” of more-than-only-economical crises. It's the unprecedented crisis of human species as such - a real, causal “Apocalypse now” - which doesn't mean only “big problem” but also “big opportunity”, a real possibility of essential progress, for the first time in its known, proper “human” history. In other words, it's a time of change, the real, big one, far from another stupid “economic growth” expressed in their stupid percents. And from that point of view, one should speak about something closer to increased American (and all rich nations'!) (creative) responsibility for the best possible change realisation, rather than “blame” for its unfortunate failure (or catastrophic version, already clearly emerging, alas).

    Should you ask why it's more American responsibility, the answer would be: simply because the world is very strongly inhomogeneous (which is a case of “self-organisation”, but no one's blame!) and in the USA you have much more practical possibilities to change or start anything, as already long enough experience convincingly demonstrates. It's an incredible honour to take up the challenge and win (no you can't refuse :))! In Europe they are “rich but passive” (let's skip the details), in Asia “active but ... not sophisticated/inventive enough”, and in the absolutely dominating part of the world simply terribly under-developed, just trying to physically survive, far from any “civilisation problems” we are talking about here...

    So your wish for everybody to deal more with their own life progress sounds partially na├»ve (as if you've never heard of persisting real-life problems elsewhere), but also basically wrong, just for our particular epoch! There may be some under-developed and therefore “brain-washed” individuals and whole nations (I am not talking about any official “axes of evil”, rather something opposite!) that would yield indeed too easily to the elementary “scapegoat” trick used by their self-interested “elites”, be it your hand-made “war between civilisations” or their “bad Americans” lies. But beyond those elementary tricks of professional liars, there is a true problem of our special epoch, that of constructive interaction between creative people (rather than their always self-interested, however “democratically elected” governors and related “elites”), now on a scale of the whole world, that can alone create the otherwise desperately missing, qualitatively new “order in life”. Can you, an educated, “progressive” American see a firm, sustainable basis for your life order, honestly? [N.B. I had a look at some of your recent blog posts :) .]

    What you propose has actually been realised in the Western world, apparently in the most successful ever possible version. But the result is just those ever deepening problems we are forced increasingly to discuss. What is disturbing is not “blaming (or hatred for) Americans” but increasingly absent ... envy for your life and achievements! Yet not so long ago it was a ridiculous, purely rhetorical question whether one wants to “live as an American”. And although until now the underlying economical advantages in your favour have only been growing, today the answer would be much more ambiguous... Good material, professional possibilities are still attractive, of course, but ... there are increasingly many “buts”, my American friend. What is of interest, therefore, is whether you are fully aware of your, American - and therefore necessarily our, world-scale - problems as being precisely due to acute insufficiency of previously successful “I-me-mine”, Western kind of attitude? It's not really about excessive “American egoism/individualism” (it has been so successful previously, the same one!), it may even be closer to something opposite, “insufficient individualism”, not due to little selfishness (never missing, this one!), but due to “small, too small individuality”. The latter used to be at least basically sufficient before - and maybe that's why it has never changed - but now it's strongly insufficient, practically totally missing, the true human essence of the “next-level reality” we have actually emerging due to our own (but mainly previous generations') efforts! Who'll solve that massive, massively growing new problems everywhere? Obama-the-great, one for all?! Say, have you democratically elected your next God? :) [You better should because your old good ones are not efficient any more :) .]

    So, Rae Ann, if we, a few of us who want and understand, have truly big and truly good ideas how to not only “fix the world” (who ever needs to fix that outdated stuff?!), but to create and enter a totally new, qualitatively better, intrinsically happy one, what could help us to advance, practically and realistically? Always the same I'm afraid: America! I'd like to be more original and say, for example, Africa, or Russia, or New Zealand (I personally prefer the last one!), but sorry, that would sound too stupid even in this stupid world... Even our dear Europe cannot qualify for the task any more, alas... So yours is not a “nationality”, it's a profession: Americans, plumbers of the world :) ! We'll see very soon what the new Chief Plumber can really propose, but an “internal voice” (rarely mistaken) suggests that it will rather be the same old stuff for the same degrading world: “increase”, “ameliorate”, “hope for change”, “yes we can”, and so-many-cited-billions (whom nobody will be able to see or control) as a “strong, material” support for those wishes... With the underlying real hope that in the meanwhile it's the spontaneously developing “conjuncture” itself that will “somehow” progress and change things, somehow: although nobody knows how exactly, but one will be forced to talk about other (though maybe even harder but new!) problems and promises to “fix” them and in the meanwhile one will be able to safely plunge into one's favourite pleasures, always much more accessible in America than elsewhere, etc... Like that? Then this “default” solution may be just right. But then one has also to accept the related “soft” degradation features, its “bad moods”, missing “life force” (as if due to “personal problems”), “growing contradictions” everywhere, “bad Americans”, airport undressing (they'll soon look into every hole in one's body for a hidden device :) ), and other increasingly “nice” properties of their best of all possible worlds... Fix it, if you like it...

  10. Bee said: “As a rule of thumb: if you have the impression that political opinions are weighted by the money people have who hold them, there is something fishy with your democracy.”

    And if you have the impression that scientific opinions are also weighted by “people with influence” (always money, eventually!), irrespective of real problem solutions and knowledge progress, then there is something fishy with your (official) science system, in all your advanced-study institutes and luxurious universities. Ah, those rules of thumb, they're too straightforward to be applied in a really “developed” world, filled with its unconditionally “elitist” circles... Fishy, so what? If everything and everybody is somehow fishy, including all essential process participants, then shut up and take your share! And that's how it goes, that fishy democracy, fruitless science, and fraudulent finance, in a totally fishy but desperately over-producing society, where everybody hopes to get his greatest possible share, irrespective of anything else... And the rule of thumb, of course: it will inevitably fall, that fishy reality, irrespective of formally excessive starting level of material production. Unfortunately, the level of production is very different from the level of intelligence, for this kind of world, and therefore those rules of thumb appear to be far beyond comprehension abilities of the most elitist circles of the most developed parts of this best of all possible worlds. Don't you think it's a little fishy, a bad dream like that?

  11. Maybe, on the prescribed lecture date some of you might ask Richard if such a thing is possible?:)

    This is how you might change the world? I know Tim Berner-Lee's thoughts on reaching those villages is an important concept that should not be exploited by "profit at the expense of those villagers" who have no money, but lots of ideas.

    So an open letter then, and your questions about such a viability, goes beyond my reach and into yours:)


  12. 1) Perhaps we shouldn't be expecting Obama to fix the world as much as we should be trying to emulate the example of educated commitment to our communities.

    2) Really learn a foreign language by practicing with native speakers.

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  15. Hi Bee,

    Whether or not Obama will be able to help in accomplishing to fix the world or not only time will tell. One thing he does seem to be committed to is having his message in regards to what he considers as what constitutes being productive change being something he will communicate directly, rather then depend on those in the media serving as his interpreters.

    In the web site that he has recently launched as “ “ he’s attempting to give the look of transparency to it all, as well as to suggest he and his administration will be accessible to his fellow citizens. If he is truly a man of the convictions he say he holds, I wish then his web site would have it be known that not only the suggestions and stories of his countrymen be deemed as being important as then to be considered, yet rather all who share as to occupy this planet.

    I find we therefore have reason in asking if this represents as being a contradiction to what his says are his principles or simply a clarification of them. I think then his first order of business should be to have it plainly known what we should consider as being true.



    P.S. Let me apologize for my two former erasers as it was in earnest simply a result of me being clear.

  16. Alice:2) Really learn a foreign language by practising with native speakers.

    Google has a translator for people that can be used to cross these barriers in this respect.

    I have read that 80% of the world do not have access to the Web. ) The Web has been largely designed by the developed world for the developed world. But it must be much more inclusive in order to be of greater value to us all.

    Tim Berners-Lee Speech before Knight Foundation-14 September 2008


  17. Bee,
    You said it! I'm hoping the inauguration of Obama marks a renewing of democracy in America.

    BTW, regarding the problems facing humanity - the problems we've created - I keep meaning to write a review of the following very good book; but read it before then if you can. To me it is a must-read.

    Fruitless Fall
    The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
    Rowan Jacobsen

    We have to reexamine at a very fundamental level everything we do, if we are to have a healthy planet; this book, via the plight of honey bees, touches on many of the areas.

  18. Andrei, thank you for your long and interesting reply. :-) I'm afraid that I'm still not convinced that I am personally responsible for the health and well-being of the rest of the world. ;-) Sometimes I tend to have messianic delusions of grandeur, but recently it has contributed to very high blood pressure and an assortment of other "personal problems" so I've taken a break from it. ;-) If I'm dead I can save no one. :-) (sorry, sometimes I'm a smart-ass, lol)

  19. Yeah, Rae Ann, of course, as always you never know when and where and why me and how exactly. Things finally happen “in their own way” forming largely unpredictable “destinies”, etc. One can only keep one's mind open and try an opportunity when it somehow presents itself “not far away”, whereas pushing though a however “good” idea at any price is ... not a good idea. That's why I generally don't like charities and find them usually inefficient and often harmful. Examples in modern officially “advanced” science are not missing, unfortunately, confirming once again that money/power doesn't bring progress by itself, even provided with generally good intentions. There should be something essentially greater than this, “God's blessing” believers would say... In the meanwhile, it's already good that we can have an interaction like this one...

    So what about Obama, what's your (anyone's) “gut feeling” about his (administration) final ability to “fix the world” (or at least successfully “lead the change” in the USA alone)? It's just interesting to have these guesses now, before anything becomes clear by actual event development. To my intuition, it all looks sort of “too smooth to be true”, still more like “the end” than “the beginning”, up to all intuition uncertainties, of course... Sort of intrinsic weakness in all of it, despite an externally “brave” look and massive enthusiasm. It's too easy, too simple, yes-we-can ... what exactly? - nobody knows... Manipulated visible “powers”, with really important processes occurring elsewhere, at much deeper levels...

    For example, what if the current fall (not only economic one) will actually never stop, though maybe being very uneven (and sufficiently “soft” for many), with extended “plateaus”, but never turning into a genuine new rise, at least not within the now dominating system? Does it look plausible or “too pessimistic”? After all, there are many predictions of various origin of a really deep crisis, somewhere in the next decade... Just take it easy, of course, it's only about possibilities. Blood pressure is always more important! A really good case is when you can save the world by trying to save yourself :) ! Like that pilot with his unexpected landing on Hudson waters...


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