Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

Gore Vidal, speaking in Britain, explains how Obama misunderstands today's GOP:
Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it's a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word 'conservative' you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They're not, they’re fascists.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How international relations have changed

I just re-read Susan Strange’s The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy, conceived and written in 1989-1993, first published in 1996, and now in its 12th reprinting. It stands up remarkably well as a description of the way that authority has been ebbing away from sovereign actors toward (on the one hand) big businesses, bankers, and accountants, and (on the other) nongovernmental organizations and criminals. Strange's basic argument for why international relations must take into account sub-national actors strikes me as having been largely validated by the events of the last decade and a half:
State power is declining. It is less effective on those basic matters that the market, left to itself, has never been able to provide – security against violence, stable money for trade and investment, a clear system of law and the means to enforce it, and a sufficiency of public goods like drains, water supplies, infrastructures for transport and communications…. Many states are coming to be deficient in these fundamentals. Their deficiency is not made good by greater activity in marginal matters, matters that are optional for society [such as greater regulatory meddling or social legislation].
I recommend the book warmly.

However, there are also two particular ways in which the book strikes me as notably dated, and not just because she won the methodological argument about making the discipline of IR more inclusive.

First, it’s striking how large the shadow of Communism looms in the book. Throughout the book, centrally planned socialist alternatives remain alive as a counterpoint to the emergent global political economy. Were the same book to be written today, no one would bother to make such contrasts. When she was writing the book in 1994-5, however, centrally planned socialism remained the conceptual elephant in the room, albeit less for its threatening aspect than for its putrescent stench. A student reading the book for the first time today, for whom centrally planned socialism exists only as a discredited anachronism in places like Cuba and North Korea, will doubtless wonder why Strange keeps contrasting the emergent system she is describing to a mode of political economy which today seems as dead as feudalism.

The second shadow that looms over the book (in this case, cast not from the past but from the future) is the rise of China, the prospect of which appears nowhere in the book. When discussing possible objections to her thesis, Strange acknowledges that East Asian state-led development may be an exception to her argument. Her referent countries, however, are limited to the (then so-called) "Asian Tigers," that is Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- which she rightly dismisses as exceptions produced by the Cold War. But the notion that mainland China might soon emerge as a worldbeating economic player, still led by the centralized political power of the Communist Party, remains completely unforeseen. Here the dating is obvious: no one today could write about the relationship between the balance of power between states and non-states without including an extensive discussion of the Chinese example. For Strange in 1995, however, China warrants only a couple of passing mentions, most of which are in reference to the historical importance of the Chinese Triad gangs.

None of this is to take away from Strange’s book, which as I say remains largely correct, as well as beautifully and concisely written. But it does show how much the world has changed in the last fifteen years.

What to remember about 9/11

From John Robb, fighting words (in several senses):
The only portion of the American national security system that actually worked on 9/11 was.... drum roll please.... the formation of spontaneous civilian militias. From the counter-attack on the one plane that didn't hit its intended target to militias that evacuated people in NYC. The hideously expensive agencies and departments did nothing (which is one of the reasons, as perverse as it sounds, we went to war in Iraq: to decisively prove the utility of these agencies and departments before a global audience).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Collapsitarian quote of the day

John Michael Greer, author of The Long Descent and the most thoughtful of the collapsitarians, fisks a recent debate in The Guardian about whether the end of industrial civilization is nigh.

His conclusion is that, yes, the end is certainly nigh, and that we who are alive today should appreciate our unique privilege at living in this historical moment, and not the ones that came before or will come later. Money:
We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that....

We do no one a favor, least of all ourselves, by trying to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality. Nor do we gain anything by playing the fox to industrial civilization's grapes, and insisting that the extraordinary gifts the recent past has given us are sour because they are about to pass out of our reach. During the age that is coming to an end, the billion or so of us who have lived in the industrial world have enjoyed comforts and opportunities that our species had never known before and almost certainly will never know again. Those could never have been anything but temporary, they were distributed no more fairly than anything else passed around by human hands, and a wiser species would likely have had more common sense than to launch itself on the trajectory we followed, but it's as distorting to dismiss the extraordinary achievements of our age as it would be to ignore the terrible cost for those achievements that will be paid by us and our descendants.
Stoicism rather than fatalism seems like the order of the day.

Twittering instead of blogging

If you're wondering where the blogging has gone, it's mainly migrated to Twitter. You can follow me at

Friday, September 04, 2009

Deviant Globalization Journal: Kidney Market

CNN claims ten percent of kidneys globally are trafficked illicitly:

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Station Fire

Amazing time-lapse footage of the San Gabriels from the L.A. Basin: