Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Cost of Imperial America

From War Is A Lie by David Swanson, pp. 284-285:

We are [...] proud, however, of shoveling huge piles of cash through the government and into the military industrial complex. And that is the most glaring difference between us and Europe. But this reflects more of a difference between our governments than between our peoples. Americans, in polls and surveys, would prefer to move much of our money from the military to human needs. The problem is primarily that our views are not represented in our government, as this anecdote from Europe’s Promise suggests:

“A few years ago, an American acquaintance of mine who lives in Sweden told me that he and his Swedish wife were in New York City and, quite by chance, ended up sharing a limousine to the theatre district with then-U.S. Senator Jon Breaux from Louisana and his wife. Breaux, a conservative, anti-tax Democrat, asked my acquaintances about Sweden and swaggeringly commented about ‘all those taxes the Swedes pay,’ to which this American replied, ‘The problem with Americans and their taxes is that we get nothing for them.’ He then went on to tell Breaux about the comprehensive level of services and benefits that Swedes receive in return for their taxes. ‘If Americans knew what Swedes receive for their taxes, we would probably riot,’ he told the senator. The rest of the ride to the theater district was unsurprisingly quiet.”

Now, if you consider debt meaningless and are not troubled by borrowing trillions of dollars, then cutting the military and enlarging education and other useful programs are two separate topics. You could be persuaded on one but not the other. However, the argument used in Washington, D.C., against greater spending on human needs usually focuses on the supposed lack of money and the need for a balanced budget. Given this political dynamic, whether or not you think a balanced budget is helpful in itself, wars and domestic issues are inseparable. The money is coming from the same pot, and we have to choose whether to spend it here or there.

Though I have some problems with Swanson’s book, he raises more than a few important issues, including the one above.

So, what is the price of Imperial America? Military expenditures, as of 2007, were $503.4 billion, the highest in the world by a margin so large that they equalled the combined expenditures of the next thirteen biggest military spenders, which were, respectively, China, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil, South Korea, India, Turkey, and Australia. And, if those are nations we’re meant to be competing with, it’s worth recognizing that at least nine of those are either allies or nations we get along with just fine. And, in my judgement, China, the world’s no. 2 military spender at $114.7 billion per year, is more of an economic threat to the United States than a military one at present, given both the rapid growth of their economy in size and sophistication, and our increasing financial debt to them.

(During the Cold War, I used to think that a phrase like “American Imperialism” was merely rote propaganda. However, to this day no nation on earth has military bases in more countries than America—how many even still have military bases in other nations?—and that’s a sound working definition of “imperial,” so now I take the phrase, and the issue, quite seriously. And, if the bizarreness of this situation isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps due to being inured to it because it was the status quo before most of us were born, imagine for a moment how it would strike you if there were German, Japanese, Cuban, French—take your pick—military bases within the United States. Taking that hypothetical one step further, if you then heard that much of the populace of country X wanted to close their U.S. bases and reserve their national wealth for enriching the lives of their citizens, would you regard them as traitors, cowards, fools, or as people with sensible priorities?)

So, if we were to abandon the course of empire, a course that history demonstrates is fantastically expensive (in purely monetary terms, as well as human ones), and also assured to fail ultimately, our budget problems are readily solved, and our government can concentrate on using budget dollars to enrich the lives of our citizens with first-rate services (many of which would have the great benefit to our economy of taking large and variable financial burdens, like health care and retirement, off of the shoulders of employers, at least those that still attempt to supply such benefits), rather than on attempting to stage-manage planet earth at gun point. In the meantime, we can have as big a budget problem as the empire we desire. (…and as many enemies as its maintenance, through military presence, military action, and secret skullduggery, provokes.)

Further, as the Reagan administration chose to demonstrate with its policy (earlier advocated by the Heritage Foundation, if memory serves) of driving-up military expenditures in an attempt to create a budget crisis that would force Democrats to cut the social programs reviled by the administration and its backers, the budget crisis which pits military expenditures against social expenditures is a manufactured one, given birth and nourished over the decades by a specific desire to gut the nation’s public education system, social programs, its protective regulatory infrastructure, and the like.

We do not have to play along in this carefully orchestrated game. Discard its premise—that America must be an empire—and the constraints imposed by the game on our thinking about the scope and proper applications of our nation’s wealth, its international and domestic policy, even how we relate to the rest of the world and whether that can conform with our stated ideals of liberty and inalienable personal rights – all those constraints fall away, and we find ourselves freed to consider futures for America and we, its people, that have been withheld from us for generations. Renounce the confining darkness from our past, and we can have a long, bright future – and at very affordable rates.

This is not an especially nuanced presentation, which I regret, but the facts of government services and military expenditures substantially speak for themselves, so, in all the places where nuance is missing here, its modifications to this message would, I believe, be minor and would not substantively affect the overall conclusion.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Syntax of Photography

From The Keepers of Light by William Crawford, pp. 6-7.

[....] Are there "syntactical" rules of structure for the way we turn objects into photographs, rules that compel the infinite possibilities to fall along a finite line, just as there are rules for the way we turn concepts into statements? How you answer this question tends to determine how you approach the study of the history of photography.

My answer is that there is a photographic syntactical structure for the "language" of photography and that it comes, not from the photographer, but from the chemical, optical, and mechanical relationships that make photography possible. My argument is that the photographer can only do what the technology available at the time permits him to do. All sorts of artistic conventions and personal yearnings may influence a photographer—but only as far as the technology allows. At bottom, photography is a running battle between vision and technology. Genius is constantly frustrated—and tempered—by the machine.

Contemporary sensibility puts so much emphasis on photography as a "creative" activity that we can forget that what photographers really do—whether creative or not—is contend with a medium that forces them to look, to respond, and to record the world in a technologically structured and restricted way. I think that this point is essential to an understanding of photography. You simply cannot look at photographs as if they were ends without means. Each is the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes his decisions and discoveries within a technological framework. The camera not only allows him to take pictures; in a general sense it also tells him what pictures to take and how to go about it. It does this by restricting the field of view. The technology itself has blind spots and often stumbles through the dark. It is ornery and obstinate and sees only what it will. As a result, human experiences and natural wonders that the technology is not yet able to see go unrecorded—and even unnoticed. Each time the technology enlarges its sight, our eye grow wider with surprise.

Having struggled over the years with stereo photography, including long baseline (100-150 feet) stereo of moving objects, high dynamic range photography, and, perhaps worst of all, panoramic high dynamic range photography—photographic methods that, in some or all applications, show us visions (or versions) of reality that the human eye is physically incapable of seeing for itself, and all of them photographic methods that current technology struggles against, thereby demanding significant effort from the photographer in the attempt to impose them on the medium—these words ring especially true, and reinforce the understanding that whatever the available photographic technology, it will always fall short of some photographer's yearnings, and impose limits on the "human experiences and natural wonders" that can be recorded. However, I must admit that the "running battle" of realizing a vision against the limits of available technology is an aspect of photography that I find engaging, when I have the energy for the fight, and that those challenges make the successes especially sweet, even, and perhaps especially, as they ensure an overwhelming number of failures.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


What’s great about hiring consultants is supposed to be that your organization has no committment to them. What isn’t much mentioned is that, by the same token, consultants have no committment to your organization.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Measurement of Misfortunes Revisited

A few days after posting Mark Twain and the Measurement of Misfortunes, I realized something obvious that I’d overlooked for years: The bad habit of seeking an external yardstick by which to measure, compare and disregard human pain and suffering—well examined by Twain in that quoted material—is the basis for a reductio ad absurdum.

The reduction is straightforward: If the pain or suffering of any person can be denied significance because someone else (call them person two) is suffering, or has suffered, more as measured by some external metric, then it follows that if anyone can be found who has suffered more than person two, then person two’s suffering is also of no significance. Repeat this process with that external metric long enough and, given a sufficiently broad knowledge of human misfortune, in principle one person (whether actual or archetypal) can always be plausibly identified as having suffered worse than any other human being. Thus, through this process, and by the logic of the external metric (whatever it happens to be), the pain or suffering of only one person in the entire world matters, and the experiences of the remainder of humanity have no significance.

It’s an obvious absurdity, but a convenient one for anyone disinclined to empathy: by defining a metric—any metric—to judge the relative importance of anyone’s pain or suffering, their empathy can be reserved for just one person in the entire world, who they’ll probably never meet. Thus the wielders of such metrics may, in practice, forever absolve themselves of the exercise of empathy.

(Admittedly, few people employ any idea with absolute consistency, so I’ve constructed a scenario that is, by and large, artificial in its purity, but I believe my critique of this mode of thought is correct – the fact that its adherents will tend to apply it inconsistently is good [the less it is applied, the better], but that in no way diminishes the error inherent in such thinking.)

Any behavior, mental or otherwise, tends to serve some purpose for the person employing it. In this case, that raises the disturbing question: what purposes might be served by, or benefits derived from, an individual’s elimination of empathy? I leave that to the contemplation of the reader.