Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Do We Really Need?

A new app for a hand held mobile device. A quart of water. Polished granite tops on kitchen counters. A 600 calorie-per-day diet. Question: what do these items all have in common? Answer: depending on a person’s location on the planet, each of these items will meet the definition of a need fulfillment, and the huge disparity in the way these items add to the quality of life demonstrates that sufficiency and need fulfillment are markers for a ghastly zero sum game that is being played out on planet earth.

America’s definition of “need” began to change in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Following the four years of rationing and scarcity that took place during World War Two, pent up demand for life essentials was quickly satisfied by this nation’s robust economy and production capability which had come through the war intact. No other nation on earth could make that claim. Moreover, television also came of age during that time. And when the need for basic life essentials was finally satisfied, people in marketing (a new concept at that time) began to see that non-essential goods and services could be supplied with our excess production capability, and then sold via the new medium of television advertising. The only question was how to sell these non-essential products.

The answer was to create need (or at least the perception of need) where none existed. That meant depicting non-essentials and outright trivialities as being essential. For example, early television ads from that time were disproportionately devoted to the promotion of laundry soap, and the “pitch” always seemed to be that human happiness was intimately tied to the brightness of the whiteness of the shirt that we put on each morning. For the person wearing that clean shirt, fresh breath was also presented as an essential, and so stout mouth wash (mostly alcohol) was hawked to erase “halitosis,” a pseudo-medical term that was coined by someone in advertising. That set off a cascade of pseudo-medicine-speak that continues to this day with abstract marketing concoctions like “erectile dysfunction” and “fibromyalgia” and “restless leg syndrome.” If you suffer from one of these afflictions, you might not know what’s wrong with you, but thanks to television advertising, you sure as hell know that you “need” a drug to fix it.

Once the early television “need creation” marketing got rolling, anything was possible. The meat product, Spam, was positioned as a delicacy, and sales soured even though the product tasted like dog food, because nobody was willing to admit that they couldn’t appreciate a delicacy. The list of examples is endless, but the important thing to understand is that, somewhere along the way, Americans lost their ability to know what was really needed as an essential. The concept of need became tied to whatever was being advertised and sold to them.

The dirty little secret in all of this is that television broadcasting signals are able to reach beyond the borders of the United States, and into every culture on earth. However, in order for every person on earth to have their television-implanted-needs fulfilled, it would require the resources and energy capacity and production capability of six additional earth sized planets. Once the concept of “need” became something to sell, the possibility was there for it to be oversold. That’s where we are now, and there’s no way to put that old 1940s, fresh tasting, Ipana Toothpaste back in the tube.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ready or Not, Here Comes the Future

For the most part, historically significant events never happen in an isolated context, without the influence of everything else that happens before and during that time in history. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s because of this that the future is really not so hard to predict if past and present circumstances are interpreted properly, and at this particular time in history there are undisputable and clearly evident facts that we can string together to read the future more accurately than ever before.

Consider these facts. The global population has more than tripled in the last sixty years, growing by more than 4 billion human beings. Fact number two: most all of these additional 4 billion people live at an extreme poverty level in shanty towns, inside and around gigantic cities that are larger than anything that existed fifty years ago. Fact number three: television, Internet, and other mass media has become so ubiquitous that, despite extreme poverty, almost every disadvantaged human on earth knows about the high standard of living in Europe and the United States. Fact number four: human nature being what it is, every disadvantaged human on earth aspires to have what we have in Europe and America. Fact number five: in order for all of earth’s 7 billion people to live like we do in Europe and America, it would require the natural resources and energy production capacity of six more earth-size planets. And finally, fact number six: since we don’t have access to any planet but this one, we can expect the aspirations of the disadvantaged to play out in conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

None of this comes as any surprise to the people who do their truculent work inside the Pentagon. It’s the main reason why the United States spends more on weapons of war than all the rest of the world’s nations combined. The only question to be answered is this: are we really willing to exterminate huge numbers of people just to keep what we’ve got?

Every modern problem, from radical fundamentalism in both Islam and Christianity, to climate changes, and economic meltdown, and depletion of natural resources, and ubiquitous corruption in seats of power… all of these problems have their origins in the growth of population and the disparity of living conditions across the planet. And the secondary problem is that most countries including the United States are now becoming ungovernable, and most large corporations are unmanageable, and most religions are unreasonable. Welcome to the future.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Reflections on the Subject of Self Reflection

There’s an old saying, “You can fool the fans, but you can’t fool the players.” Self reflection, as a stand-alone exercise, can be either worthless or beneficial, and it all depends on whether a person sees oneself as a fan or a player. This helps explain why true and honest self reflection is extraordinarily difficult, in fact it’s so difficult that maybe the only way a person can achieve it is by living the monastic life of a monk or a hermit or an ascetic. For more than a thousand years, this was seen as the appropriate path to self reflection, and God knows, that path hasn’t become any easier in modern America with our admit-no-wrongdoing, take-no-responsibility culture of spin and deception.

My personal belief is that most of what passes today for self reflection is actually more of a self deception, and it’s driven by a multi-billion-dollar self-help and image-makeover industry where modern shamans and gurus push the philosophy of optimism and happy talk. We all know the modern mantras: “Failure is not an option” and “Life rewards the risk takers” and “Success is just a matter of managing the expectations of others.” If we have a thousand dollars to invest in a weekend-long “workshop,” we can hear someone like Tony Robbins tell us about our own boundless potential, and after a brainwashing like that there isn’t much room in our soul for self reflection.

If the non-religious, commercial message is that we can achieve superior results in anything we do just by believing in a positive final outcome of our efforts, then this unbridled optimism is balanced by the Christian religions, particularly Catholicism, where we are taught that we were branded with original sin from the moment of our birth and will remain in a state of sin until we die unless we repent. Are we worthless sinners? Or are we potential supermen? I guess it all depends on who gets our money. If we give our money to a church, some clergyman who speaks for God will help us understand what to do about our worthless life of sin. If we give our money to Tony Robbins, we’re already well on the way to a super life of achievement. But here’s the thing. If we don’t give our money to anybody for their advice about our life, then we might possibly be well on the way to self reflection.

I don’t claim to have all the answers about self reflection, but I do know that the first step in the process is to ignore the advice about life that comes from other people.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Brief History of World War III... 9-11 Was Worse Than We Thought

The essence of naiveté is the failure to imagine. We had always assumed that our enemies were distant and compartmentalized. We assumed that our sophisticated and undetectable surveillance watched them, and distantly tracked their movements and accessed their authenticity while wielding our own unimaginable authority, endeavoring all the while to verify predicted tropisms that had been perfectly foreseen in our war game planning.

Looking back now, the surprising thing about 9-11 is that, at the time, it came as such a surprise. Pearl Harbor had also come as a complete surprise, but that attack had come from a distant island with a small population of only 75 million who plotted against us from across the largest ocean on earth. But in the half century since Pearl Harbor, the number of human beings on the planet had tripled, and modern air travel had put every spot on earth within a day’s travel time. We felt safe because we spent more on our military-industrial machine than the entire rest of the world was spending on their combined armaments. We had a military presence in 130 foreign countries. These were supposed to be sovereign nations, but we figured that was okay with everyone because we were the good guys. We had perfectly positioned ourselves to prevent another Pearl Harbor. Problem is, we lacked imagination. The 9-11 attackers were able to conceive, plan, organize, orchestrate, implement, and execute something that our superstar Generals in the Pentagon could not even imagine. By thinking at least five steps ahead of us, they had finally learned how to fight us, but it took them 48 years to do it.

In 1948 when Saudi Arabia started shipping oil abroad, and the true extent of the Saudi oil deposits could be calculated, the motive was there for eventually going to war. The founding of the country of Israel gave us a kind of forward operating base, and our policy of propping-up the so-called democratic regimes in Egypt and Lebanon was intended to give us allies in the area. As each of these things came into being, we thought that they were stabilizing forces working to our benefit. For the Muslims and Arabs in the area, however, our efforts in the Middle East only intensified their suspicion and distrust of the U.S.A.

Then in 1953, the CIA clandestinely deposed the rightful ruler of Iran and installed the Shah. To the extent that you can trace the origin of 9-11 to a single event, that was probably the one, and the average American didn't even notice. We were too busy watching Senator Joe McCarthy on TV and worrying about whether our neighbor might be a Communist, because we thought the Communists would be our adversary in the next war. Little did we know that war was already underway and the real enemy was totally off our radar. We would stay clueless until September 11, 2001.

The enemy that would eventually become al-Qaeda received a huge boost in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution in Tehran. This was the catalyst for the spawning of a radical fundamentalist faction within the Islamic religion, and that radicalized minority might have stayed bottled up in Iran if it had not been for the emergence and growth of the Internet. With the Internet, the means finally existed for hard core Muslim fundamentalist radicals to link up with each other from anywhere on earth. The result was al-Qaeda, and the result of al-Qaeda was 9-11.

Looking forward we know three things, none of them positive for the United States. Thanks to the success of the 9-11 attack, al-Qaeda now knows that even a small amount of destruction will be magnified a thousand fold by disruption in the complexities of our culture. Secondly, al-Qaeda has learned to franchise itself so that future attacks can come from any location and any culture on earth. And lastly, al-Qaeda has seen that the American intelligence apparatus is vulnerable because it lacks the ability to connect the dots.

Human events don’t happen in the isolation of a vacuum, and 9-11 was no exception to that rule.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What, Exactly, Was Mayberry All About?

Mayberry has evolved into a kind of nostalgic metaphor for the America of the 1950s and early 60s, and that idyllic America is gone forever. The decade of the 1950s began with some jagged edges thanks to the Korean War and McCarthyism, but by 1955, life in the United States had smoothed itself into time of ease and contentment, the likes of which will never be seen again on this planet. The good times would last for another ten years.

To begin with, in 1955 the earth held little more than 2 billion human beings, and the ultimate positive significance of that would not be clearly understood until that global population had tripled fifty years later. The United States had emerged from World War II with half of the world’s GDP and half of all the manufacturing capacity on earth, and by 1955, those percentages were still well above 40%. Airline travel was glamorous, in airplanes that were all built in U.S.A. All around the world, the term, ”automobile,” meant an American car. Oil reserves had recently been identified on the Arabian peninsula, but all of our cars ran on gasoline refined from oil pumped out of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Southern California. The home computers and the microprocessors that power them were still 20 years in the future, but clunky and gigantic mainframe computers were already being supplied to industry and the military by IBM and NCR and Honeywell, and America had 100% of that market. To keep from falling behind, even the Soviet military was forced to secretly buy American computers through clandestine third-party nations. At the dawn of the 1950s, 12% of American households had television, and by 1959 that percentage had grown to 93%, and all of those TVs were American made.

The effect of all this production on the American standard of living was nothing less than miraculous. 94 % of American teen agers were graduating high school, and with nothing more than their high school diploma they could land a job that would support them for life. In the auto companies of Michigan and the steel plants along the Ohio River, a high school grad could start at a job that would pay the modern equivalent of $50 an hour, and this was in a time when $2500 would buy a nice home.

Granted, life for black Americans, known at the time as “negroes,” was a life as a second class citizen, but divorce and out-of-wedlock births happened in fewer than 5% of black households. Those rates were actually lower than the rates in the white community. Today those rates are at 70%. Black schools were segregated, but nearly all of the youngsters attending those schools lived with a father in their home.

The term, “drugs,” in 1955 meant hard heroin or marijuana rolled into “reefers,” and the use of these illegal substances was so far off the public radar that it was almost totally confined to the dark underworld of ghettos and back alleys. As for legal drugs, antibiotics were something totally new, and communicable diseases were not just being controlled and treated, but many of them were actually being eliminated.

This, then, was the backdrop for all of those rock-and-roll films and records, and the tailfins on the cars, and the be-bop dances in the malt shops, and all of the cultural icons that we associate today with the 1950s and early 60s. That culture was superficial, but the American greatness behind it was real. It wasn’t, however, something that could last forever. And somewhere between “I Love Lucy” and IBM computers that went to the moon, there really and truly was a land and a time like Mayberry. Then it went away.

In 30 years, all of us who lived in that time, and who remember it will be dead and gone. The young people of today will look at their world and believe that everything is just fine, but it won’t be Mayberry.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why We Don’t Use Profiling to Screen for Terrorists

America is a society of high values and morals, and one example of this is that we won’t allow ourselves to use ethnic and racial profiling to spot potential terrorists in airports. We’re a God-fearing nation that respects the rule of law. Anyway, that's our story, and we're sticking to it.

I don’t believe a word if it. Not for a minute. In America, values and morals and norms are whatever we say they are, and very seldom does the rhetoric match the reality. We just make it up as we go along. The U.S. is 5% of the earth's population, but we have 25% of the world's prison population. Countries like China and Indonesia incarcerate political prisoners as well as criminals, buy they don't lock up citizens in numbers like we do in America. Helping to drive this prison population explosion is the fact that we have the highest murder rate on the planet, by a HUGE margin. No other western, non-third-world country comes even close to our kill rate, and even Middle East countries at war like Afghanistan and Pakistan are only slightly ahead of us in wasting the lives of their own citizens. What I'm describing, here, is just the "civilian" part of the Great American Killing Machine. Add to that the fact the America spends more on military hardware than all the rest of the world combined, and every penny spent on this so-called "defense" has just one purpose: erasing human life with maximum efficiency. Backing up all that hardware is the manpower of the "armed services." Television advertising to recruit volunteers for the military makes up the single largest TV advertising budget spent by anyone running ads on the tube. And the average person doesn't even see most of the recruitment ads, unless they are black or Hispanic, because 60% of all that money is spent on the BET and Telemundo networks. This isn’t profiling, however. This is merely market segmentation.

As Americans, we excel at squandering lives, but we're not all that good at saving lives. America is #24 in the world in infant mortality and #19 in the world in providing healthcare to our citizens. Other countries don't have better doctors or better hospitals, but they just choose to spend their money on healthcare instead of their armies and navies. We do, however, hold the #1 spot in one area of medicine. We lead the world in the number of elective cosmetic surgeries performed purely for enhancing appearance. The need to look good is a primary American value, but this isn’t discriminatory in spite of the fact that most of the Muslim potential terrorists aren’t physically attractive. We don't notice this because we don't do profiling.

There's another area where we are #1,and that's in the purchase and recreational use of drugs that are illegal and unrelated to medicine. Whether it's cocaine from Columbia, or marijuana from Mexico, or heroin from Afghanistan, we in the United States buy it, and snort it, and shoot it, and smoke it with enthusiasm and gusto not seen anywhere else on earth. We don’t talk about the source of our illegal drugs (Mexico and Columbia and Afghanistan) because this might lead to discrimination and profiling. Instead we try to compensate for this consumption of harmful substances by restricting fast foods that are high in fat content.

The family has always been considered important in every culture on earth, and we are told that the family is important in America, too. Let's see how we're doing. More than half of all American marriages end in divorce. 52% to be exact. This is the highest divorce rate of any country. One behavior that leads to divorce is spousal abuse, and 17% of all married woman in America say that they’ve been abused by a husband. Illegitimate birth rates in America are also the highest of any nation or culture, and in some U.S. minority population segments the illegitimacy rate is 70%. We don’t specify exactly which minority population is involved, here, because that would be profiling.

Finally, I should probably mention the ethical and moral value of “loyalty,” and look at how that value is practiced in the American work place. With the unemployment rate above 10%, there is no shortage of people who would be willing to share their stories about how their own personal loyalty to their employer was eventually betrayed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that EVERY employee of a large corporation worries about keeping their job. And well they should, because the quest for greater profits drives corporations to treat employees like leaves in the path of a leaf blower. America is a money making machine, so I guess nobody can say that America is a land without values. We just worship monetary values. But at least we don’t do profiling.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Afghanistan— Prolonging the Inevitable

Let your mind drift back to 1776, and ask yourself, “How long would The King’s red-clad dragoons have stayed around if the Continental soldiers had been armed with automatic assault weapons and RPGs?” To understand that scenario is to understand present-day Afghanistan, a country that contains three guns for every inhabitant. And the bad news for American foreign policy doesn’t stop there.

Warfare (the waging of war) is devilishly complex, but war itself is actually quite simple. War is merely two sides that kill each other until one side can’t stand to be killed any longer. Throughout history, war was never any more complicated than that. In World War II, the Japanese Kamikaze attacks showed America that Japan had a greater willingness to die than we did, and it took two atomic bombs to break that Japanese will. Vietnam was simply a tragedy that came about because Lyndon Johnson thought that Ho Chi Minh thought like he did, and eventually the American public decided that this petty difference of opinion was not worth dying for. Which brings us to Afghanistan where the enemy not only has the will to die, but actually has the aspiration to die. Faced with that kind of cultural mind set, America has two choices. We can either sign a formal declaration of surrender and leave with our tail between our legs, or we can just leave. Either way, we will lose that war, not because we lack military power, but because we lack suicidal tendencies.

The Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or the insurgents, or the Afghan nationals (hell, we can’t even agree on what to call them) is an enemy like none other in our long history of enemies. They have no industrial infrastructure behind them, no munitions manufacturing capability, no heavy transportation, no armored vehicles, no air power, no spy satellites, no electronic eavesdropping equipment, no forts, and certainly no central headquarters like the Pentagon. Nevertheless, they defeated England at the height of the British Empire’s power, and they defeated the Soviet Union at the height of Soviet power. As one U.S. Congressman recently stated, “We are facing a 14th-century enemy with our 21st-century military force, and we are fighting with 18th-century military tactics.” Bluntly stated, they are defeating the United States at the height of American power simply because they welcome the chance to die.

Liberals and Conservatives seldom agree on anything, so when Liberal Vice President, Joe Biden, and Conservative writer and intellectual, George Will, both say the same thing, that has some significance. Both of them essentially are saying, “Leave Afghanistan immediately before any more American troops die needlessly.” We should listen to them.