To Educate, or Not to Educate? (1/2)

How we should orient education resources and tools in the 21st century. Recently the Boston Review hosted a debate the posed the very question: What is Education for?

Harvard Graduate School professor Danielle Allen, in the lead essay, argues the education should focus on participatory readiness – so a explicit political (lowercase p) mean to create an end where students are properly trained to be civic agents. Allen in a well-argued piece asserts that the current paradigm is vocational training – we equip students to learn skills and in particular technical skills based on hard science; these skills are enough to help ameliorate all sorts of injustices and inequalities in our society and world.

Allen, at her most pointed and simple reminds us that: “We surely need the STEM fields to navigate this new landscape. But if the STEM fields gave us the mass in “mass democracy,” the humanities and social sciences gave us the democracy.” I think is without-a-doubt true. And a brilliant succinct way of tying this dichotomy up with a nice artistic bow. Of course we need STEM but we also need the liberal arts to help us become well-rounded citizens.

Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, responds to the initial outing writing that she “sympathizes” with the first argument. She goes a bit further saying that our schools and their obsession with “test scores” has made the lack of civic agency even worse. “Our current educational paradigm barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.”

Debra Satz, Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, agrees with Allen on principles but just doesn’t think education can do what Allen is asking it to do. “Egalitarian redistributive justice” is not the “first reason that comes to mind” on why we should teach liberal arts. Satz also argues that vocational training updated for the 21st century would, in fact, do what Allen wants which is more resources to schools. “Vocational education arguably requires not only computer science and coding, but also the ability to write, analyze, and communicate; knowledge of foreign cultures and languages; and a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization,” asserts Satz. Fair point here, I think.

Jeffrey Aaron Synder, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College, argues that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Preparing students to enter the labor market has always been what the education system is about and with 15% of the country in poverty, this should remain preeminent, according to the professor.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, argues in the same vein that Satz did: what Allen calls for is simply “too much for civic education to bear.” Reich says we should start with bringing civic classes back. This is something I’ve been arguing for for awhile now. We don’t need people majoring in politics in droves; we need people to understand civics and this should be incorporated throughout our entire educational journey regardless of the paradigm debate. Also, citing legendary political scientist Robert Putnam, civic organizations outside schools are important. We should probably stop bowling alone, basically, and reengage with our neighbors.

Carlos Fraenkel, author of Teaching Plato in Palestine, pushes for the Brazilian model: In 2008, “the Brazilian parliament affirmed that philosophy is necessary for democratic citizenship. Now, by law, every student studies philosophy in that country’s high schools.” Not a certain philosophical school, argues Fraenkel, but philosophy of practice; “semantic and logical tools that allow us to argue well and dialectical virtues that allow us to focus on truth-finding rather than on winning an argument.” This is also an idea that I really agree with.

Lelac Almagor, a Charter school English teacher, argues that class matters and that low-income students deserve an elite education. There is no stark dichotomy of STEM vs liberal arts. We need it all. So Almagor is in the same ballpark as Satz here.

Lucas Stanczyk, political scientist, argues that we should listen to what C.E.O’s are saying is the problem: creativity. How do we foster creativity? Liberal arts and not STEM. What is education for, according to Stanczyk: “It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings.” His arguments are way to all over the place to be cohesive enough to analyze. Although his C.E.O. point is his best.

I’ll be back soon with a 1000 word response to all of this myself; I think about this often and there is much here to chew on.

(Two responses I am leaving without comment (except for this one) because their essays, IMO, were only tangentially related to the original essay and I found them (mostly) irrelevant. Read them here: (1), (2).)

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You Say You Want a Revolution?

Journal review: Nam Kyu Kim, “Revolutionary Leaders and Mass Killing,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 1-29 (2016): accessed June 22, 2016.  [Sage link]

When people remark to me that “we need a revolution,” depending on my mood and on our relationship, I usually remark sardonically something to the affect of “so you want blood, violence, and potentially a decades long civil war?”

They usually then stare at me agape like I said something not true.

This, I argue, is the truth: Revolutions strongly correlate with mass violence.

A Study on Revolutionary Leaders And Mass Violence

A recent article published in the critically-respected Journal of Conflict Resolution examines claims that revolutionary leaders are more violent than counterrevolutionary leaders and the results are stark. This study particular grabbed me for it’s uniqueness, scope, and breadth. Kim states that “this article is an attempt to fill th[e] gap by providing rare cross-national evidence showing the importance of individual leaders in explaining mass violence.“Not many articles have directly done this before, it seems (I write “it seems” because I am just now beginning my graduate studies and am in no way an expert on this, but Kim does mention the uniqueness of his study.)

Nam Kyu Kim, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined almost 80 different revolutionary leaders from and 748 country-years (sum of all of the years that any dictator was in power) regarding perpetuating mass violence. National data sets from over 162 countries from 1955 to 2004 were utilized. The basic question studied was: are revolutionary leaders distinctly commit more acts mass violence than nonrevolutionary leaders. This study even factored in those who took power through extra-judicial means (coup d’état, rebellions).

Leaders who took power through coups or rebellions but who didn’t have an exclusionary revolutionary ideology didn’t commit acts of violence at the level that revolutionary leaders did. Revolutions are unique and distinct situations. One could also argue that this adds evidence to the Great Man theory column of debate regarding just how important individuals are in the grand scheme of history.  People – specific leaders (and their ideologies) – matter tremendously.

The results paint a pretty stark picture: yes, revolutions are violent and revolutionary leaders commit more acts of wanton destruction than other leader-types regardless of the situation on the ground:

“These results indicate that the violent behaviors of revolutionary leaders are not entirely attributable to the political turmoil surrounding revolutions but are also a factor of the leaders’ personal attributes.”

This is precisely why authoritarian ideology terrifies me. Narrow exclusionary notions of who belongs to the “us” group makes it easier to dehumanize the “other” and the results are often ugly (see 1994 Rwanda genocide).

Revolutions Call For and Create…

Kim does focus on individual leaders but he also briefly breaks down and muses on the fact that the very properties of revolutions produces situations that are more prone to violence because they categorically create opposition movements. “The radical transformation of society produces large dissatisfied groups whom leaders may view as a serious threat to their goals,” writes Kim. Justifications run amok and groups outside the “universe of obligation” (Fein, 1993, according to Kim) are scapegoated as opponents of the movement. For fear of a counterrevolution, any forms of stopping such a movement is justified in ideological terms. It’s easy to see how subjects can easily turn into objects. In fact, recent understandings of the brain show that this switch can, unfortunately, happen quite swiftly.

Kim’s Main Findings

  • There are substantial differences in the behavioral tendencies of political leaders to initiate mass violence; revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit genocide or politicide than nonrevolutionary leaders.”

    Kim even tested differences within revolutionary leaders; those “with an exclusionary ideology are more likely than revolutionary leaders with no exclusive ideologies to commit mass atrocities.”

  • The risk of genocide or politicide is high in the immediate postrevolutionary period when regime change occurs; even after their hold on power stabilizes, revolutionary leaders are still more likely to commit genocide or politicide.”

    Meaning that the potential and propensity for mass violence doesn’t decrease the longer the leader is in power, which speaks a lot about the individual’s ideas rather then any external happenings. In fact, evidence shows that “risk of mass killing outbreak rises after 6 years in office.” The “importance of ideology and religion” is stressed here.

It’s important to note the caveats here which highlight just how tentative such studies are. It doesn’t make for good headlines or quite digestible InfoFood but we would all be better off if we ended each conversation with “…but more study is definitely needed, of course.” Kim: “My findings cannot provide a definite conclusion about the relative significance of the ideological ambitions of the revolutionary leaders versus their past experience of violence or attitudes toward risk and violence.” Maybe it’s just the fact that these leaders have experienced victory or certain discrete goals in the past and that is why they were more likely to use violence. The author also states that he only found weak evidence (though statistically significant) in support of the hypothesis that revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit mass atrocities than others. Also, revolutionary leaders are less likely to engage in mass attacks when “faced with interstate conflicts.”

Regardless of how this study will stand up in the subsequent years, this is an important first step in systematically analyzing the potential escalation factors regarding mass violence.

Gary Johnson Just Doesn’t Get It

*In the wake of The Wall Street Journal‘s unsigned opinion/endorsement of Libertarian candidate fraud Gary Johnson, I guess I should finally complete this blog post that has been burdening me.*

“I don’t get it,” remarked Gary Johnson multiple times on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, streamed live on May 17. That was one of the only truthful remarks he made the entire 150 minutes.

Being well-tuned to the delusions, distortions, and lies of libertarians (all who say “no no…I’m the other kind of libertarian, everyone else is wrong. Here, let me explain…”) let me say this: Johnson is no different. These guys (and it is mostly guys) are far-right reactionaries who are so out of touch; so overconfident that it’s hard to believe they are taken serious by adults.

Libertarians are far right ideologues masquerading as somehow more liberal than D’s and R’s and fiscally more conservative than R’s. Both of these are abjectly wrong. Their ideology is fascistic by practice replete with privatized courts, privatized militias and self-regulation by oligarchs. Anarchism for illiterate righties.

I’ll start with compliments. I applaud the candidate for going on a popular and controversial podcast (over 25 million downloads a month) with a broad audience and guest list. It is not easy to talk for 2 + hours about politics without making mistakes.

The first hour mostly consisted of his views regarding prisons and the War on Drugs. He was strongest here regarding legalization and the truly terrible effects of the 50 year long assault on personal autonomy. Don’t drop the confetti yet. He supports private prisons; he even touted his policy of privatizing prisons during his two terms as Governor of New Mexico as successful.

In 1994, gubernatorial candidate Johnson vowed to privatize prisons as part of his platform. According to The Sentencing Project, “by the time he left office in 2003, 44.2% of the state’s prisoners were in privately run prisons.” Yay promise kept! Lives and results be damned! Results? The shrinking of the public workforce concomitant with the shrinking of wages for those that remained. The first state prison riots since the 1980s in New Mexico occurred under his reign. 290 prisoners engaged in a riot in a privately-run prison during his first term which prompted calls for the closure of private arrangements. Johnson did not mention this. He also didn’t mention that multiple human rights groups have severe criticisms regarding his tenure and transfer of prisons to other dubious ones in Virginia, for example.

I knew this was going to be a long listen after his misleading and incomplete telling of his privatization project.

What follows is a slight breakdown of some – and I stress some –  of his most egregious claims he made throughout the entire interview. For sake of (my own) sanity, I am not breaking down every misstatement otherwise this blog would be double the length.

~
CLAIM: The govt. should not provide phone cells to those on “welfare.” The government spends “multi billions of dollars a year” on cell phones. “Wouldn’t people be connected otherwise?”

Response: In reverse order: No dummy, they wouldn’t; job hunting almost requires having a cell phone. Snopes.com has a detailed breakdown of who pays for the phones and just which presidents began and strengthened these programs.

(Hint: There are multiple programs – none directly subsidized by taxpayers. And, not the Obama administration but your buddy ol pal Ronald Reagan; then Clinton then Bush 43).

Regarding “if you can work you should” comment: That’s exactly what President Clinton’s welfare reform did to welfare. Now there are strict lifetime limits (5 years) and job requirements. Our current welfare system does incentivize job searching and, in fact, has “increased employment rates,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

CLAIM: I privatized all prisons as Governor.

Truth: True enough. (Come on, we’re working with ideologues here.) Did this reduce prisoners in his prison? No, by the time Johnson left office there was 55% more prisoners in private cells – this amounted to an increase of 13% population-wise. Are privatized prisons more economically efficient (efficiency here strictly means “less costly”)? According to that same report by The Sentencing Project, the author Cody Mason referenced a meta-analysis by researchers from the University of Utah that concluded that “..cost savings from privatization are not guaranteed,” and continuing in that direction is “questionable.” Factoring in safety and what this foretells for democracy and what kind of laws and policies this direction incentivizes, only an ideologue who wants to shrink government based on ideology would forget to include such externalities. Johnson is unsavory here.

After the first hour is when he really went off the deep end; he waded into the international and national security realms and my blood started to boil. I rarely get mad so this felt good because it inspired me to write (Being happy can be a real bummer regarding….goals and desires. Ha.). Nothing brings out the polemic in me like libertarians.

CLAIM: The NSA is….wait…what is the NSA?

Johnson, two term Governor of New Mexico, admitted that he just learned last week that the NSA was created by an executive order (EO) during the Truman administration. If you just learned this last week you probably shouldn’t be commander in chief. I am not saying this facetiously – he is disqualified simply based on this remark, in my humble opinion.

(*For what its worth, I would be disqualified, too, as I learned of that fact only two years ago when I begun reading as much as I could about the NSA. I have controversial opinions about the Commander in Chief position – I almost think that the president should not have jurisdiction regarding the military but I also don’t think Congress should either. But do I want the military to run itself without civilian oversight? No. Welp*)

Johnson made many claims regarding surveillance and intelligence that clearly showed his lack of insight and understanding. At one point, he expressed confusion regarding Obama needing a bullet-proof limousine? For real?

CLAIM: Iran is the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world.
Truth: Maybe. However, that first place spot is a contentious badge since Saudi Arabia and Pakistan exist. These 3 countries are in a battle with, Russia, for being the most norm and rule breaking countries in the world. (Israel, you too, pretty much, get to do whatever you want but shhhhh.) He didn’t mention Saudi Arabia once during this section.

CLAIM: Maybe Iran sponsored the Paris attackers.
Truth: A remarkable claim that would go against everything we know about the Paris attacks since they claimed to be acting in the name of ISIS, a sunni wahabbi jihad group completely ideologically opposed and counter to Iran. Iran, in fact, supports one of their enemies which is the Assad regime. Iran sponsors and supports Shia terrorist and rebel groups such as Hezbollah. Iran does support Sunni groups that undermine the U.S. or Arab nations, too; however, ISIS is not group that they have ever supported. When pressed for examples, Johnson gave the Brussels example which is embarrassing and also disqualifying. It shows he knows nothing about the Middle East, the Sunni/Shia divide. This was a Trumpian answer; worthless.

CLAIM: North Korea has “zero exports to China.”
Truth: What? This is an impossible claim. NK exports military intel and weapons systems to Egypt, Iran, Maynmar, and Syria. They are a massive player in illicit trafficking whether it’s weapons, ore, clothing, etc. North Korea totally has exports. In fact, they exported $3.1 billion worth of goods, legally, in 2014 (which is the last consistent numbers we have easily available). China is North Korean’s biggest market making up approximately 90% of North Korea’s export trade.

Johnson – you’re a doofus.

In an excellent take down published four years ago  regarding the Libertarian Party candidates 2012 run by Mark Ames on NSFWCORP.com, the author remarks that “once you get past the PR branded version of Gary Johnson and just see him for the conventional hard-right Republican he really is, you’re no longer so surprised to learn that the people running Johnson’s presidential campaign were themselves big-name GOP political operatives — the darkest and the dirtiest operatives in the GOP cellar.”

This is what I always find to be true regarding libertarians. They tend to be the most ideological of the right; the most theoretical; the most ignorant of evidence and economics; etc, etc, etc. A campaign funded by Charles Koch – the oil billionaire who denies climate change – would of course yield such fruitless results.

Shall I continue? OK.

CLAIM: “China has this…what do they have?…this island they built 40 miles off their coast of whatever it is. What’s the big deal?” – Johnson on Joe Rogan Experience at 147:52 mark. [Keep playing until the end to hear more and more nonsense.]

Gary Johnson was incoherently referring to the Spratly Islands, a chain of a dozen or so islands, and the Paracels (a group of coral atolls which Vietnam, Taiwan and China have claims) that China has recently started to develop on and militarize. There are dozens of other rocky and coral-based areas that China is trying to claim as completely their own. What’s the big deal? Just ask South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. Just ask all of us who believe in the global commons and the right to navigate the oceans. What is transpiring in the East and South China seas is a massive deal.

Gary Johnson just doesn’t get it. Clearly. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that he isn’t included in the mainstream debates – I think he should be included; along with the Green Party candidate as well. Probably. What I am arguing is that’s it’s a fantastic thing that Johnson won’t become president.

Free Will Doesn’t Exist – Thats OK

“Promoting determinism is complacent and dangerous.”

As someone who is confident (as one can be) that free will is an illusion, I find this notion that promoting or discussing or disseminating widely that free will is probably most definitely illusory (and a very weak one at that when one begins to be mindful of the possibility) has negative consequences bizarre. I am, for all intents and purposes, a determinist, which, actually proves foundational in my reaction that it’s bizarre to think that all hell breaks loose if people knew.

I accept that free will doesn’t exist, therefore, all of our actions, thoughts, etc. have prior causes. “Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself,” writes Galen Strawson in an influential paper from 1994 published in Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition.

It’s fairly simple: I’m not going to cheat more or become a serial killer because I know this now. I either have the brain (due to all kinds of factors) of  a serial killer or I do not. I think that I am a better person after understanding the true nature of reality. I am more forgiving of myself, others, and everyone frankly. I am more compassionate; less punitive. Regardless of how I feel, paying attention through the framework that there is no free will makes everything that much more explainable. The world makes so much more sense if you think about it and analyze events as if they were determined (this is different from fatalism as explained in the Atlantic piece.)

How has my life changed since I came to terms with this? Frankly, I love people even more now. I view people through the lens of realizing that the very next words, actions, etc. that they deliver were caused by some prior and it makes me smile: people are cute. I think the notion that if people believe that free will isn’t real, they make worse and more self-indulgent or downright selfish decisions a spurious one. (Yes, I saw the examples in the article; they weren’t convincing or powerful.)

I read the recent Atlantic feature on free will and it was similar to most stories on free will that are honest: free will isn’t real but we shouldn’t tell the masses because anarchy will ensue. Have you looked around? All we have is brutal anarchy in a world without shared rules, norms, or accountability-mechanisms.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about what best explains our actions. There are thousands of scientific models, ideas, studies, philosophical treaties that present all sorts of options. The answer lies on a continuum, of course. However, ideas that stand the test of time, to me, are ideas that have predictive power. The current consensus conception of free will, from Stephen Cave from the above mentioned Atlantic article is thus:

The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

This is – more or less – how I see it. I have discovered nothing else with the predictive power like determinism. To me, it’s the most settled belief that I hold. I am open to new info, a new radical understanding of what we know, but as of this writing: I can confidently say that there most definitely is no such thing as free will. Physics, seems not to allow it. Randomness galore – sure, this still gives us no choice here. Luck? Sure. Where is the choice in that? We are products of our genes, our environments, randomness, and prior causes. Galen Strawson, in 1994, wrote an excellent essay on this called “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” in which he argues against fatalism. Of course we can change but, “both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.” This seems to be precisely and undoubtedly correct.

D.I.Y. Hacks, Memory links, and so Forth
Two examples that I go to when discussing or thinking about ways to hack our ability to actively and forcefully aid ourselves in making better, more-informed choices are simple, anecdotal yet, for me, powerful. First, I recall thinking of a particular website (Edge.org) that I prior to that moment have consistently forgotten about when I recommend smart science-based sites to friends. So, one night, I consciously thought of that website and tied it to the red cover of Free Will by Sam Harris which I read a couple of weeks prior to that evening. Now, every time I think of that book, Harris, or that night, my mind automatically goes to that site. I thought: “cool, you can hack that and create memory pathways.” I do this all of the time now and it works – I don’t have a choice if it works or not but correct and consistent practice rewires your brain for sure. More wise inputs will produce more wise and intended outputs.

Second, and finally, I pay close attention to my thoughts, actions; my life: When are my thoughts muddled? When are they the most lucid, clear, and free of disruption? How can I help create better days as opposed to worst days? A specific example: How can I help my chances in recollecting info on X? It’s not that hard. If you read even just a sole book on WWI, (I recommend The Sleepwalkers by Chris Clark) then you can be sure that if someone were to ask you a question about the Great War that you would be likely to pull something out of your head after reading that book. This is common sense (another term that is basically meaningless). You can’t guarantee that you will recollect anything but you sure have a better chance than those who have never read a book about WWI. This example translate to every nook and cranny of life. Because I believe that change demands active and mindful steps and that we don’t have free will I tend to give better more helpful advice to myself and my friends when asked. I don’t just uselessly say: “oh, just try harder. Just believe in yourself.” That’s nonsense. I am more helpful now that I have started to understand how the brain works and that we most likely don’t have free will.

I’ve read Daniel Dennett and others who are scared about the consequences of society if everyone intuitively understood the falseness of free will, I simply don’t share their concern in the outcomes.

I am a much better person and I’m better able to understand myself, friends, possibilities and prospects for the future after losing the illusion of free will.

Don’t be scared; let go – it’s better for us all.

Has Obama Been Successful?

A friend of mine asked me a question that I think about all of the time. With less than a year remaining in his presidency, now is the time to start answering the question: Has Obama been a successful president?

I’m going to use the scale of A+ to F-.
With A+ being highly successful; C being moderately successful; F- being an abject failure.

“Obama would much rather be remembered as an extraordinarily intelligent president than as a great president but only of moderate capabilities. I really believe that – and that’s a problem. Ultimately, Obama needs to be right even if he’s not successful.” claims Ian Bremmer, political risk analyst, in a recent interview on The Charlie Rose Show.

I begin this blog post that way because I, personally, believe that Obama will go down as probably the smartest president, person-for-person, we have ever had. I think Obama is brilliant, well-read, and eminently modern as hell. However, Obama’s brilliance hasn’t translated into all that much success and has sometimes been a handicap.

As a leader: C

I do not think that President Obama has been that much of an effective leader. Parsing through Obama’s numerous statements and one can easily see that he is aware that he has failed to bridge the partisan gap, for example. Others may blame Congress but Obama has often commented that he considers this to be his fault because it is his responsibility. On all sorts of different issues, the president has failed to make his case to the country, and to Congress, that we should pass bills that accomplish specific goals. Obama has called for jobs/construction bills; carbon taxes; for Congress to raise the minimum wage; and to “do something” about guns. Moreover, Obama says not being able to do something regarding guns is his “biggest frustration.” I blame Congress for many if not all of the misfires but Obama could have done more to make his case. As far as leading regarding foreign policy, President Obama has helped improve our countries image while simultaneously decreased our trustworthiness. Reviewing comments from world leaders has most of them admitting that they don’t trust America. Citizens respond more positively: a median 65% of poll respondents in over 40 countries have “confidence that Obama does the right thing,” according to a Pew Research study from June 2015. I honestly think it’s more important what leaders themselves think because Obama has to work with them directly.

I give the president a barely passing grade as a leader and this is not good. Not good at all. The more I learn about the importance of leadership in my personal travails; at work; and at university, I am realizing that leadership is critically important. Leaders set a precedent for their subordinates and their peers. Obama trusts only a few insiders and he rarely meets with Congress.

On foreign policy: B

Grading on a curve because the president inherited a disaster and he became captain of a ship who’s foreign policy for over 60 years has been one of hegemonic dominance through coercion aligned with notsoliberal partners. In the past our relationship with military dictatorships has blemished our image and tainted our values. Rendition. Torture. Mass-spying and mass-collection of data. Participation in military coups over democratically-elected leaders. Funding groups that we now consider terrorists who we found acceptable as long as they were battling the Soviet Union. I could go on and on. The history of American foreign policy has left Obama with few options. As a realist thinker myself, I don’t fault Obama for not taking radical steps when he didn’t. I do fault Obama for taking radical measures, however, like the intervention in Libya which has produced another state that is barely staying afloat. At least this intervention wasn’t unilateral and was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), however

The “pivot to Asia;” the completion of the yet-to-pass Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the Iranian and Cuban rapprochements; and the Copenhagen climate agreement, the Obama administration have achieved some daunting and challenging successes.

I think Obama’s foreign policy moves have been sporadic and we do lack a strategy (There is an argument to be made that only China has a foreign and/or domestic strategy in the entire world.) Some of President Obama’s public comments have lacked self-awareness and lacked appreciation and patience of the average American’s views towards the state of the world. Overall, I am sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy with a couple of massive caveats such as the proliferation of drone usage which surely will make the world much more volatile. I don’t know if any other president would have made any better decisions with the understanding that too much change in a short period of time can be quite risky. Obama has been a risk averse presidency and that is understandable.

On his campaign[s] promises: C-

Obama has kept, according to PolitiFact, less than half of his “promises” to the country. However, if you count the promises considered “compromises on…” as “kept” then that number looks better with Obama either keeping or compromising on his promises at 70%. I don’t have much to add here myself; politicians do tend to try and honor their spoken words while campaigning, contrary to what the American public seems to think.

On domestic policy: C

The presidency in the U.S.A. is a defensive position. Congress has the power of the purse and our judicial system gets the last word regarding the Constitution. Obama has offered a rather status-quo preserving budget throughout his presidency. That said, let’s review the lay of the land.

Civil rights issues such as gay marriage has progressed positively. Obama is on the record on supporting LGBT equality through the law. Climate change mitigation has been caught up in the courts but, programmatically, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A) has organized itself based on prevailing scientific understanding.

The military budget keeps growing, in dollar amount, and Obama hasn’t reigned in any abuses regarding civil liberties. Obama has also codified, supported and widened just what we call classified and secret; executive overreach to some; national security imperative to others.

Obama’s big two focuses in 2009-2010 were, first, rescuing the economy from the Great Recession and, second, passing comprehensive health care reform.

Official unemployment has dramatically improved from 7.6% in January 2009 to 4.9% in February 2016. However, income gains have mostly gone to the 1% while the average worker’s wages are stagnant. Money to help foreclosed Americans largely never came and the banks are now bigger – though arguably not as risky – than ever.

The average health care cost, per policy, has decreased. According to the Congressional Budget Office, as reported by The New York Times, “the cost of insuring people will be substantially lower than the budget agency expected when the law was passed. It now estimates that the cost will total $465 billion in 2016-19, which is 25 percent less than its original estimate.” Health care reform has had mixed results. Some Republican-led states are not making it any easier.

Race relations have worsened under Obama. I don’t blame Obama for this but it needs to be mentioned, at least. In fact, I attribute this on the history of white supremacy and the current response of millennial activists reminding white Americans of historical and contemporary problems. Passionate opinions have split the country and Trump and Sanders can largely be seen as Americans picking sides regarding identity politics.

Overall: C

I think President Obama has been moderately successful. I think history will judge him positively especially when we realize that this was the beginning of massive change due to mass empowerment/disruption tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and all sorts of globalized channels, institutions, and ideas. Could someone have done a better job than Obama in this polarized and partisan environment? I don’t know. We can’t know.

For all intents and purposes, I think Obama will go down historically as a good but not great president. Was he successful? At times and in some ways, yes. I rank President Obama as moderately successful.

When Being Small is a Plus

In international relations, being powerful is, according to many realists, the only metric that matters. Forget your morals, ideals, strategies, etc, what actually matters is pure power. In Nye’s brilliant The Future of Power, he explains how things aren’t that simple.

There are ways that a smaller state, or power, can use its subservient position vis-à-vis a larger friend, actually can gain power or can use that position in the relationship to it’s advantage. While reading ForeignPolicy.com today, I was struck by an complimentary example – evidence – of this very idea: Chechnya.

In “The Chechen Gambit,” Tatia Lemondzhava, energy analyst from the World Bank, writes about how Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov is playing his subservient role to his advantage. Kadyrov in, perhaps, a performative public propaganda-dance announced that he will not run for re-election coming up when his term ends on April 5. The author writes that Kadyrov “has consistently used the political capital he has amassed since assuming office to bargain for dividends from the Kremlin.” You see, Lemondzhava’s point here is that Kadyrov doesn’t actually intend to step down. What he wants to happen is to force Russian president Vladimir Putin to go on-the-record and, essentially, beg and/or urge Kadyrov to reconsider.

This is a brilliant gambit.

Putin’s hands are tied because for the last decade or so he has relied on Kadyrov to maintain order in the Sunni North of Chechnya. The analyst reports that in a time of austerity, Kadyrov’s region is the sole region to receive more as opposed to less aid in the recent years. Kadyrov’s supporters planned on taking to the streets regarding his decision; they started a social media campaign, too. Kadyrov urged his supporters to be patient: Putin will come to the rescue, guys, trust me, is the implication.

“The largest state does not always win in the manipulation of economic interdependence,” writes Nye. Kadyrov’s move is equivalent to threatening retaliatory actions, in a way. It’s also an example of realpolitik, perhaps: is the alternative worse? Putin will most definitely answer with the affirmative: yes, indeed, this is why I will come out and urge Kadyrov to stay. This is not zero-sum, of course. Russian benefits by not having to deal with potential upheaval. Chechya retains it’s popular leader. Kadyrov gains even more prestige.

I encourage readers to read the whole article as it’s a fascinating example of how a lesser power who completely relies on a large power can use it’s seemingly subservient position to it’s advantage.

The Future of Power

I think many conflicting, and seemingly incompatible phenomenon can exist – can be true – at the same time. I just read a book that reveals that nominal paradox in great detail. “The world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time,” ends the highly compelling The Future of Power.

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is quite encompassing and packs a punch that is more than it’s relatively short page length (234 pages). This book is an ambitious work. Dissecting the power zeitgeist in a hyper-globalized world is not an easy task. In particular, Nye examines America’s stature and role in the world. In examining the future of power relations between, within, and among states, NGOS, and individuals, Nye paints a complicated and complex picture.

Power is transitioning away from the U.S. but it is not going to one other country or entity; and it certainly isn’t transitioning away rapidly at all. No one country will be more economically powerful than the U.S. for the next 25 years. Further: the next leading power is the EU which is comprised of 28, or so, allies. The U.S. is going to be fine, especially if the U.S. “rediscover[s] how to be a smart power.” What is smart power?

Smart Power

Nye defines and redefines and references many international relations (IR) terms such as hegemony; soft power; and realism. He coins – or effectively brings to the market of ideas at the very least – a new term for power-measuring in the twenty-first century: smart power. Smart power is “liberal realism.” Smart power, for the U.S., is the “understanding of the strength and limits of American power.” Moreover: The U.S. should “develop an integrated grand strategy that combine[s] hard power with soft attractive power.” Finally, we should lead by example and “encourage liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of cost,” that also “encourage[s] the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity.” Got it?

Nye likened the state of power relations to a 3D chess game. Dimension 1: Interstate military power is highly concentrated in the U.S. Dimension 2: Interstate economic power “is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the EU, Japan, and the BRICs.” Finally, Dimension 3: “Issues power such as climatic, terror, and pandemics is “highly diffused.”

According to the State Department, smart power is “the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Nye does a great job of highlighting real examples and evidence of arbitrary and circular understandings or ideas. Nye also gives examples of how the world stage is also comprised of other actors, such as corporations and individuals, that now wield power.

Can smaller states utilize smart power?
Look at Singapore engaging in “active sponsorship of diplomatic activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” while also becoming a regional military power.

An example of a non-government individual of having and using soft power? Nye’s example: In 2007, film producer Steven Spielberg, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, “sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao to use its influence to push Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.” It worked when “years of diplomacy could not.” Spielberg recognized the position China was in, and succeeded in his attempt at persuasion. That is soft power in an individual.

I think the best part of the book is just how much importance Nye allows to the Information Revolution. I certainly agree with this. Globalization is an information-based creation. A major reason we are seeing this power diffusion is the Internet. A tension exists between privacy and security; and there is a really good chapter regarding the cyberworld contained within this book.

We are just now really beginning to understand the battle we are in regarding the cyber realm. The Internet is Real.

Compare/Contrast – Moon & Sun:

In 2010, one poll found that 61% of poll respondents thought the country was in decline and only 19% trusted the government. …Over the past few decades, public confidence has dropped in half for major institutions.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Meanwhile…

75% of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good. According to a Pew poll, 111 million Americans say they volunteer their time to solve problems in their communities in the previous 12 months, and 60 million volunteered on a regular basis. 40 % said working together with others in their community was the most important thing they could do.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Conclusion

Nye’s conclusion is an slightly optimistic one for us: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even to be surpassed by another state, including China.” He continues: This is “not a narrative of decline.” Power is always shifting and evolving (and devolving, perhaps?) and American hegemony may be a thing of the past. Power transition is happening but not as rapid or in one direction as many argue. Perhaps China will be the next Soviet or Japan: the supposed next great power that settles for regional dominance.

As a careful analyst as he is, he knows the future is not predetermined: “There are a range of possible futures, not one.”

Americans might think that America is entering an era of decay but America is still quite the world power; just not quite as powerful as in the past, that is all. I must say that this book holds up remarkable well for being 5 years old. The U.S. dollar is still king. Check out the great Milton Ezrati on the primacy of the economic power of the U.S. in The National Interest. The U.S. dollar “is by far the world’s most traded currency, involved in 87 percent of all global currency exchanges, up from 85 percent in 2010,” in 2015 he writes. “For now the dollar remains supreme, ” exclaims the economist. America is the strongest individual country in the world.

Nye’s book is a must read for students of international affairs; in particular, for those interested in America’s role in the world; for those interested in China’s rise; and last but not least, those interesting in theory. You can’t understand the world, unless you understand power in all of its multifaceted faces.