Thursday, August 22, 2019

Jared Diamond examines national crises--worth reading

Personal crises offer a key to understanding national crises.  There are important similarities and critical differences.  I found "Upheavel" to be the most rewarding read so far this year.

Jared identifies six countries that he has spent time in and that offered an historical crisis that allowed for useful analysis. 

"Findlandization" has been something derogatory but the author feels that it has been taken out of context.  Although they made many concessions to the Russians, they were able to maintain a liberal democracy and industrialize themselves effectively. 

Chile suffered a bloody coup in 1979 with some support from the United States.   I remember a very interesting movie "No" that explained the advertising campaign.  The initial problem was that 17 groups all wanted access to limited tv airtime.  An advertising executive (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) was able to present a unified message that worked to avoid a constitutional amendment that would have extended Pinochet's dictatorship.  One victim of the coup made his way to a newspaper I worked for, the Oakville Journal Record.  In Chile Alan Lathrop had been a reporter who once interviewed Charles De Gaulle.  He became the advertising manager and a friend of my boss. 

Indonesia  was the newest nation in the study and as a group of widespread islands with many languages did not initially have a national feeling, but has developed one since.  Jared recounts an early dictatorship and some mass killings.  I am reminded of another movie  "The Look of Silence" (2014) was a multi national effort regarding the genocide in the 1960's. This film would not be possible without careful political manoeuvring, luck and courage.  Originally  the director Joshua Oppenheimer, set out to talk with victims of the genocide, but circumstances encouraged them to talk to perpetrators.  Surprisingly they boasted of their deeds in front of their own relatives.  Adi Rukan a brother of one of the victims actually confronted many of the perpetrators.  Horrifying tales of killing "Communists" mutilating and drinking of blood.  Told very matter of factly.  The protagonist was an optometrist and actually tested some of the perpetrators and provided glasses.  Many of the perpetrators and their families either justified what was done or avoided responsibility with some boasting on camera.

Australia was originally colonized by convicts, then British citizens were allowed in and an effort to keep it for British only.  Next they allowed in northern Europeans.  World War II helped them to start realizing they could not depend on mother Britain to prosper.  When the United Kingdom joined Europe in the formation of the European Common Market they were forced to give up Commonwealth trade arrangements.  At this point they began to realize their future was going to be tied more to Asia and the United States.  The author had visited when restaurants were bland with a few exceptions, but years later after immigration opened up a wider variety of cuisine.  Immigration from Asia and trade has increased to raise the standard of living for all Australians.

Jared analyzes Japan in two parts.  The first was after western traders forced themselves on Japan and it was realized they were powerless to stop the cultural invasion.  They decided to strengthen themselves by learning more of modern western technology by visiting Europe and America and accepting visitors.  Eventually they acquired enough power to defeat European powers in the early twentieth century.

They then became arrogant and thought they could take on the American military.  This ended in an humiliating catastrophe.  They were industrious and within a few decades were the second strongest economy in the world.  They are at a crossroads now.  The government carries an enormous debt, although most of it is to their own citizens and corporations.  They still are resented by China and South Korea due mainly to war time atrocities.  Jared contrast the Japanese response to their wartime defeat with Germany.  Germany has been more open and accepting responsibility to their own citizens.  Furthermore Jared cites a sincere apology from Willy Brandt who fell on his knees in contrition at what Germany had done in the war.  Japan has not done anything comparable.

Another contrast between Germany and Japan deals with their attitudes towards immigration.  Germany has accepted immigrants over the years, partly to maintain a vibrant work force.  During the recent Syrian crisis they accepted more refugees than any other country.  They are sure to have problems, but on the whole it will be good for Germany both economically and culturally.  Japan has always tried to maintain their racial purity and even today are reluctant to open up the gates.  It has been pointed out to me that Japan has opted for more reliance on robots to replace retired workers--a key factor behind my investment in Honda  contrast with Germany

United States has benefited from many advantages.  It has an inland water network that allows for cheap transportation and two coasts (actually 3 like Canada) that had protected them from invasion.
Immigration has enriched them economically and culturally.  Democracy has worked well for them, although decisions are slower, they tend to make better ones over time.

The Americans are also at a crisis point and many factors that could undermine them.  Number one is a diminishing willingness to compromise.  Politically many developments have led to polarization.  The expense of campaigns have forced politicians to spend more time fund raising than discussing issues with opponents while modern air travel has meant that many of their families stay back home with less social interchange with other congressional families.   Polarization extends to the general population that can now watch tv channels that reinforce their views.  Residential pattern and even martial choices are heavily influence by political affiliations.

Another factor is low voter turnover.  United States unlike other countries requires voters to be registered and opened opportunities to suppress undesired voters.  A large turnout gives greater credibility to the government.
 
The American government has less investment in education and infrastructure than other industrialized countries where teachers have higher standards, but also more pay and prestige.   Immigration has been a key strength of U.S. and is needed more than ever to maintain population and economic growth.  Immigration is a positive for such things as childcare and scientific innovation.

America has become arrogant disdaining the idea that they could learn from other nations.   The author surprised me by stating that America could learn lots from Canada and then Europe and then the rest of the world.  Under Donald Trump America has been disengaging from multi lateral organizations that in truth need to be strengthened for current and future crises.

In short, "...fundamental problems are polarization, voter turnout and obstacles to voter registration, inequality and declining social mobility and declining government investment and public goods."
 
Crises for the whole world.  One that the author worries most about is the danger of a nuclear conflict.  Jared itemizes four ways it could happen and that even with the Cold War over the danger is greater than ever.  With Trump backing out of existing agreements the dangers have increased further since this book's 2019 publication.  

Climate change is real.  Jared points out that all energy sources have disadvantages, but that global powers need to start moving away from fossil fuels.  He does make a case for nuclear power by accepting risks.  The real force needed is conservation pointing to Europe's attitude towards gas guzzling vehicles.  Cars and gas are taxed to discourage wasted fuels.

Another global crisis is the inevitable depletion of natural resources.  Some are finite while others such as forestry and fish are renewable, but poorly managed.  Although overpopulation is a factor, a bigger factor is that the well off countries consume about 32 times as much resources as the poor nations.  To compound the situation third world people are increasingly aware of the inequities.  Westerners sometimes picture the poor as a big "problem" instead of admitting the rich are the ones who created the problem. 

Government is disparaged by many who think they are corrupt or incompetent and should not be able to dictate our lives.  Jared points out that governments have been in existence for over 5,000 and were formed for two purposes:  1). to monopolize force to maintain peace and 2) to redistribute wealth for greater aims which could be to enrich the rich or for the greater good o society.  We need to keep those purposes in mind on a global framework.

Jared took 6 years for this book, but realizes the case studies are selective and not random.  He would like to see his studies expanded as we all need to better understand how crises can be better handled.  The book contains lots of easy to understand analysis with interesting personal observations.

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