Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Old Post, now including dissent!

Ok, remember that FWD that I posted a couple weeks ago? Well, turns out that it wasn't written by an Australian dentist, but rather a National Review commenter. Sorry about that.

However, that isn't the point. I got an excellent comment which rationally disagrees with what it said. I didn't write the original essay, but I agree with much of it, and since it makes me feel good to read it, I'm going to take a crack at defending it. You can click the link to go read the old post and comment there, if you wish. However, I'm going to copy the comment so that I can more easily respond to it.

Dear Mr. Australian dentist (or Peter Ferrara / National Review)

==> as has been noted, credit belongs to Mr. Ferrara. I apologize profusely for the confusion.

It is with great interest that I have read your text "to kill an American" which has been re-published on many websites. While I second the rejection of appeals to - potentially arbitrarily - kill people, I must disagree with the reasons given in your argument. Americans are not the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom, prosperity and generosity.

==> perhaps we're not the only embodiment of those values you list, but we're not evil either, and I think we have at least a small claim to those virtues.

America(n)s prosperity:

The US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per Capita ranks 6th in the most recent UNDP Human Development Report1. Looking at other years, sources and taking into consideration the purchasing power parity, the US often ranked among the top five countries in the last few years - respectable average figures.

==> per Capita GDP is a lying statistic most of the time, for the reasons you note below. I won't deny that it makes America look pretty good, but it doesn't really mean anything. It's just an average of our GDP, and that doesn't tell you anything about the welfare of the people living in the country. The only use of per Capita GDP is to compare the numbers between countries, to see how productive the economies are relative to each other.

Unfortunately, very few people in the US earn and own huge sums while most people are well below the "average": "The top one percent are now estimated to own between forty and fifty percent of the nation's wealth, more than the combined wealth of the bottom 95%."2 1990-2000, 17% of the population were living below 50% of the median income (Canada 12.8%, Germany 8.3%, Scandinavia just above 6%).3 I wonder what the growing class of working poor thinks about prosperity in the land of unlimited opportunities.

==> The fifty percent that live below the median income have (on the most part) very little to complain about. For more information check out this article from the Economist. It's called The Poor, and it compares the life of a man on welfare in America and the life of a surgeon in the Congo.

US federal government debt is well above USD 8 Trillion, that's around USD 27'700 for every American. Current state and local government debt are USD 5'700 per American. Private household debt accounts for another USD 35'000 per American. The above figures add up to USD 68'400 per American without including future structural underfunding of Medicare and social security or business and financial sector debt. Sounds more like (foreign) credit-financed consumerism than prosperity to me.4

==> Point taken, I'm also not a huge fan of the debt we're running. However, I think the reason we're running one is outrageous levels of spending. I'm going to assume that we'll disagree about this, because of the different emphasis we place on the roles of government. That, however, is a different debate.

America(n)s generosity

The US net official development assistance decreased from 0.21% of its Gross National Product in 1990 to only 0.15% in 2003. Other countries figures for 2003: Netherlands 0.80%, Sweden 0.79%, France 0.41%, Canada 0.24%. Actually, in 2003, all of the reporting countries spent more on aid than the US.5 (For the same year, military spending (in % of GDP) looks different: Canada 1.2%, Netherlands 1.6%, Sweden 1.8%, France 2.6%, USA 3.8%.)

==> This stat is like comparing actual GDP's between countries...it doesn't say anything because you need a perspective about how many people are in the country contributing to the GDP. So the .15% of the GDP that we gave was many times larger than the .80% that the Netherlands gave. (Also, since the stats were from 2003 they missed a big uptake in federal foreign assistance that happened in 2004, but I don't have the numbers for how they affected the GDP%) This is a time when a per Capita measurement would probably be a good idea. The other problem with statistics like this is that the political systems in America and those (mostly) European countries. Namely, our citizens give a lot more of their wealth privately, compared to the way that the European governments give the same money as foreign aid.

Military interventions are not international aid (or "help"). You say that "when the Soviet army overran Afghanistan 20 years ago, Americans came with arms and supplies to enable the people to win back their country!" That is one interpretation of history. A more balanced view is that the (then Marxist) Afghan government asked for increasing Russian support to quell its opponents6, while American intelligence services began to aid the anti-government opposition factions in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet deployment.7 It was an American-Russian substitute war, not selfless American aid for righteous freedom fighters. In the next paragraph, a few additional examples of unrequested American "help" are mentioned.

==> You may smirk at military spending being counted as foreign aid, but the governments you mentioned (above) are all part of NATO, and thus, are not as responsible for the defense of their own boarders because the American government spends so much on our mutual defense. This is especially true for Canada, but it's also true for lots of other places in the world.
I might also say that "A more balanced view is that the (then Marxist) (and Soviet puppet state) Afghan government asked for increasing Russian support (because the party told them to)." It's a matter of perspective, and what we're willing to ignore on our own parts. We're probably going to disagree on this point, so I'm going to let it pass without further comment.
I know that war causes lots of problems and it generally is disadvantageous to the living situation of the people affected. However, I feel that there is a point when a war is necessary. I would point to the Balkan conflict as an example of military spending that made the world a (currently slightly) better place. I think an American military intervention into Burma would not cause any more problems than currently exist, and I'm kind of tired of waiting for the existing military dictatorship to fall over from the weight of diplomatic protests (it's currently been in power for almost 50 years).

America(n)s spirit of Freedom

Many Americans enjoy considerable freedoms, compared to citizens of many other countries. The American constitution and its spirit are valuable developments of modern times. Nevertheless, the absolute statement that "Everyone who holds to the spirit of freedom, everywhere, is an American" has little ground and largely exaggerates the current state of things in the US. Today, the US is governed just as much by greed and fear as by the spirit of freedom and tolerance. During the last few years, new laws have extended the government's powers to spy on citizens. (Please refer to this review of the patriot act by the CATO institute as an example)8.

==> Well, I can't click that link, but I know what the CATO institute says about the Patriot Act, and I think they have a reasoned point. But I also am not willing to take the risk of placing myself or my (future) children in a situation where they have to watch death like I did when I watched the towers fall. I think that the Patriot Act could use some tweaking, but that's what the legislature is for, and they will continue to do their job. However, I would like to see some serious examples of ways that the Patriot Act has been used legitimately (or even misused) and caused an act of tyranny to occur.

When it comes to freedom and justice outside the US, the standards have always been lower - not only since the war on terror. Since after the Second World War, the US has manipulated the political developments in other countries in dozens of cases, usually to install a government or system they could remote-control. Many people died in conflicts or lived under brutal authoritarian regimes due to the interventions of the US. To name just a few examples: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Nicaragua and El Salvador... The list is long.9 But in the eyes of many Americans, it is support to freedom fighters when America does it and an evil invasion when others do it. Reality is complex and one can easily make as many enemies as friends when meddling in other nation's business.

==> A lot of those conflicts were entered into with a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress, and the ideology wasn't neo-con, but that's not really the point. I don't really think the list is that long, but the other side in those conflicts were just as brutal. If we had been able to enter into an open war, things would have been bloodier short term, but the fighting would probably have run it's course much quicker. (I'm not sure how firm I'm going to stand by that, but it sounds good at the moment, and I'd love to hear some critisism of the thought, cause that's what blogging is all about). So I agree that mistakes were made, I don't think you can say that those mistakes are more representative of the American Spirit in relation to Freedom...

Hearts and minds

While I oppose your argument because of its absolutism and exaggeration, I do acknowledge that American society has achieved many valuable goals, including a relatively high freedom and living standard for many of its citizens. On the other hand, we should not cultivate the false illusion of a perfect, righteous "beacon of light"American nation. There are other countries with just as much freedom and prosperity who haven't caused as much international damage as the US. But let's face it, America is the (currently) only superpower and globally pulls strings to its interests - it's understadable, who would not if they could? It is crucial though is that Americans stay truly informed of what their elite is doing and why, in order to use their political freedom to vote and elect wisely and not become victims of the greed and fears of a few.
In the long run, truth, fairness and some modesty win hearts and minds.

mike / www.vonbergen.net

==> I like your closing paragraph, even though I don't specifically agree with each and every point and shade of tone, but on the whole, you've acquitted yourself well. You get to be a rational liberal on my bloglist when I get around to updating it. I hope you continue the conversation with me, but I'm not really going to hold my breath. Feel free to prove me wrong though.

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