Wonky Tonks

Humor me.

Allow me for a moment to indulge in the fantasy that I in fact have certain insights regarding politics, geopolitics, and all that. Don’t take my word for it though, just give a little space for my conceit.

First let’s discuss politics, elections to be precise. In case anyone is still unaware, there is an electoral process in the works. It has been underway for too long, which so far, makes it seem more like a drawn-out popularity contest instead of a milestone election, and it is not entirely clear what it all means or where we are going with this.

I, for a fact, don’t really know what our would-be leaders are saying; what the significance is in their rhetoric, in their political posturing, in their need for being in public office. I don’t know what they say when they speak, I don’t know what they mean when they say what they say, I don’t know how they will do what they say they want to do.

In short, I have no clue how to make an “informed” electoral decision.

The theater of government eludes me. Theater in general eludes me. It is make-believe. I have found that the interest in all things make-believe tends to fade as the perspectives acquired in life forge a sensible framework in our matured psyches. Based on this premise of sensible perspectives brought about by maturity, I can only surmise that politicians –as actors– enjoy a certain measure of childish fascination with self-aggrandizing fictions; seeing themselves as heroic protagonists in their own indie films or music videos.

In politics, as in theater, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required for the plot to make sense. However, unlike theater –or film, or TV– where one has the choice of not participating of the spectacle, there is no on/off switch for living in a polity, which is usually governed by the theater of politics. I find it amusing that making policy needs a certain measure of disbelief in order to be construed as a workable proposition. Fictional postulations with real-life outcomes.

The essential problem is not with politicians however, they are a known quantity and should never be taken at face value. What is distressing is that the general public, the electorate, buys into the fictional propositions put forward by the fabricated personas presented by these politicos.

The more polarized the electorate the more susceptible they become to over-simplified “issues” of which they have no depth of understanding. Few people have the inclination to research, analyze, and glean insights from the intricacies of say, The Economy, The War, Globalization, or The Current National Problem Du Jour. Most favor the easy slogans and the soulful uplifts of campaign speeches and debates. How can anyone realistically conceive that a thirty-second commercial or a three-minute, made-for-TV-debate sound-bite is all it takes to address any of the concerns related to the war in Iraq, or the national economy, or the shift in geopolitical power? How can anyone give credence to a candidate for whom being quick-on-his/her-feet is a paramount character trait?

Glibness is now a desired understudy for thoughtfulness?

Yet, once again, the electorate is buying into this. Big time.

There is, ostensibly, a large number of people in this country who think that the best thing to do about Iraq is to leave. There is no arguing that going there in the first place was a major blunder on a scale that is impossible to express here. Much has been written and will be written about this so I will not linger on what has already passed (for the record, in a couple of my published essays from 2003–2004 I alluded to, and warned against the fictional basis for the incursion).

But it’s a different story now. We as a nation (in electoral collusion with our government) initially voted, deciding we wanted to break it. And we voted again to continue the process of breaking it. Now –morally, ethically, strategically– we have to own it until we fix it or it fixes itself. This is not the first historical example of expansionist folly. The world has survived many of these before. But historically, the instigating nation has come out of these events a lesser entity. This unwanted outcome however, is not necessarily unavoidable.

Leaving Iraq as a matter of policy is not a good choice when one considers the geopolitical forces that were set in motion by going there in the first place (there are many ways in which to diminish our country’s presence in Iraq without reducing political and/or military commitment).

Opinions are made to the point that the USA went from being the only superpower in the 1990’s to one of three in 2008, sharing the spotlight with China and the European Union. This, in geopolitical terms is correct, even though economically and militarily it is not even close. But as spheres of influence go, there is absolutely no question, we have lost plenty of ground. When Turkey finally joins the EU (which may happen sooner than expected), the last outpost of NATO hegemony (which was always a US dominated proposition) will become one of the EU consensualists.

This puts the EU right at the edge of the up-for-grabs Near Middle East, with China now the most significant foreign investor in the so-called Stans (Uzbech-, Kazach-, etc.). Russia, for all its posturing is a much diminished nation, being a one-product exporter (gas), and rapidly losing its population. There is a heated contest by the three big powers to dominate, economically and socially (the military factor is very much ours at this point), the second tier states in their main peripheries first, and in other powers’ spheres of influence second. As much as the end of the Cold War was touted as a resounding success for western civilization, it was only the closing of a dress rehearsal for what is now building up as the main event. The Russians, our bogeymen back then, were notorious for their bungling bureaucratic inefficiencies. The Chinese may be bureaucratic, but bungling they are not. And the EU, aside from enjoying a comfortable relationship with us based on their historical guise as strategic partners –which allows for a wide berth– are the most aggressive foreign direct investors in many second and third tier countries. Additionally, even if every young male/female in the world aspires to be an uber-american, rock-n-roll star (they also, have bought into our contrived theatrics), the dominant aspirational, civic, socio-economic model for the folks in most of these down-tier countries is not the Good Ol’ USA; it’s the European Union.

The geographic isolation of the USA does not serve it well. Geopolitically it needs a strong presence in the Middle East, and in other strategic regions. I really do not want to give the current administration credit for being prescient in sending our military to hold down the fort in Iraq and Afghanistan in anticipation of a new world order. But currently –most probably as an accidental result of incompetence and ignorance– that is the case. In many instances, and for many reasons, it would be foolish to remove our presence from the region.

Several countries in the American continent (ostensibly the USA’s vertically-integrated sphere of influence) have already gravitated, socially and economically towards China and the EU. The direct investment of Chinese and European countries in Latin America, already significant before, has increased dramatically in the last five years. In most of these instances, the USA is on the losing end of the sphere-of-influence game.

The future economic implications of this will be enormous.

However –and this is a tremendously relevant however– there are a few important points to consider:

– Military power still counts, and will always count. For better or worse, the USA has the most powerful and battle-seasoned military body in the world. Any number of arguments can be made about the future nature of insurgencies and what not, and these incidents will have to be addressed accordingly, and will be. But in terms of magnitude and diversity of resources and technology, no one, not even China’s million-plus army, comes close to the military strength of the USA. This is not an ill-placed notion of fictional patriotism served lukewarm and watered-down by incompetent, corrupt, public administrators (and you thought this was not going to tie in with the electoral stuff at the top…), it is a hard fact. It is an economic fact. It is a strategic economic fact. All wishful thinking to the contrary notwithstanding, in nature, in our planet, as human beings, big sticks make for very compelling arguments.

– The USA still has, by far again, the strongest, most stable and influential economy in the world. Just take a look at what happened to the surging stars of the global economy when we started grinding into the subprime mud. The world financial markets and institutions are now on tenterhooks, thanks to our enterprising hedge-fund managers. Regardless, financial institutions in the USA are still the destination of choice for the personal monies of the world richest folks, when investing is the main goal (Switzerland is still the haven of choice for discreetly safeguarding fortunes, not for making profitable investments). Direct business investments in the USA (when properly allowed by the hypocritical protectionism of the current administration) graciously helped along by a devalued dollar, outrank direct investments into any of the three biggies (not counting the spread of Chinese Sovereign Funds, which is another story). And one should not forget: The notion of global business as we now know it, was invented by transnational US companies several decades ago. The experience and business acumen that comes with that is not lost on anyone.

– Our demographics. Still, and again by far, the USA has the youngest, most productive demographic of any of the three biggies. Europe, but for its immigrants, is gradually becoming a geritocracy, with less and less native born children in the main power centers. China, having forced on its populace a decades-long one-child policy, is suddenly coming to grips with the problems of the dichotomy it created: The most populous country in the world with a decreasing youth population; a correctible problem with a generations-long solution. Demographics and the demographics of immigration have a long-term impact on our economy and our political stability.

– Venture capital. The notion of venture capital was invented here and we are still the premiere source for venture capital in the world. The USA is the primary location for startup businesses as well. Again, like globalization, the contemporary notions and context of venture capital are home-grown, and are well integrated into our economic culture. This culture of venture capitalism has been around with us so long it has become a science; as tried and true a method for creating businesses as there can be. It will take decades before any of the other countries come close to the head-start we enjoy in venture capital/startup experience.

– Immigration. Access to a generation’s worth of the global brain-trust has been lost because of the inane travel and visa restrictions put into effect to “prevent terrorism” within the USA. This lopsided balance in human capital will undoubtedly have a salutary enterprising effect on those countries with lesser restrictions for allowing foreign students and researchers into their schools and businesses. The impact on the future of our economy will depend on how immigration issues are dealt with.


Not that I have paid much attention, but has any one of the current candidates for POTUS fully articulated or addressed any of these issues with convincing clarity or alacrity?

From what I have seen and heard if there’s an electoral debate about the economy the shallow sloganeering runs to: Tax and mortgage relief and bail-outs; if opining about Iraq, the propositions are either “100 years” or “Withdraw Now”. Even other oft-mentioned trite tidbits include: “Health Care Reform” (whatever this means), “Go Green” (like GE you mean?), the “War On Terror” (WTVR…), and other posturing drivel.

For the most part what I have heard are simplistic utterances that reflect an intellectually-challenged, polarized environment, where common sense is unlikely to prevail. Deja-Vu all over again. This, like many other things in our lives, is a direct result of the continued devaluation of our political discourse, an unfortunate state of affairs which saw its first light a little over eight years ago.

It used to be that meaningful grand gestures and consequential policies were once an obligation of the political class, the purview of informed statesmen. I know that this impression of manners past is probably the joint result of a cultivated mystique and a lack of available public information back in the day. With that in mind I do not hold on to the sweet remembrances that tinge political nostalgia. But there is a nagging notion that along with many other objects floating down the river of life, politics, never a noble endeavor to begin with, has become even more of a safe haven for devolving, diminishing minds.

Apparently where we once had statesemen we now have policy-wonks. And where we once had the stately edifice of government we now have Wonky-Tonks.

It is still in the making, make it yours.

Michael Mehl

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