About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Long Horizon


One of the greatest failings of modern society is not thinking over the long term.  I would like to say that this is a purely American phenomenon, and perhaps a few decades ago it was, but this lack of long range planning seems to be sweeping the globe.  It afflicts both the political left and right, the rich and the poor, the educated and the not, the powerful and the weak.  It does seem to be the universal leveler, and the one thing we all have in common.  It is our "Breakfast at Tiffany's" moment.

I'm going to go over a few issues where lack of foresight is devastating.

The economy - let's go for the low hanging fruit here.  You hear debates about the spiraling debt crisis, and how much our grandchildren will owe for our spending.  This seems like a foresight enframed argument, until you realized that it is simply that, enframing.  It is using the future to pass a bunch of stuff that benefits a small amount of people in the present, while laying waste to the future that they claim to be trying to protect.

To understand how this is a false frame, you only need to look G.A.O. evaluations of the Republican budget.  The massive tax cuts and elimination of the social safety net that supposedly will eliminate the national debt, actually will blow a several trillion dollar hole in the budget.  I cannot find actual amount of the hole, which, those of you who read my blog know that I try to do.  The reason that I cannot is that when you try to google the G.A.O. report, you get at least ten pages of results linking to right wing propaganda.  It seems that the actual report is no longer available on-line, or if it is, it is so far buried that I can't find it.

But let's look deeper at how the Ryan budget is actually not a document that plans for the future.  If you eliminate the social safety net, student loans and all of the other devices where people can lift themselves out of poverty, you create a permanent underclass.  How is this an example of poor planning?  Well for one thing, the social mobility of America is one of the founding principles of our country.  The idea that your children will be better off than you are is a core motivator for progress.  If you eliminate the motivation to strive to become better, you eliminate the fuel that drives America's success.

Then add in one of the other areas where the Ryan budget lacks foresight - the growing income gap - and you set up a horrifying scenario.  When you take money out of the pockets of the 99% and give it to the 1% through a combination of regressive taxation and tax incentives for the rich, you are literally robbing the poor to give to the wealthy.

And here is where the truth comes in - the 99% is actually the majority. 

I know it's hard to believe given how Washington acts most of the time, but the poor and middle class are the bulk of the population in this country, and math does not work in the favor of the rich.  France in 1789 and Russia in 1917 give us a pretty good idea of how this story ends.

The right wing's economic plan lacks the foresight to understand how they could be sowing the seeds of their own demise.  People will only be crushed underfoot for so long, then they will rise up.  Even people with almost no power, such as the Egyptians, figured this out - there are more of us than there are of them.  The Republicans are sacrificing their own futures for short term gain.

Another issue, Foreign policy - more low hanging fruit.  This one is not purely a left or right issue, both parties seem to screw this one up pretty equitably.  We do not think how our interventionist philosophies will play out over time.  Look at how we have conducted ourselves since World War Two; incidentally, the last time we acted with an eye to the future. 

Since then, we've had the Cold War, and hot wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and now it is looking pretty likely that we will have Korea again as well and also Iran.  And guess what, since World War Two, we have not won a single war: at best, we have had stalemates, but more often, we have outright lost.  There is no rubric of success that could call Iraq part two or Afghanistan victories. 

Why have these armed conflicts been failures?  Poor planning, and no clearly defined goals, the opposite of which are two hallmarks of foresight.  We went into Afghanistan purely for revenge, which is a natural feeling.  But without a strategy, a long term goal, the mission quickly became a debacle.  At best, now, all we can hope for is to leave with some shred of our dignity intact, which it does seem that President Obama has put together.

But this lack of foresight has significant impacts beyond the region where we are fighting.  Every time we lose a war, or fight to a draw, we diminish ourselves in the eyes of the world.  I'm not saying that we should only pick fights we know we can win, that is the action of a bully.  What I'm saying is, we need to know if the war is worth the cost over the long term. 

We did not need a war to get Bin Laden.  A surgical military strike got him, and in a country that was not our enemy, but ostensibly our ally.  We have picked off terrorist leader after terrorist leader, without devastating wars.

We need to think of the long term implications of our foreign policy actions.  We armed the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets, because we couldn't allow our enemy to gain territory.  We lacked the foresight to see that the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan would be their downfall.  Then because we supported the Mujahideen for the rebellion against the Soviets, but abandoned them once our short term goal was met, we set the stage for the Taliban.  The Taliban sheltered and outfitted a Mujahideen rebel named Osama Bin Laden, who then attacked us on September 11, 2001.  We did not see that coming, but we should have.  We should have had the foresight to stabilize Afghanistan through humanitarian aid when the Soviets left.  It goes back to the saying, if you break it you bought it.

This is only one case of blowback, but many of our problems in the world stem from short term fixes to complex, long term problems.

Let's look at a couple of other cases, a little more briefly because I don't want to belabor the point.

Global Warming - it doesn't matter if we are causing it or not.  We need to act like we are, in case we are actually responsible, or at least are compounding the problem.  Global warming could submerge some of the most populated land on the planet.  If we keep sticking our heads in the sand, the costs will be enormous.  We worry about the short term costs of environmental regulation, and we ignore the costs of rising oceans.  How much will it costs to save or replace Venice, New York City, Miami, Dubai, Hong Kong and all of the other great coastal cities that will be dramatically affected?  How much will it cost to feed people when the areas that can be farmed shift radically northward?  How much will it cost when Malaria becomes endemic in Europe, and Dengue Fever infects all of the United States?

Contraception - This one gets tied into a lot of other issues.  If you eliminate access to contraception, you will cause a population boom.  How is this a bad thing?  It will stress an already overburdened health care system, with a massive influx of pregnant women and newborns.  It will overload social services, because poor people will have many babies that they cannot afford.  I can see a future where a European Angelina Jolie is going to the United States to adopt babies by the busload.  It adds many people to a world that is already at or near carrying capacity.  This means increased likelihood of famine, disease and war, the three natural population control solutions.

And the list of issues where we lack foresight can go on and on.

So what is the solution?  How do we derail the train blithely chugging us into hell?

Think ahead. 

That's the short answer.  By this I don't mean think of the immediate consequences, think over the long term.  Ask yourself, how will this impact my children, my grandchildren?  Make long term strategic plans.  Be satisfied with things other than instant gratification. 
And most importantly, vote for people who think for the long term.  Not the fake long-term as I talked about before, but the real long term.  Ask them where they see the country in 50 years, and how they plan to get us there.  Demand concrete steps, not easy platitudes.  Expect them to have vision, and hold them to that vision.

Don't live for today, live for tomorrow and all of the tomorrows that are to come.

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