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“Sustaining” your Way to Serfdom as a Grand Strategy

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Friend of the blog, commenter L.C. Rees, likes to point out that one of the most important part of a grand strategy, particularly one that is maintained despite evidence of being a geopolitical failure, are the domestic political effects that work to the advantage of the faction supporting it.  In my view, grand strategy usually has a political or cultural evolutionary component and, human nature being unchanging, Rees’s cynical observation has merit.

Last year, a couple of JCS aides/field grade officers wrote a grossly overpraised paper that was pushed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Thomas Friedman and assorted worthies, that purported to be about a new grand strategy with which America could navigate the world. Mostly it centered on a preference for an America being run by a vaguely EU-like, technocratic, regime under the rubric of “sustainment”, in which the authors wisely folded in a number of  shibboleths popular with the corporate-liberal upper class who write large donation checks to think tanks or make their living in public policy and academia.

The talk of this nature died down when the election cycle began, but the themes were recently revived by the New America Foundation’s Grand Strategy Project whose director had an op-ed in Foreign Policy to reintroduce this agenda to the chattering classes now that the pesky voters are out of the way until 2014:

A New U.S. Grand Strategy 

….Walkable communities: The first pool of demand is homegrown. American tastes have changed from the splendid isolation of the suburbs to what advocates are calling the “five-minute lifestyle” — work, school, transit, doctors, dining, playgrounds, entertainment all within a five-minute walk of the front door. From 2014 to 2029, baby boomers and their children, the millennial generation, will converge in the housing marketplace — seeking smaller homes in walkable, service-rich, transit-oriented communities. Already, 56 percent of Americans seek this lifestyle in their next housing purchase. That’s roughly three times the demand for such housing after World War II.
If only Bismarck had included some “walkable communities” for Prussia, Europe might have avoided the tragedy of World War I.
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Incidentally, all of this argument from assertion is unsupported rubbish keyed to a preexisting anti-suburban agenda the Obama administration brought with them into office in 2009. As Joel Kotkin explained:

….Whenever possible, the Clintons expressed empathy with suburban and small-town voters. In contrast, the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites—most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Many Obama appointees—such as at the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—favor a policy agenda that would drive more Americans to live in central cities. And the president himself seems to embrace this approach, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

Not surprisingly, belief in “smart growth,” a policy that seeks to force densification of communities and returning people to core cities, animates many top administration officials. This includes both HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Undersecretary Ron Sims, Transportation undersecretary for policy Roy Kienitz, and the EPA’s John Frece.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood revealed the new ideology when he famously declared the administration’s intention to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into transit. In Congress, the president’s allies, including Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, have advocated shifting a larger chunk of gas tax funds collected from drivers to rail and other transit.

In addition, the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores. Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

Suburbanites may not yet be conscious of the anti-suburban stance of the Obama team, but perhaps they can read the body language. Administration officials have also started handing out $300 million stimulus-funded grants to cities that follow “smart growth principles.” Grants for cities to adopt “sustainability” oriented development will reward those communities with the proper planning orientation. There is precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads or investment in other basic infrastructure.

Kotkin nails it. Mr. Doherty is simply trying to find some national security window dressing for an elite preference that ordinary people will be much easier to manage, monitor and fleece if they are concentrated in high-density urban housing and prevented from voting with their feet by a network of punitive, anti-development, anti-mobility, Federal  regulations. The research paper, if you can call it that, justifying this authoritarian agenda can be found here. Judge for yourself.
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However, this is no idle pipe dream, it has been done before. The  Japanese pursued a similar national “grand strategy” after WWII with the blessing of Washington to reconstruct defeated Japan: the old, independent,  Japanese business empires called zaibatsu were transformed by SCAP into submissive keiretsu that would take “administrative guidance” from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Finance. In return, the keiretsu were heavily subsidized by the government, which kept Japanese “salarymen” to an artificially low “middle-class” standard of living with macroeconomic policies that forced the Japanese to have an extremely high level of savings. A docile work force penned into tiny apartments, governed by a de facto one-party autocracy of the Liberal Democratic Party that kept the rent-farming machinery in place for big business for fifty years. It isn’t a great model, it is not what Walter Lippmann would have called “a good society” but it did work.
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Mexico under the PRI dictatorship was a more backward version of this paradigm, as was Chicago under Mayor Daley.
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Now back to our own grand strategy of walkable communitarianism:

…..Every continental-scale economic region must embark on a decisive sustainability strategy without delay. Working within existing norms of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, America will lead the partnership of major economies to refashion the global economic system around eight or nine economic blocs, each boasting the scale necessary to support mature industrial ecosystems. This will mean promoting and strengthening regional economic blocs such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Union of South American Nations, the African Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

This part is literally nonsensical.

Say what you want about Osama bin Laden’s powers of rhetoric: he may have failed to convince his fellow Muslims to unite the ummah into a Caliphate but he evidently convinced a lot of people at The New America Foundation that Islam is an economy.

And as aside, why the hell is pushing political unification of South America or Africa under top-heavy, transnational bureaucracies in American interest? It sure isn’t in the interest of poor Africans or campesinos. For that matter, how can Africa unify if a third of their states will be in the OIC? WTF? Does Foreign Policy use editors or is it just a blog?

However, all that was simply geopolitical fantasizing over matters about which the United States has little control and would be unlikely to come off even under the best of circumstances. The next part I suspect is intended much more seriously. It certainly reflects a worldview that is pernicious and apparently more widespread among our elite than we realized, for which they are now testing the waters, to see if their fellow citizens are the herd they imagine us to be and if they can get away with it.

….Just as America would never fight a 21st-century war with Korean War-era weapons, it should not govern today with institutions devised for a bygone era. The Founding Fathers established a constitution that allows for the adaptation of the institutions of government to the knowledge, threats, and opportunities confronting each generation. Americans should make use of that foresight. Under this strategy, the country will adapt the institutions of its federal government to execute this grand strategy and invest in the American people to ensure that they receive the opportunities they need to be informed and engaged citizens. 

This is a tentative call, in milquetoast, coded, language, to find legal stratagems to gut the Bill of Rights and euthanize American democracy, or at least render it comatose, as a mere facade for a new paternalist technocracy that treats citizens as wards or children while we are rent-farmed for the benefit of a small elite. Certainly when we are all marooned in our government-regulated, high-density, housing, disarmed and without private transportation or much disposable income it will be too late for us to raise our voices in protest.  Doherty is correct about one aspect, such a society is probably “sustainable”; feudalism after all lasted more than a thousand years.

In plain English, the strategy of “sustainment” is a long term policy for postmodern serfdom with most of us intended to be walking behind the oxen when we are not wearing the yoke ourselves. Despite the nervous, thin-lipped, smiles and hasty reassurances, these people truly wish us and our children ill.

The good news is that none of this can come to pass without our consent. The U.S. Constitution is both sword and shield, if you are willing to pick it up. Speak, write, organize, litigate and vote out of office would-be authoritarians no matter what party label they wear. The best antidote for our creeping oligarchy is electing and appointing to office a large number of people outside of this exceedingly insular, geographically and intellectually narrow, social circle of graduates of  a handful of universities and last few percentage points of socioeconomic status who have in the last 15 years grabbed control of our government.

Really, we’re Americans – our talent pool is 315 million strong. We can easily do better.


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