Saturday, October 27, 2012

129 - Our Civilization Under Siege

Western Civilization (Paris Classical series)
Now, that the American presidential elections are over, with the predictable outcome, the national problems are back to the front line. There are problems with the federated states, at national and at the global levels. Some states are broke, the country faces a “fiscal cliff”, the global economy and the international affairs are in a mess, the warming of the climate is causing increasingly devastating storms, revolutions are engulfing entire regions and local wars became endemic. 
Most worrisome, the rise of political, economic and social paradigms competing with the western beliefs, places our common civilization under siege. As a consequence, it makes the possible solutions for each of those problems more difficult to find.
Democracy is under attack by authoritarian or otherwise failed states, should they be former communists, faked democracies, backward theocracies, narco-states, oil-aristocracies and also extremists of all stripes. Most of them are little more than actual cleptocracies, organized gangs imposing their will to the nations under their control.  
Some states are participating in the world’s capitalist trade, although crushing their populations’ basic rights, both as humans and as workers. These regimes thrive by making their all powerful oligarchs and princelings rich but keeping their populations poor, thus exporting tradable goods cheaper than the developed countries can do or no longer want to produce. Others are oil rich medieval tribes where the rulers keep the people quiet with bribes, sinecures and free social support. Still others have valuable natural resources being appropriated by a dominating class to their exclusive benefit.
Others states are just a burden to the rest of the world. Some are clearly without much hope for catching up on meaningful progress, engaged in endemic wars in the name of religions, sects or any other excuses that stupidity and ignorance can muster. There are also the cartoonish puppets killing their people by hunger while pampering a business cum military class or militias, for local and international blackmail.
The long held creed in the inevitable progress of democracy in the world, is in doubt when dictatorial governments succeed in shackling enough of their own people for the time it takes to leverage their economic, then military and then political place in the international community. As a result, by using their trade surplus to buy massive amounts of foreign currency and bonds, they can have an influence on the issuer’s financial decisions and ultimately in its military effort and political capacity.
Democracy is under attack. The reasons are many, most are obvious, some are less apparent and others often surprising. A democratic decision-making has historically been the consequence of a commonality of interests among equals, or more or less equals, resulting in their inter-dependency. Economic and social development usually brings generalization of education and knowledge, which in turn makes desirable the participation of all in the affairs of the community.
There are several forms of democracy, although usually understood as the result of “one man one vote” decisions. The classic Greek actually excluded serfs and slaves. Other forms included only owners of property, then later those with a minimum of literacy and only recently were women included.
Secular democracies are the result of a lengthy and painful evolution away from ignorance, superstition, obscurantism and intolerance.  They should not stand inactive against the risk of being taken hostage by backward societies that want to impose anachronic rules of behavior on more developed nations. But, historically is has happen before, that more advanced societies have been conquered or otherwise undermined by less advanced beliefs of encroaching populations.
Globalization is creating an equality of economic opportunities regardless of social fairness in human rights and sustainable development. Everything on international affairs turns around American actions, beliefs, issues and interests. There are reactions to their meddling in foreign problems or for their lack of intervention in the same. Damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t, America is always the unavoidable reference and the only shield left of our common civilization. Where is Europe? Divided, crisis stricken, bickering, powerless. After all, western civilization started here. If nothing is done by the European nations, its demise will start here too.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

128 - The Issues - American Presidential Elections (2)

The American presidential elections should be decided on issues or, to be more precise, on the perceived capacity of the candidates to resolve what the electorate considers to be the outstanding issues. To persuade the prospective voters of their respective merits, the candidates engage in long campaigns around the country, multi-media advertising and Hollywood-style televised debates. They should be comparing realistic views and proposals on those major issues. However, like in every other working democracy, usually they are not.
Candidates want to be elected by diverse constituencies, with different and often contradictory interests and demands. They need to be everything to everybody, avoid every polarizing matter and promise everything and its opposite. They also need to appear aligned with their party’s doctrine and record while in government. More to the truth, they must look like towing the line most convenient to the interests of their party’s contributors, particularly those who control the media, which in turn controls the perceptions of the electorate.
The burning issues in these elections are there for all to see. How they are actually exposed or dissimulated during the campaign depends on the capacity of the candidates and their supporters to present or even manipulate the facts.
The two major and unequal categories of issues are the domestic and those pertaining to foreign affairs. The presidential elections are generally won or lost on domestic concerns, the only international occurrences that could change this mindset would be either a new war, making the electorate usually rally around the incumbent, or old tiresome wars, which may stock anger and the desire to change.
Save that, the economy comes first. If the economy goes well, every other problem dwarfs by comparison, if the economy is in decline, nothing else matters much. Presently, the economy seems to be in partial reprieve, after much trouble and scandal from Wall Street, the privileges of a few failed bankers and industries being rescued by everybody’s tax money. The taxes of all those who actually pay them, that is. Simultaneously, progressive globalization brings cheaper goods from abroad, decreasing inflation, but also causing de-industrialization and the loss of blue-collar jobs, increasing the deficit and the numbers of the unemployed.
The other domestic issues have polarized around the form, role and size of government, meaning in fact a debate about what should be the conception of society. Is the US still a nation of pioneers fending for themselves, dreading government intervention and taxes, bound mostly by a Constitution stressing individual rights and obligations, pursuing happiness in communities of free entrepreneurs? Or have they evolved sufficiently towards a European-style social convention, providing protection from cradle to grave to all citizens, much beyond the minimum support to the old, the feeble and the downtrodden? 
Social protection is creating a major political division. The battle lines were drawn over the most basic of social cohesion measures, whether or not to extend health coverage to everybody. Social security is already a general contribution by all and to all, but provides only very limited emergency health services and small unemployment, disability or retirement pensions. It is still largely perceived as a last recourse for those incapable of providing sufficiently through other plans for themselves and their families. Therefore, health care insurance is still debated as whether it should be made available for all as a matter of course, or better left to individual decision.
A major concern is national and individual security, the rise of extremism, the threat of terrorism, the fight against crime and the disagreement over gun control. Then, there are the drug wars over production, distribution and use, followed by the general corruption it causes and the crowding of prisons as a consequence. How can a country that went through the throes of prohibition and the consequent golden age of gangsterism, which penetrated the political, judicial and police structures, be so foolish? Like before, since it is impossible to defeat them, tax them. Alcohol is taxed, tobacco is taxed, drugs should be taxed as well. There will be enough money to treat the addicts, ruin the gangs and keep in prison the offenders.
The education systems are coalescing around expensive and mostly private poles of excellence on one side and a majority of increasingly mediocre public schools on the other side. In relation to the protection of the environment, the candidates disagree over resource exploration on protected lands, mostly national parks. Finally, there is the recurrent theme of equality of opportunity and all the other problems common to developed societies.
On foreign policy, this electoral campaign has balanced between detachment and the recognition of dependence on foreign oil, foreign commerce and the need for foreign intervention to defend the homeland and its interests.
Against the temptation for some sort of isolation is the belief in the uniqueness of America, a new kind of imperial power with a “manifest destiny”, the first modern republic, a social experiment in equality and    material progress for all and the responsibility for propagating democratic ideals. Battered by rapid world changes, but still burdened by the need to act as the world’s policemen for its own political and economic survival and the survival of the western democracies. It is increasingly difficult and expensive to keep this role among the rise of emerging economic powerhouses. The decolonization degraded into failed states and countries carrying on endless wars over territory and resources, turmoil all over the Arab crescent turning ignorance and despair into religious extremism, wars in the Middle East threatening the supply of oil, China and Russia changing from failed communist regimes into corrupt plutocracies with world power ambitions.
The American political parties came to radicalize the extreme conceptions of society and the role of government, the conservative republicans versus the progressive democrats.
The Republicans took the conservative banner, supporting the smallest possible government, no obstacles to entrepreneurship, lower taxes, and individualism on social issues. Presently the Republican candidate claims to be for the protection of individual rights against the intrusion of the state, considers the social state, as it is understood in Europe, as socialism or even communism. He is either for more aloofness in foreign affairs or more hawkishness in foreign interventions to protect the interests of the US and its allies.
The Democrats have evolved somewhat in the direction of the European center right parties, liberal on economic issues, seeing progressive taxation and redistribution as necessary to ensure social balance and the protection of the poor. Like everywhere else, all claims towards making the rich pay more than their fair share serves only as measure of example and equity, but actually means that the middle class always ends up paying the most. By different means (sometimes...) they follow foreign affairs policies towards the same objectives as the Republicans. Since the Israeli lobby ruined the reelection of Bush father when he tried to pursue a more balanced stance towards the Middle East, there is not much change on the overall objectives of the State Department regardless of the Administration’s color.
The American dream used to mean the possibility of achieving success in one generation, personified by the self made man. Before the European colonial expansion this was extremely rare. People would strive to leave the serfdom of peasantry into the professional and commercial corporations. Over time and successive generations, acquiring and expanding land or commerce ownership and eventually becoming sufficiently wealthy, they would send their sons to school or seminary to become clerks and thus acquire the knowledge to reinforce their influence and power. Much later, of course things changed, but social mobility was, and is, still limited.
The changes in American society go in the European direction, the cost of education increases, productivity and income depend on knowledge, economic and professional success depends on the capacity to integrate the new paradigm of the information society. The whole country is more and more stratified.
The evolving economic crisis has brought to light the costs of mismanaging the empire. Spending too much in foreign interventions for the benefit of ensuring a steady supply of energy and the protection of transportation lanes to the exporting markets is turning out a negative balance of costs versus benefits, as all empires eventually do.
The results of the American presidential elections will have world consequences. Which one of the two candidates would the electors choose? Better the devil you know.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

127 - The Prejudices - American Presidential Elections (1)

Washington Mormon Temple

Throughout the campaign, most prospective voters, as well as outside observers, didn’t believe a Mormon could be chosen by one of the two major parties as a presidential candidate. In recent past, they also didn’t believe that would be possible for a Catholic, or Irish, or black and still they were chosen and then elected.
Prejudices and myths permeate the elections in the US, like in every other country, whether they relate to ethnicity, religion, gender, or anything else that makes a candidate different from the beliefs or background of a nation’s majority population. To be elected, ambiguity is the name of the game, go with the tide, never say anything controversial, dodge any position on widely held prejudices, do not antagonize any major possible constituency.
During the 2008 presidential campaign and still during the present one, Barack Obama was covertly dismissed or overtly demeaned, particularly in the southern states, for being black. There were conspiracy theories at work insinuating that he was actually born outside the United States and rumors spread by Evangelical and Baptist sects accusing him of being in fact a crypto-Muslim.
Likewise, in the not so distant past, there were prejudices against new immigrants arriving in large numbers, for being Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish or whatever. Every new wave usually arrived destitute and under duress, pushed by war and famine. It was received with suspicion, fear of competition for wages and general hostility.
Gender is still a gap to fill. Time has not come yet for the fist woman president, although it came very near the last time around, the choice between Obama and Hilary Clinton was a close call. In general, women do not reach the highest political echelons in sufficient numbers.
Sex, or hypocrisy about sex, is a major prejudice that destroyed several candidates accused of indiscretions or caught with mistresses on their laps. Still, the Kennedys and Bill Clinton were famously guilty of womanizing, without any major long-term side effects. Inconsistencies.
However, the most pervasive of prejudices concerns what should be the role of religion, if any at all, in public life. The Founding fathers were both the product of the Enlightenment and a group of assorted members of the Freemasonry and protestant persuasions. They understood the importance of congregations as social cement but still believed that the laws of man should be inspired by reason and not by the delusions of warring religious beliefs.
Since then, however, the increase of rural electors brought up by the new states joining the Union, changed the cultural make up of the population to a majority who equated the fear of God with goodness and religion with moral values. They did not understand how a secular person could muster the necessary moral fiber without the fear of eventually roasting in hell.
Therefore, any candidate to public office has to declare faith in some almighty God and one of his prophets. To the increasingly secular middle class it is a sign of irrationality, but they understand that an electorate also largely irrational makes necessary a declaration of piety. However, being a Mormon, a Scientologist or any other farfetched contraption not related to the long held western traditions, is seen for that purpose as a sure sign of an eccentric unfit to govern the most powerful nation on earth.
Kennedy vowed to keep separated church and state, something now accepted as obvious in Europe but then forgotten in America since the independence days. He was the first Catholic president, but while a candidate, an electorate mostly protestant was afraid he would take orders from the Pope. His vow was heard and believed.
Leave all prejudices out of the public place; it is still the only policy to follow in a civilized society.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

126 - Um Desenvolvimento Insustentável

É preciso descaramento. Mais impostos, pagos pelos mesmos sacrificados de sempre. Seguidos de mais greves e manifestações, organizadas pelos mesmos descontentes de sempre, aqueles cujos “direitos adquiridos”, foram adquiridos sobretudo à custa dos impostos dos outros. A solidariedade social tem limites, a partir dos quais os melhores emigram ou desistem, deixando os medíocres a governar, a administrar, a gerir as empresas, a negociar mal os interesses nacionais dentro e fora do país. 
Durante o último meio século, um quarto dos portugueses tem pago impostos directos cada vez mais exorbitantes e extorsionários, a fim de que sucessivos governos possam vender aos eleitores um progresso a crédito e favorecer uma pequena clique oligárquica que manda em tudo e de quem esperam recompensa posterior. Com honrosas e cada vez mais raras excepções.
Os eleitores em geral nem se apercebem deste facto, são mantidos ignorantes e incapazes de escolha crítica. A oferta de informação é atroz: por um lado, os media são propriedade de grupos económicos que subsidiam os cabeçalhos enganadores da imprensa e os programas televisivos para atrasados mentais, muitos deles com editoriais e crónicas duma repetição intragável; por outro lado, não há informação pública independente, excepto alguns programas fora de horas para uma pequena elite culta, à qual não conseguem aceder os produtos dum sistema educativo que não ensina a pensar criticamente.
Muitas das “personalidades” políticas, televisivas e jornalísticas, não jogam com um baralho de cartas completo. Faltam-lhes naipes inteiros. Constroem sobre ilusões e sem alicerces chegam a edifícios mentais igualmente fantasiosos. Não têm memória comparativa.
O sistema económico rebentou uma primeira vez a seguir ao 25 de Abril de 74, por exaustão financeira. Faltou o dinheiro novamente no princípio dos anos 80 por completo desgoverno. Agora o país está outra vez falido por excesso de endividamento. Mas entretanto os culpados não aprenderam nada.
Portugal não tem, nem nunca teve, uma economia que suporte o despesismo do estado. Desde a independência, nunca houve uma economia sustentável. Uma parte da população, paupérrima, dedicada à agricultura, à pesca e a pequenos negócios de intermediação, sustentava as classes guerreira e clerical, ambas economicamente parasitárias. Um país onde se inventou a desvalorização da moeda pelo próprio emissor, reduzindo e abastardando os metais preciosos que a compunham. D. Fernando, o falsário, que cunhou as célebres “barbudas”, moedas só com banho de prata, que valiam oito das antigas moedas realmente de prata e assim arruinou o país.
Houve períodos de prosperidade superficial e passageira, como as navegações, as descobertas e a exploração de alguns recursos coloniais. Todavia, o comércio dos escravos, do marfim, do açúcar, das especiarias, das sedas, das porcelanas, mais tarde do ouro, em vez de enriquecerem o país através do estabelecimento de manufacturas duradouras e casas de comércio internacionais, só enriqueceram temporariamente reis esbanjadores (aquela embaixada ao Papa, dum novo-riquismo ridicularizado por toda a Europa) e aristocratas corruptos (a anedota do nababo que queimava paus de canela na lareira, para ostentar o sucesso da roubalheira durante o exercício do seu cargo colonial). 
A Coroa, ou seja, o Estado, estabeleceu monopólios, apropriou-se de tudo o que era rentável e arruinou a burguesia nascente que tinha financiado as expedições, destruindo no embrião a indústria e o comercio nacionais. As matérias primas eram negociadas no estrangeiro e do estrangeiro eram importados não só os bens de luxo como tudo o que tinha valor acrescentado. A machadada final veio com a expulsão dos judeus, o que restava de burguesia, que levaram para a Holanda os mapas e os pilotos que em breve lhes permitiram estabelecer a empresa comercial que concorreu com e acabou por destruir o império português. Mais importante, reforçou e contribuiu grandemente para o enriquecimento de toda uma classe de empresários dos Países Baixos que dura até aos dias de hoje. As vantagens da liberdade e tolerância em relação ao despotismo, fanatismo e ganância ignorante.
A melhoria do nível de vida desde os últimos anos do século passado foi uma ilusão sustentada a crédito. Portugal era até aí um país pobre, com uma política industrial apoiada e dirigida pelo Estado, poucas e pequenas indústrias independentes, com uma distribuição muito limitada de água e energia eléctrica, um caminho de ferro incipiente, péssimas estradas, má cobertura médica, raro saneamento, uma agricultura de subsistência. Bandos de adultos e crianças esfomeados, maltrapilhos e descalços, percorriam o país como mão de obra itinerante.
O sobressalto democrático de 74 converteu os desejos de progresso e de equidade social em realidade legal, mas teórica, sem alicerces no fraco progresso económico do país. A entrada na Comunidade Europeia trouxe a possibilidade de obter empréstimos a juros tão baixos que se tornarem irresistíveis. Endividaram-se os particulares para a vida inteira e endividou-se o Estado para pagar infra-estruturas e serviços sociais, com o reembolso a pagar pelas gerações futuras. Até que o sonho acabou.
Com o Euro como moeda comum, não há possibilidade de usar o engano da inflação usado nos anos 80, para mascarar o empobrecimento provocado pelo ajustamento da economia à realidade. Com o Euro e os credores agrupados na troika, não há manifestações que valham, não há greves que sirvam senão para arruinar ainda mais as empresas.
Os ricos que paguem a crise... Que inocência ignorante. Os verdadeiros ricos há muito que transferiram capitais e residência fiscal para fora do país, uma fiscalidade extorsionária apenas tem como consequência faze-los investir os seus capitais noutros lados. Quem paga a crise são as classes médias, que não têm alternativas, mas que ficam desmotivadas na sua produtividade e que baixam o seu consumo. Não é nem justo nem inteligente alienar quem estudou mais, quem trabalhou mais, quem investiu mais, quem aceitou mais riscos para criar emprego. Assim não há economia que resista.
Alternativas ao aumento dos impostos? Claro que há, basta reduzir as despesas do Estado ao que a economia que existe pode realmente suportar. Todas as despesas, começando pelos órgãos de soberania, passando pelas administrações e serviços do Estado e acabando, se necessário e infelizmente, nas prestações sociais. Além disso, resolver as causas da falta de produtividade, encorajar o espírito empresarial em vez da dependência, manter os pés na terra nas decisões políticas, económicas e sociais. E perder as manias de grandeza.