Thursday, September 10, 2015

Friedman apologizes!

Image via EdgeOfSpace.
Well, not quite:
the [countries] disintegrating first are those that are the most artificial: their borders are mostly straight lines that correspond to no ethnic, tribal or religious realities and their leaders, rather than creating citizens with equal rights, wasted the last 60 years by plundering their national resources. So when their iron fists come off (in Libya and Iraq with our help), there is nothing to hold these unnatural polygons together.
Note how he can't even bring himself to list the deadly destabilizations of Iraq and Libya in chronological order, let alone make it clear that "our help" means "the help of Tom Friedman and some of his highly placed friends". But as so often in recent years, the Mystax Ineluctabilis is showing these increasing signs of a disturbed awareness that there is some reality out there in the churning tide of molecules outside his head, and that's all to the good.

For one thing, that concept of artificial countries. Back before the Iraq War began, he sort of knew about them, but thought it was an interesting experimental question whether it might make a difference:
Think of it this way: If and when we take the lid off Iraq, we will find an envelope inside. It will tell us what we have won and it will say one of two things.

It could say, ''Congratulations! You've just won the Arab Germany -- a country with enormous human talent, enormous natural resources, but with an evil dictator, whom you've just removed. Now, just add a little water, a spoonful of democracy and stir, and this will be a normal nation very soon.''

Or the envelope could say, ''You've just won the Arab Yugoslavia -- an artificial country congenitally divided among Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Nasserites, leftists and a host of tribes and clans that can only be held together with a Saddam-like iron fist. Congratulations, you're the new Saddam.''

In the first scenario, Iraq is the way it is today because Saddam is the way he is. In the second scenario, Saddam is the way he is because Iraq is what it is. Those are two very different problems. And we will know which we've won only when we take off the lid. The conservatives and neo-cons, who have been pounding the table for war, should be a lot more humble about this question, because they don't know either.
Now he knows the answer to his question, and that he himself shouldn't have tossed his judgment overboard when the invasion eventually took place, but instead adopted some of the humility he recommended (wisely) to others. Who thought their envelope was a spam mailing and threw it out without opening it. And what was inside the envelope was completely knowable ahead of the invasion, so they didn't need to carry it out, but I realize only we hippies and the International Agency for Atomic Energy and various United Nations entities and the French government and the like were saying that.

And he may even know that there's more than one way of making an artificial country, not just the Yugoslavian: that the most typical way, marked by those straight-edge boundaries, is not by trying to glue them together but by cutting them up, as the colonial powers did in the Middle East and Africa (and the North American Great Plains), in the ancient program of divide-and-rule; which makes it particularly difficult for your artificial communities to rule themselves and calls out that fist. It wasn't just that the territory of Iraq, say, is divided among different communities, but that the communities themselves are divided by the borders; Sunnis Arabs between Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Turkey, Shiite Arabs between Iraq and Kuwait and Iran, Kurds among Iraq and Syria and Iran and Turkey, and so on.

He also has a concept of uncontrollable forces that "we" can't stop or channel at all,  a triple M from the master of marketing-talk alliteration:
Mother Nature (climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth in developing countries), Moore’s law (the steady doubling in the power of microchips and, more broadly, of technology) and the market (globalization tying the world ever more tightly together) — are all in simultaneous, rapid acceleration.
Only it's pretty plain, and even he knows it pretty well when he's not spinning alliterations, that it isn't Mother Nature that is driving climate change and biodiversity loss and developing-country population explosions but Papa Culture advising us to burn more fuel and eat more fish and make more babies as if there were no tomorrow. But it's the move away from fossil fuels that's accelerating now, this has been really true for a couple of years at least, though it's of course nowhere near enough so far. It's changing fast, and so is the language of the politicians from the US to China.

And for that matter population growth is definitely decelerating, even in Africa, with the UN forecasting a fertility drop there from 4.9 children per woman now to 2.1 children by 2100. That won't stop the world population from rising to eight or ten billion by century's end, but it will make Friedman wrong about virtually everything he says in this short paragraph, which is a lot.

Moore's law doesn't accelerate at all, that's a stupid picture, it follows a very precise rhythm; and it won't decelerate either, but it will certainly stop. There actually are some strict physical limits to Moore's Law: Zeno's racetrack paradox (the athlete can never get to the finish line because he always has to get halfway there first, and there are an infinite number of halfway points between any here and there) does not apply in a quantum world, where you're either here or there at any moment, not in between, and there's a point where our microprocessors get to the atomic level and that's the end. And it's coming sooner than you might think, which doesn't mean we'll all just stop working, but that we'll be involved more in broadening than focusing. You don't need, or even want, a phone the size of a quarter, but they'll think of more stuff for phones in their current size to do. (Is it because of us Boomers and our degenerating eyes that phones are now actually getting bigger? I love my giant Nexium or whatever it's called. Just kidding, I know what it's called.)

As to globalization, it began to retreat 15 years ago, according to Roman Szul (2010):
Since 2000, especially in 2008 and 2009, there are signs of weakening of the third wave of globalisation: weakening international economic and political position of the USA, the rise of new powers (China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc), retreat from some elements of the free market ideology and policy, weakening of democratic reforms in some important countries, slowing down of foreign direct investment (2009) and international trade. Whether these signs mean the end of the present wave of globalisation and a significant remodelling of the global political and economic system, or only a correction to it, is still not clear as the present recession has not ended yet and measures to overcome the economic crisis may bring about various results. 
And who am I to argue with that, five years later? Really, all the uses of the word "accelerate" in the Wikipedia article are in the past tense (or as the noun object of a past tense verb). It may have started accelerating again for all I know, but people aren't talking about it much.

Anyhow, Friedman doesn't really want to talk about it either. Today's problem is the way
we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, soon, I believe, post-authoritarian world, in which no one will be able to control these disorderly regions with an iron fist while the world of order goes about its business as best it can with occasional reminders of the nasty disarray on its frontiers.
An accelerating lack of authoritarianism, or dictatorial entropy—as when Saddam Hussein quietly disintegrated before our eyes, right in the middle of our invasion—which is apparently causing an accelerating rate of refugee movements, although that's only apparent because it's really "occasional".

The uncharacteristic splat of a David Brooks word ("amazing"), another hint at an apology, and a clear demonstration that he's learned nothing after all:
Your heart aches for the Syrian refugees flocking to Europe. And Germany’s generosity in absorbing so many is amazing. We have a special obligation to Libyan and Iraqi refugees. But, with so many countries melting down, just absorbing more and more refugees is not sustainable.
If we’re honest, we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations. We fool ourselves that there is a sustainable, easy third way: just keep taking more refugees or create “no-fly zones” here or there.
That's very precisely wrong. If we're honest, in a way Friedman, if he ever had the ability, has long lost, we'll recognize that these two familiar expedients, the Chinese wall ("secure the border!") and the Roman occupation ("regime change!"), are guaranteed to fail, and the third, peaceful way, of focusing on the alleviation of suffering wherever it can be done, as by taking in refugees and protecting civilians on the edges of a conflict, is not easy at all but really, really hard, frustrating, tortuous, elusive; but it's the only one that has a prayer.

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