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Saturday, August 13, 2011
Current Affairs ... Society ...

Things aren’t going so well these days in the venerable land of Europe. Greece is bankrupt, Spain, Portugal and Ireland are on the verge, Italy is rolling toward the cliff, France and Britain are in continued recession, and the old cites of England, including London itself, are rioting and burning. Nope, not a good time for Europe.

It’s ironic that the western world fought two major wars and sacrificed millions of people during the 20th century to keep Germany from taking over Europe. But today, Germany is the only European nation that knows how to thrive in the modern world economy. The Germans, with some help from the Chinese (who else?), seem willing to take responsibility for much of the damage that has done by the less business-oriented, less productive members of the Euro community. Up to 2008, Europe could get by as a cultural museum floated by American tourist dollars. But now America is also losing ground economically, and the nations that are gaining it might not be as sentimental about Italian food, French wine, Greek ruins, Spanish fishing villages, London’s theater and all those old cathedrals and wonderful museums. I can’t see throngs of Chinese, Brazilians and Indians lining up outside the Vatican or the Louve.

About the only people who could re-start the engines of Europe are be the Germans. If the Euro Union is going to stick together, the Germans are going to call the shots. Oh, they will be demure about it, they are still sensitive and repentant about Nazi triumphalism. They seem to have learned their lessons about human rights and multi-culturalism, thank goodness. But slowly and quietly, the Germans are going to assume more and more of the political, economic and social-cultural hegemony over Europe.

As a person with ancestors from Poland and possibly some Jewish blood from White Russia, I can’t say that the idea of a Germanized Europe doesn’t raise some concerns. But those who know how to best make and trade things that the rest of the world needs will eventually ‘fill in the blanks’ with regard to politics and culture. Again, thank goodness the Germans now know not to break shopholder’s windows in the night, roll out the tanks and dive bombers, and build death camps while expanding their zone of influence. Let’s hope that the upcoming Germanification is a kinder and gentler one.

Speaking about those youth riots in England – I’ve read a number of different takes on what is going on behind it all. The liberals of course cite the bad economy and the inequalities caused by all the cut-backs that the Tories have imposed in response to economic austerity. The conservatives say this is a big hangover from the welfare state, which imposed an “entitlement mentality” onto poor youth. The shock of realizing that those promises of ever increasing entitlements will no longer be honored supposedly triggered all the bad behavior driven by a moral vacuum caused by the socialists.

OK, well, the conservatives do have a point. Law and order is not a function of the size and ability of a government’s police force. The only thing that keeps our society from disintegrating is the sense of responsibility imposed within the vast majority of people. If that sense of responsibility for socially cooperative conduct irreparably decays, then no amount of police threat or welfare subsidy will stop the chaos and mayhem of crowds looting and burning and grinding the daily routines of civilization to a halt (e.g. education, health care, commerce, electricity / sewer and other infrastructure, etc.).

But the liberals certainly do re-state the obvious by pointing out that the modern economy is disenfranchising larger and larger segments of the population. Technology changes, world political events, resource depletion and other “macro factors” are shaping a world of commerce and finance that doesn’t need a certain segment of the population. In the USA, that segment had been around 10% of the population (families locked in multi-generational poverty), but ever since the mid-1970s, it seems to have been slowly expanding, pushing more and more working class families to the verge of poverty and unemployment.

Today, the true unemployment rate is closer to 16 or 17%, with no prospects of dropping anytime soon. The distribution of wealth keeps getting worse; the rich certainly are getting richer in America, and probably in Britain and Europe too. Youth born into the expanding “unnecessary” class are now realizing just how bleak their prospects are for the future. They decide that they don’t have much to lose by crashing into a Foot Locker or mobile phone store (once the local police are overwhelmed by their collective action).

Given all that, how bad would a bit of Germanic autocracy and moral rigor seem, if it promised to open up good jobs that could support something of a comfortable family life? In some ways, the 1930s are back in Europe; but let’s hope that we won’t be fooled again. Once upon a time, the freedom and contrarian creativity of Europe’s bohemians and America’s tea partyers (the original ones, not the parasitic movement of today) could beat the establishment automatons in most every way (art, war, politics, science, wealth and trade, etc.). But today, in a hyper-complex, extremely interdependent and networked world, the automatons seem to be doing much better –as China shows.

The socially unconventional types, who once came up with brilliant innovations such as Renaissance art, constitutional democracy and empirical science, now seem limited to inventing better ways to cause damage as they are pushed to the margins. Ordinary people like myself, trying to work a regular job and live a decent life, have a harder and harder time staying out of the way of these angry innovators. Some of the nightmares? Getting on a train carrying al-Qaeda sympaticos equipped with explosive backpacks (or perhaps driving along a van filled with petroleum and fertilizer set to blow up the tubes of the Lincoln Tunnel). Or going on an innocent-looking website and downloading a file with banking network-attack software on it, which later scrambles the host, i.e. your own computer, as to not leave clues behind for the authorities. Or perhaps driving through the wrong neighborhood in London or Liverpool at the wrong time.

Oh well, London and Liverpool are far away, on the ‘other side of the pond’. Except that I’m now reading about urban “flash mobs” doing bad things in Philadelphia of late. Mayor Nutter is railing against them and calling for maximum police response (sounding a bit like British Prime Minister David Cameron). Philadelphia . . . the heart of the 18th Century American Revolution against the British, ironically. Only 90 miles away from the poor neighborhoods of North Newark, through which I drive every work day. Which aren’t that far down the road from my apartment.

I hate to say it, but . . . that old German ethos of orderliness, and the modern Chinese version of it, aren’t looking all that bad right now.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:32 pm      

  1. Jim, Somewhere along the line in this blog—with all due respect to you–I need to find a bit of something positive—if it’s only that, with any luck, a “Black Swan” will come along and change things for the positive.

    Such a positive scenario is not impossible. I tend to think that part of the problem with the world in general and the U.S. in particular is that there is such a negative outlook on things that everybody is scared the sky is falling.

    True, all these things you mention are possible. Yet, I do not see why it is an impossibility that all the sturm und drang going on in the world today are the birth pangs of a change for the positive for the world in general

    So, that’s what I would tend to hope for: That these massive troubles of the world are the birth pangs of the growth to come that will be only a positive thing. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 14, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  2. In the long run, certainly. But as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.

    For now, if I’m driving home one evening and I see smoke up ahead and police cars with lights and sirens all over the place, I’m going back to the justice complex to wait until things cool down. Other than that, I’m simply keeping my fingers crossed, and trying to drive as politely as possible while crossing those disenfranchised neighborhoods.

    Comment by Jim G — August 14, 2011 @ 7:14 pm

  3. Jim, Have been thinking back to the 1960s. The Atlantic has an article on gun control which reviews the uproars going on then (and basically we have the same kind of thing going on now, with a bow to changed conditions).

    I remember living through those times, the chaos, the riots, the assassinations of some of the best people in our country and the entire nation, thinking the whole world had gone bonkers.

    Yet, out of that turmoil came a new era it is possible to look back on and realize it was a period of growth pains. Thus, I can’t blame you–and didn’t mean to blame you–for saying you certainly want to avoid dangerous areas (as do I).

    I was simply wondering, perhaps hoping is the better word, if the times now that are so chaotic are not a period of the pains of growth, which will have positive results (as they have had before), if not in our time, at least in the time of those who will follow us. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 15, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

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