Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis IV

The chapter on America evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and the challenges it faces. While presenting a perspective that is primarily historical, unlike most commentators, Diamond frequently writes from the point of view of a geographer. The U.S., he says, became a major power in the world primarily because of its geographic characteristics. It has the largest land area in the world with good agricultural soil. This is the result of glaciation over the last hundred thousand years that has enriched more soil here than it has in China, Russia, Europe or Canada. Furthermore, North America is physically protected by oceans on the east and west, a sparsely inhabited region to the north, and a narrowing of the continent to the south. From an economic standpoint, it has better natural ports on both coasts than those in most countries, and the river network is also more suitable for navigation than those on other continents. The political system has offered some advantages, partly because each state serves as a laboratory in which various laws can be tested and later copied at the national level. A continuous inflow of financially ambitious immigrants has also helped bring prosperity to the country. On the negative side, he argues that political polarization and a decline in compromise are the principal problems facing the country, though competition from China also poses a threat. There is a separate chapter discussing other internal problems associated with flaws in the voting system, inequality and insufficient investment in the future.

The last chapter before the epilogue discusses global problems such as nuclear weaponry, climate change and inequality. There are several scenarios in which the deployment of nuclear weapons could intentionally or unintentionally wreak havoc. Climate change is causing a reduction in biodiversity and is starting to disrupt food supplies, in addition to raising ocean levels enough to flood heavily-populated coastal regions. Inequality in conjunction with population growth and a decline in natural resources is making the situation even more dangerous: the planet would be unable to sustain the current world population at the standard of living in developed countries.

The epilogue reviews the 12 crisis factors brought up at the beginning of the book in the context of the examples discussed in later chapters and answers a couple of separate questions that people have asked him. At the very end, he sums up the reasons he had for writing the book and preemptively rebuts critics:

Pessimists may respond to these suggestions by protesting: "How absurdly obvious! We don't need Jared Diamond's book to tell us to practice honest self-appraisal, to look to other countries for models, to avoid retreating into victimhood, and so on!"  No, we do need a book, because it's undeniable that those "obvious" requirements have so often been ignored, and are still so often ignored today.... People whose ignoring of "obvious" requirements threatens their well-being today include my fellow several hundred million Americans.

While as an individual reader I found the book a little tedious and overly cautious at times, it is obvious to me that this kind of book is necessary and beneficial. If the issues brought up by Diamond were widely discussed by the politicians in Washington, D.C., the national dialogue would be shockingly different from what we have now. I can only hope that some of the new Democratic candidates for the presidency read it. I have few substantive criticisms. I liked the fact that Diamond rebuked many of the wasteful, self-indulgent habits of Americans, such as driving SUVs that get poor gas mileage. He specifically debunked the myth of American exceptionalism, which is currently accepted as gospel by both political parties. However, in one instance, Diamond included widely-circulated information that seems dubious to me: cats that are allowed to wander in and out of their owners' houses have been measured to kill an average of more than 300 birds per year per cat....If the U.S. population of outdoor cats is estimated to be about 100 million, then cats can be calculated to kill at least 30 billion birds per year in the U.S....

As a long-time cat owner, I can tell you that pet cats that are let out do not on average kill 300 birds per year. I would estimate something closer to 10. William occasionally catches a bird, and I have noticed no reduction in the number of goldfinches that come to our feeder year-round. He usually catches juncos, which feed on the ground, and I haven't noticed a reduction in those either.

The main criticism I have of Diamond, which I alluded to earlier, is his assumption that humans are rational agents who are undoubtedly capable of collectively solving the crises that he discusses in the book by using tried-and-true democratic methods. That is certainly possible, and, in order to do so, books like this are necessary. In my view, as I've written in earlier posts, more radical approaches assuming intractable  human limitations are probably going to be necessary. Diamond correctly notes that China has an advantage over the U.S. with respect to its ability to make rapid decisions and implement them quickly. The Chinese have their share of problems, but they don't dawdle politically the way Americans do. The U.S., for example, is taking decades to deal with infrastructure repair, gun control and health care, and, under the Trump administration, the addressing of climate change has been put on hold. Many of the legislative delays in the U.S. are the result of intentional corporate obstruction. Gun laws haven't changed much because the N.R.A., a lobbying group for gun manufacturers, funds the campaigns of many politicians. Lobbyists for various industries have ample funds available to influence election results. There is probably no equivalent in China, and, even with a significant amount of corruption, China may be capable of operating a more efficient and effective government under an authoritarian regime. A point that I've made previously is that, in the long run, people are likely to prefer a functional authoritarian regime to a dysfunctional democratic regime like the one we have now in the U.S.

Looking to the future, I see a surviving model closer to the one currently in place in China than to the one mythologized in the U.S. As I've said, capitalism tends to subvert the best interests of the majority over time, in our case by undermining the democratic processes that Diamond seems to take for granted. As an old-fashioned academic, Diamond doesn't fully examine the corrosive effects of capitalism and seems to assume that mistakes can always be corrected within the capitalist framework with which he is familiar. One area of concern that goes unmentioned in this book is the long-term economic effect of automation. What's going to happen if there aren't any jobs and corporations control the government? At that point I don't think that Diamond's examples and recommendations are going to be particularly relevant.

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