A World of Knowledge

It is odd that Americans are so reluctant, if not hostile, to looking abroad for ideas about how to do things, such as education, voting methods, healthcare, etc. The principles and ideas that underpinned this nation’s founding did not emerge from nowhere: They were inspired by, or even directly drawn from, Enlightenment thinkers from across Europe; certain elements of British law and government (ironically), such as the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights; and of course the Greeks and Romans, from whom we borrowed specific methods, institutions, terminology, and even architecture. (The U.S. Senate is explicitly inspired by the original Roman Senate, with senatus being Latin for council of elders.)

Americans make up less than five percent of humanity. The U.S. is one of nearly 200 countries. Its history as a nation, let alone as a superpower, is a relative blink in time; as a point of reference, the Roman-Persian wars lasted over 600 years, nearly three times America’s lifespan. Conversely, many countries are much younger, including most of the world’s democracies, providing fresher or bolder perspectives on certain issues not addressed or contemplated by our more conservative system.

Given all that, it stands to reason that someone, somewhere out there, has done something that we have not thought of or figured out, something worth studying or implementing. It is statistically unlikely that we are the only people or nation to know everything, giving our narrow slice of time, humans, and experience. The fact that so many innovators, inventors, and other contributes this country have come from all over the world proves the U.S. has always tacitly accepted the idea that the rest of the world has something to offer.

In fact, this would be in accordance with the vision of most of the nation’s founders, who were far from nationalistic. Their debates, speeches, and correspondences reveal them to have been fairly worldly folks who were open to foreign ideas and perspectives and sought to integrate the country into the international system. From Jefferson’s cherished copy of the Muslim Koran, to Franklin’s open Francophilia and Madison’s insistence that we respect global public opinion and norms, the supposed dichotomy between patriotism and internationalism is a false one at odds with one’s service to the nation.

It is all the more ironic because one of the few schools of philosophy to originate in the United States was pragmatism, which emerged in the 1870s and postulated, among other things, that people promote ideas based on their practical effect and benefit (i.e., regardless of their national or foreign origin). It should not matter where our solutions to certain problems come from it matters that they are solutions, and thus beneficial to our community, in the first place.

An American Parliament

As the U.S. once again finds itself between two widely unpopular choices, it is worth reflecting on this 2016 hypothetical from the Economist, a British newspaper: parties centered on narrower but more representative ideas.

Image may contain: 4 people, text that says 'WHAT IF THE UNITED STATES HAD A PARLIAMENT? PREDICTED PARLIAMENT* TOTAL SEATS 435 113 49 124 LEFT CENTRE-LEFT "Social "Liberal Democratic Party" Party" BERNIE SANDERS HILLARY CLINTON 26% of vote 28% 37 112 CENTRE-RIGHT RIGHT POPULIST "Conservative "Christian "People's Party" Coalition" Party" JOHN KASICH TED CRUZ DONALD 8% 11% TRUMP 26% Sources: YouGov; CPS; The Economist Pic credits: Getty Images; Reuters *based on April 22-26th 2016 polling; seats allocated Economist The proportionally by census region (North, Midwest, South, West)'

America’s presidential system, along with its winner-take-all elections and Electoral College, tends to lead to gridlock and polarization. These mechanisms and institutions were devised before political parties were a thing—or at least as rigid as they are now—and thus never seriously took them into account. Hence, we are stuck with two big parties that are far from representative of the complex spectrum of policies and ideologies.

Rather than the proportional representation you see above, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts according to the “first-past-the-post” (FPTP) principle, meaning that the candidate with the plurality of votes—i.e. not even the majority—wins the congressional seat. The losing party or parties, and by extension their voters, get no representation at all. This tends to produce a small number of major parties, in what’s known in political science as Duverger’s Law.

With the Electoral College, there is a similar dynamic at play: a presidential candidate needs no more than half the vote plus one to win the entire state and its electors. Some states are considering making it proportional, but only Maine and Nebraska have already done so.

This is why you see so many seemingly contradictory interests lumped into one or the other party. In other systems, you may have a party centered on labor rights, another on the environment, yet another for “conventional” left-wing or right-wing platforms, etc. The fragmentation might be messy, but it also forces parties to either appeal to a larger group of voters (so they can have a majority) or form coalitions with other parties to shore up their legislative votes (which gives a voice to smaller parties and their supporters).

Note that this is a huge oversimplification, as literally whole books have been written about all the reasons we are stuck with a two-party system most do not like. And of course, a parliament would not fix all our political problems, which go as deep as our culture and society.

But I personally think we may be better off with a parliamentary-style multiparty system—uncoincidentally the most common in the world, especially among established democracies—than what we have now.

What are your thoughts?

The Little Satellite that Triggered the Space Age

On this day in 1957, the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the first, largest, and most active space port to this day). Thus, began a series of pioneering Soviet firsts—from nonhuman lunar landings to explorations of Venus—that would in turn trigger the Space Race with America culminating in the Moon landings.

60 Years Since Sputnik | Space | Air & Space Magazine

Ironically, despite the centralized and authoritarian nature of the Soviet political system, the U.S.S.R. never developed a single coordinating space agency like NASA. Instead it relied on several competing “design bureaus” led by brilliant and ambitious chief engineers vying to produce the best ideas. In other worlds, these Cold War rivals embraced space exploration with the other side’s philosophy: the Americans were more government centered, while the Russians went with something closer to a free market. (Of course, this oversimplifies things since the U.S. relied and still relies on independent contractors.)

Sergei Korolev - Wikipedia

Hence Sputnik was the product of six different entities, from the Soviet Academy of Science to the Ministry of Defense and even the Ministry of Shipbuilding. The satellite had been proposed and designed by Sergei Korolev, a visionary rocket scientist who also designed its launcher, the R-7, which was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. He is considered the father of modern aeronautics, playing a leading role in launching the first animal and human into space, with plans to land on the Moon before his unexpected death in 1966—three years before the U.S. would achieve that feat (who knows if the Russians would have made it had Korolev lived).

As many of us know, Sputnik’s launch led to the so called “Sputnik crisis”, which triggered panic and even hysteria among Americans, who feared the “free world” was outdone by the communists and that American prestige, leadership, scientific achievement, and even national security were all at stake. (After all, the first ICBM had just been used to launch the satellite and could very well do the same with nukes.)

Surprisingly, neither the Soviet nor American governments put much importance in Sputnik, at least not initially. The Russian response was pretty lowkey, as Sputnik was not intended for propaganda. The official state newspaper devoted only a few paragraphs to it, and the government had kept private its advances in rocketry and space science, which were well ahead of the rest of the world.

The U.S. government response was also surprisingly muted, far more so than the American public. The Eisenhower Administration already knew what was coming due to spy planes and other intelligence. Not only did they try to play it down, but Eisenhower himself was actually pleased that the U.S.S.R., and not the U.S., would be the first to test the waters of this new and uncertain frontier of space law.

But the subsequent shock and concern caught both the Soviet and American governments off guard. The U.S.S.R. soon went all-in with propaganda about Soviet technological expertise, especially as the Western world had long propagandized its superiority over the backward Russians. The U.S. pour money and resources into science and technology, creating not only NASA but DARPA, which is best known for planting the seeds of what would become the Internet. There was a new government-led emphasis on science and technology in American schools, with Congress enacting the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which provided low-interest loans for college tuition to students majoring in math and science.

After the launch of Sputnik, one poll found that one in four Americans thought that Russian sciences and engineering were superior to American; but the following year, this stunningly dropped to one out of ten, as the U.S. began launching its own satellites into space. The U.S.-run GPS system was largely the result of American physicists realizing Sputnik’s potential for allowing objects to be pinpointed from space.

The response to Sputnik was not entirely political, fearful, or worrisome. It was also a source of inspiration for generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts across the world, even in the rival U.S. Many saw it optimistically as the start of a great new space age. The aeronautic designer Harrison Storms—responsible for the X-15 rocket plane and a head designer for major elements of the Apollo and Saturn V programs—claimed that the launch of Sputnik moved him to think of space as being the next step for America. Astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Deke Slayton, one of the “Mercury Seven” who led early U.S. spaceflights, later wrote of how the sight of Sputnik 1 passing overhead inspired them to pursue their record-breaking new careers.

Who could look back and imagine that this simple, humble little satellite would lead us to where we are today? For all the geopolitical rivalry involved, Sputnik helped usher in tremendous hope, progress, and technological achievement.

Fated for Conflict?

Nearly two centuries ago, a French traveler to America noted that the U.S. and Russia were destined to become great powers, fueled by their own conflicting but similar sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism.

In many respects, the two countries are foils of each other, with their visions shaped by very different historical and geographic forces.

The U.S. benefited from inheriting a fairly liberal constitutional monarchy (by European standards) and an entire continent to itself, protected by two big oceans and lacking any rival powers in the entire hemisphere. It made experimenting with democracy far easier.

Russia was hemmed in by nomadic tribes and left open to raids and conquests by its flat steppes. Hence the eventual reliance on strongmen who could provide peace and security (such as the Rus Vikings) and the obsession with expanding as far out as possible to create buffers of security. Hence also a more cynical foreign policy, shaped by a history of foreign invasions.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville had to say in his 1835 treatise, Democracy in America:

There are at the present time two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend towards the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived … Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This also goes to show how much geography shapes destiny. It is difficult to imagine we would could have developed a representative political system if we were subject to the constant existential threats that prompted Russia’s embrace of authoritarian security. We already significantly constrain civil liberties over threats much further away or less drastic.

Patriotism v. Globalism?

Americans have created this false dichotomy between patriotism and “globalism”, as if caring about international law, global public opinion, and the ideas of other nations is somehow intrinsically “un-American”. This would have been absurd to the Founding Fathers, who by today’s standards would be labeled globalist elites.

None other than James Madison, the father of the constitution, insisted that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively”. In Federalist 63, he stressed the importance of respecting the consensus views of other countries and even believed that global public opinion could help keep ourselves in check:

An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: The one is, that independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy: The second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion, or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world, may be the best guide that can be followed.

Madison even adds that America would flourish if it considered the judgments and views of the world:

What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiassed part of mankind?

Madison was far from alone in this view. Most of the founders, including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson, shared this sentiment, which is reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause states that international treaties are the supreme law of the land, even superseding conflicting domestic laws. The little known Offences Clause commits Congress to safeguard the “law of nations”, which we now cause international law. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld America’s commitments to international law; in one of its first cases, Ware v. Hylton, it ruled that the U.S. was bound by the terms of its peace treaty with Britain—even if it meant striking down a patriotic but conflicting state law. Many other cases—Missouri v. Holland, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright, and The Paquete Habana, among others—followed suit.

Back in Madison’s day, most nations were monarchies in some form. Yet even then Americans saw the merit in garnering their respect or learning from them. Now that we have a more diverse community of nations—including dozens of democracies and allies—we have even more reason to take seriously our commitments to the world and our openness to its ideas.

The Nations Founded on Ideas (Purportedly)

By my count, there have only been three countries (possibly four) that claimed to be founded on ideas—rather than a particular religion, culture, or ethnicity—and which believed these ideas were objective, universal, and needed to be spread across the world.

The first and most obvious is probably the United States, for reasons most of us know.

Coming shortly afterward was France, which in some ways took things even further—mostly because it was going up against a thousand years of entrenched monarchical traditions, in a continent full of hostile monarchies. For example, to this day, the French constitution forbids the government from collecting data on race, religion, or national origin to preserve the idea that all people are equal in their status as citizens (and that citizenship is not contingent on such things).

Finally, there the Soviet Union, which tried to forge an entirely new nonethnic identity (Soviet) based around an entirely new idea (communism), upon a society that had previous been deeply religious, multiethnic, and largely feudal. Soviet ideologues even devised the idea of the “New Soviet Person”—someone defined by traits and virtues that transcended nationality, language, etc. We all know how well that turned out.

Of course, all three countries did not live up their ideals in practice, with the Soviets failing altogether. “True” Americans were (and to many people remain) narrowly idealized as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, so that even black Protestants or white Catholics were, in different ways, seen as suspect. Both France and the Soviet Union gave greater privileges to white French and Russian speakers, respectively, etc.

But these are still the only countries that had at least the pretense of being universalist and idealist in their national identity (at least to my mind).

(Switzerland comes close, uniting four different ethnic and linguistic groups, and several religious sects, on the basis of a shared alpine identity and a commitment to constitutional federalism. But it never developed anything close to the manifest destiny of the U.S., the French Republic, and Soviet Russia.)

Iceland’s Only Police Shooting

In 2013, Iceland experienced its first and only police involved shooting death. Police responded to reports of shotgun fire in a suburb of Reykjavik. Officers tried to contact the gunman, a 59-year old man, but he was unresponsive and continued shooting. Tear gas was then used to subdue him, but to no effect. Finally, an armed special forces team entered the apartment with shields, still seeking to overpower the gunman. But when two officers were injured by continuing gunfire, they finally returned fire and downed the gunman. He was taken to the hospital, where he died; his motives remain unclear.

The National Police Commissioner called the episode “unprecedented” and expressed deep regret for the death, extending apologies to the perpetrator’s family. An investigation into the incident was launched, the guns involved on all sides were seized, and counseling was offered to the officers involved. The country of 330,000 entered a period of national mourning. While one out of three Icelanders own guns, and many are staunch advocates of that right, shootings, much less with police, are exceptionally rare.

Of course, the immediate counterpoint to the Iceland example—as well as to other countries with few police shootings, like Finland, Germany, or the Netherlands—is that those places are small and more homogeneous, and thus have greater sense of the kinship and relatability that fosters trust.

Yet American cops are as likely—if not more likely—to have fatal encounters in suburban and rural areas that are as small and homogeneous as Iceland, Finland, etc. White Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans of all backgrounds, whose country of 88 million is fairly large and diverse. Small, homogeneous states like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming—where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white—have relatively high rates of police lethality.

There are numerous American cities, counties, and even states with comparable size and demographics to northern Europe that still suffer from more violence and police lethality. The problem clearly runs deeper, and demographics are no excuse.

America the Upstart

The United States is one of nearly 200 countries. Americans are less than five percent of the world’s population. Our nation just turned 244 and has been a superpower for only about 80-100 years—a drop in the bucket in humanity’s 250,000-year history. Iran alone is heir to several empires spanning over 2,000 years, including one of the first in history, the Achaemenid. One of them, the Sassanian Empire, was a global superpower for four centuries, rivaled only by the Roman-Byzantine Empire (which it continually fought for 400 years). Egypt was forming into one of the world’s first and most powerful civilizations back when woolly mammoths were still around.

For much of the last 2,000 years, about a third of all humans lived in what is now China, and perhaps another third in what is now India; until just two hundred years ago, they jointly made up half the world’s economy. The bulk of all humans who ever lived—and thus the bulk of human activity, art, invention, ideas, political intrigue—were in two places that are barely a blip to the minds of most Americans. Similarly, there was a time when Islamic civilization was the pinnacle of human progress and power, such that even non-Muslim rivals and combatants conceded its ascendancy.

My overall point is that history is a product of hindsight: Looking back on it—which most people can’t or don’t—makes it easy to forget that we are part of the same continuing processes and narratives. Americans, as in many powerful civilizations before, view ourselves as the center of the world. But that can and will inevitably change, and probably very quickly (at least by historical standards)—just as it did for our dozens of predecessors, many of which were longer lived and more powerful for their time. We would do best to learn not only from history—which is a predictable, if still unheeded lesson—but also from those nations that have a lot more to teach us by virtue of their age and experience.

China’s “Engineer Politicians”

In between bar exam prep, I just finished an interesting report on China’s leadership strategy that may explain the country’s massive and rapid economic and political rise (aside from sheer ruthlessness and all that).

Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to recruit new members from different social and occupational backgrounds into leadership positions, hoping to adapt to the changing environment by recruiting fresh talent and thereby obtaining new legitimacy. During the past decade, China has in fact been ruled by technocrats—who are mainly engineers-turned-politicians. The three “big bosses” in the so-called third generation leadership—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji—and three heavyweights in the fourth generation—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong—are all engineers by training. Among the seven members of the 15th Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, six were engineers and one was an architect.

This pattern continued throughout the State Council and the ministerial and provincial governments. Even more remarkably, all nine men on the current Politburo’s Standing Committee are engineers by training. The elite transformation that has taken place in China in the post-Mao era is part of a wider and more fundamental political change—a move from revolution to reform in Chinese society. Turning away from the emphasis on class struggle and ideological indoctrination that characterized the previous decades, Deng and his technocratic protégés have stressed fast-paced economic and technological development at home and increased economic integration with the outside world.”

The short version: China has made a deliberate effort to appoint scientists and engineers at all levels of government—especially at the subnational level—and to diversify the experience and expertise of government officials beyond the lawyers (and to a lesser degree businesspeople) that dominate in many other countries.

To be clear, this is not itself indicative of the government’s integrity or efficiency. Corruption and human rights abuses remain rife in China, with the latter especially worsening in recent years under Xi Jinping (who studied chemical engineering). The report notes a growing rift within both the political leadership and broader society between those who went to elite schools and everyone else. (Interesting how universal that issue is.)

While the report does not draw this conclusion outright, I do think it is worth pondering to what degree China’s rise is owed to its relatively high reliance on scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers. Do they provide a certain degree of pragmatism and problem-solving skills different from the typical legal and business oriented political class? Do they help inform policy through their diverse and unique perspectives (assuming the repressive state system does not dampen them)?

Whatever the case may be, I for one think the U.S. (among other places) can use diversity of profession, background, experience, and the like when it comes to law- and policy-making. It’s especially more imperative in a democracy where politicians should ostensibly be representing their constituents—but in most cases could not be further removed from who they claim to represent experientially, socioeconomically, and even by age. (More on that whole other topic in a future post.)

What are your thoughts?

The Disappeared

Among the grim arsenal of tools used by authoritarians is “disappearing” someone, in which they are secretly abducted or imprisoned by a government or its allies—say, by having unmarked men dragging them into an unmarked vehicle—followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts. The intent is to place the victim outside the protection of the law and to sow terror, fear, and anxiety among the populace as to the fate of their loved ones or fellow citizens.

One of the first references to forced disappearance is in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, drafted during the French Revolution to protect people from common tools of oppression employed by the monarchy. The French called for any government actions against citizens to be public, as doing something secret disguises bad intentions and is clearly intended to strike fear into citizens.

However, term’s origins and most infamous use are from Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983), in which the U.S.-backed military junta used both government forces and allied right-wing death squads to hunt down or “disappear” anyone suspected of being leftist, communist, or otherwise opposed to the government. (The Dirty War was part of the larger Operation Condor, an American-led campaign that supplied training and intelligence to right-wing military dictatorships throughout South America to suppress dissidents.)

Up to 30,000 people disappeared over several years, from suspected guerrilla fighters to students and journalists. Some were even dragged out of classrooms, workplaces, and buses. Most were kept in clandestine detention centers, where they were questioned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Argentina’s de facto dictator announced that such people “are neither dead nor alive, they are desaparecidos (missing)”—which is arguably more chilling, as intended.

It was later revealed that many captives met their end in so-called “death flights”, in which they were heavily drugged, loaded onto aircraft, and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean so as to leave no trace of their death. Without any dead bodies, the government could easily deny any knowledge of their whereabouts and any accusations that they had been killed.

Unfortunately for the junta, the mothers of the disappeared formed an activist group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that demanded accountability. Not only was their courage and persistence a factor in the regime’s downfall, but they and other Argentines helped led the global movement against forced disappearances, including devising the legal principles and international criminal statutes.