Tom Ambrogi on American Experiment

Tom Ambrogi, retired theologian/professor and advocate on political and economic  issues, Claremont, CA:

The paper is exceptionally good, and it works with a complex of ideas that I personally find very challenging right now.  It frames questions that badly need asking.  And you do it clearly and concisely and persuasively.  Whatever you do with it as a chapter in a larger work, the paper stands remarkably well just on its own.

There’s a freshness to the analysis that can be very attractive to thoughtful progressives. It really could energize the whole new dialogue which you suggest and which I find both urgent and exciting.

1.  The cause for alarm with which you begin on page 2 might be fleshed out a bit there, or perhaps later on when you elaborate on the threat of the “Vulcans” and their Project for a New American Century.  The radical change in the traditions of US foreign policy can’t be highlighted too often, because even informed folks I talk to don’t quite see it for what it really is.  Wolfowitz has been stomping about the world actually setting a very abrasive new foreign policy as he stomps.  Since when does a Deputy Secretary of Defense do that?   Rumsfeld is himself out of control in setting national policy from his own cabinet perch, but his Deputy?   Who’s in charge around here, and whose story is it?   Do you want to at least touch on the arm-wrestle between State and Defense and Condi Rice and the White House, or is that too far field?

In this connection, I’m also prompted to bring up what Jonathan Schell called Cognitive Torture in the lies that emanate from every level of government (Nation, 7/14/03).  The president lies, then at least three major journalists say, “Mr. President, that is just not true,” and nothing further ever gets said.  We just move on.  Who cares about lies, and how can the national consciousness be brought to take lies by our leaders seriously and to demand accountability?  The erosion of popular confidence in the political process here is a very critical issue.  It belongs somehow in your analysis of whose story wins the day.

Much can also be said about what the neocon coup is really about, what the objective of the Putsch really is.  Perhaps you saw Richard Perle’s op-ed in the 3/21/03 Guardian, called  “Thank God for the Death of the U.N.”  I saw no comment whatever on this in the US media, so maybe it’s worth your quoting somewhere.  Perle wrote:

       “Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is about to end.  He will go quickly, but not alone.  In a parting irony he will take the U.N. down with him. . . .As we sift the debris it will be important to preserve--the better to understand--the intellectual wreckage of the liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.”


Is there really any room at all in our national story for the chutzpah which asserts that belief in our nation’s safety through international law administered by international institutions is simply a liberal conceit?  Just where is the “intellectual wreckage” here, and who is to call it for what it is?

2.  As context for getting into the IMF, WB and Structural Adjustment Progreamss, you simply mention the global financial crisis as created by Third World debt.   I suggest you should at least mention that one major cause of the debt crisis was the manipulation of world oil markets and the OPEC hiking of prices in 1973-74 and again in 1979-80.  From the work I’ve done around Jubilee 2000, I think we have to continually insist that the debt crisis was not all the fault of those slovenly Third World countries.  That is a crucial part of the real story that usually doesn’t get told.

3.  In the Reality segment of the Elite Prosperity Story, there’s room for a brief comment on an issue that came clear to me recently in a fine little piece by Simon Head in the    L. A. Times (12/28/03, M5), “Bitter Harvest for Productive Labor Force.”  He describes the huge gap that has opened in the last eight years between growth of employee productivity and growth of employee compensation, and the heart of his argument is:

“Economists like increases in productivity because the gains can improve the earnings and living standards of working Americans.  But an economy that fails to distribute the fruits of rising productivity to those who have helped create it is as flawed as an economy that delivers little or no productivity increases at all.  Yet this is exactly what has been happening in the United States.”

A lot more could be said about the earnings/productivity gap, but there’s something here that must be said to reshape the story that is told about jobs and unemployment, and the gap between workers’ and CEO salaries, and the unequal sharing of profits in this capitalist system that has “made America great.”

4.  You make some very good points about the extremes of unequal political and economic power, and the social instability and breakdown that inevitably result.  I think the social instability is a point that needs to be urged even more than you do.  Captains of Industry rarely realize how their own self-interest would be well served by closing the extreme gaps of economic and political inequality.  Resulting social instability is a sometimes terrible negative for the rich as well as for the poor, and it erodes institutional legitimacy, leading to anarchic strains all around.  It impoverishes us all, and that point has to carefully find a way into the Elite Prosperity Story.

IMPACT OF DEBT ON RICH COUNTRIES
Tom Ambrogi

Jubilee Two Thousand supports the cancellation of crushing international debt because the biblical calls to Jubilee and to care for the poor are compelling, and because it is simply the right thing to do.  At the same time, however, in an increasingly globalized world there are many practical reasons why it is in the enlightened self-interest of industrialized nations to relieve the debt burden of impoverished countries.

First, a major governing principle of the capitalist economic system is the need for ever expanding markets.  The huge debts of HIPCs  and the rigid imposition of structural  adjustment  austerity frequently lead to social conflict, political instability and government repression.  Add crumbling infrastructures and a poorly educated and unhealthy workforce, and it is unrealistic to expect foreign investment and market development.  Greater political stability and economic possibility would make lower income countries better markets and more attractive to corporate investors.

Second, the need to repay foreign debt in “hard currencies” like U.S. dollars usually results in lax environmental protection and the misuse of natural resources.  Unending debt service easily translates into soils that are eroded and toxically depleted in the rush to raise cash crops, into waters that are polluted and over fished, into clear-cut rain forests and unregulated mining practices.  Environmental damage on such a vast scale does not respect national borders, and rich countries must realize that the impact is felt in their own backyards. The debt burden carried by impoverished countries has global repercussions and impoverishes us all.

 

I worked a lot with this theme in an article on Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation that appeared in various versions and places several years ago.  Let me presume to just excerpt a few paragraphs from that paper, a section on the impact of debt on rich countries. [See box.]

The debt issue relates and adds to your broader themes, to all the good things you already say about the dysfunctions created by societal injustice as it feeds crime and terrorism.

5.  The section on Elitist Security Doctrine (6) is very well put.  Those data should be used as often as possible, and precisely in the stories that everybody tells.  I keep coming back to a terrible, nagging question in all this.  The U.S. has developed a boundlessly enormous military machine, which makes us even more than the term Superpower can adequately describe.  The New American Centurions would now set up a fifth military department, the Department of Space, in order to ensure uncontested control of space itself.  No nation would even think about daring to challenge us with conventional weapons, knowing that they would be simply zapped beneath our lasers.  That is now our explicitly declared, and realized, objective as a nation.

So the question is:  if international disputes can no longer be resolved by conventional military power, how shall disputes between nations be addressed at all ?  Are we more secure in our uncontested military power, when, as Jonathan Schell eloquently says in The Unconquerable World, this entire “War System” has become in fact dysfunctional?  This question needs addressing on a comprehensive scale.  And everyone’s story has to take it seriously.

6.  Just a note on your phrase on p. 8:  that the Elitist¹s national security story plays to the “fear and insecurity of a nation still traumatized by military defeat in Vietnam...”  This is very complex, I realize, but I really don’t think there is such a trauma at all.  I don’t think I have ever heard or seen a word in the U.S. media calling our experience in Vietnam a “defeat.”  Have the American people really ever been allowed to think that we “lost” the war in Vietnam?  One of our greatest problems in creating a new story for ourselves is to concede that yes, Virginia, we lost the war against the Vietnamese freedom fighters.  And that is indeed why we are right now losing the war against the Iraqi resistance, and will continue to lose it, unto blind and pitiful disaster.   Again, I’m filled with images from Jonathan Schell’s ³ “Unconquerable World” in all this, and he has lots to contribute to the dialogue we need in creating a new progressive story.

7.  I liked your phrase on page 9 that what the “bad guys” really hate is not our freedom but rather our frequent abuse of the freedom our economic and military power gives us to arbitrarily oppress and humiliate other nations and peoples.   That’s well said, and we need a large and national coming-together, of many political stripes, to explore exactly that thesis.  How might that happen?  Have we really conceded that the question: “Why do they hate us?” is illegitimate, or somehow just lefty and unpatriotic?  We must insist that it is central to creating a real story.

8.  As a liberation theologian, I’m obviously interested in your affirmation that religion, bastardized or legitimate, has a very great deal to do with how all of our stories continue to be crafted.  Juan Stam’s article, The Religious Language of George W. Bush--an abridged version of which appeared in the 12/22/03 Nation--highlights the power of George Bush’s language in this regard.  I hear and value immensely your respect for a sense of spiritual connection in all progressive ventures worth their salt.  We are brothers in that, and I would love to talk to you more about it.  It is crucial to whatever new story rises out of all this.   

We need prosperity stories, security stories, sacred stories, and a dialogue of discovery.  You have plotted out in detail the trace of my own personal and spiritual and political journey to this moment.  I know with a hard eye of cold realism that, as you say, it will not be easy to break the elitist established monopoly on our national stories.  But the challenge excites me, to create stories that “invite the imagination to soar,” and I want very much to stay in touch with the venture, and to be a part of it.

Posted January 11, 2003