November 4, 2010
Can Progressives and Tea Partiers Find Love Across the Aisle? Five foreign-policy ideas these natural enemies can both get behind
November 4, 2010
With the first shock waves of Tuesday’s election reverberating across Washington and the country, armchair pundits are taking it as gospel that the results will inevitably mean gridlock as progressives and newly elected Tea Partiers lock horns in mortal combat. This may be true on a number of issues, but there might also be several surprising areas of convergence, including on some aspects of foreign-policy. For many people, the Tea Party’s foreign policy agenda has been largely a cipher. As Kate Zernike noted, “Tea Partiers say they want to focus on economic conservatism, meaning that they don’t spend a lot of time talking about other topics — foreign policy, or social issues like gay marriage and abortion.” But it is not so difficult to predict where the Tea Party impulse lies on a number of issues.
As always, the toughest test for Tea Party novices in Congress — beyond learning that nothing is really ever off the record in this town — will be sticking to the ideals championed in their candidacies. Many of them will quickly be tested by whether their loyalty lies with the Republican leadership or the platforms on which they ran. Washington has seen many self-proclaimed outsiders come and go.
Progressives face their own set of challenges. Some pundits will be quick to point to the election results as a repudiation of a progressive agenda rather than the natural fallout from the slow job growth after a devastating economic downturn. There will be the usual bout of finger-pointing that follows a hard loss. Progressives will need to ask hard questions about what they could have done better and figure out whether they want to work across the aisle and make incremental progress or simply try to portray the Tea Party as out of the mainstream.
Those obvious tensions within both the Tea Party and progressive politics aside, here are some areas where these two natural enemies might actually find common cause — while still sticking to their core beliefs…
November 4, 2010
A Bush administration official recounts how, in the high stakes diplomacy over disputed territory, a tenuous peace can unravel because of a single typo.
When you work at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), early-morning phone calls are almost never good news. This is especially true when the person on the other end of the line is a foreign embassy official.
When my home phone rang at 7:00 a.m. that Sunday in July 2008, a colleague from the South Korean Embassy was on the other end of the line. After a quick apology for disturbing me at such an early hour, he expressed his “deep concern” about Washington’s “new stance” on South Korea’s sovereignty over Dokdo, a disputed group of small islets in the Sea of Japan (or East Sea, to the Koreans). He wanted to know what was behind the apparent change in U.S. policy. I recall him mentioning a “BGN website,” making reference to “undesignated sovereignty,” and indicating that his government was seeking immediate clarification of the issue.
As a general rule, it is not a good idea to engage officers of foreign embassies on matters of U.S. foreign policy before you’ve had your coffee. That said, I do remember telling my caller that I was unaware of any change in our government’s policy with respect to Dokdo. I promised to follow up with him as soon as I could get to the office.
After hanging up with the Korean official, my first step (after turning on the coffee pot) was to Google “BGN” in an attempt to understand what he had been talking about. I learned that BGN was an acronym for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a federal body administered by the Interior Department. Following that I went to the office to begin drafting the memo needed to brief my ultimate boss, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and to prepare him for the flurry of meeting requests from the Korean and Japanese embassies that I expected would begin the following day.
At issue was the disputed sovereignty of a cluster of rocky islets in the sea between Korea and Japan referred to as “Dokdo” in South Korea, “Takeshima,” in Japan and “Liancourt Rocks” in the United States. These islets had been on NSC’s radar earlier that summer as tensions between Tokyo and Seoul rose due to reports that the Japanese government planned to issue an educational guideline stating that the islets were a part of Japan’s national territory.
The Sunday morning phone call was apparently triggered by Korean press reports over the weekend highlighting that BGN changed the text in the “country” column of its online database from “South Korea” to “undesignated sovereignty.” It also changed the name of the islets from “Dokdo” to “Liancourt Rocks.” Although BGN’s new designations were entirely consistent with longstanding U.S. policy to not take a position on the islets’ sovereignty, the fact that these changes were apparently the only corrections BGN made at this time (even though its database reportedly contained several other errors) heightened suspicions in Seoul and provided an opportunity for the lively South Korean media to spin the changes as a shift in Washington’s stance undertaken in response to Japanese pressure.
The incident came at an extremely awkward moment, as it occurred only days before President George W. Bush’s scheduled Aug. 5 to 6 stop in Seoul on the first leg of an Asia trip that would also see him visiting Bangkok and the Beijing Olympics. The president had postponed a previously scheduled visit to Seoul because of widespread protests in South Korea over the government’s plans to resume imports of U.S. beef. It was apparent that the current situation might serve as a rallying cry for renewed anti-American protests.
As I left the office on Sunday evening I sensed that the week ahead, already packed with preparations for the president’s upcoming departure for Asia, would be busier than expected…
Does a flourishing economy depend on delusion?
Adam Smith thought so. In a famous passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he described a “poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition.” The young man imagines how much easier his life would be if he could live in a grand home, attended by servants and traveling by coach rather than on foot: “He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation.”
The man spends his life striving to achieve his dream. He becomes wealthy, with all the luxuries he imagined, but to get there he has to work so hard that he can never relax.
“Through the whole of his life,” writes Smith, “he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power.” The man is deluded by the glamour of wealth, tricked by an illusion. Yet his achievement is not only real but socially beneficial: “It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.”
Many entrepreneurs aren’t even that lucky. They wildly overestimate their chances of success. But this second delusion, suggests economic historian John V.C. Nye, may be essential to maintaining an entrepreneurial culture. In a 1991 article titled “Lucky Fools and Cautious Businessmen,” Nye, now at George Mason University, argues that countries become economically stagnant when their business people become too mature and rational.
That’s what happened to Victorian Britain, he suggests, when it was surpassed by the United States and Germany. Britain had capable businessmen and good financial markets to support them. There’s no evidence that Victorian businessmen failed to invest wisely. The problem, argues Nye, is that they didn’t invest unwisely.
The odds of any given venture succeeding are, of course, low. But it’s rational to invest $1 million in a business that will fail nine out of ten times, as long as the tenth time will earn least $10 million. Nye is talking about irrational bets: investing $1 million on a one in 50 shot of $10 million. An entrepreneurial culture encourages those crazy bets as well, and a few startups get lucky. We should, Nye suggests, think of “the entrepreneur as the valiant, but overoptimistic investor rather than the heroic seer.”
Entrepreneurship is not, in this view, a rational risk calculation. It is, as critics of capitalism sometimes charge, a bit like gambling. The few big winners are usually people who shouldn’t have bet their time, money, and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they beat the odds — to everyone’s benefit. These “lucky fools” create new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, and new technologies that improve life. Society plays the role of the casino, enjoying the spillover benefits from foolish bets.