A common-sense deficit in the face of global problems
Imagine a graph representing the world’s problems. There are two mounting growth lines. One represents “technology,” defined as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” The other charts “common sense,” defined as “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”
At the upper corner is the ultimate target, “nirvana,” “a state of free from suffering.” Most Westerners are not convinced that goal can be reached, at least not in this life. But equally they see its pursuit as worthwhile. The problem is deducing/inducing the knowledge to provide progress toward such a goal, unattainable as it might be. Underpinning that knowledge is technology and a conflict wherein common sense might be losing out. It’s the race we see all around us. Example 1: President Obama tells us nothing can be done about the rising price of gasoline, which is crippling the U.S. economy. It results from many uncontrollable factors, he argues without contest, and we ought to use high prices as an invitation to force us into new types of renewable energy subsidized by the government. But that shift comes at a time when government and private deficits are escalating and Mr. Obama’s new technologies have yet to prove themselves.
The fossil-fuel producers tell us that technology for extracting U.S. gas and oil, coupled with the world’s largest coal reserves, has vastly expanded North American energy potential. That would permit using these fuels to spur an economic rebound and new growth. And that, in turn, would finance expensive programs of environmental protection and slower but more efficient market development of new energy sources.
Example 2: Weapons of death and destruction are increasingly at risk of falling into terrorists’ hands — whether they are missiles fired into Israel by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, weapons fashioned by American “lone wolves” from ordinary household products, or perhaps the chemical arsenal of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s disintegrating regime seized by Islamists. These possibilities menace civilian populations unless they can be effectively neutralized.
Proposed anti-missile defenses increasingly can protect civilian populations. But the claimed 80 percent to 90 percent effectiveness of Israel’s “Iron Dome” (and similar American systems) couldn’t stop a missile from recently striking a southern Israeli school that, had students been in session, would have unleashed new ferocity. Nor has the Obama administration’s political concessions to Russia, partially invalidating Washington’s proposed anti-missile shield for Europe and North America, helped. Nor, for that matter, have elaborate airline passenger inspection devices secured U.S. airplanes, most of which daily are carrying uninspected cargo in their holds.
Example 3: The U.S. balance of payments has hit record deficit levels, with an increase in Chinese imports even during the recent recession. Washington maintains that China’s competitive edge is based on unfair subsidies, including a Chinese currency kept artificially low. That plus the protectionist measures against imports that Beijing promised it would remove when joining the World Trade Organization (with Washington’s blessing) enhance China’s power through the accumulation of large dollar currency reserves, creating an international financial disequilibrium.
New technologies, including automation and other manufacturing shortcuts, give the promise that some if not most of the American manufacturing that escaped to China and other lowwage producers could be returned to U.S. industry. Some manufacturers already are doing so without tax incentives and protection — even overcoming U.S. government disincentives. But success might not “bring back” American jobs because structural unemployment (job positions lost through new technology, for example) would be part of the bargain.
Example 4: President Obama has announced a “pivot” in American foreign policy, a supposed “return” of emphasis to the Western Pacific despite continued costly Middle East engagements. One aspect of the pivot has been lending rhetorical support to Southeast Asians in their attempt to fend off Beijing’s aggressive claims for regional gas and oil reserves and dominance of sea lanes in the South China Sea. That requires, in effect, coping with the threat of a growing Chinese military, one that is rapidly arming against an unidentified enemy and creating the potential for conflict in East Asia and beyond.
Technology insures in the near term an increasing superiority of America’s weapons. But the U.S. Navy is heading toward a reduction in the number of ships not seen since before World War II. American strategy might well run into tactical difficulties maintaining freedom of the seas around the world, a primary U.S. concern since the founding of the republic, including waters off the East Asian mainland.