A com­mon-sense deficit in the face of global prob­lems

The Washington Times Daily - - Business - BY SOL SAN­DERS

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.

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